Biafran Retrospect: Umu-Igbo Express Gratitude to a Man Who Saved Them
Dr George Hussler and Rev Father Tobe Nnamani
Gabon 1970: A gift given to Dr Hussler by the Biafran children at "Village KM 11"
Rev. Dr. Hussler and Chief Joseph Mmeh
“Gratitude is not only the greatest of virtues, but the parent of all others.”
In April 1968, the survival of the nascent Republic of Biafra was hanging on the balance. After the fall of Enugu in September 1967, Biafran major cities continued to fall one after the other into the hands of the enemy. Consequently, what was left of the Biafran Secretariat consisted of a mobile van moved from one corner to the other. While major world powers watched with folded arms, debating on the proper interpretation and application of the principles of territorial sovereignty and non-intervention in the OAU Charter, the Federal soldiers continued their ferocious onslaught on the defenseless Biafran population. They rampaged, pounded, bombed and shelled villages and towns including hospitals and schools with reckless abandon. The level of death-toll and human misery shocked the conscience of the international community. And, as Biafran borders continued to shrink by the day, the population density jumped from its pre-war level of 500 persons per square kilometer to 2,000. In spite of all these seemingly insurmountable odds, the Biafrans were determined to defend themselves to the last man or so it seemed. However, as a result of the total and suffocating blockade by land, sea and air, the resultant crushing effect of hunger and disease threatened to snuff life out of the fledging republic and its traumatized citizens. It was in the midst of this excruciating situation that the Christian Churches all over the world including Jewish Synagogues in America launched one of the greatest relief assistance in the history of humanitarian intervention.
One man who played a leading role in this timely intervention was Rev. Fr. Dr. Georg Hüssler, former President of Caritas International. This kind-hearted man of God celebrated his 88th Birthday on July 7, 2009. Prior to this date, the Co-ordinator of Nzuko Umuigbo World-Wide Inc., Chief Joe Mmeh did an effective networking; he sent out emails to many Umuigbo both home and abroad requesting them to send a congratulatory birthday message and _expression of gratitude to a man who gave them food when they were starving to death and thereby saved them from total annihilation. For, according to the Roman Poet Cicero, “gratitude is not only the greatest of virtues but, the parent of all others;” it is also an attitude that leads to beatitude. The response to this appeal was over-whelming as post-cards and emails poured into Dr. Hüssler’s letter and email boxes in waves. The content of this parent of all virtues was laden with emotions as many of those who sent them recounted the agony they or their parents and relatives went through and how they might not have seen the light of day without his timely intervention. To crown this out-pouring of gratitude and give it a somewhat personal touch, Chief Mmeh and the author paid a courtesy call on Father Hüssler on July 23, 2009 in his home in Freiburg/Breisgau, south-west Germany . The Octogenarian - still relatively strong, came to the door to meet us. After exchanging pleasantries, he took us down the memory lane and recounted with passion and astonishing picturesque details how Caritas (Relief Organisation founded in May 1946 in Germany) in tandem with other relief agencies and good-spirited individuals airlifted thousands of tons of relief materials to Uli Airstrip. The following is a sketch of the tit-bits from the meeting.
Who is Rev. Fr. Dr. Georg Hüssler?
Father Georg Hüssler was born on July 7, 1921 in Einöd , Saarland , Germany and grew up in Elsass. He was a medical student when World War II broke out; he enlisted into the Germany army and worked as a Sanitary Inspector. When the war ended, he proceeded to Rome where he studied Theology and was ordained priest in 1951. After his doctoral studies, he became an Assistant to the then President of German Caritas with Headquarters in Freiburg . He rose through the ranks to become the Secretary-General and later the President of German Caritas, a post he held for 22 years from 1969 to 1991.In between the time , he was also appoint President of Caritas International. Dr. Hüssler was decorated with three Honours by the three tiers of government in Germany , namely; the local government of his city Freiburg , the State government of Baden-Württemberg and the Federal Republic of Germany. Dr. Hüssler was interested in both aspects of the Catholic Social Teaching. On the practical side, he distinguished himself in the excellent way he managed the affairs of Caritas in the whole world bringing relief and succor to thousands of people ravaged by war and natural disasters. On the theoretical level, he authored five insightful books among which are Caritas and Pastoral Work (1985), Life in the 20th Century (1998) and Humanity as Spirituality (2006). He has retired from active service and lives a quiet life in Freiburg
The saving Role of Relief Agencies in Biafra:TheJoint Church Aid (JCA)
It is pertinent to get a glimpse of the complex and dangerous circumstances in which the relief agencies operated. In fact, all the contentious elements in complex humanitarian emergencies interplayed in the Biafran war such as the possibility of exploiting existing differences within the civil society; the issue of disputed legitimacy of host authorities; high prevalence of hunger and disease; keen and probing journalistic interest; the likelihood of manipulating relief for military and diplomatic advantages and apparent division among the international relief agencies. While all these complex issues were being discussed in high and low quarters, the estimated monthly death-toll in Biafra was put at 750,000.
The first major huddle was the non-agreement of Biafran and Nigerian governments on the route through which relief aid should be supplied. While Nigeria wanted relief to pass through Lagos , Biafra on the other hand saw it as suicidal to let their food pass through enemy hands. When Obilagu Airstrip came as a compromise, the federal troops captured it within a few weeks and Uli was now the only outlet through which relief came to Biafra . The Nigerian government strongly opposed it and refused to guarantee safety of flights landing at Uli. The Red Cross was the first to airlift food in August 1968 but was compelled to stop after one of its planes was shot down by the Nigerian government killing the entire crew.
At this juncture, the JCA which was made up of 37 international Church bodies from 28countries picked up the gauntlet. It defied the federal governments order and began one of the most efficient and effective relief Airlifts in the history of humanitarian intervention. Fr. Hüssler told us that this was the first time relief agencies charted their own planes to supply relief materials. He recounted how he and Father Tony Byrne the Deputy Director of JCA with representatives from the Churches went to France to purchase four planes. According to Fr. Hussler, “initially, we hired one experienced Pilot, Frank Wharton (an American of Latvian descent) who was later joined by Gustav von Rosen another pilot from Sweden among others.” Von Rosen brought four of his own planes and flew relief aids into Biafra free of charge. However, as the Nigerian government was vehemently against this life-line, Uli Airstrip which was only 8,000 foot was bombarded day and night but after each bombardment, it was quickly repaired to received the next flights. In the end, JCA airlifted about 60,000 tons of assorted relief materials in 5,300 flights. The Red Cross, before its short-lived assistance, ferried 41,000 tons of food and medical equipment in 4,000 flights. There were also significant contributions by other smaller relief agencies. The entire relief action mounted by JCA gulped the sum of about $116 million dollars and another $250 million dollars was invested in it by American private interests. This wonderful work of mercy was accomplished but not without heavy human loses on the part of the helpers. Thus, by the end of 1969, 27 pilots had lost their lives with 10 planes short down by the Nigerian Air Force.
JCA’s assistance was not limited to sending food to Biafra ; it also came in some other significant ways. For example, when in January 1968, the Nigeria government changed its currency, Biafra became literally bankcrupt. Even though it printed its own currency, the purchasing power of the Biafran money worth little or nothing. The relief agencies exchanged the Biafran pounds at the rate of $2.80. In this regard, Fr. Hüssler made a handsome donation in cash even after the war had ended. According to him “unknown to me, on January 15, 1970, when I flew to Lagos to meet Gowon, the end of the Nigeria-Biafra war was announced that day. Now, the Biafrans were left with no money since the Biafran Currency had become worthless. I had 100,000 Deutsche Mark in my bag which I changed into Nigerian Currency, chartered a Taxi and drove down to Onitsha where the money was handed over the Church through the then Archbishop Arinze, who took it with two hands and expressed his gratitude.”
The relief planes did not lift relief materials alone. “We discovered that the planes were flying empty back to Europe, so we quickly loaded children and the sick into the planes and flew them to safety in Europe and some African countries such as Gabon , Sao- Tomé etc.” Fr. Hüssler personally took two children from Okporo in Orlu to Europe - Roseline and Moses. Roseline had a hole in her head while Moses had a broken jaw. Unfortunately, Roseline did not survive but Moses is still alive today. Dr. Hüssler related to us that one of the things that touched him during those turbulent days was the magnanimity shown to 3,000 Biafran children by late Oma Bongo of Gabon . He gave the JCA a very large expanse of land where an English school was built. Bongo personally gathered about 56 competent personnel from different countries to give the children sound education. Another 1,000 children were also airlifted to Sao-Tomé – a Portuguese Island perching on the Atlantic Ocean . Fr. Hüssler also told us that he was delighted by the way Gowon spontaneously gave permission for the children airlifted to Gabon to come back to Nigeria .
This was how we spent the two and half hours with him and his former secretary –Frau Engesser, when he was Caritas President . It was indeed a pleasant company. As Dr. Hüssler re-lived this intense experience, tears of joy rolled down his chicks and he ended by saying in German Language “also, das war doch eine schöne Arbeit und ich bin Gott dankbar” – that was indeed a nice work and I thank God for that. We were very glad that we met him in person. There are still a lot of other people out there who played decisive roles during those 30 months of horror and degradation. One such person is John Doyle – a Holy Ghost Father who is now over 80 years old and lives in Reutershügelweg4, D-18069, Rostock , Germany . It would be good for Umuigbo who live in this area to pay him a visit and, on behalf of all Biafrans in general and, Ndiigbo in particular, personally express our heart-felt gratitude to him. Finally, we wish Father Hüssler a happy Birth-day, more healthy days ahead and God’s choicest blessings.
(Rev. Fr. Dr. Tobe Nnamani, MSP, is a priest of the Missionaries of St. Paul. He studied in Germany and Belgium and now teaches at the National Missionary Seminary of St. Paul, Abuja . Contact:firstname.lastname@example.org, GSM: +234-80-36-37-88-03).