The White House, Washington D.C., 31 October 2014
The members of the National Security Council were arranged around a grey table in a grey room without windows. On the walls, photographs depicted a sporty-looking President Obama on a recent trip to Wales for a NATO summit. The officials attending from the Africa desk were a middle-aged white man leaning back slightly in his chair; a younger one in a tight new suit who hunched forward and stared at a notepad; a short blonde woman who sat perfectly still throughout the whole meeting with her hands in her lap so that her impassive face appeared to float above the surface of the table; and the chief, a well-dressed woman in tweed skirt and matching tan shoes, expensive, who smiled and nodded and said little, just like the rest of them.
I was there to brief the NSC about Dadaab, a refugee camp located in northern Kenya close to the border with Somalia. Since 2008, when al-Shabaab, an al-Qaida-linked militant group, assumed control of most of Somalia, the Horn of Africa has been at the fulcrum of what policymakers like to call the ‘arc of instability’ that reaches across Africa from Mali in the west, to Boko Haram in Nigeria, through Chad, Darfur, Sudan, southern Ethiopia, Somalia and on to Yemen, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan and Afghanistan in the east. Extremism in Africa has been rising up international agendas as terrorist attacks have mushroomed. Twelve months earlier, al-Shabaab had attacked Westgate shopping mall in the Kenyan capital Nairobi. And six months after our meeting, al-Shabaab would hit the headlines again with the slaughter of 148 students at Garissa University College in the north of the country. After both attacks, the Kenyan government claimed the gunmen came from Dadaab and vowed to close the refugee camp, branding it ‘a nursery for terrorists’. In essence, the NSC wanted to know, was this my experience? The US is the main funder of the camp.
I had spent the previous three years researching the lives of the inhabitants of the camp and five years before that reporting on human rights there. How to describe to people who have never visited, the many faces of that city? The term ‘refugee camp’ is misleading. Dadaab was established in 1992 to hold 90,000 refugees fleeing Somalia’s civil war. At the beginning of 2016 it is twenty-five years old and nearly half a million strong, an urban area the size of New Orleans, Bristol or Zurich unmarked on any official map. I tried to explain to the NSC officials my own wonder at this teeming ramshackle metropolis with cinemas, football leagues, hotels and hospitals, and to emphasize that, contrary to what they might expect, a large portion of the refugees are extremely pro-American. I said that the Kenyan security forces, underwritten by US and British money, weapons and training, were going about things in the wrong way: rounding up refugees, raping and extorting them, encouraging them to return to war-racked Somalia. But I sensed that the officials were not really listening. I was asking them to undo a lifetime of stereotyping and to ignore everything that they were hearing in their briefings and in the media.
My friends, the refugees in the camp, had been so excited to hear that I was going to the White House! Here I was, at the pinnacle of the US policy-making machine, poised to exercise my influence, yet floundering. Raised on the meagre rations of the United Nations for their whole lives, schooled by NGOs and submitted to workshops on democracy, gender mainstreaming and campaigns against female genital mutilation, the refugees suffered from benign illusions about the largesse of the international community. They were forbidden from leaving and not allowed to work, but they believed that if only people came to know about their plight, then the world would be moved to help, to bring to an end the protracted situation that has seen them confined to camps for generations, their children and then grandchildren born in the open prison in the desert. But the officials in the grey room saw the world from only one angle.
‘If what you are saying is true,’ said the young man in the tight suit, ‘what accounts for the resilience of Dadaab for so long?’ He meant why had all the young men in the camp not joined al-Shabaab? I had once asked that question myself. I thought of Nisho, the young man who works as a porter in the market, his face clouding into a scowl as he stormed out of an interview when I asked why he had not joined the militants: they paid well and he was poor. The very question was an insult. To him, and to all the refugees he knew, al-Shabaab were crazy, murderous criminals. I thought of the former child soldier Guled and the many like him, who had fled to the camp to escape the extremists, not to join them.
But the young official persisted: ‘The picture you describe: a loss of identity, no work, hostile political environment, deteriorating conditions — these sound like the conditions for radicalization . . . ’ The terms of the conversation seemed to allow for only two kinds of young people: terrorists and those at risk of becoming one.
‘Poverty does not necessarily lead to extremism,’ I said. In my head, images of the proud Imams defending their traditions against the murderous corruptions; of the determined youth leader Tawane, risking his life to provide services for the refugees when the aid agencies withdrew for fear of being kidnapped; of Kheyro, working to educate the children of the camp for a pittance; of Professor White Eyes broadcasting his reports on the camp radio. How could I convey their towering dignity, their courage and independence of spirit when they only featured in the official mind as potential terrorists?
‘Right, right,’ said the chief. There were no further questions and the meeting came to an early conclusion. I had fallen into the liberal lobbyist’s trap: if the youth were not at risk of being radicalized, then perhaps the NSC didn’t need to worry about Dadaab after all; the refugees could be safely forgotten. Such official attitudes have created a false debate: both those for and against the war on terror must make their arguments on the terrain of radicalization; as though young poor Muslims face only this choice.
From “City of Thorns: Nine Lives in the World’s Largest Refugee Camp” by Ben Rawlence. Copyright © 2016 by Ben Rawlence. First hardcover edition published January 5, 2016, by Picador. All rights reserved.