On the Ground

Brian talks with former aid worker David Koren about his experiences during the Biafran airlift in the late 1960s, and explores whether it’s possible to remain neutral in other country’s wars.

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BRIAN: This is BackStory. I’m Brian Balogh.

ED: I’m Ed Ayers.

PETER: And I’m Peter Onuf. Today on the show, we’re looking at the history of humanitarian intervention by Americans.

BRIAN: Earlier in show, w looked at a couple of 19th century debates over whether the US government should intervene in foreign conflicts. Now, we’re going to turn to a 20th century version of that same debate. It was the late 1960s, and Americans were beginning to hear news reports about the famine in Biafra.

MALE SPEAKER: Medical facilities at the [INAUDIBLE] camp are primitive. In this tent last week, a doctor examined Biafran children. Most had bloated stomachs due to malnutrition. And many were so near death, they didn’t even cry.

PETER: Biafra was a region in southeastern Nigeria that had declared independence in 1967. The Nigerian government responded by blocking off access to the rebel area, essentially using starvation as a tactic of war against the separatists.

BRIAN: This was the first African famine to be televised, and the images were devastating– children with bloated bellies, children with hair faded to a sickly red. Before long, college students had taken up the Biafran cause, along with cultural figures like John Lennon and John Paul Sarte, and eventually, US lawmakers.

MALE SPEAKER: Senator Edward Kennedy, in his first Senate speech since the assassination of his brother, Robert, today urged the UN General Assembly to take up the problems of relieving starvation in Biafra.

BRIAN: But no government’s came to the rescue. So non-governmental groups decided to step in themselves.

PETER: The method they came up with was an airlift. A group of international aid organizations banded together to fly loads of relief supplies across the Nigerian government’s blockade. At its height, the airlift flew two and a half tons of food into Biafra every day.

BRIAN: To avoid detection, the pilots flew at night. They shut off their lights before landing. Even so, they often took fire from Nigerian warplanes. One American who worked the air lift– a young man named David Koren– reported having some very close calls.

DAVID KOREN: I was looking out at the right side of the plane, and out the Windows, just looking. And I said to nobody in particular, I guess, watch for the bombs, watch for the bombs. And sure enough, there were two great bursts.

PETER: This is a recording that Koren made just after starting on the airlift. He’d been a Peace Corps volunteer in Nigeria, and so was especially affected by news of the unfolding famine. He jumped at the chance to do something about it.

DAVID KOREN: Which is about where we would have been if we had landed and gone in about the time the bomb exploded.

BRIAN: We tracked David down in his home in Pennsylvania, and we asked him to explain how the airlift worked. He said it started each night when the first plane touched down with its load of emergency supplies.

DAVID KOREN: My job was to facilitate the unloading of that. When we landed in Biafra, there would be attacks by the bomber overhead. And the idea was to get the plane unloaded as fast as possible, and get it up and out of danger, but also allow it to go back and reload. And if we could get all that done fast enough, that plane and a few others were able to make three runs in one night.

BRIAN: What’s the closest call that you had, David?

DAVID KOREN: One night, there were eight or nine bombs went off right around the plane, shaking it. Just right after we landed, a first bomb fell not too far away. And then as we taxied to our parking area, and I opened the cargo door, I heard another one fall. And then during the course of while we were unloading there, I heard a bomb falling. It sounded very, very close. And so I dove headlong in the aisle between the stacks of food that we had, and saw the flash and heard the plane shake. And I jumped up and looked out the door, and there was a big column of sparks and things going up. And you could hear the patter of pieces of metal and rock coming down all around the plane

BRIAN: David, did these bombs exploding around you give you pause?

DAVID KOREN: Yeah, I was scared. And the Biafran workers who are helping us unload the plane, they were afraid also. But we had to get the plane unloaded and get it out of there. And so we just kept working.

BRIAN: So for you, was this a case of personal diplomacy, going ahead and getting involved in essence a war when your government would not?

DAVID KOREN: Yeah, I was definitely personally involved whether the government was or not. I don’t know if I’d call it diplomacy or not. It may be something much more simple, like helping the people I knew and liked.

BRIAN: Now the Nigerian position was that this blockade, and even the starvation that ensued, was a legitimate weapon of war.

DAVID KOREN: That was their position, yes.

BRIAN: Did that make you combatant in this war, even though your ends were humanitarian?

DAVID KOREN: I don’t know what my official status was. I was certainly not firing weapons or taking any offensive action. I was maybe at most a blockade runner. And I suppose from Nigeria’s point of view. I was an enemy. But I didn’t think so.

BRIAN: Do you think it’s right to take sides in a humanitarian effort? Or do you think it’s perhaps essential to take sides in a humanitarian effort?

DAVID KOREN: OK, the conventional wisdom is that when you’re doing humanitarian work, you should not be involved emotionally or otherwise in one side or the other. And I think that’s expressly stated in an organization like the Red Cross. But in this organization, most of us, if not all of us, sympathized with Biafran people because they’re suffering, and because many of us knew them.

BRIAN: Sure. And then you have the added incentive of being bombed. I suspect that does not warm the cockles of one’s heart.

DAVID KOREN: Yeah. Right. You probably tend to think of somebody bombing you as the enemy.

BRIAN: I would.

DAVID KOREN: So it’s messy. It’s very messy. There is no kind of a one defining humanitarian motive or spirit that makes people do humanitarian things. People can bring a lot of different attitudes and desires to a humanitarian effort.

BRIAN: David Koren is a former Peace Corps volunteer who worked the Biafran airlift. His memoir about that experience is called Far Away in the Sky.

ED: The Biafran airlift ended in January 1970 when Nigerian forces retook control of Biafra. Over a million people had died in the three year conflict, mostly from starvation and disease. But the airlift marked the beginning of the new chapter in international humanitarianism, demonstrating just how much could be done without government involvement. All told, the effort moved over 60,000 tons of aid. For a brief time, tiny Uli airstrip was the busiest airport in Africa, with up to 50 flights landing each night.

PETER: That said, the takeaway wasn’t especially clear. Humanitarian organizations like Oxfam came to believe that the Biafran leadership had co-opted the relief effort to further its own political goals. Some scholars have argued that the airlift allowed the rebels to hold out for more than a year after they had lost the war militarily, leading to as many as 100,000 additional tests. As David said, no easy answers.