Have you ever heard the name Biafra? or Biafra famine? Well, I must admit that I had not heard it until I came across the photograph that I am presenting today. During my research for this article I got to know the history of this unfortunate country. Yes, Biafra used to be a country in the Western Africa. It existed only from 30 May 1967 to 15 January 1970 and was recognized only by five countries (Gabon, Haiti, Ivory Coast, Tanzania and Zambia).
In 1960, Nigeria got independence from the United Kingdom and was divided along the ethnic lines among Hausa, Faluni, Yoruba and Igbo people. The Igbos were located in the southern part of the land and were mostly Christianize by the missionaries. The southern part was also oil-rich part of Nigeria. In 1966, a civil war erupted in Nigeria. On 30 May 1967 the Igbo people declared secession from Nigeria and announced the independence of the Republic of Biafra. Creation of Biafra created conflict because most of the oil resources were located in the land claimed by Biafra and oil was a major source of income for Nigeria. As a result, in 1967, the army of the remainder of Nigeria attacked Biafra and blockaded the Biafran food supply and medical aid.
What followed this blockade was horrible. Neither side blinked. Biafra refused to take food supply from Western governments suspecting that it could be poisoned because these governments were supporting Nigeria. Consequently, a terrible famine enveloped the infant nation of Biafra. More than one million people died due to starvation. The outside world did not get much information from insides of Biafra because neither side allowed press to enter the region. Only a few photographers managed to get into Biafra and they brought the photographs of the plight of Biafran people. Today I am presenting the most influential one among all these photos.
The photograph presented above was taken in 1969 by British photojournalist Don McCullin. It shows an emaciated albino boy. He is leaning over on his skeletal legs with an abnormally large head, holding an empty tin of corned beef. McCullin had found this boy in a makeshift camp for orphaned children in Biafra. Recalling meeting with this boy, McCullin wrote in his autobiography Unreasonable Behaviour:
As I entered I saw a young albino boy. To be a starving Biafran orphan was to be in a most pitiable situation, but to be a starving albino Biafran was to be in a position beyond description. Dying of starvation, he was still among his peers an object of ostracism, ridicule and insult…The boy looked at me with a fixity that evoked the evil eye in a way which harrowed me with guilt and unease. He was moving closer. He was haunting me, getting nearer. Someone was giving me the statistics of the suffering, the awful multiples of this tragedy. As I gazed at these grim victims of deprivation and starvation, my mind retreated to my own home in England where my children of much the same age were careless and cavalier with food, as Western children often are. Trying to balance between these two visions produced in me a kind of mental torment…I felt something touch my hand. The albino boy had crept close and moved his hand into mine. I felt tears come into my eyes as I stood there holding his hand. I thought, think of something else, anything else. Don’t cry in front of these kids…He looked hardly human, as if a tiny skeleton had somehow stayed alive…If I could, I would take this day out of my life, demolish the memory of it.
Finally in 1970 Biafra collapsed under the blockade. On 9 January 1970, Biafran President General C. Odumegwu Ojukwu left for Ivory Coast where he had got political asylum. Ojukwu boarded plane with just $100 in his pocket. It was all that was left of the £7 million fortune he had inherited from his father. The remainder he had spent on purchasing food supplies and arms to protect Biafra.
On 15 January 1970 Biafra again become part of Nigeria.
Such photographs are not a pleasant sight but they remind us that human beings are living horrible lives in some parts of the world. We need to think and do something for them as well.
Please feel free to share your opinion about this photograph. I always welcome the valuable feedback of my readers. Thank you for reading.