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‘City of Thorns’ review: Ben Rawlence humanizes Dadaab, the world’s largest refugee camp

This photo taken on July 31, 2011, shows

This photo taken on July 31, 2011, shows Somali refugees walking in the Dadaab refugee camp in Kenya. Photo Credit: AFP / Getty Images / Tony Karumba

CITY OF THORNS, Nine Lives in the World’s Largest Refugee Camp, by Ben Rawlence. Picador, 384 pages, $26.

In the prologue to “City of Thorns,” author Ben Rawlence is at the White House. It is 2014. He is briefing members of the National Security Council on the dire situation in Dadaab, the world’s largest refugee camp, in northern Kenya on the border with Somalia. A former researcher for Human Rights Watch, Rawlence has spent eight years in Dadaab. He knows the suffering of the camp’s nearly 500,000 residents: not being allowed to leave or hold jobs; dependency on foreign aid that often winds up on the black market or as the spoils of war; famine; disease. He knows, too, the camp as a place of striving, a “teeming ramshackle metropolis with cinemas, football leagues, hotels and hospitals.” He knows of residents’ desire to end, as he writes, “the protracted situation that has seen them confined to the camps for generations, their children and then grandchildren born in the open prison in the desert.”

This information does not alter the NSC’s position that Dadaab is a breeding ground for radicalization. The work the United Nations performs in the camp already costs taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars. More money might fuel terrorism.

Rawlence realizes the reality of Dadaab is incomprehensible to those who have not seen it. Set up as a temporary camp in 1992 to hold 90,000 refugees fleeing the civil war in Somalia, Dadaab has become an intractable mess, a place where humanitarianism never outpaces misery, not with “Kenyan security forces, underwritten by U.S. and British money, weapons and training . . . rounding up refugees, raping and extorting them.” If Rawlence cannot sway the NSC, he is more than able to move the reader, introducing us to some of the people in Dadaab in his exceptional first book.

We meet Guled, “a normal kid with . . . an affection for music and Manchester United football club,” kidnapped in Mogadishu by al-Shabaab, a terrorist group affiliated with al-Qaida. Escaping his captors, Guled makes his way to Dadaab. We meet Isha, driven by famine from her village in Somalia, crossing the hot, dry plain with her five children. “They walked when it was cool, by moonlight,” writes Rawlence, of their journey to Dadaab. “During the heat of the day Isha arranged the 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.” Rawlence admires Isha’s determination to survive, and thus so do we.

Rations in Dadaab are doled out every 15 days — in Guled’s case, 3 kilos of wheat flour, 2 of rice, 1 of beans, half a liter of cooking oil and 1 cup of salt. He sells the rice from his first ration to pay for a telephone call home, to tell his young wife he is not dead. "With only rations for income,” Rawlence writes, “the price of anything in the camp is hunger.”

Mahat, “a short boy stunted with malnutrition,” is always hungry. He cleaves to Nisho, a stronger boy who pushes a wheelbarrow through the teeming marketplace and cares for his mentally ill mother. He and Mahat, writes Rawlence, “slept together on a straw mat in a hut next to his raving mother and sometimes swapped stories of ‘an aeroplane full of money.’ ”

The hardships in Dadaab, where residents fashion their huts from the thorn-covered branches of the acacia bush, get harder in 2011 when famine hits; a condition capitalized on, and sometimes created, by corrupt politicians. Kenya’s war on al-Shabaab, a three-year drought and the world’s shifted focus to Syria put tensions in the camp at a near unimaginable zenith, and rations are cut once again.

The last time we see Rawlence he is treating a few of those he has profiled to a buffet lunch. Nisho and Mahat pile their plates high, but Guled will not eat. He had painted a rosy picture of the camp to his young wife. She followed him, and they, and now their children, know only misery. There are promises that the U.N. will resettle him, somewhere, someday, a someday that for most in Dadaab will never come.

Rawlence, who appreciates that some see him as a “liberal lobbyist,” knows the problems at Dadaab will endure so long as its residents remain prisoners to other people’s interests. If he cannot effect change at the NSC, he can show the reader that refugees are not an issue but human beings. How else can one impact hearts and minds?

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