When he awoke after the surgery, the bullets had been removed from his legs, and Saddam Abdul Rahman was lying in a hospital bed, surrounded by men from the other side of the war.
He scanned the room and saw the faces of five Christian men in adjacent beds. For a Muslim living in the center of a sectarian conflict, where your throat could be slit if you were of the wrong religion, it was a startling sight.
It was early November, and Abdul Rahman had been taken to the Hôpital Général — one of the last institutions in this city where Muslims and Christians could be found in the same room. Since 2013, at least a fifth of the country’s half-million Muslims had fled their homes. Tens of thousands of Christians had been forced out of the remaining Muslim enclaves. It was one of the most dramatic explosions of religious violence in recent African history, with the United Nations concluding there was “ethnic cleansing” of the country’s Muslim minority.
Before the war began in 2013, Abdul Rahman had married a Christian and counted many Christians as friends. Now, as he lay in Bed 3 of Room 206 in the hospital run by an aid group, the 27-year-old feared that those around him “could be dangerous,” as he later recalled.
There were Christian victims of gunshots and stabbings and car accidents. There were Christian nurses who kept medical records in Justin Bieber binders. There was a Christian patient who kept track of his surgeries on the back page of his Bible. To an outsider, the traits often associated with Muslims in this country were nearly imperceptible — a slightly thinner face, slightly lighter skin.
But Abdul Rahman worried that everyone knew immediately who he was.
Two weeks earlier, in late October, a crowd of Christians had converged at the hospital’s front gate, cursing the doctors for treating their Muslim enemies.
Abdul Rahman’s brothers promised to get him out of the hospital before he was targeted in his bed.
To find Room 206, drive east through the capital of this country at the heart of Africa, past the row of decaying ministries. Find the pale-yellow hospital at the foot of a verdant hill, where visitors are asked to deposit their guns before entering. Climb to the second floor, just below the emergency room, where the screams of newly arrived gunshot victims can be heard through the peeling walls.
Since the Central African Republic declared its independence from France in 1960, it has been plagued by coups and rebellions. Despite its vast mineral resources, it is among the poorest countries in the world, its diamonds and gold plundered by strongmen. Even before the war began, the International Crisis Group described the country as “worse than a failed state.” But there was one solace: For centuries, Muslims, Christians and animists lived in relative peace here.
Then, in 2013, a group of mostly Muslim rebels called the Seleka charged into Bangui from the north, unseating President François Bozizé. Within months, a band of mostly Christian militias, called the anti-balaka, rose up to counter the Seleka.
Those fighters quickly recast their strategy as a broader crusade against Muslims, setting off a cycle of retaliatory killings that continues today. More than 450 mosques have been destroyed since the war broke out. Thousands of people have been slain, despite the presence of 10,000 U.N. peacekeepers.
Abdul Rahman worked as a trader in the market. He believed in God, but he spent more time at the basketball court than in the mosque. After the war broke out, he found himself trapped with his wife in what became the last Muslim neighborhood in Bangui, known as PK-5. On many days, just leaving the area was a death wish.
Every morning, though, Abdul Rahman sneaked out to meet Christian farmers. For a small fee, he would help them smuggle their cows to sell in the PK-5 market. He liked the idea of flouting the new policies of segregation, he said. Then, one morning, as he approached the meeting point with the Christian farmers, a man in a hooded sweatshirt approached him and pulled a gun from his belt.
“You stop there,” the man said.
Abdul Rahman ran. He heard a burst of bullets, and then he fell. When he looked down, he saw blood flowing from his legs and a piece of bone exposed. Then he lost consciousness.
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