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Simon Hacker’s diary: Emergency food airlift the only way to move increasingly scarce supplies

Canadian Simon Hacker works for the United Nations World Food Program.

A selection from the diary of Canadian aid worker Simon Hacker, responsible for getting food to millions in Syria.

The civil war in Syria has riven the nation and put the entire region on edge.

As the conflict nears the end of its third year, more than 130,000 people have been killed and about 6.5 million have had to flee their homes. About 2.1 million of them have sought refuge abroad; the rest remain in Syria. The United Nations World Food Program (WFP) has identified four million Syrians at risk, unable to get the most basic foods because of the war that swirls around them.

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In this continuing series, Canadian Simon Hacker, a humanitarian logistician working for the WFP, shares his unique perspective on the country and on the efforts to help the Syrian people.

On Friday [Feb. 7] some relief came to the city of Homs where 3,000 people have been trapped between rebels and regime forces. They've been without access to food for a year and a half. A three-day ceasefire is permitting hundreds of people (women, children and older men) to leave the city and the WFP is set to truck in three months of food for the 2500 who remain. The Globe and Mail's Patrick Martin asked Simon: Just how big a deal is this ceasefire?

Simon Hacker: "Huge is an understatement."

"The UN has been tirelessly trying to reach Old Homs for over a year now. So it's great news for the hundreds of civilians caught in the crossfire."

"However, what makes this especially important is the chance that this ceasefire can be parlayed into something much bigger: greater humanitarian access, other ceasefires brokered in other parts of the country, or maybe even peace."

With the peace talks in Geneva adjourning on the weekend without any agreement on how to deliver food aid to people under siege in Hama and other Syrian cities, The Globe and Mail's Patrick Martin asked Mr. Hacker: Has the political stalemate handed the problem back to groups such as the WFP?

Simon Hacker: It sure has. My colleague returned from the northeastern city of Qamishli in Hassakeh governorate this week. While there he met with 150 individuals who risked their lives to escape Noble and Zahra – two villages in rural Aleppo that have been under siege for over a year. Travelling 480 kilometres over many days, these people arrived in Qamishli hungry, thirsty, and exhausted. (As a marathon runner I'm myself impressed by this feat of endurance.) They were desperate – having exhausted all their money on smugglers that ensured their passage through Turkey – and we were able to quickly arrange some canned food, bread and water to tide them over.

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The entire northeastern governorate of Hassakeh is now, essentially, under siege. With the roads manned by dozens of armed groups and the borders with Iraq and Turkey officially closed, very little is getting in or out. What does manage to get through is taxed heavily by an intricate network of illegal smugglers and guys with guns. With no political solution in sight, prices are rising and basic commodities are becoming more and more scarce. The situation is so bad that WFP will again establish an emergency air-bridge and begin airlifting food supplies from Iraq. It's another project that will occupy my team for the next couple of weeks.

But at the same time, another crisis is brewing, though this one is completely avoidable: We're running out of money, and fast. If our partners don't dig deep in the coming days and weeks we'll be forced to take the heart-breaking decision of reducing the food ration or lowering the number of people we help. It's a decision we've we been forced to take in operations in other countries, and it's one of the things we, as an organization, hate doing the most.

PM: How are things closer to your own base in Damascus?

SH: The usual shenanigans: heavy fighting on the outskirts of the city closed the main road going South, rendering our warehouses almost impossible to access; eight trucks carrying our food were impounded (but subsequently returned), and the usual random mortars rained down inside the city.

PM: Does your group deliver food to Aleppo itself? If so, has it been affected by recent events that reportedly include heavy regime shelling of rebel-held areas?

SH: Every month WFP tries to reach approximately 750,000 people in Aleppo – and depending on the situation we have mixed results.  There was a period in 2013 where all of Aleppo city was effectively under siege for a couple of months.  Today it is rural Aleppo that we are unable to reach.  In the ebb and flow of this conflict, there is no question that whenever fighting flares up it affects our ability to deliver.  It is for this reason that UN has consistently called on all parties of the conflict to allow safe access to innocent civilians for delivery of humanitarian relief.  We will continue to beat this drum for as long as it takes.

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PM: With regard to the shortage of funds you speak of, could that be because donors think that now that the two warring sides have been meeting face to face in Geneva there's no more need for delivering food to people?

Any progress on the diplomatic front is welcome news indeed.  However, this does not negate the enormous need humanitarian food assistance.  Even if the fighting stops tomorrow the path to food security will take months if not years to achieve for all the Syrians we assist today.  Should WFP receive the money we will be by there side every step of the way.

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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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