The Revd Canon Hassan John, Jos, Nigeria
PART 1 – The Horror of Terrorism
As the news broke out on the media Tuesday morning 22nd March of the Brussels bomb attacks, and the tragic events unfolded, I felt the tightening fear in my heart and the deep sense of tragedy because the reality of the desperate determination of Islamic extremists to destroy what they do not agree with anywhere in the world sank in even deeper for me. It is like reliving past experiences again.
I come from Jos, Nigeria, where Boko Haram cut its teeth in the spade of bomb blasts that have become the hallmark of the terrorist group since 2010 when they detonated the first bomb on that Christmas Eve in Jos.
Boko Haram is a terrorist Islamic group that has the Wahhabi Islamic ideology and set its goal first to destroy the church and Christianity, then anything that is western especially education, which they see as corrupting Islam, and then any Muslim who does not agree with their interpretation of the Quran. Since their emergence in 2009 in North-eastern Nigeria, they have killed more than 7, 000 people and displace about a million for the region. The Global Terrorists Index, in 2015, declared Boko Haram the most deadly terrorist group surpassing ISIS.
I have been a witness to the aftermath of some bomb attacks in Jos and have been very close to three of the bomb blasts; the Christmas day bomb blast in Jos in 2011, at the Mountain of Fire and Miracles Church, the bomb attack at the Church Of Christ In Nations (COCIN) headquarters compound church on the 26th February 2012 (pictured) and the St Finbars Catholic church bomb blast on the 12th of March 2012.
As I watched the breaking news of the Brussels attacks, instinctively I asked myself what I would be doing if I were at Brussels at that moment, assuming I survived and I am uninjured. Well Europe is completely a different context. Almost all support structures and agencies are available to rise up to the challenges as we see in the news.
Back in Nigeria the situation can be very chaotic.
On the Christmas day bomb attack in 2011, I came out of my house, not far from the church, and was thinking of where I would buy some milk when there was a loud explosion, the ground shook and there was a large smoke rising just ahead of me. I was startled and at first did not know what to make of the blast that shook the ground under my feet. But it soon dawned on me that it was Christmas morning and this was certainly a bomb blast. I ran to the scene, and there were people covered in dust, women and children screaming and one of the first casualties emerged from the dust, a man covered in blood. There was a stampede as people ran off in different directions and then a car crash as the drivers desperately tried to flee the scene. Many more people arrived at this time and we did what ever we could to help the injured. The military and police came and cordoned off the area as we were all cleared from the scene.
The bomb blasts at the Church of Christ in Nations, (COCIN) headquarters in the town centre and the blast at St Finbar’s Catholic church in Rayfield, Jos, will always remain indelible in my mind. Both had similar characteristics. They were both cars with suicide bombers. Both came with their handlers who, the church security said, waited about a minute outside the church gates until the vehicle gained access and came within a close proximity to where many people were before detonating the bombs.
In the COCIN church attack, I was driving just past the church that morning and I felt the blast in the car and the dust that rose behind the car as I looked into the mirror and with the St Finbar’s Church blast, I was in another building, a few metres away when the roof of the building vibrated, the window glasses rattled and cracked and the ground shook.
The blood, the body parts and mutilated bodies are too graphic to describe here. The injuries were massive. Buildings near the church buildings showed cracks from the explosion. The car carrying the bomb was a mangled piece leaving a crater where the car used to be. People quickly moved in to help and those who had cars desperately grabbed who ever was injured and rushed off in the direction of whichever hospital they felt was closest. The National Emergency Management Agency the only organization empowered to meet these types of challenges and the Red Cross arrived sometime later to take the injured and the dead. We do not have paramedic and Ambulance services except the very few owned by few hospitals. The police and military also arrived shortly but were insulted by the crowd out of frustration and anger. The soldiers and the police were forced to retreat from the the scene of the COCIN church bomb blast, but at the St Finbar’s church incident, the soldiers, either out of fear or for show of power, shot at the crowd injuring many more people. A bullet hit a man who was standing beside me shattering his shinbone. We all ran for cover and came out later when the shooting stopped. We quickly pleaded with someone who took the man to a hospital.
In both incidences, in swift reprisals, frustrated youths went on rampage on the street (pictured) attacking anyone that looked like the ‘enemy’, in other words a Muslim and to some extent any soldier who they see as ‘complacent’ in all the attacks that plagued Jos for over 5 years. A lot of people were attacked and injured in these reprisals.
Tragedy loomed in the town of Jos for weeks after each of the so many bomb attacks it has experienced. Families went through traumatic experiences and the enmity between Christians and Muslims deepened.
At incidences like this in Nigeria, there are no large street memorial services for the dead. The police and soldiers have phobia for any large gatherings, which can be potential targets. People and families are left to find their dead and bury them and if they don’t, the government will take the dead to a mass grave and bury them. The hospitals have no adequate facilities to cope with the hundreds of deaths from these attacks.
The churches will conduct funeral services for their individual members. We would go from one family we know to the other, to console them and pray with them. We then help in any way we can with funeral arrangements while for the injured we assist with whatever amount we can to cover some of the bills. Relatives would take those that were not Christians back home or to their villages for burial. The matter usually ends there and people simply hope that the next one is not as deadly or people hope and pray that they do not become victims the next time. This is the life in the Boko Haram insurgencies in Nigeria.
This is what made me very sad and anxious at the Brussels attack last Tuesday. But the situation in Europe is different. People are united in the massive condemnation and the paramedics and security organizations know what to do.
In the Nigerian tragedies, the police and military are usually there to secure the scene for the anti bomb squad, to retrieve what is left of the device, if ever it is found amidst the hundreds of people that invade the scenes. They try to keep people away and search for any other unexploded devices while they wait until a high-ranking officer both of the police and military visit the scene and a politician come to make a statement.
Very little is known of the counter terrorism efforts of the Nigerian security agencies, either out of bad information management or lack of the capacity to handle these insurgencies. Committees are sometimes set up and ‘on going investigations’ declared after each incident but the public is rarely is kept abreast of any developments. In the wake of some of these attacks, the security agencies are reported to have discovered bomb making factories and various types of IEDs that Boko Haram uses. They are said to have arrested unwilling suicide bombers; little girls as young as 10 years old used by Boko haram and have arrested people with weapons. But these are always too little too late.
In general the frequency of these attacks in Nigeria give the impression that the security agencies are overwhelmed and frustrated. They do not seem to have answers to these challenges or are ill trained and ill equipped to deal with terrorism.
Families are left to mourn and bury their dead. Some are not able to find their relatives because the remains of those blown to pieces are collected and mass buried. Those that have not been able to find their dead, empty coffins are placed in their memory and buried.
Many who are not critically injured, go to pharmacies on the streets to treat themselves while many others go away with their wounds to care and pay their own bills and to live with the trauma and scars for the rest of their lives. Sometimes, to score political points, politicians offset some of the hospital bills.
Somehow you get the feeling that as soon as one incident is over, there seem to be an anticipation and a waiting for the next to happen and the circle to be repeated again. The efforts of the Joint Task Forces in Jos and in the north east are so covered in controversies, accusations and allegations that many people have resigned themselves to personal protection while the soldiers simply become the security presence in check points on the roads in the country.
In the North Eastern part of Nigeria where Boko Haram is fully operational and has militants in the villages, the YouTube social media is perhaps the place to find some of the tales. Brave soldiers and policemen have died and many injured in this campaign. They must be acknowledged. But many more senior officers and politicians have struck goldmines also in these campaigns. Boko Haram still seems to have the upper hand for now. Perhaps the foreign interventions now will make a difference. These are some of the few differences between the terrorist attacks in Nigeria and the ones in Europe.
“Part 2 – The Key to Countering Terrorism” will be posted on Friday morning at 0900
The Reverend Canon Hassan John is Vicar of St Christopher’s Anglican Church, Rayfield in Jos, Nigeria. Following a career in the media he is also the Information officer of the Anglican Diocese of Jos. Hassan is the founder and coordinator of the Rayfield Peace Project that brings together Christian and Muslim women and youths in a peace building initiative that builds trust and rapport between the Christian and Muslims in Jos. He is currently on sabbatical studying Christian Apologetics at the Centre for Christian Apologetics in Oxford.