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Monday, 5 November, 2001, 16:21 GMT
The death of a Nigerian village
Mother and children sleeping on a schoolhouse floor
The army's destruction has left villagers homeless
When 19 Nigerian soldiers were abducted and killed by a local militia group, the army retaliated by killing over 200 unarmed civilians. The BBC's Dan Isaacs witnessed the aftermath.

I have tried, honestly, in the two months I've been here, to find good news stories to tell about Nigeria. But sometimes I despair.

It was Tuesday last week, and I was settling down for a difficult night with our young daughter.

She had been diagnosed that day with malaria. She was hot and sweaty and refusing to take her medicine. It is difficult to convince a three-year-old that a liquid that tastes so disgusting is going to make you better.

The phone rang from London. Could I check out reports coming in of a series of army raids on villages in central Nigeria in which hundreds of people were said to have been killed?


What I saw was appalling and I hope never to see such a thing again

I drew a deep breath. I didn't need this. I had been on the road chasing violence across the country for the past eight weeks, and - with a sick daughter at home - this was not the time to be setting off once again.

But the scale of the violence this time, and the fact that Nigerian soldiers had apparently rounded up and killed unarmed villagers was too disturbing to ignore. I decided to go.

Nigeria is a big country. Our destination, the town of Zaki Biam was many many hours drive away down a dusty, back-breaking road. One of those roads that starts off so well - luring you into a false sense of optimism - then progressively degenerates into ever larger potholes, until there is more hole than road.

The first signs that anything was seriously amiss as we approached Zaki Biam, were the people walking along the roadside. First we saw just a few walking away from the town, then the trickle became a flood. Hundreds - thousands - of people were on the move. Carrying their belongings on their heads, clutching bags, suitcases, electric fans and mattresses.

Devastation

And then we saw the first of the destruction. Village huts by the side of the road, gutted by fire. Every single structure was destroyed. There were more and more as we approached the town, until we arrived in the town itself.

I don't know if I can adequately describe the scene. I feel I ought to be an objective, dispassionate eyewitness to the horror. But it doesn't feel right.

What I saw was appalling and I hope never to see such a thing again during my time here.

I'll start with the easy part. Until last week, Zaki Biam was a thriving market town.

The biggest yam market in Nigeria, in fact. On the day the army arrived men, women and children would have been bustling and laughing in the town centre, buying and selling - well, yams.
Dead victim's arm
The bodies were left for reporters to see

Then the soldiers came in trucks and stopped at the market. They jumped off the back of the vehicles, cocked their guns and started shooting.

Now, I've spoken to eyewitnesses. I've asked the questions. Did the soldiers say anything first? Was there any fighting going on in the town? Did they appear to be hunting down militia leaders? And the answers I got to each of these questions, every time, was no. They just rolled into town and started shooting.

I didn't need to be told the result of this attack. As we stood there and talked in the scorching heat of the mid-afternoon, bodies lay on the ground around us. Decaying corpses covered in flies. Left there I suppose, so the full horror would be there for all to see.

But that is not all. Once the soldiers had finished killing, they got out the heavy guns and fired at the buildings. Those that didn't fall, they torched with petrol.

And across the town, every house, every shop, every office...every single building has been destroyed by fire. That night, the glow from the fires would have been seen for miles around - and people that had fled into the bush would have watched - perhaps silently - as Zaki Biam burned.

Silent witnesses

As I set up my satellite dish to broadcast the scenes I was witnessing, a small silent crowd gathered around me.

People who had been hiding, scared as to who we were, slowly emerged into the street.

This was their terrible story and they wanted the outside world to know what had happened in Zaki Biam when the army came and destroyed their lives.

This is a strange and beautiful country, made up of many different worlds

The army chief of staff in Abuja says his men were not responsible for these atrocities. The president has not condemned them - indeed he says that soldiers are trained to kill and that is what Nigerians should expect when they are deployed.

The attitude seems to be that the Tiv people of Zaki Biam have been taught a collective and justified lesson for the murder of the 19 soldiers nearby, in circumstances that have yet to be fully explained.

This is a strange and beautiful country, made up of many different worlds.

Back in Lagos, my daughter is now fully recovered from her mild bout of malaria and is happily bouncing around the flat in Lagos with her baby sister. It was, I must say, very good to get home.

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 ON THIS STORY
Dan Isaacs
"Until last week, Zaki Biam was a thriving market town."
See also:

24 Oct 01 | Africa
Nigeria: Crisis in Benue state
28 Jun 01 | Africa
Villagers 'massacred' in Nigeria
29 May 99 | Africa
Profile: Olusegun Obasanjo
07 Sep 01 | Country profiles
Country profile: Nigeria
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