[Ben Onwuka was a former Biafran soldier who was wounded in battle. He talks about other wounded soldiers who were evacuated to Holland by the International Committee of the Red Cross for medical attention. A couple of them became mentally unstable and one was eventually committed to a mental institution in Holland. He also talks about returning to Nigeria to look for *Ruth, the girl he loved, who he had also promised to marry.]
We were disappointed to hear that Biafra was no more; doesn’t exist anymore. We couldn’t believe it. We never thought Biafra would lose the war. We so believed in it – the efforts we put in, the determination. Anybody who really fought the war with all his mind was disappointed. We were confused and emotional. After everything, we didn’t have anything to show for it.
The Dutch people knew we were hurt because we lost the war. They said they can’t force us to go back since we came as Biafrans, but if we decide to go, they’ll arrange for our going back. They said it’s either we stay and study or we learn a trade so that when we decide to go back we will have some skills. I’m very much indebted to them.
One boy, Christopher, wanted to do banking. Felix, from Ngwa, also wanted banking because he did Commercial School in Nigeria. I wanted to do Medicine because I saw a lot of people dying in Biafra and that was my motivation. But they don’t give foreigners scholarships for medical studies and it takes about eight years to finish. It also costs a lot of money. So I thought of agriculture because of my experience of hunger in Biafra. My aim was to return and help my country. I started with Agricultural Secondary School, a bit of Forestry and landscape architecture, then entered States Tropical Agricultural Higher School where I got my first degree in Tropical Agriculture.
After that I went to work in Wageningen and obtained my second degree in Biology and Entomology in Wageningen University and Research Centre. My major work was irradiation of insects to induce lethal genes in them or induce translocation in their genes for the purpose of insect control. These were done in the institute for Atomic Sciences in Agriculture in Wageningen where I live until now.
Some of the other soldiers didn’t fare so well. One of them was John who developed mental problems. He joined the army as a very young boy of seventeen or eighteen years. He underwent several operations because his mouth was shattered, so they tried to reconstruct his teeth and mouth and jaws. So much so that he became mentally confused. They used shiny metals for the construction, so he had appendages on his head like antennas which made him look like a mobile robot. When he comes out people will be staring. Sometimes they used his skin to do skin grafts. They cut it and pull it, and you see it growing from here to there. They used it to construct his lips because there was nothing left there.
I remember one day when we were in the Military Rehabilitation Center. They gave me a special room because I was an officer. John knocked on my door and when I opened it he just dived under my bed and said, “Oga, please, they’re looking for me. They are looking for me.” I said, “John, nobody is looking for you. Please come out.” He said, “They want to kill me this night. You don’t know what they are doing. This is a way to get me. I don’t know why you can’t see this.” All the other boys came and pleaded. But he kept on doing this. Every time it will start. Eventually, they put him in a psychiatric center and we went there to visit him. I could see death in his face. He said, “Please, I am going with you people. Do you see they have marked where they will bury me?” It was so sad to see. We were new and couldn’t speak Dutch but John will say something like, “The news this afternoon was saying that John has to be killed, must be killed.” But you can’t do anything to stop him. When it became impossible to treat him, they sent him back to Nigeria. He was accompanied by a military nurse who gave his family a lot of money to take care of him. They also promised to be monitoring his progress. The wounds had healed in a way so he was able to eat. They even put false teeth but who takes care of such things in the village? You have to bring it out, brush it and put it back. He even had special food from Holland. But we heard he went to the village shop and stole cigarettes, so they beat him up. And whenever he passes, people will be making fun of him, saying things like, “Ony’ara, o n’ezu kwa oshi – Mad man. He also steals.” John eventually became the village lunatic. The white nurse came a second time to see what became of John and was so disappointed with his condition. He stayed back for some time and tried to take care of him. He gave the family money again to continue the care and he remained in contact with them. But the third time he asked about John, they told him John was dead.
Another person who developed mental problems over there was Victor from Nsukka area. He became quite dangerous, setting his house on fire and threatening to kill somebody who was making calls in a public phone booth. He claimed the person was plotting against him. Anytime the tell us what is going on, it doesn’t matter what time of the night, we will go to see him. He even claimed he had impregnated my girlfriend’s friend. She had gone with us to the hospital to visit him and she liked him so much. So, every time he sees Crystal, my wife, he will ask, “Where is your friend? She’s having my child.” He became so dangerous they put him in a very, very highly guarded psychiatric hospital where it became impossible for us to see him or get information about him. Till today I think of Victor.
Cyril’s case was different. His two legs were amputated and he had artificial legs. But he was so clever he was speaking Dutch within six months we were in Holland. He was playing music for people, doing disk-jokey. He will hire sex [pornographic] films and invite people to his house to see the films. He was even smoking grass and riding his motor cycle without licence. He could commit a crime and they’ll look at him like, okay he’s a Biafran and he has no legs. He became problematic financially to the Dutch people so they offered him money to go back home. Actually, they made the same offer to all of us. If you want to go back home, they give you about 15,000 guilders to resettle. It was big money. When Cyril showed interest in going home, they increased the money and paid for his transport back. His plan was to start a business when he returns home. He promised to stay in touch but we never heard from him again. Any time I’m in Nigeria, I think of him and wonder what became of him.
I was settling down to my new life but I couldn’t forget *Ruth.
There was a Red Cross man who was going to Nigeria and I gave him an assignment to look for her. He succeeded and went to my family, but they told him that *Ruth’s family left Achina when the war ended and she went with them without even crossing the street to say to my own parents, “I am going.” I get emotional when I remember this because I had even given them wine that I will marry her. My brother told the Red Cross man to tell me, “The person you’re calling your wife didn’t even say bye-bye to us. Till today we have not heard anything about her.” On my own part, I had never been to her village but I knew she was from Eke, around Nsukka. That was when I decided to take my mind off her. I got a white girlfriend, who later became my wife. I told her about Ruth, that I’m still in love with her and I don’t know where she is. She was so sad about the situation but she also liked me a lot.
The first time I wanted to travel to Nigeria, I told my wife I am going to look for *Ruth, that I must see her. You know, when you are interested in somebody, you are always interested in that person. By then I already had my first child, Amara. My wife bought a present and asked me to give to her. That was in 1975.
I got to Enugu and headed to 66 Zik Avenue, which was where I met her. The people I met there said they know the family but they left a long time ago. I didn’t know what to do. I walked to the bus stop and was standing there, thinking of what to do when a young man stopped me and asked if I was one of the musicians coming to perform in Enugu that day. I used to dress in a flashy way then – high heels, jeans, Afro and beards – so he mistook me for somebody in show business. When he was speaking his voice was very familiar and I said to him, “Your voice resembles a voice I used to know.” He looked at me again and said my own face is a bit familiar. I asked him if he has ever lived in Achina. He said, “Yes, we were refugees in Achina.” I asked him if he knew any Ben and he said yes. He looked at me again and exclaimed, “Are you Ben?” I said yes, I am Ben. He embraced me and I said, “I’m looking for your sister.” He said *Ruth was married but I said he should take me to her. We went to his house first and after taking some drinks, we set out. I was so excited as I sat in the sitting room waiting for *Ruth to come out. Then, I heard her voice. She was saying, “Kedu onye n’acho kwa nu m’ kita? I na ghi a gwa ya na m n’akpa ishi – who is the person looking for me now? Why didn’t you tell the person I’m plaiting my hair?” She entered the room with hair half-plaited and when she saw me she screamed, “Ben!”
After she recovered from the shock, she pleaded with her brother to take me back to his house. I was surprised because I was prepared to meet her husband. In less than one hour she arrived at her brother’s house, looking very flashy. I saw *Ruth again as a woman. She started crying and we held ourselves. I asked why I had to leave her house and she narrated how she was in an unhappy marriage because her husband was possessive and beat her often. We talked and talked and after, I gave her a present from my wife. She said she was waiting for me to come back for her because I was her first love and had already given wine to her parents. I was so sad. I told her it wasn’t possible because we were both married and had a child each. She said that anytime I come to Nigeria, she will be available for me. I said, “My God.” But I understand what must have happened. She may have been forcefully married off to the man. After the war, people had nothing to eat and if you see a lady and promise to marry her the parents will just ask you to bring whatever you have and take her away. I promised to visit her anytime I come to Nigeria. I promised to be giving her some money as long as her husband doesn’t know.
I didn’t have any more contact with *Ruth until seven or eight years ago when I went to Enugu. Through an acquaintance, I traced her brother through his wife who had a shop in town. When I got there, I introduced myself and told her I was looking for her husband’s sister, *Ruth. She asked me to describe her, so I mentioned the names of her siblings and relations. Immediately, she called her husband on the phone, “Hello dear, there’s somebody waiting for you here.” Soon, he arrived. He had aged a bit but I could see some of his facial features still there. He kept looking at me, then he said, “Ben, what brought you here after so many years?” I told him I met *Ruth when I came back many years ago, that I wanted to see how she and her children are doing. I saw his face changing. The wife said, “We are very sorry. *Ruth is dead.” I couldn’t believe it. I kept saying, “What? Late? Died?” They said she died the previous year from bleeding caused by injuries to the head. The brother’s wife said if I had come earlier, *Ruth wouldn’t have died; that she talked about me all the time.
That day, I felt like my wife just died. Even though *Ruth is dead I still long to see her children. The next assignment is to trace her brother again and see how I can get in contact with her children.
Ben Onwuka is a former Biafran soldier. Before that he was the Nigerian champion in the 400 meters race, 1964-65. He lives in Holland with his wife, children and grandchildren.