Uzokwe's Searchlight

Once the explosions started, instinct took over and we did exactly what we had been taught; we all rushed out into the adjacent farmland and lay as motionless as possible on the ground…
Monday, February 17, 2003

Alfred Obiora Uzokwe


The book, Surviving in Biafra


This is the final installment of the excerpts I pledged to air on The last excerpt from chapter 9 - Nnewi is Bombed, attracted 340 emails and I do appreciate your encouraging words and support. The excerpt below starts in the middle of chapter 10. Read on…
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am Ojukwu had earlier told the group that we had been invited to sing for some members of the Biafran army in a neighboring town called Ozubulu, a few miles away from Nnewi. The kids were ecstatic; we cherished going along with the VOBR to do our dance and this invitation provided another opportunity for us to go and display our dancing talents, or so we felt. This invitation was very special because we were going to be singing and dancing in a military environment. Some of us had not been that up and close to very active Biafran soldiers, so we longingly waited for the day. Meanwhile, I was already imagining what to expect - a group of gallant soldiers all resplendently dressed in camouflage and the trademark beret of the Biafran commandos. Of course, I had to do first things first - I made sure that my clothes were washed ahead of time and laid out in one corner of my mother's room.

On the appointed day, Ijeoma, Charles, Obiageli and I folded our outing clothes into our bags and began the 15-minute walk to the St. Mary's Church compound. The evening sun was already beginning to set and was casting a reddish-blue haze over the horizon when we arrived at the church compound. Other members of the choral group were also beginning to arrive, one after the other. We gathered in front of the pastor's house; the kids huddled on one side, while the older people huddled on another, discussing issues I never really bothered listening to because my mind was full of anticipation as to what we were going to see. As minutes turned into hours, the anticipation, which had almost built up to feverish proportions within me, gradually started dissipating; it became clear that we were in no hurry to depart. Just as it was beginning to get dark, a lorry arrived. At this time, Ijeoma took us to the side of the church and we dressed. Because of scarcity of clothes, we treated our outing clothes with great care. We usually wore our casual clothes to the gathering place and only changed into our dancing clothes when we were ready to depart for the dancing venue. As we were emerging from where we went to dress up, Sam Ojukwu drove in. He had a small chat with the driver of the lorry and summoned the members of the singing troupe. After last minute discussions and instructions, we all boarded the open lorry, while Sam took some of the people in his car, and the journey to Ozubulu began.

When we arrived at the place, it was already very dark and we were ushered into a building that looked like a student hostel. At strategic corners were gas lamps positioned to throw as much light as possible on every corner of the hall. We all headed to the end of the hall where the members of the choral group started taking their normal positions. Members of the Biafran armed forces started coming in and to my amazement, what I had imagined was not exactly what I saw. Some of the young men coming into the hall were limping, some walked with the aid of crutches, others were missing some body parts, like arms or legs, and some wore bandages over their heads. I could not hide my alarm. Further inquiry revealed that we actually came to sing for wounded Biafran soldiers to beef up their spirits. I saw the gesture as a worthy cause, but because most stories we heard about Biafran soldiers concerned their bravery, it took a while for me to soak in the fact that Biafran soldiers were sustaining injuries of unimaginable proportions. Before long, the hall was filled to capacity and became very warm and uncomfortable. The performance was scheduled in the night, just like most occasions in Biafra, for fear of detection by enemy warplanes.

We performed that night as usual but I left that hall with a very heavy heart. The sight of Biafran soldiers with all manners of physically incapacitating injuries was too much for me to bear. I vividly remember one soldier whose head was completely bandaged, including his eyes; I kept wondering what type of injury he sustained that would necessitate wrapping his whole head with bandage. He, however, did not seem to have sustained a broken spirit, because, even though he could not see us, after each performance he seemed to clap the most. Such was the spirit of most Biafrans, willing to make the ultimate sacrifice in the defense of their fatherland.

From that day on, I no longer believed all the war propaganda I heard. We returned home to Nnewi in the wee hours of the night and instead of the feeling of elation I usually had after our performances, I was down. Every time I fell asleep, the image of what I saw reappeared and I would be jolted awake! I wondered how many more soldiers had been wounded and immobilized and scattered all over Biafra while their families were thinking that they were still on the warfronts. Also, I wondered how many must have died all because of a war they had not caused.

The visit to that military depot or hospital got me thinking about my brothers, Fidelis and Emmanuel. Could it be that they were in a military hospital somewhere in Biafra without our knowledge? If so, could it be that they had sustained injuries as terrible as the ones we had just seen? Could it even be that they were no longer alive? All these terrible thoughts continued to circle in my mind and every time I tried to push them out, they came back again with a vengeance. I began to feel that if this was the price of the war, it was not worth it.

The clanging and twanging of war machines, the rat-tat-tat sound of the rifles of the men of the infantry, periodically punctuated by the boom sound of heavy artillery, could always be heard in Nnewi. The sound emanated from Onitsha, where Biafran soldiers were fighting and dying by the hundreds to protect the rest of us in the Biafran enclave, which had become reduced substantially. When the federal troops initially entered the town of Onitsha, and we started hearing the sound of gunfire and exploding ordnance, we were under the illusion that it meant that the Biafran troops were routing the enemy. Our visit to Ozubulu changed my outlook. From then on, every time I heard the sound of war machines, my heart would sink and I would wonder how many more Biafrans were going down…

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Title: Surviving In Biafra: The Story of the Nigerian Civil War
ISBN: 0-595-26366-6
Publication date: January 2003
247 pages- illustrated with maps and family pictures.