HISN BIL EID, YEMEN // Still stiff from sitting for more than a day with their knees pulled tightly to their chests, the Somali refugees who have made it to the shores of the Yemeni coast slowly unfold their limbs. They had heard the stories of the harrowing crossing - the beatings by smugglers, suffocation in the boats' holds, being thrown overboard at sea - but were terrified to remain in Somalia.
"If I stay in Somalia I will die, by gun or by starvation," said Ahmed Mahamoud, who has made the crossing three times in the hope of reaching Saudi Arabia but was deported each time. Somalia has been in a perpetual state of disintegration since the collapse of its government in 1991, torn by years of fighting and hard pressed by rising food prices. The United Nations estimates that fighting between Islamist militants and an unpopular transitional government has forced at least one million people from their homes. Drought and inflation have put more than 3.1m in need of food aid, according to the UN. Inflation is now running at about 600 per cent, according to aid agencies.
"Somalis are people who can least afford an even small rise in food prices," said Marcus Prior, from the World Food Programme, which last month saw one of its aid workers killed by unknown gunmen. Somalis are not the only Africans ending up on the Gulf of Aden. Since January, 37,333 refugees, including those from Ethiopia and Eritrea, have reached Yemen, according to the UN's refugee agency. But nearly 500 people have drowned and another 300 have gone missing during the crossing, the UNHCR said.
Once they reach the beach, the refugees make their way to the UNHCR reception centre at Ahwar. But for one young man, the ordeal was too much and he collapsed from exhaustion and died where he lay on the beach. Yemeni villagers found his gaunt body, washed it and prepared it for burial in the sand near their homes, next to the grave of another dead refugee. Chanting Islamic prayers, the Yemeni men smoothed the fresh mound of sand with their hands, placed stones at the head and the foot, then walked away.
For those who are able to make it to the refugee camp, there are dates and biscuits and much needed bottles of water. Smelling of urine and seawater, with flecks of sand stuck to their legs, they sit in rows along the corrugated walls and relate their experiences to aid workers. Some of the men who were squeezed in the hold show bare backs and shoulders burnt by the engine. Others display gashes on their faces where they were hit by smugglers.
With so many people willing to risk almost anything to leave Somalia, the smugglers can charge US$100 (Dh 367) to $150 for each person and pack their unsound fishing boats with between 120 to 140 people, in a space meant to carry 40. There are a myriad dangers on the route. The Yemeni Coast Guard sometimes fires on the boats. If the smugglers sense danger, they will throw everyone into the shark-infested waters to try to evade the coastguard. In early October, a boat carrying 150 passengers stopped five kilometres from the Yemeni shore and forced the passengers overboard. Only 47 survived.
Yet little is being done by governments to combat the smugglers and aid groups can only warn prospective migrants of the dangers. "The smugglers don't consider the migrants as human beings. They consider the people just as a way to make money, they are treating them as animals," said Stefano Tamagnini, chief of mission for the International Organization for Migration in Yemen. But while Yemen's border is open to Somalis, its pockets are not. Yemen is the poorest of the Gulf states, and while Somalis receive automatic refugee status, there is not much else. In the car parks of the bustling coastal city of Aden, Somalis offer to wash cars for some spare change.
If they have the strength, the new arrivals are quick to move on. Bypassing the refugee camps, they strike out for Saudi Arabia or another Gulf state hoping to earn more money doing menial jobs. Some are prepared to walk to this envisioned haven along the ribbon of motorway that skirts Yemen's turquoise coastline. But for the refugees, the danger of the sea will never compare to the dangers faced back home, and the opportunities outside of Somalia are their only option for a better life.
Ahmed Sharif hopes his newborn child will never know the war in Somalia. A bomb fell on Mr Sharif's house in Mogadishu, killing his parents and leaving a huge divot on his leg where the shrapnel hit. "When I compared Somalia to the sea, I preferred to go on the boat." With his 25-day-old baby tucked tightly in his wife's arms and his two-year-old son, Abdullah, on his lap, the family hunkered down for the arduous journey to Yemen.
Mr Sharif said the smugglers beat him with sticks when Abdullah, too young to sit still for so long, would try to stand. When they arrived in the surf off Yemen's coast, a smuggler tossed the boy into the water, he said, and Mr Sharif jumped in after him. When the family finally arrived at the Ahwar refugee centre late that night, Mr Sharif was filled with hope and relief for the first time. They were assigned a tent to sleep in and his son was given a box of milk to drink.
"Thank God," he said. "Now I want to build a future." * The National