There’s something touching my foot.
I look away from the complex conversation going on in front of me. Ethiopian migrants are telling the story of their journey to the hostel owner in Amhara, she is translating this into Afar, our fixer is translating this into French and the IOM translator is relaying it to me in English. It doesn’t make for free-flowing conversation.
So I look down.
A baby is playing with my shoe. He’s maybe a year old and wearing only a long-sleeved jersey. He pauses to look up at me shyly with enormous brown eyes.
I interrupt the conversation. “Who’s is the baby?” I ask.
There’s a pause as the translators relay the question to the hostel owner. “No one’s,” is the answer.
His mother gave birth to him at the hostel last year,then left abruptly. She was bound for Saudi Arabia where she was hoping to find work. She was planning to follow the traditional route for migrants through Yemen. A civil war has been tearing Yemen apart for over two and a half years now. The dangers for transiting migrants there have only increased as the population, facing famine and cholera, grow more desperate.
Perhaps the baby’s mother intended to send for him when she reached Saudi Arabia. Or perhaps she thought he was safer at this hostel in Djibouti. Maybe she was counting on what would happen next; that the hostel owner, women called Fariya, would take on the responsibility for caring for him.
Fariya doesn’t know. She hasn’t heard from the woman since. In the meantime, she’s named the child Salahadin. She says he’s one year and three months old. A lightening fast smile crosses his face when someone bends to wave at him. Otherwise he sits quietly. The migrants staying here step around him or move him out of the way when necessary. At one point he plays with some empty cups and a dish of water but they are needed elsewhere and are taken away. He doesn’t protest.
It’s hard not to be moved by his intense vulnerability. But in many ways he’s lucky. He is being fed and cared for. He has a roof over his head. There is no violence in Tadjourah; there is no war in Djibouti.
15 year old Chartu is about to travel the same route as Salahadin’s mother. When the camera focuses on her, she giggles and momentarily hides her face with material from her headscarf. When she emerges again it’s to insist she is not afraid. She’s paid too much money to turn back now she explains. She will find work and bring money back to her family in Dira Dawai in Ethiopia.
Her face lights up when she’s asked where her eventual destination is- “Sau-diii,” she says in a sing song voice. The others laugh, but she stays smiling. It’s hard not to think of young Irish people in times past, about to travel to some far flung corner of the world, sure of the outcome of their journey, confident they’ll make their fortune, hearts full as they imagine the life of adventure and prosperity that await them.
The country that they must travel through though, is devoid of hope. The Yemeni refugees I meet at Markazi refugee camp describe a land convulsed by violence. One recent arrival, a father of seven says several of his friends and relatives have been killed during the war, but he doesn’t know who by. “The shooting and the killing were everywhere,” he says. “Life has stopped, no school, no work.”
In Obock village on the Djiboutian coast, a Yemeni refugee working as a chef in one of the restaurants describes seeing dozens of migrants being killed. “The Saudi’s thought they were Houthi rebels,” Tieisn Mohammad Taabat says, “they opened fire from the air. Most of them were killed; some survived but were terribly injured.”
Leonard Doyle of the International Organisation for Migration is just back from Yemen when I meet him in Djibouti city. He paints an even bleaker picture of the situation awaiting migrants there.
“They sell whatever tiny resources they have to make this journey, not knowing that they’re going to be exploited and racketeered,” he says. “The worst of course is what happens to the young women who end up in desperate sex slavery.”
He says it is now common practice for migrants to be seized by criminal gangs and held hostage until their families back home pay a ransom. They call the families by phone and torture their captive so that the relatives can hear their screams of pain. Mr Doyle describes a depressively simple technique; melting a plastic bottle over their bare skin. He says when payment is received; the migrants are released, often to be only captured again.
Organisations like IOM seek to dissuade migrants from going to Yemen but the ones we speak to say they have no choice. There is nothing at home for them. Across Africa, populations are growing, climate change is wreaking havoc on food supplies and resources are dwindling. There are violent conflicts in many regions. Now because of advances in technology many know that it is different elsewhere. That there are countries where it is safe, where there is work and where there is opportunity. Many are willing to risk everything to have a chance at the dream of a better life.
Nobody knows if Salahadin’s mother made it to Saudi Arabia or if she is still alive. Maybe she is working as a domestic servant in a mansion in Riyadh. Maybe she was among the migrants who died when smugglers panicked by the approach of a patrol, pushed those on board their boat, into the sea. Maybe she is in Yemen still trying to make her way towards the promised land of “Sau-diii.”
Her son waits in a hostel in Tadjourah. A tiny child, cast adrift by the great tidal surge of migration. If life is kind, he will grow up to be a teenager. And then, more than likely, he too will plot a course.
RTE’s Joan O’Sullivan travelled to Djibouti, on the horn of Africa, with the support of the Fund, to meet the Yemeni refugees fleeing across the sea from the war in their own country. While she was there she met African migrants travelling in the opposite direction – determined to go to Yemen so that they could travel on to Saudi Arabia to find work. Joan had two reports broadcast on RTÉ News and RTÉ Radio 1’s Morning Ireland programme in November 2017. Joan’s project is featured in our project showcase here.