Million Shillings – Escape from Somalia, Alixandra Fazzina's photography

Alixandra Fazzina A Million Shillings – Escape from Somalia

Somali refugees departing Shimbiro Beach to board smugglers’ boats to Yemen. Looking back anxiously as they try to locate friends and relatives, a group of Somali refugees stand in choppy, shoulder-deep water as they board a smuggler’s vessel at a remote beach in Somalia. Only eleven of the people who took this boat were to ever reach Yemen alive. Shimbero, Somalia, April-December 2008.

Omar, refugee smuggler. Linked to an international network of agents and traffickers, “big fish” Omar lights a cigarette. One of eight key human smugglers and traffickers working in Bossaso, he watches over a group of refugees at one of his safe houses as they prepare for the voyage to Yemen. He calls them “blood money”. Bossaso, Somalia, April-December 2008.

Illuminated by torchlight, the dead body of a man is discovered in shallow water at Al-Baida Beach. Bloody marks around his face reveal that he had sustained a heavy beating prior to being thrown into the sea. One of a group of three hundred and sixty five migrants and refugees to have arrived in Yemen that night on two smugglers’ boats launched from Somalia, survivors witnessed passengers being pummelled with rifle butts and knives as they protested at being dropped far from land. In the dark sea, many succumbed to the water, disorientated and unable to swim. By morning, a total of thirty-four bodies were found at Al-Baida; either drowned or killed at the hands of the smugglers. AL-BAIADA, YEMEN, May 2007.

As a storm sets in during the night, a smuggler’s boat becomes beached in rough seas at a remote cove on Somalia’s horn. Summoned by bursts of live gunfire, migrants and refugees sleeping in the surrounding mountains are ordered by the armed gangs to help stabilise the stricken vessel that they are waiting to board. Using ropes, they work in chain gangs at gunpoint, pulling hard to tow the boat into fierce incoming waves in an attempt free it from the sands. SHIMBIRO, SOMALIA, NOVEMBER 2007.

For this group of Somali and Ethiopian tahrib, the days of waiting nervously for their passage are long. There is little to do in the back alleys of Bossaso and the smugglers are keen that their human cargo don’t stray too far. In the heat of the afternoon, a group sit around smoking water pipes and sharing bags of the narcotic qat that they chew and then wash down with 7-Up and green tea. Most sit close to their plastic bags of possessions - a spare T-shirt, a mobile phone, a shawl and maybe a radio and some cigarettes. They have brought little with them on their journeys. In less than two hours, station wagons will come and collect batches of ten passengers at a time. Transporting them to waiting trucks at the edge of one of the town’s camps, where armed gangs will then escort them to the Horn’s remote beaches. Here they will spend their last night at the tip of their home continent. BOSASSO, SOMALIA, DECEMBER 2007.

Working for a people trafficking syndicate, a CB radio operator talks to truck drivers bringing migrants along the Mogadishu Road to Bossaso. Known as “Radio Kabila” after Congo’s president, this Hawiye smuggling gang’s Bossaso office is linked to a chain of others across south central Somalia.Sitting behind a fenced off desk, the operator slowly attends to a row of migrants and refugees that have been sitting on plastic chairs under a painted skull and cross-bones since early morning. On their way to Yemen, they are waiting for hawala money transfers to arrive from relatives; few have carried enough cash for their onward sea journey fearing robbery on the roads. Their families will have to visit a sister office to send the money and it cannot be paid out here until the operator receives a call on the radio. Once it comes, it is unlikely that it will ever leave Radio Kabila. Most will immediately pay the fare of a million shillings to the boss in order to secure their passage across the Gulf of Aden. For now though they must be patient, the agent is busy talking to middlemen as they coordinate a pick-up of the latest batch of human cargo due to arrive in town any moment. BOSASSO, SOMALIA, DECEMBER 2007.

Queuing along a wire fence, women form a long line as they wait to receive a cooked dinner ration of tea, rice and a little fish from a busy kitchen at the Mayfa’ah Reception Centre. Exhausted after their long journeys, over the coming two or three days in transit here, the temporary residents will receive cooked breakfasts, lunches and dinners as they recover their strength. MAYFA’AH, YEMEN, MAY 2008.

Mould slowly creeps over a crudely drawn map sketched in charcoal depicting smuggling routes from the Horn of Africa “To Arabia” on the walls of the an old fort close to Somalia’s southern frontier. SIYU, KENYA, FEBRAURY 2007.

Having been washed ashore with the morning tide, a row of corpses line Al-Baida Beach at dawn. Hauled from the water by fellow voyagers, a total of thirty-four bodies were found at sunrise as they slowly drifted inland. Just one week after an almost identical tragedy saw thirty dead on a nearby beach, Somali smugglers continue to drop their human cargo out at sea without regard for life rather than coming close to shore and risking detection. Having paid a million shillings each, for the survivors that have now finally made it to Yemen, the realisation of just what a gamble they have taken with their own destinies hits home. Weak and barely able to move, hours after landing many still lie with their faces half buried in the sand, coughing after having swallowed so much sea water. Most sit weeping, having spent the night looking for lost relatives, or simply in shock at the mortality that surrounds them. BIR ALI, YEMEN, MAY 2007.

Salima is nineteen and is wearing red lipstick but the clothes she has on are not her own. She doesn’t like them and appears very bashful - or “shying” as she puts it. Along the rubbish-strewn lanes of Basatine, her temporary home is a cramped, dark room in a safe house controlled by trafficking gangs. There are four such clandestine houses hidden in this shantytown, sending young Somali men and women on to Saudi Arabia, where they hope to find work and a better life. Having fled the ongoing violence the plagues their homeland, they are now free to stay with the human traffickers until they find the $25 that they need to be driven into the desert. Here it can take weeks here to save that kind of money. Salima has been going begging. Living the last three weeks in a daze, she returns from the city each evening to sleep on a threadbare mattress. If she is late, she passes out on the bare floor surrounded by twenty other women who share this makeshift room knocked together from thin plywood sheeting. Lately the rain has been seeping in. Far from home and without any other choice, this is all there is. She looks totally drained. The last six weeks of her life have been a nightmare.From a generation that has known nothing but war, Salima grew up in Mogadishu but despite the risks, she was determined to stay. Along with her baby boy Abdi Sallam and the husband she adored, the family stuck together in their little two-storey house. “It was our home. My favourite place in the world”. And besides, Salima was pregnant again.One morning, undeterred by the sound of gunfire in the distance, Salima popped out to buy some bread for the family’s breakfast. A man walking ahead of her fell to the ground, hit by a stray bullet. Rushing over to the wounded stranger, the screech of a Hound rocket sent her crashing to the ground. Mortars had pierced the upper floor of her home. “I found my husband and child but they were not with us anymore”. BASATINE, YEMEN, MARCH 2008.

Artist's Statement

Across the Horn of Africa, war, disorder, abuse and poverty make millions miserable and drive thousands to attempt to flee. With land borders cut off or closed, and surrounded by conflict on all sides, one of the only means of escape is by sea.

This series is presented in the book A Million Shillings (Trolley 2010) and follows the journey of desperate emigrants, or tahrib, to their embarkation points with smugglers on the coast of Somalia, on a perilous voyage across the Gulf of Aden, and onward in the search for a better life.

The cost is just $50, or one million Somali shillings. With a one in twenty chance of not making it to the other side alive, it is a price they must risk their lives for. Even then, it is a journey which for many will remain unfinished.

About the photographer


1974, United Kingdom



Based in

London, United Kingdom

Alixandra Fazzina focuses with her photography on under-reported conflicts and the often-forgotten humanitarian consequences of war. She began her career as a war artist in Bosnia while studying fine art. Since then, she has worked independently as a photojournalist throughout Eastern Europe, Africa, the Middle East and Asia.

Fazzina’s reportages have been widely published in the British and international press and her photographs exhibited worldwide. She was a finalist in the CARE Award for Humanitarian Reportage and the W. Eugene Smith Grant in Humanistic Photography in 2008 for her work in Somalia. That same year, she received the Vic Odden Award from the British Royal Photographic Society. She has also been recognised as the winner of the highly prestigious UNHCR Nansen Refugee Award (2010).