In Berbera, the self-declared republic of Somaliland's port city, the ruins of Ottoman and British colonial buildings dot the scraggly landscape around a school where Amina Abdullah Ahmed Ali and hundreds of other refugees had taken shelter after spending nearly three days in a boat crossing the Gulf of Aden from Yemen. In the school courtyard, sealed off from view by high walls and a metal gate guarded by an apathetic man with a Kalashnikov beside him, children and their mothers were fighting for space among tables of food provided by the Danish Refugee Counsel. A few male arrivals who had yet to relocate to a nearby reception shelter reserved exclusively for men lounged under a huge tent outside of the gate, exhausted and disoriented.
These refugees were a small portion of the many who have fled Yemen since March, when a Saudi-led coalition campaign of airstrikes was launched in the country to oust the Houthis, a militia group of Shia rebels hailing from the remote north. After winning control of the capital of Sanaa a year ago and disputing the terms of a new government and constitution, the Houthis overtook much of the nation and forced the government of its president, Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi, into exile in Saudi Arabia. Perceiving a proxy battle with its rival Iran, the kingdom began its bombardment.
Ali's escape, like those of thousands of other Yemenis or Somalis living in Yemen, was organized through a network of merchants, refugees, and businessmen that spans the Gulf of Aden. As a Saudi-led naval blockade has slowed the flow of humanitarian aid into Yemen to a trickle, this network is one of the few remaining ways out of the country, ferrying desperate people packed aboard cattle boats in their hundreds to Somalia.
Before making the trip, Ali had never left the country. She was born to a Yemeni father and Somali mother in the major port of Aden, a humid, sprawling city along Yemen's south coast. Because Aden had been Hadi's refuge before Houthi forces invaded the city, she and her two brothers, four sisters, and mother had hoped that airstrikes in the area would be sparing and brief. But in June, Ali's family was nearly killed.
"We were sleeping in a room in the apartment and a missile entered our room," she told VICE News. "Dust and concrete fell all over us. The missile continued into a neighbor's house and exploded, wounding one person."
Shocked into action, her family took a bus from Aden to Taiz, another major city some 110 miles to the north. After renting an apartment there for a month, another bomb struck near their home, destroying an adjacent building.
"My mother died of a heart attack," Ali said, tears falling onto the black cloth khimmar covering her face as she spoke. "She died of shock [from the bombing]. When she died we decided to leave Yemen."
Ali had been communicating with two of her sisters, both married, who took a boat from Yemen to Somaliland in early May after airstrikes destroyed most of the country's airports. From there they went to the Somali capital of Mogadishu, remaining in touch with Ali via text messages.
"Under the bombing the [phone] network often dropped out for days at a time," she said. "But when it came back, my sisters' messages would arrive, telling us to come to safety in Somalia."
After a day of traveling by minibus, they reached the beleaguered port town of Makha on Yemen's southwestern coast, where droves of Yemenis and Somalis were looking to get out of the country. A long, low, blue and white livestock boat named Al Hamza arrived after nine days, and was soon so crammed with several hundred people — most of them Somali refugee families, now twice displaced — that there was no room to lie down. It set off late in the evening, enduring rough seas to arrive safely in Berbera at dawn after two full nights and a day.
Al Hamza, a Yemeni cattle transport ship, at the dock in Berbera, Somaliland, full of hundreds of refugees from the war in Yemen. (Photo by Sam Kimball)
As of September 17, over 60,000 people have arrived from Yemen in the Horn of Africa since the beginning of the bombing campaign on Yemen, according to Craig Murphy, the project coordinator for mixed migration at the International Organization for Migration (IOM) in Nairobi. More than 29,000 of these people have flocked to Somalia, split almost evenly between Berbera in Somaliland and the port of Bosaso in Puntland, a semi-autonomous region of Somalia just to the east. Neighboring Djibouti has also seen a heavy influx of refugees.
Murphy said that there have been no reports to date of migrant boats sinking or of deaths at sea since the onset of the crisis. "Under the circumstances they are fleeing," he wrote in an email, "it is hard to believe that they are making it across without loss of life at sea."
While IOM has so far organized 10 boat rotations that have evacuated nearly 2,000 migrants by sea from Yemen to Djibouti, the majority of ships carrying refugees away from the violence in Yemen are not organized by NGOs.
"The [Yemeni] traders know the routes and sea conditions well, and they are shifting to transport people instead of goods or cattle," Murphy said. "Largely the trading ships that are moving people are working independently of governments and aid groups — they are products of supply and demand."
Escapes like Ali's are made possible by ordinary Somalis and Yemenis on both sides of the Gulf of Aden who have stepped up to provide a way out of the chaos despite devastated airports and blocked land routes.
Saddam Salem Muradh, a 25-year-old Yemeni born in Makha, is one of them. Until the war broke out, he ran an exporting agency in Makha's Souq El Fawri market. Using his contacts among merchants and boat owners, he helps coordinate displaced people coming to the port and inform them of what vessels will take them out of Yemen.
"At first a few groups came. People with money, Yemeni Yemenis from Ibb and Sana'a, not Somalis," he said, describing how his involvement began. "They called one by one — friends of clients at my agency — saying, 'We need a boat.' I told them what day to come."
With business at Muradh's export agency paralyzed by the Saudi-led blockade choking off most movement into Yemen, he started mediating between Yemeni businessmen, boat owners, and groups of people trying to leave the country. Before long, Somalis who had earlier fled civil war in their homeland were also being driven away by Yemen's unrest, joining the stream of soon-to-be Yemeni refugees in seeking passage across the Gulf of Aden.
Most of the refugees Muradh deals with come into Makha on buses of 10 to 15 people and can afford to pay for the trip.
"In the beginning it was $50 for each ticket," he said. "In April or May it became $70, with a $10 fee for registration and luggage." Tickets for a boat to Djibouti had lately climbed to $90, and also carried a $10 registration and baggage fee.
The system Muradh describes is oriented mostly around Arab Yemenis, with the majority of travelers headed toward Djibouti. But there's another tier that his friend Bashir Farah Nimr, a 43-year-old Somali-refugee-turned-imports businessman, is involved in, which is often free and headed for the less-developed but bureaucratically simpler and cheaper destination of Somaliland.
Though Somaliland has declared its independence, it is an autonomous region that remains part of Somalia. Somalis leaving Yemen therefore don't need visas to enter the country. For muwalladiin, mixed-race Yemenis like Ali who were born in Yemen and don't have Somali citizenship, the process is not as simple. After some waiting, Ali received temporary entry documents to Somaliland while in Makha, but no visa.
"They don't give a visa in the hope that we'll return to our country the next day," she remarked. Ali is now living in Hargeisa, the Somaliland capital, and says that she wants to return to Yemen at the earliest opportunity.
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Nimr, who climbed his way from as a refugee from Puntland to an Aden-based imports businessman, works primarily with Somalis and Yemenis of Somali descent such as Ali. Like him, most of the Somalis in Yemen crossed the sea to avoid Somalia's civil war, which began nearly three decades ago. Many took up residence in Yemen's isolated Kharaz refugee camp, located just northwest of Aden in the desert brush land of Lahj, where earlier this summer food supplies ran out. The lack of an effective humanitarian response has left a vacuum that Nimr and others have rushed to fill.
"When the bombing started and refugees were fleeing, I called trader friends of mine in Makha," Nimr said. "I knew that they had cattle boats, and I told them, 'These people are dying in the street.' The merchants agreed to let us use their boats."
Unlike relatively prosperous Yemenis, many of the Somalis in Yemen whom Nimr works with are penniless and can't afford the passage. Somalis at the Kharaz camp typically sell their used household items to Yemenis in surrounding villages to raise money for bus fare to Makha. Nimr, who juggles three cellphones as he coordinates with contacts at the Kharaz camp and in Makha, described how Yemeni businessmen were moved to pay their transportation costs after hundreds of them arrived in in the city, often without food or water. Merchants who would have otherwise charged better-off Yemenis seeking safety granted these Somali refugees free passage.
"We check their UN refugee cards and put them on the boat," Nimr said, adding that he helps provide them with food and drink out of his own pocket.
Isam Abduljabbar, a merchant in Makha who makes a living by exporting goods to Somaliland and importing cattle and sheep to Yemen, is one of the ship owners who have helped save lives by moving people out of the country. He has two boats, and sees the service he provides those fleeing the conflict as a variety of humanitarian aid.
"There are people who have no money at all who we help by giving them free tickets for passage," he said. "We won't leave them stranded in the port."
Abduljabbar was nonchalant when asked whether giving free passage to refugees was hurting his business. If he sends a boat full of people to Somaliland, he explained, it doesn't return empty. Though affected by stops and searches by coalition warships — one of Abduljabbar's boats was recently turned away from Yemen for lacking a permit from Saudi authorities — commercial trade in and out of Yemen persists, he says.
"My boats come back with sheep and cattle to sell, so I don't lose much money," he said.
These Yemeni and Somali humanitarians have improvised an operation that has helped facilitate the movement of tens of thousands of people from Yemen to Somalia since March, but they don't plan on leaving the country themselves. Muradh believes it's his destiny to stay in Makha and help more people escape the falling bombs.
"This is my duty," he said. "In this world and the next. I must help these people, or Allah will judge me harshly."