By Mbah Okemsinachi, Yenagoa
Homes levelled by Nigerian soldiers. Photos: Mbah Okemsinachi, Yenagoa
Months after the February 17,2020 invasion and complete burning down of their community by men said to be soldiers of the Nigerian military, the people of Letugbene are left to bear their harsh burden alone. No one has accepted responsibility for the destruction and loss. Neither has anyone offered succour to these people who have joined a growing list of communities destroyed by the Nigerian military. A community member Chief Humphrey Fazei spoke with National Point, reporter during a recent visit.
“It was around 5.30pm, they called me again. They said that they put fire in my house. I said what happened again? What have I done wrong that they will put fire in my house? Almost a year plus, I have not been in town. What happened again?
“When they burnt the first one, they started putting fire on the other one. They burnt that one also. They burnt my two houses; all of them burnt down. They waited till they burnt down. That was after 6pm before they left and entered their boat. I don’t know what is really happening. I didn’t do anything wrong to any military man. I was confused. Infact, I am really tormented because I am homeless now, I am have nowhere to stay.”
These were the words of Chief Fazei, whose two houses were burnt down allegedly by the Nigeria soldiers during a joint army and naval operation in Letugbene Community in Ekeremor Local Government Area of Bayelsa State in April
Over the years, Letugbene has been known as a place for commercial activities, where large number of people from outside the community troop in to trade in items including seafood,. The landmass is naturally sited at the center and surrounded by some other communities along the Atlantic coastline.
Because of its geographical location, rural traders from different places within the riverine area frequently visit Letugbene Community daily for the purpose of transacting business and also return to their various communities. They are also known for peaceful coexistence, hospitality and being law-abiding.
Since the military attack, Letugbene has been in a state of agony, fear and suffering. The men and women can no longer sleep peacefully due to panic and fear of the unknown. Unfortunately for Chief Fazei, his wife and children, there is no longer a place to call home.
Narrating his ordeal, Chief Fazei who is an ex-militant general said for almost a year plus, he has not been in Letugbene and does not know what is actually going on in the community, “only when people from the community tell me, that is when I will know what is happening.”
He said, “As of that 17th around 4.30pm, they called me from home. They said they are in the bush, that 7 gunboats with two speed boats came to invade the community and everybody is inside the bush. I said what happened?
“They said some sea pirates killed some soldiers in the open river and they said that area belong to Letugbene. That is why they came to Letugbene. I asked, is anybody from the community among those people that went and killed the soldiers? They said no, nothing of such. Just that the place belong to Letugbene that is why they were coming to Letugbene.
“I said let everybody hide so that they cannot go and die for what they don’t know. Because all those people, the sea pirates when they do, they ran away. You cannot even trace where they are. So everybody have to be careful. That is what I told them.”
A community members stands by his damaged home
Fazei further hinted that everything one could think of or find in a home was complete in his house. He lamented that he was not even given any opportunity to remove a single property from the houses.
“I have become homeless for now. The house at the down side is five rooms and all of them are with television, foam and everything completed. Inside the parlour, I think every other thing human can talk of is complete there. I can’t estimate what was on ground there. If I think of what I have lost like my wife, all her clothes burnt, at the same time, my own clothes including that of my children all burnt and some other things. If you go to the other house again if I tell you what I lost there, how much money I spent on those two houses, I am really tormented’.
Sounding very despondent, Chief Fazei further said,”I can’t even go to the community while I’m homeless. So, I’m appealing to the federal government and the military men or any member of the government, I want them to help me to build back those houses for me,” he said.
It has been reported that on Monday, February 17, 2020, the military joint task force, ‘Operation Delta Safe’ invaded Letugbene community with seven gunboats and two speed boats at about 4pm, started shooting sporadically and forced the elders, men, women and innocent children to flee into the swampy forest for safety.
Some community members said the invasion was not unconnected to a clash which occurred in the area on Sunday, the previous day between sea pirates and some military men escorting oil facilities in a barge to a coastal oil location in which process, four of the soldiers were killed along with a civilian in what appeared to be an ambush.
A damaged home: destruction by soldiers
They also said the invaders were soldiers on a revenge mission who attacked and burnt down houses in the community and sent the residents packing for three days, after the natives failed to produce those suspected to have perpetrated the crime of killing the soldiers.
The Joint Military Task Force, Operation Delta Safe in an official statement by the spokesman, Major Victor Olukoya, responding, denied carrying out any reprisal attack on Letugbene Community, stating that the military was too organized and law-abiding to engage in such an action.
Major Olukoya stated that the task force was investigating the killing of the soldiers with a view to bring to book those that carried out the killings.
He said, “The men of OPDS did not invade any community in Ekeremor LGA of Bayelsa State as a result of the killing of the soldiers. Commanders of OPDS, 16 Brigade and Sector have visited Letugbene, Beneside, Ogbotobo and Tunu in Ekeremor and saw people going about their lawful activities without any hindrance.”
On the contrary, a clergyman from the community, Rev Fawari Bekeakpo who spoke to National Point during a fact finding visit to Letugbene insisted it was officers of the Joint Task Force, Operation Delta Safe that invaded and attacked their community with gun boats.
He said, “Precisely on the 16th of February being on Sunday, two speed boats filled with armed military men came. They invited the community chairman; he was just at the jetty. They said they came to inform the community that there are bad boys operating maybe they are having some settlement. That was the information they were giving us.
“Right at that moment, there was a barge tug boat with military men that day on the jetty. While they were coming this way, unknown to us, before the military men left, not more than two to three minutes, we got information that there was a clash between the bad boys and that tug boat that just passed. The following day, there were gun boats surrounding everywhere in this community and everybody has to run because we don’t know their mission. They started shooting gun and burnt I think, two to three houses down without taking anything out. From that day, day after day, they have been coming. This is not the first time things like these are happening. Letugbene is just like a community, whatever thing they do, it’s like a commercial center. They know Letugbene more than any other community around here. So whatever thing that happens, they will first come to Letugbene. Whether we know or not, they will say Letugbene. That is the suffering we are suffering in this place.”
According to the vice chairman of Letugbene Community, Segbe Okoroyei, it was the JTF that broke the door of his house and scattered the windows with their guns during the attack. He said the elderly women who fish in the river were harassed and intimidated by the military men on daily basis and that has left the community under constant fear and tension.
He said, “The JTF just came and broke this door with their gun, scattered the windows. There are other houses in the community they also scattered with their gun. This is what really happened in this community. Am telling you, for now, we are running every blessed day. Even today the report I just got from my fishermen in the river was that a military gun boat warned them not to go to the river again. This mama is my witness; she just came from the river. They told her boldly that nobody should go to the river.”
Also, a 65 year old mother of two, Beatrice Andabaiwarai said she didn’t know exactly what was happening until one of the soldiers came into her house, asked the whereabouts of her children before he headed inside the room and scattered everything including the ceiling.
“This is where I was lying down (pointing at a mattress in her parlour) because I was not feeling well. Before I knew it, the soldier has already entered my house. I don’t know whether there are other soldiers outside. Only him came inside; he was holding a machete and gun.
“He said, ‘Who is here?’ I said am the one and that am feeling sick. He said, ‘Madam, where are your children?’And I said,’I am the only one staying here. My two children one is in school and the other one lives in the township’.
“He entered the passage leading to the bedroom and asked again, ‘Who is in this room?’ I said, ‘Nobody but you can enter and check for yourself’. He then entered and scattered the room, destroyed the whole ceiling with his gun before coming out.
“He then said, ‘Mama, I was only just asking because we wanted to get some information from your children; that was why we came. It is not like we wanted to beat or arrest them’. That was how he left. I don’t know what I did or the offence I committed that made the soldier to scatter my house”, she lamented.
Also, Majemite Helen, who resides with the former community chairman, Mr Bennet Friday, said she saw the soldiers when they were matching from the road by the community secondary school.
“I was inside the house so they did not enter. I locked the door and went to work. When they came here and did not see us, they broke that key there; they also broke the other door, then they broke the glass in the chairman’s room. When I came back later in the evening, I now saw that the whole doors were open and the windows were also broken. Everything was intact, they didn’t remove anything”, she noted.
Another female member of the community, Preye Afa said she almost lost her baby who was urinating uncontrollably as a result of the running, adding that they spent three days inside the bush without food and water.
“Even till now, we don’t have any rest of mind. Any moment, any time now, we can run because army used to believe all these fake talks we don’t know anything about. My baby was urinating uncontrollably inside the bush because of the running that she almost died.
“We came out in the night that day, manage to sleep and ran back to the bush again. No food, no water, nothing at all. That was how we stayed in the bush for good three days without eating anything. These soldiers don’t even consider whether you are a woman. As they come, they deal with everybody and it is very bad.
“No matter, whatever it is, you must hear from the people first especially the women. Like I am now, I have stayed in this community for some years. What business will I have with an armed robber? Do you think I’m happy with an armed robber”, she asked.
Also, Tamagbene Friday said t the soldiers catered away some properties belonging to some members of the community including Chief Humphrey while they were burning his two houses.
He said, “Some of our generators got lost. We thought they burnt them but, they didn’t burn them; they took them away and even some of our properties inside the house. Like when they burnt down Chief Humphrey’s house, some of us saw them carrying loads to their boat. It is not fair.
“Their duty is to protect our lives and our properties. Even though some of us may have attacked them, at least, they should have verified before invading communities, burning down houses and destroying properties. So in that area, I condemn their actions. They are trained personnel. They should have sent people around the environment, investigate those people accused and arrest those people who are involved. In that way, community people will assist them and work with them.”
Speaking to National Point, Chief Ibomoye James, a government official said the perpetrators of the act that led to the killing of the four soldiers were not actually youths from the community.
He said, “Ezetu people are there, Bilabiri are there, Gbemagalabiri that has case with us for 20years they are also there. They can also form something and hide somewhere so as to tarnish our image.
“We have been telling all our youths whoever that is involved with them, if it gets to our notice, we will sell you out to the government. Not just to hold you for judgment, we will execute you in this our front so that the upcoming ones that will imitate you will have fear.
“Today too, I heard women who were in the river say that the bad boys came out from a creek not knowing that because of women in the river, if not, the gunboat was very close to them. If they now start to exchange bullets with them, innocent women and children will die. So they saw them enter a creek like that and the gunboat was by the creek. They won’t come out again. All those creeks link to very many areas. Nearly all drivers are militants because they know all these creeks’.
Chief James spoke of certain young men from the community whose activities may be at the core of why the Military attacked the community, “There are people the army men mentioned. There was a time they came to this community and they mentioned people. Where are those people? We said we didn’t see them. They are all out of home. All those things maybe leading to all these trouble we don’t know. If your name is wrongly mentioned to a military man, the little mistake that will happen, he will now focus on that list and start to cause trouble.”
Chief James further hinted that he was reliably informed by the vice chairman that the soldiers mentioned two names and one is Imorikeme who is the uncle to the Highness of Bilabiri 2 Community, while the other mentioned name is John from Azagbene.
He said Imorikeme and John who the soldiers mentioned, are the people that own the camps, stating that the duo have no blood relationship with Letugbene.
“What I saw on the side of the military was a real operation. The military knew where these militant camps are. The John and the Imorikeme they are talking about, they know where they are related to but because Letugbene is a central place, everybody’s eyes are on Letugbene.
Feelings of help were pronounced during the interactions with the Letugbene people. They situated the easy destruction of their community without any consequences to the perpetrators to their having no powerful connected persons. They also absolved the community of responsibility having warned the youth in the community of the dire ends for any one involved in attacks on the military, thereby endangering the community. Chief James said,
“We have severally spoken to our youths that if anyone is involved in this act, you are going to die or your mother is going to die or your father is going to die. That is what we have agreed upon. But the military is always on Letugbene. They don’t want to see whether another community is doing it or whether another community boy is involved or not; they don’t want to hear about that”.
He called on government and all concerned to go into the creeks and apprehend the culprits. Community member, Ibomoye also accuse Shell Petroleum Development Company and a neighbouring rival community, Gbemagalabiri of complicity in their travails. The two communities have been locked in a 20 year old oil related ownership dispute which has been decided in favour of Letugbene at the High and Appeal courts.
Several attempts made to contact the spokesperson of Shell Petroleum Development Company, Mr. Bamidele Odugbesanon these matters through phone calls and text messages proved abortive as neither the calls nor text messages were responded to.