Flights of angels

Published in Issue 3 (May/June 2017), Reviews, Volume 25

Flights of angels

Would You Believe?
RTÉ1, 26 November 2016
Directed by Seán Ó Mealóid

By Tom Lodge

Images of the world’s first televised famine were broadcast on RTÉ during 1969. An hour-long documentary, Night flight to Uli (reviewed in HI 16.5, Sept./Oct. 2008), prompted the surge of public support that sustained Joint Church Aid, the relief operation led by Irish missionaries based in the Biafran enclave that ferried in food supplies across Nigerian-held territory. This film, produced by RTÉ to mark the 50th anniversary of the Biafran War, revisits the story of ‘the daring plan … that saved the lives of a million children’. Flights of angels intercuts footage from Night flight, as well as other archival material, with contemporary interviews with Fr Tony Byrne and Sr Grainne Fitzpatrick, both of whom supplied eloquent testimony in the original documentary. Their voices are supplemented by other witnesses, including a former Biafran soldier, Linus Oppiah, now a doctor, and the then British journalist and later best-selling thriller author Frederick Forsyth.

Above: Fr Tony Byrne (pictured here [third from left] in Sao Tomé) is the central protagonist in Flights of angels. (Independent Newspapers)

The combination of skilful editing of the original footage contextualised with vivid recollection is often moving, never more so than when Fr Denis Kennedy remembers the ‘selections’ that determined which sick children would accompany the empty aeroplanes back to Sao Tomé for the kind of care no longer available in Biafra. ‘If they were very close to death we didn’t take them.’ The lucky three-year-olds, dressed by their anxious parents in their best clothes, were lifted over the altar rail to await their transport, each with their name on a plaster stuck to their forehead.

Not all the modern recollection is as sharply evocative. Fr Byrne may have told his story too often—indeed, he appears in the film lecturing schoolboys at Blackrock—and he offers opinions that need more support than they receive here: ‘What was the war about? It was about oil’, he tells his Blackrock audience. At another stage he notes that the war’s victims were ‘children sacrificed on the altar of oil’. Most of the interviews work well, however, never more so than when a surprisingly unchanged Grainne Fitzpatrick calmly recollects her hospital’s bombing by the Nigerian air force, adding fresh detail to the account she had offered the Uli film-makers five decades ago—then, as now, her story all the more compelling for being so matter of fact.

Night flight had a wider canvas, but in this film the ‘Irish missionaries who risked their lives to feed the starving population’ are the main protagonists. Flights of angels is the story of heroic men and women who broke the Nigerian food blockade, in a setting in which ‘starvation was used as a weapon of war’. The mercenary pilots receive overdue acknowledgement as well, for 37 aircrew died during the operation, mainly when attempting to land under battle conditions on unlit airfields.

Tony Byrne is the central protagonist in Flights of angels, and rightly so, for it was through his agency that the aeroplanes were hired and then bought outright, with funding secured through Pope Paul’s blessing and base facilities negotiated with the Portuguese colonial authorities. Indeed, more information on the diplomacy that accompanied and supported the operation would have been welcome. To be sure, in a short film not everything can be covered, but Frederick Forsyth’s sermonising about the ‘pernicious’ British Foreign Office adds little. For Forsyth, as for Byrne, this history is a moral fable in which the rights and wrongs remain uncomplicated: ‘I do not forget, and for those I hold responsible, I do not forgive’.

The history really is more subtle than its representation here. Certainly, Joint Church Aid’s airlift and the subsequent distribution of supplies was a remarkable undertaking. More than 7,000 flights and 66,000 tons of food made it the largest relief operation since the Berlin airlift. No one can question the principles of its organisers. And its on-the-ground effectiveness in getting food to the neediest people still supplies a model for humanitarian operations.

Above: Joint Church Aid—its airlift and the subsequent distribution of supplies was a remarkable undertaking.

Joint Church Aid has its critics, though. Not all the food supplied by the famine relief was sourced from outside—after harvests it was also purchased at local markets, with hard currency. Relief organisers also paid for transport and hospital buildings and for landing fees at Uli. The Biafran leader, Ojukwu, later admitted that the foreign exchange used in such transactions enabled his government to continue to arm and feed his soldiers, effectively prolonging the war and leading to more deaths.

The force of such criticism depends upon how you understand the war. At the time, Frederick Forsyth was an influential exponent of the claim made by Biafran propagandists that the Nigerians were engaged in genocide. Nigerian occupation, Forsyth wrote, threatened Igbo ‘chances of survival as an ethnic group’. Such fears were reasonable enough at the beginning of the war, given the communal pogroms directed at Igbo immigrants in northern Nigeria that prompted Ojukwu’s secession. Brutalities against civilians by poorly disciplined Federal soldiers in the early stages helped to encourage the million-plus refugees that crowded into the enclave, the major cause of the famine. By 1969, however, the Nigerian military were better controlled and commanders were executing their own men for abuses against Igbos—once, notoriously, in front of BBC television cameras. Perhaps as a consequence of diplomatic pressure in the closing months of the war, the Nigerians themselves opened up ‘relief corridors’ into the still-besieged enclave.

Above: A food stockpile awaiting airlift in Sao Tomé.

Visitors to reconquered areas noted restored food markets and apparently affable relationships between off-duty soldiers and local residents. The final reincorporation of the enclave after its surrender was accompanied by no recriminations: senior Biafran officials rejoined the public service with their pension rights restored, and the surrendering soldiers went home unmolested. Perhaps Nigerian civility was itself a consequence of external attention, a benign effect of the brilliant propaganda exercise that accompanied Fr Tony Byrne’s heroic undertaking. Even so, if this is the case, the history of Biafra’s war is more morally half-toned than is allowed for in the black-and-white binaries that are projected in Flights of angels.

Professor Tom Lodge is Dean of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences at the University of Limerick.

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