Dedicated to my Beloved sisters, with whom, growing up, I learned to sing Ernest Tubb’s “Missing in Action” whose lyrics inspired this story.
The intensive care unit, which had become Nwabunze’s home for the past six weeks, buzzed with medical personnel darting about his bed. He stared off into the distance, his mind barely taking in the activities of the doctor and two nurses who had gathered in response to the beeping of his vital sign monitor. He could hear the doctor muttering instructions to the nurses. He closed his eyes, and tried to stay present. Faintly, he overheard a voice, possibly one of the nurses, asking if his wife and children had been contacted.
Wife and children. Those words stabbed at his heart, and for the first time in years, he allowed the painful memories to replay in his mind.
* * * * * * * *
It was a warm October night in the year 1967, in the peak of the civil war. He was lying as still as he possibly could, bleeding profusely from his lower abdomen, his breathing punctuated with almost silent whimpers. The Nigerian soldiers, who had made their way down fromIdahhad invaded Onitsha, and the Biafran soldiers, ill prepared, had gone into battle to prevent them from capturing the city. The result had been the death of hundreds of his comrades and the burning down to the ground of theOnitshamarket.
He was losing blood faster with each passing moment, but that was not his primary concern at the moment. His primary concern was not to be found by the enemy. He prayed to the God whom he had recently come to know through the missionary priest that had baptized him just two years earlier, that by some miraculous intervention, he would be missed by the Nigerian soldiers who were going about their after-battle duties of checking the bodies left on the battle field. He restrained himself from groaning out loud, as his bullet wound sent sharp unbearable pains coursing through his entire body. He was losing a lot of blood, and he didn’t know how much longer he could hold on for. He pressed his hands tightly unto the wound, hoping that the pressure would reduce the bleeding, it instead ruffled the bushes that served as his hideout. Immediately, he heard the voices and footsteps of the foot soldiers, approaching hastily towards where he lay, and for the first time since he was conscripted into the war, fear gripped his insides. His mind drifted back home to his beautiful wife, Adaora and their two month old daughter whom he was yet to meet. He had left for the war before she was born. Would he ever get a chance to hold her? Would he ever get another chance to embrace his love?
The arrival of two Nigerian soldiers forced his mind back to reality. They stood above him, examining him closely. One of them kicked him hard in the shin, and he involuntarily let out a grunt of pain.
“Sir, mun samo wani abokin gaba kuma fa! ” shouted the second soldier, as his colleague continued to assault Nwabunze with his hard military boot. “We don find another detty Biafran!”
Nwabunze, who didn’t understand a word of Hausa, needed no interpreter to figure out what was going on. Before long, he noticed the silhouette of a third man making his way towards them.
“The one wey you do don do”, barked the newcomer at the soldier harassing Nwabunze, who immediately desisted. From the soft glow of the moonlight, Nwanbunze recognized him as the captain he had seen leading the troops into the battle field earlier in the day.
“E be like say him wound”, said the soldier who had called the captain over. “E fit no make am till morning.Yana zub da jini da dama.Make we juste waste am?” The captain, making no answer, bent to inspect Nwabunze, and immediately noticed the blood sipping through his fingers from the wound he was clutching tightly.
“Tie him wound before he bleed die. Tie am well well! ”, he said sharply to the first soldier. The soldier who, just seconds before, was assaulting Nwabunze ripped his shirt off him roughly. He moaned in pain as the soldier wrapped the shirt across his wound and tied it tightly around his torso like a makeshift bandage.
“Put am for van join”, the captain ordered.
He was dragged by his arms like a lifeless body, for what seemed like a quarter of a mile, to where a couple of military vans hummed patiently while Nigerian soldiers piled bodies, dead and alive, into them. As he was thrown into the van, Nwabunze quickly shuffled himself to a corner as another thud announced the entrance of another dead body into the van. The Nigerian soldiers were collecting bodies of their dead comrades and taking hostages of wounded Biafran soldiers in the same vans. Nwabunze felt revolted at the thought. Without warning, his van revved up and jolted off into the night. Nwabunze felt dizzy and faint, but he fought to stay conscious for fear of the unknown. What would become of his wife and daughter if any harm should befall him, he thought in fear. Who would care and provide for them? He had to find a way back home to them. He just had to.
He came to with a jolt. He took in his surroundings, and judging from the hard and sparse metal beds, the rough stony floor, the walls made from planks nailed hastily together and the flag hanging off the wall, he realized he was at the clinic of a Nigerian military camp. Instinctively, he felt around his lower abdomen for his wound, and discovered that it had been roughly stitched up. He must have been unconscious only for a few hours, he thought, as the high window with a lot of louvers missing revealed the sky to still be dark. He tried to sit up and discovered that his feet were bound in rusty chains, which was firmly secured to the iron rung of the bed with an even rustier padlock. He lay back down feeling faint and drained. His throat was parched like the Sahara, his lips hadn’t seen water since the night before the battle. He swallowed hard, but even his tongue was too dry to muster any saliva. He longed for home. He longed for the affectionate way his wife would serve him cool water from the ite oku in front of their home, whenever he got back home at the end of the day. He remembered how he would hold her and ask how her day at the market was. How they would eat the sumptuous dinner she had prepared together, while she told him of her dreams to move to the city. He longed for those cold rainy nights when she would cuddle up to him and how he would wrap his arms around her to keep her warm.
“Na gane ka farka yanzu”, a hard voice, directed at him, interrupted his train of thoughts. “Ah, you dey cry?”
Nwabunze didn’t realize that a lone tear had leaked out of the corner of his eye. He quickly brushed it away. The man who had spoken up was in a military uniform, with a worn out looking stethoscope hanging from his neck. Nwabunze hadn’t noticed him come into the clinic. The man walked over to his side and inspected the stitches. He placed the back of his dirty palm on Nwabunze’s forehead and neck to feel his temperature.
“You dey do better than day before yesterday when dem carry you come”, he mumbled more to himself than to Nwabunze. “You been no get yourself so tey I come dey reason why I dey waste precious time dey treat detty Biafran wey go still die”, he said rather harshly. Nwabunze realized that he had been out cold for two whole days, not just a few hours as he had thought.
Without another word to him, he spun on his heel and exited the room. He returned with two other soldiers, who unlocked the padlock, and without unbinding him, bundled him roughly out of the clinic. It was still dark, and the moonless night made it difficult to see properly. He found himself being stirred to the left of the clinic and down an uneven path toward a metal shack. On getting to the front of the shack, another soldier who was sitting on the floor with head buried into his chest in slumber, jerked awake and opened the burglarproof that served as a barricade into the shack. His heart sank as he immediately realized that this was a cell of some sort, and it was going to be his new home. All hope left him.
It must have been a little past the hour of three in the afternoon, and the sun was blazing hot. By the markings which he had made on the wall, in his corner of the cell which held eight others, it was the last day in the month of March of 1968, precisely five months and twenty-seven days since he was brought to this dreadful place. Nwabunze sat with his head titled upward, staring into the sunny sky through a rather large whole in the zinc roof of his windowless prison, as the military warden who was on duty that afternoon, passed around the same inedible food he and the other inmates of the collective cell had grown accustomed to eating once everyday. His mind was far away at home with his wife and daughter. No day had passed that he didn’t long for her. He even suspected that it was this longing that somehow gave him hope and kept him alive.
A loud commotion outside the cell snagged him back to the present. They could hear a lot of rustling and shouting, followed by gunshots being fired from not so far away. Amidst the pandemonium, Nwabunze could make out a few sentences being yelled by the soldiers outside.
“Gashi suna nan fa!”
“Dem don corner us o! Na ambush!”
“Division dey under attack! Defense! Defense!”
The warden, quickly abandoning his lunch duty, scrambled to retrieve his rifle and join his colleagues in the defense of the camp division. In his haste, he left the cell door unlocked. Nwabunze’s heart leaped into his mouth, as the idea of a possible successful escape instinctively came to him. Had God in His mercy come to his aid today, he thought, his heart pounding hard against his chest. His feet were shackled, but lose enough to permit a considerably generous amount of movement. He watched with heart still pounding madly, as the other inmates scurried to a hole in the wall to peep at the commotion. He quickly weighed his situation, it was a dangerous idea but it was either now or never. He crept noiselessly to the entrance of the cell, while the others remained distracted. He carefully poked out a quarter of his face to scan the environment. There were soldiers to the far right of where the cell stood, all armed and racing northward, toward the advancing enemy who were closing in on the entrance of the camp in what seemed to be hijacked Nigerian military vans. It was Nwabunze’s first time, since his arrival, of seeing the camp in daylight. A sign far off at the entrance where the Biafrans, descending from the vans, were already firing shots, read “Abagana Community Grammar School”. This information gave him some sense of bearing. Abaganato Nnewiwas less than thirty kilometers away, he was not as far from home as he had imagined. To his right lay the edge of the school, which was marked by a thick forest. A wooden shack that probably served as a storage space, stood between the cell and the forest. A quick evaluation of these facts showed Nwabunze that his best bet was to aim for the forest, at the end of which his possible freedom lay. There was no point in not trying, as he was certain he would be killed at the military camp for sport anyway, like the seven who had been taken out of the cell and never brought back. He would rather die trying to escape.
And so he shot off, as quickly as his shackled feet would let him, towards the forest. Not bothering about the clanging of his chains, not bothering to turn back to check if the coast remained clear, not bothering to pause for breath. He just ran. No sooner had he set off, than a sharp pain from his old wound pierce his side. The stitches were never taken out. He had probably ripped them with his sudden movement, but he was not about to stop to verify. He just kept running. He doubted the other inmates had realized that he was gone, for they’d have probably raised an alarm. He didn’t stop running till the sound of the gunshots being exchanged at the camp had become faint, till he was sure that he had put a great distance between himself and the camp. Then he stopped, panting and gasping for breath amidst involuntary groans of pain. Leaning against a tree, he raised the rags his Biafran military uniform had become, to inspect his wound. It was oozing a trickle of fluid that looked like a mixture of blood and puss. He spotted an “nchanwu”shrub near by, and plucked a handful of the leaves. Using some of it, he wiped away the fluid, then he rubbed the rest between his palms till they became a moist ball, and applied it to the wound. When his panting had subsided, he resumed his journey through the forest again, this time walking. As he walked, he combed the ground with his eyes for anything he could use to free his bonds. Soon enough, he came across a thick iron rod, which he picked up thankfully. He positioned himself firmly and dug the rod into the first link in the chain directly attached to the shackle on his left leg; then he wiggled the rod back and forth, from side to side with all his might till it pried open. He did the same with the right, and soon he was good to continue on his journey. He walked till evening fell, then he made camp beneath a tree surrounded with thick shrubs to serve as a camouflage for the night. He’d start off his journey home to his darling wife and daughter in the morning, he thought to himself. And so, with thoughts of the warm welcome awaiting him at home, he went to sleep.
Nwabunze set off again at day break. He had to stick to hidden and bushy paths, out of the sight of friends or foes. Passing throughEnugu-Ukwu,Adazi Nnukwuand Nnokwa, he increased his pace as he entered Nnobi.He had been walking for a little over five hours, only pausing for a drink each time he passed a stream. He was hungry and tired, but he neither stopped to eat nor to rest. The mental image of a home cooked meal stalled his appetite. As he entered Nnewi, he abandoned the hidden paths and came out to the road. He was happy to see that they were mostly deserted, but for a few people who didn’t seem to know nor recognize him. They all avoided him, and he didn’t blame them, knowing that he could easily have been mistaken for a man in the “roaming” stage of his madness. As soon as he spotted the pathway that led up to his house, his walking became a jog. It must have been afternoon, he realized, on getting to his compound, for it was empty of people and animals. His darling Adaora, must have gone on her business of selling fresh vegetables at theNnewi Orie Akpu market, and must have taken the baby with her. Still there was an eeriness to the place that made Nwabunze uncomfortable. He at the least, expected to see some of his livestock roaming about in welcome, but none was in sight. The compound also looked like it hadn’t been swept in a long while. He ignored the knot forming in his chest and went to see if, by any chance, the door was unlocked.
It was. Surprised at this, Nwabunze walked into his sitting room, and the knot in his chest fell to his stomach. Most of his furniture was gone. His benches, his small radio, the kerosene lamps; all that was left was the rickety wooden table at the corner of the wall, close to the door that led into the bedroom. The floor was littered with dead roaches and lizards, cobwebs and spiders hung like chandeliers from the low ceiling. He made for the bedroom but was stopped abruptly by a piece of paper that lay on the floor close to the table. He stooped slowly, wincing in pain, to pick it up. He turned it over, and discovered that it was a photograph.
Nwabunze’s heart seemed to stop for a few moments. His chest tightened and his hands began to tremble as he stared hard at the photograph in his hand. It was a wedding photograph of his beloved wife and her husband. A husband that was not him. Tears welled up in his eyes, and grief gripped his soul as realization hit him. He slumped to the floor sobbing hard, his entire body shaking with each sob. He felt like his whole world had been dangled in his face, then suddenly and wickedly snatched away from him. He sobbed for what seemed to be hours on end. It was almost nightfall when he gathered himself together. He couldn’t stay here, he thought, it was not home without her. He couldn’t go looking for her either. She had probably presumed him dead when he didn’t return for months, and being young, must have been coerced into a new marriage by her people. He couldn’t bear the thought of disrupting her life now that she was probably settling into her new home. He stared at her beautiful face one last time, then planted a kiss on her face in the photograph, and wished her goodbye. He stood up and looked around at the house that used to be home, then walked out of the door, and into the night….
* * * * * * * *
“We’re losing him!”
The fear in the voice of the nurse fussing about him brought Nwabunze back from his reverie. The old wound which had not been properly treated initially, had become infected shortly after its infliction. He had been in and out of hospitals for thirty-five years now, for one health issue or the other caused chiefly by the same battle wound. But this was his last, he thought to himself. He was dying, and he knew it, and he was going to die alone.
Just like the wound, his heart had never really healed. He had moved to the city after the war, but remained alone and unmarried. He had never tried to contact his relatives nor old friends, for the same reason he had never tried to contact Adaora or his daughter. For all they knew, he had died long ago and they weren’t wrong, for he knew that the day he truly died, was the day he had seen that photo thirty-five years ago. That was the day his soul had left his body for good. This one, this death, was just going to be a formality. A formality he had waited for since that day. It was coming any minute now and he was ready. He closed his eyes slowly, and for a moment, he saw her. As beautiful as he remembered her to be. And just like that night in the empty house, he bid her farewell for the last time. She had been his life, he was therefore not surprised that she would be his death…
This story is purely fiction, inspired by an Ernest Tubb’s track titled “Missing in Action”, released in the year 1951. The historical events and facts of the Nigerian Civil War mentioned have been fictionalized to convey the story. The characters in the story are purely fictional and bear no resemblance to any person living or dead.