It always makes sense to revisit a story, as the adage goes, to deepen one’s sense of time and space and to forcefully interrogate events from a first encounter or journey in a bid to separate one-off incidents from purposeful patterns. But in this brave new world of mass production and consumption journalism – where stories often have the lifespan of a tweet – revisiting a story is often a mere exercise in luxury.
So naturally, when the opportunity arose to revisit Dadaab, the largest refugee camp in the world, albeit very briefly, a month-and-a-half after we had first explored the humanitarian crisis unfolding there as the worst drought in six decades hit the Horn of Africa, it seemed like one worth embracing.
But as second thoughts began to kick in, I was forced to wonder what could be accomplished on a short trip to a place that had largely slipped off the news agenda as the story moved closer to the source of the crisis in southern Somalia and the capital, Mogadishu.
A story either passes or moves on and access to and distribution of aid in the famine declared region, the incompetence of Somalia’s Transitional Federal Government (TFG), the impertinence of al-Shabab and their stance on foreign aid and, of course, the politics of food aid had predictably become the next stage of this one.
Why then would anyone want to read about Dadaab, if the latest figures suggest that Somali refugees are not arriving in the numbers they were during June and July (aid agencies suggest 800 are currently arriving every day, down from a high of between 1,500 and 1,800 in July)?
Dadaab, ultimately, is the end result of the failure to govern and protect ordinary people in Somalia and reporting on the complexities inside that country which have created this situation seems reasonable, especially if camps like Dadaab or Dolo-Ado in Ethiopia would potentially cease to exist if a political solution were to be arrived at in Somalia.
But what do we do with the knowledge that refugees continue to walk for between 10 and 20 days from Kismaayo or Badhaadhe, burying their dead children along the way, hiding from wild animals at night and skirting around al-Shabab militia and TFG forces as they seek out Dadaab?
How many times can you tell the same story of a woman who left her husband behind as she embarked on a journey to save her children from famine or describe the journey entire families are forced to make in the back of a truck or on foot from Somalia before readers are numbed by the sameness of it all?
What happens to the human story as journalists seek out expert opinion and analysis on why Somalia is in its current state?
By the time I had deliberated over all of these questions, I was already on a plane to Dadaab.
And, of course, upon arrival, I found the camps precisely as they were when I had left them a month-and-a-half before as if time had stood motionless, frozen by its very surroundings.
Save for a few new developments, like the opening of the Ifo extension site for new arrivals, and the fact that there is now an estimated 440,000 refugees there as opposed to the 380,000 in June, little has changed.
Refugees still arrive at the Dagahaley reception centre in their hundreds, before moving on to the outskirts of one of the other camps in the hope of eventually being ‘housed’. Children still walk or skip over donkey and goat carcasses on route to the make-shift toilets with their open sewers that leave shadows as they seep into the hard ground. Young, educated men and women in their early twenties still meander around the camp, looking for work and dreaming of another life beyond the fences that have contained them since they arrived as children in 1991.
Among the new arrivals, mothers are still burying their young sons and daughters merely days after they arrive because MSF hospitals are over-burdened, under-staffed and inaccessible on the outskirts of the camps. And as one desperate father told me, when night falls and complete darkness descends upon the prairie, young girls are still being molested and raped far away from UN and Kenyan police protection.
“After the rape, she has become abnormal,” he tells me of his 15-year-old daughter who was raped in July.
But none of these are new stories you see, and we’ve covered them already.
Meanwhile, these refugees can continue living as such, until we find a new angle, or until the world decides to act unison on a country that is already an ever-expanding blemish on our collective humanity.
Previous reports by Azad Essa:
No relief for Somali refugees in Dadaab?