Wed, May 19, 2004 - Page 6 News List

Somalian hospital closes after threats

THE GUARDIAN , NAIROBI, KENYA

A maternity hospital in Mogadishu, the capital of Somalia, has been forced to close after a doctor who removed a woman's womb in a life-saving operation received death threats from her family.

The doctor insists the surgery was essential but her family says she is "as good as dead" because she can no longer bear children.

The family, who are reportedly claiming compensation of 50 camels, hired gunmen to threaten staff at the city's SOS hospital.

Patients were evacuated from the hospital and medical workers went on strike on Monday, complaining of intimidation by the militiamen.

The woman's uterus was removed by Bashir Sheikh, the head of obstetrics and gynecology at the hospital. He said the operation was vital as she was carrying a dead fetus.

"I was waiting to be thanked, but instead I am receiving death threats," he told the BBC.

The cause of the fetus's death was not known, but the most likely cause of complications was the fact that the mother had been circumcised. During female circumcision in Somalia, the vagina is sewn together to leave just a tiny aperture, causing internal damage and delaying childbirth up to 10 days.

As a result, babies frequently suffocate during labor. The Guardian was recently taken on a tour of the SOS hospital, where several beds were occupied by teenage mothers who lost babies because of their circumcision.

Sheikh said at the time: "[Female] circumcision is a very bad practice, and against our religion. We have had women spending from three days to seven days in labor. Ten days is also normal. At that time the child can suffer asphyxia."

Witnesses in the Somali capital said that hundreds of sick women and children had gathered outside the building yesterday to appeal for medical attention. The hospital is the only free medical facility in Mogadishu. Medical services are also provided at private clinics, but the costs are prohibitive for most Somalis.

Abdullahi Haider, an aid worker, said the hospital received patients from all over Somalia.

Around 20 gunmen hired by the family have been prowling the hospital grounds and harassing staff since the end of last month.

Elders, religious leaders and women's groups have been calling on the family to withdraw the militiamen, but they say they will only do so if they are paid 50 camels, the traditional Somali compensation for taking a woman's life.

Fighters are easily hired in the Somali capital; according to UN estimates there are about 60,000 militiamen in the city of 1 million people.

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