The Land of no going back
I spent nine months at the Nigerian Army recruitment Training depot Zaria and I survived it. I went to hell and returned. I was in the Charley Company, the yellow Company. My head was shaven and it was taboo to allow hair grow on it. All my belongings were separated from me, I was given some pairs of military uniforms and sports wears, and every other material used there was made for the Army, from basic utensils to toiletries.
The torture and suffering at the depot was incomparable. We were reduced to nothing by the military instructors. We were flogged like Cattles whenever we erred, if a Man derails during the training, all members of his team suffer for it and one Man’s victory is equally everyman’s. That is why you do not insult or assault a Soldier in public because every Soldier within the vicinity will fight for him. The weather did not help matters, when it was cold; it was extreme and when it was hot, was like a furnace.
It was nine months in hell, I had no visitor from home, even though I expected none, I secretly wished for a surprise visit from my Mother especially when other recruits receive visitors that bring them Garri and Kulikuli (Baked groundnut) I had learnt to manage hunger right from Child hood because I was brought up in perpetual want and need. But I never missed my meals at the depot, I do not do anything that would make me to forfeit my meal and I take it personal with any member of my team that causes any situation that would make me to miss my meal. Some recruits skip their meals and use the period to rest since they have alternative. I could not afford that luxury.
My mind was just fixed on the P.O.P day. I knew the phase would pass someday. Many of us could not cope with the rigours of the “land of no going back” as the depot was tagged. Some ran away while some left on medical grounds. I could n not do either as I had nowhere to run to, as long as there were still some recruits who could endure this travail to the end, then I must be amongst them.
I fell ill about four times: the first was as a result of blood clot in my ears, we were made to sit on our heads for three hours, some instructors stood by with Kobokos in their hands flogging and kicking anyone that falls down back into position, the position is like this, we were spread on the parade ground, the ground is made of coal tar and gravel chippings so it is rough and jagged. We squat with our palms on the ground, the we tilt forward and plant our shinning heads on the ground, we then raise up our buttocks using our hands for support till we form an ”A’” shape, then we stretch our hands backwards behind our backs and clasps our palms together consequently the weight of the upper body is shifted to the head, in a couple of minutes we begin to shake all over sweating profusely and wailing, it is even made worse when we are compelled to be singing while under such in human posture “Go and tell my Mother that I am doing well” is the ironic song we normally sing under any punitive situation.
At the end of such session, it is common to see some of us rush to the M.R.S (Clinic) to pull out chipping from the head or to clean up blood dripping from the Nose or ear, there is also this disconnection between your lower and upper body that you need to lie down for some time to allow the normal flow of blood through your body system. It is also a very common sight to see recruits with plastered head or bandaged joint in the depot. We lost eleven recruits to incidents during my set at depot. Some fell from height during the obstacle crossing exercise and broke their necks, some died out of exhaustion and dehydration while trying to run the almighty twenty Miles marathon race, some also died as a result of infectious diseases contacted in the depot.
Majority of us had infections at different times, wearing of Boots for almost fourteen hours daily both under rain and shine led most of us to develop foot rot or Athletes foot as it is called. The odor that oozes out from our Boots when we pull it remains indelible in my memory; the supply of foot powder given to us could not help.
Scabies was another infection that was rampant at the depot. I contacted it because I could wear an under wear for days without washing it, though my Khaki uniform was always clean because physical appearance mattered a lot, you have to look smart always even though you could be soaked in a pool of dirty water any minute, I was always itching, whenever my hands goes into my trousers pockets, I scratch till It hurts, I had blisters all over me, the whole of my back, my buttocks, my crouch, I had sores all over me. My worse moments were when we were on parade ground at attention and the itchy sensation begins, my Gawd! You dare not move while at attention, and my balls and buttocks are itching crazy, it is better experienced than described.
On completion of the five miles marathon race, I lost the use of my limbs for four days, I was given a set of Crotches with which I limped and attended to other activities, about twenty of us got Crotches after that race, some refused to let go of their crotches even when it was evident their legs were okay, some insisted they needed to go home for alternative medical attention, while some had their Crotches taken away while they were asleep at night, naturally they started using their legs again.
Another incident that took me to the Hospital was food poisoning. Fifty percent of the recruits were defecating and vomiting after a meal of Beans and yam at night. It was an emergency situation as there were screams from every quarter of the Depot, it was a very terrible experience, I never knew a stomach ache that painful, it was excruciating, and I was defecating uncontrollably like a tap of water left running. We were rushed to the Hospital in batches as all the Staff and Soldiers of the Medical Corps were summoned to work that night, by morning we lost five recruits to Food poisoning. The panel of enquiry set up by the Army to investigate the incident came up with the fact that the beans we ate that night was still fresh with the chemical used to preserve it.
After nine months, I had added five inches to my height, I was lanky and gaunt, I had learnt how to smoke cigarettes and Igbo (Marijuana) I was not addicted to Igbo though and that was because of the consequences of smoking with an empty stomach. I never had food in my Locker, I only depended on food served us at the Canteen so I only smoked before meals time, the good thing about Igbo was that it makes the Mountains in your life become valleys, after smoking some joints together, we begin to reason together and justify the hardship in the depot as a means of toughening us, we began to plan on how to deal with any bloody Civilian that messes with us when we get to the real world. That is why it is common to see Soldiers soaking Civilians in Gutters or giving them Frog jump drills whenever they have such opportunity. The summary of all we learnt at the depot was to kill. That’s all! Every training was channeled towards how to kill an enemy either you are armed or not.
The D day came and we graduated. The Passing out parade was very colourful and awesome. We were posted into various units across the Country. I was drafted into the Signals Corps and was posted to the 82nd Division with HQ in Enugu. Sixty three of us were posted to the 82nd Division; we were conveyed by two Army branded Coastal Buses from Kaduna to Enugu, a banner with the inscription “Beware! Hungry Dragons” was tied to the front of the First Bus. We belonged to the Dragon Division.
Everywhere we stopped en route Enugu, we wrecked havoc. With ugly bald heads, blood shot eyes; we grabbed food stuffs from Hawkers and gnawed without paying for the Items. Even when we stopped to refill our Gas at a Petrol station, we ordered the Driver not to pay a dime to the attendant, we were Government Children! “Government Pikin” we stopped at Lokoja to eat, there was a cheap Brothel by the eatery, we entered the Brothel and took advantage of the unsuspecting Prostitutes, they were throwing stones at our Bus and swearing at us as we zoomed out of Lokoja like Rebels. We drank cheap hot drinks and smoked all the way to Enugu. Freedom is a sweet thing to experience, I was eventually free or so I had thought.
We reported at the divisional HQ for detailing and debriefing by the colonel G.S. he welcomed us into the real military world and gave us orientation on the scope of operations of the Division. The division covered the whole of eastern and southern Nigeria including the middle belt. We were further posted to various units within the division. I was retained in the capital City under the command of Colonel Asemota the Commanding Officer of the Signals Corps.
All I had in life was in the “Ghana must go” bag that I carried to the depot, it was returned to me intact at the end of the training at Kaduna and that was all I had as I settled into the two room Apartment given to me in the Barracks. I was happy to have a roof over my head, a real house, not the patched mud house I grew up in at Esa Odo. I had a toilet and a bathroom and a Kitchen all to myself! Free of Charge! No bills to pay, it was like a dream, I wished not to wake from this dream, I pinched myself hard and it hurt, then I knew it was not a dream, I screamed out loud then I knelt down and said a prayer to God, I did not pray throughout my stay at the depot but on this day, I was sure I had survived. I thanked God for his protection and I begged God to forgive all my short comings. I prayed to God to keep my Mother safe for me, even though I was sure she was on her knees praying for me at the same moment, at times when I had wanted to pray at the depot, I imagined my Mother was doing same on my behalf so I used such time for something else.
With the little allowance I had with me, I went to the mammy Market and purchased some basic house hold stuffs, especially cooking utensils. I could not buy a mattress so I made do with my Military Blanket on the floor. I was waiting for the payment of our nine months salaries accumulated while on training. It would be paid in bulk to us so we can start life with it after which we would rely only on our monthly salaries.
After a week of reporting to Enugu, I was granted one week pass to go home and see my family, I did not have enough money on me so my R.S.M lent me the sum of five hundred naira, and it was a huge amount as at December 1990. I traveled home to see the only one Person in my life, my Mother.
To Be Continued