There were more than 30 people crammed on the back of the truck as the vehicle bumped through the desert in eastern Djibouti.
The passengers were men, women and children from Ethiopia and Somalia and myself. And all would be smuggled in boats from Djibouti to Yemen, as part of wider trafficking operations involving six countries – Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Djibouti, Somalia, Ethiopia and Eritrea – that apparently trafficks tens of thousands of people from the Horn of Africa to Arabian nations each year.
The truck drove slowly through the desert. No one talked. A distant beam from a lighthouse swept across the night sky. The silhouettes of coarse thorn scrubs, bent back from the wind, stood under a yellow moon that was ill-defined from the dust and sand that swept up into the night.
Occasionally the truck would grind to a halt and men would get out swinging sticks wildly, telling the passengers to keep still. A woman spoke to a child – his hair a mass of coarse, black curls; his spindly legs sticking out the bottom of his trousers.
The child was travelling with his brother from Mogadishu, the Somali capital. They hoped to reach Kharaz refugee camp, administered by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), in South Yemen. A place where his brother said: “There is food and a house. They [UNHCR] give money.”
According to a 2010 Chatham House report, Yemen and Somalia: Terrorism, Shadow Networks and the Limitations of State-building, the Horn of Africa smuggling trade – based on the number of registered arrivals in Yemen 2009, 77,802, could be worth more than $20m each year.
A dangerous trek
As the migrants drove, figures emerged in the periphery of the truck’s headlights, looming up out of the gathered dark. The driver’s yelled that another vehicle would come soon.
After an hour, the passengers arrived at a small ravine near Ras Bir on Djibouti’s eastern shore. People began walking in single file before disappearing in the dark.
I set off in a different direction and after a kilometre I nestled down under some scrub, bats echolocating above. It was nearly 4am and the sky was greying in the east as I went to sleep.
I awoke under a half-risen sun and peered out at the view: A perfectly calm sea and white sand beach, mud flats, several hundred distant figures and seven pick-up trucks.
A large group of people stood on an incline overlooking the beach; Affar tribesmen, overseeing the operation. Five boats sat in berth, they were small, perhaps 50-feet long and made of fibreglass. Each could carry 40 people across the Bab al Mandab – the Gate of Grief – a thin stretch of water sitting between Yemen and Djibouti.
Two days earlier I interviewed a human trafficker, Hussein, in Obock – a sweltering and rotting Djiboutian shantytown and a main departure point for traffickers. He sat chewing qat, eyes obscured by sunglasses, and occasionally picking wax from his ears with the plant’s green stalk. He said that the traffickers usually used fast fibreglass boats that could carry 40 people, with five or six boats making the trip each day.
“If a lot of people are coming, I call to the man with the big boat in Yemen. To take 60, maybe more, people.” Hussein, a father of two, has worked on the boats for a decade. He said that for a single crossing to Yemen, he charged $150 for Somalis and $200 for Ethiopians.
“In Djibouti there is no job, I have no job for long time. The people are coming with the money saying, ‘take us to Yemen’. I cannot resist the money.”
The crossing from Djibouti has its risks, however it is much safer than the other main trafficking hub:Bossaso in the Puntland, Hussein said. That crossing usually takes two days and people will often be forced overboard a few miles off the coast of Yemen, having to swim to shore. Rape, murder, shootings, stabbings and capsisings are all common.
According to the UNHCR, 89 people drowned in January and February 2011 after being forced off boats that had departed from the Puntland – many of their bodies washed up on the shores of Yemeni beaches.
“We do not do this,” Hussein said. “We give to the people water and food. We take them all the way to Yemen.”
Sailing for fortune
I waited for an hour while people filed onto the boats, departures of each boat were staggered by around 15 minutes. Gradually the Affar left and one of the smugglers approached and signalled to me. While dozens of crabs scuttled across the sand, I waded out waist deep and clambered into the boat’s bow. Nearly 50 people were crammed into the boat, which was essentially a fishing dhow. The passengers were squeezed one next to the other as the boat set-off.
A young man from Ethiopia – his forehead covered in a line of 10 faded, blue tattoos depicting the cross – said there was no work in Ethiopia; in Saudi Arabia he would have everything, like his friend in Riyadh, the capital.
“Ethiopia is a very big country. I have no job and no monies. I calling to my friend and he says about his big house and big car. I say I must go, go, go.”
He had little money, but was carrying a block of hasheesh, to sell in Saudi Arabia. Other passengers carried bottles of vodka, to sell to Yemeni bootleggers in order to fund the rest of their trip to Saudi. Those who could not afford to pay for a vehicle would attempt the journey on foot.
The spray from the boat’s bow breaking the water drifted into the boat. People wrapped scarves around their heads as protection from the sun and spray. One man bailed-out water as a distant boat approached at speed.
Three men were aboard, two of them with AK-47s raised. The boat’s captain pulled back on the throttle before slamming the vessel into the dhow. The captain began screaming. Then he got down to business, announcing they were the Djiboutian police. It was time to pay up – 100 Djiboutian francs (60 cents) each.
They circled the boat six times, guns levelled, while people rummaged through their belongings to get money. One of the men, dressed in a white singlet and cargo shorts with sunglasses resting atop his head, said he was a police officer.
“You think we are pirates? Do you want to go back to Djibouti?”
They collected money from the boat’s navigator, then left – one man blowing a kiss to a petrified Ethiopian woman. There should be no doubt that the trafficking trade is conducted with the knowledge, if not complicity, of the region’s governments and authorities: corruption is endemic and the human trafficking trade lucrative.
The Chatham House report states: “This ‘migration economy’ constitutes a lucrative regional network that acts as a powerful disincentive to formally regulated border controls.”
Yemen’s weak state
However, government-level involvement appears minimal: the secret police almost certainly maintain contact with traffickers – if not having a presence on the boats – in order to establish who is travelling. But given the lack of opportunities in Yemen and Djibouti, it is reasonable to suggest that governments and local authorities will not want to significantly disrupt the trade as they would then suffer blowback from the tribes and people profiting from the industry.
Upon arrival in Yemen, people walked quickly across a rocky plateau and into the desert, car tracks in the sand. Two pick-up trucks arrived and people were shuttled aboard. They drove in broad daylight down a main road, past Kharaz refugee camp and onto a series of sandy back-roads.
After two hours, they arrived at what was, essentially, a staging camp for the onward journey up through Hodeidah, Saada and into Saudi Arabia.
As night fell the smugglers – all Yemenis – became increasingly hostile. The beatings began at around 10 the next morning, completed with wet, packing sounds. Each blow closely followed by a high-pitched wail. The camp was perched on a rocky outcrop of a small hill and was divided into two sections: one for those who had money, the other for those who did not. It was guarded by at least 15 gunmen.
A man was on his knees in front of one the Yemeni smugglers who was slapping him repeatedly across the face. The blows turned from slaps into punches and by the end of it, the man lay bloodied and semi-conscious on the ground at the trafficker’s feet.
Around 60 people were sitting under a large tent, spread as a canopy above them. Four men with sticks were circling the group, while a number of men with AK-47s stood nearby. The beatings varied in intensity and went on for eight hours.
Some Somalis and Ethiopians had promised money for the onward trip to Saudi Arabia and transit inland to the staging point, but could not deliver. Traffickers moved from one person to the next, initially hitting half-heartedly while saying in Arabic: “How will you get my money?” Then the blows would come down harder amid yells demanding payment.
The person would be dragged off to Yemeni men with mobile phones. They would get one phone call, before being returned to the huddle of people. A man from Somalia broke down under a volley of blows, screaming and begging.
A young Ethiopian woman sat as a trafficker whispered in her ear, she was wearing a bright green hijab and her head was lowered. The trafficker pressed his stick against her forehead, forcing her head back. He asked her how she would get him his money. Her head dropped down; she said nothing. He was dripping with sweat and moved around behind her.
In huge arcs, he began hitting her across the back. The woman sat, her body rocking under the blows, he hit her more than 20 times.
By nightfall people sat in a group, traumatised. Some had managed to get money sent from friends or family and would be transported to Hodeidah that night. Others would be set loose to fend for themselves or, probably, handed in to the police.
My boat’s navigator – who went by the name of Mohammed Ali – entered the camp and sat on a ledge above the group. Some men brought him food, water and chai. He started making jokes and everyone laughed. A man leaned forward and lit Mohammed’s cigarette for him.
He made more jokes, everyone running about after him. He was introduced to the Ethiopian woman in the green hijab.
She was led out of the camp by a man.
Glen Johnson is a freelance journalist from New Zealand who travelled from Djibouti to Yemen on a human smuggling boat in June. He was subsequently arrested by Yemeni security forces and spent two weeks in prison. His work appears in the New Zealand Herald and other publications.