Ethiopians brave deserts and smugglers on the way to Saudi Arabia
“Patience,” Mohammed Eissa told himself.
He whispered it every time he felt like giving up. The sun was brutal, reflecting off the thick layer of salt encrusting the barren earth around Lake Assal, 10 times saltier than the ocean.
Nothing grows here. Birds are said to fall dead out of the sky from the searing heat. And yet the 35-year-old Ethiopian walked on, as he had for three days, since he left his homeland for Saudi Arabia.
Nearby are two dozen graves, piles of rocks, with no headstones. People here say they belong to migrants who like Eissa embarked on an epic journey of hundreds of miles, from villages and towns in Ethiopia through the Horn of Africa countries Djibouti or Somalia, then across the sea and through the war-torn country of Yemen.
The flow of migrants taking this route has grown. According to the United Nations’ International Organization for Migration, 150,000 arrived in Yemen from the Horn of Africa in 2018, a 50% jump from the year before. The number in 2019 was similar.
They dream of reaching Saudi Arabia, and earning enough to escape poverty by working as laborers, housekeepers, servants, construction workers and drivers.
But even if they reach their destination, their fate is uncertain; the kingdom often expels them. Over the last three years, the IOM reported 9,000 Ethiopians were deported each month.
Many migrants have made the journey multiple times in what has become a repeating loop of arrivals and deportations.
Eissa is among them. This is his third trip to Saudi Arabia.
In his pockets, he carries a text neatly handwritten in Oromo, his native language. It tells stories of the prophet Muhammad, who fled his home in Mecca for Medina to seek refuge from his enemies.
“I depend on God,” Eissa said.
‘I have to go to Saudi’
Associated Press reporters traveled along part of the migrants’ trail through Djibouti and Yemen in July and August. Eissa was among the travelers they met; another was Mohammad Ibrahim, who comes from the Arsi region, as does Eissa.
Perched in the Ethiopia’s central highlands, Arsi an area where subsistence farmers live off small plots of land, growing vegetables or grain. When the rains come, the families can eat. But in the dry months of the summer, food dwindles and hunger follows.
The 22-year-old Ibrahim had never been able to find a job. His father died when his mother was pregnant with him — she told him stories of how his father went off to war and never returned.
One day, Ibrahim saw a friend in his village with a new motorcycle. He was making a little money carrying passengers. Ibrahim went to his mother and asked her to buy him one. He could use it, he told her, to support her and his sister. Impossible, she said. She would have to sell her tiny piece of land where they grow corn and barley.
“This is when I thought, I have to go to Saudi,” Ibrahim said.
So he reached out to the local “door opener” — a broker who would link him to a chain of smugglers along the way.
Often migrants are told they can pay when they arrive in Saudi Arabia. Those who spoke to the Associated Press said they were initially quoted prices ranging from $300 to $800 for the journey.
How the trip goes depends vitally on the smuggler.
In the best-case scenario, the smugglers are a sort of tour organizer. They arrange boats for the sea crossing, either from Djibouti or Somalia. They run houses along the way where migrants stay and provide transport from town to town in pickup trucks. Once in Saudi Arabia, the migrants call home to have payment wired to the smuggler.
In the worst case, the smuggler is a brutal exploiter, imprisoning and torturing migrants for more money, dumping them alone on the route or selling them into virtual slave labor on farms.
Intensified border controls and crackdowns by the Ethiopian government, backed by European Union funding, have eliminated some reliable brokers, forcing migrants to rely on inexperienced smugglers, increasing the danger.
The long walk
Eissa decided he would not use smugglers for his journey.
He’d successfully made the trip twice before. The first time, in 2011, he worked as a steel worker in the kingdom, making $25 a day, enough to buy a plot of land in the Arsi region’s main town, Asella. He made the trip again two years later, walking for two months to reach Saudi Arabia, where he earned $530 a month as a janitor. But he was arrested and deported before he could collect his pay.
Without a smuggler, his third attempt would be cheaper. But it would not be safe, or easy.
Eissa picked up rides from his home to the border with Djibouti, then walked. His second day there, he was robbed at knifepoint by several men. The next day, he walked six hours in the wrong direction, back toward Ethiopia, before he found the right path again.
When the Associated Press met him at Lake Assal, Eissa said he had been living off bread and water for days, taking shelter in a rusty, abandoned shipping container. He had a small bottle filled with water from a well at the border, covered with fabric to keep out dust.
He had left behind a wife, nine sons and a daughter. His wife cares for his elderly father. The children work the farm growing vegetables, but harvests are unpredictable: “If there’s no rain, there’s nothing.”
With the money he expected to earn in Saudi Arabia, he planned to move his family to Asella. “I will build a house and take my children to town to learn the religious and worldly sciences,” he said.
The 100-mile trip across Djibouti can take days.
Many migrants end up in the country’s capital, also named Djibouti, living in slums and working to earn money for the crossing. Young women often are trapped in prostitution or enslaved as servants.
The track through Djibouti ends on a long, virtually uninhabited coast outside the town of Obock, a shore close to Yemen.
There, the AP saw a long line of dozens of migrants led by smuggling guides, descending from the mountains onto the rocky coastal plain. Here they would stay, sometimes for several days, and wait for their turn on the boats that every night cross the narrow Bab al-Mandab strait to Yemen.
During the wait, smugglers brought out large communal pots of spaghetti and barrels of water for their clients. Young men and women washed themselves in nearby wells. Others sat in the shade of the scrawny, twisted acacia trees. Two girls braided each other’s hair.
One young man, Korram Gabra, worked up the nerve to call home to ask his father for the equivalent of $200 for the crossing and the Yemen leg of the trip. It would be his first time talking with his father since he sneaked away from home in the night.
“My father will be upset when he hears my voice, but he’ll keep it in his heart and won’t show it,” he said. “If I get good money, I want to start a business.”
At night, AP witnessed a daily smuggling routine:
Small lights flashing in the darkness signaled that a boat was ready. More than 100 men and women, boys and girls were ordered to sit in silence on the beach. The smugglers spoke in hushed conversations on satellite phones to their counterparts in Yemen on the other side of the strait. There was a moment of worry when a black rubber dinghy appeared out in the water — a patrol of Djibouti’s marines. After half an hour it motored away. The marines had received their daily bribe of about $100, the smugglers explained.
Loaded into the 50-foot-long open boat, migrants were warned not to move or talk during the crossing. Most had never seen the sea before. Now they would be on it for eight hours in darkness.
Eissa made the crossing on another day, paying about $65 to a boat captain — the only payment to a smuggler he would make.
‘It was a terrible thing’
Ibrahim took an alternative route, through Somaliland. He traveled nearly 500 miles, walking and catching rides to cross the border and reach the town of Laascaanood.
Isolated in the Somaliland desert, the town is the hub for traffickers transporting Ethiopians to Yemen. It is also a center for brutal torture, according to several migrants. The smugglers took Ibrahim and others to a compound, stripped him and tied him dangling from a wooden rafter. They splashed cold water on him and flogged him.
For 12 days, he was imprisoned, starved and tortured. He saw six other migrants die of severe dehydration and hunger, their bodies buried in shallow graves nearby. “It’s in the middle of the vast desert,” he said. “If you think of running away, you don’t even know where to go.”
At one point, smugglers put a phone to his ear and made him plead with his mother for ransom money.
“Nothing is more important than you,” she told him. She sold the family’s sole piece of land and wired the smugglers more than $1,000.
The smugglers transported Ibrahim to the port of Bosaso on Somaliland’s northern coast. He was piled into a wooden boat with some 300 other men and women, “like canned sardines,” he said.
Throughout the 30-hour journey, the Somali captain and his crew beat anyone who moved. Crammed in place, the migrants had to urinate and vomit where they sat.
“I felt trapped, couldn’t breathe or move for many hours until my body became stiff,” he said. “God forbid, it was a terrible thing.”
Within sight of Yemen’s shore, the smugglers pushed the migrants off the boat into water too deep to touch the bottom.
Flailing in the water, they formed human chains to help the women and children onto shore.
Ibrahim collapsed on the sand and passed out. When he opened his eyes, he felt the hunger stabbing him.
‘Far from my dreams’
Migrants with reliable, organized smugglers are usually transported across Yemen in stages to the migrant hub cities farther down the line — Ataq , Marib, Al Jawf and Saada, where half the distance is under internationally recognized government control and the other half under that of Houthi rebels, fighting a U.S.-backed coalition since 2015.
But for thousands of others, it’s a confusing and dangerous march down unfamiliar roads and highways.
A security official in Lahij province outside the main southern city, Aden, said bodies of dead migrants turn up from time to time. Just a few days earlier, he told the AP, a farmer called his office about a smell coming from one of his fields. A patrol found a young migrant there who had been dead for days.
Another patrol found 100 migrants, including women, hidden on a farm, the official said. The patrol brought them food, he said, but then had to leave them.
“Where would we take them and what would we do with them?” he asked, speaking on condition of anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to talk to the press.
Many migrants languish for months in the slums of Basateen, a district of Aden that was once a green area of gardens but now is covered in decrepit shacks of cinder blocks, concrete, tin and tarps amid open sewers.
Over the summer, an Aden soccer stadium became a temporary refuge for thousands of migrants. At first, security forces used it to house migrants they captured in raids. Other migrants showed up voluntarily, hoping for shelter. The IOM distributed food at the stadium and arranged voluntary repatriation back home for some. The soccer pitch and stands, already destroyed from the war, became a field of tents, with clotheslines strung up around them.
Among the migrants there was Nogos, a 15-year-old who was one of at least 7,000 minors who made the journey without an adult in 2019, a huge jump from 2,000 unaccompanied minors a year earlier, according to IOM figures
Upon landing in Yemen, Nogos had been imprisoned by smugglers. For more than three weeks, they beat him, demanding his family send $500. When he called home, his father curtly refused: “I’m not the one torturing you.”
Nogos can’t blame his father. “If he had money and didn’t help me, I’d be upset,” he said. “But I know he doesn’t.”
Finally, the smugglers gave up on getting money out of the boy and let him go. Alone and afraid at the stadium, he had no idea what he’d do next. He had hoped to reach an aunt who is living in Saudi Arabia, but lost contact with her. He had hoped one day to go back to school.
“It’s far from my dreams,” he added, in a dead voice.
After a few weeks, Yemeni security forces cleared out the stadium, throwing thousands back onto the streets. The IOM had stopped distributing food, fearing it would become a lure for migrants. Yemeni officials didn’t want to take responsibility for the migrants’ care.
Eissa, meanwhile, made his way across the country alone. At times, Yemenis gave him a ride for a stretch. Mostly he walked endless miles down the highways.
“I don’t count the days. I don’t distinguish, Saturday, Sunday or Monday,” he said in an audio message to the AP via Whatsapp.
One day, he reached the town of Bayhan, southern Yemen, and went to the local mosque to use the bathroom. When he saw the preacher giving his sermon, he realized it was Friday.
It was the first time in ages he was aware of the day of the week.
He had traveled more than 250 miles since he landed in Yemen. He had another 250 miles to go to the Saudi border.
‘Pray for me’
In the evenings, thousands of migrants mill around the streets of Marib, one of the main city stopovers on the migrants’ route through Yemen. In the mornings, they search for day jobs. They could earn about a dollar a day working on nearby farms. A more prized job is with the city garbage collectors, paying $4 a day.
Ibrahim had just arrived a few days earlier when the AP met him, his black hair still covered in dust from the road.
He had wandered in Yemen for days, starving, before villagers gave him food.
He made his way slowly north. Not knowing the language or the geography, he didn’t even know what town he was in when a group of armed fighters snatched him from the road.
They imprisoned him for days in a cell with other migrants. One night, they moved the migrants in a pickup, driving them through the desert. Ibrahim was confused and afraid: Where was he going? Who had abducted him? Why?
He threw himself out of the back of the pickup, landing in the sand. Scratched and battered, he ran away into the darkness.
Now in Marib, he was stranded, unsure how to keep going. His arm was painfully swollen from an insect bite. He wouldn’t be able to work until it was better. The only food he could find was rice and fetid meat scraps left over from restaurants.
Using the AP’s phone, he called his mother for the first time since the horrific calls under torture at Laascaanood.
“Pray for me, mama,” he said, choking back tears.
“I know you are tired and in pain. Take care of yourself,” she told him.
Was it worth all this to reach Saudi Arabia? he was asked.
He broke down.
“What if I return empty-handed after my mother sold the one piece of land we have?” he said. “I can’t enter the village or show my face to my mother without money.”
North of Marib, migrants cross into Houthi territory at Al Hazm, a run-down town divided down the middle between the rebels and anti-Houthi fighters. It’s a three-mile no-man’s land where sniper fire and shelling are rampant.
Once across, it is 120 more miles north to the Saudi border.
Eissa walked that final stretch, a risk because the militiamen have a deal with migrant smugglers: Those who go by car are allowed through; those on foot are arrested.
“Walking in the mountains and the valleys and hiding from the police,” Eissa said in an audio message to the AP.
He traversed tiny valleys winding through mountains along the border to the crossing points of Al Thabit or Souq al-Raqo.
Souq al-Raqo is a lawless place, a center for drug and weapons trafficking run by Ethiopian smugglers. Even local security forces are afraid to go there. Cross-border shelling exchanges and airstrikes have killed dozens, including migrants; Saudi border guards sometimes shoot others.
Eissa slipped across the Saudi border on Aug. 10. It had been 39 days since he had left home in Ethiopia.
After walking 100 miles more, he reached the major town of Khamis Mushait. First, he prayed at a mosque. Some Saudis there asked if he wanted work. They got him a job watering trees on a farm.
“Peace, mercy and blessings of God,” he said in one of his last audio messages to the AP. “I am fine, thank God. I am in Saudi.”
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