Hearing Dadaab's cries

DADAAB, Kenya — —As the small plane entered the pattern to land at this town on the eastern edge of Kenya, the view from the window was of miles and miles of scrubby landscape, low trees and bushes almost the same brown color as the sandy earth beneath them. Hardly noticeable were the small buildings and many tents that have put this place on the international map. They were covered with the ubiquitous brown dust that would soon blow in my face as I stepped onto the tarmac.

Dadaab has become host to one of the largest refugee populations in the world. Two decades ago, about 100,000 Somalis began crossing the border with Somalia, some 60 miles away. These were political refugees escaping turmoil in their native land, best known in the United States for the deadly 1993 battle that killed 19 U.S. troops, as chronicled in the book "Black Hawk Down" by Baltimore native Mark Bowden.


As in many refugee communities around the world, these Somalis — living amid their ethnic kin — became semi-permanent residents, their camp a small city with its own downtown trading area. Now, more than 300,000 more Somalis have joined them. They have made the difficult trek over barren land after the failure of several rains. Simply put, there is no food in Somalia. Hunger has driven them to Dadaab.

What is surprising about Dadaab is that it is relatively orderly, given the possibility of chaos that could accompany such a huge number of people descending on a place of such limited development. Certainly, there has been some insecurity, most recently the kidnapping of two aid workers from Doctors Without Borders. These have led the Kenyan government to send troops into Somalia, which could change the atmosphere. But for now, these security breaches are isolated incidents and, if anything, force even more order, as all movement must be carefully choreographed with security precautions in mind. The refugee camps themselves are not haphazard collections of thrown-together hovels, but organized settlements built along clear grids, with roads and water points and sanitation facilities and other areas clearly evident.


Though the Kenyan government has been a bit reluctant to approve expansion — understandable since it is unclear how permanent these camps will be — an entire new camp is being laid out. I was out there because my employer, Baltimore-based Catholic Relief Services, is one of the humanitarian agencies at work in Dadaab. Among other projects, CRS is constructing latrines for at least a quarter of the new Kambioos camp. Several thousand refugees had already moved in. Maybe 100,000 are on the way.

Families live in tents, hardly luxurious but decent shelter. The new arrivals do not seem malnourished — though their babies look alarmingly small for their age. They all tell the same story, how hunger drove them to come to Dadaab. Some were robbed by bandits along the way. Those with the means hired cars to take them. One 94-year-old woman rode a donkey.

What becomes clear from their stories is that the real horror of this drought is out of sight. It is over the border in Somalia. And security is so difficult there that no reporters or cameras are telling and showing that story.

For a while, the media did show the Dadaab story, and the world responded with aid — though much more is needed because this is not going away any time soon. But after a while, there was nothing new to show here, just the same story, over and over. And other than a few spots in Mogadishu — itself a very dangerous city — it was impossible to show Somalia. So the cameras moved on to other places.

Some still noticed. Earlier this month, Pope Benedict XVI told a weekly audience that "concrete aid" is needed in the region "for so many brothers and sisters who are suffering so badly," and "for the children who die every day."

But it is out of sight in Somalia, where the United Nation has declared a famine — the world's first in almost two decades. It is in Somalia that 750,000 people are in danger of dying from lack of food. Unfortunately, they are doing it off camera. There are no easy answers to Somalia. But there will be no answers at all unless we pay attention, no answers unless we know what questions to ask.

This crisis does answer one question: Is foreign aid worth it? As Congress considers drastic cuts in poverty-focused aid (though it makes up less than 1 percent of the federal budget) it must be noted that the places where aid dollars have been spent, where humanitarian workers have been drilling wells and improving agriculture and building dams, people are surviving this drought in a way they wouldn't have a few decades ago.

It is much more cost effective — and compassionate — to help people develop ways of coping with the vagaries of climate than to try to come to their rescue when they face starvation. The refugees of Dadaab could tell Congress that.


Michael Hill, a former Baltimore Sun reporter, is senior writer at Catholic Relief Services. His email is