05.29.2008 (THISDAY Features)
Juliana Taiwo witnessed one of the most emotional funerals in the country last Friday as the remains of the 46 soldiers just back from Sudan were laid to rest at the national military cemetery in Abuja. It will take the dependents a long time to recover from the loss of their breadwinners
Friday May 23, was the day it dawned on the families of an officer and 45 soldiers that they would never see their bread winners again. Most of the relatives were brought in from Bauchi in military vehicles while others came in chartered vehicles. The venue was jam-packed, as relatives, colleagues, and other sympathizers were on ground long before the 4 p.m. burial time to bid the fallen heroes farewell. The men had lost their lives Wednesday May 21, on the Bauchi-Potiskum road while on their way to join their families in Monguno Borno State. It was an irony of life that the soldiers, who survived the challenging terrain of Sudan’s strife torn Darfur region where Nigeria had in October lost eight soldiers to die in their own country.
They were said to have died with their six months allowances and entitlement in dollars paid them on arrival at the Abuja airport, having served six months in the AU Hybrid Force in Darfur, Sudan. Those who saw them on arrival on Tuesday May 20 when they were dropped in Abuja by the United Nations (UN) aircraft said they were in high spirits. The children cried uncontrollably, the widows shouted, screamed and even fainted at the mention of the names of their husbands about to be interred, the mothers, brothers, uncles, aunties, uncles lamented wondering why God has chosen to punish them this way.
The dignitaries present included President Umaru Musa Yar,Adua, the Senate President, the Speaker of the House of Representatives, Ministers, National Assembly Members, politicians, businessmen, the Chief of Defence Staff, Service Chiefs amongst others, showed that they were human beings after all as they betrayed their emotions.
The families were also consoled by Mrs. Bilikisu Yusuf, the wife of the COAS and President of Nigerian Army Officers Wives Association (NAOWA). For Juliana Wasiu, wife of LCPL Alamu Wasiu, it seemed the world has suddenly come to an end. She is left to fend for five children. She could not hide her feelings as she cried and wailed.
Cuddling her nine year-old son, Babatunde, she had just only one question on her lips: "where am I going to start from with the children?”
Babatunde, the first of five children who accompanied his mother to the burial ceremony, wiped away her tears. He begged her to stop crying. Already behaving like the man of the house he said: "Mummy stop crying". Another bereaved woman shouted: "There is nothing to live for again. I will die, I will die, why won’t I die." Three of the widows fainted on hearing the names of their husbands.
At another end of the ground, the intervention of a reporter prevented what could have been a disaster as one of the widows suffered asthma attack. Basirat Mohammed, mother of three and wife of Lance Corporal Shehu Mohammed who was with their eight-year old son, Ilya Mohammed was seized by asthma attack. The reporter offered her inhaler as the medical team rushed her to one of the waiting ambulances for medical attention.
The preparation for the final journey of the ‘gallant 46’ started the previous night where 46 graves were dug. Flags were flown at half mast in honour of the 46 at all military formations across the country. Their bodies were flown in from Jos, Plateau State capital Thursday night and deposited at the National Hospital for the journey to the military cemetery.
An unnamed widow said the pain would have been easier to bear if they had died in Darfur but that fate was indeed cruel to take them away just few hours to their uniting with their families. “I had cooked his special dish, turned the house inside out and made sure it was sparkling clean and all that for what? My husband is gone forever after six months absence. I want to die also”, she said amid sobs.
“After six months of their departure, the news of their arrival into the country brought excitement, happiness and joy. Everything was set to welcome them but can you imagine the way they went?” A soldier standing by queried no one in particular.
While their remains (only two of them could be identified, the rest were charred bodies) laid by the graveside with their name tags on them, Captain Okojie, was carried by six of his colleagues with the same rank. Their shoes, caps and swords placed on the caskets draped in national colours. The last honour for the gallant 46 was the stepping out of detachment of soldiers who matched smartly to the grave side for the last process of lowering the bodies.
The first bugle was sounded at exactly 4.15 p.m. After the prayers, there was the laying of the wreaths. At exactly 4.20 p.m., a sombre- looking President Umaru Yar’Adua rose to lay the wreath.
He was followed by Senate President, David Mark, Speaker of the House of Representatives, Dimeji Bankole, the Minister of Defence, Yayale Ahmed, his state counterpart, Fidelia Njeze, FCT Minister, Aliyu Modibo Umar. Others were the Chief of Defence Staff, General Owoye Azazi, the Chief of Army Staff, Lieutenant General Luka Yusuf, Chief of the Naval Staff, Ganiyu Adekeye and the Chief of the Air Staff, Air Marshal Paul Dike.
The 21-gun salute was fired at 4.30 p.m as the flags were removed from the caskets and folded. As the bodies were being lowered to the grave at 4.46p.m, wailings erupted from the canopy of the relatives of the deceased. One of the widows shouted “open the casket, open it, I want to see him for the last time” but a soldier responded; “what is there to see? She will be worst off if she sees what is inside her husband’s casket”
The last bugle was sounded at 5.15p.m after which the remains of the fallen soldiers were given to the son of Captain Okojie and Patrick Ogbudu eight-year-old son who represented the soldiers’ families.
A very emotional President Yar’Adua who had cut short his trip to Arusha, Tanzania, for the meeting of the Committee of 12 in honour of the soldiers promised to mitigate the harsh effects of their deaths on their families.
He described the accident as a tragedy of enormous proportion. “This is indeed a tragedy of enormous proportions. It is made more heart-rendering by the fact that these are courageous heroic soldiers who have just acquitted themselves commendably in their tour of duty in the challenging terrain of Sudan’s strife-torn Darfur region. To return home and end in this way is a calamity that the Nigerian military establishment and in a special sense their families, will find difficult to live with. We however, can find solace in the knowledge that they have paid the supreme price and sacrifice in gallant service not only to our fatherland but in the course of international peace and security and in the service of humanity.
“We have an obligation to ensure that their sacrifice is not in vain by recommitting to successfully driving peace efforts in the Sudan and other troubled spots on our continent and beyond. My heart goes out to all the aggrieved families to these fallen heroes. I pray the almighty God to give them the fortitude to bear the loss to deal with the unfortunate passing of their loved ones.
“I pledged that the federal government will do all that is necessary to mitigate the adverse effects of the demise of these gallant Nigerians for their families and their dependants.” he said.
The President personally went to the bereaved families and offered words of condolence before departing the venue. In his remark earlier, the Minister Defence, Yayale Ahmed, assured that despite the deaths, the military was more than ready to render service to the country and the international community.
“We were informed that these officers came back gallantly and with deepest sense of patriotism to continue serving their nation. Alias, God who created them, love them most, therefore their time came for them to be nearer to Him. They are just waiting for us, because as we stand here, the difference between them and us is like the two side of a coin.
“While we mourn the demise of these gallant soldiers we are more than ever before determined to continue serving the nation and in international peacekeeping operations. These deaths, painful as it is, will never deepen the enthusiasm of Nigeria and the Nigerian Army and the Armed Forces in particular in servicing this great nation”, he said.
Also commenting, the Chief of Defence Staff, Gen. Owoeye Azazi, assured that everything will be done henceforth to motivate military personnel while alive and those who lost their lives in the course of serving their nation, their families will be well catered for.
“This death is tragic for Nigerians and Nigeria. So many of us are affected by this tragedy and we are indeed in deep grief. The Holy Book tells us that there is time for everything. So we take solace in the fact that there is a time for dying, this time of dying no one knows and could indeed be anytime for any of us.
“For soldiers, the risk of dying becomes apparent when military operations are being conducted. These soldiers lying here today were exposed to such risks for six months in Darfur but they all survived it. They returned to Nigeria safely and on the way to join their unit they died. Just before their death, those Nigerians who had seen the convoy as you have been told, saw that these soldiers were in very high spirits, singing, clapping and dancing obviously, they were happy to be back home. They were happy that they have served Nigeria very well and they had also hoped that few hours later they will be with their families to enjoy blissful reunion. Sadly this did not happen for them, they had an accident and died painfully. I have seen the photographs of these individuals which they took before they departed for Darfur all of them full of life and enthusiasm but today they are no more.
“For those of us alive today, let us take solace in the fact that everything was a design by the almighty. These soldiers represent what Nigeria means to us and the international community. Nigeria has consistently brought peace to so many countries and to so many divided societies. The Nigerian military has therefore made Nigeria very proud. We therefore resolve to ensure that we create the conditions to motivate members of the Armed Forces while they are alive and ensure that those they live behind when they die are also adequately catered for. As we stand here today five of their colleagues that survived injured are lying in the hospital and we pray they recover quiet fast,” he said.