Category Archives: Borderline “Executions”

1967: The Asaba Massacre

The Asaba Massacre during Nigeria’s Biafran War culminated on this date in 1967 with a horrific mass execution.

Nigeria had attained independence in 1960 but still carried the legacy of its many decades under British control. Notably, the borders bequeathed to Nigeria amalgamate a coastal, Christian population in the south to an inland, Muslim population in the north — a fissure that continues to shape Nigeria down to the present day.

The ethnicity of interest for this post is the Igbo, one of those southern and Christian populations, and also a people who had been ethnically cleansed from the north in 1966 after an exchange of Christian and Mulim coups brought Nigeria to the brink of disintegration. Their homeland in southeast Nigeria — historically known as Igboland, and called Eastern Region within Nigeria — would become from May 30, 1967 the breakaway state of Biafra.

Biafra’s bid for independence triggered a devastating war with the Nigerian federal government. By the time that it ended in early 1970, perhaps as many as two million Biafrans were dead from mass starvation.

Asaba, where our massacre takes place, is a predominantly Igbo city on the western (non-Biafran) shore of the Niger River, opposite the Biafran eastern shore city Onitsha.

In the war’s opening weeks, Biafran forces actually struck out from their homeland and into Nigeria proper, crossing the Niger River. They would re-cross it in the opposite direction days before this massacre, taking bridges from Asaba to Onitsha and then cutting those bridges to frustrate the federal troops pursuing them.

Federal soldiers reaching Asaba in the first days of October took out that frustration on the city’s Igbo population, whom they robbed and abused as rebel sympathizers. Murders/summary executions for several days together comprise the Asaba Massacre of Massacres … but the single most emblematic and traumatic event took place on Saturday the 7th.

On October 4-6, soldiers occupied the town, and some began killing boys and men, accusing them of being Biafran sympathizers. On October 7, Asaba leaders met, and then summoned everyone to gather, dancing and singing to welcome the troops, and offering a pledge to One Nigeria. People were encouraged to wear akwa ocha, the ceremonial white, embroidered clothing that signifies peace, hoping that this strategy would end the violence. Although there was much trepidation, and some refused to participate, hundreds of men, women, and children assembled for the march, walking to the village square of Ogbeosewa, one of the five quarters of Asaba. Ify Uraih, then 13 years old, describes what happened when he joined the parade with his father and three older brothers, Paul, Emmanuel (Emma), and Gabriel:

There, they separated the men from the women … I looked around and saw machine-guns being mounted all around us … Some people broke loose and tried to run away. My brother was holding me by the hand; he released me and pushed me further into the crowd … They shot my brother in the back, he fell down, and I saw blood coming out of his body. And then the rest of us … just fell down on top of each other. And they continued shooting, and shooting, and shooting … I lost count of time, I don’t know how long it took … After some time there was silence. I stood up … my body was covered in blood, but I knew that I was safe. My father was lying not far away; his eyes were open but he was dead.

Exactly how many died is not clear; between 500 and 800 seems likely, in addition to many who died in the previous days. Most victims were buried in several mass graves, without observing requisite ceremonial practices. Along with his father, Uraih lost Emma and Paul; Gabriel was shot repeatedly, but recovered. The long-term impacts were profound; many extended families lost multiple breadwinners, and the town’s leadership was decimated. ()Source)

1972: Helenira Rezende, Brazil guerrilla

Brazilian Communist guerrilla Helenira Rezende was summarily executed in the field on this date in 1972.

“Preta” to her comrades, she was a silver-tongued student activist at the University of Sao Paulo who had been clapped in prison by the dictatorship.

Rezende was amnestied in December 1968 and went underground, eventually joining the guerrilla movement in the Araguaia River basin.

The 80 or so guerrillas operating in the eastern Amazon aspired to run that Che Guevara rural-insurgency playbook, as it announced in a May 1972 manifesto. It didn’t work: the Brazilian military successfully suppressed the revolution in a series of campaigns over the next two-plus years. Only about 20 of the guerrillas survived.

One of those lucky ones, Angelo Arroyo,* gave an account of her death:

On September 29, there was an ambush that resulted in the death of Helenira Resende. She, along with another companion, was on guard at a high point in the woods. On that occasion, troops came along the road. As they found the passage dangerous, they sent scouts to explore the side of the road, precisely where Helenira and the other companion were. The latter, when he saw the soldiers, fired the machine gun, which did not work. He ran and Helenira did not realize what was happening. When she saw the soldiers were already in front of her. Helenira fired a 16-round shotgun. The other soldier gave a blast of machine-gun fire that struck her. Injured, she pulled out the revolver and shot the soldier, who must have been hit. She was arrested and tortured to death.

Her bayoneted body was secretly buried by sympathetic campesinos and has never been recovered; officially, she’s still considered a fugitive. Her unit adopted the tributary name Destacamento Helenira Rezende; more recently, the University of Sao Paulo’s postgraduate association has been named in her honor.

* He wasn’t lucky for long: Arroyo was assassinated with a fellow Communist leader by military officials in Sao Paulo in 1976.