Socotra islanders prize peace in sea away from Yemen's civil war
CAIRO — Dolphins leap from azure water along windswept miles of unspoiled beaches.
On a mountainous plateau, dragon blood trees stretch skyward up to 30 feet. Their knobby upturned limbs, topped by green needles, resemble blown-out umbrellas or giant stalks of broccoli; their oozing red sap, prized in ancient times, is still used in makeup, dye and medicine. Miniature cows, barely waist-high, find shade beneath their canopies.
Nearby, the bulbous trunks of bottle trees taper to sprouts of delicate pink flowers, in sharp contrast to the frankincense tree's angry spiny branches.
In a wadi framed by palms, boys and men swim in a fresh spring to escape the heat. “Who created you?” they call out.
“I have heard of America,” one man says. “That is where there are many refugees.”
This is the otherworldly archipelago of Socotra, part of war-torn Yemen.
Its isolation – about 250 miles in the Indian Ocean – has fostered some of the world's richest biodiversity, including about 300 unique plants, as well as peace from a vicious civil war.
Its 50,000 people speak their own language and subsist on fishing, goat herding and old tales.
Example: “A long time ago, two brothers were fighting, and their blood became the dragon blood trees.” That legend, with its vague similarities to the Bible's Cain and Abel, comes from Adham Mohammed, a guide for the handful of tourists who, before today's upheaval, flew to Socotra from the mainland or Dubai.
I traveled there in 2010 after reporting on the government's fight against al-Qaida terrorists and Houthi separatists. Two years later, longtime autocratic President Ali Abdallah Saleh was deposed during the “Arab Spring” uprisings across the Middle East.
Today, Houthis and forces loyal to Saleh have joined to oust President Rabbo Mansour Hadi and to battle militias loyal to Hadi; a coalition of 10 Muslim nations, led by Saudi Arabia, is bombing Yemeni cities and military bases, trying to reverse the Houthi rebel onslaught.
It was a more peaceful time in 2010.
At a makeshift camp along the coast, strong wind whipped white sand up the nearby mountains; from a distance, the sand appeared to pour off the rocky heights. Offshore, fishermen in small motorboats dived for sea cucumbers, a delicacy that they flayed open, dried and shipped to Japanese and Chinese markets.
Adham pointed to the nearby island of Darsa, one of four in this archipelago: “It is only rats there. Fishermen cook there during the day, but they don't spend the night. Once somebody brought four cats to take care of the rats, but the rats ate them.”
Over a campfire, he recalled wanting to leave the island as a young man and joining the Yemeni army to fight Houthi rebels in the northern mainland. They captured him and “asked me, ‘Where are you from?' I told them Socotra, and they laughed. They told me, ‘This is not your fight. Go back to your island and never come back, or we will kill you.' ”
So he returned to this remote, surreal place.
One local legend holds that several hundred years ago, sailors searched and searched for the island but never found it; they believed magic made it invisible. Other tales speak of a large snake guarding amazing caves, one of them filled with giant stalagmites and stalactites.
Marco Polo said, “The people of this island are the most expert enchanters in the world.”
Peaceful, too, according to Adham: “We have no daggers and no guns,” a remarkable distinction in a country whose men become notoriously well-armed with both at a young age.
Now it may take expert enchanters or magic to save this island from Yemen's devastating war.