WID Nigerian Spy

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The World Is Deep - Continued

Nigerian Spy David L. Koren, Nigeria 9 (1963-1966) March 2007


On my final trip to Biafra I was arrested as a Nigerian spy.

Between flights I had seen some military activity that I was not supposed to see. I was taken to the base commander, who interrogated me all the rest of the night. They found a Nigerian Pound Note in my wallet. I had got it as a souvenir form a journalist who was passing through Sao Tome. But it looked damning.

Throughout the interrogation I remained respectful. I answered everything honestly, so when they tried to trip me up, I could always come back to what was true. I was not confrontive; I was not indignant.

After the interrogation I was led to a small room, my cell, furnished with a simple couch and some chairs. It would turn out to be a very interesting incarceration, because that room was also used as the VIP waiting room for the Uli airport.

I had two armed guards outside the only door. They escorted me to the latrine and showed me the location of the nearest bunker. By the end of the first day I had only one armed guard. I was allowed to sit out on the veranda. The guard sat there, too, looking calm, at ease, not the least bit mean or terrifying. I looked at his rifle, wondering what kind it was and where it may have come from. I remembered the BBC reporter giving all those details about Biafran weapons.

So I just asked. “What kind of gun is that?” Now remember, I’m under armed guard and under suspicion of being a spy, and I ask a dumb question like that.

“Here,” he said, holding the gun out for me to examine for myself.

“No thanks!” I put my hands behind my back and leaned away. I knew enough not be seen with a gun in my hand.

By the end of that day I had no guards. It was evident that the gun was not loaded; all the ammunition was needed at the front.

Visitors arrived, mostly journalists. I remember Graham Hovey, an editorialist for the New York Times. He wrote down my name, and later back in New York, he bought me lunch. Correspondents for Time and Newsweek came through. One of them commented derisively how Biafran immigration officials acted as if this airstrip was a real place in a real country – they stamped his passport with “Enugu International Airport.”

“It’s an airport in exile,” I told him.

His eyes widened at that concept. “Do I have your permission to use that in my dispatch?” I don’t know if he ever did.

Father John showed up. He brought me a bag with some magazines, a sandwich, and a couple of bottles of warm beer. The look on his face was disappointment, not sympathy. I didn’t understand it then, but I may have caused the airlift a real problem.

I was interrogated again. This time the commander told me that they weren’t sure what they were going to do with me. He said they were thinking of sending me to Umuahia. Umuahia was then the seat of the Biafran government, a Capital in exile. The head of the government was General Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu, sometimes called Emeka, for short. His 2IC was Dr. Michael I. Okpara, who had been the former Premier of the Eastern Region of Nigeria and the founder of Ohuhu Community Grammar School. I told the commander that I would be happy to go to Umuahia and perhaps meet Dr. Okpara again. I would learn later that they took spies and saboteurs to Umuahia to be shot.

One of the young airport officials would sit with me and chat. I gave him some money I had with me and asked him to buy some kola nuts, oji, and palm wine, mmanya. We invited a few others and sat outside in the warm African evening. We broke the kola and shared it. “Onye wetara oji, wetara ndo.” “He who brings kola, brings life.” We got very friendly drinking the palm wine. Someone there knew my name, because he knew one of my students from O.C.G.S who told him about me. I told them about the time I had helped Father John carry some wounded people from the village to the hospital. I asked if anyone knew how they were. None did, but later someone inquired and reported that the boy and the young woman were recovering well.

The next afternoon, in full daylight, the Bofors gun began firing. I heard the scream of a bomb. From the Doppler shift I knew it was coming toward me and I had no chance to reach the bunker. I looked around the room and found no cover. The best I could do was lie down on the cement and cover my head. My “cell” was a government building at the end of the runway and no doubt a choice target. The intensity built to a scream much louder than anything I had heard before. I said, “I’m sorry, Mom.” No child should precede its parent in death.

The scream passed right overhead, rooftop level, and continued away. It was a Mig. It had flown right down the center of the runway, and dropped its bombs in the marketplace beyond.

Months later at a fundraising party for Biafra in New York I met Johnny Correa again, the American mercenary. He had been in Biafra at the time I was a prisoner. In fact, he was stationed at my former school, because it was then a military installation. He lived in a house on the compound that was just being built near mine at the time I left. They interrogated spies at my house. Out behind my house had been a large garbage pit. A layer of garbage was thrown in, then a layer of dirt, then more garbage. There they shot the spies.

Johnny told me that the Biafrans were conflicted about me. They were afraid that if they shot me, the churches would stop the airlift, because I worked for them. So Johnny suggested that they toss a grenade in my room and say that the Mig had bombed it. He told me that.

Instead, I was called before the commander.

He said, “David, I am ordering you deported from Biafra. You must never return again.” As he said it, he was trying to sound very stern, but his demeanor was that of a father chastising an impetuous young man. I was escorted out to Bravo Charlie Whisky. I helped unload it, and then I flew back to Sao Tome for the last time. Soon afterwards, I went home.

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