Yemeni pro-government forces patrol during clashes against Shiite rebels in Yemen's western Dhubab district, about 30 kms (20 miles) north of the strategic Bab el-Mandeb Strait, on January 9, 2017 | Saleh Al-Obeidi/AFP via Getty Images
BAB EL-MANDEB STRAIT, Djibouti — They call it the gate of grief.
Bab-el-Mandeb was named — according to an old legend — after those who drowned when the strait cracked opened as an earthquake tore apart the continents of Africa and Asia. All non-African people alive today are thought to derive from the small group — some scientists say no more than 200 intrepid souls — who crossed from Africa here, before spreading to the four corners of the world. The first migrants, the original sparkle.
I ask the boat’s pilot to stop right on the line traced between the mountainous Ras Siyyan peninsula in Djibouti and Perim island in Yemen. On the left, the Indian Ocean. On the right, the Red Sea. Time stands still, not a living creature nor the slightest noise to disturb the precious sense of being at the exact point where humanity left Africa to conquer the globe.
The Bab-el-Mandeb you read about is made up of lines and dots on a nautical chart: a strategic chokepoint through which passes almost all of the maritime trade between Europe and Asia: every year, about $700 billion in goods, some 25,000 ships, nearly 2 billion barrels of oil. Then there is an underground world, a secret current underneath, populated by pirates and rebels, fishermen, migrants, wild-hearted divers, sailors and everything in between.
Bab-el-Mandeb is a rare place — one where refugees flow in both directions at once, meeting each other, perhaps, on the way.
Almost every week, oil tankers and merchant ships come under rocket attack from the Yemen shore. Perim island was captured by Saudi forces in 2015, and the United Arab Emirates quickly built an airstrip there. Just days after my visit the Saudi coalition backing one of the sides in the civil war announced it had destroyed a boat laden with explosives that was headed for an unnamed tanker. Saudi Arabia accuses Iran of attempting to control the strait by using the Houthis in Yemen as a tool.
Just 14 miles away, on Ras Siyyan, it is a different world. A Chinese company is planning to build a luxury hotel on the secluded beach behind the cape, while a new international airport, also funded by the Chinese investors, is planned for another part of the peninsula.
And in the middle, between the visible, ordered world on the surface and the underground current of grief stand my companions for the day: the Djibouti coastguard.
We speed back toward Djibouti, sliding over the water at such speed that you would be spit out of the boat the moment you tried to stand up. After a few minutes, we come across the first fishing boat. I look at the two large black cases in the middle of our speedboat, with “Winchester” written across. Is this why we brought them? The other boat’s two passengers fidget around, showing us their nets and catch, and then their identification. One of them looks Arab, not African, but the papers are in order.
The second boat we find offers a different spectacle. It is packed tight with passengers, and everyone on board is clothed in mended dirty dresses and turbans. They are all Yemeni, and we stand looking at each other for long moments. One of two guards in our speedboat is nervous, alert. What would prevent these eight or 10 men from jumping aboard?
There is an underground world around Bab el-Mandeb, populated by pirates and rebels, fishermen, migrants, wild-hearted divers, sailors and everything in between | Saleh al-Obeidi/AFP via Getty Images
They could easily overpower us and steal the launch, but they probably know that the coastguard cannot detain everyone who crosses these waters. And they are almost certainly going back anyway. I raise my hand and they reciprocate — with obvious relief, free to go. Anything can happen here, no living soul around. We all know it. I see that fear in their faces.
The African coast is a desolate patch of desert and volcanic rocks. Without trees, no sailing tradition ever developed on this side of the straight. For Yemenis, expert sailors and fishermen, it pays to come over to this side of the water and take advantage of the abundant fish. Others want to bring their families to the safety of the refugee camp in Obock or to take people back to Yemen or perhaps to sell khat — a plant everyone here chews to get intoxicated — or transport money from one coast to another.
Bab-el-Mandeb is a rare place — one where refugees flow in both directions at once, meeting each other, perhaps, on the way. Yemenis have been fleeing the brutal war and blockade at home, but they are not alone. A few miles south of Ras Siyyan, in Ad Ela, we stop for a few minutes in front of a pristine beach where the Djibouti coast guard recently disembarked to find 47 bodies rotting on the white sand.
They were Ethiopians setting out on an old route, from impoverished Ethiopia to Saudi Arabia and the Gulf, following mankind’s exit from Africa. But their boat capsized and the bodies were washed ashore. Had they survived the crossing they would have landed in Yemen amid a brutal, devastating war, and like many of their countrymen most likely been enslaved by armed militias. Did they know this? Perhaps not, because the news that you hear back in Ethiopia comes from those who survive.
Bruno Maçães, a former Europe minister for Portugal, is a senior adviser at Flint Global in London and a nonresident senior fellow at the Hudson Institute in Washington. His book “The Dawn of Eurasia” was published by Penguin on January 25.