The plan was for the whole family to spend the summer in Guinea, visiting Mohamed’s grandmother and other relatives. Mohamed was so excited he’d been talking about the trip nonstop; he had not been back since coming to New York. The fact that his father was going to take the whole family to Guinea represented an extraordinary achievement; four round-trip tickets in the summer can run more than $5,000. He had been saving for two years.
As the July 6 departure date neared, Mohamed had begun carrying the Koran in his book bag and attending Koran classes with a friend. He’d also been shopping for new clothes—most of which bore his favorite label, Nautica—to wear once he got to Africa. And he had been spending as much time as he could with Amadou, who had just been released from Rikers. His cousin had slept over the prior night, and in the afternoon, the two went shopping at Macy’s. They returned in the early evening, then left again around 9 p.m. “Come back by eleven,” Mohamed’s mother said.
Around 1 a.m., the two teenagers were in Manhattan at a McDonald’s on 181st Street. Later, the police would ask Amadou not to talk to reporters about what happened next, but according to the story he told a friend, after they left McDonald’s a group of young men challenged them to a fight. Amadou said they weren’t going to fight—they were outnumbered—but two of the kids wouldn’t let up. When Amadou and Mohamed tried to get away, the two chased after them.
Mohamed stopped. “Let’s fight back!” he said.
It might have seemed like a winnable fight—the other two kids weren’t that big—but soon they were surrounded by the whole gang, a total of eight or nine boys. Amadou got away, circled back to look for Mohamed, and saw a body sprawled in front of a 99-cent store. He knew who it was as soon as he saw the copper-colored Nikes. Mohamed’s left arm was broken. Blood spilled from a cut on his arm and another beneath his heart.
As the paramedics loaded Mohamed into an ambulance, Amadou called one of his cousin’s friends. “I think M.J.’s dead,” he said.
Later that night, a 16-year-old named Andy Henriquez walked into the same hospital where Mohamed had been taken. He had a cut on his hand; somebody notified the police. At first, the teen said he’d been robbed, but later he changed his story. He’d been with a group of friends who’d challenged some “black guys” to a fight, he told the cops. While he was punching one of them (identified by the police as Mohamed), “another guy” took out a weapon “and swung it at him.”
What he swung—a weapon favored by street gangs in Washington Heights—was smaller in size than those used by the rebels back in Sierra Leone, with a thinner blade. But its shape was unmistakable. Mohamed had been killed by a machete.
Word of Mohamed’s death spread quickly in the Fulani community, triggering mass confusion about exactly who had been killed. Which Mohamed were they talking about? The notion that M.J. would’ve been slain in the street at 17 just seemed too unlikely to accept. What had he ever done wrong? Over the next few days, hundreds of people visited the family’s apartment to offer condolences, and later so many showed up at the Fulani mosque to mourn his death—an estimated 1,500—that his mother’s arm went limp from shaking hands.
In early July, Mohamed’s family shipped his body back to Guinea. When his pine coffin arrived at the airport in Conakry, some 100 people came to meet the body. Who were they all? Mohamed’s parents had no idea. Apparently Fulani people in New York had called their friends and relatives, sending them to the airport. When it came time to bury Mohamed, more than 1,000 people went to the cemetery.
At the end of the summer, his parents and sister flew back to New York, just in time for Issatu to start her sophomore year. One afternoon in late September, all three sat in their living room. Idjatu, 36, slumped on a leather sofa, the same sofa where she used to wait at night for her son to come home. She looked as if she hadn’t smiled in months. Umaru, 41, stared at the TV, tuned to CNN but with the volume off.