They had opened her stomach, taken the baby

Enuma Okoro remembers the Nigerian-Biafran War. Photo by Chika Oduah

Okay, I’m Enuma Okoro. I was born in 1946 and I experienced the war for a short period of time in Enugu before I left for the states in 1968. I guess the memories that I still hold today is when the pogrom started. My father had some brothers in the North and we used to go with him every day in the train station where we used to look for his brothers to see if any of them came home. Like I said, the memory I have of that trip every blessed day at evening, between four and five at the train station looking for his siblings that were living in the North at that time, and you would see people coming out of that train- some with their hands cut off and bandaged with towels, some wrappers, some with their, you know, all sorts of injuries, you know. Some with their ears, you know.

So it was, at the time, I don’t think I found it disturbing. It’s in retrospect now that I said, why was he taking us to see all that?

…what happened to him so he must’ve died, too…

Even after the first few days we went, we continued going every day until one of his brothers came home. When they asked about the other three, they couldn’t find one, two were killed in Jos, and one, till today, they didn’t know what happened to him so he must’ve died, too in the hands of the northerners at the time. So that picture remained with me for a long time until I left the country.

Then the war started, when Ojukwu declared Biafra, which till today, I still very much supported. I support it today, I supported it at the time because they had no choice but to move on. They were too many, you know, I think they had their back to the wall. The Igbos had their back to the wall. They had no choice than to find their own way. They killed so many of them, maimed so many. It’s like what you’re seeing in the North now, the Boko Haram, what have you.

This is what is happening in the South, especially the Igbos. And then when Biafra was declared, we left Enugu when Enugu fell and moved to Asaba. My father had already gone to Asaba and we were still living in Enugu because I had just finished high school and I was just working. My stepmother and myself and two of my siblings were still in Enugu. Then we started hearing the gunshots, the mortars and the air raids in Enugu. It was like we had to go. So we arranged to go back to Asaba from Enugu.

Then we started hearing the gunshots, the mortars and the air raids in Enugu

On the way, fortunately, we saw my father going to Enugu. He was going for a meeting for the next day. We told him no, everybody is running away so you really cannot go back. So it was, I think God’s grace, that we met him on the way.

We started shouting that’s him going to Enugu. That time there was no telephone for you to warn him not to come. Anyway, we went back to Asaba, all of us, and another thing I remember that I find funny is that my mother used to live in Benin. Refused to drive, she always had a driver, so when we were in Asaba, she had come down from Benin and was walking in Asaba. We were all in the compound. We saw my mother driving herself into the compound. Everybody said something must be seriously wrong for her to drive. She said yes, Nigerians have come into Asaba. And my two brothers had gone to Onitsha to service my father’s car. So we had to drive out of Asaba now, to go out to over the Niger [River]. My father said he wasn’t going anywhere.

Enuma Okoro. Photo by Chika Oduah

Her own father was alive then. Her father said, he said- that’s my grandfather on my mother’s side- he too said he was not going anywhere but that we should go. So we went with my mother, some of my uncles and my aunties. We took all the cars that were available there had left and then when we got to Onitsha we started looking for my two brothers who had gone to service my father’s car to make sure they didn’t go back to Asaba.

Where is your brother?

My older brother was a medical student at the time, so he was the one we really had difficulty with. We saw my younger brother just by the bridge and we took him. Where is your brother? He said, you know him, he must be somewhere either in one hospital or where you’ve seen they’ve thrown the bomb on some people. That’s exactly where we found him; in one if the hospitals in a town called Ogidi and we had to – my mother practically had to drag him out and said you can do that work in a different place, you know, so let’s go. So that’s how we left Enugu, left Asaba, and then left Onitsha and went to Port Harcourt.

We drove all night to Port Harcourt and a friend of my parents had a house that he lodged us in. He had a number of houses actually so he gave us one with some of my uncles. We were like about fifteen to twenty people in the house, all family members. So we left and went to Port Harcourt and we started. We were in Port Harcourt for a couple of months and we had to move to Aba. I don’t remember whether Port Harcourt fell and we had to move to Aba with my grandmother.

Yes, Port Harcourt fell to Nigeria and we had to move to Aba. It was actually when we were in Aba that I left the country. I left with one of those relief airplanes that came to, that usually lands. It’s like a cargo plane actually. There were no seats; we were all sitting down on the- no seatbelts nothing. Because it was a relief plane that actually brought food to Biafra and my mother insisted that I have to go with them since I had my visa. So I left. We landed in Portugal. From Portugal now we went to the states.

We took off from the Uli air strip and it was a nice flight. And I lost my older brother two months after I left. Yes, he died during the war. Air strike.

And I lost my older brother two months after I left

I was in New York at the time and he died in March. I left actually January 1968. He died March ’68 and I didn’t know about it until June ’68. I came down, picked up my mail, got on the bus, going to school, and started opening my mail and my girlfriend ,who lives in London, had written to me. Oh she’s so sorry to hear about Jambo’s death. I said what?

Enuma Okoro. Photo by Chika Oduah

It was like something just hit me. I came down. I got so confused, I came down from the bus and I said “Oh no. This has to be some kind of error.” I went straight to the Biafran office and I showed the letter to my husband and he said- we got married in May, and this thing came in June. And I said to him is it true? Apparently he has heard long before- he didn’t want to say anything to me. It never occurred to him that somebody would write me from London because all the mail that came from Biafra- from Nigeria, would go through his office before coming to me.

That was the first big, that my brother that I left two months, died two months after I left. My older brother. And it was like it finally dawned on me, you know, what my father was going through when his siblings didn’t come home because of this same- the pogrom that was happening in the North. I said okay. So it’s really true; we are fighting a war. But you know what is funny? I came back in 1972. Then I had two children and we were in my mother’s house- that’s after the war now in Port Harcourt and I don’t know what we were saying- we were all sitting at the table, eating- and I said to my siblings, I just made the mistake of opening my mouth to say “If you’ve seen what I’ve seen in this world.”

So it’s really true; we are fighting a war

Everbody dropped their cutlery. “What have you seen? Have you- You left when the war was starting. What have you seen? Have you been walking with somebody and the bomb killed him and all you have to do is look at the corpse and continue walking? Even if it’s your sister, you just continue walking because you’re running for dear life? Or have you been hidden in the- er, the roof of a building because you are afraid, because your mother is afraid the soldiers will come and rape you?”

Have you been walking with somebody and the bomb killed him and all you have to do is look at the corpse and continue walking?

So, you know, they went through so much. My mother used to carry them. After breakfast they would hide them in the roof of the building and they’ll be fighting up there with the rats and what have you because they were afraid that the soldiers would come and rape them.

Enuma Okoro. Photo by Chika Oduah

So these are things that my younger sister, she now, for a long time, even long after the war, anytime she hears a plane, she goes into a trance because that was her way of cutting off the planes that used to come and bomb Biafra. She will just do her eyes like this and she’s gone. She doesn’t want to hear the plane, she doesn’t want to see anybody that is being bombed, that- it was so bad that even 5 years after the war, as soon as she hears a plane, she just flickers and she, you know, turns off. It was her way of protecting herself. These are psychological effects that it had on the children growing up.

One of my sisters was very sick, had a temperature of 104, was staying with my younger brother in Nnewi. My mother was staying in Umuahia with the rest of the family but because she was so sick, my brother said you have to go to Umuahia. I have no medicine here. My mother was working with one of the relief agencies, so go to her, maybe they can treat you there. She had to go. She said she had to go on a motorcycle from Nnewi to Umuahia. I don’t know if you know the distance. It is quite a distance. Today from Nnewi to Umuahia is about four hours drive by car. So you can imagine what it was going by motorcycle, from Nnewi to Umuahia with a hundred and four degree temperature. But my brother said she had no choice because she could either die in his house, or die on her way seeking help at least. But she arrived safely. It took them so long. They left early morning, arrived in the evening, and they had to take her straight to the hospital. My mother knew people who were in the hospital and the doctors, the soldiers what have you and they treated her. Of course she had malaria and typhoid.

Enuma Okoro. Photo by Chika Oduah

So, I just came in 1972 because I was just coming for the first time after I left. Just to come and visit my family. My father was still alive then. But, I left January ’68 to New York. My brother died March ’68. My nephew, my brother’s son, was born May ’68, so he never met his father. He was born two months after his father died.

[But on the issue of the soldiers raping girls, it was both sides.] Because it was still Biafran territory but the Biafrans, you know, and even after the war they were still hiding them because of the federal troops. So these are, you know, what I want you to understand here is that the effect it would have on a teenager growing up. They weren’t even teenagers. How old were they? 10, 9, 12, you know. So, and for children to have gone through that well they still came out alright. By the Grace of God, I will put it that way so that when we get together, even when they came over to America to go to school, we would get together and they’d be talking about their experiences about Biafra and all, you know. I didn’t quite understand the depth of it to tell you the truth until I guess you know I was in my twenties and it took me a while to understand what they were going through and my mother’s explanation. I said but why do you people have to go on top of the roof and be fighting with the rats?

She said because if you’re down and a soldier walks in there, your mother can be looking at him, she can’t do anything and he will still rape you, that sort of treatment.

…young ones would entertain themselves despite what was going on

[My most shocking memory from the war was] the air raids, which happened while I was in Biafra. The next thing you know is you will hear the siren going off and you will, everybody will run out of the house of course because if they bomb the house, everybody will run out of the house and go ad hide in the farms, in the bushes and that sort of thing. And it was quite frequent. You can have it about four, five times a day, you know, and you can’t go far because you don’t know your parents won’t even allow you to go anywhere because, but there was a funny side to it too. My younger brother, whose picture is right there, he is gone now. He is late now, but he, they had a music band that we used to call it the 4 O’clock Jump. All the young ones would go and dance like the present day night club but it would be 4 o’clock because nobody is going out at night. Of course when the air raids come everyone would run. They had groups where young ones would entertain themselves despite what was going on. They lived their lives as if it was a normal way of living and most of them were in the army at a very young age- 15 years old you’re in the army and you’re risking your life, especially for the boys.

Even the girls joined the army not to fight the war but to help at the army camp with the cooking, the taking care of the soldiers, you know, what have you…

When I heard about the coup in 66, I don’t think I felt the impact until the second coup happened. It didn’t really register as such, but I knew there was trouble. That was when we started feeling the impact in the East because we were still in Enugu. That first coup was a Lagos affair. The second coup, when it happened, at this time, I would say it targeted the easterners at the time. And that was when, from hearing our parents talk about it, not like it made any much at sense to us at that time because you know, you didn’t really pay attention to the politics of what was going on but when that coup happened and the pogroms started in the North, we started feeling it because our parents were feeling it. They had siblings south side that we’re not sure whether they would live or die. We know them as our uncles. So at least he’s coming back home now, you know and of course nobody goes out of the house once it’s six o’clock in the evening you’re not allowed to go. Even during the day the driver has to take you and bring you back. You’re not allowed to wander on your own and because they are soldiers and you don’t know who they are, whether they’re Nigerians or Biafrans. Whoever they are, we didn’t feel safe around them. Even if they were Biafrans, we didn’t feel safe around them.

They told them to form a circle and they started killing them

You weren’t sure what was going on, who is where, and my father they had, from what we heard, who were now in the East, they said when they got to Asaba, they had to call out all the male, because his uncle is from Asaba, the guy who did the original coup. They said the Nigerian soldiers called out all the Asaba men and told them to come to the village, um, and what will I call it in English,  um, meeting place. And they shot. They told them to form a circle and they started killing them.

Enuma Okoro. Photo by Chika Oduah

What saved my father from that was that they had shot him in the eye and he had fallen on top of dead people and remained there until the soldiers left before he got up to go home. You see? So they killed so many people without arms. They just told them to form a circle and they started shooting all of them.

And he had fallen on top of dead people…

I had my father, my uncle on my mother’s side, you know. They were involved, even my grandfather on my mother’s side. Even though he was a military man himself, but he couldn’t- because they had no arms. He was military in the Nigerian army, when Nigeria was Nigeria but he left to come home. He had retired and was living in Asaba when all this started. When we were in Biafra, before my older brother died, the news came that they had shot all these. Oh they bombed my father’s house in Asaba. Burned it down to the ground and what really saved them after that was that I used to go out with a Yoruba army officer, and as soon as he came to Asaba, he started looking for my parents and they told them that we had gone to the East but my father was still there and by the time he got to my father’s house, they had burnt down the house, so he took my father and my stepmother and he put them somewhere else and he put an army guard to guard them until the war ended.

Unfortunately he [my former Yoruba boyfriend] died during the war too. It was friendly fire that killed him though, in Lagos. He had gone home to Lagos and I think at the gate going into the barracks, they had said “Who is there?” and he was making a joke and of course they shot him. It was a friendly fire that killed him in Lagos.

There were so many towns and villages that Nigerian soldiers came to and they destroyed the villages, killing everybody, men, women, children. That’s not exaggerated, that’s a fact. You know. So, this is fine. I don’t know if you ever saw that movie that Chidinma, you know. [Half of a Yellow Sun from Chimamanda Adichie’s book]. In fact when I watched that movie, I said no, the things that happened in this movie are not as serious as what happened in real life, you know, so, it’s, I don’t know how to put it because, you can see pictures of people running with their children and people who have not eaten for days, carrying one at the back, one in front, dragging the rest and still, so where do you have room to carry anything else? So you go empty handed. You have to start life wearing one clothes, not even sure of what you will eat. Some people, you will see them all they have to carry is maybe their yam and their because they need food. You know, so, I had left when my mother started working with the relief agencies, so I really cannot tell you that side of it. But my siblings said that was their only savior because she was working with the relief agencies. They had food in the house.

But what about the other people who didn’t have that privilege? You see, so, and they used to say that my mother used to feed like almost fifty people. From neighbour’s and people who will come because they know she works with the relief agencies so they will come to her house to eat or bring their children to come and eat.

So you go empty handed

International relief agencies that used to bring food for Biafrans, you know. So they said you know like the whole neighborhood when my mom comes from the home, the whole neighborhood in her front door will be waiting to be fed. You know. This is not even the people from the camps. These are people who are just in the neighborhood. You know.

Enuma Okoro. Photo by Chika Oduah

Ojukwu had no choice. He had no choice than to do what he did. Because if I were in power and I saw all those things I saw at the railway station, of course. See what’s the point? These people are not protecting the Igbos so let us find our own protection. How does he know he wasn’t going to win? How do we know that since you didn’t want us, why are you coming to fight us like we have seceded? What’s the whole point?

Do you know that during the war they [Biafrans] were manufacturing their own arms. What they call the ogbunigwe, can bring down a plane, can -you know- their own bomb and what have you.

…they had opened her stomach, taken the baby

[But the railway station, going there to look for relatives] the one that came back was not injured. But three of them didn’t come back. You know, but I saw a lot of people who came back injured, a lot. You know, it’s it’s, I don’t know if I can make, I don’t want to make it too graphic because we even saw a woman that they had opened her stomach, taken the baby and they had stuffed her stomach with towels to stop the bleeding. The towel was all bloody and the carts had to carry her out of the train, you know. I remember my stepmother saying, how did she survive? How did she survive. Look, she was drenched in blood. People were helping. She couldn’t walk on her own, of course. They had to carry her out straight to the hospital you know. She was not stitched. They just stuffed her with the towels. And there are people, they had cut off both arms, you know. As in you see their fellow passengers helping them by wrapping their arms to stop the bleeding. These are pictures that you don’t forget even as a child, you know.

…they had stuffed her stomach with towels to stop the bleeding

I left and went to the States where I didn’t, instead of seeing all that, I saw the good side of life. But even then, with those of us in the States we had our Biafra movement. We had you know, fundraising movement and demonstrations and what have you but it wasn’t as bad, you know. We had our Biafran movement. Columbia University was the centre of it all. They have their leaders who would go demonstrating in front of the UN. Even me. I used to go with them and my husband will pull my ears you know. The oba of Onitsha now, he too was in New York at the time so there are so many Biafrans- let me say Easterners who were in New York at the time and they formed a very strong, you know, with the American counterparts, you know, so I remember us walking from Columbia to the UN.

What are they supposed to do with twenty pounds for crying out loud?

Biafra, the Biafran program after the war, Gowon’s rehabilitation, after the war that he gave them [former Biafrans] twenty pounds. What are they supposed to do with twenty pounds for crying out loud? Will they buy them one meal a day? So what sort of rehabilitation was that? No houses, no medical, no education, nothing. Twenty pounds, find your way. Haba! Whom were they deceiving? I guess when you’re hungry you have no choice but that was absolute rubbish. Our leaders should have rejected it at the time.

Unfortunately I was in America then, but I had some friends who had left with Ojukwu to go to Gabon and from Gabon they came to America. Some of them stayed with me and I said what happened to the masses? You happened to come from what I would call the elite so you will be able to join the Head of State’s plane to leave but what happens to the masses?

…villages were erased…

What is twenty pounds going to do for a family, you know? You burn their houses down. My father’s house was burnt down. Where do you want them to live? They go back to their homes and found out that the villages were erased, how do they live? I don’t think it was fair to Biafrans at all but I guess when you are hungry, you have no choice. You just came from a war that you lost. They couldn’t do anything.


*This interview was conducted in Enuma Okoro’s home in Abuja, Nigeria



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s