Flies buzzed around the grave that evening. I gaped over mourners’ drooping shoulders, my sight blurred, looking from one body to the other and meeting dead eyes. Women pulled hollandaise, dropped banana and cocoyam leaves over the bodies.
Yesterday, my kid brother was bustling with life. Today he lies in a pile of broken bodies. Then the call came.
‘Bege! Bege! They’ve killed Ezekiel….’ my sister said. Because of the coronavirus, Ezekiel had been on holiday at Apyio Oko (renamed Kurmin Masara) the night Fulani herdsmen attacked. They spoke Fulfulde. We recognised some of them; they had grazed our lands for years. They left the village in flames. ‘They burnt him,’ she cried.
I hitched a lift, driving through the plains and forests of Southern Kaduna where I was raised in the early 90s. I saw Fulani herdsmen in the distance with their straight features and red skin, navigating unsmiling herds through dense forests. We got a closer sight of them only when they needed to cross over the sole tar road that cut through Southern Kaduna from Kaduna the metropolis. Their curly hair and slim features looked so foreign. They were nomads who returned during the rains until they started settling deep in makeshift ruga made with grasses and cornstalks.
The south of Kaduna at that time was starting to be known for its humid weather, agriculture, culture and arts. It was starting to gentrify with algae-lichened concrete buildings in the rainy season and pockets of mud-walled thatched-roof huts amidst blocks of regular tenements. The people are an integrated blend of indigenous tribes and then Igbos, Yorubas, Tivs, Idomas who migrated in the early 1900s with the boom of the Kafanchan Railway Station and Hausa traders and Fulani herdsmen from Kano, Zaria and Borno who settled in the region in the mid 18th century.
On the road, I watched the soldiers garrisoned at different spots by the roadside. They held their rifles as they monitored moving vehicles. We met about 15 checkpoints on the 200-kilometer road that led to Zango Kataf. It used to be an old trading route for Hausa traders in Atyap land that has become a contested settlement between our fathers and their guests (the Hausas and Fulanis), and now with us. The presence of the military ought to rid the zones of the killings, kidnapping and religious riots. But the crisis and daily massacres continued. The bus stopped for some minutes while we were being inspected. The soldiers flirted with some girls in the car and cast suspicious glances at the other passengers. A hand motioned our car to move.
As part of a systematic process to claim the land, Fulani herdsmen attacked the area almost every day, displacing indigenes and setting their herds on their farmlands. But I wasn’t afraid to travel down south. I just wanted to find out how my brother died. Did the killers at least shoot him before they burnt him? My mother wanted to find out too. Ezekiel was already dead, but my mother couldn’t get over the trauma of a son screaming helplessly in a barred room while flames gradually ate him. It kept her up all night.
Trees flitted past. Kids skittered half-naked in the cold air. Women attended to open fires. Straying animals and green branches trembled in the breeze. It was farming seasons and scarecrows were crucified in the middle of rice paddies fluttering with oversized clothes in the wind. The women reminded me of the Nok terracotta. Earthy and stately. Their hairs plaited in tiny cornrows flattened on their heads as they sauntered from their farms with firewood or sack balanced on their heads and feet in socks of mud.
I glanced outside the car into the forests, vast and dark, where agrarian villages and hamlets are ruffled by the fear of the terrorists. Every day, every headline and every silence, they are mere human pawns being maneuvered on a chessboard.
The driver stalled at Samaru roundabout facing Zango-Kataf. He pointed up to the town without sparing a glance that way. “The curfew is still up,” he said.
I opted to ride pillion on a bike and meander through remote villages and narrow roads to avoid drawing unwanted attention. Tokan Adams, a vigilante with a hunting gun across his shoulder patrolled the road, keen on returning to keep watch over his village with the other men. The soldiers and roadblocks and curfews had proved useless, the men did their best to stand up for their communities. But there was only so much they they could achieve with hunting guns and catapults and machetes against AK-47 assault rifles and sophisticated ammunition.
Twilight sparkled in the distance now. The bike skimmed through red earth splattering mud over grasses and plants leaning into the road. The land was vast and vacant, punctuated with thatched-roofed huts and farmlands of maize and okra and guinea corn and gingers swaying in the breeze that met somewhere in the distance with the grey sky. I could never escape the feeling we were passing through mass graves and the whole sky was filled with blood.
‘Where you are going to was attacked last night,’ Tokan tried to dissuade me for the last time. I sat mute, the whirring of the bike and wind blared in my ears. He smelled of the open, dusty.
We darted through abandoned routes. Villagers peeped through windows and strolled around their huts because of the curfew. But the killers still found their way into the communities and it was often an easy bloodbath.
‘Ai we have to defend our land,’ Tokan said, his breath snuffly. ‘The government doesn’t care. It is them chasing us out of our lands to give to their kith and kin.’
The village was gloomy when I got there. Its hand to its cheeks. Last time I was here my grandfather Bobai Lambaya was being buried. Now my brother. The two deaths are somehow connected. My grandfather, an unrepentant patriot died in his room months after he returned from prison in Zaria. He was among the Atyap indigenes sentenced to death after being accused of abetting the Zango Kataf riot of March 1992 because they wouldn’t be subdued, neither their religion nor their culture, under the Hausa and Fulani who came to their lands as settlers. He returned a sickly and pale old man after he was granted a pardon by the Babangida administration, his eyes so empty that they scared me.
In the village, a grave no deeper than 6 feet was strewn with bodies. Men, women and children, equal in death, without the luxury of a gravestone. I wanted to run my fingers through their dreams and pulses, familiarizing myself with their lives as humans. Maybe I could afford them some gesture before the news would huddle all of them, their different stories, into one single apathetic sentence. One paragraph. One single headline.
thenationonlineng.net would later capture this attack as Gunmen Kill 21 in Kaduna Villages. In these horrors they’d also push the propaganda as “bandits have struck again in four Kaduna villages”. Standing here I could make out more than 50 corpses, but they called it banditry.
Hands covering noses were useless in warding off the stench. Flies buzzed around corpses and flittered among the crowd gathered around the graves. Palms swatted the air.
My brother would be easy to find, I thought. He had a birthmark on his cheeks, a dark blob under his jaw. There were others looking for their lost ones too. Their absence from the grave would offer a shred of hope even though their bodies were likely disintegrating under the blistering sun somewhere.
My brother wasn’t in the grave. A shard of hope fluttered in my heart. But where was he?
One morning, we peeped at Ezekiel dancing outside the house while he was supposed to be running an errand. We watched through the netting while he moved swiftly on his toes and turned his limbs like he was boneless. He stretched his neck stiff and balanced his head on it while his body moved rhythmically, somehow moving one of his feet before the other. It was the Leg Dance popularised by Nigerian singer Zlatan Ibile, a fad around the street corners. When he turned and saw us staring, he giggled and darted behind a wall where we couldn’t see him. For a long time, that would be my most abiding memory of him. Only 13 but he mastered the dance steps like a professional and he had the looks and way about him. The girls admired him wherever he went. He’d fall in love with different girls and play pranks that often took him out of the house.
Remembering Ezekiel dancing seems far off now, a dream. Even though I tried to numb my memory of him, for pretence seems the only way to survive trauma, I am doing everything possible to give this one memory life. Maybe to hold onto some sort of relic. It was only 3 years ago but if you had said to my mother even then that she wouldn’t have my brother around to her old age or one day she’d be so resigned to her son’s fate that the next good thing she would want was to hear that he had a less painful death, she’d have called you crazy. If you had said to my father that he would desert his farms for armed herdsmen to set their herds on, he would have laughed in your face.
I went my way looking to make a life away from my hometown and my family. What happened to Ezekiel brought me back home and cemented every speck of that unbelief. Maybe if I hadn’t been overambitious and had stayed at home my brother wouldn’t have grown up so quickly , wouldn’t have wandered, wouldn’t have been away from home when he met his death. It seems to everyone, at least I think, that I left a sinking ship and returned only when it had drowned. Where was the role model of a big brother for him?
The sky rumbled, turned pale and dark, it seemed clouded with grief. In front of the mass grave, the sobs continued. Women rolled in the dust and sobbed. Men whimpered and tried to shove whining kids behind their backs. A pastor reeled off names of the deceased and mumbled through the Psalms.
The sand settled flatly on the heaps but someone with an eye for detail, someone in the crowd unwilling to let go of the past, could always tell there is an uneven topography on the surface. The grave stood out like a cornice testifying to a bloody day.
We moved into the hamlet. It was dark now. All I could think about was the bloated bodies huddled together. Would some archaeologists in a future time resurrect those fossilized bones in a journal of archaeological research or Genocide study, or will they die with their stories?
Doors were ripped out of their hinges. A banana tree was sliced from the stem, no irregular edges on the stump, like something done in one swift strike with a machete. Feet searching for a place to stay the night disturbed the dusty air.
That night we crawled into maize farms. Some climbed on top of trees. We stayed mute, cell phones turned off and conversations reduced to whispers. The herdsmen were known to come back to the same village to finish off everything they couldn’t the first time.
Some men kept guard at the different paths into the village. Some watched in the bush by the stream where a bridge crossed into the village. Others waited at the only drivable road. Another group gathered on the road leading to Bakin Kogi on the outskirts of the village.
In the morning I went into our razed compound and I identified my brother’s body in one of the huts even though identified isn’t the right word since he was burnt virtually beyond identification. There were other corpses in the room, a woman and a small boy of about 6 years, their skin and hairs scalded. I recognized Ezekiel. He had a mangled necklace with a small cross hanging on his neck. My younger brother K passed it over to him. The body on the floor was Ezekiel’s height too. A hole, two fingers’ breadth, gaped in his stomach. My cheeks were wet with grief. The smell of death permeated everything, it lingered on my breath far longer than I expected.
‘They shot them and set the house on fire,’ said one of the men who had been following me about and sharing details of my brother.
We buried Ezekiel and the two bodies in a hastily dug grave not far from my grandfather’s. I shrugged off my jacket and covered him with it, hoping it was a sufficient gesture of succour to a kid brother I wasn’t there for when he needed me most. The other bodies were rolled in sheets like mummies. I headed out of the village immediately, my heart clouded with grief, heavy with the news that my broken family was waiting to hear.
But what crime could Ezekiel have committed to be this failed by a nation he so much believed in? And who were these faceless killers that were followed to their hideout to be appeased with money to ‘stop the killings’ in 2016? 2016, when Ezekiel was running barefooted without a care about the intricacies of religious riots and violence in his home state. Fast forward to the present, he was being martyred for something he knew nothing about. What is this loan he paid for? What is this debt that we owe the government that has taken from us our lives, our lands and our voices?