A selection from the diary of Canadian aid worker Simon Hacker, responsible for getting food to millions in Syria.
As the war in Syria nears the end of its third year, more than 125,000 people have been killed and some 6.5 million have had to flee their homes. About 2.1 million of them have sought refuge abroad; the rest remain in Syria, many of them unable to access normal supplies of food.
The United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) has identified four million Syrians at risk, unable to get the most basic foods because of the war that swirls all around them.
The Syrian conflict has riven the nation and put the entire region on edge. Canadian Simon Hacker, a humanitarian logistician, working for United Nations World Food Programme shares his unique perspective on the country and how the UN is working to help as part of a continuing series.
Today, Mr. Hacker answers three questions from The Globe and Mail’s Patrick Martin covering where he gets food for these hungry millions and some of the difficulties he runs into while trying to distribute it.
Patrick Martin: Simon, where do you get the food you distribute?
Simon Hacker: Canada is the fourth largest financial donor to the Syria operation, and this makes me very proud. With that contribution and those of others, we normally purchase food on international markets – for example, rice from India, canned beans from Jordan and sugar from Europe.
In some cases we buy food inside Syria, if it’s available – however, in order to ensure that we do not distort local food prices, this is reserved for emergency circumstances only.
Once purchased abroad, the food is loaded on vessels and sent to Lebanese or Syrian ports, after which it is forwarded by truck to one of our four packaging facilities. There, it is transformed into monthly family rations. On any given day we have hundreds of trucks on the road and dozens of vessels on the high seas, making this one of the WFP’s largest operations in the world.
Although this operation is both large and incredibly complex, we have managed to keep our operating costs very low. Through the WFP’s buying power, our extensive logistics networks and expertise, it costs only $22 per month to feed someone in Syria – that’s about the cost of a large pizza at your local pizzeria.
PM: Are you finding it more difficult to get food to some areas these days?
SH: With fighting raging throughout much of Syria, navigating around the conflict is a daily struggle; definitely one of our biggest challenges.
A destination that was accessible today can completely elude us tomorrow, only to re-open when the fighting subsides. This could be within 24 hours or it could take months – no one knows. With this kind of unpredictability it’s all about windows of opportunity and flexibility. These are probably the two characteristics that have allowed WFP to succeed amidst the chaos. However, despite our “all-hands-on-deck” approach, access to some of the most vulnerable people is simply out of our control.
One of the most heartbreaking situations is knowing of people in dire need, having food available in the warehouse, and the only thing standing in the way is an armed soldier who has received orders that “nothing gets in” and “no one gets out.”
Unfortunately this scenario is all too real, even in Damascus. Recently, in an area of the capital, the situation got so bad that a fatwa (an Islamic religious directive) was issued allowing the trapped population to eat cats – a practice normally forbidden under Islamic law, and one that highlights the desperation of the people. All this was taking place even though one of our main warehouses was located just on the other side of town – less than 10 kilometres away – full of food.
PM: What stories do your people tell you about their experiences?
SH: When I first arrived in Syria I used to be able to tell how bad the fighting was by the number of families camped out in the park during my morning run. On some days the largest park in the capital seemed full, on others less so, but it was rarely empty.
It’s especially difficult on cold winter mornings. I can’t imagine what it’s like having to flee in the middle of the night with nothing but the shirt on your back. (Add to this that in the past two years the Middle East has received 20 years’ worth of winter snow!) As the security situation has deteriorated, however, I have to confine my run to the treadmill in the hotel and have to rely on daily updates from my Syrian colleagues. Most live in rural Damascus – an area heavily contested and often the scene of intense conflict.
The fact is that every Syrian is a victim of this conflict. Many have lost loved ones, millions have been forced from their homes, and everyone lives with the constant sounds of shelling and gun fire.
Perhaps the most troubling accounts are those of children who are unable to go school, either because the schools have been destroyed or because their families have been displaced multiple times.
Losing a generation of learning could be catastrophic for sustaining peace and rebuilding the country. It is for this reason that the WFP will soon begin providing food for children who attend school. While it’s only a drop in the ocean, any kid we can keep in school will have far reaching effects, perhaps for generations to come.