January 2016

Kea Krause


City of Thorns: Nine Lives in the World's Largest Refugee Camp by Ben Rawlence

In Behind the Beautiful Forevers, Pulitzer Prize winner Katherine Boo managed to encapsulate an entire world and the systems responsible for creating it in Annawadi, a slum situated on the outskirts of the Mumbai airport. The slum runs on hope, and Boo freshly described this cruel motivator with personal coinages: "Annawadians now spoke of better lives casually, as if fortune were a cousin arriving on Sunday, as if the future would look nothing like the past." Boo's words, spun into unlikely turns of phrase and metaphors, are necessary in creating the book's narrative appeal: new worlds require newer language. In spite of its heartbreaking content, the book is gorgeous.

Similarly, in Ben Rawlence's new book City of Thorns, which follows the lives of nine people living in Dadaab, the world's largest refugee camp on the border between Kenya and Somalia, hope is both a vice and a weapon, and Rawlence's prose serves as the fine differentiator between the two.

Like Boo, Rawlence relies on his own imaginative voice, which is equal parts blunt and whimsical, and the terminology of the camp itself, deploying terms created by refugees to describe their experiences there. In Rawlence's words, pastoralists "gather like birds around a pond," rain "slid[es] down the glass sides of skyscrapers." But perhaps more haunting is the language of the refugees, which Rawlence dispatches to devastating effect. Buufis is a homegrown Dadaab term: "the name given to 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 a shadow." This is perhaps another way in which the two books intersect: in their more lexical parts, they read like wonderful, narrative works of fiction.

Rawlence, however, doesn't shy from chilling, concrete facts, and the intimate detail in which the reader gets to know Dadaab is no exception. Created in 1991, the camp spreads over a 30-square-mile swath of borderland between Kenya and Somalia, and, at its peak density between 2010 and 2011, the year in which the book takes place, homed half a million residents either displaced or born there. In its size and sprawl, Rawlence likens it sometimes to Atlanta and other times to New Orleans. It is its own city with markets, hospitals, makeshift theaters, and soccer pitches. There is a chance if you are born there, you might never leave.

But Rawlence, who is often indignant about the UN and other NGO's futile and occasionally corrupt efforts to manage the camp, points out the injustice of the layout itself. Despite the services offered and certain modernized elements of the camp, like its central cellphone tower, the "geography of a refugee camp is about two things: visibility and control -- the same principles that guide a prison. The refugee camp has the has the structure of punishment without a crime."

Rawlence steers the reader into the streets of Dadaab via Guled, a young man born in Mogadishu in the early '90s, when the Somali capital, located in the Horn of Africa, a peninsula in northeast corner of the continent that projects into the Arabian Sea, was still regal, before its "beautiful boulevards, its grand mosques and cathedrals, its ancient Omani, Portuguese and Italian waterfront and sparkling white villas had been reduced to rubble thrice over." The peace disintegrated; civil war plagued Somalia. Stateside, we watched the grisly unraveling of the Battle of Mogadishu, the downing of two Black Hawk helicopters and the rescue mission that followed.

In a country without a government, the Islamic Courts Union (ICU) rose to power, led by Al-Shabaab, a conservative faction of the religion known for its ban on cultural indulgences like television and soccer. In 2007, the United States, concerned by the rise of Al-Shabaab, supported an Ethopian invasion of the city and Guled watched as it burned. When the ICU was defeated, Al-Shabaab regained momentum and settled into the role of governing Mogadishu, ruling the city with "iconoclasm, charisma and fear."

During his childhood, Guled lost both his parents and took up residence with other orphans of the war in a house out by a stadium. He still managed to attend classes at his local school and it was there he was kidnapped by Al-Shabaab and forced into service by the militant Islamic group. Guled became one of 2,000 children kidnapped in Somalia in 2010, and was tasked with enforcing rules instituted by Al-Shabaab and patrolling the streets of Mogadishu with other children. On a rare day off, he fled for the refugee camp, the only place he knew he would be safe from his captors.

A climate of fear is imposed by the rule of a radical Islamic faction, an unprecedented drought that leads to a historically ruinous famine, and an economy run by a variety of corrupt actors. The camp, located in the center of a desert, with roads crawling with extortionist police officers and violent extremists, only provides reprieve to the ones who are strong enough to make it there. But in 2011, as the factors of mass starvation, war, and corruption combine, the violence reaches the sanctity of Dadaab, and the refugees who have fled there to find peace begin to encounter the suicide bombings and assassinations that infect the rest of the region.

In addition to Gulad, the young soccer fanatic who is trying to support a burgeoning family in the camp, Rawlence introduces the reader to eight other refugees: a mother from a nomadic clan, forced to move to the camp during a drought, among them a young community organizer who arrived at the camps on a donkey cart as a seven-year-old in 1992 and lived his entire known life there; a woman determined to get the best education possible in order to be resettled in Canada; and a couple whose differing religious backgrounds draws the scorn of others in the camp.

Here is where the book draws most of its power: in the individual accounts of surviving the "status quo" in Dadaab, which is "dependent upon not recognizing the refugees as humans," how does one live if not considered alive by their own society's standards? Rawlence strives to answer this question in every humanizing detail he includes about the camp and its occasional golden moments, while also expertly dismantling the intricate structures in place that have lead to the corruption, the violence, and the oppression of the people living there.

There is a question of the narrator throughout the book: Who is this writer who has certainly jeopardized his own well being in order to write this story? Rawlence only makes mention to his own role in the book's creation in the notes at the end, where he discloses his initial trip to the camp as a Human Rights Watch researcher, plus seven subsequent visits that amounted to five months' total time spent immersed in the camp and conducting interviews. He very intentionally stays out of the story, occasionally leaving the question of access to linger with the reader.

Today there is an overly intense, negative focus on refugees traveling across borders to seek asylum, with little discussion about those who are stuck in the very regions they wish to flee. Perhaps too weak or too impoverished to travel, but still in dire need of resources and peace, they are relegated to camps that impersonate a light at the end of the tunnel, but are really just ghettos where old struggles are replaced by new ones. The psychology of buufis -- of the hope to leave -- is crippling: "In a culture centered on leaving, to remain in Dadaab is seen as a kind of failure." Rawlence writes about depression as a blanket that cloaks the women in the camp and emasculates the men, his aptitude for human emotion and motivation, impeccable. And this is perhaps what Rawlence is best at conveying: every life is a life, so precious that you flee and starve and hide and grind to keep it.

City of Thorns: Nine Lives in the World's Largest Refugee Camp by Ben Rawlence
ISBN: 978-1250067630
400 pages