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'AFIA ATTACK' - A Young Girl's Account

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Then it started. Bombs and more bombs. At a time, as early as 4 o’clock my mother would wake us up to have our bath and our breakfast, then she would pack our food and send us into the drainage. She had identified where parents were hiding their children. They dropped them in the morning and in the evening they picked them up. They were like gutters and you saw the water gushing out. If it was the bigger ones we’d take kitchen stools and the smaller children would sit, while our bigger sisters would lie down. Sometimes we couldn’t even sit, so we’ll just stretch out. That is where we’ll be from as early as 6.00 am till 6.00 pm. They didn’t have a choice. They had to protect us.

We were living on Asa Road, Aba, a very popular street. We were on the first floor and there were shops on the ground floor. There was a record shop there and, because people were hungry for news, they would gather in front of the shop during the news time. The volume of the radio would be raised to high heavens so that no matter how far away you were sitting or standing, you could hear the news. On one of those days, at exactly 4.00 o’clock, when the signature tune was on signalling that the news was about to start, they bombed our house. I don’t know if they were getting information from saboteurs because they knew when to strike. They were bombing and shelling at the same time- fighter and bomber. Eight Six people were killed that day. Bodies were scattered all over the place. You don’t want to see it. Heads, legs, hands, in different directions. There was brain stuck on our ceiling. One bullet landed on my father’s bed. Luckily for us my father would usually take his siesta but on that day he didn’t take his rest. Instead, he was discussing with his friend at the back of our house. My sister and her fiancée were wounded. The horrifying experience of children seeing dead bodies, not just dead bodies, but mutilated bodies. There was another incident when a petrol station opposite our house got bombed. It ignited so much fire that both the people who were buying and those who were selling perished.

Kwashiorkor became the order of the day. People were eating anything in sight - hibiscus flower, leaves, rats, lizards, cats, everything in sight. But we were lucky because my mother participated in Ahia attack – o zuru ahia attack. If she told you what she went through erh. She spoke a lot of languages so she was able to pass a lot of barricades on her way to Atani to trade. You know it’s a border so people were also coming from the other end to trade. She used to take Singer Machines to the border, the type operated by foot. They were packed in big cases. The Nigerians were buying them a lot. I don’t know why. We had a lot of them in the house. But I didn’t bother to ask her where she was getting them from. Before she went, they would nail narrow pieces of wood around the four sides of the wooden case and fill the gaps with coins, before putting the wooden cases inside cartons. She would set off with my senior brother carrying the machine. When they got to a point they would take a canoe and cross to the other side and follow the apiam way. They usually arrived on markets days. They exchanged the coins for Nigerian money and the exchange rate was quite high. She would use the money to buy plantain and fish, crayfish, garri and everything we needed in our house. Our house became a mecca of sorts because people were coming to our house to buy these things. Then she would go get some more machines. They also used to buy fish and people would come to the house to dry the fish for her. Sometimes, when they had to cross a stream the water would get to her chest. And she couldn’t swim.  

One day a woman who knew she was trading in faraway places approached her and asked, “n’o bulu kwa na enwe ndi cholu umu aka ebe anwa, g’enye f’ego ka fa wee nye ndi nke ozo nni – if there were people who would take some of her children and give her money so she could feed the rest.” My mother told the woman she couldn’t do that sort of thing; that she had 9 children who were also suffering. She told the women to endure the hardship and if she was willing she would introduce her to the attack trade. The woman was not doing it out of wickedness. People were having many children at that time and, rather than lose all her children to hunger, she must have felt it was better to sell some and use the money to feed the rest.

Caritas had designated areas where they used to sell food. It was shared family by family. If they did it individually those who had more children would get more, although they needed it more too, but they decided they’d rather deal with families. At the beginning it was well organised because they were distributing the items themselves, but when they left the people working at the directorate started diverting the items. You had to bribe them to get food. People stood in the queues for days and it still didn’t get to them. They were even selling these things in the market. My mum had money so sometimes we bought from the market. But what about those who couldn’t afford it?

Life was unbearable. The trekking we did in those years, I can’t tell you how many million miles we covered. When Umuahia fell we trekked for three days. In the night we entered a bush. My mother would not sleep. My father would not sleep. They would stay awake just watching their children sleep. We left again and got to a place with nothing in sight except an abandoned primary school, without a roof. From there my mother would go out looking for a market or a gathering where she could buy food.

My mum discovered a place called Umunze, also in Mbano. One of the chiefs gave us a place and my mother paid pounds as the rent. From Umunze we went to Umuchu. It was at that time that my sister and I started our period. I woke one morning and when I saw the blood  I screamed. I didn’t know what it was. My mother gave me a bath and said, “You’ve become a real woman now. Don’t allow any man to come near you.” She tore her wrappers and gave twelve pieces to me and twelve to my sister.  

My father was praying to die. He had nine children. He couldn’t communicate with anybody because he couldn’t speak Igbo. He was an Ijaw man, the only non-Igbo speaking councillor in Aba at the time. If you go to Aba Town Hall you will see his photograph there – Chief Joshua Babala Ketebu. He was a civil servant and was always being transferred from one place to another. So he was not able to pick up languages unlike the rest of us who speak at least two languages. My mum was universal. She spoke Hausa, Fulani, Yoruba, Igbo and many others.

Eventually we settled at Nkwerre where we had a big house. It was peaceful and we started school again, studying under the trees. But during the rainy season we stayed at home. Sometimes the raids would come and we’d run home. My mother decided we should start generating money so my sister and I started selling oranges. We ate many before we got any sold. My mother also started her business again. It’s an experience you don’t wish your enemy, that is why when people are talking about war-war-war, I guess they didn’t experience it. 

On the day the war ended we didn’t believe it had ended. Prior to that day they was a lot of shelling. It was loud and it was clear. We heard people jubilating. Shouts were coming from different directions- “War e bie la. Ha e mechaala war - the war has ended. They have ended the war!” We ran inside because we thought it was a gimmick. We didn’t know the shelling was to signal the end of the war. But my mum was worried. She said, “How will I take nine children back to PH?” She trekked from Nkwerre to Orlu where she met some soldiers. She pleaded with them and they gave her a lorry which carried us from Nkwere to my brother’s house in Port Harcourt. She was a very brave woman. She had no fear. Once you tell her that what she’s looking for is here, she doesn’t need to know anybody there, she’ll go and get it.

Eventually we got our own place and with financial help from her mother, she started her business again and we went back to school. My father died immediately after the war. My mum died 13 years ago. One of my brothers died last year. The rest of us are alive.

--- Dr. Mrs. Bekky Ketebu-Igwe

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Sunday, 22 May 2022

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