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Half-a-Million refugees who don’t exist: Ben Rawlence’s “City of Thorns”

by Charles R. Larson

Unmarked on any official map, Dadaab—in eastern Kenya—is still today home to roughly 500,000 refugees, mostly from Somalia. You can follow it on Dadaabcamps.com. Dadaab was formed in 1992 to hold what was anticipated to be 90,000 refugees from Somalia’s civil war. When the war did not end and famine in the Horn of Africa exacerbated conditions, it grew to half a million refugees, though some estimates add a couple hundred thousand more. Its residents are forbidden from leaving, from building permanent homes, and from working. Entire families have grown up in the camp, initially fleeing al-Shabaab fundamentalism in Somalia. The United States and other Western governments have supported the camp, the UN managed it, and the Kenyan forces policed it—all this until the Kenyan government officially closed it, in 2014.

The existence of Dadaab (composed, actually, of several camps) has always been complicated. Kenya didn’t want the Somalis, who considered the area, historically, their own land. The camp’s explosive growth, especially during the drought of 2011, was not anticipated. UN resources for refugees are always stretched thin. As BenRawlence says in City of Thorns, his scathing indictment of the authorities, “Early warning [of the famine] was a waste of time—there would have to be people dying on television before the money from rich governments would flow. And when it finally did, it would come in a flood. And the markets for the local farmers would collapse entirely. The same thing happened every time.” Ten thousand children had been dying each month, trying to walk to Kenya. “The mortality rate was seven times over the emergency threshold.” Eventually, 260,000 people would die, half of them children. The site became a circus, with TV journalists everywhere and the profiteers of misery, who are always waiting for tragedy in order to pounce.

The rains eventually came and things were somewhat better, though too much rain can make matters worse. Then, because of infiltration by al-Shabaab, two Spanish women, aid workers, were kidnapped. The international agencies suspended their work and Kenya declared war on al-Shabaab, with the intent of forming a buffer zone known as Jubaland between the two countries (but within Somalia borders). That war was largely ineffective. The residents of the Dadaab camps experienced increased violence. The Kenyan government (“less a state than a corrupt collection of rival cartels, some of whom probably had an interest in prolonging the fighting”) and the Kenyan police, an “assortment of drunk and overweight…officers staring at the television,” were largely motivated by corruption and profit.

And the refugees themselves? Rawlence describes them as mostly trapped in Dadaab. Some waited for years for papers for immigration to the few countries that would accept them. Some fled to Nairobi in spite of the restrictions on them. Some returned to Mogadishu, believing that it might be safer than continuing to live in the camps. There was social breakdown, a blurring of traditional gender roles, especially for men, who had a difficult time being providers. People gave up as their lives dried up. Then, to make things even worse, external events changed all of the parameters. The UNHCR had to cut food rations for the refugees in Dadaab, because the money was needed elsewhere, especially for Syria and Iraq. September 21, 2013, masked gunmen attacked shoppers at the Westgate Mall in Nairobi, amidst shouts of “Allahu Akbar” and “We are al-Shabaab,” killing at least 67 people over several days. The ineptitude of the Kenyan forces was on full display and video caught their looting of the mall. But that hardly mattered. The outcry was, once again, for closing down Dadaab, described as an al-Shabaab breeding ground. Rawlence does not agree with that assessment.

Following the rulebook of other countries in recent decades, the Kenyan government simply declared “Dadaab Camp Officially Closed.” No matter that there were still 400,000 people living there and conditions in Somalia had not significantly improved. The refugees (including Somalis in Nairobi) were expected to return to Somalia, and some did, sent on Kenyan busses. Rawlence describes the situation as “the pogrom against Somalis.” Nor does he mince words when he states that Dadaab had “the structure of punishment” like a prison, though the residents had committed no crimes. The crime was somewhere else: “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.” With nowhere else for people to go, Dadaab actually grew larger, instead of smaller.

City of Thorns is a perfect metaphor for our time, a perfect storm of human misery because of mismanagement. It doesn’t take much imagination to realize that other similar refugee camps are springing up all over the Middle East. The wonder of Rawlence’s book is its emphasis on the human dimension, in spite of the writer’s massing of historical evidence. (Rawlence worked for Human Rights Watch in the area for several years.) The book’s sub-title is Nine Lives in the World’s Largest Refugee Camp, although, sadly, since the book was completed, there are several camps in the Middle East competing in their size.

The lives of nine refugees fleshes out the horror of the story by providing it with a human context. Thus, one of the first people we encounter is Guled, who was born in Mogadishu in 1993, and, years later, fled the country, arriving in Dadaab late in 2010. Before that, he’d been conscripted by the fundamentalists, forced to join the moral police (boy soldiers), checking the market. He describes some of their tactics. “Beating was routine. If you had music or inappropriate pictures on your phone you might be forced to swallow the SIM card. Smokers often had their faces burned with their own cigarettes. One man who had been beaten for smoking…later broke down crying when he recounted the story—not for the physical pain he had suffered but the heartbreak of being assaulted by children.

After some weeks of policing the market, Guled managed to escape and flee to Kenya, soon after marrying a girl named Maryam. In Dabaab, he had to register with the UNHCR and claim asylum “in order to be given a ration card, personal items like a blanket and a bucket….” Guled remained frightened that al-Shabaab’s infiltrators would recognize him. He had to struggle to find a job but eventually found day work as a porter. Since he was single, he’d not been given a plot of land and a tent but had to share space with a family. After some months, Maryam arrived, pregnant, and the two were united. Their lives and that of their two children were tenuous. Guled’s jobs are never adequate for supporting his family; he’s also addicted to “playing and watching football.” Eventually, Maryam gives up on their marriage and returns to Mogadishu with their children. Guled remains in Dabaab for fear that al-Shabaab will recognize him.

Another marriage—between Monday, who was born in the camp, and Muna, who was brought to the camp by her parents—falters because Muna became addicted to khat. Her addiction occurred after the birth of two children and after the family was put on “fast track” for resettlement in Australia. Fast track is an oxymoron; the time often stretches into years. Muna became so compromised by the khat that she tried to kill herself. Monday was left for a time raising their children. Rawlence’s inclusion of their story is obvious. As he notes, “Muna was perhaps the ultimate child of her generation. Raised in the limbo of the camp, the true daughter of Dabaab, Muna had relinquished responsibility for herself entirely to the testing mercy of events,” simply giving up. Yet, months and months later, after the two were reunited and Muna was pregnant again, their paperwork (which had been lost) finally resulted in their resettlement in Australia. Whether they would remain intact as a family—after so many years of disappointment—was doubtful.

In City of Thorns, Rawlence is anything but hopeful about the lives of the refugees he followed over several years. The book suffers from poor editing in a number of places, possibly because of an attempt to get it into print just as the refugee situation in other trouble spots of the world has gotten out of control. Still, Rawlence’s rage at the lackadaisical approach of donor nations (often the cause of the problems) about refugee crises is totally understandable and justified. As he concludes, “Ranged against the Kenyan desire to see Dadaab leveled was not just the law, but all the forces of human ingenuity and determination that had raised a city in this most hostile desert. Dadaab worked. It served a need, for the miracle of schools and hospitals and a safety net of food, and for respite from the exhaustion of the war. It had become a fact. Through the accumulated energy of the generations that had lived there it had acquired the weight and drama of place. It was a landmark around which hundreds of thousands oriented their lives. In the imagination of Somalis, even if not on the official cartography, Dadaab was now on the map.

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