More than 300,000 Somali exiles are housed in Dadaab, the largest refugee camp in the world. The shanty city in Kenya is home to thousands of lives torn apart by the horrors of war and the daily struggle for survival without hope. Story and photographs by Dominic Nahr. No country in recent history has been engulfed by anarchy and deprived of a functioning government as long as Somalia. For nearly 20 years since the collapse of the regime of Mohamed Siad Barre in 1991, it has been a country ruled by the gun. It has become a liability for its neighbours and a cemetery for its people. For many, there is no escape but for one place. Welcome to Dadaab.
Dadaab, situated in Kenya, approximately 100 kilometres from the Somali border, has the unenviable reputation of being the largest refugee camp in the world. Designed to house 90,000 people, it currently shelters more than 300,000, a population roughly equivalent to Ras Al Khaimah. Everyone who comes here is seeking safety from a country wracked by war. Hundreds of thousands of people have been affected as a result of fighting between government soldiers and insurgents, most recently Shabaab, a group of Somali Islamists who control most of Southern Somalia, which borders Kenya.
Shabaab (which means "youth" in Arabic) has been strongly linked to al Qa'eda, although it denies this. Since 2006 it has conducted an insurgency against Somalia's UN-backed transitional government and its Ethiopian supporters, with the aim of toppling the government and introducing a version of extreme Sharia law. In the fighting it is, of course, civilians who suffer. Shabaab practises extreme violence against civilians, while the government's Ethiopian allies use heavy artillery and shells that often hit homes. Tens of thousands of people have been killed and more than a million displaced since 2007.
Dadaab is broken down into three sub-camps: Dagahaley, Ifo and Hagadera. Each camp is further divided into sub-groups, which consist of numbered blocks. Each refugee receives a number that serves as his or her identity. The Dagahaley camp is the second largest and the main stop for new arrivals. They live in shelters of branches and plastic sheeting. Refugees may only be numbers among shelters, within blocks, within camps, but every refugee has a story.
In the summer of 2008, Naimo Abdi Mohamed, 14, was sleeping in her room with her father and two brothers. She has no memory of the events of that night - how an Ethiopian shell hit the house, how she received her terrible injuries, or that lying next to her were the bodies of her brothers and father. She was dug out of the ruins and taken to a local hospital in Mogadishu, but there was no medicine. She regained consciousness after 72 hours, in excruciating pain from shrapnel injuries with infection already setting in.
Naimo now sits in a darkened hut in Dadaab. Her movements are slow and her eyes seem hollow as they stare at the ground. Some days she goes to school, but most she just feels pain and stays at home. So she spends her time with her remaining brother, 12-year-old Mohamed. He was also caught in the middle of a firefight. As he hugged the ground, a bomb exploded next to him. Now he does not remember his name or who he is. There are days when Naimo feels that "it's better to die".
In recent months, Shabaab has stepped up its operations, with the result that a further 63,000 people have been displaced since the beginning of this year. It has also been making incursions into Kenya with the aim of undermining the country. One indirect consequence of this is that the group is rumoured to have infiltrated the Dadaab camps. They recruit young refugees to their cause and monitor potential enemies.
One person who has come under their scrutiny is General Abdullahi Mohamed Hirsi. He sits on the floor in the middle of a dark concrete room in Dadaab. In front of him lie two mobile phones, which he watches closely. He has received a large number of text messages in the last 72 hours, and they are not from family or friends. The general receives numerous death and abduction threats. "I will get a text in a couple of hours saying that I will be abducted because I spoke to a you, a white man," he says calmly with a look of acceptance.
The general has been singled out as an enemy of Shabaab because of his previous position as one of the generals within the Somali government who was in charge of conducting the war against anti-government organisations such as Shabaab. Clutching one of his phones, he explains: "In the beginning we were very powerful, because of the Ethiopian troops who helped battle al Qa'eda. But then we had internal clashes. The power we once had went back down, the Ethiopians left and the Islamists regained power."
He knew it was time to leave Somalia when Islamic fighters made an attempt on his life by firing machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades into his home, bringing half of the building down, crushing his head and legs. He spent 35 days in a Mogadishu hospital, his son was wounded, five of his staff were injured and three killed. With his life confined to four stone walls, it is hard to imagine that the General could feel safe. He simply says: "I have no hope."
Refugees like the General find that arrival in the camp means a new set of challenges. "The new arrivals have a lot of problems to adapt to," says Mohamed Abdi Mohamed, who isn't completely certain of his age but thinks he is 23. He is standing in line with 40 other people at the water pump assigned to his block, hastily set up as an adjunct to blocks A, B and C and appropriately named the New Block.
Mohamed has lived in Dagahaley since he was about three years old. He waits in line for water every day for five hours. Everyone does. During the dry season they can barely fill one of the three buckets they bring with them and sometimes there is no water at all. "I want to stay. The conditions [in Somalia] are going from bad to worse," he says. "There is war there, life cannot continue." For Mohamed, Dadaab has become his home: he learnt English here, his family and his friends are here. Life in the camp is hard but deciding to stay becomes easier when people remember what it is they have fled.
Bashir, one of the male block leaders and a new arrival, explains: "There is no difference between the ones who have lived here for ever and me. We all cannot return." New arrivals find it hard in the camps with so little food and water but the alternative is to go home and face bombs, guns, rape and torture. Abu Bakar Mohammed, the liaison officer for the aid organisation Médecins Sans Frontières, has worked in the camps since the beginning in 1991. He remembers the days when "there was no infrastructure and people were dying in the hundreds." That situation has eased, but remains so precarious that a sudden influx of refugees could easily turn the situation in the camps from bearable to catastrophic.
There are not many places for Somalis to find refuge other than Dadaab. With refugees currently arriving at a rate of 150 a day, Abu Bakar, who has seen it all, simply states that "they are coming and then it will be similar to 1991." It's late afternoon and the heat is oppressive. Ominous-looking clouds leave everyone hopeful for rain. But there is no rain, just wind. Wind that carries the cries of babies in the distance, of men chattering underneath trees as they chew khat and the sound of two young boys flying their kites. These homemade toys, made out of pieces of rubbish found drifting through the camp, bring a little joy and a lot of sadness. "I remember my land, I remember my friends. We would play kites and I would show my parents. Now every time I play, I remember my father and mother," says Abdi Welle Mohamed, ID number 365280, 11 years old, family of one.