City of Thorns takes us inside the world's largest refugee camp

Ben Rawlence's new book is an affecting foray into the minds of some of Dadaab's 500,000 residents - and a reminder that international officials must not forget them.

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

The most affecting element of Ben Rawlence’s reportage on the world’s largest refugee camp is not the stories of escape from famine and al-Shabaab jihadis – horrifying as they are – but his foray into the minds of some of its 500,000 residents. He follows the lives of nine people, probing the “forensic paranoia” of the hunted and the torpor of mind flowing from the suspense that comes with living as a displaced person.

Rawlence spent five months in Dadaab, named for “the rocky hard place” in eastern Kenya where three generations of Somalis and other regional refugees make their ambivalent home. Set up in 1992, the camp complex of 90,000 swelled to more than half a million people after Somalia’s 2011 famine. Dadaab stands to this day, in increasingly perilous circumstances – afflicted by budget cuts, a host government that would like to see its extinction and al-Shabaab, whose al-Qaeda-affiliated militants are now active in the sprawling camps. In some cases, Rawlence could snatch only an hour at a time for interviews as the situation became increasingly insecure. His book charts the local rise of kidnappings, grenade attacks and landmine explosions. Death threats by text message from al-Shabaab to residents have become commonplace.

Despite these harsh conditions, the result is an absorbing book, full of heart, though shot through with bitterness towards a system that has condemned refugees to life in “an open prison in the desert”.

“There was a crime here on an industrial scale,” Rawlence writes. “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.” The scale of loss is hard to comprehend. “The animals go first . . . it’s the children next,” says one resident in a heart-rending account of the slow march of famine. In 2011, 10,000 children died each month. In all, 260,000 died in the famine, half of them under the age of five. When I visited Dadaab as a reporter in August 2011, a mother told me she’d had to abandon some of her children at the Somali/Kenyan border because they were too weak. I watched fathers immobile with age and ill-health bury their children soon after arriving. Rawlence describes small mounds of earth all the way from Somalia to Kenya, ad hoc graves for the young.

Some decide the best way to cope in the camp is to extinguish hope, eking out the days in perpetual doldrums to dull the senses. “I don’t have dreams,” says Guled, a young Somali forcibly recruited into al-Shabaab’s police force in Mogadishu when militants raided his classroom. Although he eventually managed to escape, Dadaab has proved a poor safe haven. Despite the promise of sanctuary, free food and lodging, he is separated from his family and suffers from “lack of economics”. He finds informal work as a porter but earns only the contempt of his wife, Maryam (they married while he was at school), after he convinces her to leave Mogadishu to join him.

Rawlence paints a withering picture of corruption, crackdowns and extortion; he claims that more than half of al-Shabaab’s recruits are motivated by police brutality. He describes the “medieval” relationship of living as custodians of the UN. Citizenship is largely impossible; camp rations are reduced; rape becomes an “epidemic”.

The economic pluck of the refugees – who are banned from working in Kenya – is nevertheless striking. This is part of what Rawlence describes as the “manic commerce” of Dadaab’s main market. Ration allocations are sold or bartered. Entrepreneurs make ice and pasta. Food and phones, clothes and electrical goods are all on sale. When I visited, officials told me the Dadaab camps were home to 5,301 shops. New arrivals scrape around for work as shoeshines or fetching firewood, mindful that economic kingpins have worked their way up before them thanks to vast smuggling networks.

The lucky few buy fake ID cards, move to Nairobi and live it up as grandees. One resident who runs a restaurant in the complex sent $75,000 to his sons in the United States so they could buy a truck. Newcomers speak of becoming “triple rich” or dream of “an aeroplane full of money”. But few make it out, and resettlement in America or Australia is mostly a fantasy. Guled still nurses a hopeless dream to escape north. He keeps a picture on his phone of a bedroom decked out in Manchester United decor: bedspread, pillow and counterpane.

Rawlence might have made more of two critical parts of this complicated picture. He usually blames a slow response by international donors for the famine, rather than the obvious: al-Shabaab blocked access to aid and grazing land and barred the escape route for the hungry to Dadaab.

He also criticises the host country, Kenya, for invading Somalia in 2011: an act he describes as “a war against the refugees”. He rightly highlights Kenya’s cruel and counterproductive collective punishment of Somalis, which has turned them from neighbours into enemies. But the book might have benefited from weighing the difficulty of hosting refugees in so poor a part of Kenya. While the economy of Dadaab’s camps ticks over at $25m a year, the local town of the same name managed something nearer to $1.3m. It could have been useful to explore the claim that conditions for refugees should not surpass those for local people, many of whom also lost cattle to the famine.

Rawlence laments that international officials thought “the refugees could be safely forgotten”. With this thoughtful portrait there is no chance of that now. 

Katrina Manson has been reporting on Africa for the past 11 years and now working on a book about money and influence in Africa.

City of Thorns: Nine Lives in the World's Largest Refugee Camp by Ben Rawlence is published by Portobello Books (352pp, £14.99)

Ben Rawlence appears in conversation at the Cambridge Literary Festival with the NS features editor, Xan Rice, on 10 April. 

This article appears in the 18 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, A storm is coming