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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.

Biafran Children, A Gathering of Survivors.

ATHENS---mybiafranstory.org Photo Credit - Vivian Ogbonna

The document below was published by documenta14’s Press Center.

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The Parliament of Bodies: ‘Biafra’s Children: A Survivors’ Gathering.’

JUNE 30; 5.00-10.00 pm; Parko Eleftherias, Athens Municipality Arts Center and Museum of Anti-dictatorial and Democratic Resistance, Vassilissis Sofias, Athens.

JULY 1; 11.00–9.00pm; Parko Eleftherias, Athens Municipality Arts Center and Museum of Anti-dictatorial and Democratic Resistance, Vassilissis Sofias, Athens.

Life stream available.

Organized by Olu Oguibe, with Faith Adiele, Phillip U. Effiong, Okey Ndibe, Eddie Iroh, Vivian Ogbonna, Obiageli Okigbo, E.C.Osondu, Emeka Okereke.

Fifty years ago, in 1967, a bitter civil war broke out in the newly independent West African nation of Nigeria, a war that would create one of the greatest humanitarian disasters of the twentieth century. Lasting over thirty months, the Biafran War claimed an estimated three million lives, mostly children who died due to malnutrition and starvation after Nigeria imposed a global blockade on Biafrans, who were demanding a secure homeland. The previous year, tens of thousands of Biafrans had been murdered in waves of ethnic cleansing pogroms in different parts of Nigeria. This forced an estimated two million survivors to flee back to their ancestral homeland in then Eastern Nigeria, in search of a safe haven. The ensuing humanitarian crisis and continued violence against this population eventually led them to declare independence from Nigeria, upon which Nigeria declared war on the breakaway nation.

The death and carnage in Biafra caused global outrage. So did the collusion of global powers, especially Britain and the Soviet Union, in suppressing the Biafrans and their struggle for survival. In 1968, it was estimated that nearly 6,000 Biafrans were dying daily, most of them starving children. Photographs of Biafra’s malnourished children with their bloated bellies adorned the covers of news magazines and evening television news programs worldwide. John Lennon returned his knighthood to the Queen in protest, and Jean-Paul Sartre described Biafra as the conscience of the twentieth century. Even Winston Churchill, grandson of the British prime minister, wrote a series of newspaper columns deploring the situation in Biafra. Around the world students staged protests, sit-ins at embassies, and even a hunger strike in Norway. On May 29, 1969, Bruce Mayrock, a twenty-year old student of Columbia University in New York set himself on fire in front of the United Nations to protest Secretary General U Thant’s failure to take measures to stop the war of genocide against Biafra. Mayrock died the following day. Musicians like Jimi Hendrix and Joan Baez held concerts to raise awareness and generate relief aid for Biafra. A group of young French medics who volunteered in Biafra would go on to found the charity, Doctors without Borders (Médecins sans Frontières) in response to the human suffering that they witnessed there.

For two days this summer, June 30–July 1, 2017, child survivors from the Biafran War gather for the first time in Athens as part of documenta 14 to share their stories of living through the monumental tragedies and traumas of conflict, mass displacement, and separation from family as well as bereavement, famine, and hunger. They will also share stories of survival, which are indebted to the resilience of the human spirit and the humanitarian intervention of people around the world who sent relief aid to Biafra or opened their doors to Biafra’s refugee children.

Biafra is relevant today, not only because it represented the nearly impossible struggle of a persecuted people in their fight for self-determination and the establishment of a safe homeland, but also because the subsequent humanitarian disaster is mirrored in the plight of refugees fleeing similar crises in Syria and the Middle East today and their attempt to find safety in Europe and other parts of the world. The survivor testimonies of Biafra’s children reiterate the human cost of conflict. Alone the presence and the survival of these women and men, some of who now have children of their own, underline how humanitarian intervention can help save generations and preserve nations.

The event has been organized by Olu Oguibe, one of the child survivors, whose archival meditation on the war, Biafra Time Capsule, is on display at the National Museum of Contemporary Art (EMST) through July 16, 2017.

BIOS OF PARTICIPANTS

Faith Adiele is the author of The Nigerian-Nordic Girl’s Guide to Lady Problems and the PEN Award-winning memoir, Meeting Faith. She’s also the subject of the Public Broadcasting Service documentary My Journey Home, and co-editor of Coming of Age Around the World: A Multicultural Anthology. A professor at California College of the Arts, she is the founder of African Book Club.

Philip U. Effiong is Associate Professor of English at Michigan State University. He holds a PhD in Drama from the University of Wisconsin at Madison, and has taught Literature, Writing and History at various Nigerian, Ghanaian, and U.S. universities. In addition to his book on African American drama, his essays have appeared in several journals and encyclopedias. Effiong’s father, General Philip Effiong, was Biafra’s last head of state.

Eddie Iroh is a multimedia professional whose career has encompassed radio, television, print, and publishing, including a fairly recent post as Director General of Radio Nigeria. He is also the author of an acclaimed trilogy on the Nigeria-Biafra war, as well as the award-winning children’s novel Without a Silverspoon.

Okey Ndibe is the author of the novels Foreign Gods, Inc. and Arrows of Rain; the memoir Never Look an American in the Eye, Flying Turtles, Colonial Ghosts; and the Making of a Nigerian-American, as well as co-editor of Writers Writing on Conflicts and Wars in Africa. He has taught at several universities in the United States including Brown University.

Vivian Ogbonna is an interior decorator and writer. Since January 2017, she has been interviewing survivors of the Nigeria-Biafra war: men, women, and children who were direct victims of the conflict, most of whom do not have a platform to tell their stories. Vivian documents these stories on mybiafranstoryweb.org, which she hopes will eventually become a database of memories, testimonies, experiences, and anecdotes about the war.

Olu Oguibe is a participating artist in documenta 14. He has written on his childhood experiences in Biafra, and his archival installation Biafra Time Capsule is currently on display at the National Museum of Contemporary Art (EMST), Athens.

Emeka Okereke is a visual artist and writer based in Lagos and Berlin. His current work explores the theme of “borders” through photography, time-based media, poetry, and performative interventions. He is also the artistic director of the Invisible Borders Trans-African Project.

Obiageli Okigbo is an artist based in Brussels. In 1967, her father, Christopher Okigbo, who is widely regarded as Africa’s greatest twentieth-century poet, died on the battlefront in Biafra. In 2005, she launched the Christopher Okigbo Foundation in his honor. She has exhibited in Brussels, London, Dubai, and Lagos, among others.

E.C.Osondu is author of the book of stories Voice of America and the novel, This House is Not For Sale. He was awarded the Caine Prize and the Pushcart Prize. His fiction has been translated into over half a dozen languages. Osondu is Associate Professor of English at Providence College, Rhode Island, USA.

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Biafra Blues

mybiafranstory.org Photo Credit - Ikhide Ikheloa

The Nigerian civil war is often looked at through a binary lens: The East versus the rest of Nigeria and good versus evil, depending on who is telling the story. There is hardly ever a dispassionate commentary because it is so emotional and traumatic, and the narrators are invested in their story. There has not been a shortage of narrative; by my own count there are close to one hundred books on the subject of Biafra’s aborted secession.

I was a child when the war broke. I remember the feeling of fear, foreboding and a relentless loneliness. Alone with my little brother in Benin City, I thought of war as the end of the world as I knew it. The headmaster of our primary school called an assembly and told us that we were at war. I wet my shorts because I thought he meant we were all going to die. I did not want to die without seeing my parents again.

The Biafrans were the rebel forces and, believe it or not, they fought with heart. For a period they occupied Benin City where we lived and I remember the sound of gun shots, shuttered houses and the waiting, for what never came for us.

I missed my father. He was a policeman, part of Nigeria’s highly trained elite Mobile Police Force. The job of the force was to occupy “liberated” territories or overwhelm protesters in areas of unrest. The men of this force were very good at what they did. They were trained to maim and kill and saw combat often. As a little boy, I lived in fear of losing my dad during combat. My dad was always leaving and staying away from the home for long stretches of time. This time, during the early stages of the war, my dad and his team mates were in Asaba and the Biafrans ambushed them. They beat him up and broke his bones. But he escaped and lived to tell the story. Up until his death he would always tell that story with respect in his eyes. The Biafrans were feisty fighters.

My mother was also away in the village burying her father when the war came even as my dad was at war. I was left alone with my little brother in the city because we were of school age and our parents did not want us to miss school. So we stayed with a relative. My mother was worried about us. We were caught in the war in this city that had just been occupied by rebel forces and she fretted about seeing us alive again. Our relative smuggled us out of the city in a mammy wagon and we ended up in our village. I remember that day quite vividly because it was a market day. Someone must have spotted us at the motor park and run ahead to tell my mother the good news. We saw her running towards us, running and falling, running and falling. She grabbed us and held on to us without a word. She kept grinning and it is hard to put in words the joy on her face.

Our dad joined us later. One morning he came riding in in his motorcycle using just one good foot. He was so broken he had to be helped out of the motorcycle. My dad was a strong warrior. Like the Biafrans.

Right after the war, I started secondary school. The Red Cross came to our school and determined that we had been traumatized by the war and needed sustenance and support. We had just survived a war, true, it was traumatizing, yes, but nowhere near what children in Eastern Nigeria had endured. I was a child though, always hungry and since there was a promise of food I did not complain that the Red Cross was exaggerating my condition.  They brought us wheat, dried cod aka stock fish, aka oporoko, aka panla, and powdered milk that curiously came in sacks. We tried to do many things with the wheat but it was a poor substitute for garri and yam flour. The dried cod was so hard they ruined our teeth and each time we used the milk we made a mad dash to the latrines. We found out that we were lactose-intolerant. The war ended but the war continued.

When I think of Biafra, I think of the many men of the barracks – Igbo – who went home to the East and never came back. I was particularly close to one as a child and there are days I still wonder whatever happened to him. I remember the bombs and household names like Carl Gustav Von Rosen, Joseph Achuzia, Brigadier Benjamin Adekunle, the Black Scorpion, etc. I remember the songs of the time, especially those of Celestine Ukwu and Rex Jim Lawson. I play the songs and they take me back to an important part of my life and our shared history. The most traumatic images for me are of children like me with distended stomachs. We knew of kwashiorkor before we studied it in the classrooms.

Many unspeakable things happened during the war. It was in many ways a turkey shoot of the Igbo by the Federal side, and women and children bore the brunt of the hell. However, minority ethnic groups like mine got caught in the middle of the fight. Sometimes when we were reluctant to join the fray we caught hell – from either or both sides. I think of the atrocities of the rebel and Federal soldiers in the old Midwest region – from Benin City to Asaba – atrocities that still hurt to this day, especially the massacre of the men of Asaba. Google it. We need a real, well-funded museum dedicated to that war.

The other day I met a 35-year old Nigerian man who told me he had never heard of Biafra. He is Igbo. I was traumatized by this. Hundreds of thousands of Nigerians lost their lives needlessly during this war. How do you forget an annihilation? There are no credible museums to record this collective trauma and no attempt by successive regimes to remind Nigerians of a time when our country went mad. History is important. When Nigeria erased history as a compulsory part of the curriculum in the classrooms, they instituted amnesia in our consciousness. We are a people that have been forced to forget the past. This is why every day is a repeat of the past. Because those who do not know their history always forget their past. Nigerians are in no danger of remembering their past. We have no history, says our rulers. But as we see, Biafra lives in the hearts and minds of the children of those who lived and died for a dream deferred.

---- Ikhide Ikheloa

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Memories that live forever.

The experience of the war was terrible. I doubt if there’s any emotional clinic one can go to wipe away those effects. No. I think we’ll live with it for the rest of our lives. We can’t escape it. As I’m sitting down here what are you going to tell me to erase that experience from my mind?

One day, directly opposite our house at Number 62 St. Michael’s Road, Aba, there was an attack. One woman was walking past with a child on her back. The blast cut off her head but she kept moving and walked for a short distance, then fell face down. When the smoke cleared, we saw the child. He was crying, saying, “Mama kunie k’anyi na.” [“Mama, get up, let us go.”] It was just opposite our house. I saw it life. I can still visualize it. We were by the door watching everything. You know, once the air craft dives in and bombs, it takes off. There was smoke. Very thick black smoke took over the entire place. The woman was a passer-by. Her son could have been five or six but he may have been looking smaller than his actual age due to malnutrition. We ran inside when the attack started. Normally, you run under the bed, the spring bed, so that even if blocks start falling they will fall on the mattress and cushion the effect.

Another day we were playing outside, far away from the house, when an aircraft started attacking. We took off and ran behind the Iroko tree. The bunker where we normally run into was far off from where we were, so we were now revolving round the Iroko tree. If the aircraft is coming from the right we go to the opposite side of the tree and hold onto ourselves till it zooms past.  If it’s coming from the left we run to the other side. We didn’t lie flat or go into the bunker because if it’s a bomber, dropping bombs and moving, it will bury the person alive so it was a nightmare. It was a nightmare.

At that age my mind was not fully developed so I was not really scared because we’ve been seeing a lot. I had seen soldiers, naval people, they pass through the front of our house in Orlu. So many will pass but few will return. Those that come back will have a lot of injuries. But with the bombings of buildings, smoke, people running helter-skelter, when you see people hysterical, running as if they want to disappear into thin air, then the fear started coming and it’s not good for a child. The images I saw as a child during that war, I still have them. Anything that can affect the psyche of a child is something very serious. Now if I hear the sound of a serious gun I feel uncomfortable. If I hear the sound of a machine gun now I know it’s a machine gun and my mind goes back. During one of my visits abroad, they were celebrating their Air Force day and I didn’t know. If you saw the way fighters and bombers were moving, I think my heart stopped beating for some time until I got myself back. My friend said, “No cause for alarm. It is Air Force day.” The sounds brought back memories of what I knew.

At Orlu and Aba, myself and my cousins were just living in the open. That was when I learned how to tap wine. It was not because I wanted something to eat. It’s just that we were not busy. Before we started having lessons, everybody was free. There was confusion and idleness. But I used to see palm wine tappers up there so I went up like them and, using iron and hammer, I drill a hole towards the top of the palm tree and fluid will start coming out and I will use calabash and hold the liquid. I will tie it the way palm wine tappers will tie it and leave it there. By watching people climb I got expertise in climbing. Even after the war, if I’m climbing I can move from one tree to another tree expertly and very high up.

In Aba, there were no trees to climb but the house where we were living in has a decking so I will climb to the decking and jump from there into a trip of sand. It was a very rough life. To jump over a fence was nothing for me. I was obviously reacting to the trauma I experienced. Before the war I was riding tricycles and such things but one became hardened during the war and you begin to see things you’re not supposed to see as a child. You see soldiers marching to war carrying guns but when they’re returning you’ll see real injuries. Some can no longer walk. They’ll be carried, then you’ll understand the seriousness of it.

After that Aba incident I became withdrawn. Even with my rough nature, once my father was not at home I don’t step outside. My natural self that lives outside and feels very free became withdrawn. I am always by the edge, my ears always very sharp, listening for the sound of air craft. So if an air craft is far away I will pick the sound and inform people and they will begin to take position. To the extent that if I’m inside here blindfolded, if a fighter passes, I will know the sound. I also know the sound of a bomber. I could tell the difference even with the eyes of a child. Those fighters that shoot are not very massive. They’re small and very swift. They manoeuvre easily. The bombers are slow and as they’re passing, they’re dropping [bombs] and they’ll continue on their way. By the time you turn around again everywhere is in darkness, dust, everything. If there was a tree here you won’t see that tree anymore. The tree would have been uprooted and buried.

People were short of medication, so once you fall sick and drugs are not available, you’ll just die. One of my cousins who was a sickler died in Azia because his father who donates blood for transfusion was killed in the Asaba massacre He just died. A brilliant young boy. My relations in Asaba died. The ones that ran away survived. Families were separated. In those days it is mostly the men who work while the women are house wives. During the holidays, the women travel with the children and after the holidays they will take the children back to their base but the war came and separated everybody. Some of my cousins found themselves in a refugee camp. Everybody was sharing a common toilet and a common bathroom. People use wrapper to demarcate their rooms. Those mothers suffered. That war was something else. You can imagine where there is an attack and a child is separated from the parents permanently, for ever. That child becomes anybody’s child. For people who are still living, if they start searching for their children some of them will find them provided they are still alive.

After the war, we went back to Asaba because there was nowhere else for us to go. We were not living in our own house but in my father’s uncle’s house. That was the only house in the family not affected by the war so the whole extended family was there. Everywhere was jam packed. We sleep in the parlour and everybody has a corner. At night you just go to your corner and sleep. It was terrible – that war.

My dad went back to Enugu and was visiting us from Enugu. He registered us in a public school in Asaba but when we went back to Enugu we continued with Santa Maria where we were schooling before the war. But it was no longer the Santa Maria we knew. All the missionaries were gone.

Later on when I went to Asaba for my secondary school, we used to see skeletons when we’re digging the ground. You can imagine seeing skeletons. We just cover them and move on. Now I know what a skeleton is. But seeing it then during the war you may not fully understand that this was a human being.

The suffering was much. That’s why when I see people agitating, making noise, trying to demonstrate, Pro-Biafra this and that, I know those people did not see the war. Anybody who saw the war will not attempt anything that will bring back the memories not to talk about the real thing.

War is bad.

The contributor of this story wishes to remain anonymous.

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My Biafran Eyes, by Okey Ndibe

mybiafranstory.org Photo Credit - Okey Ndibe

(My Biafran Eyes was published by Guernica on August 12, 2007)

My first glimpse into the horror and beauty that lurk uneasily in the human heart came in the late 1960s courtesy of the Biafran War. Biafra was the name assumed by the seceding southern section of Nigeria. The war was preceded—in some ways precipitated—by the massacre of southeastern (mostly Christian) Igbo living in the predominantly northern parts of Nigeria.

Thinking back, I am amazed that war’s terrifying images have since taken on a somewhat muted quality. It requires sustained effort to recall the dread, the pangs of hunger, the crackle of gunfire that once made my heart pound. It all now seems an unthreatening fog.

~~~

As Nigeria hurtled towards war, my parents faced a difficult decision: to flee, or stay put. We lived in Yola, a sleepy, dusty town whose streets teemed with Muslims in flowing white babariga gowns. My father was then a postal clerk; my mother a teacher. In the end, my father insisted that Mother take us, their four children, and escape to safety in Amawbia, my father’s natal town. Mother pleaded with him to come away as well, but he would not budge. He was a federal civil servant, and the federal government had ordered all its employees to remain at their posts.

My mother didn’t cope well in Amawbia. In the absence of my father, she was a wispy and wilted figure. She despaired of ever seeing her husband alive again. Our relatives made gallant efforts to shield her, but news about the indiscriminate killings in the north still filtered to her. She lost her appetite. Day and night, she lay in bed in a kind of listless, paralyzing grief. She was given to bouts of impulsive, silent weeping.

Then one blazing afternoon, unheralded, my father materialized in Amawbia, stole back into our lives as if from the land of death itself.

“Eliza o! Eliza o!” a relative sang. “Get up! Your husband is back!”

At first, my mother feared that the returnee was some ghost come to mock her anguish. But, raising her head, she glimpsed a man who—for all the unaccustomed gauntness of his physique—was unquestionably the man she’d married. With a swiftness and energy that belied her enervation, she bolted up and dashed for him.

We would learn that my father’s decision to stay in Yola nearly cost him his life. He was at work when one day a mob arrived. Armed with cudgels, machetes and guns, they sang songs that curdled the blood. My father and his colleagues—many of them Igbo Christians—shut themselves inside the office. Huddled in a corner, they shook uncontrollably, reduced to frenzied prayers. One determined push and their assailants would have breached the barricades, poached and minced them, and made a bonfire of their bodies.

The Lamido of Adamawa, the area’s Muslim leader, arrived at the spot just in the nick. A man uninfected by the malignant thirst for blood, he vowed that no innocent person would be dealt death on his watch. He scolded the mob and shooed them away. Then he guided my father and his cowering colleagues into waiting vehicles and spirited them to the safety of his palace. In a couple of weeks, the wave of killings cooled off and the Lamido secured my father and the other quarry on the last ship to leave for the southeast.

~~~

Air raids became a terrifying staple of our lives. Nigerian military jets stole into our air space, then strafed with abandon. They flew low and at a furious speed. The ramp of their engines shook buildings and made the very earth quake.

“Cover! Everybody take cover!” the adults shouted and we’d scurry towards a huddle of banana trees or the nearest brush and lay face down.

Sometimes the jets dumped their deadly explosives on markets as surprised buyers and sellers dashed higgledy-piggledy. Sometimes the bombs detonated in houses. Sometimes it was cars trapped in traffic that were sprayed. In the aftermath, the cars became mangled metal, singed beyond recognition, the people in them charred to a horrid blackness. From our hiding spots, frozen with fright, we watched as the bombs tumbled from the sky, hideous metallic eggs shat by mammoth mindless birds.

One day, my siblings and I were out fetching firewood when an air strike began. We threw down our bundles of wood and cowered on the ground, gaping up. The jets tipped in the direction of our home and released a load. The awful boom of explosives deafened us. My stomach heaved; I was certain that our home had been hit. I pictured my parents in the rumble of smashed concrete and steel. We lay still until the staccato gunfire of Biafran soldiers startled the air, a futile gesture to repel the jets. Then we walked home in a daze, my legs rubbery, and found that the bombs had missed our home, but only narrowly. They had detonated at a nearby school.

~~~

At each temporary place of refuge, my parents tried to secure a small farmland. They sowed yam and cocoyam and also grew a variety of vegetables. We, the children, scrounged around for anything that was edible, relishing foods that in less stressful times would have made us retch.

One of my older cousins was good at making catapults, which we used to hunt lizards. We roasted them over fires of wood and dried brush and savored their soft meat. My cousin also set traps for rats. When his traps caught a squirrel or a rabbit, we felt providentially favored. Occasionally he would kill a tiny bird or two, and we would all stake out a claim on a piece of its meat.

While my family was constantly beset by hunger, we knew many others who had it worse. Biafra teemed with malnourished kids afflicted with kwashiorkor that gave them the forlorn air of the walking dead. Their hair was thin and discolored, heads big, eyes sunken, necks thin and scrawny, their skin wrinkly and sallow, stomachs distended, legs spindly.

Like other Biafrans, we depended on food and medicines donated by such international agencies as Catholic Relief and the Red Cross. Sometimes I accompanied my parents on trips to relief centers. The food queues, which snaked for what seemed like miles—a crush of men, women, children—offered less food than frustration as there was never enough to go round. One day, I saw a man crumble to the ground. Other men surrounded his limp body. As they removed him, my parents blocked my sight, an effete attempt to shield me from a tragedy I had already fully witnessed.

Some unscrupulous officers of the beleaguered Biafra diverted food to their homes. Bags of rice, beans and other foods, marked with a donor agency’s insignia, were not uncommon in markets. The betrayal pained my father. He railed by signing and distributing a petition against the Biafran officials who hoarded relief food or sold it for profit.

The petition drew the ire of the censured officials; the signatories were categorized as saboteurs. To be tagged a saboteur in Biafra was to be branded with a capital crime. A roundup was ordered. One afternoon, some grave-looking men arrived at our home. They snooped all over the house. They turned things over. They pulled out papers and pored over them, brows crinkled half in consternation, half in concentration. As they ransacked the house, they kept my father closely in view. Then they took him away.

Father was detained for several weeks. I don’t remember that our mother ever explained his absence. It was as if my father had died. And yet, since his disappearance was unspoken, it was as if he hadn’t.

Then one day, as quietly as he had exited, my father returned. For the first—and I believe last—time, I saw my father with a hirsute face. A man of steady habits, he shaved every day of his adult life. His beard both fascinated and frightened me. It was as if my real father had been taken away and a different man had returned to us.

This image of my father so haunted me that, for many years afterwards, I flirted with the idea that I had dreamed it. It was only ten years ago, shortly after my father’s death, that I broached the subject with my mother. Yes, she confirmed, my father had been arrested during the war. And, yes, he’d come back wearing an unaccustomed beard.

~~~

Father owned a small transistor radio. It became the link between our war-torn space and the rest of the world. Every morning, as he shaved, my father tuned the radio to the British Broadcasting Corporation, which gave a more or less objective account of Biafra’s dwindling fortunes. It reported Biafra’s reverses, lost strongholds and captured soldiers as well as interviews with gloating Nigerian officials. Sometimes a Biafran official came on to refute accounts of lost ground and vow the Biafrans’ resolve to fight to the finish.

Feigning obliviousness, I always planted myself within earshot, then monitored my father’s face, hungry to gauge his response, the key to decoding the news. But his countenance remained inscrutable. Because he monitored the BBC while shaving, it was impossible to tell whether winces or tightening were from the scrape of a blade or the turn of the war.

At the end of the BBC broadcasts, my father twisted the knob to Radio Biafra, and then his emotions came on full display. Between interludes of martial music and heady war songs, the official mouthpiece gave exaggerated reports of the exploits of Biafran forces. They spoke about enemy soldiers “flushed out” or “wiped out” by gallant Biafran troops, of Nigerian soldiers surrendering. When an African country granted diplomatic recognition to Biafra, the development was described in superlative terms, sold as the beginning of a welter of such recognitions from powerful nations around the globe. “Yes! Yes!” my father would exclaim, buoyed by the diet of propaganda. How he must have detested it when the BBC disabused him, painted a patina of grey over Radio Biafra’s glossy canvas.

~~~

In January 1970, after enduring the 30-month siege, which claimed close to two million lives on both sides, Biafra buckled. We had emerged as part of the lucky, the undead. But though the war was over, I could intuit from my parents’ mien that the future was forbidden. It looked every bit as uncertain and ghastly as the past.

Our last refugee camp abutted a makeshift barrack for the victorious Nigerian army. Once each day, Nigerian soldiers distributed relief material—used clothes and blankets, tinned food, powdery milk, flour, oats, beans, rice, such like. There was never enough food or clothing to go around, which meant that brawn and grit decided who got food and who starved. Knuckles and elbows were thrown. Children, the elderly, the feeble did not fare well in the food scuffles. My father was the sole member of our family who stood a chance. On good days, he squeaked out a few supplies; on bad days, he returned empty handed. On foodless nights, we found it impossible to work up enthusiasm about the cessation of war. Then, the cry of “Happy survival!” with which refugees greeted one another sounded hollow, a cruel joke.

 

Despite the hazards, we, the children, daily thronged the food lines. We operated around the edges hoping that our doleful expressions would invite pity. Too young to grasp the bleakness, we did not know that pity, like sympathy, was a scarce commodity when people were famished.

One day I ventured to the food queue and stood a safe distance away watching the mayhem, silently praying that somebody might stir with pity and invite me to sneak into the front. As I daydreamed, a woman beckoned to me. I shyly went to her. She was beautiful and her face held a wide, warm smile.

“What’s your name?” she asked.

“Okey,” I volunteered, averting my eyes.

“Look at me,” she said gently. I looked up, shivering. “I like your eyes.” She paused, and I looked away again. “Will you be my husband?”

Almost ten at the time, I was aware of the woman’s beauty, and also of a vague stirring inside me. Seized by a mixture of flattery, shame and shyness, I used bare toes to scratch patterns on the ground.

“Do you want some food?” she asked.

I answered with the sheerest of nods.

“Wait here.”

She went off. My heart pounded as I awaited her return, at once expectant and afraid. Back in a few minutes, she handed me a plastic bag filled with beans and a few canned tomatoes. I wanted to say my thanks, but my voice was choked. “Here,” she said. “Open your hand.” She dropped ten shillings onto my palm.

I ran to our tent, flush with exhilaration. As I handed the food and coin to my astonished parents, I breathlessly told them about my strange benefactor, though I never said a word about her comments on my eyes or her playful marriage proposal. The woman had given us enough food to last for two or three days. The ten shillings was the first post-war Nigerian coin my family owned. In a way, we’d taken a step towards becoming once again “Nigerian.” She’d also made me aware that my eyes were beautiful, despite their having seen so much ugliness.

~~~

Each day, streams of men set out and trekked many miles to their hometowns. They were reconnoiterers, eager to assess the state of life to which they and their families would eventually return. They returned with blistered feet and harrowing stories.

Amawbia was less than 40 miles away. By bus, the trip was easy, but there were few buses and my parents couldn’t afford the fare anyway. One day a man who’d traveled there came to our tent to share what he’d seen. His was a narrative of woes, except in one detail: My parents’ home, the man reported, was intact. He believed that an officer of the Nigerian army had used my parents’ home as his private lodgings. My parents’ joy was checked only by their informer’s account of his own misfortunes. He’d found his own home destroyed. Eavesdropping on his report, I imagined our home as a mythical island of order and wholesomeness ringed by overgrown copse and shattered houses.

The next day my father trekked home. He wanted to confirm what he’d heard and to arrange for our return. But when he got back, my mother let out a shriek then shook her head in quiet sobs. My father arrived in Amawbia to a shocking sight. Our house had been razed; the fire still smoldered, a testament to its recentness. As my father stood and gazed in stupefaction, the truth dawned on him: Some envious returnee, no doubt intent on equalizing misery, had torched it. War had brought out the worst in someone.

My parents had absorbed the shock of other losses. There was the death of a beloved grandaunt to sickness and of a distant cousin to gunshot in the battlefield. There was the impairment of another cousin who lost a hand. There was the loss of irreplaceable photographs, among them the images of my grandparents and of my father as a soldier in Burma during WWII. There was the loss of documents, including copies of my father’s letters (a man of compulsive fastidiousness, my father had a life-long habit of keeping copies of every letter he wrote). But this loss of our home cut to the quick because it was inflicted not by the detested Nigerian soldier but by one of our own. By somebody who would remain anonymous but who might come around later to exchange pleasantries with us, even to bemoan with us the scars left by war.

~~~

At war’s end, the Nigerian government offered 20 pounds to each Biafran adult. We used part of the sum to pay the fare for our trip home. I was shaken at the sight of our house: The concrete walls stood sturdily, covered with soot, but the collapsed roof left a gaping hole. Blackened zinc lay all about the floor. We squatted for a few days at the makeshift abode of my father’s cousins. Helped by several relatives, my father nailed back some of the zinc over half of the roof. Then we moved in.

The roof leaked whenever it rained. At night, rain fell on our mats, compelling us to move from one spot to another. In the day, shafts of sunlight pierced through the holes. But it was in that disheveled home that we began to piece our lives together again. We began to put behind us the terrors we had just emerged from. We started learning what it means to repair an inhuman wound, what it takes to go from here to there.

In time, my father was absorbed back into the postal service. My mother returned to teaching. We went back to school. The school building had taken a direct hit, so classes were kept in the open air. Even so, our desire to learn remained strong. At the teacher’s prompting, we rent the air, shouted the alphabet and yelled multiplication tables.

---- Okey Ndibe

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Immune to horror.

mybiafranstory.org Photo Credit - Internet

I was in primary two at St. Mary’s primary school, Umuopara, Nguru, Mbaise when the war started. Fighter jets were flying over our school and when it became unbearable, we had to go into the bush to continue studying. I was only eight years but I started to see emergency platoons. I don’t know who summoned them but I started to see traders, secondary school leavers, tailors, in their work dresses, coming together and chanting war songs, “Nzogbu, enyimba enyi, nzogbu enyimba enyi!” After hearing of the pogroms in Lagos, Kano and how Igbo soldiers were massacred in barracks, people were saying, “We’re ready, enough is enough.” They absorbed them into the army and they started forming sectors all over Igbo land.

You can’t imagine that we’ll be in our compound and air raid will come and give us the first sign. We’ll go and enter the bunker. The next time it comes, it is bombing. Behind our house there was an arsenal where Biafra was manufacturing equipment but the Nigerian soldiers couldn’t locate it. Very heavy machines and trucks were going to that place to transport materials and equipment, roaring day and night. It was protected by palm trees so the Nigerian soldiers continued looking for that arsenal. Everyday. Woooo! Woooo! Woooo! We couldn’t sleep. They bombed many places but they couldn’t find that one.

With all that bombing going on, we ran into the bush. It was filled with human beings and our only cover was palm trees. Right inside that bush, markets started springing up. It was trade by barter so if you have garden eggs or chicken you can exchange them for yams or another thing.

As the war went on, the hunger, starvation and attendant issues became worse. We were blocked from Northern Nigeria so there was nothing like cattle or goats. We were blocked from Lagos so anything imported could not get to us. What we had to do was manage whatever we laid our hands on. For starch we were eating cassava, rice, maize, yams. For vegetables, anything that could be eaten, like cassava leaves, hibiscus leaves, paw-paw leaves, we were eating them, mixing them with starchy foods in a porridge. There was little protein that is why there was kwashiorkor. The only source of meat was rats, snakes, lizards. But they were correct meat at that time. If you climb a tree and see a lizard jump down from there, you follow it and jump down. If it escapes, where will you see another one? We used to dig holes in the ground to look for rats then we put our hand inside the hole not caring whether snakes live there.

We were getting relief from international organisations like Red Cross, World Council of Churches, Caritas. They brought Garri Gabon, corn meal, milk. In the morning we carry our plates and go to the relief centre at Ogbo, Nguru. The kwashiorkor place, that’s what we call it. We stay in line but when people get tired of waiting they will start dragging the food from the sharers. Sometimes the food will pour on the ground and some people will scoop it from there. Do you blame them? Sandy food was better than no food.

There was stock fish but it was stock fish soaked in salt – double action. We soak it in water for one week and use the salt water to cook. Other times we trek to Rivers State to fetch salt water in twenty litres jerry cans. We pour the water into a big drum and cook that drum of water from morning to evening. By the time it dries up what you get will be one cigarette cup of salt.

Same thing applied to soap. We made Ncha Obo by coupling dry female inflorescence of oil palm, which acted as source of potash, with oil palm in water. We can use it for two or three weeks. Necessity is the mother of invention and there’s what you call AAD – Adversity Activated Development. This is when people cultivate methods to overcome adverse conditions around them. I never knew about cassava leaves and hibiscus leaves. I never knew that tender cocoa fruits – the unripe ones – could be eaten like okro. It was very sweet.

There was also something called Emergency Rations. It came in cartons and each one contained a collapsible aluminium tripod stand where you can cook and boil water. The fuel came in the form of slices of cardboard immersed in paraffin, like laminated hydro carbon. Each slice could be used once. It also contained beverage cake, like Bournvita or Ovaltine, and protein cake, which we add to our soup to make it nutritional. We also had biscuits inside the pack and egg yoke in powdered form. Yes, relief was coming in but the people for whom it was made, were they accessing it? The secondary and primary school teachers, who were the elites at the time and who these things were entrusted to, they were selling some of them or giving to their friends and families. One day I found heaps of blankets, emergency rations, bags of corn meal and other things in the bush behind our house. This was something made for the wretched, poor and hungry people but people convert it to a business venture.

Sometimes people died not because of hunger, but because they didn’t receive help on time. One of my uncles had his ankle cut by shrapnel and we only had a dispensary in the village; no place to give him ambulatory treatment. He died of hypovolemic shock due to blood loss. Another person was my uncle, Romanus. He was with the Board of Internal Revenue in Port Harcourt before he joined the army and was made a captain. A bomb cut his ankle and he bled to death. The day the Biafrans brought him home, his parents fainted and never recovered from the trauma until they died.

Some never came back. Before they go, the elders will bless them traditionally but they didn’t return.

We almost lost my mother too. One day, she went to her farm to harvest cassava and Nigerian soldiers surrounded her. When they asked, “Are you Gowon or Ojukwu?” she said she was Gowon. They took her to a camp at Umuopara, Nguru, where they were holding other people captured from the places they invaded.

Towards the end of the war the Nigerians were firing warning bullets; noisy bullets that were giving us warning but not attacking us. One day we started hearing noise from up to 10 miles away. The thing was echoing, “One Nigeria, one Nigeria,” and people in the bush started rejoicing, “One Nigeria, One Nigeria.” I looked for my dad and my senior brother but I didn’t them. So, I set out for my village alone.

Meanwhile, five days before then, we had escaped to my aunt’s place in Ekwerazu. I went with my dog, Dandy. Very loving dog with variegated skin like a hyena. But my aunt and her family were not comfortable with Dandy. She was defecating all over the place so they kept throwing stones at her until she ran away. I cried. But when I was returning home that day, I saw Dandy about one and half kilometres to our house. I don’t know how she managed to trace her way through the bush. She was doing strange movements on the road, running forwards and backwards, sniffing. I shouted, “Dandy” and she looked at me as if to say, “I’m so disappointed in you.” But she ran to me, wagging her tail. I lifted her up and we headed home.

On the way, behold, gory images. Cadavers! Corpses! Some were slumped over their steering wheels. Some were entangled around their bicycles. Many were in different stages of decomposition, stinking. And me, a child of about ten years, this was the sight that was welcoming me as I was returning home.

When I eventually walked into our large compound, I saw my mother and she grabbed me. She managed to escape the camp where the Nigerian soldiers were holding her, passing from one bush to another until she got home. Other people were also there, rejoicing. They decided to cook a type of soup called mgbugbu. We also called it Win the War. Mgbugbu connotes an emergency meal, a way of saying, “Let us eat and keep mind and soul together until we win the war.” They put a pot on the fire and people start throwing in different things – snake, rat, lizard, cocoyam, cassava leaves, hibiscus leaves, palm oil, anything they have. When it was ready, everybody came together and shared the meal.

We were eventually called back to school but most of our classrooms had been destroyed. We had to sit on the floor until UNICEF started bringing desks and other items. Our school field was littered with corpses at different stages of bloating and decomposition – both adults and children. We had to clean the compound so we started digging shallow graves to bury the bodies. The ones that were completely decayed, we rake them over the soil and use them as manure. Then we bury their skeletons. When we started our school farm again, we were marking the position of our ridges with skulls. We drive a stick into the soil and put a skull on top of it. Sometimes we used the skulls to play hand ball – you throw to me, I throw to you. I was only ten years old but we had become desensitized and immune to horrors.

By this time the soldiers were camped at Eke Nguru. They were vicious, wicked and rode rough shod on the people. They’ll buy things from Nkwogwu market and refuse to pay. If you challenge them, it will get you a head butting or they lock you up. They chase women into their fathers’ bedrooms, shouting, “Come out. Come out.” One lady, Maria, practically lived in the bush. One captain was so intoxicated with her beauty and wanted to marry her by force. He would land in the compound ten times a day with his vehicle, so her parents hid her away.

There was a time that two soldiers on foot were knocked down by a vehicle along Eke Nguru. They commanded all vehicles, bicycles and motor cycles to park on one side. They searched everywhere for those who knocked them down till late at night. Another day, one photographer called OC Photos took pictures of one Nigerian captain but the soldier refused to pay. Instead, he started giving OC Photos head-butts and blows until his nose started bleeding. As this was going on, one man came and pleaded with him to leave OC Photos. This captain left OC and started head-butting the person who tried to intervene.

We started life afresh. They opened the roads leading to Port Harcourt, Aba and Enugu and Hausa traders started bringing grains and onions to Umuahia. People will even trek to Umuahia to buy pepper and onions to sell. We started eating those things again.

But I noticed that after the war there was economic boom and enjoyment throughout Igbo land. Government was pumping money into states so economic activity flourished. Foreigners started coming to invest. Local labour was employed and whatever you could do to make a living, you were free to do. Up to the extent that every weekend people will organize what we used to call ‘Hall.’ Primary and secondary school halls were converted to dancing halls and every weekend – Saturday and Sunday – there will be dancing and enjoyment. People were happy, trying to forget the horrors they experienced.

------- Okenwa Enyeribe

 

 

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