A Mass Murderer of Children
Tom Hebert, Nigeria 04 (1962-1964)
An Afterword of Far Away In The Sky: A Memoir of the Biafran War by
David Koren, Amazon, 2012
In the Peace Corps, Nigeria 1962-1964, I first taught English in a poor but progressive Moslem high school in Ibadan, the capital of the Western Region. For my second year, I transferred to the University of Ibadan to help found the new School of Drama. While Nigeria was then a vibrant, ringing place, living as we were in an official “state of emergency,” soon we all knew the country was hell-bent for civil war.
Biafra, initially rising out of resistance to Northern Nigeria’s ancient Arab-Muslim expansionism, with a sometimes romantic but short-lived existence (about 20 months), the nation began with an egalitarian, progressive Igbo culture that traditionally had encouraged independent thinking, enterprise, and personal, collaborative, and communal creativity, and learning.
This new country had entered the war with hope, skilled talent, a competent leadership combined with a practical vision for the future. Indeed, it’s hard to disagree with Odumegwu Ojukwu, the erstwhile leader of Biafra speaking in 1994: “In three years, we became the most civilized, the most technologically advanced black people on earth."
If Biafra had succeeded, dependent as it was on invented appropriate technologies —small scale, labor intensive, energy efficient, locally controlled, and people centered — all contrived in the storm of war, today Biafra would likely be an African Silicon Valley or minor Switzerland.
The entrepreneurial piece of the vision was summed up in the Principles of the Biafran Revolution, commonly known as the Ahiara Declaration, a document written by the National Guidance Committee of Biafra and delivered by President Ojukwu as a speech on June 1, 1969.
“Finally, the Biafran revolution will create possibilities for citizens with talent in business, administration, management and technology, to fulfill themselves and receive due appreciation and reward in the service of the state, as has indeed happened in our total mobilization to prosecute the present war.”
In a 1994 retrospective speech Ojukwu demonstrated the fruits of Igbo/Biafran ingenuity:
“During those three years, we built bombs, we built rockets, we designed and built our own delivery systems. We guided our rockets, we guided them far, and we guided them accurately. For three years, blockaded without hope of imports, we maintained engines, machines, and technical equipment. The state extracted and refined petrol, individuals refined petrol in their back gardens, we built and maintained airports, we maintained them under heavy bombardment. We spoke to the world through a telecommunications system engineered by local ingenuity. The world heard us and spoke back to us. We built armored cars and tanks. We modified aircraft from trainer to fighters, from passenger aircraft to bombers. In three years of freedom, we had broken the technological barrier.”
Unfortunately for the future of Africa, where such a model for dismantling colonial empires along positive cultural lines was, and is, a desperate requirement, Biafra’s dominant image to the world was not a political one, but an image set by the competing relief agencies: starving, pot-bellied Igbo children, dying it was reported, by the millions. Which wasn’t true: hundreds of thousands only.
But the talented Biafrans didn’t have control of the relief effort. On Sao Tome, at least, it was mostly run by church-related Europeans who incessantly squabbled amongst themselves as they often do on their own constantly shifting turf. So while we UNICEF volunteers tried to get on with everyone, it was tough to blink the obvious that the war’s infernal famine could be at least ameliorated with some proven American know-how.
So, hearing that somehow a retired American Air Force general had been sent to Sao Tome to advise the airlift, I went looking for him. In a dingy cubicle I found Joe Smith, who had been the officer commanding the history-making Berlin Airlift during the 1948-1949 Berlin Blockade. According to Wikipedia, General Smith organized an airlift that flew over 200,000 flights in one year, providing up to 4700 tons of fuel and food to the Berliners whose supply had been cut by the Soviets.
Given my recent work in Vietnam (founding and directing combat-base USO Clubs), both of us were schooled in American logistical superiority. Yes, a former Air Force general and a former Peace Corps Volunteer with some experience of war had much to talk about. We understood that if Americans were running the show — had control of the airlift — jingoism aside, with even few aircraft a few can-do, cut-to-the-chase Americans could damn sure have got the job done. But it wasn’t in the cards.
Gearing up to write this, I went to my cold and musty storage unit and pulled out fading files of my Biafra experience. Reading them for the first time in generations, on a torn, crinkly piece of primeval copy paper I first made out a barely legible newspaper article by the reporter Martin Gershen with his photograph of “Tom Hebert, an ex-Peace Corps worker sitting atop his baggage at Lisbon Airport, just after being expelled from Sao Tome.”
Part of Gershen’s interview on Thursday, October 28, 1968 during a return night flight to Lisbon on the Grey Ghost — a legendary gunrunning Biafran Lockheed Super Constellation — as published in the Staten Island Advance on November 17, 1968, “Nobody here asked for us...”:
“I could have stayed in Sao Tome forever if I went to work in the warehouses. But that job has the odor of a white man’s burden. I think the people in Sao Tome could do that job just as well,” Hebert says. “I guess the reason I’m in trouble is that I decided I wasn’t needed. UNICEF wants to make its presence felt but just doesn’t know how.” Hebert feels embarrassed because he was expelled. “I did nothing wrong. All I tried to was go to Biafra,” he says. “But the Biafrans were able to solve their own problems. Nobody here really asked for us and nobody knew what to do with us,” Hebert says. We parted in Lisbon, where the plane landed. We were taxied to a remote part of the field where it was instantly placed under guard by the Portuguese police.”
I also found my copy of the following letter, dated October 24th, 1968:
Biafran Special Representative
Biafra House, Sao Tomé.
Today we are informed that Mr. Hebert’s clearance for Biafra has been obtained. Mr. Hebert would like to go in tonight to report to Dr. Middlecoop.
Axel V. Duch, Captain,
Chief of Operations, NORDCHURCHAID
Well, that clearly didn’t happen. The letter grew out of my earlier chance midnight encounter with Mr. Osuji on a silent foggy street in colonial Portuguese Sao Tomé, softly lit by a bent old street light. In a strangely intimate scene, we talked of the war which was not going well for Biafra and the relief effort that chewed up so much money and energy and almost all of the world’s attention. As noted, the war had become not a fight for independence much like America’s own, but of relief planes and children with stomachs bloated from protein starvation — kwashiorkor. Mr. Osuji and I quietly shared a bitterness that night.
This TELEX, sent a day after my forced return to reality from a relief co-worker to UNICEF in New York:
HEBERT DEPORTED LISBON YESTERDAY STOP REMAINING VOLUNTEERS REQUEST RETURN TICKETS IMMEDIATELY PLUS INFORMATION REGARDING POSSIBILITY TRANSFER LAGOS OPERATION STOP REPEAT STOP NEED OFFICIAL UNICEF INVOVLEMENT BIAFRA URGENTLY SIGNED DISGUSTED DAVIS.
Then, this November 4 TELEX to UNICEF from Mona Mollerup, of NORDCHURCHAID, a Danish non-profit much involved in the airlift:
DUCH INFORMS US THAT HEBERT WAS DEPORTED BY THE PORTUGUESE AUTHORITIES DUE TO DEMONSTATIVE, INSULTING BEHAVIOR AND AN UNCOOPERATIVE ATTITUDE. THE OTHER FIVE ARE DOING AN EXCELLENT JOB ON THE WAREHOUSES AND THE GOVERNOR HAS EXPRESSED HIS APPRECIATION FOR THEIR EFFORTS. GREETINGS.
The last is not all that Mrs. Mollerup said. From my notes: “Tom Hebert is a mass murderer of children!”
Well, that’s a load off.
Looking back, like Koren’s, my particular Biafra became the place my adult life really began — my training had ended. In a space of maybe three weeks, from the time of my arrival to my abrupt departure, my experience on Sao Tome underwent a sea change. Because I came to realize that the relief effort was a distraction, that what Biafra most needed was 1) political recognition and 2) rifles and cannons. Those were the co-themes of the First Nigeria/Biafra International Conference which a group of Returned Peace Corps Volunteers soon put on at Columbia University. I remember walking down a Senate hallway with several other RPCVs escorting an agreeable Sen. Ted Kennedy to a Senate meeting on recognizing Biafra. We also lobbied Nixon's White House which, because of the media drumbeat of starving African children, was much concerned about Biafra to the point that recognition seemed possible. And I even rode up in an elevator with the famous Igbo novelist, Things Fall Apart and No Longer At Ease, Chinua Achebe!
But oddly, except as yet another African failure, Biafra has never since meant much to either Nigeria or the world at large. On a much later 1978 visit to Nigeria’s south-eastern region with a State Department team, I met with a state governor who had been a high Biafran official. Letting the others leave the room, I said, “Hail Biafra!” Stunned, looking to see if we were alone, he returned the salute, “Hail Biafra!” As we talked that afternoon, for us Biafra had become a melancholy thing, with little impact—few noticeable effects and no heritage. Just a slight perturbation—a wobble—in Nigeria’s orbit — the one steadily degrading since 1962 to a Brechtian (nihilistic expressive) end. Shortly before the country, now a burnt-out case, likely crashes into the sun.
For me, could it be have been better? Yes. I could have been with David Koren in Biafra.
Tom Hebert (Nigeria 1962-1964), lives on the Umatilla Indian Reservation outside Pendleton, Oregon. For many years he has been a consultant (and gadfly) to the Umatillas on tribal horse programs and other policy issues related to healing a sovereign nation originally meant to fail.