It happened so fast on Friday 16th January! It surprised everyone who believed in the peace building that the Catholic Church in Zinder has been promoting over the past 75 years. The rapidity of the attack clearly unveiled that it was not spontaneous but strategically planned.
Already, the atmosphere dramatically changed few days before the attack. Extremists managed to propagate their planned attack. This was done in Hausa, the local language. It is evident that the preaching in mosques was not but the spreading of a terrible fanatical hatred.
The threats of the attack came to the ears of our Christians through young children and some friendly neighbors. Some parishioner rushed to see Fr Leo Laurence, the Parish Priest, to explain how they were receiving death threats. We got hold of a text written in Hausa on small pieces of paper confirming the Friday 16th attack. Translated into English, it was written; “we want to show the dark side of our stomachs”. This proverb expresses the desire to slaughter.
Two days before the attack, remembering the assault at our church building in 2012, Fr. Laurence wrote a letter to the Office of the Governor asking for protection. He went himself to see the Governor who assured him that security measures will be put in place. The day before the attack, many Christians could no longer stand the threats. They came to the Parish house searching for security. They were about thirty people including a two years old boy, an old woman and a seven months pregnant lady. Fr Leo Laurence (India), Fr Ghislain Mbilizi (DRC) and Venant Bukuru (Burundian in second year of stage) welcomed them. At that time, I was in a village called ‘Dan Bako’ practicing my Hausa. The Christians ate and prayed with the M.Afr community.
The first offensive act of violence started at 08:00 hours. Fueled tyres were burning at the main gate and at the doors of the church. Then, young men started stoning the Christians. Commotion in town begun and various extremist groups where openly coming out with flags chanting ‘Allahou Akbar’(1). Fr Leo took videos and pictures to show how fast the events were spreading. But, the Governor only sent unarmed Police Officers at 16:00 hours who ran for their own lives upon noticing how dangerous the situation was.
As the mid-day prayer was being said in our small chapel, Muslims where then holding their Friday communal prayer which usually does not go beyond 15 minutes. At the same time, Fr Leo and Venant where moving around watching. In one go, the mass was already at the mission school which was put ablaze. Surrounded by many mosques, the insurgents were coming from all directions. Their aim was to kill Christians. In an attempt to save lives, Venant brought everyone, including five Sisters of the Assumption, in a small hidden room behind the garage. It was total chaos.
The inferno that saw our four cars torched prevented the attackers from entering the hidden room due to heavy smoke and explosions. Some collapsed because of the heat and smolder. They woke up hours later at the emergency department of the hospital. Leo, Ghislain and Venant sustained deep cuts by jumping the fence covered by broken bottles. Seeing their blood pouring, an old Muslim man saved them in his house. Following the blood stains on the ground, the attackers reached easily the house. Even though threaten, the old man denied sheltering our wounded confreres. Only a curtain was separating them from their enemies.
The army finally came to restore some peace three hours later. In the meantime, seven people were dead, lying on the ground. More were shot later on by live bullets. Another one was burnt to ashes at the mission school. Some Muslims rejoiced about it thinking that at least they have succeeded to kill one Christian, only to discover that even that one was a Muslim. It was a miracle that no Christian was actually killed.
The military camp became a refuge for at least 400 displaced people, both Catholics and Protestants. After four days, came the decision to move everyone to another mission school at a distance from the city Centre. On that day, having a swollen knee, I was chased by four men. Praise be to God, the army quickly intervene.
We remained with what we were wearing. Our house and church, the Sisters’ convent, the Mission School and other Protestant churches together with shops belonging to Christians where completely burnt down. Most of Christians’ houses where attacked. Today, we are scattered in surrounding countries; Benin, Togo, Nigeria, Ghana and Burkina Faso. Only a few have remained in Niger.
We are grateful for the spiritual and moral support we found during this painful experience. Fr Leo Laurence and Fr Ghislain Mbilizi are on holiday respectively in India and DRCongo. Venant Bukuru went back to Burundi while waiting to go to Abidjan for Theology. As for myself, I just received a new appointment for Bobo-Dioulasso in Burkina Faso for my second year of stage.
I pray that the Risen Lord Jesus Christ may give us all a persevering heart in his mission to witness him as the only light and hope in our broken world. I pray for the Christians persecuted throughout the world and indeed those of Niger. May Christ comfort them.
Happy Easter to you all!
(1) Allahou akbar : The Takbīr (تَكْبِير), also written Tekbir or Takbeer, is the term for the Arabic phrase Allāhu Akbar (الله أكبر), usually translated as “God is [the] greatest,” or “God is great”. It is a common Islamic Arabic expression, used in various contexts by Muslims; in formal prayer, in the call for prayer (adhān), as an informal expression of faith, in times of distress, to express celebration or victory, or to express resolute determination or defiance.
Allahou akbar ou Allahu akbar (الله أَكْبَر), parfois improprement écrit « Allah akbar », est une expression arabe qui signifie « Dieu est [le] plus grand ».