DREAMS – however distant – of resettlement abroad fuel the sometimes-heartbreaking hopes of residents trapped in the scorchingly hot, desolate limbo of the world’s biggest refugee camp: a combination of three separate but closely inter-related sites ringing the remote Kenyan town Dadaab.
With a population greater than that of Geelong and still climbing, the Dadaab camps house not only primarily Somalis but also Sudanese, Ethiopians, Ugandans, Congolese, Burundians, Rwandans and even an unexpectedly high number of Kenyan nationals, drawn by the promise of the free, foreign-funded medical care and education that their own government is unable to provide. There they are crowded together in makeshift accommodation that in some cases has sheltered two generations born and raised in exile from their ancestral regions.
Rawlence – a former Human Rights Watch researcher – tells the story of the day-to-day existence of these displaced people through the eyes of nine individuals who, due to contrasting but equally traumatic circumstances, have been forced to subsist behind the protective walls of thorn-tree branches that give this book its name.
His intimate portraits of men and women young and old explore the ways through which their paths have converged. Examples of inter-tribal tension hatred illustrate the disharmony that is rife across Africa, an enormous continent inhabited by people whose cultures in some instances are completely incompatible.
Rawlence also documents the rise of Al-Shabaab as a militant, extremist force willing and able to terrorise and kill Africans every bit as readily as it does Western targets.
Should readers expect to find a happy ending to this story? “Happy” might not, in this situation, be entirely appropriate, given the horrendous experiences many of the refugees have had on their way to and at Dadaab. It is perhaps most accurate to say the outcome is not entirely negative for at least some members of Rawlence’s cast.