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.
Von Dialika Krahe

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.

Tons of Aid, and Famine

Every day, Ochalla's colleagues with the World Food Program drive their trucks to the warehouses. Each truck is loaded with 28 tons of relief supplies, including corn meal from the United States and porridge from Turkey. The logistics experts' goal is to maintain a three-month inventory of food, but at the moment there is only enough food available for two months.

Once every 15 days, each camp resident can expect to receive 3.36 kilograms (7.4 lbs.) of wheat flour, 3.36 kilos of cornmeal, 0.96 kilos of lentils, 0.48 liters (16 oz.) of vegetable oil, 0.72 kilos of porridge and 80 grams of salt. It isn't much, but it's enough to stay alive.

The aid arrives by air and sea from all over the world. The refugees arrive at the border, some in shared taxis, but most on foot, after enduring a trek through the harsh Somali landscape. It is as if two unending tides were advancing toward one another, the refugees and the aid. The only question is: Which tide will ebb first?

It is 8 a.m. An aid worker carrying a megaphone walks among the refugee groups and tries to organize them by family size. Once Nuriya and her children have been classified as "Family Size 5," they are allowed through the gates. The three-year-old is crying. No one says a word.

Before Nuriya can become a camp resident, and before she and her girls are given anything to eat, they are required to pass through various stations. At one station, she dips her finger into black dye for identification purposes. At another station, an aid worker asks her whether she was raped or attacked by wild animals. Nuriya shakes her head. "I saw four children die," she says. "We buried them by the side of the road."

Now the sun is beating down on the square, and the waiting refugees cower under the UNHCR tents. The refugee agency acts as the lead organization in Dadaab. Its workers attempt to coordinate the contributions and efforts of 25 other aid organizations, so that they don't all do the same thing, money isn't wasted and things are done fairly. If someone were to randomly start distributing rice in the camp, it could trigger a riot.

In the reception area, the German Agency for International Cooperation conducts the medical examinations, CARE manages food distribution and the International Organization for Migration brings refugees from the border to the camp. Yet another group of rickety buses has just arrived at the gate.

Nuriya sits on a bench and watches as the doors open and more refugees, a group that has just been collected at the border, emerge from the buses. Children are handed down across the steps. One boy isn't wearing shoes or underpants. The women carry cloth bundles.

Ochalla, the unofficial camp mayor, stands at the main gate, less than 10 meters away from Nuriya, and observes the same scene, but with different eyes. He is leading a delegation from Japan on a tour of the camp, including the reception area and the new city for refugees. The Japanese take pictures. Ochalla says: "We are in trouble. We thought the numbers were going down, but more and more people have been coming in the last few days." The aid workers expect 1,500 new arrivals on this particular day.

For Nuriya, this means that perhaps hardly any Somalis will be living in Somalia soon, and that she may never be able to return to her country. For Ochalla, it means that even more refugees will become residents of his refugee city, and that he will have to work more quickly.

Waiting for Food

Ochalla considers it a good day when he can house 1,000 people in the new tents; 1,500 is a different story. He works nonstop, rushing from one area to another, and wherever he goes, refugees hold out their hands, asking: "Where is the water? Where is my tent?" He gathers the Japanese visitors and climbs into the UN vehicle. Nuriya continues to sit there, watching and waiting.

At about 10 a.m., her exhausted three-year-old daughter falls backward off the bench, bumping her head on the ground. She screams and screams, while her mother tries desperately to calm her down, fearing that her family will be rejected if the aid workers notice the girl crying, and that she won't get any food for her children. After she has been waiting for five hours, without water or food, Nuriya is finally ushered into the receiving office.

A volunteer takes her fingerprint. Another worker brings five blue plastic bracelets, placing one around Nuriya's wrist and the others around her children's' wrists. The bracelets are numbered in black ink: 519 846 to 519 850. They serve as a means of identification, transforming Somali refugees into Somali camp residents. Nuriya leaves the receiving area with five 500-gram packages of high-energy biscuits, which contain 11,450 kilocalories. The children shove the crumbly biscuits into their mouths and chew them with the serious expressions of old people.

They've been vaccinated, and doctors have examined them to determine whether they are severely or only moderately malnourished. Nuriya has been given cooking utensils, a few grass mats and a tarp. She has also received a 21-day food ration that includes flour, oil and salt. A new life is about to begin for Nuriya and her family. If all goes well, they could soon be living in a tent in Ochalla's city, and eventually in a stone house. For the time being she has no choice but to sleep outside.

The tent distribution office consists of a tarp, a generator, two employees and three laptops. This is the place where the future city begins. Every morning, a group of people sit in the sand outside the field office of camp mayor Ochalla, old men who no longer have families and women in colorful veils, holding up their papers and calling out the number of children they have. Ochalla raises his hands into the air and says: "suk, suk, suk." Suk, which means "wait," is one of the few Somali words he knows. Refugees do a lot of waiting.

Dadaab, a Boomtown of Need

By entrusting themselves to the care of the aid machine, the refugees have lost control over their lives. Arriving in Dadaab also means abandoning one's freedom.

Dadaab is now the third-largest city in Kenya, but there are no Kenyans living there. Instead, it is home to 450,000 Somalis in a camp that was built for 90,000 people. Refugees like Nuriya are not permitted to leave the camp, because the Kenyan government wants them to remain refugees and not become illegal immigrants. The government also prohibits them from working.

To get a sense of what his city could look like one day, Ochalla drives to another section of the camp, Ifo 2, where the first stone houses have been built for refugees. There are 116 red brick model houses with corrugated metal roofs in Ifo 2, but all are still empty, making the place look like a very orderly ghost town. It also has schools, a police station and a water supply. The Kenyan government put a stop to the project, fearing that it would encourage the refugees to settle there permanently. But that has been a reality for some time now.

Ochalla does what is normally avoided in refugee policy: He tries to give people a permanent place to live, a home. Refugee policy makes things as uncomfortable as possible for refugees, so they're encouraged to leave. But, says Ochalla, "we learned this from the other camps. We too thought it would only be for two years, but then two years had suddenly turned into 20. I don't believe that these people can return to Somalia."

In mid-July, the Kenyan prime minister allowed the development of the new city to continue, partly because of overcrowding and the acute needs of the refugees, but international pressure probably played a role, too. The city could mark the beginning of a refugee policy that recognizes that starving people need more than food. They need a future, one that includes a place to live, perhaps a plot of land and the right to support themselves through work. This rethinking of refugee policy is also needed to prevent the aid machinery from eventually collapsing.

'First the Misery, Then the Successes'

"Salam alaikum," Ochalla says to a group of Somalis gathered around his desk. "Would you please get back in line?" He types a number into an Excel table on a laptop. A family sits in front of him. "Name: Kenda. Family size: 4. Origin: northeastern Somalia." He says that this method enables him to find each of the 450,000 residents of Dadaab. A staff member writes an address for the family onto a white piece of paper: Section S, Block 51, Community 11. It's the family's ticket for a new beginning.

Ochalla and his staff have given these pieces of paper to 30,000 people since the end of July. Armed with the document, they gather their few belongings and move onto a piece of land, even if the plot isn't quite ready yet. "There is currently a latrine for 25 families," says Ochalla. "I want to have one for each family in six months." There are currently only 10 water tanks, he says, "but there will be 68 tanks in a few months."

Ochalla was once a member of the Ethiopian national football team, a defensive player with jersey number 5. He studied agriculture and worked for a cotton producer, until the UNHCR recruited him 16 years ago. Since then, he has spent his life traveling from one African refugee camp to the next. After eight and a half years in Ethiopian camps, he went to Sierra Leone and then to Liberia, becoming acquainted with hunger, drought and war. He met German Chancellor Angela Merkel when she visited a refugee project in Liberia in 2007. Ochalla remembers that he was wearing a suit.

"She's one of the good ones," he says, "one of the Iron Ladies of the world." He also met Angelina Jolie, twice, he says. "She's very easy to handle." And, only recently, he met the "German Minister Niebel" ( Dirk Niebel , Germany's minister for economic cooperation and development).

Ochalla has a map on his laptop of his future city, with street names like Hope Road, Unity Road and Friends Road. According to the plan, each family will receive a 10 by 12-meter (33 by 39-foot) plot of land. There are 18 sections, which are divided into nine blocks with 192 plots in each block. The plan includes mosques, child-friendly zones and health units. "Here," says Ochalla, pointing to pink rectangles on the map, "are eight elementary schools and a high-school. And then life begins."

A Vision of a Functioning Piece of Africa

When German Minister Niebel visited Dadaab, he was first shown the squalor and then the new city. Ochalla needs money, and he believes that this approach will enable him to raise most of it. "We always show both sides," he says, "first the misery, then the successes."

Ochalla has a budget of $24 million to build his refugee city. He has already spent $16 million of the money. According to UN figures, $2.5 billion are needed to save the people in the entire Horn of Africa. So far less that half of the money has been provided. Critics claim that this is primarily because the rich donor countries prefer to pump their billions into rescuing banks, so nothing is left over for famine relief. They also say the African countries are not doing enough to address the problems.

There was a donor conference in the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa two weeks ago. The African Union sought to use the opportunity to prove the opposite -- that African governments were, in fact, helping. Fifty-four African countries pledged $46 million for famine relief in the region, with Algeria and Egypt leading the pack. Oil-rich Nigeria will donate only $1 million, while South Africa pledged the paltry sum of $1.3 million.

Belated and insufficient as it may be, the charity brings some hope. Ochalla has his work cut out for him. He'll need to present the same examples -- first misery, then success -- to celebrities, journalists and cabinet ministers. When he met with German Development Minister Niebel, he talked about the 1,000 people he and his staff resettle on a single day. They toured the unpaved roads of Ifo Extension, the site of Ochalla's future refugee city. He explained to the minister how, with international assistance, he intends to expand this tiny segment of African earth into a functioning piece of Africa.

He envisions a city where water flows from wells, where tents have turned into stone houses, where the dusty square has become a market, where the children have turned into pupils and waiting has turned into a life. The Bill Gates Foundation envisions a more nutritious type of sweet potato, which could potentially feed millions. Bob Geldof has established a fund that hopes to invest in African companies and jump-start the economy. Jeffrey Sachs, with his UN program, hopes to cut the number of people suffering from hunger in half.

For now, Nuriya Ali just wants a tent.

She is standing in an open area filled with children, puddles of sewage and garbage. "We had to sleep outside the first night," she says. "It was cold, and the children were coughing." But, she adds, it was a happy night.

A female friend from her village, who has been in the camp for five days, found Nuriya and brought her to where she is living in an area known as the Outskirts, the camp's ghetto. Nuriya stowed away her high-energy biscuits, oil and cooking utensils in an old woman's tent. "I cooked," she says. "I made tea and flatbread." Her children were able to eat their fill for the first time in weeks. Afterwards, she fetched some water and poured into a large bowl. Then she placed her children into the bowl, one at a time, and bathed them.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan
Die Wiedergabe wurde unterbrochen.