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 ELDERS OF Tieglo gathered in the village's television hut, where you pay the equivalent of five cents for an evening of satellite TV, and listened to Miskell explain that the convoy had been attacked twice and dozens killed. Their people—a scattered 10,000 in all—would not be getting any food, not now. The quartet of elders, carrying finely carved wooden staffs and wearing elegant sarongs, sat in plastic lawn chairs and stroked their beards.

"Hunger is increasing," one of them said, as a Somali translated for me. "We didn't get any food in December or January. People are selling their livestock for food." This is true. The WFP was about to appeal for a massive infusion of food aid for countries in the Horn of Africa: According to the UN, roughly eight million people are at risk of starvation in Ethiopia alone, as well as in parts of Kenya and Sudan. Pockets of malnutrition were already developing around Tieglo—indicators of big trouble ahead.

"We have to go," Miskell replied. "We'll come back as soon as we can."

The elder shrugged in the resigned manner of men who have come to expect the worst in a country that has experienced the worst. "It is Allah's will," he said.

It was hard to keep track of all the thievery and corruption. There was the provincial official seeking free food for his orphanage, an empty house filled with kids only when aid workers visited. There was the Baidoa warehouse set on fire to cover up the pilfering of UN supplies by its managers. There was the 370-ton food convoy stolen by a provincial governor's gunmen and used, the rumor goes, to acquire new Land Cruisers. And the WFP official who was so corrupt that, according to a joke making the rounds, WFP stood for "Warlord Food Program."

When the meeting ended, everyone filed away quietly, as though leaving a funeral. Miskell returned to our tin-roofed room, which was stiflingly hot. Outside, a stiff breeze stirred up clouds of dust.

"Most people in this country would like to see the warlords evaporate," he told me. "If you cut the food out, who is going to starve? Not the gunmen. They have guns and they will find ways to get food. The other people will starve. If we pulled out there might be some sort of conclusion reached faster than otherwise, but the number of people who would die would be pretty incredible."

This dilemma is at the heart of the debate over food aid. Perhaps pulling out would be, in the long run, the right thing to do, but doing so would take the ruthlessness of a Machiavellian and the heartlessness of a Malthusian. "Sometimes you feel like packing it in," Miskell admitted. "Some people would tell you I'm crazy, and maybe they're right." But he stays.

"My family keeps telling me to come back to America, that I can find a job, I don't need to do this," he said. "But every time I go to the States I go for about four weeks, and after about a month I know it's time to leave again. Maybe it's because everything is too perfect. I find it boring."

Miskell is no adrenaline junkie. He may be an unpredictability junkie, however—a guy who wants to be surprised by what unfolds in front of him or what flies over his head. And he wants to feel that he is really doing something. As I discovered, he is pathetically out of touch with the rest of the media-saturated First World, out of touch with IPO fever and the latest box-office sensation. He still cares about starvation, the poor bastard, even after 30 years in the field.

We returned to Baidoa the next day and then flew to Merca. After a 30-minute stopover to load some fuel, the plane headed to Nairobi, with me on it. I watched as Miskell climbed into his Land Cruiser and started home with his quartet of bodyguards. His first order of business was to find a trucking company that could get a convoy of food to Tieglo. He will likely be doing that sort of thing for the rest of his working life. He does not plan to return to live in America, ever. When he retires, he wants to build a house on a plot of land that he owns with his wife. The land is in Mogadishu..