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Playing dead allowed Houston man to survive Boko Haram massacre in Nigeria

By Michael Martinez, David Mattingly and Devon Sayers, CNN
May 11, 2014 -- Updated 1449 GMT (2249 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Ikenna Nzeribe is shot in the face with an AK-47 by Boko Haram gunmen in 2012
  • The masked gunman kill 13 other fellow Christians in church
  • Nzeribe plays dead and prays, "Blood of Jesus cover me"
  • His disfigured face now being surgically repaired, he warns the world of Boko Haram

Houston, Texas (CNN) -- Ikenna Nzeribe was the sole survivor after assassins from Boko Haram stormed his Nigerian church in 2012, just 60 miles from where the jihadists last month abducted more than 200 girls.

The church massacre remains vivid for Nzeribe three years later -- as are the scars on his face, neck and arm.

The Muslim extremists fired shots into the air and shouted "Allah Hu Akbar," or God is great.

Nzeribe and 13 other Christians hit the floor.

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They were mourning how Boko Haram earlier had killed three fellow Christians, but now Boko Haram was coming for them.

The masked gunmen shot the 13 worshippers in the head, fatally.

Now it was Nzeribe's turn.

"As soon as I saw the man, I knew it was over for me," Nzeribe, 33, said about the gunman. "The only thing I could do was say a last prayer, which was 'Blood of Jesus cover me.'

"And that was it for me," he told CNN.

Nzeribe, a handsome banker, was shot in the face with an AK-47 assault rifle, blowing away his jaw, lips and part of his tongue.

He faked death -- "until they finished," he said.

He bled profusely.

"I would say I died in the process," Nzeribe added. "But God brought me back to life."

Rescuers took him to a local hospital in Mubi, a suburban area in northeastern Nigeria where he was part of a Christian minority and where the mass shooting in church occurred.

He was later flown to London, where surgeons reconstructed his face.

Nzeribe recalled looking in the mirror for the first time post-surgery.

What he saw was "a very different person," Nzeribe said, shaking his head. He stopped the interview, wiping away the tears and finding composure after long breaths.

A zigzagging scar runs up Nzeribe's chin to his upper lip. His mouth is even more disfigured, but at least he can talk, in soft tones. And he has a great laugh, though he can't smile.

He's had more than a dozen surgeries, with more pending. He's now recovering in Houston, where he receives treatment and lives with his wife and their baby, joining a Nigerian immigrant community whose residents find the climate similar to their native country's. His attorney, Frank C. Onyenezi, is working on Nzeribe's immigration status.

"We've come a long way," Nzeribe said of his surgeries and reconstructed face.

He's flattered to hear how he appears younger.

"It gives me confidence," he said of his surgically reconstructed face. "It gives me hope."

A devout Christian whose tale has been publicized in the religious press, he said has forgiven the gunmen of Boko Haram, whose mass abduction of Nigerian schoolgirls has outraged the international community.

"The first thing I did was to forgive them," Nzeribe said. "Had they known better, they couldn't do that."

But Nzeribe isn't naïve: He is warning the world about how Boko Haram and its leader, Abubakar Shekau, commit atrocities with impunity.

"Everything he says he will do, he does them," Nzeribe said. "It gives them a sense of fulfillment and makes them want to do more.

"Just like al Qaeda, they are very, very destructive," he added.

He now prays for the kidnapped 276 girls, still missing in Nigeria.

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CNN's David Mattingly, Devon Sayers and Gregg Canes reported from Houston.

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