Millions of Africans were starving in Biafra - until church helpers started an airlift. The war that ended 50 years ago shows the dilemma of aid agencies: when are they parties and prolong the war?
On the morning of January 13, 1970, demonstrators occupied the entrance hall of the SPIEGEL in Hamburg's Brandstwiete. Magazine employees had to find their way between young people crouching on the floor. Activists in the Biafra Aid campaign were alarmed by the news that the rebel republic had surrendered in eastern Nigeria and feared a "genocide": the victorious central government troops would now kill men in large numbers, rape women, burn schools and churches. DER SPIEGEL, the demonstrators demanded, that the genocide must be branded as the main topic in the next issue.
The members of the Biafra Aid Campaign were the most active in a movement that had previously been unthinkable in Germany. At the same time, the Vietnam War raged , the Prague Spring and the student unrest made headlines - and yet hundreds of thousands were interested in a civil war in Africa, shaken by shattering images.
After independence in 1960, Nigeria was initially considered to be Africa's model state and then had 35 million inhabitants. After coups and pogroms, the Ibo ethnic group retreated to their area of origin in the east and in 1967 proclaimed the separate state of Biafra . Large oil deposits were stored in the ground there. The central government in Lagos wanted to put down the "rebellion" by "police action". But Biafra defended its territory, which initially shrank from 77,000 to 2,000 square kilometers.
Airlift with "Stockfish Bombers"
Until the ceasefire came into force on January 15, 1970, up to two million people died in the war and starvation. After Nigeria's army conquered Biafra's access to the sea in May 1968, the separate state could only be supplied from the air. For a year and a half, donations from around the world kept 13 million trapped people alive.
The airlift in the bush cauldron reminded the Germans of the Berlin blockade . Like the "raisin bombers" once, "stockfish bombers" have now become a symbol of resistance and humanitarian action. The catastrophic consequences of the war documented photos and television pictures of children with ballooned bellies and skeletal limbs. Citizens' initiatives and celebrities collected money and relief supplies for the "Biafra babies", victims of the hunger blockade.
Because the majority of the soldiers in Nigeria's army came from the Muslim ethnic groups of the north and the Ibos were almost all Christians, the Biafra conflict was wrongly portrayed as a religious war. Commentators compared misery and extermination to Auschwitz. The historian Andreas Eckert described the Biafra war as "a decisive stage in the emergence of a Holocaust rhetoric".
Caritas Internationalis was a major player in the relief effort around Biafra. On the 50th anniversary of the end of the war, the Catholic organization now presents the report "50 Years of Biafra: A Lesson for the Dilemmas of Humanitarian Aid in Violent Conflicts" and relentlessly describes how aid agencies had to break diplomatic rules and work with dubious partners in order to be able to intervene , Biafra, it says, became "the greatest challenge for humanitarian organizations after World War II". And the birth of a "New Humanitarianism" in which the traditional principles of neutrality and impartiality cannot be maintained.
"No Ibo should get a piece of food"
Nigeria saw Biafra's waste as an illegal separation; this assessment was supported by the Organization of African States, the United Nations, the former colonial power of Great Britain and many other governments in the world, including that of the Federal Republic. As a result, Nigeria has not granted permission to fly to the area.
Caritas and other aid agencies nevertheless chose "Operation Biafra" because Nigerian military officials had described starvation as a "legitimate weapon in war" . "I want to prevent even an Ibo from getting a piece of food before the surrender," General Benjamin Adekunle (nickname "Black Scorpion") told The Times.
But who was prepared to fly to Nigerian territory without permission and threatened by shooting? Caritas only found a shady partner. The infamous arms dealer Hank Warton brought ten tons of relief supplies from the Portuguese island of São Tomé to besieged Biafra for $ 3800 per flight. In order to be able to transport more, Caritas later bought five used DC7-C machines in Zurich and concluded a usage contract with Warton's company. The aircraft were removed from the German register and registered in Bermuda.
It is fairly certain that they did not just bring food, fuel and medication to the isolated Biafra. Because the humanitarian workers were unable to control all transports. There were also borderline cases: were inflatable boats or parachutes (supposedly for dropping food) war material or not? All loads were extinguished at night in complete darkness, a landing strip served by a trunk road widened to 21 meters near the city of Uli - no tower, no fire brigade, no refueling options. In order to make orientation difficult for Nigerian fighter planes, the runway was only lit shortly before the aid equipment was touched down.
"Jesus Christ Airline" flew to the bitter end
Caritas Internationalis participated in the foundation of "Joint Church Aid" in autumn 1968, an ecumenical association of 25 church aid organizations from 17 countries. The JCA network, which pilots called "Jesus Christ Airline", brought more than 6000 tons of relief supplies to Biafra in 5310 flights. According to the Caritas report, 122 helpers from Biafra and 35 from Europe and the USA died, including 17 pilots. Eight planes were lost. The last aid plane landed in the boiler on January 12, 1970, a day after Biafra leader Odumegwu Ojukwu had left with family and large luggage.
"Breaking the blockade through the airlift was illegal," says author Christian Heidrich in the Caritas report, "but it was morally required and legitimate." Caritas was not only heavily criticized for this reason alone, the organization was also accused of taking sides. The aid agency also financed the printing of a specially created currency, the Biafra pound, for the Biafrans in order to be able to buy local food in local markets. The food that was flown in was not sufficient to supply people.
Hard currencies flowed into Swiss accounts for the purchase of the new currency - according to a SPIEGEL report, by mid-1969 it was DM 30 million from the churches and CHF 10 million from the Red Cross. With this money, Biafra largely financed its weapon supplies.
"With your help for the rebels, you are only prolonging the civil war," argued the Nigerian side and its supporters from the start. Over the years, such thoughts also came up with Biafra helpers. In December 1969, the World Council of Churches recommended "seriously consider stopping the Biafra airlift". With the surrender of the separate state in the following month, this question was resolved.
No genocide after the surrender
However, the aid organizations are still concerned with the moral dilemma of what kind of aid is legitimate and when it ends up in the support of a war party. It is their eternal dilemma: they can easily become actors, even targets, in a longstanding, confusing conflict. Transporting weapons and ammunition or enabling hidden deliveries would, of course, contradict their humanitarian mandate. But just stand by and do nothing - they certainly can't and don't want to do that in the face of dying people like in Biafra. It is a similar clamp as the UN has known since its peace missions with blue-helmet soldiers since 1948 .
It is largely forgotten today that the feared massacres did not occur in the defeated Biafra in 1970. Members of the Ibo ethnic group still complain of resettlement to this day, and a small group is fighting for the resurrection of the lost state. But the majority of Ibos are looking for their place in chaotic Nigeria. After all, the late Biafra founder Ojukwu was able to return to Nigeria after 13 years in exile in Ivory Coast and - unsuccessfully - applied for the presidential post there.
The demonstrators from the German campaign Biafra Hilfe founded the Society for Threatened Peoples, which is still active worldwide. The first SPIEGEL after the capitulation contained a detailed article on Biafra's end and the possible consequences on January 19, 1970. But the civil war in Africa no longer made it to the front page.