Horrors of religious violence found in Nigeria

Jos, Nigeria - Muslim volunteers discovered Friday that sectarian violence in central Nigeria this week extended beyond the long-restive city of Jos and into the burned shell of what used to be a small village near it.

Both Christians and Muslims died during the violence that began Sunday in the central Nigerian city once known as a prime tourist destination in West Africa. The nonprofit group Human Rights Watch puts the death toll among both religions at more than 200. More than 5,000 people have been displaced.

However, as Muslim volunteers arrived in the village of Kurujantar - about 18 miles (30 kilometers)south of Jos - they found corpses shoved three-at-a-time into sewer pits, pushed into communal wells and scattered in bushes. One volunteer held up the charred body of an infant that lay inside a cardboard box.

Nearly all the mud-walled homes in the one-time mining town suffered fire damage or had been destroyed. The central mosque, where residents say both the young and old sought refuge during an attack Tuesday, sat burned, ashes spread across the floor where the faithful once prayed.

Community leader Wardhead Umaru Baza, 58, said Friday that more than 300 were dead from the violence, which lasted seven hours. He said he hid in a hole as rioters armed with new and locally made firearms shot residents in the mostly Muslim village.

His causality figure could not be independently verified. Volunteers there said they had collected the bodies of about 100 people since the attack, though more likely remained.

Sectarian violence in this central region of Nigeria has left thousands dead over the past decade. The latest outbreak came despite the Nigerian government's efforts to quell religious extremism in the West African country.

Jos is located in Nigeria's "middle belt," where dozens of ethnic groups mingle in a band of fertile and hotly contested land separating the Muslim north from the predominantly Christian south.

There are conflicting accounts about what unleashed the recent bloodshed. According to the state police commissioner, skirmishes began after Muslim youths set a Christian church ablaze, but Muslim leaders denied that. Muslims say it began with an argument over the rebuilding of a Muslim home in a predominantly Christian neighborhood that had been destroyed in November 2008.

Baza said the police did not heed the community's call for help in the wake of violence in Jos, leaving the townspeople at risk.

Baza said he didn't know where his wife was. "Maybe she's dead," he said, wiping a single tear.

Even in Jos, volunteers discovered the charred body of one victim Friday in the Anglo Jos neighborhood. Resident Adamu Bala, 22, said rioters rampaged through the Muslim neighborhood Monday after police warned the residents to flee. Bala escaped, but attackers killed his 32-year-old brother and set his body on fire. Burning of corpses is considered desecration in Islam.

On Friday, graffiti written in burned charcoal left after the attack praised Jesus Christ as "the mighty man in battle" and declared the neighborhood "New Jerusalem." However, it couldn't be determined who wrote the slogans - or when.

During Friday prayers, Jos central mosque Imam Balarabe Daud told followers that the Quran forbade the killing of innocent people and warned "hell fire" awaited those who led the violence that has engulfed the city. He called on those praying to cooperate with the Army soldiers now manning makeshift road blocks throughout the city.

Maj. Gen. Saleh Maina, who is overseeing the security operation in Jos, warned that anyone violating the city's dusk-to-dawn curfew would be harshly dealt with. Maina also asked anyone with weapons to turn them over to authorities - something that could be unlikely in a city where gunshots still echo during the night.

As the sun began to set Friday in Kurujantar, volunteers carried bodies with a cheetah-print blanket to a large grave dug in front of a destroyed home. Abdullahi Wase, 52, watched as his wife's body tumbled into the hole. Two of his sons, ages 19 and 5, remain missing.

"I cannot even shed tears anymore," Wase said.

But as volunteers shoveled the clay-red dirt in the grave, he turned away and wept.