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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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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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'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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