It was one of the quietest hours of the day inside Holiday Market, and the gunfire, when it began, was clearly audible. Somewhere outside was the high-pitched report of a rapidly emptying handgun. The shots were not loud. But when Semere Abraha bolted from his convenience store’s tiny office and saw his clerk, Mike Yohannes — who was taking cover behind the cash registers — he had no doubt that they were close by.
Abraha turned to a monitor that displayed footage from his 16 surveillance cameras. And there, on the other side of the wall that separated him from the parking lot in one of the poorest neighborhoods in the nation’s capital, a teenage boy who had spent many hours browsing Abraha’s narrow aisles of Tastykake Coconut Juniors and Big Hug Fruit Barrels lay on the sidewalk, legs motionless, windmilling his arms.
Police would later recover the spent shell casings of nearly two dozen rounds of ammunition. Two bullets had hit and would soon kill Malik McCloud. One of them had lodged in his spine, paralyzing him instantly, and in the minutes before he lost consciousness — captured on Holiday Market’s grainy surveillance tapes — he never lost his look of surprise.
Abraha dialed 911 and mashed the button under a register that set off Holiday Market’s security alarm. Outside, a few young men began to gather around McCloud, but they scattered as a second barrage of gunfire swept the sidewalk. The dark Audi SUV that carried the 19-year-old’s killers was at the far end of the parking lot; a short man in skinny jeans and a black hoodie stepped out of the rear passenger seat and sprinted north on Wheeler Road in Southeast Washington, carrying a pistol. The Audi sped off to the south.
It was just before 2 p.m. on Oct. 20, 2018.
Abraha, an East African immigrant, had owned Holiday Market for four years. He had seen fights in the parking lot, thefts in the store aisles and drug-dealing at the threshold of the glass doors that chimed as customers came and went. But he had never seen death.
The murder of McCloud on that Saturday afternoon would herald a new and disturbing chapter in the long life of the bodega that has stood, under various names, for decades in the heart of Congress Heights. Seven months later, on May 26, 2019, another teenage boy would die in a drive-by shooting outside Abraha’s doors.
This time the gunfire would be louder, the victim younger — Maurice Scott, just 15 — and the attack seemingly more random. Abraha, stocking loaves of bread at the front of the store, would narrowly escape a fusillade that pierced and drained a row of two-liter bottles of Orange Crush.
Scott died at the start of an inordinately bloody summer, in a year when homicides in the District hit their highest level in a decade. The violence, concentrated in the predominantly black neighborhoods of Southeast Washington, has largely bypassed the booming business districts and condo canyons west of the Anacostia River.
Five Whole Foods stores have sprouted up to serve those parts of the city, with a sixth planned for the redeveloped campus of the former Walter Reed military hospital. But residents of Congress Heights continue to shop at Holiday Market, crossing the sidewalk where the blood of dying teenagers has been scrubbed clean twice. On Christmas Eve, three men were injured in yet another shooting outside the store.
For those in the surrounding neighborhood, the nearest grocery store is a mile away. And so they come and go from the convenience store — alone and with hip-high kids, on work breaks and before or after school, buying lottery tickets and Lunchables, hair extensions and canned chicken salad. Holiday Market is the hub of a community where danger is always present.
And at the center of that hub is Abraha, 34, a husband, father and unlikely witness to the District’s worsening violence. He fled the war-ravaged Horn of Africa 15 years ago, slipping across the border of Eritrea, one of the world’s most repressive and autocratic nations.
But it was in America’s capital city, he says, that he would finally learn what people are capable of doing to one another.
“At least we know, in my country, a human being is a very expensive thing,” Abraha says. “Here, life is cheap.”
‘Good morning, Sam’
They are there at 8 a.m., when fist-sized padlocks come off the steel security shutters that shield Holiday Market overnight: Children in wrinkled school uniforms, parents or grandparents with tired but watchful eyes. They’re waiting for all the things Abraha sells for less than $2: Bon Ton of York Hot Flavored Corn Chips and iced Raylicious (“Better than Delicious!”) Honey Buns, Doritos and doughnuts, Capri Sun and Sunny D and cups of hot, weak coffee.
The convenience store is a short walk from two public charter schools — Eagle Academy and Kipp DC Somerset College Preparatory — and is the sole commissary for families whose routines don’t necessarily include a home-prepared lunch.
“Good morning, good morning, good morning,” says Crystal Pimble, 54, as her 8-year-old granddaughter retrieves a plastic tray of Lunchables. “Sam! Give me my coffee.”
Abraha — whose first name was long ago abbreviated by his patrons — hands Pimble a foam cup, which she carries to the Folgers machine, next to the microwave and churning fruit slush dispensers.
“Good morning, Sam,” says DeBray Prunty, a gaunt and bearded 45-year-old who will spend the day nursing a bottle at the edge of the parking lot. Prunty had been feet away from the gun blast that killed Scott, diving to the ground as the teen sprinted in vain for the safety of the market.
“What’s up, buddy?” Abraha says.
“Good morning, Sam.”
“Good morning, Sam.”
“What’s up, what’s up.”
It’s a Monday in early October, almost a year after McCloud was killed. In two months, police would charge two men with his murder.
Abraha is stationed at one of two cash registers, inside a rectangular box of bulletproof plate glass. Goods and money are exchanged through rotating, cylindrical compartments. He wears acid-washed jeans, a charcoal tee and light gray Nikes; his aquiline profile, wide eyes and shaved, gleaming head would give him a severe look if he did not smile so frequently.
Two other men in the store share his copper complexion and high cheekbones. They are his employees, Yohannes, 22 — known to customers as “Squid” because of his springy, shoulder-length hair — and Dawit Geber, 31. Amid the stern voices of adults and squeals of children, the three converse in the singsong cadences of Tigrinya and Amharic, languages born in the highlands to the southwest of the Red Sea.
Both Yohannes and Geber are Eritrean refugees, and both are waiting, as Abraha once did, for immigration authorities to process their asylum claims. If successful, they will join the tens of thousands of Ethiopians and Eritreans who make up one of the Washington region’s largest immigrant populations.
It was 1991 when the triumphant soldiers of the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front entered the capital city of Asmara, ending the country’s decades-long war for independence from neighboring Ethiopia. There was jubilation then, followed by a United Nations-supervised referendum on a new government.
But within several years, freedom fighter-turned-president Isaias Afwerki was jailing ministers and newspaper editors. The country has held no elections for the last 26 years, a period in which Afwerki has cemented his grip on a totalitarian society that human-rights advocates compare to that of North Korea.
Geber says that after trying to flee the country he was imprisoned with 18 other people inside a cargo container, a notorious practice in Eritrea’s prison system. “In the nighttime, it’s very cold. In the daytime, it’s very hot,” he says simply of his incarceration. “You cannot imagine it.”
Resolving to leave his home country or die, he made it into Ethiopia and obtained a fake passport. In the United States, he likes it better but is still coming to grips with the idea that violence in his adopted country is random, not institutionalized, and therefore harder to predict.
“In Eritrea,” he says, “if you don’t talk about the government, no one is touching you.”
Geber’s escape across the Eritrean border took two days on foot. But he won’t risk the half-mile walk from Holiday Market to the closest Metro station after dark.
‘Livid right now’
The District is no longer called “the murder capital” of the United States. In 2019, Washington ended the year with 166 homicides — the most since 2008 but well below the 348 killings in less-populous Baltimore, let alone the 482 murders that the District endured in 1991.
But there is an insidious quality to D.C.’s present-day bloodshed. In the 1980s and 1990s, a soaring murder rate was but one element in a catalogue of urban decay that included an unchecked AIDS epidemic, a local government teetering on the edge of bankruptcy and the serial transgressions of a crack-smoking mayor.
Today, Washington is one of America’s most prosperous cities, flush with tax money from a booming population and economy. Yet the residents of Southeast remain submerged beneath a crime wave that the city has proved powerless to stop.
Among the dead last year were a dozen children between the ages of 11 and 17, all shot or stabbed. Those unaccustomed to living with daily violence sometimes speculate that people become numb to it. Nonsense, say some in Congress Heights.
“The community, they’re livid right now,” said Mike Austin, chairman of the Advisory Neighborhood Commission that includes Holiday Market. “While we’re preaching this narrative — ‘crime is down, crime is down’ — they don’t feel it. I don’t feel it. People don’t feel safe to go to stores, gas stations, whatever.”
That includes the businesses’ owners and employees.
“Every day I wake up, I’m worried,” Abraha says. “I’m using extra caution, especially when I open the store. Someone could come — “ he holds his hand to his head in the shape of a gun.
Violence Interrupters, Beat the Streets, the Gun Recovery Unit — Southeast residents are skeptical that the initiatives concocted at city hall and police headquarters are working. Austin says some have suggested calling in the National Guard.
The problem seems bigger and more entrenched to Russell Rowe, leaving Holiday Market on this Monday morning in gray sweats and a white tank top that stretches over his muscular torso.
“Bruh, look, there is one solution to this that we need. It’s public safety, but what’s causing our public safety issues? It’s mental health. Half of us probably have a diagnosis,” says Rowe, who is about to turn 30. “It’s what happens when you been eatin’ this s--- your whole life” — he gestures toward the store, with its ample junk-food offerings — “and you got traumas you’re dealing with.”
Charged with assaulting a law enforcement officer in Virginia in 2015, Rowe spent 14 months in jail. He went through a spurt of self-rehabilitation, entering a worker-training program for ex-felons and gaining employment in the office of Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D). One day, after drinking at a nearby lounge, he attacked another government employee at city hall, according to a police report. He lost his job and now visits the store four or five times a day.
The morning rush has receded, leaving Holiday Market with its daily retinue of loiterers. At the dirt fringes of the parking lot, old men sit in folding chairs drinking, and young men sit on plastic milk crates, eyes fixed on the middle distance.
“When people say they’re going to the store, this is the only store out here,” Rowe says. “This is what we have. This is kinda like, life.”
‘Never been easy’
“Sam. Sam. Don’t cause me to have another heart attack in here, now.”
Carrie Coleman, 70, has lived in the neighborhood since 1982, following her self-proclaimed mission to “teach, preach and beat the hell out of whoever needs it at that time.” An active member of the 155-year-old Rehoboth Baptist Church on Alabama Avenue SE, she is not feeling charitable toward Geber, who for all his expertise in evading tyrannical regimes still doesn’t have the knack of executing her arcane D.C. Lottery stratagems.
“Sam, if he don’t know how to play the numbers by next week, we got to get rid of him.”
Geber, fumbling, finally hands her an acceptable ticket. Behind him, Abraha grins.
“Keep him on the cash register,” Coleman says, unsmiling. “He ain’t ready for the big time.”
The black neighborhoods of Southeast haven’t always welcomed their immigrant store owners. Former four-term mayor and D.C. Council member Marion Barry notoriously complained about the “dirty shops” of “these Asians” in 2012. Abraha says he inherited an antagonistic set of customers when he and his two business partners bought Holiday Market in 2014, a dynamic he attributes to the previous owners.
Abraha cracked down on shoplifting; he also lowered prices and began holding cookouts in the parking lot. He got to know customers like Lisa Alston, a 35-year-old with a metabolic disorder caused by low potassium. This fall, when she showed up weakened to the point of collapse, she says he gave her free grapes, Gatorade and a mango.
“Sam! What’s up, Sam?” Alston’s wife, LaToya, asks as she and Lisa walk through the door of Holiday Market with their son, Josiah, then 4.
“What’s up, what’s up,” Semere says. “How are you?”
Abraha’s hospitality extends only so far. In late May, after Maurice was killed, he received permission from his landlord to clear the parking lot when crowds begin to gather. Doing so is impossible, so he focuses on the sidewalk in front of the store, often calling the police for help.
Shortly before 1 p.m. he is on the phone. Two police cruisers park in the lot a few minutes later, and two officers amble into the store, then amble back out. The loiterers have vanished, and the officers stand in the parking lot for about 10 minutes. Then they get in their cars and drive off. The loiterers return.
A sullen, restless mood suffuses the parking lot as the day wears on. Coleman is now outside talking to Prunty and Anthony “Pooh” Anderson, 59, the two men comfortably settled in an inebriate fog. The topic is determinism, and personal responsibility, but their musings are interrupted when a half-full water bottle crashes from the sky on the dirt beside them.
Prunty shifts in his lawn chair.
“Who the hell threw that water bottle?”
Coleman is undeterred.
“Pooh, it’s every man for himself out here and God is for everybody. Ain’t nobody gonna come with a handout,” she says. “You are the definer of your destiny, okay?”
Anderson is unconvinced. He remembers his childhood, he remembers the ’90s. He thinks he never had much of a chance. He leans forward and shakes his head.
“It was hard back then,” he says.
“It ain’t never been easy.”
“It ain’t always that, though, Ms. C.”
“Yes, it is,” she replies.
In the late afternoon, Monique Scott shows up with her 15-year-old daughter, Missy. The smiling face of Scott’s son — Missy’s twin brother — beams down from one of Holiday Market’s exterior walls. She points to the memorial mural for Maurice, who police believe was the unintended victim of a drive-by shooting in May.
No one has been arrested.
It was kind of Abraha, she says, to allow the artwork.
“We ain’t got no other store to go to,” Scott says in a monotone. “He died right there, right there on the ground. His picture’s right there. That’s my son.”
As night falls the young men in the parking lot are emboldened, setting up their own commerce just outside Holiday Market’s entrance.
“Y’all smoking weed?”
“Y’all don’t need no weed?”
By the time the police pull up to the store the dealers have dispersed, their ears tuned to the familiar warnings shouted from the edge of the parking lot.
“Twelve coming down.”
It’s the old watchword, twelve, coined in reference to the number of cops assigned to the D.C. police department’s disbanded “jump-out” teams. The warning is still effective: There will be no arrests tonight. The police cruiser idles for five minutes, then turns back on to Wheeler Road SE. Beneath the white glare of the store’s LED lamps the young men drift back, hooded visitors who cast slender shadows, as though their presence in this world is already on the verge of fading away.
A different world
At 9 p.m., Abraha steps out from behind the cash register’s barriers of plate glass.
“It’s time to go home,” he says.
Outside he lowers and padlocks the steel shutters. A light rain is falling.
“See you later, guys,” he tells his employees in English. “Have a good night.” They step into Yohannes’s sedan, and Abraha gets into his SUV.
He has been at the market for 13 hours.
“It’s a little bit tough,” he says. “But you got to do what you got to do, you know?”
The streets of Congress Heights are abandoned and dark. Abraha knows little of Southeast Washington, just as he knows little about his customers’ lives as they unfold outside Holiday Market. His path to the District was circuitous; after escaping Eritrea he spent time in Sudan, Libya, Italy and the Netherlands. Arriving in the United States in 2008, he knew he had found his country, and several years ago he became a naturalized American citizen. But there is much about life here that still seems strange to him.
Five days a week, he traverses two worlds that seem alien to, and scarcely aware of, each other. Tonight, after crossing the Anacostia en route to his apartment building in Mount Pleasant, he stops at the Whole Foods west of Logan Circle, on P Street in Northwest Washington.
This neighborhood once resembled Congress Heights: overwhelmingly black, exhausted by violence, its culinary needs served by fast-food joints and liquor stores. Now this expensive grocery store caters to a very different world: Affluent, white, willing to pay $12 for a jar of organic virgin coconut oil or $1.2 million for a two-bedroom condo.
After listening all day to a scratchy boombox tuned to a hip-hop station, Abraha shops to the accompaniment of rock music from the Wallflowers. The store is mostly empty, and very bright.
Into his basket he places a jar of raw honey and a jug of organic apple juice. His wife has asked for tiramisu, but he can find only cheesecake. After speaking to her on the phone, he addresses the Ethiopian bakery attendant in Amharic and loads the dessert into his carrier.
It is after 10 p.m. when Abraha opens the door to his family’s one-bedroom apartment, permeated with a welcoming aroma from its cramped galley kitchen. Abraha’s wife, Selam, is in pink pajamas, cooking spinach pasta. He hands her the groceries, then steps into their bedroom, leaning over the bassinet of 4-month-old Sabia Abraha.
The couple’s daughter was born less than a month after Maurice Scott died. Tonight she is wearing footed gray pajamas trimmed with pink and shiny earrings offset by her full head of dark hair.
Abraha plays an Ethiopian sitcom in the background on YouTube. As he sits in his armchair cradling Sabia he watches her face, not the television.
Soon, he hopes, he will have saved enough money for the family to move into a house in the Maryland or Virginia suburbs. His daughter will grow up as an American, and if he can help it, she will remain as ignorant as she is now of what happens across the river, where her father will go seven hours from now, quietly dressing and sneaking past her bassinet at dawn.
Selam has never been to Holiday Market. Sabia hasn’t, either.
While Abraha appreciates the grit of his customers, raising their children amid so much violence, he won’t willingly put his wife and baby daughter at risk:
“I don’t want to bring my family to that store.”
Peter Hermann contributed to this report.
Editing by Lynda Robinson. Photo editing by Mark Miller. Copy edited by Thomas Heleba. Designed by J.C. Reed.