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April 30, 2013
African Voice
Not For Sale?
by Imo Eshiet

Our gathering place was just where terror, horror, pain, and dislocation often chose to stage a rampage.

There, forces all around threatened to wipe us out in an instant swoop if we made any misstep. So under a camouflaged canopy we hid, holding our breath and waiting anxiously like men on death row about to partake of their last sacrament. Most were kids still growing milk teeth, yet many were left to fend for themselves by parents who were either dead or too caught up with worries of their own to care about anything else in the raging turmoil and confusion.

Deadly diseases and bacteria were abundant in the steaming humidity and filth we lived with. Being the most vulnerable, we were expendable and conscripted into the military. Many served as child soldiers or porters of military ware to the fronts. The girls were raped and used as booty by marauding soldiers.

Septic and gangrenous wounds developed on us and festered into oozing chronic sores. Life was as hard and extremely terrifying as crossing the Red Sea with Pharaoh's army in hot pursuit. The deafening cacophony of war made it feel one was trapped in the blades of a giant, crazy industrial kitchen blender bent on chopping one into mincemeat! Nothing riveted us more forcibly on the privations than the evil which denied us choices and civic participation in our society. Alternatives, if any, were gruesome, empty, and stark.

While our nights were chilly, we wore only flimsy, foul rags which served no useful purpose except to expose our hideously thin and hunger-challenged bodies to the lacerating elements. Though living, yet the horrible stench from our bodies was such that pesky flies possibly passed us for rotting cadavers and buzzed us like a noisome pestilence day and night.

We defied the aggravating gnats and waited. The object of our wait was an aircraft flown by pilots whose instincts forced them to put their lives on the line. Their empathy was testament to the resilience of compassion in the face of daunting danger, pain, death and grief.

A massive blockade hobbled and cut us off from the world, forcing on us a lifestyle of disease and hunger. Those wishing to reach us with relief stealthily smuggled them in. Thus planes carrying such materials usually landed in pitch darkness. Taking off from some friendly Western countries, the aircraft skirted Nigeria and landed in Soa Tome and Principe or some tiny island like that in the roaring Atlantic Ocean and from there ferried precious hope across to Biafra.

Like mosquitoes adept at flying, they maneuvered through torrential tropical rains without wetting their tiny flimsy wings, these pilots often zipped through volleys of hot lead enthusiastically pumped into the night sky by Nigerian anti-aircraft gunners. The barrage made us cringe in ways that words cannot adequately communicate, yet we were hopeful that if we survived, we'd live to tell our story someday.

Some of the gunners set up their nest on communication towers to get closer to their targets. Rather than improving their chance of hitting their targets, the strategy only highlighted the chaos that caused the war in the first place. At the approach of the planes, they would furiously blast the night skies like some irate volcanoes bent on turning everything within its vicinity into rubble.

But the equally enthusiastic pilots stepped up to the plate. Showing bravery and spirit, they placed themselves in the line of fire to help get food to hunger victims and medicine to the sick and dying. Oh how we prayed out our hearts for those pilots as they made their hazardous runs!

Ironically though, what our authorities did with the donations brought in by the pilots was less than edifying. In normal times we would have fasted as we prayed, but our lives already were one ceaseless, unwavering fast, relieved only when we chanced upon the germ-infested and fetid scoop holes we shared with animals. So we consecrated our starvation by chanting the Psalms with as much energy as our morbidly enfeebled bodies allowed. When the plane landed we heaved a sigh of relief, knowing that after its cargo had been carted away we could feast on crumbs that leaked out of the bags.

Some bags would usually burst on arrival. There were no runways in the real sense of the word. The plane made a hard landing on some strips of bombed-out asphalt. As it bumped against the craters, some bags of rice, beans, dry milk, soya beans and salt were crushed and spilled out their contents when the doors of the plane were opened. Although troops took time to clean these off, we could still glean off some of the strewn leftovers. Though mixed with dirt and gravel, we steamed and ate the debris even as it grated awfully against our teeth.

It was very much part of the running irony in our murky country that those for whom the relief was intended ended up with chaff. Our values had always been distorted. The war only accented the neurotic side of our character, twisted out of shaped that which was already crooked and gave a stamp of approval to the absurd. Our economy, as far as I could remember, was always struggling or in a stagnant cesspool and our government pathologically corrupt.

The food and medicine which foreign pilots imperiled their lives to fly in for dying children were commandeered by authorities. To get to it, hunger- harassed families pawned their wives and turned daughters into seedy seductresses in an effort to coax food from powerful soldiers. Through this network, the food got into the black market. It did not matter that, "NOT FOR SALE" was boldly written on the bags and cartons.

Forty-five years after the war, the same rot that sparked a crisis in which over two million people lost their lives, continues to plague our nation with consequences almost as dire. Nigeria, according to, "has an HIV/AIDS infection rate of 2.36%" and "an estimated 3,300, 000 total people are infected with HIV". To help stem the tide, many Western countries donate drugs to help AIDS victims.

On receiving these, corrupt officials promptly turn them into articles of trade. Shipped to South African cartels, they are instantly placed on the black market. To further defeat the purpose for which the drugs were meant, gangs there grind and retail the medicine to slum dwellers to get high on!

As on the relief materials, the cartons containing the medicine carried the sign, "NOT FOR SALE"! Possibly, if the same letters were branded on the forehead of our people, it would have mattered nothing to our leaders who were active in the slave trade. Going by antecedents, I bet they would just as obstinately have shrugged off the warning and sold the weak and the conquered among us all the same. But we had made significant progress from selling ourselves to selling donations from former patrons!

Starving Biafran families waiting for food.

Biafrans scurrying out of the jungle to queue for food.

Makeshift airport at Calabar for delivery of war relief.

Biafrans struggling for food

Children's Hospital in Biafra

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