I HAD JUST GRADUATED from college in January 1966 when I picked up the New York Times and read about the bloody military coup in Nigeria. The Prime Minister and a number of other top government officials were killed. Nigeria’s budding democracy ended two weeks before I’d be leaving for Peace Corps training.
Mmmm. “Do you know what you’re getting into?” my Uncle Ralph asked.
FOUR MONTHS LATER I was settled into a teaching assignment in Ishiagu, Eastern Nigeria, and pretty content. Nice house, great students, companionable colleagues and a village culture that fascinated me. I rolled up the sleeves of my new dashiki and plunged right in — lots of palm wine, kola nuts and cultural-exchange-talk in mud homes, my Igbo vocabulary expanding in the process. When I was invited to a local wedding, I felt like I had been granted honorary citizenship.
It wasn’t long before the BBC reported a counter-coup and a new military leader, General Yakubu Gowon. No one in Ishiagu trusted him.
Sometime around June 1966, I started hearing talk about Igbos being killed in Northern Nigeria. It was described as “payback” for the first coup which many believed was plotted by Igbo army officers. Then some Hausa were killed in Eastern cities. Then reports of Igbos frequently being massacred in the North. Ibrahim, the one Hausa student at my school and a popular fellow with his peers, disappeared in the middle of the night. “He would have been killed,” the principal said.
Refugees from the North returned to Ishiagu with horrific stories of pregnant women being cut open and houses being burned to the ground while children screamed inside them. Then, there was the story about the train. The Hausa reportedly sent a train filled with cut-up Igbo body parts back to the East “as a warning.” Listening to the BBC, Radio Enugu and talking with the locals, it was often hard to distinguish fact from fiction. Then I saw a woman, returning to Ishiagu from the train station, carrying a human head.
In January of 1967, it was the other teachers who first told me about a meeting of Nigerian regional leaders in Ghana to discuss a possible confederation of states as a solution to the country’s divisions. In Ishiagu, the talk was about secession as the only solution. Changes started to affect daily life in the village. The meat that had come from the Hausa herdsmen in the North got scarcer at the market until it stopped completely. Mail from outside the East was no longer being delivered. The chickens that I was raising behind my house were stolen in the night.
By April of 1967, I was getting nervous about the situation and went to Enugu to find out what was happening. Ruth Olsen, the Eastern Regional Director, gave me the keys to a blue van and told me I was a designated pickup driver in case of an emergency evacuation. “Stay in Ishiagu,” she said emphatically, “and we will contact you if there’s an emergency. You will be responsible for picking up six people in your area.”
At the end of May 1967, Eastern Nigeria seceded and declared itself the Republic of Biafra. There was a new flag, a new national anthem and a new army. Fighting started along the Northern border. All able-bodied men in the village and many of my students were prepared to join the army. “It’s kill or be killed,” one of my students said. A darkness came over Ishiagu. I saw the fear in the students faces. People in the village became suspicious of white people. There were reports of mercenaries working for the Hausa, posing as Peace Corps Volunteers and priests, spying and collecting information in preparation for an invasion. War fever, fueled by the paranoia stirred up by the refugees, had infected the village.
I was teaching a class one morning in July 1967 when Biafran soldiers pulled up to the school in a jeep and ordered the school closed. They said it would be turned into military barracks. Getting more anxious by the hour, I decided to drive to Afikpo, a nearby town, where I had two Peace Corps friends, Lois and Jim. Maybe they knew more. When I reached the first paved road, I was shocked. All signs identifying anything or anywhere had been taken down. Every few miles there were road blocks with chopped down trees and confrontational, ragtag militias waving clubs and machetes. “Where are you going?” “What is your purpose?” “Empty your Pockets!” “What is that map in your van?”
I felt like I was already caught in the middle of a war. The good reputation of the Peace Corps, my improved Igbo and pure luck got me through those roadblocks. I picked up Lois and Jim but didn’t go further to pick up Alan, another Volunteer deep in the bush — the roads and the crowds were too dangerous. Lois, Jim and I made it back to my house, but we were soon confronted by a bloodthirsty mob. (Years later, Jim would write a play about what happened there.) With the help of local friends, we made it out of what was clearly a life-threatening situation. With local help again, Lois and Jim took a train to Enugu the next day. Thinking there were other Volunteers who needed to be picked up, I stayed and waited for the Peace Corps to contact me.They never did. I eventually made it to the coast with the help of a Biafran army escort and left the country on the boat that was waiting for the last evacuees.
IT TOOK ABOUT TWENTY-FIVE YEARS before I started writing about what happened. It’s been fifty years now and I still think about it. There were several times when I thought I wouldn’t make it. During the mob confrontation at my house, I imagined the headlines of The Staten Island Advance: “Peace Corps Volunteer killed in Nigeria.”
Mine wasn’t the only horror story. I spoke to another Volunteer who was thrown into jail for days during those last weeks as a suspected spy. He thought he would never be heard from again. Len, an African-American Volunteer from my training group who looked like a Hausa, recently told me he was repeatedly harassed and confronted until he finally made it out of the country over the Onitsha bridge. I also spoke to another Volunteer who had been teaching at the University in Nsukka, close to the Northern border. Caught up in the circumstances of the time, he ended up sorting living from dead bodies on the back of trucks coming back from the North.
Let’s face it, the Peace Corps blew it. It’s difficult for me to say that about an organization that has always been rather sacrosanct for many of us, but we should have been pulled out much sooner. What future could the Peace Corps possibly have had in Biafra as the country drifted deeper into the full-scale madness of war?
Uncle Ralph was right. I didn’t really know what I was getting into. But what about the people who were running the program? Where was the organizational breakdown from Enugu to Lagos to Washington? Has there ever been an administrative autopsy? How many other stories are out there that have not been written about?
Bob Criso (Nigeria 1966-68) worked as a psychotherapist at Princeton University Counseling and Psychological Services and also had a private practice in Princeton. Now retired and living in New York City, he currently reviews plays and works on a memoir when he is not traveling. He can be reached at: email@example.com