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23 of 23 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars WHEN IS A HOLOCAUST NOT A HOLOCAUST?
The word `genocide' is used several times in this book. Alas, it had to be used often in the 20th century for programmes of extermination inflicted on various classes of people, whether the classification was defined ethnically (the usual reason) or in some other way, as in, say, Cambodia. A word that is never used at all is `holocaust', which is by general consensus...
Published 21 months ago by DAVID BRYSON

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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars There Was a War
This book is a mixture of memoir and history of the Biafran War of 1967-1970, hence Achebe's description of it as a "personal history", an account of events from the perspective of himself and his family.

Nigeria had gained its independence from Britain in 1960 - the new country had a number of different peoples, speaking many different languages, who had...
Published 20 months ago by elkiedee


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23 of 23 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars WHEN IS A HOLOCAUST NOT A HOLOCAUST?, 20 Nov 2012
By 
DAVID BRYSON (Glossop Derbyshire England) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: There Was a Country: A Personal History of Biafra (Hardcover)
The word `genocide' is used several times in this book. Alas, it had to be used often in the 20th century for programmes of extermination inflicted on various classes of people, whether the classification was defined ethnically (the usual reason) or in some other way, as in, say, Cambodia. A word that is never used at all is `holocaust', which is by general consensus reserved for one particular policy of this type, one that was implemented right in the heart of soi-disant civilised Europe. A word can be powerful. We are always being reminded of the need for vigilance to prevent any second holocaust, and indeed none has happened nor (hopefully) looks likely. Genocides have been another matter entirely. They have been occurring regularly over the past few decades, and they are not obviously less horrible than the officially-designated holocaust. It could be that at the very least our perspective on recent history will be improved if we apply this effective term where it can be applied with equal propriety. Perhaps we might even succeed in preventing such events from happening as often as they have been.

I remember the Biafra war very well. One particular Nigerian tribe, the Igbo or as we used to call them Ibo, attempted secession from its parent nation because of perceived racial persecution, setting up an independent state in eastern Nigeria to which the secessionist leader General Ojukwu gave the name Biafra. The truth about secessions and revolutions seems to me very simple - if they fail they are treason, if they succeed they are glorious revolution. It would not have been otherwise in Russia, or indeed in America. Biafra failed, and the manner of its defeat was by common consent an exercise in atrocity. The case argued in this gripping book is that winning was so overwhelmingly important for the Nigerian government that anything was deemed legitimate to achieve that. This case is not universally accepted, of course. General Gowon, military President of Nigeria at the time, has stated that Chinua Achebe does not know what he is talking about. Well, he would say that I suppose, which is not to imply that his point of view can be dismissed unexamined. However, to be going on with, it seems to be a matter of undisputed record that one Nigerian general said that if children had to be slaughtered to achieve victory that was just too bad; that another refused to associate himself with Gowon's apology for one particular massacre of civilians; and that Chief Awolowo said that in war anything goes and that starvation of civilians is a legitimate tactic in war.

Chinua Achebe is himself an Igbo. However the tone of the book is not what you would call obviously partisan. Far from it: as I was reading his account of the British exit from their former colony, and then of the coup and counter-coup I was thinking that I had found a modern Thucydides, so dispassionate did the author seem. The impression was reinforced as I read his more general reflections on the nature of colonialism and in particular its legacy after the colonial masters have folded their tents. At one point Achebe says `I am not a sociologist, a political scientist...' Maybe not, but he is a genuine historian and no mere chronicler, and I think his book will be reread often, as Thucydides wanted his own great work to be reread. The narrative is not all at this level, some of the descriptive parts are like documentary, and some of his admiring comments on other intellectuals are downright wide-eyed and childlike. However the above-it-all tone comes back towards the end, and of course his poetry raises the entire book to a special level.

You can't escape the issue of ethnicity here, whether we are to call the Igbo a race or a tribe. There is no doubt (and I remember this from the coverage at the time) that the Igbo dominated the Nigerian economic administrative and cultural scene, and that they were widely resented. This was, simply, the root of the whole trouble and it went deep. It will not do to object to stereotyping by way of avoiding the topic and go on our way rejoicing, because stereotypes can be valid and political correctness can on occasions be stupid and perverse. Simply - are the Igbo a cut above their fellow-Nigerians or are they not? There is not much doubt that Achebe thinks they are. On the issue of ethnic stereotyping there is one unintentionally funny bit in the book, related to an incident that is not funny in the slightest and that is plausibly identified by Achebe as being pivotal in leading to Biafra's downfall. Biafran forces took control of an oil-rig at Kwale, and we are led to believe that they released their hostages on being threatened with military intervention by, er, Italy. Sometime read the deadpan account that Rory Stewart gives in The Prince of the Marshes about the performance of the Italian troops when he was acting as vice-governor in one province of Iraq.

That the whole godawful war was racially/tribally motivated is something that it's impossible to deny. What responsibility the Brits bear I'm not competent at the moment to evaluate, but I feel a lot better educated regarding this whole chapter of history, which of course is still with us, as you will be left in no doubt from the final chapters. It was a 5-year wonder in the western media, that is not as it should be, and as it possibly might be if we called it a holocaust, the thing we seek so determinedly to avoid, even to the extent of conniving at some very dubious policies and actions in other contexts. What indignation this proliferation of the term would arouse might be interesting to see. It will doubtless be lively and vociferous, but it might open an overdue new chapter in our way of thinking.
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24 of 25 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars There was a country, 26 Oct 2012
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I was a young girl during the war and I was on the Nigerian side so my knowledge was limited to the propaganda we were fed. This book was enlightening, to put it mildly, and it should be essential reading for all youths and elders in Nigeria as it reminds us why WAR is never a good thing but why the country should not condone mediocrity and corruption as these were the original reasons for the 'seccesionist plot' . Achebe might be accused of a subjective account but I found it enthralling and honest. His account is split into three neat parts starting with Achebe's autobiography, a background to the war and the aftermath.Interspersed within the account of war are lines of poetry that evoke powerful imagery. I daresay many will be appalled at some of the stuff that happened but it is also a testament to the resilience of the Igbos that they have somehow managed to forgive the atrocities they encountered and to rebuild and forge ahead. My only reservation was there are no pictures but you can't have everything. I hope someone makes a film of the book one day but for now I urge you to buy this book, read it and recommend it to as many of your friends as you can. I am a Yoruba married to an Igbo and I can honestly say, this book really opened my eyes to the deep seated 'collective amnesia' of a nation.It should be an essential text for any students of war history and negotiation studies and most certainly an essential text in Nigeria.
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7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Brave, profoundly important document, 12 Nov 2012
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This review is from: There Was a Country: A Personal History of Biafra (Hardcover)
A profoundly important document from one of the world's greatest writers. Here, Professor Achebe is addressing his readership not solely as a novelist, critic, children's author and poet, but as a statesman.

The book is broken into four parts - something the writer Obi Nwakanma has cleverly observed also corresponds to the four market days in the Igbo week and a may have provided the super structure for Achebe's literary world view. Nnena Orji also has admirably observed that "It seems...that the insertion of poems in the story is also a throw-back to Igbo traditional narrative styles that emanated from the oral tradition where the story itself was interspersed with chanting, singing and poetry. It occurred to me that Professor Achebe was making a concerted effort to embrace this "authentic African narrative structure" and was not, as some other shallow readings have suggested, just experimenting or taking artistic license.

In the western literary tradition, narrative structure followed very strict rules. I think it was G.F.W. Hegel in the 19th century that referred to poetry as "the universal art of the mind [that] runs through all the arts and is art's highest phase, one phase higher than music?"[1] Poetry was treated as an art form apart and was hardly `married with prose."

Part one of the book deals with Professor Achebe's family and coming of age. Tender descriptions of his mother and father and their interactions with English clergy are particularly touching. His own education and encounter with some of founders of modern African literature are also found here with luminous beauty. I found particularly educational the account of the diversity and power of various writers and artists throughout the African continent and the evolution of what we now take for granted - modern African fiction. As a woman, his homage to what he calls the "female progenitors" of African literature blew my mind.

Part 2 and 3 concentrate on the Biafran war. Stand outs for me include the complex international relationships in the war - the unlikely allies of the Soviet Union, Great Britain, the United Nations, supporting the Nigerians - and France, China, Portugal and four African states supporting the Biafrans. Professor Achebe's trips around the world to plead for humanitarian aid - from Sweden, Norway, Canada, the United States and his meeting with Senegal's Poet-President - are presented brilliantly. His own family's ordeal during this war as he moved from place to place. What struck me was the amount of death - it seemed everywhere and almost omnipresent and startling for it's the inhumanity of the war fueled by the hatred of the Igbos.

Part 4 is an analysis of Nigeria's present situation replete with "corruption, ethnic bigotry, debauchery, political ineptitude." Achebe portrays a very dim picture indeed, but he also provides challenges for Nigerians to come together and pull their nation from the shackles of "self-imposed backwardness."

This is a tour-de-force that will elicit wide spread controversy - we are already seeing this in the Nigerian media with everything from moves to ban his books to others literally calling for his head. In Achebe's own words creative artists should be allowed to function in " an environment where freedom of creative expression is not only possible but protected... where an artist from any part of the world can acquire and develop their unique voice and then express themselves on the Great Cultural Stage in full ear shot of the world!" In this brave book Achebe's own voice is threatened and must be protected. I strongly recommend it.

Maureen
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An Excellent Insight into the Recent Past, 29 Jan 2013
By 
Mr. Stephen Redman (York England) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: There Was a Country: A Personal History of Biafra (Hardcover)
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One of my earliest memories as a child is the Biafran war and the horrendous pictures of starving children that it brought to our TV screens. This was before Live Aid and the Ethiopian tragedy, and as a child I would worry about the possibility of famine in the UK. This wasn't helped by my mother telling me that in case of famine they would eat the youngest first (I was the youngest!)

Seeing this book on the Biafran war brought all these memories back to me and spurred me on to read its pages.

The author is clearly an accomplished writer who has a style and a delivery that is simply excellent. The pages are all embracing, in that the reader is drawn in and has to continue listening to the voice of Chinua Achebe.

Whereas not seeming to personally espouse the Christian faith, the author indicates the Christian context in which he grew up and praises it for the huge impact it had on him, both educationally and ethically.

With great care the author describes the cultural backdrop to the conflict that happened in 1967-70. He also paints an interesting involvement of the UK, France and the USA from his African perspective.

Ending with a dramatic poem, this piece of prose is an excellent read and I recommend it to anyone who would like to gain an insight into this aspect of history through the personal memoires of a respected individual.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Fascinating and moving personal testimony of the Biafran War, 25 Jan 2013
By 
J. Coulton "Julia Coulton" (Manchester, UK) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: There Was a Country: A Personal History of Biafra (Hardcover)
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History is often more easily revealed, and its nuances more thoroughly grasped, through the eyes of a novelist rather than by a historian. Much of what I know about the Biafran War and the bitter internal strife of Nigeria from 1967-70 was gleaned from Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's stunning 2006 work of fiction - Half of a Yellow Sun. And now I find I get the best of both, a history of that hopeful yet terrible time, told by one of the finest living story tellers today, acclaimed author Chinua Achebe.
His personal testimony of the war, and it's devastating aftermath lingering to this day in Nigeria, is all the more moving as Achebe records how his close friends and family fought, and ofttimes died, for the breakaway state in the south east of the country.

These were times of great hope, as Biafrans fought to break away from the corruption and ethnic imbalance of the government of post colonial Nigeria. The newly formed Biafran state attracted celebrated sympathisers such as Joan Baez, John Lennon, Jimi Hendrix, and Jean-Paul Sartre. Achebe gives a fascinating account of the special position, and indeed as he sees it, responsibility of writers and intellectuals like himself to act as leading lights of change. His own family are forced to flee and flee again, as around three million of his people are mercilessly slaughtered in a brutal war.

And he makes harsh judgement on the role of the British Government in the war, under the leadership of Labour's Harold Wilson, who Achebe feels was more concerned with protecting the interests of British oil companies in the region, than seeing that any sense of humanity, justice, or fairness prevailed.

This book is not only moving and illuminating as a historical testament; Achebe argues forcefully that the Biafran War needs to be understood in order to address the problems, including endemic corruption, which continue to plague modern Nigeria just as much as they did in the 1960's. This is a powerful and brilliantly recounted book which deserves to be widely read - it is a further tragedy that it is not likely to be.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Wonderful, 16 Dec 2012
This review is from: There Was a Country: A Personal History of Biafra (Hardcover)
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Achebe is, of course, well known for his novels, including Things Fall Apart (Penguin Classics).

There Was A Country is his, highly personal, account of the Nigerian civil war, a conflict precipitated by the secession of Biafra from Nigeria.

Some may - rightly - point out the selective and, indeed, biased view of Achebe's memoir. I don't think this weakens it any. For one, Achebe is a compelling story teller; also, his position within Biafran society was such that his insights are worthwhile.

The Biafran conflict is interesting due to there being many members of the international press on site (as well as the tireless efforts to bring the conflict to the eyes of the world by the likes of the author). There was a great deal of outrage at the suffering of Biafran's at the hand of the federal army. Many conflicts around the world between the end of WWII and the collapse of the Soviet Union were cold war by proxy, but the Biafran seccesionists seemed to have things particularly hard as the federal army was supplied by both the USSR and the UK.

Achebe's account is a fascinating insight into the problems of post-colonial Africa. In particular how successful people could be freed of Western interference, as the Biafrans were, in many ways. Also, we can see how the ex-colonial powers were unwilling to allow their old possessions the freedom they required.

This is an excellent, sometimes uplifting and often depressing, account of one of the tragedies of post-colonial Africa. Recommended.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars There Was A Country- a Masterpiece, 30 Dec 2012
This review is from: There Was a Country: A Personal History of Biafra (Hardcover)
This book is simply a masterpiece of the first order. The author's command of the English language is legendary and on every page, lies a new word and riddle with wisdom.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Excellent book!, 24 Dec 2012
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This review is from: There Was a Country: A Personal History of Biafra (Hardcover)
This is a beautifully written account of the author's experiences of Biafra; it is written with feeling and is evocative of the period.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars There Was a War, 20 Dec 2012
By 
elkiedee "elkiedee" (London) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: There Was a Country: A Personal History of Biafra (Hardcover)
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This book is a mixture of memoir and history of the Biafran War of 1967-1970, hence Achebe's description of it as a "personal history", an account of events from the perspective of himself and his family.

Nigeria had gained its independence from Britain in 1960 - the new country had a number of different peoples, speaking many different languages, who had different histories of relating to British rule and thus to the new state and its government. The foundation of the breakaway Biafran Republic in the south east was announced in May 1967, after some quite brutal conflicts in the north of the country, and a very bitter civil war followed, ending in defeat for Biafra.

Achebe attempts to explain the origins of the conflict in post colonial Nigeria, in an attempted coup in Northern Nigeria and the response to it, etc. He also describes some of the experiences of himself, his wife and their young children in war torn Biafra (the third was born just after the declaration of the Biafran Republic). He also includes a number of his poems about the conflict.

I was eager to read this book as I loved Achebe's previous book The Education of a British-Protected Child (Penguin Modern Classics), a collection of essays including several autobiographical ones. I didn't find this quite as accessible or engaging. The juxtaposition of sections of history and memoir seemed a bit disjointed, and the rather dry historical narrative with lots of names of military leaders felt as if it was pulling me away from the story of the book.

I did appreciate the inclusion of some of his poetry in the book, and was interested in the way he tried to tell the story, I just didn't find it completely successful.

On a more positive note, the book is a nicely presented hardback with an elegant and sombre dust jacket and a very comprehensive index. Some of the endnote citations from the book seem a bit eccentric and of doubtful reliability - lots of conversations with named and unnamed individuals which cannot be followed up as they may not be published, and even "author's recollections" - I think it would be sufficient to make it clear in the main text that something is from conversation or memory and use endnotes just for published external sources.

I intend to refer back to this if I read other books about Nigeria and Biafra, and think it would be useful alongside other books as an introduction to Nigerian and/or recent African history. If it was possible, I would probably rate this 3.5 stars.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A disturbing read, 16 Mar 2014
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My uncle was a missionary priest in Owerri, Biafra prior to & during the Biafran war. In fact, the airstrip used to land emergency supplies from Fernando Poo was in his parish. After the war, he was imprisoned by the Federal forces and accused of helping the rebels. He admitted to providing spiritual and medical assistance. He was expelled from Nigeria which upset him quiet a bit, as he had spent 25 years there in total. When he came home, he was very angry towards the British & Russian governments who assisted the Federals with weaponry. He had great admiration for the pilots who flew supplies in at night and then took off again. He told us stories of his experiences during the war. I was a young boy at the time and I suspect some of his stories were sanitised for me. The events described in this book match my uncles tales. The author also describes the horrific end of the war and its aftermath which is probably what my uncle did not want us young people to hear. For me, this book was a good read. I have retained an interest in Biafra's struggle.
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There Was a Country: A Personal History of Biafra
There Was a Country: A Personal History of Biafra by Chinua Achebe (Hardcover - 27 Sep 2012)
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