The Birth of a City Putting Down Roots in a Refugee Camp

The Dadaab refugee camp in Kenya is the world's largest. The machinery of international famine relief is in full gear there, but hundreds of thousands of people may become long-term residents. Conditions have prompted a camp manager to transform a temporary refuge into a city of the future.

By Dialika Krahe in Kenya


This morning the Somali refugees are trying, again, to bury a child in his new city. Henok Ochalla sees them digging up red earth with their hatchets. He stops his SUV, plods over to the parents and tells them this camp is a place for life, not a cemetery.

Life here admittedly drags on in filthy conditions, in hot tents surrounded by prickly shrubs cluttered with black plastic bags. But it could become a more nourishing life.

"You have to bury your child someplace else," Ochalla says.

Less than an hour later he drives past the improvised gravesite again and nods with satisfaction. "They understood," he says. The family has removed the small body and taken it to the place where a new sign reads "Graveyard." Children are still dying in the camp from the effects of malnutrition, pneumonia and infection. "They are digging everywhere," says Ochalla. "I can't allow that. Order is critical here now."

Ochalla is a powerful-looking man, a 39-year-old Ethiopian with a big, white smile, a smile that reassures people in Dadaab -- otherwise a hellish, chaotic place.

Kenya's Newest City

Ochalla works for the United Nations. He is one of the five camp managers, a sort of humanitarian mayor, in the world's largest refugee camp, located on the Somali border in Kenya. He's also a builder, a logistician and a registration office. His job is to find places to live for the thousands of refugees that have stubmled across the border every day for months now, their feet sore, their stomachs empty and their heads full of expectations. He allocates plots and makes arrangements to provide them with water, latrines, tents and addresses.

In fact, Ochalla is in the process of building a new city. It will be called "Ifo Extension" -- a new wing of the twenty-year-old UN facility known as the Ifo Refugee Camp, outside the town of Dadaab. The new extension will be the size of the German city of Tübingen, about 90,000 people, and it will come complete with schools, market squares and police stations.

Ochalla wants to build a real city, a more tolerable place than the camp is today, and a place "made for the future." He needs to provide a home for 90,000 refugees by December. Once emergency conditions are over, he hopes that stone houses will stand where there are tents today. A dust cloud engulfs Ochalla's UN vehicle and a group of thin children, who stare as if it were a spaceship that had landed on their dried-up planet.

His two mobile phones, an iPhone and a Nokia, ring constantly. "It's not going fast enough with the water tanks," he says into one of the phones. "We need four more tents in section S today," he says into the other. He wears suede shoes and a safari hat. Three tents were stolen during the night, he says.

Ochalla and his colleagues from the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), the World Food Program and the other aid organizations working in Dadaab need to come up with quick answers to the questions posed by refugees and politicians, or by donors, like a German family that gives €50 of its monthly budget to the camp. Questions like: How does the world's largest refugee camp, a place with 450,000 residents, function?

And how does one bring structure to a place where the life of each individual is in a state of almost complete chaos, where people have no homes, no food and no plan for the future? Aside from giving them a few sacks of flour every month, is it possible to give these people a future?

Africa is the continent of human suffering, but it is also a place where people are constantly in flux, constantly trying to make its 30 million square kilometers (11.6 million square miles) more habitable. It has the African Union, which seeks "African solutions for African problems." And it has Jeffrey Sachs and the UN Millennium Project, Bill Gates and his attempt to develop genetically modified plants to fight hunger, Bob Geldof, Bono, Angelina Jolie and all the other celebrities who have turned Africa into a canvas for their humanitarian efforts. Finally, it has Henok Ochalla of the UNHCR, who sets out every morning and tries to bring a little order and hope to this new wave of suffering.

'I Can't Count Them All'

But can anyone give hope to people like Nuriya Ali, a woman who fled the worst drought in a decade and arrived in Dadaab with nothing but her four daughters? It's 6:30 a.m., and the sun is still pale in the sky above the reception center in the Ifo Extension, when Nuriya Ali and her daughters reach Dadaab, after walking for 10 days through the arid Somali steppe and wandering around the camps for two days and two nights. Nuriya is waiting to be granted entry into the world's largest city of hungry people.

She presses her hand against her breast and squats on the ground in front of the gate, trying to nurse her four-month-old baby girl. Nuriya's breast milk stopped flowing several days ago. Now the baby just lies there, lacking even the strength to cry. Her three other children -- Sowdo, 7, Maryan, 5 and Amina, 3 -- cling to her veil. The girls haven't eaten in three days. They don't speak, play or laugh. They simply stare into space. Hunger has made them apathetic.

Nuriya has a thoughtful look in her eyes and the smooth skin of a young girl. She is from Afmadow, a small city in southern Somalia, where the Shabab militias, armed with assault rifles, control everyday life. She believes she is 26. Her husband died of a snakebite when she was pregnant. He couldn't be driven to the hospital because the family had no car. "Everything is gone, everything," she says. "We don't even have a plastic jug anymore."

Nuriya Ali is a nomad. She remembers that her family once had 25 cows, but when the drought came they had to travel ever-greater distances to find even a small amount of water. Sometimes they would walk for two days before reaching water, and at other times there was no water to be found. First the animals died, and then the people started dying. "I can't count them all," says Nuriya, referring to the neighbors and friends who died. Those who were still able to flee left Somalia, and Nuriya joined the exodus.

Hunger threatens more than 12 million people in the Horn of Africa. Some 38 percent of the population is malnourished in southern Somalia. Thousands have already starved to death this year, and the death toll could continue to rise, possibly reaching several hundred thousand in the coming weeks. No one knows how many will flee to Dadaab, or how many more people the enormous refugee camp can still support.

Nuriya looks at the gate, where hundreds of other refugees sit or squat on the ground, including women with up to seven children and old people dragging themselves along on sticks. An entire village has gathered under a single tarpaulin.

They're all waiting to be ushered into this gigantic aid machine, where people are processed into computer files and sorted by health status and family size, and where tons of relief supplies and tents have been purchased with the money the aid organizations have raised.

In recent weeks, $251 million (€178 million) have been donated for drought victims in the Horn of Africa, including $21 million from the German government. Once again, the money is far from sufficient to meet the refugees' needs.

Somalia suffers from the double curse of drought and war. The situation has worsened in the twenty years since the nation's central government collapsed. And now international speculators, betting on agricultural commodities markets, have driven up prices and forced people like Nuriya to leave their homes. The West gives millions of dollar every year; but the West also takes. Dadaab and its residents are a microcosm of Africa, a place full of people forced by war, global markets and drought into a life that could not exist without the global aid machine.

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