BY KAZIE UKO
A clearer picture of how over 70 farmers, and still counting, were slaughtered in the rice fields of Zabarmari, in Nigeria’s north east state of Borno, is beginning to emerge.
Last Saturday, the nation was rattled with the morbid news of “43” farmers being killed by Boko Haram, while they worked in the farm.
While the nation mourned, the Nigeria’s Presidency granted an interview to the BBC, literally blaming the farmers for the evil that befell them.
Senior Special Assistant to President Muhammadu Buhari on Media and Publicity, Garba Shehu, told a beleaguered nation through the BBC that the farmers did not have clearance from the military before embarking on their routine job of farming.
“Much of those areas have been liberated from Boko Haram terrorists but there are a number of spaces that have not been cleared for the return of villagers who have been displaced. So, ideally, all of these places ought to pass the test of military clearances before farmers or settlers resume activities on those fields,” Shehu had told BBC World Service on Monday, 30 November, 2020.
Asked whether he was blaming the farmers for going to the area, Shehu said: “Not exactly but the truth has to be said. Was there any clearance by the military which is in total control of those areas? Did anybody ask to resume activity? I have been told by the military leaders that they had not been so advised and certainly, therefore, it was a window that the terrorists exploited.”
Shehu’s ill-thought out comment was rightly perceived as insensitive to the memory of the brutally murdered citizens by a good number of Nigerians who expressed their disgust on Twitter, to the total lack of conscience by the presidential spokesman.
Three days after the barbaric slaughter of the innocent helpless farmers, it has emerged there were survivors of the tragic incident.
Below, we reproduce a heart-rending account of killings that have pitted a nation against its president, as first published by the international news agency, AFP.
For several days, the killers lived peaceably among their future victims, sharing their dormitories and eating their food and pretending to be labourers that came for seasonal work.
Then, on Saturday afternoon, they took out their guns, rounded up the people like cattle and slaughtered them one by one.
This was the nightmare recounted by survivors of a massacre that unfolded in the rice fields of north-eastern Nigeria on Saturday.
The bloodbath set a new standard of brutality in Boko Haram’s 11-year-old jihadist insurgency.
Seventy-six people died, according to the authorities. Many were impoverished farmworkers who were tied up before their throats were slit.
A traumatised survivor aged 24, who can be called Abdul, said the murderers posed as labourers who had come to the fields in Koshobe, Borno State, to do seasonal work.
“I ran errands for them, getting them food and washing their plates,” said Abdul, who came with hundreds of others from Kebbi, a poor region 1,000 kilometres (600 miles) away.
Around 40 jihadists were involved in the massacre, according to survivors.
‘One of them told me to flee’
In the early afternoon of Saturday, they took out their guns and herded about 60 workers in front of an abandoned building, said Abdul.
“They separated the aged (from) the rest of us and said we should take turns to pay homage to their leader who was in the house,” he said.
“But it was only a ploy because whoever went in never came out.”
“At a point one of the insurgents guarding us told us that we were being slaughtered and asked us to flee,” he said. “I was one of the few lucky ones.”
As he fled, he witnessed the unbearable: “The assailants then went on a killing spree, seizing workers on rice fields, tying them up and slitting their throats.”
It appears that the jihadists also targeted workers who were from the nearby village of Zabarmari, even though the village had a protection deal with Boko Haram.
Bello Muhammad’s younger brother Ali, aged 20, was among those killed.
“They asked who among them was from Zabarmari and my brother immediately stepped forward and was asked to enter the house where he was slaughtered,” he said, recounting what was said to him by a witness.
“There was an agreement that the jihadists would never attack Zabarmari residents, which was why Ali was quick to step forward, thinking he would be spared.”
Forty-three corpses were found in the building, and 33 have been found in the rice fields. More, it is feared, have yet to be discovered.
Search for bodies
Teams continued the search for bodies of victims of the Borno massacre on Tuesday, plodding through the expansive marshland on foot, trudging behind tractors.
“It is a tiring job because regular vehicles can’t move in the difficult terrain because they will definitely get stuck,” said Abdullahi Umar, a member of the search team.
He described the search as “dangerous” because Boko Haram operates in the area, which has footpaths that link to its haven in the Sambisa Forest.
At least 36,000 people have been killed and two million displaced since the jihadists launched their bloody campaign in North-East in 2009.
The UN, in an early account of the latest massacre, said that the assailants arrived by motorbike, and gave a preliminary death toll, since retracted, of 110.
It has not been ruled out that several groups may have taken part.
On Tuesday, Boko Haram said it was “responsible for what happened around Maiduguri in recent days… especially in Zabarmari.”
The killing, it said, was in retaliation for the death of one of its members who had been arrested by villagers and handed over to the authorities.