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Review: In ‘City of Thorns,’ Ben Rawlence Tells a Refugee Camp’s Story

Tuesday January 12, 2016

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In English, Dadaab means “the rocky hard place,” a translation of such freakish metaphorical precision that Ben Rawlence, the author of “City of Thorns: Nine Lives in the World’s Largest Refugee Camp,” has the sense to use it with great restraint. Stamped on a dusty desert plain in Kenya, Dadaab — the camp of the book’s title — is home to a half million inhabitants. Most are Somalis who have fled famine or terror in their home country (sometimes both), but others come from Sudan, Rwanda, Uganda, Ethiopia. What unites them all is that they live in a state of suspension seemingly interminable and intolerable.

“On one side was the Kenyan state that harassed and ransomed the refugees with impunity,” Mr. Rawlence writes, when he finally indulges the metaphor in full. “On the other was al-Shabaab” — the militant Islamist group that’s made a thorough ruin of Somalia — “from which many had already fled at least once. The refugees were, literally, between the rock and the hard place that the name, Dadaab, embodied.”

We are living through a refugee crisis of calamitous proportions, with thousands of Syrians and Iraqis pouring daily into Europe. The travails of the Somalis and other displaced Africans have receded somewhat from public view.

Mr. Rawlence, a former researcher for Human Rights Watch, hopes to return the spotlight to them with this ambitious, morally urgent new book. Perhaps the most harrowing theme to emerge from it — or the one that’s taken custody of my own imagination, anyway — is the existential torment of camp life: Most of the refugees in Dadaab have little hope of leaving. They are waiting for a redeemer who’ll never materialize, and the West’s point of view, though rarely spoken, comes straight out of Beckett: “Nothing to be done.”

“No one wants to admit that the temporary camp of Dadaab has become permanent,” Mr. Rawlence writes. The camp was originally founded in 1992 to serve the 90,000 refugees fleeing Somalia’s civil war. No one imagined that an entire generation of children would be raised there, or that so many more refugees would rush in, as the political chaos in Somalia moved from the third circle of hell to the ninth. “Neither the past, nor the present, nor the future is a safe place for a mind to linger for long,” he continues. “To live in this city of thorns is to be trapped mentally, as well as physically.”

And yet, from this harsh and unforgiving place, an unlikely metropolis has bloomed and today pounds with life. (Mr. Rawlence calls it “city of thorns” because of the brittle thorn trees freckling the landscape, which make up the stuff of the refugees’ daily lives — fences, huts, mosques.) Dadaab has its own radio station.

 It has its own markets, which sell everything from cellphones to books to camel intestines. It has its own hospitals and schools, its own makeshift cinemas and soccer leagues. It even has an unofficial red-light district.

Mr. Rawlence tells the story of Dadaab both at ground level and high altitude, alternating between portraits of its residents and big-picture accounts of the regional turmoil that drove them there (famine, the ascendance of Al Shabaab) and continues to shape their lives (Al Shabaab’s infiltration of the camp, the massacre at Westgate mall in Nairobi).

In theory, this structure makes perfect sense; in practice, it takes an experienced writer to make a seamless blend of personal and political stories, and this book has some conspicuous ridges and lumps. A few of Mr. Rawlence’s character sketches are also incomplete, impacted, like a fan that hasn’t fully snapped open.

Unfortunately, “City of Thorns” invites comparisons with Katherine Boo’s “Behind the Beautiful Forevers,” another ethnography of the poor and dispossessed; Mr. Rawlence’s book suffers, as almost any book would. Ms. Boo writes with an enchanted pen.

I do not, however, want to minimize the scope of Mr. Rawlence’s efforts or achievements. Dadaab pops in three dimensions in “City of Thorns.” Readers will get a sharp sense of its folkways; its unwritten rules and adhocracies; its hardy but mostly parasitical economy, based on smuggled goods and the resale of United Nations rations. They’ll start to grasp the limits of relief agencies and the United Nations, and what kinds of unsavory compromises are required to care for the world’s neediest.

Mr. Rawlence’s passages about Kenyan corruption fill the nostrils with a smell so rank that you can hardly breathe. The police rape for sport and bribe Somalis for all they’re worth; after Kenya seized control of the Somali port city of Kismayo, Kenya’s army and political class formed an unofficial alliance with Al Shabaab instead of destroying it, sharing profits from its illegal sugar and charcoal trafficking.

And while I may have pined for richer portraits of some characters, there are others I won’t soon forget, especially Tawane, the camp’s valiant youth leader, who organizes a volunteer army to provide services — garbage collection, security, food distribution — after international agencies flee the camp, spooked by kidnappings and a spate of well-placed bombs. Essential to the community and educated in the camp’s schools, Tawane has “reached Dadaab’s glass ceiling” and is now “eager for a bigger life elsewhere.” Yet the resettlement lottery has not been kind to him. He looks daily at Facebook posts of friends in the United States and elsewhere who’ve had better luck.

Once I finished “City of Thorns,” I returned to its prologue, set in the White House, where Mr. Rawlence manages to convince the National Security Council that the refugees of Dadaab are not easily seduced by terror; on the contrary, they are fleeing it, and it has followed them there. “I had fallen into the liberal lobbyist’s trap,” he writes. “If the youth were not at risk of being radicalized, then perhaps the N.S.C. didn’t need to worry about Dadaab after all; the refugees could be safely forgotten.”

Yet the refugees are still there, waiting and half-starving, their rations now at record lows. There’s Isha, who still believes that her children’s education in the camp will be worth something one day. There’s Kheyro, an educated single woman who fears she will be slaughtered if she walks out of Dadaab, unaccompanied by a man. There’s Guled, terrified he’ll be kidnapped once again by Al Shabaab, just as he was in his youth.

Is there really nothing to be done?

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