- Associated Press - Wednesday, February 2, 2011

AFGOYE, Somalia | Dr. Hawa Abdi has treated sick and wounded Somalis since 1983, through famine and civil war, but Islamist rebels wrecked her life’s work in one day in May last year.

Within a week, she rediscovered an older, more civil Somali society that has survived despite the horrors that have beset her East African homeland.

Dr. Abdi, in an interview, recalled the attack in stark detail.

On the morning of May 5, bullets from automatic rifles tore through the concrete walls and woven grass screens of her hospital. A woman crawled away from her bed in the middle of giving birth. Another burst her stitches from a Cesarean birth as she ran, blood spilling from her body. Mothers were forced to tear intravenous tubes from their babies’ arms as they fled into the thorny bush.

“They just started shooting,” she said. “There was screaming everywhere.”

The rebels smashed the four glass incubators, the only ones in Somalia. In their looting spree, they pried open the metal containers of the centrifuges used for blood tests in search of cash. They bent the doors and windows out of their frames and carried them off. They stole or destroyed food, medicine and equipment. A guard and a bystander lay dead.

Dr. Abdi, 64, was imprisoned in her house with gunmen stationed by her bedroom door. Outside, rebels raised the black flag of the militant group Hizbul Islam.

It could have been just another brief episode in a civil war marked by chaos and cruelty for 20 years, but things were different this time.

Dr. Abdi and her daughters are known throughout Somalia as healers and protectors who do not distinguish among clans, religions or political creeds. Dr. Abdi has offered tens of thousands of people refuge on the 150-square-mile farm where she has built her hospital. News of the attack raced through Somalia and its far-flung diaspora.

Somalia’s clan system mobilized — a curse when warlords are battling for primacy, but a powerful blessing when the weak can appeal to the strong. Former patients began to make calls. Their friends and relatives, both inside and outside Somalia, made calls. And phones belonging to Hizbul Islam began to ring.

After a week, the leader of Hizbul Islam, Sheik Hassan Dahir Aweys, a man designated as a terrorist by the U.S. State Department, ordered Dr. Abdi’s release, and his organization sent her a written apology.

The gunmen, already camped on her property before mounting the attack, were searching for food, medicine and cash. They are still in the area. Sullen teenage fighters among them told Dr. Abdi that as a woman she should not be operating the hospital.

Now, eight months later, Dr. Abdi is internationally renowned, traveling abroad and honored by Glamour magazine as a woman of the year. She spoke to the Associated Press in neighboring Kenya, where she is resting on her doctors’ orders.

Dr. Abdi got her medical degree in the 1960s in the Soviet Union, then an ally of Somalia. She became one of the country’s first foreign-trained female doctors. Then famine and civil war engulfed Somalia and Dr. Abdi opened her farm to refugees from the fighting. She estimates that 10,000 famine victims are buried on her farm.

“My mother made a lot of sacrifices and never gave up helping her people,” Amina, her daughter, said as she walked through the ruins of the hospital. “I remember in 1993, when people had nothing to eat, she was selling her golden necklaces and rings to feed the hungry.”

Even when the rebels moved onto her land last year, Dr. Abdi continued to work, turning aside threats with a smile or an admonishment from the Koran.

“I told them the Koran says you cannot enter someone’s house without their permission and I did not give you permission to be in my house,” she recalled.

Now she is slowly beginning to rebuild what was lost in the May assault with the help of her two daughters, who also are doctors and work at the hospital.

She has visited international donors to appeal for money — if only a fraction of the millions of dollars that the international community spends on military support for the weak, corrupt Somali government. Some Somali expatriates are also trying to help.

Italy, once the colonial ruler of this part of Somalia, gives Dr. Abdi money to buy medicine. The U.N. World Food Program, which suspended aid because it could not be protected, has resumed shipments and has sent food for 800 malnourished children and 440 patients in Dr. Abdi’s care.

The hospital lies at Afgoye, along the main road to the seaside capital of Mogadishu, a corridor that forms one of the world’s largest concentrations of displaced people - more than 410,000. Their gumdrop-shaped huts are often little more than rags tied to a few sticks.

The hospital served as a focal point, distributing food, encouraging mediation in clan disputes and treating the sick. Last year, it cared for more than 162,000 people and helped more than 14,000 malnourished children, according to figures provided by Doctors Without Borders.

Dr. Abdi says the hospital now must perform brutal triage to determine who is most in need of help. Where there were once 400 beds, the hospital now has 150. It still receives more than 250 patients a day, including about 15 women a day arriving to give birth.

“We send cars out to come and pick them up, but we can’t take everyone,” she said.

She and her daughters also run an education program for 850 children and teach women to sew and read. They encourage refugees camped on their land to grow vegetables. They mediate in disputes.

For women like Shukri Abdulkadir Mumin, 41, the hospital is a lone bright spot in a life of misery. After her husband was paralyzed by shrapnel in fighting in the capital, the couple fled here with their seven children. The youngest, 7-month-old Maryan, has watery diarrhea, the same condition that killed a sibling.

“My child was very ill when I came to the hospital. She could not open her eyes but now she is recovering,” said Mumin, cradling her baby. “Thanks to Allah and to the staff members at Hawa Abdi medical facility.”

Copyright © 2016 The Washington Times, LLC.

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