Horrors of Asaba Massacre, lest we forget, By Tony Eluemunor

Posted by News Express | 13 October 2019 | 991 times

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•Tony Elumunor

I know that in 2002, Gen Yakubu Gowon (retd), Head of the Federal Military Government during the Civil War, apologised for the Asaba massacre.

Unfortunately, all through the war and immediately after, Gowon said not a word about the Asaba massacre. He did not punish the perpetrators. When the war ended in 1970, he toured the Eastern states and passed through Asaba to Benin (I was in the Boys Brigade then and helped in controlling my fellow primary school pupils who lined the road at Ubulu-Uku to welcome him). And though he stopped at Asaba, he failed to apologise then. He remained head of state for five years after the war, until his administration was kicked out in the coup of 1975. Still, he did not acknowledge the massacre. 

Gowon cannot claim ignorance of the massacre while he was in power. The London Observer commented on it on January 21, 1968; Le Monde, the French evening newspaper wrote about it on April 5, 1968; LOOK, the British magazine, did same. A Canadian Member of Parliament, Stephen Lewis, who served as the UN Observer, was mentioned in the London Observer of October 11, 1968. So, Gowon missed a golden opportunity when he visited Asaba in 1970.

It just happened that the Nigerian press considered it a patriotic duty to deny or overlook it. But, things changed when a former star of Rangers International Football Club of Enugu Mr Emma Okocha, published a well-acclaimed book on the eventful subject. I had searched for the book without success until someone brought it to me at 1AM on Wednesday night. I took a cursory leafing through the pages and was dazed by the amount of nastiness the federal troops exhibited, and with inhuman ferocity too. I had by then concluded the trajectory of this piece, and decided to read the book afterwards, or I might not even be able to complete the article. Blood flowed all through the well-researched pages. Okocha piled relevant facts upon valuable facts. 

Please compare Nigeria’s reaction (or non-reaction really) to Asaba Massacre with the American reaction to the Mai Lai Massacre in Vietnam on March 16, 1968, where American soldiers brutally extinguished a Vietnamese village of non-combatants; just as the Federal troops killed Asaba non-combatants. The My Lai Massacre was kept secret for nearly a year; later Ron Ridenhour, an American soldier, sent multiple letters to the US President and the Secretary of Defense about the incident. Ultimately, he shared the story with the press in 1969. Other individuals also spoke out against the My Lai Massacre, including Hugh Thompson, a helicopter pilot. Thompson saw what was happening from the air and landed his helicopter in My Lai, threatening to shoot at his own countrymen, if they did not stop the carnage.

Unlike the Nigerian Army, the US military, which had tried to cover up the My Lai Massacre, charged First Lt. William L. Calley with murdering 109 civilians. But the Nigeria military charged no one.

The My Lai massacre made the US public to oppose the war, but Nigerians, especially the media, never shuddered about the Asaba genocide. Yet, 500 people died in both places. As the mother of one of the soldiers accused of killing the civilians at My Lai asserted: “I sent them (the US Army) a good boy, and they made him a murderer.” Even she condemned her son and the Army in which he served.

From 4PM to 7PM on Wednesday October 2, 2019, I stood at the Memorial Arcade in honour of the casualties. Umuagu Quarters lost 43 souls; Umuaji, 112; Umuezei, 69, etc. A total of about 500 civilians died. But my heart bled when I saw on the plaque: Oyana Uwaegbeum,  Oyana Akaeze, Oyana Nwabueze (from Umuagu), perhaps brothers. Or Nwosa Chike, Nwosa James, Nwosa Joseph, Nwosa Nwokocha – four - likely brothers or a father and his children from Umuaji quarters. Or Onyemenam Kafondi, Onyemenam Uzor, Onyemenam Azubuike, Onyemenam Okafor. Or Ojogwu Chukwuji, Ojogwu E.O, Ojogwu Moses, Ojogwu Nnaji, Ojogwu Oliver, Ojogwu O. Mike, Ojowgu Samuel, Ojogwu Simon. Or Ezedife Patrick, Ezedife Ojei, Ezedife Michael, Ezedife Chukwurah of Ugbomanta. How would those who survived them have taken such sudden disasters?

And in what way did the Asaba people err? The Federal troops rumbled into Asaba on the 5th. Before then, the Biafrans had melted away, as the immediate Commander, late Col Joe Achizia (a son of Asaba), opted to retreat to Onitsha given that a lorry-load of cutlass was all he was given to defend Asaba with. He blew up the Niger Bridge. Then, the indiscriminate killing started. It turned horrendous on the 6th and became hellish on the 7th.

My fellow ex-students of St. Anthony’s College, Ubulu-Uku recalled: Mr Chiedu Cassy Juwah: “People were dancing in a welcome party at OgbeIlo field. Then, soldiers stopped the music and a grim business began. A man would be made to dig a grave, get into it and he would be shot. A second man would cover that grave, dig his own, and be shot too. That was how Asaba became a town of landladies. My cousin who had survived the pogrom (in 1966) at Kano, his Dad and two elder brothers were shot. I hid and returned home. The following day, 7th, we were rounded up and shepherded to Oma, opposite today’s Grand Hotel, that’s where we were separated.

“At Ogbe Osowe, the men were separated from the boys and the women, and I, a boy, joined the women in going to the Convent, now St. John Bosco’s Church at Nnebisi Road, and Ogbe Osowe became another killing field. My brother, Augustine Juwah, who passed out of St Anthony’s College in 1964 pretended to be dead and hid among dead bodies there, as a machine gun belched fire and death. By 8PM, he made his way home and we started our flight. First, to Achala and from there to Ubulu-Uku. Some people returned home days later and were still killed during the house-to-house combing by the military.”

From Joe Obi, my classmate at St Anthony’s College came this: “I was in Asaba during that massacre. You can't imagine the psychological trauma I've been through from the horrors of that event over the years. Imagine a boy (around age seven) walking past over 100 bodies of your town's dead in one day! Exactly my experience! My family's home was razed with bombs from the Nigerian Army. My family was forced into a concentration camp at SPC (St Patrick’s College) Asaba. Dad had to run to safety in some forest somewhere and died from lack of medical care, thereafter. Most of my childhood friends grew up with their dads living in their households, I didn't. Ordinarily, it should be the sole justification for anyone to become a monster. I'm a patriotic Nigerian, but, reluctantly so. And who'd blame me?”

From Dr Patrick Anyafulu: “Most of us have harrowing stories to tell about our civil war experiences. In 1969, a company of Federal troops was ambushed and decimated by Biafran troops on the road leading to Asaba from Oko. That incident brought the horrors of war to my sleepy, rustic village. The whole village was razed to the ground. We all escaped death through Providence.... A heavy rainstorm the previous night delayed their advance from Asaba, and fishermen who had gone to check their nets saw them and alerted the whole village. (Artillery) Shells were already landing in the village and the air was filled with the whine of bullets. We escaped into the forest and lived there until 1970, before we were encouraged to come out of the bush. We ended up at the Refugee (not concentration, Joe) Camp at Asaba.”

Yes, other Anioma towns experienced genocide too. Ishiagwu lost over 400 people when the Federal troops struck at night. Ibusa (Ibuzo) suffered genocide. Ogwashi-Uku, too did to some extent. As the lives of Juwah, Obi and Anyafulu show, the resilient Anioma people have not just survived but flourished. Juwah is a Peoples Democratic Party (PDP)  member from inception. He has the party’s history in his palm. Yet, no appointment has come his way. I wish this can change. Mr Joe Obi entered St Anthony’s College at around age 10. He sleep-walked through, showing a flicker of brightness now and then and even engaged in cultural displays. But we didn’t know the memory demons that were tormenting him. He really exploded when he got into St Gregory’s, Obalende, Lagos, for his HSC (Higher School Certificate). On arriving the US immediately after serving his Youth Corps, he threw away his Nigerian degree and obtained a fresh first degree to become relevant in the US. He is doing well and visits home regularly. He hates corruption and raves against it. He wants a good leader for Nigeria - whether from the East, North, West or South. Patrick Anyafulu is an all-round athlete and polyvalent student (was among the class leaders in both English and Maths), History and Physics, BK and Geography. He was with me on the School Magazine’s Editorial Board. He is a medical doctor now. They beat the odds!

The entire Anioma suffered that genocide. So, the entire Anioma should build a real Remembrance Arcade in Asaba. The houses around the present Arcade should be demolished and a magnificent edifice should be built, the story should be provided in video format so that visitors could live out the gruesome event. Pictures of the casualties should be linked with their names. Survivors and eye-witnesses should recount the stories for the coming generations. The one I saw in Asaba is stone dead!

In Asaba, 500 people were dastardly massacred. We must say Never Again, as Anioma takes her place in this Nigeria that belongs to us by divine right.

•Tony Eluemunor, an Anioma native, is a seasoned journalist and analyst.

Source: News Express

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