The man and the war are mostly forgotten. The war cost upward of 2 million civilian lives in less than three years, many from starvation and others from government aircrafts bombing civilian targets.
The man was a Southern Baptist missionary, Bryant Durham. He stayed throughout the war coordinating relief supplies and left for safety on one of the last flights out before the war’s end.
Thankfully, his 1972 dissertation at the University of Georgia chronicles what happened during the Biafran War, a war for independence from Nigeria.
This civil war followed the estimated massacre of 30,000 Igbos in northern Nigeria mostly by Hausas over the course of a few days spread across several months in 1966.
The Igbos’ homeland was in southeastern Nigeria, although many Igbos had lived for a generation in northern Nigeria, the Hausa homeland. Some Igbos had never been to the eastern region.
Durham was one of 12 or more Southern Baptist missionaries who stayed in the eastern region known as Biafra after its declaration of independence.
Missionary Brannan Eubanks recorded in his journal that at one point Bob Amis, Mildred Crabtree, Mary Evelyn Fredenburg, Martha Hagood, Ruth Kube, Linda Porter, Don Reece, Martha and Orin Robinson, Harland Struble and Polly Van Lear were at the Baptist hospital in Eku, the largest Baptist hospital in Nigeria.
Other Protestant mission groups also had missionaries in eastern Nigeria, as did the Catholic Church.
These missionaries faced an unpredictable and dangerous situation. The American government had strongly recommended that its citizens leave Biafra.
Yet many stayed in what one mission agency would euphemistically refer to as “the disturbances.”
Others would refer to what happened as genocide.
The Igbo genocide (1966-70) “dwarfed … the Tutsi genocide of the early 1990s and the more recent Darfur genocide, in its hatred, planning, intensity, ferocity, barbarity and the number of people killed or affected. But genocide scholars have totally ignored it,” wrote Godrey Uzoigwe, an Igbo Nigerian with a doctor of philosophy from Oxford University, who is a retired professor at Mississippi State University.
While Durham did not dwell for more than a few pages on the topic of genocide, he did write that “in the minds of the Biafrans the bombing of civilian targets as well as the starvation strategy used by Federal Nigeria became closely associated with the idea of genocide.”
The fact that the Nigerian government made “no effort … to punish those responsible or to pay reparations to those who suffered loss [in 1966] was the foundation of fear” of genocide.
Durham’s dissertation, instead, focused largely on the Christian relief effort during the war.
Protestants and Catholics organized an air relief program under the name Joint Church Aid.
Although not members of the National Council of Churches, Southern Baptists “made regular financial contributions through Church World Services,” which then supported Joint Church Aid (JCA).
The Southern Baptist Convention’s Foreign Mission Board contributed $10,000 monthly through Church World Services until September 1969 when it ended support out of fear of reprisals against missionaries by the Nigerian government.
Those and other funds paid for 5,314 relief flights into Biafra with 60,040 metric tons of relief over the course of the war, Durham recorded.
The magnitude of the airlift was required given the magnitude of the suffering.
By November 1969, the region had 1.5 million refugees in 1,757 refugee camps. The death toll had dropped by then to 1,000 to 2,000 deaths per day, down from 3,000 to 4,000 civilian deaths per day between August and October 1968.
“[P]erhaps no decision made by Christian missions has had greater political repercussions than the decision to operate a relief program in Biafra,” Durham wrote.
Southern Baptists and others “predicated their relief program … on the assumption that the humanitarian and political issues of the war could be separated, or if they could not, then the humanitarian must take precedent over the political,” Durham explained.
One accusation against the relief effort was that it was involved in gun running, something the Christian humanitarians opposed.
And at one point, they even suspended relief flights until the Biafran government agreed to their conditions, wrote Durham, who was responsible for the food and medicine flown into the Uli airport in Biafra.
He recounts a multitude of other relief challenges – flights at night to avoid the Nigerian air force, airport runway repairs from bombing runs, commandeered relief trucks by the Biafra military, mass movements of Igbos fleeing from the fighting, deterioration of infrastructure, and unreliable communications.
Toward the end of the war was the challenge of evacuating relief workers.
After the evacuation of humanitarian expatriates as the Biafran government collapsed, Joint Church Aid had 10,000 tons of supplies on the island of Sao Tome.
It offered the supplies to the federal government, which now occupied a secessionist region teeming with millions of hungry people. Those supplies would have fed 5 million people for 20 days.
The military head of state, Gen. Yakubu Gowon, declared that Nigeria would not accept “blood money,” what he saw as aid from organizations that had helped Biafra.
Durham lamented that “politics took precedent over people.”
The aid was then distributed to other parts of the world and Joint Church Aid was dissolved.
In addition to valuable factual information about what happened on the complicated humanitarian front in the civil war, Durham’s dissertation discloses insight into Baptist polity – how a mission board and missionaries made decisions, the deep respect for Baptist individualism, and the sturdy commitment to human needs over political issues.
Durham’s work reveals the best of the Baptist tradition. It’s a story worth knowing.
Robert Parham is executive editor of EthicsDaily.com and executive director of its parent organization, the Baptist Center for Ethics. Follow him on Twitter at RobertParham1 and friend him on Facebook.