Hyenas, wolves and disease ‘welcome’ Yemenis fleeing war

Yemeni refugees struggle to wait out the war in the heat of Djibouti, longing to return home.

Markazi refugee camp, Djibouti – Waking up to the Fajr, pre-dawn Muslim call for prayer, Ahmed Quraini begins every day with hope, as he has done for years.

With his eyes widening at every verse crackling through a broken loudspeaker, he then staggers to his feet, before brushing off from his hair and face a thick layer of dust that swept in through large holes and cracks in his dilapidated tent.

Trying to make as little noise as possible as not to wake his children sleeping just inches away, he looks for his flip-flops before heading to the nearest toilet, 300 metres at the other end of the Markazi refugee camp in northern Djibouti.

Inshallah (“God willing”), there will be more food, he says. Inshallah, the weather will be cool. Inshallah, the war will end, he adds, supplicating as he heads to the mosque after making his wudhu (ablution) with warm and discoloured water.

Faith is what has kept Quraini and the more than 1,400 Yemenis staying at Markazi, a sweltering refugee camp just 32km from war-torn Yemen, from giving up. 

But after three years of praying, Quraini admits, that faith is beginning to waver.

I am grateful to Djibouti for accepting us, but why have the Arabs turned their backs? First, they bomb our country, then they refuse to offer us any assistance. We've been abandoned by our brothers.

Assam Ibrahim al-Barakat, recent Yemeni arrival

The Markazi refugee camp can hold up to 5,000 people, but over 70 percent of the Yemenis who once resided here have left [Faisal Edroos/Al Jazeera] 

After evading snipers, air raids and shelling, Quraini says he was full of hope when he escaped the carnage in Yemen with his wife and eight young children in April 2015.

When fighting engulfed Bab al-Mandeb, his hometown in the southwestern province of Taiz, more than 100,000 people fled the region. Those unable to join their loved ones in other parts of the country, came to Djibouti. 

More than 37,000 people crossed the narrow Bab al-Mandeb Strait, known as the Gate of Tears – a name derived from the long history of people perishing while trying to traverse the area.

Carrying just a few clothes and blankets, as well as some pots and pans, Quraini expected his stay at the newly built refugee camp to be temporary. He was convinced his return home was imminent.

At the time, Saudi Arabia, alarmed that a Shia group with ties to Iran had taken over parts of their southern neighbour, intervened at the request of President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi‘s government.

Expectations were high that the coalition assembled by Saudi Arabia, with all its military might, would crush the rag-tag alliance of Houthi fighters and army forces loyal to former President Ali Abdullah Saleh within a matter of weeks. 

But after three years of “existing” at the dry, dusty and desolate refugee camp, and the war far from ending, the Quraini family’s euphoria has begun to turn to despair – another piece in the mosaic of tragedy created by Yemen’s conflict.

Ahmed Quraini has been at the Markazi refugee camp for nearly three years. He says this year will be his last [Faisal Edroos/Al Jazeera]

‘Anxiety and boredom’

Standing in the blistering heat of the noon sun, Quraini says boredom prevails at the camp, with many struggling to occupy their time.

“I am always angry, depressed and stressed,” he told Al Jazeera, the desperation in his voice palpable.

“I look at my children’s faces and know they’ve forfeited their future because we’re here. 

“There are no jobs, no universities, no prospects. If I could, I would return to Yemen today. Despite all its savagery, it’s better than spending one more second at this camp.”

Markazi, a sprawling tent city in the heart of the Djiboutian desert, is filled with story after story of misery and hopelessness.

Temperatures can exceed 50C in the summer, and according to its inhabitants, the cries of emaciated hyenas and wolves terrorise children.

Many of those who fled here left poor villages and shanty towns in Taiz, an area that has witnessed some of the worst fighting between Houthi rebels and pro-government forces.

Quraini was one of the first to arrive, and like the many others who followed, expected a better quality of life.

“I lost family members, my friends, and I gave up my home,” the 43-year-old market trader said.

“And now the UN has washed its hands with us. My three-year-old daughter is partially blind and no one seems to care. I’ve taken her to several doctors and a hospital in the capital, but everyone says there is no treatment for her.

“This wouldn’t be happening to us in Yemen.”

Dogs venture everywhere, especially when they're hungry. But even they know to stay away from the portions the UN gives us.

Sanad Omar Muhammad, 46, a recent Yemeni arrival

Markazi is located in the middle of a desert plain. Living conditions are especially challenging for children, elderly and the sick [Faisal Edroos/Al Jazeera]

Nepotism and corruption

As he begins to reel off a litany of complaints about the camp, he is hastily interrupted by Sanad Omar Muhammad, a recent arrival.

“Disassemble my tent and you will find scorpions,” he shouts, startling a group of Yemenis who were queueing up to collect their monthly food rations from UN officials.

“The barbed fence does nothing to deter the hyenas, wolves and camels,” he says. 

“Dogs venture everywhere, especially when they’re hungry. But even they know to stay away from the meagre portions the UN gives us.”

Since arriving at Markazi, Muhammad says he treks 5km one-way to Obock town to charge his phone. Some days his wife and children tag along, eager for a change of scenery and the chance to buy some fruit and vegetables.

But with no electricity at the camp, food has to be eaten that day, he says. Leave it overnight and it is rotten by dawn.

Sanad Omar Muhammad arrived in Djibouti by boat from Bab al-Mandeb in March 2015. Today, Djibouti is the only neighbouring country that is accepting refugees from Yemen [Faisal Edroos/Al Jazeera]

Abdullah Mohammed Abdullah, a 55-year-old father of three, said despite his rheumatoid arthritis, he, too, walked every day to Obock.

“The rice they give us is spoiled,” he lamented, accusing camp officials of distributing substandard food and exacerbating his poor health.

“All they give us is 500 Djiboutian Francs ($2.8) per family, per month,” he exclaimed, stretching out his arms as the grains slipped through his fingers and the mouldy smell wafted into the humid air. 

“What can we buy with that. Nothing!”

Because of these harsh living conditions, more than 70 percent of the population that once inhabited Markazi have left, with many deciding to return to Yemen, stating that living under fire was better.

“Life is expensive in Djibouti,” Vanessa Panaligan, the UN’s media relations officer in Djibouti told Al Jazeera.

“A lot of people have decided to leave because of the prospect of a better life somewhere else.

“The [Djiboutian] government has struggled with the influx of refugees, but it’s getting better. Slowly.”

Djibouti’s government recently introduced new laws that would make it easier for refugees to find work.

But with the unemployment rate hovering around 45 percent, many of the Yemenis Al Jazeera met said that they were being paid well below standard rates. However, they said they had to persevere as they had nowhere else to go.

Nearly all the residents Al Jazeera spoke to complained that the food supplied to them – rice, flour, salt and sugar – was not adequate [Faisal Edroos/Al Jazeera]

Cruel summer

Several residents told Al Jazeera that they were dreading the khamsin, a ferociously hot sandstorm that accompanies the arrival of summer.

With speeds as high as 60kph, this year’s storm is set to coincide with the start of Ramadan, the daily fasting period that begins in May.

“I dread the thought of fasting here,” said Assam Ibrahim al-Barakat, a recent arrival from Taiz who, like many others, said he hoped to be resettled elsewhere. 

“I am grateful to Djibouti for accepting us, but why have the Arabs turned their backs?”

“First, they bomb our country, then they refuse to offer us any assistance. We’ve been abandoned by our brothers.”

Saad Mowad Bayoumy, the only doctor at Markazi, said he was already overwhelmed with patients seeking treatment for the harsh weather, with as many as 50 people arriving in his small clinic daily.

“Skin infections [brought about by the harsh winds] will cause the numbers [of those seeking medical attention] to increase drastically,” he said.

“Last year, I treated around 100 people a day. The next few months will be very tough for these people.”

Bayoumy added that officials were doing what they could to help the refugees, but conditions remained primitive.

Saudi Arabia recently donated 300 air-conditioned, shipping-container style units, but it was unclear what would power them.

“There is only one generator that powers a few floodlights that work from 6-9pm,” Bayoumy said. 

“If there is no electricity to power the units, people will find it easier to sleep outside than in the new units. They’ll be like iron coffins.”

Many of the refugees are women and children, who have arrived traumatised and in need of psychological support [Faisal Edroos/Al Jazeera]

Lost generation

Trying to keep a brave face, Quraini said the conditions for the 400 children at the camp were what pained him the most. 

One of his daughters, barefoot and malnourished, stood nearby. Laughing and smiling as she played with a small broken toy, she seemed happy.

“The tiniest of things spark joy,” he said.

With her imagination working overtime to recapture some of the childhood she lost, he feared she still bore the mental scars of the war they had fled.

“I pray for a better life for my kids than what I experienced myself,” he said. 

But with fighting showing no signs of abating, it’s unclear if that better life will be within reach any time soon.

Follow Al Jazeera’s Faisal Edroos on Twitter: @FaisalEdroos 

There are more than 400 children at the camp and how their childhood will develop is uncertain [Faisal Edroos/Al Jazeera]

Source: Al Jazeera

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