22 June 2018

Nigeria: Benue Church Attack - the Untold Story of Ukpo, Ayar Mbalom

After the deadly attack by suspected herdsmen that led to the death of 19 people in St Ignatius Quasi Parish Ukpo, Benue State in April, survivors and families of the deceased are trying to pick up the pieces of their shattered lives. Amidst the struggles to move on, a few lament their deplorable state as they try to make do with the little at their disposal.

The inhabitants of Ukpo, Ayar Mbalom in Gwer East local government area where two Catholic Priests and 17 worshippers were murdered in cold blood by gunmen suspected to be herdsmen on the 24th of April 2018 are not only mourning their loss, but have to grabble with difficult living conditions.

These days, residents are afraid of venturing into their farms, the only school in the community is without a pupil and or, any student. The community has no healthcare centre and pipe born water and electricity remains aloof. The community according to some locals is "the dark end of the world." The clear absence of social amenities and negligence of Mbalom community by authorities in the state has become a source of worry to residents of the area especially survivors of the attack.

Mbalom, approximately 50 kilometres away from Makurdi, the state capital, has suffered untold hardship as a result of continued negligence by successive governments especially in area of road and social amenities such as hospital, schools portable water among others.

Residents of the community who are still recovering from the deadly April attack, lament that from the inception of democracy in 1999, the community has always contributed immensely to putting every successive government in the state in power but have never felt the Midas touch.

The community which has a fairly large population with farming as their main occupation cannot boost of any single road linking the area with the rest of the state. The first casualty of the deplorable state of infrastructure in the area is their agricultural produce which hardly find a way to available markets.

Our Correspondent who went to the community to observe Sunday Mass at St. Ignatius Quasi Parish after almost two months of witnessing a mass murder in the Church, observed that the community is completely cut off from the rest of the world during the rainy season. The situation has also forced children to abandon school due to bad roads and insecurity.

It was gathered that the administration of governor Samuel Ortom, during the 2015 campaigns, promised to construct the bridge linking the community and road, but after three years, the community has lost hope of the fulfilment of that promise.

It took a travel time of over six hours from Makurdi to Ukpo, Ayar, Mbalom, a journey that ordinarily, the locals say would have taken just 40 minutes. And it would have been more hours, if the services of a motorcycle rider had not been sought.

The journey from Shanna to Ayar was another bumpy ride where our Correspondent and her motorcycle rider had to off their shoes to battle the terrible terrain which make some portions of the road completely inaccessible except by foot.

After hours of struggling with the deplorable road which can be best described as a pathway, the rugged roof top of Ayar was sighted. At Ayar, the only clinic there, locals say, was built by the Bishop of Makurdi Diocese and the two boreholes the people rely on were dug by the late Rev. Fr Joseph Gor, killed in the attack on the community.

"Looking at the terrain and the absence of these social amenities in the area made me to appreciate the Catholic priests for their missionary work because it takes only he who accepts the suffering of Christ and believes in the missionary work to be able to live in an isolated community that is completely cut off from the world," one of the residents said.

On arrival, the Catechist of the Parish, Nicodemus Anier, took LEADERSHIP Friday round some of the projects executed by the late Fr. Gor, which included a fish pond where some Fingerlings were only brought a night before he was killed.

Other projects of the late Priest included a newly build chapel of adoration, a school with nursery, primary and secondary sections and the main St. Ignatius Church which was still under construction among a long list of other works.

In a chat with the Laity Council chairman of the parish, Mr Moses Saakaa, he lamented the incidence and the sad fact that no single individual or government official, apart from Priests, have come to encourage and assist the deceased family members. "As you can see, Ukpo Ayar community is backwards in terms of any kind of development. The only school here is the one built by late Fr. Gor, but since this attack happened everybody is afraid. Most of the teachers fled out of fear and have not found a reason to return. The principal of the school, Peter Dickson also died in the attack you see.

"After the burial of the two priests and 17 parishioners on May 22, the security personnel drafted to the area to secure the place left at the end of May. As you can see, we are here all alone, no single security post or road block is around this vicinity," Saakaa said.

He appealed to the government at all levels and well-meaning individuals and organisations to come to the aid of the deceased family members and come up with ways to ensure the security of lives and property in the community to restore confidence in the mind of residents.

The Catechist, during the celebration of Mass, encouraged the congregation not to be deterred on the tragedy that befell the community and lose their faith in God. "I want to admonish you all to have faith in God. Do not in any way allow what has befallen the community to overwhelm you especially those of you who are bereaved. I want you to take solace in God and never to lose hope because, all things work for good for them that trust in God."

One of the widows, Mrs Grace Akule, wife to the late David Akule who was killed in the massacre, narrated how her being ill that morning and unable to go with her husband to church saved her.

"I was sick on that fateful day and could not follow my husband to church. He went with my son Oryiman, who is an altar servant and was to serve that day. 30 minutes after they left because my residence is close to the church, I began to hear screaming and gun shot. I came out and people were running towards the Ayar market and shouting. I went in and held my small child but there was no where I could run to. I just strapped my child on my back, woke up the others and asked them to hide in the bushes behind the house. It was around 6:30am before they left and people began to come back. At that time, my husband was already lying dead in the church, they shot him close to the heart.

"I didn't see my son Oryiman, so I ran from point to point, looking for him everywhere. I taught he was also killed, I fainted but God revived me. When I woke up, I saw him and he told me that he was holding the bell with one other boy who was holding the crucifix. They both hid in one building."

She decried the inability of the state and federal government to station security personnel in the area to guarantee security of their children in schools and farmers in their farms and appealed for government assistance to enable them start life again.

Speaking with Oryiman, who is only 9-years-old and a primary 4 pupil of St. Wilfred Nursery/Primary and Secondary School, and an altar servant who was with Father Tyolaha on that day revealed yet again, the mysterious ways God saves children from disasters

"I was holding the bell and the other altar boy was with the crucifix, and as soon as the priest started the mass, he sighted some people with guns running towards the church and alerted people but almost at the same time, they began to shoot.

"I don't know what happened again, but I held my bell and we ran and hid in one building, myself and the other altar boy that was holding the crucifix. We did not drop any of the two, we ran with them and brought them back when the herdsmen left and heard people talking and crying around 6:30. It was then we discovered that all the two priests had been killed."

Roseline Ivor, lost her husband who was the former Catechist of the parish, John Ivor. She said she was in the church with her husband, when all of a sudden, they heard people coming from within the bush behind the school and by this time the priest was about to start the mass, "he was the one who sighted them because he was standing on the altar with his altar servants and Catechist.

"Fr. Felix who first sighted them was the person who even alerted us that herdsmen are here, and before we could run, they started shooting. They shot at the priest and my husband because they were on the altar. My husband fell down and died on the spot, but the priest did not die immediately, he struggled on the ground before he died.

"I stood there and watched them die. I told myself it was better to stay there and die too because there was no were to go. I think that their target were the men because I stood there and did not move an inch. After shooting the people in the church, they went in pursuit of those they felt had escaped. By the time they came, Fr. Gor was on his way to Tse Gundu where he was to celebrate a requiem mass for a dead woman. As soon as he came out and was about to enter his vehicle parked in front of the priest's house in the Church premises, they shot him."

Tyodzer Gbajur, a 40-year-old widower who lost his wife Mnguzaber and a six year old child, Doofan said, his wife woke him up early in the morning that day to tell him she was going for morning Mass with their daughter but they never came back. He lamented his new responsibility of having to cater for their other three children all on his own which he says is not an easy task.

The wife of the principal/ head teacher of St. Wilfred Nursery/Primary and Secondary School, a school established by Late Fr Joseph Gor, Mrs Grace Dickson, who couldn't hold back tears, said the death of her husband, Peter Dickson, has brought an end to their means of livelihood.

"My husband's death has not only brought an end to our means of livelihood but total frustration to us. Where am I going to start from? I have six children and my first child is about to get into higher institution. Look at me now, a farmer, I can't go to the farm since the beginning of this year because of herdsmen attack," she lamented.

Also narrating her ordeal, Esther Saba, disclosed that her husband, Sabastine Michi who was from a different local government area was visiting when he met his untimely death that morning. Another bereaved member, Elizabeth Uba who lost her 21-year-old son Isaac Uba, could only appeal to the government to extent assistance to their community as seen in other affected areas.

Ushahemba Zakuma, a 34-year-old shop owner at Ayar markets lost two shops, his provision store and an evening hang out spot, all set ablaze by the herdsmen. According to him, he lost goods worth of N2 million and appealed to the government and all well-meaning individuals to assist him.

"I was at home when the incident happened early in the morning. After the attack in the church they ended up in my shops, I have two shops in the market here and they are the biggest shops in this markets. They came and set them ablaze and since then, l have not been able to put anything together and that was what was sustaining me and my family. Any help from anybody no matter how small will go a long way," he appealed.

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