“No one wants to admit that the temporary camp of Dadaab has become permanent,” Ben Rawlence writes in his haunting book City of Thorns. Ben visited the camp for the first time as a researcher for Human Rights Watch. The next year he returned for what would be the first of seven separate visits to follow and write about the lives of nine inhabitants.
I highly recommend this book because it gives those of us from a privileged background real insight into everyday life in a refugee camp.
He captures the daily lives and stories of nine people caught in limbo at Dadaab. 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 and famine in Somalia continued. “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.”
I met Ben at the Perth Writers Festival and was fortunate enough to interview him on a panel with other writers. He is deep thinker who has witnessed the best and worst of humanity. He articulated what I have come to understand – thousands of people in many different refugee camps around the world have little hope of leaving. They are waiting for a new beginning that sadly may never come.
He mixes the portraits of the camp’s residents with big-picture accounts of the regional turmoil that drove them there (famine, the ascendance of Al Shabaab, corruption in the government and civil war). I was interested in his style of writing and the desire to personalise the stories of refugees and give context about countries and the situations they face because it is the way I wrote More to the story- conversations with refugees.
His stories about the people in Dadaab are brutally honest and insightful. I found as a reader I became invested in their lives. What happened to Muna and Monday and the others? I worried about Guled, a former child soldier, and my heart ached for Kheyro and her determination to get an education. After many years in camp Muna and Monday were some of the lucky ones to be re-settled in Australia. I breathed a sigh of relief but Ben explained at the Festival that while their lives were safe, unfortunately things had not gone well since they arrived. Sometimes that is the reality when people arrive in a new country and face other challenges on top of the trauma they may have already experienced.
The book demonstrates extraordinary human resilience and the choices people have to make to survive.
City of Thorns by Ben Rawlence is published by Portobello, 2016.