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

EXCITING BUT NOT EASY. After less than a year as an aid worker, Loftus, 32, who grew up in Montana, has had typhoid once, malaria twice, and a slew of mysterious boils. She's waded through swamps befouled with human waste and disease and endured the sort of bureaucratic nullity in which the UN specializes—like the time a bush plane dropped her off without the trunk of food that was supposed to keep her alive. (It arrived nine days later.) For his part, John Miskell, 53, a native of upstate New York, is a petri dish of tropical ills—he's had dengue fever several times, bacterial and amebic dysentery, giardia, blood poisoning, and most recently cholera, which almost killed him. He's been shot at and cursed. And yet neither he nor Loftus (whom he has never met) would do anything else.

Thanks to the end of the Cold War, aid work has undergone a geometric leap in visibility, controversy, and danger. Aid workers are the first to arrive and the last to leave the world's most chaotic and violent war zones—"complex emergencies," in relief jargon—places routinely filled with hunger and disease and, instead of government soldiers who follow (more or less) the Geneva Conventions on war, gunmen (and gunboys) who don't think twice about kidnapping or killing a Western aid worker. In 1998, for the first time, more UN aid workers were killed than UN peacekeepers, although tinder boxes like Sierra Leone can blow up in peacekeepers' faces at any time. When I was in Sudan with Loftus, ten aid workers were killed. First, two CARE employees were killed outside Khartoum; the government blamed the rebels. A week later, eight aid workers affiliated with African churches were gunned down near the Ugandan border by Ugandan guerrillas from the Lord's Resistance Army. The gunmen simply opened fire on their vehicle. But the victims were Africans, and the tragedy of their execution was compounded by a sad irony: While local aid workers compose the bulk of the aid world's ranks and, at least in Africa, are often at greater risk than white expatriates, the violent deaths of almost a dozen of them didn't (and don't) make the evening news in Europe or America.

Still, First World or Third World, black or white, aid workers often laugh when you ask why they do what they do. It's an ambiguous chuckle, knowing and nervous, that means the answer is either obvious or a mystery, even to them. They'll repeat the line about their profession being composed of missionaries, mercenaries, or maniacs, but that doesn't get you very far, nor them: Missionaries would be crestfallen by the corruption, mercenaries could find easier ways to get their hands on a few pieces of silver, and maniacs could not cope with the discipline the job demands.

So why do they do it? For aid workers from the Third World, the jobs pay quite well, and if they are working in their native countries, they are helping their own people. For First Worlders, there is the thrill of exotic altruism. None of them rejoices in the mines or the kidnappings or the cholera or the misery of starving villagers, but these things catapult them out of the drudgery of nine-to-five life in their tamperproof homelands. They have a front-row seat to history in motion, which is big and terrifying and amazing, like the thrashings of a wounded elephant. Aid workers are bearers of good will and targets for warlords. They are vultures and angels.