Okie dokie. My name is Charles Chukwuemeka Oputa, otherwise known as Charly Boy. I was born in a little town in Imo State called Oguta. It’s called the Blue Lake City because we have a lake, a clear, blue nice lake. And I am 65 years old, I think. I come from the eastern part of Nigeria.
…the bullets didn’t kill us as much as the hunger
What comes to my mind, Biafra War. Uh, kwashiorkor. That’s the first thing that comes to my mind because the bullets didn’t kill us as much as the hunger. There were a lot of people just dying on a daily basis. And we saw a lot of the air raids, because in my town, in Oguta, we had the naval base, we had the military base, we had the air force base. It was the headquarters for all the different branches of the army, so we were visited on a daily basis. You know, fighter jets bombed the hell out of that town and somehow we managed to have every now and again, parties and stuff like that.
There were these groups called the Hikers, the Funkies. They were actually for the military. They played to entertain the military before they would go to the war front, and things like that. But they staged their shows also out of the barracks, so it was fun to attend because we all needed some kind of outlet to be distracted by the daily death toll we were experiencing at the time.
…we celebrated being alive
I guess just celebrating being alive, you know, because you never really knew who was going to die the next day. But those are the kind of stuff I remember. It was a mixture of some kind of happy times and some sad times, like I said earlier on, you never know who was going to be alive the next day. I guess more or less we celebrated being alive.
I was about 15, 16 thereabout [when the war started.]
I [was not conscripted] but I was an attaché in the Boys’ Brigade and that was just like a cover, not being conscripted to go to the war front. So I was an attaché to a Biafran officer in the naval base.
My responsibilities, actually, what I did was just carry his stuff, carry his briefcase, then went on little errands. I acted more like a personal assistant at the time, but the real motive of being attached was to prevent me from going to the frontline.
I think my parents, in their wisdom at the time, they didn’t, they wanted me to be around, you know. I don’t know. I wasn’t that enthusiastic [about the war], if you ask me. No. I wasn’t. I had seen a lot of dead bodies and I was really frightened with the whole episode.
…from nowhere, we heard the sound of death
And I’ll never forget an experience that happened. One day, I was out with some group of boys. We went to the stream to take our baths, and there were about eight of us. We had just finished taking our baths and wanted to go back to the military base and from nowhere, we heard the sound of death- that’s the air raid, the bomber, the fighter, and in those days they used to go to the market, the Nigerian soldiers. They used to go to the market to bomb the market. They used to pursue civilians and spray bullets on them and as we were running here and there, trying to find a place to take cover, I looked back and wondering where the rest of the boys were running, in what direction they were running to.
Next thing I saw was his head leave his body…
And then lo and behold I saw one of those guys. I see he was running. Next thing I saw was his head leave his body and that really was an image that really stuck with me for a long time till today. I remember it. And that wasn’t a pleasant sight at all.
He’s dead. His head left his body! How would we react? We were just terrified. Everybody was trying to dive for safety, in any way you could take cover so you’re not, I mean, these were situations where you actually saw the plane attacking civilians, spraying their bullets on civilians, bombing markets, so nobody was really safe. It was all about your safety first. Find a place to hide, and avoid being killed till the next time they come by again.
My father was, then, alive. My mother was there, my siblings, we all lived in the house with a lot of my cousins and somehow, managed to get supply relief from the Caritas and stuff like that, so the hunger didn’t hit us as hard as it hit other people ’til Oguta fell to the federal troops, and we had to move from Oguta and that was when I joined my family. We moved to a town called Akpolo, you know, and then when we got there, we were living with, I remember, Chief Oziobu. Chief Oziobu at the time had, gee, he must have had about ten wives?
They were flying so low you can almost see the pilot
Well we had a car, and that [traveling from Oguta to Akpolo] was another terrifying experience. Before Oguta fell, my father and the drivers had been moving little stuff out of the house to where we were running to because we had an idea that Oguta was going to fall any time soon and then we were the last to leave. We were, one of my cousins and the driver drove to Akpolo. But guess what? By the time we got to the next town, which was just about three miles, four miles from Oguta, of course, we saw, we heard and saw the sign of death again. That’s the bombers and the fighters and just like I said before.
They were flying so low you can almost see the pilot. That was how low they were flying. And because everybody is familiar with that sound, familiar with the consequences of the sound, you know, people started running into the bush, wherever they can take cover. So we stop the car and then we run into the bush. Only for us to, about five minutes after that happened, of course we heard the bombing in Oguta, which was just a few miles away from where we were.
So we were waiting for all of that to blow over- maybe they go back to where they came from- and they now decided to come to the side of the bush where we were. And guess what, we were parked.
I had my face buried in the sand
There was a car in front of us. We were parked in between the car in front of us- with a car behind- when we ran into the bush and the next thing we noticed was that the two sides of the road, the bush part, they were spraying it with bullets. I had my face buried in the sand. My cousin was kneeling down, praying feverishly, you know. I was just waiting for something to hit my head and that would’ve been lights out. Because the only second I had the courage to look up a bit, like I said- I could see the pilot- and then it was as if the mouth of the plane would just open like that, and then you’d just see the gushing out of bullets because all around me I could hear the bullets were falling, and I don’t know how come we were alive. Nothing touched the driver, my cousin, nor myself.
And by the time it blew all over again, the car in front of us was on fire, the car behind us was on fire, except ours. No bullets, nothing. You know.
Of course my cousin felt that it was his prayer that saved us, and that’s how we continued our journey. But you see, we’d gotten so used to death and dying that you just clap after all that incident, everybody just claps for just being alive.
…we’d gotten so used to death and dying that you just clap…everybody just claps for just being alive
I had a sister. My siblings were all moved a day before we left. We were the last batch to leave.
[I heard stories of girls and women getting raped by soldiers] especially those who were captured by the Nigerian army. They were being raped mercilessly. Most of them were being killed. The ones that stayed alive were being raped, and I remember the first time I saw a Nigerian soldier immediately after the war. When it was announced the war was over, and we all had to find our way back to Oguta, and then I saw a Nigerian soldier. I didn’t know my first instinct was to- he wasn’t carrying a gun- was to put a knife in his back, you know. I had no knife at the time, but I was filled with so much hatred, so much anger, and I didn’t imagine that we would lose that war. I didn’t at all, so seeing a Nigerian soldier was like, I had to just hold myself. Hmmm.
…I was filled with so much hatred…
I think it was in Akpolo [that we hit rock bottom] when we ran to Chief Ogbu’s household and after some time, we stopped getting relief. So, they had to ration the food and, like I said, he had ten wives, and so many children. I think about forty children were in that compound, and we all had different groups, yeah. The ones who would go to the kitchen and cook for everybody, and that’s where I learned how to eat food from the fire. Because if you didn’t do that, there wouldn’t be enough by the time the food is done.
They ate lizards. I didn’t eat lizards because it was too…
So everybody was jostling for an opportunity to just be in the kitchen. After a while, the relief tapered down some and then it stopped, so we had to, not too long that happened, the war ended anyways, but we now had to learn how to fend for ourselves more or less and I remember me and my cousins and my siblings, we used to go into the bush and break palm kernel. We sold some, we ate some, and I remember the family that hosted us. Some of the kids then used to go and hunt for lizards. They ate lizards. I didn’t eat lizards because it was too, I couldn’t bring myself to eat that, so what we did mostly was go into the bush and break palm kernel, sell some, ate some, you know. I think it was just a few weeks or so the war ended.
Oh gee, I can’t remember how many of my relatives died. So, so, so many of them. I can’t give you numbers but they were over forty. I mean, people were dying every day. Like I said, you thank your God for being alive, not knowing whether tomorrow was going to be your turn to go.
*This interview was conducted by Chika Oduah in Charly Boy’s home in Abuja, Nigeria