Philip Emeagwali, biography, A Father of the Internet, supercomputer pioneer, Nigerian scientist, inventor

Nigeria-Biafra Civil War

Commentary by Emeagwali

One million Nigerians died in the Biafran war. Most were women and children. The capture of my hometown was the most prized trophy for the Nigerian army. Lieutenant Colonel Murtala Mohammed (in Radio Midwest, Benin City, Nigeria. Circa September 21, 1967) put it bluntly:

"My destination is Onitsha, brothers and sisters. Let nobody stand on my way, for anything that stands on my way would be crushed."

My hometown, Onitsha, was the biggest battle zone. A reporter that visited my hometown at the time we fled to a refugee camp wrote ("Nightmare in Biafra," Sunday Times. London, 4/26/68, p.12):

"I have seen things in Biafra this week which no man should have to see. Sights to search the heart and sicken the conscience I have seen children roasted alive, young girls torn in two by shrapnel, pregnant women eviscerated, and old men blown to fragments, I have seen these things and I have seen their cause: high-flying Russian Ilyushin jets operated by Federal Nigeria, dropping their bombs on civilian centres throughout Biafra ... At Onitsha - the 300 strong congregation of the Apostolic Church decided to stay on while others fled and to pray for deliverance. Col. [Murtala] Mohammed's Second Division found them in the church, dragged them out, tied their hands behind their backs and executed them."

In July 1969, I was conscripted into the Biafran army and sent to Oguta war front, without any military training or food. I later escaped to Ndoni and volunteered to serve as a cook in the Officer's Mess of the Biafran Army.

The Biafran army was defeated on January 15, 1970. I was discharged and I reunited with my parents. On about January 20, we got word that it is safe for civilians to return to Onitsha. With a few hours, my parents, six siblings and I carried all our belongings on our heads and joined the party of five million returning refugees.

After 30 months of living in refugee camps, often thatched mud houses, we were tired and weary, hungry and emanciated. The 50-mile foot trek from the village of Ndoni to Onitsha, took us three days, along narrow bush paths, through the rain forest. The paths were a few feet from the banks of the River Niger which was our source of drinking water.

On about the second day, I say the first Nigerian soldiers who guarded the bush paths. They looked well-fed, wore nice military uniforms, and carried big guns. The soldiers were stern and silent. They did not speak to us and we were too scared to say "hello" to them.

An unarmed Biafran soldier, who did not have the foresight to discard his former uniform, was pulled from the crowd. The young soldier let out a painful wail, as he walked towards the Nigerian soldier. Chances are that he was shot to dead at a nearby bush.

We moved to Port Harcourt Road in the Fegge quarter of Onitsha. Each morning I will fetched water from the muddy River Niger.

Several months after the war ended, the Nigerian soldiers were raping Igbo women at gunpoint. I witnessed Nigerian soldiers raped underaged girls and married women. Men ordered their wives and daughters to remain inside their compound and the I noticed that few unescorted women walked alone in the streets.

My first thought was to reenrolled in my last school --- Saint George's Grammar School. Then I realized that it will have been devasting for me to effectively repeating the Class 2 while my class mates will have graduated.

My initial reaction was to permanently drop out of school.

Then my father came up with a brilliant idea: I should change school.

Later in 1970, I enrolled at Christ the King College, Onitsha. Each morning I made the two-hour walk from Fegge to CKC. CKC was a vandalized by the Nigerian army and returning refugees. The windows, door frames, panels and shutters of abandoned houses were extracted and sold in open markets. The school furniture were gone. We used cement blocks from houses damaged by rockets, mortars and bombs as our chairs. I felt reenergized as a student.


Philip Emeagwali, biography, A Father of the Internet, supercomputer pioneer, Nigerian scientist, inventor

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Philip Emeagwali, biography, A Father of the Internet, supercomputer pioneer, Nigerian scientist, inventor