WOULD YOU BELIEVE? Flights of Angels

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50 years ago next summer, the Nigerian Civil War brought carnage and famine to the secessionist state of Biafra. It became the world’s first televised famine, when a remarkable team of filmmaker priests brought images of that suffering to the world’s living rooms via RTÉ’s Radharc series. Radharc captured, not only the horrors of starving children, but the heroic efforts of Irish missionaries, who risked their lives behind rebel lines and, incredibly, organised an airlift to bring emergency relief. Radharc’s film provoked an international outcry and the foundation of Concern. It’s estimated a million children’s lives were saved. In FLIGHTS OF ANGELS, the key players tell the dramatic story of “Jesus Christ Airlines.”

 

WOULD YOU BELIEVE? – FLIGHTS OF ANGELS is a compelling story of courage and compassion during the world’s first televised famine, and the role played by Irish missionaries in relieving it.

The Nigerian Civil War of 1967-70 took a devastating toll on the secessionist state of Biafra. Blockaded by air, sea and land, its war-torn people were left to starve. Christian charities began to prepare emergency relief, but how could this find its way though the Nigerian military blockade to the people who needed it so badly?

Enter The Green Pimpernel, Fr Tony Byrne, an Irish missionary of the Holy Ghost Fathers. Fr Byrne did something most unusual for a priest – he bought an airplane. And then another, and yet another. Operating with Joint Church Aid (JCA) or “Jesus Christ Airlines”, as the organisation was quickly nicknamed, Fr Byrne then recruited pilots from all over the world to fly his planes to Biafra. As they ran the gauntlet of the Nigerian ack-ack guns and ground-to-air missiles, Fr Byrne’s planes carried thousands of tonnes of vital food aid to the starving people of Biafra. It is estimated that one million children were saved through this initiative, but several air crews lost their lives.

On the ground, there were more Irish nuns, priests and religious, who worked in Biafran hospitals to heal the sick and wounded, while making life-or-death decisions about which children to send abroad for treatment.

All this was captured by a crew of filmmaker priests for the Radharc series on RTÉ. Their images of suffering and the heroic response of a few brave missionaries brought the horrible reality of the Biafran famine into sitting rooms in Ireland and across the world. Images of children with matchstick legs and bloated bellies in a bombed-out hospital provoked outcry and an outpouring of donations. This was the world’s first televised famine and the charity Africa Concern – later, just Concern – was founded in direct response to Radharc’s film, Night Flight to Uli.

Almost fifty years later, with similar horrors in Syria now airing nightly on our screens, the terrible events of Biafra are recalled by, among others, Fr Tony Byrne (“The Green Pimpernel”); hospital matron, Sr Gráinne Fitzpatrick; Icelandic pilot, Arngrímur Jóhannsson; British journalist-turned-bestselling novelist, Frederick Forsyth; and former Biafran soldier, Linus Offiah, now working in Ireland as a consultant physician.

 

Presenter/Reporter:      Pádraig O’Driscoll

Producer/Director:       Seán Ó Méalóid

 

For further information, contact Fergus McCormack: Fergus.mccormack@rte.ie / 086 8674751.