Traveling with the State Department in Africa, you feel like you're traveling in countries without people. Traffic-clogged roads are cleared in advance by security services. The two-hour drive from downtown Nairobi to the airport takes a beautiful 12 minutes.
I board the back of Secretary of State John Kerry's plane with about a dozen other reporters in his traveling press pool. The U.S. has very good relations with Djibouti; the tiny country hosts the only American military base in Africa. But this trip is less about Djibouti than it is about the war in Yemen, just over the Gulf.
Yemen is at war — a coup by Shia rebels — and Yemeni-Americans are angry that the U.S. has declined to send in military planes to rescue trapped American citizens there.
In a briefing the night before in Nairobi, State Department officials explain that the U.S. has been warning its citizens for years not to go to Yemen. The U.S. shuttered its embassy in February, and things have been unstable there for some time.
Since March 20, when Shia rebels began bombing the capital, at least 500 Americans have fled through Djibouti, and the U.S. has more than doubled its consular efforts there to process the expected multitudes to come, especially now that they have agreed to a five-day cease-fire. One of the reporters on the plane jokes that the U.S. will be processing "mostly human traffickers and shady business-types." The assumption: Who else would still be hanging around Yemen these days?
My plan is to meet some of the refugees, but with Kerry and the other reporters off to Riyadh to meet with the Saudis, my fancy ride is gone. I hire a 4x4 to drive from the capital to the port city of Obock. We pass miles of sand and rocks and the occasional camel before arriving at Lake Assal, the world's saltiest lake and one of the hottest.
At Obock, we head straight to an open-air soccer stadium turned into a transit camp for refugees from Yemen. I'm interviewing refugees there when I learn that a boat from Yemen has just docked; 23 Americans are on board.
Normally a daytime touring boat, the Amiri Red Sea traveled at night to avoid coming under fire from Shia rebels. The men are all on the top deck; the women and girls are below. There is no uncovered female head, and every baby on board seems to be screaming at once. In a minute I realize why. Of the smells on board, one is conspicuously absent: the smell of food. One man admits that he hadn't eaten during the 130-mile journey.
On the boat I meet 16-year-old Rhonia Aladashi from Dearborn, Mich., traveling with her mother and sisters. "This boat was awful," Rhonia says. "It was shaking the whole time." She spent most of the trip singing songs from one of her favorite movies, Titanic, convinced her ship would suffer the same fate.
The family's journey began in Sana'a, the capital, where they were visiting Rhonia's Yemeni father. When the Iran-backed rebels started bombing the city in late March, they went to the village with relatives, convinced that the trouble would soon blow over. When it didn't, the problem of escape became more dire.
At first they thought they could cross the border into Saudi Arabia, just a few hours' drive away. But they were told that a mother traveling with her daughters would not be allowed to enter Saudi Arabia without a male escort. Her husband hasn't yet gotten his American citizenship and couldn't accompany them.
Once the Saudis sent her back to a war zone, Rhonia's mother, Abha Aljami, led them on a long journey to the city of Aden to escape by sea. Fuel was expensive and cars were almost impossible to come by.
"We went from villages to villages, from city to city," "No electric[ity]. No place to stay."
Aljami feels abandoned by America, for not sending its military to rescue citizens trapped by the war. Rhonia remembers the day when a Russian evacuation plane arrived. It rescued one of her friends in the Koranic school where she's studying. "I got so jealous that day," she says, "[because] I was hearing bombing that day [again in Sana'a]."
But the Michigan teen says she thinks she can understand why the U.S. says a rescue is too risky. The Shia rebels are deeply anti-American. "We even get scared they're going to see our passports," she says. "You know we can get killed that we're American citizens."
SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
We've brought you lots of stories about the Shia rebellion in Yemen. Here's the story of one American teenager and her family who are trying to get out of that war. We begin where our correspondent Gregory Warner met her, on a ferry boat.
GREGORY WARNER, BYLINE: The Amiri Red Sea steered into the port of Obock in Djibouti on Thursday morning having crossed the Gulf of Aden from Yemen the previous night. Usually a daytime touring boat, the vessel traveled at night to avoid coming under fire from Shia rebels. On the top level, the men. In the covered hall, women and girls in black headscarves. Of the nearly 200 refugees aboard, 23 are American, including 16-year-old Rhonia Aladashi from Dearborn, Mich.
RHONIA ALADASHI: This boat was awful. Like, it was shaking all the time because it's kind of cheap. They just gave us anything.
ABHA ALJAHMI: It's not cheap. It's 25,000.
WARNER: It's not cheap, says her mother, Abha Aljahmi. It's 25,000 rials for the 130-mile journey. That's a little over $100. But for her daughter, who's never seen a war up-close, this escape felt epic.
ALADASHI: We're like "Titanic." I was just going to open the - I was singing all the time.
WARNER: She spent most of the journey singing to herself songs from the movie "Titanic."
ALADASHI: I showed my sisters the film. That's why they got scared. I showed them in the Yemen.
WARNER: Oh, your sisters saw the "Titanic" movie?
ALADASHI: Yeah, so they thought - they're like, we're going to die like "Titanic." And you know, people were like throwing - it was funny - and scary.
WARNER: Her family's journey began in Sanaa, the capital, where they were visiting Rhonia's Yemeni father. When the rebels started bombing the city in late March, they fled to the village with relatives, but then her mom had to figure out how to get out of the country.
ALJAHMI: We went from villages to villages, from cities to city. And they had no electric, no place to stay.
WARNER: Aljahmi says she tried to get over the land border to Saudi Arabia - cheaper and safer than a sea passage. But they told her that she and her daughters were not allowed without a male escort. Her husband doesn't have an American passport. He couldn't go with them.
ALJAHMI: I asked Saudi Arabia. They said without a guy with me, I cannot go through.
WARNER: The Saudis sent her and her daughters back to the war zone. She's still furious. Aren't they are allies, she says? And Yemeni-Americans say they feel abandoned by America. While other countries have evacuated their citizens - Russia sent an army plane, India sent a navy vessel - the U.S. has declined to use its military to rescue its citizens. The State Department says it's been warning Americans for years not to go to Yemen. Rhonia remembers the day that the Russian evacuation plane arrived. It took one of her friends in the Koranic school where she's studying.
ALADASHI: She's a Russian and they came for her - airplane. I got so jealous that day.
WARNER: She was jealous because the bombing had resumed that day. But she says she can understand why the U.S. says a rescue is too risky. The rebels are deeply anti-American.
ALADASHI: So we even get scared to - if they're going to see our passports. So we hide them all the time. You know, we can get killed, that we're American citizens.
WARNER: From here, the way home to Michigan should be easier. The U.S. has more than doubled its consular staff in Djibouti to deal with the exodus of hundreds of American citizens, so long as they can find their own way to escape. Gregory Warner, NPR News, Djibouti. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.