Saturday, July 4, 2009

Kufra a humanitarian outpost

Nicely written article, even though it has as usual some biases; but a good read nonetheless :

Kufra, A Remote Human Settlement in Libya‏ ‏‎ Helps WFP Deliver Aid to ‎Hundreds of Thousands
20/04/2009 15:16:00

By Sophie McBain

The small town of Kufra, close to the Egyptian, Sudanese and Chadian borders in ‎southeastern Libya, is undoubtedly one of the most remote human settlements on ‎earth. Built on an improbable natural groundwater supply in the heart of a virtually ‎impenetrable stretch of the Sahara, the nearest town is over 600 km away. The climate ‎here is unrelenting. Kufra has not seen a drop of rain since 1977.‎

Since 2004, Kufra has also hosted a vast United Nations World Food Programme ‎‎(WFP) operation to deliver essential food aid to Sudanese refugees and internally ‎displaced people in Chad. In 2008 21,700 metric tonnes of food aid was offloaded ‎from ships in Benghazi, 1,300 km away, and transported by truck to Kufra. The road ‎ends 200 km outside of Kufra. ‎

Once in Kufra, the food aid is stored in warehouses to be delivered by desert trucks ‎for the remainder of the journey to western Chad. The mission contributes to the ‎feeding of 250,000 Sudanese refugees in Chad, 180,000 Chadian internally displaced ‎people and 57,000 refugees from the Central African Republic.‎

Moreover, the crisis in Sudan has worsened and the number of refugees is increasing ‎exponentially. This year alone, the refugee population caused by the Darfur conflict ‎has doubled and Jacques Collignon, WFP senior regional logistics officer, estimates ‎that this number may yet increase by another 300,000. To make up for this, he ‎believes that the Kufra mission will have to increase its current output, which ‎currently fluctuates around 5000 tonnes per month, to 8,000 tonnes a month. ‎

The magnitude of these operations is already breathtaking. WFP has 20 hangers in ‎Kufra, each holding 1,300 tonnes of food aid, but some food has had to be stored ‎outside, protected by tarpaulin covers, due to a shortage of storage space. The ‎operation has around 300 trucks in circulation at one time and each truck carries at ‎load of 25-27 tonnes.‎

Photo: WFP has 20 hangers in Kufra, each holding 1,300 tonnes of food aid.

Scaling up operations in Kufra will never prove easy. "People think of the numbers ‎and these are impressive enough, but they don't really take into account the logistical ‎complexity of this operation" Brian Gleeson, United Nations in Libya Resident ‎Coordinator, commented. ‎

The journey from Kufra to Abeche in Chad takes 4-6 weeks to complete; progress is ‎slow when the desert trucks are carrying their massive cargo over shifting desert sand. ‎During this time the drivers must carry with them all the food and water needed for ‎the journey.

There are no more stopping points before Abeche, over one thousand ‎kilometres away. If anything goes wrong with the trucks, and by all accounts this is ‎not a rare occurrence, the drivers must fix the problem themselves.‎

When it comes to navigating through this hostile terrain, however, the drivers excel. ‎Many come from Kufra or Chad and their knowledge of the Sahara is unrivalled. ‎Abdelmenam Saleh Benali, Logistics Assistant at WFP Libya tells the story of when ‎he invited an expert from Egypt to monitor the drivers' abilities.

Somewhere along the ‎route from Benghazi to Kufra, long after the asphalt road has given way to sand, the ‎Egyptian lost his glasses. He didn't notice until his arrival in Kufra at midnight, at ‎which point he gave up all hope of being able to continue the journey fully-sighted. ‎

But a driver offered to pick them up and drove through the other-worldly darkness of ‎the desert at night to retrieve the stranded spectacles. He found the glasses without ‎deviating from his course once. These are men of the Sahara. They know the desert ‎like the back of their hand. ‎

It is not only the geographical landscape that makes the journey so arduous. The area ‎the trucks pass through is extremely politically volatile and often the drivers have to ‎plan their route according to different tribal territories in Chad. ‎

Recently, the Libyan government has provided a free military escort to the Chadian ‎border and from there on the convoy is escorted by Chadian troops. This does not, ‎however, prevent incidents from occurring.

Photo: Brian Gleeson, L, UN Libya Resident Coordinator, and Omar Ali, WFP Program Coordinator reviewing last minute arrangements before the departure of the convoy.

The convoys of up to 100 trucks may be ‎spread out over many kilometres and the military can only ensure a rapid response ‎mechanism, not round-the-clock protection. Abdelmenam Saleh Benali reports that ‎whilst no drivers have been killed, many have to hand over their phones and their ‎money to armed rebels, some of whom are as young as fourteen or fifteen.‎

These are not the only dangers faced along this journey. In early 2008, one young ‎driver was killed by a landmine in South East Libya, close to the Chadian border. The ‎incident happened at night and his horrified companions were stuck to the ground, ‎unable to risk immediately retrieving his body, as Islamic custom requires.

The border ‎areas are filled with landmines, a legacy of the Second World War battles that took ‎place here and the 1970-1980 wars with Chad. The United Nations Development ‎Programme in Libya is overseeing the escalation of the Libyan government's de-‎mining activities, but the risks remain significant. ‎

Interested to hear more about the WFP driver's perspective on this dangerous journey, ‎I head down to the warehouses to interview a few of them as they are making their ‎final preparations for departure. There are two people per truck, a driver and an ‎assistant, and they show me the tiny double bunk installed behind their seats, their ‎home for the next few months.

On the side of their truck a small kitchen arrangement ‎is installed, 'my restaurant' one of them jokes. Some drivers take a sheep with them, ‎tied to the top of the truck, to provide some meat for on the journey.‎
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‎"The desert is insufferable. It is always too hot or too cold. Sometimes there are ‎sandstorms and you sit down to eat your lunch and all you eat is sand. The first time ‎you do this trip is the worst. In the desert you think of nothing. It's OK now, but you ‎think of nothing" one driver, Mohammed, explains. Another driver, Hakim, tells me ‎he has a wife and six children in Kufra. "It's very hard to leave them for this long, but ‎I have to feed them" he explains.‎

Bound together by a shared fate and quite often blood ties, the camaraderie between ‎the drivers is evident. The trucks travel in groups of around five, and the drivers take ‎it in turns to cook and are on hand to provide assistance if one truck breaks down. In ‎the evenings some listen to tapes and dance.

Mohammed is clearly a Francophile, he ‎learnt his French at school in Kufra and speaks it excellently. His favourite artist is ‎Jacques Brel, though his friends prefer Egyptian and Sudanese music, he assures me. ‎

Others enjoy less entertainment. Moatasser says he does little but drive and sleep for ‎the long four to six weeks in the desert. He is surprised when I even ask how he finds ‎his job. "It's the desert, of course it's hard." he replies.‎

So what exactly motivates these drivers to undertake this difficult task? Some of them ‎have never even seen the beneficiaries of their food aid. "But we do hear things" adds ‎Mohammed "sometimes you really get the impression that if you don't get things ‎transported quickly these people will just die." ‎

Others do make it to the camps and Abdelmenam Saleh Benali describes how the ‎drivers are changed by the experience. "At first these guys are in it for the money. ‎They are hard desert people and they are not easily moved, but when they return their ‎mentality completely changes." Hakim tells me he has seen the camps and that's why ‎he keeps working for WFP, even if he could get higher rates elsewhere.‎

There is no denying however, that in a small, isolated town like Kufra, WFP is big ‎business. Omar Ali, WFP Programme Coordinator, estimates that since the launch of ‎WFP operations in Kufra, it has injected over 60 million Libyan dinars into the town's ‎economy. These changes are evident, in the large amount of building work taking ‎place, the proliferation of new shops and supermarkets and the satellite dish on every ‎rooftop, a valued commodity in a country that was long cut off from the outside ‎world.‎
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Indeed, the Libyan government and WFP enjoy a somewhat symbiotic relationship. ‎The government provides the warehouses, a free military escort and a 25% discount ‎on fuel. In return, WFP provides jobs to an area where other opportunities are ‎minimal. ‎

With the crisis in Sudan showing no signs of abating, WFP's operations can only ‎expand. These complex missions have played a critical role in the region and not only ‎for the hundreds of thousands whose survival depends on their success. It has also ‎transformed Kufra from an isolated stopping point for the lonely few who venture this ‎deep into the desert, into a vibrant hub of activity. Amidst a conflict of devastating ‎proportions, WFP's activities represent a noteworthy triumph for humanitarianism.‎