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What it's like to live in the world's largest refugee camp

Ben Rawlence's new book is an enlightening account of Dadaab, a territory rarely covered by the mainstream press.

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These days, what nationality would most people associate with refugees? In light of recent events, Syrians are probably the first group to come to mind. Asked for further examples, avid news readers might cite Iraqis and Ukrainians who have fled conflicts, or Palestinians who've languished in camps for decades. But what about Somalis? Who has heard of Dadaab, a Kenyan town (unmarked on any official map) populated almost entirely by Somali refugees? In City of Thorns, Ben Rawlence attempts to help Western readers understand the saga of Dadaab and the plight of its half million or so inhabitants. It's an indispensable account of, as the subtitle puts it, "Nine Lives in the World's Largest Refugee Camp."

Dadaab, located on the Kenyan side of the border with Somalia, doesn't consist of a single camp, a fact that Rawlence never makes absolutely clear. Rather, it's a conglomeration of five separate camps, the first of which was established by the United Nations at the beginning of the 1990s to house Somalis fleeing the then-nascent civil war in their country. Much of Somalia has remained mired in conflict (and sometimes famine) since then; most recently, neighboring African countries' military campaign against the brutal Islamist militia al-Shabaab has produced an outflow of refugees.

Rawlence, who's British, has written extensively about Africa: he's a former Horn of Africa researcher for Human Rights Watch and the author of Radio Congo: Signals of Hope from Africa's Deadliest War (2012), which recounts the lives of people in the strife-torn country of the title. City of Thorns emerges from the author's extended stays in Dadaab and his frequent interactions with several of its denizens.

The book's title isn't metaphorical—Dadaab abounds in thorns. In such an unforgiving place, this geographical attribute sometimes proves useful. Thorns were "planted in the sand to demarcate the boundaries of each ten-meter-square plot that was allocated for families sized 4-7" in one of the camps. More dramatically, when refugees trek through the desert to reach Dadaab, the thorns can serve as protection against predators. One mother "arranged [her] children in a row, their heads on the mat, their feet resting on the sand, their thin little bodies inside a circle of thorns to keep the lions out."

Of course, the nine lives mentioned in the book's subtitle aren't a reference to the number of times a Dadaab resident can defy death. Rather, they're the disparate individuals Rawlence profiles, including a twentysomething porter who has spent his entire life in one of the camps, a young man who arrives penniless after fleeing forcible conscription at the hands of al-Shabaab, and a headstrong woman who faces ostracism and worse after marrying a Sudanese Christian.

Rawlence relates the stories of these and other inhabitants of Dadaab, almost all of whom dream of emigrating to the West, in strikingly novelistic prose—"A heavy threshing of the trees preceded a shot, thunder, and then the roar; the surround-sound blast of the equatorial deluge that set roofs rattling like machine guns and puddles bubbling red"—though it's not always clear whether the perspective adopted is the author's or that of the chapter's protagonist. Despite his obvious sympathy for his subjects—some of whom he tried to help in various ways once he completed his book and no longer had to remain a disinterested journalist—Rawlence doesn't ignore unsavory aspects of Somali culture. Ferociously anti-Christian attitudes result in violence on the part of Somalis against refugees from other African countries. Separately, one man, though educated and of a relatively liberal outlook, wishes to have his daughter undergo a cliterodectomy.

Not all of the stories about Dadaab are informed by hardship (the smuggling of sugar and other goods from Somalia has kept prices down and generated a sizable local economy), yet residents remain largely at the mercy of outside forces who mistrust, fear, or even hate them. After the Kenyan army intervened in late 2011 to support the embattled Somali government against al-Shabaab, the latter decided to launch terrorist attacks within Kenya, sometimes with the aid of recruits from Dadaab. The result, for Dadaab, was catastrophic. "On one side was the Kenyan state that harassed and ransomed the refugees with impunity," observes Rawlence. "On the other was al-Shabaab, from which many had already fled at least once."

The situation worsened. A few years later, toward the end of 2014, Kenyan police were still hounding camp residents, and the UN had cut services and rations. The author fumes, "There was a crime here on an industrial scale: confining people to a camp, forbidding them to work, and then starving them; people who had come to Dadaab fleeing famine in the first place." According to Rawlence, the government in Nairobi pressured refugees to move to the area of Somalia where the Kenyan army had established tenuous control, with the UN facilitating the residents' relocation. But most people avoided such a dangerous gamble.

Given how successfully Rawlence's reportage inspires outrage, one would have hoped that he'd try to propose solutions for Dadaab's myriad problems. Granted, it's necessary to rebuke everybody, from the Kenyans to the UN, for specific misguided policies. Yet suggesting alternatives (beyond a simple repealing of those policies) is the next logical step, followed by an overall remedy.

To be fair, such an undertaking is daunting. After all, as the author points out, Dadaab has grown into "an urban mecca on the arid red plain, the biggest city for 500 miles around." Even if some refugees voluntarily return to a peaceful Somalia in the distant future, many—especially those born and raised in the camps—are likely to remain where they are. "No one," remarks Rawlence, "wants to admit that the temporary camp of Dadaab has become permanent: not the Kenyan government who must host it, not the UN who must pay for it, and not the refugees who must live there."  v

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