Alex Fisberg

Dadaab-How to get to the largest refugee camp in the world (in the worst way possible)

DADAAB, KENYA - JULY 21: Newly arrived Somalian refugees settle on the edge of the Dagahaley refugee camp which makes up part of the giant Dadaab refugee settlement on July 21, 2011 in Dadaab, Kenya. The refugee camp at Dadaab, located close to the Kenyan border with Somalia, was originally designed in the early 1990s to accommodate 90,000 people but the UN estimates over four times as many reside there. The ongoing civil war in Somalia and the worst drought to affect the Horn of Africa in six decades has resulted in an estimated 12 million people whose lives are threatened. (Photo by Oli Scarff/Getty Images)

Sitting in the uncomfortable chairs of the office, we were waiting for the bad news. Why would the Kenyan Government issue a permit to visit the refugee camps in Dadaab, Northeast region, close to the Somalia border, to three young fellows with no reasons for that? We were told that the process to receive the authorization letter would take, at least, 14 days to be issued. This fact contradicted the procedure sent by UNHCR (The United Nations agency which deals with refugees) but mainly, our plans of traveling the next day.

Everything in that room smelled as a certain “corruptive potential”. The information and answers provided to us seemed to be more an opening for a proposal – or a request – for bribe. We were not willing to be corrupted, but it was clear that our situation was quite delicate: if the permit was not issued that day, we would travel without it A quite offensive question: what tribe my Kenyan colleague belonged to. Frowns aside, such information here in Kenya still bears some influence in the daily interactions. After all, depending on who you are, things happen or not around here.

Apparently the officer was making an exception for us. He made a point of making it very clear that he was “facilitating” the process for us, “going around” the bureaucracy and doing us a favor. Fact: this could only be hints for money given on the side. Instead of taking the previously stated two weeks, we would have the documentation in just three hours. When it was time to receive the documents, the tension of being interrogated and forced to give some bribe was only in our disturbed minds. The process was totally clean (at least as far as we could understand it).

We left the region of Eastleigh, the Somalia in Nairobi. The road, lit only by a full moon, was slowly getting emptier and showing only the shadows of dry bushes and from time to time, a camp of people living in the middle of nowhere. Huts made of twitched branches, covered by all types of material that could be found in the region, that is, almost nothing. A lost look would now and then find our bus, but in a few seconds we were just a memory.

It was already night when we finally arrived in Garissa. Our plan was to get there at lunch time, enjoy the transition city and rest, so we could travel the next day to Dadaab, but we did not have a ride. UNHCR was not responding to any of our communications and we had not made arrangements for a place to sleep there. We decided that the next day we would stand in line for a ride.

Unbelievable, but I woke up with the noise of rain. That’s right, a reasonable strong rain, so close to the region affected by the draught. I spent a few minutes observing the pools forming on the pavement, dragging mud from one side to the other. I counted the drops, measured as much as I could the amount of water falling, and squeezed my thoughts trying to understand what was going on in the region. Obviously it was too early to understand anything.

Getting a ride was much more complex than I thought. We went to the specific place where the international agencies used to meet on Sundays to assemble a convoy with security escort to Dadaab. We asked all the people, all the cars, we negotiated with all the taxis and checked all the possibilities with the buses. We received an endless number of “no’s”, other excuses, exorbitant prices and impossible bus schedules on that same day.

Defeated we walked back towards our hotel. The plan was to take the bus heading to the city of e Dadaab at 7:00 am the following day. However, a huge truck from the World Food Program, carrying what appeared to be food, crossed our way. My contact in Dadaab belonged to WFP, so I decided to try talking to the driver. I think that the cabin was at least 3 meters high, and it was a challenge to listen to him– to understand him. But I heard the essential: “I am heading there! Now! Get in”. Without thinking twice we climbed to the door and got in the truck.

The truck was carrying wood structures to be used as support to the food to be distributed. They were over 30 meters long and, thanks to our luck, they provided us a very comfortable space to travel. The trip was not easy. Besides the physical pain from being tossed several times against the ceiling, against the wall, or against the other bodies in that cabin, what really hurt us was the landscape.

Above all, its beauty. A place like I’ve never seen before. The road is an opening in the white sand in the middle of dry and short bushes, some of them still boasting the green of the previous and now so distant rainy season. The orange from the road banks, of the apparently fertile dirt, waits for some sips of water to develop its full potential. Water that apparently will not come.

Along the road, children and adults balance yellow galloons in the air, waiting for the daily distributed water. Sometimes the water is distributed by the Kenyan government, other times by international agencies. And sometimes it simply does not show up.

A full moon was slowly coming down on us. A few meters before the entrance to Dadaab we stopped: for the driver this was an opportunity to fix something in the truck; for me, this was the last sigh before entering the complex world of Dadaab. To my left the sun set and to my right the full moon rose. Both were ignoring our societal and political problems.

We arrived to the city of Dadaab. On one side, the gates of the complex of the 35 organizations that work in the region. On the other side, a diverse “local” population, separated by barbed wire and with security to concern every foreigner. Our entry in the “safe” complex was denied. Apparently tonight all the available accommodations from the international agencies were occupied. At the guard booth we were considering all the possibilities except for the one that ended up happening.

Fred introduced himself as the person in charge of the complex security. A lie. But, oh well, he told us that the “house” was full and the accommodations outside the complex were also full. He made a suggestion: why don’t you sleep at the police station? It would be safe, “comfortable” and convenient. He failed to tell us that it would be very expensive.

We walked along the streets of the city, no further than one kilometer from the gate. We did not draw much attention due to the darkness, but nevertheless we found the small military base, filled with soldiers armed with machine guns and showing a concerning lack of care. We sat down. Every minute or less a new soldier looked at us, asked something to his colleagues and then greeted us with a smile that could be seen in the darkness.

All along, among uniformed military and guys imposing respect just because of their stance, a very drunk fellow followed us within the barracks, mocking and being mocked by the armed citizens. The bedroom door opened, we dropped our things, used the bathroom and went out to the bar at the barrack. The welcome letter read the following: “Please do not consume alcohol when wearing the uniform or bearing weapons”. Next to the sign, approximately 100 guys huddled around thousands of beer bottles spread out all over, screaming, drinking and doing who know what. We decided to shorten the night and go to bed. The next day would be inside the complex and we were trying to get ready for that experience in Dadaab.

We did not have any surprises walking along the camp: dozens, if not hundreds of children surrounded us. With startled looks, different from those who were simply interested in what is different, they watched us from a safe distance, avoiding direct contact. The bravest ones came closer, and were received by us with smiles and attempts of physical contact.

In a few minutes, dozens of children were reaching out their hands for a “high-five”. As if it were the first time in their life they participated in some type of playful games, they were divided between those who laughed and those who ran away fearing what would come next. Their upset smiles, many times hidden under a piece of cloth, would open their faces, for the first time, for the experience of playing something different than pushing water gallons or following the steps of an adult. At the end, obviously, children are just children, and deserve nothing more that everything we have to offer.

There is no doubt that this is a unique city. During the 80s, the camp was designed to shelter up to 90 thousand people. Today, it bears 5 times more of the anticipated capacity, and new expansions and new camps are being seasonally planned and built to receive the increasing flow of Somalis. The services offered to the refugees lead, many times, to troubled relations of the local community (host community) with the government and the humanitarian-aid agencies. After all, while those who have refugee status receive all the necessary goods for free, such as water, cooking devices, blankets, and aid to build shelters, the local Kenyan population, who is o affected by the draught, struggles to survive and to receive any available leftovers from the refugee camps.

It is impossible to deny the need for emergency care for the refugee flow that arrives daily to the camps, but after more than 20 years, some things could be done differently. The political plot of the region benefits neither the local population nor the refugee community. On one hand the Kenyan government has its eyes quite open to the challenges, but also to the opportunities that a humanitarian crisis in the neighboring country may generate. On the other hand, Somalia, which does not have a well–structured government, is fighting the extremism of a radical group such as Al Shabaab, but receiving only an uncompromising support from the so-called “International Community”.

There is a lot of potential in the region between the far east of Kenya and Somalia. Despite the draughts, it is possible to find natural underground water sources or find them at viable distances allowing for the construction of ducts and pipelines for irrigation. After all, there is an unremitting transportation activity of food supplies, so it would be very plausible to turn the refugee camp into a small-plot camp of productive land. The investment would not be much different from the figures spent today in the region and, in the case of a resolution in Somalia, the refugees could return to their lands with some survival techniques and even some income.

The main problem is the lack of stability in the region and the crisis solution being just an “organized Somalia”. The Somali population has nowhere to resort to in their own territory, since the FRA, the group opposing Al Shabaab, still lacks enough strength to take the power (and according to the representative of a French organization that works on the other side of the border, it is still unknown if they really are the  “good guys” of the region).

In one of the schools built at the exit of the IFO camp, the Principal shares some of the challenges he faces there: high rates of girls abandoning school because they have to give priority to the work at home for the survival of the family  ; student/teacher ratio exceeding the hundreds, as opposed to the recommendation of the Kenyan Ministry of Education, which is 1-40; one book for every 72 children; and the constant challenge of incorporating newly-arrived orphans, who come to the school for a second chance.

The objective is not to settle those children there. The goal is to prepare them for the national and international tests in universities, mainly the private ones, where there is less red tape. Therefore, says the Principal, some of the students that managed to attend Kenyan or even Princeton Universities become role models for the other children, and many times those youngsters return to the region to somehow contribute and give back to the community.

One of the reasons I went to Dadaab was to try, once again, to understand the parallel of the “temporary-definitive” phenomena. Such phenomena was also observed in most of the slums I visited, where a situation that was supposed to be temporary, a transition phase between a negative situation and the opportunities for a better life, ends up becoming a burden for an entire generation or even more. Of course, in the case of Dadaab there is a clear involvement of two nations and an endless number of external players coming from all parts of the globe. So what is in fact, the difference between a slum in Nairobi inflated by Sudanese immigrants, and a slum in Kampala, with a Congolese majority? They are also suffocated by international aid of the most varied flags and stuck to a “temporary-definitive” logic and vision.


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