Yemenis struggle between a rock and a hard place

A Yemeni girl washing her face at the UNHCR Obock refugee camp in Djibouti on March 26.
A Yemeni girl washing her face at the UNHCR Obock refugee camp in Djibouti on March 26.PHOTO: AFP

OBOCK, DJIBOUTI (AFP) - Under a scorching sun, refugees who fled Yemen's war struggle on in a camp on Djibouti's rocky shores, a year after Saudi-backed air strikes began devastating their homeland.

Over 2,000 Yemenis have made the Markazi camp their home, fleeing the Arabian Peninsula to Djibouti across the narrow Bab al-Mandeb straits - the "Gate of Tears" in Arabic - the key shipping channel of the Gulf of Aden.

"It's very hard. It's hot, there is nothing to do, nothing to eat, nothing to drink," said 36-year old Irsal Ismail, who has lived in the baking hot camp for a year.

She fears the devastating effects of the 'khamsin', the ferociously hot sandy wind that will accompany the arrival of summer in the weeks ahead.

"We will not be able to live in this place with the same thing we already experienced last year," she said softly.

Djibouti, a tiny nation of over 800,000 people, is a haven for Yemeni refugees fleeing the air strikes and battles against Houthi rebels that has left Yemen in ruins, but it offers little more than safety from the bombs.

Air strikes kill or maim six children a day in Yemen, the United Nations said this week. Over 173,000 people have fled the country since war began, according to the UN refugee agency (UNHCR), including 33,000 to Djibouti, across just 30 kilometres (20 miles) of sea from Yemen.

Markazi camp on Djibouti's rugged northern Gulf of Tadjourah coastline is run by the UNHCR and the government's own disaster response agency, the National Office for Refugees and Disaster Victims (known by its French acronym, ONARS), which says it does what it can to help, but living conditions are tough.

"I was forced to leave Yemen because there was no more peace," said Hassan Din, 35, from Yemen's southern port of Aden. "But I came from war to find another war. Children have had hepatitis, malaria, they got sick because of the water. We cannot find water or food."

Aden was badly damaged in months of fighting between pro-government forces and Shiite Houthi rebels, as well as Al-Qaeda's Yemen-based branch, one of the jihadist network's most dangerous franchises. Islamic State jihadists have also joined the battle in Yemen.

"There is no place to complete my study, to feel safe, to live a better life with my family. So I need another country to help me to do something that benefits humanity," said Rania Dida Ahmed, 24, who was studying to be a lawyer before she fled.

"I'm suffering every day, not only me, all the people here," she said. "You can see it on our faces... in a desert, what kind of life is here. Everyone is sick."

Camp residents, who also include refugees from neighbouring Eritrea who first fled to Yemen before being forced to cross back to Africa due to the new war, complain of the lack of food and water, sanitation, and also rough treatment by Djibouti's police.

Despite there being no let up in Yemen's war, the number of refugees arriving in Djibouti has dropped from a peak of 800 a week late last year to around 40 a week over the last two months.

Some have even taken the risk of returning home, with some 600 refugees leaving the camp in recent months to return to Yemen, the UN says.

Relatives of Ahmed chose to return, but she says she will stay, and that news sent from home is bleak.

"They say that they are happy that they are back in their country," Ahmed said. "But they are surprised that they now found Daesh (Islamic State) there. They say, 'We miss our country, it is not like before'."

UNHCR camp manager Salim Jaafar said they were not encouraging people to go back.

"We try to follow these movements, to see what the conditions of these voluntary returnees are," Jaafar said. "Our message is not at all to encourage any among the Yemeni refugees to return home, it remains a decision for them alone."

Hassan Dine is tormented by the choices left to him.

"Either we die here, or we die there. There's only death," he said. "We ask that the world helps us, and take us far from here. We want a place where there is peace."