Of the accusations usually made that the IRC was not tough enough in brushing aside the obstacles, one weary spokesman said: ‘Look, here in Biafra we get all the cooperation we need. But on the other side they’ve made it quite plain they don’t want us. They don’t like what we are doing, which is saving lives a lot of them would privately like to see waste away, they don’t like our presence because it prevents them doing certain things we think they would like to do to the civilian population.
‘If we get too stroppy with them they can just as easily order us to leave. OK, fine, so we get a day in the headlines. But what about the million people our supplies are maintaining in life behind the Nigerian lines? What happens to them?’
But one criticism that can reasonably be made is that the International Red Cross in Geneva took a disastrously long time to wake up and get moving. Although they were kept informed from the very earliest days by Mr Jaggi of the urgency of the situation, and although the money that came in from all sources during July ran into millions of dollars, it was not until the last day of the month that the first all-Red Cross plane flew into Uli. Even throughout the month of August, with their own air operation, the Red Cross only brought in 219 tons of food, while the churches with less money and still relying on Wharton for transport shifted over 1,000 tons. But as the generally accepted required tonnage of 300 tons a night would have meant that this combined quantity should have come in every four days, Mr Kirkley’s gloomy prediction came true.
It is not the intent of this chapter to paint gaudy pictures of human suffering; it is rather a chronicle of events to explain to the puzzled reader what really happened. Besides, the pictures have been seen, in newspapers and on television, and highly emotional world-portraits have been painted by scores of journalists and writers about what they saw. A brief résumé will suffice.
By July, 650 refugee camps had been set up and they contained about 700,000 haggard bundles of human flotsam waiting hopelessly for a meal. Outside the camps, squatting in the bush, was the remainder of an estimated four and a half to five million displaced persons. As the price of the available foodstuffs went up, not only the refugees but also those indigenous to the unoccupied zone suffered.
Wildly varying figures have been hazarded to describe the death toll. The author has tried to achieve a consensus of estimates from the best-informed sources within the International Red Cross, the World Council of Churches, the Caritas International and the orders of nuns and priests who did much of the field work of food distribution in the bush villages.
Throughout July and August the politicians postured and the diplomats prevaricated. A land corridor, even if it had been set up at that period, could not conceivably have been in operation in time. The donations from British and West European private citizens were pouring in; several Governments, notably in Scandinavia, indicated privately that they would not be unsympathetic to a request from the Red Cross for the loan of a freighter and aircrew, if asked. The Red Cross in Geneva preferred to negotiate with a private firm whose pilots said they would only fly into Biafra if Nigeria accorded them a safeconduct guarantee; and to ask Lagos for that guarantee. As ever it was refused.
The death-toll spiralled as predicted. Starting at an estimated 400 a day, by its peak it had reached what the four main foreignstaffed bodies of relief workers in Biafra reckoned to be 10,000 a day. The food imports throughout July and August were pitifully small. While some of the deaths occurred in the camps, and could be noted, far more occurred in the villages where no relief percolated at all. As so often, the most heart-breaking tasks and the dirtiest work were undertaken by the Roman Catholics.
There are no words to express nor phrases in this language to convey the heroism of the priests of the Order of the Holy Ghost and the nuns of the Order of the Holy Rosary, both from Ireland. To have to see twenty tiny children brought in in a state of advanced kwashiorkor, to know that you have enough relief food to give ten a chance of living while the others are completely beyond hope; to have to face this sort of thing day in and day out; to age ten years in as many months under the strain; to be bombed and strafed, dirty, tired and hungry and to keep on working, requires the kind of courage that is not given to most men who wear a chestful of war ribbons.
By the end of 1968 the consensus estimate of deaths within unoccupied Biafra was three-quarters of a million, and the most conservative estimate to be found was half a million. The Red Cross, whose colleagues were working on the other side of the fighting line, reported an estimated half a million dead in the Nigerian-occupied area.
It must be stated that much of the food bought with the money donated by the people of Britain, Western Europe and North America that did not go to Biafra direct did not reach the hungry at all. While reporters like Mr Stanford and Mr Noyes Thomas of the News of the World were reporting in June and July the scenes of human degradation they witnessed at Ikot Ekpene, an Ibibio town which Lagos had quite correctly been claiming for twelve weeks to be firmly in their hands, other journalists in Lagos were uncomfortably reporting that piles of donated food were rotting on the docks. Red Cross workers there were complaining of being deliberately frustrated at all official levels.
Despite this, Red Cross sources also later reported quiet efforts by British diplomacy in August and September to persuade the IRC to discontinue their aid to Biafra direct, on the grounds that Biafra was finished anyway, and to hand over the problem on the Nigerian side to the Nigerian Red Cross who, they said, were ‘more efficient’.
In the first week of August 1968 the two church relief organizations, having got the vital landing codes from the Red Cross, also broke away from Wharton and set up their own operations, but still from São Tomé. On 10 August, against all advice, Count Carl Gustav von Rosen, a veteran Swedish pilot from Transair, flew in a hedgehopping daylight relief flight to show it could be done. This was the first flight of yet another relief organization, Nord Church Aid, an association of the Scandinavian and West German Protestant churches. Later the three church organizations merged at São Tomé under the title Joint Church Aid.
Meanwhile the Biafran idea for a separate airport had been resuscitated as hopes to get Nigerian permission for daylight flights into Uli faded. An airport and runway was available at Obilagu, but there were no electrical installations, nor a fully fitted control tower. The Red Cross agreed to fit these off its own account, and work started on 4 August. On 13 August an agreement was signed between Colonel Ojukwu for the Biafran Government and Mr Jaggi for the Red Cross. It provided that either side could rescind the agreement on demand, but that so long as it operated the airport should be demilitarized.
M. Jean Kriller, a Geneva architect, became the Red Cross commandant of the airport. His first act was to insist on the removal of all troops and military equipment, including antiaircraft guns, to outside a five-mile radius of the centre of the runway. The Biafran Army protested that with the advance positions of the Nigerian Army only thirteen miles away, this would affect the defensive position. Colonel Ojukwu backed Kriller, and move they did. Kriller’s next act was to paint three 60-foot-wide white discs at equidistant intervals down the runway with a big red cross painted into each. Thus protected, he took up residence in a tent on the side of the runway. On 20, 24 and 31 August the airport was bombed and rocketed, smack on the target. Half a dozen food-porters were killed and another score injured.
On 1 September 1968 the first token flight into the new airport was made from Fernando Poo. The Red Cross was still trying to get permission from Lagos for daylight flights, and felt its case to be enormously strengthened now that it had its own airport. But the answer was still No. Then on 3 September Lagos changed its mind, or seemed to. Daylight flights would be permissible, but not for Obilagu, only for Uli.
While the Red Cross politely pointed out that it was not at Uli that the relief food flights were coming in any more, but at Obilagu, and argued that if the aim was t
o bring in the maximum amount of food to save lives, then it was at Obilagu that the daylight flights should take place, Colonel Ojukwu’s advisers considered this sudden and to them surprising decision from Nigeria in another light.
Why Uli, and only Uli, they wondered. After thinking it over they could only come up with one answer. Although Uli had been frequently raided by day, that is, when it was out of use, the Biafran anti-aircraft fire, although not terribly accurate, was good enough to force the Nigerian bombers to fly high and to put them off their aim. As a result the actual runway had not been hit with a big bomb. Small rocket craters from diving MiG fighters could be easily filled in. But if the ack-ack were silenced by day to allow the big DC-7s from Fernando Poo and São Tomé to bring in food, it would only need one Nigerian Soviet-built freighter like the Antonovs sometimes seen passing high overhead to sneak into the circuit with a 5,000-lb bomb slung under it to blow a hole in the runway that would close the airport for a fortnight. With the Nigerians sweeping into Aba and preparing for a big push to Owerri, and with the Biafrans desperately short of ammunition and almost scanning the skies for the next arms shipment, Colonel Ojukwu could not risk the destruction of his weapons airport.
On 10 September the Nigerians made a dash for Oguta and secured the town. Although they were pushed out forty-eight hours later, Ojukwu had to rescind his agreement on Obilagu’s exclusivity. When Oguta was occupied, being uncomfortably close to the Uli airfield, Uli was evacuated. It opened again on 14 September, but for three days, with ammunition planes at last beginning to come in, Ojukwu had to give them landing permission at Obilagu. From then on both arms and relief flights came into both airports without discrimination. Not that it mattered much, since there was at that time no Nigerian bomber activity at night and no apparent chance of getting permission for daylight flights to the relief airport. On 23 September Obilagu fell to a big push by the Nigerian First Division and Uli once again became the only operational airport.
Since that time Lagos has again offered to permit daylight flights for relief planes. Ojukwu has again been widely accused of having refused this, and in consequence of being wholly responsible of the famine. What he said was that he would agree to daylight flights to any airport other than Uli, on which he dare not risk an accurate daylight attack with heavyweight bombs.
For the rest of the year, from 1 October to 31 December, the flights continued by night into Uli. During October Canada lent the Red Cross a Hercules freighter with a carrying capacity of twenty-eight tons per flight. Basing their estimates on two flights per night for this aircraft, the Red Cross prepared a hopeful plan for November. But after eleven flights the Hercules was grounded on orders from Ottawa, and later withdrawn. In December the American Government offered eight Globemaster transports, each with a capacity of over thirty tons, four to the Red Cross and four to the churches. Great hopes were placed on these aircraft, which were due to go into operation after the New Year.
But also in December the Government of Equatorial Guinea, which now ran Fernando Poo, informed the Red Cross that it could no longer carry diesel oil for its distribution trucks or oxygen bottles for its surgical operations. This change of policy originated, apparently, on the night the Guinean Interior Minister turned up drunk at the airport with the Nigerian Consul and created a disturbance in which one of the freighter pilots spoke his mind.
In October night bombing of Uli airport started. The bombing was done by a piston-engined transport plane from the Nigerian Air Force which droned around overhead for two or three hours each night dropping large-sized bombs at odd intervals. They were not particularly dangerous as with all the airport lights extinguished the plane could not find the airfield in the darkness. But it was uncomfortable to lie face down in the passenger lounge for hours waiting for the next shriek as a bomb plummeted into the forest nearby. One had the sense of unwillingly partaking in a game of Russian roulette.
By the end of November the kwashiorkor scourge had been brought under control, though not entirely eradicated. Most of those surviving children who had suffered from it, although on the way to recovery, could relapse at any time if the tenuous supply line broke completely. By December a new menace threatened – measles. Along the West African coast measles epidemics among children occur regularly and usually have a mortality rate of five per cent. But a British paediatrician who had done long service in West Africa estimated that the mortality rate would be more like twenty per cent in wartime conditions.
A million and a half children were likely to suffer from it during January; that put the forecast death toll at another 300,000 children. In the nick of time, with the aid of UNICEF and other children’s organizations, the necessary vaccine was flown in, packed in the special cases needed to keep the vaccine at the required low temperature, and wholesale vaccination began.
As the new year approached it became clear that the next problem would be a lack of the staple carbohydrate foods like yams, cassava and rice. The January harvest was predicted as being a small one, partly because in some areas the seed yams had been eaten the previous harvest, partly because unripe crops had been harvested prematurely and consumed. Efforts were being made to bring in supplies of these as well, but because of their greater weight the problem of transporting a far greater tonnage called for more and heavier aircraft, or vigorous efforts to persuade the Nigerians to permit food ships to pass up the Niger.
On balance, the effort to save the children of Biafra was alternately a heroic and abysmal performance. Despite all the efforts, not one packet of food ever entered Biafra ‘legally’. Everything that came in entered by a process of breaking the Nigerian blockade. In the six months from the time Mr Kirkley gave his six weeks deadline and his estimate of a needed 300 tons of food a night, the Red Cross brought in 6,847 tons and the combined churches about 7,500 tons. In 180 nights of possible flying, these 14,374 tons of food worked out at an average of 80 tons a night only. But even the average is misleading; the time when the food was really needed and could have save two or three hundred thousand children’s lives was in the first fifty days after 1 July. But at that time virtually nothing came in.
More than the pogroms of 1966, more than the war casualties, more than the terror bombings, it was the experience of watching helplessly their children waste away and die that gave birth in the Biafran people to a deep and unrelenting loathing of the Nigerians, their Government and the Government of Britain. It is a feeling that will one day reap a bitter harvest unless the two peoples are kept apart by the Niger River.
The British Government, behind the façade of claiming to be doing all it could to ease the situation, fully went along with Nigeria’s wishes after the snub of 5 July. Far from doing what it could to persuade Lagos to let the food go through to Biafra, the British Government did the opposite. Mr Van Walsum, the highly respected former Major of Rotterdam, ex-Member of Parliament and Senator, present chairman of the Dutch Ad Hoc National Committee for Biafra Relief, has already said publicly he is prepared to testify that reports that the British Government and the American State Department during August and September brought ‘massive political pressure’ on the International Red Cross in Geneva not to send any help at all to Biafra are accurate.* Checks by British journalists direct with the IRC in Geneva have confirmed Van Walsum’s statement.