Thursday, 1st June 2023

Owo Massacre… tales of pain, sorrow and fear

By Oluwaseun Akingboye, Akure
11 June 2022   |   4:13 am
Popular Afrobeat legend, Fela Anikulapo’s song, “them leave tears, sorrow and blood, their regular trademark” clearly captures what happened in Owo, the headquarters of Owo local council of Ondo State, last Sunday, when terrorists attacked St. Francis Xavier Catholic Church, Owo.

EDITORS NOTE: Graphic content / Ondo State governor Rotimi Akeredolu (3rd L) points to blood the stained floor after an attack by gunmen at St. Francis Catholic Church in Owo town, southwest Nigeria on June 5, 2022. – Gunmen with explosives stormed a Catholic church and opened fire in southwest Nigeria on June 5, killing “many” worshippers and wounding others, the government and police said. The violence at St. Francis Catholic Church in Owo town in Ondo State erupted during the morning service in a rare attack in the southwest of Nigeria, where jihadists and criminal gangs operate in other regions. (Photo by AFP)

Residents of Owo, an ancient town in Ondo State, are still grappling with the pain, sorrow and fear triggered by the terrorist attack on St. Francis Xavier Catholic Church, Owo, last Sunday, which left 40 people dead and several others injured, writes OLUWASEUN AKINGBOYE from Akure

Popular Afrobeat legend, Fela Anikulapo’s song, “them leave tears, sorrow and blood, their regular trademark” clearly captures what happened in Owo, the headquarters of Owo local council of Ondo State, last Sunday, when terrorists attacked St. Francis Xavier Catholic Church, Owo.

Prior to the attack, Owo, an ancient town in Yoruba land, was its tranquil self with the residents going about their normal businesses on a daily basis. That fateful Sunday, many of them who are Christians had gone to the church, which is situated few metres away from the palace of the Olowo of Owo, Oba Gbadegesin Ogunoye, to worship their God. But they ended in the mortuary, as terrorists laid ambush on the church as the Service was going on, opened fire on the worshipers towards the end and killed about 40 persons in cold blood while many others were seriously injured. Bodies of both the old and young, mostly women and children, sprawled on the ground when they left. Some bodies were dismembered and their internal organs gushed out. The gory sight of these bodies and the blood of the innocent, which painted the ground red, broke the hearts of many, including that of the state Governor, Rotimi Akeredolu, who profusely shed tears when he got to the scene of the incident. Since the attackers left, residents of Owo have been in pains, sorrow and fear.

The attack, which the Federal Government has traced to the Islamic State West African Province (ISWAP) last Thursday, was an indication that the rising incidences of killing of innocent people in broad daylight being experienced in the North East, North West and North Central parts of the country has reared its ugly head in the Southwest geo-political zone. What many observers are yet to decipher is the intent of the terrorists on striking at Owo, the hometown of Ondo State governor, who championed the creation of Amotekun Corps, the community police outfit of the Southwest geo-political zone.

Recounting his near-death experience on his hospital bed, Mr. Azogwa Benjamin, said: “Immediately after service around 12 noon, just as the Reverend Father said go in peace, as we were about to stand up, we started hearing gunshots outside.

“I thought it was a banger, so one of us opened the door, looked and saw them coming with guns and other weapons. He closed the door and ran back. Before he ran back, they started shooting; they entered through the window, shooting everywhere.

“I was down under the pews but this leg was outside; that was how the bullets hit the leg. The people around me, all of them died alongside a baby of about three years. It was horrible.”

Another survivor of the attack, Mrs. Josephine Ejeleonu, who hails from Imo State, who was in excruciating pains while speaking with The Guardian, said the stampede was great, revealing that there was no route of escape for her during the rampage.

“I reached where I wanted to escape but there was no chance for me. What I did was to fall down on others. The next thing I saw was that they put dynamite on my leg and blasted it. This leg is finished (pointing to her leg).

“But I still thank God that I am alive today; I am in the land of the living. It is only a question of time, the pains will stop and I will be able to walk with my legs. If you had seen me yesterday, the wound was enormous.

“I scaled through the fence to escape, people who saw me at the market were running away in fear when they saw my flesh battered and blood all over me,” she said.

On his part, another survivor, Nkpara Arinze from Ebonyi State, narrated: “I hid under a desk, the bullet hit my leg. I don’t know the people that shot, that was the last thing I could remember.”

The survivors expressed joy over the prompt treatment they were receiving at the hospitals, appealing to government to beef up security for the protection of the lives and property of Nigerians.

An eyewitness, who asked not to be named, also recounted his experience, saying: “It was so grievous that many old people were shattered to pieces by dynamite explosions and bullets that ripped them off like papers. Worse still are the little ones, who were just beginning the journey of life.

“I was moved to tears when I saw a little boy that I used to hold his hands to school every morning lying down dead in the pool of his blood, among many others. What have we done wrong? Is it a crime to go to church to serve our God?”

FILE PHOTO: A view of St. Francis Catholic Church where worshippers were attacked by gunmen during Sunday mass, is pictured in Owo, Ondo, Nigeria June 6, 2022. REUTERS/Temilade Adelaja/File Photo

Speaking on the proximity of the scene to the palace of the Olowo of Owo, the eye witness added: “How are we even sure that our king is safe here? This place is just at the backyard of Olowo. Now, I think it has come to the point that everybody must provide security for himself.”

A worshipper, who came from another parish for a meeting at the church on that ill-fated day, said he was sitting somewhere waiting for the mass to end when the assailants struck.

The worshiper, who also asked not to be named, said the attackers entered the church premises from different angles when the presiding priest was pronouncing the closing blessings and started shooting sporadically and igniting dynamites.

“As the Reverend Father said the mass has ended, go in peace, I saw them as they came in and shot the man selling ice cream somewhere around there. They then dashed into the church and started shooting people and blasting dynamites,” he said.

Giving his account, the priest, who presided over the mass, Rev. Fr. Andrew Abayomi, who came out to refute claims that he was abducted by the assailants, recalled that after he pronounced the end of the mass, he started hearing gunshots and dynamite blasts repeatedly.

“We asked the people to seek refuge inside the church and locked the doors. Some people still tried to escape out of the premises; the attack was on for about 20 minutes. At a point we heard they had gone.

“From there we went out and took people to the hospitals, St. Louis and FMC Owo. We then saw that the hospitals had been filled up with casualties,” he said.

The attack was so fierce that more than 72 hours after the unfortunate incident, there was no accurate account of the number of people killed and injured. The management of St. Louis Catholic Hospital, Owo and Federal Medical Centre (FMC), Owo, where the injured and the dead were rushed to for medical attention, had revealed that 35 people were brought in dead while many others were injured.

However, speaking last Wednesday while playing host to a team of Catholic Bishops from the South-West zone led by Most Reverend Leke Abegunrin, who were on a condolence visit at his residence at Ijebu-Owo, the state governor, Akeredolu, revealed that 127 persons were involved in the attack while 61 survivors were still on admission in different hospitals. He also disclosed that 26 persons had been discharged while 40 persons died.

The governor had explained: “The medical team led by the Commissioner for Health has sent figure to us and it is slightly different. What I put out during my address on the broadcast to the state was wrong and we must accept it.

“The figure I have now shows that 127 persons were involved, and that the number of death now is 40. On admission receiving treatment we have 61. Twenty-six have been discharged. Those are the figures we have now from the Commissioner for Health. So, government is not hiding anything.”

The governor had during a state broadcast last Tuesday said that 22 people lost their lives in the attack while 56 survivors were on admission at the Federal Medical Centre, Owo; St Louis Hospital, Owo and Owo General Hospital as well as some private hospitals.

He had described the attack as an attempt to test the will of the people of the state and indeed, the Southwest. He added that the dastardly act was an invitation to national anarchy, warning: “Yoruba land and Owo in particular, have never been conquered before; and it will never happen.”

He, therefore, promised to commit every available resources to hunt down the assailants and make them pay dearly, stressing that the state would never bow to the machinations of heartless elements in its resolve to stamp out criminals.

The governor added: “The site, that is, St. Francis Catholic Church, Owaluwa, Owo, presents a gory war-like scene. The Federal Medical Centre, Owo; the St. Louis Hospital, Owo; the General Hospital, Owo as well as some private hospitals in Owo were filled with the injured, most of who were in critical conditions.

“The most unfortunate part is the lives of innocent children cut down in their prime and some severely injured by the mindless attackers. At Owo, the anger was palpable.

“The tension was at an abrasive level just as the urge for reprisals was high. Without doubt too, the ripple impact of this heinous act as well as the understandably angry reaction across the state could not have been different,” he said.

While addressing the Catholic Bishops at his residence, Akeredolu gave the assurance that the state government would provide land in a good environment for the mass burial of the victims.

He added: “What we witnessed in Owo on that Sunday, I have been looking for a word to describe it but I’m not too sure I can find one because it is indescribable.

“There is no word to describe it. If you say horrific, dastardly, horrendous, all those ones are common words and we use them for many things. But I have been looking for a better word to use because we have witnessed barbaric elements, animals in human skin.

“If you are humans you would not do what they have done. May be there are areas where they will do such a thing and they are not worried. But here we are worried because it is not something we are used to. Human life means a lot to us.

“That is why one is moved. We will have a Memorial Park here, where those who died in the attack will be buried.

“It will also be my suggestion that even if there are people who have retrieved their family or members of their family, we must still have a symbolic grave there for them. And it will be there forever; it is not something we can forget and we should never forget it.”

Speaking in the same vein, Abegunrin also expressed his sadness over the incident, describing it as an attack on God.

“We were saddened when watching on our small phones and later in the evening the whole episode as it was on the public television; it was really sad.

“It is very painful; it can provoke people to retaliate and do what is ungodly but we are people of faith; we leave everything to God to judge but humanly speaking, we heard what you have been doing in the state that those people who did this havoc to us will be brought to book before long and we are happy about that,” he said.

Abegunrin added: “For sometime now since Amotekun started we know what you have been doing in Ondo State, that you are protecting the people in cities and villages. Even with threat and warnings, you shun every threat to provide security for the people and their property.

“They attack human beings, but our own interpretation is that they attack God and the consequences are awaiting them. Whatever you have to do to bring them to book, I pray God to assist and protect you.”

Six days after the incident, residents are still wondering how the terrorists escaped scot-free, as neither the regular security operatives nor the Amotekun Corps could apprehend even one of them. The Guardian, however, gathered that the assailants escaped through Ute Road in Owo, though not without a hot chase by local hunters. It was gathered that the attackers stopped their car hurriedly due to a fault and dashed into the bush.

Further findings showed that the local hunters did not give up at that point as they also dashed into the bush. However, the terrorists were said to have laid ambush for them, engaged them in gun duel and killed one of them, forcing them to make a retreat.

“It appeared their car was faulty; they abandoned it at a spot and ran into the bush. The local hunters followed them, unsuspecting that they had hidden themselves on top of a tree. They had an advantage over them and killed one of the hunters,” a source said.

Meanwhile, the police have confirmed through their preliminary investigations that the gunmen invaded the church with arms and materials suspected to be explosives.

Speaking on the incident, the Force Public Relations Officer, Force Headquarters, Abuja, CSP Olumuyiwa Adejobi, said: “Police investigators who were part of the first responders deployed to the scene have recovered pellets of expended AK-47 ammunition while the Explosive Ordnance Devices – Chemical Biological Radiological and Nuclear Explosives (EOD-CBRNE) unit confirmed the use of explosives as fragments of the IEDs used were found and after thorough sweeping of the scene, three unexploded IEDs were recovered at the scene of the incident.

“Further investigations revealed that some of the gunmen disguised as congregants, while other armed men who had positioned themselves around the church premises from different directions, fired into the church.

“The assailants fled the scene using a Nissan Sunny car with Reg. No. AKR 895 AG, which was snatched from the owner, and escaped through Owo/Ute road. The vehicle has been recovered while the owner of the vehicle is currently assisting the police in its investigations.”

He stated that the IGP has further ordered the deployment of specialised operatives of the Police EOD-CBRNE, police experts and other tactical units from the Force Headquarters for a comprehensive investigation, and for immediate interception of the villains.

Expectedly, the incident remains the topic of discussion among residents of Owo and even beyond. At a relaxation spot visited by The Guardian to feel the pulse of the residents in the aftermath of the incident, people feared there could be further attacks across major cities in the state. They made reference to the prophecy of Prophet Ade Ologbonjo, the Founder of Christ Apostolic Church (CAC), Boarneges.

In a viral Facebook video dated May 15, 2022, Ologbonjo had warned Lagos, Ondo and Ekiti states governors of imminent Fulani attacks, revealing that the assailants had invaded Lagos State but only waiting for order to attack.

“They are stationed in a bush that stretches to a river along the route to the East from Ondo; they are hiding there. Even the bush at the front of Akure Airport to Ekiti State, they are hiding there. Go for them, you will catch them there.

“If not, they will invade your houses and kill you at the front of your houses. If you like don’t take heed to what the Spirit of God has revealed. I am not scaring you neither do I instigate crisis. When it happens, you will know the truth,” the Prophet warned.

With last Thursday’s revelation by the National Security Council that ISWAP terrorists perpetrated the Owo attack, Nigerians are expecting the government to go beyond rhetoric and take urgent steps that would forestall further bloodshed in the country.