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People used to call my father Mallam because he lived in Jos most of his life. During the pogrom it was his Hausa friends who protected him. He was half-dressed when they bundled him out of his house and rushed him to a helicopter. It landed safely at Onitsha. 

My only brother was at Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria, studying Electrical Engineering. When people started returning we did not see him. We were all worried. My grandmother lost hope. One faithful day, as I came out to the front of the house, a taxi stopped and, behold, it was my brother. Everybody started shouting. He started narrating how they were evacuated from the campus and given protection. They were provided with vehicles that helped to evacuate them safely back to the East. 

Threats were going on back and forth, so the tension was building up. Some months later, we started hearing that war had broken out. People were calling it police action. Soon, we started hearing that Biafran and Nigerian soldiers were fighting at the war front. Then, the first air raid came. The plane was dropping what Biafrans described as kerosene tins. Months later, the second one came. I was standing outside calling my mother, “Come and see this plane o. It looks like birds are following it. Why are birds following it?” The next thing I heard was an explosion and smoke from the building next to our own. I shouted, “Mama, it is bomb o.” People were shouting. Noise everywhere. I didn’t know that what I was calling birds were bombs. 

The night before we left Onitsha there was shooting from night till morning. Red hot bullets being sprayed all over. We didn’t know what to do. The next morning my brother said, “Let us go.” Where are we heading to? Nobody knew. But there was only one direction - towards Owerri, Ihiala, Oba. Each person carried whatever they could carry. I carried my school box that contained my uniform and a few clothes. One of my elder sisters carried my mother’s box of wrappers. She carried it instead of her own. And those wrappers saved us. The only problem was how to convey our grandmother. She had a breakdown because of the trauma, so we were dragging her. We’ll walk and stop, walk and stop. It delayed us but we were still moving. The sound of shelling kept reducing so we knew we were fleeing the battle field. Along the road we met a family we knew and they took my grandmother in their car. They said they’ll drop her where we could pick her up. As God will have it they dropped her at Oba, in a church. It was an open place where people who were tired of trekking stopped to rest. People were still escaping, telling stories about those who could not escape, how they were being killed by soldiers.

We left Oba a few days later. I don’t know who organised the transport. It was a lorry and it dropped us at St. Martins Church, Odata, at Ihiala. It’s one big church. It’s still there. 

The following day, directly opposite the church, we found a family who welcomed us into their home; Simon Okoli’s family. I still remember their name. They were very kind to us. They gave us one room in their house. It had a bamboo bed, the type called anaba aghalu. When they saw the room was small for all of us they gave us another one. They gave us pots and allowed us to use their kitchen. They said we shouldn’t pay for the rooms. We gave the bed to our grandmother. We had picked her from a refugee camp where our family friends had dropped her. But even though this family welcomed us they said we were saboteurs, because of Major Ifeajuna. During the war, if you were from Onitsha, there was a stigma attached to you.

We only had that half bucket of rice my sister carried from Onitsha but soon relief materials started coming in. There was nothing like a camp there but we gathered at a particular place and each family got their own share. 

There were no jobs, no work, so ideas started coming into our heads. One day my immediate elder sister said, “This meat we don’t eat, let us not start suffering from kwashiorkor.” She would buy native fowls, cut them into parts and take to Nkwo Ogbe - their market - to sell. We would make a little gain. When we didn’t sell the head and legs we’d take them home for our soup. 

One fateful day, my mother gave us various assignments and mine was to go to St. Martins and queue up for salt. I refused to go and my mother caned me. Instead, I followed my sister to the market to sell our chicken parts. I think there was only one lap remaining when I said to her, “We are leaving this place right now. Carry this tray let us go away.” She asked why, but I insisted we were leaving. On our way home we saw our brother chatting with a police man. He waved at us. Then I looked in the air and called out, “Ngozi, are you seeing what I am seeing?” She said, “What is it?” I said, “Look up. That plane is not making any sound.” The plane was hovering, turning to one side, turning to another side. I said, “Did they shoot it somewhere and it wants to crash?” Before I finished saying it, we heard an explosive noise. The plane was shelling the market, the meat section, that same spot where we had been standing. Sellers and buyers were mangled. As we watched, the plane moved in the direction of our house, releasing rockets and bullets. We ran into a bushy area and while I was taking cover I was looking and pointing upwards. My sister smacked me and said, “Lie down, lie down,” but I said, “I will not lie down. I want to see who is in that plane.” The plane moved towards the direction of the church, three times, releasing rockets and bullets. The sounds were accompanied with light, like lightning. It was the worst air raid I ever saw. When we got home we heard that that church compound, where I was supposed to line up for salt, was the target. All that maneouvring the plane was doing was to get the most accurate angle to hit the people on the line. As people narrated what happened, my mother looked at me, looked at me, looked at me. I cannot tell you why I refused to go to that church but I have always been intuitive. And I used to be stubborn when I was small. If I didn’t want to do something I wouldn’t do it. After that day, she never asked me to do anything I didn’t want to do. 

In 1968, my grandmother died and we buried her in Ihiala. My brother went to one Irish Reverend Father at St. Martins Church, Odata - Father Brady - and told him we wanted to know if our uncle was still in Lagos or not. The Reverend Father made inquiries and found out he had left for Dublin with his wife, when the war started. They sent a packet of Complan milk, through Rev Father Brady, and my uncle later wrote to confirm that we received it. A few days later, the Reverend Father just drove inside the compound and opened the boot. What did we see? A box as high as this, square, sealed. It was filled with all manner of tinned food: meat, corned beef, stock fish soaked in salt granules as big as this, giant tins of corn beef, fish, sardines, bread, assorted tinned foods, seasoning cubes, cheese. It is because of this that I usually tell people that I ate the best of food during the Biafran war. We made a lot of Biafran money from the salt, cloths and Chicken that we were selling then. 

Inside that box there was also an envelope with dollars, so somebody advised my brother to start trading in tobacco. We contacted his friend who was working at Ulli airport and through him, a pilot brought back the first bag of tobacco. The women who were trading on it were buying it off him and selling same to soldiers at the war front. We made a lot of Biafran money and that was how we survived. Before then, we were selling my mother’s wrappers, all those costly Georges and Abadas, and people were buying them. We even sold my box. I cried o. 

We left Ihiala on January 17. By then the Nigerian soldiers had reached Ihiala. Umuahia had fallen and Ojukwu had left. So the village head and the elders took a decision to make peace with the soldiers. They welcomed them and negotiated with them not to touch anybody in Ihiala. So there was peace in Ihiala. The soldiers used to come to the stream where we used to fetch water. They’ll just give us their water bottles to fill for them and we were always very cautious. When they leave we start fetching again. Thank God for the wisdom he gave the Igwe. 

A few days after they arrived lorries appeared. Evacuation. We didn’t waste time. Everybody started going back. Up till today I do not know who arranged for the vehicles. We jumped inside and they dropped us at Fegge, Onitsha.

---- Dr. Mrs. Lillian Chibuogu Ilo


'AFIA ATTACK' - A Young Girl's Account


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Sunday, 22 May 2022

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