Friday, December 12, 2008

My neighbor, my killer, my neighbor, my savior

I have put off writing this for so long—partially because I have not had a lot of internet access—that it will not have the freshness it would have had a few weeks ago, but let me muddle through. Rather than attempt a chronological journal of what happened during the Jos crisis 2008, I’ll rather give some context about what I was doing in Jos and a meditation on some of my experiences, the images that stay in my mind, and the thoughts I had at the time.

Being two weeks (exactly) removed from the first day of the crisis, my experiences are filtered by the ‘noise’ of what has happened since: both the cosmopolitan glamour and press of humanity in Lagos where I flew last week from Jos for the Lagos International Film Festival, the tortuous trip by van/bus back to Kano, the sermonizing and editorializing about Jos and the government response in all the newspapers I’ve read since, seemingly written by people who were not in Jos at the time. Many of the responses leave me mute and conflicted. I don’t know how to respond. My reaction to the crisis is subjective. All I know is what I saw and felt and heard at the time. Perhaps what I heard were all rumours but they were told to me by people, mostly Christians, who had risen from bed and run, been shot at, hid in Hausa Muslim neighbor’s houses, smoke rising behind them.

I had come to Jos from Kano after the election curfew the day before to have Thanksgiving dinner with my family. I hadn’t been planning to come because I was busy, and they were planning to join a big party of Americans on the other side of town. And frankly these gatherings of expatriates make me uncomfortable. I don’t feel at home in them. At the last minute, though, I felt guilty about being only a few hours from my parents on a holiday like Thanksgiving and not going to be with them. So after doing a “practice interview” as I had promised with one of my friends, who had an interview with an international NGO on Saturday, I headed to Na’ibawa car park and joined a taxi going to Jos. There were two Christian non-Hausa women in the seat next to me, and several motherly “Hausa” Muslim women headed to Angowar Rogo, which is the predominantly Hausa settlement close to the permanent site of the university. There was also a very independent and cheeky little boy of about ten years, his only luggage being a leda bag. The driver showed one of the women in the front seat a letter from some official person who asked him to help him transport this “child of tender years” who had been found wandering around Kano back to Jos where he could locate his parents. I’m fascinated by these children who wander the streets of Kano, most of them almajirai attached to some wandering malams. The ones who interest me the most are the independent-minded ones who run about doing errands for people or finding work for themselves—like the ones who serve as conductors in buses. They are tough but cheerful little buggers with cheeky grins and an impressive arsenal of insults. This kid in particular was full of opinions and chatter, jumping around the car as people got in and out. The women around me were half amused, half exasperated, offering him fond motherly admonitions.

We arrived at 6pm about two hours after the election curfew ended, and I went ahead and went to the expatriate gathering and stuffed myself with American Thanksgiving food my dad had saved for me. After we went back home, there was no NEPA, no internet, the battery was down, and the generator was at the repairshop, so we slept early. I woke early on Friday morning, November 28, and couldn’t go back to sleep. Around 6:30am, I was up and my dad led me to the window near the staircase and said “Listen. Do you hear that. Gunshots. Thomas [the caretaker of one of the university guest houses] told me there is trouble in the town… I’m afraid this thing has started up again.” We could hear the pop, pop of shot guns and a little later the ta-ta-ta-ta of automatic gunfire.

After this my narrative will become less chronological, because I did not write it down as it was happening, and it has become a jumble in my mind. There was a lot of time I sat around doing nothing. I should have been writing but a strange lethargy was upon me. I’d wander around, watching people, searching for magazines for people to read, filling pitchers of water to serve.

That first morning, my mother said that since we were all up, we might as well have breakfast, because who knew what the day would bring. I ended up walking up the road behind our house with my dad and Katrina, an American who recently completed her PhD and is living with my parents while she teaches at UniJos. From about 7:30am-10:00, I stayed outside halfway up the private university street with lecturers, undergraduates, residents of the “BQ’s,” a couple of post graduate students from across town who had shown up for exams that morning, watching the events taking place on the main road and the surrounding neighborhoods. Black smoke was rising on almost every side of the university in a wide semicircle, interspersed by white smoke that came from burning houses, churches, and at least one mosque close to one of the petrol stations. The gunfire was intermittent. At one point the gunfire sounded so close that we all started running back toward the houses. I finally settled down on a cement divider by the road with Sabena, who lives behind our house and works as a cook at a boarding secondary school not far from our house. The leaders of the community were trying to round up young men to defend the campus from invaders. A student in his early twenties walked past me muttering, “I don’t want to fight. I’m just three weeks from finishing and starting my life.” My dad later told me about five students he had met sitting between the Protestant Chapel and the mosque on campus. They were living together but thugs had burst into their house and started looting mattresses, clothes. They ran away with only the clothes on their backs. They were lamenting their credentials, their books. Everything. Gone. And without their credentials there was no way of proving they had three years of university behind them. That they had scored high on WAEC. Everything. Gone.

Later we heard of three NYSC youth corpers who were killed. Education behind them. On the cusp of “starting their lives” as the student had muttered as he passed by me… Now killed in a part of the country they were only visiting for a year, in a conflict they knew nothing about…

Refugees were beginning to wander in from outside of campus, women and children, clutching Ghana-must-go bags and mats, many of them in mismatched t-shirts and old wrappers, hair in hair nets. Running away in their night clothes before breakfast or their morning bath.

My dad told me about going up to the university clinic where they were bringing in students and other refugees with gunshot wounds. There was one doctor and two nurses who lived on campus. He told me that when he was treating one patient, the doctor started yelling. It was an old woman whose arm had been hacked off below the elbow, through both bones, dangling only from a bit of skin. “What does an old woman have to do with politics? What does she have to do with anything?”

Later in the day, I went up to the clinic when the DVC asked us to use our digital cameras to document it for the vice chancellor who was out of the country. There was blood dripped up and down the corridors, young men sitting outside on benches, with bullet wounds in their legs. A woman showed me that she had been shot in the shoulder. She had a wad of cotton stuck to it. There were so many people there that the one doctor could only treat those who were the worst off. The rest, the nurses gave tetanus shots, painkillers, and bandages to put over the metal lodged in flesh. I felt inappropriate taking pictures of people so I focused on the blood dripped on the floor, the bloody wads of cotton scattered about, the bench someone had tried to hastily swab off leaving a swirl of sudsy blood.

But that morning, I sat on the side of the road, chatting off and on with Sabena or the postgraduate students, who tried to explain the politics of the recent election to me, texting friends and journalists I know. By around 10am, the sun was getting hot and it was getting boring. There was the anxiety of anticipation, of wanting to see what would happen, but also the reality that there was nothing really to be accomplished by sitting there. Things would continue to burn. The gunfire would continue. The sun would get hotter. By this time, we heard several reports. That at least 6 or 7 churches closest to the university had already been burnt, more than had been burnt in our area in the 2001 crisis. One of the most poignant is that of Emmanuel Baptist Church, where Sabena attends. This is the fourth time it has been burnt. The church has a peaceful pastor who has emphasized non-retaliation each time it has been burnt. But as I saw over the next few days, since most of the refugees at our house were his parishioners, many of whom had been at my parents house during the September 2001 crisis as well, non-retaliation is one thing, but it does not mean that there is not deep bitter anger that gets deeper and more bitter every time it happens. We also heard that soldiers had come and this made us hope that things would quiet down. (Later we discovered that soldiers had not come until later in the afternoon, and that what we thought were soldiers were actually “fake soldiers” who had obtained uniforms.)

As I walked back to the house, I heard a distant roar from far off loudspeakers, shouting, and the only thing I could make out was “Allahu Akbar.” This moment, as I walked along the strangely deserted street, laundry flapping neglected on lines, represents one of my deepest conflicts as the weekend proceeded. From the first time I had heard gunfire and my dad told me what was going on, I had thought of the Hausa women I ridden down from Kano with and that chatty little boy. They were headed toward Angowar Rogo, where much of the violence was taking place. I wondered if they were running right now? Being shot or macheted down? Having their houses burnt? Had the little boy been caught up in the fighting, or even worse (terrible suspicion born of rumours!) had he, parentless and connectionless, been transported down to take part in the fighting? I had been planning to go into Almah Video near Kwarafa Cinema, in one of the most deeply Hausa parts of town, that day to pick up some more “cocaine” (new films that hadn’t passed censorship in Kano but which I could find in Jos), but thought ironically to myself that I probably wouldn’t be able to go there for a long time now. I worried about my friends near the cinema. What was happening? Were they being killed? Were the cinemas or shops being burned? I had already exchanged worried texts with my friends in Kano, most Muslims, all appalled at what was happening.

And yet there was this shouting, this blasphemous “Allahu Akbar” drifting across campus to the rhythm of machine guns. And there was the smoke of half a dozen churches rising on the horizon surrounding us. As the weekend progressed, our house filled with Christians from Angowar Rogo and Angowar Rimi, Igbo, Yoruba, or Plateau minorities in a majority Hausa Muslim neighborhood (who are nevertheless minorities in the state at large). Some of them with brothers in the hospital, some of them whose houses had been burnt by both thugs and neighbors, and others who had sought refuge with Muslim neighbors before they could escape to “safety” on this besieged campus.

When I heard people saying things like “These people are animals”; “They have no souls”; “My dog is better than them”; words of protest rose to my lips. I did say to a few “not everyone is like this,” “this is politics, not religion”; “Islam does not condone this sort of violence” (and most agreed on the “politics” track); but mostly I remembered how I hated to be preached at the height of my emotion, how I didn’t want to be one of those smug outsiders who condescends to the bereaved. I remembered how I had ended a friendship after September 11th, when from my Brooklyn apartment with ashes blowing through the windows, I emailed to a friend in the mid-West that I hope they found those who had planned this and killed them. My newly-pacifist friend preached at me—why do you want more death? Unless you could look them in the eyes as you pulled the trigger to kill them, you shouldn’t want to revenge death with death. Looking back seven years later, after the disasterous actions taken by the U.S. government after the attacks, I admit that my friend was probably right, but his timing was off. One does not want to hear such pieties when one has just witnessed hundreds of people die in front of one’s eyes. You need that space to shout and be angry, that space to grieve, that space to meditate.

I remembered that as I heard the angry people in my house, clutching the few belongings they had been able to run with. I hadn’t just seen my house burnt or my neighbors looting my shop. I hadn’t just seen my brother shot.

So, I mostly stayed quiet. I don’t know if that was the right decision.

Because I know that words so easily spill over into actions, retaliation, and that most of the deaths in these conflicts are those of innocent people scapegoated by angry people seeking revenge. I know that the majority of the deaths in this crisis were Muslim.

On the first day, especially, I felt like my heart was cracking in two.

Kano. Jos.
Jos. Kano.
Christian. Muslim.
Hausa. Birom.
Youth who make music.
Youth who kill.
Are they ever the same?
They are animals.
They are murderers.
Young thugs.
Old politicians.
They are coming from Kano to kill us.

My love.
I adore you.
My love.
I hate you.
My love.
My love.
My love.
My love.
My love.
My love.
My love Kano.
My love Jos.
My love.
I hate you.
My love.
I adore you.

Youth who make music
Youth who kill.
Oh God,
They call your name.
Politicians sitting in their houses
While the young die in the streets.

That night a friend from Kano called, begging me to believe that Islam has nothing like this in it. “Islam is peace. Islam is love,” he said. “This is politics. These are criminals.” “I know. I know,” I say. “It’s the same for Christianity.” The next night he told me someone I know from the studio who is from Jos—Muslim—“they” came into their family compound and slaughtered his entire family, everyone but his grandmother. After that, when people said “they” were animals, I’d tell them his story.

We are all animals.
So easily moved by instinct.
Anger rises in us.
But for the grace of God, there go I.

I think of the spiritual disciplines—how they are preparations for times like this—in a war of spirit against instinct. And after the fact, after the moment, I think of the stories on both sides:

How the Muslim alhaji tried to protect Emmanuel Baptist church until the thugs told him they would shoot him if he didn’t move.

How the Christian man tried to save the house of his alhaji neighbor before the thugs told him they’d kill him if he didn’t move. How the Christian youths DID kill the Christian maigadi because he wouldn’t move….

The many refugees in our house who had been hidden by their Muslim neighbors before they came to our house.

The Muslims hidden by Christian neighbors.

This story that happens over and over during genocide and politicized “ethnic conflict.” Those neighbors who kill and loot and those who protect and hide.

My neighbor. My killer.
My neighbor. My saviour.

There is so much more to tell. I exhaust myself. Perhaps I’ll save the rest for a later post.

At the height of the crisis on Saturday night, we had over 60 people sleeping on the floor in our house, the chairs and couches and tables pushed against the walls to make room for everyone. In our house there were mostly mothers and young children. We sent another 40 or 50 older children and teenagers with Katrina to a guest house my mother helps maintain about a block away, where she searched for towels and sheets to give them a little protection from the cold. On Saturday night, we probably fed 150-200 people. On Friday night and the following nights there were fewer but probably still up to 100 for four or five nights.

We borrowed a big pot, and several women cooked rice over a fire. It was dark by the time they finished. The first couple of nights we used rice my mother had bought to give away for Christmas, and a big bag of grits (ground corn) to make goatee for lunch. The other nights we used rice and beans sent by the CRC mission and 200 pound bag of garri brought by the deputy vice chancellor of the university. We had a lot of people in our house because my parent’s have a large “professorial house” and had sort of been a refugee center in the 2001 crisis as well because of my parent’s friendship with the pastor of Emmanuel Baptist Church. But the entire university, almost everyone in campus took in refugees. There were probably at least 20 extra people in each house, with some having up to 40-50, as well. Some neighbors broke down the door to an unoccupied house, and we later heard that there were 120 refugees piled into it.

An NGO showed up on Monday to give away blankets and mats.

By that time the majority of the people had gone home or to the houses of relatives except those who were afraid to go back because they were minorities in their neighborhood, but my parents tried to distribute the blankets to people who had lost their homes.

I will round up now, and tell some more of the individual stories later. But in concluding analysis, I will react to much of what I have been hearing about this being a “religious” crisis. Of course, it took on religious dimensions, because almost everyone in Jos, in Nigeria, is “religious”—and the “religious” lines often coincide with ethnic and political divisions. But to call it a “religious” crisis is an overly “easy” point to make about a very complex situation. One has to look at the history: precolonial trade, wars of conquest, and migrations, colonial classification and division under “indirect rule,” and post-colonial politics. I have been calling it a “political” crisis, not because I think it was a simple reaction to the elections, the results of which had not even been announced yet when the crisis started, but because it represents a deeper political atmosphere in which power-hungry “godfathers” pay off thugs to kick-start these crisis. It is the thugs and mercenaries who set fire to churches and houses on the first day, then angry people (the “ethnic”/”religious” dimension) take over from there.

The newspaper analysis I have been reading blames the PDP for supposedly rigging the election (since that is what PDP does…) and Governor Jang for announcing that the PDP candidate had indeed won on the second day of the crisis. (Note, however, that the crisis started BEFORE the results were announced.) And this is probably right. PDP is becoming a “swallowing monster,” in the mythical terms of one of my old professors. However, from my observations of the machinations of the ANPP in Kano (where, for example, last month over a hundred film actresses, en masse, went over to the PDP, not because they particularly like the PDP but in protest of the actions of the ANPP Kano government against filmmakers), I can’t think that the ANPP is blameless in this…..

I was going to say more, but I’ve thought better of it….

More later….


'Yar Mama said...

Glad ur ok. Very embarrassed and pained by the brutality of both sides...Cannot comprehend how perfectly normal ppl turn into animals, usually spurred on by mob action...For both sides, I believe education will be our ultimate salvation. It may take a while, but what other option do we have. Allah ya kyauta!!!

Anonymous said...

how do you know most of the victims were muslim?

Talatu-Carmen said...

Anon, I do not *know* anything. As I noted in my post, " My reaction to the crisis is subjective."--not objective. However, I stated that the majority of the people killed in the crisis were Muslims because the evidence seems to bear witness to that. This is not to say that there was not great loss of life on both sides, but that I have heard many many stories of Christians losing property and not quite so many about losing family members--although I have heard plenty of those too. If you talk to the various researchers who are writing a report on a crisis, and who are hopefully interviewing both "sides," you will find better information. I am just writing about what I experienced and what I have heard. Although I have my reservations on the Human Rights report that was written about the crisis as it seemed rather one-sided, that report also seems to indicate that the loss of innocent lives on the Muslim "side" were very great.

I have heard from a trusted source at JNI that at least 620 Muslims were killed. At least 520 were buried in the Muslim graveyard close to the permanent site of the university. My father saw the lorry that came to bury them. Those are the statistics I have. I have not seen any statistics for the number of Christians killed.If you have a statistic, do let me know. It is *possible* that some Christians were mistakenly buried in the Muslim graveyard, but I have also heard from pastors and other Christian leaders that there were fewer losses among Christians than among the Muslims.

My statement was not to minimize the amount of Christian suffering. After all, I spent the entire crisis with Christians who were suffering and have continued to spend time with members of Emmanuel Baptist church, whose grace in the face of having their church burnt for the third time blows me away. My post rather attempted to acknowledge that although I mostly experienced the "Christian" side, there was much suffering (if not more) on the Muslim "side" as well. I am extremely uninterested in playing the "numbers game" of "we lost more than you." I am also uncomfortable with the idea of continuing to talk about this as if it is a purely "Muslim"/"Christian" crisis. There were Yoruba Muslims killed by Hausa "Muslims", and I know of Christians who were killed by other "Christians."

To anyone who would turn this tragedy into an opportunity to demonize their neighbor, let the person who is without sin throw the first stone.