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


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.

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