The cargo plane flew low over southeast Nigeria, lights out, radio off, pilot navigating by lighting refinery flares along the coast. The runway, somewhere below, was dark. The pilot dropped his wheels and nosed the plane down, apparently into the void.
On the ground, a team of boys suddenly ran out of the bush to light rows of kerosene lamps to guide the craft towards the tiny airstrip, only 75 feet wide and 1,200 feet long. On board were 26 tons of antibiotics, flour and salted fish, as well as a 34-year-old Irish priest named Dermot Doran.
It was December 1968, and Nigeria was in the midst of a civil war. After almost a decade of pogroms against them, the Igbo people in the southeastern states of the country had seceded to establish the independent republic of Biafra. The Nigerian Army attacked almost immediately, and soon had a blockade around the region, starving 14 million residents.
Father Doran was one of the 1,000 priests and nuns, the majority from Ireland, who were working in the area when the fighting began. Overnight, they abandoned their peacetime roles as educators — Father Doran was a school principal — to help workers during one of the worst humanitarian crises of the 20th century.
In all, the Biafran airlift brought 60,000 tons of aid to the region, at the time the largest civilian aid mobilization ever. Between 500,000 and two million non-combatants died as a result of the blockade – but another million are estimated to have survived thanks to the airlift.
His linchpin was Father Doran. Flowing in and out of Biafra, he invented the first airplanes and hired the first pilots. He went to New York City to arrange the first aid shipments. He mastered the logistics of moving thousands of tons of supplies from Europe and North America to airfields in Gabon and Sao Tome, an island south of Nigeria then under Portuguese rule.
He accompanied many of the flights from there to Biafra, coordinated supply distribution, engaged with the locals and other priests, then left to tell the world what he had learned. He had a way with the news media, befriending, among others, Harry Reasoner of CBS and BBC correspondent Frederick Forsyth, who helped inspire his conversion of his experiences in Biafra into political thrillers.
Father Doran testified before the United States Senate, which left a lasting impression on Senator Edward M. Kennedy, who became Biafra’s chief advocate in Congress.
“He never did anything halfway,” Frank Carlin, retired overseas director for Catholic Relief Services, said in a phone interview. “He was always programming and planning, then he went back and told the story.”
Father Doran died on May 19 in Dublin. He was 88. His niece Cathy Doran said the cause was myelodysplastic syndrome, a rare form of blood cancer.
His death, in hospital, was not widely reported at the time.
Father Doran arrived in Nigeria in 1961, not long after becoming a member of the Fathers of the Holy Spirit, a Roman Catholic community also known as the Spiritans. The community has long had a strong presence in Nigeria, particularly in the southeast, where the Igbo population is predominantly Christian.
He used to work in developing countries before — he spent several years as a teacher in Trinidad — but he fell in love with Nigeria, and especially with Igbo culture, which, with its rich storytelling traditions and history of intense suffering under English rule, was a part of the Irish experience.
“I was sent there, and they joined my people,” he said in an interview for “Biafra: Forgotten Mission,” a 2018 documentary directed by Brendan Culleton and Irina Maldea.
The consequences of the blockade were immediate and devastating, especially after Nigeria captured the oil-rich coast of Biafra in early 1968. The residents of Biafra got most of their protein from dried fish; without it, children quickly developed kwashiorkor, a protein deficiency that caused their bellies to swell. At the worst of the crisis, in late 1968, about 10,000 people a day were dying, according to Red Cross estimates.
“It’s something you don’t expect in your life,” Father Doran said in the documentary.
Britain supported Nigeria in the war, which it once ruled as a colony, and both countries tried to maintain a news blackout. But by the end of 1967 Father Doran had made several trips to Lisbon and New York, and he and others managed to smuggle journalists into the region to report on the emerging crisis.
Biafra became an international rallying cry. Thousands took part in protest marches in London and Paris. In June 1969, a Columbia University student named Bruce Mayrock he set himself on fire in front of the United Nations; he died the next day. In Britain, John Lennon returned his MBE medal to Queen Elizabeth II, partly in protest at his country’s role in the blockade.
More aid organizations came. Catholic, Protestant and Jewish groups, including Catholic Relief Services, gathered under an umbrella effort called Joint Church Aid, which collected supplies for transit via airlift. His relief organizer was Father Doran. The pilots nicknamed it Jesus Christ Airlines.
“It is a great example of ecumenism,” Father Doran told United Press International in 1969. “We may not be united on theology – but we are united on bread.”
Biafran air transport is widely regarded an unprecedented time in international philanthropy. This was the first time that non-profits and private citizens led the response to a crisis.
Although several countries quietly supported the airlift, including the United States and Israel, it received no official approval from the government. In New York, the Irish ambassador to the United Nations told Father Doran to stay out of Nigeria’s business.
And the world stood by when the air force from Nigeria attacked the airlift, bombed the airfield and destroyed several planes, killing 25 crew members.
In a debate with Father Dermot on the CBS program “The World of Religion,” Nigeria’s ambassador to the United Nations, Edwin Ogebe Ogbu, claimed that the airlift was supporting the rebels and, by prolonging the war, increasing the death toll.
Father Doran said in response, “If you call innocent children and babies a few days old, and children a week old or a month old who are dying of hunger – they have no milk, no food – if they are rebels, I don’t know what.”
Michael Dermot Doran was born on September 22, 1934, in Athboy, a town 35 miles north-west of Dublin. His parents, Thomas and Mary Anne (Guinan) Doran, ran a pub; years later one of Diarmada’s brothers, Eamonn, founded one of the most popular Irish bars in New York City. He died in 1997.
Along with his niece Cathy Doran, Father Doran is survived by his sister, Mary Mosely; three other nieces, Annemarie Wylie, Jenn Mosely and Rosalynd Mosely; and five nephews, Hans, Dermot, Eddie, Alan and Paul Doran.
Father Doran entered the Spiritan novitiate in 1952 and graduated in philosophy from University College, Dublin in 1955. He spent three years as rector at St Mary’s College in Port of Spain, Trinidad, before returning to Ireland to complete his religious studies. It was ordained in 1961.
The Biafran war ended in 1970, when Nigeria reacquired the fractured region and expelled most of the European missionaries.
Father Doran was then assigned to work as a communications officer with Catholic Relief Services in New York, from where he was sent to disaster areas around the world. In the early 1970s, when he was sent to Bangladesh and India, he became close to Mother Teresa, who invited him to deliver mass to her sisters in Calcutta (now Calcutta).
In 1975 he moved to Toronto, where he was the director of Volunteer International Christian Service, another aid organization. He also served as director of Brottier Refugee Services, a resettlement agency, before retiring from Ireland in 2008.
“Dermot was everywhere,” said Mr Carlin of Catholic Relief Services. “He gave up more than anyone I knew.”