Following the withdrawal of the Red Cross and its officials, the hunger situation took a turn for the worse; the period was the worst ever experienced in the whole of Biafra since the commencement of the war.
The rain had started and was at its peak in July but the scarcity of planting grains, crops and seedlings was a major concern for the farmers. Many of the reserves were either destroyed by the enemy or were consumed by the hungry refugees.
In not time, stealing became the order of the day; people started robbing farmers of their produce and the farmers in return started killing anyone they caught in their farms stealing from them.
Most of those involved in the unwholesome act were soldiers who intimidated the civilians with their guns and maintained what they were doing wasn’t wrong since they were the ones fighting for the people and therefore should be fed by the people.
Although the remaining two relief organisations, the Joint Church Aid and Caritas, continued with their relief operations, most of what they donated ended up being kept back by the army making it difficult for the refugees to have access to them.
There was indeed abject hardship and hunger all over the land. Some planting was however done during the period after the departure of the Red Cross, and the harvest was expected in the next two or three months.
The month of July was quite peaceful in the sense that no serious fighting went on around the vicinity of Owerri and its environs; only the acute hunger situation was the problem encountered at that time.
While Biafrans waited hungrily for a bountiful harvest of mainly maize which was planted in large quantities, the resumption of fighting in some areas brought an already hopeful situation hopeless.
The Biafra Army launched several attacks during the coming months in a bid to gain more territory and expand the hold of Biafran over the towns and villages surrounding Owerri. They attacked Aba, Port-Harcourt, Okigwe and Onitsha.
Many of their planned attacks were successful at the initial stage thus sending out shouts of joy and celebrations throughout the country, but each time such victory was gained, the response of the enemy’s counter attack came in a very bitter and gruesome punitive manner.
The hunger being experienced by Biafrans made them wish the war would just end; nobody was ready for any attack from the enemy as the food scarcity been experienced all over the land was so much a problem that the destructive attacks was not quite necessary.
But it was war and in wars, no one took any notice of how the warring parties felt.
The enemy descended heavily on Biafra, when the war was still at the fronts.
George came home one evening and announced that we were to relocate to Mbaise, a town close to Umuahia. He explained that the attack carried out by Biafran soldiers to recapture Port-Harcourt, Okigwe and Aba were successful to an extent that Umuahia was no longer in total control of the enemy but he feared that judging from the manner the enemy were attacked, they would surely retaliate.
George was of the opinion that their attack would come through the Port-Harcourt – Owerri axis and so our continued stay at that zone was not safe.
The other reason which convinced everybody was the news of availability of food at Mbaise which happened to be Mrs. Okonkwo’s maternal town.
We trekked all the way to Mbaise the next morning along with thousands of other hungry refugees who went with a hopeful mind that maybe Mbaise would offer them another lease of life. We trekked the almost 11 miles from Owerri to Mbaise and located Mrs. Okonkwo’s maternal home; the war no doubt had ravaged the area.
There were skeletons of houses burnt or bombed by the enemies and many of the roads were filled with spent shells that were used in the battle. But on the whole, Mbaise looked green.
The enemy may not have had time to destroy their farms as was their custom. Many of the farms were looking enticingly filled with maturing maize cobs and also fresh Pumpkin leaves.
We were greeted by one of Mrs. Okonkwo’s cousins; the expression on the face of the man was not that of excitement at seeing a long lost relation. He carried a frown all day as if he did not approve of our coming.
He started by informing us of the harsh situation in the village and the maltreatment given to people whose face the villagers did not recognise.
“Linda, you should have waited or informed me before coming,” the man complained.
“Abuchi, what are you talking about that I should have informed you before coming? I just told you how I escaped death in the enemy’s camp and that De is dead and all you sit down here to tell me is that I should have informed you before coming to my mother’s house?” Mrs. Okonkwo challenged him. George looked annoyed and started fiddling with his gun.
Their cousin became agitated and afraid and tried to calm the storm he just stirred with his selfishness.
“No, no, that is not what I mean,” Abuchi countered, putting on an obvious artificial smile, “you are welcome to this house always.”
Our journey on foot had left our feet swollen, blistered and bleeding. Marching bare footed along the track roads filled with sharp objects was responsible for our condition.
Abuchi left us and went to call his other family members, they appeared later in the evening wearing the same face Abuchi had and threw careless greetings at us.
Their brother must have poisoned their mind about our coming to stay. It got to a point that George got annoyed at the treatment their relations were given to us and decided to harass them.
“De, I don’t like this treatment as if we are strangers,” he started shouting, holding his gun menacingly, “we came here since morning and nobody has offered to give us simple water to quench our thirst. I remember the way you people were like leaches on my father and my brothers, even Aunty Linda here. How could you people be so wicked?”
George’s actions changed a lot of things; we were not only given a room to sleep in, they served us boiled yam and salted palm oil, a privilege we had been denied a long time.
As we savoured the meal, I thanked God that indeed he was watching over us. We later learnt, the people of Mbaise still had plenty of food stuffs which they sold at cutthroat prices to their fellow Biafrans; they did not mind the suffering and hardship experienced all over the country as an excuse for them to be humanitarian with their excess food.
Instead, they preferred to enrich themselves to the detriment of the other people. Almost everything there had a price on them, foodstuffs, cloths, firewood, cigarettes, salt and palm oil. The most painful was when they started selling palm kernels, a commodity which the masses that could not afford the expensive food item cracked and fed on.
When it was discovered that palm kernel was the most sought after edible food, they started selling it.
Day after day, people trooped into Mbaise and it did not take long for the shylock attitude of the community towards the refugees start backfiring.
People started stealing from the many farms in the village with the villagers started complaining and blaming the theft on the miscreants that had invaded their land.
They held meetings and appealed to the thousands of hungry men, women and children to desist from the act which they said was criminal but it was a war situation and crimes were part of wars.
The refugees on realising the laxity on the part of their unwelcoming hosts, made no effort to stop the stealing instead it increased progressively. The farm owners started guarding their farms at night, branding matchets and Dane guns.
It was as if the refugees became calculative of the situation because no sooner had the nocturnal farm guarding started that reports of breaking and entering started coming. The refugees went after their hard-heartedly earned money.
The animosity the new development caused led to the death of three refugees at Mbaise; they were caught stealing yams from someone’s barn and were killed by the angry barn owner and his farmers.
The execution caused a stir among the thousands of refugees and they took up arms against their host community members. The situation was quenched by the early October pushes made by the Nigeria forces.
The jet fighters appeared in the sky again and people ran for dear lives; nobody cared again for the crops in their farms or the money hidden inside the ground.
The way the enemy strafed the whole town showed that he was determined to bring an end to the war. Their mode of operation showed they were after Owerri, the last standing Capital of Biafra and Uli airstrip, Biafran’s only link with the outside world.
Throughout the month of October, we were on the run; we left the house for the deep forest and remained there until a time the planes got tired and disappeared.
Towards the end of October, we stayed inside the bush for 11 days under heavy artillery fire and mortar shelling; we remained there in the sun and the rain. Through gritting teeth and shaking bodies out of cold, we prayed steadfastly for God’s protection on our lives.
Rumours came early in November that the enemy had advanced to Owerri through Onitsha and Ihiala where they said a deadly battle was fought. The news had a terribly effect on the people and on the morale of the fighting soldiers.
There was no radio around for the news to be confirmed from Radio Biafra or the BBC and the ferocity with which the enemy was gaining grounds was making the story look believable.
Every morning when the sun rose, people looked up in the sky asking themselves if they would be alive to see another sunrise in Biafra.
While we were hiding inside the bushes one morning after some shelling occurred, two Biafran babe aircrafts made a surprise appearance in the air. Shouts of joy went up from all parts of the jungle on knowing that the planes belonged to Biafra. Suddenly people left their hiding places to protect their farms.
The aircrafts attacked the advancing enemy company coming from Okigwe through Okpuala. While the small jets caused havocs, the army ran out of trained human resources and recruited men, women and children from the local civilians to help in carrying out the war.
The hastily recruited men helped in carrying gallons of fuel, boxes of ammunition to different divisions where they were needed while the women helped in cooking for the fighting soldiers.
Some of the women were so brave that they took the food to the war fronts, though a number of them lost their lives in the brave act.
During the middle of November, it became obvious that the final collapse of Biafra was eminent due to the manner grounds were being lost. The civilian leaders were not making it easier for the commanding officers prosecuting the war, they started calling for the dismissal of any officer that lost ground not caring to find out the reasons such defeats occurred.
Many of the soldiers who fought with little or no ammunition became afraid firstly for the enemies whose hardware was overwhelming and secondly for the civilians who saw them as being useless in the war.
The army suffered more when some of the communities started becoming hostile to them; any town or village that was about to fall into enemy hands started fighting against the Biafran soldiers, frustrating their efforts and working for the Nigerian forces.
They did that because they wanted to be seen as being against Biafra and so therefore obtain mercy in the hands of the conquering Nigerian soldiers. The actions of such traitors made many of the soldiers to pull out of their defences even before the enemy made contact.
By the second week of December, there was fighting at all fronts throughout Biafra.
People lived on rumours being peddled by the civilian leaders that some countries were gearing up to help Biafra in the war. There was the story that made the rounds that France opted to help Biafra on the condition that they sign a pact that would allow them tap crude oil for a period of ten years; it was told that the offer was rejected by General Ojukwu who chose to work with the state of Israel, who had been helping Biafra all the while.
The rumour that Owerri had collapsed and that Umuahia had been liberated and made the new state capital made Mrs. Okonkwo suggest we start heading towards Umuahia, which was about thirty miles from Mbaise.
Abuchi discouraged us at first, he evidently did not want to leave his farm and money and he wanted us to remain with him but when people started running towards Umuahia, we had no choice than to follow suit.
The Biafra babe jet fighters had been off and on preventing the enemy from making the much dreaded final assault, this delay made our trekking to Umuahia not too hostile.
The realization that we were finally going to Umuahia made me excited beyond words. I forgot about the hunger that had been biting me. We had been feeding on palm kernels for the past four days but I was confident that when we reached home, everything good will come.
Okechukwu was still looking lean form the Kwashiorkor he suffered from at the enemy camp. As I held him and looked at his face, I was convinced it would only take a few days of Mama’s cooking to bring him back to life.
As my thought went to Ekene, I sighed and felt sad he was not going home with us just as I planned; he would no longer feel Mama’s love or wear the shoes Okechukwu promised him Mama would buy for him. He equally would not play in the sand with Okechukwu or with the many toys both of them fantasized about while we were trapped in Helen’s house at Makurdi.
I cried for him again; a boy that never got to know his parents nor lived enough to experience parental care and love. Thinking about him also reminded me of our vulnerability to death, I prayed to God and the Blessed Mary to be merciful to us even if it would be for Okechukwu’s sake. I had been sharing my chaplet with George since c he told us about his experience with it. Anytime he would leave for his platoon, he would look at me pleadingly; I always understood the request on that look and would gently pass the chaplet to him. One way or the other, he always came back alive and attributed his survival to the chaplet.
“We would spend Christmas with you at Umuahia,” George whispered to me and I smiled on hearing his comments; it was going to be the best Christmas I have ever had since 1967.
Looking back at time, I could not believe it was close to three years already; I smiled again that we were about to see the light at the end of the long dark tunnel called Biafra.
We had since passed Udo Bridge, one of the two bridges linking Mbaise and Owerri to Umuahia. It was raining but people but they never minded, to them it was showers of blessings as described by a Christian hymn. Some sang aloud in the rain in anticipation of the town they were going to. At that moment, Umuahia to many people was Jerusalem, the new Zion
But they were not to reach the Promised Land, the rumour made sure of that.
They appeared out of nowhere, only the sound was the reality that the enemy was back. Six enemy jet fighters came flying noisily and at low attitude that one could see the faces of the Egyptian pilots as they started dropping their gifts of death everywhere. The thousands of people walking down to Umuahia scattered in all directions; there was shouts, pandemonium and chaos all over. People ran for their lives as the birds of death hovered above.
George grabbed his aunt and instructed that I do the same to Okechukwu.
“Follow me, don’t let go of yourselves!” he yelled on top of his voice.
It was when we realised that thousands of people who hitherto were heading to Umuahia, were running back; the story that Umuahia was liberated was a hoax. From where we were, we could see the enemy tanks and infantry soldiers pushing towards our direction with no resistance. Everybody started running back to Mbaise.
The company of Biafra army deployed around that area engaged the advancing enemy soldiers but their defence was broken with the bombs the jets dropped.
George ignored the ensuing battle and ran along with us; he was more concerned about his family than the war that was obviously lost. Everywhere, people were scrambling with many shouting as they ran while others dragged along members of their families.
We met some that got tired of the race for life and fell down only to be trampled to death; it was situation that would be best described as the race for survival of the fittest. Many children died in that commotion, so did pregnant women but nobody stopped to lend a helping hand.
The indiscriminate explosions occurring every minute did not make matters easier, it only helped in reducing the number of people trying to survive and create more hurdles for those still running.
The explosions left gullies anywhere it occurred and the rain made the whole place slippery and wet. At that particular moment, the life expectancy was some few minutes and depended greatly on luck, because nobody knew where the next bomb would fall and whether one would be lucky to be far from them.
When we reached the Udo Bridge that we had just passed, thousands of people wanted to cross the bridge at the same time. A company of soldiers were at the other end waiting for their colleagues who were coming out from under the bridge to cross over.
George seemed to understand what was about to happen because he started looking frightened and pushed himself into the crowd that were forcing themselves to cross the bridge.
“Aunty, be fast, follow me!” he yelled, “Ngozi, get Okechukwu here.”
He lifted Okechukwu on his shoulders and held his left hand out to hold his aunt.
“Ngozi, hold on tight to Aunty, please walk faster, push yourselves along, don’t let those soldiers cross the bridge before you,” he commanded. I did not know what changed him suddenly but whatever it was urgent and needed fast compliance with his instructions.
The company of soldiers George referred to were all wet to their pants and shoved people aside in order to pass.
When they discovered it was impossible to penetrate the crowd, they started firing their guns in the air.
“Puo nu na uzo, puo nu na uzo!” They shouted, urging people to make room.
Their strategy started working. George immediately struggled to them and identified himself. Showing them his badge and rifle.
“Sir, I will follow you over the bridge,” he yelled to one of the soldiers who looked so mean and ugly.
“Who is that child you are carrying?” he asked equally in a yell.
“He is my brother, this is my mother and sister, please allow us over before you ignite.” George begged.
The officer looked sharply at him in a manner signifying him to shut up. He then looked round at the chaotic struggling people to see if anybody heard George, nobody did.
“Do you have bullets?” he asked.
“Yes, one magazine left” George replied.
“Better help us with it.”
“Okay.” George brought Okechukwu down and started shooting in the air. Even as the gunshots were being fired, it took us close to some minutes to finally cross the bridge.
George looked pitifully at the sea of heads still struggling to cross the bridge.
“Major, please give them time to cross over, please they are our people,” George pleaded.
“The enemies are within,” he informed George.
“But, our people are still there.”
The shouts and cries that went out from the bridge cut George off, a part of the railings on the bridge had given way due to pressure from the crowd and over forty people fell into the river below.
“It is hopeless,” The Major said, “Captain, start the connection.”
George looked from the Major to the people still struggling.
“Major Sir, please more time, there are women and children in there,” George pleaded.
“So are there enemies disguised as Biafrans,” the Major replied looking unperturbed by George’s pleadings.
The soldiers pulled out some wires that extended from under the bridge and started cutting and connecting them to a black box that had a cross shaped nozzle.
I watched them connecting the wires into some fuse inside the box and both kept looking at the people crossing the bridge.
“Ha mewa nu oso oso,” one breathed out.
“There are too many people there and they cannot hurry past like that,” his colleague replied.
It was then I understood why George got panicky when he saw the men getting out from under the bridge and also his pleading with the officer; the bridge was about to be blown up.
The Major read the expression on my face and opened his eyes wider at me before placing a finger over his mouth.
“Push the others away from here,” he ordered. Immediately the soldiers started urging the people, some of who sat down to rest after crossing the bridge to move on.
“Move out of here, move on people.”
They kept shouting but the exercise was in futility, many unsuspecting people still sat down to rest.
The Major then looked at his watch and then at the crowd on the bridge. I watched his face; he looked mean like a soldier but at the same time his eyes showed despise for what he was about to do.
“May God forgive us all,” he said aloud, before he could say Amen to his murderous prayers, two enemy jet fighters appeared in the sky causing everybody to run they for cover dragging the box with them.
“Blow the bridge,” the Officer commanded as he ducked inside the trench they dug by the side.
“Sir, please more time,” George pleaded with tears in his eyes.
“Corporal, stand clear,” he barked, “Captain, blow the Fucking Bridge before they get us killed.”
“Please, Sir, Captain, let them come out,” George rushed at the Captain.
The officer took out his pistol and pointed it at George.
“Stay back soldier or else I will have to pull the trigger,” he breathed; his eyes showed he meant what he said.
Mrs. Okonkwo who had been too tired to talk or notice what was happening, shouted and rushed to George, standing over him.
“Please sir, please sir don’t,” she pleaded, “George move out please, let’s go.”
George continued starring at the officer who never lowered his gun.
“For the last time, blow the bridge, it is for the good of Biafra.”
George slowly turned and started pushing us forward, away from the soldiers.
“Aunty let’s go fast, don’t look back,” he instructed. He then got hold of Okechukwu and lowered himself to face him.
“Okey, put your hands on your ear and press so hard,” he instructed him. Okechukwu did so.
George turned to us and indicated we do same. Mrs Okonkwo was about to ask him why when George yelled out, “Cover your ears, a bomb.”
Immediately the most thunderous explosion I had ever heard throughout the war sounded, sending the whole place quaking and throwing all of us to the ground.
The heat wave from the explosion sent very hot breeze all over the area and trees bent on impact with the wave. What used to be the bridge was covered with black smoke and everyone that happened to be alive was shouting out in shock.
The whole place was filled with different human parts; some were hanging on the trees while others clung to the wet sides of the hills.
The other foot of the bridge was nowhere in sight as it had collapsed with the explosion. The sight in the river below was the most horrible; the shattered bodies of the people floated in the waters which had turned to a mixture of blood and concrete debris from the collapsed bridge.
People who were struggling to stay alive were littered all over the place without the knowledge that they were killed by their own soldiers. Some of them hung on to the other side of bridge but fell down with a thud into the massacre below. Many of them at the other side of the bridge were dead, dying or seriously wounded.
The enemy planes flew higher away from the area and the cries of the survivors at the other end of the bridge filled our ears; that is if you happened not to have been deafened by the sound of the blast.
George stood up from where he lay over Okechukwu to examine the gruesome handiwork of his fellow soldiers against their countrymen. Mrs. Okonkwo became hysterical on recovering from the shock of the blast; her shouts were exactly like she behaved when Halima and her baby were killed by the irate Biafra youths at Oji River.
George stepped a little closer to watch the floating bodies and body parts inside the river which had turned red. The Major stood where he was watching George carefully; he still held his pistol by his side.
The Captain and the three other soldiers also watched with disgust and guilt at what they had just done.
“Oh God! Oh God,” one of the soldiers began to exclaim; his feet wobbled before he sagged to the ground.
“Get up on your feet soldier,” The Major commanded quietly and coldly, he was apparently trying to put some morale into the already guilty conscious soldiers.
“On your feet now!” He shouted at them in a harsh military voice. The soldiers stood up as commanded, George turned to face the officer who returned the murderous look George had on his face.
“You are only a child, a civilian soldier not used in the acts of war,” the Major said, casting a look from George to the soldiers, “that is war for you, at times you do what you would normally not have done and forget about it. If we don’t blow up the bridge, many more of our people would be killed when those tanks cross over,” he tried explaining in a harsh tone.
He then looked at the hundreds of people trapped at the other end of the bridge shouting out for help from the there.
The Major put his hand on his forehead and closed his eyes briefly as if praying.
“We can only pray to God to have mercy on their souls,” he said before turning abruptly and marched away from the bridge.
“Let’s get moving, we have a war to fight and a country to defend,” he barked without looking at those he was giving the orders.
The soldiers quickly started gathering their equipments which were inside the trenches and started moving on with their commander. George did not go with them, he kept watching the Major.
“Son, you better follow us because you’ve got no bullets to defend your people,” the officer called out to him.
“My people are the ones you just killed,” George replied bitterly.
The Major shook his head and disappeared out of sight with his company of soldiers leaving us with the other survivors who were still dazed from the explosion.
(Excerpts from the yet-to-be-published novel, A Season of the Sun by Ahaoma Kanu)