MaudlynE Ihejirika writes in the Chicago Sun-Times: Remembering Ojukwu, the man who saved my life

by MaudlynE Ihejirika

‘Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu. Leader of the Republic of Biafra from 1967 to 1970. Died in the U.K. Age 78. Body being flown to Nigeria for burial with full military honors.”

It was a small foreign item in the news last month, barely registering for many. But I was glued to the news feeds of the funeral and burial ceremonies for this man on March 1 and 2. Where had I heard that name? Ojukwu.

As a Nigerian American, I knew the history well. A Nigerian military officer and politician, Ojukwu was the Igbo governor of Nigeria’s Eastern Region in 1966, when ethnic and religious tensions among that nation’s majority tribes — the Igbos, Hausas and Yorubas — led to a mass slaughter of Igbos across the Northern Region. An outraged Ojukwu declared secession of the Igbos on May 30, 1967.

The Nigerian-Biafran War began in July 1967, and before the surrender of the short-lived Biafran nation in January 1970, a naval, land and air blockade would lead to mass starvation of more than 1 million Biafrans and charges of genocide. Col. Ojukwu would go into exile for 13 years. He died in London Nov. 26, 2011.

Still, where had I heard that name, Ojukwu? Wait. It was in the story. That story. My mother’s autobiography, the writing of which has moved much too slowly. I’ve felt haunted by the ticking of time — she’s 84. Now the present had caught up to the past.

I flipped through reams of notebooks and cassette tapes containing her story. There the name was: Ojukwu, who personally wrote out and placed in my mother’s hands the exit visas that saved seven lives, including mine, from a horrific, senseless war, on June 3, 1969.

I’ve told pieces of the story before: how, in the summer of 1968, my father, a young Igbo who had left his wife and six children in Nigeria for a college education in the United States, hadn’t heard from his family since the war erupted two years earlier.

One of his Northwestern University professors decided to help, and in the end, five North Shore couples joined to raise funds and secure congressional help to get refugee visas for my father’s wife and kids. Stealth communication through missionaries ensued.

Finally, my mother got word she was to see the Biafran leader for approved exit visas.

“The seat of the Biafran government was wherever Col. Ojukwu’s army was, and they moved constantly,” Mom recounted. “Where they were was a three-days walk from my village. I had no food, just wild mangoes, and at night I slept in refugee camps.

“I arrived and asked to see Col. Ojukwu. They brought me to him, and he put the visa in my hand. I cried. We wished each other blessings. I tied that precious piece of paper in my skirt to protect it from the rain, and began the three-day walk back home.”

On June 9, my family set out for Biafra’s only airstrip, embarking on the very last Red Cross flight ever to fly in or out of Biafra, as the war became too dangerous. I was only 5.

I know that name. Ojukwu.

For many, this death in the news barely registered. But for Chicago area Igbos, who recently held a celebration of his life at Dominican University in River Forest, we will always remember the man called “hope of the Igbos.”

This piece was originally published HERE.

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