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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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GOOD INTENTIONS, by Marie Louise Schipper

GOOD INTENTIONS, by Marie Louise Schipper

Fifty One years ago, the Nigeria-Biafra war grabbed the world’s attention with its sad, haunting images in newspapers, magazines and television sets. Forty Eight years after it ended, the stories of that tragedy are still being told through films, documentaries, dramas, art works and exhibitions, music, books, in conferences and lectures. One of the people who has documented an aspect of that conflict is Marie Louise Schipper, a Dutch journalist working for OneWorld magazine and de Volkskrant newspaper. She has written a book about ten Biafran children who were evacuated to the Netherlands from Biafra for medical attention. The title of the book is Goede Bedoelingen which translates to 'Good Intentions.' 

In 1968, Marie was a young girl living with her parents. According to her, “It was a big item because it was the first international aids for starvation in Africa and nobody realized what was going on at that time. We didn’t know a lot about Africa and as a matter of fact not much about Nigeria as well. And Africa was an exotic country far, far, far away at that time. So Nigeria came into our living rooms and we could see what happened. The news in the newspaper and television was so overwhelming of these dying children. And my parents - they were devout Catholics - always told me and my sister that we should care about other people. They would tell us to finish our plates and that we should think about the children of Biafra. The images made a big impression on me, as a child. The Dutch gave a lot of money [to the relief effort] because they felt we should do something because in WW2 so many people died, and it was determined that in Biafra far more children died. Another reason these children made such a big impression on me had to do with the war stories in my own family. My father worked as a forced laborer in Germany. He was 17. My mother’s family was on the run and had to live with a family they didn’t know. My grandfather died during a bombardment. He was never found.” 

When Marie became a journalist, she was surprised that the stories of these ten children were not written. "I thought there must be somebody who has written this all down. But there was nothing written. It was like when snow has fallen and everything is completely white and nobody has run into it. That was my first impression, that it was completely blank. There was nothing about it, only publications in the newspapers. When I started interviewing people everybody said, ‘No, I don’t remember these children, I don’t remember them.’ And I said, ‘Why don’t you remember them, because it doesn’t happen often that ten children from Nigeria, out of a war, come to the Netherlands.’ I felt they were hiding something. And I thought, ‘What are they hiding?’ I discovered that one of the children who was here had epilepsy and he was really ill. He was a bit retarded and was also in a foster home. He needed a lot of attention but people from the Nigerian embassy were very strict and said the children have to go back to Nigeria. The foster parents didn’t want to let them go because they didn’t know where they were sending them to. The foster parents of the sickest child were under so much pressure, so they decided to send him back to Nigeria. He was first sent to Gabon, with enough medicine for half a year, and afterwards sent to one of the rehabilitation centers at Ikot Ekpene. His family didn’t show up, so he was sent to Nung Udoe Orphanage and he died shortly afterwards. And I think that was why all the doctors were saying they didn’t know a thing. That was the reason they didn’t want to talk about it because they sent a boy who was really ill back to a country that was recovering from the war without proper medication."

“How did you eventually find somebody who told you the truth?” I asked. 

“I spoke to a lot of nurses and they had memories about these children. They also had photographs and they told me about the foster parents, and I said that must be the reason nobody wanted to talk about it.” 

“Why do you think the Biafran authorities decide to take them to the Netherlands instead of Ivory Coast, Gabon or Sao Tome?" 

“There reason was primarily because of Abie Nathan, an Isreali pilot. He was also a humanitarian and did a lot of food aid. He tried to mobilize the Isreali people to send in goods and food for the people of Biafra. He was very popular and charismatic, and had a lot of connections in the Netherlands. He was filmed by a television crew asking people to do something about Biafra; that everybody should give a hand. When this documentary was broadcast a lot of people got mobilized. He said he convinced Ojukwu that these children should be sent to the Netherlands where they could get proper help. But Ojukwu said no. Finally they decided to bring the children to the Netherlands as a symbolic gesture where the children in Europe would get acquainted with the Biafran children while the Biafran children would get more knowledge about the world. The decision was made and ten of the children came to the Netherlands. 

At the end of the war, eight of the children were taken back to Nigeria. But two remained in the Netherlands. The official documents said the two who remained in the Netherlands had no parents and family back home. But in the 1990's, one of them decided to look for her family. She discovered she had two villages full of relations. She returned to Nigeria to meet them.” 

When Marie started to gather material for her book, she knew she had to make the trip to Nigeria. 

“If I didn’t visit Nigeria, the story wouldn’t have been complete.” 

“That was very courageous of you. So, how did the journey to Nigeria start?” I asked. 

“I went to the African Studies Centre here in Netherlands, in Leiden. And one of the people who was connected to the African Institute, he works nowadays in England, he said to me the best thing I could do was contact *Emeka Anyanwu, an Anthropologist at Nsukka University. I thought it was a better idea the students of Edlyne go on research and try to find out what happened to the children. And it worked fairly well because we found two of them. It was like a needle in a haystack.  When we knew they were traced, we traveled from Nsukka to Owerri, from Owerri to Umuahia, and from Umuahia to Orlu. We visited the hospital in Umuahia [Queen Elizabeth Teaching Hospital] and all the places that were important during the war. I visited the airfield at Uli.” 

“Is it still there?” I asked. 

“Yes. You can see the traces of the road and there was a man who saw us walking and was curious. It’s not always you see White people there. He told us that was the road and he also knew the Ojukwu bunker. It was a small bunker. Even Edlyne didn’t know there was a smaller one.” 

It took Marie Louise Schipper fifteen years to finish the book, and it was published on October 27, 2017, in Amsterdan. Unfortunately, the book is written in Dutch and, at the moment, Marie cannot afford to hire a translator. She said, "I would like to give the opportunity for more people to read it.” 

 [I spoke to Marie on the 23rd of May, 2018, via Facebook and these are excerpts from our chat.]

 

 

 

 

 

 

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MUSIC IN A TIME OF WAR - 3

MUSIC IN A TIME OF WAR - 3

 

SHOWDOWN AT LIDO by Frank Onyezili 

The famed Garden City, Port Harcourt, Nigeria, was reverberating with news of the arrival of the new kids on the block. The Fractions a pop music group comprising Travis Oli on vocals and guitar, Mike Obanye on drums, Jake Sollo on bass and Frank Zilli on rhythm guitar, had hit town parading Ify Jerry, their new lead guitarist, and were literally setting it alight with their funky sound, music that was refreshingly new in those climes in those days. However, their arrival signalled intensification of rivalry between the group and the Hykkers, the landlords at Lido nightclub, situated on a street next to Hotel Emilia where the Fractions were based.

It was 1968 and the civil war between Nigeria’s Federal troops and the secessionist Biafran forces was at its peak. There was not the entertainment of Premiership or La Liga football, no Diamond league and no Hussain Bolt. Just war, and music, to which everyone, soldier and civilian alike, flocked. For the better part of three years the combatants were locked in a war of attrition, in which no quarters were given nor prisoners taken, a war that by conservative estimates cost more than two million lives, mostly of women and children. First Nsukka, then Enugu had fallen to Federal troops who were facing serious challenges of their own as the Biafrans overran the Midwest as far as Benin and were threatening Ore, right in the heartland of Nigeria’s western region. But there in Port Harcourt it was still music, sweet soulful music, opium for the rich and poor alike in the Biafran enclave in a time of war.

The Lido was a shrine of sorts to night-clubbers in Port Harcourt who gather there like ants to sugar, to listen, more listen than dance, to the music dished out by the Hykkers, a five-member pop music group led by ever-immaculately-dressed Bob Miga on rhythm guitar and with frontman Pat Finn on vocals. The Lido itself was an eye-catcher fashioned in the finest traditions of Las Vegas, with cool shaded lighting embellished with custom-built music acoustics. Every Saturday nite was Lido nite in Port Harcourt and security details needed to be deployed around the perimeters of the usually jam-packed venue. 

The Hykkers were masters of their art and were superbly organized by Eddie Roberts, a wily professional image-maker, spin doctor and thoroughbred dealer who had negotiated a lucrative long-term contract for the Hykkers at the Lido. He did not have to say that he saw the Fractions as interlopers in his own backyard, intruders that needed to the uprooted and disposed of. For years, in Port Harcourt, the Hykkers had held sway, becoming a bit complacent, and the coming of the Fractions represented both a wake-up call as well as a serious, even existential, threat to the Hykkers. And Eddie Roberts was determined to “drown” the Fractions.

Had the Fractions remained in Enugu, from where they started out in Biafra, the showdown at Lido would probably have been averted and the Hykkers would have continued to rule the roost. But the Coal City had been overrun and the fleeing Fractions landed in Port Harcourt impromptu. Upon arrival, Frank Zilli, him of the Beatles hairdo, had visited the home of his childhood friend and primary schoolmate, Bob Miga, who barely concealed his indignation at the Fractions’ invasion of their territory. The rest of the Hykkers more openly cold-shouldered me as well as the other Fractions, flaring the flames that literally stuffed out any chance of the two groups accommodating each other and making music peacefully.

Much of the rivalry had to do with the demography of the fan-bases of the two groups. While fans of the Hykkers were generally older folks, the Fractions and their rancorous music appealed more to the youth, soldier and civilian alike, a new wave of music lovers who filled up every inch of space especially at the Fractions Sunday ‘jumps’. While the Hykkers’ music was mostly laid back, sedentary, the Fractions’ were the exact opposite, vivacious, unrelenting, as they dazzled with stage acts which Travis Oli, the acclaimed king of the smooch, smartly choreographed. The fans of each group loved their own to the core, almost to the point of fanaticism, even long after the music had stopped.

Surreptitiously, three events, all unrelated, combined to make a Hykkers/Fractions showdown inevitable: First, using his connection to the Biafran leader Odumegwu Ojukwu, Tony Amadi, a seasoned and respected journalist in his own right and the savvy, innovative and enterprising manager of the Fractions had the group accredited as the “Biafran Armed Forces Entertainment Group”, a status that came with handy fringe benefits such as chauffer-driven transportation, immunity from molestation from soldiers and easy access to highly-placed government officials. Second, Pal Akalonu, a famous veteran broadcaster and musician had taken to a strong liking of the Fractions and was openly marketing them in Port Harcourt and Aba, a noisy populous city near the Hykkers stronghold. And, thirdly, Mr Ukonnu, a TV producer of note in both Nigeria and Biafra had just invited and recorded the Fractions in Aba for TV viewers across Biafra, a first in those days, broadening the Fractions’ fan-base considerably and incurring even more loathing by fans of the Hykkers. There had to be a decider to the question on everyone’s lips: Who was the greater, the Fractions or the Hykkers? And there would be no neutrals.

And what a showdown it was. The Fractions conceded home advantage to the Hykkers by agreeing to play at Lido, for the first time. Also the Lido acoustics better suited the tenor-toned ambience of the Hykkers’ musical renditions. But the Fractions were quietly confident that when the chips were down they would deliver both good music and catchy stagecraft, better than whatever the Hykkers could offer. They were sure that when it mattered, their twin advantages, in stagecraft and raunchy soulful sound, would prevail.

The ground rules were simple: beginning with the home group, each group would render two numbers, there would be a second round, again of two numbers each, to be followed by a finale in which each group would play its last number. The body language of the audience would be the judge and jury.

So, up first, came the Hykkers with Pat Finn belting out “Please Please Please” the James Brown 1956 rhythm and blues classic. The older folks in the jam-packed auditorium crooned while the youth listened with bemusement. It was not a dance tune and received only generous applause all round. Pat Finn’s next number was “Walking the dog”, Rufus Thomas’ 1965 hit, which drew a sizeable number of dancers mostly their own fans. The Fractions opened with Arthur Conley’s 1967 single, “Sweet Soul Music”, which had Travis Oli taunting and teasing his audience with the refrain question ”… do you like good music?”, to which the youths, who were already familiar with the song, responded loftily “Yeah yeah”. But, more than that, the youths surged to the dance floor as Travis worked them into a frenzy, twisting and turning, weaving the cords of his microphone round his wrists before detaching it from its stand and walking right up to the centre of the dance floor, still asking *do you like good music?”. The atmosphere was electric and, suddenly, there was no holding back. The Fractions without a pause went into their second number, “Hold on I’m coming”, recorded by Sam and Dave in 1966 under the Stax label, with Ify Jerry’s funky lead guitar wailing another infectious refrain. Lido erupted and this time, it was youths and older folks alike wriggling to Travis’ sandpaper-like vocals, as sweat poured from his face and eager female fans obliged with their handkerchiefs.

In the second round, the Hykkers opened with “Baby I love you” the 1963 megahit by the Ronettes. Here was Pat Finn doing what he does best, crooning teasingly with the backing duo of Bob and Eddy in harmonious encores of the title line “Baby I love you”. This time the older folks stepped on to the dance floor, rocking gently within tight grips. Not to be outdone, Pat Finn, without a pause, went into James Brown’s “Papas got a brand new bag” which also got youths joining in on the dance floor, leaving no room for tight grips.

For their second round the Fractions rendered “Knock on Wood”, an Otis Redding 1967 hit which again the Fractions had popularised at almost every household level in Biafra and which received tremendous ovation once the audience recognised its opening riffs. With a stylish change of pace, orchestrated by the canny Mike on drums, the Fractions delved into their own original song, “Do the Smooch”, performed as only Travis could and drawing virtually every one to the dance floor as Travis led the tutorials on those new dance steps of his, dance steps that have now outlived him.

At “Do the Smooch”, Lido lit up as never before. Never before had a musical group mesmerised its audience so completely. Biafran currency notes flew from all corners of the auditorium, aimed at Travis’ sweaty face and Travis, oblivious to it all, continued to thrill even the most ardent of the Hykkers fans.

For their finale the Hykkers, perhaps realising that the show was not going their way, opted for an upbeat dance tune, “Hang on Sloopy” penned by the McCoys in 1965. The audience responded with a few getting on to the dance floor. But the atmosphere was tense, subdued, as if in anticipation of what the Fractions were coming up with next. And when they came up, the Fractions did not disappoint. Astonishingly and with telling effect the Fractions rendered their own version of *Papa’s got a brand new bag”, which the Hykkers had offered earlier. First it was Jerry’s merry twang of his lead guitar followed by Jake Sollos thundering bass lines and Mike’s crisp drumming, anchored by Frank Zilli’s steady rhythm chords, before Travis bellowed a mind-blowing rendition of the same song Pat Finn had sung earlier. The difference was clear. While the Hykkers had lumbered and laboured through the number, the Fractions free-wheeled, weaving through the gears with minimum fuss, and with stagecraft to match James Brown’s. 

The audience responded in cash and kind, plastering Travis’ face with Biafran notes of all denominations and occupying every inch of space on the dance floor. Then enthralled fans, from both camps, surged on to the stage, urging Travis and the other Fractions on. But Lido had seen and heard enough. The lights went off momentarily, a warning that the show had ended. The crowd turned round and headed for the exits, into the street and into the night, the names of every Fraction on every lip, young and old. The showdown was over, the judge and jury had turned in an unmistakeable verdict with their feet, hands and wallets, and the Fractions were the uncrowned masters of pop music in Biafra.          

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Frank Onyezili was the Rhythm Guitarist for The Fractions.

Cover photograph - courtesy Frank Onyezili - shows The Fractions in session.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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MY INTUITION SAVED ME

MY INTUITION SAVED ME

People used to call my father Mallam because he lived in Jos most of his life. During the pogrom it was his Hausa friends who protected him. He was half-dressed when they bundled him out of his house and rushed him to a helicopter. It landed safely at Onitsha. 

My only brother was at Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria, studying Electrical Engineering. When people started returning we did not see him. We were all worried. My grandmother lost hope. One faithful day, as I came out to the front of the house, a taxi stopped and, behold, it was my brother. Everybody started shouting. He started narrating how they were evacuated from the campus and given protection. They were provided with vehicles that helped to evacuate them safely back to the East. 

Threats were going on back and forth, so the tension was building up. Some months later, we started hearing that war had broken out. People were calling it police action. Soon, we started hearing that Biafran and Nigerian soldiers were fighting at the war front. Then, the first air raid came. The plane was dropping what Biafrans described as kerosene tins. Months later, the second one came. I was standing outside calling my mother, “Come and see this plane o. It looks like birds are following it. Why are birds following it?” The next thing I heard was an explosion and smoke from the building next to our own. I shouted, “Mama, it is bomb o.” People were shouting. Noise everywhere. I didn’t know that what I was calling birds were bombs. 

The night before we left Onitsha there was shooting from night till morning. Red hot bullets being sprayed all over. We didn’t know what to do. The next morning my brother said, “Let us go.” Where are we heading to? Nobody knew. But there was only one direction - towards Owerri, Ihiala, Oba. Each person carried whatever they could carry. I carried my school box that contained my uniform and a few clothes. One of my elder sisters carried my mother’s box of wrappers. She carried it instead of her own. And those wrappers saved us. The only problem was how to convey our grandmother. She had a breakdown because of the trauma, so we were dragging her. We’ll walk and stop, walk and stop. It delayed us but we were still moving. The sound of shelling kept reducing so we knew we were fleeing the battle field. Along the road we met a family we knew and they took my grandmother in their car. They said they’ll drop her where we could pick her up. As God will have it they dropped her at Oba, in a church. It was an open place where people who were tired of trekking stopped to rest. People were still escaping, telling stories about those who could not escape, how they were being killed by soldiers.

We left Oba a few days later. I don’t know who organised the transport. It was a lorry and it dropped us at St. Martins Church, Odata, at Ihiala. It’s one big church. It’s still there. 

The following day, directly opposite the church, we found a family who welcomed us into their home; Simon Okoli’s family. I still remember their name. They were very kind to us. They gave us one room in their house. It had a bamboo bed, the type called anaba aghalu. When they saw the room was small for all of us they gave us another one. They gave us pots and allowed us to use their kitchen. They said we shouldn’t pay for the rooms. We gave the bed to our grandmother. We had picked her from a refugee camp where our family friends had dropped her. But even though this family welcomed us they said we were saboteurs, because of Major Ifeajuna. During the war, if you were from Onitsha, there was a stigma attached to you.

We only had that half bucket of rice my sister carried from Onitsha but soon relief materials started coming in. There was nothing like a camp there but we gathered at a particular place and each family got their own share. 

There were no jobs, no work, so ideas started coming into our heads. One day my immediate elder sister said, “This meat we don’t eat, let us not start suffering from kwashiorkor.” She would buy native fowls, cut them into parts and take to Nkwo Ogbe - their market - to sell. We would make a little gain. When we didn’t sell the head and legs we’d take them home for our soup. 

One fateful day, my mother gave us various assignments and mine was to go to St. Martins and queue up for salt. I refused to go and my mother caned me. Instead, I followed my sister to the market to sell our chicken parts. I think there was only one lap remaining when I said to her, “We are leaving this place right now. Carry this tray let us go away.” She asked why, but I insisted we were leaving. On our way home we saw our brother chatting with a police man. He waved at us. Then I looked in the air and called out, “Ngozi, are you seeing what I am seeing?” She said, “What is it?” I said, “Look up. That plane is not making any sound.” The plane was hovering, turning to one side, turning to another side. I said, “Did they shoot it somewhere and it wants to crash?” Before I finished saying it, we heard an explosive noise. The plane was shelling the market, the meat section, that same spot where we had been standing. Sellers and buyers were mangled. As we watched, the plane moved in the direction of our house, releasing rockets and bullets. We ran into a bushy area and while I was taking cover I was looking and pointing upwards. My sister smacked me and said, “Lie down, lie down,” but I said, “I will not lie down. I want to see who is in that plane.” The plane moved towards the direction of the church, three times, releasing rockets and bullets. The sounds were accompanied with light, like lightning. It was the worst air raid I ever saw. When we got home we heard that that church compound, where I was supposed to line up for salt, was the target. All that maneouvring the plane was doing was to get the most accurate angle to hit the people on the line. As people narrated what happened, my mother looked at me, looked at me, looked at me. I cannot tell you why I refused to go to that church but I have always been intuitive. And I used to be stubborn when I was small. If I didn’t want to do something I wouldn’t do it. After that day, she never asked me to do anything I didn’t want to do. 

In 1968, my grandmother died and we buried her in Ihiala. My brother went to one Irish Reverend Father at St. Martins Church, Odata - Father Brady - and told him we wanted to know if our uncle was still in Lagos or not. The Reverend Father made inquiries and found out he had left for Dublin with his wife, when the war started. They sent a packet of Complan milk, through Rev Father Brady, and my uncle later wrote to confirm that we received it. A few days later, the Reverend Father just drove inside the compound and opened the boot. What did we see? A box as high as this, square, sealed. It was filled with all manner of tinned food: meat, corned beef, stock fish soaked in salt granules as big as this, giant tins of corn beef, fish, sardines, bread, assorted tinned foods, seasoning cubes, cheese. It is because of this that I usually tell people that I ate the best of food during the Biafran war. We made a lot of Biafran money from the salt, cloths and Chicken that we were selling then. 

Inside that box there was also an envelope with dollars, so somebody advised my brother to start trading in tobacco. We contacted his friend who was working at Ulli airport and through him, a pilot brought back the first bag of tobacco. The women who were trading on it were buying it off him and selling same to soldiers at the war front. We made a lot of Biafran money and that was how we survived. Before then, we were selling my mother’s wrappers, all those costly Georges and Abadas, and people were buying them. We even sold my box. I cried o. 

We left Ihiala on January 17. By then the Nigerian soldiers had reached Ihiala. Umuahia had fallen and Ojukwu had left. So the village head and the elders took a decision to make peace with the soldiers. They welcomed them and negotiated with them not to touch anybody in Ihiala. So there was peace in Ihiala. The soldiers used to come to the stream where we used to fetch water. They’ll just give us their water bottles to fill for them and we were always very cautious. When they leave we start fetching again. Thank God for the wisdom he gave the Igwe. 

A few days after they arrived lorries appeared. Evacuation. We didn’t waste time. Everybody started going back. Up till today I do not know who arranged for the vehicles. We jumped inside and they dropped us at Fegge, Onitsha.

-Dr. Mrs. Lillian Chibuogu Ilo

[Photo taken from the internet]

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'AFIA ATTACK' - A Young Girl's Account

'AFIA ATTACK' - A Young Girl's Account

Then it started. Bombs and more bombs. At a time, as early as 4 o’clock my mother would wake us up to have our bath and our breakfast, then she would pack our food and send us into the drainage. She had identified where parents were hiding their children. They dropped them in the morning and in the evening they picked them up. They were like gutters and you saw the water gushing out. If it was the bigger ones we’d take kitchen stools and the smaller children would sit, while our bigger sisters would lie down. Sometimes we couldn’t even sit, so we’ll just stretch out. That is where we’ll be from as early as 6.00 am till 6.00 pm. They didn’t have a choice. They had to protect us.

We were living on Asa Road, Aba, a very popular street. We were on the first floor and there were shops on the ground floor. There was a record shop there and, because people were hungry for news, they would gather in front of the shop during the news time. The volume of the radio would be raised to high heavens so that no matter how far away you were sitting or standing, you could hear the news. On one of those days, at exactly 4.00 o’clock, when the signature tune was on signalling that the news was about to start, they bombed our house. I don’t know if they were getting information from saboteurs because they knew when to strike. They were bombing and shelling at the same time- fighter and bomber. Eight Six people were killed that day. Bodies were scattered all over the place. You don’t want to see it. Heads, legs, hands, in different directions. There was brain stuck on our ceiling. One bullet landed on my father’s bed. Luckily for us my father would usually take his siesta but on that day he didn’t take his rest. Instead, he was discussing with his friend at the back of our house. My sister and her fiancée were wounded. The horrifying experience of children seeing dead bodies, not just dead bodies, but mutilated bodies. There was another incident when a petrol station opposite our house got bombed. It ignited so much fire that both the people who were buying and those who were selling perished.

Kwashiorkor became the order of the day. People were eating anything in sight - hibiscus flower, leaves, rats, lizards, cats, everything in sight. But we were lucky because my mother participated in Ahia attack – o zuru ahia attack. If she told you what she went through erh. She spoke a lot of languages so she was able to pass a lot of barricades on her way to Atani to trade. You know it’s a border so people were also coming from the other end to trade. She used to take Singer Machines to the border, the type operated by foot. They were packed in big cases. The Nigerians were buying them a lot. I don’t know why. We had a lot of them in the house. But I didn’t bother to ask her where she was getting them from. Before she went, they would nail narrow pieces of wood around the four sides of the wooden case and fill the gaps with coins, before putting the wooden cases inside cartons. She would set off with my senior brother carrying the machine. When they got to a point they would take a canoe and cross to the other side and follow the apiam way. They usually arrived on markets days. They exchanged the coins for Nigerian money and the exchange rate was quite high. She would use the money to buy plantain and fish, crayfish, garri and everything we needed in our house. Our house became a mecca of sorts because people were coming to our house to buy these things. Then she would go get some more machines. They also used to buy fish and people would come to the house to dry the fish for her. Sometimes, when they had to cross a stream the water would get to her chest. And she couldn’t swim.  

One day a woman who knew she was trading in faraway places approached her and asked, “n’o bulu kwa na enwe ndi cholu umu aka ebe anwa, g’enye f’ego ka fa wee nye ndi nke ozo nni – if there were people who would take some of her children and give her money so she could feed the rest.” My mother told the woman she couldn’t do that sort of thing; that she had 9 children who were also suffering. She told the women to endure the hardship and if she was willing she would introduce her to the attack trade. The woman was not doing it out of wickedness. People were having many children at that time and, rather than lose all her children to hunger, she must have felt it was better to sell some and use the money to feed the rest.

Caritas had designated areas where they used to sell food. It was shared family by family. If they did it individually those who had more children would get more, although they needed it more too, but they decided they’d rather deal with families. At the beginning it was well organised because they were distributing the items themselves, but when they left the people working at the directorate started diverting the items. You had to bribe them to get food. People stood in the queues for days and it still didn’t get to them. They were even selling these things in the market. My mum had money so sometimes we bought from the market. But what about those who couldn’t afford it?

Life was unbearable. The trekking we did in those years, I can’t tell you how many million miles we covered. When Umuahia fell we trekked for three days. In the night we entered a bush. My mother would not sleep. My father would not sleep. They would stay awake just watching their children sleep. We left again and got to a place with nothing in sight except an abandoned primary school, without a roof. From there my mother would go out looking for a market or a gathering where she could buy food.

My mum discovered a place called Umunze, also in Mbano. One of the chiefs gave us a place and my mother paid pounds as the rent. From Umunze we went to Umuchu. It was at that time that my sister and I started our period. I woke one morning and when I saw the blood  I screamed. I didn’t know what it was. My mother gave me a bath and said, “You’ve become a real woman now. Don’t allow any man to come near you.” She tore her wrappers and gave twelve pieces to me and twelve to my sister.  

My father was praying to die. He had nine children. He couldn’t communicate with anybody because he couldn’t speak Igbo. He was an Ijaw man, the only non-Igbo speaking councillor in Aba at the time. If you go to Aba Town Hall you will see his photograph there – Chief Joshua Babala Ketebu. He was a civil servant and was always being transferred from one place to another. So he was not able to pick up languages unlike the rest of us who speak at least two languages. My mum was universal. She spoke Hausa, Fulani, Yoruba, Igbo and many others.

Eventually we settled at Nkwerre where we had a big house. It was peaceful and we started school again, studying under the trees. But during the rainy season we stayed at home. Sometimes the raids would come and we’d run home. My mother decided we should start generating money so my sister and I started selling oranges. We ate many before we got any sold. My mother also started her business again. It’s an experience you don’t wish your enemy, that is why when people are talking about war-war-war, I guess they didn’t experience it. 

On the day the war ended we didn’t believe it had ended. Prior to that day they was a lot of shelling. It was loud and it was clear. We heard people jubilating. Shouts were coming from different directions- “War e bie la. Ha e mechaala war - the war has ended. They have ended the war!” We ran inside because we thought it was a gimmick. We didn’t know the shelling was to signal the end of the war. But my mum was worried. She said, “How will I take nine children back to PH?” She trekked from Nkwerre to Orlu where she met some soldiers. She pleaded with them and they gave her a lorry which carried us from Nkwere to my brother’s house in Port Harcourt. She was a very brave woman. She had no fear. Once you tell her that what she’s looking for is here, she doesn’t need to know anybody there, she’ll go and get it.

Eventually we got our own place and with financial help from her mother, she started her business again and we went back to school. My father died immediately after the war. My mum died 13 years ago. One of my brothers died last year. The rest of us are alive.

[Photos taken from the internet]

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Dr. Mrs. Bekky Ketebu-Igwe is a politician and former minister of the Federal Republic of Nigeria.

 

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'AFIA ATTACK' - A Soldier's Account

'AFIA ATTACK' - A Soldier's Account

The thing about Afia Attack is that hunger led people to take all sorts of risks. 

I joined the battle to prevent Awka from falling into the hands of the Nigerian Soldiers. My unit joined the battle in Amansea community but the Nigerian Soldiers kept having the upper hand. I remained in that sector between Awka and Onitsha until we settled at the Ogidi-Nkpor axis where we were responsible for opening up the Biafra One and Biafra Two routes to allow traders from Biafra Two to cross to Biafra One. The hunger was in Biafra Two – the present Anambra South and part of Anambra Central, while the food basket was in Biafra One – present day Anambra North which includes Ogbaru, Anambra West, Anambra East and Ayamelum. Stationed there, from time to time we would strike and dislodge the Nigerian army, and recover places like Iyienu and Nkpor Agu. We would then open up Nkpor road and once we did that the traders waiting on the Biafra One side would rush across with their goods. 

Each time we opened a thoroughfare, we wept. We saw what hunger did to people. It was a terrible experience. I remember the day I saw a cousin of mine, who is a Medical Doctor today, all bloated up, extremely pale in colour, his hair was just white and curly. He was just a little boy of about nine or ten years. I couldn’t believe my eyes. I wept. I said to myself, “Is this my family?” Well, that put the fire in me to fight more. 

Many of those traders were women, and they helped to keep families alive.  They were in two categories. Some of them were there to buy looted property from civilians and even soldiers, because many people left their houses without taking a pin. When soldiers entered those deserted houses there was always this temptation to pick property and sell in other to raise money for food, cigarettes, hot drinks, and other needs of theirs. It was this group of women and some men who usually bought such looted property off the soldiers. They bought from both Nigerian and Biafran soldiers. But the real ‘Afia Attack’ women were those who earned a living by going across boundaries, buying and selling, especially in foodstuff. They supplied soldiers with cigarettes, goof [marijuana] and hot drinks. This endeared them to the soldiers who reciprocated by granting them easy passage to whichever side of Biafra they were going as soon as the passage was secured.  Sometimes these women bribed people to take them across the front line because no matter how vast the area was, the soldiers knew the paths through which they could pass without being detected. They would escort them to a certain point and advise them to lie low until it was safe to cross. If the women were unlucky and the road closed after they had crossed, then they stayed back till the road opened again. And where did they stay? They stayed at the war front. They lived with the soldiers in the bunkers. Women with children. For us young men we jumped at those opportunities. We were happy. What we couldn’t get normally, we got on a platter of gold.

Some Biafran women even offered themselves to Nigerian soldiers in exchange for items like tinned foods and cigarettes. Some were used as spies. They would tell the women, “We will keep you alive but don’t give us away. Just give us information.” So it was give and take. Sometimes when we wanted to attack, we would filter the information the day before and the women would come close. Some would sleep with us in the night and in the morning, before we knew it, they would have crossed. And when they returned they came with all sorts of gifts for us. 

Markets developed around these boundaries. People would wait for the women to return because they were always in a hurry to dispose of their goods. And when they were going back they slept in the bunkers with the soldiers for as long as it took for the road to be opened again. 

But I don’t call them loose women. These were women who were so hard up that they used what they had to get what they needed. They saw their children and everybody around them dying, so they went out determined to help their families. Not only families, the soldiers at the war front were kept alive by those women. These women can never tell you what they did but they sacrificed a lot. They did things that were against the culture of the Igbo people just to survive. Sometimes they were caught by Nigerian soldiers and raped mercilessly. Sometimes they lost their money and other belongings. It was ‘Afia Attack’ that led to the phrase of ‘Di gba kwa oku.’ [To hell with the husband.] That was the origin of that phrase. What husband are you talking about when lives had to be saved? What are you husbanding when your children are dying before you? They made a lot of sacrifices for Biafra, their children, their families. I wish we can single them out and honour them. 

Something else happened during that war. Some Igbos were bold enough to join the Nigerian soldiers when they were driving Biafrans away, following them from place to place as they conquered and penetrated more areas. Some were acting as interpreters. Some, particularly women, were even living with them and giving them information. When they conquered a place they did not always kill people. What they really needed was information such as, “Who and who was here? Which route did they follow? Which way shall we pass?” Information gathering is very important in any war. So these people gave the Nigerian soldiers information. And any area they conquered they just went there and looted. 

That must have been what happened to my father’s house, because he was a wealthy man by the standards of those days. It was a beautiful six-bedroom bungalow, and when they were running away I visited them from the war front and we dug a big pit at the back yard. We carried all our valuables and buried in that pit hoping that whenever we came back we would just dig them up. But when we came back at the end of the war our house was leveled to the ground. Nothing was standing. Not only was the building gone, the place where we buried the property was completely excavated. Nothing was left in that pit. 

War is a horrible thing. It brings out the worst in human beings. The things you won’t ordinarily do, you will find yourself doing them.

[Photo taken from the internet]

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Dr. Chukwuemeka Ilo is a Medical Doctor and traditional ruler of his town.

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