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My Biafran Story

My Biafran Story .org website is a collection of eye witness accounts of the Nigerian-Biafran civil war.
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DISARMED IN A TRENCH - PART 2

DISARMED IN A TRENCH - PART 2

Ojukwu never knew this until 1976 when we met in Washington DC at the reception the late Nchewi Imoke gave him. After I told him how I saved his life, he said he would like to meet Reginald whenever he came to Nigeria. But we never did.

Immediately Ojukwu’s plane took off, a long distance shelling started raining from Awommama and we could see the canons flying past the airport. The Nigerians had miscalculated, so the shelling hit a village and killed people there. In between this shelling an International Red Cross plane from Caritas arrived and instead of landing on the air strip it lowered and poured its food supplies on the tarmac. We loaded some in our van to send to my parents. Because of the shelling a lot of the evacuation flights were cancelled. After Ojukwu’s departure, Colonel Achuzia took over the podium and started calling people to board for evacuation. He called Captain Anuku. Anuku entered. Called Colonel Timothy Onwuatuegwu, but he was absent. Meanwhile, the pilot of the plane was already panicking because of the shelling that had just taken place. As people forced themselves in, the staircase broke and every person on it fell off. The pilot panicked and took off without closing the doors. One person fell off and died. A young girl had her head crushed by one of the tyres of the plane. She was about 7 years old and the daughter of a prominent Nigerian.

We kicked off with our jeep loaded with food. Many people had come to board the planes but could not, so there was an exodus of people leaving the airport. You can’t believe that from within that massive crowd I heard the voice of my youngest brother, my mother’s last child. He was shouting the name of my sister, “Echika, Echika, Echika.” I told Reggie that I just heard Ugo’s voice calling Echika, and he said, “Lambo, how can you hear Ugo’s voice in this crowd?” I said, “Driver, stop, let me go down. You can continue. If you don’t see me again, tell the story but I will not live with my conscience if I don’t investigate this voice.” Immediately I got down my brother cocked his Kalashnikov and ordered everybody down. He took over the wheels and we started driving slowly backwards, and who did we see? My last sister, Echika, holding my two youngest brothers. She was only eleven years while Ugo was four. He had fallen down and bruised his leg that was why he was calling out her name. We put them in the vehicle and took them straight to my parents.

What happened was that my mother had handed three of them to Colonel Anuku and asked him to take them overseas. Colonel Anuku put them in a vehicle with an orderly and driver with instructions to take them to the airport. Then he took his own children and rode with them in another vehicle. When the shelling started, the driver carrying my siblings panicked and fell into a ditch, brought the children out of the vehicle and fled. My mother cried and cried. Reginald cried also and said he’d never dispute anything I said again. It was providence.

Many children got lost or separated from their parents that way. It could have been the same with my siblings. If they had evacuated them to Gabon or Ivory Coast they would have been sent to an orphanage and who knows what their fate would have been afterwards. My mother was the head of the Red Cross in Owerri and because there were so many abandoned children on the streets, she was helping people adopt these children. She would give them documents which they would take to their local governments and register the adoption.

During her funeral in 2000, a woman came with a huge cow, many dancers, and a young lady. During the presentation, she told the congregation how my mother knew she had been pining away from childlessness and asked her to adopt a child, who was one and half years old at the time. That was the young lady with her; all grown up. She told the crowd it was because of that her adopted daughter that she wakes up every day to face face the world.

Everybody applauded.

[Photos taken from the internet]

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Dr. Achiugo Lambert Agugua is a Consultant and Businessman.

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Guest — PJay
My heart bleeds reading these recounts of what happened during the war.
Thursday, 24 May 2018 13:10
Guest — Okoli C.U
War stories that melts the heart. We need this and more to know about the past, appreciate the present , then plan for a better fu... Read More
Friday, 15 June 2018 06:51
Guest — Ọbụmneke
This melt my heart. Each time I read this sort of recount, I feel I was part of the war. I have struggled to study why it is so wi... Read More
Thursday, 26 July 2018 17:53
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DISARMED IN A TRENCH - PART 1

DISARMED IN A TRENCH - PART 1

Before the fall of Port Harcourt in 1968, there was a long-distance shelling from the high seas. The shell was falling so rapidly on Port Harcourt and became a threat to life. Prior to this time my younger ones and my mum had been evacuated to Nkwerre. I was working with Directorate of Petroleum at the time, so I stayed back in Port Harcourt with my father.

When we decided to evacuate PH, we carried a few items that were valuable, such as our Television, to a neighbour’s house. He was Mr. Graham-Douglas, a lawyer at the time, and he kept those things for us until the end of the war. We then loaded as much property as we could into my father’s car. I had a parrot I was very fond of but there was no room for it in the car so we simply opened its cage and let it out. We set off and the parrot also took off. It kept flying over us and when there was a hold-up it would hover close to the vehicle. It tracked our vehicle until we passed Elele and lost it and carried on.

It was around here that we saw my cousin, Mmagwu. She had her luggage on her back and was carrying her baby in her arms. There was no place for her to sit in the vehicle so I said to her, “Mmagwu, let me have the baby and when you come home you can take her from me.” But she said, “No, no, no! I won’t. Ebe m nwuru ka nwa m’ g’anwu - wherever I die, that’s where my child will die.” She made it to Nkwerre on foot and I was glad to see her a few days later.

I moved to Umuahia and joined the DMI. One day there was an air raid by what I thought was a very vicious Egyptian pilot. It was as though he was targeting me. I ran out from the Peugeot 404 I was driving and ran under a tree just as bullets started raining on the tree. One of them came towards my forehead but instead it hit a branch, cut the branch, fell on my shoulder and burnt me my right shoulder blade. I was shouting, “Oh my God, is my time up?” At that moment of my dismay, a petrol station exploded close by - kpoooo! People had their hands amputated. Many died. Later, I picked up the bullet and gave it to my friend who was going on a mission to buy weapons for Biafra. I asked him to show it to my sister in London. I wanted her to see the bullet that almost killed me. Many years later, I found out who flew that plane. It wasn’t an Egyptian pilot as I had thought. It was a retired Air Commodore and we are members of Full Gospel Business Men’s Fellowship. The day I gave the testimony, he got up and apologised and said he was the one who flew that plane. He said that every description I gave was correct, and that they were targeting the fuel station as part of actions to stifle the Biafran nation.

After this incident I joined the Biafran Navy and was sent to the School of Infantry at Bishop Shanahan College, Orlu. I passed out sometime in 1969 and was posted to Defence Head Quarters which was Head Quartered at St Catherine’s Secondary School, Nkwerre. I became a liaison between the School of Infantry, the Navy and the Defence Head Quarters, so I was communicating to Captain Anuku, the Commander of the Biafran Navy, and Lt. Col. Timothy Onwuatuegwu, the commander of the School of Infantry.

For some reason, which I attribute to God’s design, Nkwerre was the only place in Biafra that could not be hit during air raids. The Nigerian Air Force could hit Orlu and Atta but couldn’t hit Amaifeke, Abba, and the areas around Nkwerre. After the war I asked a pilot friend of mine, the late Ibikari Brown, the reason for this. He said from the air Nkwerre is in a valley, which is like a curvature, and when you are trying to hit a target inside that curvature the wind drifts it to one end of the curvature and that’s where it’s going to fall. You invariably miss the valley itself. Whereas if you use a missile, which the Nigerian Air Force wasn’t using then, it will pierce through the condition of the wind and go straight down to the target. So the wind shifts the movement of the bombs and drifts them from meeting the target. That is one of the reasons why the banks, hospitals, training schools, etc, were located at Nkwerre.

As a matter of fact, how I knew the war was about to end was that, on the 11th of January 1970, I had instructions to go and tell the late Colonel Timothy Onwuatuegwu, who was the Commandant at the School of Infantry in Orlu, and late Captain Anuku, the Commander of the Biafran Navy, to proceed to Uga Airport for evacuation out of Biafra. The Biafran government attempted to evacuate prominent people who could either be killed or arrested by the Nigerian soldiers after the surrender. I searched everywhere for Colonel Onwuatuegwu but I couldn’t find him. I was so distraught when I was returning from Ihioma but, all of a sudden, I saw a command vehicle parked on the road. It was Colonel Timothy Onwuatuegwu. I came out of my Q-movement vehicle, saluted him and said, “Sir, I have been looking for you.” He said, “What are you searching for me for?” I said, “I have a message from the DHQ that you should report at Uga Airport for evacuation.” He got very angry and said to me, “Don’t you bring me this kind of message again. A na-eme evacuate for what? Where are we going? All these children that we deceived, what will be their fate? I will die here. Go and tell H.E. [His Excellency] that I’m not going anywhere. I will die in this country. I have already signed my death warrant. Umuaka n’ine anyi deceive ru, ma ndi nwuru anwu, ma ndi di ndu, why are we running away – All these children we deceived, the ones who died, the ones who are alive, why are we running away? We should stay here and die with them.” He refused to come with me. By the way, at the end when General Effiong handed over and Colonel Onwuatuegwu knew he was being sought for, he tried to escape through Cameroon but they caught him at Calabar and killed him. That’s how he died – a very brilliant, nice human being. Anyway, I proceeded to Oguta and informed Captain Anuku to proceed to Uga. He agreed. I then called my younger brother, Reginald, who was a Major and said to him, “There’s a movement tonight. Ojukwu is leaving Biafra tomorrow night. Let’s go to the airport for that evacuation.”

We took one Major Asuquo and a couple of others with us to the airport. We went in a Quarter Master Movement Vehicle, which was in charge of all supplies from Defence Head Quarters. There was chaos at the airport. The check point was manned by the Commander of the Biafran Air Force, and when he was searching our vehicle, he flashed his torch on my face. I squinted and his orderly cocked his gun, demanding to know why I was frowning at his master. Angered, my brother cocked his own Kalashnikov and insisted the Commander should stop flashing the light on my face. Tensions were high and at that point we all knew it was no longer child’s play. Major Asuquo ran out of the vehicle and placated everybody, saying that any shots fired would result in a blood bath, an extra-ordinary implosion, as every uniformed person at the airport was armed to the teeth. They lowered their guns.

We went inside where Ojukwu was addressing people to keep the faith. Then he walked into the flight. I started searching for my brother and somebody said, “He’s in the trench over there.” He was actually there, aiming his gun at the fuel tank of Ojukwu’s plane. It was a Kalashnikov and it had tracer bullets. I ran to him and grabbed him. I said, “Reggie, Reggie. Why, why?” He said to me, “How can this man tell us we will fight to the last man and if we all die the grass will fight on our behalf, and now he wants to be the first to leave? Lambo, do you know the number of people who have died? No, I’m not going to allow him and if you touch me I will shoot you because I know I’m going to die here today.” I let go of him but I said, “You and I don’t really care whether we die here today or not, but the fact is that if you gun down this plane they will go and kill papa and mama, and all our brothers and sisters.” I started naming all our siblings one after the other, and he broke down and started crying. That is how I disarmed him in the trench.

[Photos taken from the internet]

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Dr. Achiugo Lambert Agugua is a consultant and business man.

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IMAGE FROM THE PAST

IMAGE FROM THE PAST

Relief planes are usually welcome into conflict zones, but during the Nigeria-Biafra war the planes of the Joint Church Aid were considered illegal. They were shot at and bombed by the Nigerian Air Force every night, and when crew members died, they were buried in graves at the end of the runway. After the war, the airstrip was closed down and the graves bulldozed away.

The image here shows some of the graves.

Photo courtesy of David Koren.

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IMAGE FROM THE PAST

IMAGE FROM THE PAST

David Koren was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Amaogwugwu, Umuahia, between 1964 and 1966. When the Nigeria-Biafra war broke out in 1967, he accepted a call to work on the Biafran Airlift. He helped to organize the warehouses in Sao Tome, fly relief material into Biafra and sometimes evacuated vulnerable children-the very ill and malnourished-who were at the risk of dying. His account of the Airlift is published in a book - Far Away In The Skies. It is on sale on Amazon. A Nigerian version of the book will be launched in August 2018. 

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THE WORLD IS DEEP - PART TWO; DAVID KOREN'S STORY

THE WORLD IS DEEP - PART TWO; DAVID KOREN'S STORY

THE WORLD IS DEEP - PART TWO

Barry and Larry often worked as a team, and Leo and I as a team.  On a night that Barry and Larry were flying, Leo and I were drinking with the ARCO mechanics.  There was Arnie the Swede, Helmut the Dane, Smyth the Englishman, Ben the Israeli, and three or four other Europeans.  They complained about being overworked, that it was too much for the handful of them to keep those old planes flying.  Leo and I said that we could turn a wrench, and we would be glad to help them if they showed us what to do. Chi nyere m aka - God gave me hands. And I can use them.

The next day ARCO hired us as help mechanics, and the Portuguese airport authorities issued us flight line IDs as Ajudante de Mecanico.  And so we became more formally connected with the airlift, not just nebulous Field Service Officers.

We began our career as mechanics by removing parts from the damaged DC-7, noting carefully how we did it.  Then we would ride into Biafra with the first flight, and work all night removing the same parts from another DC-7, which was down at Uli, and then come out with the last flight.  The downed plane had had mechanical trouble and couldn’t take off.  The next day the MiGs shot it up.  The right wing and the fuselage burned; remarkably the left wing was still intact, with fuel still left in the wing tanks.

***

There was a night at Uli when a late fog rolled in.  I could hear a plane cross overhead and circle around, waiting for an opportunity to set down. It never came, and the plane returned to Sao Tome.  That was my ride back.  In a way I was glad, because I got to spend a day in Biafra.

The sky turned slowly from black to grey as the morning light filtered through the fog.  Reverend Aitken appeared.

“I’m going to Umuahia.  Do you want to ride along?”

“Yes!”

I didn’t see my old school, Ohuhu Community Grammar School, because the road to Amaogwugwu was not on our way.  I did see a convent school where another PCV, Nancy Amadei, had been stationed. I saw women on the side selling food from enamel pans.  I saw garri, peppers, and vegetables.  I saw one woman frying yam chips in palm oil over a charcoal fire. I saw chickens, which surprised me – I thought they’d be all gone by then.  This was the heart of Biafra, but I saw no begging.

***

On an afternoon when I had just finished loading a plane, and the engines were started, Father Byrne came to me with a large package. He ordered me to stop the plane and put the package on board. I objected that the plane was already buttoned up and on its way.  We could put it on the next plane.  He said that the package was very important and must go on that flight. I ran around in front of the plane waving to the pilot. I pointed to the package, and he stopped taxiing. Helmut helped me put it in the forward cargo hold. When we backed away and the plane moved on, I said to him, “Do you know what is in that package?” He didn’t. It was sanitary napkins for the Nuns.

We washed a DC-7 one day. It took all day and a lot of soap and water. I was soaking wet, but that wasn’t so bad for a hot day on the equator.  The point of cleaning a plane was to reduce the skin friction, making it faster and more fuel efficient. As we did every evening when we weren’t flying, we watched the planes take off, and later watched as they returned. The plane we washed didn’t return.  We waited and watched and turned to the tower for news, but there was nothing.  It was gone. I had the terrible feeling that we had done something wrong when we washed the plane and caused it to crash. The investigation later determined that it had hit an iroko tree on approach to Uli in the dark.  The plane disintegrated.

***

There was a church near one end of the runway at Uli.  The crew of our plane and others that went down during the airlift were buried in the churchyard.  I heard that after the war Nigeria bulldozed the airstrip to eliminate the memory of it.  And they bulldozed the graves.

***

In spite of the bombing, the mechanical challenges, and the hazardous navigation, the planes kept flying, most of the time. At the height of the airlift, during the time I was there, we had up to 44 arrivals a night at Uli, which made it one of the busiest airports in Africa. But there were two times that I remember when the air crews refused to fly, and the airlift stopped for a few days. On one occasion a rumor spread that the Nigerian MiGs would begin flying at night to shoot our planes down. Caritas and WCC pleaded with the crews to fly, and eventually they did.  Another rumor stopped the airlift a second time.  One night the news spread that France had recognized Biafra. In jubilation Biafran soldiers fired their guns in the air.  Some of the bullets struck a plane coming in at Uli. There was no serious damage, but the crews stopped flying again until the WCC and Caritas petitioned Biafra to enforce firing discipline.

***

Before a return flight, Reverend Aiken summoned me again.  A van was parked in a clearing near the plane. Several Biafran men were standing about, silent and uneasy. There were children in the van in the last stages of starvation.  They were placed on a mat on the ground. Their eyes were open but unseeing. I kneeled down looking at one boy, appalled at his condition. He mumbled something. A man said to me, “Do you know what he is saying?” I didn’t. “He is saying, ‘My father, why don’t you speak to me? Don’t you know me?’”

Evacuated children were taken to a convent called San Antonio. After a week they could sit up, and they could feed themselves. I went to see them. As I came into the compound, about a dozen of them ran to my side.

A Nun told me a story about one of the children. He led a protest against a particular spread the kids didn’t like on their bread. At his signal all the children put down their bread and stopped eating. Some of the very young ones were reluctant to do this, but they went along. They won, and they were not served peanut butter again.

You never win, if you give up when things are easy.

Someone said that the airlift prolonged Biafra’s agony by bringing false hope. Without food for their people the leaders would have given up sooner.  It sounds like a bad idea whose time had come, an idea that someone put forward and many others adopted without thought, a piece of facile wisdom. It makes sense if you don’t stop to think about.  In fact, if you accept the idea, you can stop thinking altogether – no need to consider the complexities.

The idea can be accepted by people with no personal, immediate concept of large scale random killing.  They have not seen gangs running through their neighborhoods, dragging people out on the street and chopping them up.  Biafran people saw the trains full of refugees pouring in from all over Nigeria. They accepted those refugees into their homes and villages. And they heard their personal, immediate stories.

Another dimension, beyond security, for continuing the fight, is the concept of freedom to control one’s own destiny – not just to avoid disaster, but to build a positive future.  In the shrinking Biafran enclave was the highest concentration of Ph.D.s in all of Africa. The motivation to learn and to grow into a modern society kept Biafra going.

***

On my final trip to Biafra I was arrested as a Nigerian spy. Throughout the interrogation I remained respectful. I answered everything honestly, so when they tried to trip me up, I could always come back to what was true. I was not confrontational; I was not indignant. 

After the interrogation I was led to a small room, my cell, furnished with a simple couch and some chairs. 

Reverend Aitken showed up. He brought me a bag with some fresh clothes, magazines, a sandwich, and a couple of bottles of warm beer. The look on his face was disappointment, not sympathy.  I didn’t understand it then, but I may have caused the airlift a real problem.

I was interrogated again.  This time the commander told me that they weren’t sure what they were going to do with me.  He said they were thinking of sending me to Umuahia, then the seat of the Biafran government. The head of the government was General Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu. His 2IC was Dr. Michael I. Okpara, who had been the former Premier of the Eastern Region of Nigeria and the founder of Ohuhu Community Grammar School. I told the commander that I would be happy to go to Umuahia and perhaps meet Dr. Okpara again. I would learn later that they took spies and saboteurs to Umuahia to be shot.

One of the young airport officials would sit with me and chat. I gave him some money and asked him to buy some kola nuts, oji, and palm wine, mmanya.  We invited a few others and sat outside in the warm African evening.  We broke the kola.  “Onye wetara oji, wetara ndo - He who brings kola, brings life.”  Someone there knew my name, because he knew one of my students from O.C.G.S who told him about me.  I told them about the time I had helped Aitken carry some wounded people from the village to the hospital. I asked if anyone knew how they were.  None did, but later someone inquired and reported that the boy and the young woman were recovering well. 

***

I was called before the commander.

He said, “David, I am ordering you deported from Biafra.  You must never return again.”  As he said it, he was trying to sound very stern, but his demeanor was that of a father chastising an impetuous young man. I was escorted out to one of our relief planes. I helped unload it, and then I flew back to Sao Tome for the last time.

***

Of the people who came together for the airlift, whatever they loved about fighting, whatever they loved about flying, whatever they loved about religion, whatever they loved about life, their paths crossed in a filigree of human motivational trajectories, called Biafra.

***

Years later I gave a talk to a group of college students in Buffalo, New York. These were all students from the region formerly known as Biafra. I told them my stories and I showed them my pictures. I concluded with an observation.  Many Americans believe that most relief aid never gets to those who need it, that it is diverted by corruption. One young man from the back of the room stood up.  He said, “When we were children, we heard your planes going over at night. We never knew who you were, but we got the food.  Every person in this room is alive today because of what you did.” Then they stood up and gave me a prolonged ovation.

Uwa de egwu.

THE END

PHOTO CREDIT - THE INTERNATIONAL COMMITTEE OF THE RED CROSS

PHOTO CAPTION - LOADING RELIEF GOODS INTO RED CROSS PLANE

PHOTOGRAPHER - VATERLAUS, MAX; 1968

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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