We Ate Every Food As Our Last Supper Because Of Constant Air Raids – Ukaeje
BY DAMIAN DURUIHEOMA
Mr. Ifeanyi Ukaeje was on the verge of writing his senior school certificate examinations at Okongwu Memorial Grammar School, Nnewi when the civil war broke out. As the schools shut, Ukaeje enlisted in the Biafran Air Force where he worked as a protector of the Uli Airport. Although luck was on his side as he and the whole family survived the bloody 30-month civil war, he, like millions of survivors, went through horrible experience. The septuagenarian, who is also a veteran journalist, shares the story of his survival and other issues about the war with Damian Duruiheoma.
Can you recall exactly where you were and how you found out that there had been an outbreak of war between the federal government and Biafra?
In July 1967, when the war broke, I was at the Okongwu Memorial Grammar School, Nnewi, preparing for my Senior School Certificate Examination slated for November/December that year. That was when the SSCE was held in December unlike the current May/June. We were getting ready for the exams when, one evening, students were hushed into the hostel, unlike before, when we usually retired by 9.30pm. A moment later, we saw arms being packed into our hostels and some of us even lent hands packing them. Along the line, we were told that war had broken out and that Nigerian troops had attacked Biafrasomewhere in Gakem in Ogoja province. We were all excited and willing to join the army.
The next day, we were assembled in theschool hall and asked to go home. By the time we left school, I headed to Onitsha where my parents lived. Other students whose parents lived in Onitsha also returned there. Every morning, we heard rumours of air raid by the Nigerian Air Force; that they dropped paint containers that had no effect on the Biafran people. This was because, initially, what they were dropping were no real bombs.
We also heard that our own Biafran troops were going with the B52 bombers to attack the federal troops. They even converted some Douglas DC3 to fighter jets. Some helicopters were equally used. The rumour continued until the Nigerian army eventually attacked the city of Onitsha. Luckily for me, the day Onitsha witnessed heavy bombardments, I travelled to the village and my father also left the city.
As we returned home, we started attending military training organised by a group of people known as the militia. The training was for those who were rejected for recruitment by the Biafran army because many people had indicated interest to join the army by going to Enugu for recruitment but were rejected because of lack of logistics such as the arms, the uniform and even the vehicles. I remained in the village till end of 1967.
In early 1968, one of my friends, who had joined the Biafran Air Force with base atUli Girls Secondary School, came home. He said he was sent by one of the officers from my home town, Akokwa, in Ideato North local government area of Imo state, to inform those who had interest in joining Biafran Air Force to apply. As someone who had nothing doing, I decided to join the Biafra Air Force and followed him to Uli.
So, at what point did you get involved in the war?
Well, we were lucky the war didn’t affectAkokwa, though I wasn’t at home then. I was at the Air Force Base. At a time, when they knocked off our B52 and some helicopters being used, the Biafra Air Force, kind of, collapsed. Our job was more of defending the airport because the Nigerian suicide squad attempted landing in the airport. We dealt with them, however. They couldn’t do that again.
On the entire runway, we had people positioned with heavy machine guns (HMG) and Browniemachine guns (BMG) so as to contain any attempt by enemy aircraft to land there. We also made sure that the airport was open for flight operation in the night.
Unfortunately, we got unlucky one night when we put on the runway and tarmac lights and the federal troops had to use a DC3 aircraft to launch antipersonnel rockets on the airport. What this rocket does is to dig little crater and spread the shrapnel. It killed a number of people that night. I was just lucky enough to have been caught only on my right arm. In fact, after that experience, I travelled back to Akokwa to spend two weeks to recuperate. I returned afterwards and hadn’t received a kobo for my services in the Air Force.
After that, somebody came home to inform me that they were about to pay us. They also told us that the whereabouts of so many people were still unknown. When I returned, I told them that I was at Naval Hospital at Nempi in today’s Oru West local government area of Imo state and they paid me.
What was it like living through days and nights filled with constant bombardment, shelling and gun fire with people dying?
It was a very terrible experience really. We usually left the airport after the last aircraft had left. We would camouflage the runway and, if there was any aircraft still around, we would camouflage it before leaving. So, each time you were coming in, you prayed for your soul to rest in peace because you never knew whether that would be your last day. With this in mind, if we had anything to eat and drink, we would eat very well.
Nearby, we had women who were cooking breadfruits mixed up with rice. We would also buy enough poultry meat and eat because you didn’t know whether that day would be your last existence on earth. This was because, at a time, the Nigerian soldiers were raiding the airport almost every night to the extent that they came with fighter jets one night. What happened was that they were following the aircraft that was going to land. The aircraft was positioned to land. After that initial attack on the airport, the control tower was now clearing the air to ensure any aircraft coming in was friendly one. They would now give instructions for the lights to be switched on while those of us would ensure the runway was cleared of the camouflage to enable the aircraft land.
So, what happened in this circumstance?
Well, this aircraft, which I think belonged to the Red Cross, had positioned to land and the lights had been switched on. But as the aircraft made landfall, a fighter jet followed it immediately and our people had to switch off the lights and our gun people opened fire on it. It really proved very fatal on them because later, some of the wreckage of the jet was seen at AwoOmamma with heavy blood stains. It was later brought to our base.
After that incident, they didn’t try to use fighter jet to attack the airport anymore. But they were coming with DC3 and when that aircraft was coming, we would know because it has a very peculiar sound. So, if it was coming, everywhere would calm, no aircraft would be allowed to land. We would rather tell them to be hovering until they would go after a while.
However, facing constant aerial bombardments wasn’t a very good experience. During the bombing, you would be inside a bunker that was not even strong enough and begin to say your last prayer.
At a point, what they started doing was to drop something like sulphur on us. It would be burning with very large illuminating lights on white clothes and with that, you could even see a pin on the ground in the night. But once they dropped it at the airport, the gunners would blow it. In the morning, people would cut a lot of clothes from it. It was a very long cloth.
How did the people of your age relieve tension during those 30 months of civil war?
You know there were some boys who were playing music during that time. At times, there would be night party for those not on duty. At times, you would have officers who would come to address people and make them see things as not as difficult as were being complained about by people.
Can you recall some of your relatives or friends that died during the war?
They were many. Where do I start from? In fact, where my grandmother came from in Uga in the present Anambra state, two people died in the war. They were brothers. A number of families lost their young men too. I had earlier told you my own immediate younger brother lost his left limb. Close friends, relations, a lot of people lost their lives. At the end of the war by 1970, our town organised a burial ceremony for all those who died in the war. Church services were held for their burial so that their souls would rest in peace. The experience is not something one would want to have again.
What were your recollections of your war experiences and how you survived?
Well, it was by the grace of God that I survived. But my brother lost a limb in the process. I used to trek to AwoOmamma Hospital where he was to look after him from Uli. My father would sometimes also come to look after him and if I had something like food, I would give them. You know they were bringing in some relief materials from Gabon to that airport and we used to have some of them. That way, I was helping my immediate family. It was difficult and hard for me really. It is a situation nobody would like to have a repeat.
I wasn’t among the people who had kwashiorkor. However, there were plenty people who had it because we were seeing them when they were being taken to Gabon for treatment through the airport by the Red Cross people.
Can you equally recall any particular heroic battle at that airport?
There was one particular incident at the Air Force Base, Uli. You know when things were getting too bad during the war, Kant Volrozy, a Swedish man who was bringing in relief materials saw how bad things were and that children were badly malnourished due to lack of food and how places that shouldn’t be bombed were bombed.He decided to donate some aircraft to us. He felt so bad that he travelled back to Europe, organised some people in his country to make some donations to buy 10 trainer aircraft. Some would take one person; some would take two. He equally took a number of our pilots to Sweden, trained them properly to be able to fly the aircrafts.
So, against the usual practice, one morning, we were taken to the airport. The usual practice was that nobody went to the airport in the morning or afternoon because anything could happen. We stayed there to around 1-2 pm because nobody had wrist watch then. Suddenly, an aircraft flew in and we made to take cover. It was at that point that our officers told us not to run as that was the reason we were brought here. When the aircraft landed, one Yenagoa man emerged from the plane. He was a half-caste because he looked like a European. So, he told us to cover the plane with palm fronds after it was parked in. And suddenly, Nigerian bombers came with heavy bombardment around that airport. We were just lucky not to have been killed in that heavy bombardment and shelling.
So, while that one new aircraft was coming, they destroyed a number of aircraft parked at the tarmac of the Port Harcourt Airport and set a lot of weapons ablaze. They did the same thing in Benin City, destroying a lot of weapons and ammunitions before heading to Uli. That was why they were chased to Uli to bombard around the airport. But nobody was missing and nothing so much was destroyed.
So, some of the new aircraft were taken to Uga airport and some others to Oraifite. That Uga airport was purely military airport. Those aircraft really helped our men to penetrate enemy camps and dealing with them because it was very little and could fly just a little above palm trees and was not easily caught by their radar. So, they were always undertaking surprise attacks on the enemy lines across the then Midwest and Port Harcourt. It was very hectic really.
Did you and your family have food challenges and how did you survive the war famine?
Obviously, we had. My mother was trekking from Akokwa to Umunze to buy foodstuff for sale. They travelled early in the morning and returned late in the evening.
At a point, they started conscription when people were no longer willing to continue in the army. People left the army because of a lot of inadequacies such as poor feeding, poor equipment and all of that.
There were allegations that Nigerian soldiers were brutal to civilians at the height of the war. Did you witness such incidences of rape, torture and so on?
I couldn’t have witnessed it because of the place I was. I was in a particular vicinity at the airport. Those who will give accurate information about the brutality are those who were at the direct war front and villagers where the Nigerian soldiers captured. But at the end of the war, we learned that some of the soldiers were taking some women and some of the gullible women followed them of their own volition. Some returned of course after some time. But others never returned.
Can you recall some of the properties or persons that your family lost during the war?
As I told you earlier, apart from that my younger brother that lost a limb, my immediate family didn’t witness any such loss except extended families. No person actually was killed not even from kwashiorkor or by any other means except my uncle who died as a result of old age. His death was more of a natural cause than the effect of the war. However, plenty families lost quite a number of young men who joined the army or who were conscripted into the army. Another of my uncles, a mechanic was conscripted despite his elderly age and that was the last time we saw him. He never returned. They were conscripted and sent to the war front without training.
Almost 49 years after the war ended, do you think the Nigerian government has addressed the issues that led to it?
Not at all. You can see what is happening. There is segregation. Even the things that are clearly defined in the existing constitution are not being adhered to. They brought in what they called federal character when they felt that if you placed the Igbo man in competition with any other person from another tribe, the Igbo man would always excel. They now made it that, in an examination that requires 300 percent, if they scored 40, it is a pass but the Igbo man would be required to make at least 250 to pass. Even when he gets 250 over 300, they now turn to say some people are educationally backward areas because the Igbo only had to develop themselves by way of going to school and being serious with their academic work and excelling.
And then you find out that even in employment, the same thing prevailed. People who are well qualified for a given position are not given the position. Even in infrastructural development, the Igbo land is segregated against. You find out that the South East, which is the heart of Igboland, is devoid of all-season roads.
Also, tell me the number of industries that the federal government has in Igbo land. Even when some investors want to come and invest, they are compelled not to and are diverted to some other places. You can imagine that,it was during President Goodluck Jonathan’s administration, when an Igbo woman was the aviation minister, that the Enugu Airport was made an international airport.
That is a very glaring case of what they decided to do against the Igbo man to suppress him. That way you find out that the situation has not changed and you continue to have continued agitations for Biafra by some youths and their agitations have been genuine.
So long as the marginalisation of the Igbo continues so shall the agitation for self-determination continue.
As someone who lived through such a terrible period, would you subscribe to the current clamours for secession of South East from Nigeria as Biafran state?
Nigeria is blessed with all resources – human and material. But what the country is lacking is leadership. Until we have the right leadership, people will continue to agitate for a sense of belonging. And how do you feel sense of belonging? It’s by being given the right that you should have as a citizen of that country. You do not deny somebody the right he should have as a citizen and turnround to tell him to be patriotic. That is the highest deceit. But where people are comfortable and getting what they are supposed to get, you see things going normally. And that is where people are calling for the implementation of the 2014 national conference report. If they do, I think people will comfortably stay in the country and develop at their own rate.