In the second of this five-part series, ‘Fisayo Soyombo details the pains of families of victims, how they have carried on without their loved ones, and how the killings have altered their perception of life.
This is the first — and only time — in 11 days that the recorders roll for minutes and everyone is mum. It’s in Tatu Village, in Jos South Local Government (9°48′00″N 8°52′00″E), where little Blessing, the interviewee, is the only survivor of a near-successful extermination of a family of six.
The 10-year-old might as well have been put down alongside her father, mother and three siblings, but on the night of the attack, 26th November 2013, she slept in a relative’s house inside the same compound. While Blessing escaped unhurt, her host, Yob Eliha, a widow, survived with burns around her shoulder. Yop Yakubu, 49, a second widow in the compound, was murdered.
“We don’t know where the killers came from,” Blessing’s aunt, 26-year-old Hanatu who now looks after her, said of the attack. “All we know is that they forced their way into the compound some minutes after 11pm, and began firing gunshots indiscriminately at the house.”
Clad in a mangy, loose-fitting robe, Blessing looks away from the camera for the most of the interview, her face contorted by anguish too weighty for her infantile shoulders. She still covets the return of her family. She hopes to have them back with her someday — a day she occasionally asks her aunt to reveal.
“Sometimes, Blessing asks me if her parents and siblings are still coming,” Hanatu says, intently locking eyes with the girl as though picking the words from her nondescript eyes. Hanatu herself buckles while the words slip bit by bit, her voice quivering beyond concealment.
“When she does, I tell her they won’t come again,” she continues, as her voice relapses into a second spell of tremble, this time thinning out like a lit candle running out of wax. Then she stares blankly into space, absentmindedly fiddling with her fingers. Everyone watching understands: her despair knows no bound.
She knows there is no chance any member of Blessing’s family would return. They are all dead and buried. And they never quite had a chance: her father, Davou Yakubu; mother, Yop Davou; sister, Serah Davou (14); and brother, Timothy Davou (12) all suffered multiple gun wounds. The last, Felix Davou, who was only 4 months, was shot in the crotch. So, really, the possibility for survival never quite existed for them; and Blessing, now in Class Five, will have to accept the austerity of life without the people in whose trusted hands her life began.
The ‘queen of sorrow’
“Since my son died, I have been unhappy,” Nandir Vongchak, 80, says. “My life has been filled with sorrow, and this has brought perpetual illness upon me.”
With that, Nandir synopsises her misery since the killing of her son in June 2013. Nothing about her demeanour suggests otherwise. No smile. No giggle. No semblance of hope. Face stony and carriage emotionless, Nandir unhurriedly de-husks groundnut borne by two calabashes on the floor. That is how she keeps company every day, waiting till the hour when mortality will terminate memories of her slain son.
“On that day, my son came in from his theology school to greet me,” she recalls, for once paying heed to something other than the two calabashes. Clearly, the groundnuts are her most valuable possession, the source of livelihood for her and the three fatherless grandchildren whose upkeep has now become her responsibility.
After mother and son exchanged pleasantries, son made for his groundnut-and-maize farm in Zamchang, a village in Wase Local Government. On his second day on the farm, he was hacked to death. According to Vongchak, it was a maliciously intended killing.
“They killed him purposely,” she says, “not that the killers were robbers or that they wanted anything from him. His life was all they hungered after.” This, she is convinced is the intention, because “Wase people do not want to see Taroh people around them. That is why they are hunting and killing Taroh people.”
Vongchak considers it a shame that having been racing away from “Wase people” for much of the last decade, she has finally stumbled. After sacrificing her land in Wase, she was unwilling to sacrifice anything else — especially not her son. Now resident in Dipbong Village in Langtang Local Government, she laments the consequence of her son’s death on the survival and education of his children. Pro tem, she puts up with proceeds from the family’s groundnut-and-bambara nut farm. But she reckons the farm’s support for livelihood will be ephemeral, given its size.
“Land available for farming over here in Langtang is inadequate,” she says, raising her head to let slip a luxuriant patch of white hair on her skin. “So we are just managing. We need help to guarantee the survival of my grandchildren and their education.”
‘We don’t want to miss our dad’
Grace Nansoh hates to remember her father who was slain at 50. Of course she has fond memories of him. But when she remembers him, she misses him sorely — a “punishing” activity she refrains from engaging in. She also knows that missing him will not restore his snuffed life; she understands it offers nothing more than temporary escapism: it won’t ease her pains; it won’t lessen her burdens.
“We don’t want to miss our dad; but actually, we miss him,” she says in a low, mournful tone, tenderly whirling the length of her arms round her four siblings positioned two aside.
These four children — aged 15, 10, 8 and 7 — are her latest encumbrance. As their mother is unemployed, Grace, it is, who must now feed and clothe them. It is her worry how the quartet will continue their education, how they will survive. Overnight, Grace has become a mother — without copulation, conception, or childbirth.
All four must continue schooling. One who was already tottering on the brink of expulsion recently regained his place in class after his mum ran far and wide for help, and returned with just enough to clear his mounting school-fee debt. To help her siblings out, Grace’s education has been stunted.
“I wrote my SSCE [Senior Secondary School Certificate Examination] last year and I am seeking to further my studies,” she enthuses. “But I am bereft of help.”
And after her mother’s frenzied and frantic struggle to pay her younger brother’s fees, she won’t compound her mother’s woes by talking about her own school. She says her mother has her sights on a trading business but she is hampered by finance. While her mother may “not have the means,” Grace believes “God will provide for her.” If only her dad was still alive…
“It is painful that I lost my dad, who left six children and two wives behind,” she laments. “My dad was very helpful to us. Since he died, we have been managing. We seriously miss our dad.”
A speck of tear appears on her right eye. She dabs it and then lifts her head with sudden equanimity and confidence, saying, “We take it that God has said that this will be the end of his life.”
Now, Grace is subjecting herself to the very circumstances that forced “God” to declare the end of her father’s life. That is the stark interpretation of still cultivating the family’s farm in Wase, that same farm where her father was shot, butchered and roasted to death. It is a danger she concedes, but she does not know the worse danger: death by hunger or death by the bullet/machete.
“My dad planted maize and rice on his farm in Wase, so we still go there to harvest it,” she says startlingly. “We are afraid for our lives but we have to do it for our own good. If we leave the crops there to rot, who will feed us? We have to surrender our lives to do it so that we will not die of hunger.”
From Marriage to Wreckage
Saturday 5th October 2013 is a blissful day for Istifanus Sati. The day begins with frenzied merrymaking inside the sprawling family compound in Ket Village, Barkin Ladi. A speaker blares varied genres of Hausa music to an animated audience, many of who down bottle after bottle of beer, smoulder and inhale stacks of cigarettes, and gobble local dishes. It is generally a joie-de-vivre atmosphere. Sati, 26, has just taken a wife — a tender, impressionable 19-year-old whose beauty is just unfurling.
Fast-forward another five days, and Istifanus’s life is turned on its head. In the wee hours of Thursday 10th October 2013, unknown gunmen invade their compound and begin to shoot indiscriminately. Everyone scampers. But not everyone escapes. Istifanus, one of the unlucky two, is felled by two bullets, one in his right thigh, and the other in his left leg. It is a grating interruption to his five-day-old marriage; and his wife, Rebecca has all too soon been tested with the for-better-for-worse marriage axiom.
“My husband was shot five days after we married,” Rebecca says with a wry grin. “I am just feeling bad, because they did not allow me to enjoy my husband. The bonesetters have said he will walk again but when, they themselves do not know.”
After a little over a week at the Plateau State Hospital, Istifanus relocates to Rawhol Kasa, where traditional bonesetters have been working on his legs. “I have spent about N55,000 on treatments,” he moans, “and I have only seen my wife a few times since the shooting.”
Istifanus’s father, 55-year-old Sati Yaroh, was even unluckier, giving up the ghost after suffering gunshots in the neck and the waist. His mum, Laruba Sati is inconsolable: her husband is dead, her son is down-and-out, her daughter-in-law is forlorn, and the education of five of her seven children is in jeopardy. Life, she says, is now cheerless.
“Since I lost my husband, I have been sick,” she laments. “I am idle, helpless and hopeless now.” Her hopelessness, she says, stems from the arduous task of funding the education of five of her eight children who are in school. She doesn’t see herself making a success of this challenge.
“There is no other means by which I can support their education now that my husband is gone,” she adds, tears of regret welling up in her eyes. “When my husband was alive, he trained the children; he paid their school fees; he took care of me whenever I fell ill; he did everything. But now, everything has been thrown into disarray.”
The only child who would have been assuaging her worries is the same one languishing at the bonesetters’. “The only boy who was supporting me is the one whose legs have now been broken. Isn’t it clear that I am finished?” she yelled into the air, querying no one in particular.
Madness and death better than living
“When I think about it, I feel like it is better for me to die than to live without my parents and my siblings.”
On word count to interview time ratio, Serah Dung scores least of all victims of Plateau killings who agreed to voice their feelings. But this is a record that will be immaterial to her, considering that life, itself, has lost its importance. Whenever she remembers her slain family, death is the only elixir that crosses her mind.
Serah had left Kungte Village in Jos South Local Government in the morning of Saturday 31st August 2013, only to be welcomed home in the evening by the corpse of five of the six people she left behind. She did see and examine the corpse of his late father, but that was just the farthest she went. All five corpses had been assembled at the “front of the house” but she was too distraught to look.
“They shot my father in both legs, in the chest and in the forehead,” she recalls, her breath multiplying in intensity. She averts the camera, patently at the return of mental footages of the blood-soaked bodies. “I didn’t really look at the corpses of my mother and my younger ones.”
Serah continues to miss her father, Peter Dung; mother, Rose Dung; and siblings Sati (20), Teiyei (17) and Samson (7), even though his father has three children from a second wife. “I feel bad … like it is better for me to die because…,” she says and then stops momentarily. A tenuous attempt to complete the sentence ends in tears, a gush of tears that bring the interview to an abrupt close.
Of Serah’s preference for death and Solomon’s battle with madness, it is hard to separate the worse. But what is easy to decipher is the similitude of their pains: both have lost their dear relatives, and both are inclined to think there has to be an insane or immortal remedy for their agony.
Like Serah, whose only surviving nuclear kinfolk is her sister, Solomon Pagyang Gwom of ket Village in Barkin Ladi is left with a solitary brother. All others, as well as his parents and his nephews, have been eliminated in an attempted annihilation of his family.
On Thursday 10th October 2013, his septuagenarian father, Pa Tsok Gwom, was killed in the company of his wife, son, daughter in-law, two children and two grand children. In all, eight members of the family were wasted in one night. Losing them all in one fell swoop could truly be maddening, so Solomon must be helped before he runs mad.
“All of them were in their rooms when they were killed,” he recollects through an interpreter, his face tightening in a stirring revelation of anguish. “They shot my father in the knee and in the ribs. They shot his wife in the rear of the head. They shot my brother in the ribs, while his own wife was shot in the head. All others were shot in the head.”
Solomon’s methods of conveying his sorrow are mannish. No tear. No abrupt end to the interview. No shying away from the camera. But it is clear he is not less-bereaved than the many others who have lost their kinsmen. He stares stonily — almost blankly — face stationary, hands immobile.
“It really pains me,” the 30-year-old says, his entire body still motionless. “I am in pains up till now. I am still mourning.” These people who were murdered, he emphasises, are the people who were supporting him. And to lose them is cruel.
“I feel so lonely,” he adds, gnashing his teeth and squashing his lips against each other as though to say he has said everything in his mind. But he adds rather scarily: “Anytime I think about it, I fear I might run mad.”
“No! No!! No!!! You cannot leave yet,” a voice yelled from deep inside the hut. “This woman in here says she is very hurt; she desperately wants to speak with you.”
Jumai Adamu, the woman in question, is a daughter-in-law of Marene Uttawal, the 105-year-old woman who was active on the farm but has been plagued by partial paralysis of her lower limbs since learning of her son’s and grandson’s murder. Marene’s losses are Jumai’s as well: her son and grandson are Jumai’s husband and son, respectively. No sooner had the interview commenced than her insistence on speaking became perceptible. Her husband, the only person she was accustomed to “talking with”, is gone. Now, the 40-year-old needs to talk to someone else, even if it’s a reporter — a stranger.
“Whenever I think about it, I lose my consciousness,” she says. “I no longer understand what I am doing. He was the one who helped us in the house. He took care of us.”
By “us”, Jumai intended herself and her husband’s first wife, Lami Adamu, 45, who — more Marene-like in orientation — was laconic. “I hate to remember that my husband is dead,” Lami lamented. “I feel sad every time I do. He was the one person I could talk with, so I feel so lonely.”
In addition to sharing in Lami’s loneliness, Jumai has yet to overcome the loss of her son. “To lose my son in the same attack is heartbreaking,” she adds, her effort to restrain onrushing tears futile. “It is difficult to forget it just like that.”
Although Jumai can take solace in mothering two other sons — Magit Adam, 22, and Marion Adams, 19 — beneath that blessing is another sting: successfully bankrolling Magit’s education at Government Secondary School (GSS), Gawarza, is an improbable prospect without her husband. “To pay his school bills, I take up menial jobs in the market, in addition to farming. But what problem will this solve?”
Someone else with an identical plight in that same compound is 67-year-old Hanatu Sunday, whose son was put down few weeks before his longed-for commencement of fatherhood. This is the boy who, months earlier, promised Hanatu that her days of suffering on the farm were numbered. He had just finished building his house, and his mother’s welfare was next on the cards. So for Hanatu, not only has her son’s life been ended, the then forthcoming end to her sufferings on the farm had been disrupted.
“The pain of his death is still jarring in my heart. I think about him all the time,” says the farmer of Irish potato, tomato, guinea corn, and maize. “He just finished building his house and had not moved in when he was killed. He had assured me that very soon, I would stop farming. He promised to take good care of me.”
Hanatu further discusses the piercing pain of burying his son just before the birth of his baby. “His wife was pregnant at the time he was killed,” she says curtly, disseminating annoyance rather than sadness. “His killers didn’t allow him meet his baby.”
Nevertheless, she is grateful to now have a grandson, the reincarnation of his slain son. “My misery has been halved since his wife put to bed.” A glimmer of smile perks up her face. But it soon evaporates.
“I miss him very much,” she continues. “He used to advise me a lot. He was very strong on the farm. He often worked hard. And that is why since his death, we have made very little from the farm, so little that we barely survive.”
Elsewhere in the same village, Yakubu Maki — only a decade younger than Marene Uttawal — lost his 20-year-old son, “his helper,” to the killers. So selfless was boy to father that a day hardly passes without the father remembering the tragedy.
“He was my helper, my messenger,” says Pa Maki. “He was the one who ran my errands anywhere, even outside the village. There is no single day that I do not miss him.”
When a man cries
It is three months since Rotji Nanan has not known what he is doing. Since his father, Abednego Nanan Jilang, 90, and brother, Chorbis Nanan, were murdered in Kukah Village in Shendam, Rotji has yet to come to terms with returning from farm without anyone to banter with. This, he says, is the hardest-to-take upshot of their slaying.
“Since the death of my grandfather and brother, I have not been myself,” Rotji cries, making no attempt to impede the tears streaming down his cheeks. Why would he barricade the tears, anyway, when crying is what he does every day?
“I cry everyday,” the 21-year-old resumes weepily, wiping the tears off his face, this time. “I am a very sad man. I am used to greeting my father and my brother everyday when I return from the farm, but they killed both of them; that is really bad.”
A narrow escape
After Rose Iliya heard a boom, she blacked out. In a pool of her own blood, she regained consciousness at the Plateau Hospital. Only then did the images reconvene in her memory: an armed gang had invaded her house; one of them shot her in the pelvis; they thought they “got” her but they were wrong; she made a lucky, narrow escape. Only that all three children in the house on the night did not benefit from that luck. They were felled by the unknown men’s bullets.
Narrating the attack, Rose, 27, recalls that the killers broke into the compound, raining bullets on the first door. Seeing that no one cried, they knew they had drawn a blank. So they moved to the next door, the parlour, where two innocently-snoring children were fired off.
“After that, they came into my apartment where one of my children was sleeping with me,” Rose says, her voice weak and her face bleak. “They shot my baby and shot me too, thinking they had killed me.”
In the four days that followed, she would spend more than N20,000 at the hospital. Afterwards, she has stuck with the doctor’s advice of dressing the wound regularly at a nearby clinic if it must heal fast.
“The leg is healing”, she says without the positive demeanour that should ordinarily accompany such news. In truth, there is little to be grateful for. Not only is her walk still wobbly, she is haunted still by the loss of three of her five children: Gideon (7), Jack (5) and Elia (10). However, she understands that she will have to move on sooner than later.
“To be sure, it is not easy to lose three of my children in one night,” she says. “I am just taking courage because I know [that] God is aware of what happened. Anytime I recall this incident, I lose my sanity momentarily. But the fact is that God is in control.”
Blood on the wall
Inside the house of the Bulas in Rawan Neighbourhood, the walls tell a story. It is already six weeks that the walls have been visited with the most irreverent desecration possible, yet the blood patches refuse to fade, clinging on tenaciously as some sordid memento of the extermination of the entire Luka Bula family.
It happened on 9th November 2013. At a little over midnight on the day, some gunmen arrived to overrun the neighbourhood, located in Rawurum Village, Barkin Ladi — beginning from the Bula family.
“I started hearing gun shots at exactly 12:14am,” begins Dayak Solomon, 27, a neighbour who is himself lucky to still be talking. “But I could not come out because gunshots were fired at my door and at my window.” Although he remained indoors, he monitored the siege on his neighbours, all ears. At the end, Luka Bula; his wife, Ladi Luka Bula; and five children were put down. A second neighbour lost two children, aged 11 and 8.
“After they broke into Bula’s house, I heard a baby scream ‘Mummy, mummy’,” Dayak adds with unimpeachable precision. “Subsequently, gunshots were indiscriminately fired all over the house.”
He expressed disgust that the crying child did not receive the sympathy of the killers, who continued shooting nonetheless. “They shot all of them. They finished their operation at exactly 1:05am,” he says, nodding assuredly as the words flew out. “Then they started calling one another. I heard someone say, ‘Milei, Milei, Mutari’. Then they went.”
Dayak admits that he does not know the killers. But having heard their voices. he “believes” they are Fulani. He laments that the attacks have become normal but wonders how long government would continue to watch as they die like “bush meat”.
“They killed Julius, who was five months old, shooting him through his mouth,” he says almost casually, confirming his earlier statement that frequency of the attacks had grown to confer an element of normalcy on the deaths. “His intestine was out. They shot the woman in the forehead. They scattered the penis of the husband, and destroyed him everywhere with bullets. This place was full of bullets; I’m sure they expended more than two magazines.”
But what ill have the people of Rawurum committed against the Fulanis? “Nothing,” he exclaims. “Nothing, because we have never gone to attack them. Never! We are innocent people. We have wronged no one. The Fulanis just come to attack us in the night. They have just taken us as bush meat that must be hunted to death.”
The rich also cried
There are very few late Nigerian public office holders whose deaths can be remembered to have occurred during their service to fatherland. Gyang Dalyop Dantong is one.
More than 300 people in Riyom and Barkin Ladi Local Governments had been murdered by suspected Fulani herdsmen. On Sunday 8th July 2012 when 63 of those were to be mass-buried at Matse Village, Gyan turned up. It turned out to be his valedictory public appearance. Gunmen believed to be Fulanis invaded the burial, and everyone scuttled. Even the soldiers fled. In all, more than a hundred mass-burial sympathisers were killed. Among them was Gyang, the senator representing Plateau North constituency at the National Assembly.
His immediate younger brother, Rwang Dantong, thinks it is a death that could have been averted. “If there was peace, nothing like that would have happened,” says Rwang, a soft-spoken man who generally comes across as too calm to support the ongoing belligerence. “But I saw my brother as a sacrificial lamb to the Berom Land, a person who can die — and he ended up dying — for a cause to help his people.”
Rwang is happy with the equanimity with which his parents have dealt with the death. His 87-year-old father being a retired pastor, all members of the family have taken the calamity in their stride.
“All the way, we have been walking along God’s path. We have been relying on God’s biblical teachings to leave vengeance to him,” he says solemnly. “We completely accept my brother’s death as the will of God, because nobody can take the glory of God.”
If God didn’t allow it, he concludes, Gyang would never have fallen. “And since He allowed it to happen, He knows how to take care of us.”
to be continued…