Jos — Having to leave the comfort of their homes for the cold floors of primary schools where they lack many of even the most basic of household and communal facilities has been the hard reality for displaced Fulani families in the Barkin-Ladi and Riyom local government areas of Plateau State.
"There is no food here, there is no toilet, I cannot bath or wash my clothes and change into any clean ones and the cold is much, please tell them to let me go back to my house," 70- year-old Goggo Salma pleaded, asking for access to the Commander of the Special Task Force (STF), General Henry Ayoola when he led his officials and men to a Fulani camp in Dogo, Barkin Ladi Local Government Area of Plateau State on Wednesday.
A Nomadic Primary School in Dogo is one of the places where some displaced Fulani families were asked to go by the STF last Saturday following the Defence Headquarters' decision to carry out a military operation to flush out attackers that the security agencies, represented in Plateau State by the STF, believe were still holed up around villages in Barkin Ladi and Riyom LGAs where attacks were launched on July 7 that led to the death of scores of people.
The STF had on July 14 given the residents of Mahanga, Kakuruk, Maseh and Shong 2 in Barkin Ladi and Riyom LGAs 48 hours to leave their abodes. STF spokesman, Salisu Mustapha, said in a statement to that effect that a military operation was to be conducted in those villages to rid them of the persistent attackers.
"The inhabitants of the affected areas are to vacate immediately with their property," the statement said. Dogo was one of the camps that the internally-displaced Fulani women, children, men and the elderly went and have been.
Last Wednesday, the day STF visited the camp with relief materials, Septuagenarian Salma wanted desperately to return to her home in Mahanga where she has the basic facilities and household effects as contrasted from the bare floors of the primary school where mosquitoes have a field day on her and her fellow villagers at the camp.
The first thing one Mariya, a mother of five, did on being approached for an interview was to show to Weekly Trust the marks that merciless mosquitoes had made on her.
"Look at me, life here is terrible," Mariya said, continuing: "Mosquitoes and cold have no mercy even on my baby."
She had in her hands a three-month old baby, Umar, the last of her children who is sharing the cold reality of life in the displaced persons' camp. Umar coughed intermittently and was being suspected to be suffering from pneumonia.
Classroom as bedroom, and all
One Hurraira Sani said the camp has been her worst experience in life. She complained: "We have been here for two days without food: nothing to sleep on and nothing to cover the body; no mat, no blanket. We are exposed to this extreme cold and mosquitoes are all over."
She protested that the classrooms which have become their bedroom, sitting room, kitchen and everything rolled together, were too small and too few for them. She explained how they pass the night: "The classrooms are not enough to contain us. We leave them to small children and the elderly who sleep in a very congested condition. The rest of us sit in the corridors of the classes throughout the night."
According to Huraira, one Aisha Yakubu died in the early hours of Wednesday from failing to cope with the life of deprivation and stress in the camp. "Aisha, from Shong 2, was unable to adapt to her new situation. She died of anxiety and stress this morning," Huraira said.
The early minutes of the visit by STF to the Dogo camp that Wednesday were characterized by tension over the relief materials which the STF and Kaduna State Government went with. The leadership of the camp rejected the relief materials from the Plateau State Government. Some commotion ensued as the National Secretary of Miyyeti-Allah Cattle Breeders Association of Nigeria (MACBAN), Alhaji Sale Bayeri intervened and was persuading the leaders of the camps to accept the materials. They later did.
Leader of the camp, Ardo Idris Gidado thanked the STF Commander for his concern. He described as terrible the condition of life at the camp when there were no relief materials.
While presenting the relief materials earlier, the STF commander, Major General Henry Ayoola, told the internally displaced persons to bear their condition which he described as a difficult one, but which he emphasized would be a temporary as they would return home as soon as the STF operation was over.
The camp in Riyom
When the STF and accompanying newsmen arrived at the Fulani camp in Diyyan Bachit Nomadic Primary School in Riyom Local Government Area, the STF almost returned the relief materials taken there, because certain Fulani men residing close to the camp moved over to the internally displaced persons camp and became a problem as it was now difficult to determine who the real displaced persons were.
As MACBAN Secretary Bayeri and some other leaders were still trying to resolve that issue, voices rose, questioning the safety of the relief materials which were mainly food items.
The food items, they said, could be poison which the Plateau State Government has sent to kill them. Most of those toeing that line were suspected to be the intruders and just as the STF had returned the items and were about to go, the women-dominated inhabitants of the camp pressed for the items to be given to them. The STF commander instructed his men to release the materials to the women and children.
In the course of the stay at the Diyyan Bachit camp by the STF and press crew, one 20-year-old Aminu Ahmadu who was among the displaced persons asked the security agents to let them leave the camp for their homes.
Aminu pleaded, "allow us to go back to our houses, because the deplorable condition here is beyond human imagination. Women, children and the elderly are living without food, no blanket to cover the body from the cold. There is no sufficient shelter or even tents for us to use and most us of us are sleeping outside, leaving the few classrooms to women and children. Most of us have been traumatized. You can see yourself that this is rainy season. Life here is worse than life in prison."
Such life may continue for many of the internally displaced persons a lot longer than they had hoped when the authorities were trying to persuade them to agree to be moved out of their homes for the STF operation. The impression created was that they would be away from their homes for only two days. When nothing happened after two days, two weeks became the singsong. But now, barring sudden change of attitude, the internally displaced persons may have several weeks of life in the camps.
At the end of the visitation to the Dogo and Diyyan Machit camps on Wednesday, STF Commander, General Ayoola told the news crew on the relief materials distribution exercise that he could not put time limits to his operations in the affected villages.
"You don't time operations of this kind, everything depends on what you find in the places of operation and what you need to do to achieve a successful operation," Gen. Ayoola said.
Death of Dantong & new consciousness
The death on July 8 of the senator representing Plateau North Senatorial Zone, Dr. Gyang Dantong, and member representing Barkin Ladi at the Plateau State House of Assembly, Gyang Fulani, gave the impetus for STF's controversial operation and the fate that has befallen the Fulani communities in Barkin Ladi and Riyom local government areas of Plateau State.
Dantong and Fulani slumped during a stampede after gunmen reportedly shot at them at Maseh village during a burial ceremony organized for the victims of attacks from unidentified gunmen the previous day.
The death of the two legislators appeared to have sounded the most compelling warning so far to the authorities of the danger that life has become in the hilly communities in the Barkin Ladi and Riyom LGAs.
It, however ,remains unclear who the attackers could have been. So, it is still a subject of argument.
Any time therewas an attack in the past couple of years in the volatile Barkin Ladi and Riyom LGAs, the Berom and Fulani communities always traded blame, roping in the STF in the process. The Berom would say the Fulani communities had been at it with the active connivance of members of the STF, and Fulani leaders would claim that STF members had been escorted to Fulani abodes to wreck whatever havoc is in reference.
As for the July 7 killing of scores of people around the villages that have now been temporarily sacked, and the attack at the mass burial of July 8 that ended the life of Dantong and Gyang; immediately the news broke, the finger of virtually all Berom people pointed at the Fulani inhabitants of the villages from where the attacks were suspected to have been launched.
Mutual suspicion fuels such quick conclusions. But for the July 7 and 8 incidents, it has finally begun to be widely accepted that the attackers could not have been any of the Fulani man on the street. The firepower deployed by the gunmen, it is being said, sounded much more like that of a well-trained and highly equipped mercenaries.
NEMA eases difficulties in camps
The North Central Zonal Coordinator of the National Emergency Management Agency (NEMA) Abdussalam Muhammad announced on leading management of the agency to camps yesterday that based on their assessment on the condition of the seven identified camps, though only four were heavily populated, the Director General of NEMA has relocated the Director of relief and rehabilitation to the state because of the situation.
The NEMA zonal coordinator was referring to camps for both the displaced Fulani villagers and their Berom counterparts.
The two camps visited by NEMA in Barkin Ladi include the COCCIN Church in Gangare and Dogo for the Berom which received five bags of Maize, five bags of Millet, five bags of Guinea Corn, eight bags of Beans, 11 mattresses, 25 bags Rice, 75 cartons of detergents, 75 cartons of Lux Soap, 100 pieces of women wrappers, 100 pieces of Blankets, 100 pieces of brocade and 76 pieces of math respectively.
Some Internally Displaced Fulani Leave Camp
By Thursday, three days after the communities were relocated to camps in Riyom and Barikin Ladi LGAs, some Fulani members of the camps reportedly began abandoning their temporary settlements to return to their homes for some basic supplies.
Although Weekly Trust gathered that the villagers took it upon themselves to go to their homes without notifying the STF, the National Secretary of the Miyetti Allah Cattle Breeders Association Saleh Bayeri said those who returned to their homes to get essential supplies needed for the Ramadan period had already returned to the camps and were still living there.
He explained, "They didn't all leave at the same time, just about 30 per cent of the people of each camp usually go to get their belongings from their homes and when they return, another set would go. We asked them not to all go at once so that it doesn't look like they are defying the STF and returning to live in their homes."
However, in a reaction to the development, the STF spokesperson, Captain Salisu Mustapha said the STF was not oblivious of the plight of the people, especially with the commencement of Ramadan. He, however, said the decision to ask the people to vacate their homes to make way for military operations was in the best interest of the villagers and the decision was not taken by the STF but higher authorities.
Gen. Ayoola had himself also said evacuating the people was based on military necessity which is in line with the International Humanitarian Law and is consistent with best global practices. Though Ayoola has warned the public against misconstruing the actual reason for the evacuation, the Plateau State Secretary of MACBA, Muhammad Nuru Abdullahi has gone ahead to say that they envisaged a plan to eject them (Fulani) from their homes.
Gen. Ayoola has assured members of the communities affected by the military operation that once the area was declared safe, the inhabitants would be recalled to their residences. But with insufficient food and other basic amenities, the villagers say they still have to face the harsh reality of seeing through the Ramadan fast in dire conditions. They claim that life is already difficult and that the environment is not convenient for them to practise their religion during the holy period.
A constitutional lawyer, Barrister Steven Ter Ahile, said, "ordinarily, it is the fundamental right of the people to stay in their normal place of residence, in case of impending danger or for sake of national interest, people's rights can be interfered with. So in this situation, it is the interest of national security and apart from national security, the security of the residents themselves. To this extent, you can excuse the temporary situation that the people have been persuaded to accept."
He, however, said government has an obligation to ensure the safety and well-being of the people in the camps: "It is under the fundamental objectives and directive principles, but ordinarily, these people should be entitled to medical facilities and so on."
Some Fulani free to return home
As at the time of filing this report yesterday evening, news broke that the Fulani from four of the affected communities were given the go-ahead to return to their homes by the STF. MACBAN National Secretary, Bayeri told Weekly Trust late yesterday that "we have been asked to return to four of our villages. Only one is still under the control of the STF and that is Mahanga."
Bayeri explained that the STF said it had completed its mop-up operation around the areas but asked that the inhabitants of Mahanga should remain in the camp pending the completion of military operation in the area.
"They have the option of either living in the camps or following some of their Fulani brothers and sisters to live with them in the areas that have now been declared safe by the STF but they cannot return to Mahanga until it is declared safe by the STF." Bayeri said.
Confirming the information, the Media and Information officer of the STF, Captain Salisu Mustapha said it was true that the inhabitants of Kakuruk, Shong, Maseh and Kuzen have been asked to go home.
He explained, "I don't know if there is any connection with the Ramadan as you say but I know that we have finished our mop-up operations in those areas."