In 2010, Ben Rawlence, then a researcher for Human Rights Watch, visited the refugee camp of Dadaab on the eastern Kenyan border, home to 300,000 people, many of whom had fled the chronic civil war in Somalia. The next year, he returned for what would be the first of seven long visits to follow the lives of nine of its inhabitants and to watch the camp grow until it became the largest refugee settlement in the world, more town than camp, with its own hospitals, cinemas and soccer teams, occupying an area the size of New Orleans. It would be good to be able to say that his story is encouraging or uplifting; but Rawlence’s “City of Thorns” is a deeply disturbing and depressing portrait of the violence, destitution, fear, sense of hopelessness and neglect in which a large number of the world’s estimated 60 million forcibly displaced people now live.
At the time of Rawlence’s first visit to Dadaab, a combination of repeated droughts and al Shabaab offensives had already driven up to half of Somalia’s six to eight million people to leave their homes. Those who stayed behind were too poor or wanted to guard what little they had left or, as Rawlence puts it, had become “so inured to the roulette of war, it had simply become the landscape of life.” Those determined to leave had struggled their way across the parched desert and through the scrubby bush, dragging their exhausted, famished children behind them, scaring them into keeping going with stories of lions. They were preyed upon by marauding soldiers and insurgents, raped, their possessions looted, until they found a corner of this vast camp in which they could build a mud hut and receive just enough food rations to stay alive. Around them lay a vast denuded plain, a treeless dust bowl, with acacia thorns planted in the sand to demarcate boundaries. Soon they discovered that they had exchanged one hell for another.
In theory, the camp services —provided by United Nations and nongovernmental agencies— were free. In practice, Dadaab had too little of everything —food, water, schools, medical supplies. Corrupt policemen and criminals ensured an atmosphere of constant fear and watchfulness. The dry season brought dust and sand and grit that got into everything; the rains bore insects, disease and overflowing sewage, and turned the roads into slurry and bogs.
Among those who came were a young man called Guled, who had been kidnapped and escaped from al Shabaab; Nisho, born as his parents were fleeing Somalia in 1991; and clever, strong-willed Muna, to whom schooling gave the confidence to defy the strictures of her clan. It is through their individual stories, their efforts to claw out just tolerable lives, find work, have children, remain healthy, that Rawlence has built his remarkable book.
In 2012, things took a turn for the worse. Two Spanish women volunteering with Doctors Without Borders were kidnapped near the camp. Within hours, the aid agencies suspended their activities and evacuated most of their staff. Then Kenya decided to declare war on al Shabaab, one more installment in the long series of hostilities between Kenyan forces and Somali insurgents. The U.N. budget dropped substantially, and funds had to be found for the Syrian crisis. The Kenyan government brought pressure on the refugees to go home, particularly after the terrorist attack on the Westgate shopping mall in Nairobi. Dadaab collapsed into a world of terror, bomb explosions, the targeting of the police and their subsequent retribution, gang rapes for which no one was held accountable. The lawlessness and menace became such that some of the young men Rawlence writes about, who had volunteered to try to keep the peace, were now forced to flee and hide in Nairobi’s sprawling slums, where they were soon regarded as fifth columnists.
The inhabitants of Dadaab had coined a word: buufis. It meant an ache, a depression, a persistent longing to be elsewhere, to be resettled in some other part of the world, so strong that it pushed the present into the shadows. Buufis was made worse by the Internet and Facebook, which enabled the refugees to follow the fortunes of those who had got away and thrived; and sometimes it was so bad that they invented parallel lives of their own and gave their addresses as Cleveland or Minneapolis. In the past, countries like Canada, Australia and the United States were generous with their offers to take in people unable to return to their own countries; those days have gone. There is little cure for buufis now. Those stuck in Dadaab are truly stuck.
Rawlence’s book does not resolve into a particular ending: It simply stops. Some families have opted to risk going home; others have stayed. Like Dadaab itself, the story has no conclusion. It is a portrait, beautifully and movingly painted. And it is more than that. At a time when newspapers are filled with daily images of refugees arriving in boats on Europe’s shores, when politicians and governments grapple with solutions to migration and erect ever larger walls and fences, it is an important reminder that a vast majority of the world’s refugees never get as far as a boat or a border of the developed world. They remain, like the inhabitants of Dadaab, in an indefinite limbo of penury and fear, unwanted and largely forgotten.