Gruesome tales and graphic war photos, scenes of starving children and battered refugees. These stories and images have long been a mainstay of Western popular media and public culture, from 19th-century anti-slavery pamphlets, to 20th-century posters of napalmed children from Vietnam, to 21st-century tweets about Alan Kurdi, the Syrian boy whose drowned body was found on a beach in Turkey. They can repel and attract, evoking fascination or indifference, compassion or hostility, pity or disgust. And in today’s digital culture of spectatorship and visual consumerism, the true power of such images lies not only in their shock value but also in our ability to screenshot, share, and retweet them across social media. Sympathetic commentators mobilize images to collect aid, criticize injustice, or raise consciousness; sensationalist media and populist politicians, conversely, use them to sow fear and hostility toward outsiders and immigrants.

Historians have long been interested in figuring out just what power such images carry, and in particular what they might tell us about human rights. Some have placed the beginnings of the story in the eighteenth century, when European novels and visual culture began detailing bodily pain and torture. Such visuals made readers feel more empathetic toward the suffering of others in their own locales or in faraway places, and this newfound empathy transformed into an enlightened human rights sensibility that paved the way for revolutionary proclamations like U.S. Declaration of Independence (1776) and French Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen (1789). Other historians, by contrast, have argued that links between humanitarian representation and rights politics began only in the late 20th century. Decolonization in Africa and Asia, new norms in international law, a rapidly globalizing mass media, and other developments made human rights a central issue of national and international politics. And in this changing landscape, the argument goes, images were key—especially with the spread of television starting in the 1960s and 70s. Here we think of the Vietnam War as a major turning point.

Of late more attention has focused on the Nigerian civil war (1967-1970), not least due to the publication of memoirs and literary fiction by Nigerian writers like Chinua Achebe and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, but also due to ongoing political tensions in Nigeria and a pro-Biafra political movement in recent years. The war was a postcolonial conflict between the secessionist Republic of Biafra and the Nigerian federal military government. Biafra lost the war but won the battle for Western sympathy, and images played a major role in this process.

Initially, the war didn’t receive much media attention outside of Nigeria and Africa. But by mid-1968 journalists from Europe and North America began reporting of mass starvation following a Nigerian military blockade of the breakaway state, and the Biafran leadership hired a Swiss marketing agency to “sell” the war to the West. Images of starving children—the iconic “Biafran babies”—made headlines, and for the first time in history scenes of children dying from hunger were beamed through television screens into living rooms around the world. Grassroots groups and international movements formed in Europe and North America: money was raised, protests were held, and aid was flown into Biafra, covertly, under cover of night. Biafra was where the French physicians who founded Doctors Without Borders (Médicins Sans Frontièrs) got their start. And amid the fervor of ’68, international humanitarians no longer believed it was enough to offer assistance while remaining neutral and impartial: it was their duty to bear witness and even take sides, to speak out against injustice and breaches of the laws of war. It was in this moment, so a powerful legend has it, that a new age of humanitarian intervention and human rights activism was born.

LIFE July 1968

Stern (Germany) July 1968

The photography of the war, and in particular images of the “Biafran babies,” has been subject to a number of interpretations. An important contention, echoing a prominent strand of contemporary social theory and cultural criticism, has it that photographic representations of war and famine depoliticized the war: by portraying victims as a powerless, nameless, suffering mass of humanity, images stripped people of their subjectivity and agency, ultimately revealing more about the moral concerns of the West than about the people in the images or the realities of post-colonial Africa they inhabited. Another view holds that while documentary footage from Biafra inspired a humanitarian response which doubtless saved lives, foreign intervention actually prolonged the war and famine: as long as there were suffering children to report on, aid would keep flowing in.

My own research on the international response has taken a slightly different angle on the issue, looking not to the images proper but to the fate of some of the people—and specifically some of the children—behind them. During the war, several international organizations began an emergency airlift from São Tomé, a Portuguese colony off the West African coast, into Biafra. On return flights from Biafra to São Tomé, the International Committee of the Red Cross and the French Red Cross collaborated with West German church organizations and other groups to evacuate children who needed emergency medical treatment. Some of the children were then flown to Ivory Coast or on to European capitals, but most were flown to Gabon, a former French colony and one of only four African countries to recognize Biafran independence. In a novel experiment in humanitarian government, the West German churches established the Centre Oecuménique de Mélen, a children’s village in Gabon’s capital, Libreville, where a multinational team of several dozen African and European doctors, nurses, teachers, and caretakers took over the supervision of some 3,000 child evacuees. The center quickly transformed from a critical care unit to a rehabilitation facility, one envisioned by its Euro-African leadership as a kind of utopian community with a school, living quarters, and a farm. Its West German leadership hoped that the center might one day transform into a model for sustainable international development projects.

I first learned about the Centre Oecuménique de Mélen from archivists at Diakonie in Berlin, where I have been conducting research on human rights and refugees for my doctoral dissertation. Along with the Catholic organization Caritas and the Catholic and Protestant churches of Gabon, Diakonie was one of the four governing agencies responsible for the village in Libreville. Archivists at Diakonie put me in touch with a retired German journalist who had been to Biafra and São Tomé during the civil war, who in turn told me that the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) in Geneva had been involved in the effort to repatriate the children to Nigeria after the war. I knew that the repatriation, which took place during 1970-71, had been a rather controversial matter and even something of a diplomatic debacle, so in order to get a better sense of it I traveled last week to Geneva to research in the UNHCR archives.

Over the course of five days, I was able to collect a large number of unpublished files related to the repatriation, from internal correspondence and declassified memos to newspaper clippings, diplomatic cables, and summary reports.

UNHCR Headquarters in Geneva

While I am still sorting through the hundreds of documents I collected in the UNHCR archives, a few initial, if tentative, observations can be made. First, the evacuation and repatriation of the children were never really explained or justified in the name of rights, “human rights” or otherwise. It was a moral imperative to save lives, and specifically to care for the children’s physical health, that provided the rationale and governing principle. This episode also came at a time before children (or women) were accorded special rights in international human rights and humanitarian law related to war and armed conflict. Similarly, the children also didn’t have any official legal status in Gabon, living as they were in a humanitarian encampment that was only loosely recognized by the Gabonese state. In fact, since they had been airlifted from a civil war and not an international conflict, they were not considered refugees but rather “evacuees,” and it was only under special circumstances that the UNHCR, the global refugee arm of the United Nations, got involved in the matter.

Second, in my research on the children’s village at Diakonie, it became apparent that public information made no mention of the African doctors, nurses, and caretakers involved in the project; instead, emphasis was given to the children themselves, primarily to alert benefactors of the churches in Europe that progress was being made and thus that their support had been worthwhile. In pamphlets and fundraising brochures, smiling children in the village were juxtaposed with photographs of children who had entered the village suffering from kwashiorkor. These and other inclusions were meant to highlight European benevolence, and they erased the indispensable role of African labor in the caretaking process.

Third, it was not only in the realm of media and charitable fundraising for humanitarianism, but also on the grand stage of diplomacy, that the image of the suffering child became a kind of currency in a competition over moral authority and ideological supremacy. The repatriation came amid a political climate when the Nigerian leadership and many in Nigeria still condemned the foreign relief agencies that had aided Biafra for interfering in the war. It was charged that the children were not being cared for properly in Gabon and that many of them were unidentifiable, making it difficult if not impossible to return them to their parents and families. On the other hand, there were also many who felt that sending the children back to Nigeria would be a grave mistake. Most outspoken were a group of leftist French intellectuals who urged the French government—which at the time still exercised considerable control in Gabon, a former French colony—to prevent the repatriation. The West German churches were reluctant to return the children, not only out of concern for their well-being in Nigeria but also because they didn’t want to upset benefactors in Germany who had sponsored children. Yet perhaps the greatest resistance came from President Omar Bongo of Gabon, one of several African heads of state who had publicly condemned the Nigerian regime and recognized Biafran independence. At the end of the war, repatriation became a hot-button issue that stalled the process of reconciliation between Gabon and Nigeria. In Nigeria and elsewhere, Bongo was denounced for using the children to gain diplomatic leverage, and it was only once diplomatic ties were restored that the Gabonese leader agreed to release the children.

ICRC Headquarters in Geneva Museum

While in Geneva, I was also able to spend time in the archives of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), which had also played a major role in Biafra and Nigeria during the war. While there, I visited the ICRC’s museum, and in one of the museum’s three main exhibition halls featured a section on child refugees in times of war, including several walls on the war in Rwanda in the 1990s. During the war, the ICRC took photographs of children who were displaced. When the conflict ended, the organization cooperated with UNICEF to launch a photo tracing initiative aimed at helping “restore family links” between family members who had been separated. Many of the displaced children had been too young or traumatized by the war and therefore found it difficult to relate information about their identities. But photo albums with their pictures in them made it possible for parents and relatives to identify and reunite with the children.

Photo Tracing Initiative, ICRC

No such methods existed at the time of the Nigerian civil war, and in researching at UNHCR I learned that the identities of some of the evacuated children were either lost or never properly established by the organizations who had intervened and assumed supervision of the children. This failure impeded the repatriation process and made any efforts at family reunification almost impossible.

My time at the UNHCR archives was only partly devoted to research on the child evacuees, for I had also traveled there to look into the work of West German state agencies and humanitarian organizations involved in governing refugees seeking asylum in West Germany. In my next update, I’ll return to this aspect of my broader research project.