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Girl left in forest in C. African Republic chaos

Monday - 6/2/2014, 4:08pm  ET

In this April 14, 2014 photo, Hamamatou Harouna, center, crawls to the restroom on the grounds of the Catholic Church where she and hundreds of others found refuge 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)

KRISTA LARSON
Associated Press

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 budge.

It was not that terror 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.

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