City Of Thorns by Ben Rawlence: Book Note
Last week (March 2017) I read Ben Rawlence’s City of Thorns: Nine Lives in the World’s Largest Refugee Camp (published in 2016 by Random House Canada). Rawlence is a journalist and former researcher for Human Rights Watch. In this book, he focuses on nine (pseudonymous) people who live in the Dabaad refugee camp in eastern Kenya, close to the Somali border. About a half-million people live in the camp, which is in reality a huge city. Most residents are ethnic Somalis from Somalia, but others are refugees from Sudan and Ethiopia. Some, indeed, are Kenyans who live in the camp and register illegally as refugees in order to have access to free food.
This doesn’t seem like a camp full of refugees in the usual sense, since many who live there cross back and forth to Somalia, the country they ostensibly fled. Maryam travels from Mogadishu to Dabaad to marry Guled, who has fled the terrorist Al-Shabaad group that had forcibly recruited him. Her mother comes with her, but later returns to Mogadishu and persuades Maryam to return there as well. They would rather live in a house with adequate food, even at the risk of being bombed, than live in a tent in Dabaad, reliant on rations that are often cut. In any event terrorists, presumably al-Shabaad, start attacking the camp itself, so one way or another, they face the threat of bombs. Meantime international aid personnel live in walled compounds.
The camp is also are rife with what we might call corruption, but in practice is normal business. While the World Food Program (WFP) distributes rations on a strictly equitable basis, food is bought and sold. Even starving people sometimes sell their rations so that they can acquire enough funds to make a phone call home. Food destined for the camp is sold en route, and food distributed in the camp leaves it for Somalia. Some people amass fortunes while others starve. The Kenyan police who are supposed to maintain order can be bribed and bought. An honest Kenyan police supervisor is quickly dismissed, perhaps because the corruption reaches to the very top of the Kenyan political structure. Some WFP food even ends up in the hands of Al-Shabaad, the terrorist Islamist group whom the Somalis are ostensible fleeing.
|Dabaad refugee camp|
One reason for the corruption is that refugees are not permitted to work in the camp or outside it, as scarce jobs are reserved for Kenyans. Expatriate personnel are, however, permitted to offer refugees “incentive jobs” where they can work and learn skills at a tenth or less than other people are paid for the same job. There is fierce competition for these incentive jobs, as even the tiny amounts the refugees can earn put them at a distinct advantage over those who simply languish in tents, waiting for food handouts.
Meantime the camp is rife with all the problems that any other city faces, including racism. Muna, a young Somali woman, falls in love with Monday, an older Sudanese man. They marry, but they cannot live in a Somali area of the camp because the Somalis as horrified that Muna has married a black man. They retreat to the Sudanese area where they are guarded night and day by Monday’s compatriots. When Muna gives birth, she has to be transferred to a hospital outside the camp because Somali nurses in the camp hospital have threatened to kill her child as soon as it is born.
Other Somali women and girls in the camp are still subject to the control of their male kin. The foreign aid workers offer numerous lessons on gender balance and other liberal norms of the Western world, but women who accept these norms are often considered to be outcasts. They are still expected to marry: relatives arrange their marriages to men who may be in the camp but may still be in Somalia. Dabaad camp is, in effect, merely an extension of Somalia itself.
Sadly, just as I finished reading this book the media started publicizing another famine in Northern Kenya, Somalia, and South Sudan. As usual, the WFP and other organizations began to appeal for funds. After reading City of Thorns, I wondered briefly what the point was of donating money. Would my donation actual reach the people who were starving, or would it merely enrich a businessman in a refugee camp? Worse, would it end up in the hands of Al-Shabaad or one of the unbelievably cruel and cynical warlords now wreaking havoc in South Sudan? If so, my donation might be used to buy weapons and kill the many people I would like to feed.
Books like Rawlence’s run the risk of creating isolationists, people who wash their hands of conflicts in faraway places. What is the point of trying to help if so many people profit from the funds that we donate? I decided to make my usual financial contribution nevertheless, hoping that some of it might help to feed a few people somewhere.