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RESETTLING WAR REFUGEES - STORIES FROM THE PEACE CORPS

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(THIS ACCOUNT WAS SENT IN VIA E-MAIL AND IS PUBLISHED HERE IN ITS ORIGINAL FORM)

I was a Peace Corps Volunteer from December, 1966, till October, 1969. I lived and worked as an Agricultural and Rural Development Officer. I started in the Keffi/Nasarawa areas and later moved to Jos and trained Benue/Plateau State community development staff. I also had many Tiv and Idoma friends and spent time visiting those areas as well as doing work in some of those communities. So, a good portion of my time was spent on the fringe of the war area between North and South (Federal/Biafra). At the end of my stay (and late in the war) I led some refugee resettlement activities on the Idoma/Biafra boarder area. 

Let me start with a few recollections : 

“You must be Chinese.” 

As a Northern Nigeria Community Development Officer in the Middle Belt area (about November 1966 until about October 1969) I had a Morris Mini-Moke vehicle. I began as overseeing Community Development in the Keffi/Nasarawa area. Later, this was expanded to include the Lafia area, all just north of the Benue River. Later, I was moved to Jos and put in charge of Community Development and training of Nigerians for the area that included Keffi, Nasarawa, Lafia and then the Jos area.  When the War began I often traveled throughout the area of my responsibility and into areas south of the Benue River which became part of the new State that I was working with.

One event that characterized the environment in the early part of the war (probably about late 1968) involved my traveling towards Gombe together with another Peace Corps Volunteer who lived in Lafia. We were doing some travelling towards Gombe in my Mini-Moke vehicle. There were many road blocks throughout the middle belt and north of the area of fighting. As we were driving north, we were stopped at a road block. There had been a lot of publicity regarding the Chinese assisting and supporting the Biafrans. My Peace Corps friend was about 5’ 7” tall and had black hair. Once we were stopped, the soldiers at the road block told us they were on the alert for Chinese spies and they felt that my fellow Peace Corps volunteer was likely to be a Chinese spy - he was short and had black hair and “looked like” he might be Chinese. They held us for several hours until an Officer came and decided that he seemed to be a European rather than Chinese, so that we could go. Scary, with soldiers, who had guns and thought that we, or at least he, could be a spy and a sympathizer to the Biafrans. 

 

“Too late for a beer. Thank Goodness.” 

Early in the War I would be touring from Jos to check on Community Development project and personnel below the Benue River. There were lots of military and numerous road blocks, etc. I would usually go to Makurdi late in the afternoon and go to my Nigerian friend’s place. I’d usually wash (out of a bucket of water) and eat fufu with him and his younger brothers, and then we’d go to our favourite bar for a couple of beers and listen to live music. We had our favourite place where we’d so enjoy to spend time. This particular day I had started later and got to Makurdi later than usual. I washed, ate and then we talked and decided that it was too late, and I was too tired to go to our favourite place. That evening, a Nigerian soldier had been drinking and apparently was rejected by a women he fancied. He left the bar and then returned with a hand grenade and threw it into the bar. This is the bar we would have been at and the time we would have been there. We missed it. There were probably four to six killed and another dozen injured. 

 

“Refugee Resettlement, go home.” “What’s in it for me?” 

I was tasked with leading a group of Nigerian community development workers from the Benue-Plateau State to do refugee resettlement work in mid to late 1969.  We were sent to an area South of the Idoma area of Nigeria, what would be in and near what would be described as North Western Biafra. There were about a dozen Community Development trainees from Benue-Plateau State that I took into this area.  We were working in a border area of Biafra and Federal territory that traditionally had three ethnic groups - the Ezis, Ezas and one other group that I can’t remember. Two were sympathetic to the Federal Government and one to the Biafrans. They traditionally had not gotten along. In the early stages of the war the Biafran sympathizers together with Biafrian soldiers swept north and drove the Ezis [I think] and the other group out of their traditional areas. Basically, everything was destroyed. Later, as the Federal forces returned to the area, the Ezis and the other tribal group swept back in and destroyed everything else standing in the Ezas areas. So, here we were coming into an area that had had tens of thousands of people previously and now had almost no one living in these areas and nothing standing except perhaps two to three cement buildings.  Our job was to get people to move back, especially prior to growing season. Those moving back would be the Federal sympathizers at this time. There were no roads, no bridges, and no buildings (except perhaps two that we were staying in - sleeping on woven mats on cement floors). Nothing remained in this area. We worked to open rough bridges and roads, and get things ready for rebuilding and resettlement and have time for planting. Most of the pro-Federal populations had been driven and evacuated (I don’t know where the Biafrian sympathizers went). Most seem to have gone to the Idoma area to Oturkpo. They were put up there and fed and housed and given as much care as was available. As we tried to get people to move back to their “home area” we held meetings and tried to do what would make returning quickly possible. And what we found was that almost all the people who had been living out of their area said they didn’t want to come back if there wasn’t going to be running water (in Oturkpo there were pumps at the end of each street), or if there wasn’t going to be zinc roofs (they had lived with mostly thatched roofs), or if there wasn’t going to be electricity (they had electricity each day for about twelve hours), why should they come back and leave these things behind?  

I returned to the US on home leave.....before any of this got worked out so, I don’t know what happened. But, at the time I left, hardly any wanted to come back “home”. And the Biafrans who had been in the area before all of this? I have no idea what happened to them.

--- John McComas

 

 

 

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Sunday, 22 May 2022

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