From doctor’s ordeal, a different view of Somalia

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AFGOYE, SOMALIA (AP) - Dr. Hawa Abdi has treated sick and wounded Somalis since 1983, through famine and civil war. But it only took one day for Islamist rebels to wreck her life’s work.

And only a week for her to rediscover an older, more civil Somali society that has survived despite the horrors that have beset her east African homeland.

Speaking to The Associated Press, Abdi recalled the attack in stark detail:

It was the morning of May 5. Bullets from automatic rifles tore through the concrete walls and woven grass screens. 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 IV 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, looking for cash. They bent the doors and windows out of their frames and carried them off. Food, medicine, equipment were stolen or destroyed. A guard and a bystander lay dead.

Abdi, 64, was imprisoned in her house, with gunmen stationed outside her bedroom door and. A black flag, the banner of the militant group Hizbul Islam, was hoisted outside.

There things may have stayed _ one more brief episode in a civil war whose chaos and cruelty have lasted 20 years. But this time was different.

Abdi and her daughters are known throughout Somalia as healers and protectors who don’t distinguish among clans, religions or political creeds. Abdi has offered tens of thousands of people refuge on the 400-square-kilometer (150 square-mile) farm, where she has built her hospital. So 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 call on their ties 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 a terrorist by the U.S. State Department _ ordered Abdi’s release and his organization sent her a written apology.

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

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

Abdi got her medical degree in the 1960s in the Soviet Union, then allied with Somalia. She became one of the country’s first foreign-trained woman doctors. Then famine and civil war engulfed Somalia, and Abdi opened her farm to refugees from the fighting. She believes some 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 with an Associated Press photographer recently. “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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