BY HENRY CHUKWUEMEKA ONYEMA
Death threw his door wide open to receive them that glorious azure morning. His bony claws were outstretched to hook into their hearts and pluck out their lives. His cavernous mouth was determined to drink their blood to the last drop. But Captain John O’Brien and his men would not back down.
Even for the Biafran Commandos whose first, middle and surnames were unorthodoxy, daredevilry and gung-hoism, their mission was straight into Ekwensu’s belly. The Irish mercenary’s face contorted as he recollected the exchange back at the headquarters.
“Pure suicide, Captain,” declared Lieutenant-Colonel Obika Kanu of the Fourth Battalion. His plumy English accent, gained from his years at Sandhurst, dripped with disapproval of the young red-haired rough diamond who said the rosary with the same ease with which he handled a CETME assault rifle.
“Besides, sending in reinforcements is impossible.” That was Colonel Honecker, the German mercenary who had recently been promoted by the Head of State to the chagrin of many Biafran officers who were yet to come to terms with his leadership of the Commandos.
“So we should let those missionaries die?” John’s quiet voice was a time bomb.
Honecker explicitly forbid any heroic operation to rescue the small Catholic missionary complex tucked away in the godforsaken village of Mbaramkpaka on the outskirts of Ihiala. “Anyone who disobeys this order will face a summary court-martial,” he declared, his sea-green eyes chips of granite. Militarily, his stance made sense. The Nigerian army was deeply entrenched in that sector and had seized the major roads linking Ihiala with Owerri and other parts of the fast shrinking Biafran territory still in Biafran hands. Relentless bombing and strafing by Nigerian MIG fighters had turned the roads into Golgotha as fleeing refugees were reduced to kindling. There had been no time to evacuate the complex. The Biafrans were far too out-manned and outgunned to deviate for a second from their objective in the desperate fighting: keeping the Federals from taking Owerri. The Commandos were the point unit in the blood-soaked debacle.
But it went against the grain for John to abandon a group of missionaries to the loving care of the enemy. He had toured the small but highly efficient complex before things went crazy. The jolly priest in charge, Father Peter Sweeny, had worked miracles in his efforts to give life to the endless sea of war-ravaged folk who had fled to Mbaramkpaka with the ultimately forlorn hope that the Nigerian armada would pass them by. On his last visit, after Confession, John called the priest and his team aside and explained the situation to them.
“Son,” Sweeny said soberly, “what do you suggest?”
“Don’t ask us to leave.” That was Reverend Sister Angela Nwaulu, the trained nurse whose beauty could have fetched her a Hollywoodcareer.
John took a deep breath. ‘‘But you can’t serve your people as corpses.’’
Catechist Obi’s eyes burrowed into his. “So we abandon them to starve? You know what hunger is doing to Biafrans. Perhaps the Nigerians will show mercy if they see we are harmless.”
“Don’t fool yourself. This is war and beasts fight wars.”
There was more futile talk, and then John did something totally out of character with his professional inclinations.
“I will do what I can to get you out. But don’t count on it.” Even as he spoke his heart ached for their eyes told him they were hanging onto his words.
“God bless you,” said Sweeny.
As soon as Henecker finished his threat John bored his steely blue eyes into his and spoke conversationally.
“Sir, I am going to Mba…whatever with my personal squad now. Prepare a firing-squad for me if I come back.”
Everyone was stunned. This was a man answering death’s summons with alacrity.
“Gott im Himmel,” muttered the Colonel.
Everyone stood aside as John, Second Lieutenant James Chika, Sergeant Prospero Armani, Corporals Effiong, Sunday, Oti, Eze and Privates Thomas, Oko, Emeka and Nwanze left for Mbaramkpaka at 0100 hours. Nwanze and Oti were from hamlets adjoining the village and knew all the paths and byways unknown to the Nigerian army.
As John watched his blood-soaked night-black fatigues detachedly he accepted that he would never make it out of the bushes of Ihiala.
The team had noiselessly infiltrated Mbaramkpaka. The complex was now in the vice-like grip of a small Nigerian detachment. The place was totally wrecked; staff and refugees were shot; food and medicine looted; buildings bombed. Only Angela survived because the Nigerian commander could not keep away from her cunt. The Commandos had arrived when he was about to eat his supper and the appetizer, main course and dessert was Angela.
John and his men promptly killed every soldier in sight and saved the half-dead Sister. But the enemy had heard the blazing firefight and as if that was not bad enough, the Nigerian radio operator had managed to get off one panicky message before the burly Armani, a full-blooded Igbo despite his name, nearly cut him into two with bursts of CETME fire at point blank range.
The Irish mercenary took a swift decision. Nwanze and Oti had indicated two safe routes into the hellhole which were known to locals but the team had used the least known and more difficult one on their way in. Now, the Nigerians would come snarling and scour even Lucifer’s loo to get them. Their chances of escape would be easier if they split up. So while Nwanze led Thomas, Emeka, Chika and Angela along the circuitous maze they had not used, Oti steered the others along the trail they had followed on their way in. Armani was left behind with half of his head shot off.
Oti’s group ran into a heavily armed Nigerian platoon. The unequal contest was over in a matter of minutes. Now, as he propped up against the bark of a gnarled tree to where he had managed to crawl, his side leaking blood like a burst pipe, John smiled grimly. Minutes before the Federals swooped on them, Nwanze had radioed him that his group was in Biafran-held territory. At least, the game was worth the candle, he thought.
He knew he was a trigger pull away from death. The shouts of the Nigerians who killed his men were Satan’s sirens. Or perhaps God’s welcoming trumpets. Let it not be a bayonet or worse, capture, he beseeched heaven.
He closed his eyes and though blood sprayed out each time he tried to move his lips, the words rang clearly in his head. ‘‘Father, into your hands I …’’