Organized by Olu Oguibe, with Faith Adiele, Phillip U. Effiong, Okey Ndibe, Eddie Iroh, Vivian Ogbonna, Obiageli Okigbo, E.C.Osondu, Emeka Okereke
Fifty years ago, in 1967, a bitter civil war broke out in the newly independent West African nation of Nigeria, a war that would create one of the greatest humanitarian disasters of the twentieth century. Lasting over thirty months, the Biafran War claimed an estimated three million lives, mostly children who died due to malnutrition and starvation after Nigeria imposed a global blockade on Biafrans, who were demanding a secure homeland. The previous year, tens of thousands of Biafrans had been murdered in waves of ethnic cleansing pogroms in different parts of Nigeria. This forced an estimated two million survivors to flee back to their ancestral homeland in then Eastern Nigeria, in search of a safe haven. The ensuing humanitarian crisis and continued violence against this population eventually led them to declare independence from Nigeria, upon which Nigeria declared war on the breakaway nation.
The death and carnage in Biafra caused global outrage. So did the collusion of global powers, especially Britain and the Soviet Union, in suppressing the Biafrans and their struggle for survival. In 1968, it was estimated that nearly 6,000 Biafrans were dying daily, most of them starving children. Photographs of Biafra’s malnourished children with their bloated bellies adorned the covers of news magazines and evening television news programs worldwide. John Lennon returned his knighthood to the Queen in protest, and Jean-Paul Sartre described Biafra as the conscience of the twentieth century. Even Winston Churchill, grandson of the British prime minister, wrote a series of newspaper columns deploring the situation in Biafra. Around the world students staged protests, sit-ins at embassies, and even a hunger strike in Norway. On May 29, 1969, Bruce Mayrock, a twenty-year old student of Columbia University in New York set himself on fire in front of the United Nations to protest Secretary General U Thant’s failure to take measures to stop the war of genocide against Biafra. Mayrock died the following day. Musicians like Jimi Hendrix and Joan Baez held concerts to raise awareness and generate relief aid for Biafra. A group of young French medics who volunteered in Biafra would go on to found the charity, Doctors without Borders (Médecins sans Frontières) in response to the human suffering that they witnessed there.
For two days this summer, June 30–July 1, 2017, child survivors from the Biafran War gather for the first time in Athens as part of documenta 14 to share their stories of living through the monumental tragedies and traumas of conflict, mass displacement, and separation from family as well as bereavement, famine, and hunger. They will also share stories of survival, which are indebted to the resilience of the human spirit and the humanitarian intervention of people around the world who sent relief aid to Biafra or opened their doors to Biafra’s refugee children.
Biafra is relevant today, not only because it represented the nearly impossible struggle of a persecuted people in their fight for self-determination and the establishment of a safe homeland, but also because the subsequent humanitarian disaster is mirrored in the plight of refugees fleeing similar crises in Syria and the Middle East today and their attempt to find safety in Europe and other parts of the world. The survivor testimonies of Biafra’s children reiterate the human cost of conflict. Alone the presence and the survival of these women and men, some of who now have children of their own, underline how humanitarian intervention can help save generations and preserve nations.
The event has been organized by Olu Oguibe, one of the child survivors, whose archival meditation on the war, Biafra Time Capsule, is on display at the National Museum of Contemporary Art (EMST) through July 16, 2017.
For More information, see: The Parliament of Bodies: Biafra's Children: A survivors' Gathering