No story about the destruction of Odi can capture the extent of atrocities committed here. As I drove down towards Odi I became apprehensive when an approaching car behind me began to flash frantically. My colleague, our head of technical department, Israel Aloja, was quick to figure out that the car with the flashing lights had Oronto Douglas in it. We came from different cities for this Odi rendezvous. Time was 10 a.m. today, Thursday January 13, 2000.
Charred remains of bombed, burnt and destroyed houses greet every visitor into Odi. What remains of the buildings line up the streets in mute testimony to the crying need for us to re-examine the notion of Nigeria.
Odi was not destroyed haphazardly. There was care to preserve structures that were clearly owned by the government. Which does not make sense. If you destroy the people, who would use the government facilities? Structures still standing include the Health Centre, the Postal Agency and a Primary School that (Imgbela Primary School) was established in November 1911. This school also houses a second primary school (Amassain Primary School) that was closed down by government. The combined population was 2952 pupils. Between them they used to manage to light up the premises with their light blue/white and green/white uniforms. The school reopened only two days ago, but the population we met here would not add up to 200 pupils. And only four wore uniforms. The Headmaster of the school, Mr. S. A. Apre, "guessed" that the children came to school in mufti because their uniforms and other cloths were burnt along with their homes.
The head teacher was devastated by the fact that ALL school records were missing. We met him attempting to prepare some documents with basic statistics obtained from the Local Government Office. He explained that they were not only searching for the school's documents but also the pupils who are yet to emerge from the bush where some people are still hiding away. If they are still alive, that is. I noted that there was no kid of up to 10 years in age in the school today. Should we read any meaning to that?
The otherwise serene environment of the school was jarred by the wailing and rambling of a woman said to be the wife of an ex-headmaster of the school. She rolled continuously in the dirt, bemoaning her fate. We were told in hushed tones that she had "gone round the bend". Was she like that before the assault at Odi? No. How many people have gone crazy because of the crazy actions of government troops in this community?
Amidst the debris of Odi one could not help but note the people's determination to survive. A few enterprising women sat staring vacantly beyond trays of biscuits, candles, and a few other items for sale. We never saw anyone making a purchase while we were there. But the women were steadfast at their trade posts.
We could not see any animal in this town. No chicken, no goat, nor any dog. They were killed either for food or for sport. The graffiti on the walls tell us that while the soldiers were here that they contended with hunger, somewhat. Some of the graffiti moaned "C.O. hungry dey Odi"; "Time to go. Hungry too much" and "The chicken don finish. What of the goat?"
Tents and plastic water tanks provided by some agencies (including oil companies) dot the townscape. Desolation is given a physical expression in Odi. We noted that the tents popularly called canopies were not very useful in the daytime because of the heat. Maybe they would be more useful in the rains. The people cook in the ruins of their homes and some have erected booths with burnt corrugated roofing zinc sheets salvaged from the ruins of their homes. These are built on portions of the destroyed houses. Reminded us of sacred testimonies to the people's attachment to their land.
One thought that would not go away as we made our way through the ruins of this town was for us to fathom what could have stirred so much venom in the soldiers on assignment here. That is it: they operated according to instruction. They were simply doing their work. Again their graffiti help us to understand this: "We don finish Odi. We don finish the work." And these ones: "We were sent by government to kill and burn your community, take heart" and "The governor has given us the right to destroy everything."
A bloodstained unexploded bazooka gives a hint as to the sort of weapons used in the assault. It is obvious that bombs, grenades and rockets must have been used freely here. Buildings were so bombed that building blocks cannot be salvaged from the ruins for reconstruction works.
This ought to be the farming season in the community, but this is a pipe dream for now. Their crops were burnt up during the raid and heaps of burnt yam testify to this sad fact. With their lives reset to zero, with all their life's savings gone, what hope for the future for this oil rich community with capped oil wells?
The community through a relief committee is receiving relief materials. Companies and charity organisations have extended cups of cold water to the people. But it is obvious that more than anything else the people need to have their humanity restored to them. The graffiti left by the soldiers show deep-seated animosity to the local people, which suggest that the troops may have undergone a period of indoctrination before the attack. Take these samplers: "We go kill all Ijaw people with our gun"; "Odi where is your pride?", "Ijaw face, monkey face" and "Shame to the Ijaw people".
One of the graffiti recommends "Come to Odi and learn a lesson" and that is what we did. Odi has become a classroom for the study of man's inhumanity to man.
As we departed Odi it became clear in our minds that the president of Nigeria must go beyond apologising for the levelling of the Odi community and people but go right ahead and rebuild this community. When that is done there will be a real hope that the people can begin to pick up the pieces. Rebuild Odi. That is what General Obasanjo must do.
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