by Patrick Egwu Ejike
On many occasions, seventy-seven-year-old Onyeoziri Mbaeri has been knocked down by vehicles whenever he and other disabled veterans go out to beg at the Enugu-Onitsha expressway.
Since they were abandoned after the war, they resorted to begging on the highway in order to eat. With their children moving them on their wheelchairs to the particular position where they stay to beg or they pay other children between N100 to N200 to take them to the place and pay the same amount when it is getting dark so they can take them back to their camps.
“We have seen hell on that expressway,” he said. “We go out there in the morning after taking our bath and come back in the evening after begging for alms. Some people normally give us money why some people won’t,” he said.
Mr Onyeoziri recalls a particular day he was knocked down by a vehicle which suddenly lost its brake. He was injured. “I was on the road begging with my fellow veterans when suddenly one bus coming to Enugu from Onitsha was moving very fast and coming to our direction. Before I could roll over my wheelchair, I was knocked down. Others were injured too. It was a bad day for us and it happens daily,” he explains.
Onyeoziri has been knocked down by cars while begging for alms on the highway
“One day, I was brought out here to beg by a boy whom I paid N200. He was supposed to come and take me back in the evening, but he didn’t come. Maybe he forgot. I was here until 8pm and all of a sudden it started raining. I was drenched before my colleagues sent out people to come and look for me,” he said.
Mr Onyeoziri was twenty-seven-year-old during the war when the 20 battalion he was attached to was attacked through heavy gunfire, mortar bombs and shelling. In the events of the attack, he was hit in a trench where he was. Sadly, at the hospital, the doctors told him that his spinal cord was affected in the attacks.
“I was in a trench when I was hit. We were two on that day; the other person ran away and escaped. But I was unlucky. I had thought if I was taken to the hospital and given some injections that I would be fine but I was not. It affected my spinal cord,” he recalls how the attacks happened.
The painful migration
After the war in 1970, the disabled Biafran veterans were camped at Government Technical College, Enugu. There, they lived their daily lives – going out to beg on the highway, streets and market places and retire to the makeshift camps at night.
Five years later, the story changed.
The sole administrator of East Central states at that time, Ukpabi Asika, ordered that they be moved out from the college ground. He claimed that they were causing nuisance, stealing and selling marijuana. In the night, through a night raid, he drafted a squad of military men to enforce the impromptu eviction notice. In the morning, they were surrounded by heavily armed military men in their pick-up trucks and luxurious buses.
“In the morning, those who were going to beg were sent back. They came with about 7 luxurious buses called Oriental lines to evict us from the place. We were not informed. He ordered the soldiers to shoot us if we refuse to move,” Lawrence Akpu, one of the veterans recalls. “Many of us refused to go, so the army people came and told us that they don’t want to shoot us that we should just follow them to the Oji river camp. That anyone who doesn’t want to stay can go once we get there. So that was how we were chased out from that place. We lost everything,” he said.
When they got to the Oji-River resettlement camp in 1975, the place was an empty, dilapidated dormitory used by a missionary church then. They had lost their property during the eviction and came there with nothing. They slept on the floor until help came, though temporarily. “We lost many of our properties. We slept on the floor for more than two weeks before they brought us beds. The ministry of health fed us for two years and left before we started begging again,” he said.
A signpost showing direction to visitors to the veterans’ camp in Oji-River, Enugu state
Mr Lawrence said the National Orthopedic hospital Enugu was specifically built for the wounded soldiers. But Asika scuttled their efforts to stay there. “We were meant to stay in orthopaedic hospital but Asika refused because of the hatred he has for us. We later used the money we got from begging to start reconstructing the Oji-River camp because it was in a very bad shape because of the war,” he said.
The camp in Oji-River is dilapidated and has been taken over by bushes, keeping them at risk of reptiles, wild animals, mosquitoes
For the past 42 years, they have been staying in the dilapidated Oji-River resettlement camp with leaky roofs, broken doors and bushy environment. However, in January 2011, respite came their way. Mr Ralph Uwazuruike, the leader of the Movement for the Actualization of Sovereign State of Biafra (MASSOB), mobilised and built a set of 20 flats for them in Okwe village, Imo. Since then, they have had a facelift. Though, since the building in the Imo camp is not enough, some of them still stay at the Oji-River camp.
Series of 20 flats built for the veterans by Uwazuruike in 2011in Imo state