Screaming Silence
When journalist Neil Christie-Ormond was sent to cover the Biafra War in 1967
he had little idea that he was embarking on a career as a war correspondent,
or where it would eventually lead.

The hale and the not-so-hearty - Christie-Ormond after and before. I didn’t realize how much anger I’d buried. Until I stopped what I was doing and experienced the release of big, powerful memories. Then began the terrifying journey to regain feelings, tears, laughter. It has taken a long time.

The seeds of my rage were planted almost 30 years ago. A recently qualified, ambitious journalist, I was on routine duty on the Foreign Desk of a ‘quality’ Sunday newspaper in London. The major spaces had been filled, advertising sales were pressing for the remainder, and almost everyone else had gone home. It looked like being a simple shift, with a welcome cool drink at day’s end.

Suddenly every machine we had started chattering. I read the nearest tape: the Nigerian Federal Army had attacked across the northern border of the Eastern Province, to put down the self-declared independent state of Biafra, born just 38 days earlier and led by a Colonel Ojukwu.

I knew nothing of Nigeria, only aware of its bitter inter-tribal hatreds, a fast-expanding oilfield and strategic sensitivity. It didn’t look good. I phoned around frantically, uncertain I could cope with something like this so soon. Nobody available but the reluctantly-disturbed Deputy Foreign Editor, who said ‘Write a few terse paragraphs for the first edition and stay there for further instructions’.

Twenty minutes later I was on my way to an obscure provincial airport. I was going to Biafra. My brief: ‘Follow Ojukwu around and send crisp despatches.’ I was reminded of the notice on the newsroom wall: DO NOT GET EMOTIONALLY INVOLVED.

Soon after arrival I was stunned and totally involved emotionally. Everywhere the outstretched hands of silent, starving children. Their silence screamed. Poverty, desperation, fear. I dutifully began to ‘describe’ it, trying to stay detached.

The record tells what happened there, until the Biafran surrender in early 1970. An old siege strategy was coldly refined: the denial of nourishment as a legitimate weapon. Millions of non-combatants died slowly as the food to sustain them rotted, immobile outside the tightening cordon. ‘Ethnic Cleansing’ proceeded inexorably – although nobody used the term then – as the Ibo people were almost eliminated. I did follow Ojukwu, until he fled to a luxurious Gabonese beach house.

I made my first and biggest mistake in Nigeria. I turned into a war correspondent. From Africa I was sent straight to Vietnam. My ‘unpatriotic’ reporting forced me to leave my employer and become a media gypsy, a freelance. And so it went on. Conflict after conflict. Continent after continent. Never a shortage.

For some time I held out from becoming like the older hands. I would never drink all day, chain-smoke – be degraded. But soon I was with them, even willing to accept the tranquillizers liberally dispensed by medics everywhere. Feelings didn’t hurt anymore.

I’d had the conviction that if I, and others like me, could keep the heat on for long enough everything would change. But I had overlooked the hidden, commercial interests and political bondage of most of the media. When I finally quit, three years ago, there were more conflicts involving more people than ever. I was shattered, spent, incredibly tired, empty.

I’m left now with two kinds of raw and painful memories. One of them causes overwhelming sadness, the other great rage.

There were some 23 correspondents who usually turned up at the main conflagrations. We became extremely close, more than family, frequently depending on each other for our lives. Only three of us are alive today. I can see them all – alive, courageous, hopeful...

Rage is for the arms sellers: virtually government representatives, key earners of foreign currency; encouraged, pampered, unbelievably well-rewarded. Typical of their trade is the following event.

The Middle East is jumpy again. A few of us are in a bar in Tel Aviv, alert. An unmistakable arms dealer arrives to meet a Defence Ministry official. We just overhear his third-drink clincher: ‘The other side are getting the 105 mm guns from somewhere, but we could rush over the new 176 mm, on easy terms of course.’ A few days later a Swedish colleague spotted the same gentleman in Alexandria, offering the Arabs something even bigger, better.

I later managed to get a dealer drunk. Well into his cups, and nearing very early retirement, he boastfully admitted that without larger, more widespread misery his profits would not increase. And, incredibly, he added: ‘Naturally, the stimulation of hostilities in times of peace was a necessary evil.’ Prime targets were unstable locations where the terrain called for ‘sophisticated’ hardware, reliance on costly spares, upgrading, training.

Horrifyingly, fleetingly, the global military-government-armaments conspiracy emerged. We quickly realized the truth about our own inability to influence or change anything. It was virtually impossible then to get a story about this activity printed anywhere significant. The conspiracy remains, sadly, more powerful today than ever.

Me? I’ve retrained as a healing therapist – starting with myself. I help people to repair their minds, bodies, spirits, to stay well. I’m through with watching people disintegrate.

Now I’m raring to write again. But never in the old way, for that media, abused by the editors, proprietors, politicians. I’m interested again – just like before the nightmare began – in wonderful Earth, the only home I have; in saving the endangered, nourishing to new fruitfulness what is left, celebrating freedom and a life of peace.

Oh yes – and I’m still going to bring into the clear light of day any interests that exploit and enslave people to the terrible ends of politics, greed and profit.

Neil Christie-Ormond now lives in the English West Country.

©Copyright: New Internationalist 1995