A Biafran Sketch
Robert J. Attaway
(Group 18, '65-'67)
You know how memory is sometimes. Like everyone else, I can tell you what I saw in certain times and places. But often it, memory, is also the haunt of a certain feeling, a sense of smell, a mood of the time, colors and sounds, highlife music on the radio. And martial music and speeches.
For me, too, the pictures themselves come most vividly in kaleidoscope fashion rather than linear segments. I lived in Warri in the Midwest, old Itsekiri land, crossroads then for two, maybe three tribal groups depending on how you wanted to count it, and home to a sizeable Ibo population, people who still had family ties in the East but had lived in Warri for years. As secession neared and arrived, some of these Ibos left, but many stayed. Tensions stirred. Federal undercover men arrested the Ibo owner of the Ijoto Hotel and questioned him for over a day. The rumor was Eastern agents had stayed at the hotel. I didn't know what to think of that; the Ijoto was legitimately sleazy, frequented by European sailors and guys who sold Indian hemp, one rundown parlor on a second floor, Star beer from a counter, a couple of hotel girls, a few rooms down a bare concrete hallway toward the back, and just inside this hallway a shower room which was also the toilet. The Ibo owner of a popular dance bar, a guy known as "Number One," had also been arrested and questioned.
I had been away from home visiting a friend in Sabongidda-Ora. The Biafrans moved in overnight, and what it was like as I scrambled to get back to Warri is described somewhat in a novel I wrote (I THINK OF WARRI, Harper & Row, 1974). Wild highway traffic, palm branches stuck in taxi grills signaling non-combatants, the Biafrans digging in around Benin City, a nervous day's travel getting back. That night, Okere Road, where I lived, black and dead silent under curfew. It was strange. It was the quietest I had ever seen it.
The invading Biafrans were clad in tan fatigues and new tennis shoes, and after they took the Midwest, (and declared the region a new independent state), and maybe a week or two after this sudden march toward Lagos began, we spent one mosquito-riddled night of our evacuation on an open barge in the delta south of Sapale. In the morning we were picked up by an oil supply boat, but the night was talk and cigarettes and native gin purchased from a guy in a canoe. By morning I did not feel well.
I spent the Christmas before secession with an acquaintance at
his home village just east of Onitsha. His father ran Warri's largest bicycle store and owned the three-story apartment block next to mine. He, the father, was a large, not-very-educated guy who introduced himself in the village as the chief of Warri. His son, also not-very-educated, worked in the bicycle store and chased Europeans. Many refugees from the north were in the village, and some eyed me with hints of hostility. Years later (nineteen to be exact) I ran into the son again. He was back in Warri running an import business on the site of his father's old apartment building, but it had been reduced to a single story. The building was destroyed in the war, he told me, and Ibos would build smaller structures now, thus having less to lose.
After that one night home in Warri, the night when Okere Road was so quiet as to make it strange, I headed north again to Benin City. Travel seemed more frantic now. The owner of my school took me to the taxi park and paid for my fare, and even he seemed taken aback by the chaos and inflated charges. He told me that a couple of the Biafran troops in town were former students and wondered how they would fare with such "raw recruits." Flying toward Benin in an overloaded taxi, the driver grinned and commented, "First war for Nigeria." He said it the same way someone in Kansas might say, "Gonna be a scorcher."
Cuts of light and color:
--- Benin City, waiting for evacuation. Biafran solders loaded bodies on stretchers from a van into a school they had occupied. The neighbors stood and watched and said nothing.
--- A Biafran checkpoint on the outskirts of Benin. Several soldiers are digging a small bunker with a machine gun mounted in front. The one manning the checkpoint says, you are the people spoiling us, and waves us through.
--- On the oil supply boat the morning after the barge. We are at anchor off Escravoes waiting for the trip to Lagos. An oil worker I knew from Warri happens to come on board for a while and we talk. He has been home to Alabama and just returned for another tour. Federal troops on shore, he tells me, shaking his head. Worse here now than it was before.
Weeks later, in Ethiopia, I got a letter from a former student in Warri. I had sent him a Newsweek article which described dead Ibos on the streets after the Nigerians retook the city. He hastened to deny that civilians had been massacred. There had been a large battle, he said. Those were the only bodies. But I didn't think so and it gave me bad dreams.
Cuts of light and color:
--- When we sailed into Lagos, the harbor was jammed with ships of all kinds waiting at anchor to enter the port. Many were bringing war supplies to the government. Some of this equipment could be seen around the city, a column of armored vehicles leaving a depot and heading toward the front. The young soldiers in new tennis shoes would stand little chance against these.
--- The guy from the bicycle shop banged urgently on my door one rainy afternoon. Soldiers had been to his house looking for his father and he was afraid to go home. He looked pale and he stayed at my place for a couple of hours and said very little.
--- Another familiar face on my 19-year revisit, a former student encountered by accident in Jos where he lived. He had been in the Biafran army and talked about it some. He claimed they easily outwitted the enemy in battle, but were finally overwhelmed. Paradoxically, he spoke highly of General Gowan, the federal leader during the war. He also reminisced about a fellow student who had profited somehow during the war and was wealthy by time it ended.
But of all the images, the one which remained with me the strongest was the simple scene that last night in Warri with Okerre Road so quiet.
Per some direction (and I don't recollect how I received it), I had packed one bag and was ready to head to the Peace Corps office in Benin the next morning. I went down to the street in front of my building to see if there was anyone around at all. The little stand on the ground floor that sold drinks was shuttered tight. It was maybe eight or so, and the street was black except for the dim illumination of single street lamp half a block away. I went out onto the pavement and looked up the road in the direction of the Ijoto Hotel. Usually this road at this time buzzed with pedestrians, taxis, bicycles, shops all along the street open and lighted and with people hanging about. But it was totally dead---the shops, the little bar where they grilled peppered chicken, the blaring sounds of radios and conversation, the apartments themselves, all dark and quiet.
I noticed a man looking at me from his doorway in the block next door. He shook his head a bit as if to say no, it isn't safe. But it seemed quite safe to me. Who would have thought that a million would be dead before it was over.
I went back upstairs and drank the single beer I found in my fridge and lit a mosquito coil and sat in the dark listening to records that I would have to abandon. I went to bed early that night, awakened at dawn by the familiar sound of women chopping firewood.