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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.

LIVING IN SAINT-ANDRE REFUGEE CENTER, GABON - A FORMER CHILD REFUGEE'S ACCOUNT - PART THREE

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RETURNING TO NIGERIA

One evening we heard the teachers wailing and crying, “Why did God abandon us?” One of the children sneaked to their quarters to find out what was going on. They had a television and must have listened to Phillip Effiong’s surrender. They started telling us stories of how the war ended, that Ojukwu had even fled Biafra. We felt flatly defeated. We could not imagine going back to answer Nigerians again. We remembered all the stories we were told about the massacres. Some of the children were there when their parents were killed, so it was a bitter pill even for us to swallow.

It was Bishop Godfrey Okoye who came to tell us about Biafra’s defeat. He was visiting the centers to prepare us for eventual return to Nigeria. He talked about what happened in Biafra before and after the war. After speaking he asked if anyone had a question. I was the only one who stood up because I had become a bit confident and bold. I asked him who won the war. He looked at me, smiled, and said, “My son, Nigeria said they won. Let us give it to them. If they say they won let them win. What I am talking about now is your well-being and how all of you will come back eventually when things have settled.” We were disappointed, after all the suffering, after all we went through. In Gabon, we used to talk about the God of Biafra - De Dieu Biafrae. We used to say that the God of Biafra would not abandon us. We were not prepared for the defeat. It was too much to take in as kids. We also asked if it was true that Biafran men were being killed. We had heard that if Nigeria won the war all the Biafran men would be killed in other to make sure they didn’t regroup to fight again. He told us nothing of the sort happened but there were a few incidents here and there.

The defeat of Biafra didn’t affect our daily routine but some of the mistresses started leaving. One day Reverend Father Godwin Ukwuaba was invited to give us a talk at the assembly. The first thing he told us was, “O bia lu ije nwe una – he who comes visiting will eventually leave”. We knew what he was hinting at. He told us that things were being put in pace to re-unite us with our parents, and that we would be going back in batches. He said he’d miss all of us.

They started the evacuations in October or November of 1970. The first batch left from Ivory Coast. Some of my friends in Saint-Andre left with this batch. I belonged to the second batch. We had our last mass with Father Ukwuaba. After mass, he asked me and two others to accompany him to St. Marie to see the children. They were pampering us. They had already packaged clothes, food, sardines, candies, shoes, slippers, and shorts in sacks for each person. Our names were printed on the sacks.

The morning of our departure I became moody when I sighted the bus that would take us to the airport. My friends came around. I felt I would never see some of them again. I felt I had lost some of the best childhood friends I would ever make. I came to tears. I embraced all of them. I embraced the teachers, the other kids. One of the Reverend Sisters gave me a piece of wrapper for my mum and told me, “When you get back to Nigeria tell your mum to send you to school because you need to do something with your intelligence. Don’t let them send you to learn a trade.”

They started calling our names. They had made emergency passports for us which they hung around our necks. When they called your name they cross checked with the passport they had already given to you and also with your Gabonese number. Then you entered the bus. On December 2, 1970 - that was a Monday – my batch was evacuated back to Nigeria.

When we landed in Port Harcourt we were taken somewhere to have our lunch. That was my first real taste of yellow garri and ofe ogbono. When we were done we were taken to Mgbidi where the returnees’ centre was set up. From Mgbidi they took us in vans, batch by batch, to re-unite with our parents. For instance I arrived Mgbidi center on a Monday and by Sunday I was driven with two others to Nimo. Instead of St. Mary’s I was taken to Assumpta Catholic Church. Sunday mass was about to start when we arrived. And you know what, as soon as we arrived word went round that we had returned. The first person I saw was my cousin, Christopher Okulu. As soon as we made eye contact he ran off to Enugu- Ukwu to inform my people that I had returned. My parents were not around but he saw some members of my family. They all rushed to the Church. My brother ran into the bus where we were seated but he was asked to come down. One of my uncles wanted to know if I recognized my brother. He said to me, “You sabi this boy?” Maybe he thought I couldn’t speak Igbo any longer. I nodded my head. He asked me if I recognized the rest of them, and I said yes. More crowds started coming and before you knew it the whole field was filled up with people who wanted to know who had returned and who hadn’t. By the time my father arrived we were being served rice and stew. They were asking the crowd to give us space to eat. When I raised my face from the plate I saw my brother who was a Biafran soldier. He waved at me and gave me a thumbs up. I was released to my dad and uncle, and we set out for home. We trekked the distance from Assumpta Catholic Church to my compound. People were making merry, praising God, saying they never thought they’d see me again. My mum came back, carried me up, and started jumping for joy. It was like a carnival.

I don’t know if there were children who were left behind in Gabon, but I can tell you about one girl who had bow legs. She came to Libreville as a toddler and up until the time we left everyone called her ‘dobo-dobo’ which translates to ‘duck.’ This was because of the way she walked. Nobody knew her first or last name. Sometime after we came back to Nigeria I saw a notice board with pictures of kids whose parents were unknown. There was a notice asking anyone who knew their parents or relatives to report to the nearest CARITAS office. Dobo-dobo’s picture was on that board. So, it’s possible that a few who escaped the documentation may have been lost for ever. Again, what do you do? They kept the children and before you knew it people adopted them.

I remain eternally grateful to CARITAS, the Catholic Church and other humanitarian organisations for the impact they made in my life. My going to Gabon opened me up to a lot of opportunities. Also, they made a huge impact on the lager Biafran society. Many would have died if not for the relief materials people received. I need to go back to Libreville because that’s where my real world view developed. I honestly wish to go back there someday, to bring some closure, because it is still like an open wound.

--- Johnny O. Abada 

NB- The image on this post shows St. Marie Cathedral, one of the centers used to house refugees during  the Nigeria-Biafra war.

 

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LIVING IN SAINT-ANDRE REFUGEE CENTER, GABON - A FORMER CHILD REFUGEE'S ACCOUNT - PART TWO.

mybiafranstory.org Photo Credit - Internet

SAINT-ANDRE - OUR PLACE OF REFUGE 

Once we arrived, the first thing they did was to process our registration and match it with file information from Biafra. They gave us new Gabonese numbers different from the ones we were given in Biafra. These numbers were inscribed on gold or silver necklaces and no two Biafran kids in Gabon bore the same number regardless of the center where they were placed in. My own number was 518. 

They took us to our dormitories - boys to the right of the dining hall, and girls to the left. Everything was well-laid out. The ones who were ill were wheeled to the sick bay. They showed us our beds before ushering us into the bathrooms to have our baths. They gave us new clothes, the kind of clothes we wore only at Christmas back in Nigeria. Afterwards, they took us to the dining hall for breakfast. Other Biafran children who had arrived weeks before us were already seated. They served us tea, bread and butter, one boiled egg and grilled delicious meat ball. Wow! It was like living in wonderland and we devoured the food like hungry lions. They must have realized we were still jet lagged because after breakfast they took us to our respective dormitories to continue our sleep. 

From the next day they tried to get us into a rhythm. After breakfast the healthy ones among us would sit in every available place in the compound and sing till about 10 a.m. They taught us some Biafran songs. That aroused a lot of nostalgia in me because I remembered the last thing my father told me - “You are going to a foreign land, who is going to treat you like your mum?” That statement kept echoing in my head and once we started singing I would start crying, “Mama, mama, mama.” There was a very young chaperon called Miss Uche, and she invented a song because of me, ‘o be akwa a ma nli osikapa. K’ome, o malu ife o g’eme k’ome – the cry baby will not eat rice. If he knows what to do let him do it.” After singing they gave us snacks. It was usually tea and biscuit, bread and butter, or this one that looked very much like our Nigerian pap. By 1.00 p.m. we went for lunch. The girls sat to the left and the boys to the right. After lunch we went for siesta. It was at Saint-Andre that I learnt the word siesta. It was supposed to last for one hour but they let us sleep for two hours.

After siesta we would assemble again and start singing or playing. By 6.00 p.m. we went for dinner. Sometimes they gave us macaroni and corned beef, or rice and soup made with beef or fish. It was very tasty food. There was this French man who brought a giant fish every morning for our lunch or dinner. Sometimes we had garri. The cook was Gabonese so the kind of soup he was making was not the kind we were used to in Biafra. But we gladly ate it with garri.

We were sleeping a lot. We slept from the time we finished dinner till 6.00 a.m the following day. It soon became routine so that in the morning we didn’t need to be woken up. We would take our bath and go to the dinning hall. We all had our seats allocated to us from the first day and we retained the positions till our last day in Gabon.

The upper level of St. Andre comprised of the Reverend Father's residence and the parish offices. The ground floor housed our dormitories, sick bay, dining hall, and a kitchen. There was a temporary mortuary in the basement of the building. A brand new football pitch was also constructed in front of the classroom blocks. There was a sick bay which could accommodate up to thirty kids.

When we arrived Saint-Andre there were no classrooms but when they felt we had regained our strength they decided to build some fabricated classrooms on the east side of the sick bay. We had the kindergarten, the Elementary 1, the Elementary 3 and 4, which were the biggest classes, and the Elementary 5. There were children from Cross River, Ogoni, Port Harcourt, and a few from across the Niger, that is Ka-Ibo. They set an exam to gauge our academic abilities and the age-appropriate class for each child. They tested us mostly in Igbo language, Reading, Math, Simple English, and Spelling. Initially, I was placed in Elementary 3 but over time I was moved to 4. By 1969/70 I was still in 4. Those in 4 and 5 were doing the same subjects, except in a few cases. We had the big boys and girls among us. I remember one Jerome Ilechukwu. He was the biggest among us, about fifteen or sixteen years, with a very deep baritone. We used to tease him a lot and say, “You should be in Biafra fighting.” We had Etim Osodion from Oron. We had Eunice Anekwe from Ogidi. Her younger brother Tagbo Anekwe was in Elementary 2 or 3. There was one Sylvester Nwanna from Imo state, who had his sister in Kindergarten. He was very intelligent so they moved him to Elementary 4. Those in Elementary 3 sat to one side of the class whole those in 4 and 5 sat on the other side. Even though I was a small guy I was the best in English Language and other subjects. These were qualities I never had in Biafra. When visitors came to see us I would be the person to read a book to them. At a point there was a French Reverend Sister who was coming from St. Marie to teach us French for two hours. We started catching up and before I came back to Nigeria I was speaking French fluently.

We were also doing what was called General Knowledge and some of the things we were being taught were the names of the official centers where Biafran children were quartered. It was drilled into us every day and night. It was important for them to drill the figures into our heads because at that point we constituted the largest Biafran community in Gabon, and they thought it was important that we know ourselves and how many we were. We even started having inter-center visits and playing inter-center soccer. So, apart from Saint-Andre with one hundred and sixty (160) children, there were three other major refugee centers in Libreville: St. Marie with five hundred and fifty [550] children, La La-la with four hundred and fifty (450) children, and the largest center, Onze kilometer, with two thousand, two hundred and twenty-six (2,226) children. I may have slightly missed a few numbers considering that the official number of kids in Gabon was three thousand, three hundred and ninety (3,390), even after kids previously sent to another city – France Ville - were returned and redistributed to the other centers in Libreville. With this number of Biafran children in Gabon, they were telling us that if the war stretched too far they could draft us to join the forces if we became old enough to do so. That was the story being spread about. To me it was far-fetched. That means the war would have lasted for close to fifteen years.

As soon as classes started things got more organized. We started taking our snacks in the classrooms. When it was time for recess we went out and came back. All classes ended by 1.00 p.m. and we lined up and marched to the refectory. After lunch we had siesta. We were no longer allowed to sleep as much as we used to do when we first arrived Libreville. We had other activities to fill up the time. By 2.00 p.m. we got up, brushed our teeth and went for evening classes, singing lessons, or catechism for the Catholics.

St. Andre had a resident priest and every Sunday we went to mass. It was said in French and that’s how we started learning French, even before it was incorporated into our school curriculum. An Anglican priest was coming every Sunday from Biafra. Father Godwin Ukwuaba, from Ovoko in Nsukka, came in from Rome, and lived in the residence upstairs. He was also the chaplain for St. Marie, Onze kilometre and La-lala. He was a very good man and eager to see us through. He started organizing catechism and taking us through the doctrines. It was under him that the first Holy Communion was organized in 1968. It was at that point I made up my mind to become a Catholic. My mind was impressionistic and I felt that anyone who could go to such an extent to provide not just for me...you need to see the number of children who were dying and taken to the mortuary for onward transmission to Biafra...it had such a big impact in my life. When I indicated my intentions to change to Catholicism, I wrote to my parents. My mum wrote back and said I could change on the condition I didn’t change my name from John. Armed with this letter I went to the priest and started attending the Catechism classes. It was when I came back to Nigeria in 1970 that I fully changed.

That wasn’t the first time I wrote to my parents. They had a way of sending letters to Biafra and I was able to provide an address. The first time I wrote to them, I heard my mother made a scene, telling everybody she had taken me for dead. It became a ritual and they would reply telling me who was alive and who was dead. This attempt to write letters on my own increased my curiosity to learn and improve. A few months before our departure from Gabon I stopped writing to them because the channel to send letters became closed.

We had a full complement of Biafran chaperons, teachers, Gabonese workers, nurses and doctors to attend to us. One Dr. Brady, an Irish medical doctor, was flown in from Ireland to be with us. She was with us for about one and half years before she left for Biafra. The general overseer of St. Andre was living upstairs with her children at a time. She supervised the teachers, dining hall managers, and other workers. Many of these workers were single. Some got married to Biafran men in Libreville. Some married Biafran folks in the United States and left. These ladies are part of the Biafran story. They had a sense of obligation and treated us like their own children. We started having male chaperons after the war in 1970. Some were Biafran soldiers who were fortunate to escape the war. They just came in to fill up the spaces our fathers could have filled. You could see they were hardened war fighters so they came in with the mind-set that we need to be men and not kids. They were really hard on us.

There were also some Irish sisters at the center. One of them was Sister Mary Aloysius, and she must have been in her 70’s. She had lived in Igbo land so she spoke a little Igbo. She was very warm, a holy soul, motherly. Her presence alone gave us a lot of comfort. She taught us sometimes and brought us religious books. Wherever she found out our parents were she procured salt and other stuff and sent to them. She was always encouraging me, telling me I would go places. If she’s dead now she’ll be in heaven. She was the closest person I had in those days, and when she left for Ireland I cried. I felt as though my second mother had been taken away from me. Her departure was so sudden but she wrote to us when she got to Ireland. 

On Wednesday evenings a French priest came to show us films. They were showing us war films.

We went to the beaches every Saturday wearing our swimming trunks. On the way we’d be singing our favorite war songs. We were used to streams and rivers and the first time I sighted the Atlantic Ocean I marveled. If we didn’t go to the beach we went to St. Marie for carpentry lessons.

With this routine we knew what to expect - day to day, week to week - for all the years we lived at Saint Andre.

--- Johnny Abada 

(Cover photo shows St. Marie Cathedral, one of the churches used to house refugees during the Nigeria-Biafra war.)

 

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LIVING IN SAINT- ANDRE REFUGEE CENTER, GABON - A FORMER CHILD REFUGEE'S ACCOUNT - PART ONE

mybiafranstory.org Photo Credit - Internet

LEAVING BIAFRA 

In 1968, just before Enugwu-Ukwu fell to the Nigerian troops, my family took refuge in my maternal grandparents’ home at Egbengwu, Nimo, a neighbouring town. When we got there, my grandparents’ house was teeming with refugees. The distribution center at Nimo was St Mary's Primary School, and it was also completely occupied by refugees from surrounding towns like Enugwu-Ukwu, Nawfia, and Amawbia. One Irish priest, named Reverend Father Nolan, was in charge of relief distribution, assisted by other people such as Mr. Otie, the headmaster of St Mary's. The Parish church was Assumpta Catholic Church but because of its location on the major road from Enugwu-Ukwu to Nimo it was close to the war front so it was not considered ideal as a relief distribution center. It was on one of such visits to St Mary's, in company of my younger sister, Rhoda, that Father Nolan announced that officials of CARITAS were coming to St Mary's the next day to take sick children to Gabon. He told parents to bring their children who were ill the following day.

Although I was not suffering from kwashiorkor, I was frail and weak, so I made up my mind to present myself for consideration. I was just seven years old, but I saw it as a life-saving opportunity. My decision was not well received by my mother who reasoned that I was too young to be sprinted out to an unknown country beyond their care and reach. She broke down, saying, "Who is going to care and treat you like the mother who gave birth to you?" My dad, who was not known to give in easily to emotions, approved of my decision and offered to take me to St. Mary's. 

On arrival we saw babies, toddlers, and teenagers with bloated stomachs, swollen legs, and severely shrunken bodies, all looking like living ghosts. Many were too weak to stand, so they sat on the floor. Soon after, Father Nolan and Mr. Otie arrived with the CARITAS representatives. Mr. Igboka, the Catechist, was also there, I believe. When the selection started, all the kids in front of me were selected. I was rejected four times even though I buckled my feet on each occasion to create the impression that I was very ill. After my fourth rejection my father went into a tirade. This prompted the officials to call me forward, so I was the last kid to be selected that day. 

The next stage was the documentation. The CARITAS officials wrote each child’s first name, surname, parents' names, village and town, and the processing center. Then they stuck an adhesive tape with identification number on our wrists. Mine was 492. This was the last documentation in Biafra.

As a green-coloured Austin lorry made its way towards us, my father came to me, shook my hands, and prayed that I would come back to meet them alive. My mother embraced me, sobbing. Other parents watched their children being loaded into the lorry, like cargo, and into an uncertain future. As our lorry slowly revved to drive off, I positioned myself to wave a final good bye to my parents. Years later, I learnt that my mother cried inconsolably for two days after my departure.

As soon as we departed Nimo, our chaperons informed us they were taking us to Ulli airport and from there to Gabon. On the way some children were crying. After some time our lorry stopped by the roadside so we could have lunch. It was either two small pieces of yam or one big piece placed on our palms. 

When we got to Ulli airport, our lorry parked in an inconspicuous place waiting for the signal to approach the tarmac. I could see planes landing and taking off in the pitch darkness. After a long wait we drove up to the tarmac where a plane was waiting. For the first time, I saw an aircraft in a stationary position. The size was a far cry from the little bird-like thing we kids usually saw flying across the skies. We all came out of the lorry and a ladder was placed at the foot of the aircraft. Two big men positioned themselves, one at the foot of the ladder and the other at the top. One after the other, we were taken up the ladder into the aircraft. There were no chairs inside but there were blankets spread across the floor. We were given one or two cubes of sugar and asked to lie down. I could not remember when last I saw sugar in those terrible days, and I became excited again after the emotional separation from my parents. The door of the aircraft was shut, the engine started, the lights turned off, and I could sense a slow movement of the plane up to the time we became airborne. 

We were woken up at Libreville International airport. My first impression was that this was real ‘obodo oyibo’ - a marvel. There were aircraft of different sizes and shapes, and that gave me the opportunity of seeing these planes at close quarters in broad daylight. Vans pulled up at the foot of our plane, and we all boarded. Those who were too weak to get into the vans were either helped in or carried inside. After a short drive our van pulled into a massive church complex. It was called St. Andre and the priest in charge was Monseigneur Camille.

 ---  Johnny Abada 

NB-The image on this post shows St. Marie Cathedral, one of the centers used to house refugees during the Nigeria-Biafra war.

 

 

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