Captain Sylvester Ngoesine Onuorah was a fresh secondary school leaver from UmuezeAnam in Anambra West local government area of Anambra state when the civil war broke out and he joined the Biafra army. He fought at several battle fronts, had close shave with death on several occasions but survived with two bullet wounds that remain a constant reminder of his wartime exploits. The 77-year-old ex-Biafran captain, in this interview with Olisemeka Obeche and Obinna Onuorah, shares his experiences of the civil war and other issues.
Looking back through the lens of time, can you recall exactly when and where you were and how you found out that there had been an outbreak of war between the federal government and Biafra?
Well, I must let you know that the first time I ever set my eyes on a soldier was in 1966 when I was still a student of St Mary’s High School, IfiteDunu. When they drove into the school, we all ran out of our classrooms to catch a glimpse of them and their car. It was really exciting that day. But after that, life continued as normal and we wrote our final year exams in December 1966 and dispersed.
The second time was early in 1967 but it wasn’t as exciting as the first one. I was travelling to Port Harcourt in search of job when they flagged our vehicle down to ask where we were going. It took a lot of lies from us before they let us go. By this time, the political temperature around the country was already been polarised due to the July 1966 counter coup.
However, after my unsuccessful job search in Port Harcourt, I returned back to my village in UmuezeAnam in Anambra West local government area of Anambra state where I was until the war broke out in July 1967. Shortly after the war broke out, I voluntarily joined the Biafran army.
Why did you do so? Were you compelled?
Nobody compelled me to join the Biafran army. I did it out of my own volition. I felt that it would be a shame for me to sit back and watch the war from the sideline as an able-bodied man. Infact, I was so determined to join the army that it took me three trips to Umuahia before I succeeded.
I was in the 6th batch of Biafran officers trained at Okigwe. Though we were billed to undergo six-week intensive training, it barely lasted three weeks. We were deployed to the battle front rather suddenly one afternoon.The bugle sounded, we assembled at the field and were selected for kitting and movement. About 50 of us selected were driven straight to Oron in Akwa Ibom state, without any documentation. Unfortunately, Biafran soldiers in Oron were not well equipped to face the Nigerian troops. We encountered them on our way and were forced to split. After that encounterclose to Uyo, we fled towards Ikot Ekpene. We had two battalions – 20 A and 20Bcommanded by Major Archibongand Captain Chukwunonyerem respectively. When we arrived Ikot Ekpene, we found out that the Nigerian troops were still coming after us;so we disabled the bridge linking Ikot Ekpene and the upland to allow us some relief.We camped behind the residence of the veteran broadcaster, OkonkonNdem.
To further deal with the advancing Nigerian troops, we dug tunnels and filled them with crude oil so we could use it to burn down Ikot Ekpene where the Nigerian soldiers dug in. Major Archibong,, who was from the area opposed this, thus sparring the city but losing the advantage against the Nigerians. They would later take advantage of that to breach Aba easily as that plan haunted the battalion.
So, where and when exactly did you eventually taste your first frontline battle and how did you survive?
Well, our first real frontline battle was at Igwenga-Opobo. We were led by Brigadier Commander, Mike Ivenso, from Aguleri while Major Ana was my battalion commander then.
So, can you recall what actually happened that day at Igwenga?
Huh! That day was very hot oo! It’s difficult for me to describe; it was hell. But what I can recollect is that as we moved towards Azumini area; federal troops had more strength there but we realized it too late. A handful of about 50 of us that faced that attack that day survived. A very good friend of mine had a bullet cut off his ear and bled to death.
Unfortunately, we did not get reinforcement and we were all alone. I think it was at this point in time that the Biafran leadership was busy with the issue of saboteur and those of us in the field were literally abandoned. Ours was so bad because, as of that time, we had no official numbers and so nobody could give account of those that died that day because they were undocumented. We were equally hampered by lack of arms and ammunition. It was by miracle that a few of us survived that attack. But that did not dampen our spirit. After that encounter, we continued defending Biafra. One day, as I was leading our team as we advanced, I did not know that a sniper from the Nigerian side was within range, trying to take me out. My platoon commander forcefully dragged me down.As I made to ask him why, the bullet flew past me. He saved my life there. I also had another close shave with death during the same operation. I was trying to help one of my men unlock his MAC-4 gun by hitting it on the tree. Normally we held a small pin that we use to push the bullet out when it blocked but when it failed, we hit it on a tree. That was what I was doing when the bullet flew pass me, brushing aside my hair. If it had hit my forehead, I would have died there.
During another operation around Azumini, a native of the area from whom we inquired for a safe route for attack, directed us into an ambush by Nigerian soldiers and disappeared. Some of us survived by the grace of God. It was a perfect trap borne of sabotage. In another instance, we were going for ‘harassing attack’ towards Igwenga when a native led us to a roadblocked by a big tree. Nigerian troops, led by a man who wore native doctor regalia with big hand fan and charm, swooped on us, taking us by surprise. We did not know the direction to run to and, not knowing what else to do, I shot him on the chest at point-blank range.He fell down instantly and the federal soldiers he was leading and who thought his charm was bullet-proof, all ran in different directionsfor cover. That allowed us to run back, but as we tried to cross an open school field, we were pinned down because of the openness of the place. They pinned us down there, face to face in exchange of fire. We were not up to 30 people on our side during that operation. So, we continued to exchange fire until we ran out of bullets and they too ran out and all of us remained in position. After a prolonged period of silence with no side chasing the other, I decided to tap the two persons on either of my side so we could retreat. They remained cold. Upon closer examination, I discovered that they were dead. One received bullet on the gut and the other on the forehead. Many of them did not rise from that position as they were killed. I will never forget that day.
Did you ever get any message home during this time?
Well, I did not bother myself about home. I was committed to the war and no time to think home. However, I was forced to go home by divine providence. First, a friend of mine from UmuobaAnam who was in our bazooka team travelled home and as he was telling stories about my daring acts on the war fronts during his visit home, my father was passing and overheard him mention my name. My father then instructed him to tell me to return home at once that my family was planning to give me a chieftaincy title and a wife. When he returned and told me about it, I rebuked him for telling such stories about me.
Why did you react that way?
My people never knew that I had joined the army because I did not officially tell them. Funny enough, two weeks after he delivered that message, I got my first wound in the war the bullet is still stuck inside my body till date. All efforts to extract the bullet during and after the war were unsuccessful so they left it there. So, immediately I got the wound, I was given a permission to travel home.
Can you recall how that wound came about?
We went for attack close to Azumini and came under heavy counter attack from federal troops. They pinned us down and as we tried to retreat, I decided to push forward, because I am quick-tempered and hardly tolerated retreat. Incidentally, I did not know that I had been hit by bullet. It was after a while, I noticed the sharp pain and then blood. I managed to continue until we dislodged them before I sought medical attention. I was sent to Aba for treatment and after my discharge, I was allowed to travel home for recuperation. Incidentally, I had an awful experience when I returned home. Unfortunately, at this time, a traditional ruler from my area was after my life too but I never knew he was planning how to get rid of me. So, one day while we were drinking at a beer parlour in my village, UmuezeAnam, two armed military officers from Aguleri headquarters came there and asked who was Mr. Onuorah, I identified myself. They said that they were instructed to bring me to Brigade command office. They even refused to let me dress properly as I was wearing only wrapper due to my wound. So, I followed them.
When we reached St Augustine’s Catholic Church, UmuobaAnam, we met an army officer who now interrogated me and I told him everything that transpired between me and the soldiers. I told him that I hada pass for medical leave which the soldiers ignored. The officer then asked them why they did not allow me to get my pass from home, but they kept mute. Right there, he now told me that our monarch came and informed them that I was a straggler, that I was too afraid to go to warfront, that was the reason they came for me. I was shocked. He now asked the officers why they brought me there after seeing the wound on my leg. After rebuking them, he now told me to go home and continue my recovery.
I was still at home when I received the news that my battalion surrendered to Nigerian troops during one of those heavy attacks. Till date, I don’t know the fate of those soldiers.
Did you return to the front after recovery?
Yes, I went back and I was quickly deployed to a military transit camp at Nnewi High School waiting for my next deployment. I was there until one day, a major whose name I have forgotten called me into his office. I did not know that the commandant of the unit, one Col Nsudo, was there. Suddenly, the man became angry that I did not pay him the customary compliments and ordered that I be posted out to the warfront where the battle was fierce. The major had no option than to obey. I was deployed to the 29 battalion Onitsha-Nkpor axis. But it was another drama.
By this time, it was already evening but he insisted that I must be deployed at once. So, we had to trek from Nnewi Ichi and by the time we reached Nkpor, I was already exhausted. As I made my way into our camp, a vehicle was flashing light and blaring horn behind me. As I stood on the spot waiting for the it to pass, it stopped in front of me and immediately a voice commanded that I should be bundled into the car. I later learnt that it was Col Ohalehi from Ihiala who was in charge of the camp. For the second time that day, I was to be deployed to the war front for failing to observe military courtesy. Quickly, I was taken to an office and kept there. After a long wait, I went and told him ‘Sir, I am still waiting here’. He quickly responded: ‘You are still here?!’ He then sent for the officer in charge and ordered him to deploy me to 29th battalion that night.
They drove us to the frontline at Nkpor, which is a dangerous terrain because there are no trees to protect the soldiers. Then, there were fewer buildings in the area. That night was very hot at that Nkpor area. The 120 men that I led into that frontline that night, did not return. The fierce battle continued for the next two weeks until I suffered another bullet wound on my knee. That marked the end of my battle on the axis as I was sent to hospital for treatment. Incidentally, I have been nursing that knee wound until 2018 because it cut off some portion of my bone.
When did you get your first rank as a Biafran soldier and what rank?
You know that we were initially deployed without documentation but after a while, it was done and I was given the rank of Second Lieutenant. My number was 2313.
Biafran soldiers had tremendous setbacks during the war, what were some of the challenges you personally encountered while fighting for the new nation?
Many who enlisted for Biafra army also witnessed the kind of deployment that I witnessed and did not survive it. It was part of the setbacks that contributed to the loss of the war. Another was the sabotage. There was a prominent Biafran who was given funds to buy arms and ammunition for Biafra troops who disappeared with the money. That cost Biafra a lot because our troops were fighting with light weapons. I remember when we were at Azumini, it was only officers that used automatic guns with many others using the cock-and-shoot Mac-4 and Mac-3 guns. If we had had enough weapons to prosecute the war, they wouldn’t have conquered us easily.
What was your greatest motivation during the war?
The truth is that, at that age when I joined the army, there was nothing else that mattered to me. I did not have anything. No wife, children, property that I could think of. I was young. Then, we don’t think of life or home because you didn’t know what would happen the next moment. Incidentally, all the places I served were hot zones, except the final place at Nzam after my second injury. I asked to be deployed to OnonoUmuikwuAnam axis and they told me that I could not take such wound to that hot place and was deployed to Nzam. Throughout the whole period, I never thought of home. Any day you found yourself alive, you thanked God.
There were allegations that both Nigerian and Biafran soldiers were brutal to civilians on the Biafran side at the height of the war. Did you witness any of such incidences of torture, rape and so on?
I don’t know of what happened in other places but there was a day I won’t forget in my life that this thing you talked of happened. We were coming back from war front and saw where Biafran army dug a big pit where they were pushing people inside. That day I was with Solomon Nnekwe from UmuezeAnam, who was in the same battalion with me. As soon as we saw that, I shouted at them- What is that? One woman had already been thrown inside but her hand was still up and I went straight and pull her out of the pit. It took her some time to recover before she could walk again. It may have happened in some other places as well. This was the one I witnessed.
Can you recall how you felt when you heard that the war has ended?
You, know because of my wound, I was deployed back to Nzam, Anambra West where the battle was less. By then, the leg had stopped paining me. It was not up to a week after we pushed back federal troops that were advancing towards Otuocha, that the news broke that the war has ended. Naturally, we were very happy because our prayer then was to live through the next day and I couldn’t believe that I had truly survived the war. I was a captain in the Biafran army. It was that day that I told myself that, having survived the war, there was no way I could be a failure in life. We celebrated it wildly.
How did the Nigeria government treat ex-Biafran soldiers like you; did they give you opportunity to become Nigerian soldier?
What you just asked me is what makes me angry till tomorrow because when Igbos praise Chukwuemeka Odumegwu-Ojukwu as a Biafran hero, I don’t. I don’t even regard him as a leader talk less of a hero. We were with Ojukwu in the war front.When the war became difficult, he abandoned us and ran away to Ivory Coast. He never cared about those of us that he led into the fight or what happened to us afterwards.
When the civil war ended, those who had properties in Port Harcourt and other parts of the country lost them as indigenes confiscated the houses that belonged to the Igbo. I expected Ojukwu to have waded into the issue of abandoned properties and the well-being of Biafra soldiers. If Ojukwu was truly a leader, why didn’t he intervene on behalf of his soldiers after theysacrificed so much during the war? But the moment he fled from Biafra, he abandoned us. Nobody cared about the wounded or a welfare program for Biafran soldiers. There were three groups that defrauded Biafra war veterans over fake welfare programmes and Ojukwu didn’t make a single statement to that effect. He didn’t also make a statement about abandoned property, so why should I regard him as a true Igbo leader. He was supposed to have asked for a dialogue after war but he didn’t.
So, the who took care of the treatment on your leg when the war was over?
I started taking care of myself after the war. I went to hospital all by myself and there was a time I went to a specialist hospital at Onitsha to see If I could remove the bullet inside my thigh but the doctor advised that I should leave it because the bullet went deep. Since then, it still remains there, same as the one on my knee which kept dripping water or blood until 2018. Since the war ended, I did not get anything for my efforts.
Do you think, 49 years after the war, that the Nigerian government has addressed the issues that led to that war?
The answer is no. And the federal government is not to be blamed for it. We, the Igbo are the cause. If we had come together and put up a common political agenda, things would have been different. But everybody is interested in their own survival and self-aggrandisement.
It is laughable. I have continued to tell people that still dream of actualisation of Biafra through IPOB or MASSOB that it won’t be possible. Since I started studying history, I have not come across where our rebellious act was forgiven only for us to given our freedom. I have advised people that I know to never allow their children to be involve in IPOB/MASSOB agenda. Anyone that gets involved in itwill only waste their lives.
How did you start all over again after the war?
Well, when the war ended, I returned home and settled down with the wife my parents married for me while I was on the war fronts. With no job, we engaged in fishing and with plenty of fish then in the OmambalaRiver, we were enjoying our free life. When my leg wound started getting better and I started using it to walk, I teamed up with Mr Sylvester Mmadukolu from UmuobaAnam to start local-made gin (Kai-kai) sales business. We would buy the original gin produced in Niger Delta at Otuocha and travel to Nsukka and Abakaliki to sell them. That’s the business we were doing until the East Central state government ofUkpabiAsika advertised for employment into a Community Council System and I applied and was employed. I used my secondary school certificate to start the work but with MBA; and I could have gotten a PhD certificate but due to my eye problems, I stopped. I retired in April 2007 as head of service at the Anambra state local government service. Today, I feel fulfilled.