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


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 Sudan—there are hundreds in the field at any time—uses 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 channels—and aside from talking with your colleagues, the best form of entertainment is eavesdropping on them—you 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, Garang—a man who had likely never seen open water in his life, nor a vessel larger than a canoe—announced 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?"


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