In helping Sudan's refugees, a fight against truck-eating rivers

Sitting at his desk, his office door shut tight, Robert Gillenwater doesn't have time for distractions. As his air conditioner hums weakly in the heat of Chad's capital, he's focusing hard on getting thousands of tons of cereals, vegetable oil, and a highly nutritional corn-soya blend to the 180,000 refugees who've fled across the border from fighting in neighboring Sudan.

This former Canadian military officer is chief of logistics for the United Nations World Food Program here. It's his 11th humanitarian crisis. He avoided rebel fire in Liberia and enlisted armies of elephants to get food to refugees in Cambodia.

But the logistics situation in Chad and Sudan's Darfur region is the worst he's ever seen. "We're fighting against the clock and mother nature," Mr. Gillenwater says.

With about 100 trucks at his disposal, Mr. Gillenwater and his team must navigate a barren land with only a handful of paved roads and with bridgeless rivers that appear from nowhere after big rains. Their rush- ing currents have already claimed two trucks. He's ordered platoons of porters stationed at riverbanks: When trucks arrive at a river, porters will ferry the cargo on their backs, to trucks on the other side. With ideas like this, and international support growing, he's confident refugees in Chad will get what they need.

"One way or another we'll do it," Gillenwater says, in his clipped military tone.

But others aren't sure the 1.4 million displaced people in Chad and Sudan will have enough. UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan pleaded this week for donor nations to make good on $191 million in unfulfilled pledges to help in the crisis. US officials have said that up to 350,000 people could die in Sudan if immediate aid isn't sent.

In fact, The World Food Program in Sudan reportedly distributed 8,460 tons of food trucked in from places like Port Sudan in the north to 523,415 people in Darfur this month, far short of their goal of reaching 1 million people. That's raising concerns that at least 100,000 more refugees could join those already in Chad, and overwhelm aid groups.

Meanwhile, diplomatic efforts center on a US-sponsored UN Security Council resolution that threatens sanctions against Sudan's government if it doesn't help improve the situation in 30 days. In Egypt Wednesday, US Secretary of State Colin Powell tried to rally Arab support for the measure. But Egypt balked, saying it will fight the resolution and that Sudan's government needs more time to deal with the situation on its own.

Yet in Darfur, attacks by Arab militias, called Janjaweed, apparently continue. UN staffers have interviewed 38 women and girls who say they were raped by militia men in the past week.

Logistically, the relief task is daunting. The distances alone are huge. Food traveling from the US to refugees in eastern Chad, for instance, typically travels down the Mississippi River and across the Atlantic, a one-month journey. It arrives into port in Douala, Cameroon, where unexplained delays of up to three weeks have been slowing its progress. Then it's 10 to 15 days via train or truck to Chad's capital, Ndjamena.

From there, convoys of 20-ton trucks take five days to go 530 miles to the eastern hub of Abeche, near the refugee camps. The road they're now using will soon be shut down by the government because of rains. So they'll have to go 870 miles, into the middle of the Sahara Desert, to deliver the food. There's also food coming down through Libya and in from neighboring Niger.

Ibrahim Moussa has enlisted four of his own 20-ton trucks to help move the goods. The cheerful Chadian man is a kind of chief of a tribe of wanderers - about 30 men and boys who travel with him. They're drivers, mechanics, and porters. They recently delivered 400 tents to the newest refugee camp near Bahai.

"We must help our brothers," he said of the trip, during which he nearly lost a truck in a river.

His enthusiasm also hints at the business side of the refugee crisis. Aid workers say Chad's government has been hugely helpful, seeing the crisis as a job-creation machine. There are, for instance, at least 200 new security guards employed in eastern Chad. That's in stark contrast to Sudan's government, which has only recently begun opening Darfur to aid workers.

As Mr. Moussa waits for mechanics to drain several gallons of water from a truck engine, he explains that, because of the heat, sometimes he drives at night. In the absence of street lights or signs, he navigates by stars. There's one star that "everyone in the business knows," he says. "Put that one on your right, and you'll go north."

As for dreaded rivers, or wadis as they're called here, the key is knowing how mushy the bottoms are. He sends in a team of boys to check before charging through in a truck. He knows of eight trucks that have been lost. So far, he says with a smile, he hasn't lost any. One reason: He's patient. He once waited at a riverbank for 36 days before crossing.

All these efforts are being put forth for people like Kadija Adam, a refugee and mother of nine in the Oure Cassoni camp.

She says she was going to fetch water in her village in Sudan, when Janjaweed attacked and tried to take the two young nieces who were with her. She hid the girls behind her back and told the militia members to leave. So they shot her in the leg, she says, showing a scar on her calf.

Several months later, with food running low, she limped into Chad, where she now has a tent, a makeshift kitchen, and enough food and water for her brood.

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