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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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EQUATORIAL CONSTELLATIONS, BY Silas Tiny

EQUATORIAL CONSTELLATIONS, BY Silas Tiny

The place and importance of the Biafran Airlift in the history of Sao Tome and, by extension, Portugal, cannot be over written.

For almost three years that the war lasted, this small island located in the Gulf of Guinea saw the influx of individuals from all over the world. Journalists, diplomats, aid workers, missionaries, clergy men, politicians, doctors, military personnel, mercenaries, business men and all sorts of people arrived the island on their way to and from Biafra. Consequently, hotels and guest houses, restaurants, shops and markets, beaches and other leisure spots, the aviation industry, etc, all benefited, in one way or the other, from the upsurge in commercial activity on the island. The governor of Sao Tome even tried to cash in on the windfall by imposing a fee for every child that was brought from Biafra into Sao Tome. But Father Tony Byrne, one of the initiators of the Air lift, resisted the move.

Born in Portugal in 1975, five years after the war and the Airlift ended, Silas Tiny is a Sao Tomean film maker whose interest in this monumental event led him into making a film about the airlift. The film is called ‘Equatorial Constellations.’ According to him, the goal of the film is “... not to narrate a past event but to display that very past through the present inner look of the ones involved in it 50 years ago. The film will, ‘...bring together former child refugees, Sao Tomeans, Joint Church Aid officials and volunteers who created the largest and riskiest relief effort that world has ever seen.’ He goes on - “Hundreds of children had been evacuated from their land, arrived in this island...escaping pain, slaughter and famine. Today, fifty years have passed, that memory remains an open wound, their names, faces and lives forgotten and their remembrances fade away...Where are these children, and what happened in their memories so far? What can they convey? Their stories are part of the universal memory and remain as living testimonies...”

Silas and I are looking for any of these ‘children’ because we think our projects will not be complete without their participation. We will appreciate any leads and references in this regard.

[The cover photo shows Silas Tiny]

 

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GOOD INTENTIONS, by Marie Louise Schipper

GOOD INTENTIONS, by Marie Louise Schipper

Fifty One years ago, the Nigeria-Biafra war grabbed the world’s attention with its sad, haunting images in newspapers, magazines and television sets. Forty Eight years after it ended, the stories of that tragedy are still being told through films, documentaries, dramas, art works and exhibitions, music, books, in conferences and lectures. One of the people who has documented an aspect of that conflict is Marie Louise Schipper, a Dutch journalist working for OneWorld magazine and de Volkskrant newspaper. She has written a book about ten Biafran children who were evacuated to the Netherlands from Biafra for medical attention. The title of the book is Goede Bedoelingen which translates to 'Good Intentions.' 

In 1968, Marie was a young girl living with her parents. According to her, “It was a big item because it was the first international aids for starvation in Africa and nobody realized what was going on at that time. We didn’t know a lot about Africa and as a matter of fact not much about Nigeria as well. And Africa was an exotic country far, far, far away at that time. So Nigeria came into our living rooms and we could see what happened. The news in the newspaper and television was so overwhelming of these dying children. And my parents - they were devout Catholics - always told me and my sister that we should care about other people. They would tell us to finish our plates and that we should think about the children of Biafra. The images made a big impression on me, as a child. The Dutch gave a lot of money [to the relief effort] because they felt we should do something because in WW2 so many people died, and it was determined that in Biafra far more children died. Another reason these children made such a big impression on me had to do with the war stories in my own family. My father worked as a forced laborer in Germany. He was 17. My mother’s family was on the run and had to live with a family they didn’t know. My grandfather died during a bombardment. He was never found.” 

When Marie became a journalist, she was surprised that the stories of these ten children were not written. "I thought there must be somebody who has written this all down. But there was nothing written. It was like when snow has fallen and everything is completely white and nobody has run into it. That was my first impression, that it was completely blank. There was nothing about it, only publications in the newspapers. When I started interviewing people everybody said, ‘No, I don’t remember these children, I don’t remember them.’ And I said, ‘Why don’t you remember them, because it doesn’t happen often that ten children from Nigeria, out of a war, come to the Netherlands.’ I felt they were hiding something. And I thought, ‘What are they hiding?’ I discovered that one of the children who was here had epilepsy and he was really ill. He was a bit retarded and was also in a foster home. He needed a lot of attention but people from the Nigerian embassy were very strict and said the children have to go back to Nigeria. The foster parents didn’t want to let them go because they didn’t know where they were sending them to. The foster parents of the sickest child were under so much pressure, so they decided to send him back to Nigeria. He was first sent to Gabon, with enough medicine for half a year, and afterwards sent to one of the rehabilitation centers at Ikot Ekpene. His family didn’t show up, so he was sent to Nung Udoe Orphanage and he died shortly afterwards. And I think that was why all the doctors were saying they didn’t know a thing. That was the reason they didn’t want to talk about it because they sent a boy who was really ill back to a country that was recovering from the war without proper medication."

“How did you eventually find somebody who told you the truth?” I asked. 

“I spoke to a lot of nurses and they had memories about these children. They also had photographs and they told me about the foster parents, and I said that must be the reason nobody wanted to talk about it.” 

“Why do you think the Biafran authorities decide to take them to the Netherlands instead of Ivory Coast, Gabon or Sao Tome?" 

“There reason was primarily because of Abie Nathan, an Isreali pilot. He was also a humanitarian and did a lot of food aid. He tried to mobilize the Isreali people to send in goods and food for the people of Biafra. He was very popular and charismatic, and had a lot of connections in the Netherlands. He was filmed by a television crew asking people to do something about Biafra; that everybody should give a hand. When this documentary was broadcast a lot of people got mobilized. He said he convinced Ojukwu that these children should be sent to the Netherlands where they could get proper help. But Ojukwu said no. Finally they decided to bring the children to the Netherlands as a symbolic gesture where the children in Europe would get acquainted with the Biafran children while the Biafran children would get more knowledge about the world. The decision was made and ten of the children came to the Netherlands. 

At the end of the war, eight of the children were taken back to Nigeria. But two remained in the Netherlands. The official documents said the two who remained in the Netherlands had no parents and family back home. But in the 1990's, one of them decided to look for her family. She discovered she had two villages full of relations. She returned to Nigeria to meet them.” 

When Marie started to gather material for her book, she knew she had to make the trip to Nigeria. 

“If I didn’t visit Nigeria, the story wouldn’t have been complete.” 

“That was very courageous of you. So, how did the journey to Nigeria start?” I asked. 

“I went to the African Studies Centre here in Netherlands, in Leiden. And one of the people who was connected to the African Institute, he works nowadays in England, he said to me the best thing I could do was contact *Emeka Anyanwu, an Anthropologist at Nsukka University. I thought it was a better idea the students of Edlyne go on research and try to find out what happened to the children. And it worked fairly well because we found two of them. It was like a needle in a haystack.  When we knew they were traced, we traveled from Nsukka to Owerri, from Owerri to Umuahia, and from Umuahia to Orlu. We visited the hospital in Umuahia [Queen Elizabeth Teaching Hospital] and all the places that were important during the war. I visited the airfield at Uli.” 

“Is it still there?” I asked. 

“Yes. You can see the traces of the road and there was a man who saw us walking and was curious. It’s not always you see White people there. He told us that was the road and he also knew the Ojukwu bunker. It was a small bunker. Even Edlyne didn’t know there was a smaller one.” 

It took Marie Louise Schipper fifteen years to finish the book, and it was published on October 27, 2017, in Amsterdan. Unfortunately, the book is written in Dutch and, at the moment, Marie cannot afford to hire a translator. She said, "I would like to give the opportunity for more people to read it.” 

 [I spoke to Marie on the 23rd of May, 2018, via Facebook and these are excerpts from our chat.]

 

 

 

 

 

 

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IMAGE FROM THE PAST

IMAGE FROM THE PAST

Relief planes are usually welcome into conflict zones, but during the Nigeria-Biafra war the planes of the Joint Church Aid 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 graves at the end of the runway. After the war, the airstrip was closed down and the graves bulldozed away.

The image here shows some of the graves.

Photo courtesy of David Koren.

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IMAGE FROM THE PAST

IMAGE FROM THE PAST

David Koren was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Amaogwugwu, Umuahia, between 1964 and 1966. When the Nigeria-Biafra war broke out in 1967, he accepted a call to work on the Biafran Airlift. He helped to organize the warehouses in Sao Tome, fly relief material into Biafra and sometimes evacuated vulnerable children-the very ill and malnourished-who were at the risk of dying. His account of the Airlift is published in a book - Far Away In The Skies. It is on sale on Amazon. A Nigerian version of the book will be launched in August 2018. 

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

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

THE WORLD IS DEEP - PART TWO

Barry and Larry often worked as a team, and Leo and I as a team.  On a night that Barry and Larry were flying, Leo and I were drinking with the ARCO mechanics.  There was Arnie the Swede, Helmut the Dane, Smyth the Englishman, Ben the Israeli, and three or four other Europeans.  They complained about being overworked, that it was too much for the handful of them to keep those old planes flying.  Leo and I said that we could turn a wrench, and we would be glad to help them if they showed us what to do. Chi nyere m aka - God gave me hands. And I can use them.

The next day ARCO hired us as help mechanics, and the Portuguese airport authorities issued us flight line IDs as Ajudante de Mecanico.  And so we became more formally connected with the airlift, not just nebulous Field Service Officers.

We began our career as mechanics by removing parts from the damaged DC-7, noting carefully how we did it.  Then we would ride into Biafra with the first flight, and work all night removing the same parts from another DC-7, which was down at Uli, and then come out with the last flight.  The downed plane had had mechanical trouble and couldn’t take off.  The next day the MiGs shot it up.  The right wing and the fuselage burned; remarkably the left wing was still intact, with fuel still left in the wing tanks.

***

There was a night at Uli when a late fog rolled in.  I could hear a plane cross overhead and circle around, waiting for an opportunity to set down. It never came, and the plane returned to Sao Tome.  That was my ride back.  In a way I was glad, because I got to spend a day in Biafra.

The sky turned slowly from black to grey as the morning light filtered through the fog.  Reverend Aitken appeared.

“I’m going to Umuahia.  Do you want to ride along?”

“Yes!”

I didn’t see my old school, Ohuhu Community Grammar School, because the road to Amaogwugwu was not on our way.  I did see a convent school where another PCV, Nancy Amadei, had been stationed. I saw women on the side selling food from enamel pans.  I saw garri, peppers, and vegetables.  I saw one woman frying yam chips in palm oil over a charcoal fire. I saw chickens, which surprised me – I thought they’d be all gone by then.  This was the heart of Biafra, but I saw no begging.

***

On an afternoon when I had just finished loading a plane, and the engines were started, Father Byrne came to me with a large package. He ordered me to stop the plane and put the package on board. I objected that the plane was already buttoned up and on its way.  We could put it on the next plane.  He said that the package was very important and must go on that flight. I ran around in front of the plane waving to the pilot. I pointed to the package, and he stopped taxiing. Helmut helped me put it in the forward cargo hold. When we backed away and the plane moved on, I said to him, “Do you know what is in that package?” He didn’t. It was sanitary napkins for the Nuns.

We washed a DC-7 one day. It took all day and a lot of soap and water. I was soaking wet, but that wasn’t so bad for a hot day on the equator.  The point of cleaning a plane was to reduce the skin friction, making it faster and more fuel efficient. As we did every evening when we weren’t flying, we watched the planes take off, and later watched as they returned. The plane we washed didn’t return.  We waited and watched and turned to the tower for news, but there was nothing.  It was gone. I had the terrible feeling that we had done something wrong when we washed the plane and caused it to crash. The investigation later determined that it had hit an iroko tree on approach to Uli in the dark.  The plane disintegrated.

***

There was a church near one end of the runway at Uli.  The crew of our plane and others that went down during the airlift were buried in the churchyard.  I heard that after the war Nigeria bulldozed the airstrip to eliminate the memory of it.  And they bulldozed the graves.

***

In spite of the bombing, the mechanical challenges, and the hazardous navigation, the planes kept flying, most of the time. At the height of the airlift, during the time I was there, we had up to 44 arrivals a night at Uli, which made it one of the busiest airports in Africa. But there were two times that I remember when the air crews refused to fly, and the airlift stopped for a few days. On one occasion a rumor spread that the Nigerian MiGs would begin flying at night to shoot our planes down. Caritas and WCC pleaded with the crews to fly, and eventually they did.  Another rumor stopped the airlift a second time.  One night the news spread that France had recognized Biafra. In jubilation Biafran soldiers fired their guns in the air.  Some of the bullets struck a plane coming in at Uli. There was no serious damage, but the crews stopped flying again until the WCC and Caritas petitioned Biafra to enforce firing discipline.

***

Before a return flight, Reverend Aiken summoned me again.  A van was parked in a clearing near the plane. Several Biafran men were standing about, silent and uneasy. There were children in the van in the last stages of starvation.  They were placed on a mat on the ground. Their eyes were open but unseeing. I kneeled down looking at one boy, appalled at his condition. He mumbled something. A man said to me, “Do you know what he is saying?” I didn’t. “He is saying, ‘My father, why don’t you speak to me? Don’t you know me?’”

Evacuated children were taken to a convent called San Antonio. After a week they could sit up, and they could feed themselves. I went to see them. As I came into the compound, about a dozen of them ran to my side.

A Nun told me a story about one of the children. He led a protest against a particular spread the kids didn’t like on their bread. At his signal all the children put down their bread and stopped eating. Some of the very young ones were reluctant to do this, but they went along. They won, and they were not served peanut butter again.

You never win, if you give up when things are easy.

Someone said that the airlift prolonged Biafra’s agony by bringing false hope. Without food for their people the leaders would have given up sooner.  It sounds like a bad idea whose time had come, an idea that someone put forward and many others adopted without thought, a piece of facile wisdom. It makes sense if you don’t stop to think about.  In fact, if you accept the idea, you can stop thinking altogether – no need to consider the complexities.

The idea can be accepted by people with no personal, immediate concept of large scale random killing.  They have not seen gangs running through their neighborhoods, dragging people out on the street and chopping them up.  Biafran people saw the trains full of refugees pouring in from all over Nigeria. They accepted those refugees into their homes and villages. And they heard their personal, immediate stories.

Another dimension, beyond security, for continuing the fight, is the concept of freedom to control one’s own destiny – not just to avoid disaster, but to build a positive future.  In the shrinking Biafran enclave was the highest concentration of Ph.D.s in all of Africa. The motivation to learn and to grow into a modern society kept Biafra going.

***

On my final trip to Biafra I was arrested as a Nigerian spy. Throughout the interrogation I remained respectful. I answered everything honestly, so when they tried to trip me up, I could always come back to what was true. I was not confrontational; I was not indignant. 

After the interrogation I was led to a small room, my cell, furnished with a simple couch and some chairs. 

Reverend Aitken showed up. He brought me a bag with some fresh clothes, magazines, a sandwich, and a couple of bottles of warm beer. The look on his face was disappointment, not sympathy.  I didn’t understand it then, but I may have caused the airlift a real problem.

I was interrogated again.  This time the commander told me that they weren’t sure what they were going to do with me.  He said they were thinking of sending me to Umuahia, then the seat of the Biafran government. The head of the government was General Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu. His 2IC was Dr. Michael I. Okpara, who had been the former Premier of the Eastern Region of Nigeria and the founder of Ohuhu Community Grammar School. I told the commander that I would be happy to go to Umuahia and perhaps meet Dr. Okpara again. I would learn later that they took spies and saboteurs to Umuahia to be shot.

One of the young airport officials would sit with me and chat. I gave him some money and asked him to buy some kola nuts, oji, and palm wine, mmanya.  We invited a few others and sat outside in the warm African evening.  We broke the kola.  “Onye wetara oji, wetara ndo - He who brings kola, brings life.”  Someone there knew my name, because he knew one of my students from O.C.G.S who told him about me.  I told them about the time I had helped Aitken carry some wounded people from the village to the hospital. I asked if anyone knew how they were.  None did, but later someone inquired and reported that the boy and the young woman were recovering well. 

***

I was called before the commander.

He said, “David, I am ordering you deported from Biafra.  You must never return again.”  As he said it, he was trying to sound very stern, but his demeanor was that of a father chastising an impetuous young man. I was escorted out to one of our relief planes. I helped unload it, and then I flew back to Sao Tome for the last time.

***

Of the people who came together for the airlift, whatever they loved about fighting, whatever they loved about flying, whatever they loved about religion, whatever they loved about life, their paths crossed in a filigree of human motivational trajectories, called Biafra.

***

Years later I gave a talk to a group of college students in Buffalo, New York. These were all students from the region formerly known as Biafra. I told them my stories and I showed them my pictures. I concluded with an observation.  Many Americans believe that most relief aid never gets to those who need it, that it is diverted by corruption. One young man from the back of the room stood up.  He said, “When we were children, we heard your planes going over at night. We never knew who you were, but we got the food.  Every person in this room is alive today because of what you did.” Then they stood up and gave me a prolonged ovation.

Uwa de egwu.

THE END

PHOTO CREDIT - THE INTERNATIONAL COMMITTEE OF THE RED CROSS

PHOTO CAPTION - LOADING RELIEF GOODS INTO RED CROSS PLANE

PHOTOGRAPHER - VATERLAUS, MAX; 1968

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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