Escape From Civil Unrest

Photographs and Text by Ed Ou

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The night smells of cold sweat and noxious kerosene as the surging waters off the Horn of Africa toss this makeshift fishing boat in the rough tide. Creaking under the weight of forty-five frightened Somali refugees, their bodies cramped and huddled in a vessel that is meant for fish not human cargo, and built to hold not more than five souls.

Some of the refugees sob, others are vomiting whilst the intoxicated wild-eyed smugglers that are their only hope of reaching the shores of Yemen, are beating them, hurting them, with gnarled sticks. “Don’t move or they will beat us, don’t look at them or they will beat us, don’t talk or they will beat us.” That is the hoarse voice of a boy barely thirteen. His brother is catatonic. All have barely eaten in days. There is no more water that they can drink. “This only happens in Africa, we never want to see that cursed continent again.”

On cruel nights like these smugglers sometimes turn to rape and almost always steal from these crying Somalis, who in the desperate hope of reaching the coasts of Yemen have entrusted them with their lives. “We’ve made it this far, but it could sink, if the smugglers turn back now we will be arrested and it will all have been for nothing,” mutters a scared old man, trying to fix his eyes on the moon, the only thing visible that doesn’t sway, doesn’t make you sick.

But this choice and every other are in the hands of these smugglers, who ferry the refugees without any shred of sympathy - caring only about the hard cash they place in their hands. They are laughing and shriek with a glint in their eyes, from this pure pleasure of knowing those cowering below them are entirely at their mercy. “These smugglers don’t respect anything, not even our lives, but we have no other choice,” whispers one of the victims, his hollow face staring at the rowdiness of the criminals, clasping the side of the boat for some kind of stability. This scene repeats itself every night as fishing boats are loaded with those that feel they no longer have any other choice, on the desolate cliff-marked shores off the Horn of Africa, before crossing the shark infested waters of the Gulf of Aden, hoping to beach on the white sands of Arabia.

I can hardly to bear to look into their eyes, let alone try and capture these harrowed African faces on camera. Their faces are thin and drained by the sorrows of a month-long trail through the scrub-deserts along the Horn.

Avoiding bandits, quicksand and the authorities, traveling large swathes of this on foot, there are few journeys more arduous that the refugee road from Mogadishu to Sana'a.

This exodus is a testament to the devastation that is known as Somalia, which for a generation has become a free-trade zone for the warlords, gangsters and jihadists without anything resembling the rule of law, where human life means very little.

This year alone there have been 20,000 arrivals on the shored of Yemen, a failed state in the eyes of the West but the promised land to the those huddle around me on this dry, deep blue night. The stars hang like giant chandeliers over the fishing boat, but they are too petrified to gaze upwards. We may not survive. One in twenty vessels like mine never reach Yemen and salted black corpses are washed up in the tide on the beaches of the southern Arabian country every week. This boat never made it. The engine conked out. We drifted endlessly, counting the hours. After an eternity, we drifted back towards land. We swim the lukewarm nocturnal waters back to African shores.

We were still in Africa.