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



The call to prayer came at 4:30 a.m.

"Pray! Pray! It's better to pray than to sleep!"

I was staying in a house across the street from one of Baidoa's mosques, so there was no chance of dozing. As the echoes from the loudspeaker faded into the darkness, I could hear the neighborhood stirring as people rose to wash their hands and feet and kneel in prayer toward Mecca.

There was a knock at the bedroom door. "You awake?" John Miskell called out.

Miskell and I were leaving Baidoa before dawn on a journey to a town named Tieglo, deep in the Somali hinterland a few miles south of nowhere. Miskell, who oversees CARE International's relief programs in southern Somalia, was planning to rendezvous there with a convoy of 12 trucks bringing 254 tons of food from Mogadishu. Between Baidoa and Tieglo lay 13 hours of Somali bush, dirt-and-boulder roads offering little more than lungfuls of dust and lobe-deadening headaches and the bleak scenery of a country pounded by civil war and famine. It was Miskell's job to make sure the food got to Tieglo safely.

It's been nearly a decade since jeering mobs dragged the body of U.S. Army Ranger Bill Cleveland through the streets of Mogadishu, and in that time little has improved. When the United Nations armed forces departed in 1995, the implicit message was simple: You people want to kill? Go ahead, kill yourselves. Call us when you get tired of it. Since then, northern Somalia has stabilized somewhat, but southern Somalia, with Mogadishu at its heart, remains a nightmarish, Hobbesian realm that once again hovers on the cusp of famine.

Our Toyota Land Cruiser was parked in the house's courtyard behind a steel gate topped with barbed wire and guarded by a couple of teenagers toting AK-47s. Loaded in the rear were 80 liters of gas in plastic containers. We would be traveling in a four-wheel drive, all-terrain bomb. Miskell would have liked to put the gas on the rooftop luggage rack, but that space was reserved for two other militiamen bearing AK-47s, who were to keep an eye out for trouble—of which, unlike food or water or peace or schools or law and order, there is plenty in Somalia.

"Where's the driver?" I asked when we got to the courtyard.

Miskell nodded at a prostrate form on the ground.

"Apparently our driver is praying," he said.

The prayers seemed unusually devout. When he finished, we drove into the center of town and met up with several more Somalis who worked for CARE. They would travel with us in two other Land Cruisers—one in front of our vehicle, the other behind— equipped with the requisite duos of rooftop gunslingers. As dawn broke, our convoy headed into the bush, only to stop after a few miles. We were surrounded by stunted trees covered in dust. Camels plodded past, herders in tow. Finally Cobra, one of the Somalis—everybody has a nickname in Somalia, and his was Cobra—walked back from the lead vehicle to tell us what was happening.

"There is an ambush ahead," he said.