How We Saw Civil War As Kids
The class of Biafrans affected most by the brutish war was the children. “The children lived at the mercy of the federal soldiers who defied the rules of warfare to drop bombs in refugee camps, markets and other places where the civilians and children hid”, a source told Saturday Sun.
In one of such occasions, Red Cross accounts of the war noted that its airplane conveying relief materials to the civilians in Biafra was shot down by the Nigerian troops who had proclaimed that the territory be shut out from supply of basic necessities as part of the warfare.
Saturday Sun, therefore, spoke with Nigerians who were children during the war to find out what their young memories registered of what they went through in the three-year hostility 40 years after the civil war.
Maggots lived inside children’s bodies
-Ernie Onwumere, advert consultant
As a child during the civil war, we were raised up in a very horrible condition. The memory I have of the war is that of hunger and unending starvation. There were endless horrifying lonely long nights, the agonizing cries of pains, and a period there was no hope for tomorrow. A period we waited for death that usually came without notice, we lived in absolute fear.
I still remember the civil war sad memories as if it were yesterday. Our frequent run for cover from the enemy plane that rained bombs still sticks. The long painful trek carrying our loads on the head is part of the indelible imprints on my young mind that has now grown old. The unending queues to receive our meagre refugees relief from the Red Cross, the family roll calls to distribute essential commodities were the agonies we bore.
But the most threatening was our poor personal hygiene. We could go on week after week without bath or change of clothes. This resulted in live maggots (jiga) being extracted with pin from our toes making our long trek more painful and slow. I have also not forgotten the joy and hope the aroma and sight of corn meal, dry egg powder and garri Gabon brought us. They were distributed by the Red Cross. The death toll at the refugee camps as a result of kwashiorkor was high and an evil we cohabited with.
Although we were of school age, we could not go to school because we lost all we had during the war. When the war ended my parents had no money to send me to school until two years later in 1972.
What worsened the situation was the new military government’s education policy that took over the mission and private schools throughout East Central State. That forcible acquisition of school affected school enrollment after the civil war. And much later the standard of education in the region was badly shattered.
The late Dr. Alvan Ikoku established a private secondary school in my hometown, Arochukwu in 1932, and the elders told us that food items were accepted in exchange for school fees while scholarships were offered to indigent students. But after the war, there was nothing like that anywhere. I still hang on my sitting room my enlarged photo after the war showing me dressed without shoes. The picture is a reminder of how bad the family economy was after the war.
We never recovered from that ravage. My family relocated from Enugu, the capital city to Abakaliki then a division headquarters to enable us to get closer to our relations who provided us food from the hinterland.
I remember the long bicycle journeys my mother made every Eke market day from Onueke Ezza to Abakaliki to provide us food.
Because of the war, our village lost educated men who were trained through the community central purse with the hope that they will in turn train others Majority of those of school age dropped out and took up menial jobs in a bid to earn a living. The Igbo and my people in Arochukwu as part of that carnage are yet to recover from the psychological torture of the war. The confidence of our men was eroded.
We saw our young ladies taken away into forced marriages. Soldiers raided communities and took away young girls, raping and maiming them. There was a particular niece of mine who was forcibly taken that way that we found two years ago in Badagry already married and has children. The family lost her and would never recover her as part of us. That was too bad.
We faced the most dehumanizing experience that cannot be imagined.
My uncle, who was a contemporary of Gen. Gowon, was arrested at a checkpoint in February 1971 long after the war at Akokwa by soldiers and was detained with all members of his family. He was severally tortured; today he still carries the mark of that battery 40 years after on his back. The Nigerian soldiers stole his car but for the intervention of the Catholic Church, he would have been executed.
Apart form his mention in series of accounts of the civil war; he has refused to document the horrible experience of that genocide against Nd’Igbo. How can you explain the bombing of Awgu and Ozu-Abam markets on a market day? Bombs rained on innocent civilians who were defenceless and unarmed. The communities are yet to recover from these tortures because the survivors are still alive carrying with them the pains of those incidents. The problem that led to the crisis has not been resolved.
The reason for the January 15, 1966 coup was corruption of the political class a post-independent Nigeria considered intolerable. Unfortunately it was tagged ‘Igbo coup’ but honest Nigerians can testify that the main reason was to eliminate corruption. Regrettably 40 years after we fought a war that had it roots on corruption, Nigeria seems to relish in corruption, political and military office holders milk the country dry, people now seek political office to enrich themselves. The private sector is even worse.
The recent revelations in the banking sector have shown how corrupt the system is. How can you explain that two former executive of the affected banks who were perceived as born again Christians could be deeply involved in reckless acquisition of wealth while clutching the Bible.
There is no rule of law in Nigeria, Yar’Adua started with the right solution but ended up disobeying the rule of law. A typical example is the public offer executed by the defunct All States Trust Bank Plc between Monday August 5, 2005 and September 5, 2005. During this time they raised over N18 billion from the Nigerian public. That money was not refunded or accounted for when Central Bank sold the bank to Ecobank. The promoters of that public offer fraud were rewarded with national honours and ministerial appointments. The parties to that act, FBN Merchant Bank now collapsed into First Bank and others are all growing fatter and stronger.
Forty years after the civil war, we are yet to learn our lessons.
I started primary school at 10 because of the war
– Sunny Ugwuocha, petroleum engineer
Prince Sunny Ugwuocha, today a petroleum engineer and principal partner of Flow Precision Limited was a little boy when the war broke out. But he could accurately remember how biting it was to survive those days.
The family lived in Abakaliki where he was born. But when the war started, the family ran back to their town, Edda. He recalled that his parents thought it was a case of a trouble that would start and end in the townships, reason they ran to the rural area. But they were wrong because the war lingered until no place was spared even his village.
“When the soldiers took over my town, we ran from Nguzu to nearby places to live in the bush. I particularly remember some incidents like the day we prepared soup with all manner of condiments only to wake up the following morning to discover that ants have filled the pot. Not minding the heavy cluster of the large insects, the family had no alternative but to eat the food that way. If we didn’t eat it, where would we get an alternative?
“Another remarkable incident that remains green in me was that particular night when my parents spread mat for us to sleep only to notice after lying down that something was moving under it. When the mat was raised, there was a big snake under and my father had to kill it before we could sleep.
“In another rainy night, my immediate younger sister got lost in the crowded bush camp. It took hours before she could be located huddled up near a fire some families far away from us made. She was terribly shivering in the cold and nearly died. When the war came to an end, my father had to relocate to Aba where he started a new life, and he told me that most of the journey then was on foot because there were no vehicles spared. Later he came to take us to Aba where we lived for sometime before the family moved to Lagos.
The effects of the war on my siblings and I were the retardation of our education, the hunger, the lack of medication that resulted in deaths, the denials and nakedness because there were no clothes. In fact, all the children looked dirty and seriously malnourished. We later grew to discover that some of our parents’ family members were killed during the war”.
As regards any difference in the system since the war ended, Ugwuocha says there is none. “The history books and what older people told us is that injustice gave rise to the conditions that preceded the war. And I can say like all Nigerians know that they are still here with us. There were killings of the easterners in the North before the war, and it still continues including the present one in Jos.
“The Igbo who were the major victims still suffer setbacks today like then in the Nigerian system. When all the geo-political regions in Nigeria have at least six states, the South East still has five, and that goes down to the number of LGAs and representatives at all levels”.
Lizards, grasshoppers were our choice delicacies
-Prince Gabriel Osunwa, businessman
Gabriel was a little boy and most of what he knew happened during the war were got from stories older people told him. But there are still memories that stick to his then young brain. His entire family lived in Lagos where he was born. At the break of war, there was fear and apprehension everywhere to the extent that people from the east resident in Lagos were not safe or at ease.
He told Saturday Sun that the tension got so bad that his father who lived under threat by the host community in Surulere had to flee to the East inside a petrol tanker. When he got to Asaba, he had counted himself dead but for providence that spared him amid the stench of petrol although the tank was empty. But the major threat to his life was when Nigerian soldiers wanted to shoot him at Asaba. He managed to cross over to Onitsha and later enrolled in the Biafran army.
“The day our father came home in the company of other soldiers, we could not believe it because we had counted him dead as we never heard from him until that day. He just paid us a brief visit and left again in their Land Rover”.
But there are other incidents of suffering Osunwa remembers like the lizard and grasshopper delicacies. “Because there was no meat anywhere, our people fed on lizards. Any day lizards are caught it will be great celebration. The tummy will be torn open and the body roasted and prepared for soup. Grasshopper was also very popular as meat and maybe source of protein.
I can’t forget the sight of children hit by kwashiorkor that had distended tummies and emaciated and bony frame. Many children of my age I can recall died of kwashiorkor. There was this particular girl who we would stab her fat tummy with our fingers and make joke of her. But I am happy that she survived and is today a well-to-do woman in USA. Whenever she visits Nigeria, I still jokingly remind her of her protruding tummy standing out of her shriveled and malnourished frame. Today, we laugh about it because she has really made well.
“After the war I remember also when the Red Cross used to come to our village in Okwudor, Imo State, to distribute relief materials – food, wears, drugs,º etc free. The food were mainly corn meal, milk powder and rice.
When I enrolled in school after the war, we had so many old people – far older than some us in the same class. These people were stopped from going to school on time by the war.
There were some who even were in the same class after fighting as Biafran soldiers. One had what was popularly called artillery. That means he suffered hearing impairment from the deafening sound of artillery firing. “In the class, he would be shouting and screaming to communicate.
There were signs of the war all over town and it was a serious devastation to our people. Sometimes after reading the accounts in books in addition to the little I saw as a child, I shake my head and recall that the war took the Igbo backwards by generations. My father also told me that bank accounts of Biafrans were frozen by the Nigerian government after the war. Many were stopped from going to school, and many who had got education before the war were killed.
Some two years after the war ended, we came back to Lagos to find out that the house my father had built to lintel level in Surulere had been taken over by someone else and we had to make do with renting an apartment afresh to start life anew”.
My grandfather lost his property in PH, Chimerizirm Nkwocha, calibration engineer
I cannot tell much about the war as witness. It was during the peak of the war that I was born, so I can’t say exactly what I witnessed. And moreover, after the war, since my parents had left Port Harcourt where we lived, we relocated to Onitsha and lived there all through my school days.
I heard my parents say that the destabilization was so much that I cried all the time as a baby because parents were not settled to properly take care of the children and families were always on the run living in bushes.
But today, as I compare Nigeria with what I read that caused the war, nothing has actually changed. The divisions and lack of common front to fight social injustice still prevail.
Today, the nation is full of various problems including the Niger Delta issue and when these people complain, those that fought for Biafra feel like telling others this is what we saw over forty years ago and wanted a way out of it. We have not outgrown sectarian violence in the north, which keeps coming every now and then.
A nation that should have matured to real development still pervasively applies the quota system discriminatingly to favour some and deny others of what they should have. It is not fair that we have not grown above the stage we saw ourselves years before the war.
In the West, my family hid in bush,
Sola Balogun, journalist
Contrary to the general perception that places outside the South East region watched it all from a far safe distance, some place in the South West were shaken by the vibrations of the war as a child in present Osun State recalls what his family went through.
“I can remember vividly what my mother told me about how she and my father coped in the dark days of the Nigerian civil war. The period was around 1967 – late in the year – when I was barely two years old. Then my parents lived in Iwo, Osun State but most times, they always shuttled between Iwo and Ogburo, my father’s hometown where my paternal grandmother was resident.
Then they used to run to the bush whenever the noise of bombs or strange gunshots was heard. My mother said my grandmother would drag her to the bush close to Oba River, hide her together with me for days while my father would have gone to fend for the family. My mother would join my grandmother who always stored food, cooking materials and fruits in her luggage whenever they needed to run to the bush to seek refuge.
In short, the civil war period was a time of fear, endless fear that soon translated into disparity and displacement. My parents were then always on the run and as a child, I also shared most of the bitter experience. My mother also remembered that on one occasion, when I was little above 18 months old, they tried hard to procure drugs for me but couldn’t for fear of running into soldiers who were then on the prowl. The atmosphere then was scary, and going to the township area (Iwo or Ibadan) was nightmare.
My mother, father, grandmother and my cousins suffered. They recounted stories of how they were moving from one place to the other in search of safety. None of them was bold enough to run to the city as news of killings and spurious physical attacks were rife.
I was, however, only a child during the period as I only learnt of the war when I was a bit older. It was really an agonizing period for the nuclear and extended family and I only wonder why at such period, the war, which we heard broke in the eastern part of the country could spread to the western part where we lived”.
Federal troops had no regard for lives of children, James Imoh, teacher
James Imoh is from present Akwa Ibom State and recounts that the exodus of his family from Calabar to Etinan never made any difference in the impact they felt. “We made the journey on foot,” he lamented. “We walked for days, stopping to rest at nightfall and continuing early the following morning. And worst of all, it was not a straight journey but one in which we intermittently ran into the bush and used bush paths so often to avoid running into federal soldiers. My little sister who was about two years old was carried on my father’s shoulders.
Because the five children who were not yet grown had to be considered, it meant most of our household belonging in Calabar were left behind. My father lamented the loss of his life earning in Calabar till he died.
They included his business and his other properties. When Calabar fell into the hands of the enemies, everybody in town left for hiding. But we saw the real war when at a point we had to leave Etinan after the enemies took Uyo and Aba.
Life was really unbearable, and we had to make do with all manner of things as food for the family. There was no trading or farming and we were told later that the Federal Government had also blocked the Biafra area from all food supply and it was a standstill as children died in dozens of diseases and hunger. It is painful to recall that the war was a wicked and painful one where the federal government had no value for the lives of even the children in Biafra.
Everyone was a target of annihilation and I have not heard of another war after that that was so callously prosecuted. After the Nazi Holocaust, nothing that inhuman ever happened to mankind. And sad enough, the people that did all these still dominate Nigeria and don’t seem to be remorseful”.
If what happened in the Biafra hostility shocks Imoh, he is bewildered by the reality that not much has actually changed in the system even today, forty years after the war.
“The Niger Delta agitation is still an ugly sign of our lack of ability to learn from history and change. The problem of denying some people their rights and the intimidation of others by the privileged that think it is their right to subvert justice still live with us. The political ills we read made the soldiers strike in January 1966 has remained the same and the killings in the north is still on even as we mark the 40 years of post civil war. It looks like this country is doomed to fail and we have not told ourselves the truth of how we want to live together if we should”.