GIDINYE, Nasarawa, Nigeria – Sorrow still lingers over the ruined lives and burned homes in Gidinye, a small village in rural Nigeria where an invading mob massacred more than 25 people a year ago.
For 20-year-old Gift Audu – who barely escaped with his life and lost a good friend in the bloodshed that day – the memories of the murderous attack are painful and fresh.
Audu, a student who works on a farm on weekends, doesn’t like to talk about it, but made an exception during the Christmas holiday.
He and others in Gidinye pushed their sadness aside and resolutely celebrated for six straight hours of traditional tribal dances to mark the holy day.
“We’re celebrating because we feel we are way stronger than those losses caused by that unexpected invasion,” Audu said in Hausa, a predominant language in northern Nigeria.
Audu said the annual cultural dance organized by his tribe helps them appreciate the birth of Jesus as they prepared for the New Year, which they believe is full of blessings.
A single family home in Gidinye made of cement blocks. It had more than 15 rooms and was home to the family of a local middle class civil servant but was destroyed in the rampage on the village. The family is staying in their former house, a shabby structure made of mud, and thinking of rebuilding. (Linus Okechukwu/YJI)
Was all the celebration worth it? For Philip Peter, 13, the answer is yes.
“I feel excited,” Peter said, but his eyes were filled with sorrow beyond his years. “We are suffering, but we have to be strong.”
Gift Audu stands in front of the area where the Christmas dancing took place. (Linus Okechukwu/YJI)
Peter saw his village endure unimaginable loss after some Eggon tribe members from the neighboring village invaded on Nov. 21, 2012, burning many homes and slaughtering people of the Migili tribe who call Gidinye home.
Gidinye –a village of a few thousand people in the outskirts of Lafia, the capital of Nasarawa State – can’t be found in a search of Google Maps or Google Earth.
The butchery that occurred there never got much notice outside the immediate area, either.
Peter said he can’t help but weep when he remembers the people from his village, mostly men, but also one elderly woman, who were killed, and all the homes that were burned. Luckily, he wasn’t in the village that morning.
For Audu, the memories are almost unbearable.
Audu said he cannot forget his friend, Danjuma Agwadu, one of the men who died in the assault.
Gift Audu barely escaped the murderous raid on his village. A friend of his was brutally killed. (Linus Okechuwku/YJI)
“I was with him when we saw clouds of thick black smoke billowing everywhere,” said Audu. “Startled, I began to run, but rather than run, Danjuma preferred to go into their house to see if his father was safe.”
Agwadu, who was only 23, was caught upon entering the house
and murdered by men with machetes and axes, Audu said.
“He suffered deep cuts in different parts of his body,” said Audu. “He couldn’t bring himself to run, knowing his father is still inside the house. I feel dejected when I think of him.”
Audu fled, with as many as three of the marauders in pursuit. He was able to outrun them and got away. He later learned what happened to his friend.
Agwadu’s father somehow escaped.
Massacre Stemmed From A Petty Theft
The bloodshed that claimed so many lives can be traced back to the theft of a motorcycle, according to Audu.
Ironically, two men – one from each village – liked each other enough to be partners in crime. Together, Audu said, they swiped the motorcycle.
Police arrested the man from the Eggon tribe, but couldn’t find the Migili man, so they left with the man they got.
At some point after that, according to Audu, some aggrieved Eggon youth entered Gidinye in search of the accomplice who was still at large.
“Finally when they saw the accomplice, some of his tribesmen refused to let them to take him with them. This led to a fight, and two Eggon youth were eventually killed,” Audu said.
The Eggon youth went back to their village and returned with a mob.
“After that, around 10 a.m., I saw more than 200 armed men invade our village,” said Audu. “They began to destroy virtually anything from people to houses.”
More than 30 are now under arrest for the attack, said Audu, who is begging the court handling the case to dispense justice “without
fear of favor.”
A two-family home where members of an extended family were living before the invaders destroyed it. Some family members are still there, while others are living with friends or staying on the farm where they work. (Linus Okechukwu/YJI)
An old-style mud home with about seven rooms, built for one family. Houses like this were not destroyed in the raid, only the newer ones made of cement. (Linus Okechukwu/YJI)
For Some, Christmas Joy Helps Them Heal
Though his village is still living in squalor – a consequence of the invasion – Peter was jubilating and celebrating alongside his tribesmen last week because it was Christmas.
Akwe Angolo, 18, said, “I am happy to be among my people this Christmas. It gives me pleasure.”
Akwe Angolo (Linus Okechukwu/YJI)
For student Samson Yusuf, 18, Christmas is a time for happiness, not sorrow. So despite the haunting memories of the invasion, he and other Migili people try hard to forget their pain and hope that next year will be better.
“We never expected such crisis, but then it came; what more can we do? Nothing,” said Yusuf. “We just have to thank God for everything.”
But things are quite different with 17-year-old Sylvanus Peter, Philip Peter’s older brother. He said he still feels bad whenever he thinks of that terrible day.
“Whenever I see these burnt houses, I feel like crying,” he said. “But it’s Christmas. We just have to be happy as we celebrate the birth of Jesus.”
The ruins of a single family cinderblock home destroyed in the assault on Gidinye. The family that used to live there has moved out of the village. (Linus Okechukwu/YJI)
Yusuf said the annual tribal dance also creates a platform for the Migili people to appreciate the beauty of their culture and unity.
Augustine Samson (Linus Okechukwu/YJI)
Some in the village haven’t been able to let go; others say it is a time to move ahead.
So they forgot their painful losses: all their burned homesand all the people who were brutally slaughtered, and danced with joy.
None of the young men interviewed spoke of retaliation or revenge.
Angolo, who is a student at the village school, said his tribesmen must be resilient and patient. He said he believes God will help them rebuild their village again.
Augustine Samson, 19, who witnessed the arson attack, said this Christmas was special because it helped the village escape its grief, at least for awhile. He and other Migili people saw Christmas as an opportunity to be resilient in the face of adversity.
Samson Yusuf (Linus Okechukwu/YJI)
“Let’s forget the past. God will bless us. God will
definitely see us through this period of trials. We must embrace peace and move on with our lives,” Angolo said.
“We must always forgive those who offend us,” said Yusuf. “That way, we’ll be promoting unity.”
The way the tribe celebrated Christmas shows its resilience. They danced for six hours each day from the 25th until the 27th of December, singing and rejoicing with unparalleled joy.
“We just have to remain peaceful and unite with one another,” said Sylvanus Peter. “Even if we have lost a lot, if there’s life, there’s hope.”
Linus Okechukwu is a Reporter for Youth Journalism International.
To read YJI Senior Reporter Gideon Arinze Chijioke’s personal experience that day in the village of Gidinye, see his 2017 Reporter’s Notebook. Gideon Arinze Chijioke also wrote a news story about villagers on the fifth anniversary of the massacre.