Some say it was the theft of 300 cows, others the murders of five Muslim Fulani herders by young Christian farmers.
But exactly what sparked the slaughter of more than 200 people in central Nigeria — and who was behind it — remains a mystery.
The only certainty is that the attacks, conducted at dusk last Saturday on a dozen villages in Plateau State, were extremely well organised and coordinated.
Multiple witnesses told AFP that hundreds of men armed with assault rifles and machetes descended from the surrounding hills on the villages below.
Most wore black clothes, some had their faces covered with scarves, while others wore bullet-proof vests.
Alerted by the first gunshots and residents screaming for help, “our personnel moved to the location and came under fire from the attackers,” said Major Adam Umar, spokesman for the Safe Haven military operation in the area.
“We were able to repel them but then we started to get information that there were other gunshots in other communities around,” said Umar, who described the attackers only as “unidentified gunmen.”
While all the villagers said the culprits had “fair skin” and were talking Fula, the language of the nomadic herders, Adam refuses to disclose any more details about the gunmen.
Three men were arrested on Thursday. An investigation is ongoing, said Umar.
Ethnicity and religion, stoked by access to land, are at the heart of the resurgence of violence.
The unrest is characterised by tit-for-tat attacks between “indigenous” mostly Christian communities and Fulani nomads, who are mostly Muslim and described as “invaders”.
It is a volatile situation: over decades cattle herders have come further south from the Sahel to central Nigeria in search of water, where the population density has rapidly increased, putting pressure on already scarce resources.
The conflict has intensified across central states. Since January, more than 1,000 people have been killed in clashes, according to Human Rights Watch in a Thursday statement.
– Fragile peace –
The tragedy is that the state of Plateau has seen this all before — it was the site of bloody clashes between Christians and Muslims less than a decade ago.
“We have to go four or five years back to find an attack with this scale of casualties,” said political analyst Chris Ngwodo who is based in Jos, the state capital.
In 2001, tension began rising in Jos, a spiritual capital to both Muslims and Christians in Nigeria.
It culminated in 2008 in a series of attacks and mass riots which resulted in 800 deaths in the space of a week. In 2010, more than 1,000 people were killed between January and March.
Since then, the state has worked to stop the bloodshed through reconciliation programmes, such as financial compensation for cattle theft and developing interfaith tin-mining initiatives.
Saturday’s killings, directed mainly against Christian farmers, reawakened hatred and painful trauma in the Barakin Ladi district.
Many people were burned alive in their homes. Adults and young children were attacked with equal brutality.
At the Jos University Teaching Hospital, where the wounded were brought, a three-year-old girl’s neck was sliced by a machete.
On the next bed sat eight-year-old Plangnam Danjuma, who was shot in the right shoulder and saved by her neighbour.
“When people started to run for their life, he hid me in a house with three other children,” she said. “But they saw him and shot him dead. After they targeted us.
“I am the only one who survived.”
– ‘Worse than Boko Haram’ –
Ngwodo said it was hard to pinpoint the precise origin of the latest spike in violence.
The conflict was “multi-layered” and driven by not only ethnicity and religion but a rise in organised crime and political disenfranchisement.
With less than a year to the next general election, President Muhammadu Buhari, himself a Fulani Muslim, has been heavily criticised by opponents fuelling anti-Fulani sentiment.
In the Nigerian media and across social networks, front-page headlines like “Fulani herdsmen worse than Boko Haram” have become common and divisive messages circulate daily on WhatsApp.
Youth unemployment has reached record levels and there has been an explosion in weapons across the Sahel from the war in Libya.
At the same time, Ngwodo said there has been “a general breakdown of law and order (in Nigeria), with parts of the territory completely abandoned to banditry”.
The inability of the Nigerian security fores to curb the violence is prolonging the crisis, he said.
“If the perpetrators are not being arrested and punished, people will start to take justice into their hands,” he added.