Far Away in the Sky
A Memoir of the Biafran Airlift
by David L. Koren (1964-66)
Reviewed by Dick Hughes (Nigeria 1962-64)
In 1962, when I was in Peace Corps training at UCLA for a teaching job in Nigeria, the official U.S. message was that we were headed for Africa’s “showcase of democracy,” as my Nigeria IV friend Joanne McNeese Mills put it with appropriate irony.
How much better the promise of that newly formed nation than that of Ghana, then under the sway of U.S.- educated Kwame Nkrumah, who was flirting with our cold war Soviet and Chinese rivals; and who, god help us, had this crazy idea of forming a unity of African states. Wonder where that idea came from?
We all know how that turned out. Nkrumah was overthrown in a military coup in 1966 that, some have said, was inspired and supported by the CIA.
Yet today, to risk simplistic recognition of outcome, Ghana has Africa’s most stable democracies while Nigeria has been riven by long periods of military rule interrupted with brief bursts of democracy, the latest in place now.
What’s more, the violent conflicts between the Hausas and Fulani of Nigeria’s Muslim sub-Sahara in the north and its predominately Christian Yoruba’s in the west and Igbos in the east, persist in autocracy and democracy.
The culmination - let’s hope it was that - was the tragic 30-month Biafra War over the Igbo tribe’s succession May 30, 1967, from Great Britain’s artificially contrived federation of Nigeria to form a new nation in the eastern region of its dominance.
David Koren, who taught as a Peace Corps volunteer in the Igbo village of Amaogwugwu from January 1964 to December 1966, saw it as it was blowing up, and saw it as the war was coming to an end, the proud Igbo people starved into submission.
In a memoir, Far Away in the Sky, Koren gives a loving account of the affection for the Igbo people who welcomed him as a Peace Corp volunteer and of the sympathy for their cause and suffering that brought him back to assist in the Biafra Airlift of food to blockaded civilians.
“By writing about it,” Koren says in a foreword, “I sought to understand it. Why was I there? What strange attractor pulled so many diverse people into its loopy orbit around Biafra? Was the Biafra Airlift the greatest private humanitarian effort of all time, or was it something much more complex? Or more banal?”
Complex it is for sure; banal, it is not, thanks to Koren’s humanity in putting faces to the missionaries who oversaw the airlift; the ragtag pilots and mechanics, of whom Koren become one, who kept a rickety fleet of cargo planes in the air, and the children brought to safety as so many others were dying of malnutrition.
Then, too, there are the vivid frustrations of Koren and others held back from doing more by bureaucracy and mistrust on both ends of the flights — infighting of the international consortium bringing aid and by a Biafra military with its tenuous hold on the squeezed enclave of the would-be Biafra.
Along with three other volunteers, Larry Kurtz, Leo Anderson and Barry Bianchi, Koren signed on with UNICEF for a six-month stint to help unload relief planes at the makeshift airstrip Biafra improvised from a road at Uli. But Koren, Kurtz, Anderson and Bianchi ended up spending most of their time at the supply end on the Portuguese island of São Tomé 300 miles south of Biafra.
An early volunteer, Tom Hebert, a Nigeria IV friend who had served in the Yoruba west, was at São Tomé to greet them, only to be deported for challenging the competence of the relief effort. Hebert, who can be harshly direct, was accused of being a “mass murder of children” for voicing his criticism.
It was a fast object lesson for the others: There is no more vicious person than a highly placed do-gooder whose competency to do good is challenged. Koren includes Herbert’s account in an afterword. Worth reading, too, is the account of Kurtz, whom Koren describes as being the “the most solid, most respectable” of the group.
Broken promise after broken promise, snafu after snafu kept him and the other volunteers from getting clearance to enter Biafra. Stuck on São Tomé, Koren and others pitched in, after some prodding, to organize the supply warehouses. When that was done, Koren became a grease monkey helping keep the aged cargo fleet intact. He learned enough to be accepted as a regular mechanic.
Still, Koren’s frustration grew:
“What a tangle. What an incredible mess! It is a wonder that the Biafra Airlift ever existed, considering sabotage, sectarian rivalries, disputes between missionaries and the Biafra government, and bureaucratic snafus … I wanted to go home.”
He twice submitted letters of resignation with requests to UNICEF for plane fare home. His frustration is palpable in a letter to Elner McCarty, a Peace Corps volunteer with him in Nigeria and with whom he rekindled a romance and married while being held up from leaving for Sao Tome by UNICEF bureaucracy
“In any case,” he wrote Elner, “I’m leaving. I’ll stay my two weeks. I’ll work hard. … They can carry on without me. The war will not be won or lost whether I stay or go. I’ve seen enough. I’ve learned enough about Biafra and the air operation. I am coming home.”
That letter speaks volumes about what readers of Far Away in the Sky can expect. Unlike so many memoirs of humanitarian missions, Koren never glorifies his role or hides his shortcomings as one individual with limited capacity to influence events beyond his control or capacity. He fully understood the limits of his idealism.
Koren did not leave early and eventually got approval to accompany night flights into Uli, to help unload the food cargo, do minor repairs on the planes and return to Sao Tomé. Once he was permitted to make a day trip into nearby Umuahia, where he found old Igbo friends. He learned that many of his students from his school in Amaogwugwu most likely were among the first to die in the fighting.
The night fights into Ili were harrowing. The Uli airstrip had no instruments or navigation gear, and a Nigeria bomber lurked overhead to catch them in landing, forcing airlift pilots to hover in darkness until an all-clear was sounded and runway lights lite long enough to make a speedy landing. It was seat-of-the-pants flying, and Koren is lavish in praise of the skill and bravery of the pilots and crews. Some were killed.
In Koren’s first trip into Biafra, the controller at Uli advised the pilot of “no landing lights,” code for “We are being bombed.” The pilot banked and headed back to Sao Tome, as was often the case.
The Nigerian Intruder, code named “Yellow Bar” or “Genocide,” persistently bombed the airstrip, sometimes as relief cargo was being unloaded, sending workers into crude bomb shelters. As Koren tells it, the bombs more often than not fell harmlessly but once in awhile caused reparable damage to the runway and once destroyed a parked plane Koren and Leo Anderson salvaged for parts.
Toward the conclusion of his memoirs, Koren takes on the controversy the Biafra Airlift generated in academic circles, though without a flicker in the general media and without public awareness. The issue has huge ramifications for future humanitarian intervention.
He writes: “Four decades after the Biafran war the causes and events of that time are forgotten. What remains is an historical lesson, the idea that the Biafran Airlift was a mistake, that it caused many more deaths by prolonging the war, that a ‘quick death’ would have been the more merciful solution. In academic books about international aid, that doctrine is sated as fact without proof or discussion. In international politics, the doctrine impedes the impulse to intervene in humanitarian disasters like Rwanda or Darfur.
“This Biafra lesson explicitly condones massacres, acts of war, and mass starvation of people by its government, as long as it done quickly.”
What advocates of the let-them-starve doctrine need to do, says Koren, is talk to the children who without the nourishment supplied by the airlift would have died to force their government to surrender.
“Instead of condemning humanitarian aid for keeping people alive too long, condemn that government which uses mass starvation to subdue its own people.”
Koren tells readers that Far Away in the Sky is but “a peek into the past,” but it represents more than that. Thanks to a cache of tapes - he carried a recorder at the request of CBS News that was interested in his observations but without compensation - a contemporary record of “events out of history that may be recorded no where else.”
Koren spent a year transcribing, checking, double-checking and verifying what he had recorded 40 years earlier, going to other sources to ensure accuracy of timelines and to corroborate observations. For example, if he referred to a moon lite night at Uli, he checked astronomical tables to determine the phase of the moon on that particular night.
Comprehensive books have been written and will be written about the colonial machinations that created Nigeria and the human and institutional forces that contributed to the Biafra War. That was not what Koren set out to do.
Let us hope, though, the Biafra Airlift does not go without further examination in popular and scholarly works. For those who will go beyond Koren’s “peek into the past,” know this: Koren has left you a unique starting point for your scholarship.
Koren’s memoirs revived warm memories of my time as a teacher at St. Peter’s Secondary School in Achina, which is not 20 miles from Uli and that storied highway-cum-air strip. I traveled that road many times on my little Hondo scooter.
St Peter’s was a new school set up by the Holy Ghost order of the Catholic Church and taken over by the Eastern Region after independence two years earlier. I was there to get the first Form IV class ready for the Cambridge exam, which was still the pass-fail requirement. I was pleased to hear after I left that all those eager students passed. I did not hear from any of those students after 1967, and I fear many were killed.
I was at St. Peter’s for 24 months and, like all other volunteers, loved the kids and faculty of the school, the wonderfully helpful villagers and, truth be told, even more so my Peace Corps friends - Ann Morgan, Johnnie Prather, Kay and John Levy, Joanne McNeese, Willie Sollers, Tom Hebert, Charles Algren and Chuck Larson. There are many others. Ann and I have been best friends for 50 years, staying close though apart by continents and time for much of our post-PC days.
After leaving the Peace Corps, I returned briefly to my home in Bismarck, N.D. before taking a job with UPI in Chicago, where I was hired on the spot without any formal journalism background on the ground that if I survived the Dakotas and Nigeria, I would fit right in with UPI. I did.
When the Biafra War was heating up, I was news editor for UPI in Paris, where our preoccupation was the Vietnam peace talks once they agreed on a table shape. I knew Biafra had a propaganda office in Paris; and as much as I hate to admit it today, I never got there and never sent a reporter over.
In 1980, I joined The Home News, then a family owned newspaper in New Brunswick, N.J., where I was editor for the last 18 of 22 years. I retired in 2002 to work for the Moorefield Examiner in Hardy County, where my wife and I rejoined Ann and Margo Pfleger in Lost River.
To find a mall for my wife, we moved to outside Greenville, South Carolina, in 2007, where I continue with journalism with two weeklies. I plan to be around when they turn off the lights on print.