He whispered it every time he felt like giving up. The sun was brutal, reflecting off the thick layer of salt encrusting the barren earth around
Nothing grows here. Birds are said to fall dead out of the sky from the searing heat. And yet the 35-year-old Ethiopian walked on, as he had for three days, since he left his homeland for
Nearby are two dozen graves, piles of rocks, with no headstones. People here say they belong to migrants who like Eissa embarked on an epic journey of hundreds of miles, from villages and towns in
The flow of migrants taking this route has grown. According to the U.N.’s
This story is part of an occasional series, “ Outsourcing Migrants,” produced with the support of the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.
They dream of reaching
But even if they reach their destination, there is no guarantee they can stay; the kingdom often expels them. Over the past three years, the IOM reported 9,000 Ethiopians were deported each month.
Many migrants have made the journey multiple times in what has become an unending loop of arrivals and deportations.
Eissa is among them. This is his third trip to
In his pockets, he carries a text neatly handwritten in Oromo, his native language. It tells stories of the
“I depend on God,” Eissa said.
“I HAVE TO GO TO SAUDI”
Perched in the country’s central highlands, it’s an area where subsistence farmers live off small plots of land, growing vegetables or grain. When the rains come, the families can eat. But in the dry months of the summer, food dwindles and hunger follows.
The 22-year-old Ibrahim had never been able to find a job. His father died when his mother was pregnant with him — she told him stories of how his father went off to war and never returned.
One day, Ibrahim saw a friend in his village with a new motorcycle. He was making a little money carrying passengers. Ibrahim went to his mother and asked her to buy him one. He could use it, he told her, to support her and his sister. Impossible, she said. She would have to sell her tiny piece of land where they grow corn and barley.
“This is when I thought, ‘I have to go to Saudi,’” Ibrahim said.
So he reached out to the local “door opener” -- a broker who would link him to a chain of smugglers along the way.
Often migrants are told they can pay when they arrive in
How the trip goes depends vitally on the smuggler.
In the best-case scenario, the smuggler is a sort of tour organizer. They arrange boats for the sea crossing, either from
In the worst case, the smuggler is a brutal exploiter, imprisoning and torturing migrants for more money, dumping them alone on the route or selling them into virtual slave labor on farms.
Intensified border controls and crackdowns by the Ethiopian government, backed by
THE LONG WALK
Eissa decided he would not use smugglers for his journey.
He’d successfully made the trip twice before. The first time, in 2011, he worked as a steel worker in the kingdom, making
Without a smuggler, his third attempt would be cheaper. But it would not be safe, or easy.
Eissa picked up rides from his home to the border with
When the AP met him at Lac Assal, Eissa said he had been living off bread and water for days, taking shelter in a rusty, abandoned shipping container. He had a small bottle filled with water from a well at the border, covered with fabric to keep out dust.
He had left behind a wife, nine sons and a daughter. His wife cares for his elderly father. The children work the farm growing vegetables, but harvests are unpredictable: “If there’s no rain, there’s nothing.”
With the money he expected to earn in
The 100-mile (120-kilometer) trip across
Many migrants end up in the country’s capital, also named
The track through
There, the AP saw a long line of dozens of migrants led by smuggling guides, descending from the mountains onto the rocky coastal plain. Here they would stay, sometimes for several days, and wait for their turn on the boats that every night cross the narrow Bab el-Mandab strait to
During the wait, smugglers brought out large communal pots of spaghetti and barrels of water for their clients. Young men and women washed themselves in nearby wells. Others sat in the shade of the scrawny, twisted acacia trees. Two girls braided each other’s hair.
One young man, Korram Gabra, worked up the nerve to call home to ask his father for the equivalent of
“My father will be upset when he hears my voice, but he’ll keep it in his heart and won’t show it,” he said. "If I get good money, I want to start a business.”
At night, AP witnessed a daily smuggling routine: small lights flashing in the darkness signaled that their boat was ready. More than 100 men and women, boys and girls were ordered to sit in silence on the beach. The smugglers spoke in hushed conversations on satellite phones to their counterparts in
Loaded into the 50-foot-long open boat, migrants were warned not to move or talk during the crossing . Most had never seen the sea before . Now they would be on it for eight hours in darkness.
Eissa made the crossing on another day, paying about
“IT WAS A TERRIBLE THING”
Ibrahim took an alternative route, through
Isolated in Somalia’s deserts, the town is the hub for traffickers transporting Ethiopians to
For 12 days, he was imprisoned, starved and tortured. He saw six other migrants die of severe dehydration and hunger, their bodies buried in shallow graves nearby. “It’s in the middle of the vast desert,” he said. “If you think of running away, you don’t even know where to go.”
At one point, smugglers put a phone to his ear and made him plead with his mother for ransom money.
“Nothing is more important than you,” she told him. She sold the family’s sole piece of land and wired to smugglers just over
The smugglers transported him to the port of Bosaso on Somalia’s Gulf of Aden coast. He was piled into a wooden boat with some 300 other men and women, “like canned sardines,” he said.
Throughout the 30-hour journey, the Somali captain and his crew beat anyone who moved. Crammed in place, the migrants had to urinate and vomit where they sat.
“I felt trapped, couldn’t breathe, or move for many hours until my body became stiff,” he said. “God forbid, it was a terrible thing.”
Within sight of Yemen’s shore, the smugglers pushed the migrants off the boat into water too deep to touch the bottom.
Flailing in the water, they formed human chains to help the women and children onto shore.
Ibrahim collapsed on the sand and passed out. When he opened his eyes, he felt the hunger stabbing him.
“FAR FROM MY DREAMS”
Migrants with reliable, organized smugglers are usually transported across
But for thousands of others, it’s a confusing and dangerous march down unfamiliar roads and highways.
A security official in Lahj province outside the main southern city, Aden, said bodies of dead migrants turn up from time to time. Just a few days earlier, he told the AP, a farmer called his office about a smell coming from one of his fields. A patrol found a young migrant there who had been dead for days.
Another patrol found 100 migrants, including women, hidden on a farm, the official said. The patrol brought them food, he said, but then had to leave them.
“Where would we take them and what would we do with them?” he asked, speaking on condition of anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to talk to the press.
Many migrants languish for months in the slums of Basateen, a district of Aden that was once a green area of gardens but now is covered in decrepit shacks of cinder blocks, concrete, tin and tarps, amid open sewers.
Over the summer, an Aden soccer stadium became a temporary refuge for thousands of migrants. At first, security forces used it to house migrants they captured in raids. Other migrants showed up voluntarily, hoping for shelter. The IOM distributed food at the stadium and arranged voluntary repatriation back home for some. The soccer pitch and stands, already destroyed from the war, became a field of tents, with clothes lines strung up around them.
Among the migrants there was Nogos, a 15-year-old who was one of at least 7,000 minors who made the journey without an adult in 2019, a huge jump from 2,000 unaccompanied minors a year earlier, according to IOM figures
Upon landing in
Nogos can’t blame his father. “If he had money and didn’t help me, I’d be upset,” he said. “But I know he doesn’t.”
Finally, the smugglers gave up on getting money out of the boy and let him go. Alone and afraid at the stadium, he had no idea what he’d do next. He had hoped to reach an aunt who is living in
“It’s far from my dreams,” he added, in a dead voice.
After a few weeks, Yemeni security forces cleared out the stadium, throwing thousands back onto the streets. The IOM had stopped distributing food, fearing it would become a lure for migrants. Yemeni officials didn’t want to take responsibility for the migrants’ care.
Eissa, meanwhile, made his way across the country alone. At times, Yemenis gave him a ride for a stretch. Mostly he walked endless miles down the highways.
“I don't count the days. I don't distinguish, Saturday, Sunday, or Monday,” he said in audio message to the AP via
One day, he reached the town of Bayhan, southern
It was the first time in ages he was aware of the day of the week.
He had traveled more than 250 miles (420 kilometers) since he landed in
“PRAY FOR ME”
In the evenings, thousands of migrants mill around the streets of Marib, one of the main city stopovers on the migrants’ route through
Ibrahim had just arrived a few days earlier when the AP met him, his black hair still covered in dust from the road.
Ibrahim had wandered in
He made his way slowly north. Not knowing the language or the geography, he didn’t even know what town he was in when a group of armed fighters snatched him from the road.
They imprisoned him for days in a cell with other migrants. One night, they moved the migrants in a pickup, driving them through the desert. Ibrahim was confused and afraid: Where was he going? Who had abducted him? Why?
He threw himself out of the back of the pick-up, landing in the sand. Scratched and battered, he ran away into the darkness.
Now in Marib, he was stranded, unsure how to keep going. His arm was painfully swollen from an insect bite. He wouldn’t be able to work until it was better. The only food he could find was rice and fetid meat scraps left over from restaurants.
Using the AP’s phone, he called his mother for the first time since the horrific calls under torture at Las Anoud.
“Pray for me, mama,” he said, choking back tears.
"I know you are tired and in pain. Take care of yourself,” she told him.
Was it worth all this to reach
He broke down.
“What if I return empty-handed after my mother sold the one piece of land we have?” he said. “I can't enter the village or show my face to my mother without money.”
North of Marib, migrants cross into
Once across, it is another 120 miles (200 kilometers) north to the Saudi border.
Eissa walked that final stretch, a risk because the militiamen have a deal with migrant smugglers: Those who go by car are allowed through; those on foot are arrested.
“Walking in the mountains and the valleys and hiding from the police,” Eissa said in an audio message to the AP.
He traversed tiny valleys winding through mountains along the border to the crossing points of
Souq al-Raqo is a lawless place, a center for drug and weapons trafficking run by Ethiopian smugglers. Even local security forces are afraid to go there. Cross-border shelling exchanges and airstrikes have killed dozens, including migrants; Saudi border guards sometimes shoot others.
Eissa slipped across the Saudi border on
After walking another 100 miles, he reached the major town of Khamis Mushayit. First, he prayed at a mosque. Some Saudis there asked if he wanted work. They got him a job watering trees on a farm.
“Peace, mercy, and blessings of God,” he said in one of his last audio messages to the AP. “I am fine, thank God. I am in Saudi.”
To see the full photo essay on the migrants’ journey, click here.
To see a photo essay, “Portraits of Ethiopian girls, women on the march to Saudi,” click here.
Digital producers Nat Castañeda and