It is more like a city than a refugee camp. It sprawls for 30 miles, and its population could soon be a staggering half a million. This is Dadaab, Africa’s fastest-growing population centre–and all for the wrong reasons.
Drought and famine throughout the Horn of Africa is driving hungry and exhausted people from hundreds of miles around to this arid corner of northern Kenya, in the hope of finding food, medicines and water.
For the last week I have been reporting on these disturbing scenes–a crisis which has now led to international agencies declaring an emergency and appealing for funds.
There are not nearly enough tents for all who arrive. Emaciated refugees construct makeshift shelters out of branches and scraps of plastic. All around them, vicious winds whip up choking clouds of red dust. On the parched earth where it has barely rained for two years, the carcasses of dead animals lie everywhere: dried-out pastures have become the graveyards of this drought.
Livestock are everything to people in this part of Africa–their investments, savings and income all in one. When the animals start to die, so too do the humans.
Dadaab might seem like a vision of hell and yet, day after day, refugees flock here from Somalia–trekking with their families through barren lands for up to a month.
“We had no choice but to leave our homes,” said Aden Issack Ibrahim, who talked to me as he walked along a dusty road to the camp, an exhausted child perched upon his shoulders. “The journey has been too tiring, we were chased by wild animals. It was terrifying.”
Aden Issack Ibrahim was one of 30 people who had all decided to leave Sakow, their village in Somalia. The children were barefoot, clutching empty water canisters. Between them, the villagers only had a handful of possessions, including a single live chicken.
“Our children haven’t eaten for days,” said Ibrahim, “and we are tired and hungry. We are begging for help from the UN, from anyone in a position of power.”
He said his village had no future. It had become an arid wasteland like so much of Somalia, where the rains have failed two years running and famine may not be far away. The twin curses of drought and endless civil war had convinced them they had no choice but to leave.
There are harrowing stories of people who have made the journey to Dadaab. Some are raped and robbed along the way, others are chased by hyenas. One woman had six children, all of them too frail to walk. She was determined to get them to the camp, so she carried them two at a time, shuttling back and forth for the others she had left behind.
Another couple walked for 22 days with their sick baby daughter–no sooner had they arrived at the camp than the child died.
Some of those who arrive here are classified by aid workers as “unaccompanied children”: either they have become separated from their families on the journey, or they’re orphans.
Abdi Salam and his sister Aisha said their father died in Somalia’s civil war several years ago, and that–last month–it killed their mother too. They walked with another boy all the way to Dadaab. “It’s better here because back in Somalia there was war we had no relatives left,” said Aisha.
In the refugee camp, Save the Children have organised for the children to stay with a foster mother–another refugee, who’s been here some time. “Now at least we have someone to look after us,” Aisha smiled.
Dadaab camp is already grotesquely overcrowded and becoming more so by the day. There are insufficient latrines and conditions are becoming insanitary. The infant mortality rate has tripled in recent months. Aid workers are stretched to the limit and Kenya’s Commissioner of Refugee Affairs, Badu Katelo, is alarmed that this part of Kenya is being swamped by refugees.
“Food distribution is overstretched, water is overstretched, shelter is overstretched, space itself is overstretched and the security situation is getting worse,” he said. “We would like to see a vibrant, committed intervention by the international community.”
But the horror of Dadaab doesn’t really hit you till you walk into a makeshift clinic runs by the aid agency Medicins San Frontiers.
In the Intensive Therapeutic Feeding Centre, a boy stands naked by his bed, defecating. He has chronic diarrhoea and his father says he ate mud on his journey here because he was so hungry. He has wounds on his face where medical staff believe witch doctors have tried to cure him on his journey to the camp. Some babies scream as needles are rammed into their tiny arms.
Some are too weak even to cry out when they’re injected. Toddlers vomit, and retch out the paltry contents of their stomachs. Wrinkled skin hangs off their bones, rib cages jut out and big bulbous eyes stare at you forlornly, flies buzzing around them: it is a clichéd image of African despair from which the world hoped it had moved on, but in Dadaab it is the reality today.
The clinic’s “Death Book” is a register of those who have succumbed to their malnutrition, and to related diseases. On some days, two or even three names are scribbled down, alongside the age of the infant and the cause of death.
“We just give them the best we can, we can’t save everybody,” said Dr Christopher Karisa. “Some of them die on the walk to the camp, some die in the ward–just immediately after we receive them. What we’re doing here, it can seem like a drop in the ocean, but the ocean will be a drop less if we don’t do it.”
Each death is a blow to the doctors and nurses who work here around the clock and against the odds, but they know they must keep going. “If you keep on thinking about the child who’s died, then you’ll lose others,” said Dr Karisa. “You have to switch that emotion off and continue. It’s hard but you have to do it.”
Katharina Andrey, a Swiss nurse with MSF, has also been shocked by what she’s seen.
“When I first got here, I said to myself ‘Oh my God!'”
Last week she held a child as it died, and she cried with the baby’s mother. “It’s very hard. The baby was just dying, so I took it I tried to do something but it died in my arms and that’s really hard to cope with. It may be hard to go back to work, but it may be a motivation as well because I’m here to improve things.”
Miss Andrey said that if mothers have several children, sometimes they are prepared to let the weakest die–they don’t want to have to spend days looking after them in hospital, because that would mean they couldn’t care for the rest, or collect food and water for them.
Abu Bakar, a Kenyan relief worker for MSF, admitted it’s a common problem. “We’ve had some families who had already prepared children for death so we had to intervene and tell them no, this is not possible, this child is still alive, and he can make it, so you have to give us a chance to try. We have to negotiate with them, it’s very hard.”
Another aid worker begged the world to wake up to the unfolding emergency in the Horn of Africa.
“One refugee without hope is too many,” said Dr Edward Chege. “These children don’t know what’s happening to them at the moment and they absolutely need our help.”
Beyond the fences of the camp, the drought has ravaged many more lives–an estimated 10 million people will need food assistance, according to the UN World Food Programme. But not everybody has been enthusiastic about this weekend’s appeal for funds by the Disasters Emergency Committee.
Some analysts have argued that drought is a way of life in the Horn of Africa, and that climate change is making rainfall here less and less frequent. It’s even been suggested this region may ultimately become uninhabitable, so scarce are the rains these days.
Others argue that western aid agencies should do more to provide long term food assistance to the region, rather than the “sticking plaster” of emergency relief.
But such arguments seem distant and, perhaps even esoteric, when you are staring into the eyes of a dying baby–as I have done too often in the last few days.