During the series of coups and counter coups leading up to the secession of Biafra and the Nigerian Civil War, thousands of Igbo people were killed in the northern territories of Nigeria. Many more fled to escape the massacres. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie‘s Half of a Yellow Sun gives a harrowing account both of the pogroms and of that flight, from a number of perspectives – the Igbo heroine, in Kano as violence explodes, who escapes on a train along with many others, traumatised, lost and bereaved; the Englishman who finds himself at Kano airport as Igbo staff and travellers are identified and killed; the people meeting the trains as they arrived, searching for their own friends and family afraid to find them and not to find them.
As I read her account, I found myself shaking and weeping. I lived in the north of Nigeria at this time. I was a young child, 9 years old, and my parents shielded me and my younger siblings from as much as they could. But I knew that people were being killed because of their ethnicity. I saw the mob which approached our home looking for Igbos, knew that my father and a friend had gone out to speak to them, to try to calm them and deter them but without success. I knew of westerners arriving at Kano airport, to witness scenes of horror, some of whom got back on the plane as Richard does in the novel. I learned later of the people who my parents found hiding in the unoccupied house across the road from us, who my father took in the back of our car, covered with blankets, to the army compound where others had taken refuge, and of the train organised by another expatriate to take them all to safety but which was ambushed, its passengers dragged out and killed.
As Rob Nixon said, in the New York Times, ‘“Half of a Yellow Sun” takes us inside ordinary lives laid waste by the all too ordinary unraveling of nation states. When an acquaintance of Olanna’s turns up at a refugee camp, she notices that “he was thinner and lankier than she remembered and looked as though he would break in two if he sat down abruptly.” It’s a measure of Adichie’s mastery of small things — and of the mess the world is in — that we see that man arrive, in country after country, again and again and again.’
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s literary role model is often said to be Chinua Achebe, who himself was caught up in these events. His writing having brought him to the attention of the military who suspected him of having foreknowledge of the coup, he had to send his pregnant wife and children on a squalid boat through a series of unseen creeks to the Igbo stronghold of Port Harcourt. During the civil war which followed, his family had to move repeatedly to escape the fighting, returning to their destroyed home only after the war was over. His poem, ‘Refugee Mother and Child’, reflects those experiences:
No Madonna and Child could touch
that picture of a mother’s tenderness
for a son she soon will have to forget.
The air was heavy with odors
of diarrhea of unwashed children
with washed-out ribs and dried-up
bottoms struggling in labored
steps behind blown empty bellies.
Most mothers there had long ceased
to care but not this one; she held
a ghost smile between her teeth
and in her eyes the ghost of a mother’s
pride as she combed the rust-colored
hair left on his skull and then –
singing in her eyes – began carefully
to part it… In another life
this would have been a little daily
act of no consequence before his
breakfast and school; now she
did it like putting flowers
on a tiny grave.
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Half of a Yellow Sun (London: Fourth Estate, 2009)
Chinua Achebe, Collected Poems (Manchester: Carcanet, 2005)
Rob Nixon, ‘A Biafran Story’, New York Times, 1 October 2006
World Refugee Day, 20 June 2012
di·lem·ma \ : a situation in which a difficult choice has to be made between two or more alternatives, especially ones that are equally undesirable.
Every minute eight people leave everything behind to escape war, persecution or terror.
If conflict threatened your family, what would you do? Stay and risk your lives? Or try to flee, and risk kidnap, rape or torture?
For many refugees the choice is between the horrific or something worse.
World Refugee Day was established by the United Nations to honor the courage, strength and determination of women, men and children who are forced to flee their homes under threat of persecution, conflict and violence.