A Nigerian imam, who saved 262 Christians from killer herdsman by hiding them in his mosque and home, has been honoured by the US government.
Imam Abubakar Abdullahi, 83, received the International Religious Freedom Award alongside four others from Cyprus, Sudan, Brazil and Iraq.
The imam had saved the Christians in Barkin Ladi area of Plateau state in central Nigeria who were running away from the killers.
More than 80 others were killed in the attack that targeted Christians in the area, and the number could have been more without the intervention of the imam.
The imam had told the BBC that he wanted to help because more than 40 years ago the Christians in the area had allowed the Muslims to build the mosque.
At the event that had US Secretary of State Michael Pompeo present, Imam Abdullahi was said to have “selflessly risked his own life to save members of another religious community, who would have likely been killed without his intervention.”
The imam had previously received a “handshake and national honour” from Nigerian President Muhamadu Buhari.
This was the latest wave of violence to hit Nigeria’s central region where farming communities and nomadic cattle herders often clash – usually over access to land and grazing rights.
The region is prone to religious tension – herders are ethnic Fulani and mostly Muslim, while the farmers are mostly Christian from the Berom ethnic group.
Hundred of people have been killed in 2018, and the tit-for-tat violence has been ongoing for several years. A report from 2016 suggested Nigeria’s pastoral conflict was the cause of more deaths that year than Boko Haram.
Had the imam not intervened, the death toll may have been much higher, as the armed men stormed into the mainly Muslim village in pursuit of those who had fled the mainly Christian village nearby.
One of the villagers described the panicked scenes, saying: “First they attacked a village before us so we ran to the security post.
“But then they started firing towards the security post so we all ran away – even the security personnel.”
When the attackers heard that the villagers had fled towards the mosque, they demanded that the imam bring out those he was hiding.
But the defenceless imam refused to comply – and also refused to allow them entry to the mosque.
He began to plead with the herdsmen, who were threatening to burn down the mosque and his house.
He then prostrated himself on the floor in front of the armed men.
Along with some others in the Muslim community, he began to cry and wail, asking them to leave.
And to their amazement the herdsmen did go – but then set two nearby churches on fire.
The imam later told the BBC that he wanted to help because more than 40 years ago, the Christians in the area had allowed the Muslims to build the mosque.
They had freely given over the land to the Muslim community, he said.
“Since we have been living together with the Beroms, we have not experienced an ugly incident like the attack on Saturday,” another Muslim leader told the BBC.
Those whose lives were saved by the imam expressed their gratitude and relief.
“Ever since they took us into the mosque, not once did they ask us to leave, not even for them to pray,” said the local chief.
“They provided dinner and lunch for us and we are grateful.”
The villagers stayed with the imam for five days – and have since moved to a camp for displaced people.
More than 2,000 people are now living there, and others are living with relatives and friends.
Those who fled to the mosque cannot return to their village, as there is no security presence there and their homes have been destroyed.
One local Fulani leader told the BBC: “A number of the Fulanis who carried out this attack are foreigners.
“When we try to stop them at the mosque, some of them beat up one of the elders.”
When I visited the village it was completely deserted.
I saw a church that had been attacked – all the chairs had been broken and the pastor’s house set alight. He died in the fire.
The authorities say five rural communities were targeted last Saturday – in an operation that lasted more than five hours. But locals dispute the official figures, saying 11 communities were attacked.
“They killed four of my children,” a 70-year-old man told the BBC, in tears. “And now I do not have anyone to give me food”.
The attackers first looted the houses and shops before setting them ablaze. Not even their livestock were spared.
Witnesses say the attackers chanted “Allahu Akbar” as they raided the buildings.
Security forces did not intervene until around 20:00 (19:00GMT), when operatives from the military task force Safe Haven arrived to evacuate those affected – mostly women and children.
Force spokesman Adamu Umar said several attacks had been coordinated to take place simultaneously – this, he said, made it difficult for officers to suppress.
A curfew has now been imposed in three parts of Plateau state following the violence.
Pointing to a mass grave, one resident cried as he described the devastation to his village.
“In this community alone 83 persons died,” he said, “see how they are buried”.
“We were born here. Where do they want us to run to?”