Sixty-six-year-old Lawrence Akpu is sitting on a black wheelchair which makes squeaky sound at each move – a sign that it’s in a very bad shape. Hanging on the wall are black and white picture frames and calendars of Colonel Odumegwu Ojukwu, leader of the defunct state of Biafra who led his people exactly fifty years ago to a three-year full blown-bloody civil war against the Nigerian government following the massacre and genocide of about 50,000 easterners in the north after the counter-coup of 1966 by General Yakubu Gowon. One of the calendars of Ojukwu on the wall read “Historic day: Proclamation of the Republic of Biafra by the military governor, Lt Col. Odumegwu Ojukwu, 30th May, 1967”.
There is a picture of Lawrence too in his army uniform hanging on the wall. It was just 10:30am and the tick-tock of the wall clock was heard in the background. Close to Lawrence’s picture was a calendar of Jesus Christ during transfiguration with the inscription “Our father in heaven”. A 14-inch coloured TV set was standing on a side table with an antenna on top of it. The room was well illuminated as a result of the mid-morning sun that had just begun to shine. The building has not had light for the past six years since it was constructed.
He lives in darkness.
One of the pictures of Col Ojukwu in a calendar hangs on the wall
“Daddy when are you going to get up from this chair (wheelchair)?” his six-year-old grandson, Chinecherem innocently asked him.
“Very soon my dear,” he replied, giggling while adjusting his position on the wheelchair to have a balance. “That’s the question he usually asks me whenever he brings me out from my room. He is just a boy, I don’t blame him”.
“He was our hero,” he said pointing to one of the pictures of Ojukwu when he was speaking to a cross section of foreign journalists, perhaps during the declaration of Biafra on May 30, 1967. “He took us to war because of the killings and victimisation of our people. We were happy to have stood by him with our lives,” he said nodding his head at the same time.
For the past fifty-one years, Lawrence has been sitting in a wheelchair, being moved from one position to the other, all day, all year round, except when he wants to sleep or use the convenience. He said he bought the wheelchair after the one given to him by social welfare under the ministry of health in 1975 had damaged beyond repair. He has since used three different wheelchairs.
“My whole life has been in the wheelchair after the war except when I want to sleep,” he told YNaija.
The unknown bullet
Mr Lawrence, a native of Mgbagbu Owa in Ezeagu LGA of Enugu state, is one of the dozens of abandoned disabled Biafran veterans after the civil war, languishing at a small village resettlement camp in Okwe, Onuimo LGA of Imo state. He was hit by an “unknown” bullet from the back, piercing his chest during a fierce battle on April 13, 1969, in Abia state. He never stood up nor went back to the battlefield ever since. He was paralysed from the bullet injury. His spinal cord was affected.
“April 13, 1969, was terrible. The battle was intense on that day. The bullet was in my chest,” he recalls while unbuttoning his shirt to show me the scar of the bullet and how it perforated his chest. “I ran out of ammo during the assault at Uzuakoli sector in Abia state. We were only given five bullets each; I exhausted mine during the battle,” he said.
“When we ran out of ammunition, I started running with an injured soldier who was shot in the leg I was carrying. It was in the process that a bullet hit me. I didn’t see who shot the fire. I fell to the ground. I was groaning, I was in pains,” he said, remembering how he lost consciousness afterwards before his fellow soldiers came to pick him up. He only found himself at the hospital when he regained consciousness.
After the bullet from nowhere had struck him, he said his fellow soldiers helped to load him into a waiting truck to the hospital.
He never returned to the battlefield until the war ended.
Lawrence Apku doesn’t regret fighting alongside Ojukwu, his hero
Lawrence said his mother objected to his decision to join the army at that time. But he insisted he wanted to save and defend his land. He explained to her that his friends would deride him should he fail to turn up at the recruitment camp. “She was devastated when she heard about it and said over her dead body. I told her I would be a coward if I do not join, my friends would laugh at me. I needed to protect her and my siblings,” he maintained.
“When the war ended and she didn’t see me, she became sick and thought I was dead. I came back one year after the war and she became well and started jubilating,” Lawrence said while drinking from a plastic cup his son had used to fetch water for him.
Fifty years ago, Lawrence, was just sixteen years old when he joined the Biafran army as a recruit on August 19, 1967, following the declaration of the sovereign state of Biafra by Colonel Ojukwu. He joined so he could fight side by side with his comrades to hold their land, to fight for their children and the ones yet unborn. And at the end of the bloody three years civil war, more than three million people, mostly women and children, died of starvation, kwashiorkor and diseases.
“I was living in the north before I came back to the east in 1966 due to the massacre and killings of the Igbos after the coup,” he said placing his hands comfortably on his wheelchair. “They killed mercilessly at that time”.
Prior to the civil war of 1967, there were reported massacre of people from the eastern region in 1966 in the north following the counter-coup. Many survived while many died. As for Lawrence, he was lucky. “When we ran from the north and got to Gboko, Benue state, we met a blockade and they started again, killing people. We luckily escaped,” he recalls with nostalgia.