NIGERIA: Terror over the Hills

Oct 1, 2021 | VoM

While weeding the family vegetable farm on the hillside with her children, Ada stood a moment in the morning sun, watching their work. “Julius, too rough. Don’t bruise the tomatoes or we will get a poor price for all our work. Felicia, watch Mary, she will step on the plants. Ella, stop playing around. It’s time for work. You children, when I was your age…“

She looked down the valley, gently chiding them, satisfied with the lush maize and neat rows of soya beans, enough to feed her family this year, with the extra beans – a good cash crop.

Further up the hill, she looked a little anxiously at their ginger plot, hoping this year it might provide for the children’s school fees, books and uniforms, after two years out of school.

Something glinted on the hilltop; movement between the trees caught her eye. Men appeared over the crest in the indigo turbans and flowing robes of the Sahel, some with faces covered, carrying AK47s.

“Run!” she screamed at the children, her voice sharp with terror.

The children looked quickly to their mother, following her pointed finger.

“Run! Fulani!”

The children were already moving. Julius grabbed toddler Mary, hoisting her onto his back, and raced downhill, Felicia beside him. Ella, furthest up the hill, stumbled, fell, and cried out. Ada ran back, pulled Ella to her feet, dragging her along, all the time shouting to other villagers on their farm plots.

Rapid fire of semi-automatic weapons sounded across the valley, then “Allahu Akbar!” (Allah is greatest), as the Fulani poured down the hillside.

Felicia realised their mother’s shouting had ceased and glancing over her shoulder saw Ada and Ella collapsed on the ground. She began to turn back but Julius grabbed her hand and pulled her forward.

“There is nothing you can do. Come on!”

Julius, with Mary clinging to his back, and Felicia were moving fast. Machine gunfire rang out again. Shafts of heat whooshed past them. Mary’s body jerked against Julius’s back as searing pain pierced his shoulder. Mary whimpered. Felicia cried out, but they kept running. This was not the first Fulani attack on their village.

The children made for a hollow they knew on an adjacent hillside covered by bush. Scrambling over rocks and under bushes, they finally crouched, panting, hidden, hearts thumping in terror. Julius’s hand covered Mary’s mouth, muffling her moans. He saw blood seeping from the damaged flesh of her upper arm and realised his own T-shirt was covered with blood. They were hit by the same bullet. Struggling to use his left arm, Julius pulled off Mary’s skirt to wrap around the wound and held her close. Felicia nursed her left hand, shattered by a bullet, using her own skirt to staunch the bleeding. Fear dulled their pain.

Two years earlier, in the last attack, the Fulani had grazed their animals on the crops leaving nothing, emptied the village grain-stores, but left the houses. They had guns too. Some neighbours had died, but those Fulani were not dressed like these; they had not shouted that terrifying Muslim call. Two years back was bad, but what now? What of Ada and Ella? Where was Baba, their father? Silent tears ran down their faces; not even Mary dared make a noise.

Screaming, shouting, clashing sounded from the village below; brutal gunfire, then a horrifying roar. The village was on fire, thatch roofs blazing like torches. Felicia and Julius looked desperately at each other; nothing would be left.

Many hours passed. Rain fell. They caught the drips to relieve their thirst but did not dare leave their place of safety. Night fell but they did not move. Exhausted and hungry, they finally fell asleep.

“Julius, Mary, Felicia!” They woke with sunlight filtering through the foliage and to familiar voices. They crawled out. A great shout went up as neighbours saw them alive and picked them up, carrying them to their father. They were overjoyed, hugging, bringing water for them to drink in a broken pot.

Julius stared solemnly at the remains of the village – broken, blackened ruins that yesterday were their homes; the flattened cornfields trampled and grazed by Fulani cattle. Among his relatives and neighbours, some were injured. Some searched for belongings among charred household goods spread through the village. Some women swept up the little maize and sorghum scattered around the shattered grain storages, retrieving what they could. Lined up before the shell of the village church were 35 bodies, including Ada and Ella.

Baba unwound the bloody cloth on Mary’s arm. Grandma brought warm water and cloth torn from the wrapper around her waist to wash their wounds. The bullet had passed through the soft flesh of Mary’s upper arm and lodged in Julius’s shoulder, snapping his collar bone. It was agony as Baba removed the bullet, pulled the bone together and fixed the torn flesh in place with thorns. Grandma placed herbs gathered from the hillside on the wound before Baba bound it tightly against a clean piece of plastic from a broken chair to keep the bones stable. Two of the bones in Felicia’s hand were broken. The same was done for her and Mary’s wound. Grandma gave them herbs steeped in hot water to dull their hunger and make them sleep. She lay them down under the shade of a mango tree, rocking Mary in her arms, crooning a lament in her deep comforting voice, as tears rolled down her cheeks. Baba joined the other men digging the mass grave.

Three months on, in August 2020, Pastor Shan from VOM’s partner, Christian Faith Ministries (CFM), came to their church, meeting under palm fronds laid across bushtimber, and told them of help for education for the children. After much discussion, a decision was made. Julius and Felicia would go, along with other children who lost their parents in the attack. Mary was too small; she would stay with Grandma. Two weeks later they trekked to a neighbouring village near a main road and boarded a bus with Baba and their pastor, waving goodbye to Grandma and Mary.

Julius and Felicia are in school at CFM’s children’s Crisis Home near Jos. Three hours’ drive from their Kaduna State home. Every week they speak with Baba and Grandma on the phone. At Christmas, Baba collected them for a three-week stay in the village. They all sang Christmas hymns together as they helped harvest sorghum and millet planted after the attack, as well as the ginger that was undamaged. They trod straw into the mud to shape blocks to rebuild houses and the church, and cut and tied elephant grass for new thatch.

Baba asked hundreds of questions about school: what they ate, the aunties and uncles caring for them, church and Sunday school, boys’ brigade and girls’ brigade. He was content with the answers, deeply grateful to see his children growing strong and healthy, with clear eyes and plenty of energy. Their English was better than his now. Baba knew both children had been diagnosed with viral Hepatitis C, in medical screening on arrival at CFM. They had been provided with expensive antiretroviral treatment for three months, with the latest viral load test showing both were virus-free.

Baba was happy to bring them back to CFM for the new school term, confident his beautiful children are growing in faith, love and knowledge. He is proud of their progress. He thanks God for fellow believers from other countries providing the means, standing with them through persecution, and giving his family hope and a future.

Praise God for providing an education in a nurturing Christian environment for persecuted Christian children. Pray too for the families who have suffered from violent Fulani attacks.