by Patrick Egwu Ejike
John Chukwuemeka Oliwe, 63, was a thirteen-year-old primary school pupil in 1967 when he joined the Biafran army as a child soldier. Lying in a brown-painted shelf in his room are more than 20 files of manuscripts of two books he is writing about his experiences during the Biafran war.
Initially, it was difficult for him to join the Biafran army because of his age. He was only accepted at the Militia Armed forces of the Biafran army before he was drafted into the main army.
“I sneaked out from home to join the army. I was very young then. But they said I was too small,” he recalls events during the recruitment process. “It was in 1967 that the militia armed forces accepted me. They were not strict and their recruitment was liberal,” he said, looking at the sheaf of papers.
One evening in 1968, John was badly injured. Himself and his battalion led an offensive and pushed back the federal troops from their lines. The operation was successful. Since it was already dark, they had to form a makeshift camp to pass the night under a big shady tree to continue their operation the next day. They miscalculated. That was their greatest mistake. Two of his fellow soldiers had gone to answer nature’s call when the federal troops, who had been laying an ambush, saw them and shot them.
Chukwuemeka John Oliwe, 63, sometimes, painfully removes shelling particles from his body
“It was in the evening and the night fall interrupted the attack,” he said. “That day, we slept in the bush. We didn’t leave the spot immediately it was morning maybe because of the enthusiasm of our last victory,” he explains. “Some of our boys, who went to answer nature’s call, were seen by the federal troops and they fired at them. That was how they knew our position and started attacking us with mortar bombs and shelling,” he said.
During the attacks, John was shattered by mortar bombs shrapnel. He was down. When he was rescued by his fellow soldiers who called for reinforcement and taken to the hospital, the doctors diagnosed him with paraplegia or partial paralysis. His spinal cord was affected. He has been sitting on a wheelchair for the past 49 years.
“I couldn’t feel my body when I touched them. I was scared. It was at the hospital that I was diagnosed that I had spinal cord injury. Unfortunately, I developed tetanus in the hospital because of poor medical care but I still escaped it,” he said.
Doctors told John recently that he has about 12 mortar bomb shrapnel still remaining in his body. “As at the last count, I have about 12 mortar bombs shrapnel still in my body and they have their own complications,” he said. “On two occasions, two of them came out on their own. One morning, I finished taken my bath and when I was rubbing cream, I felt a sharp cut in my body and when I removed it, it was a shrapnel. At times, when I bend down, I feel like something is hooking me down,” he told YNaija.
Begging to go back to school: Against all odds
In 1972, the federal government through the sole administrator of East Central state, Ukpabi Asika, gave scholarships to all the wounded Biafran soldiers. By 1973, John had gone back to continue with his post-primary school education under the scholarship scheme. However, the scholarship turned out to be a hoax.
“The monetary value was irregular, insufficient and suddenly stopped coming. Most of my colleagues dropped out of school and some started begging in the street and market and I said to myself, instead of dropping out, let me sponsor myself. So I joined them to beg on weekends and go back to school during the beginning of the week. That was how I sponsored myself,” he said.
Chukwuemka John Oliwe spends most of his time in his room writing his books on Biafra
In the 80s, he enrolled into the University of Nigeria, Nsukka for his first degree in English and later a Post Graduate Diploma (PGD) in Social Work. Prior to this, through an advert in the papers, he enrolled in a correspondence learning at the London School of Journalism before he dropped out because he couldn’t cope. “It was terrible going back to school. You cannot go into a classroom unless you are lifted or someone helps you out. But I was glad I completed my studies,” he said.
Currently, he spends most of his time in his room writing about his war experiences which he intends to publish soon. “‘Lest we forget’ is about my war memoir. It is the story of how my entire military career went till now. The second book is titled ‘The negro missing links’. It is a speculative fiction,” he said.
“I suffered disillusionment especially when the Igbo race neglected us; their own people. We find it difficult to forgive them. We don’t want to be treated as heroes but as their fellow humans,” he said.