Victims, witnesses recount sordid experiences as soldiers ransack Catholic Diocese priest’s residence in Benue
From ROSE EJEMBI, Makurdi
It was obviously a well-planned mission, executed at an ungodly hour with precision. At 3am on Tuesday, April 18, 2017, six trucks loaded with heavily armed soldiers arrived unannounced at the St Paul’s Catholic Mission, Aye Twar, a remote village in Katsina-Ala Local Government Area of Benue State.
Their mission was to ‘capture’ the parish priest, Rev Fr. Benjamin Versue, who according to reports, was accused by the fierce-looking soldiers of being in possession of arms and ammunition. They did not disclose the source of the alleged weapons.
Perhaps, by providence, Father Versue was not at home, but the soldiers left a mark of terror of the jackboot. They ransacked his official residence located within the precincts of the parish, the pastoral secretariat and a priests’ residence under construction.
At the end of a ferocious search, it turned out to be a mission unaccomplished, as they found no arms. That became an albatross for four construction workers on site, two of the priest’s younger brothers and a cook, who were assembled and drilled for over 30 minutes as the search now extended to the entire premises, continued. And as the soldiers progressed, they repeatedly questioned their ‘hostages’ on Father Versue’s whereabouts.
“The soldiers told us their mission was to find out if Father was in possession of arms, because they were told he was in possession of arms and they came to investigate. They said since Father was not around, all of us would be searched and if they found anything like a weapon, they would hold the Catechist, Father’s boys and all of us working here, that they would take us captive”, one of the construction workers, Orngu Aker, told Saturday Sun.
He said they were lucky the soldiers found nothing incriminating; so also is Father Versue, who, in his 12 years of priesthood, had not witnessed such a macabre act, which came barely five months of his deployment to the St. Paul’s Catholic Mission, Aye Twar.
“They told us they were sent on assignment and they were very serious about it. They asked me questions about the priest and also about a man in the community called Aboor Hembaga; that he is buying arms for the safety of the community. But I told them I don’t know anything about it”, another witness who craved anonymity, remarked.
Reports said the soldiers allegedly drafted from the 93 Battalion in Takum, Taraba State, left the house of God in utter disappointment and anger, which they visited on the household of Mr. Hembaga, also within the neighbourhood, and apparently the second man on their hit list. Unlike the priest, Hembaga was at home when the troops were approaching, but quickly slipped out of their reach in good time.
Sordid tales of terror
Aged 50, Hembaga, a Christian and farmer is arguably a wealthy man among the villagers. A polygamist, he had a large farm with barns of produce. He also had a herd of 145 cattle, and seven sheep; a motorised borehole supplying water for domestic and farm use, a grinding mill, three solar panels with a complete system, two satellite dishes and a water reservoir.
He went into hiding as the soldiers stormed his residence in a commando style. By the time he returned after the dust settled, most of his properties had either been carted away or vandalised. His offence is that the soldiers fingered him as a financier of arms allegedly being stock-pilled in the community.
“I watched the soldiers from my hiding place. I saw them take away my cattle, 145 of them and seven sheep, using the man in charge of my flock. I came to discover that my wives were seriously beaten. You can see their backs. I was afraid and thought they would kill me if they found me”, he lamented in an encounter with our correspondent.
Apart from carting away his flocks, they smashed the window glasses of his residence, the windshields of two cars, a Peugeot 504 Saloon and Peugeot Pick-up van parked within the premises, and vandalised the motorised borehole, the solar panels, one of which they allegedly carted away, and the solar power generator.
The invading soldiers also allegedly destroyed heavy duty batteries, smashed the satellite dish, one of which they also took away, and tore sacks containing grains, rice and soya beans, cut into pieces, yams stored in barns, and vandalised his grinding mill.
Hembaga said it was a display of professional bestiality, as the soldiers had no mercy, even for his wives, whom they allegedly tortured with lashes of horsewhips, leaving in their trail, deep lacerations, blood and pains. “You (Saturday Sun correspondent) are a witness to what they’ve done to me; my heart still bleeds, I am yet to recover from the shock”, he says.
He also alleged that the soldiers left with his hard-earned money. “They took away two of my boys, took my wives’ money, and a cash of N300,000 I kept in my room; I could not find the money again. They scattered about 10,000 yams and scattered all my rice”.
His eldest wife, Mbakimbir Aboor, told a horrendous tale of their encounter with the soldiers. “When the soldiers came, they demanded to know the whereabouts of our husband; we told them we didn’t know and all of a sudden, hell was let loose on us. We were beaten mercilessly with horsewhips, it was as if we were meant to die for not knowing the whereabouts of our husband”, she narrated, her voice undulating, falling gradually to a low whisper. Evidently, fear had become her unsolicited companion.
She alleged that after being brutalised, the soldiers took away cash ranging from N20,000 to N10,000 from Hembaga’s four wives. “It was a dark day, and we do not know if we can recover from this invasion”, she said through an interpreter, tears dripping from her bloodshot eyes.
Another ‘unknown soldiers’ excuse
Sadly, like in one of the evergreen lyrics of legendary king of afro-beat, the late Fela Anikulapo-Kuti, after soldiers stormed his Kalakuta Republic decades ago, military authorities in charge of security in Benue say the heavily armed uniformed men who invaded Aye Twar community last week, were unknown soldiers.
Olabisi Ayeni, an Army Major and spokesman of the 707 Special Forces Brigade stationed in Makurdi, the state capital, denied knowledge of the operation when contacted by our correspondent. He, however, promised that a thorough investigation would be conducted to ascertain what transpired.
Priests keep mute
Shocked Fr. Versue declined comments on the incident during an encounter with Saturday Sun on Tuesday. “The Church has said I should not talk about it. Honestly, I can’t talk about it”, he responded. He insisted only Rev. Fr. Peter Adobo, the Bishop of Katsina-Ala Catholic Diocese could speak on the issue.
In the same vein, Chancellor of the Diocese, Rev. Fr. Phelle, also declined commenting on the invasion when contacted on his mobile telephone. He assured that the Bishop would speak on the matter. The Cathedral Administrator of the Catholic Diocese of Katsina-Ala, Rev Fr. Moses Igba also declined comments.
But reacting earlier on his Facebook page, Rev Fr Versue said ‘Today, my house and the entire parish was turned inside out by the military in-search of weapons. They say I keep weapons. For heaven’s sake, I don’t keep weapons. The Fulani herdsmen go about with heavy weapons killing innocent people and never a day has anyone of them been harassed by the military. There are instances where the military has even assisted them to carry out their attacks on defenceless citizens. The soldiers we have in this country are one sided. Why are they trying to divide the very country on religious line? Would they have done this to an Imam or the mosque?’
Meanwhile, amid sorrow, the victims are engrossed in divine supplications, praying to God that never again should soldiers visit them with agony. They say the scars of last week Tuesday’s invasion would remain indelible.