Yemenis fleeing conflict are taking overcrowded livestock boats across the Gulf of Aden to Somaliland – an unrecognized country. Such is the magnitude of violence in one of the oldest centers of civilization in the Middle East.
HARGEISA, SOMALILAND – Last May, Sabrina Omar, 21 and mother to four-month-old Abdullah, fled her home in Taiz, a city in the Yemeni Highlands, at dawn.
The previous night a bomb or rocket had hit her home. She doesn’t know what exactly it was, or where it came from. All she knows is that one of her neighbors was killed, and that she and her mother, Said Mohammad Ali, 46, and her younger sister, eight-year old Shyak, left at first light. Shyak hadn’t been in school in months. All the schools in Taiz had closed.
Sabrina is just one of many people who have been sandwiched between the horror of Houthi snipers and American-supplied Saudi Arabian fighter jets, two of the daily threats in Yemen’s ongoing conflict.
She was six months pregnant when she left home, moving slowly and worried about the health of the baby. She sold her gold jewelry on the trip from Taiz to the port in Aden where they would get the boat. From Aden, they joined about 500 others on the 24-hour journey to Berbera, the central port in Somaliland.
Almost a dozen other family members joined the trio to make the crossing. But Sabrina’s husband wasn’t one of them. He was at work in another part of the city during the attack. She called to tell him they were leaving, but – stuck in the middle of the fighting – he couldn’t reach her in time.
Today Sabrina, baby Abdullah, her mother and her sister are in Hargeisa, the capital of Somaliland, a self-declared country, independent of Somalia. More than 10,000 refugees from Yemen left the nightmare of a war only to fall into hellish bureaucracy.
Reeling from the trauma of their forced migration, they wait in mind-numbing lines for basics such as plates and tampons, while navigating United Nations paperwork and the convoluted political system in a language they don’t speak, spending money they cannot afford.
Yemenis have been fleeing the bloody fracas at home for Somaliland since March 2015, when rebel Houthis began advancing on Taiz, Sabrina’s home, and quickly took the city from the government of President Abd Rabbuh Mansour Hadi. Hadi is friendly to Saudi Arabia and the United States; his predecessor, Ali Abdullah Saleh, had a similarly favorable relationship and even supported the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003.
That was a political move that reignited the previously dormant Houthi opposition. Saleh remains politically influential and Yemeni security forces have split into those backing Hadi, others backing Saleh and yet others backing the Houthis. Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) has strongholds in the south and southeast of Yemen, and has staged deadly attacks on all parties.
An Arab coalition led by Saudi Arabia began airstrikes in March 2015, hoping to restore the former friendly ruling government. Ground forces followed last September, leading to continuing outflows of civilians.
Besides Somaliland, other countries in the region have also received refugees from Yemen. Nearly half of the 176,000 people who fled Yemen’s conflict have gone to the Horn of Africa. It is likely that there are well over 10,000 who fled Yemen for Somaliland, but many aren’t registered with the U.N.
For those who managed to flee, the memories have lived painfully on. Sabrina’s family had a mobile phone photo of their destroyed house in Taiz, but eventually she deleted it. Looking at the picture became unbearable for members of the family.
As the family started settling into their new life, worse news arrived. In Hargeisa, the capital of Somaliland, Sabrina received a phone call informing her that her husband and a close friend had been killed in an airstrike.
Given her limited options for refuge and the fate of her husband, Sabrina’s decision to come to Somaliland was sensible. Yemen and Somalia have a centuries-old relationship of trade between the ports of Aden in Yemen and Berbera in Somaliland. Both Somalis and Yemenis attest to shared cultural values. Well before the war, educated, middle-class Yemenis had been coming to Somaliland for business.
“The relationship between Yemenis and Somalilanders is good because of the historical business and religious links,” the executive director of the Comprehensive Community-Based Rehabilitation in Somaliland (CCBRS), Abib Ahmed Hirsi, said. “There are no obvious security threats or problems faced by Yemenis since they’ve arrived in Somaliland, but small incidents can happen as usual in any place. CCBRS has observed that a number of Yemenis have already made self-integration after they open some businesses in Hargeisa.”
Despite lack of formal acknowledgment from the international community, Somaliland has its own government and currency. The security situation is much calmer than in Somalia, from which it seceded. Somalia is fighting the insurgent al-Qaida-affiliated al-Shabaab.
The smiling co-owner of the bustling Yemeni Chicken restaurant in Hargeisa, for example, moved from Yemen only four years ago. He had two restaurants back in Yemen, as well, but they closed permanently because of the war. Once it became clear that Yemen was in dire straits and not changing anytime soon, he brought his wife and five of his children to Hargeisa with him. His children cried and wouldn’t eat on the boat ride over. “The boat is not for a human being, it is for a goat, ” he said.