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Yemeni Refugees Cross Gulf Of Aden To Seek Safety In East Africa

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

When the United Nations says Yemen faces the worst humanitarian crisis in the world, what does that really mean? Because of the civil war there, most of the country is suffering the effects of combat and cholera and widespread hunger. Our co-host Steve Inskeep has been reporting from Yemen. He's also been meeting refugees who escaped from that country. And he is just back from that trip and is in the studio this morning to share what he learned. Good morning, Steve.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Hi there, Rachel.

MARTIN: So we've got this number - 3 million, the number of people in Yemen who were forced to flee from their homes. You got to talk with some of these folks. What did they tell you?

INSKEEP: Well, they told stories of what it's like to be an ordinary citizen trying to live without a functioning state. Now, let's start the story here in a camp for internal refugees. It's in Ma'rib, Yemen.

(CROSSTALK)

INSKEEP: When we arrived, people crowded around as anybody would in a camp where nothing happens all day. A dirt path led between two rows of white tents in the midday sun. We walked to the end and in the next to last tent saw the few belongings of a woman who gave her name as Saba.

Do you have a moment to sit down and speak?

SABA: (Speaking Arabic).

INSKEEP: We saw nothing of her except her brown eyes. The rest of her face and body were covered in black. She spoke through that black cloth and through an interpreter of the events that brought her here.

What happened two months ago that made you decide to come?

SABA: (Through interpreter) Our house was destroyed.

INSKEEP: She's the mother of five children, all born within five years. She's married to a farmer from Yemen's Dhamar province. They didn't have much but controlled a small irrigation canal. Then, she says, Yemen's Houthi rebels captured the area, and four gunmen demanded control of the canal.

How did you know there were Houthis?

SABA: (Through interpreter) They were our neighbors, OK?

INSKEEP: She knew them well and knew they'd gone over to the rebel side and also knew they wanted the water. The collapse of government turned neighbors against neighbors and also left people ruthlessly grabbing what they could.

SABA: (Speaking Arabic).

INSKEEP: "The neighbors shot up our house," Saba said. "I had to have an operation to remove shrapnel from my body." She fled about 150 miles out of rebel territory and into this camp in Ma'rib, one of the cities still controlled by the government.

(SOUNDBITE OF HONKING)

INSKEEP: You can hear the horns honking. We're weaving through heavy traffic here. Ma'rib is busy, and the traffic has clearly overrun the road.

(CROSSTALK)

INSKEEP: This scratchy provincial town, which is near the oil and gas fields, has filled with people on the run. The university has five times more students than it did. But few places in Yemen are this safe. Yemen's civil war grew more deadly when Saudi Arabia intervened. The Saudis and their allies use American-made planes backing the government against rebels alleged to receive support from Iran. The violence has driven many Yemenis from the country entirely. And to meet some of them, we left Yemen and crossed the Gulf of Aden. We arrived on the shores of East Africa in the tiny nation of Djibouti.

This is a sea port called Obock where men right now are loading construction materials onto a boat by hand. This is very old-time seafaring. And just across the blue water in this direction is the coastline of Yemen. Many refugees, for years now, have been getting into small boats, going in the middle of the night, fleeing to this side and to a refugee camp not far from here.

We met a family who had just arrived. At a United Nations office, a mother and father were waiting to be registered with their kids, age 6, 4 and 2.

AHMED: Baba, Baba.

INSKEEP: That's little Ahmed saying, Dad, Dad, as the father tries to talk. The father's name is Ali Abdul Karim. Until a few days ago, his family was living in the Yemeni port city called Hudaydah.

What have the last few months been like in Hudaydah?

ALI ABDUL KARIM: (Speaking Arabic).

INSKEEP: "The last few months have been the same as the last three years," he said. "The rebels take 25 percent of my salary and provide no services."

KARIM: (Speaking Arabic).

INSKEEP: "There's no electricity, no water, garbage all around. You have to wait in line for gasoline. And late last year, a Saudi blockade limited food shipments." He says, "inflation made food so expensive, my monthly salary is gone after two or three days."

KARIM: (Speaking Arabic).

INSKEEP: "There is no government," he says. "There is no state. What made the situation worse was the Saudi coalition fighting the rebels."

KARIM: (Speaking Arabic).

INSKEEP: "A coalition bomb fell on a dairy run by my company," he says. "It killed 25 people." His wife, Radia, has a story too about her brother.

RADIA: (Speaking Arabic).

INSKEEP: "A Saudi coalition airstrike destroyed a bank," she said. "It was a bank controlled by Houthis. My brother," she said, "was working nearby and was killed."

Do you support either side in the war?

KARIM: (Through interpreter) As a civilian, I am with neither of the war parties. The ones on the ground made our lives very difficult, and they suffocate us. And the others have besieged us in the air and in the sea. So we are surrounded, and we are killed.

INSKEEP: About a week ago, the parents loaded their children into a fishing boat for the overnight voyage to Djibouti. Everyone threw up during the nine-hour journey. In Djibouti, they cleaned up and put on their best clothes. And we watched as U.N. staff photographed and fingerprinted the family, registering them as refugees so they could be assigned a place to sleep down the road.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: (Speaking Arabic, laughter).

INSKEEP: Their destination is a tent city on desert sand in sight of the sea. On a playground there, the children seemed almost joyful. Yet when we met parents, we sensed despair. Ask refugees their plans, how they see the future, and they have no answers. In a tent where the only furniture was a thin mattress, we sat with a mother named Azizah Salim.

What do you want for your children?

AZIZAH SALIM: (Through interpreter) Every mother has a lot of expectations and dreams for her children, but right now, I am here. What can I do? There's nothing I can do about it.

INSKEEP: Maybe it's not surprising then that some people leave. Those fishing boats, the ones that bring the refugees, many circle back to Yemen. On the shores of Djibouti, we were told of Yemenis who go back down to the docks and wait for a boat and make a return trip back to the war.

(SOUNDBITE OF RAHIM ALHAJ'S "LETTER 1. EASTERN LOVE - SINAN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.