On June 5, suspected terrorists attacked St. Francis Catholic Church in Owo, Ondo State. During the attack, close to 50 congregants were killed while an unspecified amount of people also sustained serious injuries. FIJ’s TOLA OWOYELE visited Owo to talk to some of the survivors of the attack on the incident.
Contrary to my expectations, the lady behind the reception desk at the administrative building of the Federal Medical Centre (FMC), Owo, Ondo State, attended to me cheerfully the moment I introduced myself to her.
When I told her why I was visiting, she also promptly referred me to the the Chief Medical Director’s (CMD) office and gave me directions as well.
At the CMD’s office, the official who attended to me, another lady, was not in any way different from the receptionist I had met at the lobby — cheerful and hospitable.
“You are welcome, sir. Unfortunately, the CMD is not around at the moment. But, if you don’t mind, I can take you to the Head Clinical Services’ (HCS) office. You can also talk to him about your mission,” she said.
As I followed her to the HCS’s office. Dr. Ifedayo Fasoranti, the HCS, was also quite accommodating. “Most of the victims you’re requesting to see are still quite traumatised by the attack,” he said to me after offering me a chair.
“I would implore you to be brief during your interaction with them.”
Before I left his office, the HCS instructed an official to accompany me to the Medical Emergency Ward.
Despite the prevailing emotionally charged environment, all the officials I encountered at the hospital’s administrative block were very polite and helpful.
EMERGENCY WARD, WHERE BLOOD OVERPOWERED DISINFECTANTS
The strong smell of disinfectants could not suppress that of blood as I walked into the emergency ward, in the company of Francis, the FMC official that took me there.
While inside, I was told that some of the victims had to be sedated because of the excruciating pains they suffered from gunshot wounds and IED explosion.
I saw a teenage boy tearfully hold on to his mother to complain that the pain was “too much”. In response, his equally teary-eyed mother told him the pain was “just momentary” and that “everything will be alright”.
The teenager was shot in both legs by the terrorists who attacked the Catholic Church on June 5.
ONE BROTHER SHOT DEAD, ANOTHER BROTHER INJURED — DANIEL NWEKE’S STORY
As if he was already anticipating that I would to come to him, the victim occupying the bed next to the teenage boy’s quickly signalled for help from his female relative, so he could sit up as I approached him. After an initial exchange, he introduced himself as Daniel Ifeanyichukwu Nweke.
“The officiating priest was about to give his final blessings when we heard the first gunshot. We initially thought it was rival cult groups that were fighting one other,” Nweke said.
“But seconds later, we started to hear multiple gunshots from different directions. Before we knew it, the gunmen started shooting into the church from the window. They threw dynamites as well. As I tried lying down to avoid getting hit, I noticed that Chukwuemeka, one of my brothers who came to church with me, had already been shot, and he was not moving.”
Nweke added that Chukwuebuka, his other brother, who, like Chukwuemeka, was also in church during the attack, was shot in the thigh.
“Unfortunately, Chukwuemeka did not survive the gunshot wound. As we lay on the floor and I realised he was not moving, I knew he was already dead. I knew the attackers had taken my brother from me. Chukwuebuka, my other brother did not however die. He was shot in the thigh but he survived,” Nweke said.
TWO-YEAR-OLD GIRL ‘FINISHED OFF’
“Where I was lying down, one of the men shot me by the side twice. As I cried in pain, I also felt the impact of a dynamite as it exploded very close to me. The men had time. They were ‘finishing off’ people that had been shot but were not totally dead.
“I had to stifle the pain and pretend like I was ‘gone’ by laying still. All the while, and out of fear, my eyes were still slightly opened. I actually had lost a lot of blood as well. During that moment, I saw a little girl, she could not have been more than two years old.
“The little girl was crying for her mother as many lifeless bodies surrounded her. I saw them shoot the little girl twice. At this point, I passed out.”
Nweke said Chukwuemeka, his late brother, had just secured admission ato the Adeyemi College of Education in Ondo City, Ondo State.
“We were all very happy and we even celebrated when we received the news that he had been given admission at the school,” he said.
“I had also started arranging plans on how I would pay him a surprise visit with my wife and kids on the day of his matriculation. I never knew this would happen. God knows best.”
‘GOD SPECIFICALLY SPARED ME AND OUR THREE CHILDREN’
After the interview with Nweke, I asked Francisca if she had any input.
“I am yet to come to terms with the sad reality that Chukwuemeka, my brother-in-law, is gone. It is indeed a sad event that would forever remain with us for the rest of our lives,” Francisca said.
“How I ended up not attending that particular Sunday mass with our three children would also forever remain a mystery to me. It was as if God specifically spared me and our children. This is however not to say I am more special than those who were killed during the attack.
“As a family, and since moving to this town 10 years ago, we have never missed Sunday mass before. Myself, my husband, my husband’s brothers and our children are always in attendance.
“However, on that Sunday, our children just deliberately kept on wasting our time on the choice of clothes and shoes they would love to wear to church. When my husband got tired of waiting for them to get dressed, he told me he could no longer wait for us. He left for church without us”
According to Francisca, Nweke later left for church in the company of his two brothers.
“When in church, we always sit together as a family, including my brothers-in-law. If we had been present on that Sunday, we probably may not have survived the attack, especially with the children present,” Francisca said.
“May God comfort every grieving family.”
THE LECTURER WHO HID UNDER A PEW BUT ALSO GOT SHOT
After bidding the Nwekes farewell, I walked across the hall to another victim whose bed was at the extreme end of the hall. Like Daniel Nweke, he was not sedated as well.
After I commiserated with him, he introduced himself as Benjamin Asogwa, a lecturer at the Rufus Giwa Polytechnic in Owo.
“The mass had almost come to an end when we heard the first gunshot at the gate. I initially thought it was the children from the neighbouring houses that were lighting firecrackers,” Asogwa said.
“But when the shooting would not stop, we all immediately knew we were in danger. Everybody became apprehensive because of the incidents we had been hearing about in other places.
“We least expected it. From where I was inside the church, I saw them shoot a mother and her child at the entrance. They shot the child a second time when he would not stop crying. They shot at anyone they could sight.
“I don’t know how many they were but I am sure they surrounded the building and continued to shoot from all angles. They used dynamites on us too. At first, I was too shocked to move. But after a few seconds, I quickly hid myself under one of the pews.
“Unfortunately, while I was under the pew, my left leg was still outside. That was how they shot me in the leg. At that point, and while I was writhing in pain, all I could do was to silently pray for the safety of my wife and two sons. They were also in the church with me when the incident happened.”
Asogwa would later find out his wife had sustained serious injuries from a dynamite explosion that occurred very close to her. His two sons, however, survived the incident without getting hurt.
As the conversation with the lecturer came to an end, I looked in the direction of the teenage boy again. He was now asleep. His mother stood very close to his bed, patting him on the head continuously and silently praying for him, amidst sobs.
‘CRIME SCENE, DO NOT CROSS’
When I got to St. Francis Catholic Church premises, the hall were the incident happened had been cordoned off by the police.
Several Federal Road Safety Corps (FRSC) officials were also posted to the scene to make sure no one ‘contaminated’ what was now deemed a ‘crime scene’.
The yellow tapes used in surrounding the church building read: CRIME SCENE DO NOT CROSS.
After being turned down by two priests, who chose not to comment on the incident, I eventually met with Reverend Father Andrew Abayomi, the priest who officiated the mass the day the assailants attacked the church.
After introducing myself to him and also commiserating with him over the casualties suffered, I asked if I could ask him a few questions.
“I really do not wish to speak to the press any more on the incident. I am exhausted and the whole episode is beginning to affect my mental health,” the priest said.
At that point, I saw in the clergyman’s face, a man who had had to deal with the loss of several church members he probably must have known for many years; I saw in him, a man who had been kept awake by many parties so he could recount the incident over and over again; I also saw in him, a man who was totally exhausted.
While exiting the church premises, a parishioner, who chose not to tell me his name, caught up with me at the gate.
“I just felt I should do this because you instantly chose to respect the priest’s decision not to speak. I respect that,” he said.
“You know, he really has been through a lot in the last couple of days. He is a very friendly and accommodating person. Please, see his response as that of man that is still very traumatised by the incident and needs ample rest.”
I shook hands with the parishioner and left.
ADEMOLA OSHO STREET
Ademola Osho, a street in the heart of the city of Owo, was one of the worst hit areas in terms of the casualties recorded from the incident. Out of the many houses on the street, only three did not record any victim from the attack.
“You won’t be wrong if you describe this street as Catholic-dominated,” a source, who wished not to be named, said.
“This has really been a very difficult period for most residents here. Apart from the deaths recorded, many of us are still at the hospital receiving treatments as a result of the attack.
“Husbands have been forever separated from their wives and vice versa. Parents have also been snatched from their children. The entire neighbourhood is grieving because, apart from the three houses I told you about, each house recorded at least one casualty.”
The source also added that residents have had to commiserate and console one another after losing many loved ones to the incident.
‘NOWHERE IN NIGERIA IS SAFE!’
Benjamin Asogwa, the lecturer, had said he had never seen anything like the attack since moving to the town in 1990.
“I have been living in this town for over 30 years and I can very well tell you that I have never seen anything like that before,” he said.
“The other shocking aspect is that, if the church had been located in an isolated area or settlement, one would have quickly concluded that that was the reason it was easy for the attackers to perpetrate the menace.
“But the church is located in a residential area that is densely occupied by people. Who would ever thought it could be attacked in such a way in broad daylight?
“What this simply means is that we do not have sound security agencies that are capable of securing lives and property. In saner climes, things like these rarely occur because of adequate intelligence gathering.
“Here, we don’t even have agencies that are capable of doing that, much less securing lives and property.
“The real truth is, if the church could be attacked this way in broad daylight, it means nowhere is safe in Nigeria.”
WE HAVE AN INSENSITIVE GOVERNMENT, SAYS DANIEL NWEKE
Just like Asogwa, Daniel Nweke also said the government was not doing enough to secure its citizens.
“Despite running a small-scale business here in Owo, I pay heavily on tax,” he said.
“I pay FIRS, state internal revenue tax, liquor licensing and all sorts, yet, my life is neither secure nor guaranteed. They have failed to provide us with adequate security. All they care about is their elections.
“If they eventually emerge as presidents, governors and national assembly members, who are they going to rule over when these terrorists end up killing us all? Are they going to continue ruling over an empty space?
“They don’t really care about securing lives and property and it is unfair. We are being massacred while those who should protect us are enjoying luxury lifestyles. We are tax payers and we demand adequate protection over our lives and businesses.”
‘NIGERIAN LIVES DON’T MATTER‘
During my visit to Ademola Osho Street, a source said politicians and stake holders only reacted the way they did because it was election period.
“After the incident, they all stormed our town in the name of commiserating with us on our losses. Who does not know that it is all publicity stunt, aimed at gathering more support in the coming elections,” the source said.
“Everybody knows that our politicians have never been that nice. If they really meant the sympathy they pretended to be showing, would they still have gone ahead with their primaries? Some of them still went ahead with their respective primaries and party conventions after the attack.
“What does that tell you about our leaders? Does it look like human lives matter to them? They easily could have gotten INEC to postpone the primaries by a few more days and declare a national day of mourning but they did not do that.
“Nigerian lives don’t matter.”
Like Asogwa had said, St. Francis Catholic Catholic Church is located in a densely populated part of Owo town. Yet, all through my five-day stay, I did not sight a single police patrol team on the roads and streets of Owo, a town that had just suffered one of the most devastating terrorist attacks in recent times.
This investigation was published with development support from the Open Society Initiative for West Africa (OSIWA)
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