Another Day in the Drop Zone

Outside Magazine
July 2000


“Salat! Salat!”

The call to prayer came at 4:30 a.m.

“Pray! Pray! It’s better to pray than to sleep!”

I was staying in a house across the street from one of Baidoa’s mosques, so there was no chance of dozing. As the echoes from the loudspeaker faded into the darkness, I could hear the neighborhood stirring as people rose to wash their hands and feet and kneel in prayer toward Mecca. There was a knock at the bedroom door. “You awake?” John Miskell called out.

Miskell and I were leaving Baidoa before dawn on a journey to a town named Tieglo, deep in the Somali hinterland a few miles south of nowhere. Miskell, who oversees CARE International’s relief programs in southern Somalia, was planning to rendezvous there with a convoy of 12 trucks bringing 254 tons of food from Mogadishu. Between Baidoa and Tieglo lay 13 hours of Somali bush, dirt-and-boulder roads offering little more than lungfuls of dust and lobe-deadening headaches and the bleak scenery of a country pounded by civil war and famine. It was Miskell’s job to make sure the food got to Tieglo safely.

It’s been nearly a decade since jeering mobs dragged the body of U.S. Army Ranger Bill Cleveland through the streets of Mogadishu, and in that time little has improved. When the United Nations armed forces departed in 1995, the implicit message was simple: You people want to kill? Go ahead, kill yourselves. Call us when you get tired of it. Since then, northern Somalia has stabilized somewhat, but southern Somalia, with Mogadishu at its heart, remains a nightmarish, Hobbesian realm that once again hovers on the cusp of famine.

Our Toyota Land Cruiser was parked in the house’s courtyard behind a steel gate topped with barbed wire and guarded by a couple of teenagers toting AK-47s. Loaded in the rear were 80 liters of gas in plastic containers. We would be traveling in a four-wheel drive, all-terrain bomb. Miskell would have liked to put the gas on the rooftop luggage rack, but that space was reserved for two other militiamen bearing AK-47s, who were to keep an eye out for trouble–of which, unlike food or water or peace or schools or law and order, there is plenty in Somalia.

“Where’s the driver?” I asked when we got to the courtyard.

Miskell nodded at a prostrate form on the ground.

“Apparently our driver is praying,” he said.

The prayers seemed unusually devout. When he finished, we drove into the center of town and met up with several more Somalis who worked for CARE. They would travel with us in two other Land Cruisers–one in front of our vehicle, the other behind– equipped with the requisite duos of rooftop gunslingers. As dawn broke, our convoy headed into the bush, only to stop after a few miles. We were surrounded by stunted trees covered in dust. Camels plodded past, herders in tow. Finally Cobra, one of the Somalis–everybody has a nickname in Somalia, and his was Cobra–walked back from the lead vehicle to tell us what was happening.

“There is an ambush ahead,” he said.


“IT’S COMING,” Sienna Loftus whispered.

The roar grew louder, more insistent. We were standing outside Mangar Angui, a Dinka village in southern Sudan whose name means “den of hyenas.” We had not heard mechanical sounds for days. There was no electricity in the village or anywhere nearby, nothing larger than the mud-and-grass huts, nothing with more moving parts than a one-speed bicycle. Even the fighting is primitive here. A civil war between the Muslim government in Khartoum and the largely Christian Sudan People’s Liberation Army has been torturing Sudan almost nonstop for decades. In the area around Mangar Angui, which the SPLA controls, a much-feared pro-government militia ransacks villages on horseback. And when the government decides to bomb the rebels, it sends aloft a clunky Soviet-era Antonov transport plane and a soldier rolls artillery shells out of the cargo bay.

The bombing today would be different.

“I don’t want those guys under the trees!” Loftus shouted in English, waving at a group of men. “All those guys should move out! There are people under the tree! Move!” A local relief worker hustled the men away.

By now you could look at the sky and see why she was causing a commotion: A C-130 Hercules transport plane lumbered perhaps 700 feet above ground, heading straight for us.

“This is the most nerve-racking part of our job,” said Loftus, a field-worker for the UN World Food Program. “Look at those women as they walk behind the drop zone and don’t think it’s a problem. Someone could die right now.” She shouted for them to move away and then pushed the talk button on her radio.

“Fox-one-four, you’re clear to drop, you’re clear to drop.”

“One minute to drop zone,” the pilot replied.

“Right now is the crucial time,” Loftus said. “When he says, ‘One minute to drop,’ and you give the OK, you cross your fingers and just hope nothing happens. A little kid can start running into the zone. You’re always looking. We’re not supposed to kill people while bringing food in.”

The WFP plane was overhead now, scaring birds from their nests and prompting villagers to look up openmouthed. Suddenly, hundreds of white 50-kilo bags–325 in all, 16 tons of corn and grain–began tumbling from the Herc’s cargo bay. At first they seemed to float like the world’s largest bits of confetti, but after a few seconds they began hitting the ground, one after the other, sounding and feeling like a salvo of artillery shells–boom boom boom boom–and you realized these things could indeed kill.

But not today. Loftus smiled. “To be in a place where food arrives from the sky,” she said, “it’s almost magical. It’s always exciting, always.”

EXCITING BUT NOT EASY. After less than a year as an aid worker, Loftus, 32, who grew up in Montana, has had typhoid once, malaria twice, and a slew of mysterious boils. She’s waded through swamps befouled with human waste and disease and endured the sort of bureaucratic nullity in which the UN specializes–like the time a bush plane dropped her off without the trunk of food that was supposed to keep her alive. (It arrived nine days later.) For his part, John Miskell, 53, a native of upstate New York, is a petri dish of tropical ills–he’s had dengue fever several times, bacterial and amebic dysentery, giardia, blood poisoning, and most recently cholera, which almost killed him. He’s been shot at and cursed. And yet neither he nor Loftus (whom he has never met) would do anything else.

Thanks to the end of the Cold War, aid work has undergone a geometric leap in visibility, controversy, and danger. Aid workers are the first to arrive and the last to leave the world’s most chaotic and violent war zones–”complex emergencies,” in relief jargon–places routinely filled with hunger and disease and, instead of government soldiers who follow (more or less) the Geneva Conventions on war, gunmen (and gunboys) who don’t think twice about kidnapping or killing a Western aid worker. In 1998, for the first time, more UN aid workers were killed than UN peacekeepers, although tinder boxes like Sierra Leone can blow up in peacekeepers’ faces at any time. When I was in Sudan with Loftus, ten aid workers were killed. First, two CARE employees were killed outside Khartoum; the government blamed the rebels. A week later, eight aid workers affiliated with African churches were gunned down near the Ugandan border by Ugandan guerrillas from the Lord’s Resistance Army. The gunmen simply opened fire on their vehicle. But the victims were Africans, and the tragedy of their execution was compounded by a sad irony: While local aid workers compose the bulk of the aid world’s ranks and, at least in Africa, are often at greater risk than white expatriates, the violent deaths of almost a dozen of them didn’t (and don’t) make the evening news in Europe or America.

Still, First World or Third World, black or white, aid workers often laugh when you ask why they do what they do. It’s an ambiguous chuckle, knowing and nervous, that means the answer is either obvious or a mystery, even to them. They’ll repeat the line about their profession being composed of missionaries, mercenaries, or maniacs, but that doesn’t get you very far, nor them: Missionaries would be crestfallen by the corruption, mercenaries could find easier ways to get their hands on a few pieces of silver, and maniacs could not cope with the discipline the job demands.

So why do they do it? For aid workers from the Third World, the jobs pay quite well, and if they are working in their native countries, they are helping their own people. For First Worlders, there is the thrill of exotic altruism. None of them rejoices in the mines or the kidnappings or the cholera or the misery of starving villagers, but these things catapult them out of the drudgery of nine-to-five life in their tamperproof homelands. They have a front-row seat to history in motion, which is big and terrifying and amazing, like the thrashings of a wounded elephant. Aid workers are bearers of good will and targets for warlords. They are vultures and angels.


IN SOMALIA, there is usually an explanation for violence that appears mindless, and in fact an explanation existed for the ambush that awaited us a few hundred yards up the road. CARE, like other humanitarian groups, does not own any of the vehicles it uses in southern Somalia. It is unwise to own a car there unless you also own a private militia that can prevent another private militia from stealing it. CARE rents its vehicles from people connected to various militias, and its written contract requires owners to provide, with each car, “two security guards with necessary hardware.” Meaning assault rifles. Pistols will not do.

The gentlemen manning a roadblock a half-mile up the road were representing, in the Somali fashion, the interests of someone in Baidoa who did not win the contract to supply vehicles to CARE. The gunmen didn’t want to shoot us; they just wanted us to use different vehicles (theirs) at the going rate of $60 per vehicle per day, a small fortune in Somalia. If we refused their offer, they might, reluctantly, find it necessary to open fire. Cobra, who is in his thirties and used to work for the U.S. embassy in Mogadishu back when there was a U.S. embassy in Mogadishu, calmly explained this to Miskell.

“You’ve got to be kidding,” Miskell said.

“No,” Cobra replied. “I’ll go back to town and bring the district commissioner here to straighten this out.”

Cobra returned with the commissioner, and after 15 minutes of arguing with the guys at the roadblock we all drove back to Baidoa’s police station. You could tell it was the police station by the traditional Somali crime-fighting vehicles outside: bullet-pocked pickups with heavy machine guns mounted in back, and a truck with a large antiaircraft gun on its flatbed. These Mad Max—style vehicles are known as “technicals.” Next to them sat a battered pickup bearing a corpse wrapped in a blanket with a woman wailing beside it.

There’s really no difference between the police and the fighters in southern Somalia; policemen just happen to be charged by their warlords with keeping civil order instead of battling other clans. They have no training and no uniforms because there are no government officials to provide them. Public schools no longer exist in southern Somalia, just scattered Islamic schools that teach Arabic and the Koran; nor is there a public health system or anything else that would suggest the presence of a controlling legal authority. In the U.S. State Department’s official briefing paper on Somalia, under the heading “Government,” there is simply the word “None.” The country’s legislative system is “Not Functioning.” The judiciary is also “Not Functioning.” The entry for national holidays reads, “None presently celebrated.”

There was certainly no celebrating going on at the Baidoa police station. After another half-hour, the commissioner got fed up and tossed several of the gunmen into jail and sent us on our way.

As we drove off a few of the men who’d gathered to observe the proceedings began jeering–as far as they were concerned, the wrong guys were being locked up. One pointed a finger at Miskell, who’d come to Baidoa to give away food, and said, “Fuck you.”

We were journeying into one of Somalia’s larger fiefdoms, an area controlled by the Rahenweyn Resistance Army, which is led by a thin, reportedly diabetic warlord known as Red Shirt. He was wearing a white shirt when Miskell visited him a day before, seeking his blessing to distribute food without being attacked. RRA territory is relatively safe, but that only means no aid workers have been killed there recently. Of course, aid convoys had been attacked, including, a few months earlier, one of Miskell’s; he escaped injury because the bandits were shooting at a different vehicle. On another occasion one of Miskell’s Somali staffers had not been so lucky. Militiamen ambushed him as he drove through an area north of Mogadishu that had been considered relatively safe–until he was murdered.

The problem is that anyplace in Somalia can turn into a killing ground. On the outskirts of Wajit, halfway on our journey to Tieglo, a child several years away from his first shave presided over yet another roadblock. As our Land Cruisers approached a twisted metal pole cast across the road, the kid told our guards to surrender their guns because, he said, visitors were not allowed to carry weapons into town. When our guards protested, the kid pointed his AK-47 at us. One of our guards–a veteran of such standoffs, though only in his late teens–hopped off the roof and marched toward the boy, pointing his rifle at the youngster.

“What’s he doing?” Miskell said under his breath. “Let’s not start a war.”

The kid retreated into a nearby hut. As we drove past, he came back out, looking as though he were about to cry. He was just a boy, but boys like him have shot adults like us many times. “Don’t worry,” Miskell had told me, “your chance of being shot to death is greater than being robbed.” Then he’d smiled. “And your chance of being shot accidentally is greater than being shot intentionally.”


THE MEN WERE whipping the women with branches torn from nearby trees. You could hear the lashes cutting through the air. Hundreds of women had lined up on the airstrip to receive the food dropped by the Herc the day before, and here and there pushing and shoving had broken out, as well as tugs-of-war over sacks of grain. That’s why the men had whips–to restore order.

There was a festival air, despite the whipping, because food was being given away. The community was gathering en masse, an unusual event for people who spend their days tending meager crops of sorghum and thin herds of cattle or goats. At the moment, there is no wholesale starvation in Mangar Angui, though there was in 1998. The villagers’ storehouses, which Loftus had inspected in the past few days, were almost bare; the WFP is not solving the hunger problem, just keeping it at bay. After the distribution, women and children would sift through the dust, looking for stray kernels of corn.

Loftus moved with the quickness of a hummingbird, as did John Kamemia, a Kenyan and veteran aid worker who was partnered with her in Mangar Angui (WFP field-workers travel in pairs for safety). Hundreds of sacks of maize and lentils, as well as tins of vegetable oil, were being handed out at several points spread over an area as large as a few football fields. Loftus and Kamemia wanted, above all, to make sure the food was divided fairly. WFP food is supposed to go to the vulnerable–refugees, nursing mothers, children, and the disabled. Lists had been drawn up with the names of villages, village chiefs, and the number of people to receive food in each village. Local relief workers from the Sudanese Relief and Rehabilitation Association, the humanitarian arm of the SPLA, were attempting to sort it out as Loftus flitted here and there, calling out instructions. “Dhuok cen! Dhuok cen!” she shouted, in Dinka, to several men lounging around a stack of food bags. “Everyone around these bags needs to go. Dhuok cen! Dhuok cen!” Like most foreign aid workers in southern Sudan, Loftus knows only a few words of Dinka, and the one she uses most frequently means “step back.”

She was dressed in her usual bush outfit: a pair of shorts and a white WFP T-shirt. On her feet she wore Ralph Lauren Polo flip-flops; on her head, a Patagonia hat with sun visors in front and back; and on her back, a 3.5-liter CamelBak. In a country where 100 degrees is regarded as cool weather, a water-filled backpack is the sort of thing that makes eminent sense. But when you are a healthy American moving among Africans who are a meal or two away from starvation, you look more like a visitor from another planet.

After a while Loftus took a break under a tree. She looked exhausted; her dark hair was pasted down by sweat and she was covered in dirt. Women with 50-kilo bags on their heads were walking away into the bush, which was problematic. Unless you see food actually given to the people it’s intended for, you have no idea whether the village chief will keep much of it for himself and his multiple wives, or whether soldiers may grab it instead.

“We want them to stay here and share the food,” Loftus remarked. “We don’t want them to go off and share the food under a chief. We want to monitor it.”


AID WORK IS AN addiction. Something happens, and your life–which was going to be normal, with a family and a good job that you perform with decreasing enthusiasm over the years–becomes exceptional, forever. And you can’t imagine it otherwise.

In 1969 John Miskell, having just graduated from Syracuse University’s College of Environmental Science and Forestry, joined the Peace Corps, figuring on a year or two of adventure before settling down. He was sent to Kenya, where his sojourn coincided with a famine. Incompetence and corruption hindered efforts to feed the hungry, so they died, sometimes right in front of Miskell, who was teaching high school in Wajir, a village in the north (and trapping poisonous snakes and selling them to a zoo in his spare time).

“I thought when I joined the Peace Corps that I would do my two years and go home and look for a job as a forester or entomologist,” he told me. “My first year in Wajir changed that.” He met Zahra Hussein Awale, an enchanting Somali secretary traveling through Kenya, and they got married. When his hitch in the Peace Corps ended, he took a job in the entomology department at the National Museum in Nairobi, where he spent most of his time in a cavernous room with 250,000 beetle specimens. When funds for that job ran out, he decamped with his wife and two young children (two more would come later) to Mogadishu, well before the city devolved into a synonym for anarchy, to conduct a bird survey for the UN.

Eventually funding for that project ran dry too, so he took a job with CARE. There are thousands of nongovernmental organizations, or NGOs, across the globe, but CARE ranks among the elite, in terms of reliability and efficiency, along with Médecins Sans Frontières, Save the Children, World Vision, the International Rescue Committee, and several others. Founded in 1945 as a vehicle to send aid packages to survivors of World War II, CARE then stood for Cooperative for American Remittances to Europe. The group, headquartered in Atlanta, Georgia, has since changed its name to Cooperative for Assistance and Relief Everywhere; it operates in more than 60 countries with more than 10,000 employees, the vast majority of them Third World citizens working in the Third World.

Most NGOs tend to see the UN, their ubiquitous counterpart in relief operations, as a 900-pound gorilla. And while UN personnel usually get along quite well with NGO workers in the field, their bureaucratic cultures are polar opposites. In Nairobi, an NGO like CARE is based in a rented house filled with a few dozen staffers. The UN agencies occupy a sprawling campus with landscaped grounds and more than a thousand well-paid employees. NGO staffers will tell you that the UN wastes almost as much money as it spends; UN officials sniff that the NGOs are nickel-and-dime amateurs.

Miskell is a pro. He spent four years in Somalia with CARE before shifting to eastern Sudan in 1985 for three years; then, in 1988, to Uganda; then to a remote corner of Bangladesh in 1993, because, as he says, “No one wanted to go there.” He stayed for a year and a half, at which point he was asked to take charge of a CARE project in a remote part of Sudan, another place no one wanted to go. Later he was sent to Tanzania for a spell, then back to Sudan in 1998; finally, last year, his pinball trajectory deposited him back in Somalia. His family could not quite keep up: In 1991 they moved to Geneseo, New York, so that his children could attend high school and college in America. One of his sons is now in the U.S. Army, just back from Bosnia; another recently moved to Washington, D.C.; and a third is finishing high school in Geneseo. His ten-year-old daughter, born in Mogadishu, is starting sixth grade this fall. Miskell sees them twice a year, during vacations. Two months with his family, ten in Africa.

Miskell is based on the outskirts of Merca, 60 miles south of Mogadishu; it is too dangerous for him to live in the capital. In many respects, CARE’s Merca villa is splendid. If you stand on the balcony you have a view of the turquoise Indian Ocean a few hundred yards in front of you; if you look to the left, Merca’s colonial precincts unfold, a whitewashed mix of African and Arabic and Italian architecture, like an apparition from a Paul Bowles novel. A strong, warm wind blows off the ocean. One hears the regular calls to prayer, occasional ruptures of gunfire, and, when kids in the street catch a glimpse of you, excited shouts of “Gal! Gal!”–Somali for “infidel.”

It’s comfortable, as prisons go. The villa’s steel gate is locked at all times. Miskell does not leave without at least three armed bodyguards, and he rarely walks anywhere. There is a handful of foreign aid workers in Merca, mostly Italians rebuilding local schools, and they follow the same rules. One Italian aid worker was assassinated a few years back–the killer slipped into her villa, shot her in the head, and ran out. Last year more than a dozen aid workers were kidnapped in southern Somalia: Ten staffers for the International Committee of the Red Cross were seized in April, threatened with death, and then released after two weeks. (The ICRC says no ransom was paid, but a news report claimed that $150,000 changed hands.) That same month another Italian was abducted and held for three weeks, and a top WFP official traveling in Mogadishu was kidnapped for a few days at the end of 1999. It was his second abduction.


JUST AS SUDAN has the unfortunate distinction of possessing Africa’s longest-running civil war, the food drops Loftus helps oversee are part of Africa’s longest-running, and most controversial, aid project. The war itself began in 1956, when Sudan gained independence from British rule; went into remission in 1972; and returned worse than ever in 1983, after the Muslim government in Khartoum imposed Islamic law on the country, including the largely Christian and animist southern half. (The U.S. government supports the rebel Sudan People’s Liberation Army.)In the last 17 years the war has cost some two million lives–many from war-induced famines–and turned several million more people into refugees.

Loftus’s work is part of Operation Lifeline Sudan, an 11-year-old joint project of the United Nations and some 40 NGOs, including CARE. The operation has run up an estimated $2 billion tab so far through its food and medicine drops, and critics have charged that such projects allow bloody conflicts to continue indefinitely since aid groups strike devil’s bargains with warring factions, which inevitably get a cut of the food in exchange for safe passage of their convoys. Refugees get fed, but so do murderers.

Out in the field, Loftus has more important things to worry about than lofty policy debates–things like not dying. Born the year John Miskell joined the Peace Corps, she is relatively new to the game. She came to Sudan via Great Falls, Montana, a place, she says in a mock serious voice, “where a handshake is still the law.” Always athletic, she became an expert rock climber in her teens, and after high school moved to Boston and worked as a nanny, an emergency medical technician, a vegetarian chef, and an orderly in a mental institution before getting an anthropology degree from the University of Massachusetts. After college she drifted to Kenya and worked as a guide for luxury safaris, but there was an emptiness to the work–baby-sitting rich white people in Africa is not terribly meaningful. So two years ago she applied for a job with the World Food Program in Sudan and, thanks to some persistence, got it.

Every six weeks Loftus boards a bush plane at the UN base in Lokichokio, Kenya, and is dropped off several hours later in rebel-held territory in southern Sudan. This is assuming the UN plane does not nose-dive into the landing strip and flip over (as one did while I was in Sudan) or that its passengers are not taken hostage by gunmen (as happened to another UN plane shortly after I left). If all goes well Loftus and a partner stay at each drop-off point for a few days to a week. Then another plane takes them to another site. Loftus sleeps in a Kelty tent, cooks over a kerosene burner, and does her best to avoid snakes, scorpions, hyenas, soldiers, and wild dogs. The WFP requires its field-workers to keep a survival bag handy with food, water, first-aid supplies, flashlight, and compass in case they have to flee. In Mangar Angui, I asked Loftus’s field partner, John Kamemia, where he keeps his “fast-run kit.” He laughed and pointed to his ample belly. “This is my fast-run kit,” he said.

If Loftus needs to investigate food conditions in a village ten miles from her camp, she must walk. Paved roads do not, for the most part, exist in southern Sudan, nor do vehicles to drive on them–just the occasional NGO Land Rover or military truck being pounded to death by the baked earth in the dry season or swallowed up by that same earth in the rainy season. Some monitors are sent out with bicycles (one-speed bikes made in China have proven more durable here than American-made mountain bikes), but the terrain tends to be too rutted or too swampy for travel on anything but your own two feet, which will be cracked or infected, depending on the season.

Mosquitoes can be so dense that you inhale them. Sudan also boasts 80 percent of the world’s cases of infestation by guinea worm, whose larva enters the human body via unclean drinking water and grows in the bloodstream into a three-foot-long white worm before chewing its way through the skin, usually at the foot, and emerging in its entirety in an agonizing and horribly disgusting process that takes weeks at a minimum, and usually months.

“Sudan,” said one WFP field worker, a woman who’d endured cerebral malaria and a mysterious grapefruit-size growth on her neck, “tries to destroy people.”


DESPITE WHITE HAIR and a white beard, John Miskell looks absurdly vigorous for a man who has spent his adult life in the punishing bush. The mystery of his youthful appearance deepened as we drove to Tieglo. In places the road wasn’t even dirt, just rocks, and the Land Cruiser jolted up and down as though perched atop a giant jackhammer. Red dust invaded the cabin in clumps; the 100-degree air tasted of gasoline. I placed a bandanna over my mouth; our driver jammed the end of his scarf into his mouth and gnawed on it. Occasionally we passed small towns nearly wiped out in the last decade of war, a Dresden-like vista of ruin. Small groups of underfed people sat in what shade they could find beside mud huts. They stared as we passed, our Land Cruisers strange apparitions from the land of plenty.

Miskell sat up front, seemingly unfazed. Nothing covered his nose or mouth. He patiently scanned the bush for birds; when he saw one, he would jot its name in his notebook. I tried to stump him, asking the names of birds that flew past in a millisecond, but he was miles ahead of me. “Red-billed hornbill,” he said as one zoomed by, and then he delivered an ornithological trump card: “Female.” On occasion he would tell the driver to stop, and he would leave the car, binoculars in hand, and shuffle toward a creature perched in a tree. The rooftop guards seemed baffled by this white guy chasing after birds.

Long-term exposure to other people’s suffering can harm aid workers in a process known euphemistically as “vicarious traumatization.” The mind and body have ways of coping: alcohol abuse, withdrawal. This has not happened to Miskell. His defense mechanism is unique–he retreats into an alternative universe of wildlife. For him, the bush isn’t full of misery, but of mysteries unsolved. He has coauthored a book on Somali birds and is updating it for a second edition. He has discovered three new species of beetles, and two admiring colleagues named beetles they discovered after him. “Every time a botanist comes to this country, they find a new species of plant,” he enthused. “It’s just amazing.”

Miskell has become a man of Africa rather than a visitor to Africa. He drinks camel milk by the gallon, and almost everywhere he goes, he carries a six-by-eight-inch picture of his family, a posed studio shot where he stands proudly with his Somali wife and his half-Somali, half-American children. It is, in a way, a passport that tells everyone Miskell is African, that he is not just another white guy with the power to provide free food, that he is more at home in the chaos of Somalia than in the comfort of America.

Well after sunset, and nearly 14 hours after leaving Baidoa, we pulled into Tieglo reeking of gasoline and sweat and dust. The food trucks, which had set out from Mogadishu, were scheduled to arrive the next day. But as we were to find out, things had not gone according to plan. Miskell was about to get another dose of chaos.


AT SIX IN THE evening, Loftus fired up her WFP solar-powered radio and shouted out, “Lima Two, Mike Golf India!” No response. She shouted again, and this time summoned a voice from the ether.


“Yes!” she yelled back. “John? How are you doing?”

John Burns, another WFP field-worker, is Loftus’s boyfriend. Like lovers meeting on the same bench in a park, they talk on the radio at the same time every evening.

“Great,” Burns replied.

“Are you still smoking?” Loftus asked.

“No, but I really crave it.”

“That’s a good copy. When will you get to the field?”Burns, who was at the UN base in northern Kenya, was waiting to be sent into southern Sudan.

“I don’t know. There’s nothing for me to do there yet.”

“OK,” Loftus yelled. “Well, keep on not smoking.”

“Right, talk to you tomorrow.”

Loftus turned to me. “Now everyone in the SPLA, SRAA, and WFP knows John is trying to quit smoking,” she said, laughing. “You’d like to say, ‘I love you, I love you, I miss you, I miss you,’ but you can’t.”

Two-way radios are the Internet of the aid world. Virtually every aid worker in southern Sudanthere are hundreds in the field at any timeuses a shortwave radio to stay in touch with headquarters and, if the need arises, as it frequently does, to arrange emergency evacuations for medical or security reasons. At night the airwaves become a vast chat room in which people swap gossip like teenagers burning the phone lines after lights-out. If you flip between channelsand aside from talking with your colleagues, the best form of entertainment is eavesdropping on themyou will hear WFP staffers talking about sports, bitching about the weather, trying to sell each other used cars.

The foreigners work alongside Sudanese whose grasp of English seems to derive, in part, from radio chatter. In Mangar Angui, one of Loftus’s colleagues was a 26-year-old local named John Garang (not to be confused with the head of the SPLA, who has the same name). If Garang wanted to know whether Loftus understood something, he would ask, with a hint of BBC in his accent, “Do you copy?” If he wanted to indicate that things were fine, he might say “Oscar Kilo,” radio-ese for “OK.”

One day, after a grueling six-hour walkabout to check food conditions, Garang hung around our tents, which we had set up inside mud huts, and leafed through a copy of Yachting that Loftus had brought into the field along with a recent copy of Newsweek and one of Shape, its cover advertising “8 New Moves for a Knockout Tush.” Putting his finger on a color picture of a 45-foot sloop, Garanga man who had likely never seen open water in his life, nor a vessel larger than a canoeannounced enthusiastically, “I want this boat.”

Loftus and I were slumped in the shade of a tree, swallowing oral-rehydration salts.

“Aren’t you tired?” I asked.

“Negative,” Garang said. “Small walk.”

The Dinka are known for being exceptionally tall and long-legged. The most famous Dinka in the world is seven-foot, seven-inch retired NBA center Manute Bol.

“How long can you walk?”

“Twenty-four hours,” Garang said.

“Twenty-four hours?” “Affirmative.”


THE TOWN HAS several hundred mud huts, but no hotels, so Miskell and I stayed in a local merchant’s home that had a roof made of tin rather than plastic sheeting, making it deluxe accommodations. In the morning, the CARE team gathered for a breakfast of sweet tea, camel milk, goat meat, and anjera, the local bread. Miskell didn’t bother saying good morning.

“You haven’t heard yet,” he told me. “The convoy was attacked.”

The news had come over the two-way radio. No one was sure where the convoy was or whether anyone had been injured. After breakfast Miskell visited the local radio operator, in a lean-to crammed with Somalis waiting in line to talk with friends in other towns, and got through to someone in CARE’s office in Merca.

“When do you expect him to reach this location?” Miskell shouted.

“I don’t know,” came the reply. “There was fighting. Over.” The connection broke off abruptly.

“Can you use channel 8044?” Miskell shouted. “Channel 8044! Over.” They briefly re-established contact. Miskell left the hut in disgust. Four guards had been killed, three wounded, and a technical destroyed in the ambush, at a checkpoint about 100 miles from Tieglo. “Why are they doing it?” Miskell fumed. “It’s insane.”

The rest of the day consisted of quick updates with CARE employees in Merca and Mogadishu. On one occasion, Ahmed Abdulle, the CARE convoy leader, was patched through. Because anyone could listen to the shortwave conversation, including the gunmen who attacked the convoy, little was said about where the convoy was holed up or how it was going to get here intact.

“Are you safe where you are?”

“Yes,” Ahmed replied. “I am safe. The convoy is intact and safe.”

“Will you be able to leave?”


Before dinner we listened to the BBC World Service, which reported that the office of a British aid group, ACCORD, had been attacked in a town near Merca. Two people were dead. A militia tracked the gunmen down and killed their leader, but two bystanders were wounded in that shootout. There was silence in the compound.

The next morning, when I wandered into the courtyard for breakfast, Miskell again skipped the pleasantries. “You haven’t heard?” he asked.

“What now?” I said.

“A civilian truck that was on the road the convoy was on hit a land mine. We don’t know how many were killed.” The mine, he explained, was meant for our food convoy.

The ambush appeared to be a business dispute. The trucking firm that CARE hired to transport the food was being attacked by a rival company that wanted CARE’s business, we learned. Allies of the victimized firm had already struck back by kidnapping one of the owners of the firm that launched the ambush.

There was more. We soon heard that the CARE convoy had been attacked a second time the previous evening, as many as ten more guards killed and another technical destroyed by rocket-propelled grenades. On top of that, militias linked to the warring trucking firms had begun fighting in Beledweyn, a town near the ambush sites; shops in the town had been looted.

“Food is dangerous,” Miskell remarked. “If we’re not careful, this convoy is going to start a war, a big war.”

There was nothing he could do except return to Merca the next day and instruct Ahmed to give the food to local charities and go back to Mogadishu. When he returned from the radio shack, Miskell sat in the courtyard, ignoring dozens of children who stared at him through the wooden fence, and began reading a novel by Tony Hillerman. I drew his attention to a beetle climbing a wall behind him.

“Longhorned wood bore,” he said.


BEFORE THE SUN had risen much above the horizon, Loftus and I put on running shoes and headed for the dirt airstrip. We jogged back and forth for a half-hour, past women lugging jugs of water on their heads, past thin hunters with spears, past naked, giggling children.

“They think it’s the most bizarre thing,” Loftus said. And it is. But in Sudan, where serious illness is a scratch or a sneeze or a dirty fork away, staying fit (or at least unsick) is important. Loftus travels with an arsenal of health- and sanity-preserving weapons. She eschews the beans-and-rice strategy of bush survival, opting instead for jars of garlic and olives, packets of cumin and coriander, powdered coconut milk, cans of tikka marsala, and bags of bulgar and lentils. She carries $60 tubes of Lancme skin cleanser, toenail polish, and a solar-powered cassette player. “I have one week off for every six weeks in the field,” she explains. “If I didn’t feel at home, I couldn’t work here.”

Sadly, these self-protective strategies can widen the gulf between aid workers and the people they help. It’s not a white-versus-black issue; Kamemia was almost as much of an alien in Mangar Angui as Loftus, although his knowledge of Arabic, which some educated southern Sudanese speak, brought him closer to a few. Aid workers learn to be insular: The hands extended toward youand everyone wants to shake your handcan transmit any number of gastrointestinal diseases. Loftus has already perfected a method of waving in such a friendly way that people don’t realize she hasn’t shaken their hands.

As we packed to leave Mangar Angui for another village, we were watched closely by two women who had been employed, during our visit, to wash our dishes and bring water from a well a half-mile away, carrying the 20-liter containers on their heads. They had been paid with a sack of maize, which would fulfill perhaps a quarter of a family’s needs for a month, after the women pounded it into powder and cooked it into a sludgy porridge. But they wanted more, and they held out their hands to Loftus as she stowed her food in her trunk. The women wore torn, soiled bits of clothing and, like all but the luckiest of local villagers, had no shoes.

“Don’t beg,” Loftus said sharply to one, in English. “It doesn’t make you look good.”

It sounded harsh, and it was. But her words reflected the sort of hard-heartedness aid workers must adopt to keep from being driven into utter depression by the insurmountable misery around them. It also reflected an effort to stay sane by following the rules even when doing so seems callous or futile. You can’t save everyone, nor can you protect them from vultures in their midst. Sometimes you have little choice but to walk away. During the food distribution, as women left with entire 50-kilo bags, Loftus spoke with local officials who told her the food would be kept nearby and redistributed the next day. By that time, as they well knew, she would be gone. And the chiefs would divide the food however they wished.


THE ELDERS OF Tieglo gathered in the village’s television hut, where you pay the equivalent of five cents for an evening of satellite TV, and listened to Miskell explain that the convoy had been attacked twice and dozens killed. Their peoplea scattered 10,000 in allwould not be getting any food, not now. The quartet of elders, carrying finely carved wooden staffs and wearing elegant sarongs, sat in plastic lawn chairs and stroked their beards.

“Hunger is increasing,” one of them said, as a Somali translated for me. “We didn’t get any food in December or January. People are selling their livestock for food.” This is true. The WFP was about to appeal for a massive infusion of food aid for countries in the Horn of Africa: According to the UN, roughly eight million people are at risk of starvation in Ethiopia alone, as well as in parts of Kenya and Sudan. Pockets of malnutrition were already developing around Tiegloindicators of big trouble ahead.

“We have to go,” Miskell replied. “We’ll come back as soon as we can.”

The elder shrugged in the resigned manner of men who have come to expect the worst in a country that has experienced the worst. “It is Allah’s will,” he said.

It was hard to keep track of all the thievery and corruption. There was the provincial official seeking free food for his orphanage, an empty house filled with kids only when aid workers visited. There was the Baidoa warehouse set on fire to cover up the pilfering of UN supplies by its managers. There was the 370-ton food convoy stolen by a provincial governor’s gunmen and used, the rumor goes, to acquire new Land Cruisers. And the WFP official who was so corrupt that, according to a joke making the rounds, WFP stood for “Warlord Food Program.”

When the meeting ended, everyone filed away quietly, as though leaving a funeral. Miskell returned to our tin-roofed room, which was stiflingly hot. Outside, a stiff breeze stirred up clouds of dust.

“Most people in this country would like to see the warlords evaporate,” he told me. “If you cut the food out, who is going to starve? Not the gunmen. They have guns and they will find ways to get food. The other people will starve. If we pulled out there might be some sort of conclusion reached faster than otherwise, but the number of people who would die would be pretty incredible.”

This dilemma is at the heart of the debate over food aid. Perhaps pulling out would be, in the long run, the right thing to do, but doing so would take the ruthlessness of a Machiavellian and the heartlessness of a Malthusian. “Sometimes you feel like packing it in,” Miskell admitted. “Some people would tell you I’m crazy, and maybe they’re right.” But he stays. “My family keeps telling me to come back to America, that I can find a job, I don’t need to do this,” he said. “But every time I go to the States I go for about four weeks, and after about a month I know it’s time to leave again. Maybe it’s because everything is too perfect. I find it boring.” Miskell is no adrenaline junkie. He may be an unpredictability junkie, howevera guy who wants to be surprised by what unfolds in front of him or what flies over his head. And he wants to feel that he is really doing something. As I discovered, he is pathetically out of touch with the rest of the media-saturated First World, out of touch with IPO fever and the latest box-office sensation. He still cares about starvation, the poor bastard, even after 30 years in the field.

We returned to Baidoa the next day and then flew to Merca. After a 30-minute stopover to load some fuel, the plane headed to Nairobi, with me on it. I watched as Miskell climbed into his Land Cruiser and started home with his quartet of bodyguards. His first order of business was to find a trucking company that could get a convoy of food to Tieglo. He will likely be doing that sort of thing for the rest of his working life. He does not plan to return to live in America, ever. When he retires, he wants to build a house on a plot of land that he owns with his wife. The land is in Mogadishu.


IT HAPPENED QUICKLY, the switch from blighted war zone to bush-camp luxury. Loftus, Kamemia, and I waited at Mangar Angui’s airstrip with our gear for the single-engine plane that would take us to the next village. The nine-seater landed with a bump, and the pilot stepped out and told us we wouldn’t be going to the other village after all, because the dirt airstrip there, which the villagers had just scratched out of the bush, and over which he had just flown, was too short. We radioed Lokichokio for instructions and were told to return to Kenya.

Loki is a cross between a military camp and a summer camp. The roar of cargo planes is constant, and an army of four-wheel-drive vehicles shuttles between the airstrip and the aid workers’ residential compounds a few miles away. The jeeps pass through town, a parched collection of dilapidated storefronts and dome-shaped huts of branches and plastic sheeting inhabited mostly by members of the Turkana tribe.

The main compound has some incongruous Club Med touches: Attractive thatch roofs cover outdoor picnic tables; a disco ball hangs in an open-air bar offering everything from Russian vodka to American cigarettes. There is a volleyball court a few paces away. At night, aid workers unwind over beers kept ice-cold in a refrigerator hooked up to a generator. Later still they might head off in pairs to each others’ tents and huts.

Early one evening, Loftus and I sat down for a quiet beer. The bar was crowded with Afrikaner UN pilots bossing around the Kenyan bartender. Friends of Loftus’s said hello. A few yards away a swimming pool was surrounded by bougainvilleas in bloom. Outside the perimeter, delineated by a barbed-wire fence patrolled by men with rifles, sat the baked red desolation of northern Kenya.

I asked Loftus to tell me what she was learning, living this life. “When you see war,” she told me, “when you see a culture that has changed into a war culture, you become grateful. People in the States do not know what it’s like to not be free. They have no clue. All the issues that I would scream and march and yell about in collegeI didn’t know shit. You don’t know what loss of freedom is until you see people who have no freedom, until you see people whose children are stolen into slavery.”

On my last day at Loki, the security guards went on strike and held a protest outside the main gate. The local police were called in, and they fired at the crowd, and after the crowd dove for cover, shots were fired at the police and into the compound. Loftus and her colleagues hardly flinched. They finally retreated into a courtyard after several volleys were fired and after the head of security began yelling, “I suggest you get somewhere safe! Anything can happen!” As sporadic gunfire continued for an hour or two, the aid workers slouched on the ground, so casual they could have fallen asleep.

Earlier, when we talked at the bar, Loftus said, “You know you can be shot, you know it, but you really feel like you’re not gonna. Somehow, because you’re here trying to help, somehow you’ve got this protective armor. Which is bullshit. You almost have to feel that way to go into it, because if you’re constantly thinking, ‘Oh, God, I could get shot,’ then it doesn’t work.” She laughed. “I think it’s not going to happen to me, which is crap.”

Loftus has already been evacuated from the field twiceonce for malaria, once because her village was about to be attacked by militiamen. One night in Mangar Angui, when the BBC World Service reported the deaths of the eight aid workers near the Ugandan border only about two hundred miles from us, I went to Loftus’s hut and told her; she was less interested than I expected. She didn’t know them. I told Kamemia. “Oh, yeah?” he said, and returned to his book.

Loftus did know Richard Powell, a WFP worker from Australia who died last year in a plane crash. Powell’s ashes were buried in January at a Sudanese village where he had worked, and Loftus cried at his funeral. The African ceremony involved the slaughter of a half-dozen cows, the burial of a live sheep, and at the end of it all, the playing, on a portable stereo, of Pink Floyd’s “The Wall.”

It is a form of cognitive dissonance: I could be killed; I can’t be killed. John Miskell has this capacity, too. He doesn’t scare easily, and he doesn’t have a death wish, but he has paid for extra insurance that will provide his family, in the event of his death in the field, with a year of his salary in addition to the three years’ salary CARE would chip in. Like Loftus, he knows the risks, and he carries on. There is a difference between risking your life and thinking you will lose it. All aid workers do the former; few do the latter.

Loftus’s insurance is a four-leaf clover worn on a pendant around her neck. She doesn’t know how much longer she will last in Sudan. A year, maybe two. After that, she’s not sure. She wants to sail around the world with her boyfriend and return to aid work, somewhere, somehow. Perhaps not in a war zone, but in a country with development work, the sunnier side of the humanitarian world. I asked whether she might return to America and live a life that would fit within the parameters of “normalcy.” If she wanted to help people, she could work in a soup kitchen; for thrills, she could go climbing, the sort of thing she used to do before heading to Africa. But Loftus told me that when she visits home and sees her old climbing buddies, her attention fades as they talk about mountains they have summited; theirs fades as she talks about Sudan.

My question lingered in the air. Finally, Loftus shook her head from side to side.

“You cant go back,” she said.

Author: Peter Maass

I was born and raised in Los Angeles. In 1983, after graduating from the University of California at Berkeley, I went to Brussels as a copy editor for The Wall Street Journal/Europe. I left the Journal in 1985 to write for The New York Times and The International Herald Tribune, covering NATO and the European Union. In 1987 I moved to Seoul, South Korea, where I wrote primarily for The Washington Post. After three years in Asia I moved to Budapest to cover Eastern Europe and the Balkans. I spent most of 1992 and 1993 covering the war in Bosnia for the Post.