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Tor Iorapuu leads a group that tries to build bridges between Muslim and Christian youth in Jos, Nigeria, a city torn apart by violence. (Erin Conway-Smith/Erin Conway-Smith for The Globe and Mail)
Tor Iorapuu leads a group that tries to build bridges between Muslim and Christian youth in Jos, Nigeria, a city torn apart by violence. (Erin Conway-Smith/Erin Conway-Smith for The Globe and Mail)

Geoffrey York

An island of sanity in Nigeria's city of hate Add to ...

At night, when they hear rumours of an attack by machete-wielding gangs, the people of Dadin Kowa pull their chairs onto the street and wait until dawn, watching the shadows for intruders.

They are armed only with mobile phones and lists of emergency numbers. But their nightly vigil has saved their small neighbourhood from the escalating cycle of violence that has killed hundreds of people in this city over the past four months.

What makes their story more miraculous is the religion of the vigil-keepers. Some are Christian, some are Muslim, working together without the hatred that has split the rest of the city. Their neighbourhood, almost uniquely, has remained a mixed community, resisting the unofficial segregation that has poisoned Nigeria's most violent city.

For a decade, the conflict here has grown bloodier, with an estimated 3,800 people killed since 2001 in the city of Jos and the surrounding state. Christians and Muslims have turned against each other in horrific massacres, using machetes and bombs, killing adults and children by hacking them to death or burning them alive. The seemingly never-ending bloodshed may be sparked by hate speech from a religious leader, or a text-message rumour that sparks panic and reprisals.

The violence in Jos, located at the volatile crossroads between Nigeria's mostly Muslim north and its predominantly Christian south, has raised fears of a broader social collapse in Africa's most populous country. Thousands of police and troops have been deployed in the city, yet they seem incapable of stopping the killing - and may be contributing to it by turning a blind eye or taking part themselves.

With Nigeria entering a crucial two-week period of presidential and state elections, Jos will be on a knife edge. In the past, local elections have triggered violence that has killed hundreds of people.

The killing is fuelled by conflicts over land and grazing rights, battles for political power and resentments over the privileged status of the largely Christian "indigene" population, who have greater rights than the Muslim "settlers" to government jobs and higher education, even though many Muslim families have lived here for generations. Despite these underlying causes, the violence is increasingly seen as purely religious, which further stokes the hatred.

Dadin Kowa, a community of about 5,000 people, is a rare oasis of peace in the city, where Muslims and Christians try to protect each other. "We believe in co-existence," says Darlington Chime, a 30-year-old shopkeeper who runs a tiny drugstore in the neighbourhood.

"Our pastors and imams have come together," he says. "We don't want people coming here to do mayhem."

One of Mr. Chime's Muslim friends, 29-year-old law student Danjuma Adam, carries a list of emergency phone numbers for their midnight vigils. "If we notice tensions in the neighbourhood, even in the night, we call the elders so they can come and calm people down," he says. "It's the right thing to do."

But outside of a few neighbourhoods, tolerance is in short supply. This city of one million inhabitants is pockmarked with hundreds of burned-out buildings, ruined markets and destroyed houses, all reminders of the brutal violence of the past decade.

For generations, Muslims and Christians had lived and worked side-by-side here. Licence plates still proclaim it Nigeria's "Home of Peace and Tourism." But since 2008, the people of Jos have withdrawn into warring camps. Churches and mosques have been repeatedly attacked and torched. Entire neighbourhoods have gone up in flames. Most people have abandoned the religiously integrated neighbourhoods, moving into their own isolated communities and barricaded streets for protection.

The central markets, which were religiously mixed, are increasingly empty. Many Christians refuse to buy from Muslim merchants, while many Muslims are unwilling to go to Christian shops, so entrepreneurs are opening stalls outside churches and mosques to serve only people of their own religion. Motorcycle taxis stick to safe routes within their own community, while large parts of the city are "no-go" zones for those from the wrong religion.

"The entire geography of Jos is being redefined," says Tor Iorapuu, head of a community group that tries to build bridges between Christian and Muslim youth. "It's disconnecting us more and more. At the markets, we used to mix with other people, but now we don't have any common ground."

As he drives through Jos, Mr. Iorapuu points to the signs of war: soldiers and armoured vehicles posted at street corners; barricades on streets to control traffic; private guards inside the churches and mosques; filling stations with smoke-covered walls from arson attacks.

In the 12 years since Mr. Iorapuu founded his group, the violence has grown steadily worse. One of his staff members, Abraham Chunu, was nearly killed by a gang of young Muslims who had once attended his group's peace-building events. When a wave of violence erupted in the city last year, youths attacked him near his house, struck him seven times with machetes, poured fuel on him and tried to set his body on fire.

The first two matches did not ignite, and then the youths heard a gunshot and fled, leaving him for dead. He lay on the street for five hours, bleeding, until police rescued him. He still has scars on his skull and his fingers from the machetes.

Some people wanted to send the police after the young attackers, but Mr. Chunu did not want revenge. "I knew them, I knew their parents and their homes," he says. "I said, 'Let me forgive them.'"

The police, in any event, might have been useless. Few people in Jos are ever arrested or prosecuted for mob attacks. "In all but a handful of cases … the perpetrators have not been brought to justice," says a recent report by Human Rights Watch. "In the absence of effective redress through the courts, communities that have suffered violence frequently resort to vigilante justice and exact revenge by inflicting commensurate harm on innocent members of the other community."

In desperation, local governments and volunteers are trying a host of new ideas: conflict monitors, early-warning mechanisms, rapid-response teams, networks of "peace practitioners," and even community theatre and soccer projects.

The latest government plan, called Operation Rainbow, deploys a range of different branches of the security forces across Jos, with troops rotated every three months to prevent them developing links to local militia gangs.

Mr. Iorapuu often sounds discouraged, but he refuses to concede defeat. "We struggle very hard, and then the events turn out to rubbish our work," he says. "The politicians here are not interested in peace. But we haven't given up. We're still working with the groups that haven't broken up. In a couple of communities, it is helping. Despite everything, I still have hope."

Editor's note: This original newspaper version and earlier online version incorrectly identified Tor Iorapuu, head of a community group that tries to build bridges between Christian and Muslim youth in Jos, Nigeria, as the victim of a machete attack. This was due to an editing error. Abraham Chunu, one of his staff members, suffered the attack.

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