At dawn last Wednesday, Dr. Hawa Abdi, a 63-year-old Somali gynecologist, woke to the whistle of shells falling around her at her family farm. This was nothing new. For the past four years, Islamist militias have been battling Somalia’s weak and ever-changing government for power over the world’s longest-running failed state. But 10 minutes later, those familiar sounds turned into 500 militant members of al Qaeda-linked Hizbul Islam, one of the two lethal Islamist groups vying for control in Somalia, bursting into her home and surrounding her hospital. They rounded up dozens of Dr. Hawa’s employees and killed two of them. (Twenty security guards are still being held hostage.) They told Dr. Hawa that she could no longer be in charge of the hospital she has spent the last 15 years building, or the refugee camp that has sprung up around it.
“We came three months ago and told you that as a woman you can’t run this place,” the militant leader said. Dr. Hawa recounted this story to me last night by phone from her bedroom, where she was being kept under house arrest by five militant members of Hizbul Islam who were stationed outside her room and in the hospital. “It’s very dangerous for me now. I am still not free,” she said. “It’s strange how they think, these people. They think that women can’t do anything, have property, or be leaders.”
“I’m in my room and afraid to go anywhere,” she told me. “The refugees have come to sleep with me. But the militants are stronger than us, so we are praying to God.”
Hours earlier, the militants had told her to quit talking on the phone, but she refused. She said she had nothing left to lose. “This isn’t government,” she said. “This is my home.”
Dr. Hawa is one of Somalia’s few heroes. A divorced mother of two, she trained in Ukraine as a gynecologist during the Cold War. In 1993, she opened the one-room women’s hospital. Given Dr. Hawa’s reputation as a doctor and humanitarian, people suffering from the famine of the early ’90s flocked to her farm. She buried more than 10,000 people who died of starvation there. The latest wave of refugees has built their homes, which look like overturned bird’s nests, on the hill that serves as a mass grave.
I first walked up this hill with her in 2007, when the camp seemed full to bursting with 20,000 recent arrivals. When I visited again, in 2008, the number of displaced people had grown. Now the population has more than tripled. The numbers are indicative of the spiraling humanitarian crisis that is threatening to outdo the infamous early 1990s. When that famine ended, Dr. Hawa’s work did not. She kept adding on to her hospital.
All 400 beds were full when last week’s shelling started. Eighty-two children suffering from malnutrition or cholera were waiting for the doctor in her feeding center. Seventy-two thousand other people were squatting on her crammed farm. She sold all her family gold long ago to feed them. She offers every family a small plot of farmland so they can grow their own corn and vegetables. Until two months ago, the World Food Program supplied at least nominal help to Dr. Hawa, providing corn for 500 families. Then things got so bad it couldn’t get shipments of food through. Doctors Without Borders ran a clinic on Dr. Hawa’s land, too—until last Wednesday, when Hizbul Islam had the depravity to take the popular doctor hostage.
The militants have been holding Dr. Hawa under house arrest for the past five days. In the beginning, they hung their black flag outside the clinic to show their power. In response, Dr. Hawa had the nerve to hang up a white one. “This is my protest,” she told them. “Take your flag down. Even the holy Quran says you can’t enter a private house without an invitation.” The militants told her she should not dare to speak to them in this manner. But as usual, she refused to back down.
Somalia’s baffling war has its panoply of villains—from warlords to al Qaeda-linked militants—all vying for control of the country. The fighting began when neighboring Ethiopia invaded Somalia in late 2006 with the backing of the United States. At the time, Somalia was under the sway of a loose group of religious leaders and businessmen who believed that the country’s only hope for survival lay in Islamic law. According to the CIA, al Qaeda-linked militants were also hiding out in this badland. America hoped to uproot these unsavory men and send them fleeing down Somalia’s long coast to the border of neighboring Kenya, where the militants would be easy to arrest. The plan was to dislodge a small number of bona fide terrorists and deny a larger number of their potential recruits any comfortable hiding zone in East Africa. The plan didn’t come off, however, and instead this invasion helped to create the very enemy the U.S. was seeking to destroy: a group of well-armed radical religious fighters who believed that Islam demanded they protect their land and its people.
Over the past several years, these militants, known as both al-Shabab (The Youth) and the newer group Hizbul Islam (the Islamic Party), have put themselves at al Qaeda’s disposal. Hizbul Islam is led by Sheik Hassan Dahir Aweys, a former military man who is on both the U.S. and the U.N. terrorist watch lists. (In 2009, al-Shabab issued the popular web video “Here I am at your service, Oh Osama.”) On their own and together, the militants have killed African Union peacekeeping troops, murdered Somali journalists and international aid workers—and attacked fellow Somalis like Dr. Hawa. Their willingness to break all such societal ties is an indication of their power and their unpopularity.
Dr. Hawa says she will rebuild, but much has been lost. At least 20 of the 82 children who were at the feeding center are now dead. There is still some water for every family, but no food, she said: “No food. Totally no food. Peace is more important than food.” I thought this was a kind of platitude, but she corrected me. Without peace—a cessation of violence—no one could go to their farms. They were stuck, like she was, waiting for the militants to leave. Dr. Hawa was already demanding reparations, which she knew Hizbul Islam wouldn’t pay. Still, she kept asking. Her hospital has been decimated. “The windows, the doors, the operating tables, the hospital beds, the sterilization equipment, they destroyed all,” she said. “Every, every, every instrument they took or they broke.”
The only thing protecting her is the sheer number of people surrounding her—the displaced people she has sheltered, many for more than a decade, are now protecting her. They are arriving by the hundreds to visit her in her room. “I’m in my room and afraid to go anywhere,” she told me. “The IDPs [the internally displaced people, shorthand for refugees who haven’t yet crossed international borders] have come to sleep with me. But the militants are stronger than us, so we are praying to God.”
Eliza Griswold is a New America fellow and a recipient of the 2010 Rome Prize. Her book, The Tenth Parallel: Dispatches from the Fault Line Between Islam and Christianity, will be published by FSG this summer.