by Bob Criso (Nigeria & Somalia 1966–68)
AFTER LEAVING NIGERIA I buried the story of my final days along with all the associated feelings of loss, fear and anger. I remember saying to a friend on the evacuation boat, “How could we ever explain what happened to someone who wasn’t there?”
After returning to the states in ’68, I contacted Ruth Olsen, the former Director in the East, and spent a weekend at her home in Washington, DC. Ruth, a former WAC, could be a tough administrator, but after hours she would kick her shoes off, pour a scotch and put her feet up, always gracious and lively in my experience. We talked long into the night about Biafra and what she referred to as “that incredible experience you had.” She knew all the details from Laura, Jeff and June.
I started seeing a psychiatrist a few times a week in New York. I had some crippling symptoms and a lot of baggage from Nigeria and Somalia, my next post, as well as from my childhood to dredge up and emotionally process. It was years before I started talking about it with others.
FIFTEEN YEARS AFTER LEAVING NIGERIA, I started writing about it, including the good times before the war. Wanting to capture more details about those last days however, I started making some phone calls.
Laura was a friend in Nigeria, a warm, animated, fun-loving person who always had great music albums. She seemed happy to hear from me, and remembered being picked up in the van, but then her memory skips to taking the train to Enugu. She didn’t recall the roadblocks, the mob or the kerosene drum. We spoke several times, but after I sent her an early draft of my story, I never heard from her again. I worried that I might have upset her.
My attempt to track down Jeff was arduous and unproductive. He had a very common first and last name and had moved without leaving a forwarding address. Currently, he remains on the list of PCVs who can not be located.
June, the PC nurse, was living in San Francisco. She tried to be helpful when I called, but her exact line was, “I remember coming to your house with the soldiers, but then it gets fuzzy until we get on the boat in Port Harcourt.” No roadblocks, no confrontation outside Okposi and no shots in Aba.
I called Alan a couple of times and left messages, then wrote a letter. I never heard back from him.
Where have our Nigerian memories gone? How accurate are the ones we have? We know that recall changes as time passes and there are inevitable distortions as the years go by. Neuro-psychologists say we can diminish the distortions by actively thinking about what happened to keep those circuits open. For me, I can only say that I’ve spent many hours in a therapist’s office talking about those final days, many hours reading and writing about it, and many hours talking to other PCVs who were there. I’ve been interviewed about my experience several times. A taped copy of one of those interviews is filed in the Peace Corps Archives at the JFK Library in Boston.
I’ve often wondered about the Peace Corps’ decision not to evacuate the East once Biafra seceded. War preparations were in full swing, the violence was escalating and there seemed to be no future for us there. Of course, there were some PCVs in all four regions who had disturbing experiences during that spring of ’67. We were lucky not to lose anyone, although it’s left scars on some of us. One Volunteer told me about sorting out wounded Igbo bodies from the dead ones on the back of a truck in Nsukka. Another told me about being thrown into jail for a few days as a spy, not knowing if he would ever come out alive.
IN 1998, I WENT BACK to Nigeria. I was anxious walking around my old secondary school that was now a Federal Agricultural College. Some buildings had been damaged or destroyed during the war and the school was in disrepair with cracked blackboards, broken windows and rocking desks. I stood at the spot where the kerosene drum had been placed under my house, and talked with a former student who lived nearby. Fabian Nwachukwu, a middle-aged man by then, filled me in about the student and teacher fatalities during the war. I didn’t have any dramatic flashbacks; just many sad, reflective and poignant moments that helped me say the “goodbye” that I never got a chance to say forty-one years earlier. Those moments will always be with me.
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. He 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)