- 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.”

Somali women sew as part of free education offered by the Hawa Abdi hospital. Dr. Abdi has offered tens of thousands of people refuge on her 150-square-mile farm. (Associated Press)
Somali women sew as part of free education offered by the Hawa ... more >

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.”

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