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NDAME, Senegal – Seven nights a week, 13-year-old Cheikhou and his younger brother Bamba would make their way to a wooden shack they shared with dozens of other barefoot child beggars, blanketing the floor with their tired bodies.
Then one night a knocked-over candle turned their home into an inferno. Cheikhou awoke to the sounds of people screaming. He joined some 50 boys fleeing for the door as neighbors filled plastic buckets, struggling in vain to put out the fire.
Cheikhou made it to safety, but at least eight young boys were dead, including his 10-year-old brother and three even younger cousins. The tragedy once again focused attention of the plight of the tens of thousands of Senegalese talibes, Islamic religious pupils, who are forced to double as street beggars.
In this West African country, Human Rights Watch has estimated that more than 50,000 boys are forced to beg while spending years in boarding schools called daaras. The government has tried for years to ban the practice, but it remains deeply embedded in Senegal, where many poor parents view it as the only way to provide an education for their sons.
An untold number of talibes have been run down and killed while begging in traffic but the March tragedy appeared to be a game changer, if only because three of the school's marabouts — teachers — were detained for questioning and President Macky Sall declared that all substandard daaras would be closed.
"Strong measures will be taken to put an end to the exploitation of children under the pretext that they are talibes," Sall said. "This tragedy forces us to intervene and identify everywhere that sites like this exist. They will be closed and the children will be returned to their parents."
But nine months after those strong words were spoken, no one is in custody and not a single daara has been shut.
"We really feel betrayed ... it's truly slavery," said Bamba Fall, an assistant mayor for Dakar's Medina neighborhood where the fatal blaze broke out. He believes the criminal case was dropped because of pressure from higher-ranking religious leaders.
In an interview with The Associated Press, he said: "The children were exploited by day and crammed in together at night until their deaths."
Cheikhou and Bamba Diallo grew up in Ndame, a district of sand-blanketed streets on the outskirts of the holy city of Touba. Here their parents grow millet and sorghum, and raise goats. And when the boys' uncle opened his daara in Dakar, the capital, in 2008, Cheikhou was among the first children to make the 180-kilometer (110-mile) journey to enroll. Bamba and the cousins followed.
According to a 2010 study by Human Rights Watch, the begging begins each day at dawn and lasts on average nearly eight hours, while the afternoon and evening are spent studying.
The system is said to teach the pupils humility and prepare them for the difficulties of adult life. All the begged proceeds go to the marabout, who with 40 talibes in his daara can make the equivalent of nearly $500 a month — more than many civil servants earn.
For the boys of the Medina daara, recreation meant occasionally watching soccer matches on a neighbor's TV. Although their marabout insists he was humane and generous, neighbors say the boys often went barefoot, wearing men's filthy hand-me-downs and scrounging leftovers at Oulimata Fall's restaurant.
"It's very hard as a mother to imagine having a tiny child living like that," Fall said, wiping her sweaty brow as she stirred a large pot of thieboudienne, Senegal's signature dish of rice and fish.
No one knows just how many children lived in the doomed boarding house shared by students of three different marabouts. The government says it recorded 41 survivors and nine dead. Marabout Mountakha Diallo, says eight children died, including four nephews of his.
All that remains of the daara are some charred begging bowls and prayer mats. A boy's sandal lies amid the debris.
Neighbor Penda Ba, 24, says the horror stays with her. "I can still hear the boys screaming for help when I close my eyes," she said.
The boys' mothers learned about the fire on the radio; it was at Rue 6 x 19, the address where their sons were living.
Then a relative called to confirm the worst: 10-year-old Bamba and his 7-year-old cousins Ali, Samba and Ousmane, all members of an extended family back in the village, were gone. Burned beyond recognition, they were buried together in a cemetery on the outskirts of Dakar.
"They were always together in life and now they're together in death," says their aunt, Oumou Diallo, 27.
Cheikhou Mbow is the government official tasked with inspecting daaras. He acknowledges that until the fire, authorities had never visited the site, but insists it wasn't a true daara, just "a house where talibes lived."
The government says the long-term solution is to establish better schools in rural areas, where parents can keep an eye on them. It also says the problem is exacerbated by marabouts who import child beggars from poorer neighboring countries such as Guinea-Bissau.
Authorities questioned three marabouts with pupils who lived in the shack, including Mountakha Diallo, the uncle of four of the victims. If the bereaved hold anyone responsible for their losses, they keep it to themselves and say the tragedy was the will of God.
Diallo, 40, says the fact that he wasn't charged with any offense shows the fire was entirely accidental. Asked in an interview with The Associated Press who was responsible for the children living in a firetrap, he said fires could start in even the sturdiest of structures.
"People say that marabouts use these children for commercial gain, but for me that was never the case," he said. Of the nephews he lost, he said, "These were not strangers; these were family."
He also denied mistreating any of them.
"You would never find my talibes in the street after 8 p.m.," he said. "They took a shower every day and changed their clothes every day."
Cheikhou is back with his family in their village, Ndame. The families of the dead received 300,000 francs ($600) from the government.
And Mountakha Diallo is running a new school, this time in a woven reed hut in Ndame.
About a dozen students sit on the ground, hunched over wooden tablets, reading Quranic verses aloud or copying them in precise lines of Arabic script.
They no longer have to beg. Instead they spend their free time sitting in the shade, dressed in clean football jerseys and plastic sandals.
Cheikhou lives near his parents' house, but not in it. The marabout still requires the boys to sleep in the hut where they study.
Sitting on her bed at home, Cheikhou's mother Aida Diallo is steeling herself for the possibility she will again be separated from him. "If the marabout decides to leave for Dakar, he will go with him," she says, looking at the ground. Her eyes fill with tears.
"Dakar is no good," the boy mumbles, sitting beside his mother.
Months later the pain of four lost sons is keenly felt in Ndame. The marabout himself broke down in tears as he spoke of his lost nephews.
But the imperative of a proper Quranic education remains paramount.
Cheikhou's sole surviving brother, now 8, is still a talibe at another daara. His parents plan to keep him there too, despite all they have lost.
"I cannot explain the pain but we must accept it," says his father, Adama, the marabout's own brother. "It is the will of God."
Rama Diallo, the mother of Ali, remembers talking to the 7-year-old by phone only a week before the fire.
"I asked him, 'Are you studying?' And he said, 'Yes, Mama, I am learning well.' I had so many dreams for him."
She cherishes a faded picture of Ali in an orange soccer jersey and hasn't yet told her 4-year-old daughter Fatou that her older brother is gone.
"I remind her that Ali has gone to Dakar," she says as she gently strokes Fatou's hair. "And then she always asks 'When is he coming home?'"
Ali's father, Mohamed, holds his 2-year-old son, Babacar, and covers his face with kisses.
"It is the marabout who decides where the child goes," he says, smiling at the tot. "The rest of the children will be talibes too."
Associated Press writers Djibril Ndiaye and Rebecca Blackwell contributed to this report.