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Nigerian massacre victims buried in mass grave

Survivors say Christian villagers were trapped in nets and hacked to death by Muslim herdsman in attacks with ethnic and religious overtones. Death estimates vary wildly, from 200 to 500.

March 08, 2010|By Robyn Dixon and Aminu Abubakar
  • Villagers watch as victims of a massacre are buried in a mass grave in Dogo Nahawa, one of three Christian villages attacked early Sunday just south of Jos, Nigeria.
Villagers watch as victims of a massacre are buried in a mass grave in Dogo… (AFP/Getty Images )

Reporting from Ratsat, Dogo Nahawa, Nigeria, and Lagos, Nigeria -- The victims of Sunday's sectarian massacres were buried in mass graves in central Nigeria on Monday as survivors told horrific stories of Christian villagers being trapped in nets and hacked to death by Muslim herdsmen.

Reports on the death toll differed wildly, with some placing it at about 200 and others reporting 528 killed and thousands injured. Casualty figures in the recurrent Muslim-Christian violence in Nigeria's volatile Plateau state are often difficult to ascertain, as each side inflates its losses.

However, attacks in January and on Sunday have left at least 500 dead, making it the worst violence here for some years.

Hundreds of nomadic Fulani herdsmen launched coordinated attacks on three Christian villages -- Dogo Nahawa, Ratsat and Zot, just south of Jos -- about 3 a.m. Sunday.

The killers planted nets and animal traps outside the huts of the villagers, mainly peasant farmers, fired weapons in the air, then attacked with machetes, according to human rights lawyer Shehu Sani of the nongovernment Civil Rights Congress, who visited the villages and interviewed dozens of survivors.

"People came out of their houses and started falling into the animal traps and mosquito nets and then they were hacked down," he said. "They were the kind of traps used for wild animals."

Plateau state, which lies on the divide between the mainly Muslim north and largely Christian south, has seen thousands killed in the last decade. Fulani herdsmen have accused a group of indigenous Christians, the Berom, of attacking their camp last month, killing four people and stealing about 200 cattle.

Violence in the region, which appears unrelated to ongoing national sectarian political tensions, has ethnic as well as religious overtones.

Many clashes have involved rampaging mobs of the indigenous Christians and of Muslim settlers, the Hausa, who started moving into the area early last century. The Muslim Fulani herdsmen, who move through the area with their cattle, are less often involved.

This year's attacks have had a more sinister pattern: They are carefully planned and brutal, with hundreds of villagers killed -- including babies, the elderly and anyone else unable to flee.

"Even the kind of violence is unusual, because it was not physical confrontations between Muslims and Christians. It was an ambush," said Sani, the rights lawyer. "The attackers killed whoever they caught. It was mostly women who stayed behind to defend their children that became most of the victims."

One survivor, Sylvanis Mathias, said the attack was well planned. "They fired in the air, scared people out of their houses and then attacked them with machetes as they tried to escape, and then burned their bodies. They set the houses ablaze. More than half of the houses have been burned."

The villages of Ratsat and Dogo Nahawa were eerily silent Monday. Houses lay in ashes and the streets were deserted. Survivors loaded bodies on trucks for the mass burial in Dogo Nahawa.

During the burial, many survivors wept and some pounced on a local Muslim journalist, Murtala Sani Hashim, witnesses said. Police fired shots to disperse the crowds and rescued Hashim, who, according to witnesses, was punched, kicked and nearly pushed into the mass grave.

Police said that dozens of suspects had been arrested in connection with the massacre, but Sani cast doubt on whether the right people were apprehended. "Arrests were made, but these were not even at the scene of the crime. They were just people arrested by police to save face and say they were doing their job," he said.

Suspects arrested after such violence have rarely been convicted, with lack of adequate evidence often cited.

robyn.dixon@latimes.com

Abubakar is a special correspondent.

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