Fiction

Bombed Out: A Biafran Childhood – By Obiwu

The Good Samaritan who brought me home told his part – his and his companions’.

“After the enemy planes flew away,” he said, “we ran to the place of the biggest gorge. The hole was so deep and wide it would swallow this house. Of course, we could not attempt to save those buried inside since we feared that the planes might come back and catch us unawares. So we concentrated on those thrown out of the hole by the force of the wrecking bomb. There were many of them scattered all over the ground near the tip of the hole, all of them covered with clay. Many of them were already dead, but we were looking for signs of life in the bodies.”

In Biafra it was a grief to look for the living among the dead; it was also a relief to find the living among the dead. The incident my Samaritan was describing so graphically was the first bombing in Umuahia, the heartland city of Biafra, by the occupationist troops of Nigeria. The war, as my father told me, was the last rite of what had become a seasonal carnival of Nigerians, particularly the Hausa-Fulani and their neighbors up North. The ceremonies were so elaborate and very complicated that in spite of father’s calm and detailed explanation I still found them very confusing. After his third attempt to open my eyes to the wild ways of adults, he threw up his hands.

“Don’t worry,” he said, “you are still very young to understand but some day you will. It is really a simple story of men and women who eat and drink and chant and dance in praise of their god. They bow: “Bisimillahi!” They pray: “Allah akbar!” Then they round off the orgy by offering Igbo blood as holocaust to their god.”

When I winced in greater confusion, father laid his right hand on my shoulder, looked into my eyes, and pleaded patience.

“My son,” he said, “when you grow up you will understand the making of scapegoats and why reasonable people who worship a god of strong thirst and passion would use their hands to commit murder.”

My father said that when the killings began again this time the Igbo who were lucky to escape the burning chambers and death camps and wailing wells and bloodied fields and rivers of genocide in Northern and parts of Western Nigeria, ran to their ancestral homeland in Eastern Nigeria and called it Biafra. But like Pharaoh and the Egyptians against the Israelis of old, Nigeria refused to let Biafra go. It was said that killing the Igbo was Nigeria’s first business – much bigger than petroleum export – and violence was music to the people’s soul.

“When I looked behind me for the third time,” Samaritan was saying, “my friend here (he placed his left hand on his friend’s shoulder) was still standing over the child whom both of us had come up on a little earlier. I was surprised. ‘Let’s get on with the search!’ I called out. ‘The child is dead! Come on, let’s look at the others!’

‘It seems he’s alive!’ my friend called back.

“The child was lying still on his back, his eyes staring fixedly at the sky.

‘He’s dead, come on.’

‘His eyes, his eyes moved.’

“My friend’s voice pitched to a high alto. He bent down to wave his hand across the child’s eyes.

‘What?’

“I could not believe what I heard. I raced back to the place where I had given up on the bodies about fifteen minutes earlier. My friend was standing struck over the child. I pushed him aside and scooped up the inert body from the ground. Instantly, he let out a terrible sneeze, scattering showers of saliva, mucous, and wet earth all over me.

‘He’s alive! He’s alive!’

“We sang. Everyone ran over to where we stood.

‘Get on with the other bodies!’ I screamed.

‘Whose child is he?’ someone asked.

‘Get some water!’

The command was taken up by many voices.

‘Get some water!’

The child was covered hair to toenails by clay. His face wore a mask of red earth. He seemed dazed, and was silent to all questions about his father and mother; yet his eyes roamed through every face in search of something that clearly was not there.

‘He could be shell-shocked,’ a voice suggested.

“Then a bucket of water was brought and many hands quickly joined in washing his head and face.

‘Is that not Njoku’s son?’ someone said.

‘Which Njoku?’ another asked.

‘The hotelier!’ many responded.

“That’s Obi!’ a woman shrieked. ‘That’s Igbeaku’s little boy who’s always running all over the market lanes.”

“Immediately we took him and rushed down here.”

Samaritan ended his story. You could tell he was very happy with himself. Whether his gloating stemmed from his heroic rescue of a bomb victim or the triumphant reception accorded his narrative was not clear.

There was a very thin film between the Igbo passion for adventure and their love for storytelling. The glint of joy in the eyes of the Igbo as they describe acts of bravery would make you wonder if the essence of a dangerous exposure was not in the telling. They actually have an old proverb that said “Men go to war; women bear the tale,” suggesting that action and narration are one. Of course, there could be other readings. For instance, you could say that a war is not over until its story has been told; or that the weak survive to tell of the chivalry of the hero; or that there would be no war without the story; or, in short, that the story makes the war. However it is, the Igbo has it as given that actions breed their tales, courts breed their historians, warriors bring their poets, and tortoises bring their shells. And so, even at such a fatalistic moment as this, Samaritan relished the attention and the praises he received apparently for both his bravery and his story .

All the while father cuddled me. He held me with both hands a little away from himself. He surveyed me very closely the way a goldsmith feels through a gem.

“Are you sure he’s all right?” father asked no one in particular.

All the same Samaritan and his companions affirmed my wholeness. No limb was cut; no scar was left to show the hard evidence of the physical victim of a merciless bomb blast.

“Is he not deaf? Can you hear me?”

“Of course, he hears,” the crowd responded.

Father seemed unbelieving. The Igbo were killed in large numbers at every strike of the Nigerian bombs. Nigerian warplanes picked out crowded Biafran civilian targets as if they were on strict orders to ensure maximum carnage and safe return to base. Such a miraculous survivor as me was always a sign of the divine affirmation of Biafra’s resistance before the enduring pit of the Nigerian genocide. Still in a daze and fussing over me, father called out to my mother.

“Nne Emeka!”

That was the curious fashion by which Igbo parents were hailed by their first child’s name. I wondered where she was. I had seen her in that fleeting moment when she screamed and disappeared. Then I heard voices from the courtyard persuading her of my reality. They sounded like echoes from a dream.

“No! My son is dead!” I heard mother cry. “I saw the bomb bury my son! I saw it!”

The echoes bounced loudly like the roar of a rampaging lioness whose cub was snatched by marauders. Nothing could calm her extreme excitation. She thrashed about and threw herself hard on the concrete floor. Condolences intensified in coolheaded pleas. A number of women held her firmly, and gently led her into the large living room.

“Nne Emeka, see your son,” father said.

“No!” mother went into another paroxysm. “He is dead! He is dead!” she shrilled.

Yet the pacifiers held her firmly. Gently, they urged her to carry me.

“Nne Emeka, Obi is all right. Just look at your son.”

I had never seen anyone so frightened before. Mother was so agitated that I became afraid myself. For the first time since the bomb explosion I felt myself give in to a heaving emotion. I let out a powerful yell and began to cry. Father held me firmly to his chest.

“Stop that nonsense, woman!” I heard him shout. “Take your son. He is not a ghost!”

I cried louder; a hidden force rocked my whole body. It was like a storm had burst apart the strongest dam in the world. I was drowning in my own tears. It was through a glaze that I saw mother rush to me.

“Give him to me!” she yelled.

She cradled me to her bosom and went into a frenzy again as she sank into a sofa someone had vacated. She was crying; I was crying. She crushed my face in her generous breasts. I felt a fleeting suffocation in her maternal warmth. Her breasts heaved like a beating heart.

I had felt so crushed a month earlier by an entirely unrelated incident. Under one of the large fruit trees that lined one side of Club Road running through the Goodsshed (where palm-oil and kernels were sold for export), a young crow had fallen with a broken wing. On the lower branch of the tree a large crow cackled on and on. On the other branches and the neighboring trees uncountable crows cackled along with the big one. Below the small bird squeaked lowly with a weakening strength. When I walked closer to it all the crows above heightened their cries in a hysterical din. I could not tell how long I stood there waiting for them to fly away, but their cackling mounted in a churning gyre of call and response between the mother crow and her encircling tribe that lasted an eternity. I lost appetite for the fruit that had lured me to the bewitched tree. With a crushed heart of grief I walked away never knowing what became of the fallen crow and her protective kin.

A child of six, what did I know of birds and war and dying? An infant on its mother’s back never knows that the journey is far. I was mellowed by the comfort of mother’s large bosom. I drifted between crying-sobbing-weeping. My arms encircled her body in a tight embrace. Her words began to flow from a receding consciousness.

“Does one ask steam water to be put out in readiness for a crash from a cliff edge? Do I have to choose between my son’s life and the madness of daylight? How could I know that in the marketplace of the world trouble comes in shining irons and ravaging fire?”

She was oblivious of any presences in the room in which silence welcomed her reverie. I opened my eyes. Numerous heads hung low. Father’s eyes surveyed the bare floor. I saw Uncle Cos’s eyes staring vacantly at nowhere. (Uncle Cos – his full name was Cosmas – was father’s younger brother and my favorite uncle. Dark and lost in the motions of the moment, though tall as a giant Iroko tree, Uncle Cos was unusual. He always had an unexplainable aura about him that deeply affected my impressionable mind. It was his story, not mine, that was to break the heart of everyone in our town). Those were the eyes I was to see from that day onwards as I rode home on the strong shoulders of an unknown man. I saw them in mother, who screamed and ran away. I saw them in father, who paused and grabbed at me. Creepy eyes were everywhere in the dazed faces of all who had gathered in my father’s house for my sake. Their questions flew from their bewildered eyes.

Mother glanced at me and her warm tears dropped on my face and into my mouth. She bowed her head and kissed them off. My sleep tasted of salt and baked words.

“We were coming home from our hotel,” mother continued. “Ebere on my back, I held Obi with my right hand. At the center of the market, close to the meat lane, a hush fell over the world. Suddenly voices rang out: ‘Take cover! Enemy planes are coming!’ In the very next breath the shadows of mighty birds (Were they two or three?) swooped overhead. They were droning like a platoon of hungry lions hanging very low. I could poke my finger on their lean bellies if I jumped high enough. It was then that the world caved in. People in a haze were running into one another. Those who couldn’t run were trampled on. Obi was knocked out of my hold, and the bomb dropped right where he fell. There were a deafening sound and a blinding flare from the pit of hell, the kinds that have neither been heard nor seen since the beginning of creation. Those were the last things I remembered. I found myself here, with Ebere held tight on my back by my wrapper.”

When I drifted briefly to consciousness again a vacuous smile hung darkly on mother’s lips. She took my right feet in her right hand and rubbed the outer skin gently.

“Look at this barge of courage,” she showed off the fading large scar on my feet to her audience. “That was the prize he won last year when his cousin, Benji, pushed him into that eternal smoldering lake of fire at the corner of Okigwe Road and Ubakala Street. He ran all the way home to me screaming down the heavens.”

She turned me over face down and pulled down my pant.

“See the smoothness of his butt.”

She palmed my butt gently as if to smoothen it.

“You would never guess how terribly he freaks out at the approach of the doctor’s needle. He actually shrieks down the roof of the Queen Elizabeth Hospital whenever I took him to the wards for his immunization shots.”

She pulled up my pant and turned me up again.

“This time also they did not leave a mark but they have scarred your soul forever. My lord and my hero, welcome home my child of fire, your life is a plague.”

She kissed me long and hard on the lips.

© Obiwu

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