Former Human Rights Watch researcher Rawlence (Radio Congo: Signals of Hope from Africa's Deadliest War, 2012) tells the distressing story of Kenya’s vast Dadaab refugee camp, where nearly 500,000 people fleeing civil war in nearby Somalia live in a “teeming ramshackle metropolis” the size of Atlanta.
Drawing on hundreds of interviews conducted during a series of extended visits to Dadaab since 2010, the author plunges readers into this hellish city of “mud, tents and thorns,” where three generations of displaced persons have lived amid malnourishment and disease. With remarkable intimacy, Rawlence recounts the stories of nine individuals, including Guled, a former child soldier, and his wife, Maryam; Nisho, who finds work as a porter; and Muna, a beautiful, independent woman who was one of the first Somalis to arrive in the camp. As he weaves this complex, densely detailed narrative, Rawlence reveals the humanity of these people in crisis who must struggle to survive in the overcrowded camp—run by the Kenyan government with United Nations funding—where bribery, rape, robbery, kidnapping, and cultural clashes are commonplace. While Kenyan leaders demonize the refugees and want them out, local politicians, military, and police all benefit from exploiting the refugees in Dadaab and in Somalia. For their part, those living in the camp remain mired in “a culture centered on leaving”; they long to resettle in Canada, the United States—any country that will take them. “There was a crime here on an industrial scale,” writes the author, who intersperses his story to cover outbursts of international concern, evinced by visiting celebrities and TV reporters and meetings of international and humanitarian-aid leaders striving to understand the “refugee crisis.” The disjuncture between the harsh realities of life in the camps and the view from the boardrooms of world power centers is extraordinary and damning.
A significant, timely, and gloomy tale that reveals the human costs of a growing world crisis.