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You are a mother of five boys, ages 18 to 32. Your family is not rich but by no standard can you be classified as poor. All your sons are educated. The first two have degrees while the third has some technical training. The others are secondary school graduates. Your first son is seriously preparing for marriage to his university girlfriend who is a month pregnant. It pains you that your husband is no longer here to see his first son become a man.

It pains you too that a war has broken out between your part of the country, which is now a self-declared independent republic, and the rest of the former motherland. In spite of all that has transpired, you retain, in the deepest depths of your heart, a longing for those old days when you were still together. However, enormous blood has flowed under the bridge and things are different. Initially the conflict seemed like a phantom war but soon, like all civil wars, it becomes bloodily and chillingly close. The casualties mount and quite a few of them are people you know and loved.

Your boys are true to the cause. Therefore, you are saddened but not surprised when your first son joins the army in spite of a violent argument with his fiancée. When his body is brought home six months later for a heroic funeral (for he died heroically saving his platoon from an ambush), his second brother, the happy-go-lucky womanizer, the only one of his brothers who never cared much about the cause and its politics, spurned your tears and enlisted two days after the funeral. You never saw his corpse. You only got a message from his friend who visited you in the village to where you fled after the enemy sacked your hometown.

Enraged beyond reason by the carnage unleashed by the jet planes on their beloved hometown and its people, sons three and four joined up. They are twins and have one mind in two bodies. They soon become a warrior’s legend in the beleaguered land. Daredevil commandos who go to hotspots even Satan would have been scared to step into, their suicidal heroism would have shamed Achilles and Hector. When the daredevil twins give their lives for a successful commando operation to capture a top-secret arms depot the country shakes.

You cry; weep; kneel and pray. You ask God questions. Were you responsible for the declaration of secession? Why should you make these sacrifices no mortal should make? And then…

‘‘Mama, I am joining the army.’’ It is your baby; the gentle, prayerful last son whose training at the Bible College was cut short by the war. One look into his teary eyes and you know you cannot change his mind. It is over, you conclude….

When the bugle is blown; when the crisply uniformed members of his battalion fire their rifles in the final twenty-one gun salute; when his coffin, beautifully wrapped in a shiny national flag; when the army commander, biting his lips to avoid shedding unsoldierly tears, hands you the colors of his unit; when the president’s wife hugs you, sobbing so unpresidentially, hands you a letter from her husband and shakes her head, totally bereft of the words she had planned to say, you nod dumbly. The world is too frozen for words.

In the night, during a period of solitude, you look at the letter the First Lady gave you. It is a plain white paper in an ordinary envelope on which the president’s name and address are neatly written in an almost clerkish script. You open and read:

‘… Ma, what can I say here to comfort you? Nobody can bring back your five sons, those angels God intended to comfort you all your days on earth. If I call them the heroes who gave the full measure of devotion to our quest for freedom, security and a land of our own, you will find very little comfort in that, though it is true. Since I learnt about the sacrifice you made, I have asked myself questions that made me cry in private. Were we too hasty in going to war? Could we have reached an amicable resolution of our grievances? Were the hawks on both sides given too much power? There were voices of reason on both sides. I regret to say we did not listen to them. A few were silenced by the firing squad. And our youngsters who clearly believed in the justness of our cause on both sides were not told that the way of peace is not a dishonour to those who died unjustly. Please, Madam, I beg you and all other mothers: forgive us; we killed your sons and daughters. Both my opposite number and I were so blinded by the loss of those killed that we forgot our obligations to the living. God have mercy on us.’

The words ring so true that they lift rocks from your heart. As you stare at a picture of your smiling boys, you let your tears lift your pain. However, the questions chase themselves in your head: why? For what? What did these angels die for?

Two days later the president broadcast a formal surrender to the enemy.




Post image by jimmy brown via Flickr

About the Author:

Portrait - OnyemaHenry Chukwuemeka Onyema has a degree in History and International Studies. He is a Lagos-based writer, teacher and chief creative officer of 2-4 henritz writing agency. Email:








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I hold a doctorate in English from Duke University and recently joined the Marquette University English faculty as an Assistant Professor. I love teaching African fiction and contemporary British novels. Brittle Paper is the virtual space/station where I play and experiment with ideas on how to reinvent African fiction and literary culture.

3 Responses to “Forgive Us, Madam, We Killed Your Son | Henry C. Onyema | An African Story” Subscribe

  1. Obinna Udenwe March 16, 2016 at 9:41 am #

    The title of this story caught my attention — I must say that it is a bold and captivating title, and one is drawn into reading the story — but the story doesn’t read like a story, it reads like a commentary on the misfortunes of a woman who lost sons in a senseless war. One of the challenges of writing in second person is that it is very difficult to pull off but if done well, makes the reading interesting, it places the reader at the centre of the story and they feel that the story is about them. I am sorry I didn’t feel that in the story. The theme is a strong one that should have been better used to make the reader have some sort of strong feelings for the central character but I am sorry that didn’t happen to me.

  2. HENRY March 16, 2016 at 10:12 am #

    Thank you for the comment. I LEARNT FROM IT.

  3. Catherine O April 1, 2016 at 10:00 pm #

    In response to the first comment – could gender have something to do with it?

    I certainly felt the mother’s grief, and the complete futility of war.

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