By Craig Timberg
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, February 23, 2006
ONITSHA, Nigeria, Feb. 22 -- Christian mobs in this southern city attacked Muslim motorists and traders Wednesday, leaving more than 30 people dead, according to witnesses, as religious riots sparked by the publishing of cartoons of the prophet Muhammad continued into a fifth day in Nigeria. Nationwide, the death toll reached at least 80.
Hordes of angry men marauded through Onitsha armed with machetes, guns and boards with nails pounded into their ends, witnesses said. The mobs burned two mosques and looted and destroyed Muslim-owned shops as they sought vengeance for similar attacks against Christians in two predominantly Muslim cities in northern part of the country.
"They've been killing our brothers and sisters in the north," men shouted Wednesday morning, according to Afoma Clara Adique, 40, a motorist who had driven through Onitsha. She escaped the mobs, she said, but only after speaking to the men in a regional language used by Christians.
Before she could get away, Adique said, she saw burned and dismembered bodies along the side of the road.
"Horrible," she said. "I just closed my eyes. It's so horrible."
Her traveling companion, Tony Iweka, 45, a magazine editor, said a man in the mob raised his right hand to display what appeared to be a freshly decapitated head.
The attacks in Nigeria began this weekend, almost six months after the cartoons were first published in a Danish newspaper and weeks after they ignited a wave of unrest in Muslim countries from Egypt to Indonesia that left about 28 people dead -- almost all of them shot by security forces -- in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Libya. But the clashes in Nigeria, this continent's most populous country, have been the deadliest, and the first involving counterattacks by Christians.
Religious violence has flared in recent years in this West African nation, which is split roughly in half between a Muslim north and a Christian and animist south, but with most areas containing a mixture of all three religious groups. More than 1,000 people were killed in fighting between Christians and Muslims in 2004.
Abdul Arwa, 25, a Muslim from the north, who for the past two years sold tomatoes at a roadside stall in Onitsha, said men stole about $60 from him Wednesday afternoon and tried to stab him before he fled across the Niger River with only the tattered clothes he was wearing.
The mob, he said, made clear that the attacks were reprisals for the killings of Muslims in previous days.
"They killed our brothers," one attacker said, according to Arwa. "So we are going to kill you."
Initial Nigerian news reports put Wednesday's death toll at 22, but witnesses placed the count at more than 30.
Truckloads of heavily armed police sought to regain control of the city, but by early afternoon the officers could maintain peace on only part of the roadway into Onitsha, where the massive steel girders of the Head Bridge deliver motorists from the west.
At least 19 bodies were visible along that short stretch of road. They appeared to have been beaten, stripped of some of their clothing and, in several cases, burned beyond recognition.
Discarded sandals and the round, decorative hats favored by northern Muslims were left behind in the dirt, and the road bore burn marks.
Adique and other witnesses said at least 14 other bodies, including several that had been decapitated and mutilated, were visible on the same road but farther from the bridge, in an area where mobs remained in control. Others said there were more bodies in other sections of Onitsha, including near the main bus terminal.
Muslim refugees gathered at a police station in the neighboring city of Asaba said they saw dozens of other victims tossed alive into the Niger River, where most were presumed to have drowned.
"I saw many people" in the river, said Musa Dayyabu Kumurya, 28, a tailor from the northern state of Kano.
Nigeria is home to more than 200 distinct ethnic groups drawn together in a volatile mix by European colonial mapmakers in the 19th century. Onitsha, alongside the historic trading route of the Niger River, has long been a commercial center. Though the city is considered part of the homeland of the heavily Catholic Ibo ethnic group, thousands of northern Muslims, mostly members of the Hausa ethnic group, have moved here in search of work.
The recent rioting began when Muslim mobs -- consisting mostly of Hausa men -- destroyed 30 Christian churches and killed 18 people Saturday in the northeastern city of Maiduguri. Those attacks were followed on Monday by rioting in Bauchi, another northern and mostly Muslim city, where 25 died over two days.
The rioting in Onitsha began Tuesday, according to news reports, after a bus carrying bodies of victims from the Maiduguri riots arrived at the city's main bus terminal. On Wednesday, according to the Reuters news agency, the violence spread to Enugu, a nearby, predominantly Christian city, where seven died.
A few miles from Onitsha, in a Asaba, northern Muslim refugees plotted their return home. Few had any money, clothes or other possessions for the journey. Some also had bandages on their heads and legs covering wounds from the attack.
Sale Garba, 40, said he was selling kola nuts at a market when the rioting began Tuesday. Attackers stole $23 from him and sliced his chin with a machete before he escaped, he said. On Wednesday, as darkness fell on the crowded grounds of a police station, he wondered how he would return to his northern home of Bauchi. After two years in Onitsha, he said, he was done.
"I will not go back," Garba said.