Sudan: A day in the life of an aid worker

Originally published
As the head of WFP's Field Office in Malakal, South Sudan, Hans Vikoler's busy days on the front line are challenging but satisfying. Public information officer Luca Romano reports.
Hans Peter Vikoler is Italian, but you wouldn't know it from his name. A tall, rugged, good-looking man in his mid-forties with patches of white in his hair, Hans is from the mountains of Bolzano, the German-speaking area of Italy. As head of WFP's Field Office in Malakal, some 650 km south of Khartoum, his day begins under the grey clouds of dawn.

In true Italian style, Hans grabs a cup of espresso. It's a rare concession to comfort in this tough field office. By 7 a.m. he's already heading to work along a muddy road covered with animal excrement, open sewers on both sides.


Like every day for the past few weeks, Hans has one major problem and a million smaller ones.

The main problem is to deliver 450 metric tonnes of sorghum, sorghum seeds, farming tools, cooking oil and a highly nutritious blend of corn and soya powder to about 36,000 war-affected internally displaced people (IDPs).

The materials are scheduled to be transported by barge to the scattered villages along the Sobat River, a tributary of the Nile.


Hans is about to give the go ahead when the local chief of Sudan's Military Intelligence, Colonel Ali Almardi, requests a meeting. Almardi fears that the distribution of food to some areas rather than others might incite armed bands, which roam the area, to raid the poor villages and steal the food.

He is also concerned about planned WFP food air drops taking place around the isolated village of Nasir, and that the barge operation may not be able to proceed to the upper Sobat River, as the water level is still too low at this time of year.

He would prefer a delay of all food distributions until August, "when all areas can be covered at once, so that everyone can get food at the same time".


Hans responds diplomatically. The air drops have already started. There is a risk of severe malnutrition among the people living on the Sobat River.

Hans tries to allay the colonel's concerns, but insists that postponing the mission until August might endanger many lives and compound the problem later. Almardi eventually accepts.


It is 11 a.m. and a meeting is scheduled for some 40 people involved in the air drops and barge operation. They belong to different humanitarian agencies based in the north and the south, and to date, they have been working separately, divided by the war.

The January peace accord has only recently brought them together. The generator rumbles in the background, but after a while you don't notice. It's hot, and a downpour is threatening.

During the meeting, one participant points out that the barges are slow and "overloaded", that they must fight the current and could be an easy target. "There may be a problem at night," he adds.

Another says that the beneficiaries should be informed well in advance of the time and place of distribution, since some people may take a day or two to walk to the distribution point.


Hans concludes that the risks have been assessed and are tolerable. "We need to be understanding and flexible - but not too much," he says.

"As mission leader, I have to keep to timelines; if one group [of beneficiaries] holds us up, think of the thousands who won't get food because of the delays."


It's already been a long day when Hans has a visitor from Khartoum : Sarah Longford, his boss.

She has come to help assess office needs, which will mushroom shortly when the approaching "hunger seasonf coincides with a likely influx of people returning home after two decades of war.

They sit late into the evening, huddled in his office, discussing staff increases, a new office building close to the Nile instead of the current cramped quarters, the cost of reinforcing the river embankment, a new warehouse on good land to replace the large storage tents...


There is no let-up even at dinner. Assia, the cook, has prepared fried cubes of fish, boiled rice and stew in a hot tomato sauce. There is water to drink. The TV is on intermittently, so Hans is not completely cut off from the world. Then, quite suddenly he shuts down for the night.

"I work better in the morning," he explains. And tomorrow he will start early again.