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Moving the Research Forward

May 4, 2012

From Liz Bird

Having completed more than 50 interviews in addition to extensive archival research, we now have a very clear picture of what happened in Asaba in 1967. Nevertheless, we continue to learn details of individual experiences during the terrifying days of that October.

Last night, for instance, we completed three more interviews, all of which gave us poignant personal stories. One man, who was 11 or 12 at the time, told of how when the Federal troops arrived, all the males in his household hid in the crawlspace over the ceiling, as soldiers came from house to house dragging out men and boys. His mother decided to make a run for it, taking the family out of town. To protect him, she dressed him in women’s clothing, with two oranges positioned as “breasts,” and the family fled. On the outskirts of town, his oldest brother decided to go back, against the pleas of his mother. The family never saw him again.

One theme we have heard quite often is that not all the occupiers were aggressors. Another interviewee told a hair-raising story of how as a young man he escaped death twice because of the intervention of soldiers. The first time, he was stopped by some troops, stripped, robbed, and told to lie in a ditch. He was certain he was about to die, when an officer arrived, and ordered the soldiers to let him go. A little later, he heard that people were gathering at the Asaba police station, and set out there. On the way, he met two young soldiers, who told him to turn back and run. As we heard from other witnesses, the police station became one of several killing fields, with up to 200 men shot to death there. These accounts offer a message of hope – that among those who mindlessly participate in violence, there are people who will stand up for what is right. In the language of post-conflict resolution, these are “upstanders,” and it was good to hear that they were in Asaba among the bloodshed.

It has been quite a challenge to distill the multiple, personal accounts, as well as information from such sources as relief agency reports and government documents, to create the 11 panels that make up the exhibit. While we can’t show the completed project here yet, we can share the title panel. Featured on it are two striking images we only recently obtained. The photos were shot by a young Times (London) correspondent about 10 days after the massacres, and show a street devastated by shelling,  as well as a view across the Niger to Onitsha, which was under bombardment from federal troops.

We spoke to the correspondent, Bill Norris, and tracked down the roll of film he shot, now in the Times photo archive. We were able to use several of these shots – as far as we know, the only existing photos taken shortly after the Federal troops occupied Asaba. Most were never published.



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