I Lost My Father, Seminarian And Properties Worth Millions – EZEMA
Can you recall exactly when, where you were and how you found out that there had been an outbreak of war between the federal government and Biafra?
I was a teenager but not too young to remember what actually led to the civil war. The war was actually a fallout of the killing of the Igbo in northern Nigeria. I could still recall how the then governor of the Eastern region, Lt. Col, Chukwuemeka Odumegwu-Ojukwu, called on the Igbo and informed them of the situation prior to the declaration of the region as a Republic of Biafra within the campus of the University of Nigeria, Nsukka. The Biafrans were barely armed because the type of guns available to them was not comparable with what the Nigerian soldiers had. It was a heavy type of gun that one couldn’t conveniently carry for a distance. That was what Igbo had compared to the cetema or light, long rifles used by Nigerian army. It is this kind of scenario that is unfolding right now because there is no peace in the country.
At what point did the war reach your area and where were you when the war broke out?
I was at our home at Ede Oballa, Nsukka, sitting with my father in our mud house while my siblings were already asleep. We suddenly saw missiles flying from Opi, Nsukka Hill. We panicked but later learnt that it was coming from the Biafra infantry unit under the command of Major Chukwuma Kaduna Nzeogwu. The general response to the outbreak of war was that of jubilation as we never witnessed anything like that before. However, things soon turned ugly and we began to run for our dear lives.
I remember that particular day when we were cooking and suddenly, the Nigerian troops started raining bombs on us and we had no option than to run with the food half done and when the soldiers came into Ede Oballa community, they shot everybody they could find, setting thatched houses on fire and destroying our properties. My father, Ugwu Tikiri Ezema, who was one of the biggest farmer in the village had all his harvested products inside the barn razed down by the troops; with not even a single yam spared from the barn.
In fact, when we escaped, the whole family had no food and we were very hungry as we trekked away from danger. At a point, my father could not bear seeing us crying of hunger. He went to fetch water at Edem Nsukka stream and, on his way, was caught and killed by Nigerian soldiers alongside other community members who also went to that stream. So, we were left alone. I can’t really explain the painful experience I had during that period. Starvation was a major issue then.
What were your recollections of your war experiences and how did you survive?
I was barely 15 years old then. I cannot say exactly what happened in the war but what affected me most was starvation. We were treated with worst humiliation, I wept, due to the experience of the tragedy in war. At a point, it became very hard to see a famer with cassava or yam, maize. It was not unusual for us then to eat things that were raw. There was no time to cook because once Nigerian soldiers saw a flame they would track it, storm the location and kill anybody on sight. But for God’s grace, we couldn’t have survived it, especially those of us from Nsukka area because the Nigerian troops invaded us through the route that led from Kogi to Ugboko, Benue state and, from there, they gained access to Ibe-agwa. That was how they penetrated throughout the Igboland.
How did your family manage the food challenges?
As God may have it, my mum was a hard-working woman. Initially she cultivated cassava but we didn’t normally allow it to stay up to six months before we harvested it due to hunger. There was what we call Iyi-uwa, it is a type of milk that international relief agencies sent to us. At a point we started receiving food items from international donors, especially milk, free of charge. We don’t know even where the food items were brought from but the elites among us told us it was from the missionaries who supported us during the war.
All I know is that, in the morning, we would line up as the milk would be prepared in a very big basin and each of us would be given a cup full of it. That milk, after taking it usually make us satisfied.
We also received tins of rice just to make sure that we did not all die of starvation, because that was one of the strategies that the Nigerian government used on us. They made sure that they barricaded all access to food supply to civilians and fighting.
Many people engaged in deadly trade known as Afia-attack during the war, did anybody from your family participateD in it, what where their experiences?
I know some of our villagers participated; some died and others survived. It was not easy for them because of the risk involved. The ‘Afia Attack’ as the name implies was selling goods and services around and beyond battle front lines during the civil war. There are those who engaged in buying goods in Biafran areas and selling to Nigerian soldiers. It was very risky because many Biafrans don’t usually like to come in contact with Hausa or Nigerian soldiers because they could be killed. But those who succeed made a lot of money then.
And the business activity involved not only selling food items such as yam, maize, oil, etc., but also property, and any tangible thing thought beneficial at the time to the Nigerian soldiers who had the valuable Nigerian money. Basically, you didn’t see the Biafra soldiers. At some point, they ran very far away because they were the target. Sometimes, they sell to some of the Igbos who can afford to buy because it was costly.
What was it like living through days and nights under constant fear of aerial bombardment, gun fire and people dying?
We only slept under big trees because the pilots could not see through the trees as these served as undercover to us. The planes only dropped bombs on houses, farm lands and places suspected to be enclave of the Biafra soldiers. All we knew was that, after these heavy metals, which came with so much fear and noise for hours, we come out from hiding to attend to casualties and bury the dead. We didn’t even take them to any major place; we would only dig some few feet down and bury the dead there. It was when the war ended that we went in search of other relatives we could not see. Others whose carcasses we could identify had their bones buried amid weeping, wailing and prayers while some rained curses and abuses on those who were imagined to have brought the wrath upon us.
Ooh, (he subs) we saw hell; I condemn anything that will be about war crisis again. It was a very awful, deadly and inhuman situation that should never be experienced. Whatever that will bring war again should be averted; for an Igbo man, another war is absolutely inadvisable because it is through prayer that our land will be safe. Those oppressing the Igbo will soon get tired and realise what our rights are. They will, on their own, kill themselves.
Can you recall some of your relatives of friends that died during the war?
Why won’t I remember them? One of the most painful death in our community was the death of Jerome Ogbu who was a seminarian who was at the verge of being ordained. You know it was rare to see those who opted to be catholic priests in those days. There were many of them that died during the war. My father, his brother, Ugwu John and another close friend of the family, Ugwuoke Agbo from Ibagwa, they were just rounded up for no just cause and murdered. They were countless but these I mentioned were those closer to me, such that, till death, I cannot forget them.
How did people of your age relieve tension during those 30 months of civil war?
Smiles! We formed a play group after the civil war to practise what we experienced during the war. We would group ourselves into two, one group acts the Nigerian soldiers, the other the Biafra soldiers. We would, usually, bring in sand, mould them into balls and threw them in a hide and seek game as bombs while we used sticks as guns with our mouths rumbling like ratatat (fire) sounds. Sometimes, after these exercises, we went home without eating anything for days because there was still not much food in circulation although we were often left with the feelings of practising exactly what we saw during the past few months.
There were allegations that Nigerian soldiers were brutal to civilians at the height of the war. Did you witness any of such incidences of torture, rape and so on?
Yes, at a point, once you were identified or seen as ‘Ojukwu soldier’ by the Nigerian soldiers, you were gone. Again, our young women where objects of molestation and sexual abuse. Our women served as the communicator between us and the soldiers and, at the same time, were also used. If they saw any woman they liked whether your wife, sister of mother, they will take her away to their camps. They become their lovers and those who refused were turned to slavery or, at some point, killed. You, as the husband, did not talk. I was tender, at the age of 15 years; so, I could still remember vividly some atrocities committed by the Nigerian soldiers. They didn’t go after Biafra soldiers, but rather resorted to destroying our women mostly virgins. The soldiers had no mercy for any living things. It was so terrible!
Can you recall where you were and how you felt when the news broke that the war has ended?
Earlier, we ran to Aku community and, initially, the time the news went out that the war had ended, was when another war started. It was used to lure some people who had escaped earlier during the breakout of war, to other states or hidden in thick forests, to return. We just returned home hearing that war had ended. People went to Edem Nsukka stream to fetch water and none of them returned, having been massacred and that was when people knew that it was not true. On the second announcement, people started returning again but my siblings, our mother and I stayed back. We were seven and all of us survived the civil war except my father.
How did you feel the first time you returned home and what did you meet on your return?
At first, returning home after a long time away from home, without food, water or comfortable place to sleep, you could imagine the feeling; yet the happiness was nowhere to be found. When we returned, we met our three big barns of yams burnt down because my father was a big farmer. Our thatched houses were destroyed, my father’s bicycles and our pots all broken into pieces. We started afresh to put things in order and, till today, we are happy there is no such thing as war anymore. Development has come and things are really changing. I know, someday, freedom will eventually be ours.
Can you recall some of the properties or persons that your family lost during the war?
A lot died and then my father had two bicycles. You know bicycle was a big thing during the 1960s and my father was a rich farmer. We left lots of money behind as we ran for our lives. Our two houses were razed down and bullets or shelling I can’t tell all I knew was that everywhere was in shambles.
Almost 49 years after the war ended, do you think that the Nigerian government has addressed the issues that led to the civil war?
They have not started, addressing the issues. They will, first of all, look for those people that lost their own at the civil war and compensate them. They should ask questions about whom and who lost their father, mother, sister, brother or relatives during the war. They said no victor, no vanquished but, I tell you, there was a victory. But if they want us to believe in no victor, no vanquished, then there should be no nepotism, no tribalism, no inequality and we share everything equally. How can you make such statement and, on the other side is side-lined from what is happening in the economy? The Igbo, no matter how intelligent, will not be allowed to handle a substantial office.
As someone who lived through such a terrible period, would you subscribe to current clamour for secession of south east from Nigeria as Biafra state?
Well, hope you hear what happens outside other country like Hong Kong? It is a matter of coming together, putting it into a bill and fighting for it. Make it work as a motion, go to national assembly and demand for Biafra peacefully; even if not granted, keep moving and some day it will be a reality. Our people don’t need agitation through violence because we don’t have a war situation. Let them use brain to fight for Biafra if we need it, not with guns. They are better than us and so we have to follow it logically. You know the people that colonised us are behind them. No Igbo man will like to look for freedom with weapon unless you don’t like yourself. If not today, it will be tomorrow but Biafra will come to stay. But the way some of us are propagating it is what I don’t like, I don’t like war, I don’t like anything chaos.