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LIVING IN SAINT- ANDRE REFUGEE CENTER, GABON - A FORMER CHILD REFUGEE'S ACCOUNT - PART ONE

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LEAVING BIAFRA 

In 1968, just before Enugwu-Ukwu fell to the Nigerian troops, my family took refuge in my maternal grandparents’ home at Egbengwu, Nimo, a neighbouring town. When we got there, my grandparents’ house was teeming with refugees. The distribution center at Nimo was St Mary's Primary School, and it was also completely occupied by refugees from surrounding towns like Enugwu-Ukwu, Nawfia, and Amawbia. One Irish priest, named Reverend Father Nolan, was in charge of relief distribution, assisted by other people such as Mr. Otie, the headmaster of St Mary's. The Parish church was Assumpta Catholic Church but because of its location on the major road from Enugwu-Ukwu to Nimo it was close to the war front so it was not considered ideal as a relief distribution center. It was on one of such visits to St Mary's, in company of my younger sister, Rhoda, that Father Nolan announced that officials of CARITAS were coming to St Mary's the next day to take sick children to Gabon. He told parents to bring their children who were ill the following day.

Although I was not suffering from kwashiorkor, I was frail and weak, so I made up my mind to present myself for consideration. I was just seven years old, but I saw it as a life-saving opportunity. My decision was not well received by my mother who reasoned that I was too young to be sprinted out to an unknown country beyond their care and reach. She broke down, saying, "Who is going to care and treat you like the mother who gave birth to you?" My dad, who was not known to give in easily to emotions, approved of my decision and offered to take me to St. Mary's. 

On arrival we saw babies, toddlers, and teenagers with bloated stomachs, swollen legs, and severely shrunken bodies, all looking like living ghosts. Many were too weak to stand, so they sat on the floor. Soon after, Father Nolan and Mr. Otie arrived with the CARITAS representatives. Mr. Igboka, the Catechist, was also there, I believe. When the selection started, all the kids in front of me were selected. I was rejected four times even though I buckled my feet on each occasion to create the impression that I was very ill. After my fourth rejection my father went into a tirade. This prompted the officials to call me forward, so I was the last kid to be selected that day. 

The next stage was the documentation. The CARITAS officials wrote each child’s first name, surname, parents' names, village and town, and the processing center. Then they stuck an adhesive tape with identification number on our wrists. Mine was 492. This was the last documentation in Biafra.

As a green-coloured Austin lorry made its way towards us, my father came to me, shook my hands, and prayed that I would come back to meet them alive. My mother embraced me, sobbing. Other parents watched their children being loaded into the lorry, like cargo, and into an uncertain future. As our lorry slowly revved to drive off, I positioned myself to wave a final good bye to my parents. Years later, I learnt that my mother cried inconsolably for two days after my departure.

As soon as we departed Nimo, our chaperons informed us they were taking us to Ulli airport and from there to Gabon. On the way some children were crying. After some time our lorry stopped by the roadside so we could have lunch. It was either two small pieces of yam or one big piece placed on our palms. 

When we got to Ulli airport, our lorry parked in an inconspicuous place waiting for the signal to approach the tarmac. I could see planes landing and taking off in the pitch darkness. After a long wait we drove up to the tarmac where a plane was waiting. For the first time, I saw an aircraft in a stationary position. The size was a far cry from the little bird-like thing we kids usually saw flying across the skies. We all came out of the lorry and a ladder was placed at the foot of the aircraft. Two big men positioned themselves, one at the foot of the ladder and the other at the top. One after the other, we were taken up the ladder into the aircraft. There were no chairs inside but there were blankets spread across the floor. We were given one or two cubes of sugar and asked to lie down. I could not remember when last I saw sugar in those terrible days, and I became excited again after the emotional separation from my parents. The door of the aircraft was shut, the engine started, the lights turned off, and I could sense a slow movement of the plane up to the time we became airborne. 

We were woken up at Libreville International airport. My first impression was that this was real ‘obodo oyibo’ - a marvel. There were aircraft of different sizes and shapes, and that gave me the opportunity of seeing these planes at close quarters in broad daylight. Vans pulled up at the foot of our plane, and we all boarded. Those who were too weak to get into the vans were either helped in or carried inside. After a short drive our van pulled into a massive church complex. It was called St. Andre and the priest in charge was Monseigneur Camille.

 ---  Johnny Abada 

NB-The image on this post shows St. Marie Cathedral, one of the centers used to house refugees during the Nigeria-Biafra war.

 

 

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Sunday, 22 May 2022

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