#BiafraFallenHeroes: We Remember Tony Byrne; The Biafran Airlift
By Chijindu Benjamin Ukah | For Biafra Writers
16th May 2018
The Biafran Airlift was the first and most massive civilian relief program in modern history. It flew 5,314 missions, lifting more than 60,000 tons of relief materials and consequently saving an estimated 1 million lives during Biafra genocidal war of 1967-1970.
It started after the Nigerian military government imposed a food blockade on Biafra, which ensured that food and medicines couldn’t come into the Biafran territory. Food production had dwindled as locals abandoned their homes and farms seeking safety. The Catholic missionaries in charge of parishes started reporting cases of massive starvation and death in their locations.
By the time news had started filtering out to the rest of the world about the crisis in Biafra, Western reporters, such as Frederic Forsyth, were going back with news and photos showing severely malnourished children and, for the first time, the disaster happening in Biafra was being shown on televisions around the world. This elicited shock and outrage from individuals and governments, and churches started mobilizing the media to appeal for help for the people of Biafra.
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Fr. Tony Byrne initiated an aiding apparatus that saved about 1 million Biafran lives. It was officially called Joint Church Aid (JCA), but the daredevil pilots called it the “Jesus Christ Airline” with a swagger of pride and hint of awe. For almost two amazing years (1967-1970), JCA kept a small, breakaway West African state alive, refusing to allow starvation to be used as a weapon of war. It flew 5, 314 extremely dangerous missions, carrying 60,000 tons of humanitarian aid and saved millions of lives. The starting point for their flights was the former Portuguese colony, Sao Tomé, less than an hour from the destination.
The lumbering DC-6s and temperamental Super Constellations flew at night from the island of Sao Tome off the coast of West Africa into a tiny airstrip carved from the dense bush without lights, skimming blind over the trees at 2,000 feet to avoid the guns and fighters of the enemy. At its peak, Uli “airport” – really just a widened road – was the busiest in all of Africa, handling up to 50 flights a night, and each flight broke some international law. Each of the old planes had its own JCA logo – two fishes, one of the earliest symbols of Christianity.
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JCA lost 25 pilots and crew to the guns and bombs of the Nigerian forces intent on enforcing the Biafran blockade.
The Nigerian military government of the day refused steadfastly to allow relief flights or any other form of humanitarian aid into Biafra. Thirteen of the amateur pilots — many of them priests — lost their lives during a mission that was officially illegal, but had the blessings of the Pope.
Despite JCA’s best efforts, over 3 million Biafrans starved to death.
We remember them all.
The Biafra Times
Edited By Chukwuemeka Chimerue