Wounded in Battle, Abandoned at Home: Pains of Being a Biafran Soldier
Gideon Njoku, 70 sits on a bench; his back relapsed on a wall. His broken and bandaged leg outstretched on a chair in front of him. His crutch resting beside him. Bare-chested, he is tying a rapper. His face is rumpled, signs of aging.
He is sitting in front of the part leading to his apartment, characterized by dilapidated rooftops and bordered on both sides by none functional cables, hanging on the walls. He has been living in darkness.
That is how far he can travel now after he was hit by a motorcyclist the same day he returned from the burial of a relative- at Ikeduru, his home town in Imo State- on the same spot where he was shot during the war. He had gone out to buy food when the rider rammed into him and refused to stop.
The accident of the 7th of October, 2019 more than doubled the pains from bullets he has been suffering from for the past 50 years. With no money to afford quality hospital treatment as always, it is difficult for him to walk now. He only comes out every morning and sits in front of his house.
Wounded but happy
In 1970, after the war that pitted the Eastern region against the Nigerian government- which claimed millions of lives- soldiers who were wounded fighting for Biafra were taken down to Enugu where they were given treatments for free.
Njoku did not know about this until he went to a hospital in Owerri where he had been receiving treatment and the doctors in charge told him that his colleagues had all been transferred to Enugu where they were being treated and taken care of.
“I had to travel down here to receive treatment as well. In Enugu, we stayed at GTC, provided by the then government. We were receiving treatment for free. We had nurses around. Any time we need to go see the doctor or receive treatment, we were taken to a specialist hospital, where the University of Nigeria Teaching Hospital, UNTH used to be,” he said nostalgically.
Though wounded, Njoku and his colleagues had every reason to be happy. The then Ukpabi Asika led-administration of the East Central State made sure they were fed well. Everything they needed to make life worthwhile was available. Their hospital bills were paid. The treatments were just perfect.
“We ate three times daily. The meals were exquisitely prepared. They made us have a sense of belonging and we felt we did not waste our time fighting the Biafran war. We were very happy we did,” his tone rising and falling.
In 1975, the government, in further its perceived bid to appreciate them for their gallantry, moved the wounded soldiers to Oji River and settled them on one end of the Oji River Leprosy Settlement Centre.
Theirs was called the disabled Biafran war veterans camp. The two blocks with different apartments were well furnished with modern facilities- system toilets and bathrooms, functional taps, electricity, air conditioners. Just everything they needed to make life after the war savory. Most importantly, they were fed well and were given treatments for their wounds.
But the narrative soon changed two years later in 1977. As days ran into weeks and weeks into months and then years, everything they had that made life interesting in the camp stopped working. The electricity, the taps, the toilet facilities. Worse still, they were now being asked by doctors in various hospitals where they formally had received free treatments to pay.
“We only received treatment a few times when we got here and then, everything ended. Anytime we went to treatment, we were asked to pay. He regretted that the doctors said that the government had already stopped paying for our treatments like they used to.”
Life now had become unsavory for them. They could not afford hospital bills.
Trying to adjust his rapper to show how bullets ran through his lower abdomen and then to his leg, Njoku said that there were 80 wounded soldiers when they got to their new camp in 1975.
Now, there are about six families left in the camp. Most of the wounded soldiers had died since they could not afford quality treatments anymore. Some of them who still had families that were willing to take care of them returned home.
Njoku had to stay back since he has no one to take care of his needs. He is married with 7 kids, all grown up. But they are not in school. He does not have the means to pay for their education. “Our children are scattered everywhere with nothing doing. After secondary school and there is no money to send them to the university. They remain at home. I have a son who is above 20. But I still feed him. I should not be doing that. At this age, he should be taking care of me.”
Before the accident that increased his pain, he opened a poultry farm with the little money he had. He later sold everything and used the money to cater to his needs. He wants to cultivate Cassava close to the camp. But he does not have the money. He says that would have helped him deal with hunger at least.
Njoku has only gone to scan the broken leg once and that was when a certain man, unknown to him came to the camp and gave him some money. “I was surprised when he came and said he wanted to help wounded Biafran soldiers, having heard of the trauma they are going through.”
With his leg broken, one can only imagine how Njoku manages to go to the bush to ease himself since he has to bend.
The road leading to the sleepy camp is dusty. The camp is bordered by overgrown bushes. On one far end of the camp lies a none-functional reservoir that used to serve the camp. Just beside it, there is a tap, looking antiquated and whose water Njoku says is not good for drinking.
“That is our only source of water here. It serves both us and other surrounding communities. It is supposed to use only for washing. But we are forced to drink it sometimes since we don’t have another alternative,” he regrets.
The 15th of January made it exactly 50 years since the war ended. When that day came, Njoku said they expected the government of the South East to at least send them food, considering their efforts during the war.
“That day has come and gone, we did not receive anything from the government. Our people have forgotten. They have forgotten how we gave everything to have a sense of belonging. How we fought to be free. Nobody wants to talk about us anymore. We cannot fight the government. We cannot kill ourselves,” he regretted, adding that they were glad to have survived the war.
Husband gone, hope lost
In 2016, Adamma Okeke’s husband, Felix died years after he battled with the bullets wounds he suffered during the war. He was part of the soldiers who were receiving free treatments before the government stopped everything.
“When the government stopped helping us, the pains increased and we could not afford to pay his bills for quality treatment. We took him to the hospital we could afford. But he was not getting better,” her voice shaking.
Okeke explained that they had to bring him home and resigned to fate and when he could no longer bear the pains, he died. They took him to his hometown where he was buried.
They have been in the camp after his. But Okeke says no one has come to ask how they have fared since her husband died. She is deeply pained by her husband’s death and says she will continue to remember it.
“My husband was abandoned by the government he fought for. We have spoken out about their sufferings to the government for many years. We are even tired of speaking since nothing is happening,” she said, trying to hold back tears with one finger in mouth.
Her son, Nnaemeka, faces downwards, bare-chested. He is putting on shots and trying to fry unripe plantain he had just plucked from a nearby farm. That is supposed to serve as lunch for the day.
Mom is gone, sister lying helplessly sick
Obinna Egbuna 28 had just returned from town, where he would always go in search of menial jobs, something he does daily to fend for himself and his younger ones. His father, one of the wounded soldiers, is out in the street, begging for money.
Egbune is not always lucky as there are days when he goes out and does not return with any money. On such days, he and his sister, the only two staying in the camp, make do with whatever their father brings home.
It has been five years since his mum died after she suffered from an illness. He explains that there was no money to take her to the hospital when she became ill. They kept her at home and hoped she would get better. But she did not survive.
“Her death really created a lot of vacuum for us. We are seven in all and I am the first. Now, the whole burden rests on me since my father is not strong. We really hope the government will come to our rescue. We are suffering here,” he said.
His younger sister, Victoria is lying down helplessly on one end of the house. She has been crying, something Obinna says she does on a regular basis. He says she would always come out to that position, lie down every day and cry.
“It is unusual. We don’t even know what the problem is. She has been having the problem for years now. We have taken her to the hospital. But doctors could not tell what her problem is. We have even stopped going to the hospital and resigned to fate,” he said, his voice weakening.
Egbune says his sisters needs better medical attention as the family does not want to lose her.
Soldiers turned beggars
Njoku explains that as soon as it is 6 in the morning, his colleagues, who can still manage to trek long distances, with the help of their clutch, go to the streets where they beg commuters for money and only come back when it is 7 pm.
But they don’t go out always. On days when they become too tired to go out, they gather and discuss.
“There are days when they go out and after explaining our situation to people, they give them money and even follow them home to see where we are living and even give us more money. That is the only reason why we are still alive today. We thank God for those who are helping us,” he said.
Along the Enugu-Onitsha expressway, two of the wounded soldiers who would always go out together to beg are seated on their wheelchairs. One of them is outstretching his hand and waving at commuters.
A visibly angry Sylvester Egbune, Obinna’s father says they are tired of talking since the government is not doing anything to help them. “This is 50 years since we finished the war and have been abandoned and treated like we are not human beings,” we don’t even want help from them again. We will continue to struggle this way,” he said.
Relieving war memories
Njoku and his colleagues try to be happy despite the sufferings they have been exposed to over the years. He talks about how they would always share sticks of cigarettes anytime those who go out to beg return.
“We stay outside here till it is 12 am, despite the cold. Whoever comes back with cigarettes, we share, just like we always did during the war. That makes us happy. We discuss our experiences during the war and how we fought for our people.”
He adds that they would always make a mockery of themselves with their injuries. “But we are never angry at each other. If someone else does that, we take offense. We have grown to love ourselves. The fact that we are here together is the major reason why we are still alive,” he said letting out a grin.
Njoku was inspired to join the Biafran army because he wanted to fight for his fatherland. He still believes in the Biafra dreams “We would not have been here today if we did not fight. I still want us to have freedom, but not with war because I have seen it all. There are better ways we can be free,” he said.