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BY KITTY McKINSEY
Nairobi, Kenya, March 12, 2006 – After his wife was shot to death by robbers in Mogadishu at the end of last year, Abdullahi Ali Hashi figured he had nothing left to live for in the lawless capital of this Horn of Africa country.
The 20-year-old Somali man handed over his young son to his mother, scraped together all the money he had made running a small grocery store and entrusted his fate to a slick gang of people smugglers who promised to get him to the Middle East where he could earn a lot of money working illegally.
"Some people in Mogadishu told me there were boats that will take you to Yemen and you will get a job there," he says now at a departure point near Bossaso in the northeast coastal region of Puntland. He stands under an overhang on a cliff facing a calm, sparkling turquoise ocean, waiting for night to fall and the smugglers' boats to carry him away.
Like thousands of Somalis, and an increasing number of Ethiopians, Hashi is preparing to risk his life on an illegal journey in a tiny, overloaded fishing boat that will take off from the north shore of Somalia, headed across the Gulf of Aden for Yemen.
Some Somalis, since they are fleeing violence in their own country, get refugee status there; many others move on to Saudi Arabia, where they can earn more in a month than they could in a year at home.
But a voyage on that sea, which from the cliffs looks like the stuff of beach-resort posters, can easily spell death. In January, two smugglers' boats capsized on the journey and as many as 50 people died.
Even if the boats make the trip successfully, smugglers often beat or stab their passengers — mostly young men and women between 15 and 30, but also some children — to force them to jump overboard as they near the coast.
Hashi, incongruously dressed in a grey "Barbie doll" sweatshirt hoodie, knows very well that he's about to risk his life. He doesn't even know how to swim, but his flat, emotionless eyes tell you that he doesn't much care any more what happens to him.
"Allah knows what will happen," he says with a shrug, expressing a fatalism nearly universal among those about to board the boats.
Somalia, the only state in the world without a functioning government, is incapable of policing its 3,900-kilometre coastline, the longest in Africa and the second-worst area in the world for pirate attacks, after the Malacca Straits.
The Puntland region prides itself on having a semblance of government and has tried to disassociate itself from still-lawless central and southern Somalia by declaring autonomy.
But its main port city, Bossaso, has flourished as one of the world's busiest smuggling hubs. Guns, cigarettes and drugs come in; people go out. Under international pressure, the Puntland authorities have made sporadic attempts to crack down on the people smugglers, an effort that has succeeded only in moving the illegal boats' departure points outside the commercial port.
Qaw, 35 kilometers west of Bossaso, has become such a well-known departure point that one entrepreneur has set up a small shop there, selling soft drinks, cookies, spaghetti, tomato sauce, plastic shoes and razor blades to the illegal travelers.
Col. Aidid Ahmed Nur, divisional police commander for Bossaso, knows about Qaw, but says he doesn't have cars or fuel to send officers out there to discourage the departures. The colonel says he needs funding from international donors like Canada even to draw up a budget to show how much money his force needs to do its job.
"We need the international community's support," agrees Bossaso Mayor Khadar Abdi Haji. "The government doesn't have any boats. If we get enough support for the police, we believe we can stop this traffic on the coast."
From the accounts of their customers, the traffickers have a smooth, professional network, recruiting clients with promises of an easy life in Yemen or Saudi Arabia and using radio communications to signal each other when a new "batch" of migrants is on the way.
Most of the customers seem to be from lawless central and southern Somalia, with an increasing number of Ethiopians who say they are fleeing persecution in the wake of post-election strife and seek the asylum they can't find in Puntland.
The smugglers' customers come by truck and by foot, traveling up to 15 days through an arid desert under a scorching sun to reach Bossaso, a journey fraught with its own dangers.
They are often cheated along the way by traffickers who take their money but don't move them on as agreed. Or they are robbed and end up sleeping on the streets of Bossaso, working odd jobs and trying desperately to regain the $30 to $50 needed to pay their boat passage. Some women turn to prostitution, charging as little as 15 cents for their services.
And so the traffic continues. In a large tent in Bossaso lie 16 men, women and very young children, exhausted and dehydrated after their attempt to reach Yemen turned tragic. Just an hour earlier, they were brought ashore along with more than 100 others after eight days adrift in the Gulf of Aden. Their brush with death has brought them right back to where they embarked on the tiny fishing boat.
Though clearly still dazed, Asho Ibrahim Hassan, a 28-year-old mother, manages to coherently tell the story of their misadventure. Their boat set out dramatically overloaded with 125 people, Somalis and Ethiopians, "in search of a better life and employment," she says through lips swollen from sunburn.
She was desperate to get back to Yemen, where she had worked for 10 years before being deported.
She had her 1-year-old son in tow, eager to be reunited with his father, who is still in Yemen.
She had paid the equivalent of $38 dollars (a large sum here) to the people smugglers who run the boats.
"The engine failed on the first day out and we drifted for seven more days," says Hassan. The smugglers had strictly limited the amount of food and water each passenger could bring on what is supposed to be a journey of 36 to 48 hours.
With no food, water or protection from the unrelenting sun, "I was in a very, very bad condition," Hassan says simply. "I was crying, but Allah saved us. It was something I cannot describe."
The adults in this tent gloss over the precise details of what happened on that boat, but they agree that the captain drowned, likely thrown overboard by his outraged customers. The drifting passengers were finally rescued by an American ship patrolling the Somali waters.
The other casualty was the uncle of little Deer Mohamed, a strikingly beautiful Somali girl of about 10, who lies on a striped plastic sheet on the ground inside the tent, still in a state of shock.
After a week at sea, people began to go mad. Deer's uncle, with whom she was traveling, handed her over to a woman passenger and threw himself into the sea, vowing to swim to shore — perhaps days away — for help. He hasn't been seen since.
"It's not true, he's just in the hospital," protests Deer, briefly rousing herself.
Another survivor, an older woman, turns away so as not to upset Deer. "That's what we're letting her think," she confides.
Hassan has decided to devote herself to warning others of the dangers on the smugglers' boats, although she doubts it will have much effect.
"Everybody knows the risks," she says, "but they go anyway because they are in search of a better life."
Former Parliament Hill correspondent Kitty McKinsey currently represents the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Africa.
Source: THE TORONTO STAR, March 12, 2006