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11.14.10

The Safest Place in Somalia

In the world's longest running failed state, Dr. Hawa Abdi took it upon herself to start a civil society on her land, complete with a justice system that imprisons men who beat their wives. Eliza Griswold, author of The Tenth Parallel, talks to the Mother Teresa of Somalia and her daughters.

On her family farm a few miles outside of the city of Mogadishu, Dr. Hawa Abdi runs a camp for 90,000 people fleeing war. Two out of three are women and children.

Here’s what it looks like: In a sea of sand dunes, a patchwork of bright fabric moves against itself, as new arrivals weave the bramble igloos, like upside down bird nests that they’ll be living in. Almost everyone arrives hungry, traumatized, sick and wounded, and seeking the protection of this 400-acre oasis run by Dr. Abdi and her doctor daughters, Deqo, 35, and Amina, 31. For the tens of thousands of displaced people who’ve left everything behind and choose to live here, the women have only two rules in exchange for free medical care, fresh water and living without paying kickbacks to anyone.

The first rule: There’s no talk of clan, the family and political ties that divide Somalis. “We are all Somalis here,” Dr. Abdi says. The second: Any man caught beating his wife goes to jail—an old storeroom with barred windows, until his wife and the camp council of elders decide to let him go. This means usually just a few hours in the dusty, hot cell, but its effect is revolutionary: This is the first time in history that Somali women have formed the basis of their own society, and it’s working.

Dr. Abdi is a 65-year-old Somali gynecologist who recently survived a brain tumor. She is also one of the world’s greatest unknown heroes, perhaps until now.

The camp is a case study in what Somalia could look like. The international community is beginning to notice. Last week, Dr. Abdi and her daughters arrived in New York for the first time to be honored for their work as Women of the Year for Glamour magazine. Bear-hugged by Cher and Julia Roberts, the three doctors welcomed the attention, but only so far as it served those they’d left behind.

“We’re lucky if only one child dies in a day,” Deqo said quietly amid the glitz and hubbub.

Visiting as a reporter in 2007 and 2008, I was dumbstruck by the innovative work of these women, and by their utter moxie. After two decades and at least 17 failed attempts at government, Somalia has the dubious distinction of being the world’s longest running failed state. It’s a black hole in international news, in part because militants kill local journalists and aid workers—an effective policy to keep control through fear and to make it easy to forget the lives of those like Dr. Abdi and the thousands of people who rely on her.

They are even training former child soldiers to work as nurse’s aides in the hospital, instead of going to war.

But Dr. Abdi and her daughters dispel the common thinking that this badland is beyond saving. This remarkable place began as a one-room hospital, which Dr. Abdi started 20 years ago. Today, the hospital has 140 beds. Or, at least it did until last May, when a gang of Islamist thugs, called Hizb-ul-Islam, attacked Dr. Abdi’s camp, and demanded that, since she was a woman, she hand control over to them. ( The Daily Beast broke the story in the Western press.)

As The Daily Beast first reported, when the militants hung up their black flag in her hospital to show their power, Dr. Abdi ripped a bed sheet off a hospital bed and hung a white flag. “This is a neutral place,” she said. “This is a place of peace.”

Dr. Abdi refused to surrender. "Fine, you're men. But what have you done for your society?" she challenged. So she and five of her nurses were held hostage for days by the group, led by Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys, a militant leader who has been on the U.S. State Department terrorist watch list since late 2001. And this wasn’t the first time Dr. Abdi faced down men armed to the teeth. In 2007, a warlord named Mohamed Dheere, then mayor of Mogadishu, sent his militia to attack the camp and seize a rare shipment of food aid. He failed.

Once again, this past May, as news of Dr. Abdi’s captivity spread, thousands showed up to demand her release.

Those whose lives she’s saved were saving hers.

The militant thugs agreed to leave. But Dr. Abdi refused to go back to work until her kidnappers wrote an official letter of apology, which they did. They also smashed everything in the hospital—including four incubators, more than 100 hospital beds, and every door, window, and piece of equipment.)

Today, the hospital lies in utter ruins, and Dr. Abdi and her daughters are determined to rebuild. It’s a daunting task, but if anyone can do it, these three women can.

“The Somali people need to stand on their own two feet now,” Dr. Abdi says. Already, with almost no international aid, the people who live at the farm are finding ways to feed themselves. After 20 years of being fed by the international community, Somalis have grown dependent on aid,” she says.

This, she says, is one of the worst effects of so much more. So, she parcels out land for growing crops and puts those who can farm to work. She has wrangled half-a-dozen rowboats so that people can fish in the sea nearby. Families share the boats by fishing in shifts. But fishing in Somalia is low-class work, like making shoes, so it takes some encouraging to break these old taboos. The same goes for cutting the vaginas of 5- and 6-year-old girls. (Ninety-eight of 100 Somali women are survivors of female genital mutilation.) The doctors don’t tell parents not to follow traditions. Instead, they educate both men and women about the health risks associated with the practice, and let people decide for themselves.

Education is a major component of camp life. Relying on small international donations, the doctors have managed to start a school for 850 children. There are plenty of out-of-work teachers in the camp, so the school provides them a small salary to work. They offer continuing-education classes—including foreign-language training—to 100 women. They are even training former child soldiers to work as nurse’s aides in the hospital, instead of going to war.

“If you save a life,” her sister Amina added matter-of factly, “it makes your own life worth living.”

To see the camp on Google Earth, click here. To help rebuild the hospital, go to vitalvoices.org.

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