Uli Airport and survival

Uli Airport is a symbolic shrine, which remains the height of Blackman’s greatest technological achievement to date. The wonder of Uli Airport is yet to be matched by Blackman anywhere in the world. The Airport and its structures have been deliberately left to decay, so as to attempt to obliterate the memory of an Igbo symbol of technological advancement, military superiority, resistance and survival. Had Igbo Day been held at Uli as scheduled earlier, its significance would have been almost impossible to express in words, in terms of its symbolicness and what Uli Airport represented and represents to Ndi Igbo.

Uli Airport the story goes was completely built from scratch by mostly Igbos. It was a military cum civil Airport. While supply aircrafts hovered overhead, the Airport below was said to be in pitch darkness and at the right moment the runway lights would come on momentarily as aircrafts come in and land. The aircrafts were said, according to legend, to taxi along runways, which terminated underground or into the trees, thus shielding them from enemy air-to-ground fire. Meanwhile, federal airforce jets hovered overhead strafing at every and anything in the pitch darkness below. It was said that any of the several run ways hit by a bomb or rocket was repaired immediately within minutes to enable the next supply aircraft hovering low overhead to land. The supply aircrafts often had to circle flying low above the trees for hours, evading federal airforce Migs and jets.

Uli Airport became the Igbo lifeline during the economic blockade, Biafra having become landlocked and surrounded. Uli Airport was of such importance or indeed of the most singular importance to Biafra and to Nigeria, so much so that the federalists landed a marine-borne invasion force at “Oguta II”, which was only about 20 – 30 odd kilometers to Uli, so as to bring the Airport within artillery range. Uli was so indispensable to the survival of Ndi Igbo, so much so that His Excellency General Ojukwu personally commanded the Biafran forces that defended “Oguta I” and liberated “Oguta II” within three days of the landing of federal forces in the area. I was a kid then and I vividly recollect seeing General Ojukwu and his convoy drive past towards Oguta. We were waving, cheering him and the troops being rushed to Oguta as they filed along singing, some on foot, others on vehicles and tractors.

One group of troopers went singing:

Gowon exclaims distraught – ‘Ojukwu’ o, Ojukwu’ o
Ojukwu has won the war
Ojukwu’o, Ojukwu’o
Ojukwu has won the war
I shall kneel before Ojukwu, plead forgiveness
I am defeated, my army routed’ …

A second batch of soldiers rent the air stamping their boots on the earth, singing:

My mother begot me – a soldier of the bush
My father begot me – a soldier of the bush
As though dead bodies without limbs,
Helpless, the bushes our home
Mosquitoes feast on my soldier, “Iworiwo”…

The third group of commandos would sing in answer:

My mother, don’t you worry
My father, don’t you worry
If I happen to die in the battle field
Never mind, we shall see again

My sister, don’t you worry
My brother, don’t you worry
If I happen to die in the battle field
Never mind, we shall see again

My uncle, don’t you worry
My auntie, don’t you worry ….

One of the only serviceable tanks captured from the federalists was also deployed in the battle for Oguta. In deed we watched a live deadly game of “cat and mouse” between the lone Biafran tank and several federal airforce Migs and jets, as the aircrafts tried every maneuver their battle plan in a bid to destroy the tank, pursuing it along Orlu – Okwudor -Awo-Omamma Road, part of Owerri – Onitsha Road between the Awo-Omamma – Amiri- Otulu -Mgbidi section and along Mbgidi – Oguta Road. We had to often scurry for cover as the jets kept firing rockets upon rockets and cannons indiscriminately along the road on siting the tank and the vehicle would dock in and out from the woods along the road, first rushing down to Oguta and then back afterwards rushing towards Orlu.

The battle for Oguta was all about Uli Airport. The federal side was desperate, a desperation that was reflected in the manner it deployed the Airforce in that battle. Neither vehicles nor people could move safely along any of the roads or nearby towns as the federal Migs and jets were strafing and rocketing anything that moved. The sight of so much devastation and death of so many innocent civilians, including children remains etched in our memories, who witnessed the events.

There was the little angel – Obiageli. She was barely three and beautiful – a kind of innocent beauty you would see once and would always remember for the rest of your life. On the third day of the battle for Oguta we were all about and around at “Okwelishi”, Awo-Omamma and the neighbourhoods around it, still cheering the troops passing to and fro, when the Migs thundered in, screaming past, as low as the roof tops. Everyone dived for cover. Then the rockets came whistling in, and the cannons and machine gun fire rained bullets on every inch of earth on its path. It sounded like death and it smelt like death, the flashes like thunder, the ordour gunpowder-like but ominous and sinister, the booms and bangs that followed. You wake up if you are lucky dazed, but for a while you wander about not knowing where you are nor what has happened around you. Then you feel hands grab at you, carrying you and running, then slowly you break into tears crying, terrified and fearful that the jets might come again, then you hear all the wailing around you, you open your eyes and you see all the blood and devastation around you. Obiageli was decapitated and she was only three – a beautiful little angle. However, she died so that the Oguta battle would be won and Uli Airport would be saved to keep Ndi Igbo alive for as long as it was necessary to guarantee their survival. That was what happened eventually.

After Obiageli was killed, all the children and women in our neighbourhood were evacuated into the thick bushes adjourning both banks of the Njiaba River. Those great banks of the Njiaba River has always provided succor and protection to our people in their most trying periods from time immemorial. Njiaba, by the way is a god. The presence of this god is manifested in its child, a species of pythons called “Eke Njiaba”. It would not bite nor harm anyone of us, its children but its bite is known to be deadly to humans elsewhere. In our neighbourhood and elsewhere in Igboland where the god Njiaba is worshiped, it is an abomination and sacrilege to kill ‘Eke Njiaba”. Should one be killed inadvertently, then the killer must be cleansed of his or her abomination as specified in custom and tradition, which included performing full burial rights for the “Eke Njiaba”, as though it were a titled man and an “Nze na Ozor”. Whoever killed an “Eke-Njiaba” must bury it as if it was human. The people children of Njiaba had no responsibility when the python died of natural causes, but the wrath of the gods where said to be visited on the community, bringing bad omen and calamitous events, if a human, having killed an “Eke Njiaba” failed to perform the cleansing rites in accordance with tradition. The community reacted accordingly and woe betide that person who committed such sacrilege and abomination.

But we the children and the women were given succor in the bowels of the bushes of Njiaba. We would shudder at times from hearing the booms and bangs of war and always from the screaming and thundering Migs overhead above the trees that lined the bowels of Njiaba, but we were safe and we knew it because nothing could touch us while in the protection of our gods. We would catch fish and crayfish in the stream, we would swim and bath in the waters, we would roam the bushes hunting rabbits and squirrels and our mothers and sisters were happy and proud of us for every kill that we brought in to enrich the common pot of soup. Our fathers were also happy for us but were somewhat sad, bemoaning the fate that is befalling their children. We were the war children, we were child-men and child-women, boy-men and girl-women, we were force-grown to do the things adults do because we had to self-preserve and survive. We were the war children, boy-men and girl-women and many of us actually carried and used “setimas” and SLMs”, threw grenades, died and survived in the trenches and battle lines as the adults did. Many more of us died like Obiageli, others out of hunger and kwashiorkor, not from the direct instruments of war, but from the blockade. They would hug each of us boys and yell out our aliases. Then, they called me “Asaweze”, meaning one man who would take over seven men’s palaver, he who would climb the iroko tree bare-handed. We were all a bit of, sort of happy again in some way, at least we could smile again for a while, notwithstanding our pains, our loses and our deprivation. Njiaba in this regard also helped us in a way to save Oguta and thus Uli Airport.

We also had romance, the innocent child-romance of the child-boys and child-girls of war. The child-boys would contest amongst ourselves for the attention of the most beautiful child-girls in town. We were all attending the wartime primary school and kindergarten, which was hidden inside the woods, under tatched roofs, palm trees and irokos. The ground rules were simple. Whoever presented the largest quantity of pear, oranges, mangoes or the current seasonal fruit to the child-girl in contention, lay claims to being her “make-believe husband”, until the another competitor surpassed that feat. So you could be a “husband” today and seize to be one the next week once another competitor has outdone you. Both the boys and girls accepted and respected the rules. In the bush square where we all gathered, the boys would indicate whether they were contesting for Julie, Cordelia, Apolonia, or any of the many beautiful daughters gracing our blessed land. Poor parents and neighbours; they paid dearly for our love games because we had to harvest their economic fruits piecemeal without authorisation. You couldn’t seek your parent or uncle’s permission to use up the family fruit-trees for such love games. We had sneak out with a salt bag in hand, in the heart of a heavy tropical rainstorm and thunderstorm, harvesting as much fruit as we needed, while the rest of the family sat in the comfort of the fireplace enjoying roast pear and maize. You then hid your love-war chest (the bag of fruits) in the bushes near the school. Often some folks specialised in finding another’s hidden war chests and appropriating them for their own purposes. There wasn’t much we could do about it, but anyone who was caught in the act of war chest finding was shamed and disqualified and they would cry for days after, pleading to be allowed back into the game.

And “Electric”, one of the child-boys was a very tough competitor. So was “Toronto”, “Orantu” and “Mawa”. We were all always in awe of “Electric” because he would often strip sacrifices offered to the gods of all its coins and valuable goods and nothing seemed to happen to him. He still lives today, married, with children. Many of the boys took the names of the then war heroes as their aliases to improve their chances and their popularity. One preferred to be called “Owuatuegwu”, the other “Achuzie”, yet another “Nzeogwu”, “Col Nwawo” etc. On the day of the lover’s competition, we would all gather in the bush square during school recess where all the competitors display their presents before the particular girl in whom they have interest. The judgement and decision was swift and in public view. Everyone would clap and break into songs coined with the name of the wining competitor and his new girl. Often many a girl sulk for weeks when their preferred boy failed to win, but she would wear the tag for a while, for that was the rule respected by all. Each time I won a wife the girls would often sing:

Ooooh Holy Ghost, Ohoooho,
May “Asaweze” come into my embrace,

And the song coined with my alias became quite a popular amongst my female peers at the time. We were in war and dying in large numbers every second that passed, notwithstanding, the war children lived life to the fullest the best way they could. We would cry in pain and hunger but we created cause for ourselves to smile, sing, dance and love.

No one ever sulked for long after loosing a love competition. We had too much in common and we were too busy doing adult things to worry over luxuries. We had farm and home renovation exchange programs. All the boys and girls would go to a party’s on a scheduled day and help out with tending their farms. It could be bush clearing, or cassava harvesting or just weeding. We all took turns at each other’s farms. Some who had tatched roofs needed help to mend them. Others who had zinc roofs on their houses also needed help to cover the rooftop with palm fronts so as to camouflage them against air raids. We tended and harvested the farms, fetched water and firewood, we did all that our fathers would do, so we could all survive. We fed the Biafran Army, contributing food cultivated by the children of war.

In the bushes, we continued to shudder at every boom and bang, some from bombs and rockets, others from the artillery battles raging at Oguta and elsewhere from the direction of Owerri. At that time we were children but we could tell every weapon in use by the combatants from the sounds they emitted and we could judge the progress of the war and the location of the frontline by how far the exploding artillery shells sounded. We could for instance distinguish a mortar sound from that of an artillery shell, a buffer sound from a rocket and a bomb, a machine gun fire from a cannon and a “setima” from an “SLM”, “Mark 4” and “LMG”. We kids became so expert in the affairs of state to the extent that we no longer worried when the adults ran out of home-recharged batteries and it became impossible to listen to Okon Okon Ndem of Radio Biafra and also Radio Togo. Those were the only good sources of pro-Biafra news in those days.

Our fathers devised a means of recharging alkaline batteries, which they needed in order to listen to Radio Biafra and Radio Togo. We were in total blockade and unless you where close to the leadership hierarchy, you could not gain access to such imports as a battery. The adults would soak the discharged batteries in some solution. I am uncertain what the solution was, but some of my mates rumored then that it was a salt or acid solution. The soaked batteries were then spread out in the open and sun-dried. When they load them again into the radio set, the radio would sound as loud as if the batteries were new. They would do this several times over before the battery was dead for good. We would inch ever closer to the adults as they listened to the radio, to hear news about the Oguta and other battles then raging on. The batteries were sun-dried recharged, the radio dilapidated but all the same, they gave us hope that Oguta and therefore Uli Airport would be saved.

In those days, my uncle “De Anyadi” was alive and well. We used to call him “Radio Togo” because he often ran out of batteries and on such occasions, he would always come home from work in the evenings to tell us the current news from Radio Togo. Once, he came home from work and announced that he heard from Radio Togo that the federal airforce planned to drop a gas bomb on Biafra, which would kill every living man or animal. He said that this was planned to occur in exactly three days time. There was consternation and despair in the entire village and town. The news spread like wild fire and there was panic and sadness everywhere. The people’s moral was as low as it could ever get. Just then my uncle came back from work the following day to announce that he had heard again from Radio Togo that there was an antidote to the federal gas bomb. We all listened and he said we should burn wood and gather as much charcoal as possible; grind the charcoal into powder and wrap the powder up with a piece of cloth, just like a filter. When the federals begin to drop this gas bomb, we should soak the charcoal filter in water, hold it over our nostrils and breath through it. There was a near stampede to cut down and chop up all the dead and dried trees around town. We boys worked like hell with our fathers and seniors to cut up enough wood while the girls and women gathered them, so as to burn up enough charcoal to make this life-saving filter for everyone. When three days passed and no gas bombs were dropped on us, my uncle became known as “Radio Togo”. There was another uncle of mine also renamed “Radio BBC” because he often came home with very skeptical news about the progress of the war. Thankfully, my uncle “De Anyadi’s” gas bomb news did not come to pass, but his charcoal filter technology gave us hope and courage that we would live to see the battle for Oguta won and Uli Airport saved.

Not a single federal soldier who set foot on Oguta went home alive. They all perished – including some who came with family, livestock and supplies in several supply ships in the armada that invaded Oguta. Many perished where their ships were sunk. The federal side risked and lost so much in that operation because they wanted Uli Airport at all costs. Ndi Igbo threw everything at them because Uli was our lifeline and last hope. The defeat of the federalists at Oguta left a monument which remains at the Oguta lagoon until today – the carcasses of the sunk federal ships are still there. Anyone who visits home should try go and see for themselves. General Ojukwu himself lead the operation – that was how important and strategic Uli was and is to Igbos.

Then the federal airforce came with a new method. They would drop a round fluorescent light and suspend it in mid air. This light shone like a moon. It was midnight and sometimes the first hours of the morning but you could pick up a pin or needle over a fifty or more kilometers radius from the almost daylight generated by this artificial moon. You would be in pitch darkness, either sleeping or simply because the oil lamps had to be put out to avoid federal jets that fired at any trace of light, and suddenly it was daylight from this strange moon hanging over from the sky in the direction of Uli. The first time it happened it was share panic and every one, old and young scurried into the bushes and the trenches. I say panic because we as children could sense the disquiet amongst the adults and the share confusion and pandemonium that reigned at the first appearance of this strange moon. Then the bombs, rockets and buffers (buffer was the Biafran anti aircraft guns used at Uli) would start to boom for what seemed like eternity and slowly the moon would die. Within minutes of the silence of the guns, the supply aircrafts hovering low all across the horizon would again begin to land at Uli. I heard the roar of every aircraft that landed at and took off from Uli and the deafening and terrifying boom and bang of every aircraft that crashed into the woods. I was only a child a few kilometers away from Uli. Most nights you would come out and watch these huge metal birds with large wings hovering so low over the roof you had think it would uproot the house with it like an eagle would lift a prey. But these were no birds of prey, they brought us food, medical, military supplies and life, but you were scared all the same, least they crashed onto the roof. After all, they flew in pitch darkness, low, almost hugging the trees, with federal jets ruling the heights, strafing, and rocketing any trace of light. They also had to keep away from ground fire from the buffer guns. I still wonder how those pilots flew those planes then.

Uli Airport was such a fortress that at a stage, the federal airforce jets and their pilots contrived to jettison their rockets, bombs and cannons at targets and bushes as far away as possible from Uli Airport. And all the neighbouring communities, including mine paid dearly in lost lives and damaged buildings, farms and economic trees. That was how powerful Uli Airport was.

Almost every Igbo who survived as a refugee, every child who was rescued from kwashiorkor and many who lived to tell the tale and to continue the procreation of the Igbo race today, towards its destiny, owed their survival to Uli Airport. Every grain of rice or corn meal or garri gabon, every drip drop or tablet, every stick of stockfish or other nutrients, every and each single bullet or gun fired by NdiIgbo in self preservation and survival, at a stage was landed at Uli Airport.

His Excellency, General Ojukwu left the embattled Biafran enclave through Uli so he may live to fight another day, hence he is with us today.

In the last days and hours of Biafra in January 1970, even when the expedition force sent out probably from Uli Airport to blow up the Njiaba bridge at Awo-Omamma so as to hold the advancing federal troops there had been destroyed by federal troops who had crossed the bridge much earlier than the Biafran forces could arrive and hold it, and the whole of Awo-Omama and environs had been taken by the rampaging federal forces, Uli Airport continued to fire mortars and shells in the direction of Awo-Omamma where they thought the federal troops were located. In this respect, Uli Airport is symbolic for firing the first shot in defense of Igboland since the demise of Biafra. In a sense, Uli Airport remained undefeated and unsurrendered. The airport smoked even after the very last moment of Biafra and the federals could not venture into its precincts until General Effiong and other officers had ensured and guaranteed their safety.

There could be no better place and symbol of Igbo resistance and survival than the vicinity of Uli Airport. Igbo detractors hate the place, they had rather it was wiped off the maps, never to be mentioned again. It was one place that was impenetrable and undefeated, defiant to the last, firing shells and motors even after Biafra had formally seized to exist. Egyptian pilots, Russian Migs and British jets and military advisers could not stop Uli Airport – the most sophisticated piece of engineering designed and constructed by a Blackman anywhere, and which surpassed what many a Whiteman can ever design or construct. Any other country that had proper values would have turned Uli into a monument – tourist, spiritual or otherwise. The Igbo Nation will ensure that Uli Airport lives forever.

What about the courageous pilots who continued to fly to Uli Airport against all odds? There were not Igbo, but many of them perished trying to save Ndi Igbo, either shot down by federal airforce jets or ran out of fuel or crashed into the trees flying too low for hours waiting for the federal jets to run out of ammunition. Part of the reason many of those pilots kept coming, notwithstanding the risks, was not only because they loved Igbos, but also because they had confidence in Uli Airport. We have to rebury those pilots too.

Denying Igbos the use of such an edifice and symbol as Uli Airport as a place to celebrate the remembrance of their war dead is the most treacherous act that can ever be perpetrated against Ndi Igbo. It is an act that appeases those who fail to appreciate the values of Ndi Igbo and it is an act that diminishes the Igbo spirit and a celebration of their survival and their triumph over adversity. That singular act is sacrilegious and deserves appropriate punishment in accordance with Igbo traditions and custom as laid down by our ancestors, deities and gods.


Francis Nnamdi Elekwachi