Amaka Okoye visits the site of the Owo Pentecost Massacre, and speaks with victims, eyewitnesses and survivors of the attack. They recount the incident with vivid horror.
NOTICE: This article contains disturbing photos and graphic descriptions of violence.
Sunday 5 June was Pentecost Sunday in the western churches, and like other congregations around the world, parishioners of St Francis Xavier Catholic Church gathered that morning to celebrate the holy day.
Just minutes before the priest would have given the final blessing of "Go in peace, the Mass is ended", hell broke loose.
Chigbo (not his real name) went to church that Sunday with his only son. In the attack, his beloved son was killed right before him and he couldn’t help.
"He is the only male child I have. The gunman shot directly at his head. I saw his head ripped off by bullets and his brains blown out. See, that is his shoe there on the floor. That is his blood there. Oh no! I have to leave this place now. My heart is breaking. Let me go home and console my remaining family members. Ah!”
Ademola heard the shouts from the neighbours and ran to the church to find out what was happening. He says the trauma of what he saw that day will not leave him soon. He has been having nightmares about the attack.
"I saw a girl running and shouting, ‘They are killing people in the church, they are killing people!’ Blood everywhere. I ran to this church. What I saw was unbelievable. I saw human beings charred. From the head to waist is mutilated. I saw human parts strewn all over the place. I saw legs, I saw body parts all over the place. There was blood all over the place. Inside the church was full of smoke because they detonated a dynamite. All my clothes was full of blood. The church compound was full of dead bodies."
One parishioner was miraculously spared by one of the gunmen, who had just killed a little girl and a young man who tried escaping through the fence.
"When I saw all the commotion, I ran out and wanted to escape through the fence. One guy was in front of me. He climbed the fence already but the gunman shot him immediately. He died instantly. There was another little girl standing in front of me, the gunman killed her too. I thought it was my turn for him to kill. But he just looked at me and asked me to climb the fence. I was afraid. I thought he will kill me too. But he let me go scot-free. I couldn’t believe it. It was when I jumped down that I broke my legs. I didn’t even know I broke my legs. I ran outside the church and started telling people on the street what was happening in the church. I don’t know why he spared my life. But I will not return to that church again."
Ndubuisi was among those already trapped inside the church. He describes the gunman and what ensued.
"The mass was already finishing when we heard a loud sound. I thought is children playing knock out outside. But then we heard another heavy one and then saw people rushing from outside inside the church. Then the gun shots continued inside. People were killed inside the church. Blood was all over the place. I was afraid and confused. I laid under the pew. Then I saw the man carrying an Ak47. He was carrying something else too. He took it and dropped it on the altar. He ran out quickly. By the time he will reach where we were lying down, the thing has exploded. I don’t know how I am still alive. There was dead bodies all over. Everywhere was dark and full of smoke. We all laid down there afraid. This was more than 20 minutes."
Members of this Catholic church say they are like a family and they all know each other. It seemed every family is affected one way or the other. A father loses his only son, another man loses his wife, yet another his son and nephew, a young man loses his parents, and the list of hurting people is endless.
But sadly, over 48 hours after this sad incident, no arrests have been made, no one has claimed responsibility, no one even knows those responsible or the motive of this attack. The state governor, Rotimi Akeredolu, who is from Owo town where the incident happened, said he has been briefed by security operatives and assures the people that the perpetrators will be hunted down.
Authorities say investigations are ongoing but the crime scene has yet to be cordoned off, with everyone having access to it. The church is open with no visible security personnel posted.
Inside, the church building is filled with debris, the stench of human blood and visible charred human body parts. Onlookers still troop in to see for themselves the horror that occurred right inside the church two days before.
There are no official figures of casualties yet from the government and an attempt to speak to the Commissioner of Police of the state proved abortive. He ended the call as soon as I introduced myself as a journalist and never responded to my several calls.
A visit to the Federal Medical Centre showed over 40 persons with varying degrees of injuries still admitted. According to the Head of Clinical Services, Dr Fasoranti Ifedayo, over 20 deaths have been recorded, which includes those who died at the facility as a result of their injuries and those already dead on admittance. However, these figures do not represent the totality of casualties as some other victims are in a private hospital, the Catholic hospital in the town, as well as the general hospital.
While most of northern and eastern Nigeria have been afflicted by major violence in the past 13 years, the southwest and particularly Ondo State, where this latest devastating attack occurred, has been relatively peaceful. But with this attack, many are wondering: where in this country is safe?