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To Escape Civil War, Many Yemenis Flee To Djibouti


Saudi Arabia's crown prince arrives in the U.S. today, and we expect that he's going to face some praise and also some protest. Mohammed bin Salman is going to visit a handful of cities. He's looking in the U.S. for investment. He wants to open the Saudi economy to go beyond oil. But the prince is also under pressure because he's seen as the driving force behind Saudi Arabia's intervention in Yemen's civil war. The U.N. calls this the worst humanitarian crisis in the world. And Steve Inskeep has been traveling with the region. He's with us now. Hey, Steve.


KING: Steve, Yemen has been a hard place to get to for reporters. How are you getting a look at the war?

INSKEEP: Well, we have to travel to several places, as we have over the last couple of weeks. We went to Riyadh, the Saudi capital. We did get into Yemen and were able to see a bit of the war for ourselves, as we report elsewhere in today's program, and then we came here, to the country of Djibouti, which is a destination for refugees and also a place where people can speak without fear, which is definitely not the case in some of the other places we visited.

KING: Tell us a little bit about Djibouti. I imagine this is a place that most Americans have not visited.

INSKEEP: Yeah. So it's a little country, almost a city state, in East Africa. A lot of beaches. A lot of desert, mountains. A former French colony in the Horn of Africa. And it's hard not to visit here right now, Noel, without feeling like you've dropped into the movie "Casablanca." You know? It's the edge of a war zone. A lot of great powers have interests here. In fact multiple nations have military bases here, including the United States, and it's also a refuge for people caught up in that great power competition. When Yemenis need out of the war, some get out on little fishing boats heading south across the Gulf of Aden, which I'm looking out across right now. And, after an all-night journey, many of them arrive here.

KING: And you've been talking to refugees from Yemen. What are they telling you?

INSKEEP: They've been describing a humanitarian nightmare. People in many large cities have not had electric power for years, and there's just very little government in rebel-held areas. An example of one person's story, we sat in a refugee tent on a dirt floor with laundry hanging outside, and we talked with Ola Ali Salim (ph). She's a woman who left Yemen with her 12-year-old daughter after many of the men in her family were killed. She says three cousins died in an airstrike. And, late last year, her husband simply vanished during a period of violence in the capital of Sanaa.

You said it's not confirmed that your husband is dead.

OLA ALI SALIM: (Through interpreter) He never called. We don't know any news of him. So the only explanation is that he's dead.

INSKEEP: Did someone call and say, I saw him die?

SALIM: (Through interpreter) They didn't find the body.

INSKEEP: Noel, you don't always hear women talking freely to outsiders in this very conservative society. But in our reporting this week, we will hear a number of women who sometimes are speaking because they're the only ones alive to speak.

KING: Wow. Steve, how does the United States fit into this puzzle?

INSKEEP: Saudi Arabia is propping up one side in a civil war with U.S. support, intelligence, refueling. Saudis are flying American warplanes often, and dropping bombs on rebel areas. And they've been criticized for their aim, to say the least. The U.S. has many interests in Yemen, as well, including a fight against extremists. And so the United States is absolutely a part of this picture.

KING: Steve Inskeep reporting from Djibouti on this day when the Saudi crown prince begins a visit to the U.S.

Steve, thank you so much.

INSKEEP: Glad to do it, Noel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.