Daughters of 70-year-old Cletus Offem; Esther and Aaliyah were in pensive mood when approached by Sunday PUNCH.
The duo’s outlook was ignited by the action of men of the Nigerian Army deployed on a peacekeeping mission to Nko community in the Yakurr Local Government Area of Cross River State who were said to have burnt their father inside his house last week.
Esther and Aaliyah, in separate telephone interviews, told our correspondent that the incident took place last Sunday, following a communal clash between Nko community in the Yakurr LGA and Onyadama community in the Obubra LGA of the state. They said the clash between the warring communities was recurrent.
“On Saturday, there was a group chat message from my elder sister (Aaliyah) asking us to pray for ‘them mumsy’ (our parents), that they are said they (the warring communities) are fighting in the village and they killed one soldier and they can’t find mummy and daddy and everyone was running into the bush. All the children were saying ‘God forbid.’ Maybe the war that used to happen in the village has started again,’” said Esther.
She said they tried to call their parents on the phone after the report but the calls were not going through. Esther said that they therefore believed that they (their parents) must have run into the bush to hide and, perhaps, there was poor network in the bush or their phones were off.
“When I returned home from the church on Sunday, my sister started calling on the phone. And when I picked up, she was crying. I asked her what was going on and she said they told her that our house was burnt down but they couldn’t tell if my dad was inside and that we needed to confirm,” she said.
She added, “I went to bed hoping to wake up the following morning with positive news, but the news I got confirmed that indeed the soldiers burnt down our house and my father was inside and burnt with the house.”
Esther, who told our correspondent that her father was suffering from arthritis and limping, said her father was not strong enough to run away when the soldiers arrived. She alleged that the soldiers were aware that her father was locked up in his room and still went ahead to burn down the house with her father inside.
She wondered why the officers of the Nigerian Army could not “bundle” her father out of the building before burning the house, querying why they had to burn down the house in the first place.
Esther added that her mother, who witnessed the incident first-hand, “ran away from the house naked and ran into the bush. We have not been able to reach her because her phone was burnt with the house as well. It was people around her in the bush that used a wrapper to cover her because she was naked.”
She further stated that her mother was able to return to the burnt house days later and found the remains of their father in the wreckage of the house. “The position of the remains of my father was actually at the spot where his bed was. So, it’s obvious that he was lying down on his bed when they burnt the house,” she said.
She said reports from the community suggested that soldiers were still shooting indiscriminately and chasing people away.
Esther called on well-meaning Nigerians to help her family get justice.
Speaking about the incident, Aaliyah confirmed to our correspondent during a telephone interview that her father was indeed burnt together with his house in the Nko community.
Aaliyah said she got a message from the village which made her call her uncle who told her that “they burnt your father while setting his house ablaze.”
Aaliyah, who said she expressed shock at the news and argued that it could not have been her father, said she was told that the soldiers, whose camp was adjacent to the soldiers’ camp, were still parading the village. She alleged that the soldiers monitored the burning of the building and made sure that no one could come to rescue her burnt father.
She said while the crisis began again on Saturday, her father was burnt with his house late Sunday.
She alleged that soldiers were still patrolling the community, killing men and boys and beating up women who refused to take refuge in nearby bushes.
Also, narrating her ordeal, Mrs Offem, the late Offem’s wife, said that the soldiers first stormed Nko on Saturday and vowed to return on Sunday.
“They (the soldiers) said we should leave the house. My husband asked me to cook to prepare to leave the house. He went to put on a pair of trousers and said that would enable him to run well when the soldiers arrived. I was sitting outside when a neighbour told me that the soldiers were coming back, that I should tell my husband to know where to run to, and I saw them coming shortly after that,” she said.
She added that sensing danger and having seen that people were running, she went in to tell her husband that it was time to run. But her husband said he had been told that if he stayed inside and locked himself up without confronting the soldiers, they would not do anything to him or the house.
Mrs Offem said while still speaking with her husband, the soldiers arrived and began to “break the windows and the main door. I went to the backyard to hide. From my hiding, I began to see smoke. I decided to check where the smoke was coming from, it was from our house.”
She said neither she nor her husband knew that they (the soldiers) were already setting the house on fire.
Offem, who said she spoke from an undisclosed hiding place, said the soldiers prevented men from burying her husband’s remains, adding that she could do it by herself if she wanted to. She questioned why a woman should be asked to undertake such a task.
Esther, however, said the remains of her father were later buried on Wednesday at about 5pm.
“The remains of my father were packed in a bag and buried in a shallow grave on Wednesday evening around 5pm. My father didn’t deserve that. My father was an honourable man,” she wailed during a telephone conversation with our correspondent.
Efforts to get the reaction of the Cross River State Police Command were abortive. The command’s spokesperson, Irene Ugbo, didn’t pick the calls made to her mobile and she also didn’t reply to a text message sent.
However, responding, the Director, Army Public Relations, Brig. Gen Onyema Nwachukwu, said, “The troops did not conduct themselves unprofessionally. Troops were legitimately deployed to restore law and order in a communal clash between Onyadama and Nko communities. The troops were attacked and shot with firearms. The five personnel who are critically wounded are currently under intensive medical care.”
Meanwhile, The PUNCH reported that the Cross River State government had dethroned the monarchs of the warring communities, the Obol Lopon of Nko, Obol Etim Ayomobi, in Yakurr and the Clan Head of Onyadama, Ovarr Vincent Erena, in Obubra LGA.
The state government had also taken over the disputed land responsible for the recurrent clashes between the communities.
Also, The PUNCH reported that the Calabar branch of the Nigerian Bar Association had condemned Governor Ben Ayade over the sustained military operation in Nko and Onyadama communities. The NBA stated that the military actions in the warring communities were “reprisals and raw vengeance” and not an investigation. The lawyers, therefore, appealed to the governor to withdraw the troops from the communities to avoid more loss of innocent lives.