It was not my first visit to Odi since the year 2000, but there is a difference when you look at something casually and when you look at something with keen observation. I will call it my first visit to Odi with the eyes of a reporter after the 1999 ‘genocide’. Through this eye, you see beneath the veneer, you see the soul as it is.
The most conspicuous difference between Odi and most other Ijaw villages is that the roads are motorable. Odi is about an hour drive from Mbiama or Yenagoa in Bayelsa. On this I was fascinated by two things – the size of the town which suddenly seemed bigger to me and the glaring memento of the massacre.
Genocide! There is hardly a word more controversial. A lawyer friend of mine had once vehemently rebuked me for attributing the word genocide to the disaster that befell Odi. But his rebuke did not come as a surprise; the definition of genocide has been a cause for arguments for a very long time. The United Nation had even debated upon it when hundreds of thousands of Rwandans were being butchered. However, as the oxford dictionary puts it – Genocide is the murder of a whole race or a group of people. If more than six hundred natives of Odi were slaughtered in a single day by a deliberate attempt by the Nigerian army, then genocide happened at Odi. Case closed!
As the philosopher, Edmund Burke, stated – “When good men do nothing, they get nothing good done”. What is worse is when the good fail to detect evil upon encounter but much worse is when the evil is detected and then it is brushed aside for some form of cosmic intervention. I think that relates to the present Boko haram menace, but that I would leave for another days discourse.
Back to Odi, like any other Ijaw village, it is a place of aquatic splendour. The river sits calmly at her feet, and in the evenings it is a delight to watch the river from the jetty. I prefer to spend such evenings with my host, Tarilah, a principal in a private secondary school at Odi. On this evening, we carried a bottle of kai kai with us.
This has been a tradition between the both of us for each time we go out to watch nature’s magnificence either from the Jetty’s stairs or on an abandoned ship. We sat like two lovers, with our backs against the teeming world. We faced a dream, a scenario that seemed to come alive only in Disney classics.
Tarilah started to speak and I patiently listened as he did all the talking, after all he was a survivor of the Odi attack. He was motivated to go on especially because I listened with perfect attention. I would listen even closely when the blaring owigiri music from a distant fisherman on a canoe seized a good deal of our attention. I listened even when it was obvious the kai kai was settling in. I took fragments of valuable information from his talk and subsequently pieced everything into a narrative in my mind.
The rumours came with the harmattan winds; the federal troops were deliberating a “retaliatory attack” following the alleged murder of eleven policemen by the Egbesu boys at Odi. The rumours sounded ridiculous at best, for they came at a time when Odi was thriving with commercialisation and industrialisation. She seemed immortal; she was even named the “little London”. No! Odi was too important to fall, the rumours were discarded by a town bubbling with romantics, and that was why the number of casualties was so high.
“You see, that morning none of us expected or even believed it,” Tarilah began his narration.
“We all thought the first blast was thunder but it was not. It was bomb, very loud and very far away. The next sound we heard was of the fighter jets and military copters. We rushed out in panic to discover hell…”
He said the sky’s fluorescence was blocked out by missile churning jets. Armoured vehicles were cutting down anything on sight, living or non-living.
“It was raining bullets and bombs that day. We didn’t know how to run or were to run to, we were simply overwhelmed by the blitzkrieg. I saw a group of women running towards the soldiers on foot, when they reached the soldiers they fell down on their knees and started begging,”
Tarilah cleared his throat, took a sip from the glass and fell silent.
“What happened?” I asked gently.
“Oh, the women, they were all shot to death by teenage Hausa boys.”
“How do you know they were Hausa?”
He didn’t answer; he just gazed at me with slight apprehension.
“How did you escape with your family?” I asked “It was by God’s grace my brother. We hid in the bush, but it was never easy,” he stopped abruptly, his eyes were getting red, he drifted those reddening eyes around before settling them beneath the jetty where about half a dozen children played with the canoes and the water.
“I lost a son,” he said.
“My youngest son James, till today I still see how he died in my nightmares, he was taken away before my very eyes. There was an old man I saw close to the main road. He lay on the floor, dead, with a bible firmly pressed against his chest. It has not been possible to forget that also”.
I didn’t take the conversation further. I almost regretted indulging in it. I had learnt that the mental wounds were still fresh. It was different to be a native of Odi, but it was even more difficult surviving the morning of the attack. It changes you, it changes how you see people and you trust your fellow survivors because the others you thought wanted you dead. Inside you are devastated, watching the military bomb the heck out of where you umbilical cord was buried, watching helplessly as the people you have known all your life are reduced to red tissues and gaping white bones.
Today, Odi is vibrating again, bursting with life and industrialisation. It is almost impossible to believe a disaster of that magnitude struck the town. There are still blackened walls and gaping roofs but the town is living up to the “little London” status.
“Odi will remember people like you,” Tarilah was pouring the last of the spirit inside his glass.
“It has been thirteen years now and justice has eluded us, thank you for taking our fight to another battleground,” he said soberly.
It got dark down there at the jetty; there was the nostalgic sound of clashing waves from the distance. The dotted lights, shimmering on the houses were beautiful to behold. The night was serene, the peace ironic, a faint betrayal of the turmoil within us. Together we sang Timaya’s tribute song to Odi ‘I say them done kill them mama eh them papa eh them mama eh’.
And I couldn’t help but imagine what these people’s stance on the government was.
They seemed so nice, so full of genuine smiles, so optimistic. There was scarcely a taste of bitterness, no thirst for revenge, no rebellion.
It was encouraging to note that the people of Odi had put their past and all its ugliness behind and were embracing a future with better prospects.
Then my mind conceived – man has not found it possible to see off half a century without terribly betraying the criteria that defined him. And although we may try as comrades united in activism to see that man retains his humanity, it is sometimes impossible in a world that has somehow managed to balance good and evil as it has done night and day.
It is imperative to know that earth will never be paradise and that evil will never stop. We have not seen the last of Hiroshima or Hitler or Rwanda. Civilisation will soar at the expense of morality, this world will always be a battleground, and at the end it would be our recovery serving us best after the ghastly gloom.