Ibrahim Adamou’s parents had just been killed in front of him. He wasn’t sure whether any of his five siblings had survived the attack by Christian militiamen who opened fire on his family of herders as they journeyed on foot.
The 7-year-old just knew he had to keep running.
Covering 100 kilometers (about 60 miles) barefoot and alone, he slept under the thick cover of banana trees at night and followed the red rutted paths by day, not entirely sure where he was going, with nothing to eat.
Finally he encountered peacekeepers who gave him some cookies and pointed the way to Carnot, where a Catholic church was sheltering some 800 Muslims, including many ethnic Peuls like Ibrahim. With the help of a Christian man on a motorcycle who risked his life by giving the boy a lift, Ibrahim arrived at the church early Monday.
“When we got to a checkpoint, the militia fighters told the man, `Leave the boy here and we will kill him’,” Ibrahim recounted softly. “But the man said, `If you are going to kill him, you must kill me too’ and then they let us pass.”
What is even more remarkable about Ibrahim’s story is that there are at least six other children under the age of 10 with a nearly identical story in Carnot. In the nearly three months since the country erupted in violence between Christians and Muslims, leaving many hundreds dead, children appear to be in many cases the only survivors.
The Peul are a nomadic community of herders who span West and Central Africa. They often travel great distances on foot – a habit that probably enabled these children to make the journey alone.
Many, like Ibrahim’s family, came under attack as they were fleeing west from violence earlier this month. The survivors are only now making their way to Carnot.
“Unfortunately after fleeing they fell upon a spot where violence also had erupted,” said Dramane Kone, project coordinator in Carnot for Doctors Without Borders, which has treated some of the children for malnutrition.
The refugees at the church may not be safe much longer.
The armed Christian gangs outside the concrete-walled compound have ordered them to leave the country within a week or face death. The fighters have brought in gasoline and threatened to burn the church to the ground.
Ibrahim was brought to the church after the man on the motorcycle hid the boy in his home for several days. Scores of fellow Peul came to hear what news the youngster had brought from the countryside, gathering around him as he wolfed down a bowl of porridge.
Sitting on a bench outside the priest’s quarters, his tiny legs too short to touch the ground, the boy seemed overwhelmed by the attention and pulled the hood of his adult-size gray sweatshirt tight around his tiny bird-like face.
The other refugees gave him what coins they had so that he could pay someone to cook meals for him at the mission. The priests said he is welcome as long as he likes, though he was clearly on his own in a sea of strangers.
Around 10:30 on a recent night, a distressed Cameroonian peacekeeper knocked on the church door to wake up the priests. A little Muslim girl who didn’t know how old she was had turned up in the center of town, barefoot and shaken. The priests emerged in their pajamas to bring her inside.
Habiba, believed to be about 7, saw anti-Balaka militants kill her parents and her brothers, she whispered to a priest. They asked her where she came from: Her village was more than 80 kilometers away by foot.
Two men who had lost young daughters arrived at the door, then quickly shook their heads in disappointment. She was not theirs. No one knew who she was.
One of the women from the church offered her water and some dinner leftovers of manioc and beef. At first she refused but then began to pick at the meat once she was assured it was not pork.
On Sunday just before Mass, four more new arrivals gathered on the steps of the church. One child was inconsolable and sobbed against a tree as other little boys tried to cheer him up.
Ten-year-old Nourou said he spent two days being hidden by Christians, who then brought him to the church. Tears rolled down his face, some of them spilling from a crusted eye badly wounded in an anti-Balaka attack. His legs were so spindly he could barely stand.
Beside him was another Peul boy named Ahamat, believed to be about 8. He couldn’t say for sure how many days he had spent walking or when he last ate. The Muslim men who welcomed him asked about his village and then shook their heads in disbelief. It is some 300 kilometers away.
“My mother and father were killed along the way, but I kept going,” he said.
When he heard motorcycles on the road, he would hide in the woods. When the roads were empty, he just kept walking, asking anyone he could where he could find the peacekeepers who were guarding Muslims.
By the end of their first day at the church, Ahamat, Nourou and Ibrahim had formed a band of brothers, brought together by sorrow.
At night they cry for their mothers on a well-worn mattress. During the day, they play in the dirt with the other boys and chase each other around the courtyard.
A community leader shaved their heads to indicate they are in mourning for their parents, making them nearly indistinguishable with their little old man faces and knobby knees.
In some cases, the children arriving in Carnot were saved by the most unlikely of people. It was an armed anti-Balaka militiaman who brought several of the boys to the church after spotting them on the edge of town.
“He left them at the door and just said that he felt sorry for the poor boys,” said the priest, the Rev. Justin Nary. “Apparently he had a heart.”