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Afghanistan: World Food Programme wheels roll to save lives in the winter

Shot at, with vehicles damaged in the snow — how WFP drivers weathered punishing terrain to deliver emergency food
, Wahidullah Amani
A team of WFP drivers traverse ice and snow in February. Photo: WFP/Fleet

World Food Programme (WFP) drivers in Afghanistan battle some of the world's most rugged terrain and harshest weather to deliver food to communities in need. They are the last element of a complex supply chain that spans the globe to deliver food into the country, where WFP assists 1.5 million people.

On a chilly winter morning in February, Hokumat Khan Shinwary arrives early at the WFP warehouse, in Kabul, where 15 trucks, loaded the day before, are ready to roll.

He makes sure his trusted Land Cruiser of 15 years has all the equipment needed for a drive through snow and ice to Ajristan, a remote district in central Ghazni province of Afghanistan, 300 km from Kabul. Getting there would take a few hours — today in the winter it takes days.

Hokumat Khan, lead driver of a WFP convoy that delivered emergency food assistance to Daykundi province in February. Photo: WFP/Fleet

As the mission leader, Hokumat drives in front of the convoy, scouting the road, checking for icy patches, and alerting his fellow drivers for any dangers ahead. "We struggled a lot that day," he says. "There was so much snow and ice we risked slipping off the road several times." The 46-year-old has served at WFP for 26 years.

Supply chain challenges

For Belkacem Benzaza, Hokumat and his fellow drivers are a final critical element of the complex supply chain he heads at WFP Afghanistan. In a country where 80 percent of the population cannot afford a nutritious diet, the role they play in reaching communities in need cannot be overstated.

"Scorching hot or freezing cold, they are out there, delivering food no matter where the families live," says Benzaza. "Eighty percent of the food we distribute is procured within Afghanistan, but some has to be procured internationally and that is often time-consuming."

SuperCereal— a nutritious wheat-soya-blend — and vegetable oil, for instance, are procured in Europe or Malaysia, then shipped to Pakistan and transported into Afghanistan by road. Once the food is in the country, it would be up to Hokumat and his drivers to complete the last leg of its journey.

When the weather improves, drivers are treated to some stunning mountain views. Photo: WFP/Fleet

But challenges are a daily reality, especially when it comes supply chain, testing the mettle of Hokumat, Benzaza and the entire WFP team in Afghanistan.

Not too long ago, a WFP convoy got shot at, six trucks were damaged, and one bullet closely missed the driver when it hit the windshield.

In March and April, the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan was closed to quell the spread of the coronavirus. Thousands of trucks queued on both sides of the border for weeks, including 15 trucks carrying WFP food.

Snowed in on the mountain pass

Hokumat and his team reached Ajristan the next day. The food they carried was then distributed by a cooperating partner to 2,000 families. But on the way back, all 15 trucks, including his Land Cruiser, got stuck in the fresh snow. The team had to spend the night in the mountain.

Sometimes, the drivers must clean several hundred metres snow using shovels and picks to make a passage for the trucks. Photo: WFP/Fleet

"We always bring blankets and food for a day or two just in case situations like this happen," he adds.

The next day, residents from a nearby village helped dig the trucks out from the snow, allowing the convoy to resume the journey back to Kabul. After another day spent on the road, they arrived safely at the WFP warehouse. Talking to the drivers, their pride is clear, and so is their resourcefulness to get the work done.

Mechanics at WFP's warehouse in Kabul work on a truck donated 30 years ago. Photo: WFP/Philippe Kropf

The majority of the trucks they drive were donated three decades ago by Japan. Although they still run, many are at the end of their life cycle and in need of constant repair.

WFP mechanics have started building spare parts from scratch as they are no longer available on the market.

"I love my truck. It is like my own body, when it breaks, I feel the pain", says driver Sher Rahman.

"If we see our food will not be protected at the distribution site, we do not offload it," says Aminullah Khaliqyar, another long-serving driver.

Food assistance is ever more critical in the winter in Afghanistan. Photo: WFP/Wahidullah Amani

WFP helped 1.5 million people get through the harsh winter with seasonal support that started in October 2019 and ended in March 2020. In 2019, our drivers travelled some 1.9 million kilometres around the country, delivering lifesaving aid.

Hokumat and his drivers are already getting ready for next winter. And with any luck, the journey ahead will be a bit less treacherous. Not least because thanks to the generous contributions from USAID and the European Union, WFP Afghanistan has taken delivery of 20 new all-terrain trucks, with another 90 trucks on their way.

Read more about WFP's work in Afghanistan