Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

A Nigerian civil war story untold until now & my emotional reaction January 31, 2017

"The Disturbances" is told in both book and film.

The Disturbances is told in both book and film.

I NEVER EXPECTED to find myself on the verge of crying while watching a documentary about a civil war in Nigeria in 1966. But I did on Sunday afternoon as I viewed The Disturbances at Redeemer Lutheran Church in Owatonna.

Produced by the Baptist Center for Ethics, the film tells the stories of missionaries and their families who, caught in the middle of a civil war, helped save the lives of Igbos, a tribe victimized by genocide. Thousands upon thousands of tribal natives died, many hacked to death by machetes.

The letter calling the Rev. Paul Griebel and his family to the mission field in Nigeria.

The letter calling the Rev. Paul Griebel and his family to the African mission field.

I’ll admit, I’m not the best with history and geography and, until recently, knew nothing of this strife in Nigeria 51 years ago. But then my pastor-friend, the Rev. Kirk Griebel of Redeemer, alerted me to the documentary. He was an “MK,” as missionary kids were tagged, living in Nigeria with his Lutheran Church Missouri Synod pastor father, mother and five siblings at the height of the violence. He was only eight when his family arrived from Minnesota, thus recalls little.

But plenty of others do remember the civil war and spoke openly about it for the first time in The Disturbances, the film titled after the code name the missionaries gave to the conflict. Their experiences were horrible. And memorable. Even 50 years later, their words and faces reveal the trauma of witnessing such violence.

Artist Susan Griebel crafted this quilted art from fabric her mother-in-law, Margaret Griebel, had gotten in Africa.

Artist Susan Griebel crafted this quilted art from fabric her mother-in-law, Margaret Griebel, acquired in Africa.

The featured missionaries (including pastors, teachers and others from many denominations) lived in and around the city of Jos, a cultural melting pot and the epicenter of the violence. They were warned, “Tomorrow there will be trouble.” The next day the phone rang followed by a three-word declaration: “It has started.”

A beautiful carving from Africa, among those the Rev. Paul and Margaret Griebel brought back to the U.S. from Africa.

A beautiful carving from Africa, among those the Rev. Paul and Margaret Griebel brought back to the U.S. from Africa.

And so the stories emerged of Igbos hiding in fields and in rafters of the church sanctuary and in a store room. Stories of Igbos escaping with the help of missionaries. Stories of missionaries hiding a body in elephant grass. Stories of murdered Igbos picked up by trash trucks and buried in mass graves. Stories of the teen children of missionaries tending the wounded inside a police compound. Stories of missionaries lighting a runway with the headlights of their cars during an evacuation effort.

As I listened, I felt my grief rising, heightened perhaps by the unsettling current events in our own country regarding refugees. I wonder what stories they might tell, what violence many have fled/desire to flee for safety in America.

Two stories in particular imprinted upon me from The Disturbances. A victim of the attacks asked a young woman tending him whether she would be his daughter. His entire family had been slaughtered. She agreed, reciting Psalm 23 (The Lord is my shepherd…) and The Lord’s Prayer to the dying man. The woman, 50 years later, still remembers his final words. “I’m going home, my daughter.”

Missionary children at ELM House (Evangelical Lutheran Mission House) in Nigeria. Missionary children lived in the hostel so they could attend boarding school in Jos, Nigeria. The Rev. Paul and Margaret Griebel served as houseparents. Three of their children, including Kirk, are pictured in this group photo.

Missionary children at ELM House (Evangelical Lutheran Mission House) in Nigeria with teacher Carl Eisman in the back row. Missionary children lived in the hostel so they could attend boarding school in Jos. The Rev. Paul and Margaret Griebel served as houseparents. Three of their children, including Kirk, are pictured in this group photo. Photo courtesy of the Rev. Kirk Griebel.

And then there’s the story shared by Carl Eisman, a Lutheran teacher at Hillcrest School (a boarding school in Jos) and friend/co-worker of the Rev. Paul Griebel. After evacuating children from a hostel, the two men remained hidden there with tribal members. As an angry mob approached ELM House, Eisman hid in the shadows with a hunting knife. And, as he recounted, Rev. Griebel sat at a nearby table reading Scripture and praying. Eventually, the mob dispersed and the men emerged to find a body, one they temporarily hid in elephant grass.

My friend, the Rev. Kirk Griebel, doesn’t recall his father (or mother; both now deceased) ever talking about the violence they witnessed. He remembers only an angry mob and waiting outside a fenced police compound where the injured and dying were taken.

This close-up of Susan Griebel's Nigerian-themed art shows the dove she incorporated as

This close-up of Susan Griebel’s Nigerian-themed art shows the dove she incorporated as representing the Holy Spirit. In the film, one interviewee said the missionaries had only one resource–that of prayer.

The film explains why the missionaries didn’t speak openly about the violence, even to family and church staff back home. They felt caught without resources in the middle of a civil war. As foreigners, they thought it best to lie low. They desired, too, to protect the children, to normalize their lives. And so they remained mostly silent. Until now and the documenting of their experiences in The Disturbances.

Given the time period and their foreigner status, I understand the guarded position. Missionaries and Nigerian pastors met, though, for two days in October 1966 to discuss “the disturbances” privately. I am thankful that these long-ago missionaries and their family members have now chosen to speak publicly about their experiences. For it is through the telling of personal stories that we learn and begin to understand suffering, courage, compassion and faith in times of violence. And for those who witnessed such atrocities, talking begins the process of healing.

FYI: Upcoming screenings of The Disturbances are scheduled in Missouri and Alabama. Click here for details. The Rev. Kirk Griebel will present the film this Wednesday, February 1, at 6 p.m. at King of Kings Lutheran Church, 1701 NE 96th St. in Kansas City, Missouri.

© Copyright 2017 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


16 Responses to “A Nigerian civil war story untold until now & my emotional reaction”

  1. Beth Ann Says:

    Wow. I can imagine how moving and emotional this was to watch . So glad they are bringing this to areas so that people can see and be a part of a historical event that very few know about.

  2. Almost Iowa Says:

    It is a problem from hell.

  3. Jackie Says:

    …and it’s still going on, maybe not as horrific as described in your post, but I know many missionaries that remain afraid not only for the lives around them but for their own as well. It’s their love of people and perseverance in wanting to share the word of God that sustains them. I’m thankful for these documentaries that educate and remind us to pray for our missionaries all around the world. My Brice was in he bush” of” Africa for two weeks, the people there were hungry for the Word. Great post Audrey, like you I think I would be pretty emotional.

    • I didn’t know this about Brice. What a great opportunity to witness. And, yes, this film is a great reminder to pray for our missionaries.

      The Rev. Kirk Griebel and his siblings and their families wanted to return to Nigeria 10 years ago to revisit the region. But their visit was denied. Still lots of turmoil in that region. I learned a lot on Sunday.

  4. Ken Wedding Says:


    As someone who was fortunate enough to have a college classmate from Nigeria in the early ’60s, I’ve paid special attention to the country for a long while. (And I have taught about Nigeria for nearly as long.)

    The “disturbances” were a full-fledged civil war in which over 3 million people died (most of them Igbo or Ibo). It began because of a pair of off-setting military coups that illustrated the extreme difficulties of integrating a nation that was patched together by British imperialists. The population is nearly equally divided between Muslims and Christians, with a goodly percentage of other religions as well. Most of the north is populated by Muslims and most of the south is Christian. Jos, mentioned above, is in the “middle belt” area where the religious groups (and conflicting cultural groups) come into contact with one another. Those divisions still play out in Nigeria’s politics today — although usually much less violently.

    Kurt Vonnegut wrote a touching account of a short visit to Nigeria during the civil war: “Biafra: A People Betrayed”


  5. Bernadette Thomasy Says:

    We are so often sheltered from the horrors of the rest of the world. Thank you for spreading the word about this powerful documentary and helping us realize how fortunate we are to live in America.

  6. Gunny Says:

    Civil Wars are the worst of the worst! The American Civil War was brutal and devastating. Differences in religion, politics or culture are often at the roots of these wars. Pray for peace.

  7. Sue Ready Says:

    Thanks for your insightful comments about a disturbing time for this country and still today wars rage on and otten lessons are not learned. Yes indeed prayers for peace are needed.

  8. I feel so sheltered and naive at times as to what is truly going on in the world in which we live and sometimes it is too graphic or taken out of context in regards to the media too. I know a few people that changed after serving in wars – a few that talked openly about it and a few that just shut down and did not speak about it. I cannot imagine let alone wrap my head around certain incidents at times. Especially the incidents where you are going about your day and massive tragedy takes place – hard to predict let alone protect yourself. It continues and continues and continues . . . I appreciate you sharing your experience.

    • Likewise, I too often feel sheltered despite the availability of information. But I am becoming more aware as recent events have unfolded in our country. And that’s probably good that I am more informed.

      War certainly changes people. How could it not?

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