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-Shabab. 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 Abdi, referring to Al-Shabab’s loss of control over Somalia’s capital in January, when the militants were driven out by U.N.-backed African Union troops. “Now they want to establish a base of power in our area.”
One of Somalia’s first gynecologists, 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 along the corridor 20 miles from Mogadishu 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 her camp have been as high as 90,000—a veritable city that has lived in relative peace for more than 20 years.
“Al-Shabab sees me as especially vulnerable because I am a woman,” Abdi says. “I am a target because my area has law and order, and the people living with me don’t accept the injustice their group is enforcing.” One of Al-Shabab’s precursors, Hizbul Islam, attacked Abdi's camp in May 2010; after a standoff of more than two weeks, the militia relinquished control and issued an apology to Abdi.
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 Abdi’s original deed. The man who holds the newer certificate, which Abdi believes is forged, has the backing of al Qaeda, she says. This past Sunday, two members of Abdi’s staff were summoned to court, held in a small room, and surrounded by armed Al-Shabab militiamen, she says. At 5 o’clock, without any trial, they received a verdict: the ownership of the land would be immediately transferred.
“I’ve decided to speak out against the injustice, for the lives of the people living there,” says Abdi. In order to do so, she has temporarily halted work at the camp’s 400-bed hospital; she's also 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 uprooted those living in Abdi’s camp, some since 1991. In October, an Al-Shabab–linked businessman bought a small piece of land but doubled its area by pushing into property owned by Abdi and her neighbors and using a bulldozer to clear the displaced people living there—including 100 families supported by 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, Abdi and her staff appealed to a higher court for a reversal. They are still awaiting a decision.