Pre-positioning winter food supplies in Afghanistan already isn’t easy at the best of times. But Lourdes Ibarra, head of WFP’s Herat Area Office in western Afghanistan, was faced with quite the dilemma this November. “Murghab Valley was always a challenge. There had been a number of calls to WFP’s feedback hotline from people living there, telling us that our food assistance wasn’t getting through to them. We knew their need was great – but our rules are strict. If my staff can’t monitor the distribution, I won’t send food. Everyone kept telling me the same thing: it is impossible to deliver food to Murghab Valley,” she narrates. Luckily for the people of Murghab, Lourdes was not going to let that assertion go unchallenged.
The 250-km long, narrow canyon in Afghanistan’s western Ghor province is home to many fighting factions, generally termed as “anti-government elements”, including Taliban groups. The harsh natural landscape and the ongoing conflict mean that life is tough for the residents, and WFP had allocated more than 2,000 metric tonnes of food to Ghor province for the 2012/2013 winter. More than 100 metric tonnes was destined for 20,000 hungry children in Murghab Valley – but how can WFP make sure that the food would reach its intended beneficiaries?
Lourdes sat down with her team to look for a solution to the problem – and found it in the form of a field monitor assistant called Sayed Abdul Wassy Yousifi. “Wassy was the one who showed me the way,” explains Lourdes. In his eight years with WFP, he had travelled to Ghor province and to Murghab Valley many times – even before the valley was accessible by car, and going there meant several days’ travel on foot. A deeply religious man from a respected family, he was well known among the local population, but also among the tribal elders, government officials – and the local commanders.
Wassy was assigned the difficult task of getting the right people to come to the WFP Herat office to discuss the situation. At first, they were not keen to speak with the “foreigners”, but eventually Wassy was able to convince the most influential local leader to meet with Lourdes. Together, they won him over. Lourdes recalls: “I told him that there are times I cannot sleep because I worry about the food we are sending to the valley. He told me – you can sleep well now: even if you leave the food by the side of the road now, no one will touch it.”
Even with the buy-in of the commander, many of the colleagues in the Herat office weren’t sure the food would really make it to the final destination. “Local commanders had promised safe passage of our food before – but it was lost anyway,” explains Mohammad Edris Salehi, the senior security assistant. Noorullah Sakandary, a senior logistics assistant, was worried about the safety of the contracted drivers of the food convoy. Everyone was on edge.
Wassy and Lourdes went to Chaghcharan, the provincial capital of Ghor, to meet with the governor, the local shurah (council), and other relevant authorities, to arrange for the details of the food delivery. What was meant to be a day trip to conclude the necessary negotiations turned into an 18-day mission for Wassy, since he was determined to stay until all the food was delivered and distributed to the school children. It was an incredibly difficult time for Wassy. “He was fighting for all of WFP’s principles: humanitarianism, neutrality and impartiality,” Lourdes explains. Buffeted between the various local groups, Wassy was threatened and ordered not to send the food, told that there would be dire consequences for himself and for the truck drivers of the convoy. He slept in different places every night in a bid to stay safe.
All the while, Lourdes was anxiously following Wassy’s progress from Herat. “He called me at least five times a day to update me and discuss challenges. I offered what support and advice I could, with the help from everyone on the team.”
Wassy’s determination made a strong impression on the local people. “They saw me standing up for their rights. One person said to me ‘you are kinder to us than our own mother”.
The sincerity of their gratitude was apparent when the breakthrough finally came: crowds of people had gathered to welcome the trucks as they rolled into the valley. The local shurah arranged for motorcycle riders to escort the convoy, and for representatives to ride in the trucks to ensure safe passage. When the motorcade arrived at the distribution point, the shurah had arranged for head teachers and students to collect rations for the 77 schools. In total, 14,000 boys and more than 6,600 girls received their winter food rations.
The colleagues in Herat waited for updates with baited breath. “When the email came from our security colleagues that the food had reached its final destination, I was so relieved!” says Noorullah. “It was only about 100 tonnes of food, but it felt like a very big achievement.”
“The Murghab Valley experience was a breakthrough,” concludes Lourdes. “We learned that with respect, determination, and strong teamwork we can achieve the impossible – without compromising our accountability or humanitarian principles. And if we could do it in Murghab, we can do it anywhere!”