In May, 2016, on the 49th anniversary of the Nigeria-Biafra War, a Facebook friend posted a tribute to his mother who had been an orphan living in a refugee camp in Gborokiri, Rivers State, Nigeria. He continued this way: “My father, on the other hand, was a remarkable young man who had left a flourishing career as a Sargent Major in the Nigerian police to enlist in the Biafran army. He came regularly into the camp to inspect the condition of things and to report back to his superiors. It was during one of these visits that he chanced upon my mother and, not minding that my mother was still a naive prepubescent girl, a very piquant romance that would later blossom into an unhappy marriage, began. And, that was how I and my five siblings came into a household replete with ghosts and shadows from a bloody past.”
The following month, another friend posted photographs on her timeline to commemorate her parents’ wedding anniversary. The faded, black-and-white pictures showed the couple at their wedding ceremony which had taken place on the 29th of June, 1968, as the war ravaged Aba, in Eastern Nigeria.
A few months later, it was a friend’s birthday and tributes flooded his timeline. One of them read: “Late sixties, the Nigerian civil war was in its early days… a group of persistent young musicians continued to mesmerize our chequered music scene with their witty Afrobeat infused psychedelic funk. The group, The Clusters…were a dominant music group then… As the war raged, the music played on.”
Before this time, all I knew about the civil war were the events that led to it, the fighting that ensued and the military exploits that quashed the secession. I knew less about the men, women and children who were direct victims of the conflict. This was made worse because members of my family never spoke about their experiences. I was, therefore, intrigued by these Facebook updates that talked about wedding ceremonies, merry making and soldiers falling in love in a time of war. I knew there would be more stories like these waiting to be told – stories about death and suffering interwoven and, perhaps, tempered with those of courage, hope and happy moments. I also realized that the people who bear these stories will not be alive for ever and losing their testimonies will be like losing one’s voice without the chance of finding it again. I decided to look for these survivors and collate their stories into what the scholar and author, Okey Ndibe, calls ‘a database of memories, testimonies, experiences and anecdotes about the war.’
I interviewed my first survivor in January 2017, and this is the first batch of stories in the compendium. While speaking with the contributors I have experienced a mix of emotions – I have been angry, I have cried several times, but I have also laughed. In spite of death and trauma being the common themes in all the accounts, each one is unique and brings a different insight into the conversation.
Apart from three of the contributors who sent in their stories, I spoke to the rest in person or via Skype. While presenting their accounts here, I decided to preserve the authenticity of their narrations, including the flawed grammar, the vernacular, the transliterations, turns of phrases and other quirks that occur in speech.
However, many survivors are still reluctant to tell their stories. For some, the memories are still raw and painful. For others, the tensions caused by the agitations for Biafra has made them wary of being seen as supporters of these agitations. It may also be that some are just as I was – reluctant to confront a bitter past so as to make sense of it.
I thank all the contributors, especially those whose Facebook posts inspired this project. I am grateful to all who have given me leads to pursue, and those who have validated this modest effort. I am also indebted to the International Committee of the Red Cross for their quick responses to my inquiries and for making documents and photographs available to me during my research.
I hope that more survivors will find the courage to speak to the rest of us so we can learn the lessons from their experiences and pass on the memories to future generations.
Vivian Uchechi Ogbonna