Another Day in the Drop Zone

They fly into lands of hunger and madness, dispensing food while warlords dispense terror from the barrel of a gun. They trade safety and comfort for the sharp edge of altruism, predictable careers for the daily bread of death and disease. They're relief workers on the front lines—and once they're hooked, they can never go home again.

Jul 1, 2000
Outside Magazine


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."

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