Imagine a small country, the size of Massachusetts, with no arable land, irrigation, or permanent crops, nor any forests. The rocky desert is everywhere, falling all the way to the sea.
To ‘cheer one up’, there is the lowest point on land, in Africa (and the third lowest on earth); an eerie crater lake called ‘Lac Assal’ (−155 m). And there are countless rock formations, bare, hostile, and frightening.
This tiny country has one of the most strategic locations on earth, at least from the West’s geopolitical interest’s point of view. It lies between Somalia, Ethiopia and what is often called the ‘African Cuba’ – defiant Eritrea. Just 12 miles across the narrowest point of the Red Sea, spreads the Arabian Peninsula, and the country of Yemen.
The capital city of Djibouti is also called Djibouti. That is where two thirds of the population lives. But in reality, this entire area, around the capital, is one huge sprawl of Western military bases, as well as countless facilities servicing them.
There are barracks built for French legionnaires, there is a French naval base, a US military base, and an enormous military airport for Western and allied air-forces, used by the countries that are as distant from Africa, as Japan and Singapore.
In the meantime, garbage dots the desert, from the border with Somaliland, to the center of the city. The omnipresent Western military presence seems to have almost no positive impact on the country; Djibouti has one of the lowest HDI (UNDP Human Development Index) in the world, 151th out of the 178 countries surveyed. More than half of the population is unemployed and about half is illiterate. The average life expectancy in Djibouti is 43 years of age.
It is a brutal, militarized world, it is aggressive and definitely not at peace with itself. A small Muslim country, with approximately one million inhabitants, has for years basically made a living from being some sort of a service station for foreign legions and regular combat troops. Its only claim to fame is that it allows foreigners to control the Red Sea; that it is at the doorsteps of Somalia and Yemen, helping to keep pressure on Eritrea, and keeping an eye on Ethiopia.
Technically, Djibouti gained independence from France in 1977, but practically it is still fully under the French and Western sphere of influence.
According to the U.S. Department of State report of 21 August 2013:
Djibouti is located at a strategic point in the Horn of Africa, and is a key U.S. partner on security, regional stability, and humanitarian efforts in the greater Horn. The Djiboutian Government has been supportive of U.S. interests and takes a proactive position against terrorism. Djibouti hosts a U.S. military presence at Camp Lemonnier, a former French Foreign Legion base in the capital. Djibouti has also allowed the U.S. military, as well as other militaries with presences in Djibouti, access to its port facilities and airport.
Djibouti is the place where miserable human-pulled carts can be seen right next to decaying vehicles and military equipment, right in the middle of the desert. It is the place where at the Sheraton Hotel, I observed the breakfast room being full of uniformed German troops, and military cooks serving them food.
It is a country with one of the highest infant mortality rates in the world, where many women still go through the horror of genital mutilation. Our kind of place! A good ally; a good client state!
As I was leaving the country, with the Kenyan Airways aircraft waiting on the tarmac, my passport and boarding card were checked on several occasions. Before the gate it all became ridiculous: as two staffers, one in uniform, one in civilian clothing, were performing surveillance only one meter apart from each other.
“Any more of this down the road?” I asked sarcastically.
A soldier, almost 2 meters tall, immediately jumped on me. He threw me and my camera against a concrete wall, and smashed the lens, all in full view of the other passengers, and the Kenyan crew. I tried to fight back.
“Stop and just walk to the plane… Let it be… Or he is going to kill you”, whispered a plain-clothed man. I had no idea who he was, but he most probably saved my life.
There is no place on Earth like Djibouti. Thanks god there really isn’t!