The Nigerian imam who saved Christians from Muslim gunmen

The Nigerian imam who saved Christians from Muslim gunmen
The Nigerian imam who saved Christians from Muslim gunmen
Image caption Christians say they would have died had it not been for the bravery of the Muslim cleric (centre)

When an imam in Nigeria saw hundreds of desperate, frightened families running into his village last Saturday, he decided to risk his life to save theirs.

They were fleeing from a neighbouring village - a mainly Christian community.

They say they came under attack at about 15:00 (14:00 GMT) from about 300 well-armed men - suspected cattle herders, who are mostly Muslims - who started shooting sporadically and burning down their homes.

Some of those who managed to escape ran towards the mainly Muslim neighbourhood nearby where the imam lived, arriving over the next hour.

The cleric immediately came to their aid, hiding in total 262 men, women and children in his home and mosque.

"I first took the women to my personal house to hide them. Then I took the men to the mosque," the imam told BBC Pidgin.

We have blurred the faces of the imam and the villages, for their own safety.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption Hundreds have been killed in attacks across Plateau state - including the parents of this young girl who herself was injured and is now cared for by her aunt

This was the latest wave of violence to hit Nigeria's central region where farming communities and nomadic cattle herders often clash - usually over access to land and grazing rights.

The region is prone to religious tension - herders are ethnic Fulani and mostly Muslim, while the farmers are mostly Christian from the Berom ethnic group.

Hundred of people have been killed in 2018, and the tit-for-tat violence has been ongoing for several years. A report from 2016 suggested Nigeria's pastoral conflict was the cause of more deaths that year than Boko Haram.

Had the imam not intervened, the death toll may have been much higher, as the armed men stormed into the mainly Muslim village in pursuit of those who had fled the mainly Christian village nearby.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption This man's relatives were killed in the attack by Fulani herdsmen

One of the villagers described the panicked scenes, saying: "First they attacked a village before us so we ran to the security post.

"But then they started firing towards the security post so we all ran away - even the security personnel."

When the attackers heard that the villagers had fled towards the mosque, they demanded that the imam bring out those he was hiding.

But the defenceless imam refused to comply - and also refused to allow them entry to the mosque.

He began to plead with the herdsmen, who were threatening to burn down the mosque and his house.

He then prostrated himself on the floor in front of the armed men.

Along with some others in the Muslim community, he began to cry and wail, asking them to leave.

And to their amazement the herdsmen did go - but then set two nearby churches on fire.

More on Nigeria's Fulani-farmer conflict

The imam later told the BBC that he wanted to help because more than 40 years ago, the Christians in the area had allowed the Muslims to build the mosque.

They had freely given over the land to the Muslim community, he said.

"Since we have been living together with the Beroms, we have not experienced an ugly incident like the attack on Saturday," another Muslim leader told the BBC.

Those whose lives were saved by the imam expressed their gratitude and relief.

"Ever since they took us into the mosque, not once did they ask us to leave, not even for them to pray," said the local chief.

"They provided dinner and lunch for us and we are grateful."

The villagers stayed with the imam for five days - and have since moved to a camp for displaced people.

More than 2,000 people are now living there, and others are living with relatives and friends.

Those who fled to the mosque cannot return to their village, as there is no security presence there and their homes have been destroyed.

One local Fulani leader told the BBC: "A number of the Fulanis who carried out this attack are foreigners.

"When we try to stop them at the mosque, some of them beat up one of the elders."

When I visited the village it was completely deserted.

I saw a church that had been attacked - all the chairs had been broken and the pastor's house set alight. He died in the fire.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption The community church was targeted by attackers

The authorities say five rural communities were targeted last Saturday - in an operation that lasted more than five hours. But locals dispute the official figures, saying 11 communities were attacked.

"They killed four of my children," a 70-year-old man told the BBC, in tears. "And now I do not have anyone to give me food".

The attackers first looted the houses and shops before setting them ablaze. Not even their livestock were spared.

Witnesses say the attackers chanted "Allahu Akbar" as they raided the buildings.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption This building which housed chickens was among those torched - the animals' charred remains are visible

Security forces did not intervene until around 20:00 (19:00GMT), when operatives from the military task force Safe Heaven arrived to evacuate those affected - mostly women and children.

Force spokesman Adamu Umar said several attacks had been coordinated to take place simultaneously - this, he said, made it difficult for officers to suppress.

A curfew has now been imposed in three parts of Plateau state following the violence.

Pointing to a mass grave, one resident cried as he described the devastation to his village.

"In this community alone 83 persons died," he said, "see how they are buried".

"We were born here. Where do they want us to run to?"

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