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Feeding four million Syrians: Canadian Simon Hacker’s diary

Simon Hacker, the Canadian in Syria who runs the World Food Programme.

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.

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Into this maelstrom steps Canadian Simon Hacker, a humanitarian logistician who directs the distribution of emergency food supplies throughout the country. He is based in Damascus.

Mr. Hacker must dispatch enough food for more than 135,000 people every day if he is to have any hope of feeding four million people once every month. That's the equivalent of delivering a month's worth of food to every person in Kingston, Ont., or Moncton, N.B., every day. However, the people in Syria are spread around a war-torn country, separated by numerous checkpoints and battle lines and under constant threat of attack.

"Fall short one day," Mr. Hacker says, "and we'll have to make it up on the next."

It's a mantra he repeats every night before going to bed.

The Syrian conflict has riven the nation and put the entire region on edge. In the days ahead, Mr. Hacker will be sharing his unique perspective on the country and how the UN is working to help.

Today, Mr. Hacker shares a diary of his life in Syria, from a day this month.

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It's 5 a.m.and I am woken by the alarm on my iPhone. I quickly scroll through my e-mails. I turn on the BBC to see if anything interesting happened overnight but it's mostly the loop from the day before. [It's only 3 a.m. in London.] I try CNN, same thing. [It's 10 p.m. the night before in Atlanta and Toronto.] I muster the strength to put on my kit for my morning run in the gym. I've been running religiously since 2008.

After my run, I take a quick elevator ride to arrive at my desk just before 8 a.m. The banquet halls of this major international hotel have been turned into the command centre for the largest humanitarian operation in the world.

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 this hotel, considered one of just two facilities secure enough to house us and our control room.

From 8 a.m. until 9:30,my team of 30 slowly trickles in. It gives me time to file the 200 or so e-mails I received the day before. 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.

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After a quick mid-morning breakfastat a nearby restaurant (I always order the same thing: ful bi laban – fava beans with yogurt – a Syrian specialty), I arrive back at the office and 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. This particular manager is an up-and-comer and I've come to rely on him. Just a few weeks ago he and his entire family were forced to flee their home outside Damascus because of fighting in the area. Millions of Syrians have a similar story to tell.

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. With midday traffic and all the various checkpoints to go through, the trip will take us over an hour. 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.

It's 2 p.m. as we exit customs and I suggest we walk back to the office – better than being stuck in traffic. The streets are full with the bustle of normal city life.

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.

On the way to the hotel we hear a couple of loud explosions. Not a single person flinches. We've all come to learn the difference between incoming and outgoing artillery fire. Those were outgoing.

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. Just after departing, and a few grey hairs later, it was straight back to the drawing board. 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 routes back to when I was a young boy helping my mother as a Rotary volunteer in Southwestern Ontario.While taking development studies at Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, I decided to pursue a life of international service and resolved that human rights would form the basis of all my future decisions. Those decisions led me to pursue graduate degrees in human rights at the United Nations University for Peace in Costa Rica and in social policy from the London School of Economics.

After finishing my degrees I interned in Kenya with the office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. After a few days I was hooked.

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. 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.

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About the Author
Global Affairs reporter

As Global Affairs Writer, Patrick Martin’s primary focus is on the turbulent Middle East, to which he travels regularly. He has twice been posted to the region – from 1991-95 and from 2008-12. More


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