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'They Risk Everything To Escape'
Thousands of Somalis make a perilous journey to Yemen to flee Mogadishu's chaos
By Xan Rice
Sana’a, Yemen, April 21 2008 – Obah Abdisalam Muhammad knew that she might not survive the crossing. She had heard the stories of the smugglers' beatings, of the sharks and the desperate thirst. But after two of her brothers were killed in Mogadishu's endless cycle of fighting one night early last month, the pregnant 19-year-old decided that she had to take the risk.
For several days, Muhammad traveled by minibus towards Somalia's northern coast, passing through checkpoints manned by edgy, young militiamen. Then, on the evening of March 15, on an isolated beach near the city of Bossaso, she waded into the sea and pulled herself up into an old wooden fishing boat. In a bag she carried a single change of clothes. Hidden under her headscarf, wrapped in plastic, was a tiny address book and $10 (£5).
There were 120 other Somalis crammed into the boat, all sitting with their knees drawn up against their chests, trying to avoid the eyes of the six smugglers who carried assault rifles and knives. "They said that if we moved they would throw us into the sea," Muhammad recalled.
The seven men tossed overboard the next day were already dead. Forced to sit in the engine-hold due to lack of room on the deck, they had suffocated after their screams for air were ignored. Late that night, after 30 hours at sea, the remaining migrants were ordered to swim the final few hundred meters towards Yemen's rugged coast.
A few boys helped Muhammad make it to the beach, where villagers gave her biscuits and water. In the morning they helped her phone her parents, who had also fled Mogadishu and were living with relatives outside the city. "I told them that I had survived," she said.
Her story ought to be remarkable. But in Kharaz, the UN-run refugee camp in southern Yemen where she now lives in a sand-stained tent, new accounts of loss and perilous journeys arrive at the gates every day. From January to early April about 14,500 migrants - mainly Somalis - crossed the Gulf of Aden to Yemen. That represents more than half the number of people that made the journey in 2007, and the main crossing season later in the year still lies ahead.
The high death toll is little deterrent. UN figures show that about 1,500 people died or disappeared trying to reach Yemen from Somalia last year, one for every 20 that attempted the journey. Some of the victims drowned after their boats capsized in rough seas, or while trying to swim the last leg to shore. Others were forced into the water by smugglers struggling with overloaded boats.
"We have one woman here whose three-year-old child was thrown overboard just because it was crying too much," said Claire Bourgeois, Yemen country director for the UN high commissioner for refugees (UNHCR), which has set up migrant reception centers along the coast. "The migrants know all about these dangers, but they are desperate to escape."
Driving the exodus from Somalia is the increasing chaos in Mogadishu. Most of the new arrivals in Yemen this year began their journeys in the Somali capital, which is convulsed by a growing insurgency. Militias linked to the former Islamic Courts authority, which ruled Mogadishu in the latter half of 2006, are waging a guerilla war against the occupying Ethiopian troops who removed them from power and the weak government.
With a small African Union peacekeeping force reduced to the role of bystander, several thousand civilians have been killed in the crossfire since early 2007. The UN, which considers a wider peacekeeping mission too dangerous, says 700,000 people fled the city last year. The 10-mile stretch of road between Mogadishu and Afgooye now hosts more than 200,000 people, humanitarian groups say, perhaps the biggest concentration of displaced people anywhere in the world.
Those with money run further. Kenya's border remains closed, and Ethiopia is seen by many Somalis as the enemy. Yemen might lie across a hazardous stretch of water, but its policy of offering Somalis automatic asylum makes it the most attractive destination.
Muhammad, who had worked as a housemaid in Mogadishu, managed to scrape together $35 for her overland journey to Bossaso, and $50 for the 200-mile sea passage to Yemen. Malyun Hassan Ismail, 30, one of Muhammad's 9,000 new neighbors in the refugee camp, which squats on a stony plain two hours' drive west of the coastal city of Aden, chose a more expensive route.
Ismail described how an Ethiopian military vehicle had been blown up near her house in Mogadishu in December. In the ensuing reprisal, her husband, father and brother were killed, she said.
With three young children in tow, she paid $600 to travel by road to Somaliland, the self-declared republic to the north, and then west to Djibouti, which is much closer to Yemen than Bossaso is. Smugglers charged Ismail a further $100 to take her family across the sea by boat.
"What is happening in Mogadishu is too horrible, people dying every day," she said. "Here I have a tent, two beds and four blankets. I feel safe."
But for many migrants safety is not enough. They come to Yemen, poorest of the Gulf states, burdened by promises to help relatives in Somalia. Most men head straight from the UN reception centers to the sprawling Basateen slum in Aden, where a well-established smuggling network helps them travel onwards to wealthier countries.
Anab Sheikh Muhammad, who left Somalia in 1993, runs a boarding house in Basateen. Business is good: the floor of her living room is filled with cardboard and bits of foam used as makeshift mattresses by her many customers, including Muhammad Jamale Muhammad, a quietly spoken 23-year-old, who only arrived in Aden the day before.
Having left his wife and three children in Mogadishu, he was now trying to scrape together $25 for a ride north to the border with Saudi Arabia. From there, he planned to proceed on foot towards Jeddah, where he hoped to find a menial job.
A more likely scenario, UN workers say, is that the Saudi police would soon pick him up and deport him to Mogadishu. And that soon afterwards he would board a fishing boat on Somalia's lawless northern coast.
"You see the same people coming over here again and again," said Absher Muhammad Abubakar, who works for UNHCR in Kharaz. "They prefer to risk everything to improve their lives rather than to stay in Somalia and wait to die."
When it comes to motivating the masses to take action, sometimes straight facts aren’t enough. People who hear a frightening statistic or an alarming fact often take that information at face value and act out of fear. This is the purpose of using "scare tactics," manipulative words or actions which create a sense of fear or shock in the recipients.
These fears, rational or irrational as they may be, are often enough to force people into making uninformed decisions or taking rash actions. Scare tactics such as pointing out the worst case scenario or associating the issue with a much greater threat are commonly used by leaders to gain popular support for military actions or other controversial decisions.
Scare tactics do not have to reach the level of verbal terrorism in order to be effective, however. Sometimes the mere mention of a disastrous alternative may be enough to manipulate others into a certain way of thinking. Successful scare tactics must instill a true sense of fear or else they may be seen as weak attempts to sway public opinion. This is why many verbal scare tactics are often backed up by more tangible ones, such as grisly photographs, personal testimonies and displays of force. Hanging a noose over a voting booth, for example, would be an extreme example of scare tactics designed to discourage free elections.
Scare tactics are commonplace in world politics, since it is generally difficult for one dictator to keep dissidents under control without the threat of violence, real or perceived. The key word in "scare tactics" is "scare." It doesn’t matter if most of the stories of political reprisals are apocryphal or mere rumors, as long as the scare tactics instill a real sense of fear in the populace.
Most scare tactics are not meant to cause widespread harm or damage, but to play on the recipient’s innate sense of security. Many professional athletes use scare tactics to keep their opponents off-balance, such as a pitcher intentionally throwing a ball close to the batter or a race car driver tapping another car for intimidation purposes. Scare tactics often keep an opponent from becoming too comfortable or too confident. While the use of most scare tactics is seen as unfair or unethical, the advantage they can provide can be significant. Many scare tactics are designed to stay within the bounds of the law, but still inflict maximum psychological pressure on the intended audience.
Source: The Guardian