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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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FROM VOLUNTEER TO RELIEF WORKER - STORIES FROM THE PEACE CORPS

mybiafranstory.org Photo Credit - Internet

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

Dear Vivian,

After so many years what I have written about my time in Nigeria during the Biafran war seems very slight but I hope it may be of some use to you. I'm always happy to answer any questions you might have, to elaborate or clarify anything if I can. Good luck with your project and please let me know the result.  

In the spring of 1966 Peace Corps group XX, which trained at the University of California of Los Angeles for two months, arrived in Nigeria where volunteers were spread throughout the east and mid-west of the country. Initially I was assigned to teach English at a manual arts cum teacher training college in Asaba but when the school closed I was reposted to a newly opened Catholic manual arts training school in Onitsha across the River Niger where I taught sewing and cooking to young girls. The school was funded and built by Father Anthony Byrne of the Holy Ghost fathers, a dynamic kindly man with a keen sense of humour, who became well known for his courage and initiative in food and medical relief flights from Sao Tome to Biafra. The supervisor for the domestic science program at the school was the bubbling, highly competent Sister Felicitas (I've forgotten her order) who also worked at the Borromeo hospital in Onitsha that was staffed by lay doctors and nuns. I later heard she dragged a water tank several miles on her own to help those in need at the height of the war.  

I had been in Nigeria not quite a year and a half when the war broke out. Tensions mounted, and one day the bridge across the Niger was closed, cutting us off from the rest of the country. There were food shortages and rumours flying that war was imminent, and a curfew was enforced. One morning a man from Peace Corps headquarters in Enugu appeared to say that I had an hour to collect a suitcase of belongings before the evacuation of PC volunteers in our sector of the eastern region of the country would begin. Those of us in Onitsha and close by crossed the Niger by boat and were met by a convoy from the US embassy headed by the consul, a Mr. Kennedy, who took two of us home to dinner. Eating shrimp jambalaya by candlelight off gold bordered plates with the US embassy seal seemed another world from what we had left behind, making the prospect of war seem unreal.   

A year and a half later when I was living in the US I was contacted by a former PC volunteer recruiting people to return to Nigeria as relief workers. I went back to Lagos in January 1969 to work for Unicef, seconded to the International Committee of the Red Cross who were coordinating relief efforts. The Nigerian civil war had been in the headlines constantly during my absence from the country, with harrowing stories of the suffering in Biafra, where I had once been, so I jumped at the chance to help. My job was to report to the head of mission in Lagos on food relief to children in areas near the border of the war, and supplied through Calabar. At this juncture most of the major relief agencies worldwide were operating in my area, such as Oxfam, Save the Children, USAID, Protestant church groups and CARE. The Catholic priests and nuns already in the country before the war stayed at their posts, except for a few such as Father Byrne.

I was stationed about 2 miles from the front in a small village that was occupied by relief agencies that used the buildings for accommodation and ware housing for relief goods, most notably the German Red Cross who had sent doctors and nurses and staff already experienced in disaster relief, all of whom seemed far better suited to their jobs than many people I met. They had their own well stocked warehouses containing donations of clothing, bedding, and much else that came from many sources from what I saw, including surprising things like patchwork quilts from the USA (I still have one I used as my bed). The German Red Cross carefully controlled the distribution of these goods, partly perhaps because of the inevitable siphoning off of so much aid that was being sold in local markets instead of being given to those in need. However, I remember feeling frustrated that we couldn't get the GRC to release more goods for distribution, even by trusted workers. There may have been corruption among the foreign aid workers, though I never heard of it. All distribution of food, medicine, clothing, etc. was supervised ultimately by Nigerian nationals, as required by the Nigerian government, so they were ultimately responsible for ensuring aid reached the people. One of the most disillusioning discoveries was the rivalry between some of the aid organizations, many of whose workers regarded aid work as a job like any other. We were all extremely well paid with all sorts of allowances apart from our generous salary, and time off for R&R.   

I reported regularly to my superior in Lagos on the problems of food distribution, mainly to children, particularly powdered milk. The problem was to instruct the mothers how to prepare it properly, in the right proportions, using boiled water so as not to cause gastric problems. I remember seeing hungry people scurrying to eat milk spilled from a lorry, scooping it up with their hands. Milk and flour which made up the bulk of food distributed where I was, quickly spoiled in the extreme heat and humidity, resulting in a lot of waste. Grain was distributed, which posed a problem of grinding, and was shipped by helicopter from Calabar. I was often on the grain run, clinging to sacks branded with the USAID logo of two hands clasping with the motto: 'gift of the people of the United States'. One of the pilots had been in Vietnam, and another was reputed to be an ex-British mercenary. One evening for his amusement he allowed his pet mandril to jump on my shoulders and run his fingers through my hair, something I'll never forget.  

Much of the food aid that came to Nigeria during the war was not fit for consumption when it arrived, and often was inedible before it was shipped. This dumping, masquerading as 'aid', served as tax write-offs for companies or corporations apparently, but it kept coming. There was certainly malnutrition in the area where I worked, but no real starvation. We ourselves lived on American army K and C rations. Some workers drove their Land rovers on bush tracks into Biafran territory and possibly helped people if they could, though this was strictly forbidden by the Nigerian government, the explanation being that it would only prolong the war. I heard stories from workers who saw abandoned burnt out villages, with bodies rotting unburied. I once crossed the border into Biafra and remember the eerie silence of a village where the houses were peppered with bullet holes which was a shocking contrast to the peace and order I remembered when I used to travel in the bush near Onitsha, driving my Volkswagen van full of equipment, including an oven devised from a kerosene tin.  

I left Nigeria after four months and returned to Europe with my husband whom I'd met during this time. He was posted back to Lagos after the war had ended, and we stayed there for seven more years, during which time I saw the beginnings of a new Nigeria.  I had the chance to return to Onitsha once, driving cross country. I could hardly recognize the school compound where I had worked which was now a bombed out shell.  My thoughts went to Father Byrne, whose life's work had literally gone up in smoke.  

--- Laura Murison

 

 

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