by Bob Criso (Nigeria & Somalia 1966–68)
“BOB, THEY’RE GOING TO KILL US! They’re going to burn the house down.” Laura was shaking.
“So this is how I’m going to die.” I visualized the headlines of my hometown newspaper: Peace Corps Volunteer Killed in Nigeria.
I grabbed Laura by the shoulders. “Put your sneakers on. We may have to make a run for it.” Jeff was silent and frozen.
Outside, an elderly local man stepped up onto a flat tree stump and addressed the crowd. He told them that he knew me, I was a good man and the two visitors were my friends. “Come to your senses!” he shouted like a scolding parent.
It started to rain and the crowd quieted and thinned.
That evening, Ugwu, Ekuma and Otu, fellow teachers, came to the house. They were somber-faced, apologetic and ashamed. “We are all in a panic,” Ugwu said. “People are coming from the North with unimaginable stories, making some of us paranoid and crazy.”
Laura and Jeff wanted to leave. I asked the teachers if they would bring them to the nearby train station in the morning. They could go to Enugu and tell Ruth Olsen what was happening. Feeling responsible, overly responsible as I look back on it, I remained behind to wait for help to pick up the others.
A few people, all unknown to me, still loitered around the house. We were unable to sleep that night. The next morning the teachers returned and took Laura and Jeff to the train. Sometime during the night, Felix, the houseboy, disappeared.
For the next twenty-four hours all I could think of was: Where the fuck is the Peace Corps? A few people still milled around the house, maybe keeping watch. The kerosene drum was still under the house and I was afraid to go to sleep.
The next morning a military jeep pulled up in front of my house. I recognized June, the Peace Corps nurse, sitting in the back seat. I felt like I had been thrown a life raft in the middle of the Atlantic. A Biafran army officer got out wearing a fancy red beret. Two soldiers holding rifles wore crisp new khaki uniforms.
“Let’s go NOW,” June said. “We have to pick up Alan. Everyone else has gone. We have to get to Port Harcourt.”
Alan was in Okposi, outside of Afikpo and the trip there was filled with more roadblock confrontations, even with the soldiers. I followed the jeep in the van. On a bush road outside of Okposi we encountered an unruly crowd in front of a large tree blocking the red clay road. We were in the middle of a heavy rain. They refused to let us pass. Finally, the frustrated officer just turned around and signaled for me to pull around the fallen tree. I swallowed hard and drove through the crowd, not knowing what to expect.
We picked up Alan who came into the van with me. The next challenge was getting to Port Harcourt. There were lots of people walking along the sides of the roads carrying bags in their hands and on their heads, refugees we assumed. As we pulled into Aba, the sun was setting and there were lots of small cooking fires with people camping alongside the road. We had a major confrontation as we entered the city, only this time some of the locals had guns. After a heated exchange the officer got into the jeep and gunned the engine. I did the same and followed. As we pulled away, I realized that the shots I heard were probably being fired at us.
We made it to the boat in Port Harcourt and left that night. In the middle of the night the boat was stopped at sea by a naval blockade. There was a stalemate for quite a while and then we continued. We stopped at Lagos and then went on to Accra where PCVs were reassigned or went home. I flew to my new post in Somalia.
(To be continued)
Bob Criso lives in New York City. He worked at the Counseling and Psychological Services at Princeton University for years, and also had a private practice in Princeton. Currently he is writing a memoir. Bob also does some theater and movie reviews, and still travels. This week he leaves for Israel for a month of touring. (firstname.lastname@example.org)