by Chiemela Ogbonna
Instructor’s note: Don’t skip this powerful account of one of the most heart-breaking events in modern history. In researching this piece, Chiemela interviewed his father, who was a boy in Biafra at the time of the genocide.
It was the year of 1968. What did my dad see when he leered out his cut-out concrete opening on his wall during that morning? He saw enormous clouds of smoke from distant forests, army tanks ripping through forests, bloody corpses, and flanks of soldiers marching down the roads of his village with grimaced countenances. He saw inferno engulf corpses of innocent villagers. When my dad was about 11 years of age, he and his family were among “3 million Igbo refugees . . .” ( Metz 114) struggling to survive the horrific conditions of a Nigerian Civil War called the Biafra War.
My dad lived in the village of Ohuru located in the eastern region of Nigeria during his youth from 1968-1970, the years in which the Biafra War took place. Lieutenant Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu, the eastern region’s military governor, decided to detach the region from Nigeria because of the harsh treatment, the massacres and the exploitation of oil against the Igbos. He declared the independence of the southeastern region known to be the Republic of Biafra on May 30, 1967.
While my dad was at school one morning, his school teacher told his class about this event and the increasing violence in the north region of Nigeria. The possibility of war between the Igbos and the rest of Nigeria was imminent. This news frightened my dad. He never anticipated his country participating in warfare. He tried desperately to obliterate this petrifying thought. While walking home from school, he kept encouraging himself that such an event was incomprehensible. “The teacher is lying. Maybe it won’t happen,” he thought, “People of the same country can’t fight one another…” Suddenly the sky became dark. He looked towards the sky and saw what looked like three enormous albatrosses flying over his village. Then he thought to himself “…Or can they?” At that moment my dad raced home with a heart nearly bursting out of his chest.
That night, my dad couldn’t sleep. Until dawn he kept contemplating the ghastly events that might take place. He sat up from the cot he shared with his other siblings and peered out his window. He saw a silhouette of a battalion of armed Baifran soldiers chanting and marching. This made him panic even more. He swiftly laid himself back down on the cot. Then out of the blue, a loud whistle sounded! Following the whistle, he heard a loud bang that sounded like an exploding bomb! Then he heard the sound of fired ammunition from jet fighters and civilians screaming! The Nigerians were bombing his village!
My dad scurried to his parent’s room to tell them what just happened. The whole family immediately evacuated their home. On their way through forest terrain, bombs and bullets battered the village from every direction! People were screaming, hiding and running in different directions! My dad raced next door to warn his friend. After that, they sprinted through the forests while dodging trees, jumping over rocks, and evading bushes! But then my dad’s friend stumbled over a large log and crashed down with such impact that he severed his left leg and shattered his ribs. My dad’s friend was shrieking in pain. My dad attempted to help him but he insisted that my dad should go. “God will bless you” were his last words. With tears spilling down the cheeks of my dad, he devastatingly ran from that direction. While running, a bomb blew up right behind my dad with such impact that it sent my dad sliding through the forest. When he looked back, a barrage of fire had consumed the area in which my dad’s friend had laid.
My father and his finally reached what was like a living graveyard. So many people were at the refugee camps standing in lines craving to gnaw on rations. The food consisted of a scoop of watery soup with bits of raw stock fish floating inside. The children looked extremely malnourished. They were like naked emaciated corpses with bloated stomachs and comatose looks in their eyes. My dad’s younger brother was among those helpless and malnourished children. Again he placed another person’s life before his and fed him his own ration. Even more tears were rushing down his face. He looked around only to see other destitute civilians with the same somber expression. Hospitals were destroyed, schools were dismantled, and his home was flattened. The approximate “three million casualties” (Current Issues and Historical Background; Nigeria) and the impoverished conditions were too extreme to bear at such a young age. Ever since my dad came to the U.S., he has strived to take advantage of the privileges that were offered. Hearing this story from my dad now reshapes my perspective on life. He tells me every day that being in the U.S. is a God-given privilege that shouldn’t be wasted and it’s my obligation to aim high. He also tells me that the he survived was only through God’s grace and that His plan was for him to enjoy a more productive life here in the U.S. After hearing this story, I have never taken the opportunity of being in the United States for granted.
Philips, Barnaby. “Ethnic Split.” BBC News Biafra: Thirty Years On. 13 January, 2000. 3 March 2009
Mathews, Martin P. and Metz, Helen Chapin, ed. Current Issues and Historical Background; Nigeria. New York: Nova Science Publishers, Inc. 2002