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

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RETURNING TO NIGERIA

One evening we heard the teachers wailing and crying, “Why did God abandon us?” One of the children sneaked to their quarters to find out what was going on. They had a television and must have listened to Phillip Effiong’s surrender. They started telling us stories of how the war ended, that Ojukwu had even fled Biafra. We felt flatly defeated. We could not imagine going back to answer Nigerians again. We remembered all the stories we were told about the massacres. Some of the children were there when their parents were killed, so it was a bitter pill even for us to swallow.

It was Bishop Godfrey Okoye who came to tell us about Biafra’s defeat. He was visiting the centers to prepare us for eventual return to Nigeria. He talked about what happened in Biafra before and after the war. After speaking he asked if anyone had a question. I was the only one who stood up because I had become a bit confident and bold. I asked him who won the war. He looked at me, smiled, and said, “My son, Nigeria said they won. Let us give it to them. If they say they won let them win. What I am talking about now is your well-being and how all of you will come back eventually when things have settled.” We were disappointed, after all the suffering, after all we went through. In Gabon, we used to talk about the God of Biafra - De Dieu Biafrae. We used to say that the God of Biafra would not abandon us. We were not prepared for the defeat. It was too much to take in as kids. We also asked if it was true that Biafran men were being killed. We had heard that if Nigeria won the war all the Biafran men would be killed in other to make sure they didn’t regroup to fight again. He told us nothing of the sort happened but there were a few incidents here and there.

The defeat of Biafra didn’t affect our daily routine but some of the mistresses started leaving. One day Reverend Father Godwin Ukwuaba was invited to give us a talk at the assembly. The first thing he told us was, “O bia lu ije nwe una – he who comes visiting will eventually leave”. We knew what he was hinting at. He told us that things were being put in pace to re-unite us with our parents, and that we would be going back in batches. He said he’d miss all of us.

They started the evacuations in October or November of 1970. The first batch left from Ivory Coast. Some of my friends in Saint-Andre left with this batch. I belonged to the second batch. We had our last mass with Father Ukwuaba. After mass, he asked me and two others to accompany him to St. Marie to see the children. They were pampering us. They had already packaged clothes, food, sardines, candies, shoes, slippers, and shorts in sacks for each person. Our names were printed on the sacks.

The morning of our departure I became moody when I sighted the bus that would take us to the airport. My friends came around. I felt I would never see some of them again. I felt I had lost some of the best childhood friends I would ever make. I came to tears. I embraced all of them. I embraced the teachers, the other kids. One of the Reverend Sisters gave me a piece of wrapper for my mum and told me, “When you get back to Nigeria tell your mum to send you to school because you need to do something with your intelligence. Don’t let them send you to learn a trade.”

They started calling our names. They had made emergency passports for us which they hung around our necks. When they called your name they cross checked with the passport they had already given to you and also with your Gabonese number. Then you entered the bus. On December 2, 1970 - that was a Monday – my batch was evacuated back to Nigeria.

When we landed in Port Harcourt we were taken somewhere to have our lunch. That was my first real taste of yellow garri and ofe ogbono. When we were done we were taken to Mgbidi where the returnees’ centre was set up. From Mgbidi they took us in vans, batch by batch, to re-unite with our parents. For instance I arrived Mgbidi center on a Monday and by Sunday I was driven with two others to Nimo. Instead of St. Mary’s I was taken to Assumpta Catholic Church. Sunday mass was about to start when we arrived. And you know what, as soon as we arrived word went round that we had returned. The first person I saw was my cousin, Christopher Okulu. As soon as we made eye contact he ran off to Enugu- Ukwu to inform my people that I had returned. My parents were not around but he saw some members of my family. They all rushed to the Church. My brother ran into the bus where we were seated but he was asked to come down. One of my uncles wanted to know if I recognized my brother. He said to me, “You sabi this boy?” Maybe he thought I couldn’t speak Igbo any longer. I nodded my head. He asked me if I recognized the rest of them, and I said yes. More crowds started coming and before you knew it the whole field was filled up with people who wanted to know who had returned and who hadn’t. By the time my father arrived we were being served rice and stew. They were asking the crowd to give us space to eat. When I raised my face from the plate I saw my brother who was a Biafran soldier. He waved at me and gave me a thumbs up. I was released to my dad and uncle, and we set out for home. We trekked the distance from Assumpta Catholic Church to my compound. People were making merry, praising God, saying they never thought they’d see me again. My mum came back, carried me up, and started jumping for joy. It was like a carnival.

I don’t know if there were children who were left behind in Gabon, but I can tell you about one girl who had bow legs. She came to Libreville as a toddler and up until the time we left everyone called her ‘dobo-dobo’ which translates to ‘duck.’ This was because of the way she walked. Nobody knew her first or last name. Sometime after we came back to Nigeria I saw a notice board with pictures of kids whose parents were unknown. There was a notice asking anyone who knew their parents or relatives to report to the nearest CARITAS office. Dobo-dobo’s picture was on that board. So, it’s possible that a few who escaped the documentation may have been lost for ever. Again, what do you do? They kept the children and before you knew it people adopted them.

I remain eternally grateful to CARITAS, the Catholic Church and other humanitarian organisations for the impact they made in my life. My going to Gabon opened me up to a lot of opportunities. Also, they made a huge impact on the lager Biafran society. Many would have died if not for the relief materials people received. I need to go back to Libreville because that’s where my real world view developed. I honestly wish to go back there someday, to bring some closure, because it is still like an open wound.

--- Johnny O. 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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