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 HAPPENED QUICKLY, the switch from blighted war zone to bush-camp luxury. Loftus, Kamemia, and I waited at Mangar Angui's airstrip with our gear for the single-engine plane that would take us to the next village. The nine-seater landed with a bump, and the pilot stepped out and told us we wouldn't be going to the other village after all, because the dirt airstrip there, which the villagers had just scratched out of the bush, and over which he had just flown, was too short. We radioed Lokichokio for instructions and were told to return to Kenya.

Loki is a cross between a military camp and a summer camp. The roar of cargo planes is constant, and an army of four-wheel-drive vehicles shuttles between the airstrip and the aid workers' residential compounds a few miles away. The jeeps pass through town, a parched collection of dilapidated storefronts and dome-shaped huts of branches and plastic sheeting inhabited mostly by members of the Turkana tribe.

The main compound has some incongruous Club Med touches: Attractive thatch roofs cover outdoor picnic tables; a disco ball hangs in an open-air bar offering everything from Russian vodka to American cigarettes. There is a volleyball court a few paces away. At night, aid workers unwind over beers kept ice-cold in a refrigerator hooked up to a generator. Later still they might head off in pairs to each others' tents and huts.

Early one evening, Loftus and I sat down for a quiet beer. The bar was crowded with Afrikaner UN pilots bossing around the Kenyan bartender. Friends of Loftus's said hello. A few yards away a swimming pool was surrounded by bougainvilleas in bloom. Outside the perimeter, delineated by a barbed-wire fence patrolled by men with rifles, sat the baked red desolation of northern Kenya.

I asked Loftus to tell me what she was learning, living this life.

"When you see war," she told me, "when you see a culture that has changed into a war culture, you become grateful. People in the States do not know what it's like to not be free. They have no clue. All the issues that I would scream and march and yell about in college—I didn't know shit. You don't know what loss of freedom is until you see people who have no freedom, until you see people whose children are stolen into slavery."

On my last day at Loki, the security guards went on strike and held a protest outside the main gate. The local police were called in, and they fired at the crowd, and after the crowd dove for cover, shots were fired at the police and into the compound. Loftus and her colleagues hardly flinched. They finally retreated into a courtyard after several volleys were fired and after the head of security began yelling, "I suggest you get somewhere safe! Anything can happen!" As sporadic gunfire continued for an hour or two, the aid workers slouched on the ground, so casual they could have fallen asleep.

Earlier, when we talked at the bar, Loftus said, "You know you can be shot, you know it, but you really feel like you're not gonna. Somehow, because you're here trying to help, somehow you've got this protective armor. Which is bullshit. You almost have to feel that way to go into it, because if you're constantly thinking, 'Oh, God, I could get shot,' then it doesn't work." She laughed. "I think it's not going to happen to me, which is crap."

Loftus has already been evacuated from the field twice—once for malaria, once because her village was about to be attacked by militiamen. One night in Mangar Angui, when the BBC World Service reported the deaths of the eight aid workers near the Ugandan border only about two hundred miles from us, I went to Loftus's hut and told her; she was less interested than I expected. She didn't know them. I told Kamemia. "Oh, yeah?" he said, and returned to his book.

Loftus did know Richard Powell, a WFP worker from Australia who died last year in a plane crash. Powell's ashes were buried in January at a Sudanese village where he had worked, and Loftus cried at his funeral. The African ceremony involved the slaughter of a half-dozen cows, the burial of a live sheep, and at the end of it all, the playing, on a portable stereo, of Pink Floyd's "The Wall."

It is a form of cognitive dissonance: I could be killed; I can't be killed. John Miskell has this capacity, too. He doesn't scare easily, and he doesn't have a death wish, but he has paid for extra insurance that will provide his family, in the event of his death in the field, with a year of his salary in addition to the three years' salary CARE would chip in. Like Loftus, he knows the risks, and he carries on. There is a difference between risking your life and thinking you will lose it. All aid workers do the former; few do the latter.

Loftus's insurance is a four-leaf clover worn on a pendant around her neck. She doesn't know how much longer she will last in Sudan. A year, maybe two. After that, she's not sure. She wants to sail around the world with her boyfriend and return to aid work, somewhere, somehow. Perhaps not in a war zone, but in a country with development work, the sunnier side of the humanitarian world. I asked whether she might return to America and live a life that would fit within the parameters of "normalcy." If she wanted to help people, she could work in a soup kitchen; for thrills, she could go climbing, the sort of thing she used to do before heading to Africa. But Loftus told me that when she visits home and sees her old climbing buddies, her attention fades as they talk about mountains they have summited; theirs fades as she talks about Sudan.

My question lingered in the air. Finally, Loftus shook her head from side to side.  

Peter Maass is the author of Love Thy Neighbor, a memoir of covering the war in Bosnia.