Away From Home
October 2009

by Spencer Platt

Will and I had now been sitting for three hours in a threadbare room inside the Kenyan Department of Refugee Affairs awaiting our permits for travel to the Dadaab refugee camp. Will had traveled from Australia and I from New York specifically to go to Dadaab for a story. Since arriving in a chilly Nairobi we had been met by a litany of excuses as to why our permits had not been forthcoming. Becoming increasingly despondent and convinced that the trip would end in failure, we made a last-ditch effort to go to the office and have a sit-in.

© Spencer Platt / 2009 Getty Images
Naib Naema Abde Mohamed, 14, displays wounds to her chest and stomach suffered when an Ethiopian shell hit her home in Mogadishu, Somalia, Aug. 21, 2009, in Dadaab, the world's biggest refugee complex in Dadaab, Kenya. Naib lost two brothers and her father in the fighting in 2008 and now lives with her mother in the Dadaab camp.
At a table in front of us was a young Somali man in thick glasses who was carrying a cane and being interviewed by a clearly indifferent bureaucrat about his application for asylum into Kenya. When the Kenyan temporarily left the room with a handful of papers the Somali turned and started a conversation with us. It was to be our long-awaited first experience with a Somali refugee. In halting English the man related his desire to go to Europe or America, anywhere. When asked about the current situation in Somalia the young man turned to us and said, "war." With that he requested my e-mail address, wished us luck and headed out into Nairobi to join the tens of thousands of other Somali refugees living the precarious existence of a refugee.

Minutes later Will and I were summoned to a room where two women, sitting behind desks under a crooked portrait of Kenyan President Mwai Kibaki, announced that our papers had been approved and we were free to travel. Handing us two sealed envelopes bearing official stamps, the women, who had clearly become exhausted with our presence, said "Enjoy Dadaab" and bid us good day.

© Spencer Platt / 2009 Getty Images
Somali refugee Abukar Ahmed Keniar, 12, is held by his uncle, Noor Hassan Noor, Aug. 24, 2008, at Dadaab, the world’s biggest refugee complex in Dadaab, Kenya. Abukar was shot three months ago in Mogadishu, Somalia, and is now paralyzed in one leg and fled to Kenya seeking treatment and security.
I had come to Kenya following a conversation over a beer with a friend from the group Doctors Without Borders (MSF) who was dissatisfied with the media's obsession with Somali pirates. As someone who paid close attention to the daily tragedy unfolding in the lives of Somali civilians, Michael felt that all we were hearing about Somalia was the escapades of pirates on the high seas. Not that this wasn't important, but there was a reason for the anarchy that had given fruit to a nation of buccaneers: it's just that few bothered to look deeper. He mentioned that northeast Kenya was home to Dadaab, currently the world's largest refugee camp. Dadaab, which actually consists of three small camps combined, was designed over 20 years ago to hold roughly 90,000 refugees and today it holds nearly 300,000 displaced Somalis. An average of 165 Somalis are crossing the perilous Kenyan border with Somalia daily to make their way to Dadaab. As the civil war between Al-Shabaab, the Islamist militia with ties to al Qaida, and the moderate Islamist government of Sharif Ahmed continues to rage, this number will only increase. Michael mentioned that Doctors Without Borders was in charge of medical care at one of the camps and would be glad to host me.

My translator at Dadaab, a Somali named Abdirkarim, asked if I would like to photograph injured refugees. We had spent the afternoon walking through the Dagahaley camp in Dadaab, a sprawling dusty complex of crude homes, darting children and rickety stalls selling a meager assortment of food, soap and soft drinks. The heat in this part of northeast Kenya can be unrelenting and combined with the devastating drought gripping the country, walking became a simple quest for shade. Abdirkarim had been carrying a dented and worn Somali license plate in a black plastic bag now for two days. I had inquired about obtaining a license plate from one of the numerous Somali taxis in town as a memento of my trip. Every half-hour or so we would take a break from walking and Abdirkarim, glancing at me with the expression befitting a middle-aged professor, would blurt out a price for the natty plate and move on. This went on for some days until finally, in the middle of a dusty soccer pitch, we agreed upon a monetary value and the dirty piece of metal bearing the numerals 2887 and the word 'Somalia' in both English and Arabic was transferred to me.

© Spencer Platt / 2009 Getty Images
Mako Bakar Bakaro, who lost a leg in fighting in Mogadishu, Somalia, in 2008, stands against the wall of her hut, Aug. 21, 2009, in Dadaab, the world’s largest refugee complex in Dadaab, Kenya. Mako's husband was killed in the fighting.
I waited in a small, stuffy hut as Abdirkarim disappeared to search for the subjects. He had told me that there were many refugees living in the camp who had lost limbs, become mentally incapacitated, or bore the terrible scars of life in Somalia. A young Somali boy, whose parents told me he had suddenly stopped speaking years ago, sat beside me letting out a series of small grunts. Dressed in tattered brown rags, his haunted face showed a fleeting smile as he lit his father's cigarette, a job both he and his father seemed to delight in. Minutes later Abu returned with a girl who appeared to be no older than 12 and said her name was Naib. I introduced myself and tried to explain that I was doing a photo story on Somali refugees and would she mind being photographed? I couldn't discern any external injuries to this girl and began to wonder why I had wasted an afternoon walking here. Before I could finish my introduction, Naib had lifted her heavy shirt to reveal a stomach mutilated with twisting dark scars that seemed to engulf her small body. I was so taken aback by the violence of the injuries that I had to repeatedly ask Abdirkarim to interpret for me what she was saying. Naib had lost two brothers and her father in fighting in 2008 when an Ethiopian shell hit her home in Mogadishu and she now lives with her mother in the Dadaab camp. It was that shell that so badly disfigured Naib. As she related this personal tragedy to me she kept a placid, almost indifferent expression on her face. Looking through the images later it struck me that this face seemed to defy the nature of her injuries and the death of her brothers and father. It was an expression of modern Somalia: not asking for our compassion or charity but for us to simply comprehend the consequences of an errant tank shell on the life of a young girl.

© Spencer Platt / 2009 Getty Images
Four-year-old Norto Yusef Mohamed looks out from a set of women’s clothes while waiting with his mother who is seeking information about a move to a different displacement camp due to overcrowding at Dadaab, the world’s biggest refugee complex in Dadaab, Kenya. Aug. 24, 2008.
Landing at Nairobi's Wilson Airport in the late afternoon I was struck by the contrast of modern Africa. Descending the steps of our small United Nations charter flight from Dadaab, I noticed a neighboring plane stenciled with a motif of a lion and bearing the name of a safari charter company on its side. Groups of attractive and well-dressed Europeans were being followed by African porters weighed down by luggage. It has become possible to travel to Africa and entirely skip any scene of misery, hardship or war. Maybe this is for the better as there is surely more to Africa than the miserable images of the destitute we have become lazily familiar with. I entered the airport parking lot and purchased a copy of the Standard newspaper from a vendor before jumping into the car of my driver, James. As we navigated the Nairobi rush hour traffic, James related various bits of gossip while I glanced over the headlines from the past week. Hoping to see a story acknowledging the misery I had just spent the last week witnessing, a headline at the bottom of the page caught my eye: "Somali Pirates Hijack Ship."

© Spencer Platt

Spencer Platt joined Getty Images in 2001. Currently, he covers stories in Latin America, Africa and the Middle East. His work has appeared in such publications as Time, Newsweek, Stern, Paris Match and the Los Angeles Times, among others. Platt has won numerous awards for his work throughout the world including Photography of the Year (POY) and the NPPA Year in Pictures. In 2006, Platt received the coveted World Press Photo of the Year award for an image in taken in Beirut. Spencer Platt grew up in Westport, Conn., and attended Clark University. Platt lives in Brooklyn, New York.

Platt has recently teamed up with Doctors Without Borders to focus on neglected humanitarian situations throughout the world. With DWB he has covered the plight of displaced Congolese, the Kurds in Turkey and the war-ravaged villages of Central African Republic. His coverage of the plight of Somali refugees in Kenya is his latest project with the group.

Spencer Platt's previous dispatches:

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