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Kids saw fear in the eyes of a 5th-grader who 'was always afraid of his dad'

Abdi Mohamud is dead. He cannot speak. They can speak for him.

They can give us some answers. They can tell us what life -- what little of life he knew -- was like for this friendly, doomed boy. They can, maybe, even help to get him justice.

Joseline Furaha, 18, and her 16-year-old brother, Pacifique Musangamfura, were friends and neighbors of Abdifatah Mohamud. They know what went on behind closed doors at 30 Guilford St. They know the secrets that the 10-year-old boy -- allegedly beaten to death by his stepfather, supposedly for falling behind in school -- now cannot tell. He told Joseline and Pacifique. Wednesday night, they told me.

Police say Ali Mohamed Mohamud tied his stepson to a chair in the basement Tuesday night and beat him to death with a rolling pin. Charged with second-degree murder, Mohamud has pleaded not guilty, although authorities said he admitted to the crime.

Abdi is forever silent. But it was not always so. He spent countless hours at the house up the street, hanging out with Joseline and Pacifique, or being minded by them with his younger siblings. The teenagers paint a heart-rending picture of a boy who was a prisoner of his stepfather's rage, his impossible expectations, and his own frustrations.

Abdi's teenage friends knew the darker side of Ali Mohamud. They did not see him as the bright, friendly guy described by many acquaintances. They saw instead an unreasonably strict stepfather who berated and -- Abdi told them -- beat his stepson. They saw a stepfather who was impossible for Abdi to please, no matter how hard he tried. They saw the violence in a man whom they saw fight with an older stepson.

"One day, [Abdi] just ran off after school," Joseline told me. "He told us later he was running away because his dad was beating on him."

Joseline is a bright-eyed teenager who thinks before she speaks. A couple of times, as she talked about Abdi, her eyes filled with tears. Her brother, Pacifique, echoed her words.

"He told us his father would beat him," Pacifique said softly. "We didn't think it would get out of hand like this. It hurts now [that he's dead], that I didn't think his dad would do such a thing."

What Abdi told them makes sense to me. If Mohamud killed his stepson, there likely had been previous beatings.

In a grim irony, there is a sign on the front lawn of 30 Guilford from Guardian Protection Services. The home security system kept the family safe from intruders. But the real threat, if the charges against Mohamud are true, already was inside the house.

The teenagers said Abdi was a friendly boy with a big smile who wanted to someday be a scientist. When he came over, they played computer games, watched movies or, Joseline said, "just ran around."

They spoke to me with permission from their mother, who emigrated from Rwanda seven years ago. She did not want me to use her name, but invited me into the house to speak with her children. They told me Mohamud treated his biological kids, ages 6 and 5, far better than he treated Abdi. They saw the fear in Abdi's eyes when he stayed past his two-hour limit at their house.

"If he was late by a minute," Joseline said, "he was like, 'Oh, my God, my father is going to be mad.' "

"He was always afraid of his dad," Pacifique said. "He had a temper."

Whenever something this awful happens, we look for reasons. Mohamud's life could have been worse. He emigrated from Somalia a decade ago. He had a family and lived in a tidy cottage built by Habitat for Humanity on a well-kept East Side street. But not all of the pieces of the American Dream had fallen into place. Neighbors told me that Mohamud, 40, recently dropped out of school. He worked as a security guard at The Buffalo News -- where I knew him in passing, just to say hello. And he had a violent side.

Joseline remembered one time seeing Abdi with a "big eye."

"He said he got into a fight at school," she said. "But now, I don't know. [His father] was so mean to him."

The teenagers never saw Mohamud hit Abdi. But they saw the violence in the man. Joseline said she saw a fight between Mohamud and an older stepson -- who later moved out -- spill out of the house.

"I saw them [fighting] outside, pushing and yelling," Joseline told me. "They broke the door and the window. The cops would come all the time."

We talked near the living room while their mother listened nearby, frying chicken in a pan on the stove. The teenagers had reason to believe what Abdi had told them.

"I was over there and saw [Mohamud] yelling at him," Joseline said. "He wasn't strict like a parent; he was worse. He would not just tell [Abdi] to clean the house or something. He'd add other stuff, like 'You're good for nothing' or 'You never listen.' "

"His father would say, 'Why can't you be like her?' " Joseline added. "Well, I'm 18; he's 11. You can't compare us."

Pacifique nodded his head.

"His father wanted him to be athletic, but he wasn't athletic," Pacifique said. "He liked science."

Abdi's death raises more questions than answers. What sort of frustration, anger, self-loathing or illness prompts a man to tie up and beat a boy -- his stepson -- to death?

How could the boy's mother, Shukri Bile, not know about the continual abuse?

Even in a culture in which the wife is traditionally deferential to the husband, I would think -- hope -- that a mother would protect her son.

I asked Joseline and Pacifique about Abdi's mother. They said she made excuses for his stepfather's behavior.

"That's what he told us," Joseline said. "His mother said, 'Your father just wants you to be a smart kid and do better for yourself.' "

Yet they said that his mother, when she went out, often dropped the children at their house, instead of leaving them with Mohamud.

"I think she thought that something [bad] might happen," Joseline said.

Abdi was a nice kid with a big smile who dreamed of becoming a scientist. Those dreams were tied to a chair and beaten to death.

We cannot give Abdi back his life. The best we can get for him now is justice.