City of Thorns: Nine Lives in the World's Largest Refugee Camp
To the charity workers, Dadaab refugee camp is a humanitarian crisis; to the Kenyan government, it is a 'nursery for terrorists'; to the western media, it is a dangerous no-go area; but to its half a million residents, it is their last resort.
Situated hundreds of miles from any other settlement, deep within the inhospitable desert of northern Kenya where only thorn bushes grow, Dadaab is a city like no other. Its buildings are made from mud, sticks or plastic, its entire economy is grey, and its citizens survive on rations and luck. Over the course of four years, Ben Rawlence became a first-hand witness to a strange and desperate limbo-land, getting to know many of those who have come there seeking sanctuary. Among them are Guled, a former child soldier who lives for football; Nisho, who scrapes an existence by pushing a wheelbarrow and dreaming of riches; Tawane, the indomitable youth leader; and schoolgirl Kheyro, whose future hangs upon her education.
In City of Thorns, Rawlence interweaves the stories of nine individuals to show what life is like in the camp and to sketch the wider political forces that keep the refugees trapped there. Rawlence combines intimate storytelling with broad socio-political investigative journalism, doing for Dadaab what Katherinee Boo's Behind the Beautiful Forevers did for the Mumbai slums. Lucid, vivid and illuminating, City of Thorns is an urgent human story with deep international repercussions, brought to life through the people who call Dadaab home.
to cheat you.’ Hawo got worried and came into Isha’s hut for reassurance. ‘Don’t listen, they’re only jealous,’ Isha explained. ‘Don’t go, Mum!’ Isha’s children cried. ‘There are lots of Somalis abroad, and they are fine.’ She told them not to believe the stories. Isha was worried not about being exploited but about money: how would the family survive without her income? Gab said he would manage and supported her in her opportunity. Now the family had something to look forward to. Their life
they snatched the papers to study the verdict on their work. The girls sat scowling to one side while a mass of boys crowded together in the middle, all leaning over each other to read what Kheyro had written. She had one textbook, in English, for each subject, and in the evenings she sat at home and prepared her lesson plans, trying to remember how her teachers had done it. Science was her favourite topic; she still had an idea that she might become a doctor one day. The poor pupils of Ifo 2
West: Contemporary mixed migration trends from the Horn of Africa to Libya and Europe’, RMMS, June 2014. Stemming the flow of migrants was part of the deal struck with President Gaddafi for the rapprochement with the EU: see Human Rights Watch, Stemming the Flow: Abuses Against Migrants, Asylum Seekers and Refugees (2006). The quote ‘You are paying $1,000 to purchase death …’ comes from the UNHCR film about the Mediterranean sea crossings, Rescue at Sea available at:
Dadaab rather than the other refugee camp in Kenya, Kakuma, because they had compatriots here from Abyei who had fled earlier iterations of the conflict. As they filed through the tent and were interviewed by the UN staff, some of them wept and embraced their interpreter: a tall middle-aged man in a UN T-shirt with a kind face and smiling manner. He laughed and hugged the people he had known many moons ago before he had fled Abyei as a teenager. He was a refugee himself, living in Ifo. His name
as a member of a musicians’ co-op in Kismayo where people who wanted a band for a wedding or a celebration would call, but when al-Shabaab took over in 2007, people stopped coming. The rise of the militants coincided with her husband’s taking of a second wife. Unemployed and consumed with jealousy, she fled to Dadaab with her five children. She was thirty. As she sang, she tapped her hennaed toes in their beaded flip-flops and touched her bangled wrists with long painted fingertips, one finger