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. Neither of us says anything. 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. The drive alone would take two hours each way and I’d spend half my day, but it had to be done.
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. It was more of an order than an invitation.
The colonel warmly welcomed me into a tin shed that had been turned into his command centre/bedroom. As he sat on his single bed barking orders into his radio, cellphone and landline – sometimes it seemed like all three at the same time – I sat there awkwardly awaiting our discussion to start. After some pleasantries, a cup of strong black coffee and some fresh baklava, we got down to business. Through my translator, I told him 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.
He told me about his operations, how he is fighting to save Syria, and how “terrorists” (his words, not mine) are now entrenched just a few kilometres down the road.
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 bedand 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.
I turn off the lights.