It was just like any other day as children were playing carefreely around the Onitsha Inland Town. The not-so-young could be seen returning from their usual visit to the Nkisi river which served as a major source of potable water at the time. The only thing that gave an inkling that something was not quite right was the sight of elders in clusters, listening to Radio Biafran, at the homes of those with transistor radios.
“All is calm and there is no need for panic. Our gallant, irrepressible and indomitable soldiers have not only repelled the now fleeing enemy but are poised to march down to Lagos to seize Gowon”.
“As we prepare for the inevitable conquering of the Nigerian state, let us remember that Saboteurs in our midst deserve no mercy. They must be flushed out and reported to the Biafran authorities even if they are your blood. For the blood of our darling Biafra is stronger and greater than any familial relationship”.
These were the type of broadcast messages we were treated within the weeks leading up to that day.
And then, there was the prophetess.
Odozi Obodo was an Ndoni native. She had set up a trado-christian ministry on the banks of the Nkisi River and increasingly found fame to the extent that many eagerly looked forward to the latest message God would send through her. It was not an uncommon sight to see a large crowd of people, in expectation of her message, rushing to take vantage positions at the banks of the Nkisi River.
Over time, she set up branches at Fegge and an area off Isiokwe street, Onitsha.
She, it was, who weeks earlier had given a very moving and soothing message. God told her that in the unlikely event that Federal forces breach the Biafran defences and invade Onitsha, that anyone who had the presence of mind to locate her church and take refuge therein would be safe. Her church building, she said, was fortified, marked and protected by extra special angels sworn to resist any force with evil intentions towards the people.
The day started like any other. As early as 1:00 am that morning, I was safely sound asleep in bed, though it was expected that the familiar noise of women preparing their wares for the day’s trade was beginning to creep into our homes.
Prior to that morning, what did I care? I was just a boy in the midst of two elder brothers who dotted on me like their very existence depended on it. Nothing about that morning’s cool breeze prepared us for what was to follow in a matter of hours.
Sometime in the early hours, around 4:30 am, a deafening noise rent the air and shook the foundation of our home. Almost immediately, the local Biafran alarm bells started peeling frenetically.
That noise was the beginning of an unending nightmare. Chaos and pandemonium ensued. The Onitsha skyline viciously came alive in an orgy of fireworks. Mortar shells rained from the skies, blowing up neighbourhood homes in a random fury.
Shouts of “Hausa abatago Onicha Ooo!!” The enemy soldiers are in Onitsha!!” rent the air. My elder brother, Tobenna held tightly to my wrist while our dad Akukalia, together with my other brother Edozie, gave orders that we should rush down to Odozi Obodo’s church where we were assured safety.
And then began the most difficult journey I have ever made. The short distance from our home at Agba street to Odozi Obodo’s church took an eternity. Intermittently, we scampered to safety, taking refuge in any shade we found while the shelling continued unabated overhead. Along the way, it became obvious that we were not alone on this pilgrimage.
Fathers could be seen clutching newborn babies. Children huddling close to mothers, who in turn were constantly barking frantic orders at the children, as if using the fear in their voice as an umbilical cord that kept the children firmly attached to them. It was later that we learnt that a lot of aged ones were left behind.
If ever one pictured chaos, this was it. Wailing relatives could be seen searching for loved ones amidst the smoking rubble and craters of what was left of houses that stood there just a few minutes earlier. A raggedly column of people snaked through the pandemonium, silently trudging on as if in a trance, and that they knew where they were going.
“Have you heard? Ozi’s house is on fire and it is serious”, I overheard Ojinnaka our neighbour telling someone as we approached Odozi Obodo’s church. She must have been reacting out of some sort of shock because it was not just Ozi’s house that was on fire, Onitsha was burning that day.
The church by now, was a beehive of activity, swarming with desperate individuals. You could hear the singing and clapping from a mile away.
To say that the scene at Odozi Obodo’s was chaotic is to put it mildly. Families huddled together, clapping and singing praises. The fear was palpable. Odozi Obodo, her only son and family members were nowhere in sight. You could see from the faces around us that there was little hope. Everyone was clutching at the straws of hope that the singing and clapping offered. Anything to believe, to stem the fearful tide of impending doom.
One minute we were singing and the next, some stern-looking strangers donning military fatigues brought a halt to our chanting.
It would appear that the approaching Federal soldiers heard the loud singing and clapping. Shooting sporadically in the air, they encircled the church. The same church we had earlier been told was fortified, marked, and protected by extra special angels sworn to resist any force with evil intentions towards the people.
Then, the nightmare began…
“Who is in charge here?” Barked a handsome dark fellow with a strange accent and deep tribal marks on both cheeks…
“We need all the women and children to find their way outside in an orderly manner. Adult men and teenage boys remain where you are”, he continued…
There must have been something about the way he issued those orders because a large wailing suddenly erupted from the women and children. On my part, I still recall the look my dad gave me as he lovingly wrapped the shawl he was wearing around my neck and gave me a deep hug. A now weeping Tobenna and Edozie encircled me, refusing to let go…
I didn’t understand why I was being asked to leave my family. I vehemently refused to go. Amidst all the wailing, daddy assured me that everything would be alright and that I had to leave immediately…
There was a frightened look on 14-year-old Edozie’s tearful face. Father tightly hugging my two brothers as our neighbour, Mama Ekwutosi, grabbed me away from them.
Those last images haunt me to this day.
And the sounds?
I doubt that I can ever forget the rat-ta-ta! rat-ta-ta!! of those guns as they unleashed torrents of hot lead into their innocent bodies.
We waited outside as if my father, elder brothers, and all the other men would still pick up their limp bloodied and bullet-ridden dead bodies and join us outside.
This is where my father, brothers, and a host of others fell.
The same arena we all sought refuge, is where evil violent death met and took them.
This is where they were murdered. Not as combatants in a war, but as fathers and siblings trying to ferry their women and children to safety.
It was a broken raggedly group of children and women that were marched by the soldiers from the genocide scene to the makeshift internally displaced person’s camp at Fegge.
We heard more heart-breaking stories when we arrived at the camp. Mothers raped, sisters violated, and the aged who could not escape, summarily executed in their own homes.
There were also stories of those who vehemently stood their ground. Men armed with not more than Dane guns, assured fleeing family members, confident in the propaganda from Radio Biafra that the enemy was all noise and no action. “This is a cowardly enemy that we will gun down if they as much as step an inch into our homes” They wondered why others were panicking. They must have wondered why Prophetess Odozi Obodo and her family was nowhere to be found.
How a young child like me survived the war without family, amidst the shelling, unpredictable strafing from strange white men in low flying airplanes, the massive killings of fleeing Onitsha indigenes by a neighbouring community we once successfully trounced in land litigation, was nothing short of miraculous.
Then, there was the benevolence of some other communities that accommodated and fed us, despite other Biafrans tagging Onitsha people “Saboteurs” because our son Major Ifeajuna rightly and openly pointed out the unsustainability of the war. A just war alright, but largely driven by massive propaganda which bore no semblance to the grim reality on the ground.
I can tell you that it is only a man that never saw a war that will be toying with the prospect of war…
Today the grounds on which Odozi Obodo’s church stood wear a new look. With a Christ Holy Church, International on the same spot that holds terrible memories. Even after fifty-odd years, I cannot but ponder what became of the bodies of my Father Akukalia and brothers Edozie and Tobenna.
If only we had been as smart as Prophetess Odozi Obodo, who had no faith in her own prediction, they would still be with me today.
May we and our generations yet unborn never see war again.
NB: Pictures include the modern church standing on the same grounds the massacre took place and also the bullet-ridden Nzegwu property that still stands to this day in Onitsha.
Aledeh News is not liable to opinions expressed in this article, they’re strictly the writer’s