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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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THE JAMAICAN WIFE

THE JAMAICAN WIFE

When our ship landed in Lagos most of the foreigners decided they weren’t getting off the ship. This was January 1966. The coup had already taken place. Dad decided we were going in. He had been given a job with the Water Resources in Lagos. So we got a flat at 51 Modupe Johnson Street, off Bode Thomas, Surulere. We were neighbours with the *Obas. They had three boys. And guess what? Their mother was also Jamaican. Six months later, the second coup took place.

One day we were told we had to move next door. And we were like, “Why?” But we packed up and moved next door. Before that my dad had gone out one day and come back with an Opel Record. It was a two door car. My dad was not around a lot. We thought he was going to work. Once in a while he would show up with the car. Sometimes he would leave the car and be gone. Then, one day he went out with mum and when they came back she had this baby in her arms.

Another day, dad was about to leave the house and I followed him. I was slow but when I got to the front window I saw him getting in the trunk of his car. I thought, “Why is dad getting into the trunk?” When I heard the rest of the story as an adult I realized that’s what he had to do to stay alive. I didn’t know where he was being taken. On reflection I think it had happened a few times but that was the only time I saw it.

One day dad shows up with the car and said, “You are going back to your grandparents.” That was the first time I would be going to Eastern Nigeria and I can proudly say I was stepping into Biafra because the Republic of Biafra had just been declared. On our way to the East we were stopped at the Onitsha Head Bridge by Biafran soldiers. They were saying they were not going to let us through. In the argument one of them slapped my dad. My mum grabbed a huge glass jug and jumped out of the car. She was waving it and threatening that the jug could break on his head if he laid a finger on dad. Jamaicans no dey play o. The arguments went on for some time and finally they let us go. From there we proceeded to our village which was not far from Onitsha.  That’s the last image I had coming into Biafra.

Tina - My mum didn’t speak Igbo and she had a foreign accent. The soldiers were cocking their guns as if to shoot us. The soldiers threatened they would throw my parents over the bridge into the water, which was far. I remember peering over the rails and the water seemed so far away. I don’t remember how the argument was resolved. We heard later from my dad that when he joined the army those men on that bridge that day were under his command.

Chinedu: Dad eventually joined the army and we were living with our mum in a flat off Edinburgh Road, Enugu. One time I got sick and mum was crying so much because I was in and out of consciousness. She came out looking for help but nobody was there to help, and tension was in the air.  She took me to Eastern Medical Centre and Dr. Okeke figured out what was wrong with me. Some weeks later, dad came back. He was a Civil Engineer and had gone for Officers Training. He told us we were going to the village, so we took off. That’s where we spent time with my grandparents, uncles and other relations.

Our house in the village was right on the Enugu-Onitsha road. That’s where I got the experience of a mass return. Everyone was heading towards Onitsha. It was a mass migration. Years later I was in America when Rwanda happened. I was watching a TV report about the crisis when I saw the mass of people trooping down the road with their luggage on their head. My body just started to shake because it brought back a lot of memories.

Tina: Another vivid memory I have is that everybody left the compound but my mum refused to leave. She felt that if she left our village my dad wouldn’t know where to find us. So we were sitting on our suitcases in front of my grandfather’s house waiting, and waiting. Dad was at Nsukka at the time but somehow he got a message that we hadn’t left with the others, so he sent his driver, Felix, to get us. We’d be dead now if it hadn’t been for Felix. [Laughter.]  Felix arrived in a station wagon and somebody helped him to bundle my mum into the car. We couldn’t take any of our belongings. We just jumped into the car and sped off. We didn’t realize how much danger we were in. That’s the strange thing about this - I can’t remember feeling frightened. In our escape Felix had to avoid all the major roads so he wouldn’t get caught by the soldiers.

Chinedu: Another memory I have was that dad buried his car during the war. Then he built something over the pit and covered it. After the war he dug it out and that’s what I used to learn to drive in 1973. I was 11 years old. [Laughter]

After our escape Felix took us to Ogbunike. The whole family was there and that was where we started seeing signs of the family not wanting to pay attention to us. It wasn’t blatant but it was happening. They were probably worried about what limited resources they had. When it came time to share food they weren’t including mum.

[Tina turns to Chinedu.] What was it about a bag of sugar?

Chinedu: Nicky was the size of a bag of sugar. That was the argument Dad gave Mum to convince her to leave. Nicky had not been fed well and therefore not grown to the normal size of a one year old, but she continued to stay in spite of all we were going through not getting enough food for five of us. He said it was better for her to take us back to England where we would be better cared for.

My grandfather also told me he didn’t like the way his children were treating us. They were doing it because they were looking out for themselves and we were foreigners. My mother, being Jamaican and her first time in the country, not able to speak the language, felt isolated, and my dad was not around.

Vivian: Maybe they felt you all were privileged, or they thought you should not have come back home.

Chinedu: Daddy was the reason they were getting all that salt and tinned food. Had it not been for him they wouldn’t have had anything. When you are not seen as part of a group you are treated as an outsider. Those things happen. To be accepted we had to work really hard. I remember the fight my mum had with my grandmother. She was dealing with that stress of not being given her own share of things. A knife was drawn but a lady who lived in the same compound separated the fight.

Dad’s division was under Cornel Achuzia. They used to refine oil so they always had fuel which they’d sell to buy food. My dad always sent someone to drop off the food, so we seemed to have food even when others didn’t. I remember eating a lot of crabs. Today, I do not like crab meat.

I remember we had five chickens which traveled with us as we moved from place to place. Each of us owned one and assumed ownership of it. The eggs were a steady source of protein. If my uncle Emeka felt like eating chicken he’d murder one of the chickens at night. [Laughter] He would come in the morning and say, “Nnaa, this chicken all of a sudden died.” And we’d have to cook it.

Tina - I remember thinking at the time that if the chicken had died of a disease and we cooked and ate it then whatever had killed the chicken would affect us too.  To be honest I don’t think I eat any of those chickens that had died in mysterious circumstances. It hadn’t occurred to me that it was my Uncle doing it.

After we left for Ogbunike there was a battle in our town, Ifite Dunu. It was known as Ifite-Ukpo then. Most people know about the battle that took place in Abagana, the town next to ours, but not the one in Ifite-Dunu. When the Nigerian soldiers came in to our town most houses were mud houses. They saw this big structure and moved in. It was my Uncle Cyril’s house. He had won the Jamaican Sweepstakes before the war so he was like a millionaire. He had houses in Onitsha and Enugu. After Enugu fell, the Biafran army made their way back and regrouped. Dad and his group decided they were going to attack my uncle’s house and dislodge the Nigerians. They succeeded, but the house was riddled with bullets. Even in 1973 when we came back from the UK we could still see casings all over the place. Uncle Cyril refused to fix the metal bars or repaint the walls. He just patched the holes.  He wanted a reminder of what happened because he lost his brother during that war.

Tina: There was a lot of traveling between places. We had to keep moving, sometimes we’d walk, sometimes my dad would send his driver to take us to the new place. Each time we were traveling the driver had to get out of the car to check the roads, because if there was a mound or something unusual on the road they were worried it was a mortar.

One of the places we stayed at was a school, I think. There was a field in front of it, and every foot of this field was covered in sharpened bamboo sticks. Each one was about four to five feet in height and so towered over me. We were told they were put there so that if Nigerian soldiers parachuted from their planes they wouldn’t survive the impact. I remember playing in this field, weaving in between the bamboo sticks oblivious to what they would do to a human being landing on it. 

We spent some time at Abatete and Umunze. In one of these places we could stand on our veranda and see the fighting. It looked like a firework display.

There were two bunkers side by side. Our bunker was muddy and hadn’t been built properly so the walls were caving in. On this occasion we had to go to our neighbours bunker during the air raid. Our own collapsed and we were lucky we were not in it when that happened. On another occasion there was an air raid while we were playing away from the house. We hadn’t realized that we were so far away from the bunkers. We tried to run but everybody was shouting at us, “Lie down, lie down, lie down.” So we lay down in that field and we were watching the plane zoom past and come back, with a smoke trail, and then somewhere in the distance there was an explosion, boom, boom, boom, boom. The owner of the house where we were living, a reverend or something, drove down to where the sound came from. He had gone to pick the wounded and take them to where they could get help. When he came back he had to clean out his car. Everybody gathered around the car. I remembered this vividly. I struggled and pushed my head in between somebody’s legs and saw...whooo...I had never seen that amount of blood. That day was something else.

As I recall, I don’t remember fear. I don’t remember being scared. I just remember not liking certain things, not liking being in a different place, not liking how I had to be on the floor, because whenever we slept on the floor our faces would swell up. So if there was anywhere off the floor for me, Chinedu and Ifeanyi to sleep, we slept there, while Indy, Nicky and mum slept on the floor. They didn’t react as badly to sleeping on the floor as we did.

Chinedu: They were Nigerian born, that’s all I can say. [Laughter]

Tina: One of the things I don’t like, even now, is carrying bags when travelling. I make it a point not to. Where possible I check in all my luggage. I think it’s linked to the experience of moving from place to place. It didn’t matter how young you were, you had to carry something. It didn’t matter if your arms were tired you just had to carry things because you would need these things.

I’m sure we were traumatized because there’s no way you go through that experience without sustaining trauma, but you find a way to cope with it probably by blocking things out, because you have no choice.

Chinedu: You know what is Mkpor n’ani? When that thing goes off, my heart still skips. If I know it’s going to happen, then I’m fine, but if it happens unexpectedly I get agitated. And right now I haven’t watched any videos of refugees in the North East. I will watch clips of dead people but haven’t watched clips of people in IDP camps.

Vivian: Tell me how you were evacuated.

Chinedu: I remember the plane at night. I remember everybody hiding. Next thing you know, people were going out to the plane with lanterns. These people running with lanterns, where are they going? I didn’t know they were going to light up the runway. [Laughter] Those pilots, if I ever saw one, the kind hug wey I go give the guy erh? Imagine the planes in that kind of darkness. And African darkness is very dark. There’s no moon light. It is total darkness. And that lantern was just barely giving him light. Everybody rushed to board, but mum was still fighting, saying she wasn’t going. At the door of the plane she was still refusing. She’s a stubborn woman. That’s when we knew daddy wasn’t coming with us.

After the pilot taxied and turned around, na rush o, because there was no time. The Nigerian soldiers were shooting at the plane when we took off. It was a cargo plane. There were no chairs. And we were sitting on a bench. I remember the plane taking off and the benches falling. And once the plane took off it had to fly up at a sharp angle, to get fast above the line of fire. I know it was last week of November or early December, because we spent Christmas in Las Palmas, the Canary Islands. We remember the other people who were in the plane with us. One of our parents was either West Indian, or American or European. We flew to Sao Tome and from there to Equatorial Guinea, then Las Palmas in the Canary Islands, and finally London.

My dad never joined us. He had been promoted to a Lieutenant Colonel a few days before the war ended. He was hit in his neck by shrapnel. He spent the last days of the war in hospital, and another six months recovering. After he recovered he came to London to see us.

When everybody was being given twenty pounds my dad sold his wedding suit to a Nigerian soldier for fifty pounds. He hadn’t dug out his car yet. He said if he had dug it out they would have taken it. So, he sold his suit and had some money. And for a guy to say, “I am going to give you fifty pounds for that suit,” that was a lot of money back then. Some of those Nigerian soldiers were not bad people. They were doing a job.

Tina: Another impact I didn’t really know the war made on me until now is that when I go shopping I always buy a lot, usually much more than I need to. I always stock up so that if anything happens we will have something. That experience of not having what you need when you need it, and even when you did have it, it was never really enough. There’s a phrase I use to describe myself, “I am a war baby.” So the way I use that phrase is that no matter how little food or resources I have I’ll share it, not even manage it, I’ll share. I believe that when there are other people around you who are hungry and in need, and you have a little food and a few resources, you will have to share it. I practice this daily and I think that this is as a direct result of my war experience.

Chinedu: For me it’s my phobia for crabs. [Laughter]

Tina: We all went back to Nigeria in 1973, three years after the war ended.

Recently we had my mother’s DNA tested and we found out she’s sixty one percent Nigerian.

 

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BOYS' COMPANY

BOYS' COMPANY

The wounded soldiers were coming back to the village and telling us what was happening at the war front. They were showing us how to dodge bullets. They were carving guns with wood and giving us, teaching us how to do manoeuvres. They were preparing our minds to fight. But nobody told me how to dodge air raids. So, the first day it happened, I didn’t know it was air raid. I was fishing with my friend, Monday Iroegbu, from Amaogudu Otampa,  and I was wearing a red T-shirt. The bomber dropped nine bombs into the river. I was counting the bombs as they were being dropped, out of sheer curiosity. Monday is still alive and can corroborate this story. Some of the bombs exploded but many did not. We started running so they started spraying bullets at us. I got to one big tree and ran behind it. The helicopter lowered and parked in our ama, our village square. It was piloted by a white man. I believe they wanted to catch me alive. They just wanted a prize, a trophy. I ran into the bush and our people who were already taking cover there said, “Oh, remove your red shirt, remove your red shirt. That is why they are bombing this place.” So I removed it and threw it away. At the end of the day we came out and started counting dead bodies.

People were losing their homes because of the advancing enemy, but there was community assistance and collaboration. When they move to another community the people there will accept them. My grandmother took in over twenty people just because they were Ndigbo who were running for their lives. She was a local midwife so she was quite popular. We gave the refugees part of our farm land and they built temporary accommodations on it. We cooked communal food and shared to them. They were with us for almost four months before the war got to us and we became refugees ourselves.  

We were hearing about the war on the radio, but majority of the things they were saying were propaganda. So, even when it was getting closer to us we didn’t know. When the soldiers eventually entered our community my mother said she was not going anywhere; that she won’t run from Lagos to the village, and then start running away again. Almost the entire community ran away but my mother was busy frying and selling garri. I said, 'Mama, ndi mmadu a gba chaala oso – other people have run away.' She said to me, 'Nwa m’, ebe ariri nwuru wu ili ya - wherever the millipede dies is its grave.' My sister came out of the bedroom and said, 'Mama, if I die my blood is on your head.' My mother was shocked. She said, 'Who said that?' I said, 'It is Ifeyinwa.' She said, 'Ngwa, ngwa, ngwa - hurry, hurry, hurry, let us go.' That is how we started preparing to leave.

The day our village collapsed, there was an old woman who couldn’t run because she was blind. Her name was Nneoma Ukazim. We used to call her Nne. Her children were in the army. One of them was working with the Nigerians against our people and later became the chairman of the Liberated Isuikwuato Area. So, there was nobody to help her. She was just trying to feel her way around, touching walls and fences. I told my mother that I wasn’t going to leave the old woman. So I took her. We got to a small river where two palm trees were placed across to make a bridge. The old woman couldn’t get on it so I, a ten year old, I carried her on my back to the other side. A Biafran soldier who was running from battle saw me and assisted both of us until we got to a safer place. Surprisingly, she survived the war and I became her confidant, to the extent that she told me her burial plans and gave me the clothes she wanted to be buried in. She died in the 70s. 

We slept in somebody’s house the first night. The next day the shelling started in that community so we moved again. We kept moving. We moved about four times. The first place we ran to was a town called Ezere in Isikwuato. Some people ran to a place called Isi-Iyi. The war never got there. They said the deity in that place prevented the soldiers from getting there; that the people who ran there were safe. No bombs, no bullets.

A lot of people got lost due to the sudden movements. My sister, Florence, almost got lost. She went with other family members to Umuobiala, another community in Isikwuato, to visit my aunt, Mrs. Chidinma Ojiaboh. The day she was to come back, the shelling started. That day was what we called Church Ahia, when our market day falls on a Sunday. This happens once in eight weeks, and it is celebrated in a big way, like Christmas or Easter. So she couldn’t come back. And we couldn’t go to her. Even my aunt she had gone to visit, they left her and ran away. So my sister was running alone in a bush between Umuobiala and Afo Ugiri, when the vigilante found her. They were also called Civil Defence and were the liaison between the civilian population and military authorities. When they identify orphans they take them to the Red Cross. They assumed she was an orphan because she said she didn’t know the whereabouts of her parents. They took her to a camp where other children were waiting to be evacuated. But during the documentation one of the soldiers recognized her. He was from our village. That was how he sent us a message across enemy lines. We moved, me and my mother.

The Nigerian soldiers were still sleeping when we got to the check point, so we sneaked through their backyard. It was when we were coming back that they caught us. They asked us where we were coming from. They said I was Ojukwu soldier. I denied several times. They were convinced that Biafra was using child soldiers, which was true. They were using child soldiers to steal for the army. I was one of them. They called us Boys Company. They will send us to steal food and clothes. We will wear only our shorts. They will shave off our hair and rub oil on our bodies so that if they catch you, g'a gbu cha pu – you will slip away. We even stole guns and ammunition. Those who did very well in the training were given real guns which they called Ojukwu Catapult. They very small submachine guns and were easier for young boys to carry. The training was two weeks. They taught us manoeuvres, weapons handling, parade, how to recognize the enemy. Those of us who were born outside Igbo land spoke different languages. I was very good in Yoruba so it was an advantage. When the Nigerian soldiers catch you, you speak Yoruba to them and they say, 'Omo ale, just let him go.' My uncle was in the BOFF, the Biafran Organisation for Freedom Fighters. The day they caught him he started speaking Hausa. He was very fluent in it. Very fair in complexion. He said he was Dan Kano, that he was from kano. They asked him all manner of questions and he answered correctly, so they went drinking with him. He escaped and came back to tell us the story. 

There was even an airstrip in my community where lighter air craft used to land. It was in that vast land between Okigwe and Uturu, right from where you have ABSU up to Ihube. During the war it was called Ugba junction because there was a big Ugba tree there. They camped Nigerian soldiers on that land. But before it was captured by Nigeria, Biafra was using it as an airstrip. Before our place fell we were the ones protecting the airstrip. We used to put pongee sticks all over the fields so that no aircraft will be able to land. At night when our own planes are coming in, because we already know they are coming, we will create a path for them to land. The flights were a collaboration between the Biafran Air Force and some foreign bodies. Some of those journalists who came, came as aid workers. Some were bringing arms and relief materials, and also helping to move children of well-to-do Biafrans out. These are stories that will not make the headlines.

We had uncles and brothers who were working for the Biafran government digging trenches. Those trenches were dug by civilians, not by soldiers. They were using older men who were too old to fight. They were also using them for propaganda. They will go and dig trenches and come back with information about the enemy.

Where you have Stella Maris College at Uturu, there used to be a rehabilitation center for wounded soldiers. They called it Hope Ville. They were making shoes and all manners of crafts during the war.

Biafra was very organised. And everybody contributed. My parents contributed. I contributed. They called it Win the War effort. Everybody made contributions to that war. If you were making baskets, you donate them to the Biafran Government. Anything you can provide - farmland, houses – you give to the government. When they need an office, you vacate yours. Biafra succeeded because of communal efforts and that was why the war lasted for so long. The Nigerian army thought they could over-run the entire South East within days. But Ojukwu miscalculated. You have no arms, no bullets, you say you are waging a war. So those who are talking about Biafra did not witness the war, they are doing it because of the marginalization in Nigeria. 

Certain communities were even divided. Nigerian soldiers on one side and Biafran soldiers on the other. People used to sneak across to the Nigerian side to buy food and other things. They call it Ahia attack. I was following my mother to these markets. Some of them were designated as Ahia Ogbe - market for the deaf and dumb. Because of the air raids. These markets were held in the forests and only sign language was used. One day I escorted my mother to a market in Ishiagu to buy yams. We walked the whole day. I was carrying three long native baskets – abo. Inside the baskets I had yams and Adu, which is like cocoyam. My mother was also carrying a basket. Do you know that at every road block Biafran soldiers will take one yam? By the time we got to our village our baskets were almost empty. I cried that day and I said, “God, do not allow Biafra to win this war because if we do we are going to see worse things.” Ojukwu was no longer in control. The soldiers were hungry. They were committing atrocities in the areas they controlled.

The hunger was so much that one day we ate the wild variety of Una, the one called unabiwu. There was nothing else to eat. We said if bullets don’t kill us something else will kill us. After the meal, we slept for four days at a stretch. We didn’t wake up for four days. It probably contains very high levels of cyanide. We were lucky to have even woken up. On another occasion we ate a wild variety of beans. We bought it mistakenly, and it almost killed us. I was the first person it affected because immediately after eating I started having hallucinations. They gave us palm oil and coconut water, and that was what saved us. The only person who wasn’t affected was my sister, Florence, the one who was found in a forest. She had a stronger constitution. 

Just like my sister, my father was presumed dead during the war. We mourned him. They put something in the ground and conducted a symbolic burial for him. It was after the war that one of my uncles ran into him in Liverpool, England. He asked him what he was doing in Liverpool and my father said, “They told me my wife and children are dead. What am I coming to do in Nigeria?” My uncle told him we were all alive, that only one of us died. My father said, “What of my wife?” My uncle said, “Your wife is alive.” What happened was that my father was in the navy and Nigeria wanted them to bombard Port Harcourt with the NNS Aradu. He and his colleagues refused. They diverted the ship and abandoned it at sea. They were rescued by a Congolese fishing boat which took them to Congo. President Sese Seko granted them asylum and facilitated their move to England. The Nigerian government recovered the ship but it’s no longer sea worthy. After the war my father came back to the village, but we had to undo the burial we had done. They performed some rites before he could enter the compound. The government arrested him, court marshaled him, and sacked him with no benefits. He eventually became a sailor and that is what he was doing until he retired.

Anyway, after interrogating me and my mother at the check point, the Nigerian soldiers let us go. We brought my sister back. By then we had been liberated.

-Richard Harrison

[Cover photo courtesy internet]

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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EQUATORIAL CONSTELLATIONS, BY Silas Tiny

EQUATORIAL CONSTELLATIONS, BY Silas Tiny

The place and importance of the Biafran Airlift in the history of Sao Tome and, by extension, Portugal, cannot be over written.

For almost three years that the war lasted, this small island located in the Gulf of Guinea saw the influx of individuals from all over the world. Journalists, diplomats, aid workers, missionaries, clergy men, politicians, doctors, military personnel, mercenaries, business men and all sorts of people arrived the island on their way to and from Biafra. Consequently, hotels and guest houses, restaurants, shops and markets, beaches and other leisure spots, the aviation industry, etc, all benefited, in one way or the other, from the upsurge in commercial activity on the island. The governor of Sao Tome even tried to cash in on the windfall by imposing a fee for every child that was brought from Biafra into Sao Tome. But Father Tony Byrne, one of the initiators of the Air lift, resisted the move.

Born in Portugal in 1975, five years after the war and the Airlift ended, Silas Tiny is a Sao Tomean film maker whose interest in this monumental event led him into making a film about the airlift. The film is called ‘Equatorial Constellations.’ According to him, the goal of the film is “... not to narrate a past event but to display that very past through the present inner look of the ones involved in it 50 years ago. The film will, ‘...bring together former child refugees, Sao Tomeans, Joint Church Aid officials and volunteers who created the largest and riskiest relief effort that world has ever seen.’ He goes on - “Hundreds of children had been evacuated from their land, arrived in this island...escaping pain, slaughter and famine. Today, fifty years have passed, that memory remains an open wound, their names, faces and lives forgotten and their remembrances fade away...Where are these children, and what happened in their memories so far? What can they convey? Their stories are part of the universal memory and remain as living testimonies...”

Silas and I are looking for any of these ‘children’ because we think our projects will not be complete without their participation. We will appreciate any leads and references in this regard.

[The cover photo shows Silas Tiny]

 

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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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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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