Chinua Achebe, who died today at 82, was a giant amongst the world’s literary figures of the twentieth century. As someone who studies the effects of war on and intentional targeting of civilians, I find that at a certain point our theories, data and narratives simply cannot capture massive violence with equal precision as a poem. In this regard, Achebe’s work offers a monumental contribution to how we understand civilian suffering. His poems and short stories detailing scenes from the Nigerian Civil War (1967-1970) are astonishingly complex and painful pictures of a people stretched to the limits. Reminding us that the history of atrocities is as intimate as the loving goodbye a mother makes to her child, Achebe’s literary gift was the ability to capture the universe in everyday details.

In “Refugee Mother and Child,” he described a tragic family scene, “No Madonna and Child could touch/ that picture of a mother’s tenderness/ for a son she would soon have to forget.” The poem continues:

 The air was heavy with odours

of diarrhea of unwashed children

with washed out ribs and dried-up

bottoms struggling in laboured

steps behind blown empty bellies. Most

mothers there had long ceased

to care but not his one; she held

a ghost smile between her teeth

and in her eyes the ghost of a mother’s

pride as she combed the rust-coloured

hair left on his skull and –

singing in her eyes—began carefully

to part it…In another life

this would have been a little daily

act of no consequence before his

breakfast and school; now she

did it like putting flowers

on a tiny grave.

From Beware, Soul Brothers by Chinua Achebe

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