Ethiopians face deserts and smugglers on the way to Saudi
LAC ASSAL, Djibouti (AP) — “Patience,” Mohammed Eissa told himself.
He whispered it every time he felt like giving up. The sun was brutal, reflecting off the thick layer of salt encrusting the barren earth around Lac Assal, a lake 10 times saltier than the ocean.
Nothing grows here. Birds are said to fall dead out of the sky from the searing heat. And yet the 35-year-old Ethiopian walked on, as he had for three days, since he left his homeland for Saudi Arabia.
Nearby are two dozen graves, piles of rocks with no headstones. People here say they belong to migrants who like Eissa embarked on an epic journey of hundreds of miles, from villages and towns in Ethiopia, through the Horn of Africa countries Djibouti or Somalia, then across the sea and through the war-torn country of Yemen.
This story is part of an occasional series, “ Outsourcing Migrants, ” produced with the support of the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.
The flow of migrants taking this route has grown. According to the U.N.’s International Organization for Migration, 150,000 arrived in Yemen from the Horn of Africa in 2018, a 50% jump from the year before. The number in 2019 was similar.
They dream of reaching Saudi Arabia and earning enough to escape poverty by working as laborers, housekeepers, servants, construction workers and drivers.
But even if they reach their destination, there is no guarantee they can stay; the kingdom often expels them. Over the past three years, the IOM reported 9,000 Ethiopians were deported each month.
Eissa was one of them. This will be his third trip to Saudi Arabia.
In his pockets, he carries a text neatly handwritten in Oromo, his native language. It tells stories of the Prophet Muhammad, who fled his home in Mecca to Medina to seek refuge from his enemies.
“I depend on God,” Eissa said.
For most migrants, the trip starts with a “door opener” -- a broker who would link him to a chain of smugglers along the way.
Eissa decided he would not use smugglers for his journey.
He’d successfully made the trip twice before. The first time, in 2011, he worked as a steel worker in the kingdom, making $25 a day and earning enough to buy a plot of land in the Arsi region’s main town, Asella. He made the trip again two years later, walking for two months to reach Saudi Arabia, where he earned $530 a month as a janitor. But he was arrested and deported before he could collect his pay.
Without a smuggler, his third attempt would be cheaper. But it would not be safe, or easy.
Eissa picked up rides from his home to the border with Djibouti, then walked. His second day there, he was robbed at knifepoint by several men who took his money. The next day, he walked six hours in the wrong direction, back toward Ethiopia, before he found the right path again.
When the AP met him at Lac Assal, Eissa said he had been living off bread and water for days, taking shelter in a rusty, abandoned shipping container. He had a small bottle filled with water from a well at the border.
He had left behind a wife, nine sons and a daughter. His wife cares for his elderly father. The children work the farm growing vegetables, but harvests are unpredictable: “If there’s no rain, there’s nothing.”
With the money he expected to earn in Saudi Arabia, he planned to move his family to Asella. “I will build a house and take my children to town to learn the religious and worldly sciences,” he said.
The 100-mile (120-kilometer) trip across Djibouti usually ends on a long, virtually uninhabited coast outside the town of Obock, the shore closest to Yemen.
Migrants will sometimes stay here for several days, waiting for their turn on the boats that every night cross the narrow Bab el-Mandab strait to Yemen.
Eissa paid about $65 to a boat captain for his trip -- the only payment to a smuggler he would make.
Once in Yemen, he made his way across the country alone. At times, Yemenis gave him a ride. Mostly he walked endless miles down the highways.
“I don’t count the days. I don’t distinguish, Saturday, Sunday, or Monday,” he said in audio message to the AP via Whatsapp.
One day, he reached the town of Bayhan, southern Yemen, and went to the local mosque to use the bathroom. When he saw the preacher giving his sermon, he realized it was Friday.
It was the first time in ages he was aware of the day of the week.
He had traveled more than 250 miles (420 kilometers) since he landed in Yemen and still had another 250 miles to go to the Saudi border. That journey would take him into Houthi territory through the town of Hazm, a run-down city divided down the middle between the rebels and anti-Houthi fighters. It’s a 3-mile (5-kilometer) no-man’s land where sniper fire and shelling are rampant.
Once across Hazm, it is another 120 miles (200 kilometers) north to the Saudi border.
Eissa walked that final stretch, a risk because the militiamen have a deal with migrant smugglers: Those who go by car are allowed through; those on foot are arrested.
“Walking in the mountains and the valleys and hiding from the police,” Eissa said in an audio message to the AP.
He traversed tiny valleys winding through mountains along the border to the crossing points of Al Thabit or Souq al-Raqo.
Souq al-Raqo is a lawless place, a center for drug and weapons trafficking run by Ethiopian smugglers. Even local security forces are afraid to go there. Cross-border shelling exchanges and airstrikes have killed dozens, including migrants; Saudi border guards sometimes shoot others.
Eissa slipped across the Saudi border on Aug. 10. It had been 39 days since he had left home in Ethiopia.
After walking another 100 miles, he reached the major town of Khamis Mushayit. First, he prayed at a mosque. Some Saudis there asked if he wanted work. They got him a job watering trees on a farm.
“Peace, mercy, and blessings of God,” he told the AP in one of his last audio messages. “I am fine, thank God. I am in Saudi.”
To see the full photo essay on the migrants’ journey, click here.
To see a photo essay, “Portraits of Ethiopian girls, women on the march to Saudi,” click here.
Digital producers Nat Castañeda and Peter Hamlin contributed to this report.