Under Siege in Somalia

Article excerpt

Byline: Dr. Hawa Abdi With Sarah J. Robbins

A people plagued by catastrophic famine--and the tyranny of Islamist fanatics.

Hawa Abdi is an obstetrician and gynecologist who in 1983 established a one-room clinic near Somalia's capital, Mogadishu. Over time this small operation evolved into one of the largest camps and medical facilities for internally displaced people in the war-torn country. Today the camp houses 90,000 people, mostly women and children. She works alongside her two daughters, also doctors, under perilous conditions. Here she recounts an episode in 2010 when Islamist militants invaded her camp and held her hostage for several days.

I ignored their call, so they came to my gate unannounced: six members of the Somali insurgent group Hizbul Islam, with a request to speak with me in person. Their militia had controlled our area for the past year--the latest in an endless line of transitional leaders, warlords, and regimes I'd seen since the collapse of Somalia's government. I was examining a severely malnourished child, who hadn't eaten for at least four days, when I heard the news; I was not willing to abandon my patient for a conversation with people whose only clear goals were to rob, to take over, or to kill.

As hard as it may be to imagine, Somalia was peaceful when I moved here. But now, after more than 20 years of a civil war caused by interclan fighting, the small clinic I started is a 400-bed hospital. The land behind it, once fertile, now utterly parched, offers refuge to more than 90,000 internally displaced people--a fraction of the nearly half--million who now live along that main road, which stretches northwest from our destroyed capital city. (About 1.5 million Somalis have been displaced by the violence.) The need in our area is unimaginable, but my mission as a doctor is the same. I rise long before dawn with a singular focus: to meet my patients' needs.

One of my fellow doctors tried to reason bravely with the Hizbul Islam soldiers, jittery, aggressive young men with -henna-dyed beards, wearing red-and-white checkered scarves, their index fingers forever on the triggers of their guns. He told them that in our area, we are known as a refuge; we treat all victims of the conflict equally, no matter what side they're on. The six men refused to leave, so I assembled my committee of elders and welcomed them to lunch.

They finished my food and began the conversation with an insult: "You have to hand over the authority of the hospital and the management of your camp to us," one gunman told me.

"This is my property," I said. "I am the doctor here, and I have the knowledge for it. On what legal basis should I hand over a hospital to you?"

"You are a woman," said another, with naked contempt. "You are not allowed to shoulder any responsibility and authority."

According to their version of Islam, a woman is an object that is denied basic human rights. Her role is to support men by staying in the home, cooking and cleaning for them. My Islam sees women as valued members of society--as equals.

The elders quietly reminded me that the men could shoot me at a moment's notice, but I refused to back down.

"So they'll shoot me!" I told them. "At least I will die with dignity."

They did not shoot me; they pushed back their chairs and left. Although none of us doubted Hizbul Islam's words, and their threats, we had no time to worry or wonder. We returned to our work.

In 1971 I began my practice in Mogadishu's biggest hospital, as one of Somalia's first female gynecologists. Since most women lacked the resources for a hospital birth, I decided to open my own clinic next to our family's home in a rural area, 15 miles from the capital. Within a few months, I was seeing 100 patients a day.

When our government collapsed 20 years later, the clinic and my home next door transformed into a triage center; our land became temporary housing for hundreds, then -thousands--mostly women and children. …