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Refugee Renegades

Somalia's largest privately run refugee camp is a beacon of hope for those plagued by strife and failed by international peacekeepers. David Axe investigates Camp Hawa Abdi.

When 17 years of civil war became too much for Fadumo Xaaji Abuu, the 58-year-old mother of 10, having watched Somalia collapse into war, packed up her extended family and hit the road. Along with her adult sons and daughters, and grandchildren as young as 3, she piled clothes into a donkey cart and abandoned her home in Mogadishu, the ostensible capital of a country that hasn't had a functional national government since the dictator Mohamed Siad Barre was deposed in 1991.On the outskirts of the city, Abuu and her family joined hundreds of refugees fleeing in sparse, ragged columns. They shuffled toward the market town of Afgooye on a narrow asphalt road crisscrossed by checkpoints manned by Ethiopian soldiers, there to help defend the corrupt and unpopular transitional government against a rebellion by an Islamic faction known as the Union of Islamic Courts. Abuu and her family pressed on, and after half a day they arrived at the razor-wired perimeter of a refugee camp called Hawa Abdi. More than a year later, they're still there, permanent residents of a community of 6,100 families named for its founder and director, Dr. Abdi, who has turned her rural clinic, nestled on her family's land, into Somalia's largest privately run refugee camp.Today, despite a refugee crisis that easily rivals the one in Darfur, there are few aid agencies operating in Somalia. Most, including the U.N.'s World Food Programme and the office of the High Commissioner for Refugees, have fled to nearby Kenya to avoid the fighting. And the government, barricaded in the northern Somali town of Baidoa, can barely afford to deploy its amphetamine-addicted foot soldiers in Mogadishu, much less pay for any kind of humanitarian relief. At camps such as Hawa Abdi-one of more than 70 that line the road to Afgooye-a handful of private citizens do what they can to help.The camp is a city within a city. The thousands who live here owe their safety solely to the camp administrators, who have crafted what amounts to a virtual independent state out of almost nothing. In the absence of a working government, Dr. Abdi, her daughters, and the camp staff perform basic civic functions themselves. And where leadership, planning, and diplomacy are called for, Dr. Abdi, a once-wealthy, Soviet-trained gynecologist, steps in as a head of state. It's a measure of power she never asked for in a country that rarely rewards good deeds. "I would quit if I could," she says wearily. "But how can I?"

A gunshot victim recovers at a hospital at Camp Hawa Abdi.From her residence high in the clinic, Dr. Abdi can see the entire 200-acre camp and, in the distance, the restive city that is the source of all her troubles. Fifty years ago, Mogadishu was a thriving port town with Italian-style coffee shops and a lavish seaside resort hotel. This was before the 1991 civil war, before the brief U.S. intervention that ended in 1993, and before last year, when 50,000 Ethiopians invaded, aiming to destroy the UIC.Back then, Abdi's father managed Mogadishu's port, a job that placed him in the top ranks of the city's elite and helped Abdi win a scholarship to study medicine in Russia. Upon her return she founded the tiny gynecology clinic that years later would become the heart of this citadel."Now I'm the camp coordinator, the director of the hospital-everything," Abdi says. She's dressed in a yellow shawl and purple robes, and despite more than a decade of accumulated stress, she still has an appropriately regal bearing. To her job description, she might add president, sheriff, magistrate, and general.To survive in a lawless land, the camp has had to take on all the functions normally performed by the government. Abdi makes rules and enforces them, ordering her small security force-former militiamen armed with AK-47s-to lock up thieves and brawlers in a makeshift cell "so they can think about what they did." Even murderers have spent time in Abdi's lockup. And when marauders raid the camp, the camp's cops become its army, and Abdi its battlefield commander. In October, bandits attacked, aiming to steal donated food. "We defended ourselves and they took nothing," she says.But for all her careful preparation, Abdi never anticipated the sheer scale of the refugee crisis last year. Intensifying fighting has driven a million Somalis from their homes; the camp's population jumped from 400 families to its current number in just a year. Abdi has had to scramble to provide for them.

In October, bandits attacked, aiming to steal donated food. We defended ourselves and they took nothing.
"We are providing health care … for which we get help from Médecins Sans Frontières Suisse, and also a nutritional center for children stocked with dry food from the World Food Programme," she says. "We have dug our own well. We are providing everyone with water." But an effort to found schools within the camp failed when Abdi couldn't secure international funding for the teachers."I need more aid. I need more help, at least for building shelters. We need more food. People are sick." Despite a recent expansion, and despite two of Abdi's medically trained daughters joining her, the hospital is "more and more inadequate," she says.There is a potential solution, Abdi admits. She says she could appeal to one of Somalia's powerful clans. But enlisting one clan's help might make the camp a target of rival clans-and would mean turning away refugees whose backgrounds are incompatible with her sponsor's current alliances. "We are all Somalis here," Abdi insists. "We do not plan [on] discrimination."With fewer and fewer jobs in the embattled country and fewer resources for everyone, Abdi's options have run out: She must plead for more international aid. It's for that reason that she spends as much time as she does courting visiting media and government officials. But even foreign aid only represents a sort of life support. "What we need the most for the Somalian population," Abdi says, "is peace."Abdi and many other Somalis say that a strong force of international peacekeepers could help begin turning around two decades of chaos in the country. But last year the U.N. decided against sending troops-the danger was too great, it said-and so far only the fledgling African Union has sent soldiers: 3,000 lightly armed troops from Uganda and Burundi. But even the A.U. peacekeepers say they need help from the U.N. or the United States to begin imposing peace on Somalia's warring factions. With the United States tied up in Iraq and Afghanistan and the U.N. increasingly wary of dangerous missions, the prospects for peacekeeping in Somalia are dim.

U.N. food donations are piled inside the camp.At Camp Hawa Abdi, there is at least a local peace. On a hot day in late November, nine months after she arrived here, Abuu sits at the entrance to her "yard." Her grandchildren climb on her lap or play in the dirt. Recently her oldest son said he could try sneaking into the sprawling Bakara market-a major battleground-to find something he might bring back to sell. She told him no. "Money you can find," she said. "But another soul, you cannot."

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