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'We're not alive, we're not dead': Thousands of migrants are trapped in war-torn Yemen

By Nabih Bulos, Los Angeles Times on

Published in News & Features

ATAQ, Yemen — It was a serene spot for a makeshift graveyard; the migrant smuggler had chosen well.

The sand-swept field just outside this city was far enough from the highway to be quiet but not so far as to be inaccessible. It had eight graves — shallow rock mounds, their headstones spray-painted with blue scrawl — overlooking a mountain landscape.

"I had to put them here because no one would accept them in any other cemetery," said Ahmad Dabisi, a 29-year-old human smuggler whose boyish looks belie the seriousness of his trade.

For the eight people buried here — all of them his clients — the field was the final stop in a country that was only ever supposed to be a waystation. Spurred by poverty or conflict, they and tens of thousands of other migrants left their homes in East Africa — despite coronavirus restrictions — with Saudi Arabia in their sights, seeking safety and economic opportunity.

Instead, they find themselves trapped in Yemen, ensnared by the country's multi-sided civil war and its labyrinthine front lines. They have little chance to escape the limbo.

Thousands wait here in Ataq, the capital of Shabwa province, eking out a threadbare existence on the streets.

 

"We're not alive, we're not dead. We're just sitting here," said Ahmad Ali Abdo, 40, who had come from Somalia nine months ago. Unable to get across the border into Saudi Arabia, he now carries a bucket and sponge and offers an indifferent carwash to passing motorists, often making less than a dollar a day.

"I know there's a war here, but I want Saudi Arabia. At least there, if they catch me, they'll send me back to Somalia," he said.

Last year, almost 140,000 migrants from the Horn of Africa attempted to traverse Yemen, a record high. Even with the coronavirus sealing borders, more than 34,000 migrants have tried the crossing this year, according to the International Organization for Migration, or IOM.

The journey is long, complicated and perilous. It often begins in Ethiopia, where some 94% of the migrants in Yemen originate, most of them farmers and a little more than half of them with only a primary school education. For many, it's not the first time they've tried to emigrate.

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