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It wasn’t Indians and Cowboys.

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I was a teenager at the time so the war was a threshold into my twenties. That is the most impressionable time in the life of a child and the trauma hits you. You realize it’s not Indians and Cowboys. It’s for real. As a soldier, the first taste of fire fight causes panic in you. Most soldiers pee on their pants because they’re looking at death. You get used to it after a while but no previous experience prepares you enough for the real incidents.

I remember the day the first bomb was dropped in Owerri, next to us at Mere Street. It was either late 1967 or early 1968, at the start of the war. There weren’t jets at the time because they hadn’t purchased any bombers so they were using propeller jets and this one was a Nigerian Airways passenger plane. We heard the sound – Whooo! Whooo, Whooo! Whooo! – and came out to the junction of Ihugba and Ejiaku Street. In something like slow motion we watched as a bomb dropped out of a window. Usually a bomb would have an ejector so you don’t see it until it lands but we actually saw this one fall and land on the house next to ours. It crippled the whole damn thing and left a big hole. We actually saw flesh because we were not even up to a hundred yards away from the place. This drummed it in that hey, this was not a football match; this was serious business.

Throughout the crisis we never lived more than three to four miles away from the war front. When Owerri fell to the federal troops, my father moved us to Ubowala in Emekuku, where we got accommodation in the primary school compound which had been turned into a relief center. From there we moved to Owala, where we were till the war ended.

My father had been a minister during the British rule and the First Republic. He could have moved away to safety but he didn’t. After the war, we asked him why and he said it would have appeared like a betrayal if he had abandoned the people who had elected him into the Owerri constituency and sent him to the House of Representatives three times. The only times my father left was when he had to go on foreign missions on behalf of the Biafran cause. He went to Ireland and raised money with the Red Cross and Caritas. He also went to the Vatican because, being a knight of the Catholic Church, he knew members of the College of Cardinals and had a voice in the Vatican. He was able to raise about three hundred to four hundred thousand dollars and that was a lot of money in those days. He made a total of three trips. Sir Akanu Ibiam, who was then the Vice President of the World Council of Churches, worked more than any other person I know to raise funds for the cause. At a time, he was living permanently abroad and I remember a very moving story told to me by a young lady who worked with him. They had just raised almost two hundred thousand dollars when the war ended. So, what to do with the money? His team was astonished when he sat down and starting writing cheques to return every penny of the money to the donors.

Before enlisting in the army, I served with the Military Intelligence. We operated under Colonel Bernard Odogwu with the late Dan Njemanze as his deputy. One night we heard the ra-ta-ta-ta of small fire arms. We assumed our boys were testing new arms because the rumour around the time was that we’d gotten a new shipment of small weapons – Maddisons and Uzi riffles. But the shooting persisted all day and into the night and was even getting closer. Late into the night we started hearing vehicles, heavy duty jeeps and trucks coming from the state house. All night long they were moving so we knew something had gone wrong. What we didn’t know was that the State House was being evacuated to Madonna School in the Okigwe area. You know, human beings are very intuitive and intelligent. The fire was coming closer and closer, so people in town had sensed there was trouble. The next morning, we saw a line of human beings streaming into the road leading to the Aba Express road, some carrying children and others, a few clothes. We rushed off to Umudike where we started to evacuate some of our equipment. The Research and Production section was loading up her chemicals and equipment. The DMI was also loading up her sensitive documents. Before night we were on the Low Bed truck out of Umuahia. Most of the roads in the new republic were already occupied by Nigerians so it took us the whole day to manoeuvre through path ways and bridges, all the way to Liilu somewhere in the heart of Aguata area. We finished unpacking about 9.00 pm and I just called my friend and said, “I’ve seen enough. I’m heading to the School of Infantry now.” That’s how I joined the army; another significant moment for me.

One of the most telling moments for me was when I saw children dying of hunger and the times I happened to be at a bomb scene. Being almost a child myself those were traumatic experiences and that is why it is said, in a sense, that war changes people. On one level, a soldier learns to places little worth to his life because you know you could lose it at any moment and become a statistic. War brings out the worst in people. The survival instinct in every human being means that when faced with hunger and starvation, people react in selfish ways. For example, if food was given to you and others and you had the opportunity to take it all for yourself, you’d do so whether the other person was your sibling or parent, or not. War also brings out all manners of outrage in people. I remember an incident that happened when I was at a refugee camp with one of my cousins. He was annoyed because the Reverend Father in charge of the rations seemed to be favouring the ladies rather than soldiers who had just returned from the war front. His reason was that the rations were meant for civilians and not the military. The Reverend Father refused to give in to my cousin’s pleas so my cousin kidnapped him and conscripted him into the army. The reverend gentleman served gallantly and even attained the rank of captain. These kind of human reactions to trauma and misery, and the fact that you lose your values and everything you hold dear, informed the title of my book – The Wrath of War. It’s really terrible. One would never wish for it to happen again and anytime people are propagating war, you try to dissuade them.

This takes me back to something that happened when I was at Stella Maris College, Port Harcourt. The war was heating up so my family left Lagos, where I was schooling at St. Gregory’s College, and relocated to the east. Our principal at Stella Maris was Father Maher, an Irish priest. He was also a veteran of the Second World War, as we found out later on. Occasionally, he would try to acquaint us with world and local politics and he told us he foresaw there’d be a conflict. He said he wished it would be avoided through concessions and forgiveness on both sides. But we were all bristling with youthful enthusiasm. We thought it would be a football match and everybody would play for an hour and go home and take a bath. Some of our boys reported him to the military in Port Harcourt and he was accused of being a saboteur. Two days later, they whisked the Reverend Father away and deported him.

On the other hand, war situations can also bring out the best in human nature. You will see a woman putting her life at risk just to save her children, or any child, even if it entails taking a bullet. Magnanimity and our extended family system were taxed to the limit. I remember returning with other soldiers from Onitsha sector. It was a two-day trek and wherever the night met us we were welcomed by families. They treated us as their sons, gave us food, water to bathe and accommodation for the night. In the morning they fed us with coco-yam and palm oil before we set off. Till today, I’m yet to see that sense of selfless service by people who had so little to offer yet did so without counting the cost.

A significant outcome of the war is the foundation it laid for the further liberation of the Igbo woman. Before the war, Igbo women were generally laid back because our patriarchal society ensured that men undertook most financial responsibilities in the home and society. But when conscription was at its peak, men would disappear into the bush to avoid being signed on. Women, therefore, became the bread winners of their respective families, crossing Biafran and Nigerian lines to buy food and other supplies so their families would survive. In the process of these interactions, the Igbo woman started to became more exposed, assertive and confident and that is the essence of what the modern Igbo woman has inherited.

I remember an aunt of mine who was very dynamic and business minded even before the war and whose daughter, Josephine, inherited these traits. We were at Ubowala at the time and Josephine used to go as far as Aguleri to trade because that was the easiest path to get into Nigeria. A lot of the food coming into Biafra was coming from there so she’d go with herbs and vegetables and sell them for Nigerian currency with which she’d buy salt and other items and bring in to Biafra. At that time salt had become as valuable as crude oil. Gradually, she built up her capital and started trading on a larger scale. Most of these women were first daughters – Adas – and very much revered in Igbo land. This was the genesis of women being called Okpataku [she who gathers wealth] rather than Odiziaku [she who manages wealth] the sobriquet with which women were formerly known.

This assertiveness that started with commerce has also translated into education because there seems to be more women in schools today than men. Now Igbo women are expressing themselves more by saying, “I am a human being, I have a right to be heard and I have a right to everything just like the man.” Another thing I like about the new Igbo woman is they’re now self-educating rather than waiting for their parents. A university degree is the new benchmark for the Igbo girl and this is all a fall out of that liberation that started with commerce during the war. It’s a good thing in the sense that – like it is usually said – children are trained by their mothers even though they bear their fathers’ names and so every educated Igbo woman insists on educating her children.

----- Patrick Amanze Njoku 

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Sunday, 22 May 2022

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