BMJ 1996; 312 doi: (Published 22 June 1996) Cite this as: BMJ 1996;312:1602
  1. I Kechukwu Obialo Azuonye

    A very close shave

    It was 29 August 1969. As a commander in the Biafran army, I had received intelligence that reinforcements for the Nigerian troops would be passing through the little town of Afugiri that night. I was ordered to use every means available to destroy the reinforcements. I selected a spot no more than 150 m from the main road leading through the town. Directly south of the spot the road traversed a hill. Traffic negotiating it would have to be very slow, greatly improving the chances of a successful strike. In the total darkness my men and I waited to spring our deadly ambush with mortars.

    Close to midnight we heard the Nigerian military transport vehicles as they struggled up the incline. To our great surprise, they had their headlights on. It was therefore extremely easy to identify the individual vehicles. All I had to do was bring heavy fire down on to the target. With the mortars raining bombs on the convoy, the explosions came in mighty clusters, and the resulting fire illuminated the entire area for miles around. The illumination also revealed to the Nigerian sniper, no more than 70 m from my troops, who was the officer commanding the attack. He opened fire and hit me over my heart.

    So great was the impact that I was knocked over. I just noted the small fire burning on my shirt as I realised that I had been killed in battle. I felt a profound sense of peace but nothing else. Then I heard the staff sergeant shouting to the men, “Let's remove the body before the vandals get here and chop it to pieces.” The Biafrans always referred to the Nigerian troops as “vandals.”

    As my men began to drag me through the undergrowth so great was the pain in the left half of my chest that I asked them to stop. There was utter consternation as the men, who had just seen me killed by the sniper, heard me speak—and even more so when we all saw a pile of bullets, still sparking flames. I had been hit over the heart by a burst of some 20 incendiary bullets and though they had set fire to my shirt and caused a huge haematoma not one of them had pierced my skin. Though I was glad to be alive, I was totally confused and it was only the pain that helped me to focus my mind on what was going on. By this time, the Nigerian survivors of my attack had begun to counterattack. My mortar command joined in to contain the counterattack.

    The war ended five months later in January 1970. But for the entire period between that shooting and the end of the war, whenever a battle was joined, I noticed a definite aggregation of soldiers around me. It was only towards the final battles that my batman told me what had been happening. Word had got about that I had been hit by several bullets at close range, and that the bullets had not pierced my skin. The troops reasoned, therefore, that anyone near me during a battle would be unlikely to be injured. The death of a couple of my men who had been deployed at some distance during an attack only served to consolidate this belief.

    Twenty five years on I still have no idea why not one of the 20 or so incendiary bullets, fired from only 70 m, had cut my skin. All I can think is that I was somehow protected by forces beyond anything I understand, for which I am grateful.—I KECHUKWU OBIALO AZUONYE is a consultant psychiatrist in Middlesex

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