Sunday, September 19, 2010

42 - People Smuggling

Sea view from Ardoukoba
 A group of young men straggles off the corrugated sea of black lava onto the roadside. They are Ethiopians who have walked for days from the frontier across the mountains on their way to seeking a boat across the score of kilometres between northern Djibouti and Yemen. There, they hope to move on to Saudi Arabia, a job, and prosperity. The smugglers who ship them in decrepit old boats are unscrupulous; they take their money, and sometimes beat them and push them into the water far from the shore if Yemeni navy patrols approach. Every year hundreds of these people, most of whom leave from Somalia, are drowned.

And they don't only perish at sea. According to Adam, who at this moment in time is qat-free, the corpses of several Ethiopians who died from thirst were found near Lac Assal three weeks ago. We give the latest crop large bottles of water, a forest of hands pushing with the blast of heat through the windows into our air conditioned luxury. Daniel doesn't understand how they can be prepared to risk the crossing on the wild goose chase of supposed prosperity across the Bab El Mandeb strait.

We jolt over a rocky path across the black lava of Ardoukoba - total desolation. The last eruption was in 1978. It is here that you can see the fault between the earth's plates, the crack in the lava that grows two centimetres each year, the fumaroles, the narrow but growing diagonal split of the separation on the nearby road. We move on up to a dirt poor village, low hovels of volcanic rocks, beautiful children, old men sleeping on the ground with their henna-ed beards - and a cream coloured mosque built with Saudi aid. The muezzin starts bleating through a loudspeaker from the low minaret. Why don't they build schools and hospitals instead of mosques, quoths Daniel in counter-bleat. Nearby a Japanese company is planning to build a factory to exploit the salt of Lac Assal. And a little further on Adam finds his fresh qat for the day.
Growing separation in tectonic plates splits road
I'm A Winning, Wanking Kraut Too - Back in Djibouti town again and time for another walkabout. It's 10.30 a.m., searingly hot, and from the head of the harbour the massive presidential palace looks inviting in ice cool white, but I already snapped His Royal Verboten-ness's abode the other day. So it's on to the port on Heron islet, which is now linked to the main peninsula. There's a bulbous green minaret on the horizon, a clear photo op. Shouts swirl up from a little market in front, the usual tumult from money-seeking or otherwise outraged locals at the sight of a camera in the hands of a foreigner. Ich bin eine berliner, I bawl back, replete with JFK's grammatical error that turns me into a doughnut instead of a resident of the Prussian capital. I'm trying to cash in on the Djiboutians' delight at Germany's 4-0 defeat of Argentina last night, such is their dyspepsia at Latin American teams. Do my apprentice rioters really understand? Who knows, but the shouts lose several dozen decibels and a bit of their aggressive edge, and I accelerate onwards and upwards.

Beach resort
Heron islet and its environs are the rich zone with trees, gardens, fountains, embassies, mansions – and the red-tiled presidential residential palace with its guards, gates, walls, barbed wire, most clearly a photo-unop. Right at the tip rises the humongous yellow barracks of the Djibouti Palace Kempinski, the town's best caravansarai at $400 or $500 a night for the cheapest rooms. To its left, looking out on the blue-green sea and boxed in on the other side by the port's oil tanks lies the public beach and the wafting aromas of you know what – no surprise since the city's sewers discharge their perfumed effluence nearby.

It's very nearly noon, the mercury is soaring to breaking point and muggins is melting – time to nip into a bit of a/c and check if Kempinski's drink and food scene is at least down from the stratosphere. It's not, so a Darjeeling tea bag out of a silver-plated pot for $6 will have to do.

Beach-side vegetation
A walk in the late afternoon reveals crowds of youths playing football on the half-moon, palm-backed curve of the long beach along the peninsula while women in flowing robes and head scarves scramble after their kids. Behind, men sit on the tracks of the Djibouti-Addis Ababa railway, solving the world's problems. They're in no danger, there's not a sign of a train in sight; it only seems to dawdle along once a week, if that.

Village mosque
Village kids
Camel herd outside Djibouti town
Djibouti mosque
Kempinski Palace from land side
Kempinski from the sea side
Independence Avenue
Djibouti-Addis railway of 'Scoop' fame

Djibouti beach
Women at beach
Railway track leaving station

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