City of Thorns




City of Thorns is a magnificent and disturbing depiction of life inside Dadaab, the world’s largest refugee camp. Author Ben Rawlence, a former researcher for Human Rights Watch, has the privilege of unusual access to this sprawling refugee camp, which is normally closed to journalists. He uses it as a force for good by bringing the reader along with him. Through skilled storytelling, Rawlence shows the rest the world what people experience when they live through war or famine and flee their own country, only to wind up in a situation that itself constitutes a kind of hell on earth.

Rawlence does a superb job bringing into close focus the lives of nine compelling individuals who live in Dadaab, depicting through their individual sagas what it means to be a refugee at this moment. He also illustrates the rampant corruption and danger that besets these refugees even inside the boundaries of the camp that is supposed to provide them with safe haven. And he shows how refugee camps themselves can sometimes lead to further radicalization and destabilization, when mismanaged or improperly funded.

The author calls us all to task for creating such a situation in which to warehouse the vulnerable. It is a life unimaginable to the inhabitants of most developed countries, and by sharing these stories Rawlence succeeds in personalizing one of the most important challenges of our time, casting a powerful spotlight on the dilemma of how best to answer the refugee crisis.

- Helen Thorpe and Alan Taylor
2017 finalist judges

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Excerpt from the book

“Our myths and religions are steeped in the lore of exile and yet we fail to treat the living examples of that condition as fully human. Instead, those fleeing the twenty-first century’s wars in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia and elsewhere are seen as a potential fifth column, a threat. Each year too few are officially referred by the UN and given asylum in other countries…. No one wants to admit that the temporary camp of Dadaab has become permanent: not the Kenyan government who hosts it, not the UN who must pay for it, and not the refugees who must live there. This paradox makes the ground unsteady. Caught between the ongoing war in Somalia and a world unwilling to welcome them, the refugees can only survive in the camp by imagining a life elsewhere. It is unsettling: neither the past, nor the present, nor the future is a safe place for a mind to linger for long. To live in this city of thorns is to be trapped mentally, as well as physically, your thoughts constantly flickering between impossible dreams and a nightmarish reality. In short, to come here you must be completely desperate.”

2017 Nonfiction Runner-Up

Ben Rawlence
Ben Rawlence

(Click photo to see acceptance speech at awards dinner.)

Ben Rawlence
City of Thorns


“Empathy is the beginning of peace between people. Stories that can show us the world through eyes not our own are the way that we learn empathy. In my view, all literature serves this goal of deepening our shared humanity. To be recognized by a prize for spreading peace is the highest honour a book can achieve.”

— Ben Rawlence                        

Ben Rawlence is a former researcher for Human Rights Watch in the horn of Africa. He is the author of Radio Congo and has written for a wide range of publications, including The Guardian, the London Review of Books, and Prospect. He lives in Wales with his family.


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