Scores of Christian villagers in the Plateau State of Nigeria awoke on Sunday morning to a chilling sound: gunfire filling the pre-dawn air. When some left their homes to find the source of the sound, a far more chilling sight appeared: men with machetes.
By day's end, according to Nigerian officials, Muslim gangs had killed as many as 500 people in three Christian villages. Some speculated the attacks were retaliation for January fighting in the region that killed more than 200 people-both Muslims and Christians. Whatever the motive, the carnage was grim and many of victims were helpless: witnesses described machete massacres of women, children, and the elderly.
Mark Lipdo of Stefanos Foundation, a Nigeria-based Christian organization that helps persecuted Christians, confirmed the reports to the BBC: "We saw mainly those who are helpless, like small children and then the older men, who cannot run, these were the ones that were slaughtered."
Other witnesses said aggressors caught their victims in fishing nets and animal traps before hacking them to death. One witness reported a victim as young as 3 months old. While some murdered, others burned huts and houses. As families fled, they often met attackers-and death-outside. Lipdo said at least one village-the Zot village-was nearly completely destroyed. Mass burials began on Sunday afternoon, as other villagers stacked more bodies in the road for later burial.
Though the region resumed an eerie calm by Monday, a heavy tension remained: Acting President Goodluck Jonathan deployed troops to the area to make arrests and protect residents. But military might may not be able to prevent future outbreaks. The violence stems from a longstanding conflict among residents along the north-south border. Some of the conflict is ethnic and fought over the region's natural resources. Some of the conflict is religious, including a growing Islamic extremism targeting Christian villages.
The violence is just one problem confronting Nigeria's fragile government and acting president-a Christian from the country's southern region. Jonathan seems determined to confront longstanding problems (see "Goodluck charms," March 13, 2010), even as the country's ailing current president convalesces with an unknown medical condition in Nigeria. But time is critical: Experts fear more retaliation could lead to another round of violence, a harrowing prospect for hundreds of Christians still burying their dead.
Also see Mindy Belz's interview with the retiring archbishop of Nigeria, Peter Akinola ("Endings and beginnings," March 13, 2010)