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Somali refugees bring geopolitics to a dusty road in Yemen


The next day, I badger the crew of sleepy gunmen mercilessly, and I eventually cycle off, leaving them behind. The sun is almost up: I need to get some miles behind me while it’s still cool.

They catch up a few minutes later and the Landcruiser trundles annoyingly along behind me at thirteen miles an hour, the soldiers no doubt wishing they’d never agreed to let me back on the road. Before too long I hear a horn being sounded. The pick-up has pulled to a halt behind me and the occupants are gesturing that they’ll catch up further on. So much for a personal bodyguard.

I ride undisturbed through the flowing undulations of sand and rock. Alone again in an empty landscape, I can think of nothing but the incredible slowness of my progress on this bicycle. Why had I been so insistent with the soldiers that I continue to ride? What am I gaining by doing so, except further confirmation that I am indeed able to force my body to pedal endlessly through the most debilitating of conditions? I know this already. I have confirmed it time and time again.

The truck is nowhere to be seen, and I ride for half an hour before I round a bend and find a large crowd of people walking along the road towards me. Drawing closer, I realise that these are no Yemeni locals. The group of twenty or thirty, some barefoot, a few clutching plastic bags of clothes, but most empty handed, trudge forlornly and quietly through the sand beside the road. Then I realise that these are the people that Joe has been waiting to meet for a month.

I speak to the young man who leads the group.

‘What are you doing here?’

I’m not sure what else to ask.

‘We have come from Somalia,’ he starts, in good English. ‘We have just arrived here. We have nothing. We don’t know where we are . . .’

He trails off and gazes down the road, the men, women and children behind him silent, staring blankly around them.

‘When did you arrive, exactly?’

‘Last night. Down there.’ He points towards a nondescript piece of coastline. The ocean, flecked with white, extends beyond as far as the eye can see.

‘We arrived by boat. From Somalia,’ he continues.

The truck has appeared in the distance behind me and is approaching at speed.

‘We need help. Anything you can do to help, we would appreciate. A place where we can go – anything.’

‘Erm . . .’

The soldiers overtake and park up the road ahead of us. I can hear them talking on the radio, but none of them get out of the truck. They are waiting for me.

‘I’m sorry . . . I’m not from around here.’ It’s all I can think of to say. How stupid I sound. I am here of my own free will. They risked their lives last night to stand here today. The group may well have been larger when it departed from Somalia, and these people may now be wondering what became of the friends and brothers and sisters and children and parents who were supposed to arrive alongside them on this stretch of coastline. And they will arrive, in a few days’ time, lying in the sun on Yemen’s beautiful empty beaches; bloated corpses which were once alive and determined, having taken that leap of faith to abandon the place they were born in; the place that – until yesterday – they called home, knowing that they may never see land again. And in taking that risk, they will have lost everything to a roll of the dice. Their bodies are what Joe came to Yemen to photograph.

But I have to do something!

‘OK – about five miles that way,’ I say, pointing down the road behind me, ‘there’s a village. There are already people from Somalia there. A refugee camp. If you go there, they might be able to help you.’

And that’s all that this heroic ‘adventurer’ can offer. The group shuffles off down the roadside, plastic bags rustling in the silence.

I walk to the truck, and soon we are hurtling down the road once more at a hundred miles an hour. Part of me considers asking the soldiers to call Joe to help him with his story. But the very idea seems absurd. Joe’s news story isn’t a god-damned story. It’s a group of people; people with histories and families and feelings, who have just stood barefoot on the roadside, stared me in the face and asked for help – any help, anything at all. Joe’s story will blend seamlessly into the ocean of bad news that breaks against the strongholds of the wealthy and free, masquerading as exposition of the world’s woes, but really achieving little but convincing us of how much awful stuff is happening ‘out there’, of how lucky we are not to live in such hopeless desperation – and of how fearful of losing that position of privilege we ought to be. He might even win another award for his pictures.

Nevertheless, I find myself envying Joe. He knows precisely what he is doing, here, in Yemen. It doesn’t matter what his government-assigned guide thinks, or what opinion a passing bicycle traveller has of his work. He is doing what he thinks is right; he is making a contribution to the world, and he is doing so with determination. Even the refugees, trudging silently along the roadside, have grasped their fate with both hands. They too have determination; they knew precisely what they were doing when they clambered aboard the rickety boat on a Somali beach under cover of darkness, and even if they have not yet lived out a single day under the Arabian sun, they at least know what they had in mind when they arrived here.

Extracted from Tom’s excellent book Janapar: love on a bike. This vivid account of a long-distance bikeride has also been made into a film. Buy both or just check out his website for some travel inspiration.  Most photos courtesy of shutterstock.

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