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.

Outside

Outside    

TIEGLO, SOMALIA

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?"

Static.

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.

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