by Mgr. Bruce Kent
RIAFRA is hardly the " place one would recommend as a good spot for a holiday. It is, however, possible to visit and visits are welcome and useful. The flight down to the little Portuguese ex penal settlement of Sao Tome in a charter plane from Amsterdam is an experience in itself.
Tire few passenger seats will probably be occupied by relief workers, priests, nuns, other air crews and perhaps a few reporters. The body of the plane will be stocked with great bags of seed, dried fish and beans, none of which make a very comfortable perch on which to sit or sleep.
On our flight we crossed a staggering four hours of yellow Sahara and then over the scrub of Niger and Northern Nigeria. Finally in a blue sea Sao Tome appeared under the wing after more than twelve hours in the air.
It looks a peaceful little spot. It may well be again one day. But at the moment it is the centre of the Joint Church Aid programme for flying food and medicine into the area of Biafra now under siege.
In Britain we know almost nothing of the massive Christian commitment to this relief programme which has come from congregations all over the world. The Irish. the Americans. the Germans Norwegians and Swedes. to name only a few, have poured voluntary money into this Christian work of mercy. The relief programme. according to Fr. Antony Byrne, the Holy Ghost Father, who was, and is its inspiration, costs on average $40,000 every night of the year. I was told by a pastor from Denmark of a church there which had actually mortgaged its own church property in aid of Biafran relief.
Down go the bombs
Ten days in a country is far from enough to make one aware of all the political issues involved. It is quite enough, however. to make one realise how little we have done in this country to help the starving and with how much contempt our own Government's policy of arming one side in this unhappy conflict is held by other European nationals.
I suppose that with practice one gets used to the night flight from Sao Tome to Uli—the long strip of straight road in Biafra which has now become an international airport operating under very difficult conditions.
As one crosses the delta estuaries with a clear moon and no cloud to provide any possible cover the fate of the Red Cross plane which was shot down on June 5. 1969, is likely to come to mind. It is indeed one of the miracles of this civil war that Uli has remained open at all. It seems to be Nigerian policy to harass the airfield as much as possible. A Nigerian bomber will circle at a high altitude for an hour or two each night. thus making it almost impossible for the relief planes to land.
Then a ifew bombs are dropped -the bomber de parts presumably to refuel and the circling relief planes promptly conic in. They don't wait long. One large American plane simply drops its cargo an the darkened runway from its belly loading bay and lakes off again almost without a halt. But most planes have to be unloaded by hand under armed guard.
The organisation of relief inside Biafra is as wonderful a story as its arrival there. Three main agencies are involved. Caritas, which distributes on a parish basis (but not on a denominational basis obviously). the World Council of Churches operating through the Protestant missions and the Red Cross using hospital sick bays and schools.
More than half the relief until June 5 was carried by the Red Cross. but its food ndw stands unused and rotting in the warehouses of Cotonu in Dahomey. Though there is sympathy in Biafra towards individual Red Cross members. there is clearly very strong feeling about an organisation which in Joint Church Aid eyes has allowed international law to appear to take precedence over human need.
Bishop Godfrey Okoyc of Port Iiarcourt expressed this reaction when he commented that one doesn't usually ask the landlord's written permission before getting a child out of a burning house.
Food is, of course, still getting in but in very reduced quantities. At the most about 150 tons of protein food conies in each night and is loaded in the dark into great rows of enormous lorries parked in the hush. Finally, before dawn the convoy moves off to the central Caritas store a few miles away.
A highly efficient Marist Brother then supervises the unloading of these lorries and repacking in appropriate quantities for the different dioceses, for each diocese has its own regional store. Finally. local lorries visit the parishes, hospitals and sick bays for which Caritas is responsible.
And there are so many. They vary fezan a highly efficient complex run by a dynamic Presentation Sister near Orlu to a recently liberated parish in the south-east whose only European administrator was an Italian-speaking Marist Brother coping single-handed with hundreds of gnomelike, rib-cage children and their dispirited and hungry elders. '
Whenever a map of Biafra is shown in one of our newspapers one would assume that nothing remained of it. In fact the undisputed territory is about 120 miles long and 60 or 70 miles wide. But even outside this area the Federals only effectively hold the main roads. Major towns like Aba are all but surrounded by Biafran forces operating in the thick bush. For all the evidence of war, from bomb craters to riddled church roofs and limbless exsoldiers. it is quite possible to be in Biafra at the moment and to see nothing of the shooting.
Something of a stalemate has set in. The story of the Biafran soldier swotting for his G.C.E. in the trenches outside Onitsha is in the best tradition of Ibo hard work. It was something of a surprise one hot afternoon in the middle of a discussion with the Holy Ghost father about the complications of rabbit rearing, to be told that the steady `crump' came from the Federal mortars four miles down the road.
But this is not intended to he a travelogue. It is much
more important to take some action to bring this war, which has cost nearly two million lives, to an end. Relief can only be a palliative. A ceasefire is an essential first step to real peace and unhappily the British Government can do little to effect such a ceasefire while it continues a policy of total support for Nigeria.
The evidence of one's eyes and ears is that the Biafrans are not proposing to give in. New crops, oil wells, hospitals and schools show a quite clear long-term determination. It is also quite clear that whatever formula of confederation or association is agreed upon at future peace talks the Biafrans will wish to retain the right to defend themselves. The history of the last few years makes this a not entirely unreasonable point of view.
We in Britain who wish to exercise a peace-loving role have two parts to play. It is not too hard to say that we can start to take relief work seriously by supporting Caritas, Africa Concern and other agencies still getting food in.
Secondly, our own Government's policy must alter. So far no British Minister or senior Commonwealth office official has been inside Biafra to see what is actually happening. Mr. Wilson and Mr. Foley remained outside.
It seems to me a reasonable and moderate Christian demand to ask that we should introduce an arms embargo and that someone of Cabinet rank should ao to see what our weapons are doing and if a "quick kill" is still remotely likely.
Three other Federations, Central African. Malaysian, and Caribbean. which Britain created since the second world war have fallen apart and in this country we hardly noticed their collapse.
In Nigeria/Biafra we seem to 'think :that two million African lives so far is a reasonable price to pay for holding this one together. Has oil perhaps something to do with this very different attitude?