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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.

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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