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

"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."