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close this bookCountry Report Nigeria - ICRC Worldwide Consultation on the Rules of War (International Committee of the Red Cross , 1999, 56 p.)
close this folderThe war experience
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View the documentRegional conflict
View the documentThe chaos of war

The chaos of war

Participants from all levels of Nigerian society and of all ages related traumatic experiences of war: the rules of everyday life were suspended and reality was turned upside down. A teacher in Port Harcourt recounted how she witnessed a mother decapitated by a mortar shell while holding her children. (FG, teachers, Port Harcourt) A scholar, now living in Lagos, told of how he watched in horror as a helpless victim had acid poured on his body. (IDI, scholar, Lagos)

FIGURE 1 The war experience (per cent of total population responding)7

7Respondents were asked to identify which of 13 experiences "happened to you personally" as a consequence of the war. These experiences covered a range of physical and psychological effects, from imprisonment to property damage to feeling humiliated. Figure 1 also indicates the percentage of respondents who say they were combatants, lived in an area where the war took place or lived under enemy control.

Focus group participants also related tragically surreal events brought on by the conflict. A former Federal Army commander described how his troops refused to believe a war had actually broken out, that is, until their defecting compatriots fired on them during a drill. "That was how the shooting started, just like a joke." (FG, former Federal Army commanders, Kaduna) An artist who served in the Federal Army described how his unit was cut off and had to fight its way out of enemy territory with heavy casualties, only to learn that the war had ended four weeks previously. (IDI, artist, Lagos)

Participants in the focus groups told stories of terrible cruelty. A medical worker from Port Harcourt described how combatants forced captives to lie on their backs and stare into the sun. They also gave accounts of the reportedly widespread practice of burying people alive.

The worst thing I remember and could never forget, the Biafran soldiers asked my brother-in-law to dig a trench and ordered him to go inside They dug two, they were two, they ordered the other man to use the shovel to cover it. We were watching. They buried him alive, and after that they ordered the brother to enter the next one and they covered it too. I can never forget it in my life. (FG, teachers, Port Harcourt)

Yes sir. They buried the man alive. He dug the ground himself and they put him inside. (FG, medical workers, Port Harcourt)

Rape also was used as a fearsome and widespread weapon to terrorize civilians.

Many girls were captured by the Nigerian army, including married women. At times they raped the women in front of their husbands. If you talked they would shoot you. (FG, teachers, Port Harcourt)

When you get home as a farmer, you discover your wife has been raped, you are not a happy man. You are annoyed and you feel disappointed... You come back and meet them raped, you will never be a happy father again. (IDI, farmer, Lagos)

I noticed a man and his wife, they met each other in the presence of soldiers. [Moderator: Oh, they were asked to perform intercourse?] Yes. [In the presence of soldiers?] Yes. The soldiers asked them to do it in their presence. After the man climbed on top of the woman, they shot him. (FG, medical workers, Port Harcourt)

Yes, they burn them alive. Then the women, they will bring them, lie them down, then before they burn the men, they would ask them to rape the women, then after they would burn them. (FG, female students, Enugu)

The young girls of those days, there was none that was not raped by force... (FG, women who lost children during the war, Enugu)

FIGURE 2 Personal description of the war (per cent of total population responding)

While many participants had strong opinions as to the roots of the conflict and the events that led up to it - geopolitics, economic need or ethnic discord - many Nigerians simply described a society that spun out of control. A former Biafran commander described the war as "genocide" (FG, former Biafran field commanders, Enugu) and a Red Cross volunteer described life as "survival of the fittest. There was no food, no money... so we have to fight for a living." (IDI, Nigerian Red Cross volunteer, Lagos) For those caught up in the fighting, it was a time of unfathomable wickedness. As one woman put it, the time of the war was an "[a]bomination, the work of the devil". (FG, women who lost children during the war, Enugu)

Respondents also detailed the effects of the war that went beyond actual fighting and bloodshed. In both focus group locations in what used to be Biafran territory (Enugu and Port Harcourt), they recounted stories of disease and starvation.8 For many people in the world outside Nigeria, this was the face of the Biafran war: makeshift camps teeming with sweltering and malnourished displaced people.

8The malady known as kwashiorkor - a condition stemming from lack of dietary protein that causes the sufferer's skin to scale and turn red, hair to thin and fall out before he or she dies of malnutrition - is mentioned in every focus group.

This underlying context, formed of both direct war experiences and impressions of war gleaned from other sources, provided the setting for an examination of Nigerians' attitudes towards war and the manner in which they think it should be fought. As has been seen, the physical manifestations of the Biafran war took a devastating toll on those living in the south-east - both on those alive during the conflict and those born afterwards. And although little of the fighting took place in the areas in which they lived, residents of other parts of Nigeria clearly exhibit strong feelings on the topic of war.