In the city of the lost: review of ‘City of Thorns’ by Ben Rawlence

The Times Saturday Review

9781846275876Dadaab is a confounding place, a low-slung conurbation of wind-swept, sun-beaten shelters adrift in Kenya’s wild northeast. The wind is unrelenting, the heat unbearable, yet it is home to 350,000 people, refugees who escaped war and famine only to find themselves trapped here.

They depend on food handouts yet the markets are also stuffed with fresh mangos and Samsung smartphones. There are few jobs yet some are spectacularly wealthy. It is a place of hopelessness and opportunity. Dadaab is temporary, but has existed for 25 years and is the focus of Ben Rawlence’s book.

City of Thorns is a portrait of a place that should not exist, and the people who by turns survive or thrive, live or die, love or mourn there. Most are Somali; some are the third generation to be raised in Dadaab on paltry UN rations, trapped between al-Qaeda militants in Somalia and the rapacious Kenyan police.

Rawlence interweaves the stories of nine residents, with Dadaab itself as the tenth major character. Some, like Tawane and Nisho, have lived their entire lives in Dadaab, others like Isha and Guled are more recent arrivals. Peripheral characters, too, are keenly sketched, among them a grotesque bureaucrat and a gaggle of corrupt, frequently drunk, police officers. These descriptions leave no doubt as to where Rawlence’s sympathies lie.

Somalia is a war and famine-blighted country. “No one looked at the situation of the war and considered their options rationally,” Rawlence writes, “you took decisions like a rock climber on a treacherous face making one move at a time to stay alive.” For many, these small decisions lead to Dadaab. Few manage to leave — some return to Somalia, other live illegally and furtively in one of Kenya’s cities, or make the expensive, sometimes deadly, journey to Europe. A lucky few win the resettlement lottery to a foreign country,

Those who get out call on the phone from Sweden or the US and fill their Facebook pages with pictures of their new lives. Those left behind suffer from “buufis”, a term coined in Dadaab meaning “the longing for resettlement out of the refugee camps. It is a kind of depression rooted in an inextinguishable hope for a life elsewhere that simultaneously casts the present into shadow.”

The most fully realised character in the book is young Guled, who in the midst of a drought and famine that turns Somalia to dust — “a tragedy in sepia” — elopes with his girlfriend Maryam to marry in “the Las Vegas of Somalia, stuffed with rent-a-sheikhs” where a ten-minute ceremony costs $2.

Their happiness is brief as Guled is abducted by al-Shabaab militants. He escapes and flees to Kenya persuading Maryam to follow, dodging al-Shabaab roadblocks and Kenyan police for whom the refugees with their few worldly possessions are “ATM machines” and “rape is routine”.

Founded by the British in 1954 as a borehole with some shacks around it, Dadaab means “the hard rocky place” and could not be better named. A quarter of a century ago the desolate land was demarcated for refugees from Somalia’s civil war. It has grown ever since, its population surging with each new tragedy to afflict Somalia.

Our first glimpse of Dadaab is through the eyes of Guled, perched on top of a truck bringing smuggled sugar across the border from Somalia. It is fearfully busy, with ramshackle hotels and single-room restaurants, makeshift cinemas showing Premiership football and electronics shops full of contraband goods. The Kenyan government insists Dadaab is “a nursery for terrorists” but the refugees are equally victims of their attacks. The threat of violence — at the hands of the Shabaab or the police — is the backdrop to everyday life.

Rawlence can write with beauty; his passages describing a drought-breaking rainstorm in Dadaab or the pastoralist life in rural Somalia stand out. But the lyricism never distracts from the precision of his reporting. The detail convinces because Rawlence lived for months in Dadaab and for years before that worked for Human Rights Watch. This means he can provide the necessary context of Somalia’s destructive wars and Kenya’s self-defeating corruption.

In Rawlence’s hands, refugees become individuals with familiar concerns: how to find a job, love, a better life. It is harder to ignore refugees once we realise they are like us. Despite the inhospitable setting, Rawlence teases out a narrative that, like Dadaab itself, pulsates with life. There is plenty of misery and hopelessness but also joy and humour. The comfort of ignorance allows Europe to throw up barriers as refugee children drown in the Mediterranean. Rawlence’s aim is to make distant lives matter, and in that he succeeds.