Chicago Sun-Times reporter Maudlyne Ihejirika is the daughter of Angelina Ihejirika, 89, who arrived in Chicago with her six children, refugees from war-torn Biafra, on June 9, 1969. The following is an excerpt from her book, “Escape From Nigeria: A Memoir of Faith, Love and War” (Africa World Press, $24.95), recounting the mother’s ordeal in securing passage to the United States in the midst of a raging war:
On April 15, 1969, I gathered my children and hired a truck to take us the six miles to Umuahia, the seat of the Biafran government, to obtain our travel permits. I had hoped that as soon as we obtained our permits my family would head straight to the makeshift airstrip at Uli, to catch that evening’s Caritas International flight.
When the truck dropped us off, I left my children under a cashew tree 50 feet from the building and went inside to wait in line behind the scores of people waiting to see the Biafran military commander, Lt. Col. Odumegwu Ojukwu. Just before it got to my turn, the enemy troops began bombing.
People ran for cover. Ojukwu’s office door swung open, and an aide yelled: “Sir, the Nigerians have entered Umuahia!” I watched as Ojukwu grabbed his gun, shoved it in its holster and he and his staff immediately fled through the back door. The enemy troops were intent on capturing Ojukwu. That would mean the end of the war.
I dashed back to the cashew tree where I had left my children. We all huddled together on the ground and prayed as the shelling raged. Suddenly, an explosive fell right in front of us, creating a gaping hole, but did not explode. Because a heavy rain had fallen the night before, the ground was soft and muddy, which possibly had caused the bomb to penetrate deeply into the soil, another evidence of God’s intervention!
My children were so brave, despite their young ages. All of those people who had come to see Ojukwu ran for cover in all directions. The screams of the injured seemed to be as lethal as the bombs. When the attack had ceased, it was getting dark. Our only option was to return home to Okwu.
I began to send my eldest children to join the throngs of other hungry children making the rounds to area refugee centers, standing in long lines in hopes of securing food. Good days meant my children would come home with a little supply of food. Bad days, they would come home with nothing.
By late May 1969, when I had gathered enough momentum to make a second attempt to get the exit permits, the seat of government had moved to Okigwe, more than 30 miles away. It was unsafe to travel by truck. My only option was to walk. It would take me at least three days.
I finally departed. On the way, I purchased a coconut for a penny and picked up ripe mangoes and papayas that had fallen from wild trees. It was not uncommon to find women walking by themselves on the roads because most able-bodied men and boys had been drafted. But the women knew to be wary of the soldiers.
Frustrated soldiers would sometimes seize women, mostly young girls, on the road or forcibly take them from their homes and carry them off to their camps and rape them. I was not afraid because of my strong faith in God. I still ducked out of sight whenever I heard the sound of or saw a military vehicle. At night, I stayed at refugee camps.
By the time I arrived at Okigwe, I was fatigued and weary. The camouflaged Biafran government premises was well concealed beneath the trees on a palm plantation.
I knelt down and prayed in gratitude to God that my family’s ordeal would soon be over. I breathed in the cool night air. The grounds were as quiet as a cemetery, and there was no light to pierce the darkness.
In the morning, I was ushered in. “What may I do for you, Mrs. Ihejirika?” Ojukwu asked. “My husband Christopher had written in his letter to me that his American friends had arranged with you to give exit permits to me and my children. My husband told me that you would understand what I was talking about.”
Ojukwu looked at me briefly and nodded his head and, taking out seven pieces of paper, carefully wrote out instructions on them, signed each and handed them to me, his expression unchanged.
“God bless you,” I said and immediately took my first baby steps to freedom.