You may have heard about the city of Jos, the capital of Plateau state in Nigeria’s Middle Belt, and wondered why it is a flashpoint of unspeakable violence. Clashes between Muslims and Christians in September 2001 killed more than 1,000 people. A similar uprising killed up to 700 people in 2004. Another round of riots claimed more than 400 lives in 2008 and displaced several thousands.

This year alone, Jos has witnessed two such bloodbaths. On Jan. 17, mobs killed about 400 residents of Jos. The second round of attacks, on March 7, was even more vicious. Human rights groups and government sources say as many as 500 people may have been killed in the attacks. Among the dead were a 4-day-old infant and a 3-month-old baby. A 2-year-old boy had both eyes plucked out and his legs severed from his body. He died screaming in pain.

“I killed three people; two men and a woman. … I killed them with a stick, with a knife,” Dahiru Adamu, 25, a cattle herder, says in explaining his part in the last round of attacks.

“In the first crisis, they killed most of my brothers,” Adamu says, justifying his viciousness. He first beat his victims into a stupor with a stick, after which he stabbed them to death with a short knife.

Adamu and his cohorts, dozens of Muslim, Hausa/Fulani herdsmen, descended on the village of Dogo Na Hawa, south of Jos, in the dawn of March 7 and slaughtered hundreds with machetes, knives and cutlasses. The villagers were sleeping when the attackers arrived and set their houses on fire to smoke them out. Of course, they ran out. The victims, mostly the old, the infirm, women and children, were cut down with an assortment of knives and machetes.

Some witnesses say villagers were caught in fishing nets and animal traps as they tried to escape. They were then hacked to death.

Mark Lipdo, an official of the Stefanos Foundation, a Christian charity group, says the village of Zot, another settlement that was attacked, was almost wiped out in the violence.

He says: “we saw mainly those who are helpless, like small children and then the older men, who cannot run, these were the ones that were slaughtered.”

It was an act of retribution. The residents of Dogo Na Hawa, a village of Christians, were marked since Jan. 17 when Christian mobs killed about 400 Hausa Muslims in Hai Kura Karama, south of Jos. Their bodies were disposed of in wells and sewers.

“They killed a lot of our Fulanis in January,” Adamu says, referring to the fate of his ethnic group in the January attacks. “So I knew that this time, we would take revenge.”

Peam Shut, a survivor, says he lost about 17 members of his family.

Shut was awakened that gruesome Sunday morning by a gunshot. He ran outside and found a group of men, armed with machetes and clubs, throwing a petrol bomb at his brother’s house. He watched as his brother’s wife, Hanatu, tried to flee. Hanatu could not escape her cruel fate. She was butchered. The attackers then turned his way and shouted: “There are the other cattle.” Peam Shut ran. He got away. But his wife and son were not so lucky: They were cut to pieces.

Pastor Johana Gyang Jugu lost his family and his church building. Like most of the other people, he was wakened by gunfire. His wife, Rose, and 18-year-old daughter, Mary, ran with him but were separated in the confusion. He turned back to see them both hacked to death. He ran for his dear life. “I tried my best,” he says, as if to apologize to the dead. “There is nothing I can do, I am just crying.”

According to eyewitnesses, attackers yelled “Allahu Akhbar” before burning down churches and homes. Survivors say the attackers were mostly members of the Muslim Fulani clan, while the victims were mostly Christians. Some say the attackers killed anybody they captured if they could not answer in Fulani, the language of the attackers.

On the other side of the conflict, however, is Hassan Harouna, 2, who has to lie on his front on his bed at La Tahzan Clinic, in Jos. Hassan sustained his injuries in an attack by Christians on Muslims on Jan. 17. The skin from his lower back over his buttocks and down his left leg was burned. He was tied to his mother’s back (as women carry their babies in this part of the world) when they were both doused in petrol and set ablaze.

Human Rights Watch put the death toll in the January clashes at 492, and said that 364 of those killed were Muslims.

According to Hassan’s father, Abdullahi Harouna, armed men invaded their village of Kuru Karama and started to burn down houses. “They herded us into one place and started chopping people with machetes,” he recalls in agony.

Abdullahi escaped with three of his children. But Hassan and his mother were not so lucky. Hassan lay among the dead in a mass grave for 24 hours before he was found.

While the March attack of Muslims on Christians was purely retaliatory, there are conflicting reports of what triggered the January attack of Christians on Muslims.

Community leaders insist that it began with an argument over the rebuilding of a Muslim home, destroyed in November 2008 violence, in a predominately Christian neighborhood. Police sources, however, say it started when Muslim youths set a Catholic church, filled with worshippers, on fire.

Who would believe that Jos was once Nigeria’s top tourist destination and was known as “the home of peace and tourism”? Indeed, the name Jos is an acronym for Jesus Our Savior, reflecting the influence of Christian missionaries. Located on a tableland in central Nigeria, its area covers about 3,000 square miles (8,000 square kilometers) and has an average elevation of 4,200 feet (1,280 meters), with the surrounding high plains exceeding 3,200 feet. Because the city lies at an elevation of 1,300 meters above sea level, it is cooler than anywhere else in Nigeria. This makes Jos attractive to Europeans and others from temperate regions. Jos is surrounded by beautiful hills, the most well known being Shere Hills, about 1,800 meters high. Others are Jarawa Hills, Vom Hills and Gana Wuri Hills. Jos is therefore a favored destination for tourists interested in trekking and hiking. Another attraction is the area’s unspoiled savannas, featuring an abundance of wild animals such as leopards and hippos, waterfalls and curious rock outcroppings.

Jos grew rapidly after the British discovered vast tin deposits in the area. Both tin and columbite were extensively mined in the area up until the 1960s. By 1943, tin mining on the Jos Plateau was at its peak. Up to 1960, Jos was the sixth largest producer of tin in the world and is still often referred to as “Tin City.” Tin mining led to the influx of migrants (Hausas, Igbos, Yorubas and Europeans), who constitute more than half of the population of Jos, making the city one of the most cosmopolitan of Nigeria’s cities. Apart from tin, Jos boasts a buried treasure of unexplored minerals such as sapphire, ruby, topaz, amethyst, tourmaline, aquamarine, garnet and quartz.

By the 1970s, however, the mining industry started to slow down. After the discovery of oil, the Nigerian economy became dominated by the new “liquid gold.” Other export goods like coal, tin, palm oil and cocoa were almost completely neglected. This decline continued until what used to be a prosperous Jos became a civil service town. Those who could not secure civil service jobs became farmers. An unhealthy competition for jobs among the educated and for land among farmers and pastoralists soon developed.

Consequently, tensions started mounting among the various ethnic groups that previously had lived side by side in peace and harmony. This mounting tension reached its peak in September 2001, when over 1000 people were killed in an orgy of violence that rocked the city for about two weeks.

Significantly, the fighting broke out over the appointment of a Muslim politician as local coordinator of the federal Poverty Alleviation Program. The original inhabitants, who are mostly Christians, felt shortchanged. In Jos, the Muslim population is considered to be “non-indigene” while the Christian population regards itself as the indigenous population—with natural rights to political power and the area’s resources.

Since then, Jos has not known peace. About 700 people were killed in 2004 in a similar uprising. More than 300 residents died during another round of riots in 2008. The two attacks this year have claimed more than a thousand lives and displaced several thousand people.

It’s easy to label these clashes as religious uprisings. Jos is populated by distinct ethnic groups such as Tiv, Jukun, Pyem, Kofyar, Berom, Hausa-Fulani and many others. The city is in what is known as the Middle Belt in Nigeria, the dividing line between the Muslim north and the mostly Christian south. Most indigenes of Jos and its environs are Berom Christians, while most settlers are Hausa/Fulani Muslims. The other ethnic groups in Plateau state, who are predominantly Christian, readily identify with the Christian Berom. They collectively see Islam as a threat, especially with the introduction of Shariah law in several northern states, and fear that if the Muslim Hausa/Fulani settlers are not contained, they may Islamize the area and bring the much-dreaded Shariah law to Plateau state. This may be where the religious aspect of the conflict ends.

Professor Kabiru Mato of the University of Abuja says the violence in Jos is a result of a combination of factors including social apathy, economic deprivation and political frustration.

“I don’t see anything religious. Wherein religion could be the difference between the two warring factions, fundamentally it’s a manifestation of economic alienation. Social apathy, political frustration, economic deprivation and so many factors are responsible,” he argues.

According to Mato, “what is happening in Jos is simply an exhibition of the failure of governance in Nigeria; it’s an exhibition of a very serious economic problem that Nigerians find themselves in. It’s a breakdown of law and order.”

Significantly, the area was supposed to be under a dusk-to-dawn curfew imposed by the military in the aftermath of the January attacks. “We were supposed to be under curfew. How did they attack?” asks a bemused Gabriel Gyang, one of the survivors of the violence. How did the attackers manage to evade the military curfew that early Sunday morning?

The northern caucus in the House of Representatives also blamed the recurring crises in Jos, Plateau state and other parts of the region on poverty and frustration.

The chairman of the caucus, Terngu Tsegba of Benue state, who read the group’s resolution on the latest crisis in Jos at a press conference, said that poverty remained the basic problem in Plateau state and other parts of the region.

Commenting on inter-ethnic clashes in Nigeria, a Nigerian Marxist, D.C. Gaye, argues that these clashes are due to the fundamental crisis of underdevelopment. “There is widespread poverty and this gives rise to a scramble for limited resources. In less than a decade, Nigeria has slipped from a middle-income-status nation to a low-income category, and is currently regarded as one of the poorest countries in sub-Saharan Africa.”

According to Gaye, “most of these communities are no better than slums. Most families find it difficult to feed themselves. There is no potable water, no good roads, no proper medical facilities, no social infrastructures, and no good schools. Environments such as these generate fear, distrust, hatred, frustrations and anger. Under such circumstances, it is easy to believe that if the other ethnic group[s] go away, there will be enough.”

He concludes with an ominous warning: “a specter haunts Nigeria: the specter of ethnic cleansing. It has already signaled its approach. This takes form in ever-increasing acts of violence between diverse ethnic groups.”

Human Rights Watch (HRW) has urged acting President Goodluck Jonathan to treat the Jos situation as genocide. In a report signed by HRW Sub-Sahara Africa Rapporteur Sonya Maldar and sent to Jonathan for his “urgent attention,” the organization said the slaughter was nothing less than “ethnic cleansing.”

“It is our humble opinion that the perpetrators of this dastardly act are not faceless, and their sponsors can also be found and made to face the full wrath of the law,” the report stated. “There is a need for you to see this wanton destruction of lives as ethnic cleansing or genocide in its entire dimension and investigate the killings with such in mind.”

Meanwhile, as the latest bodies are stuffed into wells, sewers and unmarked graves, the people of Jos wait in terror for the next round of attacks. No one knows for sure when and where tempers will boil over next, so there is no running away from it.

Well, perhaps only in nearby Shen do people have an idea of what lies ahead. Chief Gabriel Gyang of Shen told the BBC’s “Focus on Africa” program that people in his village feared more attacks.

He said he received text messages from people who claimed responsibility for the March 17 attacks and threatened to return.

Residents of other villages in the area have reportedly been receiving hundreds of daily text messages urging Christians to kill Muslims or urging Muslims to kill Christians.

“I believe this will last a long time,” says an exasperated state police commissioner, Ikechuckwu Aduba.

“It is not over. Where are we heading?” Aduba asks.

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