CARNOT, Central African Republic (AP) — When gunfire rang out through the village just after dawn, when neighbors dropped their coffee to flee, even when her mother grabbed three younger children and ran for her life, the 10-year-old girl did not move.
It was not terror that pinned Hamamatou Harouna to the ground, although she was terrified. It was that polio had left her unable to walk.
So all she could do was wait and watch, paralyzed, as the vicious war between Muslims and Christians in Central African Republic came to her village. The Christian fighters were going from door to door, and she wondered if she would die.
That’s when her 12-year-old brother came to her rescue. Barely bigger than his sister, Souleymane struggled to hoist her, all 40 pounds of her, onto his back. Around his neck she clasped her calloused hands, dirty from pulling herself over the ground.
They set off, barefoot, disappearing into the dense tropical forest as fast as they could manage. Her legs could not hook onto her brother’s back, and her body drooped like a dead weight.
Hamamatou had never felt so heavy in her life.
Over the past year, conflict between Muslims and Christians has killed thousands of people in the Central African Republic, a nation of about 4.6 million that sits almost precisely at the heart of Africa. As families flee, it is often children who carry the weight of the crisis on their backs.
Nearly half a million children have been displaced by violence in the country last year, with many hiding out in forests, according to UNICEF. Hundreds have become separated from their families, lost or simply too slow to keep up.
That’s what left Hamamatou and her brother trudging along the red dirt path on an unlikely journey that would reflect a world turned upside down by the complexities of war. The AP pieced together the story from interviews with the girl over two weeks and information from witnesses, health workers, priests and medical records.
Hamamatou, a Muslim girl, grew up in Guen, a village so remote that it can hardly be reached during the rainy season. Before the conflict, it was home to about 2,500 Muslims, a quarter of the population, many of whom worked as diamond miners. Today only three remain.
Life had not been kind to Hamamatou. She lost her father at age 7. A year later, her limbs withered from polio, a disease that had almost died worldwide but is now coming back in countries torn by war and poverty.
The pain started in her toes, and a traditional healer could do little for her. Within a month, she could no longer walk. Soon she had to crawl across the dirt.
Most days she helped her mother sell tiny plastic bags of salt and okra, each one tied firmly with a knot. Hamamatou had never been to school a day in her life, but she spoke two African languages and knew how to make change.
Her brother, Souleymane, doted on her like a parent, helping her get around as best he could. With what little money he had, he bought her stunning silver earrings, with chains that swayed from a ball in each ear.
On the day of the attack, Christian militia fighters burst out of the forest with machetes and rifles to seek revenge on the civilians they accused of supporting Muslim rebels. Hamamatou’s mother scooped up her baby, grabbed the hands of two other children and disappeared into the masses. Souleymane was left carrying his sister.
He headed deeper and deeper into the forest on paths used by local cattle herders. His back hunched forward from his sister’s weight. The cacophony of insects drowned out the sound of his labored breathing.
The crisp morning air gave way to an unforgiving afternoon sun. Hamamatou didn’t know how far they had walked, only that they had not yet reached the next town, 6 miles (10 kilometers) away. It was clear they would never make it to safety this way.
Exhausted, Souleymane placed his sister down on the ground and told her he was heading for help. If he didn’t come back, he said, she should make as much noise as possible so someone would find her.
Hamamatou told her brother she would wait for him in the grass, in the shade of a large tree.
As evening fell, hunger set in. Hamamatou had nothing to eat or drink. She talked aloud to her brother and mother as though they were still beside her. But with each sound of the grass moving, she feared wild boars would come to eat her.
She cried until her eyelids were swollen. She said aloud: “I have been abandoned.”
Despite decades of near anarchy, Central African Republic had little history of overt sectarian violence until 2013, when Muslim rebels from the north invaded the capital and overthrew the president.
The rebels, known as the Seleka, looted and killed Christians but largely spared Muslims. The hatred toward them mounted, fuelled by longstanding resentment that a Muslim minority of about 15 percent still made up most of the merchant class in a desperately poor country.
And so when the Seleka were pushed out in January, Christian fighters within minutes descended upon Muslim shops and claimed Muslim homes. The backlash turned into a blood bath, and hundreds of thousands fled their homes.
Among them was Hamamatou’s family.
As Hamamatou sat on the same patch of forest, her stomach rumbled. She dragged herself toward the grass she had seen the cattle eat. That night, when it rained, she sipped from the puddles.
She was growing weaker by the day. And Souleymane was wrong – no matter how much noise she made, no one could hear her.
She counted the number of times the sun rose and set. On the third day, she heard voices, and her heart began to race. A group of Christians from town passed her lying on the ground, and laughed.
She begged for water. “If you leave me here, I will die here,” she cried. They kept walking.
Hamamatou began to lose hope of ever leaving the forest alive. Two more times it rained at night, leaving her wet and cold.
She lay down her head and waited to die.
On the tenth day, a man with a rifle and a machete turned up on the footpath along with his wife. She knew right away this was the enemy: He wore the necklaces and amulets the Christian fighters claimed would protect them from attack.
“What are you doing here?” he asked. “Where are your parents?” He suspected she might be part of a trap to ambush him.
Hamamatou was too tired to lift up her head. “My father is already dead, my mother has abandoned me because I cannot walk,” she told him.
“You are lying,” he said. He threatened to kill her. “What have I done to you?
Nothing,” she replied in resignation.
As he approached her, Hamamatou closed her eyes. She did not know which weapon he would kill her with, his machete or his rifle. As she awaited her fate, she did not even have the energy to cry.
Instead, the man picked the child up like a baby and carried her to a creek. There he ordered his wife to wash Hamamatou’s red and black cotton top and her filthy skirt. The woman bathed her in the stream as the laundry dried in the sun.
Then the person she least expected to save her carried her for several hours all the way back to town, where he brought her into his own home. His wife tried to serve her broth, but after days of starving Hamamatou could no longer swallow.
They took her to the home of one of the last remaining Muslim families in town. The Christian militiaman never told her his name.
She never saw him again.
Hamamatou was brought to a church in the nearby town of Djomo, and then to another church about 130 kilometers (80 miles) away. She now lives inside a large tent at a church compound with more than 800 other trapped Muslims, guarded by armed peacekeepers.
There are three other girls with polio here, only one of whom has a mother to look after her. Hamamatou has been diagnosed with malaria, and her braids were shaved off because of lice. Just to go to the toilet, she must crawl past a maze of shelters until the red mud, still wet from showers, cakes her forearms and feet.
But she is alive.
She seems older than her years, with large eyes that reflect the intensity of her short life. She does not blame her brother for leaving her behind, and hopes he has made it to a refugee camp in neighboring Cameroon.
“It’s not his fault he couldn’t carry me all that way,” she says. “He’s only 12 and he’s small for his age. He’s not very strong.”
All Hamamatou will say of her mother is that she abandoned her. There are no tears, just the same matter-of-factness with which she relates her story. Her only ties to her old life are the shirt she uses as a pillow and the earrings from her brother.
She is among hundreds of children registered by UNICEF who await reunification with families that may or may not be alive.
“If you find my brother,” she says, “tell him I am stuck here with no way to leave.”
“I am waiting.”
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