I found grenades in her handbag

My name is Uba Idris. I was born in Dan Hassan village in Kura local government [in Kano State, Nigeria.] It has been about seventy two years ago.

Uba Idris shares his memories of the Nigerian-Biafran War. Photo by Chika Oduah.

What I can really remember during the war, something I can never forget, was when I was in Enugu. I was a conductor and [Nigerian] soldiers caught us. They forced us to deliver arms and ammunition.

We took the weapons to this town called Zakari. When we went there, we worked for the soldiers for about three months.

We went to- we were working there [in Enugu]. We used to go to Umuahia [the present-day capital city of Abia State], Abakaliki [the capital city of the present-day Ebonyi State], and we used to deliver goods from the North to those places.Yes, we used to transport goods. We used to deliver them to Otukpo [a town in Benue State]  as well. It was a private company. We transported all sorts of things. Sometimes we even delivered foodstuff….but then we were working for soldiers [because] in Enugu, we were caught and forced into labor.

…there was always crossfire…

When we worked for the soldiers, I really wasn’t happy. I was miserable, and that’s why I cannot forget about all that happened to me. We used to deliver foodstuff and weapons to the soldiers. I saw a lot of people being killed and there was always crossfire while we were in the middle of our work between the Biafrans and the Nigerians.

I was married. I got married around that time, so I didn’t have a single child. My wife was back home [in Kano].

You know at the time we [were forced into labor] we had already, eventually, become acclimatized to the job and environment.

…we supplied the soldiers with foodstuff

At first we detested the job. It was terrible. It was so terrifying because they forced us to do the work. We used to deliver the weapons at night and we would hear shelling and sounds of machine guns from all over the place. Grenades were thrown at us twice.

We were caught at around evening time, like now. It was around 5 o’clock in the evening. We weren’t the only truck that got caught. There were about eight trucks and about ten [Nigerian] soldiers surrounded us.

They [the ammunition and other supplies] were coming from Enugu. Yes, to Arana. We delivered them from the barracks. From 1 Division.

…I sabotaged the engine

We used to deliver food to the soldiers in the mornings. It was hard to see a soldier. We barely saw them as they were hidden in the trenches. So we would serve them their meals in the mornings and evenings. We only saw their food containers. Once you served a soldier you moved to the next trench. That is how we supplied the soldiers with foodstuff. Without any payment. We were forced to do it. We delivered food to the soldiers. We were never paid, but we were fed food by the soldiers. Whatever they ate, we ate.

Uba Idris. Photo by Chika Oduah.

We had to escape on our own. When I was on my own, I sabotaged the engine of one of the trucks. What I did was I removed the part of the kick starter of the engine because I was fed up with the work. I removed it because we were so tired of the work. The soldiers would push and push the car and try to get it to start but it wouldn’t budge. That’s how we were able to come here. At the time, there was a soldier that figured out that we spoiled the truck on purpose.

They assigned soldiers to come to sit and watch the vehicle we tampered with as part of our punishment. We went there from morning till night. The commander made us go and watch. They assigned soldiers to keep supervising us. From morning till evening, we’ll go and sit in front of the vehicle, watching the vehicle as part of our punishment. Honestly, it [the punishment] lasted for about twenty days.

They looked like skeletons

We were then dismissed and asked to go home after the twenty days…but our vehicle would not budge, so we had another truck tow our vehicle. We were towed until we left the town, for about three kilometers then the driver stopped. It was an army truck and there wasn’t any other car like ours. Yeah, even if there were vehicles like ours, they were being driven by soldiers. We were being towed by them and we wanted to go.

I didn’t like the job. I wasn’t so keen about it and that was why I ruined the engine of the vehicle. I think I can recollect the deaths of the Igbos but not of ours [Northerners].

Yes. I saw their corpses. I remember seeing women and children [Biafran civilians] starving. They were so emaciated. They looked like skeletons. I was at the war front, so of course I saw many people die.

I was also among one of their victims

Well, honestly, you couldn’t even go near the starving people because there was just no trust between the two parties. Even if it were a soldier that had to go near them [Biafran civilians], he would just have to finish them because they’re brave and strong-minded. You’d see an emaciated person looking so hungry and you’d want to help but he would have the zeal to kill you on the spot if you’re not careful.

Yes, I saw many of them [emaciated Biafran civilians attacking people]. I was also among one of their victims.Yeah, well what happened was that since we didn’t have any weapons, but they did. They mostly had axes and grenades. They didn’t have guns, though.

We just had to give them way because we never really knew when they were going to attack. The day we were attacked, some men attacked us and I’ll never forget it. There was a chief in a town before you get to Four Corner- that’s some forest we refer to as Four Corner. It’s an Igbo town around the way to Arana.

Well, there’s a chief in the town. He’s the one that attacked us [or organized people to attack us]. We were delivering food and the soldiers escorted us from the headquarters to the forest. You know we don’t travel without escort from the soldiers. The soldiers would escort us and be in front of us and behind us.

Uba Idris. Photo by Chika Oduah.

Then we, the soldiers that were with us, with their weapons, went to fight back the chief. We captured the chief, his wife, and some of his children and left with them. He and his family were sent to the army headquarters. I do not know what happened to the commandant till date.

Igbo people did not want to see any Northerner

When our car broke down after our vehicle was towed, we moved for about two or three kilometers. After we were discharged, we stopped along with the towing vehicle. I still had the pin from the kick starter that I had sabotaged earlier in my pocket, because I hadn’t thrown it away. We were going, and then I lay down and used a plier to hit it [the pin] till it went back into the engine and our vehicle came to life.

We went back to Enugu.

Enugu was our headquarters, so we went back to Enugu and stationed ourselves there. We continued with our commercial movement of goods- whatever we delivered was gotten from Enugu and whenever we delivered anything to places like Abagana [a town in Anambra State and Abakaliki and Awka [the present capital of Anambra State], so we had to come back to Enugu.

There was no means of communication at that time [so I was not in touch with my family].

Where could I sleep? Since at the time there was war and the Igbo people did not want to see any Northerner. In fact, they killed them [us] on sight.

As at that time, Enugu was captured. So, Enugu belonged to Nigeria. Because of this, there was relative peace so everything was normal. Market activities went on just fine. [In Enugu, no Igbo person ever tried to attack me.]

I saw many killings in the North before the war.

Before the war started, a year or so after the premier [Sardauna of Sokoto Ahmadu Bello] was assassinated, the Igbos really had it rough because they were being killed.

I am a living witness.

He was also set on fire along with other Igbos

Around 1969, on Kano Road, there was a compound along that area where many Igbos lived. They tried to build a bunker to protect them but they didn’t finish it on time and they were attacked. Their belongings were burnt. Many of them were killed. There was once an Igbo man whose drawer was full of cash. His belongings were brought out and set on fire with petrol. He was also set on fire along with other Igbos, with his money, clothes, everything.

Uba Idris. Photo by Chika Oduah.

Truly Allah protected me from all that [bombs, shelling during the war when I was in the East in Biafra]. I remember there was a place in Umuahia called Olu Ijeala [sic]. It was west of Umuahia. There was an Igbo soldier called Captain Mary. She was a Biafran soldier.

…houses that belonged to the Igbos who ran away

There was a plane brought in… even before hearing its arrival, it would have already done the deed. It killed so many people. Chaos would have ensued. People were killed. We had been in Umuahia for less than a week and that was when I saw what the helicopter could do. There was shelling everywhere. It dropped bombs and God saved us from the bomb’s destruction.

I don’t know whatever happened to Captain Mary. I didn’t hear that she was killed, though. She is an Igbo woman. The soldiers were disciplined and composed because of her. She’s always on fire- day in day out. She doesn’t take her guard down.

…no matter how rotten, we ate

During the bombing, we would hide in abandoned houses in the communities. You know, all the houses that belonged to the Igbos who ran away. The houses weren’t in good condition but we stayed in them.

A lot of Nigerian soldiers captured girls. So many of them, so many of them. I saw a lot of them. The one that I saw that really upset me was when they dropped a bomb in Okigwe [a city in Imo State, Nigeria]. This bomb affected everyone. It killed Igbos, Hausas. No one was spared.

The Igbos were doing their activities when I, along with some women, were being captured by soldiers.

Many of the soldiers left their families, wives, and children back in the North, so they got women [in Biafra]. Some of them got married, while some of the women became companions for the men here. It was common to find women being companions of the men, but I didn’t do that. However I had girlfriends, different girlfriends [while I was in Biafra]. I would pay them. It was something like prostitution. I paid them.

…She was a killer

We used to get food but it was hard to find so we resorted to bread, which was being sold at a high cost. Bread there [in Biafra] was more expensive than it was in the North, and it was small and spoiled. No matter how rotten, we ate the bread because of the scarcity of food. It was sold for 12 pence.

I lived near the market but at the time it was almost impossible to see five or more people at the same time because they were petrified of Captain Mary. She was a killer and she killed anything that got in her way. Business in the market came to a halt.

There was a big difference between both [Northern girls and Igbo girls] because if you took a girl [in Biafra], you didn’t trust her. She had to have her bag checked first. Sometimes we would find grenades in their bags. Most of our rooms were occupied with three or five people so it would have been easy for her to take out five Northerners. So you have to check the girl’s bag first before you go with her. Absolutely, I have at times found a hand grenade in the handbag of an Igbo [Biafran] woman.

I took a girl and when we went to the room- my friend was in the room- he asked me if I had checked her. I said no. He advised me to check her no matter what. I did and found grenades in her handbag. I let her sleep over. We took the grenade [out of her handbag] from her and it was with us so we felt we were safe.

Uba Idris. Photo by Chika Oduah.

Even though we [the other Northern men around and myself] didn’t trust the Igbo [Biafran] women, we still had them around as girlfriends as a result of necessity. The women wanted to come to us so that they can get some money.

Death was the only thing ahead of us

There were so many times I thought I would die [during the war]. This happened so many times to me. Bombs were being thrown everywhere and we didn’t have weapons, so you had to run and look for cover. We were caught in the middle of the crossfire so we had to hide- be it a tree or trench or so. You had to lie down for a long while then stand up and go. We were so focused on our lives- your life was the main thing that lies ahead of you. Death was the only thing ahead of us.

 

 

 

*Uba Idris granted this interview to Chika Oduah in Kaduna, Nigeria.*

 

 

 

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