Libya's desert corridor - realising a logistical dream

Libya presents a desert corridor to sub-Saharan Africa, where WFP contends with some of the worst food crises in the world. When UN sanctions against the country were lifted in 2003, tranporting aid through Libya finally became a possibility that the agency wasted no time exploring, as logistics officer Tamer Hassan told spokesperson Mia Turner.

When WFP logistics officer Tamer Hassan stepped off the only flight of the day at Tripoli International Airport in Libya, he was amazed by the lack of activity in what had, since ancient times, been a hub of commerce and tourism.

It was April 2004, and after 12 years of international sanctions, Tripoli was eerily quiet compared to the bustle of Cairo he had left behind, with few tourists on the streets and hardly any commercial billboards.

“I thought I had stepped back in time to what Egypt was like 20 years ago,” Hassan recalls.

International pariah

Copyright: 2005 WFP/Tamer Hassan

WFP logistics officer Tamer Hassan with a truck loaded with food

Hassan had never imagined he would one day be working in Libya. Sanctions imposed by the UN Security Council in 1992, after Tripoli refused to hand over suspects wanted for the 1988 bombing of an airliner over Lockerbie in Scotland, had turned the country into an international pariah.

But for WFP, Libya had long been a logistical dream, presenting a desert corridor to sub-Saharan Africa, where the agency contends with some of the worst food crises in the world, and offering a critical alternative to airlifts, which are expensive and logistically challenging.

Viable alternative

For years we had been eyeing Libya as a major viable alternative to reach some of the most landlocked countries in the world

Tamer Hassan, WFP logistics officer

“For years we had been eyeing Libya, which we saw as a major viable alternative to reach some of the most landlocked countries in the world - especially during the rainy season when other corridors from the south are inaccessible,” says Hassan.

“But there were always the sanctions which prevented us from exploring the option further.”

Logistical bottlenecks

When UN sanctions against Libya were finally lifted on 12 September 2003, transporting aid through the country suddenly became a possibility, and a much-needed blessing.

At the time WFP desperately needed to get food into Chad and the Sudan, where over three million people affected by the conflict in western Sudan’s Darfur region were facing a hunger crisis.

WFP’s supply of aid to the region was facing logistical bottlenecks with the approach of the rainy season, with roads to reach 200,000 refugees in Chad quickly made impassable by torrential rains.

Spiralling numbers

For the Libyan government it was a step back into the international community

Tamer Hassan, WFP logistics officer

West African and Sudanese ports have only a limited capacity for handling cargo and were already congested. Despite all its logistical know-how, WFP was increasingly struggling to keep up with the spiralling number of people in need of its help.

WFP’s first request to the Libyan government was for the urgent use of the port of Benghazi and overland route to Abéché in Chad, from where food could be taken on to the Darfur region.

Positive reaction

The government reacted immediately and positively, and shortly afterwards Hassan found himself in Tripoli with other WFP staff from headquarters in Rome, finalizing the arrangements.

“The Libyan government said it was happy to help out. For them it was a step back into the international community,” he explains.

With time of the essence, Hassan went about setting up the new corridor. The objective was to ensure an initial flow of up to 8,000 metric tons of food per month from the port of Benghazi and then overland to Chad: 3,000 tons for refugee camps in northeastern Chad and 5,000 tons to Darfur itself.

Port of Benghazi

Copyright: 2004 WFP/Tamer Hassan

Unloading at the port of Benghazi

To set the wheels in motion, Hassan flew to Benghazi, where the food was to be offloaded. He needed to find out if the port had cranes and warehouses, and could handle WFP’s big cargo vessels.

Before sanctions were imposed, Benghazi was a bustling hub on the Mediterranean coast. It was no such thing when Hassan landed there last year.

“Benghazi is an excellent deep-water port, but when I arrived everything was very outdated,” he recalls. Fortunately, it was still operational; WFP’s first consignment of wheat from Switzerland was due to arrive in August, just four months later.

Oasis town

With the port prepared, Hassan began the search for trucks to carry the food 1,200 kilometres along paved roads to the oasis of El Khufra, the next stop before starting the 1,500-kilometre journey through the desert sands to Abéché in Chad.

El Khufra is a small oasis town, the last before the Libyan desert unfolds. The two weekly flights that serve the town are always full. There are no phone lines or network coverage for mobiles, so Hassan had to rely on handsets and a Thuraya satellite phone.

To transport 8,000 metric tons of food a month, he needed to commission at least 250 trucks, and have the same number again on standby. He didn’t think it would be a difficult task.

Tracking down trucks

We heard there were a thousand trucks left over from the wars with Chad in the 1980s, but finding them was not easy

Tamer Hassan, WFP logistics officer

He quickly discovered that Libya had no trucking companies and that the individuals who owned trucks were already commercially engaged. Moreover, the drivers could not give WFP the corporate bonds needed as guarantees for advancing money.

“We heard there were a thousand trucks left over from the wars with Chad in the 1980s, but finding them was not easy. Many had been handed over by the military to desert drivers, but they were already employed,” says Hassan.

As a regional logistics officer, Hassan had managed trucks all over the Middle East. But in Libya it was a completely new experience, thanks to a lack of infrastructure and the need for specialist ‘desert trucks’ and ‘desert drivers’, who could manoeuvre around dunes and through sandstorms.

Expensive solution

When the first big shipment of food aid arrived at Benghazi in August, there weren’t enough trucks to transport it, and some of the goods had to be stored at the port. It was an expensive solution that the already poorly funded US$4.3 million operation could not afford.

“We ended up with huge storage costs and not enough trucks,” Hassan recalls. “This was when we decided to change strategy.”

Steel bunkers

Hassan approached the government for help in finding cheap warehouses in El Khufra. Again, Libya was anxious to help and offered space in underground steel bunkers formerly used by the military, which proved ideal for storing food thanks to the lack of humidity and insects.

The government also found a solution to the shortage of trucks, setting up ‘Khufra Desert Transport’ to work solely with WFP, and initiating a ‘Darfur Crisis Committee’ at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to help the agency solve any other transport problems.

“Our humanitarian work became a kind of national project for them,” says Hassan.

Desert drivers

Copyright: 2004 WFP/Tamer Hassan

Trucks transport food shipments through Libya

The 250 trucks and drivers were finally found to transport the food shipments that began arriving regularly in Benghazi, and the ‘desert drivers’ proved to be a unique professional group.

All are Bedouin who live in the desert and are familiar with its landmarks, and each truck carries a live sheep which is killed, roasted and shared along the way.

“These drivers use the stars when they travel at night. Sometimes the winds are so strong that the tracks of the trucks in front are no longer visible, but they always find the way,” says Hassan.

Night driving

The trucks, carrying 25 metric tons of food each, travel in convoys of about 25 and leave on a weekly basis from El Khufra. The ten-day trip to Chad begins at sunset and the drivers travel through the night, resting under their trucks during the day.

“The heat is so hot that if they drive when the sun is up, the tires will explode,” says Hassan. Each truck has ten tires, and a new tire costs about US$1,000.

Extra airlifts

The Libya corridor has been a boon for us and the people we help. We couldn’t have reached them without it

Tamer Hassan, WFP logistics officer

With the situation in Sudan going from bad to worse, WFP decided to speed up food deliveries and opted for extra airlifts.

Libya’s civil aviation authorities helped to set up ‘Air Khufra’, and two Ilyushin-76s that could carry 38 metric tons each, twice a day, were made ready. WFP was soon flying an additional 5,000 metric tons of food into Western Sudan every month.

Boon corridor

This new air corridor and the overland route to Chad have greatly increased WFP’s previous delivery capability of up to 50,000 metric tons a month using road, rail and air transport links within Sudan.

“The Libya corridor has been a boon for us and the people we help. We couldn’t have reached them without it,” says Hassan.