Trying to put on a smiling face as he ushered our correspondent into his modest apartment, his blue disposition and near inaudible voice showed he had yet to recover from the trauma of the past few days.
Perhaps, not everyone would survive the news Geoffrey Tyolaha, 36, received while he was on his way to work in the early hours of Tuesday, penultimate week, without passing out.
Of the about 19 persons that were killed in very cruel circumstances in Mbalom, Ayar Gwer East Local Government Area of Benue State by suspected Fulani herdsmen on Tuesday, April 24, eight of them were Geoffrey’s family members, including his father, nephew, cousins – aged 39 and 26 respectively – and other family members.
They were all shot dead, in addition to some worshippers at Mbalom Parish and the two Catholic priests in charge, whose death had generated serious condemnation from across the world, including the Pope.
Sadly, it’s one of the killings carried out across the country, especially in the Middle Belt by suspected Fulani herdsmen.
“I didn’t believe it when I received the call that morning that my people had been killed,” said Geoffrey when our correspondent met with him earlier in the week. “I still spoke to my dad on the phone the previous night and he sounded well. I even promised him I would find time to see him within the coming month, but now he’s dead.”
Narrating the incident to Saturday PUNCH, Geoffrey said, “I was about leaving my house in Oshodi (Lagos) when I received a call from home. It was unusual but I didn’t have any reason to nurse any fear. I was told that some suspected Fulani herdsmen attacked our community and that they killed many people, including two reverend fathers.
“When I heard that, my heart bled and I stood still where I was,” he said.
Trying to suppress the thought that the priests could be the same ones he knew, Geoffrey apparently didn’t know the worst part of the news had yet to be delivered.
“The person who called me then said that was not all; he said my father, my nephew, cousins and other persons in the house… as the person was still mentioning the names of the other persons, I didn’t know when the phone dropped and I started crying, especially when I heard that my dad was also killed. To hear they were all gone was most devastating.”
One incident, many casualties
Even though that was about the first main attack in the community in recent times, the people of the community had relied on the promise by security agencies and the government that all was well and they should go about their activities.
Thus, in their usual way of starting their day, worshippers had gone for the morning Mass, which usually starts around 5:30am. But, the service had barely begun, as some had settled while others were still making their way into the premises, when the suspected killer herdsmen entered the church and started shooting into the crowd.
In the process, the attackers killed the two Reverend fathers, namely Joseph Gor and Felix Tyolaha, anchoring the programme and many other worshippers, while some others sustained varying degree of injuries, resulting from bullet wounds and the stampede.
If the attackers had stopped there, Geoffrey’s trauma would have been minimal, as his father was not in church that morning. But as if the number of souls wasted inside the auditorium was not enough, the attackers entered the community and started killing people in sight. They also set properties, including houses, huts, economic trees and farmland on fire.
After that, they then made their way into one of the closest houses to the church, which was Geoffrey’s father’s house, where they started another round of shooting.
He said, “My dad used to go for that morning Mass, but that day, he didn’t go. He was at home. Meanwhile, our house is very close to the church. So, when they finished killing some in the church, they entered our house and started shooting.
“On getting to the house, they started killing my brothers that were around the house. Everybody in the area had heard the gunshot when they were shooting in the church, so people were already scampering to safety, but these killers who came in their numbers ran after them and shot at them.
“I learnt my 70-year-old dad, who was not feeling too well, was carrying one of my nephews and he was running from the house when they also pursued him into the bush and shot at him and the three-year-old baby he was carrying. You know that when a man sees death coming, strength would come from nowhere.
“When they told me where my dad ran to, I mean where they later found his corpse, I started crying, because he ran for his dear life and it was a long distance but they followed him. Remember, it was relatively early and maybe a bit dark, but they followed people and killed them.
“The Bible says ‘Touch not my anointed and do my prophet no harm.’ But these people went to the extent of killing two priests and children of God. Not just that, I learnt that before leaving the church, they took part of the wafer and wine for the Holy Communion that they were to use in the service that morning. They ate some and scattered the rest.”
Determined to inflict maximum pain on the community, the attackers were also said to have invaded a place where a burial ceremony was to hold, close to the church and disrupted the event.
He said, “They ran to where they were to do a burial, and of course when the people heard that they were coming, everybody ran away. I heard they hit the casket and the corpse fell on the floor. Three teachers were also killed.
“These people succeeded in killing young, harmless people whose major occupation was farming. Honestly, I’m pained and sometimes it still feels like a dream. One of my cousins left about four children and a young wife while the other one had about six children. These are the only people I have always known as family.”
From his words, which came out with so much effort, one could feel his pain and agony, but not without one thing to be thankful for.
He said his mother could also have suffered the same fate by the gun-wielding herdsmen, but she went to the stream to fetch water when the attackers invaded the house.
Geoffrey, a graduate who had just completed his postgraduate programme in Telecommunication Engineering at the Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria, Kaduna State, said his greatest pain was that he was unable to repay his father’s enormous efforts and sacrifices.
He said, “While I was in school, even though a poor farmer, he struggled so much to pay my school fees and I used to assure him that he would soon eat the fruit of his labour. He sacrificed anything to make sure his children were okay.
“But after all he did for me, I wasn’t able to buy him just a sachet of water. When I left school, I was eager to start work so I could take good care of him, but see what these killer herdsmen have done.
“From time to time, I still feel very heavy and in shock. Anytime I remember how he was killed, despite all his labour on earth, most of which he had yet to enjoy, it makes me want to cry. I wish I saw him before he died, because the last time I saw him was January.
“One of the priests that were killed was very close to my dad. If you look at the name of one of them, you would see that we have the same surname, Tyolaha, which further endeared him to our family. In fact, some people in the community used to think we are relatives. It’s very painful, my brother. But I have left everything to God.”
On how he had been coping with the loss, he said, “God has been my strength. Before now, I preach to people and I tell them that as the Bible has said that all things work together for good to them that love God. So, I believe that after preaching to others, I should not believe otherwise. I so much believe that whatever God does is perfect and he can’t be questioned.
“But then, there are days I wake up thinking about life, my dad, my cousins, the children they left behind and things like that. My dad had an elder brother but the man has not been able to sleep well since then, because apart from losing his younger brother, which was my dad, he also lost his son, who is one of the cousins I spoke about. He felt he should have been the one that was killed, not his son or younger brother. You can imagine that.
“My only request from government is for them to stop these killings and make sure people’s lives are safe because it is getting out of hand and it now seems like an arrangement to cleanse a set of people. It’s as if Benue is under siege.
“I never even thought they could get to our community because it’s not in the hinterland. They must have passed several communities, including Gwer West local government, to get here. So, how did they enter our community, armed, without being accosted? But everything is clear before God.”
Describing the attack as a coordinated one, Geoffrey, who is the first of seven children from his mother, said the government had said the victims would be given mass burial. “I would have loved to bury him in the house but I’m also not against the mass burial because I learnt they would be buried alongside the reverend fathers,” he added.
“To carry gun and be running while shooting is not an easy task; you need to be trained to be able to do that. But, at this stage, what can we do?
“These people come with arms; they would fight and kill us, but if they see civilians like us with ordinary cutlass, it is a problem. It makes us to question what is happening. Why is it that somebody can come and kill you where you’re sleeping and if you try to defend yourself with the weapon that you have, you are the one to be arrested. You’re not being protected or defended, yet it becomes an offence if you try to defend yourself. May God bless us.”
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