History & Records
Mystery of Biafran airlift Uli Airport, code name “Airstrip Annabelle” Explained
Mystery of Biafran airlift, Uli Airport code name “Airstrip Annabelle”
Uli Airport is a symbolic shrine, which remains the height of Blackman’s greatest technological achievement to date. The wonder of Uli Airport is yet to be matched by Blackman anywhere in the world. The Airport and its structures have been deliberately left to decay, so as to attempt to obliterate the memory of an Igbo symbol of technological advancement, military superiority, resistance and survival. Had Igbo Day been held at Uli as scheduled earlier, its significance would have been almost impossible to express in words, in terms of its symbolicness and what Uli Airport represented and represents to Ndi Igbo..
Uli Airport the story goes was completely built from scratch by mostly Igbos. It was a military cum civil Airport. While supply aircrafts hovered overhead, the Airport below was said to be in pitch darkness and at the right moment the runway lights would come on momentarily as aircrafts come in and land. The aircrafts were said, according to legend, to taxi along runways, which terminated underground or into the trees, thus shielding them from enemy air-to-ground fire. Meanwhile, federal airforce jets hovered overhead strafing at every and anything in the pitch darkness below. It was said that any of the several run ways hit by a bomb or rocket was repaired immediately within minutes to enable the next supply aircraft hovering low overhead to land. The supply aircrafts often had to circle flying low above the trees for hours, evading federal airforce Migs and jets.
Uli Airport became the Igbo lifeline during the economic blockade, Biafra having become landlocked and surrounded. Uli Airport was of such importance or indeed of the most singular importance to Biafra and to Nigeria, so much so that the federalists landed a marine-borne invasion force at “Oguta II”, which was only about 20 – 30 odd kilometers to Uli, so as to bring the Airport within artillery range. Uli was so indispensable to the survival of Ndi Igbo, so much so that His Excellency General Ojukwu personally commanded the Biafran forces that defended “Oguta I” and liberated “Oguta II” within three days of the landing of federal forces in the area. I was a kid then and I vividly recollect seeing General Ojukwu and his convoy drive past towards Oguta. We were waving, cheering him and the troops being rushed to Oguta as they filed along singing, some on foot, others on vehicles and tractors..
Not a single federal soldier who set foot on Oguta went home alive. They all perished – including some who came with family, livestock and supplies in several supply ships in the armada that invaded Oguta. Many perished where their ships were sunk. The federal side risked and lost so much in that operation because they wanted Uli Airport at all costs. Ndi Igbo threw everything at them because Uli was our lifeline and last hope. The defeat of the federalists at Oguta left a monument which remains at the Oguta lagoon until today – the carcasses of the sunk federal ships are still there. Anyone who visits home should try go and see for themselves. General Ojukwu himself lead the operation – that was how important and strategic Uli was and is to Igbos.
Then the federal airforce came with a new method. They would drop a round fluorescent light and suspend it in mid air. This light shone like a moon. It was midnight and sometimes the first hours of the morning but you could pick up a pin or needle over a fifty or more kilometers radius from the almost daylight generated by this artificial moon. You would be in pitch darkness, either sleeping or simply because the oil lamps had to be put out to avoid federal jets that fired at any trace of light, and suddenly it was daylight from this strange moon hanging over from the sky in the direction of Uli. The first time it happened it was share panic and every one, old and young scurried into the bushes and the trenches. I say panic because we as children could sense the disquiet amongst the adults and the share confusion and pandemonium that reigned at the first appearance of this strange moon. Then the bombs, rockets and buffers (buffer was the Biafran anti aircraft guns used at Uli) would start to boom for what seemed like eternity and slowly the moon would die. Within minutes of the silence of the guns, the supply aircrafts hovering low all across the horizon would again begin to land at Uli. I heard the roar of every aircraft that landed at and took off from Uli and the deafening and terrifying boom and bang of every aircraft that crashed into the woods. I was only a child a few kilometers away from Uli. Most nights you would come out and watch these huge metal birds with large wings hovering so low over the roof you had think it would uproot the house with it like an eagle would lift a prey. But these were no birds of prey, they brought us food, medical, military supplies and life, but you were scared all the same, least they crashed onto the roof. After all, they flew in pitch darkness, low, almost hugging the trees, with federal jets ruling the heights, strafing, and rocketing any trace of light. They also had to keep away from ground fire from the buffer guns. I still wonder how those pilots flew those planes then.
Uli Airport was such a fortress that at a stage, the federal airforce jets and their pilots contrived to jettison their rockets, bombs and cannons at targets and bushes as far away as possible from Uli Airport. And all the neighbouring communities, including mine paid dearly in lost lives and damaged buildings, farms and economic trees. That was how powerful Uli Airport was.
Almost every Igbo who survived as a refugee, every child who was rescued from kwashiorkor and many who lived to tell the tale and to continue the procreation of the Igbo race today, towards its destiny, owed their survival to Uli Airport. Every grain of rice or corn meal or garri gabon, every drip drop or tablet, every stick of stockfish or other nutrients, every and each single bullet or gun fired by NdiIgbo in self preservation and survival, at a stage was landed at Uli Airport.
His Excellency, General Ojukwu left the embattled Biafran enclave through Uli so he may live to fight another day, hence he is with us today.
In the last days and hours of Biafra in January 1970, even when the expedition force sent out probably from Uli Airport to blow up the Njiaba bridge at Awo-Omamma so as to hold the advancing federal troops there had been destroyed by federal troops who had crossed the bridge much earlier than the Biafran forces could arrive and hold it, and the whole of Awo-Omama and environs had been taken by the rampaging federal forces, Uli Airport continued to fire mortars and shells in the direction of Awo-Omamma where they thought the federal troops were located. In this respect, Uli Airport is symbolic for firing the first shot in defense of Igboland since the demise of Biafra. In a sense, Uli Airport remained undefeated and unsurrendered. The airport smoked even after the very last moment of Biafra and the federals could not venture into its precincts until General Effiong and other officers had ensured and guaranteed their safety.
There could be no better place and symbol of Igbo resistance and survival than the vicinity of Uli Airport. Igbo detractors hate the place, they had rather it was wiped off the maps, never to be mentioned again. It was one place that was impenetrable and undefeated, defiant to the last, firing shells and motors even after Biafra had formally seized to exist. Egyptian pilots, Russian Migs and British jets and military advisers could not stop Uli Airport – the most sophisticated piece of engineering designed and constructed by a Blackman anywhere, and which surpassed what many a Whiteman can ever design or construct. Any other country that had proper values would have turned Uli into a monument – tourist, spiritual or otherwise. The Igbo Nation will ensure that Uli Airport lives forever.
What about the courageous pilots who continued to fly to Uli Airport against all odds? There were not Igbo, but many of them perished trying to save Ndi Igbo, either shot down by federal airforce jets or ran out of fuel or crashed into the trees flying too low for hours waiting for the federal jets to run out of ammunition. Part of the reason many of those pilots kept coming, notwithstanding the risks, was not only because they loved Igbos, but also because they had confidence in Uli Airport. We have to rebury those pilots too.
Denying Igbos the use of such an edifice and symbol as Uli Airport as a place to celebrate the remembrance of their war dead is the most treacherous act that can ever be perpetrated against Ndi Igbo. It is an act that appeases those who fail to appreciate the values of Ndi Igbo and it is an act that diminishes the Igbo spirit and a celebration of their survival and their triumph over adversity. That singular act is sacrilegious and deserves appropriate punishment in accordance with Igbo traditions and custom as laid down by our ancestors, deities and gods.
Credit: Francis Nnamdi Elekwachi
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