My Memories of The Nigerian-Biafran Civil War “Osondu agwu ike” – Dele Chinwe Ukwu

During one of my trips to Chicago earlier this year, I watched a HBO documentary about children at war. I switched to a different channel after listening to a little Middle Eastern boy describe how his father had died in his arms when their mosque was bombed and several people were massacred. I did not switch channels because what I saw was terrifying to me. On the contrary, these scenes were quite familiar, more like a deja vu.

The horrific experiences of children in war areas have become news topics on television. Recently at home, my children and I watched a program on the television about children in war torn areas of Bosnia, Rwanda, and so on. There is some relief knowing that people are now beginning to address the realities of the grim and gruesome violence of war as it relates to people who have absolutely no reason to be included in it at all in the first place, i.e. children. My kids were truly dumbfounded to see several wounded children and the ones that lost one or both parents. I had to convince them that these stories are true and real.

I was a child during the Nigerian-Biafran Civil War, May 30, 1967 to January 15, 1970. This was a war between Northern (Nigeria) and Eastern (Biafra) Nigeria. There is nothing “civil” about a war, any war. By the end of this particular war, several hundred thousand of people have died and/or lost their valuable belongings. Thousands of civilians, especially children, lost their lives to malnutrition or suffered kwashiokor, a vitamin defficiency disease. I am one of the lucky few who survived. As a child, I never understood what caused this war. As an adult I have come to accept the saying that, “when men get frustrated, they go to war; when women get frustrated they go shopping.”

I remember us “running” from one village, city or town to another, dodging bullets and bombshells, or hiding in underground bunkers during enemy attacks . A bunker was a camouflaged underground shelter and people sought refuge in bunkers or under trees during “air raids,” i.e. the bombing or firing of gunshots from airplanes. Bunkers were well constructed and some were extensively decorated and stocked with food and water since they were “second homes.” Each compound had at least one bunker. I wonder if they still exist.

The Igbos coined a name for the evacuation or “running” process, “oso ndu agwu ike.” Translated literally, this phrase means, “one never gets tired of running for one’s life or one never gets tired of seeking shelter for one’s life.” It may also mean, there’s no rest in life, as life is full of ongoing struggles. My mother, my older and younger sisters, and I moved from one village to another. My maternal grandmother stayed with us from time to time or with my uncle, my mother’s older brother. We only took what we could grab and carry (often the clothing on our back) since we did not know how far we would be trekking on foot. Often, if or when things calmed down, the grown-ups would go back and try to retrieve some or the rest of the belongings. Otherwise, the items were lost.

In my case, I always grabbed my mother’s gold jewelry box and a bag of crayfish. I never quite understood the correlation between the box of gold and the bag of crayfish. My mother, realizing that these were the two items that I absolutely must leave with, made sure that they were always kept close to wherever I slept. I remember one such attack one night while I was asleep. My sister grabbed my hands and started walking. We must have walked for miles when I woke up. I realized also that I was carrying my mother’s jewelry box and a bag of crayfish in my hands!

One of my playmates died during one of the evacuations. She had just undergone surgery to have her appendicitis removed. The town was attacked later that evening. She died in her parents’ arms as they were fleeing to “safety.”

Schools and churches were instantly turned into refugee camps for those who did not know any other family members in the “new” village. Most of the attacks happened at night when civilians were asleep. People died in the rampage as they tried to evacuate in a rush. Others “lost” or were “cut off” from their
chat her husband, a soldier, thinking that she had been killed in the war, had married another woman. She was truly heartbroken.

Some men joined the army voluntarily. Others were captured and forced to sign up to defend their country. My oldest brother, cousins, and uncles all went to war. Men usually would not tell anyone where they were going as they left home to avoid any discouragement. They would send letters to their families telling them that they were in the Army and needed our support and prayers. They believed that if they died, at least it would be an honorable death in the line of duty. Many young men lost parts of their bodies-limbs, ear(s), eye(s)-hearing, or worse, their lives during this war. It became a normal sight to see one-legged,
-eyed, -armed, and -eared men everywhere since wounded soldiers were sent home from the battlefield. Many soldiers lost their lives during the war. Some families lost their only child. There are still many disabled war veterans at the rehabilitation center at Oji River in Eastern Nigeria. Their condition is deplorable to say the least. Many wounded veterans and civilians have ended up on the street as beggars.

We were one of the few fortunate families. My brother was wounded but he survived the war. He came home from time to time to visit us. We always looked forward to seeing him. He had a lot of fascinating stories to share with us. I still cannot figure out how he traced us since we moved from one place to another in search of a safe place to stay. When the time came for him to leave, we always prayed to God to let us see him again.

My oldest sister worked for Caritas, the international charity organization, which supplied most of the food for civilians during the war. My mother always introduced her as her daughter-in-law, my brother’s wife. This way she was able to keep the “women-hungry” soldiers away. At one point, she stuffed a pillow in her stomach to look pregnant. My other brother was “left behind” because he went to visit his father (my stepfather) at the time we left Enugu. We did not see him until the war ended.

My father was working in Lagos during the war. He was “cut off” from us. He did not see us nor hear from us (nor we him) until the end of the war. Then he was very nervous and scared to face the reality that we might be dead. His family decided to send my uncle, his nephew, who grew up in Enugu and could speak a few words of Igbo, to try to locate us. Upon receiving the good news about our survival, my father jumped on the next flight to Enugu. He had spent all those years worrying about us. The only pictures that he and whole world saw of Biafran children were of those dying from hunger or from the deadly malnutrition disease, kwashiokor. Fortunately, neither one of us died or even came close to suffering from kwashiokor or any other vitamin-deficient disease. My mom believed in the powers of vegetables and fed us tons of them: bitter leaf, “green” “ugu” “ora” or “oha” and whatever else was available. They worked miracles for us.

It is ironic that as sad as this story is, we also encountered a number of memorable experiences. We met a lot of wonderful people who opened-up their homes to us, the refugees. We learned other people’s cultures too. The Igbos have different cultures. One of the most of most hospitable and eye-popping places we stayed in was in a town in the Idemili local area. We stayed with a widow and her children. The woman’s husband died immediately after the birth of their youngest child, a daughter. The widow betrothed this daughter at birth to a wealthy man. Wealth in the old days in some parts of the world is measured by the number of wives, farms, livestock (sheep, goats, cows, etc.) a man has. This man was definitely wealthy on these terms. When the widow’s daughter became a teenager, her husband’s family came to take their bride home. We were shocked when we realized that the man we had mistaken as her groom’s grandfather was actually the groom. She went home with them, an unhappy bride. She would run back home from time to time but was sent back to her husband by her mother.

I saw a python for the first time in my life in this village. Upon our arrival, the villagers informed my mother of their belief: it is an abomination to kill a python. If one kills a python, he or she is expected to give the python a “befitting” burial, the same burial rites one would give to a human being. The Idemili River is located in this area. It is believed that this river is inhabited by very forceful and powerful supernatural beings, including the mermaid. Since the pythons live near the river, they belong to the mermaid and the river. Harming them in any way, even accidentally, would bring harm to not only the person who harmed them but also to the person’s family and maybe the entire village or town. I have never personally witnessed a python’s burial.

One of my aunts who was partially blind told us how a python had crawled into her room and curled-up on the floor mat right next to her bed. She started wiping her feet on her “mat” as she always did before getting into her bed at night. This woman was afraid of ants and nearly suffered a heart attack when she realized that her “mat” can now breathe! Talk about a rude awakening.

My personal encounter with the python happened when my baby sister and I were playing outdoors. Suddenly, we noticed a colorful “scarf” in the wall. We thought that someone had lost her scarf. We wanted to retrieve it from the wall and return it to the owner. Fortunately for us, there was a big garden separating us from the wall. Afraid to trample on the crops, we decided to go back to the house and bring an adult to help us. We told the homeowner what we had seen. He knew instantly that we had seen a python but kept this to himself so as not to scare us. He and a few others accompanied us to “retrieve the scarf.” By the time we got close to the wall, we witnessed the “longest moving scarf on earth” and it is not wearable! The python had uncurled itself. It was us and a huge python, up close and personal! The homeowner simply put a long stick to it and it curled around it. He then released it into the bushes. I made up my mind right there and then that if anyone loses anything colorful and I happen to find it first, I will never pick it up.

Some of the steep, rugged hills or terrain leading to the water. There are some parts of the river that we were banned from approaching due to the “unnatural forces” or superstitious beliefs associated with such areas. Many people have drowned or mysteriously disappeared there. In the areas of the river that we could go near, the swimming area was sectioned off from the area people would wash clothes. Drinking water was usually collected from the “mouth” of the river or the part of the river from where it flowed downward.

Each person carried with him or her a container that s(he) knew s(he) could lift once it was filled with water. I was a tomboy and at the “I can do it stage” during this time. I started initially with a bigger container. By the time I reached home, I had a few cups left in the container or one of the other adults would be lugging my container as well as his/hers. My mother gave me small a plastic kettle. My swimming/water fetching companions preferred that I stayed home. On occasion, they would try to sneak off to the river but I was very vigilant.

There was nothing like teenagers tagging along. It’s always a new experience. Take my cousins for example, they are very “creative” young men. They used to have a “shitting competition” (yes, number 2). Some bush areas close to the river and that are not “marked” are usually used as toilets. When an area is “marked” or there is a warning, the display of red rag, etc., we would stay out of it. Farms are usually “marked” and anyone violating the signs may be severely punished. We could “go” anywhere in the unmarked areas as long as we found a clean spot. My cousins went into the bush, one at a time. I wondered why they all simply could not go in at the same time since there was enough space for everyone. That was when they told me that they were having this competition whereby each one “goes” on top of each other’s #2. They were trying to “build” some sort of a “mound” bigger than the one(s) they had “built” the previous time(s)! In a time of war? You have just witnessed the minds of “would-be” men who would have gone to war to defend us if the war had not come to an end when it did!

We all knew that it was risky and dangerous to leave home for any reason, even to fetch water. We always worried because we knew that air raids or evacuations may happen at any time. During one of the air raids, the village’s market was bombed by the enemies on one of the Igbo market days. Countless number of civilians were wounded or killed.

There was a lot of jubilation when we heard the news that the war had ended. I consider war one of those unfortunate experiences one has to live through and survive to appreciate little things around us. Although the Biafrans had lost, we were all tired and desperate to go back home. We went back to Enugu. Several houses were destroyed. The houses that were not destroyed were looted. Understandably, many people suffered heart attacks or high blood pressure upon seeing their homes. Several Igbos lived, worked or conducted businesses in other parts of the country. Those who owned properties in notably Port Harcourt and the northern states, lost their undamaged properties and belongings when they were forced to return home to Eastern Nigeria. Their properties were declared “abandoned properties” by the governments of such states. Gradually, those who survived have reclaimed, rebuilt or replaced their properties. My grandfather used to say that “everything bought/purchased with money can be replaced. Lost lives are irreplaceable.”

My mother’s two houses were undamaged. We found out our belongings were looted and that a bizarre thing happened to my mother’s clothes. I believe we must have been robbed by a dummy or dummies. The thieves stole parts of her complete sets of clothing: her wrapper but not her blouse, or vice versa which is like stealing the jacket of a suit but not the skirt and vice versa. We never figured this out. My mother had the most elegant and exquisite collection of African clothes you can find in one place. One of the looters was a young man who lived (and still does) across the street from us. He became a “born again” Christian and later returned the items he had taken from our house to my mother just before she died in 1978.

I am happy that I finally had the courage to tell my children that l lived through a war as a child. We talk about the war sometimes when fathers in his home town with proper ceremonies . A woman who gave birth to a son is often buried in her husband’s village. It is for this reason that many families went back to the villages that they had stayed in to exhume the bodies of those whom they had lost and had buried there during the war–their sons, husbands, fathers, wives, mothers, and so on. The deceased were brought back home, given befitting burial ceremony or ceremonies and re-buried. These families are considered lucky. They had their beloved one’s body or bodies to bury.

Those families whose sons, husbands, fathers, etc. died at war fronts have no corpse to bury. Many of these MIAs were later publicly declared dead by their families. This way, proper burial ceremonies were held for them. This ceremony was very crucial, especially for those who were married. Their wives or husbands mourned them and possibly remarried. You may click here for situations where and when a dead person may not receive appropriate and befitting burial rites.

Though not verbatim, I still remember a few words from the poem, The Casualties (J. P. Clark) in which he wrote that “the casualties of war are not only those who went to war, but also those they left behind.” There is a verse in an African poem which I read recently that summarizes the aftermath of war:

There is no needle without piercing point.
There is no razor without trenchant blade.
Death comes to us in many forms.

The Nigerian-Biafran Civil War affected both Nigerians and Biafrans. We all lost loved ones.

Suffice it to say that we must also take the time to document our memories and stories as each one is unique … for the sake of our children and our history. I have decided to write down what I still remember for my children and for others who are interested. The more I have tried to forget, the more I remembered. War is terrible. Although one side ends up winning a war, no one truly wins.

I have read a lot of books about the Nigeria-Biafran Civil War. They all discussed the causes and consequences of this war. So far, I have read only one book that described the daily experience of civilians during this war. This book is a fiction, written in the Igbo language, is titled Isi Akwu Dara Na Ala Emetu Na Aja (irreparable damage or damaged beyond repair). Translated literally, the English equivalent of the title is: a broken vase/bottle can never be fixed. Although this is a work of fiction, the subject matter seemed truly real. The book focussed on the dilemma of a very rich man who suddenly lost all his wealth and became poor when he and his family were evacuated from the city due to the war. His wife turned to prostitution and blatantly flaunted her affairs with the Biafran army boyfriends at her husband. If the husband refuted her actions, her boyfriends would deal with him severely. When the war came to an end, the Biafran army became defunct and she lost all her “wealthy” boyfriends. Fortunately for the husband, none of his property and wealth were destroyed during the war. When the wife begged for his forgiveness, he refused, claiming that when he was rich, he took care of his family. When the shoe was on the other foot, the opposite was the case. Hence, the title of the book.

This book also described the experiences of one family, who during an evacuation, took their food with them. When they got to the bank of a river, they decided to rest and eat before continuing with their journey. There were other (very) hungry people around them. The family had to resolve some very difficult issues:

(a) should they wash their hands before eating their food or should they eat their food with their dirty hands because if they leave to wash their hands, others will take their food.

(b) If they decide to go and wash their hands one at a time, their hands, with which they will eat the food will dry up before the other people returned from the river.

The issue of trust was also addressed here. Should the person(s) left with the food be trusted to wait patiently for others to go and wash their hands?

A group of well-informed Igbo indigenes has formed an organization known as Ekwe Nche to educate the world and to create an awareness of the continuing massacre of the Igbo people. This organization may be contacted at:

Umunnem, happy survival!

You may email me at:  

Dele Chinwe Ukwu
Bibliographic Access Librarian
Long Beach City College
4901 East Carson Street
Long Beach, CA 90808.