DUBAI: Yemen this week celebrated its national unification day, marking 28 years since the north and south were united — only to be torn apart again by the current war.
Across the Red Sea from Yemen’s coastline, however, a forgotten segment of the country’s vast displaced population would have found little time for the festivities on Tuesday.
Thousands of Yemenis have sought refuge in a desolate, sun-baked desert camp in the tiny nation of Djibouti.
Perched strategically on the Horn of Africa, Djibouti is one of the very few countries in the world to welcome refugees from Yemen.
Associate reporting officer for the the UN refugee agency UNHCR in Djibouti, Vanessa Panaligan, told Arab News that many Yemenis had fled their homeland in search of safety.
“From the stories I keep hearing, they were tired of seeing bombs and constant fighting in their neighborhood,” Panaligan said.
“They thought, ‘I’ve had it, we’ve stayed long enough and it’s time to get going because you never know when you are next, or if you would survive the next couple of months,’” she said.
Ali Thabit family
Shortly after the war began, Nathair Ali Thabit, 37, took his wife, Goma Salaamy, 27, and their three children, Nadi, 8, Malka, 9, and Atif, 2, and traveled to Mokha port, where he paid 10,000 Yemeni rials ($40) to board a boat to Obock. They left Yemen at 8 p.m. and arrived in Djibouti the next morning.
“We were living in Dhubab and that was on one of the fronts,” Ali Thabit said. “There were forces fighting from all directions and we were right in the middle of all of that. So one night we decided to leave everything behind — our home and belongings — and flee.”
Goma: We vomited a lot because we are not used to the sea, it was the first time we went on a boat.
Nathair: We left everything behind, we didn’t take anything with us, not even clothes. In all honesty we are not used to living life like this. In Yemen I was a diver and fisherman. I could provide for my family.
Goma: Now we live on handouts and rations and I try to sell bags I sew. At least we are safe.
Nathair: They give us rice and oil, bread and water. It’s little but it’s better than nothing at all. I haven't tasted meat, chicken or fish in 3 years.
Goma: I try to sell bags, but it’s not guaranteed that they will get sold.
Nathair: We used to sell them for 1000 DJF ($5), but now we try and sell them for 500 DJF for the children, because at night they want juice or biscuit. To try and take their mind of things we take them to the beach for fun, but we are in the middle of nowhere so there’s not much we can do.
Goma: The heat is also unbearable, my youngest gets heat rash, he can’t handle it.
Nathair: We cry in our hearts, we don’t show anyone, we just cry to god.
From left, Nathair Ali Thabit, Nadi, Goma Salaamy and Malka.
Four years of war in Yemen have displaced more than 2 million people and left 75 percent of the population in need of humanitarian assistance, according to the UN.
UNHCR said there has been a spike in the number of refugees coming from Yemen in the past six months.
From the end of last year, after the killing of the former president Ali Abdullah Saleh by the Houthi rebels, the situation deteriorated significantly, leading to “a sharp surge in new arrivals” in Djibouti.
Almost 200 refugees arrived in December, and more than 100 in January and February.
Panaligan said that although the influx has tapered off, the conflict shows no signs of letting up, forcing the agency to remain on standby with a contingency plan in case of an emergency influx.
“The sharp increase from what we are used to seeing is definitely a cause for alarm,” Panaligan said. “We’re planning for an emergency.”
In 2015, 38,000 Yemenis traveled to Djibouti. However, due to the harsh living conditions, many left to go elsewhere, while others returned to Yemen. The current population of Yemeni refugees in Djibouti is almost 4,000 — of which 1,900 live at the Markazi refugee camp in the port town of Obock.
Refugees arrive in Obock and are then sent to reception centers, they are then sent to Markazi camp where they are registered, and given food and water.
Meha Abdul Sala
The 35-year-old mother lives in the camp with her daughter Asiah, 11. She had to sell all her gold to pay $560 to get her three children and herself to Obock in 2015.
“We had no choice because of the war,” Abdul Saleh said. “At least it’s safe in the camp. I was happy and comfortable in my country, I wish I could go back. I had a shop. It helped me look after my children. I’m divorced. But because of this war we had to throw all that away. Now I make bags to sell to earn some money. But sometimes I don’t have enough money to buy thread, so I have to wait until something comes along.
“I try to sell bags to try and earn money to get food for my children. The food they give us is enough to get by, but it’s not the same when you have your own money.”
Aisha said that she attends school at the camp, but also helps her mother make the bags. “I like to play with skipping ropes. I miss my country and my friends,” she said.
The tiny coastal country is home to more than 22,000 refugees and asylum-seekers, making up 2.5 percent of its 900,000 population.
Houssein Hassan Darar, executive secretary of the Office of National Assistance for Refugees and Displaced Persons (ONARS), proudly explained his country’s history of helping other nationalities.
Since gaining independence from France in 1977, Djibouti had welcomed tens of thousands of refugees from nations including Somalia, Ethiopia and Eritrea, he said.
In response to the growing refugee population, Djibouti President Ismail Omar Guelleh signed two decrees in December to allow better access to social services and employment.
The government said it was building a new school for refugees in Obock.
Refugees with teaching experience are able to work in the existing schools, and are paid and trained by Djibouti’s education ministry, Panaligan said.
In Markazi camp, most of the population is under the age of 18, but fewer than 300 primary students and 20 secondary students are enrolled in school.
Despite attempts to house the influx of Yemeni refugees, living conditions in the camp are harsh.
When Arab News visited the camp in Obock last year, many refugees were living in tents made of thin fabric to protect them from the desert environment and endured scorching temperatures reaching 45 degrees Celsius as well as sandstorms.
Saudi Arabia’s King Salman Humanitarian Aid and Relief Center built 300 housing units in January to ease their suffering, spokesman Dr. Samer Al-Jatili told Arab News.
The 51-year-old father was relatively lucky and managed to get his family of 11 on a boat to Obock without having to pay.
“As soon as we arrived at the Djibouti port, they welcomed us,” he said. “The (government officials) were very kind to us. They gave us water, food and blankets. We stayed in the port for one night. The next day they sent us to the camp.
“Life here is at least safe. We get rations, but the most important thing is safety. They give us water, oil, lentils, flour, rice.
“They give us gas and some pans to cook with, but it’s not enough, so we have to go to the mountains to get wood.
“We are not used to this life — we grew up with electricity, gas and proper cookers. But we have to deal with this to survive.
Ali Ibrahim said his village in Yemen was near a military camp and close to the fighting.
“There was fire from all directions. We didn’t even get a chance to take anything with us, we left everything behind. The whole neighborhood left together.
“If there is stability and safety in Yemen, I would return. But I would rather die here than go back to the war.”
The housing units hold two rooms. One is the living space, with a kitchen and living room, while the other is the sleeping area. A small closet holds a shower area, and the floor lifts up to work as a toilet.
However, the camp lacks running water and electricity.
Panaligan said that of the 300 housing units, 250 were given to families and 50 to single people. An average family has five or six members.
Refugees are given food rations, but many have said it is not enough. The UNHCR reported that in the past few months, about 164 refugees at Markazi were at risk of malnutrition.
Nathair Ali Thabit, 34, who has a family of five, told Arab News last year that refugees get two meals a day, but no meat or vegetables.
“We have bread and tea in the morning and in the evening rice,” Thabit said. “I haven’t tasted meat, chicken or fish in two years.
“My children sometimes want biscuits or milk, so I try to distract them by taking them to the beach and playing with them.
“We are in the middle of nowhere, so there’s not much we can do” he said.
“We cry in our hearts — we don’t show anyone, we just cry to God.”
Panaligan said that despite the challenges of life in Djibouti, Yemeni refugees come for safety, which is missing in their homeland.
“Many have come to join their families who left Yemen last year, too,” she said.