‘A Window to Hell’ Yemenis Flee Saudi Airstrikes by Boat

Amina Ali Qassim is sitting with her youngest grandchild on her lap, wiping away tears with her headscarf.

Only a few months old, this is the baby girl whose ears she desperately tried to cover the night the aerial bombardment started. She lay awake, she says, in a village mosque on the Yemeni island of Birim, counting explosions as the baby cried.

It could have been worse though. They could have still been in their house when the first missile landed.

“Our neighbor shouted to my husband ‘you have to leave, they’re coming.’ And we just ran. As soon as we left the house, the first missile fell right by it and then a second on it. It burned everything to the ground,” Qassim tells us.

Qassim and her family fled Birim at first light, piling in with three other families. Twenty-five of them squeezed into one boat setting sail through the Bab al-Mandab Strait to Djibouti.

Bab al-Mandab is one of the busiest waterways in the world, a thoroughfare for oil tankers and cargo ships. It’s now being crossed by desperate Yemenis in rickety fishing boats seeking refuge from the conflict threatening to engulf their country.

Qassim’s son Mohamed describes the families’ journey across this part of the Red Sea as “a window into hell.”

“The women were violently ill,” he tells us. “It was a catastrophe.”

It took them five hours to cross into the north of Djibouti, where the government is providing the refugees with temporary shelter in this unfinished orphanage here in Obock. And the U.N. says thousands more refugees are expected.

Qassim and her family will soon have to move to the plastic tents that have been prepared for them on the dusty outskirts of the town, taking with them only the collection of plastic mats and pots neatly stacked in the corner. It’s all that remains of everything they once owned.

Her two daughters are trapped back in Yemen, in Taiz. She hasn’t been able to reach them and the worry she says is almost unbearable.

I ask her how many days it was after the Saudi aerial bombardment began that they left. She looks at me and laughs, “How many days would you have stayed?”

Then she goes quiet, looking down at the granddaughter in her lap. Finally she tells me, “I thought she would never be able to stop screaming. That the fear would stay with her forever.”


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