With well over 300,000 inhabitants, the five camps that make up the UN base in Dadaab, in eastern Kenya, constitute the biggest refugee complex in the world. Opened in 1992, as civil war in Somalia drove a mass exodus of refugees, the camp has expanded to take in more people with each new crisis in that country. Rawlence’s stunning, disturbing portrait of Dadaab begins in 2011, when the rise of the Islamist militia al Shabab ignited yet another cycle of violence in and around Mogadishu, the Somali capital. The book follows the daily lives of nine individuals in various settlements in Dadaab as they struggle to survive and retain their humanity in an uncertain, violent environment without adequate food or social services. Rawlence focuses on the refugees, but his book is also a damning portrait of the camp as a woeful failure on the part the Kenyan government and the international community. As one of the book’s protagonists rueully concedes, coming to Dadaab from Somalia was like trading one version of hell for another.
Get the best of Foreign Affairs' book reviews delivered to you.