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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.

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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THE EVACUATION FROM BIAFRA - STORIES FROM THE PEACE CORPS

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                                                                             Another Biafra Story

                                                                                    Allan Hall

                                                                              Abakaliki 1966/67

 

Dear Editor,

            It seems that the FON letters to the editor are becoming an archive repository for Biafra War stories so I will put my two cents worth in for future researchers.

I was part of Nigeria 24 (Ag/Rd) which trained at U.C. San Diego and flew to Nigeria in 1966. I was stationed in Abakaliki which was located near the Northern border. I partnered with Keith Hill and our job was to assist the Ministry of Works in constructing reservoirs using heavy earth moving equipment. The reservoirs contained water that was filtered so that villagers would have access to clean drinking and cooking water. We continued working on projects that were started by Dale Lamski whom we were replacing. He taught us a lot about the realities of Peace Corps life. We were housed in little tin shacks that we moved from project to project. One such location was in the same compound that former FON president Mike Goodkind lived.

            Soon after we arrived Biafra seceded the war broke out. Periodically while sitting around a rest house drinking beer and munching on ground nuts an ex-pat would come over and recommend that we should go to Enugu because things were about to get hot militarily speaking. Except for getting there it was great fun for us to stay at the Presidential Hotel, eat well and socialize all on the Peace Corps tab. But getting to Enugu was a challenge. In most of Biafra there were three types of roadblocks; Police, Army and Civil Defense. The Police roadblocks were the easiest as they were manned be police who were reasonably well educated, trained and fairly well informed. The army checkpoints were challenging and time consuming as they were suspicious, lower rank and well-armed. The Civil Defense roadblocks were the scariest as they were usually manned by uneducated elders (all the younger men having gone to the army) who were armed with Dane guns and who were full of rumored “information” about white mercenaries (or was it missionaries).

            Eventually the Biafran army came and commandeered the earth movers, tractors, dump trucks and anything else they could use in their war effort. The Peace Corp. took the stand that it was going to tough it out in this “police action” and not be seen as an organization that would cut and run at first sight of violence. After five or six trips back and forth between Enugu and Abakaliki we were finally advised that the total blockade around Biafra would be lifted temporarily so that we could evacuate. A Greek freighter was to sail into Port Harcourt in two or three weeks and all volunteers were to be transported out of the country and harm’s way.

            The Peace Corp staff had mapped out every volunteer’s location and drafted pick-up assignments. I was in charge of one of the three or four van convoys. We were to drive from Enugu to Port Harcourt picking up volunteers on the way. The hardest part was coming into a village or small town, finding the PCV and informing them that they had about 20 minutes to pack 44 pounds of luggage say good bye to their friends, neighbors, chiefs, Headmasters and students they had lived with for months or years and leave. 

            Every convoy had a personal letter of passage signed by Col. Odumegwu  Ojukwu himself.  So we should have been able to breeze down the road through the roadblocks. Unfortunately, the ones manning them who could read did not believe that such a god like figure would write such a letter for mere mortals, so it was useless. My first passenger was not a volunteer but the director, Del Lewis, which was an asset except when, early on, we happened on a civil defense roadblock. Because Del, an African American, didn’t speak Igbo the locals were convinced that they had discovered a Hausa or Fulani. Seeing them put a Dane gun to his head was one scary sight. I didn’t realize that I could speak Igbo so fast to calm the situation but we got out of their by the skin of our teeth. What was both humorous and frustrating was coming upon three roadblocks in a row each within sight of the other (police, army and CD). Each one searching the suitcases or backpacks or purses. Mostly they were curious about what these Europeans hid in their boxes.

            After picking up our assigned volunteers we arrived in Port Harcourt in time to board the Greek Freighter. They had made rectangular markings on the floor of the ship’s hold and each evacuee was assigned a space for the trip to Accra, Ghana. I don’t recall much about the trip except that we drank a lot of wine and were fed peanut butter sandwiches and got sea sick. Once in Accra we were transported to University of Ghana in Legon. I remember a Peace Corps official, C Payne Lucas, giving us various choices of going home or to another country. He was especially convincing in the Peace Corps way of selling my group on going to Somalia (“they hate Americans, they spit on you and throw sand in your face”). So most of my group went there and I understand that that is pretty much what happened to them.

Four of us, Bob Claflin, Jon Seale, Jim Hammons and myself made our way to Malawi (where they didn’t throw sand in our face) to finish our Peace Corps careers.

--------

(This account was first published in the Fall 2013 issue (Vol.18, No 1, page 12) of the Friends of Nigeria newsletter. It was sent to me via e-mail) 

           

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A GORY FOOTBALL GAME - 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) 

Hello again, Vivian, 

Just wanted to send a few notes about my own Biafran War encounters in 1967 while serving outside Abakaliki in what was then the Eastern Region/Biafra. 

Unlike most Peace Corps volunteers I was a rural development volunteer whose primary assignment was to establish oil palm cooperatives in the county just west of Abakaliki. After independence was declared, the people in my service area saw the potential upcoming chaos as an opportunity to revive old tribal loyalties. The people I worked with spoke a rural dialect of Igbo. We were, as I recall, about 10 miles from the Northern Region Border, whose residents were non-Hausa plateau people. While at peace for many years, the groups on both sides of this remote, rural border, apparently had festering antagonisms. When independence was declared a consequence was that the national police were reluctant to provide routine enforcement and patrols on the regional borders. One day a month or so before my termination from the Peace Corps, I drove with my Nigerian counterpart to a village where we had made contact throughout my two years but had no active projects. I forget exactly why we made the trip, but it might simply have been to bring my time to closure with the people who lived there. When I arrived at the local elementary school I saw a soccer game in progress. When I approached closer, one of the local Igbo men approached our jeep and pointed out that the ball they were using was in fact the recently severed head of one of their "neighbours" who lived across the border in the north. This moment was simply opportune to carry on long simmering hostilities.

This incident which seemed to have little or nothing to do with the contemporary Igbo/Hausa conflict was a good illustration of unintended consequences of war. 

A few years later I served as an artillery crewperson in the U.S. Army in Vietnam, where the political communist vs.democracy tensions served a rationale for a fairly major world conflict. The troops I knew saw little difference between the communist enemy we were fighting and the often corrupt South Vietnamese whom the American government touted as the torch bearers of freedom and civilization. Both my Nigeria/Biafra and Vietnam experiences were clear lessons about the complexities of war. In fact they were lifelong lessons. I have not been back to either Vietnam or Nigeria, but I'm hoping that those of us who were affected by war more than a half century ago are able to use our experiences to make something better than the horrors of war out of understanding the nuances of the world around us. 

Just some quick notes, Vivian. My best wishes for success with your project. 

--- Mike Goodkind

 

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