On Friday morning I was in an inter-agency health partners meeting in Dadaab. The conversation was a typically esoteric mix of “community-based diarrhea training” and “verbal autopsy forms”. And then the phones started to ring.

There was fighting just across the border — a significant al Shabaab raid on the supposedly secure town of Dhobley. More than a dozen civilians and Somali transitional government troops had already been killed, at least 40 people were injured. The phone calls were emergency workers trying to find ambulances. The meeting was briefly adjourned as the relevant people calmly stepped outside to make arrangements on their mobiles. Then we got back to business. A “graveyard count” was suggested to estimate numbers of fatalities failing to present themselves at health centres.

If this sounds morbid then I’m giving the wrong impression of Dadaab. One thing there is no shortage of here is life. Two weeks ago the population of Dadaab hit the 450,000 mark. That’s as big as cities such as Bristol or Antwerp. Or a camping trip three times the size of Glastonbury, where no one gets to go home. It is a lot of people. A lot of people living, planning, eating, shitting, waiting, playing football, falling in love, getting into trouble and getting on with their lives. It’s a busy place.

One of the projects I have had the pleasure to be involved with while I’ve been here — and it has been a pleasure — has been The Refugee newspaper. The Refugee is written by refugee youth for the refugee community in Dadaab with support from FilmAid International. It is the only local news source in the camp. It might not be The New York Times, but its community media in a community that needs it more than most.

Helping out with The Refugee is great fun, as it allows me to spend time with the young people who dedicate their time to the paper. People such as Liban, the newspaper’s photographer, and Abdirashid, the editor-in-chief. The nicknames for this duo are “Furka” and “Turka”, which translate roughly as “Fatty” and “Tall Hair”. Along with the rest of The Refugee team, they’re a pleasure to be around. It’s sort of a Somali version of Pressgang.

Each of the journalists on The Refugee has a story worthy of a paper in itself. Take Liban: he has been in Dadaab since 1992 — practically his whole life. When he was a teenager he escaped, travelling to Nairobi in the hope of making some money to support his mother and siblings.  Instead he wound up working illegally in a hotel, unable to leave and effectively a slave. While he was gone his family was selected for resettlement to the US. Liban made it back to Dadaab in time to see them off, but he hasn’t seen them since. This Saturday some of Liban’s photos will be shown on Good Morning America to an audience of millions. Hopefully Liban will be able to join his family again soon. Inshallah.

Another young refugee I’ve had the privilege to spend time with in Dadaab is the poet Ojullu Opiew Ochan. I’ve mentioned Ojullu and his appreciation of Bukowski and Bashō in a previous piece about the camp. But I thought I would bring him up again in order to share this wonderful short film by the animator Lisa LaBracio. Lisa spent a lot of time with Ojullu while making an animated film for children in Dadaab, and their work together inspired him to write a poem about his first experience with animation. It sounds an awful cliché, but its stories such as this that put the death and desolation of Dadaab in perspective.

Coda: a few days after the attack in Dhobley I found myself back in Nairobi, at an exhibition opening of recent war photos from Mogadishu. As the mostly white, mostly journo crowd mingled with glasses of bubbly, photos of a devastated city stared silently down at us. Someone from AMISOM — the UN/AU peacekeeping mission in Somalia — made a speech, but what he had to say was drowned out by the chatter.

And I couldn’t help but be reminded that none of those 450,000 people in Dadaab are going home any time soon.

Peter Fray

Fetch your first 12 weeks for $12

Here at Crikey, we saw a mighty surge in subscribers throughout 2020. Your support has been nothing short of amazing — we couldn’t have got through this year like no other without you, our readers.

If you haven’t joined us yet, fetch your first 12 weeks for $12 and start 2021 with the journalism you need to navigate whatever lies ahead.

Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

JOIN NOW