A Nigerian Imam helped save several Christians from rampaging Muslim gunmen suspected to be Fulani herdsmen after seeing hundreds of desperate, frightened families running into his village over the weekend.
After seeing them fleeing from a neighboring village – a mainly Christian community – he decided to risk his life to save theirs.
The fleeing neighbors said about 300 well-armed men, suspected to be cattle herders who are mostly Muslim, started shooting sporadically and burning down their homes.
Some of those who managed to escape ran towards the mainly Muslim neighborhood nearby where the imam lived, arriving over the next hour.
The cleric immediately came to their aid, hiding in total 262 men, women and children in his home and mosque.
“I first took the women to my personal house to hide them. Then I took the men to the mosque. We have blurred the faces of the imam and the villages, for their own safety.” the imam told BBC Pidgin.
This adds to the incessant wave of violence to hit Nigeria’s central region where farming communities and nomadic cattle herders often clash — usually over access to land and grazing rights.
The region is prone to religious tension — herders are ethnic Fulani and mostly Muslim, while the farmers are mostly Christian from the Berom ethnic group.
Hundreds of people have been killed in 2018, and the violence has been ongoing for several years.
The death toll may have been much higher, had the imam not intervened, as the armed men stormed into the mainly Muslim village in pursuit of those who had fled the mainly Christian village nearby.
One of the villagers who witnessed the scary incident described the panicked scenes, saying: “First they attacked a village before us so we ran to the security post. But then they started firing towards the security post so we all ran away —- even the security personnel.”
When the attackers heard that the villagers had fled towards the mosque, they demanded that the imam bring out those he was hiding.
But the defenseless imam refused to comply — and also refused to allow them entry to the mosque.
He began to plead with the herdsmen, who were threatening to burn down the mosque and his house.
He then prostrated himself on the floor in front of the armed men.
Along with some others in the Muslim community, he began to cry and wail, asking them to leave.
To their amazement, the herdsmen left — but then set two nearby churches on fire.
The imam later told the BBC that he wanted to help because more than 40 years ago, the Christians in the area had allowed the Muslims build the mosque.
They had freely given over the land to the Muslim community, he said.
“Since we have been living together with the Beroms, we have not experienced an ugly incident like the attack on Saturday,” another Muslim leader told the BBC.
Those whose lives were saved by the imam expressed their gratitude and relief.
“Ever since they took us into the mosque, not once did they ask us to leave, not even for them to pray,” said the local chief. “They provided dinner and lunch for us and we are grateful.”
The villagers stayed with the imam for five days and have since moved to a camp for displaced people.
More than 2,000 people are now living there, and others are living with relatives and friends.