Even by the standards of Bangui, the capital of Central African Republic and one of the poorest cities in the world, Saïdou is poor. Unlike the districts around it, with their neatly packed-in houses behind walls and gates, Saïdou, which occupies an oblong dirt plot near the city center, resembles a slum in a less orderly African city like Kinshasa or Lagos. That is another way of saying it resembles a village. There are no walls or gates. The one-story cinderblock homes face one another at strange angles. You go between them on dirt paths or by stepping through the undergrowth and over rivulets of gray water. To access Saïdou, you make a quick turn off the Avenue des Martyrs, slipping between a pair of high-rises. The high-rises are falling apart, and their residents are poor, too; but when they look down on Saïdou, they thank God, and the martyrs, for their luck.
Lamove and Serge Kamouss were born in one of those cinderblock homes. They grew up there, then started their own families nearby in Saïdou. It was to that home, where their mother now lived alone, that the brothers returned on an afternoon earlier this year. They each came unbeknownst to the other, each under a cloud of anger and shame.
In 2013 the Central African Republic had been taken over by a Muslim-led insurgent group called Séléka. Its forces had ransacked Bangui and killed and abused its citizens. Séléka infuriated Lamove, the older of the two, but he was jobless—he had been his entire adult life—and the new regime had needed men. So when he had been offered a job as a Séléka soldier, he’d taken it. Serge hadn’t been as lucky. Séléka had ruined his business and jailed and beaten him. Lamove, fearing for his new job and his life, had refused to help his brother. When they went to Saïdou that day, they hadn’t seen each other in months.
Lamove arrived first. He found his mother washing clothing. He knew she disapproved of his joining Séléka, and he tried to avoid talking about it with her. But the subject inevitably came up. He reminded her of how desperate he was, that he had children he couldn’t afford to feed. Madame Kamouss said it didn’t matter. Séléka had ruined their country, she told him. Its thugs had raped and killed members of their family.
As they were talking, they heard Serge’s voice outside. Madame Kamouss, who hadn’t been expecting her younger son, became frightened. She hadn’t seen Serge in weeks and feared that, after getting out of jail, he had joined anti-balaka, a Christian-led citizen militia that had formed to oust Séléka. The fighting had dragged the Central African Republic into a sectarian civil war that continues today. Serge was stronger than Lamove, in his youth a renowned brawler around Saïdou. Madame Kamouss knew he was furious with Lamove for not coming to his aid, and didn’t know what Serge might do. She hid Lamove in the bedroom.
Serge had come with friends his mother had never met, whom he left outside. Inside, after embracing him, she asked where he had been. He admitted that he had, in fact, become a fighter with anti-balaka. As she had feared, he and Lamove were now on opposing sides of the war.
“She got upset,” Serge recalled to me later. “She said, ‘They are dangerous. The anti-balaka are the evil people. They are killing people.’ She was really angry.” He told her that anti-balaka was trying to defend their country against Séléka, against the Muslims and foreign invaders who had usurped control. Séléka wanted to enslave Central Africans, and he was trying to stop them. As a Christian, she should understand this. “Our aim is to take back our country,” he told her. Madame Kamouss had raised her sons to respect people of all faiths, and, before joining anti-balaka, Serge had had Muslim colleagues and friends. No longer. Now he wanted to see every Muslim dead or gone. “They are traitors,” he said.
Lamove listened as they talked. He listened to his mother weep. Then their conversation turned to him.
“Do you want to hurt your brother?” Madame Kamouss asked Serge.
He said he didn’t.