INT: Fred - could you tell me how and when you became involved in the
Nigerian civil war?
CUNY: Well it was an accident. I'd just finished working on a big
project in Dallas - in fact I'd been working on helping design some of the
systems for the Dallas Fort Worth airport. I got a call one night from an old
professor of mine from college and he confessed that he'd taken a paper I'd
written about Nigeria and the prediction that it made about the likelihood of a
civil war in Nigeria back in the early '60s and he had published it. And as a
result of that he had under his own name... and as a result of that he had been
approached by some foundations who were interested in looking at the Biafran
war to see what could be done when the war was over about getting humanitarian
aid in for reconstruction.
And I'd always been interested in reconstruction. It was something I'd wanted
to do. And he called and said he felt that he should get me involved in this
project. So I said "OK, fine. The two of us will do it together and..." - I
liked the guy. He was actually quite good despite the fact that he was using
And so we went off to Nigeria. I arrived in Lagos. I went up to the Foreign
Ministry - got a meeting through the good offices of the United States Embassy
there - and went to see the Minister of the Interior and said "I'm from Texas
and I'm here to study your war and tell you what you can do when it's over to
get the humanitarian aid in here."
And the Minister said "oh, that's interesting. Let's see your passport." And
he thumbed through and got to the part where my visa was, ripped the visa out
and said "we don't want anything to do with these damned Biafrans and all you
Americans and others that are helping them out and want you out of here in 24
hours" and threw the passport back. And 2 guys came and escorted me to the
airport, took all the money and put me on a 'plane and (laughs).. next morning
I was sitting on the airport surrounded by all these Red Cross airplanes and a
few other groups that were working there.
So my partner in the study said "that's it. I'm headed out of here" and he
went back to The States. And I thought there might be some chance to salvage
it. I didn't know anything about these organizations - the Red Cross or
anybody else - so I went over and knocked on the door of the Red Cross and "Hi.
I'm from Texas and I'd like to look at your operations and see what we might be
able to do when the war's over."
And the fellow who was in charge of the flight operations there said, "I
haven't got time for this."
He said "I've got a whole bunch of new airplanes coming in. I don't know how
to use them. I don't know how to fly them. This whole thing is really crazy.
We're having trouble with the Nigerians. My cargo systems are breaking down.
Everything's a mess."
And I said "well, that's interesting. Cargo systems - I just worked on an
airport, the world's largest airport in Texas and I know a little bit about
that. And furthermore I'm a pilot. Maybe I can help you out."
And he said "well you help me and I'll try and help you." So I sat down and
started working on the problems of integrating his new aircraft that were
coming out and the first ones arrived and then I went out and helped check out
with him and next thing I knew I was heavily involved in the air lift.
INT: You worked as part of a large group of pilots flying into Biafra. Who
were the pilots? Where did they come from?
CUNY: Oh they were all sorts of people. They were some of them were
contract pilots from a Swiss company called Belair and they were recruited
largely from the United States. The airplanes that we were flying at the time
were the C97 which was a cargo version of the B29 and it had only been
operated by the US air-force and some of the reserve units in The States, plus
So what we had to do was to find people who were qualified on the airplane or
similar airplanes and get them qualified. So they recruited from some people
who'd been in reserve units in The States and they got a number of Israelis
that knew how to fly them and how to maintain them, which is even more
Some guys were mercenaries who couldn't find a job flying guns. Others were
idealists. There was a real mixed bag of people. The fellow that I was
closest to in my crew was there because he believed in the Biafran cause and he
refused to take any money to fly. The Chief Pilot was a former Air America
pilot. He'd been in and out of all sorts of scrapes in various places and a
very colorful character. We had one guy who was a Baptist missionary who saw
the Biafrans as some lost tribe of Israel that had to be salvaged - or saved.
It was a real mixed bag. We used to call it the world's largest flying zoo.
But I think everybody there was dedicated to the mission and the more you got
involved in the flying the more you began feeling something for the people and
even the hardest nosed guys were always willing to run the risks of going in
at night in these crazy places and delivering the goods because they felt very
emotional about the need to try and keep people alive.
INT: Could you describe to me how the air lift differed from the more
conventional air lift of supplies?
CUNY: Well first of all there was no co-ordination. We had many
different aircraft that were going into the various air-fields. The air-fields
are a misnomer. They were wide spots in the roads in a lot of cases. No
traffic control to speak of. At one time we had a guy in a jeep with a
hand-held radio that was co-ordinating all the traffic.
Most of the air-fields in the latter stages of the war were under fire. The
relief flights that were going in had been announced to the Nigerian
authorities to try and gain them protection, but often the gun-runners would
try and mask their flights by getting up underneath and flying close behind to
get in. The air-lift had a variety of different organizations. You had ICRC
which was probably the best managed and operated air lift component. 6 of the
You had the inter church aid which was the big... really the biggest private
group that was there and what they did is they had first a variety of different
aircrafts. Some were the old constellations. Some were the LC54 or the DC4
aircraft. A couple of DC6s. A real mix of aircraft. And the 'planes had
different speeds. They had different capacities and with no schedule they'd
arrive over different air-fields at different times and sometimes at the same
time and it was always hairy because if you get there when somebody else is on
the ground you can't get in. Have to circle and there's always the danger of
interception or being shot at by ground fire. So there were times when it was
Numerous times we tried to work out various arrangements and the ICRC who
wanted to try and get permission to fly daylight flights, announced through a
special corridor where they wouldn't be shot down. But the Nigerians kept
denying them permission to fly and there were all sorts of problems with that.
At one points the pilots got together and we actually voted, saying "now,
look, we'll go out. If the Nigerians say 'no', everybody on the plane will
vote and if it's 100% that we go, we just drop below the radar and we make the
run and try and get in otherwise", because we felt that it was important that
we get the supplies in. So many of the crews had their own arrangements to try
and break the rules and get in.
INT: Clearly the organizations involved in the air lift were willing to
stretch or break international law and ignore national civility.
INT: Could you describe some of the discussions that were held?
CUNY: I was a very small piece of the machinery in those days and still, I
know. But the level of discussion was often a much higher level. The pilots
didn't worry about the sovereignty. They saw a mission and figured ways to get
in. Certainly at ICRC and there was the whole issue of having to deal with
agreement on both sides and the ICRC does not work unless they have concurrence
and what they call transparency. Whereas inter-church aid and many of the
other guys in the air lifts - the private groups. Canair Fare, Foundation War
Relief and some of the others. They all said, "look, we're going to go in.
We're not going to worry about what the Nigerians say. We'll operate at night
if we have to. We'll take the risks" and they felt that the risks were worth
taking. They felt that in this case had a legitimate cause of a people who had
been persecuted, who had revolted, who saw no other solution, and deserved
help. And a lot of that was wrapped up in the belief that the EBOs had been
the persecuted group and, therefore, had deserved support and in that light
they were willing to take the risks to help them.
There were other motives certainly. Some of the governments that were
supporting the operations had eyes on the oil fields. Others had other
motivations. There was meddling to try and break up Nigeria.
All sorts of political agendas that were also being played out through this.
Our discussions came down to one thing and that is if you keep the air lift
going you save lives, if you don't the country's going to collapse. And the
worry was, and in retrospect it proved not to be the case" but everybody was
worried if the air lift stopped, the Nigerian forces carried out a number of
atrocities at that time would either seal the area off and let the country
starve to death. Or that they would be able to swiftly move in and there would
be masses of massacres throughout the area and the fear of retaliation.
I don't know if you remember that in '68/'69 there were a number of atrocities
where villagers had been captured and they'd been executed or soldiers had been
executed. And these stories got back and fed the belief that there was going
to be a total massacre. And the fact that the EBOs had been massacred during
the early '60s in some of the riots against the ?????? and the influence that
the EBOs had in Nigeria, led to that feeling of persecution. And so there was
this willingness to take the risks to try and keep the people alive and hoping
that either a negotiated settlement would come about which would give them
independence or at least.. towards the end it was a lot of thinking about
autonomy. But some means of protecting the people and keeping them alive until
it can happen.
INT: As a pilot flying in on the relief missions what were military relations
like with the federal pilots?
CUNY: Well you had a variety of mercenaries that were flying their
aircraft. The Nigerians at that time proved to be fairly incapable pilots.
They weren't up to the interceptions. The air force was new. The country had
only been free for several years and they didn't have a professional air force
and their pilots were very reluctant to engage and so the government began
hiring mercenaries to fly. They used Egyptians. They used some Brits, some
South Africans and others that were called in to fly. And there were very few
of those guys who were really willing to go out and shoot down people because
they knew the pilots on the other side. It was actually a very bizarre
situation. There were times when our pilots would go over to Nigeria, to the
Bristol Hotel and meet their pilots and in the lobby have a few drinks and work
out the rules of engagement. And the basic rule was "you shoot us down, you'll
be out of business and you're getting a nice lucrative contract so wouldn't it
be better for you just to miss the interceptions and claim that the radar had
sent you the wrong places and whatever."
Often we'd be intercepted by Migs on the daylight runs and they'd make passes
and shoot like mad and then, of course, never hit anything. We never knew
whether.. in the early days we didn't know whether those guys were the
Nigerians who just couldn't hit anything or whether these were the mercenaries
who didn't want to hit anything.
Some of the flights that I made we actually could hear what sounded like these
awful gun battles going on with planes getting shot down and everything over on
the other end and it turned out that they were just up, standing around and
firing off stuff and making all these claims on the radio, so that the ground
controllers would think that they were actually engaging the aircraft.
And, we'd see the next day in the papers that a plane had been shot down and
we could, sort of, count among ourselves and say "no, we're all still here".
So there was a lot of that going on.
But there were also times when they would get somebody who was quite
determined to earn his bread and he would go out and knock an aircraft down and
then suddenly the whole operation would stop. So we had a number of incidents
like that but the biggest danger to the planes was ground fire. Especially
towards the end when we were going into ?????? and the airfield was surrounded.
The planes coming in were subject to the direct observation from nearby and
they could hear the planes coming and they would open up fire and the Nigerian
soldiers were not at all reluctant about shooting at the airplanes. They hated
us and they were quite successful and quite a number of planes went down at the
end of the runway.
INT: So Nigerian Federal Army could, in fact.. or the Nigerian Federal ??????
could have, in fact, have closed ?????? airport?
CUNY: No. They couldn't close it. They tried. They were firing on it.
They would open fire at random at night but the Nigerians kept them at right at
the extreme range and a lot of their stuff fell short. In fact, it would
sometimes go into the camps and so on. But they could fire at the aircraft
and they were using crude.. by today's standards. They didn't have
anti-aircraft missiles. They didn't have radar guided guns. They were just
firing into the region as many shells as they could, hoping they would hit
INT: But the Nigerian Air Force, with the use of mercenaries, could have
closed ?????? airport?
CUNY: Oh yeah. They could have done.
To give you an example of what happened. One of the planes coming in got hit
by ground fire and couldn't get the gear down and he was trailing fuel and
didn't have enough to make it back. So the guy had to sit down on the air
strip with his gear up and he landed and, sort of, skidded right to the middle
of the air-field and that was it. The air field was effectively closed. There
was no way we could get in and out. There wasn't enough room. Everybody said
"this is going to take a long time .. maybe tractors could pull it off." We
were sitting there the next morning doing an assessment; "what are we going to
do about this and how do we get this thing off?" And we looked up and here
come two Mig 17s and they flew over and sort of, came in close for a look and
then they went back. And then about 2 hours later they came back with bombs
and just proceeded to bomb the hell out of the airplane. Broke it into nice
little pieces so we could clear it off the runway and get back in operation.
They clearly knew that if it was over that their bread ticket was going to be
punched and that would be it. So they're in many ways the Nigerians certainly
were not well served by the people they hired. They could have stopped us.
The Russians put a trawler with radar at the Bay of Biafra and they could track
us. So there were times if they could have vectored the aircraft up to
intercept us. The guys would just simply shut off the radios and not be
vectored. And.. it was hairy. There was times when certainly they knew when
we were coming. The planes had to go in low at night through the.. through the
There was certainly the weather was awful. That was one of the big problems.
In the summer time you had these incredible storms that would come up and you'd
have to weave your way through the storms at night. There were no real
facilities on the airfield. The lighting system was smudge pots along the side
and you'd come in. You'd give them a code. They'd light the smudge pots to
show you where the runway was. You'd hit the runway and as you went past the
lights it would snuff them out again. So the whole operation at night was a
dark operation. It was timed for your own group and you had no idea who else
was coming in. Sometimes if the weather was still and there was no wind, you'd
land in one direction and take off in the other and going out suddenly some guy
would flash his lights and he's coming right in as you're going out and
everybody was taught... break left so that you'd pass in these situations.
There was some hairy experiences going in and out of there.
INT: When did you first arrive at ?????? and how do you recollect the
conditions there when you arrived?
CUNY: I was there in try to remember. I came in early September, I
guess. Started working on the air lift in September of '69. And then I
didn't actually make my first run in until October. And then continuously for
several months afterwards. But the conditions at the time were quite hairy
because by that time the Nigerians were within range of the airfield and could
hit it. And we were losing the other airfields. While I was there the first
of the last of the other airfields was shut down. So everything had to go into
??????... which increased the traffic was much thicker and you were trying to
operate around the clock and it was much more hairy at that point.
The people who were operating earlier before I got there had a number of
fields to choose from but as the country constricted with the offensives of the
Nigerian army, every time an air field was lost it would increase the traffic
on all the others.
INT: How was the situation with humanitarian relief when you arrived?
CUNY: Well what happened. As I said I was involved a lot in the
organisation of the distributions and so on and at one point we were able to
organise the flow of cargoes sufficiently that we could move it in faster than
they'd get it off the airport. And so one of my tasks was to go in to try to
figure out how to reorganize it to get it off the air-field. And when I got
there, the first thing I noticed is that what we're doing is all the refugees
or the displaced people were coming to the airport hoping to get the food and
so very little was getting away from the air-field. And we were pulling
people.. the air-field was a gigantic magnate pulling people off the fields
into the towns and from the towns towards the air-port. And the first thing
that I recognized was we had to turn the system around and take food out into
the country-side and get it to the people in the villages or otherwise we were
going to end up with just this mass of people hanging around the airport which
would do several things. It would stop all food production. It would create
an artificial camp situation.. that we would have disease spread very rapidly
as people congregated. We'd have a difficult time. We had to provide water
and everything for people that they would normally get in their villages and
the costs were going to be very high because the people near the airport were
in the line of fire.
So the whole thing was to get people back on the land, away from the
air-field. Away from the towns and back out to where they could be productive
and we would have to do nothing but the food relief.
And I felt that if people came to the camps they had nothing to do except wait
for food and we had a real hard time convincing the relief agencies because
it's easier for them to run feeding programs where people come to them and
they don't have to go out. And especially, we didn't have any fuel. The hard
thing there was by the summer of '69 there was very little fuel in the country.
That had to be flown in. So, the arguments were fuel versus efficiency and it
was never satisfactorily answered. In the end most of the feeding programs
were feeding centers set up in towns and so on. But it was a real problem.
As a person who is very involved in engineering was that people who were
looking at the operation were looking at it from a curative, medical point of
view. How do we cure this problem? How do we treat the people who have ??????
or ??????? the nutrition related diseases? And they weren't looking how to
prevent it. And I kept thinking, " if we could just get people to start
building better trains and better shelters focus on camp planning techniques
and so on, far less people would be sick."
I have a picture that I took at that time. There was one of the camps the
water was probably about 20 inches high. People were standing in this water.
The water was flowing straight through the latrines into the living area and
then over towards the hospital. And all these people were standing in waist
deep water, holding their children, waiting to get shots to cure them from
diarrhea. And had we just simply moved the camp it would have made a
tremendous difference. Get it to high ground. Get the sanitation worked out
so that the water stays clean. Stop the diarrhea. Stop the spread of disease
and we wouldn't have to treat so many people.
And I'd go to the relief agencies and say "look, you've gotta clean this area
up" and they'd say "well, we're doctors. We're doing what we're trying to do."
And I'd say "yea, but let's bring in some other people. We don't know how to
do that." "Engineers don't volunteer for this type of thing. I mean, doctors
volunteer. Social workers, missionaries - those types." And it was really a
frustration of trying to say you've got to focus on digging latrines.
And people would say "we don't know how to dig latrines".
I'd say "well the armies of the world have millions of manuals on latrine
digging. Can't you get some of those?"
"We don't know who to approach."
The lack of professionalism within the relief community at that time was just
very alarming. And to me I ended up spending far more time working on the
environmental aspects of the situation than I did on the air lift or any other
part of it. And it drew me away from what I was interested in to start off
with - the problem of the lift and the logistics and so on, to the problem of
dealing with the preventive side of the humanitarian operation.
INT: How did the ex-patriot organizations cope with dealing with entirely
foreign and unfamiliar population?
CUNY: Well you had different ex-patriots that were there. A large
number of missionaries were in the area already to begin with and they knew the
culture quite well. They were probably, in many ways, some of the best groups.
There was a Catholic group there. Several Irish priests who were superb. They
knew the culture. They knew the language. They were able to do a lot. They
were the outsiders that came in that had a hard time adapting to the situation.
And often they would focus on, sort of, the most obvious things to do. People
were starving, therefore, you'd give them food - without getting into the whole
question of how do people normally get food and how can we support that? It
was just an assumption that we had to bring everything in for them.
The things that's interesting to me. The people who started their careers in
the humanitarian field in Biafra often approached the problem very differently
than people who've come in at later dates. The EBOs who we were working with
were very highly organized people and.. and we could simply support what they
were doing. They were able to organise things very well.
I went in and the first person I met on the ground was a young Biafran
General named Phil and Philip was one of the best organizers I've ever met.
He was a young guy who I think he was probably a Sandhurst graduate as many of
their leaders were. But he really knew how to organise things and he was a
very capable person. But he reflected the EBO work ethic of hard work and
sacrifice and sharing. The tribal leaders were good. Everybody that we worked
with was competent and clearly we felt that we could turn large segments of the
relief over to them. Many people who came in started off saying "oh we've got
to do it for them. We're afraid they're going to steal this or that." And
very quickly they learn that the EBOs could do it quite well and that the
government, if you will, of Biafra was organized enough to handle the
distributions quite effectively. People who were involved there have often, I
think gone into every situation and said, " We know people can do this and
let's turn more of the relief operations over to local people." Whereas people
who came in a place like Somalia or some place else where they saw just the
opposite - the fractured society and people looking out for number 1 as
opposed to distributing, come away with the feeling that nobody can handle
anything. And we often get into these debates about - in the relief community
today - how much should we involve local people in handling their own
situation. And those of us from the Biafran tradition are almost always saying
"let's give it all to them. Let's just be supportive of the coping systems
that are already there." Whereas others are very different in their
INT: Was there a famine in Biafra when you were there?
CUNY: Absolutely. There were high numbers of children who were dying.
But famine is a very selective type of thing. The people who die are often
hidden. You have certain groups die at a higher rate than others. It's
usually children under the ages of 5 years old. Women - especially women who
have had 3 or 4 children, trying to protect the younger. And what happens is
families make a self conscious decision or sub-conscious decision to transfer
food within the family to support the working males. And the working male
being anybody over 5 - somebody who can tend the cattle or to gather food or
whatever. And the children who are under 5, who normally in a developing
society die at a higher rate than others because of diseases and lack of food
or certainly the basic childhood diseases - measles or whatever. They're
expendable and there's an expectation those people are going to die.
And so what happens in the family begins saying "we've got to support the
ones who are going to make the family survive as a unit". And then the mother
starts giving up her food to try and take care of the ones between 9 months and
5. And the next thing you start losing the women and the children.
And in the rural societies you have this invisible thing happening. The kids
who are 2 or 3 years old just simply die and they're taken out and buried and
so forth. What differentiates a famine from chronic situations like is the
acute nature and how rapidly it happens and how many people are affected. We
had a famine that was in the region known as Biafra and it was quite extensive
and I think if you look at the death rates that we saw around the camps and so
forth, they were indicative of a far worse problem that was in the
Bullets killed a lot of people - no question about that. Disease. Measles
is always a big killer. Diarrhea is always a big killer. These are the
lessons that we were learning in Biafra. And yes, there was a famine. But it
was selective, it didn't hit everybody.
INT: How did you cope with living in a situation where...
CUNY: Drinking and chasing women!!
INT: How did you and others in your situation cope with living in the midst
of a famine?
CUNY: It's something you very quickly adapt to. I mean, it's hard
seeing large numbers of people dying all the time. The first thing that you do
is you try and mentally put distance between you and the people, through the
work you're doing. It's interesting when you watch people first get involved.
There's a reluctance to touch. There is a reluctance - you're afraid you're
going to pick up disease or whatever yourself. And then very quickly you get
to where the kids, sort of, break through that and, kids come up. They want
to touch you. They want to hold you. You walk through a camp and thousands of
kids follow you around because they're just curious. And that breaks
everything down. The next thing you know, you're carrying kids everywhere you
go. You engage the individuals.
And then what you're doing is you're fighting a war against famine for the
individuals you know and when you lose one you take it very hard. That's the
worst thing but I think most relief workers if they're honest about it will
say what they're doing is they're picking a few people out as their sort of
representatives and they try and focus on them and whatever.. everything else
benefits the larger group. The way you deal with is by picking the people
there that you can deal with.
In my role I was mainly in the planning and so forth. I wasn't, by any means,
a front line worker. I didn't go into the camps and inoculate children. I
didn't do the feeding programs. I was working on making things move and
working on decisions related to the lift and to planning. And so it's always
been easier for me to deal with it on that, sort of technical level than the
real workers who go out and do it - the nurses and the doctors. The people who
go out and dig the latrines and should get all the respect. They're the real
heroes in this. I'm the technician in the background.
INT: Did you find food in Biafra?
CUNY: There was always food in famines and that was one of the things that was
the most surprising thing to me. When I got in, the first time I was off the
airplanes I ??????.. is how much food was in the markets and you wonder why
are we flying all this food in if everybody's got food there. And what it
clearly became, or was obvious to me, was that the problem was that people who
were in rural areas couldn't afford to buy the food they were producing. They
had to sell it to speculators within their community and food was being
hoarded. Large areas of the population had to sell off their animals at
incredibly low rates and couldn't exchange animals for.. for grain and so forth
and when they ran out of resources, they became dependent on relief agencies
because there was no mechanism within the society to redistribute the food that
was there. But there was food in the communities. It just wasn't available to
the poor. And one of the things I was recommending when I got in there was
let's bring in money. Let's create a real currency here. Let's pump dollars
in here. Be a lot cheaper than having to fly everything in. But the agencies
were insistent that they wanted to target the food and make sure they had total
control over it and so forth.
But we could have gone in and bought a lot of food right there. I did a
survey at one point of the market to see how much was available. And it was
high priced by their standards. But compare that with the cost of flying in
all the stuff that we were bringing in and it would have been much cheaper to
simply bring money in, buy stuff locally and redistribute it.
But nobody was applying an analytical tool or a framework to this. They were
just simply assuming that because people were starving they needed food. And
this was fed largely by the media accounts which described the famine that was
going on and the gut reaction "well there's a famine, let's send food." And
ever since then I've been convinced, and I've seen in every disaster I've been
involved in since then, involving famines, we've always been able to find food
at some level in the markets. It's just a question of getting the food out of
the markets and getting it to the right people and be a lot faster and a lot
INT: So famine existed cheek by jowl with normal life in a sense?
CUNY: In many ways - yes. Nothing was normal in the middle of war. The
community was isolated. By the time I was there it had shrunk considerably
from what the first year that the country had been. There was constant danger
from forays by the Nigerian Army. Bombing of villages by the aircraft.
Certainly the war was the problem. And I don't mean to down-play that in any
way. A lot of people died because of the war but the war affected markets and
encouraged people to hoard. That's the currency you have and you take food
out of circulation, people are going to start dying, and that's what happened.
The economy just really fell apart and people were not able to buy what they
needed. But the famine affected maybe 15/20% of the population. The rest of
the people had resources. They were able to trade or they had something that
they could convert and they were able to survive in the midst of all this.
INT: So it was possible to live well inside Biafra?
CUNY: It was possible to live. Living well - I mean, that's a matter of
definition but I don't think there were many.. and that was one of the things
about the Biafrans, the EBOs - is that very few people were really showing off
wealth. It's not like Somalia where you have the war lords that are living
very well while millions of people are threatened. But in Nigeria there was a
sharing and there was attempts to try and to get the food back into
circulation. And there was sharing. But people did hoard and there were
certainly some people living much better than others.
INT: Was it possible to separate the relief effort from de facto logistical
support for the Biafran ??????
CUNY: No. It really wasn't. I know in the case of ICRC we never
carried any weapons. The ICRC just would never do that. There were some
agencies that took airplanes. They painted red crosses on them and they tried
to bring stuff in under the cover of a red cross sign and I know ICRC
protested that and they did everything they could to stop it from happening.
The gun runners would often mask their flights. Our planes would go in and
they would slide in very close and follow them and trail. If there were
fighters in the air they would often try and get up as close as they could to
our aircraft, flying behind them so that the radar would be confused and what
was a legitimate approved flight would be seen to be a one aircraft when in
fact there were two out there. So there was that type of thing. And the fact
that the air lift operated... there's no question that because the
international community was willing to fly food in it prolonged the war and it
provided a cover for the relief.. for the arms guns.. arms' runners to bring
But I don't think that's the complete story. I mean we had not done that then
certainly a lot of people would have died and it was a dilemma. That was the
big argument in '69. "Are we prolonging the war? Or should we stop this and
stop the killing altogether?" And as I said earlier, the real worry was that
if we stopped the air lift that there would be a massacre of people as the
country collapsed. And nobody knew and it was the devil's decision. What do
you do? Do you do a short term thing that may lead to a massive tragedy?
I'll give you a story how this is actually played out. In Biafra there was
this worry that everybody was going to be massacred and it didn't happen.
After the country did collapse the Nigerians, with a few exceptions were very
good about reintegrating the country. Jack ????? lived up to his. his view of
the promises he had made and tried very successfully.. I think successfully re
integrated the EBOs without the massive killings. And that colored a lot of
our views in other places. And 10 years later in Cambodia we all felt in the
end "well let's just shut everything down and let's pull out. Let the
government collapse. The Khymer Rouge can't be that bad." And then look what
they did. So you never know. It's always, do you continue to go as long as
you can providing humanitarian aid, hoping that you're saving lives and that a
political solution will be worked out, or is everything going to collapse and
you're going to have a massacre on your hands. And you can never know. It
depends - and a few personalities can change the whole thing.
INT: On the ground inside Biafra, how did the relief operation sustain the
bureaucracy and the army of the Biafran state?
CUNY: Oh I don't think there was any sustenance going to the Biafran
army. Military in any war is never going to starve. They'll be the last to.
to lose their food and there was food available. You know the Biafran army
could write a letter to the mayors and they'd send stuff from the markets. The
Biafran army was also a very disciplined force. They'd lived off the land.
And they had their own support from a variety of sources that they didn't need
the food that we were bringing in. Sure there was diversion and they were..
they would sell. We would give food to people. They'd take it down the market
and sell it and that would end up in the hands of the army. There were cases
when a relief truck might go off and taken by some local commanders -
especially towards the end when everything was falling apart. But it wasn't
significant. The agencies did a good job of controlling the food aid that went
out. And as I say there was food available which they could get and they
would write, script, Biafran currency for these things with promissory notes or
whatever. The army didn't.. was not going to starve but they didn't take the
food from the relief agencies.
INT: At the beginning of the war it was hoped, or the foundation of the
Biafrans stated it was hoped that Biafra might.. might become a model African
state. A new type of African state. In your experience how did it live up to
CUNY: Well I think there was a lot of commitment on the part of the
international agencies, so they believed this and a lot of that was, sort of,
a very idealistic view of the situation. The EBOs had been a persecuted people
and they were seen as the Jews or the Israelis, if you wish, of Africa.
People who had a hard working ethic. Very successful businessmen. Great
farmers and so on. And there was this feeling that they could become a model
for Africa if they could just get away from the corruption and the chaos of
what was Nigeria. And there were a lot of people who, sort of, believed this.
You know you believe that in almost any group, you want to believe the best of
any community you work with. You always see the good side if you're working on
the humanitarian side and you want to believe in their cause and so forth. And
a bit of clientitus, as we say. I think it was overblown. They, in fact, are
very hard working people and wonderful folks to work with. But I think that
very quickly it came to a matter of survival and most of us that were there
were providing aid just to get them from one day to the next and to try and
find a way of getting it to where they could resolve the situation through some
sort of peace settlement, which never came despite many interventions from
(Halle Selasse?) and others. It simply never got anywhere.
INT: One of the things which marked out the Biafran war was the involvement
of ex-patriots on both sides. Did you lose any friends as a result of the
CUNY: Personally, no. There were a couple of guys I knew who.. who went
down in planes. There was an aircraft that went down just off the end of
?????? - in fact, I think their graves are still there. There's a little
cemetery just off the end of the runway where a lot of the pilots were buried
from the crashes. And I knew them but I wasn't very close to them.
INT: Did you lose friends from falling out?
CUNY: Oh yeah. Over the debate of whether or not we were prolonging the
war. I quit the operation because I was convinced in the end that the
humanitarian operation was really prolonging the war and I didn't believe
that the Nigerians were going to.. actually could slaughter everybody with
the involvement of all the countries involved on the Nigerian side as well as
on the Biafran side. And I felt that there was a point at which it was clear
that we were simply making things worse by staying on and I just felt that it
was time for me to pull out. I didn't believe I could continue on with that.
At the same time it was always the worry that if you pull back. And a lot of
the people who were very committed to the thing, who wanted to see it go right
down to the last bit kept saying "you can't leave" and "how could you leave us
and you're deserting us" and whatever. In a lot of those arguments certainly
were some of the friends.
But the thing that, to me, I built a lot of friendships there. Not so much
because of the work but because a lot of us said " this isn't working from a
humanitarian point of view. Things are not working right and we need to get
together and talk about lessons learned and we need to get this into
circulation because this is going to be. This is the first. Africa's now
independent. There's all these tribal problems. They're going to go on for
decades and it's likely to spread to other places. And if we don't record what
happened here and get these lessons down, the next group who's out is going to
make the same mistakes." And there was a bond, a friendship that came out of
that. And my last few days there I went around identifying people who I
thought were doing innovative things and I tried to get them to sign on to
write a book when it was over about lessons learned. And I did that.
And I came back and I raised some money from a company and.. and set up a
small foundation and I wrote to everybody and tried to get the lessons learned.
And people like John Seaman who's now with Save The Children and many others
contributed some.. some really great material that's become the basis for the
way we approached emergencies - from feeding programs for these groups of the
children and women to different types of food.
And we had all sorts of crazy ideas in those days. If we're going to do air
lifts, let's get more ?????? bang for the buck. Let's look at exotic blended
foods that we could bring in that will make a difference. And if we look at
things... did ???? ways of packaging all sorts of things that we were
concerned about. And what's interesting to me about Biafra is that this was
really the beginning of modern disaster relief science in the Third World.
Everything that's come out since then really originated in Biafra.
Supplementary feeding approaches for famine victims. The use of different
types of foods. The blended cereals and so forth. The way that we handle
water sanitation programs. Refugee camp design. Air lift operations. One of
things that's very interesting to me about the Biafran air lift was... it was a
hodgepodge of these old beat-up airplanes - World War II vintage in many cases
or Korean War vintage. All piston engined airplanes which are noisy - spare
parts flying together in close formation as we used to say. And we flew more
stuff in a night into Biafra into ????? than the world's air forces are flying
into Bosnia in a month. The Bosnians are always the UN's always hyping all the
stuff they're doing over in Bosnia. Go back and look at what we did in Biafra
at night with hand held radios and volunteers carrying planes that were so
over-weight that when they land all the rivets would pop out.
There's a lot of pride that came out of that and we know what we can do in
those situations and those of us who've stayed with it, I think, always refer
back to that as our similar experience in this business.
INT: Did you see any evidence of a new white Godfather syndrome in Biafra
replacing the Old Colonial?
CUNY: Oh yeah, it was there. As I said earlier, there were so many
different agendas of the people that were there. You had the South Africans
were involved just to mix things up in Africa. You had a lot of the white
missionaries that were out to save the end of the black masses. You had a
lot of whites who had grown up in Africa who were there. As you say, the
white Godfather complex felt that this was their territory and they wanted to
show that they could do it and the Africans couldn't. You had the Vietnamese
drop-outs. People who had been to Vietnam, who came over as pilots to sort of
redeem themselves. You had the war protesters who were trying to show that
they could get involved in a conflict on the good side. All these things were
going on and even in the crew of one airplane you'd find 5 different reasons
why people were there. Some guys were there simply for the adrenaline rush and
there was a big adrenaline rush in some of these things - believe me. Going in
at night and turning the plane around quickly and under fire. And when you get
out it's an incredible high when it happens. You get addicted to that and a
lot of people were doing it for that. We had guys who had flown for Air
America - the CIA operations in other places - who missed it and had come back
to Biafra and find it. So you had all those reasons that were there. As you
do in every operation. You still find it today.
But I'd say that the really the hard core of the humanitarian agencies were
there because they were truly concerned about trying to help people and at that
time we didn't have a lot of knowledge to go by. The.. the previous experience
of this kind of operations came out of the end of World War II. It's a big gap
- almost 20 years - non-practice and people going back and trying to find a
new ways of doing things. And how do you work in an environment like this?
Under fire surrounded with disease breaking out and inadequate resources. So
the people that were there were all trying largely trying to cope and I think,
by and large, they did a pretty damned good job of it.
INT: But just reflectively, I mean, why is it do you think that in Africa so
many.. or some Europeans live out vicariously their political and social
CUNY: I think there's a lot of people who can't adapt to their own
culture who find it's easier to be a big frog in a small pond. In every
developing society outsiders, especially from the Western World bring with them
resources and knowledge that sets them apart and sometimes that setting apart
puts you in a higher class than you would have in your own society and you
could take advantage of that. No question that there are personal motives and
pleasures that come out of working these things. That doesn't by any means
color the fact that some of those people are also the most effective relief
INT: In the history of humanitarian relief, what place does Biafra
CUNY: Biafra is the defining moment in this. Everything, I think, since then is
judged against what happened in Biafra. Biafra was the place where we first
came to grips with dealing with famines and the competing ways of doing that -
with either food aid or market interventions. We came to a recognition that it
was children that were dying and the development of approaches such as
supplementary feeding for the groups that were most likely to die and how to
get those in and what are the most effective ways to distribute it? How do you
measure a person who's on the verge of, severe malnutrition.
Many different things were tried. The Quakers came up with something they
used to call the QUAC stick - the Quaker Arm Circumference - which was
measuring upper arms of children to find out what their body weight was, how
much fat they still retained and so forth. That led to much more accurate
measures and refinements of that method plus others later on. But this was the
place where it all started and everything that we do today in the humanitarian
field is colored by the experience that came there. The approaches started -
many have discarded. We've gone on far beyond then but we still.. I know many
of us refer back to the Biafran experience to say what worked there? Have we
really progressed or have we gone back to that same way of doing business? And
many of us who have seen over the last 25 years the changes and the lack of
change in some case can go back to Biafra as a means of evaluating our
performance. Have we come forward or have we gone backwards? Or have we moved
at all? And that's an important yardstick for measurement.
But everything we've done.. all the approaches.. the way in which we approach
things are often colored by the Biafran experience. It is the defining
moment. It was the first of the big international complex emergencies to come
after World War II.
INT: If you take away one memory from Biafra - one personal memory, what
would that be?
CUNY: Oh I think the first flight in was certainly the one. We went out
at sunset. I was riding in the plane. I wasn't flying, I was simply going out
to get the system down before I took to the controls. We were on the ground
and we were waiting for take-off and were sitting there. We were geared up and
ready to go and we were about to pull out on the runway and the flight
co-ordinator came up and said "hold on, we've got a plane coming in. So we're
sitting there. The pilot says "OK Fred, do you want to take it?" And I say
"yeah". So I get in and strap into the seat. Call up the co-ordinator, you
know, "Red Cross 3 ready for take off."
And we're sitting there and he says "hold it. We've got another plane coming
And we looked out and sure enough here comes this guy in and he's been hit and
his engines are smoking and I'm watching him come in. And all of a sudden the
engine that's.. the last engine that's turning starts smoking and one seizes
and he just rolls over and the plane just slides right past me and almost, you
know, in memory in slow motion. It cart-wheels off the end of the runway.
Slides into a fuel.... Blows up and there's flame all the way down the side of
the parking ramp "Red Cross 3, clear for take off." (Laughs.) Nothing
stopped. We just kept going. So that's the memory.
INT: Thanks very much.
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