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Andrew Vachss: Hot Biafra Nights

Thirty years ago in a bloody corner of Africa, America's hardest hardboiled writer saw things that would make Philip Marlowe curl up and cry.

By Zach Dundas
Originally published at, September, 2000.

Andrew Vachss is the closest thing to a human incarnation of an attack dog you can find. He's fiercely loyal to his friends—and an implacable bringer of doom to his enemies.

In his 20-year-old law practice, those enemies are child molesters. In his political life, ditto: He's currently fighting for tougher federal child abuse enforcement through the CARE Act, a law that would punish states that give people who commit incest an easier time than those who rape kids they're not related to.

While Vachss' legal practice and public crusades draw plenty of attention, he's most famous for his tooth-chipping crime fiction. His novels—cold and dark, informed by the wolfpack morality of the underworld—take mystery readers coddled by Agatha Christie tea 'n' crumpets fantasies on an icy death trip to a place Vachss calls The Zero. He knows it well. Besides hounding molesters through the courts, Vachss has investigated syphillis transmission, run the toughest juvenile prison in Massachusetts and logged a stint as a field worker for the New York City Department of Family Services. Perhaps his roughest assignment, however, came as the '60s bled into the '70s and a corner of Africa tore itself to gory shreds. When the Ibo ethnic group attempted to secede from Nigeria, the federal forces of that country attacked. The fledgling Republic of Biafra suffocated under a blockade aided and abetted by the Western powers, who weren't anxious to see a reliable partner in neocolonialism shatter into quarrelsome—potentially Red-friendly—mini-states.

Perhaps a million people died; starved, shot, raped, bombed, killed with fire and disease. As the slaughter reached its climax, Andrew Vachss, just a few years out of college, ventured to Africa to see if he could help.

Thirty years later, Vachss discusses this little-talked about experience in the heart of darkness.

Mumblage: Why did you go to Africa?

Vachss: You've seen clips about Rwanda?

Mumblage: Of course.

Vachss: Okay. So you know what happens when two tribes decide that each one has to be exterminated. The British left Nigeria only in 1960. When they left, there were two essential tribes there, Ibos and Hausas. The Ibos were sort of the civil service class, the governing class, and the Hausas were not. As soon as the British left, they decided maybe they should be.

Mumblage: So this was a situation the British created?

Vachss: I can blame the British for a lot of things, but tribalism in Africa? If there had been no colonialism, I think there wouldn't have been tribal warfare, because Africans are essentially not territory-takers. It's Europeans who take territory. If you have an agrarian society, what good does it do you to take territory? Unless you have a fairly commerical or industrial base, more land isn't going to do you any good. So historically, you might be correct.

But these were tribal hatreds that were ancient, so they used any weapon at all, including fire and disease. Landlocking the country, blocking food from coming in. This was the first time Red Cross planes were shot out of the sky, the first time they refused to let relief workers in. Starvation became a weapon of war. So everytime you'd turn on the TV, you'd see nothing but footage of kids dying, starving to death with huge distended bellies and and just bones ... people couldn't stand it.

Nobody talked about the United States intervening, because there was something else going on at the time, called Vietnam.

So a group of foundations, like Save the Children, that had UN consultant status, needed somebody to penetrate the war zone and try to determine two things: One was whether, if you contributed a dollar in America, it would buy a dollar's worth of food in Biafra, not seven cents of food and 93 cents of fundraising. Second was to find a route to get the food in. It was tricky, because you can only fly in so much food. Airplanes are just not designed for that.

My qualification for that job was being nuts enough to do it. And I did. It was a long haul—I had to go to Lisbon and meet with some shadowy people and be sent to Geneva and meet with even shadowier people. These were whose faces literally did not come out of the shadows when they spoke. And then we went to Angola, which was not exactly a quiet place at the time, and then we went back across the equator to a little island called Sao Tome. And from there you got in any way you could, and there was only one way in. You waited until it got dark, you got into a plane, you went over and they shot at you and you either got in or you didn't.

Once I got there, I realized it was too late.

I mean, I wasn't on the ground for 30 seconds before I realized it was too late. You could never have gotten enough food in there, unless the fighting stopped that day. While I was there, I got some really wonderful malaria. I mean, all I remember is, we were pushing a jeep up a hill and there was shooting, and then I woke up seven days later. It really knocked me out. They had to evacuate me.

I saw every kind of death, every kind of mass death, you could ever want to see. A generation of children disappeared.

Mumblage: And to this day—do you fly a lot?

Vachss: Yes. Okay. To this day, every time you go to the airport, I can name one airport that'll be on the prohibited list. One airport that the United States government will say is not safe.

Mumblage: Lagos.

Vachss: You got it. It hasn't changed. They're still doing business the same way they did then. They're still killing people in the public square who dissent, killing anyone who's opposed. Nothing's changed. And you ask yourself, we've intervened in all these other countries, but we'd never go in there. Why? Well, they've got oil. We'll always make exceptions for those countries with oil.


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