Saturday, December 16, 2006

"Uninvited Guests": My Father's narrative

From my Dad's journal about the armed robbery incident. He was in Abuja for a meeting when the incident happened.

I picked up the [hotel] phone and heard a slight "beep, beep, beep." .... So when I heard the beep, I said, "Oh, I see you are calling from NITEL." She [M. my mother] said, "Yes, the phone is working right now." I made some other light remark and then she said, "D., I hate to tell you but we have just been hit by armed robbers." My heart skipped a beat. I knew exactly what that meant. I said, "Are you alright. Did they hurt anyone?" She said, "No, I am OK. They may have beat up S. a little but I don't know his condition." I said, "What happened?" She gave me a little bit of the story. I then asked, "What did they get?" She said "They got money." I said, "Naira or dollars?" She said, "Dollars." I said, "Do you have any idea how much?" She said, "I really don't know but probably around ___ dollars." I said, "Are you sure you were not hurt?" She said, "No, they did not touch me." I said, "When did this happen?" She said, "Just now, I have not even gone downstairs yet but I probably should go down and check on S." About that time, the phone started beeping again but this was a beep that meant that the line had cut. Sometimes when the phone line cuts like that, it will be off for a few hours or even a week. You just never know.

I quickly grabbed my cell phone to call her cell phone. The phone started ringing but no one answered. I thought, "Oh, I bet they stole her phone." I called a minute or two later but the phone had been switched off and I got the message that the phone was off. I was stuck at that time. I had no way to call and check on her so I had to just wait until I heard from her again. I don't know why I did not think of calling Y. or R. Y. who live next door but I did not think of that.

About ten minutes later, I got a call from one of my neighbors, Professor J. He is the chairman of our University ... Residential Committee and also the former Dean of the Faculty of Arts, my faculty. I have a lot of respect for him. The security people had apparently reported to him that our house had been attacked, so he called, probably thinking that he was calling me at my home. However, as soon as I saw his name flash up on my screen, I said, "Prof, how are things?" He said, "How are you?" I said, "Prof, I am in Abuja. I assume you have heard about what has happened at my house." He said, "Yes, I have just heard. I am sorry." I said, "Thanks, Prof. Fortunately, M. is OK. However, they must have stolen her phone and the NITEL line has just cut when I was talking to her so I would appreciate your going to talk to her and give me some feedback." He said, "Don't worry, Prof. I am on my way to your house right now." He called me back in about five minutes and confirmed that I was on the phone and then handed the phone to M. I talked a bit more to her and learned a bit more. I learned that S. was inside getting some food that M. had prepared for him when the dogs started barking. He had gone outside to check on things when he had been grabbed and thrown to the ground and kicked a bit but not seriously injured. I learned that they had not taken M.'s computer but had tried to. I learned that shortly after they left the house, they fired several shots. M. did not know at that time whether they were shooting in the air or shooting at someone. However, she assured me that there were a lot of people around there and that things appeared to be safe at the moment.

A little later I got a call from R.Y.'s telephone. It was M. again. She said that things had settled down and that R. had agreed to spend the night with her since there was no one else in the house. M. sounded very serious on the phone but she did not seem desperate and was not very emotional. I was reasonably satisfied that she was doing OK. She did say a couple of times, "I am sorry for you. I hope this does not mess you up for your big workshop tomorrow." I said, "Don't worry about that. I will be OK." That is about all I heard that night. I did not sleep well. Somehow I could not go to sleep. I may have slept an hour or two.

The next morning M. called me through the computer, on the Skype system. I found out that she had not slept very well either. She said that the police had asked her to come by 9:00 AM and write a report. She had typed up a report and read it to me. I suggested that she change two or three words that would communicate a little better.... I then asked her how she was going.... I said, "I don't want you to go alone. Prof. J. will go with you. Let me call him and talk to him" so I called him. He agreed quickly that he would be happy to take her to the police. They later did go to the police and M. was very happy that he was with her to help deal with things. M. submitted the statement she had written.

To God be the glory, I was able to get through the seminar quite well the next day. I was not as distracted as I could have been. We left Abuja for home around 3:15 and I was back at the house by 7:00. I was able to call the NITEL number a couple of times on the way up to ___ to touch base with M.

S. was outside to meet me when I drove in, just as always. M. was in the house by herself. As soon as we got all of the things packed in the house, S. had to tell me his side of the story. I think he was trying to apologize for allowing these people to come into my house. He said, "I dey for house and hear de dogs shouting. I opened door and see one man by de bus..... Anoduh one go stand by de house (meaning the round mud house we use for a guard shack). I walked to dere (pointing with his flashlight to a spot right in front of the cherry tree) and dey grab me and show me gun and say, 'Shhh. Don't talk. If you talk, we go kill you.' Dey say, 'Ogah dey?' .... I say, 'no, she de travel.' .... Dey bring me to stairs and trow me down inside house." S. was saying this with pleading eyes as if to say he had messed up and was very sorry. I said, "S., you did nothing wrong. This is not your fault. It is the fault of the wicked men who came here. I am very grateful you were not injured. There is nothing that you could have done differently so you do not need to feel badly. This is just a bad experience that we all have to go through." He seemed relieved that I was not going to blame him for the experience or shout at him. He later told me that the men spoke Hausa to him but spoke English to M. He also said after they had asked if I were in the house, they asked who had started the generator. He told them that he had done so. They told him that if he shouted they would kill him.

I then had a chance to talk to M. in more detail about the incident. She narrated the story as follows:

She normally gives the night guard some food after we have eaten so S. was in the house getting his food around 7:30 PM. He normally would take it outside to eat. Any time at night when someone goes through our front door, we put the padlock in the door to keep people from wandering in. We have been especially careful about doing this since early October when thieves tried to get the Y. house next door. Suddenly, the dogs started barking very loudly outside. S. went to the front door, took the padlock out and walked out to see who was there. When he walked out, M. said that she had a bad feeling, like this was not something that was going to turn out well. A few seconds later, she heard S. kind of grunt like he had been hit. At that time she apparently came from the kitchen into the dining room. When she got there, the door burst open and these men came in. They threw S. on the floor and pulled on something like ski masks at the same time. Just as they were entering the door, M. screamed as loudly as she could. She said that she has never screamed like that in her life and did not even know that she could scream so loud. And, in fact, she did even remember making a willful decision to scream. It just came out of her. However, she said that it almost appeared that the robbers did not hear or pay any attention to the scream. [Later, the university guards told them that someone had heard her scream and that is what alerted them.]

They immediately asked M., "Is anyone else in the house?" M. replied that she was alone. They said, "Give us your money." M. said, "The money is upstairs." They indicated that they should go upstairs and get it. M. said, "I will go upstairs but first I must turn off my stove." They told her to do so but to do so carefully. She went into the kitchen with her hands in the air and turned off her stove and then they started upstairs. As they got to about the fourth or fifth step, suddenly a light popped on. This made the robber very nervous and he shouted, "What is that? Who turned that light on?" M. said, "It is only NEPA coming on." The thief behind them agreed that it was NEPA coming on. (Our electricity is off many hours every day. Sometimes we run a generator. To do so, we have a switch box in our house that allows us to switch from the regular electricity to our generator. However, we have a light that will come on near the switch box that will let us know when the electricity has come back on so we can switch back to the regular electricity. M. had been running the generator early in the evening and just as they were going upstairs the "NEPA light" came on, indicating that electricity was back on.) Apparently that explanation satisfied the head thief.

They went upstairs. Apparently M. went first with the man with the gun following her. Next came S. with the second thief also holding a gun. ..... The man kept yelling at her to hurry up—that she was wasting his time. He saw a bag of money in the drawer but when he opened it, it was only some old Naira notes. He threw that down and said he didn't want it. M. was at first finding ten and twenty dollar bills. He shouted, "I don't want that little stuff. That is no good for me. I want your treasure."

The man continued to shout and abuse M. with vulgar language saying, "Don't you f.--- with me. Do you want me to shoot you?" He continued, "Is this all the money? Don't you lie to me. I hate liars. Are you a Christian? You know that Christians don't lie." M. said, "Yes I am a Christian, are you?" He said, "Yes." M. said to him, "You know God really does not like stealing and is not very happy with you right now." He replied, "You are more privileged than I am." He kept shouting that he wanted more money so M. went over to her desk where she thought she had two or three hundred more dollars. She searched and found some envelopes, at least one of which had the [name of local organization] on the outside. She said, "Do you see the '[name]' on the outside of this envelop? I want you to know that this is money that was sent to Nigeria to buy wheelchairs for handicapped children." That did not seem to bother him. He took the envelopes, took the money out of them and threw the envelopes on the floor. The thief then said, "Put the laptop in the computer bag." M. said, "No, please don't take my computer. I have been working on it all day and it has many very important things on it and I am currently downloading a very important document." The robber went over shut the lid down on the computer, apparently planning to take it.

However, at just that moment, the whistles started blowing. One of the two robbers heard them and apparently told the other. Therefore, they immediately took off down the stairs. M. heard the door open downstairs. A few seconds later, she heard three shots. She assumed that they were shooting in the air to scare the university security guards who were converging on the place, without guns. M. went and stood in my closet for a few seconds but eventually decided that nothing was to be gained there so she got out. She found out that the NITEL phone was working and found the number for the ... Hotel in Abuja where I was staying and called me and informed me what was going on. At that time, she did not know how badly S. was hurt so she went down to check on him.

By the time she got downstairs, many people were gathering up in the compound. The police eventually came but did not really ask her many questions. Eventually things settled down a bit. R.Y. came over and spent the night with her though M. said she did not sleep very well. Her mind continued racing and playing over this scenario and possible other scenarios all night long.

Since that time, there has been a fairly steady stream of visitors coming by to sympathize with us. Nigerians treat an incident like this almost like a death in the family. They have to come by and personally sympathize with us. They are very thoughtful. Many of them have experienced similar things before.

Obviously, we were aware that a robbery like this was a very real possibility. We have discussed it a number of times. However, now that we have passed through this particular baptism, we are trying to figure out ways that we can reduce this possibility. One of the things has to do with the door. In the three successful armed robberies in our neighborhood, they were able to get in because the door was open. In the one unsuccessful attempt, they were not successful because the door was locked. Therefore, we are in the process of getting a stronger door that will lock automatically rather than one of us having to jump up and physically put a padlock in the door every time someone goes out. Thieves don't like light and sound so we are going to try to improve in both of those areas. However, we do not want to live in a fortress. One of the ways that we minister to people and understand them is that we live essentially the same kinds of lives that they live and experience many of the same things they experience. To create an armed fortress would send the wrong signal to our neighbors and students. We are trying to figure out ways that we can beef up the security without giving the impression that we are living in a fort. That is obviously an ongoing learning process.


Toks- Boy said...

Taluta. Great reporting. Just glad that nobody got hurt. I imagine most people would say take it all but just leave us in peace. Unfortunately as the XMAS season draws closer then we will see more of these from desperate people (witness the spate of bank robberies just last week). My prayers are with you and your parents.

Talatu-Carmen said...

thanks! It is too bad that the season of christmas becomes the season of armed robbery. It seems terribly sad and ironic that a time to celebrate peace on earth has become a time of heightened fears. Of course, if we look historically at the period in which Christ was born, there was political upheaval and uncertainty too: an unreasonable census by an imperialistic colonial government in which people had to pick up and go to "hometowns" where they may not have lived for generations; a cynical and corrupt traditional ruler who was willing to kill infants to make sure of his position on the throne. No doubt there were armed robbers that prowled the roads as well.... Really, quite a familiar world---

The one thing about the armed robbery is that it has given our family closer connections to so many other people who have suffered similar traumatic events. And, yes, we thank God that no one was hurt--and that they only took money. There is much to be grateful for.

Thanks for your prayers. My prayers are also with your family as you prepare to move back to Naija. I thank God for the new school that you have come across for your daughter. That truly is a miracle!

Fred said...

Some years back, my brother and mom were held at gun point. My brother's face was held a few inches from a hot iron in an intimidating attempt to get his American passport. They succeeded, but I would have given my eye teeth to have been present when they first banged on that door commanding access. Those bastards would have sprouted several 40-caliber-size holes in their torsos.

I feel for your family in Nigeria. The place is enough to drive good people mad.

Talatu-Carmen said...

Fred, what a traumatic experience. Yes, I am very, very grateful that my mother did not suffer any physical harm. If she had, I'd be feeling the same way you do.