Far Away In the Sky: A Memoir of the Biafran Airlift
David L. Koren (Nigeria 1964–67)
First Peace Corps Writers Edition
Reviewed by Roger Landrum (Nigeria 1961–63)
The Biafran war for independence from Nigeria ended 47 years ago (1970), yet the horrors that occurred before and during the civil war linger. So does the idea of Biafra: an independent African state created by Africans, not by a European colonial power drawing the boundaries, a modern state with an efficient and productive democratic government. They seem to have a life of their own.
One of the reasons for this was a dramatic humanitarian airlift operated from the remote island of Sao Tome to shuttle food and medical supplies into Biafra for a civilian population being deliberately starved into submission.
The airlift was organized by a hodgepodge of church and humanitarian organizations, contracted planes and pilots, and volunteers. Some of the latter were former Peace Corps Volunteers who had served in Eastern Nigeria before the war.
The airlift operated under the direst of conditions: cast off planes flying at night to a darkened airstrip constructed on an old road at Uli, Biafra, under constant attack from the Nigerian air force. Here the cargoes of food and medical supplies were unloaded and distributed to the starving civilian population including millions of children, squeezed into an ever shrinking Biafra. Some of the emaciated Biafran children, near death, were shuttled out on the empty planes to Sao Tome for supervised recovery.
Among the colorful cast of characters operating the airlift were five UNICEF volunteers, young Americans, one of whom was David Koren, who had taught secondary school as a Peace Corps Volunteer for three years in Eastern Nigeria. Koren had not yet settled into a career back home when the war began, and he answered a UNICEF call for volunteers, which led him to Sao Tome, the airlift operations, and into Biafra and the morass of the civil war.
He did it out of a commitment to the Ibo people he had lived and worked among for three years. Then, for many years afterward, Koren’s experience lay buried as he moved on with a life in America. When Koren read Chimamanda Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun (2006), a novel of the Biafran War, his airlift memories came pouring back. He wrote a brief reminiscence in March 2007 for the Friends of Nigeria newsletter, “The World is Deep.”
After a number of people contacted him for more information about the airlift, he dug out a box of memorabilia and found a cache of audio cassettes from the period. One thing led to another and Koren wrote a full account of the Biafran airlift, In the Sky Far Away, first published in 2012.
This review is of a 3rd edition that adds Koren’s recent discovery of some of the people his work with the airlift saved from starvation and their grown children, now living in America, and his emotional meetings with them.
Far Away in the Sky is a remarkable book. The central story of the airlift is inherently dramatic, but it is Koren’s richly detailed recollections about the airlift and its motley cast of characters, both on the remote island of Sao Tome and at the Uli airstrip inside a Biafra, that gives this book exceptional power.
The book encompasses more than the airlift narrative. It creates a deeply informed portrait of the Ibo people, famed for their industriousness and pursuit of education. It illuminates the wider war and why the Biafrans sought an independent homeland to secure their safety and political interests. It describes Koren’s earlier Peace Corps experience in Eastern Nigeria. And the book is laced with reflections about racism, colonialism, and the power of deep cultural identity.
I know something about all this. I was a Peace Corps teacher in the first wave of Nigeria volunteers, at Nsukka in Eastern Nigeria, living among the Ibo. Afterwards I directed Peace Corps training programs for Nigeria and was visiting some of the PCVs I trained inside Nigeria immediately after the first pogroms against Ibos in the Northern Region where I heard chilling accounts directly from Hausa northerners who, wracked with remorse, told me about murdering their Ibo neighbors in a frenzy of revenge after the first military coup led mostly by young Ibo officers.
I went into Eastern Nigeria on that trip, as succession sentiments grew more intense among the Ibos, to see if my friends were safe, where I was briefly detained by Eastern police officers paranoid about regional security. The volunteers I had trained were soon evacuated from all of Nigeria as war loomed. I, too, answered a UNICEF ad for a photographer to document child starvation in Biafra and flew from Amsterdam to Sao Tome on one of the Gray Ghost relief planes, stuffed in a chilly cargo area with a Netherlands film crew seeking to document the airlift. I got stuck on Sao Tome for a couple weeks seeking clearance to enter Biafra, denied because Biafran authorities resented United Nations unwillingness to recognize Biafran independence. I was able to photograph evacuated Biafran children with acute starvation effects and had a long conversation with Chinua Achebe about Biafra. He was in transit out of Biafra as an informal ambassador to the West. I was on leave from a job and could not wait around for an uncertain clearance but I can verify the veracity of the Sao Tome parts of Koren’s account.
Like many others, I was left with questions about the war. Were the claims about starvation exaggerated? Were the Ibo people actually threatened with genocide and was succession from Nigeria justified?
With extensive first-hand facts and clear-headed observations this book provides answers.
Koren’s narrative falls into discrete parts. The first section describes his two years as a Peace Corps teacher in Eastern Nigeria, with an extension year because he found the experience so fulfilling. As an account of Peace Corps service in Nigeria, or anywhere, it is as perceptive as you are likely to find, though not as extended as Peter Hessler’s brilliant memoir, River Town, about his Peace Corps experience in China.
Koren’s writing about his Peace Corps years is background for his central narrative reporting on his UNICEF volunteer assignment to the Biafran airlift, initially as a warehouse organizer of incoming, expanding relief supplies while awaiting Biafran clearance to enter the secessionist state on relief flights to help unload the planes.
It was a lengthy and frustrating delay because the United Nations connection annoyed the Biafran authorities (the UN refused to recognize Biafra’s independence). Finally, someone figured out a change in job title to “airlift ground engineers” which won Biafran clearance for the UNICEF volunteers to enter the breakaway state.
That is the more harrowing part of the story as conditions grew more and more dangerous from Nigerian bombing of the Uli airstrip and the inherent dangers of night landings in old planes. Pilots died from crashes, ground crews from bomb shrapnel. The airlift was functional but it was not a smooth operation with central command.
Koren writes, “The Biafran Airlift was not a massive government effort, but a raggedy group of missionaries and civilians flying rickety old planes.” He is completely candid about the tangles between the Biafran authorities and the airlift operations, and among the loose coalition of relief organizations and operators jockeying for position.
Koren wove his way through various roles and tasks–he learned the skills of a plane mechanic to be more useful–until he was no longer needed when better planes and crews took over the airlift.
One more dramatic turn enveloped Koren before he left. On his final trip into Biafra he was arrested as a possible spy, detained for several harrowing days, then released with orders not to return.
Following the account of his non-commercial flight home, via Brazil, the narrative jumps to some unexpected experiences after In the Sky Far Away was first published in 2012.
Publication led to meeting some of those saved from starvation by the air lift now living in the US, and their grown children, most of whom knew little about what their parents had suffered. “When we were children”, one said, “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.”
They honored Koren with an Ibo honorific title, Nwannedinamba, Brother from a far away land.
Koren estimates there are a million people of Ibo descent now living in the US, a second Ibo diaspora. The first Ibo diaspora was across Nigeria before the pogroms. One of Koren’s two sons has an Ibo first name, Emeka, and served in the Peace Corps in Guinea. Somehow Koren’s intense, erratic Nigeria adventures came full circle later in life. The Ibo say, Uwa di egwu, the World is deep. “Those who still argue that Biafra should have surrendered early,” he concludes, “do not understand the culture of a people who do not submit easily. . . . I told the story of a brave and intelligent people, a story that may have otherwise slipped away into the gloom of history.”
Reviewer Roger Landrum (Nigeria 1961-63) is founder and first CEO of Youth Service America, which in collaboration with Ford Foundation developed the national youth service movement that led to AmeriCorps and the Corporation for Community and National Service. Landrum initiated the seminal Peace Corps 25th Anniversary celebration attended by 5,000 RPCVs which launched the National Peace Corps Association with paid staff and served as NPCA board president. He co-authored with Harris Wofford of Youth and the Needs of the Nation (1979), a blueprint for expanded national service programming.