FROM A SPECIAL CORRESPONDENT
SAO TOME lies 300 miles otf the coast of West Africa. Twenty-five miles long and 15 miles wide, the island is bathed in brilliant tropical sun all year round and its sandy beaches are touched by a most tranquil and exquisite green-blue sea.
The main town, also known as Sao Tome, and a multitude of narrow streets, scores of statues and monuments and hundreds of old stucco buildings.
For five centuries the island has been in and out of historical prominence. It was first discovered deserted in 1470 by Portuguese explorers. Later in the slave trade days, it became quite a prominent transfer point for slaves taken from West Africa, en route to Brazil and the West Indies.
It was the Nigeria-Biafra war that brought Sao Tome into world news. It happened quite casually and almost by accident. Once a week. or so, a Biafran plane, after breaking the Nigerian blockade. would touch down at Sao Tome's airstrip to refuel prior to the long 14 hours' journey back to Lisbon.
PRIESTS VISIT In March, 1968-I I months after the blockade was imposed around the former Eastern region of Nigeria— two Irish Holy Ghost missionaries decided to go out to Soa Tome for a week-end rest.
Fr. William Butler of County Wicklow has spent 25 years of his life teaching and ministering in West Africa. Fr. Kevin Doheny of County Kilkenny had spent 15 years as a teacher and rector of a seminary. Both were tired and worn down from the endless
months of caring for war victims.
They boarded the plane in Port Harcourt, Biafra, and landed one and a half hours later in Sao Tome without a penny. They immediately ordered 10 tons of salt for their beleaguered people. Salt, of course, is as necessary as water in tropical Biafra.
The priests then persuaded the pilots of their plane to do "a run" back to Biafra with the salt before taking off for Lisbon as scheduled. With some misgivings, the pilots agreed. But who would pay for this unauthorized trip? The shopkeepers asked who would pay fotfhe salt.
Fr. Butler assured one and all that everything would be paid for by Fr. Doheny when he got back to Biafra. So off they went with their salt, leaving Fr. Butler in Sao Tome. The money was collected in bits and pieces in Port Harcourt and neighbouring missions while the salt was being unloaded at the airstrip.
That was the first direct relief flight from Sao Tome. Hearing this story and impressed with the possibilities of this nearly unknown island. Mgr. Karl Bayer, secretary general of Caritas Internationalis, dispatched Fr. Anthony Byrne to Sao Tome to investigate the facilities.
Shortly after his report, Fr. Byrne was joined by representatives of the German Lutheran agency and regular mercy flights were begun to Biafra.
When the full impact of the Biafra crisis became known to the world in July, 1968, U.S. Catholic Relief Service (C.R.S.) inaugurated weekly Boeing 707 Jet flights from New York's Kennedy Airport to Sao Tome, via Amserdam. This was the first time a jet plane had landed in Sao Tome, and the whole island turned out to see this modern wonder of the world.
With the formation of Joint Church Aid—a consortium of Catholic and Protestant church relief agencies—Sao Tome lost its peace and quiet. Today, 300 American, Danish. German, Swedish, Norwegian, Icelandic, Canadian and Irish members and officials of J.C.A. and its air crews have brought a new life and vitality to the island.
Each night between 15 and 2U church relief planes take off for the two-hour flight to Biafra. As much as 250 tons of medicine and food supplies are flown in nightly. The 'huge stores are constantly replenished with fresh supplies arriving weekly by ship from CAritas U.S. Church World Service, Nordchurchaid of Scandinavia. and various other participating relief agencies from all over the world.
Sao Tome has already seen off 5,000 mercy flights from its airstrip in the past 18 months, carrying 50,000 tons of food and medicine to millions of Biafran women and children who would most surely have died of hunger and starvation without these supplies.
Ambache-Riddle relief fund
AFUND in memory of Jonathan Ambache and Fr. Malachy Riddle, who were killed when their Land-Rover, belonging to the Save the Children Fund, hit a landrnine in Federal-held Biafra, has been founded to pay the passages of volunteers for relief work Ovlerseas. One of the patrons is Cardinal Heenan.
So far the Ambache; Riddle Memorial Fund has raised .£8,000, and will shortly send the first volunteers abroad. Mr. David Cochlin, the chairman, said last week that they will be selected by experienced people, including Dr. Noel Moynihan, who led the Save the Children mission on which the two men died.
At present volunteers, even highly qualified ones. who wish to go and help relief operations. in disaster areas cannot do so unless they are prepared to finance their own passage. or to spend nine months or more in the area concerned. The fund's headquarters are at 25 Sloane Court, London, S.W.3.