CAR Response Blog

Humanitarian Communications

Girl left in forest amidst war in Central African Republic

By Kristina Larson/ The Associated Press
01 June 2014


ADVANCE FOR USE MONDAY, JUNE 2, 2014, AND THEREAFTER - In this April 16, 2014 photo, 10-year-old Hamamatou Harouna smiles as she sits in a tent with other Muslim refugees on the grounds of the Catholic Church in Carnot, Central African Republic. Hammamatou, who had lost the use of her legs to polio, fled Anti-Balaka violence in her village, carried on the back of her 12-year-old brother Souleymane. She spent 10 days alone in the forest. (AP Photo/Jerome Delay)

CARNOT, Central African Republic — 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. 

Hamamatou had never felt so heavy in her life.

CARRYING CONFLICT

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.

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.

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 her. 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. 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.

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 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. As evening fell, hunger set in. Hamamatou had nothing to eat or drink. She cried until her eyelids were swollen. She said aloud: “I have been abandoned.”

A NEED TO FLEE

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 homes. The backlash turned into a blood bath, and hundreds of thousands fled. 

UNEXPECTED HELP

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. 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. 

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.

STILL WAITING

Hamamatou now lives inside a large tent at a church compound with more than 800 other trapped Muslims, guarded by armed peacekeepers. She has been diagnosed with malaria, and her braids were shaved off because of lice.

But she is alive.

She is among hundreds of children registered by UNICEF who await reunification with families.

“If you find my brother,” she says, “tell him I am stuck here with no way to leave.”

“I am waiting.”

Original Article: Arizona Daily Star