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Special Report: The Asaba Memorial Project

Republished from University of South Florida:  Special Report: The Asaba Memorial Project

October 1967. In Nigeria, on the west coast of Africa, civil war raged. Ethnic and cultural differences fueled the fighting, which followed the secession of the mostly Igbo region to the east of the Niger River, an area renamed Biafra.

Nigerian government troops had arrived in Asaba, an ethnically-Igbo town on the west bank of the Niger that remained part of Nigeria. On Oct. 7, 1967, federal troops gathered up men and older boys, accusing them of Biafran sympathies. They opened fire on the terrified group, and as many as 700 people were slaughtered. The bodies were buried in several unmarked, mass graves. Little historical documentation exists about the killings and for decades it appeared the massacre would remain forgotten.

But in 2001, a few witnesses told their stories to a Nigerian Truth Commission, and the Nigerian head of state during the civil war made a public apology to the people of Asaba.

Now a movement to create a permanent memorial to those killed in the massacre is gathering interest, and several researchers at the University of South Florida are involved.

The USF team, in conjunction with supporters in Asaba and Lagos, Nigeria, and the USF Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies, are spearheading an Asaba Memorial Project initiative. The goal is to break the silence, honor the dead, develop a historic record of the event and secure funding to build the permanent memorial.

Erin H. Kimmerle, a forensic anthropologist in the USF Department of Anthropology, initiated the project, and first visited Nigeria in 2008. In 2009,S. Elizabeth Bird, professor of  Anthropology, and Fraser Ottanelli, professor and chair of the USF Department of History, traveled to Nigeria to initiate the historical documentation through eye-witness testimony.

Bird and Ottanelli visited Asaba again in June 2010, where more video interviews were conducted with witnesses and survivors of the 1967 shootings and meetings held with community leaders to further the discussion around building a permanent memorial and museum. They are currently writing grants to make that vision a reality.

While Bird and Ottanelli are now leading the historical reconstruction efforts, Kimmerle, along with Chuck Massucci, a Tampa police homicide detective and adjunct instructor in the anthropology department, has been focusing on a project funded by the National Institutes for Justice in which they are working with Lagos State University to provide teaching and training on forensic anthropology to medical staff in the nation largest city. A forensic examination of the Asaba graves is a future possibility.


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