In his book City of Thorns Ben Rawlence gives a detailed insight into refugee life in the world’s largest refugee camp Dadaab. It’s a story of how civil war and drought drove thousands of Somalis into the hopeless situation of camp life and how they manage to survive in it. OneWorld had the opportunity to interview Rawlence not only on his book, but also on his personal experience of Dadaab.
The refugee camp Dadaab was supposed to be temporary, but it has grown into an increasingly permanent settlement. Just over the Somalian border, in northern Kenya, the camp has become the home of nearly half a million people. The inhabitants of Dadaab, mostly Somali nationals, are not allowed to work on Kenyan territory which makes them very dependent on donations from the United Nations. “Caught between the ongoing war in Somalia and a world unwilling to welcome them, the refugees can only survive in the camp by imagining a life elsewhere. (…) To come here, you must be completely desperate,” is how Rawlence describes the refugees’ predicament.
To come here, you must be completely desperate.
For ten years Rawlence worked in the Horn of Africa for Human Rights Watch. All these years he wrote reports on human rights’ abuses in the region, but nothing ever changed. That’s when he decided to adjust his approach and instead of writing campaign documents, he began writing something more emotional, more historical and more urgent. Something that people would actually read. Hence, he wrote a novel in which he follows the lives of nine refugees living in the camp. Through their eyes the reader gets a better understanding of refugee life, all the different reasons why people are stuck and all the reasons why things aren’t changing.
How did you experience being in Dadaab yourself?
“Well, I really like being in Dadaab, but that’s easy for me to say because I can leave. For me it’s a very interesting and rich place, an extreme example of human life on the planet. In Dadaab you come across the extremities of inequality and suffering but you will also find joy. Joy and despair exist together: the more extreme you feel one emotion, the more extreme you feel the other. It’s a place where I feel a lot of affection, warmth and human solidarity, which you don’t often find in other parts of the world. At the same time, returning to Dadaab every few months and realizing that nothing has changed and the people are still there also frustrates me. You don’t see any kind of movement in the camp and neither do you see any kind of imagination in relation to the future of Dadaab on the part of the UN or the Kenyan government.”
“However, as a foreigner entering the camp your experience is quite limited because you have to have a lot of security and there are many restrictions on where you can and can’t go. Your experience of the camp is also always time limited, so you can never fully immerse yourself in the place for more than two hours at a time.”
So even after other foreign aid workers who were working in Dadaab got kidnapped you never felt unsafe?
“No, I think even maybe the people who were kidnapped never felt unsafe until the moment they were kidnapped.”
Beauty is in the eye of the beholder they say, and I think fear is also in the eye of the beholder.
Why do you think that?
“Because it’s not a warzone. There were moments where there had been attacks and shootings but that’s sporadic. It’s not a hostile place. But I’m somebody who rarely feels under threat unless there’s an actual fire. A lot of the fear that Dadaab is famous for is really just based on the perception of foreigners who are afraid, it doesn’t say anything about the actual material threat on the ground. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder they say, and I think fear is also in the eye of the beholder.”
During your research in the camp did you ever encounter any difficulties from the UN or the Kenyan government?
“No. The Kenyan government doesn’t really care about negative press. I think they learned a long time ago that the best thing to do with the press is to ignore it. The same counts for the law. The Kenyan government tends to ignore the law most of the time and does what it wants. The UN was actually very cooperative. I think many of the people who work for the UNHCR appreciated the effort to try to explain the endurance of the situation. Even though the UN is revealed in the book with many problems there are people employed by them who are working very hard for Dadaab.”
How did you select the main characters in your book?
“I tried to select people with different experiences and roles in the camp. So I knew for instance that I wanted somebody who had been born in the camp, but I also wanted to include someone who had just arrived. Somebody in school and somebody who worked illegally in the market of Dadaab. There were certain aspects of camp life I wanted to look at and write about and I needed representatives from those worlds. But of course there were plenty of people going to school or working in the market so I picked the people who were interesting, outgoing and extravert personalities who were happy to talk. People I identified with and who I fell in love with a little bit. For instance, someone like Tawane, who has an immense character and has done so much in the camp. I thought his story was fantastic. I really respected him and was very interested in his personal struggles.”
It’s about how the refugees live and how they adjust their horizon, their expectations and even their sense of themselves.
Throughout the whole book the future of Dadaab, and its very existence as a refugee camp, is to a certain extend uncertain. How do the people deal with these insecurities?
“To some extend the whole book is about exactly that. It’s about how they live and how they adjust their horizon, their expectations and even their sense of themselves. They continually have to make adjustments to who they think they are and where they think they are going. The story of their own lives changes all the time in relation to the shifting politics. That’s why the camp is such an interesting place for a novelist, because people’s idea of themselves is shifting so violently.”
Dadaab Refugee camp, 2011. Source: Flickr/IHH Humanitarian Relief Foundation’s photostream
You mention in your epilogue that during your research you were reluctant to intervene, but wasn’t it very difficult not to?
“Well, I’m also limited in terms of what I can do. I can’t move those people out of the camp, I can’t give them jobs because they are not allowed to work and I’m also not a businessmen so I can’t invest in the camp. What I could do was give them money, but as a poor freelancer I didn’t have very much myself. Of course, every time I visited I brought gifts, bought everyone lunch and helped them in these small ways. But there wasn’t very much more that I could do apart from that.”
I didn’t want to come in and save their lives, I wanted to document their lives.
“What I mean by intervene is giving them large amounts of money or else following up with their cases with the UN. If they had particular cases [e.g. for resettlement to other Western countries] or complaints for the UN I did occasionally put somebody into contact with them. In Muna’s case, after I was finished with my research I made a sustained effort to follow up with lots of different offices at the UN to really push them to look at the status of her resettlement claim. Muna’s case for resettlement to Australia was simply forgotten because of an email that got lost. Guled only revealed to me at the end that he was a former Al Shabaab child soldier and never informed the UN about this, because he was afraid of the consequences. So I encouraged him to share his story with the UN. But I didn’t want to come in and save their lives, I wanted to document their lives.”
Do you think there will ever come an end to Dadaab as a refugee camp?
“No. Because I don’t see any change in any of the main external factors. The international politics are not going to change. So Kenya is not going to accept the Somalis, rich Western countries are not going to accept the Somalis and peace in Somalia itself is not going to achieved anytime soon. Even if it would, you have a whole generation of people who are born in a camp. Who speak Swahili, who have invested in businesses and careers in Dadaab and who view the place as home. So they are not going back to Somalia. So for me the camp is here to stay.”
Do you still keep in touch with with Tawane, Guled, Muna and the other main characters in your book?
“Oh yes, we are friends on Facebook. We chat every week and they follow me everywhere I go. I’m also sending them some money from my book, of which they of course have their copies.”
Friday the 13th of May, Ben Rawlence will be one of the guest speakers at the debate evening Cities of Thorns: the Future of Refugee Camps hosted by Pakhuis de Zwijger.
Ben Rawlence has many years of experience in the Horn of Africa where he has worked as a researcher for Human Rights Watch. His book City of Thorns was published in January 2016. He is also the author of Radio Congo and has written a wide range of articles for -among others- the Guardian, the London Review of Books and Prospect.