NAIROBI, Kenya — Hawa Abdi, a doctor and human rights activist who treated and safeguarded the lives of tens of thousands of Somalis during turbulent years defined by war, famine and displacement, died on Wednesday in the Somali capital, Mogadishu. She was 73.
Her death at home was confirmed by her daughter Dr. Deqo Mohamed, who did not specify the cause.
Dr. Abdi rose to prominence in the mid-1990s after the outbreak of civil war in Somalia, which wreaked havoc across the country and caused extensive damage to its economy and infrastructure. At the time, Dr. Abdi was running a small clinic that she had opened on her family’s land in 1983, assisting women with birth and promoting health care for children.
But as the country disintegrated, Dr. Abdi turned the clinic into a fully-fledged hospital, a school and a camp for internally displaced persons. She rejected the clan politics that had divided communities and fueled the war, adopting a philosophy of unity and sheltering people from diverse backgrounds on her compound.
When President George Bush came to Somalia in 1993 — the only American leader ever to visit the country — Dr. Abdi was the first Somali he met there. Mr. Bush went to Somalia to visit American troops and to inspect the international relief effort that was responding to the famine tearing through the Horn of Africa nation at the time. Dr. Abdi gave the president a tour of the camp and showed him how Somali lives were being saved as hungry children, women and men received constant care and food.
“We’re seeing recovery here,” Mr. Bush said later. “Most of these children told me they were literally starving two months ago.”
Over the years, as the center grew to host up to 90,000 people, it was nicknamed the Hawa Abdi Village and Dr. Abdi came to be popularly known as Mama Hawa. As the hospital grew into a 400-bed facility, she trained and hired dozens of doctors and nurses and conducted countless surgeries involving delivering babies and removing bullets from those wounded in the war. She also established literacy classes for women and an agricultural project that helped former herders to farm their own food.
But in a country with barely any health infrastructure or government support, Dr. Abdi had to deal with outbreaks of diarrhea and tuberculosis as well as the devastating toll of droughts followed by famines, like the one in 2011, that left many starving.
She also had to face off with militants. In May 2010, Islamist militants took over her hospital and camp and pillaged documents and medical equipment. They also demanded that, given her age and because she was a woman, she hand over management of the hospital to them. “You are not allowed to shoulder any responsibility and authority,” one of the militants told her, according to her memoir, “Keeping Hope Alive: How One Somali Woman Changed 90,000 Lives.”
“That’s impossible,” Dr. Abdi told them, according to her memoir. Even though elders told her that the militants could “shoot me at a moment’s notice, I refused to back down. ‘So they’ll shoot me!’ I told the elders. ‘At least I will die with dignity.’”
After days of house arrest, the militants not only released her but also agreed to write her an apology letter.
Hawa Abdi Dhiblawe was born on May 28, 1947, in Mogadishu. Her father worked in the city’s port and her mother died while she was still young. After winning a scholarship to the Soviet Union, she studied medicine in Kyiv, in what is now Ukraine, becoming one of the first trained Somali gynecologists. Dr. Abdi also completed a law degree from the Somali National University in Mogadishu.
She is survived by two daughters, Deqo and Amina, both of whom are doctors. Dr. Abdi also had two other children, a daughter who died at age 2 and a son, who died at 23, Dr. Mohamed said.
In recent years, Dr. Abdi’s humanitarian work has attracted attention all over the world. In 2010, she and her daughters were included in the magazine Glamour’s list of women of the year. The magazine described Dr. Abdi as “equal parts Mother Teresa and Rambo” and called her and her daughters “saints of Somalia.”
Dr. Abdi was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2012 and was awarded an honorary doctorate from Harvard in 2017 alongside the Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and the actors Judi Dench and James Earl Jones.
Even as the war ebbed in Somalia, Dr. Abdi continued to provide care and remained an adviser for the hospital, Dr. Mohamed, who now runs the hospital, said.
As news of Dr. Abdi’s death spread, tributes poured in to commemorate her life and lasting contributions. President Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed of Somalia said that she would be remembered for the thousands of lives that she had helped during tumultuous and violent times.
Dr. Abdi “has a golden place in the history of our nation,” Mr. Mohamed said in a Facebook post. “For a long time, she took upon herself to serve the vulnerable among us,” he added, noting that this exemplified “the ambition and aspiration she had to develop her country and people.”
Hussein Mohamed contributed reporting from Mogadishu, Somalia.
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