National Geographic

The Things They Leave Behind

Afar Triangle, Ethiopia, 11°43'41" N, 41°47'55" E

Dead flashlight batteries.
Two discarded Ethiopian coins.
A green plastic comb.

We are three walking days from the Ethiopian border.

Photograph by Paul Salopek

To reach the Red Sea—gateway to a new life—migrants cross a merciless plain. Photograph by Paul Salopek

We traverse a sea of volcanic rock. It is hot, infernal, endless. A simmering plain of stones the color of charcoal. There is no sign of life—not even a plant. The view is sterile, alien, like those grainy photographs captured by robots on another world. And then . . . a woman’s shoe. Size 36, imitation leather, with rhinestones attached. Further on: a baseball cap bleached grey by the sun. Then, dozens—no hundreds—of cracked water bottles. (These are cooking oil jugs, many wrapped in burlap for cooling.)

After weeks of roaming on foot through the immaculate deserts of the poor—a nomad wilderness where every article of trash, every tin can, every plastic bottle is picked up, recycled for some secondary purpose—we have entered a new layer of Rift Valley archaeology, one that stretches 150 miles or more into Djibouti, all the way to the Red Sea. It is a debris field of 21st-century wanderers, exiles, penitents, orphans. Somewhere ahead the border crossing forms a funnel, a bottleneck, for migrant workers from all over the African Horn. They, too, are walkers. They walk to Yemen. To Saudi Arabia. To Dubai. Not to hunt oryx with stone-tipped projectiles, as did the early Homo sapiens who walked out of Africa. And not merely for a ludicrous idea, as we do today. But to rent out their muscles, their bodies, for a crust of bread.

They are Oromos from the south of Ethiopia and Tigreyans from the highlands. They are refugees fleeing the ruinscape of Somalia. A few are deserters from the Eritrean army. Young men. A few hardy women. They have to be strong. Because the desert crossing is harsh, pitiless. Some die here of thirst. At the Red Sea, scores drown every year taking passage in rickety open boats. Yet still they come.  One hundred thousand people a year, at least, evacuate the continent this way. They trek mostly at night, guided by smugglers. This barren, godless plain crawls with an army of walkers after dark. Under starlight, the out-of-Africa migration continues.

Ethiopian migrants take a break from their trek across the badlands near the Djibouti border. Photo graph by Paul Salopek

Migrants take a break near the Djibouti border. Photograph by Paul Salopek

Hahai, the Afar nomads call them. People of the wind.

They blow through the desert, leaving behind little but what gets dropped on the trails. A sandal. A cook pot. Worthless dregs of money. And their bones, laid out beneath loose piles of rock by survivors who cannot linger.

Glasses frame (lenses missing).
A tee shirt.
A brassiere.
A can of Gillette shaving cream
A sun-rotted backpack (stenciled with children’s cartoons).

We meet the hahai one morning at a remote Afar encampment.

They are 15 tired, men from the mountains of Ethiopia—a country ranked near the bottom of the UN’s poverty index, 174th out of 187 nations—trekking toward slightly less poor Djibouti (165th) to reach marginally less poor Yemen (154th). These numbers explain why, even in broad daylight, these men remain invisible.

They sit on the rocks after a night of hiking. They take sips from yoked jugs of water. One man uses his bare hand to stir besso, a barley gruel, in a dented tin pot. Their smuggler, an old Afar, sits apart, dapper in electric blue socks and hi-top tennis shoes, smoking.

"Besso," a barley gruel, sustains migrants on the long and risky trail to Djibouti and Saudi Arabia. Photo by Paul Salopek

“Besso,” a barley gruel, sustains migrants on the long and risky trail to Djibouti and Saudi Arabia. Photo by Paul Salopek

“Yemen is hard,” one migrant says. “They kill us with knives and guns.”

He sees the look on my face: that I do not believe.

“It is true,” another man insists. He calls himself Daniel. He has been walking 13 days from Wollo province. A job picking dates in Saudi Arabia awaits him. It pays 4,000 Ethiopian birr—about $200—a month. This is a princely sum. Double what he earns as a laborer in Ethiopia. He tells this story:

Last year, in Yemen, his group of destitute wanderers was attacked by thieves. The Yemenis stabbed one migrant and dumped his body down a well. Daniel hid in the bushes for three days, without food, before slipping away to the Saudi border. He tells this story smiling. All the men are smiling. The besso is ready to eat. They say nothing more. They have the ocean in their eyes. The story is over.

The address books of migrants in the Horn of Africa are left behind to be perused--and eaten--by rodents. Photograph by Paul Salopek

The address books of migrants in the Horn of Africa are left behind to be perused—and eaten—by rodents. Photograph by Paul Salopek

Two address books with Dubai phone numbers (chamfered by mice).
A jam jar.
A 7.62 mm bullet casing.

Night on the plain of stones. Our little caravan is stalled.

My guide, Ahmed Alema Hessan, is sick with something like typhoid. I am sick. We are all hungry. We have walked 22 miles. Our supplies are reduced to a few packets of noodles, a few biscuits. We let the fire die early. We lie awake in our blankets. And I am thinking of a house filled with benign sun far away, a white house at a higher latitude, with green trees, a woman’s laughter in the kitchen, the caw-caw of the hadada ibis. My heart is dreaming.

“Paul?” Alema hisses urgently in the dark. “Hey, Paul.”

But I have heard it already: a disturbance in the night air. A faint rumbling, growing almost imperceptibly louder, like the approach of herd of wild animals. But can there be animals in this place? The nearest blade of grass, the nearest well, is miles away. I sit up.

And then they come, in the pale beam of Alema’ s flashlight, a column of figures.

They are men and women in a bas relief, as if carved in greys and blacks from the branches of the night. Five, six. A dozen. Then scores. They file past our camp in single file. I attempt to count them, but give up after reaching 90. Their shuffling feet raise a veil of dust. They don’t look up. They carry no lights. They leave little behind. We exchange not a single word. My tongue is immobilized.


There are 34 Comments. Add Yours.

  1. Bear
    March 10, 2013

    Are you crossing the Red Sea or going up through Suez?

    • Paul Salopek
      March 18, 2013

      I’m still deciding on onward routing, Bear. One world at a time.

  2. doretha
    March 12, 2013

    this is a heart-wrenching article, Paul.. to know how hard life can be for some people in another part of the world.. do they also build qabri for those who died crossing the desert..?

    • Paul Salopek
      March 18, 2013

      The migrants who don’t survive the desert passage to the Red Sea are buried where they fall. These graves are not as elaborate as the Afar tombs. They are a crude pile of stones, hastily thrown together, usually at night.

  3. Gary Boivin
    March 12, 2013

    You have already, it seems, walked a lifetime-“just’ from the Rift Valley to almost Djibouti, but a walk through Hell, I’m sure. It will likely be less treacherous to walk up the Saudi side than to attempt Eritrea. Godspeed, Paul, in any case.

    • Paul Salopek
      March 25, 2013

      Thanks for the kind wishes, Gary. I am working on onward routing now. Either side of the Red Sea will be a cauldron in mid-summer. The walk north probably will take place at least partly at night, to escape daytime temperatures above 120 degrees.

  4. Chibuzo achebe
    March 14, 2013

    My word! It seems to me that you’ve experienced a lots of hardships with people in the underdeveloping countries to handle the hunger. And in hot weather too! Thanks for bringing the story to the outer light for coverage, Paul!

  5. Harry W Aldstadt
    March 15, 2013

    Take care and stay healthy.

  6. kiera perry
    March 15, 2013

    this so really sad.. that people have to chose what they will take

  7. @hamilton_lola
    March 17, 2013

    It´s a heart breaking story it takes courage to share so much hardship and pain to alert the world of the misery existing in parts of the earth

  8. Antonio
    March 17, 2013

    Leaving home because you have to demands courage; many don’t do it and pay either with their lives or with their freedom.

  9. Jennifer
    March 18, 2013

    Is this painful journey worth it?

    • Paul Salopek
      March 25, 2013

      Yes. So far.

  10. Annalie
    March 19, 2013

    A wanderer myself, I am saddened by the ‘wasteland’ and trials of enforced wanderers in our world. Awesome odyssey you are on, Paul.

  11. Tewabetch Tamrat
    March 19, 2013

    Ethiopians are suffering a lot because there is lack of information/awareness. I do not understand why they suffer like this. In most of Ethiopian Cities, we are facing difficulty in finding house workers, guards providing them enough foods, (three time a day, decent monthly salary (comparing to our salary). These people who flew their country, walking miles and miles, it will not be better for them to work for few years with Ethiopians, save their salary and then contact agencies that look works in the Arab countries such us Lebanon, Quatar, Saudi Arabia, Yemen etc. (There are so many employers agencies).
    Also what our government should do to prevent this:
    Awareness raising
    Good diplomatic relation with Arabs countries that hire Ethiopians to treat them well,
    To enter Djibouti without a visa as Djiboutians do not need entry, this should the same in both side

    What I have noticed so many Ethiopians they do not want to work for Ethiopians they would rather prefer to suffer

  12. Linda Hoernke
    March 19, 2013

    I am catching up on your last writings as I was on a trip of my own to Nepal. Stay safe and as always, thank you for posting the “life.”

  13. Jonah Osborn
    March 27, 2013

    Did you collect samples from the volcanic rock? Where were you guys at that point?

  14. jasmine
    March 27, 2013

    nice job on the walk!

  15. Molly Obryant
    March 27, 2013

    I wonder why they would leave stuff behind? … Have fun walking 🙂

  16. Hannah Helmboldt
    March 27, 2013

    what happens with all the trash and my school is doing a project it is cool

  17. Ezra
    March 27, 2013

    good luck on your adventure! Make sure u have fun!!!!!!

  18. Stan J
    March 27, 2013

    I can’t believe the hardships u have endured and u r just getting started. I hope your story will raise awareness of the tragic existence Africans live.

  19. wendy
    March 27, 2013

    with every step, you are opening my eyes.

  20. Bou Peters
    March 30, 2013

    Deeply moving piece of writing! Worked in the area in the early 70’s…lots of memories flooding back…Wish you & team best of luck!

  21. omar
    March 31, 2013

    It’s question of currency. This people want to succeed and invest. If they stay in Ethiopia it will take for life to amass little. So they try even thought is hard and any awarning or visa to Djibouti will decrease the wave

  22. Eva Maria Huschka
    March 31, 2013

    May God bless you for your “wonder-ful”story. It should be taught to all children in school, to teach them what the world is like today and how it was 1.2 million years ago.

  23. Donna Tait
    April 9, 2013

    Bless your big heart for having the courage to do this work/your writing is inspiring and make’s me wish I were young enough to go to Africa and try to do something to help. Heartbreaking new’s, about the abject poverty and horrid suffering of all of these people, who are so brave, AS YOU ARE TOO!!!

  24. margo rubenstein
    May 6, 2013

    just seeing an article about you on NPR this morning…i stated to read this log-in first.?? could any of the clothing and debris come in from the sea??? i plan on reading every word you write, it is almost fiction to those of us living in ‘civilised’ countries….as a disabled person with a yearning to do what you are doing, i can only follow your words…and this are very powerful….god speed..stay safe…..

  25. Kim Perea
    May 9, 2013

    As a teacher whose students are following your walk as part of Project Zero through Harvard, I am hoping that my students can make a connection between what they know about people wanting to illegally cross the Mexican border into the United States to make a better life for their families with the out-of-Africa trek that you write about in your article. God Bless You on your journey!

  26. Hope
    October 11, 2013

    This is really interesting and neat. Now I am intrigued to read more articles.

  27. Lynne
    November 30, 2013

    The hard trek. The formerly precious possessions discarded along the way. It reminds me of bad-luck wagon trains across the US plains.
    I read your article in the NY Times and am reading from the beginning. I’ll catch up. Plenty of time; a profound journey.

  28. brianl
    March 9, 2014

    That picture is awful. I was surprised at how much junk people leave behind. But then, their lives are so bad, who would care about taking care of the environment. They are just trying to survive.

  29. nana nana
    September 9, 2014


Continuing the Discussion

  1. Mapping Police Stops Across the World – Out Of Eden Walk

    […] fade in comparison with the plight of the truly powerless walkers I encountered on the trail—destitute Ethiopian migrants, for example, or war-displaced Syrians. But there is a lesson here. Walking may make you free. But […]

    January 11, 2015112:07 pm

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