Bangui, Central African Republic —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.
By the time Abdul Rahman arrived, the Hôpital Général already had been enveloped in Bangui’s religious tensions. A rumor had spread that nurses were injecting Muslim patients with poison. From their beds, patients sometimes screamed threats at one another.
Doctors Without Borders, the aid group that runs the hospital, tried to explain that it was a neutral institution, that free treatment would be offered to everyone regardless of religion. It didn’t always resonate.
“The level of hate outside Bangui — you can feel it in the hospital,” said Jean Vataux, a senior Doctors Without Borders official in the country.
In the hospital room, as his legs slowly healed, Abdul Rahman examined his roommates from his white, iron-framed bed. He was afraid to say much, he later recounted, and waited for them to volunteer their stories.
There was Ngamafei Marcellin, the thin 60-year-old musician who had been hung from a tree and shot for “sympathizing with Muslims,” as he recounted. There was Guy Patrick Gotoa, 28, the muscular former security guard who said he had been shot because he was suspected of stealing money from a militia.
That was the first thing that surprised Abdul Rahman: His Christian roommates had been shot by Christian militias. In Bangui, the closer you got to the carnage, the harder it became to discern any clear lines. Even Abdul Rahman’s own shooting proved blurry. He thought the man who attacked him was a Christian seeking to punish him for sneaking out of the Muslim neighborhood. But Abdul Rahman’s three brothers suspected the man was a Muslim who targeted him for fraternizing with Christians.
Abdul Rahman grew more comfortable in the yellow-painted room.
“We all have the same God,” he said one day to Marcellin.
“The fighting makes no sense,” he said on another day.
To his astonishment, the other men mostly agreed with him.
“We don’t care that he’s Muslim,” Marcellin said. “Here, we are all in the same position of recovering from our wounds.”
But when the men looked at Gotoa, the former security guard, they were sure he was an anti-balaka fighter, despite his denials. He could be violent, punching the wall when he got angry.
“I can never tolerate a Muslim,” he yelled one day, seemingly out of nowhere.
“Only after vengeance can we have peace,” he said another day.
Room 206 was just miles away from the fighting, which kept creeping up to the hospital gates. In late November, furious that the hospital was still admitting Muslims, a group of Christians blocked the road. A patient died in an ambulance that couldn’t get through, said Mauricette Goddot, director of the hospital.
“One day, the people outside shouted, ‘Bring the Muslims out so we can kill them,’ ” Goddot recalled in an interview. “I don’t know how it’s come to this.”
Still, there were notable examples of people trying to overcome the sectarian divide, and in a few cities, members of the two religions still coexisted in relative peace. The capital’s Catholic archbishop had given shelter to a prominent imam after his house was burned down. In one Bangui neighborhood, Christians helped rebuild a mosque that had been destroyed (though it was later destroyed again).
At the Hôpital Général, there was finally a break in the terrorism.
On Nov. 29, Pope Francis arrived on a much-anticipated, two-day trip to promote reconciliation. The men in Room 206 followed the reports of his activities on a black radio. The pontiff drove through some of the most dangerous parts of Bangui in an open-air truck, and he even spoke at a mosque in PK-5.
Outside the hospital, the city was euphoric. Inside, the men cheered over the static of the radio, even Gotoa.
At one point, the men heard a roar near the hospital. It sounded like another angry mob. But then they heard cheers. The pope had come to the city’s pediatric hospital, less than 100 yards from their room.
After Francis returned to Rome, the glow of his visit seemed to remain. The U.N. high commissioner for human rights, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, spoke of how the papal trip had created “a momentum which could overturn the downward spiral of the past months.”
The mood in Room 206 was transformed.
“We just want peace,” Gotoa said, the day after Francis left. “It’s like the pope said.”
The men didn’t know that the violence would surge in a matter of days. They didn’t know that PK-5 would be targeted again by machine guns and rockets, this time as its residents voted in a national election on a draft constitution. They didn’t know that a Muslim rebel leader would soon proclaim a breakaway state in the country’s north.
They just reveled in a moment of solidarity.
“I hope this changes everything,” Abdul Rahman said.