Following is my review of City of Thorns - Nine Lives in the World’s Largest Refugee Camp by Ben Rawlence, Picador, NY, 2016.
In this gripping narrative author Rawlence charts in detail the lives of nine inhabitants of the Dadaab refugee camps. His subjects (all but one are Somali) or their parents fled conflict and drought in their neighboring homeland and pitched up in Kenya’s northern desert. From the beginning of the crisis in the early nineties, the camps have swollen and swollen again to encompass well over a half million souls. Refugees are by definition in limbo. They were compelled by circumstances - war, intimidation, poverty, drought, and terrorism - to leave their homes to seek safety, succor and refuge elsewhere. The camps deliver only a modicum of such relief. Instead they become a seething caldron of humanity, divided by ethnicity, religion and clan. Existence in the camps requires patience, perseverance and often, ingenuity.
Using the lives of his nine subjects, author Rawlence ably conveys the reality of the camps, Living conditions are abominable. It’s very hot. Dry wind blows dust and sand everywhere. When the rare rains come, it is a quagmire of mud and filth. Families are jammed into squalid mud huts that they’ve built themselves. Water is provided at central points, but sanitation is rudimentary. Procedures to get rations, health or other services mean running a gauntlet of corrupt bureaucracy, where everyone has an angle. Several of Rawlence’s subjects came to the camp as children in the nineties. Camp life is all they know. Other more recent arrivals perhaps found the safety they envisaged, at least initially, but not the life they hoped for. Life in the camps is, in fact, miserable. The underground economy of petty trading, selling rations, and smuggling provide limited opportunities for refugees. Because men cannot provide for their families, traditional social structure is under great pressure. Families are disrupted, but still that basic human relationship is what enables most to survive. Official power is in the hands of the UN, NGOs and Kenyan authorities.
Yet, as Rawlence points out via his subjects, hope is a powerful motivator. In their fondest dreams they yearn for resettlement to America, Australia or Europe. Indeed several hundred persons a month get so lucky. Lesser dreams include education or most prominently a job in the camp that pays a living wage. Even though the camps are essentially a huge city, paid employment is rare and all good jobs with international NGOs are reserved for Kenyan nationals.
The international community provides some support, especially rations, health care and a few educational opportunities, but it is never enough, and obtaining access to services is fraught with corruption. Compounding the problem of an inadequate international response is the fact that Kenya wants the camps dismantled and the Somalis sent home, especially after Al Shabaab attacks inside Kenya. By and large Kenyan officialdom, i.e. the police, equates refugees to terrorists. Their heavy handed and corrupt tactics on one hand offset by Al Shabaab’s infiltration and intimidation of the camps on the other meant that the vast majority of legitimate refugees are squeezed in the middle. Violence within the camps became common.
I was surprised to learn that there is so much regular transport back and forth between the camps and Somalia. Trucks, buses and people come and go. I was not, however, surprised to learn of the chaos and corruption that characterizes everyday camp life. Kenya is not portrayed as a gracious host. Rawlence accurately describes the traditional enmity most Kenyans feel about Somalis and notes how this distain easily morphs into the callous heartlessness displayed towards the refugees. Additionally the author relates how corruption at the highest levels perpetuates the insecurity. Insecurity is profitable. For instance, sugar smuggling puts money into big pockets as do international contracts for camp services, and western support for Kenyan military incursions into Somalia.