Somaliland: Yemeni refugees fleeing Saudi air strikes find peace but little else in Somaliland

‘It is driving people crazy,’ says one of hundreds arriving across the Gulf of Aden in Berbera. ‘The air raids are destroying more houses than the fighting’

It was just after midnight when the livestock ship carrying nearly 200 people fleeing Yemen’s civil war docked at the port in the Somaliland city of Berbera.

As aid workers set up registration tables in the light of Red Crescent ambulance headlights, the migrants slowly filed on to land across a plank the size of a door. Families sat in circles on the gravel, attending to crying children or staring blankly at the stacks of cargo containers surrounding them. They looked dazed and exhausted, but they were happy to be alive.

This was the fourth – and most crowded – shipload of refugees fleeing Yemen to reach Berbera since late March, when a Saudi Arabia-led coalition began a bombing campaign against Shia Houthi rebels who forced President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi into exile.

It is an exodus that seems unlikely to end any time soon, despite Saudi Arabia’s announcement on Tuesday night that it had ended its bombing campaign. Saudi warplanes launched new air strikes against rebel positions in Aden and Taez on Wednesday and aid workers have warned that the humanitarian situation in Yemen remains “catastrophic” after months of fighting.

International airports such as the one in Sana’a have been demolished, and fleeing overland is risky as al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula continues to control swaths of territory in the east.

So far more than 2,000 people have made the journey across the Gulf of Aden to the coast of Somaliland, and the UN refugee agency, UNHCR, expects that over the next six months as many as 100,000 more will follow.

“The reason people are coming here is because of the planes,” said Mohammed, 21, one of the boat’s passengers. “It is driving people crazy. The air raids are destroying more houses than the fighting.”

A street is littered with debris after a Saudi-led air strike against Houthi rebels in Sana’a on Monday. Photograph: Hani Mohammed/AP
A street is littered with debris after a Saudi-led air strike against Houthi rebels in Sana’a on Monday. Photograph: Hani Mohammed/AP

Another man pulled out his mobile phone and showed pictures of the destruction. One showed the body of a man lying on the street – charred beyond recognition except for its leg, which was just a stretch of clean white bone.

The current flow of refugees reverses an earlier migration across the Gulf of Aden which began in the late 1980s when civil war forced hundreds of thousands to flee Somalia.

Of the 246,000 refugees registered in Yemen, nearly 95% are Somali. Now many of these are trying to return home, some even making their way to Somalia’s capital city, Mogadishu, despite continuing attacks by the militant group al-Shabaab.

Somaliland – a self-declared independent state which is viewed by the international community as a territory within Somalia – has largely escaped civil war violence, but is not currently equipped to receive large numbers of refugees.

The new arrivals were accommodated in a warehouse where they described a Yemen that is sinking further into crisis every day. Food, water and electricity shortages are crippling humanitarian camps and major cities like Sana’a. Families are living in basements beneath their levelled houses, unable to purchase petrol, which this group says has reached $100 for 20 litres in some places, to escape to humanitarian camps.

Within the medical facilities that haven’t been reduced to rubble, people are dying because of a lack of necessary medicine. One young woman raised her voice in anger as she explained that more aid organisations appeared to be leaving Yemen than trying to get in.

Many had spent the last of their savings to pay the $100 passage for the journey from the port of Mocha and across the Gulf of Aden. “All my money is finished here,” said Miriam, 20, who had travelled alone.

UNHCR has said it will begin coordinating travel to Mogadishu and other locations as more migrants show up. For now, though, migrants must fend for themselves to find a way out of their temporary stay in Berbera, where reception facilities have yet to be completed.

The local government and aid organizations plan to expand their assistance as more refugees arrive. UNHCR has put in place additional toilets and improved access to water, to replace the single, dirty bathroom behind the warehouse.

Still, those like 14-year-old Safwan Hasan, who is accompanied by every member of his family, are happy to make a new home out of the old one they fled so many years ago.

“All the people [on the boat] were happy,” he said, “because they were coming to their second country.”