OTTAWA (CP) - Instead of walking down a runway at the Miss World pageant in Nigeria, Lynsey Bennett ended up walking out of a contest that triggered four days of bloody religious rioting.
Arriving in Ottawa on Sunday night, the 22-year-old Miss Canada tearfully greeted her family, tired and hungry after a three-day ordeal in which she fled her hotel in Abuja for the Canadian consulate, then London, and finally home.
She made the decision to leave the country soon after arriving in Abuja and seeing the violence in the country's capital on television, she said at a news conference after her arrival at Ottawa's Macdonald-Cartier International Airport.
Though she didn't feel at risk, she said she wasn't sure what would happen in the weeks ahead. She also didn't want to be a part of the "trigger" that set the violence off.
"As soon as I found out that 105 people had already died due to the triggers of the Miss World, I said, 'You know what? This is not why I'm here. This isn't right. I'm going home. ' "
About 200 people have died in four days of Muslim-Christian bloodletting over the Miss World competition. Nigeria's Muslims have complained that the beauty pageant promotes promiscuity.
Organizers are moving the pageant to London where it will be staged on Dec. 7.
Bennett was the first contestant to leave the hotel on Friday, seeking shelter with Canadian consular officials in Abuja before flying to London. The organizers flew the rest of the contestants to London on Sunday.
With her parents and the president of Miss Canada International by her side, Bennett recounted her experience in Nigeria, at times with tears in her eyes as she spoke of the poverty and the treatment of women in the country.
"It was hard to deal with when going there . . . seeing some of the reactions," she said, her voice breaking.
Bennett said she went to the pageant to protest the death sentence of a Nigerian woman for adultery, hoping to pass on a petition to government officials.
"She had the petitions collected, she was looking forward to the opportunity to present them," said her mother, Marnie Bennett. "They never got to meet the president. He cancelled the meetings twice. So, she was there for a purpose."
Bennett also lost weight, mainly due to having to turn down some of the food that was provided because much of it wasn't "cooked properly."
After making the decision to leave, she says organizers tried to shield her from the other women as she left, escorting her from the hotel with her luggage where a consular official escorted her to his home.
She says she was initially upset by her treatment, but then realized pageant officials didn't want to upset the other contestants.
"A lot of the girls were kind of panicking on the floor, and I think it was better to get me out of there now, rather than dealing with it later," she said.
By leaving before the pageant was officially moved, Bennett may have forfeited her place in the competition. She says she has put in a call to the Miss World organizers to see if she can still participate, but hasn't heard back yet.
"I'd just like to go there and say, 'You know what, you haven't won over me,' " she said.
Miss Canada and 91 other beauty queens made desperate plans to flee Nigeria last night as parts of the country descended into deadly chaos over radical Muslim resistance to the Miss World pageant, which fearful officials decided to hold elsewhere.
Lynsey Bennett, 22, a geography student from Ottawa, was among 92 contestants holed up in a high-rise hotel in Abuja yesterday as riots spread from the northern city of Kaduna to the capital, more than 300 kilometres away, and reached within a few blocks of the site of the pageant. According to Canadian government officials, Miss Canada plans to leave as soon as safe passage is available.
The violence was worst in Kaduna, with rioters killing more than 100, seriously injuring at least 500, displacing thousands and burning down countless buildings. Angry crowds waved banners reading "Down with beauty" and chanted Islamic slogans.
Aid workers described scenes of carnage, with non-Muslim residents ripped from their vehicles, beaten to death, their bodies burned by mobs or thrown down wells. Hundreds of people were forced to flee the city as blocks of houses were burned down. Many said that the scenes resembled the mass uprisings of two years ago, which resulted in thousands of deaths.
In Abuja, Muslims stormed through the usually calm capital after prayers outside the national mosque. They burned cars and assaulted bystanders they believed to be Christians.
Police firing tear gas restored calm in Abuja within hours. But the melée in Kaduna, a religiously mixed city of several million people, continued in defiance of an around-the-clock police curfew.
Inside the hotel, under police and military guard, the beauty queens and their handlers watched nervously and debated whether to stay for the pageant or flee for home.
Ms. Bennet could not be reached, but Miss Scotland, Paula Murphy, told a British newspaper she was eager to leave. "A beauty contest is not worth people dying over and I want to come home," she said.
Shortly after midnight in Nigeria, officials decided to move the pageant.
The pageant finale will be held Dec. 7, as originally scheduled, but in London, England. "This decision was taken after careful consideration of all the issues involved and in the overall interests of Nigeria and the contestants participating in this year's edition," a statement from the organizers reads.
Before the decision, Canadian officials confirmed that Ms. Bennett had made up her mind to get out of the country as well. "We are trying to arrange a safe departure from Nigeria as quickly as possible for Ms. Lynsey Bennett," a spokeswoman from the Department of Foreign Affairs said last night. "We understand and respect her decision, and our High Commission is trying to arrange a departure as soon as possible."
Miss World officials seemed shocked by the deaths, despite Nigeria's recent history of violence. "It's finally calm now, and we're praying that this is the end of it," Miss World chief executive Julia Morley told The Globe and Mail last night. "We're all just stuck here, and there's really nothing we can do."
Opposition to the pageant swelled after a Nigerian newspaper suggested in an article last Saturday that the prophet Mohammed might have chosen one of the Miss World contestants as a wife, had he been alive today. Among the first of the rioters' targets was the newspaper's Kaduna office, which was burned to the ground Wednesday. The newspaper published a series of apologies, the latest Thursday suggested that the blasphemy had slipped into the pages through a computer-system error. The riots soon expanded into a general protest against the Miss World pageant, which Muslim leaders have denounced as immoral. Members of the Muslim majority burned neighbourhoods of the influential Christian minority, and some Christian rioters attacked Muslim neighbourhoods in response.
Reporters said that the streets of Kaduna were littered with corpses, burned-out cars and debris from ruined buildings yesterday. Christians were dragged from vehicles and told they would be killed unless they could recite passages from the Koran. According to the Red Cross, the death toll stood at 105 yesterday morning, and witnesses described several more killings during the day. The Red Cross also reported that 521 people had been seriously injured and 3,000 had been displaced.
This summer, there were calls to boycott the pageant because a Nigerian court had sentenced a woman to be stoned to death for bearing a child out of wedlock. Several contestants have avoided the contest for that reason, although Nigerian officials now insist that they will not carry out the sentence.
The paragraphs which got Isioma Daniel, Nigerian journalist, a fatwa (death sentence)
. . . As the idea became a reality, it also aroused dissent from many groups of people. The Muslims thought it was immoral to bring 92 women to Nigeria and ask them to revel in vanity./p>
What would Mohammed think? In all honesty, he would probably have chosen a wife from one of them. The irony is that Algeria, an Islamic country, is one of the countries participating in the contest. . . .