The heat is stifling, the heat drains life of any purpose or desire, the heat sets the
sand ablaze, smolders the clouds and leaves no respite. It is the caretaker of the
world’s largest refugee camp: Dadaab, in Kenyan territory, 80 kilometers from the Somali border.

The plane lands on the runway with a jolt. And from the first step, the tent city of
Dadaab instantly overwhelms anyone entering it, like a mammoth entity devouring
the lives of its inhabitants. It is ruthless, unforgiving. It is anything and everything,
the Dadaab Leviathan. Because where there are refugees, there should be a refuge,
a safe place, a transitory land of shelter. But it isn’t so: it is an African Gehenna
where sinners and innocent people await tomorrow and suck today dry, trapped in
a monstrous hourglass of scorching sand with no apparent end. Men dressed in
coloured osgunti wander, ebony skinned women draped in purple hijabs drag
themselves in search of a well and children wearing European football club shirts
cry out as the Marabou storks fly around carrying dromedary entrails in their
beaks. Here it lies, this immense refugee camp: a lysergic delirium made of
scorching temperatures, souls imprisoned by time and by the wind spreading
damnation in every corner, insinuating it under their skin, throwing it into their
eyes with the dust, blowing it into their ears filled with relentless cries. This is
Dadaab. This is it.

The camp’s history stretches back to the nineties, when Somalia was besieged by
civil war. The ruler of the former Italian colony, Siad Barre, was deposed and war
lords began a widespread conflict which hurled the country on the Horn of Africa
into violent anarchy at the hands of insubordinate soldiers. The conflict was made
worse by famine, forcing men and women to flee their land and seek refuge in
Kenya. The exodus has been incessant, since the nineties violence in Somalia has
seen no end. After the war lords came Al Shabaab and Jihadism. Increasing
numbers of people kept on fleeing, on foot, on donkey drawn carts, day and night.

Worn out men, the embodiment of exhaustion, cross the African savannah and
those who make it arrive at Dadaab. The enormous camp is divided up into five
minor tent villages (Hagadera, Kambioos, Ifo, Ifo II and Dagahaley) and today
houses 350,000 people. It is Kenya’s third “city” in terms of inhabitants, after
Nairobi and Mombasa, but overpopulation, the lack of structures providing the
population necessary basics for survival, as well as the absence of concrete plans
for the future mean that, especially among the younger generations, the prevailing
feeling is one of absolute anger which has been channeled into Islamism. “To live”

in Dadaab is “to survive”: 50 kilometers of tent city where the present is but an
endless cluster of horrors: cholera epidemics, Islamic Jihadism, drug abuse and
rape. The government in Nairobi has now announced it wants to shut down the
camp which it considers a terrorist recruiting ground and its inhabitants are faced
with an even darker tomorrow: while talks about closure have been made, no
proposals have been put forward concerning the fate of the over 350,000 refugees.

 

 

At dawn the pick-ups arrive at Hagadera packed with sacks. As these are unloaded
dozens of men and women rush to open them, grab the bunches of khat and get
ready to sell the psychotropic substance. Khat is a plant grown and used in Kenya,
the Horn of Africa and the Arabian Peninsula. It contains ketamine, a substance
similar to amphetamine, which produces euphoria, excitement, inhibits hunger and
increases sex drive. In Dadaab, the use of these leaves, which the World Health
Organization has classified as a drug, has become a social scourge. Addiction is
increasing, as are depression, mental disturbances and paranoia caused by its use.
But there is more: women also pay the price of its abuse; while not being allowed to
use it , they are increasingly the victims of rape perpetrated by men under its effect.

 

 

A few hours after sunrise the trucks are unloading tons of plants at all the camp’s
markets. The men separate the bunches, check that there are no dry twigs and that
the produce is fresh as after 48 hours from picking the substance becomes less
powerful. And so the sale starts as does consumption. Eyes become bleary, mouths
bulge with leaves, ivory teeth turn green and the high from the drug distorts the
face of Yussuf Mohamed who cries out: ”I feel good, khat gives me strength, I have
no work, I have no food, khat is what keeps me alive”. The man’s words are
revealing and help us understand why the plant is so widespread, worshipped like a
survival effigy in a desert of desperation. Jobs are scarce at Dadaab, food is rationed and distributed monthly, hundreds of thousands of refugees have renounced their faith in tomorrow, which seems to bear no future for them and led them to idolize fatalism. Chewing tons of khat helps them fight awareness of their misery. ‘‘Khat has become a reason to live,” explains Simba Karimba, head of a group of
merchants. And not just for those using it but also for those selling it. It’s true, it
creates problems, but problems are all there is here, and khat also appeases many.
Women earn a few shillings to buy milk for their sons, their sons will grow and
when they are older will spend those shillings to buy leaves, chew them and forget
some of their sufferings. And so khat allows us to carry on in our cycle of non-life.”
One more bunch of leaves bulging the cheek, until it is ready to explode, until the
eyelids shut, the temples pulse, the jaws clench, the heart becomes delirious and
the head explodes providing escape: and for one hour, one night, Dadaab is a sky
with a thousand stars and a thusand dreams: but it ceases to be so with the new

dawn, with the searing overpowering heat and the sand walls of this prison of
misery reminding us that there is no way out of Dadaab, not even by chewing khat.

Photos by Marco Gualazzini