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Immune to horror.

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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



Care Giver and Surrogate Mother.

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Sunday, 22 May 2022

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