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My Biafran Story

My Biafran Story .org website is a collection of eye witness accounts of the Nigerian-Biafran civil war.
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THE WORLD IS DEEP - PART ONE; DAVID KOREN'S STORY

THE WORLD IS DEEP - PART ONE;  DAVID KOREN'S STORY

In October 2017, a random internet search about the Biafran Airlift led me to an article with the unusual title 'The World is Deep – Uwa Di Egwu.' It was written by David L. Koren, who was a Peace Corps Volunteer living and teaching in Umuahia, South East Nigeria, between 1964 and 1966. He left Nigeria just before the war broke out but in 1968, with the war in full bloom, he answered a call by the United Nations to work in Biafra as a United Nations Field Service Officer, a job which entailed organizing and flying relief material from Sao Tome into Biafra.  

His experiences, captured in 'The World is Deep,' is the first eye witness account about the airlift to be published in mybiafranstory.org. It can be found under the category THE BIAFRAN AIRLIFT. With his permission I have edited the article for brevity and broken it into two parts. David has also published a book ‘Far Away In The Skies,’ which is a more detailed account of his experiences working on that Airlift. It will be on sale in Nigeria in March 2018.

Below is a preamble to the article.

D.L.K.- I grew up in a working class family in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Through hard work and living on the financial edge I became the first in my family to earn a university degree. Seeking to know more about the world, I joined the United States Peace Corps, and I was assigned to teach English at Ohuhu Community Grammar School in Amaogwugwu near Umuahia, before the war. I served there for three years, having the best time of my young life. For me, and for most Peace Corps Volunteers immersed in a different culture, we learned as much as we taught. Nigeria became my second home, with a new family. So, in 1968 when UNICEF asked me to return to work on the Biafran Airlift, I made the easy choice and volunteered again. Afterwards, I followed a career as a counselor in a mental institution. For a second career, I went back to school to study physics and astronomy, then worked designing optical lenses for industrial lasers. Now I keep busy on my six acre mini farm with my wife and two tractors.

V.O.- In a nutshell, what are your views about war, crisis and displacement?

D.L.K.- People gain more through diversity and synergy than brutal warfare.

V.O.- What are your fondest memories from living in Ohuhu? Any names of families, friends or colleagues you would like to mention?

D.L.K.- I have fond memories of my student librarians: Matthew Nwuba, Onyema Obilo, and Patience Igweonu; also our senior prefect, Okon Nkanta Abijah; and our principle, Wilber O. Nsofor. I still have my grade book from 1964, 65, and 66, with all the student names, and at the end of my book, Far Away in the Sky, I published all their names. At a convention of the Ohuhu Union in Houston, Texas, last May, I met some of them and asked them to sign my grade book next to their names. What an emotional high.

V.O.- You said, “...we learned as much as we taught?” What were the most important things you learned about the Igbo society at the time? 

D.L.K.- I learned the friendliness of the Igbo people and their warm acceptance of strangers like ourselves, the strength of family ties, the desire to learn and the skill to apply their knowledge. I learned about Igbo philosophy through slogans and proverbs: profound expressions such as "The World is Deep," "Life is the Main Thing," "God Gave Me Hands," (also "God gives me a hand in my need"), as well as the patience, perseverance, and acceptance implied by "Who knows tomorrow?" Most importantly, the assurance of protection and safety in the kola ceremony. Even after 50 years, I still feel comfortable in Igbo company. 

V.O.- Was it your experience in the Nigeria-Biafra war that qualified you to be a counsellor in a mental institution afterwards?

D.L.K.- After I returned form Biafra, I earned a master's degree in Rehabilitation Counselling and I scored very highly in a state-wide entrance exam for the position. But no doubt my experience in the war strengthened an attitude in me of acceptance for people in need through no fault of their own. Mentally ill people especially need reassurance that in spite of their disability, they are people of worth.

V.O.- But I'm lost with "Life is the Main Thing." Does it translate to 'Ndubuisi?’

D.L.K.- Yes. I should have written: Uwa di egwu, Ndubuisi, Chinyere m aka, and Onye ma echi.

 

UWA DI EGWU - THE WORLD IS DEEP - PART ONE

BIAFRAN AIRLIFT

David L. Koren

March 2007 (Revised January 2018)

The first time I went to Africa the sun was rising over an endless stretch of palm trees as the Pan Am Boeing 707 banked steeply on approach to Lagos, Nigeria, January 1st 1964.

The second time I went to Africa, two years later, the captain of the green and white painted Nigeria Airways/Pan Am 707 announced that we were denied permission to land at Lagos, because there had just been a military coup.

We circled for some time before we were cleared to land.  Soldiers with guns watched us disembark. I was supposed to make a connecting flight to Enugu, capital of the Eastern Region, where I had been stationed for the last two years as an American Peace Corps Volunteer. I was just returning from home leave.

Nobody knew what was happening. Arriving passengers were escorted to the Catering Rest House, where we were to put up for the time being. Later, I went to bed, in a small room, in a distant land, unable to adumbrate any sense of future.

***

The next day a flight was arranged to the Eastern Region. We landed at Port Harcourt with no problems. The airline arranged for a small bus to transport passengers to Enugu. I got off in Umuahia and took a bush taxi - a Morris Minor - to my school, Ohuhu Community Grammar School in the village of Amaogwugwu.

The school was started by Dr. Michael I. Okpara, a prominent man from the village, and also the Premier of the Eastern Region of Nigeria.

News began to unfold of what happened with the coup. Peace Corps Volunteers got news from the local newspaper and from what we called time-n-newsweek.  The international editions of Time and Newsweek were available in Umuahia, and we bought both of them from the news boys, onye akwukwo.

After six months another coup ousted all the Igbos (Ironsi was shot, Gowon was installed), leading to the massacre of Igbo civilians in the North and a mass exodus of refugees back into the Eastern Region.

Trains arrived from the sabon garis of the North carrying refugees; on one there was a headless body. All of these people were absorbed into their villages of origin. New huts were constructed and donations of food and clothing were requested. We all contributed. Although this was a great burden on the local population, it was effective in caring for the refugees. And therefore there were no refugee camps with deplorable conditions to catch the attention of the world media.

Toward the end of 1966, there was increasing talk of war.  I discussed it with my students. I told them that war would be very bad. They were less concerned about it. One student said, “We will fight them. If we win we will rule them. If they win they will rule us.”

***

Dr. Okpara hosted a send-off celebration for me and my fellow PCV, Ric Holt. He conferred on us the honorary title of Bende Warrior Chieftain, along with the appropriate garments – a wrapper and jumper of fine cloth and a woven cap.

I stood up in my new clothes to give thanks.

Bende kweno!”

Ha!” (The response).

Bende kweno!”

Ha!”

Enyi mba enyi!”

Ha!”

Enyi mba enyi!”

Ha!”

Dr. Okpara and the other dignitaries and guests seemed amused.

At this time the commercial planes were still flying between the regions, and I left Nigeria with the memory of soldiers at airports.

***

The third time I went to Africa, October 1968, I flew in an old DC-6 propeller plane from Amsterdam to Tripoli to Ivory Coast to Sao Tome, bringing relief supplies for Biafra.

I joined three other former PCVs on Sao Tome; we were to act as cargo masters on the relief flights. We were officially known as United Nations Field Service Officers, and we were kept busy while waiting for clearance to enter Biafra.

Food donations came to Sao Tome by air and sea and were delivered to thirteen different warehouses around town. As each shipment arrived it was dumped in a warehouse with no organization, no inventory. Preparing a plane load of relief supplies was difficult, because no one knew what food was available and what condition it was in. The four of us Field Service Officers worked with Sao Tomeans and a Danish relief organization to organize the warehouse.

The relief effort on Sao Tome was put together by a group of Northern European churches, Nordchurchaid, representing the Protestant World Council of Churches and Catholic Caritas International. This was distinct from the International Committee of the Red Cross – ICRC - which operated from the island of Fernando Po. WCC and Caritas were established entities, but the airlift they put together for Biafra took form as it went along. They created a company called ARCO to buy and charter planes, while a German church group called Das Diakonische Werk was designated to provide flight operations. The United Nations contributed a handful of Field Service Officers.

***

These donations were well meant, but inefficient. A DC-7 carrying 10 tons of canned goods would be carrying 7 tons of water and metal. A pharmaceutical company sent a shipment of sun tan lotion. It was said that they wrote it off as a charitable donation. Other medical donations were more appropriate. Things changed when we began receiving 50 pound bags of dried food and powdered milk. The food was called CSM, for a mixture of corn meal, soy beans, and milk. There was a similar mixture called Formula II. By the time I began flying into Biafra we were carrying those bags, bales of dried stock fish, medicines, fuel and batteries for the lorries used to distribute them.

***                         

We flew at night to avoid the Nigerian MiGs.  The Nigerians also had a night bomber that would drop its bombs when we were coming in for a landing.  We took off from Sao Tome while it was still light and timed the flight to arrive over the coast just at dark. We could see the burn-off flames from the oil wells in the Niger River delta. From my seat near the back of the plane I could also see the bright traces of antiaircraft shells arcing up toward us from below. The planes flew without navigation lights, so the gunners had to track us by the sound of our engines. The pilots didn’t seem worried about this. When I mentioned it to Captain Delahunt – he had been a carrier pilot in WW II - he banked the big plane around to identify where the AA was coming from, so he could alert following pilots. The bombs didn’t fall at every landing, but often enough. 

***

Each day either WCC or Caritas would choose the cargo for the flights that night. The trucks would go to the warehouses, load, and return to the flight line. My job was to help supervise the loading, in terms of what went into each plane and the distribution of the cargo within each plane. 

All flights for the night would be either WCC or Caritas, alternating from night to night. WCC and Caritas had separate distribution networks in Biafra.

The four of us UNICEF volunteers took turns flying into Biafra.  We would go in with the first plane, help with the unloading, and come out with the last flight.  Those who stayed in Sao Tome helped load the planes.

***

My first landing in Biafra was uneventful, but emotional.  The night air was fresh and tropical and familiar.  It felt, in a sense, like coming home. 

My job was to supervise the young Biafran Airforce fatigue workers who were hustling to get the food out the door so the planes could escape the bombs and return to Sao Tome for another load. Sometimes I held the torch light and sometimes I joined in heaving the food onto the lorries.

After the first plane was unloaded I got down and waited in the night for the next plane to arrive. Sometimes the wait would be a couple of hours as the first wave of planes returned to Sao Tome for a second run. It was kept very dark. If someone showed a light, even briefly, there were shouts from unseen soldiers all around, “Off de light!  Off de light!” 

***

When the bombs started falling you could hear them screaming down. After some experience with this it became possible to tell by the Doppler shift and intensity of the scream whether a bomb was going away from you or coming toward you and about how much time you had before it got there.

One night after I had unloaded the first plane and climbed into the second one, the bombs came. The air crew and the soldiers who had been gathering outside the plane went for the bunker. By the sound I knew that the bomb was coming my way, and I judged that I didn’t have time to climb down the ladder and get to shelter. There were sacks of CSM piled neatly on either side of a narrow isle in the center of the plane and I dove in there, hoping they might absorb some of the shrapnel.  The blast shook the plane and deafened me, but we escaped damage. The next day on Sao Tome, I walked around the plane for a closer inspection. I found a few hits, one near a tire, but none more than nicks or scratches.

Immediately after that bomb went off, a second one hit further down the runway. We kept unloading the second plane as the first plane, which I had come on, was preparing to take off. I heard the engines rev up, and I heard it roaring down the runway. But then it stopped all of a sudden. As soon as we finished unloading I ran down to see what was going on. I saw a Canadian relief plane sitting on the runway with its nose wheel yards away from a huge bomb crater. Captain Patterson and a WCC missionary, Reverend William Aitken, were examining the hole. Reverend Aitken had heard the explosion and thought it was near the runway.  He found the hole and also saw the aircraft starting its run toward him. From the edge of the crater he ran straight at the accelerating plane waving his arms frantically with a flashlight in each hand. The pilot told me that the flashlights were very faint from his perspective in the cockpit, but he could tell that there was something on the runway, so he throttled back and stood up on his brakes.  He blew a tire but didn’t hit the crater or Rev. Aitken. The plane maneuvered around the crater and took off.  There was enough runway left for it to get airborne.

I only had a few contacts with Reverend Aitken, but they were significant.  After the plane took off he asked me to come with him, and we went to find the flight line officer.  We found him in the dark, and we all drove to a house near the airfield. The officer pounded on the door. “Wake up! Wake up! You’re holding up the Nation.” The man emerged tying his wrapper. He was in charge of airport maintenance.  We drove him to his bulldozer, and he filled the crater.  Tomorrow he would pave it, but tonight planes could land and take off on it.

Reverend Aitken was tall, slender, and earnest. He never said much, but he listened attentively. After a bomb fell beyond the end of the runway one night, he came out of the dark and said, “Come with me.”  The bomb had fallen in a village compound. Five members of the same family had run out of their house seeking cover when the bomb hit. A boy of about 20 years was dead. Two children lay dead with ragged shrapnel wounds in their foreheads and bellies. A boy of about 6 was hit in the leg.  His leg was twisted at an odd angle.  His eyes were open, but he made no sound.  A young woman was bleeding from several places. She was singing. The song was high, plaintive, haunting, and continuous.  We put them in the station wagon and drove them to the hospital at Awo Amama.  When we left them the woman was still singing.

***

On Sao Tome the four of us UNICEF Volunteers - Larry, Barry, Leo, and I - met the others who had gathered for this airlift. Missionaries. Mercenaries. Air crew and mechanics. Portuguese. Biafrans. Diplomats. Journalists. Africans of Sao Tome.

The mercenaries preferred the Hotel Salazar, the high ground. Most of them had little to say: they sat quietly and drank and watched. Johnny Correa, a Puerto Rican American from New York City, breezed in once in a while, always ebullient. Taffy Williams, gregarious for a clandestine fighter, boasted of their exploits. He told of Steiner leading a few Biafran fighters through enemy lines to blow up some planes in Enugu. He said that Biafrans were the best fighters in Africa. “With a company of men like that we could make it all the way to the Mediterranean, and no one could stop us.”  I thought, why the Mediterranean?  Why not Lagos? Or Port Harcourt?

The four of us would sit at Costa’s and talk about the motivation of those who came to the airlift.  Some people were there to make money. Many were there because they were compelled by their religion to help the poor and suffering in the name of God. Yet many of these, missionaries included, openly distained or detested Biafrans. It was an abstract duty and the objects of their charity were irrelevant.

It did not occur to the four of us, not then, to consider why we were there.

As an aviation job, the Biafran Airlift attracted a fraternity of fliers from all over the world. ARCO hired a DC-7 captain from Lapland who used to herd reindeer. Crews from Iceland were there flying off the equator. A few men had recently flown with the other big aviation job at the time, Air America in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. The CIA had conducted a food relief operation in Laos with Air America. But no one talked about that, much.

***

PHOTO CREDIT - THE INTERNATIONAL COMMITTEE OF THE RED CROSS.

CAPTION - DC4 CARRY 6.5 TONS OF MEDICINES AND VITAMINS TO BIAFRA; V-P-NG-E-00231.

DATE TAKEN - 27TH MAY, 1968.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The Biafran Airlift

The Biafran Airlift

The Biafran Airlift was the first and most massive civilian relief program in modern history. It flew 5,314 missions, lifting more than 60,000 tons of relief material and consequently saving an estimated I million lives.

It started after Nigeria imposed a food blockade on Biafra, which ensured that food and medicines couldn’t come into the secessionist enclave. Food production gradually dwindled as locals abandoned homes and farms seeking safety. The catholic missionaries in charge of the parishes started reporting cases of massive starvation and death in their locations.

At that time, the only planes allowed into Biafra were flown by Hank Wharton, a gun runner, who was flying in arms for the Biafran government. Father Tony Byrne, one of those Catholic priests, got permission from the Vatican to negotiate with Wharton to fly in relief materials for the starving populace. But the church was faced with the moral conflict of having guns and relief in the same planes. This meant that relief material could only be flown in when Mr. Wharton wasn’t flying in guns and ammunition. This, in turn, meant that relief material, which initially constituted a few boxes of medications bought with funds raised by Catholic missionaries, was often delayed.

By this time news had started filtering out to the rest of the world about the crisis in Biafra. Western reporters, such as Frederic Forsyth, were going back with news and photos showing severely malnourished children and, for the first time, the disaster happening in Biafra was being shown on televisions around the world. This elicited shock and outrage from people and governments, and churches started mobilizing the media to appeal for help for the people of Biafra. A group of Danish churches, headed by Pastor Vigor Mollerup, also started mobilizing help to start an airline whose planes would fly relief into Biafra. He met with Father Tony Byrne on the island of Sao Tome and, in the summer of 1968, an alliance was formed between Catholic and Protestant churches.

At this time, Port Harcourt had fallen and the Biafran government turned a road in Uli into an airport. But Wharton was still in charge and the churches were being accused of bringing in arms with aid. Worse, on one occasion, Wharton’s pilots didn’t fly for two weeks and this indirectly led to the death of 40,000 Biafran children. A timely solution to this problem came when Captain Gustaf Van Rosen, a Swedish Aristocrat and pilot, flew into Biafra and met with Odumegwu Ojukwu, a meeting which led to Ojukwu granting permission to the churches to land their own planes at Uli.

Wharton’s monopoly on the airlift was finally broken and Joint Church Aid, fondly called Jesus Christ Airlines, started operations. The planes came from the United States, Canada and Scandinavia, and they flew more than 30 flights every night. Each one had two fishes, the oldest symbols of Christianity, painted on them. Some of the pilots were Axel Duch, a Danish-Canadian man who was the first to volunteer his services to the airlift; Phil Philip and Eddie Roocroft from Britain; Harald Snaeholm and Thosteinn “Tony” Jonsson from Iceland; and Gunnar Oestergaard from Denmark. Captain Gustaf Van Rosen was its first Chief of Flight Operations but he was soon replaced by Axel Duch.

Despite the fact that relief planes are usually welcome into conflict zones, the planes of the JCA were considered illegal. They were shot at and bombed by the Nigerian Air Force every night, and when crew members died, they were buried in a grave at the end of the runway. But the rest kept flying, even mastering how to land, off load their cargo and take off in 20 minutes.

The planes didn’t always return empty to Sao Tome. Sometimes they carried precious cargo - babies and children in the worst and last stages of malnourishment and ill health. They were taken to San Antonio Orphanage on the island where they were nursed back to health.

In May 1969, Van Rosen returned to Biafra with Swedish sports planes fitted with rockets. These Biafran Babies, as he called them, wrecked a lot of havoc on Nigerian planes. The reprisal attacks were brutal. The airlift became more dangerous and pilots started leaving.

On January 12, 1970, a crew from Iceland flew the last mission into Biafra, to evacuate relief workers and priests. Its pilot was Thorstein “Tony” Jonsson. He had flown in and out of Bifara more than 400 times, more than any other pilot on the airlift.

Today, the carcasses of those planes lie in a field on the island of Sao Tome - silent, metal monuments to compassion, bravery [dare-devilry if you will] and all that is noble in our shared humanity.

On January 27, 2018, mybiafranstory.org will start a series - THE BIAFRAN AIRLIFT - to chronicle the stories of the men and women who took part in the airlift. 

NB- The Featured Image is taken from the internet.

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Music in a time of war - 2

Music in a time of war - 2

Members of my family were saying, “Come back. Come back,” so I asked them, “What am I going to be doing in Biafra? Fighting?” After a lot of pressure, I decided to go back but I knew I had to earn money. So I left for Biafra with a group of musicians. There was Travis Oli – the Singer, Mike Obanye – the Drummer, Frank Onyezili - the Rhythm Guitarist, Terry Eze - the Assistant Manager, Sonny Okosuns, and myself. Sonny Okosuns was the only non-Igbo among us but he was not afraid because he was born in Enugu and could speak Igbo. We were arrested at Onitsha Bridge because they said we were spies. Sonny Okosuns was sent back while the rest of us were taken to the police station at Ridge Way, Enugu. I had some contacts at Enugu so I started to press buttons. I sent a note to Chuddy Soky, the Commander of the Biafran Air Force, telling him of our plight. He drove to the police station and asked them to release us, which they did.

When we left the station, we met a young man called Ikenna Odogbo, a Disc Jockey and show host in Radio Biafra. He took us to live with him, and from there the musicians started their rehearsals while I went into the field to look for business.

I knew we couldn’t do anything without equipment so I went with a letter to the Director-General of the Biafran Civil Defense. I was about nineteen years old but I was talking with a lot of confidence. After reading it he looked at me and said, “We are fighting a war and you are talking about music. Will you get out of this place?” I was not deterred so I headed straight to Ojukwu’s office. I had met him when he was the Military Administrator of East Central State. That was when Chubby Chekker, the American musician who invented the Twist, was touring the East. I was part of that tour, which was sponsored by Coca Cola, and we had paid Ojukwu a courtesy visit.

When I arrived, he was in a meeting. I spent five hours waiting for him because I was convinced I had a good product. When I eventually entered his office he remembered me and I gave him the letter I had written to the Biafran Civil Defense. After reading it he said in his very calm manner, “And what did he tell you?” I said, “He drove me out of his office. He said I was crazy to be talking about music when there’s a war.” Immediately, Ojukwu dialed his phone and asked the person on the other side to come to the office. Then he said to me, “Please sit down.” When the Director-General came in and saw me he almost collapsed. Ojukwu gave him my letter and asked him to read. He was shaking as he was reading it. When he finished, Ojukwu said to him, “Now, take this young man. Anything he asks for, do it.” I asked for a bus and a Peugeot wagon to move our men and equipment, and I had two drivers assigned to me.

That was how The Fractions became the Biafra Armed Forces Entertainment Group. We were moving from camp to camp and even played three times for Ojukwu in his bunker at Umuahia. They knew that music is a vital tool in any military operation so whenever the soldiers were going to war, we would play our best music and they would become charged up. But in a few hours some would be dead. The government was not paying us but they gave us a lot of support, food items, cigarettes and whatever we wanted.

We were also playing at International Club Enugu where we were charging a gate fee. We were copying the American soul sounds such as Wilson Picket, James Brown and Aretha Franklin. The turn-out was always huge because there was no other entertainment during the war - no Television, no football, no games, no cinemas.

We introduced pop music to the east and it was really big. We also started the Sunday Jump and people were coming even in the midst of hostilities.

I also had a column in the Biafran Outlook, a government paper. The editor, Gab Idigo, knew I was writing in Lagos so gave me a column where I was writing about The Fractions and music generally.

We played throughout 1967, 1968 and 1969. Owerri was our base when it was not occupied by the Nigerian forces. We played our last formal gig at Nkwerre just after Christmas 1969. After the show a few of us remained in the hotel. It was called Central Hotel. Around 4 a.m. some Biafran soldiers stormed the hotel in a truck, arrested us and took us to Bishop Shanahan School Orlu. They shaved our hair and that same morning they took us to a garrison to start military training. We had been conscripted and I thought the end had come.

The next day, we started hearing the sounds of shelling so I knew I had to do something. I headed towards the gate where I saw a bucket lying on the ground. I picked it up as if I was going to fetch water. It was a well-fortified gate but nobody questioned me because they must have thought I was fetching the water for an officer. Once I got outside, I ran into the bush and right there I saw Frank Zili. He had left the camp without telling me. We meandered our way out of the forest and got to a safe place.

I returned to Lagos just before the war ended and it was by God’s plan. I was returning to Owerri with a member of the group when we met a Nigerian soldier at Mbieri. He had dug himself into a trench and could have killed us. His gun was pointed at us so we raised our hands. When he came out of the trench I saw from his facial marks that he was Yoruba. Immediately, Yoruba started pouring from my mouth. He relaxed and lowered his gun. After we became acquainted, he offered us cigarettes. Later, he made Garri and we ate it with canned Egusi soup. The Nigerian soldiers used to carry a lot of supplies in their kit but the Biafran soldiers didn’t have anything. After entertaining us he said, “Look, I cannot leave two of you on your own,” so we trekked from Mbieri to Owerri prison where he handed us over to his superiors. We told them we were members of The Fractions Pop Group and they said, “Okay, you have to play for us not just for Ojukwu’s army.” They gave us a jeep to pick our equipment at Anara. From there we turned back to Owerri and continued to Port Harcourt.

We arrived Port Harcourt around 6.00 am and drove to the headquarters of the marine commandos headed by Obasanjo. He was already in the field doing drills with the soldiers. Then, I saw Roy Chicago, the musician, coming towards me. He said, “Tony, what are you doing here?” He turned to Obasanjo. “Olu, ore mi niyen o. Mo mgbe wan lo si Eko – this is my friend. I’m taking him to Lagos.” Roy had come to entertain Nigerian troops and was heading to the airport to be flown to Lagos that morning. That was how I came back to Lagos.

I slept in Roy’s house that night. If I remember clearly, the address was No 9 Bishop Crowther Street, Surulere. In the morning, as I was taking a walk around the area, a Volkswagen pulled up beside me and I heard a voice shouting, “Driver, stop, stop, stop!” It was Eddy Adenirokun. We just grabbed each other in an embrace. He said, “How did you get here? I thought you were in Biafra.” I was looking so haggard but I followed him to Daily Times office on Lagos Island. Sam Amuka was there, producing the Sunday Times for the next day. He’s such a funny guy and he said, “So you just came from Biafra? Okay, go and write about your experiences.” Immediately, I went off to type my story. My picture was splashed on the front page and I was paid three shillings, my first income after Biafra.

                                                    -----------------------------------------------

                                    Chief Tony Amadi is a Social Commentator and Business Man. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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My Photo Book

My book finally arrives, courtesy of the International Committee of the Red Cross.

On October 4, during their ‘Ask An Archivist Day’ Facebook event, I had asked the ICRC about the Biafran children airlifted to Gabon, Ivory Coast, São Tomé, and even Europe, at different times during the war. I wanted to know about their journeys from Biafra, their lives in the host countries, and what became of them after they returned to Biafra. They referred me to the Chief Archivist who in turn suggested I visit the ICRC library in Geneva to get the information I wanted.

A few days later, I received a message saying I had won a book on account of my inquiries.

I didn’t go to Geneva, but since that day I have dug up a lot of information from the internet about the Biafran Airlift. I have found a couple of the airlifted ‘children’ and brave individuals who flew those dangerous missions that brought supplies into Biafra and, when necessary, evacuated vulnerable children to safety. Some of them have agreed to share their Biafran story with me.

The internet is truly an amazing place!

 

 

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Two Days In Athens

In the beginning.

In March 2017 I had seen a post on Facebook announcing a conference called ‘Biafra’s Children, A Gathering of Survivors.’ I sent a message to the convener telling him about the project I started to document eye witness accounts of the Nigeria-Biafra war. All I wanted was visibility for the project through their website and any related publications. But a couple of emails and days later, I was invited to participate at the conference. It was a memorable two days in Athens.

 Wednesday; 28th June, 2017.

I am sitting alone at the departure lounge waiting to board my flight to Istanbul. My feelings are wavering between excitement and apprehension. The flight is scheduled for 11.40 pm but we eventually leave an hour later.

There are no dramas on board, except that the seat next to me has been taken over by a pregnant woman with a different seat number. The rightful owner of the seat is not very happy but the Air Hostess settles it quickly and we are assigned new seats.

It is morning, and a different world, when we arrive in Turkey. While looking for my boarding gate, I get acquainted with three Nigerians travelling to Belarus. Afterwards, I look for a place where I can rest and observe my surroundings.

I’m captivated by the way Turkish women dress. There are many groups of children around and I wonder where they are all headed to. There are many Muslims too, all clothed in white. I think they are going to perform the Hajj. It’s a long wait and I find myself seated opposite a group of French Muslims – some black, others Arab – travelling together. They speak little English and I speak little French, but we make conversation, clumsily, with a lot of hand gestures. The young man beside me says he wants to marry me. We both laugh. I think he’s just teasing. We all talk some more and I eventually take my leave to locate my gate. I am glad I left  because my flight is almost boarding. I have been looking at my phone which is still indicating Nigerian time.

**** 

Thursday; June 29, 2017.

Two hours later we are in Athens.

A stocky man with a prominent nose is holding up a piece of white paper with my name on it. I flash a smile and he smiles back.

Are you George, I ask.

I already know his name from the mail I was sent with a list of contact and support persons for the conference. He loads my suitcase in his car and as we drive away he apologises about the weather. There’s a heat wave in Athens and temperatures are above 35 degrees today. We talk about their economy and the refugee crisis. I feel as though I’ve been here before – the roads, the plants and hedges, the ‘Okada’ and its rider at the traffic junction are all familiar.

I ask him about the island of Corfu, a magical place I had read about in ‘My Family and Other Animals,’ by Gerald Durrell. He says his father is from Corfu and he can take me there if I want. I want to but I can’t. The conference schedule is tight.

I want to know about Skopios, Aristotle Onassis’s island. He lets out a laugh. You know Onassis? Yes, I say, I have read a lot about him – his stupendous wealth, his famous yatch named after his daughter, Cristina and especially, his marriage to Jackie Kennedy. George’s smile grows wider as I speak.

He points out landmarks and even parks on the highway for me to take photographs of the city – a sea of white buildings with brown roofs. He drops me off at President Hotel, still smiling and waving.

The Greeks are warm and friendly.

****

I try to nap but I can’t. So I go down to the lobby where I recognize some of the other participants. We get acquainted.

An event has been fixed for this evening. It’s a visit to the Museum of Contemporary Art to see Olu Oguibe’s Time Capsule of books and memorabilia from the Biafran war. He’s the convener of the Biafran Children’s Conference and one of the participating artists of documenta14.

I am tired and my ears are aching. But I’m glad I attended. There are jaw-dropping installations by other artists. It’s incredible what the human mind can conceive.

Afterwards we climb to the roof top. The sun is setting but we can see the city spread out before us. The Acropolis is in the distance and on the walls of a building somebody has written, ‘Welcome and Enjoy the ruins.’

Dinner turns out to be a spread of salads, bread, sardines, olive oil and other fare I barely recognize. There’s wine too. The Greeks love their salads and wines. Afterwards, the others want to go to a Nigerian restaurant. I even hear somebody mention Isi Ewu. It sounds interesting but all I want to do is nurse the ache in my left ear.

Faith and I take a taxi back to the hotel.

Sleep comes easily.

****

Friday; June 30, 2017.

Nigerians will say, ‘Traveling without sight-seeing, is that one traveling?’

I am determined to make the most of the two days, so after breakfast, I disappear. First, to documenta14 Press Office, to edit my presentation. And then to the tourist area around the Kidathineon and Adrianou. Tourists are milling about. The paved, narrow streets are lined on both sides by faded white buildings housing shops and cafes. There’s planting everywhere. Artefacts, clothes, books, jewellery, house hold items and much more are on sale. The ambience is traditional and modern all at once.

I hurry from shop to shop, taking in the sights, taking photos, asking questions. This particular shop keeper has a toothy smile. He’s tanned a dark brown and has an accent that sounds American. I am curious. He says the British think he’s American while the Americans thinks he’s British. We both laugh. English is my default language, perhaps that’s why you sound American to me, I say. He tells me he’s Greek, grew up in South Africa and lived in the US. He wraps my purchase while we chat some more.

The entire tour takes me about one hour. The conference starts in a couple of hours.

I head out to the taxi stand but first, something cold to drink. And a selfie.

The speakers at tonight’s event are Olu Oguibe, Okey Ndibe, EC Osondu, Faith Adiele, Phillip Effiong, Obi Okigbo.

 

 

****

Saturday; July 1, 2017.

Butterflies are fluttering in my stomach. I will them to stop.

We have planned to see some of Greece’s cultural and historical sights, and after breakfast we set off for the Acropolis, an ancient citadel that sits above the city of Athens. It’s one of Athens’ most popular tourist attractions and houses the ruins of ancient temples some of which were built in 473 BC. The most popular is the Pathernon which is dedicated to Athena, the Greek goddess of wisdom, war and crafts.

The ruins are engineering and architectural wonders.

Tourists are warned to thread carefully because the path leading to the ruins are worn smooth by human traffic. The sun is scorching but the place is teeming with tourists.

I am in awe the whole time.

The day flies by. The butterflies in my stomach are quiet. I think the tour of the acropolis has helped to dispel my anxiety.

 

This evening, I and Emeka Kupenski Okereke, Berlin-based visual artist, photographer and film maker will talk about the work we are doing to preserve the memories of Biafra, mine through stories and his, through images and films. Our session is called ‘Generations and Legacies; Retrieving Biafra’s Memories.’

We arrive at Parko Eleftherias. Group photos are taken. Sound checks and everything else in order.

“Who is going first?” I ask.

“You,” Emeka says.

“No, you,” I say.

We both laugh.

I take my place, reluctant to make eye contact with the audience lest I see the disappointment on their faces. I start to speak, telling them how it all started in 2016 – the Facebook posts that ignited my interest and my resolve to look for survivors, to document their experiences, to help break the silence about Biafra.

I talk about some of the stories in the collection, about the brave men and women who embody them, who bear the emotional and physical scars of war, whose lives demonstrate the resilience of the human spirit.

When I finish, I hear applause. There are questions from the audience and Emeka takes his turn.

It wasn’t as scary as I thought.

 

Afterwards, as we interact with the audience, two ladies walk past me on their way out. I thank them for coming and give each of them a hug. A few minutes later, I see them back in the hall and walking towards me. One of them says they have something to tell me. We find a seat.

She tells me their family had lived in Lagos but when the war started they fled. They say their father is still alive and would be delighted to talk to me. I am leaving the next day but I ask if I can come over in the morning. They won’t be in, she says, so we exchange phone and Skype numbers. I thank them for reaching out and promise to call.

Dinner was a big deal – lots of food and laughter. Afterwards, those who had early flights to catch left. The rest of us strolled back to the hotel which was close by. The lobby was empty of guests so we sat there, gisting, till about 3.00 am. We were all tired and sleepy, but ‘goodbye’ is a difficult word.

****

Sunday; July 2, 2017.

My head is foggy but I drag myself to the bathroom.

My flight is by 3.35 pm.

Most of the others have left, so it’s just me and Faith. She’s a teacher and memoirist and the first day we arrived I told her about my journey into writing.

Breakfast is the usual spread – varieties of breads, cakes, cheese, butters, eggs, bacons, fruits, cold and warm beverages. I’m happy to see Faith at the restaurant and we agree to meet at the swimming pool in an hour’s time.

The pool is located on the 21st floor and a few people are lounging around on deck chairs. Others are in the water. Coming from the tropics, I am used to high temperatures, but this is extreme. In spite of it, I wonder why anybody would want to sit or swim under such intense heat. Then I remember they may be coming from places where sun is a luxury.

Faith and I chat a bit and I take photographs. The height is dizzying but the view is great – buildings look clustered, streets are barely-discernible, awnings provide dashes of color to a landscape of mostly-white houses and brown roofs.

We say our good byes.

****

Back in my room, my suitcase is packed. I have a few more hours on my hands and I contemplate dashing out to explore the neighborhood. But I realize I am still sleepy. I fall into bed fully clothed. Sometime later I jump up in a panic. It’s almost 1.00 pm and George will be here by 1.30pm.

A quick look around the room confirms that everything is packed. My travel documents are in a purse slung across my body.

I’m in the lobby sending a mail when the entrance door swings open and George bounds in. He’s beaming as he approaches me. Is this all, he asks, grabbing my suitcase. I say yes and he heads out to the car. A few minutes later, we’re racing to the airport.

Did you enjoy your trip, he asks. I said I did but it was too brief. We talk some more and 30 minutes later we drive up to the lot in front of Turkish Airlines. He brings out my luggage and we shake hands. Please come back another time, he says, and bring your children with you. I tell him I will.

He enters his car and pulls away, still smiling and waving.

****

 

 

 

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