the lost american BBC 'TIMEWATCH' INTERVIEW WITH FRED CUNY

EDITOR'S NOTE:

This is the most extensive account Fred Cuny ever provided of his experience in the
Biafran relief operation,  his first international relief work.  This BBC
interview with Cuny was conducted in January 1995 for a documentary on the
Nigerian Civil War. The documentary was produced for the BBC's TimeWatch series
and entitled, 'Biafra: Fighting A War Without Guns.'


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 my paper.

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 the Israelis.

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 important.

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. Whatever.

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 C97s.

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 pretty chaotic.

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.

CUNY: Yeah.

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 something.

Overlap...

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 hills.

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 approach.

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 countryside.

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 easier.

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 stuff in.

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 those expectations?

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 war?

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 dreams?

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 workers.

INT: In the history of humanitarian relief, what place does Biafra occupy?

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 in."

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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