The bombs shook the ground

Louis Odiha remembers the Nigerian-Biafran War. Photo by Chika Oduah

My name. Louis Odiha. I’m 57-years-old. I’m from Eke, in the local government area of Enugu state. I should be, I think ten. 10 years old then [when the war broke out].

I remember that while in school, we were- the authorities came up with the idea of the teachers school management would tell us, would teach us how to lie down, take cover when we hear a certain alarm, you run to the bush or you run to a trench, something like that.

And then, there was this talk about struggle somewhere in the north in the northern part of Nigeria, talking about some parts of this country being our enemies, that we shouldn’t really talk to certain people.

Our teachers told us that these people, the core Hausas were coming after us. So we should be careful about where we go. And that is the first impression I got. Because I would hear my father talk about war because our people were killed in, of course, I remember that a lot of people ran away even before they said the war had started. People were coming in a few of them on top of trains.

You would see the trains coming down and it would be so loaded, people, your baggage and everything on top of the roof of the coaches.

My father worked in the railways so I used to see them. It was you know, just like I have a house here, and this place like this is the place of work. That’s almost where my father’s place was like that time. My father’s house, quarters built by the railways was at the back, then directly in front like this but a little more distant than here, was where his office was and the rail line was in front like this. So I could see everything. And then we now started seeing first time I saw somebody wearing uniform. I said he was a soldier.

All I was seeing those days- was I would see policemen, people I knew that would hardly wear uniform and carry guns were now called soldiers. Those were Nigerian soldiers.

[In school, the drills to prepare for the war], we didn’t see it as much except. We saw it as fun, that it was like you came out for your physical training in those days. We do regular once in a week or twice in a week. Sometimes, around 11 o’clock or 10:30 in the morning you’ll be called out to do some jumping, play football, that kind of thing. We just saw it as the same thing but we’ll be told later again, that there was trouble. Somewhere.

My father’s elder brother was living in Kano, so he had to come down. When I really got a feel of the war was when we started seeing the jets. You know, it wasn’t like the normal planes we used to know. It was faster and the noise was so much. [If] you just hear it, you will really understand that there was trouble. That was at the initial time. So, somehow, where we were staying then, at some point some of the people up there started coming down our way. This my uncle that I mentioned, almost above my extended family came down to stay with us in our small quarter. It was full like. You had up to five different families, more than five different families living in the same place. And then that’s when it was dawning on us that there was trouble because when you had these families coming to stay with you, you couldn’t cook your own food separately.

So what they did then was to prepare, they will use large drum like this to prepare soup and then when you’re taking this thing you’ll find the water, it is so watery that it’ll be flowing down your arm as you’re eating.

They’ll put a little [vegetables] and put water and then you would get a basin like that and pour soup for all the children. Tens of children. What are we even talking about ten? Thirty, fifty children.

And then we would put this basin here with soup, another one there, and another one and we would sit around and mould eba, garri, mould it and then you hand it over to each person. You put your legs like this, sit around the basin and then dip it into the soup…You’ll just manage it like that. You know the problem of women, at some point the woman in the house will begin to worry about her children.

I wouldn’t say I saw death physically [during the war], but I knew there was much trouble. I knew there were a lot of deaths. My mother saw a lot of it..There was this case called Afipko road. It is in present Ebonyi state.

It’s just a railway station. There is this road going to Okigwe, there’s another one going to Afikpo, and then those places don’t have railway lines. Of course there was air strip, you know Uli, near Okigwe, and then the Biafran people were using it as a space in a kind of a road for whatever they’re bringing in from outside. That was also the platform used to bring food for people, the Biafran people, who were dying.

So the A-strip was not far from Afikpo. So when they are dropping the bombs, you will hear it. When they pass like this, when they drop the bombs, they shook the ground.

We didn’t go to a refugee camp. You know, we were fortunate enough. My father was a railway man so we didn’t have to do that. Funny enough we knew wherever we were, there were refugee camps, but my father had enough money to be able to rent a place for us.

My father, he was what they call station master. He was the one in charge of station as a whole. The railway, everything in that place, that station, he was in charge. But what happened then was even when his place was displaced, when his station was displaced, he was still moving along. He will go and stay at the nearest safe railway station from the place where the war was happening. He will be there as his base, his work base, but he would move us further into a place he considered safe enough and we would go and stay. But he was till earning his salaries. He was able to pay for our food. He was able to pay for our accommodation. Biafra was paying him. He was still earning salary, even though the money wasn’t worth much. He was getting paid in Biafran pounds.

Some of my school friends were not as privileged and some of them were the ones that had to stay in the refugee camps. We would go to those places, the refugee camps, and see them, play with them. We knew why they were there. But as a child, I didn’t know what they were going through.

I was able to recognize that some children had these bloated tummies. Some had large heads. Some were looking malnourished.

Those children who were too sick would normally not join the other people to play, but we didn’t discriminate from the ones living in the camps. That was when we began to hear about, even as a child, hear about this kwashiorkor.

Sometimes, you couldn’t even beans to eat. We were getting it from Gabon. They called it Gabon beans. It was tasteless. The taste was terrible so nobody really liked it, even the rice. Occasionally you would find the people who smuggled in rice from Nigeria. Such people, they crossed the enemy line and go to the market that they know is within the Nigerian territory.

Some of them really encountered problems crossing. Some were even killed.

Towards the end of the war, my place in Ike in Udi local government in Enugu was already under the Nigerian forces. I heard on a radio announcement that the war was over. Somebody came into our house and shouted “the war had ended.” I heard people scream, but you know as a child it didn’t mean much to me, you know. I was more interested in looking for my playmates to go and do one thing or the other outside. I suppose my parents, they were really excited about it [ the end of the war].


*This interview was conducted in Louis Odiha’s home in Abuja, Nigeria


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