Is the Syrian Civil War the Biafran Crisis of My Generation?

Guest blogger Anna Woodward

Images of children crying, bloodied, eyes wide, some eerily quiet in their shock- it is likely by now that the whole world has seen one or more of these images, photographic evidence of violence and death as bombs rain down on Aleppo from overhead. Whether enemy fire or help from allies, one can never be sure. The Syrian Civil War, while divisive between international military operations as well as humanitarian efforts, has presented the world with one inarguable conclusion: Syria’s children are dying.

Scrolling through my Facebook feed, it is almost impossible to avoid the barrage of photos, videos, testimonies of children in the aftermath of civilian attacks in Syria’s capital city. Graphic videos and pictures let the viewer see firsthand the plight of Aleppo’s children in the midst of the civil war, air raids, and general unrest. Even presidential candidate Hillary Clinton invoked one famous image of a young boy sitting in shock, alone in the back of an ambulance during a presidential debate to highlight the tragedy and humanitarian crisis happening in Syria.

In the midst of such a crisis as my generation has never seen, it may be helpful to attempt to contextualize the modern world by looking at the past. We can draw striking parallels between the children of Syria today and the children of Biafra in the 1960s by looking at news, images, and propaganda that flooded international news markets both during the Biafran War and the Syrian War today. These parallels are uncomfortable to make and deplorable in their implications of humanitarian responses to crisis, yet it is imperative to recognize and understand the patterns of history.

The Biafran War, also known as the Nigeria-Biafra War, lasted a few brief yet tense years in the late 1960s. Seeking autonomy and sovereignty, Biafra declared its independence from Nigeria in May of 1967, entering a conflict that would last until their defeat in 1970 and result in the death of over two million Biafran civilians from starvation. Nigeria, with superior resources, international legitimacy and support and, perhaps most importantly, control over federal troops and military technology, had the advantage over Biafra in almost every respect. A 1969 CBS documentary on the conflict interviews the Nigerian Chief of State General Yakubu Gowon, asking him why Nigeria did not go “all out” in the civil war. He responds, “We’re fighting our own brothers, our own friends…I accept them as my people, I don’t call them my enemies…therefore, we must not do anything that is going to make it impossible for us to reconcile it at the end.” However, the Nigerian blockade of Biafra, specifically the southern city of Port Harcourt, had irreversible and devastating consequences for the Biafran people; cut off from supplies, millions suffered malnutrition, starvation, and death.

Beginning with the capture of Port Harcourt in 1968, Biafra entered a two-year long struggle for mobility within their own country, communication with the outside world, resources supplies, and ultimately, survival. The number one cause of civilian deaths throughout the entire war was starvation. Estimates put the number of civilian deaths at over two million; the numbers are inexact and unofficial, yet inarguably much, much too high.

At the height of the conflict, Biafra’s leadership encouraged the circulation of images of starving Biafran children in an effort to elicit sympathy and support from the international community. In July of 1968, Life Magazine featured an issue on the conflict, and the cover featured an image of young children, eyes wide, staring straight into the camera, accompanied by the words, “Starving Children of the Biafra War”. Today, scholars have generally concluded that the propaganda tactics that centered children at the center of Biafra’s suffering were almost too successful, garnering support in the form of food, medical supplies, and general awareness that allowed Biafra to continue fighting. Ultimately, however, Biafra never received the necessary support to achieve actual victory and national legitimacy even as the world rushed to their aid. Unintentionally, scholars like Alex de Waal have argued, Biafran propaganda may have served to extend the conflict past a sustainable point, ultimately resulting in more death and destruction.

In the light of such sobering suggestions, we must ask ourselves whether the images of shell-shocked, traumatized Syrian children are helpful, especially in the context of the Biafran War where photographs and stories of starvation may have done more harm than benefit. The Syrian Civil War is the Biafran conflict of my generation, and if history is any indicator, what Syria needs is concrete action and intentional intervention, not just abstract support, hashtags, and shareable videos on Facebook.

One place that this action can come from is NGOs, who exist independently of national borders or government bureaucracy and can be quite effective because of their unique position. Save the Children is an international non-governmental organization that works around the world to create and support healthy and nurturing environments for children to grow up in. In their 2017 report on the mental health of Syria’s children, “Invisible Wounds,” they outline concrete actions to achieve security for Syria’s children. These actions include calling on the international community to support and fund mental health and psychological programs for Syria’s next generation, demanding that all attacks on civilians halt, and urging the UN Security Council to ensure that proper Council Resolutions are being followed and all injustices to humanitarian law are recognized as such and dealt with accordingly. The nature of war in the 21st century disproportionately affects civilians, and Syria is no exception. The Save the Children report classifies the trauma and toxic stress endured by Syria’s children over the course of the war is an international crisis and mental health emergency; action must come immediately to rehabilitate these children and prevent any further trauma.

The tragedies of war in both Biafra and Syria are felt most deeply by the children of these places. And while NGOs such as Save the Children can offer large-scale, professional, and monetary support, initiatives must be taken at the local level as well. Without the proper political and economic institutions complete with dedicated civil servants and politicians, international aid may be a temporary and ill-fitting solution, as we can see in the fight for Biafran independence. How to initiate such local action and accountability remains a contentious debate among humanitarian and international development communities alike. Perhaps it does take images of traumatized, crying children to truly bring these issues to light, though the experience of Biafra should lead us to critically analyze the utility and consequences of such powerful representations.

Anna Woodward is a sophomore at The George Washington University pursuing a double major in American Studies and Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies, as well as minoring in Art History. In her limited free time, she can be found by the nearest body of water trying to return to her coastal South Carolina roots.