I alternate between watching the polka-dot desert pass beneath me, a sea of little grass clumps that will soon become islands, and checking our course and progress against the GPS. It’s a relief to be at 12,000 feet, enjoying a peaceful flight in smooth, cool air instead of sweltering in the stagnant, hot desert dust and heat of the ground we left behind an hour ago. For a moment, my mind lulled by the warmth of the sun pouring into our cockpit, it all seems a perfectly normal, everyday trip in a little Cessna single. Then Denny checks our distance from a waypoint on the GPS and frowns.

“Make a 15-degree correction to the right,” he says. “We’re getting too close to Kapoetta. I don’t think they’ve got radar-guided artillery yet, but they’ve got radar, and they’ve got good anti-aircraft artillery and some MiGs.”

He doesn’t need to tell me twice. In an instant, I am reminded that despite the civilian nature of our airplane and the seeming normalcy of life in our cockpit, we are flying in a combat zone, on an “unauthorized” flight into southern Sudan. Unauthorized, at least, by the Government of Sudan in Khartoum, which is in control of Kapoetta at the moment. Our flight is supposedly welcomed by the Sudanese People’s Liberation Army, which controls much of the southern territory—but even the SPLA factions fight among themselves, and the rebel army is comprised of occasionally undisciplined soldiers who just might find target practice on a Cessna good fun after they’ve had a few.

It occurs to me that I must have taken temporary leave of my senses, asking to come along on this trip; indeed, that all the civilian pilots who fly these missions day after day must have taken collective leave of their senses to sign on for such an overwhelmingly impossible, not to mention uncomfortable, task. We are part of what has become the longest-running airlift operation in history; an attempt by humanitarian organizations to provide relief to the casualties of the protracted civil war in Sudan—the hundreds of thousands of civilians who have been displaced and left without food or medical supplies as the war has swept over their nomadic villages and towns.

The relief effort centers around the dusty village of Lokichoggio—an unremarked desert outpost tucked in the northwest corner of Kenya, just a few miles from both the Sudanese and Ethiopian borders. Before the airlift began, “Loki” consisted of only a few beehive-shaped “tukals” of twig and thatch inhabited by nomadic Turkana tribespeople, who still dress and live today as they did hundreds and perhaps even thousands of years ago. But today, the tukals and their traditionally-clothed inhabitants sit in the shadow of a bustling supply depot, where the reverberating rumble of departing and returning cargo planes ranging from Cessna Caravans to more exotic Andovers, Buffalos, and C-130s regularly breaks the silence of the simmering desert air.

Loki is a curious town; an artificial construct of the relief industry whose population and activity levels have swollen and receded as the tides of war and nature have risen and fallen across the swamps and deserts of Sudan. In the dozen or so years that the airlift has been in operation, a couple of natural droughts have intensified the man-made wartime famine. During those times, hundreds of pilots from around the world descended on Loki, logging 10-hour food supply missions each day and retreating each evening to the thatched-roof bars at one of two tent camps erected to house the flight crews and personnel to tell stories, rehash the day’s flights, and gain a few hours of liquid relief before getting up in the pre-dawn hours to do it all over again.

Today, the drought has receded, and the spaces in between the takeoffs and landings have lengthened. But the airlift continues, a tired and entrenched mirror image of the prolonged conflict in Sudan itself. The pilots still fly, and the barstools in the thatched huts are still filled each night with pilots as they wait for the next mission.

The pilots themselves are a cast of characters worthy of a bar scene from Star Wars. They come from many different countries and many different walks of life, and the reasons that have drawn them to Loki vary as widely as their backgrounds.

Denny Dyvig, for example, is a missionary pilot. He flies for AIM Air; a charter company that serves a variety of missionary and religious-based relief organizations. He isn’t even paid a salary to take on the risks and discomfort of Loki and Sudan, existing instead on church donations from the United States. Other pilots in Loki, on the other hand, are here simply because it’s a job—a way to build time while waiting for the airlines to call.

Indeed, if there is a common denominator in Loki, it is the sense of waiting that permeates the air in this no-man’s limbo outside of civilization and time. As I stepped out of the 210 on my arrival in Lokichoggio, dressed in the white, epaulet-adorned shirt/uniform that is an unofficial prerequisite for acknowledgement of pilot status here, I had the odd feeling that I’d stepped into a real-life scene out of M*A*S*H. Huge khaki-colored supply tents lined the runway beneath the watchful eyes of a tiny, rickety wooden control tower perched just above tent pole height on spindly legs of rust-colored steel. Crews with forklifts and old military trucks shuttled bags of sorghum and maize to lowered back ramps of Hercules and Buffalo planes with a focused demeanor that spoke of an airstrip dedicated solely to the business at hand.

This is not a social place, where outsiders are cheerfully welcomed. It’s a place of loners and transients, most of whom pass through for a few months at a time, flying their missions in between the long stretches of waiting—for the next flight, the next paycheck, the next R&R rotation, the next opportunity.

The flying here is also far from standard. There are no navaids, weather services, or other luxuries available to the supply pilots in Sudan. The strips they fly into have been carved out of swampland and desert scrub by local villagers, challenging landing sites even without the risk of being fired upon or bombed once on the ground. The pilots navigate by GPS and design their approaches based on other pilots’ reports and a thick, xeroxed sheaf of papers they call their “Jungle Jepp Charts”—hand-drawn diagrams of airstrips marked with cautions and local landmarks. The strips are anything but straight, sometimes less than 500 meters long, and often adorned with dangerous holes, tree-stumps, ruts, obstacles, swampland and infamous “black cotton soil,” which turns to a hazardous spongy consistency after a rain. The notation at the bottom of each diagram directing pilots to “use at your own risk” is a laughable and redundant statement of the obvious after even a quick glance at the hazards outlined on every approach and landing site.

And yet, the challenges faced by certain pilots are higher than those endured by some of the comrades they drink with every evening. For the physical challenges and personal dramas of the pilots here are played out against a larger political backdrop that is as messy and complex as the war itself. The United Nations is managing a relief program here called Operation Lifeline Sudan—a food supply effort designed to relieve the effects of the famine in Sudan. However, the effort is approved, sanctioned and, therefore, essentially controlled by the northern, officially recognized Government of Sudan. The U.N. contracts are lucrative, and operators compete vigorously and with whatever political weapons they can muster to obtain them. Yet the flights flown under the U.N. banner are only allowed into places the Northern Sudanese are willing to help. The towns the north wants to attack or terrorize are off-limits. No aid is to reach those civilians.

This is where pilots like Denny Dyvig and freelance charter operators and non-U.N.-affiliated relief organizations come in. The missionary and “renegade” relief pilots fly to the villages and airstrips forbidden by the northern Sudanese, taking on a much greater risk of attack, especially on the ground. The U.N. and non-U.N. pilots take off from the same airport each morning, and return to the same thatched-roof bar and accommodations every night. But for the hours in between, they work for different sides.

The airstrip Denny and I are flying into today is in a supposedly “quiet” area of action, even though a nearby school and hospital have been bombed numerous times. The arrival of an airplane is still a big event here, and 30-40 villagers are gathered at the dirt strip to meet us as we touch down. But I don’t have time to visit with them or see the village or its medical clinic, where the depth of the war’s wounds would be more evident, because our greatest vulnerability to attack is here, on the ground. Relief pilots get in, unload, load, and get off the ground again as fast as they can. Even so, sometimes it’s not fast enough. Just last August, northern troops bombed a Red Cross plane while it sat on the runway at this very strip. The AIM Air pilots show me a piece of remnant shrapnel from one of the attacks—jagged-edged steel exploding from home-made barrel bombs that can cut through flesh, bone and metal like butter. Even touching its angry, sharp edges sends a cold chill through my body. How can humans do this to each other? The fiercest lion in the African Savannah is not so cruel.

But the fallout from the war and the relief effort goes beyond mere shrapnel. The reason Denny and I are flying into this particular village today, for example, is because the U.N., in an effort to demobilize child soldiers in Sudan, has dumped 1,600 boys between the ages of 8 and 18 into this spot with some plastic sheeting and raw food, but with no assistance or direction on building shelter, cooking the food, or developing any community or infrastructure. Already, this tiny, war-weary village has become inundated with unsanitary conditions and a dangerous number of unsupervised youth who have been trained for little else except fighting. Denny and I are taking the risks inherent in flying into a combat zone to pick up some relief workers who flew to this village to see if they could figure out a way to mop up the crisis created by the U.N.’s well-meaning relief effort.

Their efforts are not as broad-reaching or well-funded as the huge U.N. food drops, but our passengers argue that the only way to really make a difference in such a prolonged and problematic hunger zone is for relief organizations to start small and get their hands dirty, on the ground, working with villages to build self-sustaining agriculture, clinics and housing instead of just dropping food by the ton. Just looking at the situation in this one village, it seems a compelling argument – and one even the pilots flying the lucrative U.N. contracts seem to support.

“The efficient, directed people who were really concerned about making a difference and getting a job done here have all left,” one pilot at the bar that evening says with a resigned shrug. “Now, the U.N. program is more like one big, self-perpetuating bureaucracy. The people they’ve got here now are more concerned with paperwork, money, keeping their positions, showing they’ve got power and following the rules than making any difference or getting a job done.”  He takes a long swig from his bottle of Tusker beer. “And we’ve been dumping all this food on people for a lot of years, now. If we don’t make an effort at building any sustained, self-sufficient infrastructure on the ground, we’re just creating a nation of beggars.” Somewhere in his desert-weary eyes, there is a pilot who still cares. But in case I needed another reminder of the contrasts here, the pilot on the next barstool quickly chimes in with a snort and a lopsided grin. “Yeah, but it’s good business,” he says with undisguised, amused cynicism. “There’ll be flying jobs here for years to come. And if this war dries up, there’s always Congo, you know.”

The tiny village of Lokichoggio is little more than a wide spot in a deteriorating road. But it is also a remarkable crossroads—a desolate way station where more than just borders come together. It is a place of opposites and contradictions—where idealism met reality a long time ago, where the sweet, UNICEF poster children images can seem as distant and unrealistic as the comforts of home, and some people risk their lives for a sense of humanity while others do it for cold, hard cash. Here, both sides of a war are aided and fought; ancient tribespeople sit and watch turbine-powered cargo planes fly overhead, bureaucracy is both perpetuated and fought against, and the complexities of life and the world’s problems are not an interesting conversation topic debated in the cool shadows of a Manhattan bistro, but a vivid reality of daily life.

Answers are an elusive commodity in Lokichoggio, even for pilots who’ve lived and worked there a long time. “The longer you’re there, the more complex you realize the situation is,” says an Air Serv International pilot who flew relief missions out of Loki for five years. “The conflict in Sudan is deeper and has been going on longer than the United States has been in existence, and the politics and bureaucracy with both the war and the relief effort are a mess. But at the same time, if we pulled out, people would die.”  He pauses, shaking his head at the complexity of the problem. “For me, I had to look at it in terms of individual people,” he explains. “I once airlifted out a little boy from a village in southern Sudan. I got him to a hospital, and he lived. I then took him back to his village. If I hadn’t been there with an airplane to fly him out of there, he would have died. Maybe I can’t fix the problems in Sudan. But there’s a little boy alive today who wouldn’t be if I hadn’t been there.”

It’s a small victory. And yet, I understand. For my own impressions of Sudan are not of a large, all-encompassing conflict, but of a small, thatched-hut village where women in traditional wraps hung back from the eager group of men who met our incongruously modern plane. Somewhere far beneath the headlines and politics are still individual people who have seen and suffered more than I could ever imagine. That’s hard to turn your back on, no matter how messy the politics are.

A few small villages; a little boy’s life. Small victories. But a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. And as I look down on Loki for the last time, I think that perhaps even in the endless and complex fight against the pain and hunger in the world, small victories such as these may still be an important goal to try to achieve. Even if it means taking on a few anti-aircraft installations or bombers in an unarmed Cessna 210.

No Man’s Land

 

By Lane Wallace

 

© 2001 Flying Magazine
First appeared in FLYING Magazine, June 2001

I’m at 12,000 feet, gazing with amazement at the desolate, burned desert landscape that stretches to the horizon in every direction beneath the wings of our Cessna 210.

“They burn the grass at the end of the dry season because it’s no longer suitable for grazing, so new grass will grow when the rains come,” explains Denny Dyvig, sitting beside me. “Hard to believe now, but in six weeks, this’ll all be under several inches of water.”