It was a rare refuge in a country that had known only war for 19 years: In Afgooye, a town just a few miles outside Mogadishu, the staff of the Dr. Hawa Abdi camp offered food, medical care and protection to as many as 6,000 Somali families at a time. Through two decades of war and occupation, the staff and its charismatic director carefully maintained their neutrality — and managed to preserve the camp’s delicate infrastructure despite the chaos that raged just beyond the walls.
On May 5, all that changed. A faction of Islamic fighters occupied the camp, killed some staffers and captured others, and disrupted food handouts and medical care for thousands of refugees. The attack represented a dangerous escalation of the Somali conflict. At the time of writing, four days after the takeover, the camp’s future is uncertain.
The Dr. Hawa Abdi camp is named for its founder and director, a once-wealthy, Soviet-trained gynecologist. Abdi first began offering medical care at her clinic — situated on a patch of packed earth and low trees owned by her family — in the early days of the Somali civil war.
With doctors and nurses provided by Médicins Sans Frontières and food courtesy of the U.N. World Food Program, Abdi expanded her range of services until the clinic formed the citadel at the heart of a sprawling refugee camp. To maintain order in an increasingly lawless land, Abdi wrote regulations for the camp, built a jail, and hired a staff of armed guards. The guards enforced the camp’s law and manned the walls to defend against raiding parties looking to snatch its caches of food and medicine.