The military operation in which more than two hundred people were killed in various locations in Benue State in October 2001 took place within the context of the broader, longstanding intercommunal conflict in the area. In a sense, it can be seen as the culmination of a series of attacks and counter-attacks by Tiv and Jukun armed groups, primarily in Taraba State and the areas around the Taraba-Benue border (see Section V below).
Against the backdrop of this conflict, the specific incident which provoked the violent response of the military in October was the abduction and killing of nineteen soldiers two weeks earlier. The soldiers, according to government authorities, were on a mission to restore peace in the area affected by the conflict between Tivs and Jukuns, when they were abducted by a Tiv armed group in Vaase, in Benue State, on October 10. Their mutilated bodies were found two days later, on October 12, in the grounds of a primary school in the town of Zaki-Biam, also in Benue.
The exact circumstances of the attack on the soldiers and the motivation behind it remain unclear. The Nigerian government announced the names and ranks of the dead soldiers, which were published in the media.3 However, many Tiv sources cast doubt on the identity of the victims and questioned whether all nineteen were really soldiers. They believe that at least some of them were probably armed Jukuns, operating alongside Nigerian army soldiers. As evidence, they pointed to the fact that, while dressed in military uniforms, the victims had been travelling in private pick-up trucks, not military vehicles, and that some of their weapons did not bear official Nigerian army registration numbers.4 Some sources also allege that the real number of those abducted and killed was higher than nineteen, and may have been closer to thirty. Even initial statements issued by government authorities immediately after the incident were contradictory as to the number of soldiers killed; for example, the number initially cited in many media reports was sixteen. Human Rights Watch was not able to confirm independently the identity or number of the soldiers who died. There is also some confusion as to the purpose of these soldiers' deployment in the area. Federal government and military authorities have asserted that they were on a peacekeeping mission.
Less than two weeks after the discovery of the bodies of the nineteen soldiers, a large number of soldiers arrived in several towns and villages in Benue, between October 19 and 24, in a carefully coordinated operation designed to take local residents by surprise. Several survivors and witnesses told Human Rights Watch that they felt tricked and deceived: they initially believed the soldiers were coming to protect them, especially as they pretended that they had come to discuss peace. Instead, the soldiers turned against them.
The soldiers, who were from the 23rd armored brigade of the 3rd armored division of the Nigerian army, normally based in Yola, the capital of Adamawa state,5 targeted more than seven towns and villages in Benue, including Gbeji (and surrounding villages), Zaki-Biam, Tse-Adoor, Vaase, Sankera, Anyiin, and Kyado. Between October 22 and 24, they proceeded systematically from one to the other, killing, destroying, and pillaging as they went. On October 22, the soldiers attacked Gbeji, Vaase, and Anyiin; on October 23, they moved into Zaki-Biam, Tse-Adoor, Sankera, and Kyado, returning to Zaki-Biam, Tse-Adoor, and Kyado on October 24. Witnesses estimated that there were between two and three hundred soldiers, with several armored tanks and other military vehicles. As word of their advance spread, residents of some locations were able to flee before the soldiers arrived. In this way, some escaped death or injury, but the soldiers who arrived to find these sites deserted were able to destroy and loot freely, without any hindrance. This was the case in Anyiin, for example, where there was widespread destruction of homes and buildings, but no one was killed. Most of the victims in the other locations were killed on October 22 and 23.
There is little doubt that this operation was organised as a retaliation and a form of collective punishment for the murder of the nineteen soldiers, as illustrated by comments made by some of the soldiers to local residents in the towns and villages they targeted: several witnesses interviewed by Human Rights Watch stated that the soldiers had accused them collectively of having killed their colleagues and made other comments implying that the Tiv, as a people, had brought the trouble on themselves.
The Massacre of Gbeji and Surrounding Villages
Human Rights Watch visited Gbeji in December 2001 and spoke to survivors and witnesses there; we also visited the sites of several mass graves where residents of Gbeji had buried their dead. In Makurdi, the capital of Benue State, Human Rights Watch also interviewed some of the victims from Gbeji who had been severely injured and were still being treated in the Federal Medical Centre.
The soldiers first arrived in Gbeji on October 19. They asked residents on which day the market was usually held, then went away. They returned on October 22. They gathered the residents of the town, asking as many people as possible to assemble for a meeting. They told them they had come on a peace mission and wanted to discuss ways of restoring peace in the area. The residents gathered, believing it was a genuine initiative. Once a sufficient number of people had come together, the soldiers separated the men from the women and children. They then opened fire on the unarmed men, shooting indiscriminately. After shooting them, they poured petrol over them and set them alight. Some of the victims died from the shooting, others from being burnt alive. The soldiers then went on a rampage, destroying houses and other buildings.
A twenty-eight-year-old man who was hospitalised with serious injuries described the sequence of events:7
On Saturday, at about 2 p.m., soldiers came and gathered us together. They asked us to dismantle the roadblocks8 and said we should make peace and settle. We agreed to make peace. They asked us when is market day. We said Thursday. But they came back on Monday instead. On Monday, they gathered people in the market. They said they didn't want to see women or children. The women and children went away. About thirty minutes later, they started killing people. There were more than three hundred people gathered. They were all men, apart from two women [...] The soldiers said we had killed soldiers, that was why they were killing us. They started shooting from the main road. At first they were shooting and moving around, from 1p.m. to 4 p.m. About three vehicles went to another village. They said no one should move. We lay down. They came and checked to see if people were still alive. If you started shaking, they would shoot you. They put fuel over us [...] I have burns on my knees. I was the last person to be shot. They burned me before shooting me, but most others were shot before they were burnt. As we were trying to escape, vehicles came after us. I was taken into the bush, then I was in the clinic for three days, then I came here to the hospital.
A woman with a seven-month-old child was shot in Gbeji. They removed the child before killing her. They also killed my brother; he was twenty-five. He was burnt in front of me, I saw it. The same day, my uncle, who is about ninety years old, was shot dead in his house in the village of Tse Sanmo, near Gbeji; they also burned his house. In another house across the road, they killed about eleven adult men. This happened around the same time as they gathered us in the market. My own house was among those burnt.
Among the patients in hospital in Makurdi was a man in his thirties who sustained what must have been some of the worst injuries among the survivors: his entire body had been burnt, including his face. In view of the gravity of his condition, Human Rights Watch researchers did not feel it was appropriate to interview him when they visited the hospital. However, he had previously provided his testimony to others:
I was not shot, but fell on the ground and those who were shot fell on me and there was blood all over me but I was conscious and was watching all that was going on. The commander then ordered for the sprayer which was used to spray petrol over the heap of the shot people and then set ablaze. There was fire all over me, but I was not hit by a bullet. I could not move. I had to choose between the fire and gun shots [...]9
Others also escaped narrowly. A fifteen-year-old boy watched as his father was shot. He was also injured, but survived: "When they opened fire, I saw my father hit at the forehead, then a bullet hit me. I thought I was dead, then I saw them pour petrol on the people. The petrol finished near me and they went to refill. It was when they went for refilling of the petrol that I ran away. I lost my father, uncle, and four cousins."10
A boy aged about nine was also among those injured in Gbeji. His arm had been blown off and he was also injured on his leg and side. He told Human Rights Watch:11
The soldiers came on Monday. They gathered people and sent the women and children away. One soldier called me and caught me. They made me join the men. I was shot here [pointing to his amputated arm, his leg and side]. I was going with the women but the soldier said I should come with the men. About four children were injured and brought to the hospital. Others died during the incident.
I was shot in the marketplace. Someone fell on top of me. The soldiers checked to see if I was dead, then shot me three times. Then they were burning people. I got up and ran into the bush. A soldier saw me and shot at me. I stayed in the bush as if I was dead. The soldiers came and saw me. They kicked me three times on the leg and foot to check if I was still alive. I pretended I was dead.
My oldest brother died. He is about forty years old. He was shot in the chest and in the head, together with others in the meeting.
Other survivors confirmed that the soldiers, not satisfied with shooting into the crowd and setting people on fire, then checked whether those lying among the corpses were really dead. An eighteen-year-old boy pretended he had been hit when the soldiers opened fire. He managed to roll away on the ground when the soldiers set fire to the people. "Then one of the soldiers pointed at me and said: `This one is not dead, let me not waste my bullet, but slaughter him with a knife.' He then pulled his knife and started cutting my neck. I was still and he thought I was dead, and left me when the whistle blew."12
A forty-year-old farmer in Gbeji gave his own account of what happened from the time of the soldiers' first arrival:13
On 19 October, the army arrived here. They called on us to assemble. They said they were on a peacekeeping mission. They told us to invite all members of the town to be present on market day, which is Thursday. They didn't come on Thursday but they came on Monday 22 October, at about 2 p.m. They said again that they had come for peacekeeping. They advised us to invite everyone for a meeting. They had four armored cars and nine trucks. There were more than three hundred soldiers [...] The soldiers had armored tanks stationed in three places blocking the area to prevent escape.
We assembled at the motor-park at about 3 p.m. Most of the community were there.
A twenty-six-year-old man who was injured told a similar story:14
First they came and asked us when is market day. Then they came back on Monday. They came in eight vehicles. There was one armored car and another in the market. There were more than two hundred soldiers. They called people together. They gathered us in the motor-park and said they wanted a meeting. They sat people down. They made the women go to one side. They said: `Sit down, we'll call our commander.' Instead, they went to fetch more soldiers. Then they came back with the other soldiers. One of them gave a signal, he raised his hand, then they started shooting at us indiscriminately. After shooting, they started burning people.
I was lying on the ground. I was injured on my legs, my side, my arms, and my back. I was caught in the shooting. Some people fell down. I lay among the bodies; some were dead, others were still alive. Then the soldiers poured kerosene over us to burn us. That's when I sustained my injuries: some are burns, others are from the shooting. A soldier dropped a spent cartridge on me. I stayed still to deceive them, pretending I was dead. Then I escaped.
I got caught up in this just by chance. I was on my way to Gbeji. I am from the village of Mgbakpa Yamsa, about ten kilometers from Gbeji.
His own village of Mgbakpa Yamsa was itself attacked immediately afterwards. As soon as they were alerted to what had happened in Gbeji, the inhabitants of the village started running away. However, one man, Anjo Yamsa, in his late thirties, was not able to escape. The soldiers caught him while he was trying to run away and shot him. He called for help but no one dared to come out to try to save him. He was shot in the stomach, in the chest and in the legs, and slashed with a cutlass on his head and fingers. He was the only resident of the village to die, but at least one other, Tor Yamsa, a student in his twenties, was injured. The soldiers also burned many houses and property, including sixteen houses of members of just one family, related to Anjo Yamsa. A resident also described how the soldiers made a pile of clothes and mattresses, poured kerosene over it and left it to burn.15
Soldiers also attacked the village of Tse-Gube, very close to Gbeji, at around the same time. Local residents described how the soldiers were deployed all along the road and said the commander was communicating with his soldiers by radio. As in Gbeji, the residents of Tse-Gube were made to gather for a meeting; then the soldiers shot at them. Six men were killed. Two months later, two thirds of the population of Tse-Gube were reported to be still living in the bush, out of fear of returning to their village.16
Several young men who had been present when the soldiers came to Vaase told Human Rights Watch:17
On Monday 22 October the soldiers killed seventeen people here: fifteen men and two women. They sent some boys to fetch us to hear what they had to say. The soldiers asked us: "Who killed the soldiers?" We said we didn't know. They told us to make a line. People lined up. They made us take our shirts off and tied them over our eyes. Then the commander blew a whistle and the soldiers starting shooting. They left some of the bodies on the road. Some people were carried away alive by the soldiers as they left. They also burned houses. A woman in her twenties was burnt inside her house. Another woman in her thirties, a mother of two, was carried away alive. We don't know what happened to her.
A man whose house in Kyado was destroyed by the soldiers explained to Human Rights Watch:19
On Friday [...] the troops from Yola came. They stopped in my store [...] They asked me: "How many kilometers to Zaki-Biam?" I said: "13 kilometers." They asked me who was the elder of the town so that they could talk to the people. They asked me to take them to his house. On the way, they asked me: "On which day did they dismount the roadblock here?" I said I didn't know. They asked for the weapons seized from the soldiers earlier. I said I didn't know where they were. The elder was not in; only his brother was there and he said he didn't know anything. The soldiers said: "In the next thirty minutes, you must produce the youth leader and the weapons seized, otherwise we will do what we want with you."
They gathered about a hundred men and lined us up in the main road. They made us lie down facing the sun. They beat us and kicked us. My brother was injured. They stood on my stomach and one soldier put a gun on my chest and told me to say my last prayers [...]
About ten minutes later, soldiers came from Zaki-Biam. The military leaders had a brief meeting. The commander from Yola ordered his men to reverse. The commander from Makurdi gathered us and said: "We don't have much to say. Thank your God I was here at this time." He told us to forgive the soldiers and eat plenty. The soldiers [from Yola] burned twenty-four huts then left.
On Tuesday 23, on their way back through Zaki-Biam, they burned about thirty-five more houses in Kyado.
On Wednesday 24 the soldiers from Makurdi came again and told us that no one should stay, that we should leave town and take our property as they would do the worst damage. On the way back from Zaki-Biam, the soldiers [from Yola] again destroyed and burned most of the houses. They stayed several hours.
Another man, whose house was destroyed in Kyado and whose brother was among those beaten on October 19, reported that when the soldiers from Yola arrived, they asked how far it was to Zaki-Biam, and how far to Victor Malu's house, and warned the population "that it would be like Odi."20
The Attack on Zaki-Biam
An eye-witness described what he heard and saw at the yam market in Zaki-Biam:22
The soldiers came at about 9 a.m. I was at the farm. I heard people shouting: "They've come!" I saw soldiers all around the market. We stood on the hill watching. The commander was calling people to come for peacekeeping. But people had heard what the army had done in Gbeji so they started running away. The soldiers started shooting. They killed about nineteen people, inside the market and on the road outside. Others were shot while they were running. I saw two vehicles, 4x4 Taraba State vehicles. There were so many soldiers. Some were patroling. At least one hundred went into the market while others stayed on the road. The soldiers were singing, shouting, jubilating. After the shooting, they looted yams and motorcycles and burned sheds.
The soldiers slept here that night. We heard shooting in the night until about 4.30 a.m. The next day, we were still around. At 9.15 a.m. they started burning houses and buildings, until about 3 p.m.
Among those who died, some were killed by flying bullets, others may have died in the bush. There are also about twenty people still missing [...] By the time relatives came to pick up the bodies later, some were rotting and were being eaten by vultures.
Another man in the yam market gave this account:23
There were thirty-four vehicles in total, including about eight armored tanks. They [the soldiers] parked the first vehicle at the entrance to the market, the other at the extreme end. Then they jumped down and surrounded us [...] We have never witnessed this before. They killed about eighteen people inside the market and about six outside. After a week, we discovered about three bodies in the bush. Those who were killed included several market traders, farmers, a former councilor, and a pastor. [...]
Every vehicle was full of soldiers, maybe up to two hundred altogether. The cars had the lights full on. The soldiers didn't say anything. They just shot. They were arresting groups of people and killing them. They started at 9 a.m. and didn't stop until about 4 p.m. At 6 p.m. they came back again. They were destroying and shooting all night, I don't know until what time.
The next day they came to the main market. They destroyed many houses there. The majority belong to Igbos, not indigenes. One Igbo man refused to leave his house in town so they killed him. They were burning property and spraying houses. They even burned the police station.
Later we discovered body parts which had been burnt. They were not identifiable.
Among the victims in Zaki-Biam were about ten people who were travelling in a bus near the yam market. The soldiers ordered the vehicle to stop and told the passengers to get out. Witnesses reported that the soldiers initially said they were stopping the vehicle for a routine check. Then they asked whether there were any non-Tivs among the passengers. The passengers said no. The soldiers separated the female passengers from the men, ordered the men to lie down, then started shooting at them. Among the victims was Ityokar Anbu Wende, a forty-year-old father of eight and a former councilor, who was accompanying his thirteen-year-old daughter back from school. The soldiers spared the daughter, but killed her father in front of her. He was the first passenger they shot because he was questioning their actions and asked why they were being asked to lie down. He was killed with at least ten bullets in the head and shoulder. The victims also included a Protestant pastor, Reverend Andrew Alu, who pleaded with the soldiers to let him pray. The soldiers said they would spare him because he was a priest, but shot him dead anyway. The driver of the vehicle, Moove Ityom, was also killed.24
The soldiers resumed their destruction in Zaki-Biam on October 24. One of the first houses they targeted on that day was that of Benjamin Chaha, a former speaker of the House of Representatives in the National Assembly in the Second Republic. The destruction in his compound was extensive. It seems likely that his house was specifically targeted because he is a prominent local person. However, in other parts of the town, houses and other buildings were destroyed indiscriminately.
A relative of Victor Malu, who lives on the compound but was outside when the military headed towards it, described what he saw:26
On 23 October, the military arrived at 12.10. I was in Zaki-Biam. There I saw two armored tanks with their headlights on, followed by two trucks and about forty soldiers, followed by another armored tank. I decided to come back home. [...] At the primary school near Tse-Adoor I saw three armored vehicles enter our compound. The soldiers were shooting at random. I drove onto the bush road and stayed in the bush watching. They were shooting and burning houses. They used armored tanks to level the place. They were using three armored tanks simultaneously, for about one hour. They gathered women and children and beat them. They made them lie on the ground outside, including our one hundred-year-old mother. They particularly beat those women and children who were hesitating. They kicked them and hit them with guns [....] No one knew why they were there. They beat my younger brother and asked him who was here [....] Then they left for Zaki-Biam.
The first attack took us completely unaware. Most of the men were out farming, so it was mainly women who were in the compound. They were cooking, wearing just wrappers. The soldiers didn't allow them to take anything out of the houses. They entered every room and checked. They took all their belongings out and burned them. They took any money they could find [...]The next day, they came back at about 8.30 a.m. They stayed for about three hours. They came to loot and were shooting at all the houses.
3 See, for example, "As army buries 19 slain soldiers..." in the Lagos-based This Day, October 23, 2001.
4 Human Rights Watch interviews in Benue, December 2001. Local sources stated that it is sometimes difficult to distinguish real soldiers from Jukun fighters, as the latter often wear military uniforms and use similar weapons. There have also been reports of soldiers fighting alongside Jukuns during some attacks, particularly in Taraba State - see Section V below.
5 Adamawa State borders Taraba State to the east.
6 Information collected from local sources in Gbeji, including a list of 150 killed and fifteen missing compiled by Shima Ayati, Special Assistant to the Governor of Benue State and Chairman of the Tiv Taraba Crisis Relief Management and Rehabilitation Committee.
7 Human Rights Watch interview, Federal Medical Centre, Makurdi, December 14, 2001.
8 The tension in the area and the frequency of attacks by armed groups had led residents of some areas to set up roadblocks.
9 See "The Story of Gbeji massacre, 22nd October, 2001," compiled by Shima Ayati, Chairman of the Tiv Taraba Crisis Relief Management and Rehabilitation Committee.
11 Human Rights Watch interview, Federal Medical Centre, Makurdi, December 14, 2001.
12 See "The Story of Gbeji massacre, 22nd October, 2001", compiled by Shima Ayati, Chairman of the Tiv Taraba Crisis Relief Management and Rehabilitation Committee.
13 Human Rights Watch interview, Gbeji, December 14, 2001.
14 Human Rights Watch interview, Federal Medical Centre, Makurdi, December 13, 2001.
15 Human Rights Watch interview, Makurdi, December 13, 2001.
16 Human Rights Watch interviews in Gbeji and Tse-Gube, December 14, 2001.
17 Human Rights Watch interviews in Vaase, December 14, 2001.
18 As mentioned above, the soldiers who carried out the killings and destruction in Benue were from Yola, in Adamawa State. However, they were often referred to as being from Taraba, because they entered Benue through Taraba, and there were rumors that they had been deployed with the approval or at least the knowledge of state authorities in Taraba.
19 Human Rights Watch interview in Kyado, December 16, 2001.
20 Human Rights Watch interview in Abuja, December 20, 2001.
21 Human Rights Watch interviews in Anyiin and Makurdi, December, 2001.
22 Human Rights Watch interview in Zaki-Biam, December 16, 2001.
23 Human Rights Watch interview in Zaki-Biam, December 19, 2001.
24 Human Rights Watch interviews in Zaki-Biam, Makurdi and Abuja, December 2001, and amateur video filmed in the immediate aftermath of the killings in Zaki-Biam by a researcher of Mzough U Tiv (United Tiv organization).
25 Human Rights Watch interviews in Tse-Adoor, December 16, 2001.
26 Human Rights Watch interview in Tse-Adoor, December 16, 2001.