Survivors of Nigerian car bombings recount harrowing attack
By Robyn Dixon | Los Angeles Times | Published: May 23, 2014
JOS, Nigeria — In the teeming Nigerian market, a group of final-year medical laboratory students ambled home after their lectures. Blessing Gushi, a 30-year-old pharmacist, stopped to buy food for her family.
Elizabeth Musa, 50, a trader, was selling sweets, drinks and other small things to scrape out a meager living. Magdalene Solomon, a policewoman who had just bought tickets to fly to Lagos for training, had stopped to buy cooking oil and watched as it was carefully poured into a plastic bottle.
Ruth Joseph, working in a market cafe, had seated her 3-year-old daughter, Dorcas, nearby.
Two cars had been left near the market in Jos, but no one noticed. The streets are always lined with parked cars in various stages of disrepair.
Just after 3 p.m. Tuesday, two car bombs shattered the afternoon, killing scores of people. No group claimed responsibility but residents said the northeastern Nigerian terrorist organization Boko Haram, which had sent letters in the weeks before threatening to attack the market and schools, apparently had left a letter stuck on a wall that morning.
At least 122 people died in the attack, authorities said. The dead included several of the medical students and others from Jos University Teaching Hospital.
A spate of car bombs in Jos, Kano and Abuja, the capital, has killed hundreds in recent weeks. Boko Haram claimed responsibility for a car bomb attack at a bus station in Abuja last month that killed 75 people and wounded dozens. Many Nigerians believe the group, which wants to impose an Islamic state across Nigeria and is opposed to Western education and culture, is responsible for all the recent bomb attacks and fear that it has entered a more violent phase of operations.
The U.N. Security Council on Thursday imposed sanctions against Boko Haram, adding it to a list of groups subject to an arms embargo and asset freeze. The terrorist group is also responsible for the April abduction of more than 300 girls, most of them from a school in the town of Chibok.
In the Jos attack, Gushi, the pharmacist, was killed instantly, decapitated by the explosion. When her best friend, Naomi Pam, found her body at Plateau State Specialist Hospital later, the only way she recognized her was by her name tag.
Mike Ogbote, 22; Francisca Nwafor, 23; and Lydia Dolapo, 21, were killed, along with 12 other students from the teaching hospital. After the blast, their friends and fellow students frantically called their cellphones, but the calls went unanswered.
In the cafe, Joseph heard a massive boom. The cafe walls heaved and collapsed around her. She and Dorcas suffered burns.
“The restaurant was destroyed and everyone was confused. I don’t know how the fire got on me,” she said while recovering at the hospital.
Joseph was lying on her stomach, the skin on her legs burned off. At her side, Dorcas was sleeping, with a burn mark above one swollen eye. Wordlessly, Joseph lifted the wrap covering the naked child, revealing a grotesque burn on the girl’s right leg. Joseph’s husband and other daughter, who is 8, were at home.
“I just pray for them,” Joseph whispered, meaning the attackers. “May God change their minds.”
Musa recalled sitting by her makeshift market stand Tuesday morning when news filtered through the market that a letter from Boko Haram threatening to attack had been left on a wall. It wasn’t the first time: A similar letter was posted last month just before Easter, she said.
“They wrote a letter to the market that they were coming,” Musa said.
She and other traders fretted but stayed in the market because the threat seemed too vague.
“I was afraid but ... I didn’t believe it that much,” she said.
Musa said she heard a deafening blast, something fell on her, and her eyes “went dark.” Her head hurt badly and she felt pain in her leg and arm.
“Right from there, I could not see. I can’t swallow. My throat is hurting,” she said.
As the Los Angeles Times interviewed relatives beside her bed at the hospital, Musa told her story softly. A bandage on her head covered one eye, with her face protruding balloon-like below. Blood had seeped into the bandage, colored almost entirely red with a small edge of white. Fluid seeped from her swollen eye.
She hauled herself into a sitting position, troubled by pain in her back. Her daughter dabbed her oozing eye and nose.
“I will not go there again,” Musa said of the market, the only livelihood for a poorly educated trader. “I value my life.
“But I don’t have an education to work in an office. If I don’t sell, what will I do?”
Doctors said it was too early to tell whether she had lost sight in one eye, or both.
For policewoman Solomon, the mood had been cheerful Tuesday. The 36-year-old is married to a policeman and has two children.
“I heard something behind me, an explosion. Before I know it, I’m down. I can’t breathe. I just call the name of God, ‘Save me, save me.’ ”
She staggered to her feet.
“I saw people around me injured, dying. I saw many, many people. People were shouting. I saw smoke cover everywhere. So many people were injured.
“It seems like they (the attackers) want to kill as many people as possible. I am in danger because even the (police) uniform, if they see it they will shoot you on sight. We are not safe.”
A piece of shrapnel pierced her back and had to be removed surgically Wednesday. In the hospital she was getting painkillers twice a day, in the morning and at night. The rest of the time, when the pain comes, she just screws up her face and pants.
She has no plans to leave the police force, “because it’s my country. I want to serve my country. I’m not afraid.”
Schools and most offices in Jos were closed Thursday. Silent relatives gathered by mortuaries to collect their dead. But many were still searching, as hospital staff said many victims were burned beyond recognition. Several of the missing students had not been identified.
Nearly one-tenth of the 76 final-year students in the medical laboratory science department died Tuesday, student Clarkson Ashuojong, 28, said.
“A lot of people are sobbing because this incident is still fresh in our minds. This thing comes as shock. People are just moving on their own, finding their daily bread, and it happens,” Ashuojong said.
“People are afraid. Wherever there are crowds gathered, people are afraid. People are dying every day, every day. We are not safe. Even the school is not safe,” he said, referring to the teaching hospital.
Students remembered Dolapo as a leader who kept the classrooms organized and reminded others to pay their fees on time. Nwafor was “so friendly, always smiling,” Ashuojong said.
The students, who will collect Ogbote’s body Friday to send it to his home state of Benue, will miss his gentle good humor.
“We’re crying for him. We know we have lost a lot. He’s been a leader. He’s one of the most influential people in the department. Mike, if there was tension, he always calmed it down.
“He always said, ‘Don’t be in a hurry,’ ” Ashuojong said.
“We miss their cordiality. We miss their presence. We miss their uniqueness.”