Friday, September 16, 2016

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

Staff review by Chris Saliba

Ben Rawlence paints a heartbreaking picture of nine lives in one of the world's largest refugee camps.

Ben Rawlence is a former researcher for Human Rights Watch’s Africa division. He first visited Dadaab, the semi-arid border town in Kenya which hosts the largest refugee camp in the world (the site is actually made up of five camps in all), in 2010. He returned in 2011. This would be the first of seven visits over the next four years. In total, Rawlence spent around five months in the camps, interviewing the refugees about their lives.

City of Thorns concentrates its narrative on the lives of nine refugees, many of them married couples trying to hold family life together. The book opens with Guled, an orphaned Somali teenager who is struggling to survive in Mogadishu. He fears being kidnapped by al-Shabaab, the East African Islamic terrorist group. One day his worst fears are realised. He’s kidnapped in  his classroom by five armed men and made to work as a boy soldier, patrolling the streets. When he sees two women being beaten by al-Shabaab soldiers because they are out shopping during prayer time, there is nothing he can do. One of the women is his sixteen-year-old wife whom he’d recently secretly married. Life is clearly impossible for Guled, so he takes the risky journey to Dadaab.

While for the main part City of Thorns is a chronicle of the personal stories of nine people living in some of the world’s worst conditions (rape, violence and hunger are endemic), Ben Rawlence skilfully interweaves a political history of the horn of Africa, explaining how the refugee crisis came into being. He examines many facets of the crisis: corrupt African political elites, Islamic terror, poor and disengaged Western policy towards Africa and finally, the well-meaning but often incompetent aid agencies, notably the UNHCR that runs the centre.

This is an exceptional book. It provides-clear eyed understanding of the crisis, strongly focusing on the unrelenting human misery that has been created for some half a million refugees. Rawlence’s close work with the refugees allows him to draw compelling psychological portraits of their inner states. Humans crave stability and an ability to imagine and plan for the future. Camp residents have none of this and so live in hopeless despair.

Mention should also be made of the quality of Rawlence’s writing and his skill at organising so much complex material. City of Thorns almost reads like a novel (I often thought of Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath), eliciting empathy, horror and desperate hope. The book ends on a somewhat happy note for the couple Monday and Muna and their family. Their case had simply been forgotten after the Australian federal 2013 election. An email inquiry fixed the problem. In June 2015 they boarded a plane for Melbourne, Australia. 

City of Thorns: Nine Lives in the World's Largest Refugee Camp, by Ben Rawlence. Published by Portobello Trade. ISBN: 9781846275876 RRP: $35

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