I have been enjoying reading Frederick Forsyth’s autobiography The Outsider: My Life in Intrigue (Bantam Press. £15). Generally he doesn’t suffer unduly from false modesty. He does admit to not being much good with money – despite having managed to make quite a bit of the stuff over the years. Often his boasts amount to cheerful episodes of derring do. There is a sense of James Bond as our hero recounts episodes of womanising, close shaves, and clandestine meeting with MI6. For those who have enjoyed reading his novels the background story as to how he came up with his ideas is enthralling.
Yet the really significant aspect of Forsyth’s career was in exposing the famine in Biafra during the Nigerian civil war 48 years ago.
The BBC, the Wilson Government and the British Foreign Office emerge with great dishonour from this episode. The Nigerian regime was using a food blockade as part of their war effort. The response of the British authorities to this developing tragedy was to deny it was taking place. Forsyth’s response was to resign from the BBC – and thus be able to alert the world to what was happening. So in 1968 he returned as a freelance:
“Biafra had been in lock-down since the start of the secession ten months earlier.That meant all borders were closed and the blockade included food.
“The native Ibos grew their own cassava and yams in ample quantities. Pounded cassava root and pounded yams made the staple diet and never ran out. But both are totally carbohydrate. It is a fact that an adult needs one gram of pure protein per day to stay healthy. A growing child needs five.”
While “the traditional protein supplement had always been fish; not river-caught fish but enormous quantities of Norwegian imported dried cod called stockfish” this did not get through the blockade. The few pigs and hens had been eaten: “The national diet was now almost 100 per cent starch.”
Forsyth arranged for coverage in the Daily Express. Crucially this included photographs of what was happening. There followed “the most extraordinary mercy mission the world has ever seen, a nightly air bridge from the offshore islands to the ultra-basic UIi airstrip in the heart of the rainforest”.
Vigo Mollerup, a Protestant minister from Denmark, recruited pilots from all the Scandinavian airlines to give up their holidays and fly freight planes through the night with baby milk concentrates. The (Protestant) World Council of Churches and the (Roman Catholic) charity Caritas raised the funds along with the International Committee of the Red Cross. Joint Church Aid – “or mockingly Jesus Christ Airlines” flew into action:
“What was really extraordinary was that the whole thing was illegal. In law these life-saving planes were invading Nigerian air space against the wishes of the Lagos based military junta, which acquired MiG fighters and pilots from the Communist bloc to try and shoot them down. That was why the relief planes had to fly at night and land in darkness. It never happened before and it never happened since.”
The agencies involved estimated that a million children died. The result of the rescue mission: they put “the number saved from death at a similar figure”.
Sadly history repeats itself. Today we have President Assad of Syria using starvation as a weapon of war. The city of Madaya is under siege. Its residents have been eating pets and boiling soup made from grass. The Syrian regime has only allowed ten per cent of requests to allow relief supplies through in the past year.
Thus far, at least the starvation is on nothing like the scale of Biafra. But it is intolerable that the relief supplies are only allowed through on the whim of a sadistic dictatorship. Perhaps the international churches and charities need to rediscover some of the independent spirit shown in 1968?