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 MEN WERE whipping the women with branches torn from nearby trees. You could hear the lashes cutting through the air. Hundreds of women had lined up on the airstrip to receive the food dropped by the Herc the day before, and here and there pushing and shoving had broken out, as well as tugs-of-war over sacks of grain. That's why the men had whips—to restore order.

There was a festival air, despite the whipping, because food was being given away. The community was gathering en masse, an unusual event for people who spend their days tending meager crops of sorghum and thin herds of cattle or goats. At the moment, there is no wholesale starvation in Mangar Angui, though there was in 1998. The villagers' storehouses, which Loftus had inspected in the past few days, were almost bare; the WFP is not solving the hunger problem, just keeping it at bay. After the distribution, women and children would sift through the dust, looking for stray kernels of corn.

Loftus moved with the quickness of a hummingbird, as did John Kamemia, a Kenyan and veteran aid worker who was partnered with her in Mangar Angui (WFP field-workers travel in pairs for safety). Hundreds of sacks of maize and lentils, as well as tins of vegetable oil, were being handed out at several points spread over an area as large as a few football fields. Loftus and Kamemia wanted, above all, to make sure the food was divided fairly. WFP food is supposed to go to the vulnerable—refugees, nursing mothers, children, and the disabled. Lists had been drawn up with the names of villages, village chiefs, and the number of people to receive food in each village. Local relief workers from the Sudanese Relief and Rehabilitation Association, the humanitarian arm of the SPLA, were attempting to sort it out as Loftus flitted here and there, calling out instructions. "Dhuok cen! Dhuok cen!" she shouted, in Dinka, to several men lounging around a stack of food bags. "Everyone around these bags needs to go. Dhuok cen! Dhuok cen!" Like most foreign aid workers in southern Sudan, Loftus knows only a few words of Dinka, and the one she uses most frequently means "step back."

She was dressed in her usual bush outfit: a pair of shorts and a white WFP T-shirt. On her feet she wore Ralph Lauren Polo flip-flops; on her head, a Patagonia hat with sun visors in front and back; and on her back, a 3.5-liter CamelBak. In a country where 100 degrees is regarded as cool weather, a water-filled backpack is the sort of thing that makes eminent sense. But when you are a healthy American moving among Africans who are a meal or two away from starvation, you look more like a visitor from another planet.

After a while Loftus took a break under a tree. She looked exhausted; her dark hair was pasted down by sweat and she was covered in dirt. Women with 50-kilo bags on their heads were walking away into the bush, which was problematic. Unless you see food actually given to the people it's intended for, you have no idea whether the village chief will keep much of it for himself and his multiple wives, or whether soldiers may grab it instead.

"We want them to stay here and share the food," Loftus remarked. "We don't want them to go off and share the food under a chief. We want to monitor it."