Nigerian Christians Burn Corpses

Ifeanyi Eze uses a piece of charred wood to write on the wall of a mosque in Onitsha:
Ifeanyi Eze uses a piece of charred wood to write on the wall of a mosque in Onitsha: "Mohammed is a man but Jesus is from above." (By Craig Timberg -- The Washington Post)
By Craig Timberg
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, February 24, 2006

ONITSHA, Nigeria, Feb. 23 -- Christian mobs stopped their killing and looting in this Nigerian city Thursday and turned to disposing of the evidence in the crudest of ways. Men burned the remains of their Muslim victims in smoldering bonfires on downtown streets, leaving behind charred legs, skulls and shoulders that minibus taxi drivers swerved to avoid.

As thousands of Muslims struggled to find a way to reach the northern part of the country or huddled for protection at police stations, Christian residents in this southeastern city expressed little remorse for their role in five days of religious violence sparked by anger over the publication of cartoons of the prophet Muhammad.

At Onitsha's ruined central mosque, one of two reportedly destroyed Tuesday, Ifeanyi Eze, 34, picked up a piece of charred wood and scrawled on a low wall: "Mohammad is a man but Jesus is from above." On the walls of the abandoned mosque, others had written: "No Mohammad, Jesus Christ is Lord."

Nigerian authorities have not announced an official death toll from the violence in Onitsha, but witness accounts indicated that at least 42 people had been killed. There were 33 bodies visible near the Niger River bridge on Wednesday, and a brief tour of city streets Thursday turned up eight burned or burning bodies. Another body, sprawled near cans of tomatoes that spilled from a bag, was on the bridge.

Over two days in Onitsha, Civil Liberties Organization volunteers had counted more than 80 bodies, said Eneka Umeh, state chairman for the nongovernmental human rights group. The volunteers also saw police gathering bodies, apparently for disposal.

Deaths in other Nigerian cities totaled 50 from the five days of rioting, according to news reports, and many Nigerians braced for more retaliatory attacks. The violence has revealed again the deep ethnic, regional and religious differences in Africa's most populous nation, split nearly evenly between a Muslim north and a Christian and animistic south. In the past decade, thousands of Nigerians have been killed in political, ethnic and religious violence.

The recent rioting began Saturday in the northeastern city of Maiduguri, where Muslim mobs attacked Christians and their churches. The violence spread to Bauchi, another northern city, and then to the mostly Christian southern cities of Onitsha and Enugu beginning Tuesday.

The violence was most intense and widespread in Onitsha, a bustling trading city along the Niger River.

Muslim refugees, mostly from the Hausa ethnic group that dominates northern Nigeria, described how mobs of Christian men wielding guns and machetes burst into shops, looted goods and money, and then began attacking people. The Muslims fled on foot, mostly across the bridge over the wide Niger River. Some were caught, cut to death and burned. Others were thrown into the river, survivors said. Many of the bodies were naked or partially clothed.

Government health crews began collecting the bodies near the bridge Wednesday afternoon. Police removed many others in the city overnight, according to traders who said they saw the effort. The city's general hospital reported only 11 bodies in its morgue, but Nigerian police often bury victims of violence in mass graves.

Yet some bodies remained. A few yards from the body of a charred man, lying naked on his back in the middle of the road, a group of Christian traders said they had no choice but to attack the Muslims living here.

"We have to retaliate," said Justin Ifeanyi, 24. "It is a shame to us if we don't kill them."

Ifeanyi expressed amazement that cartoons published in Europe could set off violence in Africa.

"This thing happened in Denmark," Ifeanyi said. "How could that be causing havoc in another part of Nigeria?"

Underlying the tension in the southeastern section of the country is a long-standing demand for autonomy. Onitsha is part of the rebellious region that attempted to break away in the Biafran civil war from 1967 to 1970. The situation is worsened by the growing wealth of the country's political elite even as most residents of the areas from which oil is pumped endure worsening poverty. Nigeria is Africa's leading exporter of oil and the fifth-largest global exporter of oil to the United States.

"The problem is Nigeria is not supposed to be one," said Cyril Ademkwe, 75, adding that he was a rebel soldier in the Biafran war. "We want liberation from this country."

© 2006 The Washington Post Company