Daniel Howden: Truth and lies in the wake of village massacre

Jos Notebook
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The Independent Online

Sarah had a truly horrifying story to narrate. Taking me on a walking tour through the ruined village of Dogo Nahawa outside the troubled city of Jos in Nigeria's restive Plateau State, she wanted to show me the house she had been staying in on the night of the massacre.

Amid a collection of mud-walled huts with tin roofs and battered metal doors, the teenager showed me where her family had awoken last month to find their village under attack from armed raiders. She pointed to the spot where she had hidden from gangs of men with machetes while scores of others had been hacked to death. With a flat expression and monotone voice she told me how she had listened to her mother begging for her life before being scalped by at least two men amid the husks of dried maize in a field that had run with blood last month during the sectarian massacres that put Jos in the world headlines.

It was then that an argument started. Furious women began scolding Sarah before a young man in a tattered Barcelona shirt came to tell me what was going on. The women, he said, were angry with the girl for pretending she had witnessed the killings. She hadn't actually arrived at the village until two days after.

Certainly several members of her family had died in the attack but no one was sure which. She had been going to school away from the village and had ended up talking to the media that arrived to cover the massacre as she spoke fluent English.

As I left I saw her sitting with the foreign-funded local Christian activists who had brought much of the media to Dogo Nahawa in the days after the attack. They were telling anyone who would listen that this was part of a genocide by Muslim fanatics, a clash of civilisations indelibly linked to the events in Darfur and beyond.

Sarah – which is not her real name – was sitting sullenly, perhaps confused as to why she had suddenly been told off by one set of adults for telling stories that other adults had encouraged her to tell.

Lager amid the chaos

There was definitely trouble ahead. The main road leading into Jos was jammed with angry soldiers everywhere. A curfew called to prevent possible attacks between segregated Christians and Muslims had only ended hours before. As the queueing traffic crept forward I checked with the driver for the fourth time what faith he was as there were reports of roadblocks where Muslims were being pulled from cars. When we finally reached the front, the soldiers parted to reveal a beer truck that had tipped over in rush hour. Thousands of bottles of Gulder lager had cascaded on to the road. A few passersby fished out intact bottles from the smashed glass as I reminded myself that reports and rumours often amount to the same thing.