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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.

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]

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

LOVE IN A TIME OF WAR - 2
THE JAMAICAN WIFE

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