In 2008, I was fourteen years old and considered old enough to protect our territory, and to kill our Muslim enemies. My elder brother and I, alongside other boys, youths and older men, clustered on the tarred road in our community. We were all holding weapons, machetes, clubs, axes, bows and arrows, broken bottles, local guns, and any tool that could cause harm. We mounted heavy stones on the road and barricaded it with logs of wood toothed with nails.
While agitation, anger and tension saturated the air, a heavy truck drove toward us. It belonged to a beverage company. The driver had not anticipated running into a barricade. He did not know the safe routes in that period of crisis. Possibly, he was a stranger driving through our town which had a federal road coursing through our community. When he realised he had driven into the wrong territory, he panicked and tried to turn around the large truck. The head of the truck failed to make a sharp turn. The youths rushed towards him. The man jumped out and ran across the pitch where we played football by the road. He ran towards the hills and mountains which surround our town trying to escape.
He had not made it to the middle of the pitch when someone landed a blow on his head with a wood that looked like a giant pestle. The blow slowed him, yet he kept running. Another weapon landed on him. Yet he kept running, slower, with each blow. I froze as more and more weapons met him. By the time sharp ones hit his body, his white kaftan had turned red until he fell to the ground. He dragged himself, still desperate for survival. The crowd was rowdier. The man quaked on the ground, still breathing. Then all of a sudden, he was on fire. Someone had set him ablaze. I was terrified.
People talked about the loved ones lost in the current and previous crises. We wandered in our street, waiting and hoping to get more victims. Phone calls were made to inquire about the crisis in other regions. Youths from my area were willing to go to hotter zones, but from the series of phone calls, we learned that the military men were patrolling in their vans, and they would soon be coming to our area. The burning man’s truck that had broken down was attacked, and the large container behind containing beverages was looted. It was a full truck. People spoke about how it was scriptural to plunder your enemy’s properties. They gave instances where the Israelites looted their conquered enemies’ possessions. It was a justification. The beverages were consumed right on the spot, and the excess was looted away. The truck was then set ablaze. Both the driver in the open field and the truck on the road were burnt. We retreated to our houses. My house is on a hill, so with my brothers, we watched the thick smoke rising to the sky from different areas. By the end of that crisis, hundreds of lives were lost. Friends and relatives went missing, and some bodies were dug out from wells or pits. Houses, Churches, Mosques, and shops were burnt.
In the first crisis, which was in 2001, a woman ran into our compound screaming, “Mu gudu, mu gudu, cikin gari na ci da wuta.” I was juggling a football. The woman’s panic cry disturbed me, and the ball bounced off my slippered feet. Why was she screaming, “Let’s run, let’s run, the town is on fire?” How can a whole town be ablaze? I was seven years old, and the biggest fires I had seen were the ones my friends and I set on the mountains and bushes during the dry season out of mischief or adventurous hunt for grasshoppers, rats, and lizards. Even then, the fires weren’t mighty enough to consume our community, let alone an entire town. It was a cold and windy Saturday morning. My mom was in the uncompleted room-and-parlor in our compound. She was seated on a low stool, washing our clothes and tending to the charcoal fire pot.
“Danpen’s mother, abandon everything and pack your children. Let’s run for our lives,” she said.
Everything was strange. It had never happened before that someone would burst into our house and ask us to flee for our lives. What the woman was saying did not make sense. Run to where and from who? After some desperate plea and explanation, my mom ran into our bedroom and carried our little brother on her back. That was it. My mother and our four-month-old infant brother strapped on her back, my elder brother and my younger brother. We ran from the house and left our doors unlocked, clothes in the basin, and pot on charcoal fire. It was a flight for survival.
Our community was chaotic with the motion of terrified people. Mothers shouted their children’s names, and children searched for their mothers. Older siblings held younger ones, and families tried to stay together in the rowdiness. We were desperate to escape from the new violence that came for us. Far off, the sky was dulled with smoke. The morning cold disappeared, and a tensed hotness took over. Neighbours from surrounding areas ran into ours. There was a hilly pathway in our area that led to Mazah village. Some grown men were assigned to lead the movement. Other men stayed back to defend our territory. We swarm uphill, quivering and praying. After walking some stretch of rocky paths, we began to descend downhill. The more we advanced along the winding road, the more we deciphered what was happening. The crowd comprised indigenous people of Jos like the Anagutas(which is my tribe), Beroms, Afizeres, and Bujis. There were other Plateau ethnic groups like the Taroh, Ngas, Challa, Irigwe, Fier, Goemai, Amo. There were also people from other parts of the country like the igalas, Igbos, Idomas, and Yorubas. Regardless of our ethnic differences, what mattered was our shared fear and religion. Yes, religion. It was on the run that we figured that we were all Christians.
By the time we reached Mazah, we had understood what the crisis was about. Some people from the crowd spoke about how the crisis had started the previous day. There were different accounts of how the crisis began, but the unchanged theme in all the narrations was that it was a Christian versus Muslim fight.
One version of how the crisis began was that a young girl in the Congo Russia area of Jos wanted to cross the road and pass through a congregation of Muslims gathered for prayers. She was denied access, and a quarrel between her and one of the congregants led to him slapping her. She was said to have cried aloud, prompting Christian youths to come out. A crowd gathered, and tension rose. Physical assaults began, and then the use of stones, then weapons and burnings with petrol bombs.
Another version was that the Muslim youths had come to the mosque with arrows and cutlasses in anticipation of a possible clash, and that the girl had made attempts to pass the road by the mosque and had been denied. The girl came again, this time, Christian youths strolled about, monitoring the situation. So, when she was denied passage and Christians charged, the Muslims began attacking.
Our Muslim neighbors and friends were not with us in the crowd that ran to Mazah. They had fled at night or at dawn to areas where they were more populated, just like how our Christian relatives fled from Muslim-dominated areas to ours.
We spent more than two weeks at Mazah. Women and children. Our fathers came for us when security agencies restored calm. We returned to a burnt town. The house next to ours was destroyed. Two other nearby houses were destroyed. One of those houses belonged to our dear friends. They were gone. Their house was unrecognizable. Our dear friends. Friends we went to school with ran barefoot in the street, rode ‘boris’, fished for precious stones in shallow waters, and listened to Bible stories from an aunt who gave us gifts. They were gone. Our area became an exclusively Christian area. We had people who were sheltered in our area too. They had fled from areas that had become exclusively Muslim-populated
With this divide, schools were changed such that our Muslim friends attended schools within or closer to their territories while we did the same. I never saw our Muslim friends again. In schools where there were both faiths, friendship was not extended beyond school. We could not visit each other at our homes. It was a risky thing. You could trust your friend but not his folks. We learned to be skeptics. A common cautionary phrase flew around the town, and even children knew it. It became a sort of warning mantra “sabuwa da kaza ba ta hana yanka”; familiarity with a fowl doesn’t stop it from being slaughtered. We learned to be friends with borders. Crossing the line was suicidal.
After the 2001 crisis, several other ones occurred intermittently in little pockets of the town. I don’t remember the precise year, but between 2001-2004, there was one that occurred. I was in primary school, and news began to spread that the town was in another unrest. Fear and confusion gripped teachers and pupils. My school was unfenced. Parents who could come for their children swarmed in and carried them. Pupils cried as we were locked in classes so we wouldn’t run out of the school on our own and fall into danger. My elder brother, who was in the same school as me, followed a family he knew, and on their way to safety, he said he saw a man constrained like an animal on the ground and butchered. Later, in the days that followed, he would have nightmares and probably undiagnosed PTSD —one night, when he woke up to urinate in the outhouse, he ran back with fear that he saw a piglike creature flying.
In 2004, the then President of the country, Olusegun Obasanjo, declared a state of emergency in the state. The crisis was escalating to other parts of the state, and there was concern that it could go beyond the state. Soldiers proliferated the town. They had tents across the town. Major roads were mounted with sand-filled sacks. It seemed like everywhere I looked, there was a military man in khaki and a gun. People were randomly stopped and searched, and interrogated.
Relative calmness was restored, but soon, people began to perceive that the military was biased in their operations and even taking sides as people went missing. Dead bodies were found, and silent killings happened. The presence of several military checkpoints ensured tensions were quelled before blowing up, but it did not restore peace. The state of emergency lasted for about six months.
Clashes between Christians and Muslims continued, and the state Government responded by imposing curfews. A Series of dialogues were held by religious leaders and with committees set up by the government to curtail the situation, but nothing seemed to work. So the cycle continued —clashes, curfews, meetings, silent killings. Again and again.
In 2010, another crisis erupted like before. We woke up to the news that a village, Dogo Nahawa, was attacked, and several people were killed. Later we would hear that the casualties were over 600. It was a Christian village. Those who escaped fled to different communities for refuge. Those who had relatives in my area reported that the attack started after midnight and lasted till dawn. They said the attackers were dressed in fake military uniforms, and they came in their numbers. They were said to have surrounded the village, shooting, hacking, and burning. Humans and livestocks were killed while properties were burnt. Women and children were not spared. In my area, I overheard a neighbor narrating the ordeal she said a survivor told her. She said the attackers were Hausa and Fulani Muslims who were very familiar with the village, possibly some were even former residents. That they had so much time to do whatever they wanted. That the military came in the morning when the perpetrators had fled. A pang of pain ran through me when she got into the graphics of the atrocities. She said a woman was staked with a long stick, pushing it through her vagina to her abdomen. It was a reprisal attack for a “smaller clash” which had happened a few months back between the Berom farmers and Hausa/Fulani herders.
As the news about Dogo Nahawa’s massacre spread in town, different areas heated up and roads were barricaded, and a series of attacks began to occur.
My friend, G, who was my secondary school classmate, came to my area in the blackness and heat of the crisis. I was sixteen years old, and along with younger boys, older ones, and grown men, we guarded the road. My area was less chaotic because it didn’t border any Muslims. The Muslim area close to ours was separated by a Christian one. We were in a safety zone. We mobbed basically to offer some of our numbers to other areas and to deal with unfortunate Muslims caught in our territory. G told me of the people who were hacked and killed in his area. He was angry and vengeful. He reiterated how it was his Muslim neighbors, people he thought he knew, who set his former house ablaze, destroying everything. He stated how there was no need for mercy for any Muslim. How the person whose life you spare will be the one to kill you if roles were reversed? He noted that my passiveness was because I wasn’t in his shoes. I had never seen that fierceness in him. He was a gentle boy and intelligent. He was our class captain at some point.
Youths from my area effluxed to areas with more happenings. I went with my friend, and on the way he showed me a culvert where a man was crushed beyond recognition. There were numerous bloodied huge stones in the culvert. They had been used to kill him. G too had thrown rocks at the man, he told me. I understood why he did it, though I never knew he could. His family moved into that area after the 2001 crisis. I come from Jos, Plateau State, a town that had suffered a series of religious crises that had seen thousands of lives taken and valuable properties destroyed. In the first crisis, which started on the 7th of September 2001, lasted for about two weeks and an estimated one thousand people lost their lives. Several other crises followed and there were always casualties.
G’s former house was attacked, and all their properties were destroyed, he told me they barely escaped with their lives, and since then, life had been difficult for them. They were a family of six and were cramped in a room and parlor apartment with a leaking roof, cracked floors, broken walls, and constant odour of the pit latrine with an adjoining wall to their bedroom. After showing me the crushed man in the culvert, we walked to a closeby area, Ungwan Rukuba, where more killings occurred.
On approaching Ungwan Rukuba, we saw a number of burnt cars with the drivers smoked inside. Body parts were strewn on the tarred road. Tires were burnt over what used to be living bodies. On one of the burnt cars, a dead and burnt man was leaned, and the inscription MOSES was written on a piece of paper and pegged to his chest. The story was that, prior to killing the man, he was asked to identify himself and his religion, and the man tried claiming Christianity. That he said, his name was Moses but could not recite John 3:16, which every Christian could make a good attempt. That the man could not recite any scriptural verse, and his thick Hausa accent and the dark spot on his forehead implied his devotion to Islam. He was not shown mercy, and like some sort of comic, the inscription MOSES was pegged on him.
Last year, August, I woke up one morning and while pressing my phone, gory images of my tribespeople who were attacked over the night flooded WhatsApp groups and statuses. Yelwa Zangam, a Christian, Anaguta people’s community, was besieged by Hausa/Fulani Militia. They slaughtered little boys and girls, women, and men. Houses and barns and vehicles and livestock were destroyed. It was alarming. It was almost a surprise as this happened while the town was under curfew. There were military checkpoints not far from the community as it was located near the university of Jos. A friend of mine, GL, who lived close to that community, told me how rowdy the night was. There were heavy gunshots, and red blazing fires tore the darkness. She said several phone calls were made to the security agencies, even her father called, but that the security did not respond promptly. It was after the destruction was done that they arrived.
Questions about how the attackers made it into that community were asked. It was said they came on motorcycles. How was their movement in the quietness of the night in a town under curfew undetected by the security close by? Again, the mistrust and feeling of the security taking sides arose.
Prior to the curfew, a convoy of buses travelling from Bauchi through the town was attacked at a different community, Rukuba Road. It was said that about 20-something people were killed by the Youths of the community who said the travelers were Muslim Fulani intruders who had weapons and planned to attack them. Other reports had it that the travelers were returning to Ondo from Bauchi. It was vengeance for the travelers. Regardless of the community, there was retaliation.
Around that period, silent killings took place, and some students of the university of Jos were killed. It wasn’t the first time that students were victims. The university suspended its activities. Students were trapped in their hostels. It was close to an an examination, and some had exhausted their allowances and provisions. Minor clashes still occurred and videos circulated on social media. Students complained of feeling unsafe within the hostels. Videos of bullet holes in the hostels’ walls were circulated. Panic heightened. Different states sent security personnel and buses to come and pack their indigenes. Maybe they lost faith in the state government’s capability to curtail the situation. The attack on Yelwa Zangam sparked an outrage among the Christian Youths. They defied the curfew order and took to the streets. The hacked, bloodied, and dead children, men, and women were loaded in a pickup. The bodies were driven to the Government house accompanied by Youths who held placards and chanted that the Governor had betrayed his people. Women also followed, wailing, kneeling, rolling on the ground and raining curses. They took the bodies to the Government House in response to a comment credited to the Governor who was away in Abuja attending the President’s son’s wedding. People were angered that the Governor said his state was at peace. The protesters wanted him to return and see the bodies since the enjoyment in Abuja blinded him from the reality of his people.
My medical school days and my interaction with students who had come from different parts of the country made me realize how much violence and trauma I had experienced and how I had adapted. I remember the day we first entered the anatomy lab, called Cadaver Room or Dissection Room; we formed a queue of glistening year two medical students in our clean lab coats. We stood with our heads high, looking in only one direction: the door that served as the portal to our glorious journey ahead.
“I hope you all have your dissection kits and manuals. If not, please go away!” the HOD bellowed.
We turned our heads in his direction and briefly to our hands holding the manuals and little black kits containing dissection instruments. He was a man that one had to be extra careful with. A man of discipline. One who held principles with two hands.
“Yes sir,” we answered, affirming our enthusiasm.
Above us were the green, slender leaves of a large flowering plant. Little colourful flowers from the tree fell on our heads. Everything was exciting and beautiful. When he gave us the order to go in, we marched with style and pride. I swear we had more grace than the noblest surgeons.
We walked past the door and entered a dim corridor. Another door awaited us in front. Everywhere was quiet. This other door welcomed us into a hall with numerous open windows on opposite sides of the walls. But this is not the first thing one would notice when you enter a cadaver room. It’s not the visuals. No, it’s the stench of death. The smell of formalin. The odour of unliving bodies.
There were blackened, embalmed bodies stretched out on the dissection tables. We were divided into groups, each group took a position on their allocated cadavers. The HOD gave a stern warning for us to behave and act like medical students. This meant being bold and looking at the bodies. My mates were already quivering. I particularly noticed how a girl in my group looked away from the shrunken male genitalia of our own cadaver. The pubic hair was like some useless strands of unthought creation. I saw my group members were crippled by fear. What had they expected to see? It was my first time in the cadaver room too, but it wasn’t my first encounter with dead bodies.
The HOD went around inspecting each table, ensuring all members were present and had dissection kits and manuals. “Nobody should cover his or her nose; remove your hands from your noses!
My mates, who looked disgusted with everything, had covered their noses. I wondered if they had expected fresh bodies draped in theater clothing like it was an operating room. They clutched their dissection kits tightly as if drawing strength from it.
“Everybody should put his or her hands on the cadavers,” the HOD said. “You must all dissect. All of you.”
My group members looked bewildered and hesitated. They reluctantly pocketed their dissection kits as we all lay our hands on the blackened bodies. My friend, Nimchak, had come into the dissection room with latex hand gloves. He wore it and once the HOD caught him, he instructed him to take it off.
“I say hold the cadavers with your hands, all of you!”
The HOD charged as we acted like the cadavers were some untouchable dirt. I have heard stories of sets before —from those who threw up, to those who fainted and those who sobbed. The silence in the hall was of a terrifying intensity except for the movement of the HOD. The excitement and pride the class had just some minutes ago had vanished.
The order was for us to only touch and feel the bodies. It was not yet time to open our dissection manuals and kits. It was not yet time to tear up the bodies. Probably some of my mates wondered why I was not so terrified. Or perhaps they were busy dealing with palpitations to notice me. I was calm and this was the reason: I had seen human beings get killed and burnt. I had seen how life leaves a body. I knew that a silent unbreathing body is way more peaceful and non-terrifying than one struggling to retain its soul.
Back in the cadaver room, the HOD ordered us to commence dissecting “everyone must dissect,”
Our hands were already soiled with formalin that was used to preserve the bodies. We opened our kits and manuals. We were to start with the dissection of the upper limb i.e. the arm and forearm, but the way to ease into it is to actually begin from the breast, the chest wall, the armpit, and then the arm. The HOD gave a warning about full participation by everyone and absolute silence and left. We opened our dissection manuals to follow the instructions on how to go about cutting.
Once we were sure the HOD was out of sight, away from the cadaver room, we stood quietly, watching the bodies, and waiting to see who would make the first cut. I think on my table, it was Z —the guy who was formerly in the department but got withdrawn. He reapplied to the course and got accepted as a newly admitted student. We heard that his original mates were in 400/500 level. I think it was he who made the first cut. Soon little noises started filling the hall, and in no time, people left their tables for other tables to chatter with friends.
Someone who came to my table said they saw a bullet hole in the head of their cadaver. Another asked how these bodies were sourced. It was a question I was interested in. The HOD had not thought to give us a brief history of cadavers or whatsoever.
Z always acted like a professional anatomist who knew how the cadavers were sourced, preserved and how the cuttings revealed different fascia, muscles, blood vessels, nerves, and organs. He started to talk about how they were bodies of armed robbers and prisoners who attempted escape and were shot, and their people could not be reached. We listened to him. He was older than most of the class and had been in medical school before we even finished secondary school. The median age of the class was 18/19, and he was way above that. In his explanations, he painted the bodies with terrible histories. What if some of the bodies were victims of the crises and they were unclaimed by their people? Of course, some people were shot by local guns or even sophisticated ones during the crisis. One huge muscular man, our neighbor, who was popularly called Unkle was shot on his biceps with a sophisticated gun. This was in 2010 crisis — a bullet chewed into his thick muscle, and I saw how deep the wound was when I went to greet him. He was at the border front of the crisis where it was most intense. At the borders, where boundaries separated Christian communities from Muslim communities, the crises were usually the deadliest there. They were the places of direct exchange of bullets. We heard that criminals like armed robbers on either sides of the divide usually brought their guns and at that time of crises, they were hailed as warlords, not criminals, as they eliminated common enemies. Also, it was not news that the security personnel that came to quell the crises sometimes misfired and stray bullets hit innocent people fleeing for their lives. A boy we used to play football with, was said to be running to safety when a stray bullet from the security personnel went through his scrotum. What were the chances that there were a number of people who were victims of the crises and their bodies were not recovered by their relatives? I didn’t like Z’s generalization of the cadavers as bodies of criminals.
That man that was burnt in the football field in my community, what did we know about him? His history? Where was he from, and where was he going to? He never had a chance to explain himself. Not to even state his name. Those who first struck him acted stupidly. How sure were they he was even of the opposite faith? Was it his kaftan? Well, a lot of people in that same community wear kaftan too! He never spoke a word.
The strongest motivation for killing him was based on suspicion of his faith and on anger. It’s part of the cycle of reprisals. There were friends and loved ones from the community who left and were caught up in the wrong territories and never returned. There were a few of them whose bodies were later recovered. What if those unrecovered bodies were used as cadavers? I thought in that dissection room. Definitely, all were not criminals.
The people that had come to our table to talk with their friends spoke in sorrowful softness. I watched the eyes of some of them, red and misty. Most of them were not from my town, where the university is situated. They had not grown up here. Education was what brought them from the far east, far west, and far north down here to Jos, which is in central Nigeria. Those who grew up in the state but outside the town and those from neighboring states were shocked. They had been hearing about Jos crises, but they had not seen the casualties — the maimed ones and the burnt ones. I was in the dissection room, calm and observing everything. These bodies were intact, and in a way, they had more dignity than the ones I had seen from the series of attacks during the recurring crises. Looking at the time log of the crises from 2001, I had developed an overfamiliarity with the horrors of stoned people, hacked people, burnt people, and destroyed holy places, houses, and properties. So in the cadaver room, I didn’t fret because I was the bravest or the most enthusiastic about the dissection of the human body, not at all. It was a fucked up case.
About twenty years after the first crisis, my mother went to the Farin Gada market, one of the largest in our town. She returned home with the items that she had bought and a story.
“You won’t believe what happened in the market today,” she said as I collected the polythene bag full of garden eggs from her. She specially bought it for me. My brothers rummaged through the other larger polythene bag for edible stuff.
“I was walking to buy what brought me to the market when someone tapped my shoulder,” she continued, seated on a stool in our backyard.
She caught our attention. Strange things are said to happen in Nigerian markets, like people being touched by strangers and losing their vaginas and penises or turning into yam.
“When I turned, a man was smiling at me,” she said.
“You don’t remember me?” He asked
“Who are you?”
She said her tone was confrontational as she guarded herself against a possibly dubious person. The man perceived her nervousness and asked .”Are you not Maman Dampen?”
She said she looked at him more intensely but still had no clue who he was, but she wondered how he knew her first son’s name.
“How is Nathaniel and Nanlung?” He asked.
“Sorry, I don’t remember you,” she said, even though what she meant to say was: I don’t know you. How do you know my son and his cousin and friend?
“I was unsure it was you but then the face is so familiar. I was your son’s friend. My brothers and I used to play with your sons and Nathaniel and Nanlung. I was born in mazah junction. My name is Kabiru. You don’t remember me because we left the area when I was little,”
My elder brother and I called the name aloud with brimming nostalgia. Kabiru? We remembered the name but not the face. I tried to match the name to several childhood faces but didn’t succeed in recollecting his face. Not a single feature like the lips, or nose or complexion. Nothing. He was a name without a face tucked somewhere in a dim corner of my memory.
“He said he is married with kids,” my mother continued.
I remember when we were little. We used to attend naming ceremonies to eat the delicacies offered and enjoy the music of calabashes on water with their bottoms arching upwards in filled basins. How many children does he have? Did he host naming ceremonies for them? How grandiose was his wedding? How adorned in henna and beautiful jewelry was his wife? We had missed out on all these because of the separation that the crisis had brought about.
As my mother concluded her story of Kabiru, guilt gripped me. I felt terrible for forgetting a dear friend. How he had managed to remember my mother was unbelievable. He probably remembered our faces in their childhood forms. Our mother said he was very happy to see her and asked her to greet us dearly. I wished they had exchanged contact but they probably didn’t consider it because Jos is still Jos and familiarity with a fowl doesn’t stop it from being slaughtered and you could trust your friend but not his folks, and you never know when someone would scream “mu gudu, mymu gudu,” and you don’t ever want to be caught on the wrong side.
Haruna Solomon Binkam is a medical doctor and writer from Jos, Nigeria. His works have appeared in iskanchi, Afreecan Read, Nantygreens, and Carousel. He was a runner up of the Abuja Literary Society short story Competition, Finalist of the Vancouver Manuscript Intensive Fellowship, Pushcart prize nominee, and a Bada Murya Fellow. He finds fireflies fascinating.