Ngozi’s temperature was higher and her natural colouring turned to grey. Her moans, once so loud, had quietened which scared her parents more.
There was a stench of death in the air mixed with aviation kerosene and fear. Many felt the end was near. Clement pushed the wheelbarrow towards a queue in front of the tent, where nurses were carrying out a triage to determine who would go out on the planes.
Chinyere dropped to her knees in supplication both the church God and whatever local gods she could call upon to help save her child. Ngozi’s older sister by two years, Chidi, was bewildered by it all but took it in stride, as this war had made children grow up fast. Confirming the appendicitis diagnosis, the nurse told the family she would try to get her on the next plane to Sao Tome. The parents had to complete forms with names, ages, and consent for any medical procedures or even burial.
As the triage continued, each child was given numbered dog tags, on a chain locked round the neck. Ngozi’s was number 127.
The Constellation sat in the dark as its cargo of medicines, stockfish, powdered milk and oatmeal was unloaded. From the cockpit, Kurt looked about the busy airstrip which would later be claimed as the second busiest in Africa after Johannesburg in 1969. There were cargo aircraft of every description, including those of the Joint Church Aid known locally as Jesus Christ Airlines.
His cassette player blasting out recent music of Unchained Melody by the Righteous Brothers and the more local Baby Pancake, he thought of the death, mayhem, disease and stench that seemed millions of miles removed from his Iowa homeland.
Shane came running into the cockpit shouting ‘Air raid alert, get out and into the bunkers..now!.
Without a word, Kurt leapt from his seat and down the steps. Everyone around dove into bunkers, built next to the tarmac area.
There was a drone of jet engines as a bomber flew overhead dropping a stick of bombs across the air strip.
State House Bunker
‘I’ve thought about this and this is the plan’ Ojukwu said turning to Father Malloy, David Wilkes and special assistant George Okafor.
‘This gold’ pointing to the wooden crates containing the ingots ‘will immediately go abroad to help pay for the military hardware on the list you gave me earlier. Father Malloy, you will make contact with the arms dealers we are dealing with in Lisbon, so fly now to Sao Tome. You, David and George will go too. Effect the payments, arrange delivery of the equipment as soon as possible. Biafra does not have time to lose.’
‘Agreed’ nodded the others.
‘Good. Make arrangements to get on a flight at Uli immediately and have an armed escort take you there at high speed. You must be away in the next 24 hours’
‘At once, Excellency’
The All Clear sounded, as people nervously climbed out of the crowded bunker to look at the damage. A bomb had landed amidst a group of refugees killing forty of all ages and injuring others.
Eerily, in this early dawn light, was a voice singing. A woman seemingly in shock and cradling an obviously dead child with a ragged hole in its head, sang a plaintative, mourning song among the carnage.
In the middle of the runway was a huge bomb crater and as Kurt and his crew stared at it, he said ‘We can’t take off in the length before that crater so until it’s filled in, we are stuck here. In the mean time, let’s see what help we can render here’
Shane spoke ‘I’ll get the first aid kit from the plane and help with the wounded’
As first aiders, nuns, nurses and others began to give aid, soldiers and crews began to fill in the big crater in the makeshift runway.
Also exiting the bunker was Ngozi and her family. Still in pain and having had some morphine, she was now in a semi comatose state.
Chinyere asked Clement ‘How is she? Is she dead?’
‘No, she is sleeping and you can see her chest is still moving. Let us see if we can get some food from that place’ pointing to an open air kitchen giving out meagre rations of stockfish and milk. As always, a queue formed and when they received their portions, ate it hungrily as their last meal was over 24 hours before. Chinyere force fed the milk into her unconscious daughter’s mouth in a bid to give her nutrition.
The Constellation crew having done what they could for the injured, turned back to their plane. A tractor pulled it under some trees with net camouflage as it was now daylight. There would be no flights till nightfall, fifteen hours away.
Kurt said ‘You guys get some rest in the cargo hold. We need to be fresh , for when we depart tonight.’
30 miles away in an armed convoy speeding for Uli, Ojukwu’s three representatives were accompanying the gold shipment in a 7 ton lorry.
‘This is a lot of money we have here. Almost seven hundred thousand dollars that will make for a proper fight. Maybe we should also spend any extras on some cars and pay ourselves a commission’ David Wilkes said.
‘Why should we do that ?’ asked Father Malloy ‘There are more important things to buy, maybe even some fast boats to target vessels in the Delta and force oil companies to pay us taxes. Commission for what, David?’
‘To help spread the Biafran word in the international media. I have contacts who can feed positive stories about the cause but they need to be greased with money’
‘Excellency did not say or approve that’ chimed in George. ‘Let us stay within our instructions from Oga’
David stared out into the distance as the convoy hurtled along.
Uli Airstrip Noon
The sun’s heat was merciless, as the injured and starving were tended to. Fortuitously, Ngozi’s turn to be evacuated had advanced due to the unfortunate deaths from the overnight bombing. Her parents were elated, when told she would be certainly evacuated during the night’s flight movements. Now, the reality of the separation began to dawn.
‘My husband, what if we never see Ngozi again? How will we contact her again? How will she find us? She is only ten years old.’
‘Her life is the most important thing now, which can be saved in a hospital in this place called Sao Tome that everyone is talking about. But, what you have said is very good. Let us ask the nuns again what happens when she is there’ Leaving Ngozi with her sister, Chidi, the pair walked over to the nurses’ station.
‘Holy Sister’ Clement began in the best English he could muster ‘What will become of our child when she gets to this Tome?
A busy nun looked up, sweat running down her face. ‘I will give you a paper with the address of the charity in Sao Tome which has a hospital and orphanage. The place also has a telephone. Didn’t I see you with another daughter?’
‘Yes, Chidi. She is 12 years old, almost a big girl. Why do you ask?
‘Well, there is space on the plane because of the people who died today, she can go as well and help to look after her sister. She can also be safe from the hunger and fighting’
Clement and Chinyere stared at each other, with the latter bursting into tears.
‘Hewu! Clem Di, both our children to go away? It cannot be so. Mba’
‘Nne, maybe it is the best. We cannot feed them and we want them safe. Let us go and talk about it’
The Nun said ‘If you don’t want the sister to go, tell me now so I can put another child in her place’
Clement nodded ‘Yes, she will go. Thank you, Sister’
Uli Airstrip 22.12 hrs
The gold consignment had been loaded onto the Constellation with most people watching and wondering what were in the crates. Father Malloy, David and George sat on the floor of the plane, next to the tied down crates. The crater in the runway had been filled and the night flight traffic soon begin. The weather had also changed and a tropical rainstorm drove down from the skies.
Clement, Chinyere and Chidi were talking about the journey.
‘My daughter, you must look after your sister in the aeroplane and also at the hospital where she is being taken to. The nun has put that metal on her neck number 127 and your own is 159. When you get there, you will be well and looked after. To remember your Nne..Mother and I’ taking off his prized Swiss Army knife which he always carried around his neck ‘Take this knife and put in around your neck as well. It’s a little heavy but will always remind you of us, your home and people. Everywhere you go, carve or scratch your name and why you are there’’
Chidi nodded and her mother added ‘Behave well and don’t forget where you are from’ as both began to cry.
Chidi said ‘Yes, mother and father. My sister Ngozi will be well and I will make you proud of me’.
There were adult refugees as well, mostly female to help look after children. Ngozi, still unconscious, was laid on blankets on the floor of the plane with Chidi, sat next to her. For many, it was another unknown, being in an aircraft.
‘All loaded and doors shut, Skip. We have cargo, thirty one children and adults aboard for Sao Tome. Let’s get the hell outta here’ Shane said. At 11.10 pm, engines were started and in the blinding rain, the plane moved away from the parking area led by a man on the ground waving torchlight. A C-47 took off before them and the lights extinguished. Once cleared, Kurt took off, as a voice from the preceding C47 crackled on the UHF radio, ‘Watch out, fighters around’.
‘Shit’ Kurt said, as all in the cockpit searched into the darkened skies for the opposing plane. Tracer fire, noted by its sparks lit up the dark and a shadow zoomed past the left side of the Constellation. It was an Ilyushin 28 bomber which also carried a nose gun. ‘There’s the bastard’ Marvin said. The jet turned a wide circle to set up for another shooting strike as Kurt zig zagged the plane. The screams from the people in the back could be heard as panic spread.
The next attack was a slashing one, as the Ilyushin could not slow down enough to match the Constellation’s speed. It fired across the number one engine, setting it on fire.
‘Extinguisher on Number One, Shane’
‘Done’ said he, activating the fire suppression.
Surprisingly, it seemed the bomber had disengaged from combat, presumably running low on fuel.
The Constellation climbed at full power southwards on three good engines, as they were still too near the canopy of the rain forest 1000 feet below.
‘Guys, what do you think? Turn back to Annabelle or continue to Sao Tome? Kurt said fighting the controls to keep them in the air.
Almost in unison, both said ‘Sao Tome’.
Chidi was holding on to her sister for dear life, as she saw punched holes accompanied by whistling air into the fuselage. The government officials with the gold, were just as petrified.
Marvin catching sight of a silhouette shouted, ‘He’s back again!’
This time, gun fire struck the top of the Constellation’s fuselage, wounding many on board including Father Malloy and many of the children.
‘Fire, Number two engine’ Shane said
‘Noted, leave it for now as its still providing power’
‘Where’s the bastard now? Marvin, check your side’
‘Nothing skipper. I think he’s gone’
‘Ok. We have no engines on the left side and I think there’s a lot of structural damage affecting handling. Let’s nurse the other two to Sao Tome. Hope the folks in the back are fine’
The folks in the back were not. Fifteen children and Father Malloy had died in the attack. Chidi was spared any injury and as if by a miracle, Ngozi came out of her coma opening her eyes staring at her sister.
‘Where‘s mother and father?’. Where am I? What’s all the noise?’
‘Shhhh..keep quiet, sister. Something is happening’
Smoke bellowed from the number one engine with the fire now spread along the left wing. The crew could see the shimmering Bight of Biafra ahead.
The plane flew over Owerri and the Imo River as it struggled to maintain altitude. The final moments came soon but Kurt wanted to attempt a crash landing, however the weight of the plane, and loss of control, meant the plane would not make it. At five hundred feet, Kurt shouted ‘We can’t make it, so brace! Brace for impact!!
In the cargo hold, confusion reigned as Chidi hugged her sister.
Just over the delta groves where the creeks merged into the sea, the plane pancaked onto the water and cart wheeled. Breaking up into pieces, half of the fuselage floated along with a wing. There was the sizzling of steam from where the hot engines had contacted with water, along with the dying noises of groaning metal. The crew died instantly in a land far way from theirs, where they would never be going home. Fire, feed by the fuel started to burn on the surface of the water. In the still floating fuselage, after the initial paralysis of the crash, reality set in. Many of the children who had been alive after the attack by the fighter drowned, amid the screaming. David Wilkes and George Okafor both survived and were flailing about in the semi submerged structure but both knew it would soon sink, like the rest of the plane.
Chidi, with cuts and bruises all over her face still held on to her sister. Her eyes implored the two men to help her but they were more concerned with their own survival. Two of the boxes which held the gold broke open and Wilkes grabbed a gold bar.
George said ‘No, no, you cannot take the gold. It is the property of Biafran people’ as both men got into a scuffle. Wilkes used the bar as a weapon and pounded George on the side of the head several times until George fell back into the sea filled hold. Wilkes, still holding onto the gold, dived into the sea away from the fire through the open hull, where he quickly discovered that the weight of the bar could take him down him so reluctantly, he let it go. Seeing a light about three miles away, he headed for it.
Chidi and Ngozi’s swimming skills had come from weekly bathing in a small stream around their home village, so realising no one would come to their aid, Chidi dragged her ailing sister into the Bight of Biafra. Unfortunately, the tide was against them as she battled to swim and hold on to Ngozi with one hand. Her sister had suffered a concussion in the crash and was again unconscious.