The Daily Beast : Al-Shabab Stealing Somali Children From Hawa Abdi’s Refugee Camp

Al-Shabab Stealing Somali Children From Hawa Abdi’s Refugee Camp

Eliza Griswold
Feb 28, 2012 8:21 PM EST

Dr. Hawa Abdi’s camp is under siege from al Qaeda–backed militants, who snatched 700 kids on a recent raid.

One recent morning outside of the Somali capital of Mogadishu, Al-Shabab militants linked to al Qaeda loaded 700 displaced children onto buses, as their parents and the staff of Dr. Hawa Abdi’s hospital and camp looked on in horror. There was no guarantee that the children would ever return. In Somalia, it’s a common sight to see children younger than 12, awkwardly cradling Kalashnikovs twice their size, man the frontlines of a murky and escalating war that pits a powerless U.S.-backed transitional government against a well-armed group of mercenary killers and freelance gunmen.

Following a decade in which many Muslims around the world have perceived Islam to be under attack, these killers now borrow the name of al Qaeda to rape, to steal food, gas, land, water, and to control a population that has known nothing but nearly continuous war for longer than any other country in the world. The statistics related to Somalia’s conflict are staggering: 1.46 million internally displaced people; 4 million Somalis without regular access to food and millions more at risk when the region is plagued by increasingly frequent droughts; and up to 1 million dead from the two-decade-long civil war. And the militants count on the West’s fatigue to advance their power inch by inch. They also seize land from refugees, as they recently have at Abdi’s camp. Somalia has long been an “X” on al Qaeda’s idealized map of Dar-ul-Islam, the Land of Islam, since it stands at the strategic watery gateway to the Arabian Peninsula.

Would their children come back, or would they vanish into makeshift training camps to await almost certain death at the hands of U.S.-backed forces and African Union troops?

Now the militants are stealing children, like the ones they loaded onto the buses on this recent morning. They were taking them to a rally in support of al Qaeda and forcing the children to act in support of the cause of Osama bin Laden. To any outside viewer, it would seem like these hundreds of kids were devotees of Al-Shabab and militant Islam. But instead they had been abducted from Abdi’s camp, where women and men make decisions together, where children go to school, and where men caught beating their wives are sent to a storeroom prison. But Al-Shabab recently shut down the prison and took control of part of the camp. They have left the hospital running, for the moment, having already learned that Abdi’s nurses are not to be messed with. This time, with Abdi out of the country, the militants claimed they were only ones with the authority to run the camp, its prison, or anything else in Somalia. Abdi, who is currently in a neighboring African country for safety reasons, can’t return home.

On the day that the killers abducted the camp’s children, Abdi waited anxiously by the phone, while the children’s despairing parents waited back at the camp to see what would happen. Would their children come back, or would they vanish into makeshift training camps to await almost certain death at the hands of U.S.-backed forces and African Union troops? Finally, at day’s end, dust on the road indicated the buses’ return. The children had come back—for now. This is a normal day in the life of Somalia’s millions of children, and their parents who are powerless to stop their abduction and transport to the frontlines of a forgotten war.

POEM, from Modern Saints and Martyrs

Hawa sold her family gold to feed

first 10, then 20, 30, 40, 50,

60, 70, 80, 90, 100, thousand

squatting on her Mogadishu farm.

Having nothing left to give,

she sends the men to fish in sand.

On the cracked veranda, her intensive care,

the newest babies fail to thrive.

Of 4, none will survive. She climbs

the hive of an unnatural hill—

her houseguests’ grave.

Eliza Griswold, a senior fellow at the New America Foundation, is the author of the New York Times bestseller The Tenth Parallel.

The Daily Beast : Somali Shabaab Militants Target Dr. Hawa Abdi’s Camp

Somali Shabaab Militants Target Dr. Hawa Abdi’s Camp

Sarah J. Robbins
Feb 28, 2012 2:31 PM EST

Al Qaeda claims to have a deed to part of Dr. Hawa Abdi’s land

At the heart of the conflict in Somalia, a small but precious piece of land is once again under attack. Property owned by Somali humanitarian Dr. Hawa Abdi–on which she once walked with U.S. President George H.W. Bush on his tour of the war-torn country in 1993–has been overtaken by members of the Al-Qaeda–backed militant group Al-Shabaab. Now, after more than 20 years of civil war, hundreds of the camp’s internally-displaced people are once again facing homelessness.

“These men are coming for our land because they can no longer operate in Mogadishu,” says Dr. Abdi, referring to Al-Shabaab’s loss of control over Somalia’s capital in January, when the militants were driven out by United-Nations-backed African Union troops. “Now they want to establish a base of power in our area.”

One of Somalia’s first gynecologists, Dr. Abdi has lived on this sandy stretch of land known as the Afgooye corridor since 1978; part of her property has belonged to her family for 10 generations. She established a one-room women’s clinic 20 miles from the capital in 1983, and when Somalia’s government collapsed eight years later, patients began flocking to her for safety. Recent estimates of the population of internally displaced people in Dr. Abdi’s camp have been as high as 90,000 people—a veritable city that has lived in relative peace for more than 20 years.

“Al Shabaab sees me as especially vulnerable because I am a woman,” Dr. Abdi says. “I am a target because my area has law and order, and the people living with me don’t accept the injustice they are enforcing.” One of Al Shabaab’s precursors, Hizbul Islam, attacked Dr. Abdi’s camp in May 2010; after a more than two-week standoff, the militia relinquished control and issued an apology letter to Dr. Abdi.

“Al Shabaab sees me as especially vulnerable because I am a woman,” Dr. Abdi says.

The dispute over the land in question, a patch 100 meters by 80 meters, began in January with the appearance of a document dated six years after the issue of Dr. Abdi’s original deed. The man who holds the newer certificate, which Dr. Abdi believes is forged, has the backing of Al Qaeda, she says. This past Sunday, two members of Dr. Abdi’s staff were summoned to court, held in a small room and surrounded by armed Al-Shabaab militia men, Dr. Abdi says; at five o’clock, without any trial, they received a verdict: the ownership of the land would immediately transferred.

“I’ve decided to speak out against the injustice, for the lives of the people living there,” says Dr. Abdi. In order to do so, she has temporarily halted work in the camp’s 400-bed hospital and has closed the school that serves more than 700 children and that has been an Al Qaeda target in recent weeks. “We fear for their safety,” she says of the needy women and children, expressing regret that the only way to shield them from possible violence is to keep them away from vital medical and educational services.

This is not the first time in recent months that the militants have come in to uproot families who have lived in Dr. Abdi’s camp, some since 1991. This past October, an Al Shabaab–linked businessman bought a small piece of land but doubled its area by pushing into land owned by Dr. Abdi and her neighbors and using a bulldozer to clear the displaced people living there—including 100 families supported by Dr. Abdi’s work.
At press time the camp was quiet, the families housed there living in fear of a bulldozer coming to demolish their carefully constructed huts. Today, Dr. Abdi and her staff appealed to a higher court for a reversal. They are still awaiting a decision.

Toronto Star : Somalia’s Shabab occupy beloved “Mama Hawa” camp–somalia-s-shabab-occupy-beloved-mama-hawa-camp

Somalia’s Shabab occupy beloved “Mama Hawa” camp
February 27, 2012

Michelle Shephard

Dr. Hawa Abdi, known as Mama Hawa in Somalia, is shown with her daughter Deqo Mohamed, 36, also a doctor.

Dr. Hawa Abdi, known as Mama Hawa in Somalia, is shown with her daughter Deqo Mohamed, 36, also a doctor.

Somali fighters linked to Al Qaeda have occupied part of a camp and hospital run by Dr. Hawa Abdi, a fearless 65-year-old obstetrician, gynecologist and lawyer who is regarded as a hero among Somalis and affectionately known as “Mama Hawa.”

Along with her daughters Deqo and Amina Mohamed, Hawa has defied odds by offering a home and medical care for 90,000 displaced Somalis just 20 kilometres from Mogadishu, an area of unrelenting violence.

Hawa said an Islamic court run by Al Shabab, a group of radical Islamists, decreed Sunday night that part of her land no longer belonged to her, causing a mass exodus of doctors, patients and occupants to Mogadishu, which is under control of an African Union peacekeeping mission and Somali government forces.

The land that was reportedly awarded to a Shabab business associate by a court operating in Somalia’s Lower Shabelle region housed camps for 400 internally displaced Somalis.

“This is so awful,” a distraught Hawa said in a telephone interview from Nairobi Monday.

“They don’t know Islamic laws or civil laws. They just have guns and they know how to kill.”

Hawa and her daughters recently left Somalia for Kenya following death threats – although facing danger for their work is nothing new.

In 2010, a force of 750 members belonging to the Hizbul Islam stormed the compound and held Hawa at gunpoint. The fighters told her she was unfit to run the facility since she was female and old. Hizbul Islam, led by Sheikh Dahir Awyes, would later join the Shabab for a brief period.

“I said to them, ‘What have you done for Somalia? Look what I have done,’” she said in an interview with the Star last summer in Montreal, recounting the ordeal.

Hawa wouldn’t budge and refused to leave her land, prompting an army of the women who lives she had saved, to surround the camp and order her release.

Amazingly, after 10 hours they did.

But the situation in Somalia has recently changed with Shabab officially merging with Al Qaeda this month and the remaining terrified residents are bracing for anticipated clashes as AU forces move into the area.

“It has never been this bad,” Hawa said Monday.

Hawa began her philanthropic vision in 1983 with one delivery room built on her ancestors’ land and a mission to treat women who were dying in childbirth. Today, the Dr. Hawa Abdi Foundation camp has hospitals, residences, two fresh water wells and an adjacent farm to help feed its occupants.

Hawa’s work has always been revered in Somalia but went largely unnoticed internationally until writer Eliza Griswold featured her in her book The Tenth Parallel.

In 2010, Hawa became one of Glamour Magazine’s Women of the Year, featured alongside other humanitarians and celebrities like Cher and Fergie.

The magazine described her as “equal parts Mother Teresa and Rambo.”

Newsweek : Under Siege In Somalia

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

by Dr. Hawa Abdi , Sarah J. Robbins | August 7, 2011 10:0 AM EDT

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. With limited resources, I gave away what I had, but our farm’s stores soon ran out. Warlords blockaded the ports and created countless checkpoints along our already lethal road, attacking aid groups, intercepting the food, and selling it for arms.

During those dark days of 1992, starvation set in and I sold my family’s gold to buy enough food to sustain the vulnerable children and give the grave diggers enough strength to work. Even when we were burying 50 people per day, I was still able to provide free land, security, and medical treatment. We clung to one another and we survived, but the fighting continued. Now, again, we see famine—not caused by drought alone, but by the conflict that continues to ravage Somalia.

A week after my meeting with the Hizbul Islam militants, I awoke to the sound of gunfire. The phone rang as I was rushing to dress: they had sent 750 men to surround us, and to take my camp by force.

The invaders hung their black flag in our emergency ward and brutally beat our guards and our elders, clubbing them with gun-butts. As their mortar shells slammed into the cement walls and aluminum roofs of our hospital, I called my daughters, who were both out of the country at the time. They prayed for my safety and began alerting the media.

When a BBC producer called me during some of the heaviest shelling, I told him that the militiamen’s targets were the maternity and surgical wards, and the pediatric malnutrition section. One woman recovering from a C-section I’d performed earlier that day had stood up to run, her wound opening as she disappeared toward Mogadishu. Terrified mothers had detached feeding tubes and IV lines from their dehydrated children’s noses and arms to flee into the woods, away from the indiscriminate shooting. We knew that they would not survive. “Pray for us,” were my last words before hanging up. “Pray for us.”

A round of bullets hit my front door, shaking the entire house; a group of militiamen stormed into my room. “You’ve spoken to the radio, haven’t you?” shouted one. Six of my nurses surrounded me—“We have to be present when she is killed,” they said—and another militant ordered us to hand over our mobile phones and forced us outside to a waiting bus, which drove us to their headquarters, about 4 miles away.

They held us in an empty room where the nurses and I sat together on a stack of mattresses. At one point I heard my own terrified voice from the next room: the militia was listening to a rebroadcast of the BBC interview.

Some time later, a gunman entered and handed me his mobile phone. “You have many supporters,” he said, ordering me to send a message that I was alive and unharmed. I talked and talked, reaching out first to my daughters and then to the hospital’s staff, urging them to speak out. Hizbul Islam, I said, didn’t have an ounce of humanity. They’d done things far worse to others than what they’d done to me.

After 10 hours the militiamen hustled us back into the bus and returned us to the camp, which was dark, silent and ravaged. Without my daily order to start the generators, there was no electricity and no power for the water pumps. (I later learned that militia in the camp had taunted the residents by shouting, “No Hawa, no water.”) Armed men led me into my ransacked house, guns slung over their shoulders.

They’d destroyed every one of my family pictures, shredded my documents, shattered our CDs. My mattress was ripped open, my furniture slashed in a fruitless search for hidden money; though they went after my safe with a sledgehammer, they’d failed to open it. They’d even stomped on my daughters’ framed college photos, saying that their association with their male classmates proved they were infidels.

At dawn I looked out the window to a sea of people gathered around the house. When they saw me, they began shouting, “We want to see Dr. Hawa!” Hizbul Islam’s guards had no choice but to turn to me for advice; I told them that to maintain order, they had to let people in, about 400 at a time.

As I welcomed visitors between the hours of 6 a.m. and 1 p.m., I put on a brave face. But I could not stop thinking about the two men who had died in the initial gun battle, and the people suffering without medical care. I gave a local reporter a short interview, telling him that Hizbul Islam had entered my private property, and that the needy women and children they’d attacked were my guests. The area’s safety, I said, depended on the intruders’ removing their black flag and leaving.

The next day a militiaman entered my room, flanked by two 18-year-olds carrying machine guns. “Dr. Hawa, you are stubborn,” said the man, reiterating that I was not to give an outside interview.

“You are an old woman,” he said. “You need to sit.”

“I do something for my people and my country,” I said. “You are young and active. What have you done for your people and your country?”

I could see fear registering in the faces of the nurses surrounding me. “You are men,” I said calmly. “You need to give something to these people in need.”

They removed most of their gunmen, but the hospital, the school, and the sanitation departments remained at a standstill, the camp’s wreckage a reminder of Hizbul Islam’s unimaginable cruelty. In the back of my head I can still feel the pain of every hour, every minute that hospital stood still.

After a week of paralysis, five armed men returned to my room with a different demand: “We told the media that the place is open,” they said. “You need to open it.”

I knew that if I accepted their request to open my facilities today, they’d have the power to return tomorrow, to tell me to close them. I had to show them the consequences of their actions, for their own survival: they are the husbands and the sons of the women I treat, the brothers of the other wounded men in the hospital.

“I’m not going to open it until you write me a letter of apology,” I said.

Seven days later, their second-in-command came to me with a signed letter written in both Somali and English. The letter apologized first to me, then to the nongovernmental organizations helping in the camp, the camp’s staff, and the Somali people around the area who lost loved ones.

“I am Somali,” I told him. “I am a mother, I am a doctor, and I deserve to be respected. I care for so many people around you—this was a tragedy you could have prevented.”

Thanks to the generosity of donors, we’ve rebuilt the hospital bit by bit, and we’re expanding our maternal and child health services and our education programs. But the attack had a lasting effect on our work: since then, all of the international organizations working within our borders, including the U.N.’s World Food Program and Doctors Without Borders, have left. The situation is too dangerous.

Now we face our biggest challenge yet. The drought in our area has led to the worst starvation I have ever seen—worse even than what we saw in 1992. Without any other option they are walking to us from as far as Baidoa, more than 150 miles west, deprived of food and water for four, five, even seven days. Many—too many—are falling down and dying along the way; their families have no choice but to bury them alongside the road. Those who make it stand in line by the hundreds at our hospital—mostly desperate mothers holding children dying of severe malnutrition.

While we’ve run out of space to house them, we give what we can—free water and free health care. We’ve taken the money we’ve raised to open a series of emergency feeding centers that will serve, for now, about 12,000 people per day, but it is not enough. We need the investment of the international community to guarantee that we survive this difficult time and return to strength.

Adapted from the forthcoming Human Rights Watch book The Unfinished Revolution: Voices From the Frontline in the Global Fight for Women’s Rights (Seven Stories Press, March 2012). Abdi’s autobiography, co-written with Sarah J. Robbins, will be issued by Grand Central Publishing in 2013.