In this piece, WikkiTimes’ Usman Babaji narrated his ordeal as a herder when the 2001 Jos ethno-religious crisis erupted, an event that led to the death of over a thousand people and property worth millions of naira.
It was a beautiful Monday morning [September 10, 2001], as I journeyed through a glaring woodland of a grazing jungle — over 20 kilometers away from residential areas in Pankshin, Plateau State — with herds of cows and a dog as my only companions. It was a mixed moment for me.
A friend of mine and a co-herder, Dauda (now late), left for the weekly Pankshin market, popularly called the Monday market. While returning, Dauda came along with my younger brother, Sanusi, whom my father had handed over to him to join us on the journey.
It took me some hours to realise there was an unrest in the town and i would still not know if my co-herders had not join us in what i initailay saw as grazing trip. Sadly, we were relocating and my father would later join us after surviving the carnage in the city.
Sanusi was too young to understand why we were relocating, but war resonates with everyone, I concluded. Picturing the past still gives me some nightmares.
The Plateau crisis: Distrust, disunity and more
The 2001 Plateau crisis no doubt took a religious dimension, with over 90 per cent of the people of Pankshin being Christians. The warring parties were clearly Muslims and Christians. And in the heat of the crisis, many innocent people lost their lives. Friends, neignours became each other soft targets.
We were a group of nine — all Muslims — journeying for survival with four herds of cows. Throughout the two weeks journey — on foot — we slept where the night fell on us and continued at dawn and then till dusk again.
Luck nearly ran out on us on one fateful day when we were surrounded by some supposed assailants [clearly Christians]. Surprisingly, I was not frightened of being killed. Perhaps because I believed the locals I knew were good and hospitable, prior to the crisis.
However, I soliloquised for a while: “My parents know other places, but not me. I was born and bred here and this is the only place I know… “
Nonetheless, I realised i was leaving to an unknown destination and not only that. I may be killed in the process.
‘Gun is a waste, use machete’ — Another terror we escaped
Still surrounded by the assailants. The episode took place at Langshi village, the next day into our journey. With us was an elderly co-herder, Bako, with his five nephews [myself, Dauda and my brother made it a group of nine].
Hitherto, we encountered a group of herders moving southward while we took the east. But we could not follow them because they knew their routes better. So, we were obviously stranded in a community where we could be eliminated in a matter of minutes. We could have escaped the roundup if we were able to cross one river seated in the heart of the village.
In no distant time, We were all moved to a Church premises in the village. I was really terrified.
“A gun is a waste, let us use machete,” one of them said in their local dialect as they wandered around the premises with matchetes. That moment was terrific. We were forced to offload our luggage loaded on our cows and they scrtunised us including the luggage. Though they could not find anything harmful except a waist knife sized from Bako, the eldest among us.
During the scrutiny, Bako’s nephews and Dauda took to their heels, leaving him, myself and my brother, Sanusi to face it alone. I would not blame them. It was a matter of life and death.
We were later forced to sleep in the church without harming us. But it was frightful to sleep in a place where you knew you might be killed.
My cows nearly worsened the whole situation later. They had gone to eat crops from their [the Christians who rounded us up] farm as we slept in their church where Dauda would later join us in the middle of the night.
I would later pay N500 for damage done by my cows. You know how it could have ended had it happened recently. We were allowed to proceed with our journey after settling with the farm owners.
As the journey continued, those who fled the chaotic scene joined us. They passed the night in the nearby mountains.
The arson, bad news and snake bite
As we moved eastward, we saw many herders’ houses in flames. For any herders who fled the community, their Christian neighbours would raze down their houses.
En route, we had a couple of pieces of [bad news]. The first was that there was an attack on the World Trade Center in the U.S and an Arabian named Usama Bin Laden was responsible for it. We listened to that from our radio set. Secondly, it was reported that many Muslims residing in Pankshin LG were slaughtered. Notable among them was Mai Jaki, a renowned Hausa man in the area. However, we thanked God we were not slaughtered by those we ran into.
The next popular place we reached was Shwer, a community in the Kanke Local Government Area of Plateau State. Unlike in Langshi, we spent about a week in Shwer. In fact, we got more updates from home while in the community.
After spending over a week at Shwer, we headed to Dengi, a Muslim-majority town in Kanam Local Government Area of the state bordering Bauchi. It was another stressful trip as well. We spent three days getting there and that was where we settled.
Unfortunately, during the trip, our cows contracted a disease. We, therefore, decided to move them a little bit backwards where the land relief was plain and soft. Sadly, we lost a great number of them.
Barely five minutes after chasing away a jumping frog from our hut, I felt a deep pain in my foot. As I took my torchlight to see what had struck me, I saw a marauding snake. It was a timber rattlesnake that had inflicted me.