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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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                                                                             Another Biafra Story

                                                                                    Allan Hall

                                                                              Abakaliki 1966/67


Dear Editor,

            It seems that the FON letters to the editor are becoming an archive repository for Biafra War stories so I will put my two cents worth in for future researchers.

I was part of Nigeria 24 (Ag/Rd) which trained at U.C. San Diego and flew to Nigeria in 1966. I was stationed in Abakaliki which was located near the Northern border. I partnered with Keith Hill and our job was to assist the Ministry of Works in constructing reservoirs using heavy earth moving equipment. The reservoirs contained water that was filtered so that villagers would have access to clean drinking and cooking water. We continued working on projects that were started by Dale Lamski whom we were replacing. He taught us a lot about the realities of Peace Corps life. We were housed in little tin shacks that we moved from project to project. One such location was in the same compound that former FON president Mike Goodkind lived.

            Soon after we arrived Biafra seceded the war broke out. Periodically while sitting around a rest house drinking beer and munching on ground nuts an ex-pat would come over and recommend that we should go to Enugu because things were about to get hot militarily speaking. Except for getting there it was great fun for us to stay at the Presidential Hotel, eat well and socialize all on the Peace Corps tab. But getting to Enugu was a challenge. In most of Biafra there were three types of roadblocks; Police, Army and Civil Defense. The Police roadblocks were the easiest as they were manned be police who were reasonably well educated, trained and fairly well informed. The army checkpoints were challenging and time consuming as they were suspicious, lower rank and well-armed. The Civil Defense roadblocks were the scariest as they were usually manned by uneducated elders (all the younger men having gone to the army) who were armed with Dane guns and who were full of rumored “information” about white mercenaries (or was it missionaries).

            Eventually the Biafran army came and commandeered the earth movers, tractors, dump trucks and anything else they could use in their war effort. The Peace Corp. took the stand that it was going to tough it out in this “police action” and not be seen as an organization that would cut and run at first sight of violence. After five or six trips back and forth between Enugu and Abakaliki we were finally advised that the total blockade around Biafra would be lifted temporarily so that we could evacuate. A Greek freighter was to sail into Port Harcourt in two or three weeks and all volunteers were to be transported out of the country and harm’s way.

            The Peace Corp staff had mapped out every volunteer’s location and drafted pick-up assignments. I was in charge of one of the three or four van convoys. We were to drive from Enugu to Port Harcourt picking up volunteers on the way. The hardest part was coming into a village or small town, finding the PCV and informing them that they had about 20 minutes to pack 44 pounds of luggage say good bye to their friends, neighbors, chiefs, Headmasters and students they had lived with for months or years and leave. 

            Every convoy had a personal letter of passage signed by Col. Odumegwu  Ojukwu himself.  So we should have been able to breeze down the road through the roadblocks. Unfortunately, the ones manning them who could read did not believe that such a god like figure would write such a letter for mere mortals, so it was useless. My first passenger was not a volunteer but the director, Del Lewis, which was an asset except when, early on, we happened on a civil defense roadblock. Because Del, an African American, didn’t speak Igbo the locals were convinced that they had discovered a Hausa or Fulani. Seeing them put a Dane gun to his head was one scary sight. I didn’t realize that I could speak Igbo so fast to calm the situation but we got out of their by the skin of our teeth. What was both humorous and frustrating was coming upon three roadblocks in a row each within sight of the other (police, army and CD). Each one searching the suitcases or backpacks or purses. Mostly they were curious about what these Europeans hid in their boxes.

            After picking up our assigned volunteers we arrived in Port Harcourt in time to board the Greek Freighter. They had made rectangular markings on the floor of the ship’s hold and each evacuee was assigned a space for the trip to Accra, Ghana. I don’t recall much about the trip except that we drank a lot of wine and were fed peanut butter sandwiches and got sea sick. Once in Accra we were transported to University of Ghana in Legon. I remember a Peace Corps official, C Payne Lucas, giving us various choices of going home or to another country. He was especially convincing in the Peace Corps way of selling my group on going to Somalia (“they hate Americans, they spit on you and throw sand in your face”). So most of my group went there and I understand that that is pretty much what happened to them.

Four of us, Bob Claflin, Jon Seale, Jim Hammons and myself made our way to Malawi (where they didn’t throw sand in our face) to finish our Peace Corps careers.


(This account was first published in the Fall 2013 issue (Vol.18, No 1, page 12) of the Friends of Nigeria newsletter. It was sent to me via e-mail) 


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                                                                 A Mass Murderer of Children


                                                         Tom Hebert, Nigeria 04 (1962-1964)


                          An Afterword of Far Away In The Sky: A Memoir of the Biafran War by

                                                              David Koren, Amazon, 2012

In the Peace Corps, Nigeria 1962-1964, I first taught English in a poor but progressive Moslem high school in Ibadan, the capital of the Western Region. For my second year, I transferred to the University of Ibadan to help found the new School of Drama. While Nigeria was then a vibrant, ringing place, living as we were in an official “state of emergency,” soon we all knew the country was hell-bent for civil war.


Biafra, initially rising out of resistance to Northern Nigeria’s ancient Arab-Muslim expansionism, with a sometimes romantic but short-lived existence (about 20 months), the nation began with an egalitarian, progressive Igbo culture that traditionally had encouraged independent thinking, enterprise, and personal, collaborative, and communal creativity, and learning.


This new country had entered the war with hope, skilled talent, a competent leadership combined with a practical vision for the future. Indeed, it’s hard to disagree with Odumegwu Ojukwu, the erstwhile leader of Biafra speaking in 1994: “In three years, we became the most civilized, the most technologically advanced black people on earth."


If Biafra had succeeded, dependent as it was on invented appropriate technologies —small scale, labor intensive, energy efficient, locally controlled, and people centered all contrived in the storm of war, today Biafra would likely be an African Silicon Valley or minor Switzerland.


The entrepreneurial piece of the vision was summed up in the Principles of the Biafran Revolution, commonly known as the Ahiara Declaration, a document written by the National Guidance Committee of Biafra and delivered by President Ojukwu as a speech on June 1, 1969. 


“Finally, the Biafran revolution will create possibilities for citizens with talent in business, administration, management and technology, to fulfill themselves and receive due appreciation and reward in the service of the state, as has indeed happened in our total mobilization to prosecute the present war.”


In a 1994 retrospective speech Ojukwu demonstrated the fruits of Igbo/Biafran ingenuity:


“During those three years, we built bombs, we built rockets, we designed and built our own delivery systems. We guided our rockets, we guided them far, and we guided them accurately. For three years, blockaded without hope of imports, we maintained engines, machines, and technical equipment. The state extracted and refined petrol, individuals refined petrol in their back gardens, we built and maintained airports, we maintained them under heavy bombardment. We spoke to the world through a telecommunications system engineered by local ingenuity. The world heard us and spoke back to us. We built armored cars and tanks. We modified aircraft from trainer to fighters, from passenger aircraft to bombers. In three years of freedom, we had broken the technological barrier.”


Unfortunately for the future of Africa, where such a model for dismantling colonial empires along positive cultural lines was, and is, a desperate requirement, Biafra’s dominant image to the world was not a political one, but an image set by the competing relief agencies: starving, pot-bellied Igbo children, dying it was reported, by the millions. Which wasn’t true: hundreds of thousands only.


But the talented Biafrans didn’t have control of the relief effort. On Sao Tome, at least, it was mostly run by church-related Europeans who incessantly squabbled amongst themselves as they often do on their own constantly shifting turf. So while we UNICEF volunteers tried to get on with everyone, it was tough to blink the obvious that the war’s infernal famine could be at least ameliorated with some proven American know-how. 


So, hearing that somehow a retired American Air Force general had been sent to Sao Tome to advise the airlift, I went looking for him. In a dingy cubicle I found Joe Smith, who had been the officer commanding the history-making Berlin Airlift during the 1948-1949 Berlin Blockade. According to Wikipedia, General Smith organized an airlift that flew over 200,000 flights in one year, providing up to 4700 tons of fuel and food to the Berliners whose supply had been cut by the Soviets. 


Given my recent work in Vietnam (founding and directing combat-base USO Clubs), both of us were schooled in American logistical superiority. Yes, a former Air Force general and a former Peace Corps Volunteer with some experience of war had much to talk about. We understood that if Americans were running the show — had control of the airlift — jingoism aside, with even few aircraft a few can-do, cut-to-the-chase Americans could damn sure have got the job done. But it wasn’t in the cards.


Gearing up to write this, I went to my cold and musty storage unit and pulled out fading files of my Biafra experience. Reading them for the first time in generations, on a torn, crinkly piece of primeval copy paper I first made out a barely legible newspaper article by the reporter Martin Gershen with his photograph of “Tom Hebert, an ex-Peace Corps worker sitting atop his baggage at Lisbon Airport, just after being expelled from Sao Tome.”


Part of Gershen’s interview on Thursday, October 28, 1968 during a return night flight to Lisbon on the Grey Ghost — a legendary gunrunning Biafran Lockheed Super Constellation — as published in the Staten Island Advance on November 17, 1968, “Nobody here asked for us...”:


“I could have stayed in Sao Tome forever if I went to work in the warehouses. But that job has the odor of a white man’s burden. I think the people in Sao Tome could do that job just as well,” Hebert says. “I guess the reason I’m in trouble is that I decided I wasn’t needed. UNICEF wants to make its presence felt but just doesn’t know how.” Hebert feels embarrassed because he was expelled. “I did nothing wrong. All I tried to was go to Biafra,” he says. “But the Biafrans were able to solve their own problems. Nobody here really asked for us and nobody knew what to do with us,” Hebert says. We parted in Lisbon, where the plane landed. We were taxied to a remote part of the field where it was instantly placed under guard by the Portuguese police.”


I also found my copy of the following letter, dated October 24th, 1968:


Biafran Special Representative

Biafra House, Sao Tomé.


Mr. Osuji


Dear Sir:

Today we are informed that Mr. Hebert’s clearance for Biafra has been obtained. Mr. Hebert would like to go in tonight to report to Dr. Middlecoop.


Yours respectfully,

Axel V. Duch, Captain,

Chief of Operations, NORDCHURCHAID


Well, that clearly didn’t happen. The letter grew out of my earlier chance midnight encounter with Mr. Osuji on a silent foggy street in colonial Portuguese Sao Tomé, softly lit by a bent old street light. In a strangely intimate scene, we talked of the war which was not going well for Biafra and the relief effort that chewed up so much money and energy and almost all of the world’s attention. As noted, the war had become not a fight for independence much like America’s own, but of relief planes and children with stomachs bloated from protein starvation — kwashiorkor. Mr. Osuji and I quietly shared a bitterness that night.


This TELEX, sent a day after my forced return to reality from a relief co-worker  to UNICEF in New York:




Then, this November 4 TELEX to UNICEF from Mona Mollerup, of NORDCHURCHAID, a Danish non-profit much involved in the airlift:




The last is not all that Mrs. Mollerup said. From my notes: “Tom Hebert is a mass murderer of children!”


Well, that’s a load off.


Looking back, like Koren’s, my particular Biafra became the place my adult life really began — my training had ended. In a space of maybe three weeks, from the time of my arrival to my abrupt departure, my experience on Sao Tome underwent a sea change. Because I came to realize that the relief effort was a distraction, that what Biafra most needed was  1) political recognition and 2) rifles and cannons. Those were the co-themes of the First Nigeria/Biafra International Conference which a group of Returned Peace Corps Volunteers soon put on at Columbia University. I remember walking down a Senate hallway with several other RPCVs escorting an agreeable Sen. Ted Kennedy to a Senate meeting on recognizing Biafra. We also lobbied Nixon's White House which, because of the media drumbeat of starving African children, was much concerned about Biafra to the point that recognition seemed possible. And I even rode up in an elevator with the famous Igbo novelist, Things Fall Apart and No Longer At Ease, Chinua Achebe!


But oddly, except as yet another African failure, Biafra has never since meant much to either Nigeria or the world at large. On a much later 1978 visit to Nigeria’s south-eastern region with a State Department team, I met with a state governor who had been a high Biafran official. Letting the others leave the room, I said, “Hail Biafra!” Stunned, looking to see if we were alone, he returned the salute,  “Hail Biafra!” As we talked that afternoon, for us Biafra had become a melancholy thing, with little impact—few noticeable effects and no heritage. Just a slight perturbation—a wobble—in Nigeria’s orbit — the one steadily degrading since 1962 to a Brechtian (nihilistic expressive) end. Shortly before the country, now a burnt-out case, likely crashes into the sun.


For me, could it be have been better? Yes. I could have been with David Koren in Biafra. 


Tom Hebert (Nigeria 1962-1964), lives on the Umatilla Indian Reservation outside Pendleton, Oregon. For many years he has been a consultant (and gadfly) to the Umatillas on tribal horse programs and other policy issues related to healing a sovereign nation originally meant to fail. 

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