I lost my 5-year-old-sister to kwashiorkor during civil war – Nnatu
Kanayo Nnatu was a seven-year-old boy in Primary 1 in Ifite-Awka when the Nigerian civil war broke out in July 1967. Six months after the Nigerian military launched an audacious campaign against erstwhile Eastern Region which had declared itself as Republic of Biafra on May 30, 1967, the federal troops entered and conquered Awka, later to be the Anambra state capital. The young Nnatu fled with his family into the forest where they were to live throughout the rest of the 30 months during which the war lasted. In this interview with O’star Eze, the 59-year-old provides an intriguing account of his survival in that war which claimed over 3 million lives.
How old were you the Nigerian civil war started?
I was seven years old and in Primary 1 when the civil war started. In those days, you were not allowed into primary school until you were able to touch either ear with your hand from the opposite side of your body. I was seven years old before I was able to achieve this.
Where were you when you heard that the civil war had started?
I was in Awka. We heard a lot about the war but never took it seriously until the Nigerian troops entered Awka in January 1968. That day, my siblings and I had just returned from school and were preparing yam porridge for lunch. My father, a cloth trader, had gone to Ugwuoba to sell his wares when we started hearing gunshots. Just when we were about to eat, our mother rushed into our compound and told us to follow her and that Nigerian soldiers had entered Awka (Awusa abata go Awka) and that people were running for safety.
We left immediately, leaving everything behind including our father’s stockpile of cloths. We moved through what is now known as Secretariat Road, crossed Imoka River and entered Nodu and headed for Isuanaocha. We had no destination in mind, just fleeing from the gunfire and war. We were anxious to stay as far away from Awka as possible, to avoid being massacred. It was raining heavily as we were fleeing but it never stopped us until we got to Isuanaocha around 9 pm.
In Isuanaocha, we received information that many compatriots from Ifite-Awka were in Mkpagu village. We, therefore, left for Mkpagu Forest where we reunited with other Ifite people. We, then, built houses with materials we could get from the forest and settled there.
We later learnt, from other people that fled from Awka same day as us, that the Nigerian soldiers had received intelligence report that Biafran soldiers were hiding in the first ever storey building in the area. The information was that Nigerian troops bombed the building killing all its occupants. This triggered a stampede.
Were there any cases of brutalisation of civilians by the army in Awka?
Definitely, brutalisation occurred. Nigerian troops brutalised those Biafran civilians who did not surrender to them. Old men and women who could not escape from Awka and decided to take refuge in the residence of one Okoli family house in the town were discovered by Nigerian soldiers and slaughtered. Also, a woman called Ukasulu who was staying around the popular First Market area of Ifite-Awka was killed in her home, just as a blind man known as Ejiofor was also killed. Ezenwa and his father went to pluck pear when Nigerian soldiers accosted them and ordered Ezenwa down from the tree. He obeyed and the soldiers asked them to match with them to St Paul’s School, near the Nigeria Prison where the soldiers were stationed. Ezenwa’s father refused to move despite pleas from his son to comply. He was shot and Ezenwa followed them to their station, stayed with them and came back after the war. And because he could also speak Hausa language, he was made the Sarki and empowered to the extent that he was sharing food to the hungry people who lined up in front of his house. So, those that surrendered to them were not harmed.
Nwume, another victim was also captured alongside other civilians. He surrendered to them while the others who did not were shot dead. Nwume was taken captive and survived the war.
After the war, there was so much hunger in the land that a lot of women ran to the Nigerian soldiers who had food and most of those hungry women left their husbands and children and went with the soldiers. They took away people’s wives without any remorse.
Did you have any encounter with people who engaged in afia-attack during the war?
Many people from Ifite Awka engaged in Afia attack, mostly in Agbaja market in Eziagu, Enugu state. They routed their movement from Amansea to Ebenebe, crossed a river and entered Eziagu and then Agbaja in Eziagu. There, Nigerians traded secretly with Biafran people in total silence. You would not talk. Those that talked got killed. One of those that was killed in the course of the secret trade that I know was Mama Barrister Okechukwu. She was killed by the Nigerian soldiers when they suspected that she was a double agent who usually took information from Nigerian soldiers at Agbaja Biafran soldiers; and also obtained Biafran military secrets and sold to Nigerian soldiers.
She was a beautiful woman and the Nigerian soldiers used to give her milk and other food items in exchange for the classified information they got from her. But when they found her out, they tied her up to a big rock and threw her into a river where she drowned. Her tragic death scared other women who equally engaged in such risky adventure. Many of those women that went with the soldiers came back later with children they conceived for them. We have several of them in Ifite-Awka.
What horrible experience easily comes to your mind whenever you remember the civil war from the Biafran side?
Well, there are many but I, particularly recall, with horror, the period during the war when people, especially children were dying in numbers in Awka as a result of acute malnutrition or kwashiorkor. Most families lost children to Kwashiorkor and I remember one man who saw the way those children were dying and how burying them was becoming time consuming and those burying them easy targets for air strikes. So, the man took it upon himself to ask that he be assigned the responsibility of burial of all children that died in the area. So, he would be going about asking for children that died and would carry the corpses in a sack to an isolated place, where he would dig a shallow grave and bury them.
It was really a sad experience seeing so many children dying as a result of nutritional crisis. And that was because, for three years, we never saw milk as kids then. It was after the war that they started sharing milk to us at St Paul’s Secondary School, Awka (Now Paul University).
There was equally scarcity of salt during the war and we only accessed it as a derivative from stock fish. Anytime any of us got stock fish either from the ‘Afia attack’ or missionaries, we would first boil the stock fish in water, decant the salty fluid which we then preserved and shared across as many households as it could reach. We then cooked with the stock fish.
Apart from salt, there was equally scarcity of meats for animal protein. Lizards and rats and even wall geckos were the available sources of protein. None of the rodents dared cross our path as we would chase and catch it, killed and cooked it for meat. I remember in those days that any time we used any of those reptiles to cook soup, our mother would share the soup to all of us. We were told it was antidote to kwashiorkor.
What was life like for you and others of your age then?
It was horrible. We were not doing anything then. The adults would send us kids to hunt for rats, wall geckos and lizards and when we caught some, we would bring them home for to be cooked. We would watch our siblings get sick with kwashiorkor and die before our eyes. I lost my immediate younger sister, Iruka, to kwashiorkor. She was about five years old when we died. We would be sleeping at night and then suddenly we would be jerked up from sleep by the sound of bombs and jet fighters and we would run into the night and start running helter-skelter with no destination in mind.
We did not go to school for the three years neither did we see any milk or beverage then. We were not allowed to wear white or shiny clothes as such would expose us to jet fighters. We could not spread cassava flakes (abacha) too like we do these days. Back then, we had people who used to go from compound to compound to find out if there was any defaulter that had a white or shiny object [that could endanger the environment through exposure to air raids] and such were fined.
There was equally the challenge of making fire, how did you people address that?
There were neither lighters nor matches then. Every household cooked with firewood and ensured they had one firewood with ember of fire that was stoked whenever another meal was needed to be prepared. There were those that had uli-akwu, an oil lamp made from palm nut fibre. Whenever a household discovered that they had no ember of fire left, those of us that were kids would be sent with an uli-akwu to seek out and get fire from neighbours. In other words, we shared fire amongst ourselves then.
How did your family survive the hunger?
Our people, Ifite people were originally farmers. So, when we converged in the forest, we started cultivating yam and cassava and several other crops. But some essentials like salt was scarce. We had either to go to Biafra 1 areas like Orumba, Ndikpa and environs or to Agbaja side to buy it. Biafra 1 was the area that the Nigerian soldiers did not penetrate. What happened then was that the Nigerian soldiers entered Awka and continued down to Abagana where they met huge resistance from the Biafran army. The battle on that front continued till the war ended.
Where were you when it was announced that the war had ended?
We were in the Nkpagu forest when we heard that the war had ended. We were told to go to Eke Agba in Urum to raise our arms in front of the Nigerian army in surrender. By this time, most Biafran army officers had thrown away their guns and disguised themselves as civilians like us.
Did you lose any valuable property during the war?
Yes. We lost several. Worthy of note were the stockpile of clothing my father left in the house alongside the machine use for milling farm produce. We had one at Ifite-Awka and another one in Mkpagu but we later left it for the people living in that area.
It has been 49 years since the civil war ended. Do you think the federal government has attended to the issues that gave rise to the war?
Not at all. Things have even got worse now. It is now that we have serious problems. Before the civil war, every region was independently developing their region with their indigenous resources. The east was known for their palm produce. Louis Ojukwu, the first African millionaire exported palm oil. In the west, the regional government under Chief Obafemi Awolowo, introduced free education because they produced a lot of cocoa and rubber. In the north, they were known for groundnut. They had the groundnut pyramids which they used to export to earn foreign exchange. Then the centre was weak while the regions were strong because they had full control of their resources. It is not like that again today.
Would you say secession is the solution?
It is not the solution. Biafra Republic, Arewa Republic; they are not the solution. Let us return to how we were before when we had no states but regions which had full control of their resources. If we do this, we would fare better as a nation. If you are talking of Biafra, who will rule the state of Biafra if we achieve it? This will be a problem. Igbos cannot rule themselves. We find it hard to help one another. Most Igbos who made it economically would attribute their success to people from other tribes. I think the best thing would be for the states to be allowed to manage their resources and develop their state by themselves and send a particular percentage to the centre.