I put grass in my mouth

My name is Mrs. Amauche Egwuonwu. I was born at 8th July, 1940 at a place called Eha Amufu [Enugu State].

[But my town is Item in Abia State.]

When the war started, I was at Umuahia. By then I was just new at Umuahia because we came down from the place we were living by then in the northern state of Nigeria, Kano, to mention it.

Amauche Egwuonwu remembers the Nigerian-Biafran War. Photo by Chika Oduah

[I was 27 when the war started.]

It was in the year 1967 when the war was about starting [when we came down from Kano.] There were crises at Kano by then. When the people didn’t want us to stay again. They were shouting, “Arewa! Arewa!” [North! North!] That is what it means. They didn’t want us again. They said we should separate ourselves from them. We had come back.

…everybody was running helter skelter

I wasn’t at Umuahia when the war started initially. I was at Umuahia with my husband and when we were hearing of the war reaching here and there, nearer us, we decided to separate. I left him at Umuahia and returned home at Item with my children. By then I had about three children. The first one was Onyema Egwuonwu. The second one was Chidinma, I mean Ebichi Christiana Egwuonwu. The third was Chidinma Egwuonwu. So we were. I left Umuahia, leaving my husband there. We decided that I should go home with the children so that he will be able to manage himself. Yes.

[I stayed in Item throughout the entire war.]

It wasn’t easy because we hadn’t stayed long at Umuahia when it started. When we realized there was war. So, it wasn’t easy. We had a, as my husband told me to go home with my children, we were thinking that the war will come through Umuahia as it was coming but unfortunately for me, the war came, the Nigerian army came through a place towards our side called Ugwueke. They came in through Ugwueke which is not from Umuahia again. Then, we had to run inside the bush from our very village we were.

Hey! They were shooting. They were shooting. The gun, in fact, kept us alert. And everybody was running helter skelter because we have known the side that they were coming through, we ran. We left everything and ran inside the bush that period. After some time, after that day they came in, we didn’t hear any sound again. We thought that they had gone past our place. We have to come back home.

Apart from the time we ran the first time, from the time we went back into the bush, we stood up to two years there. It was almost two years, if it is not two years, in the bush, living the life of animals but God was with us in everything because I never saw a snake for one day being in the bush.

God protected us, with the children and other people who ran away with us. We experienced, hmm, hardship and we lacked some of the things we should have got like salt. You will see something to eat, there is no salt. You just eat it just like that.

But we managed.

It’s God that did it for me. Just before we had the run, before the army came into our place, I had a sick one. I was admitted at the hospital, our village hospital called Umunnato, with the very child that was sick. The rest of my children were with my husband’s mother, my mother-in-law. I was at the hospital. The girl was sick of kwashiorkor because of lack of food. Nothing was, so fortunately for us we were carried to relief, Red Cross people. But fortunately it was in the midst of this Catholic people, Catholic mission, at Uturu, they call the place. I never knew of Uturu before. And I was new in our place. You can imagine the period.

I thought she will die, myself

I couldn’t have boasted of anything. I wasn’t with my husband. With the children around me, with my mother-in-law, it was terrible. But in all, when we were admitted at the hospital at Uturu, they gave us food. We ate, we ate, and the child they thought will die never did. She didn’t die. Even as the Catholic priest, any group of people that wants to die, he will gather them together and pray for them. Give them what they called the Last Sacrament. My child was among them but by the grace of God, after the Last Sacrament, lose hope that the child is no more. With time, my child will come back. She was among the living even up ’til now. It’s a thing to glorify God. I didn’t do it. I don’t know how it happened.

Amauche Egwuonwu. Photo by Chika Oduah

Hey! I thought she will die, myself. The sight we saw that time. Nobody believed she is alive. The legs was swollen up and she was tying, the fat girl, plumpy girl, she used to be disappeared. Nothing but skeleton, she looked like skeleton and being a thumb-sucker, you hardly can hear her cry or do anything. She will only put the hand in the mouth and was sucking. When you think that she is alive but without sucking, you will think that she is dead. Even the nurse there thought she was dead in the night, one night. And she was happy when she came back to see her alive. In fact, after gathering them as people who are, hope was lost, all hope was lost she was one among them all that survived.

We came back to village before the running away into the bush. You can imagine how it was with us.

The scene I saw on the road, nothing but sick people around us. When I was leaving the hospital, I don’t know what happened to the rest of the people there because it was uh, they were trying to feed the little they can do.

If we had not gone to the hospital, they [Red Cross] wouldn’t see us. But I was lucky to have been admitted at the hospital.

Amauche Egwuonwu’s hands. Photo by Chika Oduah

All the time I was struggling to survive but you know I hadn’t, it’s only experience that will tell you what you will do. You cannot, we were going around the bush going to the ehm, left, farms. You know our people they were just planting. After this year, it will take about seven good years before the come back to where they had, I don’t know how they call that type of farming. It has a name but I have forgotten. If we have a place to farm this year, you farm with others in general. Everybody will farm there then you will not come back to that place until after seven good years.

So in such farms, they left. Some will wait for seven years. The youngest will wait for seven years. There are some that have to wait for about five years or three years or two years before they farm again. So you go to the youngest farm to look for something left there like yam, cassava, or anything. Even the coming to the leaves. Anything left at that side, you are free to take. You didn’t do any crime. But if you go to the present farm where you know that people have farmed it there to take something, then it means you are a thief or a rogue. Eh-he. You are allowed to go any other side. In our place, there is one side the army seized that side. The oldest farm in our place. We don’t even farm there. The oldest bush called Ofiaka at Okoko Item. The trees there, you can stay there and the rain will not touch you because it’s very old.

The Nigerian soldiers came in and stood there and it was at a place we had the hospital.

I put grass in my mouth

The [worst day was] the day when I was going to see my mother in their own bush where they ran to. Unfortunately for me, I had to cross, eh, I have to cross a town before our own, their own, that is Amaokwe Item. I was just going. Nobody was on the road. I was just walking, going as I used to go. Fortunately for me, one man just was running coming towards the side I was. He shouted on me “See, these people are coming. Find your way!”

Amauche Egwuonwu. Photo by Chika Oduah

Immediately he told me, I understood what he meant. I had to dive inside the bush. I was just there. As I was told how to defend myself in the bush. I learned it. I put grass in my mouth. I was just hiding myself in the bush along the road. I saw the soldiers, nine of them. Tall, tall men with their guns. Immediately I just bent down there and they were passing, seriously. They were just going as the soldiers towards the side I was going to.

That day, I never knew I will be alive again. Because they later on, burnt the side. Amaeke Item. It was that day they just burned the side I was, that side where I met them. They put fire there. I had to run out and cross to the side I was coming from.

They didn’t see me. If they had seen me, ha! That would have been my end because even that day we ran from home, they were looking for some girls. I wasn’t a girl. I had three children by then. Eh-he. But I was still young. Eh-he.

[In the bush] I was fed by God himself. The mushroom, the grass, uhm, the grasshoppers they were plenty. They were numerous that anything you can just get, you eat and be satisfied. We used light as the day.

…the intestines just came out

The day I went to place near our village, the same Item, we have nine villages making up Item. It was their market day. We went to purchase some goods as much as we could. Unfortunately, that day the Nigerian helicopter came to the very market, small market and was just going round and round and round and all of a sudden they shoot, eh, bomb. Everybody started running. A little boy who ran inside the nearer house just went inside the house and eh, entered under the bed.

Could you believe me that eh, bullet got the side of the side of the stomach like this, pierced inside the boy and the intestines just came out.

I saw the boy himself, a small boy of about 12.

Amauche Egwuonwu. Photo by Chika Oduah

I was in the market where they used to sell oil I was. I was at the side of the oil sellers. Then all of us ran immediately the sound came. Whoom! Whoom! Just like that. And they were looting capturing females not minding the size of the girl. And that was the reason why we used to run inside the bush to stay.

Throughout, we didn’t come out.

Yes. That’s it.

Without God, nobody would have been alive today. We thought we are all gone. [Laughs]

Imagine. I said we thought we are going to die. We are all going to die. But God saved our lives. As for the war, nobody wish the war to continue or so. I said I was surprised the day I heard the Biafra war is all over.

We used the Biafran money if I can remember. All of a sudden the whole Nigerian money with us vanished and we were buying with the Biafran money. Until the day that they announced the war is ending. That we should come back home. It was a terrible sight anyway.

After the war, they never came back

Throughout the war, I didn’t have any communication with my husband until the day the war ended he came in before I returned from the bush. We stood for one or two years or so. We went back to the very place we ran from. That was Kano.

We went back to Kano. It was where my husband was staying before marriage so all he had was at Kano. Even myself, before marriage, I was in the eastern region. We were at eastern region before he finished his education and we went to Kano. He was there before me. I just joined him there.

[During the 1966 crisis in Kano] nobody killed me, wanted to kill me. But I saw many people they killed. I witnessed only once I would have died there. Before we came back the final to eastern region, my husband wasn’t even at home by then. He came down to east.

Kano was a peaceful place before.

Amauche Egwuonwu. Photo by Chika Oduah

My two brothers were killed during the war. They were Biafran soldiers. They were taken to fight with them. Isaac Mba and Chijioke. After the war, they never came back. That was when I knew. When people were coming, we were asking about them. Since then, it brought the death of my late father, the death of the two boys. He felt it much. When he just told us that he was going to Enugu to see if the house he had then was still there. That very week he left our home to see his house, he got the news that he was worried in the stomach. He had stomach pain. From there, he died. It was after the war not during the war. Hardship killed many people. You can imagine.




*This interview was conducted by Chika Oduah in Abia State, Nigeria

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