Sandwiched between hills and a large expanse of lush-green vegetation, Moon Council Ward cuts a picture of a masterclass painting.
It is the largest of 15 wards in Kwande, a local government area in Benue State, North-central Nigeria, on the border with Cameroon. Kwande is known for its spiritual meaning to the Tivs of that area, as it is home to “Jato Aka”, the most revered guardian of the Tiv myth, and “Swem”, its ancestral god.
But now, Moon is almost a ghost town. Most of its over 38, 000 people – according to 2006 national census figures – fled during a brutal raid by herdsmen in 2014.
Surviving residents, senior government officials and security sources told PREMIUM TIMES how suspected Fulani herders launched a bloody attack on the once peaceful community early 2014, and how the impact has remained till date.
Dozens were killed in the attack, residents said, and most were women, children and the elderly. The raiders also set fire on homes, worship centres, clinics and markets.
Three years after the invasion, the assailants still occupy Moon communities. The indigenous people who fled in 2014 now live in neighbouring villages, towns and as far as Cameroon.
Against all odds
The distraught women of Moon, many who lost husbands, children and relations, are now coming together to help one another overcome the tragedy.
Speaking to PREMIUM TIMES from Jato Aka, a former school teacher from Anyiase, in Moon, Stella Iyande, 43, offered a rare peek into how displaced widows and other women are overcoming despair and crushing poverty that stalked them after herdsmen sacked their villages.
In tear-filled eyes, Mrs. Iyande recounted how over 300 women, mostly widows formed a cooperative known as Moon Displaced Women Organisation and through it, empowered their members to meet some of the needs of their families.
“Most of our members lost their husbands during the war by the so-called herdsmen, who have also taken over our properties,” she recounted.
“In the heat of the crisis, many of us escaped to Jato Aka and neighbouring communities while others scaled the mountains to Cameroon.”
On arrival in Jato Aka, Mrs. Iyande said they kept roaming from one part of the town to another, begging for food and shelter.
According to her, neither the state nor the federal government created a camp to accommodate thousands of people, who escaped the onslaught.
However, some residents of Jato Aka accommodated some of the displaced families while majority slept with their children in the market square, churches and school premises.
Apart from accommodation, Mrs. Iyande said it was difficult to feed and pay for treatment when members of their families became ill.
Another Moon widow, Dooshima Samuel, said she nearly lost her children shortly after they escaped to Jato Aka.
“My husband was killed in an ambush while returning from the farm on the first day the herdsmen attack our village,” she said.
“My three children and I ran to Jato Aka before they took over and burnt down the entire village. Not long after that, two of the children came down with high fever.”
Unable to pay for their treatment in the local clinic, Mrs. Samuel said she used herbs and local concoctions to treat the children.
“When our children fall sick, we treat them with herbs because we don’t have money to take them to the hospital. Those who cannot look after their children send them away to live with relations in other towns,” she said.
“We also give out our children to Igbos so they could learn trading. We approach the traders and beg them to connect us with their colleagues, who would be interested in taking our children as apprentice shopkeepers.
“That is why many of our children now live with Igbo traders in Jato Aka, Gboko and even in Makurdi,” she narrated.
Those who abhor begging among the displaced women go around Jato Aka and neighbouring areas, doing menial jobs like weeding, washing clothes and dishes and babysitting for well-off families.
The cooperative was to take care of the Moon women. Mrs. Iyande said she rallied the displaced women and together floated a cooperative society.
“After seeing the suffering of our women, I called some of them one day and said that the begging thing wasn’t helping us,” she said.
“That was how we established the Moon Displaced Women Organisation. We have up to 300 members.”
To join the cooperative, each woman paid N50 registration fee and another N50 as monthly dues.
Collectively, she said the women raised over N100, 000, which they disbursed as soft loan to members to trade on market days.
“While our meeting is held monthly, we, however, give monies to our members every market day and they use it to do petty trading. At the end of the market day, they bring the principal sum to us with a little interest,” she said.
With the proceeds from the trading business, Moon women have now been able to feed and meet some basic needs of their families.
How Moon lost its innocence
Even after the 2014 attack, Moon (pronounced Moo) remains a beautiful scenery in the north central region. Its name is derived from the river that crisscrosses the entire area, making it almost green all year-round.
The sparkling River Moon flows mysteriously down the Cameroon Hills and connects the five Moon communities, before emptying itself into River Katsina Ala and then to the Benue River.
The lush vegetation and water attracts cattle herders to the predominantly farming communities.
The leader of one of the Moon communities, Apeaor Adebo, said before the attack, Fulani herdsmen only came for grazing shortly after harvest season and left before the planting season.
“Sometimes they would not come for five years and when we least expect, they would return but not without seeking permission from us,” Mr. Adebo recalled.
A former Vice Chairman of Kwande Local Government Area, Abo Utah, said before their homeland was overrun in 2014, it came had come under repeated invasion by soldiers from the nearby 93 Battalion in Takum, Taraba State.
“Before the herdsmen invasion, we had series of attacks by soldiers from Takum in Taraba State. At the time, some soldiers will come and attack us claiming that the land we occupy belonged to Taraba State,” he said.
“But we have always been in Benue State and all the infrastructure found in the area belonged to the state. We petitioned the National Human Rights Commission and the army headquarters at the time and drew attention to what the soldiers were doing.”
When herdsmen attacked, it was by far more deadly.
A former teacher at the Local Government Education Authority Primary School, Tse Maduku, Gabriel Wende, said on March 14, 2014, heavily armed herdsmen laid siege on Moon communities.
At the time the assailants arrived the area, Mr. Wende said the people had eaten the evening meal and were ready to go to bed.
“As the sound of gunfire rang out across the villages, people started running aimlessly and at that time, the herdsmen had laid ambush in some of the escape routes to the community and were firing at everything in sight,” he recalled.
“Children, old men and women and all those who couldn’t escape on time were massacred in their numbers. Many people who were unlucky ran into ambushes and were gunned down or butchered.”
Under one week, locals said the herdsmen killed 72 people.
“We recorded the names of all those who were killed and identified their corpses. Unfortunately, we could not account for everybody because, many people were killed in the bush and we couldn’t recover their corpses,” said Mr. Otah.
“We share common boundaries with Taraba State and the Republic of Cameroon, so some of our people fled across the hills to Cameroon. We cannot tell the exact number of our people who have died.
“The herdsmen have occupied our communities for three years now and our people cannot farm. Many of those who survived the invasion have died either from disease or hunger. We have never experienced that kind of brutality since the days of our forefathers.”
The attackers set fire on 18 primary schools, four junior secondary schools, two senior secondary schools, four healthcare facilities and all the worship centers and markets in Moon.
The Marine Police Station located in the area was not spared. It was vandalised while the police officers reportedly fled.
Mr. Wende, who has been reposted to the local education office, said all the teachers who served in Moon Ward have been posted to schools across Kwande Local Government Area.
“Our pupils and students are roaming the streets because most of the parents can’t pay for their education and we don’t have IDP camp where government can come in and assist us,” he lamented.
“For over three years now, majority of our children have been forced to drop out of school. The condition is really complicated that our people now use the little money they have for feeding instead of paying school fees or buying drugs.
“It is very pathetic that our children who are supposed be future leaders are not in school. Even though the state government is trying, we still appeal for more help. When our children are not in school, what is our fate tomorrow?
“When our people die, we bury them here in Jato Aka but some of our people sneak into our villages in the night to bury them.”
Forgotten and abandoned
While helping the displaced women through the cooperative, Mrs. Iyande made a passionate appeal to the federal government and aid agencies to assist Moon people return home.
“We heard they have formed peace committees and we are now at peace with the herdsmen but when we go back and start farming, the Fulanis would come with their cattle and destroy our crops. They preach peace but have continued to kill our people and occupy our communities,” she lamented.
“What worries me most is the raping of our girls and women. We are afraid of them and that is why we always move in groups. They rape us. This is bambera nut season and we produce it a lot here.
“Many of our women sneaked back to plant the nuts but the herdsmen will destroy the crops. We don’t know what to do and we can’t say when this crisis will end. Out of fear, we move from one place to another. Sometime, they will advise us to go home and as we got home, we see the Fulanis again and we run away.
“We want to appeal to the politicians to talk to the government to assist us. People that are helping us are fed up now. While we feel they are not doing enough for us, they too are tired of helping us. We don’t know where to go.
“When the Fulani herdsmen came, they killed two of my sons and three of husband’s brothers on the first day and the next day, they destroyed our school and we fled down to Jato Aka. We had a family of 15 compounds but no building is standing there now.”
Today, Moon communities have become beautiful wasteland and the foreboding silence enveloping the area is only broken intermittently by the chirping of a birds, and the thud sounds of thousands of cattle grazing on long abandoned farmlands.
PREMIUM TIMES spotted thousands of cattle grazing at the Roman Catholic Mission Primary School, Maav.
Based on what was found on the chalkboard in one of the structures still standing, the last time pupils studied in the vandalized was on October 23, 2013.
When contacted, the National Coordinator of Miyetti Allah Cattle Breeders’ Association of Nigeria, MACBAN, Garus Gololo, said members of his organization were not responsible for the attack in Moon Ward.
According to him, after the meeting his group had with the state Governor, Samuel Ortom, most of the herders in Benue Zone A relocated to neighbouring Taraba State.
“The only place we have Fulani herdsmen now is Anyii where we had a meeting with the people of that area,” Mr. Gololo said.
“Our people have not grazed in any part of Kwande during the past six years. We only have them in Kashimbila.”
When told that we spotted thousands of cattle herded grazing in Moon Ward, Mr. Gololo said the cattle might have been stolen.
He said, “Maybe they are the cattle we have been looking for. Gana carried over 3000 of our cattle and we only heard the cows are inside the bush. We don’t know where he is but we have heard that the cattle are being hidden in that area.
“There are some Fulanis, who are rearing the stolen cattle for him but they are not Nigerians. We learned he hired them from the Republic of Chad.”
But Governor Ortom blamed the crisis of Moon and many other parts of the state on Fulani herdsmen.
Speaking to PREMIUM TIMES, the governor said Fulani herdsmen have prevented an entire generation of children of the area and many other areas in the state from going to school.
“What has happened has tended to wipe out almost an entire generation of our children from gaining knowledge and that is why I have been crying to the federal government and all those that care about the future of the people of Benue State to come to our aid,” the governor said.
“I wish it is possible for you to go around to appreciate the magnitude of the destruction, killings and stealing that are taking place. But the truth of the matter is that apart from Moon, there are several other communities that have no opportunity of getting their children back to school for several years.
“There are people who have been barred from going back to their homes for several years. I strongly wished that the federal government would collaborate with us to find lasting solution to this problem.”