Nigeria: Time has no meaning—The sun shines, but all is dark.
I am tears, heart shattered, spiritually confused—NO, stunned and petrified. How can men form mobs or gangs to kill the innocent so violently?
Last night I heard you dying amidst thunderous mobs, gun shots, terrified screams, and machete whacks in tall grass.
Forgive me for not knowing what to do, but cry and pray in the dark.
—1966 journal entry by Ruth Keeney, senior at Hillcrest School, Jos, Nigeria
What happened during the fall of 1966 in northern Nigeria? Why has the story remained unknown for so long—50 years? These are the questions for which the filmmakers of The Disturbances sought answers.
In early 2015 Robert Parham, executive editor of EthicsDaily.com and of its parent organization, the Baptist Center for Ethics, contacted me to see if I would agree to be interviewed and share artifacts about events that had occurred in Jos, Nigeria, during my senior year in high school. “Yes,” I said. I was honored.
He explained that as a seventh grade student at Hillcrest in 1966 he had “fragmentary childhood memories” but “knew that something awful had happened and that members of one tribe had formed gangs and mobs which had hunted and butchered members of another tribe.” Parham wished to uncover the story that he believed “deserves a place in the histories of human atrocities and the chronicles of Christian history.”
Parham (researcher/writer) and Cliff Vaughn (researcher/videographer) dedicated two years to extensive research involving books and articles, eye witness interviews and phone calls, email and social media correspondence, and the collection of nearly 2,500 artifacts (memos, photographs and slides, diary entries, and home movies). They not only gained insight into the history and causes of the 1966 Igbo genocide, but also discovered that “the untold story” provided an inspirational view of missionary courage and commitment to the Christian calling.
The Disturbances brings to life the genocide of Igbo people in northern Nigeria in 1966, an event that was fueled by tribal hatreds and a series of government coups. The documentary describes how “thousands of people, mostly Igbos and easterners,” were brutally hunted down and slaughtered by gangs and mobs armed with machetes, rocks, and clubs. Businesses and homes were looted, burned, or vandalized. Sections of the city of Jos looked like a war zone. Students and faculty at Hillcrest School, a Christian school run by an ecumenical coalition of mission organizations including the Church of the Brethren Mission, recalled hearing angry mobs and the cries of those fleeing for their lives or killed. Bodies were seen in streets, alleys, and gardens. Looted goods were stripped from the dead or carried away from destroyed property.
“There was wholesale slaughtering going on. . . . Homes and businesses were being looted, cars were torched. . . . They were digging mass graves on the other side of the city because so many had been killed,” said Lutheran faculty member Carl Eisman.
The Disturbances also illustrates how lives were saved through the courage, Christian commitment, and humanitarian responses of the ecumenical missionary community, Hillcrest high school students, and Nigerian Christian leaders during horrific circumstances. The provision of sanctuary and food, medical care, and a means to escape from the north (despite uncertainty and danger) are captured in the missionary stories.
The Cowleys, the Baptist high school principal and his wife, hid Igbo students and faculty in an empty mission house that was kept locked “until we could determine what to do next. We told them to keep the blinds drawn, to be quiet . . . and we would feed them.”
Church of the Brethren Hillcrest School principal Paul Weaver found ways to hide Igbo staff in an attic or building rafters until he could provide a safe escape.
Lutheran high school students were evacuated from their hostel (dormitory) before an Igbo carpenter was hidden in the hot water heater closet, and Igbo staff members were hidden in a storage room and a crawl space. “We provided them with food . . . water . . . and tried to make them as comfortable as we could,” said Eisman.
One missionary described assisting “blood-soaked men pleading for protection on their hands and knees while spontaneously reciting the Lord’s Prayer.”
Buzz Bowers, a houseparent for the Church of the Brethren hostel, reported that the Jos police “made their station [outside yard] into a hospital site and a refugee place where Igbos could come in.” Surrounded by a high mesh fence and protected by armed police at two large gates, the number of refugees grew from 100 to thousands. Overwhelmed by the number and intense needs, police sent out “a plea for . . . food . . . clothing . . . medical supplies.” Missionaries and Hillcrest students answered the call.
“I will never see anything like I saw today. I saw cuts right to the bone and skull, punctured hands, fingers just hanging and broken, and dead people,” wrote Hillcrest student John Price in a diary entry.
“We were told to help with whatever you could,” said Carrie Robison, in an interview for the documentary. She was a Hillcrest student at the time. “They [the wounded] were lying on the ground. They were in great pain and agony. We spent a lot of time just trying to clean wounds so medical personnel could stitch them up.”
“I saw unbelievable faith and bravery in requests for prayer, scripture, and song or in gasps for breath while in the arms of missionaries and students. I held you, cleaned your wounds with medicated water and tweezers—one maggot at a time. You always whispered ‘Thank-you,’” I wrote in my journal.
Church of the Brethren field secretary Roger Ingold and Sudan United Mission leader Edgar Smith arranged a private meeting with the head of the Nigerian military and gained permission for missionaries to evacuate Igbos via automobiles, trucks, aircraft, and trains—although their safety could not be guaranteed.
Christian Reformed, Baptist, and Assembly of God missionaries told stories of harrowing trips across borders into neighboring countries or into southeastern Nigeria via truck and automobile. Other missionaries described loading refugees into trains, mission planes, and other aircraft.
Why has this story remained unknown for 50 years? There was no single reason. Instead, as Robert Parham explained, “The Disturbances is a story that is both horrifying and inspiring, [tells] of ruin and redemption, blood and boldness, denial and dedication, guilt and goodness,” and we are reminded of “the [human] capacity for planned and executed human evil as well as the potential for calculated and courageous human goodness.”
Ruth Keeney Tryon attended Hillcrest School from 1957-67, and returned to Nigeria with her husband from 1974-76. She has worked as a speech and language pathologist and is retired from a teaching career that included positions at the University of Northern Colorado and Morgan Community College.