Fairuz and his wife Hannah can’t stop crying. They are crying for their broken country, Yemen, but above all for their broken family.
His eyes red with grief, Fairuz explains how their eldest son, Adeeb, 27, was too terrified to join them as they ran a gauntlet of sniper bullets and airstrikes – the only path of escape from their home in Aden to the port, where oil tankers and fishing boats offered some a chance of rescue.
Fairuz and Hannah felt they had no choice but to leave their son behind in order to save the others. “The airstrikes can strike fear even into the most courageous,” Fairuz says.
A carpenter by trade, he says he paid US$1,300 to get the rest of the family onto a small boat, and then a larger ship, to travel to Djibouti soon after the conflict in Yemen intensified in late March.
“To save five lives is better…,” Fairuz says, his eyes filling up again as he wrestles with the impossible calculus of leaving one son behind.
Now he sits in an empty sports stadium in Obock, a port town of around 8,000 people in Djibouti’s arid north. The structure is serving as a transit camp for refugees.
“To save five lives is better…,” Fairuz says, his eyes filling up again as he wrestles with the impossible calculus of leaving one son behind. He recalls shouting to Adeeb from a neighbour’s house they were visiting when the attack began, begging him to run.
“I’m worried that my son is there now and afraid of the bullets,” he says. “The shooting was all day and all night. You cannot describe how strong the sound of bombs and missiles was.”
Their neighbourhood in Aden was caught in the crossfire between rebel militiamen and pro-government forces, Fairuz explains, and also bombarded from the air.
His younger son, Anis, 24, despairs about his big brother’s chances of getting “out of hell.”
“The Houthi rebels are targeting young people and shooting them in the head,” Anis says. “I saw this with my own eyes – snipers shooting people dead – and I saw it when I was getting out, people just falling down dead.”
Anis says he saw two neighbours shot dead by snipers as they tried to cross the street to the grocery store. “People are not going out,” he adds. “They stay locked in their houses unless it’s because of hunger. There’s no food.”
“People are not going out. They stay locked in their houses unless it’s because of hunger. There’s no food.”
But rebels are putting people trying to leave the city “in detention, or they are shooting them,” says Anis. He has only one word to say about his future: fear.
His father’s biggest fear is going back to Yemen, where there is “no respect for human life.”
“It’s death or Europe,” says Fairuz, who figures he might succumb to suicide, an existing heart condition, the harsh conditions in a desert camp, or the treacherous Mediterranean Sea route that has already drowned more than a thousand refugees and migrants this month alone. “Either I die here or going to Europe.”
As he speaks, Hannah looks quietly at the floor and wipes her eyes with her shawl.
“I consider myself now as a dead person, as I have no life in Yemen,” Fairuz continues, his face collapsing and chest heaving with heavy sobs. “We know that in Europe you take Muslim families… you take those with broken hearts.”
Story by Hannah McNeish, based in Gambella, Ethiopia