Friday, April 29, 2016 6:35 am
The mass grave lies just outside the city of Kaduna in northern Nigeria, but apart from the recently turned ochre soil there’s nothing to indicate what might lie beneath.
This is where public officials and human rights groups say the bodies of some 350 people, including women and children, were dumped by the military under the cover of darkness.
Even now, as one of several public inquiries hears evidence about what led to their deaths, there are claims the number buried may be a gross underestimation.
Mustapha and Nura Adam joined fellow members of the Islamic Movement of Nigeria (IMN) at the burial ground in Mando on Tuesday to pray for the dead after a visit by inquiry officials.
Amnesty International last week accused the Nigerian Army of deliberately shooting dead members of the Shiite Muslim group during clashes 80 kilometres (50 miles) away in Zaria in December.
Most of the evidence of the military action — the destruction of the IMN cultural and religious centre, and the house of the group’s leader Ibrahim Zakzaky — was “meticulously destroyed”, it added.
– Exhumation calls –
Mustapha recalled how earth-moving equipment was brought in to the cemetery near the Nigerian Defence Academy on December 14 to dig a pit for the burial.
At about 11:00 pm (2200 GMT) armed soldiers cordoned off the narrow path leading to the burial ground, an hour before trucks filled with bodies arrived, he added.
“I counted six huge trucks and several military vans laden with dead bodies driving into the cemetery for the mass burial which residents were not allowed to witness”, said Adam.
“It took them five hours to finish the burial, which was an indication that the bodies were more than 347 because it doesn’t take that long to thrown in such a number of bodies into a pit.”
Pointing to the mound of earth the size of a badminton court, Adam called for the bodies to be exhumed to confirm the exact number of dead.
The world would be “shocked by the true number of those buried”, he added.
But Abdulhakeem Mustapha, counsel to the Kaduna state commission of inquiry probing the incident, said: “This is an investigative committee. It doesn’t have powers to issue orders.
“It is going to make its recommendations to the government on what it believes are the best ways to resolve the problem based on its findings,” he told AFP.
Amnesty International’s report, “Unearthing the truth: unlawful killings and mass cover-up in Zaria”, also called for exhumation and included an account corroborating Mustapha and Adam’s claims.
“There were five or six large trucks and several smaller military vehicles and they spent hours digging and unloading the trucks’ cargo into the hole they dug and then covered it again with the earth they had dug out,” one witness was quoted as saying.
A medic at Zaria’s Ahmadu Bello University Teaching Hospital told AFP in January he counted at least 400 bodies in the morgue while other witnesses said as many again littered the streets.
– Military denial –
The clashes in Zaria on December 12 and 13 were sparked after IMN supporters blocked the route of Nigeria’s chief of army staff, Lieutenant General Tukur Yusuf Buratai.
The military maintains its soldiers acted according to the rules of engagement and did not use excessive force but were responding to “a criminal and enemy of the state”.
The IMN denies army claims its followers attempted to assassinate Buratai.
What is clear is the massive destruction caused by the operation — one of several claims of excessive force and human rights abuses by the military against civilians around the country.
In Zaria, Zakzaky’s compound and the religious and cultural centre lie in ruins. Blocks of shattered concrete lie where the buildings once stood. Once-occupied IMN houses are ransacked and empty.
Amnesty accused the military not just of taking away the bodies but razing the buildings, removing the rubble, washing off the bloodstains, and recovering bullets and spent cartridges.
Zakzaky — who has previously fallen foul of Nigeria’s secular authorities by calling for an Iranian-style Islamic revolution — remains in custody and partly paralysed and half-blind.
Hundreds of his supporters are still missing, presumed dead or in custody, with dozens facing a possible death sentence for killing a soldier in the initial stages of the clashes.