Evacuation from Biafra

Ned Greeley Group 23,
A teacher at St. Aidan's Secondary School between Enugu and Abakaliki

This is a reprint of a letter to the editor in the Minuteman (a local newspaper). Editorís note: Ned Greeley has been a Peace Corps Volunteer in Nigeria for the past year. Just after he had been evacuated from Biafra (Eastern Nigeria), but before he had left Africa, he wrote to his parents, Mr. & Mrs. Roland Greeley, some of the goings-on in one of the countless areas there our Peace Corps workers are trying to help mankind.

 

Dear folks,

After independence was declared (June 6) the country got tighter and tighter, with the blockade stopping almost all the ships -- making Biafrans realize that they were really in for trouble. It was fascinating to see the way Ojukwu used the radio, the public schools, the Civil Service, etc. to get his people into a psychological state of war; he was always finding something to talk about, and eventually everyone was in some way mobilized. I think I told you about the wooden guns that all the civil defense men carried, the Civil Rights songs (a la America) they are taught (We Shall Overcome), and the mass demonstrations they held. One day most of the school was crowded into lorries to drive into Abakaliki, where they demonstrated for Biafra, marching around and around the stadium with mimeographed lists of slogans in their hands and green boughs around their waists. For a while every auto carried a branch, to show loyalty, and you could be stopped if you didn't have one. In some schools half the kids left to sign up for the Army.

During this time (this was now the beginning of July) Peace Corps started keeping a detailed check on our whereabouts, so they could be sure to find us if worse came to worst. I think one of the most alarming things during the first week in July was to see a Peace Corps car drive up to see if I was all right, so that Peace Corps Enugu could in turn let Washington know that all Volunteers had been seen in the last 24 hours, safe and sound. Seeing the car made our students assume we would be leaving (the girl British and Canadian volunteers in schools nearby had already been moved out one night, in about one hour's time). It was the first time that I thought I was on my way, but not the last.

The next week Peace Corps Lagos reported to Enugu that there were large-scale troop movements in the border region above Enugu, so cars were sent out to get us volunteers who lived close to the border. We hurriedly packed bags and went in to Enugu, where we sat around several days being bored. This was the first of three "evacuations" which were the worst part of the whole month. It was bad enough to have someone come out and pull us away from the rhythm of teaching; it was worse to run away from the compound, only to come back for three days, only to be pulled away again five days later. Obviously the Director thought she was doing the best thing she could, under the circumstances. As it became more and more sure that there was to be a fight, I was really ready to go. The library was in good shape, the chickens were doing fine, I had no other special projects in school, and travel around the area had been restricted.

Then came another scare and we all went to Enugu. This time I had the dubious honor of driving a big Chevy evacuation van, armed with a first aid kit, extra gas, etc. We really made the students feel that they were being deserted this time. It made us feel like sell-outs, going to Enugu; but we were getting resigned to it. At that time the roadblocks weren't too frightening. We sat around, catching colds in the air-conditioned Presidential Hotel, reading, and playing scrabble. Then, on the Monday before the battle started, we went back, this time having been told to pack up for good, pay off stewards, etc. On Thursday I was in Abakaliki with Corporal Joe (my steward) and a tutor friend to take photos. No one can leave a place without having photos of everyone with himself, and then passing them all around. We drove into Abakaliki to find the town dead. On every corner stood C.D. guys or girls carrying their wooden or real rifles, telling all who had no urgent business to go home. It was eerie! Most of the police in town and many civilians, along with the army, had been rushed 70 miles to the border town of Ogoji in confiscated lorries. At that time I was happy to have the C.D.s everywhere; they gave the impression that everything was under control, although it was obvious that they were apprehensive. So I went up to see a PCV buddy on the road towards the fighting. It was there that we were met by the US AID evacuation officer, who has direct, radio contact with Enugu. Going back to my station to pack that night was the only time during the whole month (except when we were being evacuated to Port Harcourt) that I was worried for my own skin. We had to drive through Abakaliki, which looked like something out of the movies. Guys with lights and guns were everywhere, stopping anyone in a car to demand his business, search the car, and generally be a nuisance. The dust was rising from so many feet running around that we had to be cautious driving for fear we would run into a roadblock, or accidentally run into somebody (this would have brought the sky down on our heads).

Fortunately the only time someone seriously questioned my identity: "Hey you, stop! STOP! STOP THAT CAR!" someone else recognized me as a regular at the Premier Hotel Bar, so I was able to go on for another 50 feet, where I was checked all over again. We finally got back to Umuezeoka where I packed, gave up the keys to the car, and got a lift to the tar road, where I waited with a nervous Dane and a drunk Indian until Friday morning, when the evacuation van finally got unstuck from a pothole and through the roadblocks, to us.

Off to Enugu again, where we waited, we who were strung along the northern tier, for another week hoping that something definitive would happen so we could all go back our stations. (By that time I had requested to stay in Enugu to help on some kind of program in the city: the schools were closed and it looked as if strong measures would have to be taken to keep the many school kids from suffering from "nothing to do"). Then we started getting incredibly conflicting news reports: "Federal troops claim to have completely over-run Nsukka"; "Biafran troops claim to be advancing on all fronts." We heard these two statements so often it got to be ridiculous. Until one day the last of the professors came back from Nsukka University saying that they had packed to the sound of sten guns.

Our evacuation trip down to Port Harcourt consisted of seven vans, a whole lot of PCVs, and mounds of luggage. We passed through some 37 roadblocks (some nut in the back seat kept count), and fortunately we were only searched by real village people once, and even then a policeman came by after an hour, in time to read our official pass, so we could go. I'm sure these farmers were disappointed: they had never seen a wallet with plastic pockets that stretched out as long as their arm, or a tape recorder. It was a regular parade, with other bands of PCVs joining us along the way, but probably not so spectacular as three weeks before, when 4000 Europeans left Port Harcourt in less than a week! It certainly wasn't a joy ride!

We discovered on arriving at Port Harcourt, where we shared the Presidential and some other hotels in town with some 700 evacuees, that our "luxury ship" was to be a freighter, the Isonzo you read about. Some of us ran and boiled 40 dozen eggs, bought jars of peanut butter and jelly, bread, and 150 gallons of water for the trip. It turned out to be a 30-hour picnic, with ample if sticky food and many bottles of about everything. Things would have been more idyllic had it not rained: the hold turned into a kind of unventilated gymnasium. But we got into Lagos without difficulty, and finally got some real rest at Lagos University.