After two decades of life-saving airdrops, "Loki" airbase closes
A little over two decades ago, it was a small sleepy village in a northern region in Kenya, 20km from the border of southern Sudan. In 1989, it was established and managed by WFP as a strategic airbase under “Operation Lifeline Sudan” (OLS).
In response to the lack of physical infrastructure in southern Sudan and the inability to deliver food by land, Lokichoggio, or “Loki” for short, became famous for its life-saving food airdrops.
“Close to 40 airdrops were done every day to over 300 locations, with peak deliveries of over 700 tons per day. It was fantastic teamwork,” says Pierre Carrasse, Chief of Aviation, who began his career with WFP at the Loki airbase.
From 1992-2005, close to 500,000 metric tons of assistance was delivered to South Sudan and Darfur from Loki airbase. To help put this number in perspective, each airdrop carried on average 16 metric tons of cargo, including food and non-food commodities. Often referred to as one of the world’s largest and longest-running humanitarian aid projects, Loki was handed over to the Kenyan Airport Authority and Turkana County Council on 24 June 2011; and WFP will close its offices there by the end of August 2011. Today, South Sudan is no longer dependant on the once so essential airdrops from Loki airbase. In addition to its independence, South Sudan also has an improved infrastructure that supports road transport, especially thanks to the 2,600km of road rehabilitated by WFP.
Tony Freeman, a long-time WFP logistician, was able to witness Loki in action, and we asked him to tell us what this operation meant for him, WFP and the people of South Sudan – and also what it was like in the ‘good ole days.’ Here’s what he had to say:
“Lokichoggio is where it began for me -- ‘It’ being my life with WFP. The year was 1995, and all of us who were recruited to work for Operation Lifeline Sudan had something unique in common: we had been lured by the chance of adventure, to roam the wildest parts of Africa, where few ‘mzungu’ (Swahili for ‘traveller’) had been before us.
It was a place where plastic bags and the hot dry breeze danced a tango through the dusty streets, where the night skies were illuminated by the glimmer a zillion stars, and often with the sound of gun-fire as local tribes battled fiercely for the possession of cattle. There nestled under the Acacia trees, a collection of huts, tents and shipping containers made up the OLS base. A mélange of non-governmental organizations (NGOs), the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and U.N. agencies were united in one cause – helping the people of South Sudan.
Life in Loki in the early days was fairly basic. A couple of ‘duka,’ aka small shops, supplied every necessity for me – cigarettes, salt and more cigarettes. But what made Loki special, and even famous, was the thousands of humanitarian aid flights which left Loki. Day after day, year after year, Lokichoggio International Airport was the gateway to southern Sudan. Loki survived flooded rivers, drought, and sometimes a lack of funding! Playing host to dignitaries, Princess Anne and President Jimmy Carter to name a few, Loki was featured in novels and movies, too. But more than this, Loki was the teething ground where many of the systems and methods used by WFP globally and still in practice today were conceived, piloted and championed. A few crashed and burned, but we never stopped having a go!
As the day for the independence of South Sudan grew closer, and the announcement that WFP was finally to close operations out of Loki, I like so many other colleagues have reminisced about the ‘good old days.’ This was a time when WFP worked prior to email, GPS tracking systems, and mobile phones; it was a simple life, where monthly reports were sent via radio waves. Satellite phones came in a suitcase and cost around $50USD per minute; WFP field staff spent six weeks at a time living and working out of a tent, carrying whatever they would need to survive stuffed in their backpacks (cigarettes and salt), along with a high-frequency radio, 12-volt car battery, solar panels and a folder full of ‘evacuation’ routes, should they be unfortunate to encounter any danger during their stay.
An abundance of email traffic has hit my screen since the announcement of Loki’s closing. With names of people long forgotten, the list bears testament to the dedication, commitment and spirit of character that was required and found at Loki. What is very clear and evident in all the ‘memoirs’ I’ve read, is that Loki bred a certain spirit into all of us, a comradery, a ‘never say never’ attitude, and a sense of achievement. Although WFP Lokichoggio has closed its doors, and no longer will we ever hear the call of “Come to the flight office” reverberating from hundreds of Motorola’s, the spirit of Lokichoggio shall live on through all who spent time there.”
*Note: bottom two photos taken at Loki airbase. WFP/Debbi Morello, Kenya 2003