Syria: A Day In The Life Of A WFP Staffer

Simon Hacker, a Canadian national, works as a Logistics Officer for WFP in Syria. Based in Damascus, Simon is responsible for dispatching emergency food supplies for 150,000 people per day throughout the war-torn country. Here, in his diary, Simon describes a typical day in his life as he and his team attempt to proovide food assistance for 4 million Syrians each month.

It’s 5 a.m. and I am woken by the alarm on my iPhone.

When I first arrived in Damascus in June, 2012, I lived in an apartment like all the other staff. But, after the assassination of the country’s defence minister and other car bomb attacks, we were all ordered in December, 2012, to move into a hotel, considered to be secure enough to house us and our control room.

From 8 a.m. until 9:30, my team of 30 slowly trickles in. I wait anxiously for the logistics assistants who will update me on the loading of the trucks. [Food is brought into Syria overland and by air and housed in our warehouses. Other trucks then pick up their cargo and fan out across the country.] Throughout the day these logistics assistants will text me updates every time trucks arrive at the warehouses. It’s the single most important indicator of our progress. We have to feed 150,000 people today.

At about 10 a.m. I receive an urgent phone call from a colleague in the field. A new armed group has taken part of the road to the eastern city of Deir Ezzor and has hijacked two of our trucks. I quickly call another colleague and ask him to find out what’s going on. It’s not the first time this has happened. The good news is that we’re often able to negotiate the trucks back. I remain hopeful.

The drivers are some of the bravest people working in our operation. They have an amazing ability to navigate around the country, the conflict and the armed groups in a way no one else can. With danger lurking around every corner, they cross multiple front lines, get detained at checkpoints – sometimes for days at a time – or worse. One of our drivers was hijacked and detained by an armed group for 20 days during which he was tortured terribly. His toes were cut off, one at a time, and his Achilles and other tendons were severed. He’ll never walk again. His crime? He was an Alawite driving through rebel Sunni-controlled territory at a time of sectarian clashes along the Mediterranean coast. The food he was delivering was to go to civilians of both sects.

My Syrian warehouse manager tells me we have 20 trucks stuck at the Lebanese border. I ask him if they are urgently needed. He says yes.

My Syrian interpreter and I hop into the armoured Land Cruiser and head to the director of customs to see if we can get the trucks released. We see the director and he greets us with a smile. After some pleasantries and a cup of coffee, we ask for his help. He makes a few phones calls and tells us the trucks will now be released. He thanks us for the noble work that WFP is doing to help his country. I thank him also and we leave.

I get a message telling me we’ve only loaded food for 50,000 people. I immediately make a call to find out what’s going on. We’ll be hard pressed to hit the target at this rate.

Recently our warehouse in Damascus found itself in the middle of an epic battle. A day earlier, you would have said it was one of the most peaceful areas in the city. After visiting the warehouse and feeling the reverberation of intense shelling and gunfire, I realized we were unlikely to recover this food any time soon. With food for more than 400,000 people now stuck, it was all hands on deck to figure what to do next. With some clever rerouting of deliveries and local purchases of food, we were back in business. Another day, another disaster averted.

Walking back, my Syrian colleague shows me some pictures of his family picking apples at an orchard last fall. It brings me back to my own childhood.

I can trace my humanitarian roots back to when I was a young boy helping my mother as a Rotary volunteer in Southwestern Ontario. In the past seven years with the World Food Programme, I have worked in eight countries that have suffered either from natural disasters or conflicts or both. I have witnessed the tragedy that grips people when they don’t have enough food to eat, as well as the incredible resilience of the human condition. People in places such as Syria continue to dream even with the constant sounds of shelling and mortars raining down around them. It’s inspirational.

Shortly after I arrive back at the office, my boss summons me from across the room. He tells me we’ve just received information of 5,000 starving families in a besieged area outside the capital – and that I have to arrange trucks immediately. We haven’t been able to deliver to this place in months. Even if we find brave enough drivers they’ll never make it past the checkpoints. It’s an impossible request. We both know it. I tell my staff to get on the phone and find trucks. They oblige me, but they too know that it will take a miracle to pull this off. We have to try.

The other day I awoke to an e-mail that trucks were having serious difficulty accessing one of our warehouses outside Damascus. Some 60 trucks had accumulated, waiting to offload badly needed food supplies. Apparently there was an issue at the last checkpoint located not far from the warehouse. Given that we are building up this particular facility to serve one million people per month, it was a big problem. I had no choice but to go there myself to find out what was going on.

After navigating more than 10 checkpoints, I reached the one in question: a snaking, 800-metre-long dirt road, with lines of cars on both sides, plenty of heavily armed soldiers and a well-used army tank for good measure. After a thorough search of our car and bags, I was told by one of the soldiers that the colonel in charge wanted to meet me in his barracks.

Through my translator, I told the colonel about our operations, how we try to feed over four million Syrians a month, and how we need his help to ensure that our trucks can pass.

After lots of discussion we came to an agreement: He would let the trucks come and go if we kept him informed of our operations. There would be one non-negotiable condition: no movement from 7 p.m. to 6 a.m. on this road. I said we would try. We shook hands, and I promised I would stop by next time I visited. “Ahlan wa sahlan,” he said with a smile – you are most welcome any time.

It’s nearing 6 p.m.and the workday is finishing. I meet some colleagues for dinner and head back to the hotel for curfew.

While I wouldn’t trade what I am doing for the world, humanitarian work entails very real dangers. Every day thousands of humanitarian workers risk their lives to help the most vulnerable, sometimes paying the ultimate price. I lost five colleagues when a suicide bomber walked into our office in Islamabad in 2009 and blew himself up. It was a day I will never forget – a reminder that life can change in a split second. I made a commitment to myself that day that there would be no victory for those who tried to disrupt our work in Pakistan or anywhere else – it strengthened my resolve to continue what I am doing.

I slip into bed and send a few more messages to my logistics assistant, asking how much food we were able to dispatch this day. Enough for almost 172,000 people, he says.

“OK, get some sleep,” I reply. We’re going to have to do it all over again tomorrow.

This diary originally appeared in The Globe and Mail.