THE NIGERIAN BIAFRA WAR PART 25: How Biafra refugees were treated
Enugu fell to the Nigerian army a few months after Christopher fell in battle. I fled to Umuahia with my family to stay with my sister-in-law, Elizabeth Okoli, who had moved there from Aba. Lizzy was a nurse working in Umuahia-area hospitals tending to the war wounded. Her story is quite remarkable: Lizzy was educated at Queen’s College, Lagos, and in England, and was known in those days as the “Queen of Sheba,” because of her grace and beauty. She was well regarded for her clinical skills and her intellect and would become the chief nursing officer of Anambra state in a new incarnation following the civil war.
Elizabeth was a bit of an enigma and an eccentric, and a former Mrs. Odumegwu Ojukwu to boot, but she never wanted to talk about that! My brother Augustine and his family were also in Umuahia. Shortly after our arrival, as I have mentioned, I was sent abroad as an envoy for the people of Biafra. Christie reports that Umuahia was subsequently strafed very close to where my family was staying.
After the bombing that barely missed Lizzy’s residence, my family moved to Ezinifite, a town north of Umuahia in the Aguata local government area of present-day Anambra state. I returned from my short trip abroad and rejoined my family there. It was there that we visited a family who in the past had sent one of their sons to live with and be educated by my father. Now we were refugees, and this family who had received the magnanimity of my parents opened their homes and their resources to us—the three Achebe families Augustine’s, John’s, and mine—and we moved into the quarters offered to us. It was a large estate. The head of the household lived in the largest of about four houses. The sons, who were also married, had homes built within the family compound. The sons gave each Achebe guest and their families a room and a parlor.
Finding food in Ezinifite was a difficult proposition. The women had to wake up very early in the morning—about 4:00 A.M.—to attend the daily markets to procure food. When the Nigerians found out where the open markets were and started bombing them, the women moved their commercial activities into dense forests. Christie remembers one of the early morning markets she went to—the villagers from the surrounding towns and hamlets would congregate in these markets to sell their fresh vegetables, fruit and chicken, and other household wares. If one had the money—one could use the Nigerian pound and the Biafran pound interchangeably—there were a variety of expensive, locally grown legumes, pawpaw, mangoes, bananas, and plantains, and other vegetables and fruits to purchase. The traders coveted the Nigerian pound, because it was particularly valuable in the black market and for purchasing and smuggling goods and food across the border.
The Nigerians bombed the market a day after Christie visited the market. She remembers vividly: The bombardment from the Nigerian Air Force on this day was particularly heavy, as if the pilots had been upset at not discovering the market sooner. Most of the bombs fell before dawn. In the morning we discovered the most harrowing of sights. One
image still haunts me till today: that of a pregnant woman split in two by the Nigerian
blitz. That was a horrendous experience for most of us, and we were all very
frightened after that.
The Nigerian air force intensified its bombing exercises soon after this incident. Word had reached the Biafran authorities that the Nigerians had classified information about the location of civilian “hideout shelters.” Our hosts were understandably concerned for our overall safety and built makeshift bunkers throughout their compound. The bunkers were built of mud-and-clay bricks and clearly were not structurally capable of withstanding a shelling, but we were grateful nonetheless because they were large, comfortable spaces underground, away from the houses that would be obvious targets of the Nigerian air force. Whenever we heard the siren we all rushed to the bunkers for safety and waited out the airstrikes.
The Biafran government had issued a public safety warning to all citizens to abstain from wearing clothes of light colors like white or cream or sharp colors such as orange, purple, or red that could be easily spotted by the Nigerian air force. The Nigerian pilots approaching their chosen targets would often switch off the engines of the planes, then fly very low—treetop level—before they would begin the bombing onslaught. One could see that the plane crew was pushing out these bombs with their hands, tossing them out from an open aircraft door or shaft! Occasionally when the Nigerians used their aircraft guns to shoot at civilians or military installations, we noticed that some of the bullet cases were
from large hunting ammo usually reserved for wild game.
On this particular day, we did not hear the siren or the planes; no one knew that the Nigerians were in the air. When we noticed a plane zooming in for the kill we rushed into the bunkers and looked around to account for everyone, counting all the children. To our horror, we realized that our third child, Chidi,
was not there.
We looked out and saw the toddler in his white diaper taking his time, walking from the gate of the compound toward one of the houses. People tried to prevent Christie from leaving the bunker to rescue the infant for fear that her heroism might reveal the site of the bunker. One said: “Leave him, he is innocent, nothing will happen to him.” Clearly unconvinced and ignoring their advice, Christie dashed out from the bunker, grabbed the baby, and arrived inside seemingly in time to avoid notice.
During our stay, we had a number of confrontations not just with the Nigerian army but with nature. As we ran from one zone of attack to another we often ended up seeking shelter in mud huts deep in the hinterland. One particular episode comes to mind: Christie had hung up a brown and black dress on a palm frond door that opened into the room shielded by a thatch roof in a mud building we were staying in. Exquisitely put together, these homes are ideal for the wet, damp weather of the tropics and provide cool solace from the often uncompromising elements.
The one downside of this ancient architecture is the fact that mud buildings serve as an elaborate ecosystem of insects, arachnids, rodents, amphibians, and reptiles—in other words, an entomologist’s and a zoologist’s dream! So on this day, as Christie put on her dress, she received a string that produced excruciating pain. We rushed to her side and discovered that a centipede had engaged her skin in a tenacious battle. The villagers quickly relieved her of the vermin with a hot object warmed in a coal fire.
Though we were reassured that this was not a species that was poisonous, we slept in our car that night. We would have other narrow escapes with scorpions, serpents, and blood-sucking larvae, and became very vigilant.
My nephew, Uche Achebe, had left to join the army from our Ezinifite base around this time. Uche, a bright lad, later became a surgeon and was at one point the medical director of Nigeria’s National Orthopaedic Hospital in Enugu. In any case, things were not working out very well for him in the army during this period. Uche is a practical, rational person by temperament, and he noted that the Nigerian army was quickly approaching, and there were so many bombings that cost the lives of scores of Biafrans on a daily basis. He lamented the fact that the Biafrans were not well equipped and appeared to be in perpetual retreat. Compounding this desperate situation, he observed, was the fact that the Biafran people were becoming disenchanted.
Unfortunately, Uche made his observations known to one of his fellow army officers, saying something to the effect of: “If we are not able to do this, why
don’t we give up?” He was subsequently reported and arrested for treason. In the end, after some intervention from several sources, he managed to escape courtmartial. Irony plays a wicked game with life. The Nigerian army took over Ezinifite very soon after the prophetic statements of my nephew, and we fled once again,
this time to the beautiful lakeside town of Oguta. We had a fairly quiet spell in Oguta because the Nigerians had been repulsed prior to our arrival. The locals
credited this victory to Ohamiri, the goddess of Lake Oguta, who protected the
From time to time, one could hear the artillery shelling as the federal government troops tried on multiple attempts to obliterate the Uli airport, which was near Oguta. The federal troops at that point had not discovered that there were two airports—Uli was the earlier one, which was very close to Oguta and the nerve center of Biafran relief efforts. A second, smaller airport, less well known, was in Nnokwa and was also used for military missions. Nnokwa is a little-known ancient village that played a vital role in Igbo cosmology and in the development of its civilization. The townsfolk were particularly noted for their role in the transmission of the knowledge of Nsibidi, ancient writing first invented by the Ejagham (Ekoi) people of southeastern Nigeria, and then adopted and used widely by their close neighbors—the Igbo,
Efik, Anang, and Ibibio. The very existence of this alphabet, dating back to The 1700s without any Latin or Arabic antecedent is a rebuke to all those who have claimed over the centuries that Africa has no history, no writing, and no civilization! But we always knew of the beauty of our culture, and one can understand why Nnokwa was a place to be protected by the Biafrans at all costs.
In Oguta, we moved into my friend Ikenna Nzimiro’s uncle’s house—a huge mansion. Some joked that it was as large as Buckingham Palace. One could see that the mansion was virtually empty, as those who lived there, including the staff, had all fled. The “mother of the house,” if you like, Nzimiro’s elderly auntie, stayed behind with one or two of her attendants; she seemed ill and did not appear very often. Nzimiro’s uncle had died several years before the conflict. With her blessing we were given luxurious quarters and had quite a comfortable stay.
It was during our sojourn in Oguta that Christie started a school to keep the children of our hosts and the Achebe children engaged in their studies. Christie
had books that she had bought from shops, and she used these to teach the children, with Chinelo, our first child and daughter. Each child started from the last class they were in before the war broke out, and then graduated after they completed the lesson plans. Despite the chaos and madness all around, some
privileged children, at least, still went to school.
From Oguta we would be driven out to the Shell compound, aka Shell Camp, in Owerri after the city had been recaptured by the Biafrans. In the colonial era Shell Camp was the residential quarters of some colonial officers and Shell senior officials, before Royal Dutch/Shell BP moved their permanent quarters to Port Harcourt in present-day Rivers state, in the Niger River Delta area. Shell Camp in those days was a fairly lovely part of town, a neatly manicured estate with well-maintained bungalows and lawns, telecommunications facilities, good roads, and a reliable water supply. Christie was expecting a baby and was ill during this time. She was moved to a Roman Catholic hospital of high repute in the region, admitted by the physician on staff, and cared for by the nursing sisters, a number of whom were from Europe. We heard during her hospital stay that the Nigerians had finally broken through the blockade mounted by the Biafran soldiers, rearmed, and launched a second offensive, pushing closer to Owerri. It clearly had become quite serious when we noticed Biafran soldiers coming into the hospital to warn the clinical staff to leave and evacuate all the patients. Christie was summarily
When we returned to Shell Camp we saw that the area had been infiltrated by the Nigerian army, some wearing mufti, who watched us closely. We noticed that the entire estate was almost deserted. The main roads were jammed with civilians trying to escape before the Nigerian troops arrived. Some of the federal forces who had already entered Owerri would snicker at the civilians; some would wave cynically. It was eerie and frightening.
We picked up the few belongings we had in the house and jumped back into the car. During the war years one never really unpacked; one always had the belongings in the trunk of the car and took only the absolute necessities into the temporary shelter that you found yourself in. We decided to get off the major thoroughfares, so we meandered through the rural areas, villages, and hamlets and arrived in the village of Okporo. This pleasant community holds a special place in Biafran lore, because it was the site of a special hospital for children run by Caritas, and it was one of the sites chosen to gather sick babies for the famous airlift of Biafran babies to Gabon and Ivory Coast organized by international
I recall visiting a clinic that had been hastily set up by one of the many foreign nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) during this time. They had chosen an abandoned secondary school complex and set up shop in what must have been the cafeteria. There were bullet holes in the limestone and concrete walls and pieces of glass shattered on the floor, suggesting a recent gun battle.
The patients were strewn on the shiny red laterite floor on bamboo and raffia mats—the adults in one section and the children in the other. It was raining on that day, and the holes in the corrugated iron roofs provided a steady stream of water that dripped directly on some patients (who appeared not to care) and collected in puddles throughout the building. The visitor was greeted by the strong smell of vomit, diarrhea, and other bodily fluids that are kept private in sunnier times. In the distance, one could hear the screams of pain from what appeared to be a makeshift operating room, where surgeons performed procedures with woefully limited anesthesia.
There was a child in a corner who was being fed a white meal—the relief meals were almost always white, I thought—and it was a concoction that meant the difference between an early grave or another day to see the sun. On this day, at least, this reed-thin child, with a skull capped with wiry rust-colored tufts of hair and a body-centered on a protuberant stomach, provided a toothy smile. I spent a short while smiling back at her, and she reached out to touch my hand. Her touch was as light as feathers.
Dr. Aaron Ifekwunigwe, now a professor emeritus of pediatrics at the University of California, was the director of health services for Biafra at the time of the war. He performe extensive and important clinical research and treatment during this time. He studied the impact of starvation on the Biafran population. One of his most compelling research projects, in March 1968, found during this early period of starvation that 89 percent of those affected were children under five years of age. The remaining 11 percent were age five to fifteen.
[On] an early fact-finding mission in 1968, conducted by ICRC [International Committee of the Red Cross], Doctor Edwin Spirgi found that at least 300,000 children were suffering from kwashiorkor . . . and three million children were near death.
There was another epidemic that was not talked about much, a silent scourge —the explosion of mental illness: major depression, psychosis, schizophrenia, manic-depression, personality disorders, grief response, post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety disorders, etc.—on a scale none of us had ever witnessed. One of the saddest images of the war was not just the dead and the physically wounded but also the mentally scarred, the so-called madmen and women who had been psychologically devastated by the anguish and myriad pressures of war.
They could often be seen walking seemingly aimlessly on the roads in tattered clothes, in conversation with themselves.