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