War Child in Biafra
by Patricia E.
I felt myself waking up from a deep sleep and a hand hurriedly lifting me out of bed. It was my mother and she quickly secured me on her back with a wrapper. She bundled up a few belongings in a bed sheet, held my sister by the other hand and ran out of the front door to join the long trail of adults and children stampeding towards safety. There had been a tip-off that the northern soldiers were badgering into homes and slaughtering people. So there we all were, in pitch darkness, running for dear life.
It soon transpired that I had to travel with my father on a plane bound for Enugu, while my mother and sister remained in the capital city. No sooner had my father and I arrived in Enugu than we had to transfer to our hometown where the rest of the family was located. Like us, most had travelled from different parts of the country to be there. I’m not sure why, but my father soon went away leaving me in the capable hands of my grandmother who also had several other grandchildren under her care. Throughout the war years she became our surrogate parent attending to our every need.
The many cousins I met became my playmates and, to some extent, life assumed some kind of normality. I was particularly close to my cousin, Joma, who was the same age as me. In the months that followed, Joma became severely ill with a bad and painful cough. Her ceaseless coughing in the dead of night and her agonising cries kept the whole compound awake. This was especially stressful for her mother who got no sleep during the night nor any rest in the daytime. Then one night, an eerie silence descended upon the compound. Joma’s usual coughing and crying could not be heard, only the wailing of a woman shrieked through the tranquil night. Soon the voices of other women could be heard singing the traditional elegy. I could sense something was amiss. I lay very still, afraid to move, listening to their sorrowful and heartbreaking lamentations:
“She’s gone, she’s gone, she’s gone in peace
She’s gone, she’s gone, she’s gone in peace
She has departed this earth to return to her origin
God receive her spirit
She has departed this earth to return to her origin
God receive her spirit”.
On and on the singing continued until the break of dawn. That was when I heard the hushed whispers that Joma had passed away, never to come back. With hardly anytime to mourn, we were soon jolted back to the business of living and trying to survive. The war had suddenly escalated and we could no longer remain in the family compound.
We were moved to the relative safety of the refugee camp that had been set up in the town. The camp stood on large grounds and was made up of several quarters inhabited by a mix of families. Facilities such as toilets and kitchen were communal. The kitchen was usually the centre of activity were the women spent most of their time cooking and socialising. Apart from the pathway leading in and out of the camp much of the grounds were carpeted in brown sand with sprouts of bushes in the less trodden paths. These were all enclosed within a thick wall fencing off intruders and shielding children from unsuspecting danger. A dense green forest housing creepy crawly insects and venomous snakes was located behind the camp but kept at a safe distance by the wall.
It was an unusually quiet morning especially when compared with the blasts of the ruthless bombing campaign from the night before. Many of us children in the camp had come out to play. Scarcely with any meal in our stomachs and with weakened bodies, we ran about playfully in a kind of suspended hazy animation. Nevertheless, there were daily chores to be performed and one of them was fetching water from the town’s stream. So off we went, empty buckets in hand, skipping along merrily through the bushes in our bare feet and scantily clad bodies. It was a fair distance from the camp but, being children, we were able to turn the whole venture into play. We took it in turns to fill our buckets, balanced them on our heads and made our way back to the camp. We matched on excitedly in the knowledge that we would be welcomed with a delicious breakfast of buttered doughy bread and sugary milky tea.
Hunger was a daily reality, which was evident from our kwashiorkored frames. Any food available was heavily rationed. My grandmother would go one step further and hide the pot of soup away from our hungry eyes. But somehow we were able to locate these hiding places and would sneakily steal pieces of meat from the pot. This was a very risky business indeed because anyone caught in the act was sure to receive a severe caning. To overcome hunger pangs my big cousin, Buchi, would catch lizards which he would skin and roast over an open fire we had made from sticks and dried leaves. We relished these little treats. Often our micro feast would be interrupted by the sound of air raids and we would have to abandon everything to take cover in the bomb shelters.
Buchi was leader of the pack and we all looked up to him. When he was around no one dared pick a fight with us. We followed him everywhere and hero-worshiped him. He thought us many games which we spent hours on end playing. This kept us well occupied until it was time for bed. The war situation meant that there was no schooling whatsoever.
We gathered and looked on with a combination of innocent interest and barefaced fright. We watched as the beige skinned lizard wiggled out of Buchi’s grasp. Its outer covering of rough scales, elongated body and long tail were very snake-like except for its four limbs. Along the hot baked sand it scurried speedily in a bid to escape capture. But Buchi was not going to let the reptile creature get away so easily. The lizard crawled into the once lusciously green bushes, which were now crispy brown from the relentless heat of the sun. Little did it know that there was no place to hide. Buchi, accompanied by us, followed the lizard in determined pursuit. Then his large hands descended upon the lizard like a vicious Eagle about to snatch its prey. Fuelled by their mouth-watering anticipation for food the children jumped and screamed joyfully.
With the motion of a waiter unscrewing a bottle of wine, Buchi quickly twisted and snapped off the head of the lizard. Some of the children began to cry and some ran to mama at the sight of blood gushing like a small narrow fountain of water. Buchi then skinned the lizard to reveal white flesh which could easily have been mistaken for a chick. The rest of us eagerly went into the dead bushes to fetch sticks and dried leaves with which to build a fire. In no time yellow flames were rising upwards in a heated competition with the already hot and humid atmosphere. Buchi spiked a long sharp stick through the lifeless lizard to hold it in place as he dangled it over the fire which splattered little yellow sparks all over the place. The air was filled with the aroma of barbecued meat inviting the unwanted presence of opportunistic flying insects stubbornly buzzing and circling annoyingly.
In an ‘Oliver Twist’ fashion we waited with outstretched palms to be given our share. Each piece was no bigger than a cube of chewing gum bearing in mind that the meat was slightly bigger than a chick and was to be divided among a dozen children or so. Nonetheless any kind of food was better than no food at all no matter the quantity or the nutritional value for that matter. It was obvious from the way we greedily gulped down the meat that it was ‘finger licking good’ to say the least. Once again, Buchi the hero had given us a little something to alleviate our hunger.
The sun had begun to set casting an evening shade over the campgrounds. This was a welcomed reprieve from the punishing mid-day heat. The mosquitoes were awake and had started to feast on their favourite meal - succulent human blood. The camp was abuzz with sundown activities. Women with babies strapped to their backs stood over pots cooking on open fire and prepared what little food they could for dinner. Adults were seated around the fires telling stories to younger ones. Children – ah, yes, the children – we were chatting, laughing, chasing, running, skipping and hiding. Our continual hunger and the activities earlier that day were all but forgotten. It was just another day in the unsettled life of a war child.