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A Friendship Broken By War - Part 1

mybiafranstory.org Photo Credit - Smart Eze

I was one of the brightest kids in the village but my father was a peasant farmer, so I didn’t have the privilege of going to secondary school. I shuttled from one relation to the other – Aba to Lagos before ending up in Kaduna where I trained as an electrician. After my training, I got a job with Electrical Contractors of Nigeria limited.

The night of January 15, 1966, we were hearing explosions but we were not bothered because we were used to soldiers doing exercises. Saturday morning we set off to work at the Nigeria Air Force Base where we were carrying out various electrical installations, including air conditioners. As we drove past the Premier’s house I noticed that the police guard wasn’t there. But on both sides of the road we saw soldiers in camouflage uniforms lying down with their guns pointing towards us and signalling to us to go back. We knew something must have happened. Later we heard that a coup had taken place but we didn’t know who carried out the coup, for what purpose, was it in Kaduna, Zaria, Lagos or Ibadan? Towards the middle of the day news started coming out that the coup plotters killed a number of politicians, that Ahmadu Bello and Tafawa Balewa were affected, that the head of the coup was one Igbo officer. It went on till Sunday so there was a stand still. We didn’t know what to do.

When the rioting began, Southerners in general began feeling insecure. In July another coup took place and I said to myself, “This is time to leave.” But leaving was not easy. Northern soldiers had broken out of the barracks and joined the civilian mobs to attack the easterners. I was twenty one years old at the time and had many northern friends like Yaya and Mo, and some Igbo boys like Sunday and Victor. We were all young men, without any care in the world, going to parties and cinemas every Friday and Saturday, smoking, drinking. Mo and Yaya and some of the Hausa boys came and gave us advance warning that our street, Zaria Street, was going to be hot the next day. They gave us Agbadas to wear so that we’ll blend in with the mob when they come to attack. Then, they took our boxes ahead of us to the railway station. The following day, the mob came and we joined them as they went from house to house, killing, rampaging, up to the train station. We saw many atrocities that day. One child was crying, running around, looking for his parents. They raised him up and dashed him on the ground. His body started twitching and convulsing, until he became still. When we got to the railway, Yaya and the others handed our suitcases to us.

While we waited with others for the train to arrive, the soldiers came and started identifying the Igbo soldiers who had escaped from the barracks. They lined them up at the platform and shot them, and left the bodies there for the train to crush. Horror! We were terrified, asking, “When will the train arrive?” When it finally arrived, it was very full because it had been picking up people along the way. They were announcing that more trains were coming but we knew we couldn’t stay there. We managed to squeeze ourselves inside. People were almost trampled, some were already dead, no space, some hanging on the door of the train and when the train moved, I saw people falling off.

At Markurdi Bridge, some soldiers stopped the train and took some Igbo men out. What happened to them, you can guess. After several hours we arrived at Enugu. There was one huge man in the train. They had cut off his head so it didn’t come with the body. His photograph was used as propaganda to show the atrocities the northerners were committing against easterners. It caused an uproar in Igbo land.

When Victor and I returned to our village, it was late. That day was our market Sunday. When our market day falls on a Sunday we celebrate it with a big party. Our arrival caused a lot of merriment because other people also arrived from Kano, Jos, etc. Those whose relations hadn’t arrived were scared.

The military government at the time had established the Resettlement Commission to receive displaced easterners. The idea was to have our records so that when tensions died down we can all go back. We never thought we’d not go back. I registered with them and they organised a Grade Three Trade Test for Industrial and Domestic Installations for me. I passed the test and interview and, while waiting for the letter of appointment, the war broke out. All my dreams were now dashed.

But one happy thing happened around this time. My mother and father had separated when I was about three years old, but when she heard I survived the pogroms, she sneaked to a neighbour’s house and asked them to call me. She told me she was my mother and we were both crying. If she hadn’t come that day I would not have remembered her face again. We went to visit my younger sister who was married. We were all crying and I was imagining how Nigerian soldiers will come and kill my family. I said, “No. I will carry a gun. I must defend.”

I joined at the end of 1967 and my first posting was Ikot Ekpene sector, at one remote village. The Nigerians had entered there in September/October through their rubber plantations and were camped on one side of a hill. I think they were cut off there and didn’t get supplies for a long time. Our own group was camped on the other side of the same hill. There was a stream close by where we all used to fetch water but it was miraculous that we didn’t attack each other. I’m sure if our bosses had heard about it they would have court-marshaled us.

A few days into this extraordinary cease fire, I went to fetch water and noticed a Nigerian soldier on the other side of the stream. He was staring at me and I became afraid. Was he going to start shooting? I looked at him, his gun, the way he was dressed. I felt that if I start running he’ll shoot, so I stood and stared back at him. He started walking towards me and shouted, “Smartisco!” M’ ku jaa. This was my hang-out [nick] name in Kaduna. I said who could be calling me this name here? I went closer. It was Yaya. My body went cold. I didn’t know what to do. The stream was about three meters wide. Should I go forward or not? I didn’t want to attract attention so my group doesn’t start shooting thinking I have been captured, or his side will open fire. We didn’t talk but my eyes filled with tears. He waved at me. I waved back. Then he walked away.

The following day, the boy who went to fetch water came back with things like Oxford biscuits, Exeter Corn Beef and High Society cigarettes. He said he picked them at the point where we fetch water. Our leader said we shouldn’t touch them, that they may be poisoned. After I told them what happened, he said we could eat them but they insisted I eat first. Every day after that, whenever our boys went to the stream, something was there. Everyday. I believe Yaya kept them for me. Maybe he thought I will come again to fetch water. But I never went back.

One night we started hearing noise. We wondered if they were leaving or preparing to attack us. Before morning, they took us on, shooting. Kept shooting. We later found out that they changed the first group and brought in new people. They may have noticed that the former group was not taking us on. We returned fire but theirs was more, so we retreated and regrouped. They redeployed some of us to Port Harcourt where the Nigerians had taken over the airport. My ears were damaged in the attack and one of the boys I pulled out had his legs blown off. They took us to Aba General Hospital and when my ears cleared, I went home to recover.

I went back to the front and they attached me to the Ogbunigwe section of the engineering battalion. I was posted to the Afikpo zone where they trained me as an Ogbunigwe electrician and operator. Ogbunigwe was developed by Biafran scientists and was one of the highly effective defensive bombs in the weapons arsenal of the Biafran Army. It was made up of the main explosive in an encasement, the removable detonator, the battery and switch, and connecting cables. The main explosive segment came in different sizes – between 5 kilos and 500 kilos. The massive ones were transported to their locations by lorry, while the soldiers carried the lighter ones in their hands. The batteries and the detonators were put in separate bags. We used both car and torch batteries to generate the electrical power but whenever torch batteries were used, they were connected serially to each other to produce an electromotive force between 12 and 16 volts. The detonator could only be inserted into the main segment of the explosive and connected by wires to the batteries and the switch at the moment the Ogbunigwe was ready to be launched. The batteries had to be fully charged for the operation to be successful. It was a highly risky job for the operators and that is how I got blind.

It happened on the 12th of November, 1968. There was shooting the whole of Saturday and Sunday. By Tuesday nobody was shooting again, and we were trying to go further and deploy our Ogbunigwe so our troops can move forward. I don't know how one of the boys touched the detonator and it exploded all over my face, chest, eyes, head. Some of the boys had their stomachs ruptured. Some had their arms cut off. Some died on the spot. The boy who detonated it, nothing happened to him. Those who were not wounded found their way to put us in an ambulance which took us to the Biafran Forces Hospital in Ohafia. I went in for surgery and when I woke up the next day, I heard people crying, boys in pains. I tried to see but I couldn't. No light. Nothing.

One day, the boy who was helping me in the hospital, Chidike, told me there was a white man who was going from ward to ward looking at patients. When the man got to my bed, he inspected my eyes and asked if I would like to go to Austria for medical treatment. I said yes. Later on, Chidike overheard one of the Nigerian doctors telling the others that my eyes were beyond repair. But Dr. Bakker insisted I could learn a trade even if the doctors don’t restore my sight. He later told us he was under tremendous pressure from politicians and other prominent members of society to select their relations for treatment abroad. He said he followed his instincts and did as he was led.

While I was waiting to be evacuated from the hospital, the Nigerians entered from Afikpo and started shelling the hospital. I don’t think the staff were able to carry those who were immobile, but we escaped to St. Augustine’s, Nkwerre, and from there to Ekwerazu, where other wounded soldiers were waiting to travel out.

I told Chidike to take me to my village. My father was devastated to see me, his first son, being led by the hand. He opened my eyes and looked. Then, he placed his hands on my head and blessed me. I didn’t see him again because he died in April, 1970. My mother was crying but I couldn’t see her; I was only hearing her voice. I wish my father had lived to see how my life turned out.

The next morning, we left with my mother to Holy Rosary, Umuahia, where I signed enough relief for her. We returned to Ekwerazu. That same day, my village was sacked. The soldiers who drove us away from Ohafia had entered Umuahia and proceeded to Afo Ugiri, my village. If I hadn’t left that morning, I would have missed my group and not gone abroad.

Our plane was the last to leave Biafra. We had to wait for some time because Nigeria blockaded us until 1st of May, four months later. Maybe, if we had left earlier, they would have been able to restore my vision, even if partially. And if we had stayed longer, we would not have left because the war ended six months later.


Dr. Smart Eze obtained a Doctorate Degree in Philosophy from the University of Vienna, in 1979. He worked with the United Nations in Vienna, Austria from 1980 to 2005. In 1981 he was the Ambassador for the United Nations International Year of Disabled Persons. He currently serves as honorary board member and goodwill ambassador for LIGHT FOR THE WORLD, an Austrian civic organization that provides medical treatment and support to people living with eyes diseases, blindness and other disabilities in underprivileged regions of the world.


Memories that live forever.
Love in a time of war.

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