Risky air drops and truck deliveries across some of the most dangerous roads in the world: To tackle what is currently Africa's worst hunger crisis, the U.N. World Food Program is using all means at its disposal. Every month, the agency moves more than 25,000 tons of food in its war on hunger.
The War on Hunger
Chapter 1: "We Are Like Grass: We Bend This Way and That When the Elephants Fight."
In mid-April of this year, Asu Dennis Charles Lasuba, a member of the Kakwa people, decided he had to leave. There was nothing more he could do.
Fighters rallying behind former South Sudanese vice president, Riek Machars, had spread out across Kakwa territory in the southern part of the country. In response, soldiers belonging to the government army advanced into the area and accused Lasuba and his people of cooperating with Machar's rebels. The soldiers began slaughtering members of the ethnic group and burning down their homes.
The violence turned 37-year-old Lasuba into yet another South Sudanese refugee. Like 6 million of his compatriots who have become internally displaced or have otherwise suffered due to the almost four-year long conflict, Lasuba is now dependent on international aid.
After arriving in the Imvepi refugee camp just a few days after he escaped the violence, he described the fear that triggered his flight.
Like 1 million other people from South Sudan, he has found refuge in Uganda. The United Nations World Food Program (WFP) provides them with the rations necessary to survive: 2,100 calories per day. But the amount of food that must be shipped to feed Lasuba and the other refugees in Uganda, as well as the 2 million internally displaced still in South Sudan, is enormous. In 2016, the WFP bought more than 300,000 tons of sorghum, beans and oil for the South Sudan crisis alone.
When it comes to food purchases, there is but a single rule the WFP follows: Supplies must always be bought at the lowest price possible. Because that sum is a combination of the purchase price and transport costs, sacks of grain sometimes travel huge distances across circuitous routes before they end up in the gigantic depot in eastern Uganda for deployment in the South Sudan crisis. Is the price of corn currently low in Mexico? Is it cheap enough that the amount saved justifies sending it halfway around the globe? If it is, WFP will buy it.
The WFP's goal is to support local farmers and buy as much as they can in the region where they are operating. But paying too much must be avoided at all costs - because every dollar saved translates into two meals for someone suffering from hunger in Syria, Yemen or East Africa
Kassim Ngude, 47, is head of the WFP distribution center in Tororo in eastern Uganda. As a schoolchild not far away, he benefited from school meals provided by WFP. "I have been familiar with the logo on the sacks since I was a young boy," says Ngude.
Today, he is a manager with the organization that helped feed him all those years ago and head of a storage facility that can hold 52,000 tons of food. Most of the food that dozens of trucks bring in and out of the camp day after day is destined for the refugees from South Sudan.
Ngdue's warehouses can store almost 1 million sacks of food. The oil, delivered in metal canisters, and the endless bags of corn, beans and sorghum - along with those containing a special mixture of corn, soya, milk powder and minerals for pregnant and nursing women - are stacked to the rafters of the football-field sized warehouses.:
The War on Hunger
Chapter 2: "They Are Like Lions. They Kill Us"
When it comes to transporting the food to those who need it, the World Food Program follows the same mandate as it does with purchases: It must be as affordable as possible. Hundreds of trucks each month bring the foodstuffs to the refugees in northern Uganda and - if the war allows for it - directly into South Sudan. Each one can deliver 640 sacks of sorghum - more than 2,100 months' rations - in a single trip.
A Ugandan truck driver earns 200 US dollars (170 euros) per month, which is a decent salary in the region. But there are also costs, of course, associated with maintaining and fueling the vehicle, all of which are taken care of by the logistics company on behalf of WFP.
The number of companies competing for lucrative contracts with the U.N. agency is significant. And for as long as they are only traveling through Uganda and to the refugee camps, transportation costs are moderate. But if deliveries have to cross into South Sudan, the trip becomes much more dangerous - and more expensive.
The route that truck drivers must take from the Tororo distribution center into South Sudan is currently one of the most dangerous roads in the world. Two-hundred kilometers long, it leads northward from the Ugandan border to the South Sudanese capital of Juba and is the only paved road into the country - making it the only route that can be used year-round. All goods that aren't brought into South Sudan by airplane, or by barge on the Nile River, have to be moved along this road.
The freight transported by the Ugandan truckers is valuable. Since February 2016, grain prices in South Sudan have quintupled and the inflation rate for foodstuffs stands at 480 percent. Marauding groups of soldiers are well aware of the development and have begun targeting the deliveries - in part as a way to obtain hard currency due to the South Sudanese pound's rapid plunge in value.
One of the men who risks his life to bring food to South Sudan is truck driver Silvest Mulwanyi, 37. Mulwanyi's boss gives him an extra month's salary to bring along on the trip in addition to $80 for each day he is on the road. The cash has but one single purpose: paying bribes. It is a kind of insurance for the freight, and for Mulwanyi's life, when the soldiers show up. They routinely demand $50 or $100 from the drivers, or even more, says Mulwanyi. And they don't show much mercy to those who can't pay.
For months, the Ugandan truckers have been joining together in convoys for the trip across the dangerous stretch of road. As cynical as it might sound, Mulwanyi was one of the lucky ones at the beginning of this year. In January, Mulwanyi was part of a group of about 40 trucks transporting grain on behalf of the WFP when they were stopped by South Sudanese soldiers. He then watched as four of the truck drivers in the convoy were shot dead on the street in front of him. A fifth driver survived, but was badly injured by the gunfire.
One of the soldiers once told him that they kill truckers to send a message to the government in Juba, adding that they hadn't been paid in six months.
The War on Hunger
Chapter 3: Russians under the Clouds
Repeated attacks on the road to Juba, a lack of passable roads during the rainy season and constantly shifting fighting fronts: It is a combination that makes South Sudan incredibly complicated and fighting hunger there particularly challenging. Even just the lack of roads during the rainy season, the WFP estimates, means that 60 percent of South Sudan can't be reached by land.
One of those unreachable areas, though, is where the need is greatest, a swampy region that is actually sparsely settled but has become a place to which thousands of South Sudanese have fled to get away from the militias. There is hardly any food there at all, trucks can't get through and it takes days to get there by boat.
In February of this year, the United Nations judged the situation desperate enough to declare a famine in two areas of the South Sudanese state of Unity. Such a declaration means the situation is critical and that people have begun dying due to a lack of food. It was the first famine to have been declared in the world for the last five years. And in order to get at least some food into the region, WFP resorted to a dramatic yet unpopular measure: air-dropping food from above.
Oleg Obukhov, 50, is a radio operator in one of the two Ilyushin Il-76 transport planes that fly these airdrops from the airport in the Ugandan city of Entebbe. He has been doing the job for more than 20 years, but he still gets as excited as a schoolboy about being in the air. Yet flying over the failed state of South Sudan is a dangerous undertaking - and a lot can go wrong when trying to drop food supplies into the 50-by-100-meter drop zone while zooming past at 400 kilometers (250 miles) per hour.
The image of food raining down like manna from heaven is certainly an attractive one. It is a symbol for the kind of emergency aid that the wealthy international community provides to suffering Africans. But airdrops are a solution of last resort because there's one aspect of them WFP doesn't like at all: They are extremely expensive.
The WFP declines to put a precise number on the cost of airdrops. A spokeswoman for the organization would only say that one of Ilyushin's deliveries costs around seven times as much as transporting supplies by road. It seems likely, though, that her estimate is a conservative one, given the immense personnel and equipment costs associated with the planes.
A simple look at the crew is enough to illustrate the point. Nine people work in the belly of the Ilyushin Il-76 to push the cargo out of the plane once it has reached the drop zone. Meanwhile, two pilots, a technician and a radio operator work in the cockpit and a navigator sits below in the glassed-in nose of the plane. On the ground, there are two additional technicians for each plane. The 16 crew members are all specialists from Russia and they travel around the world along with their aircraft.
Two such transport planes are currently based in Entebbe, the former capital of Uganda, painted white and furnished with the large WFP letters and the agency's logo. Up to twice a day, they take off on food-delivery flights, burning up around 30,000 liters of jet fuel on the four-hour flight from Entebbe to the famine region. Each fill-up costs around 10,000 euros, meaning a month with 90 flights costs around 900,000 euros in fuel costs alone.
A spokeswoman for the WFP notes that using the transport planes is cheaper than flying in goods by helicopter. But the amount of cargo an Ilyushin can carry is limited, with each load roughly equivalent to the 30 tons a truck can transport. And freight pilots earn around 60 times the salary of the Ugandan truck drivers who drive the deadly road to Juba.
The War on Hunger
Chapter 4: No Matter What the Cost
But whether the flights cost seven, 70 or 700 times as much, one thing is more important to the WFP than money: getting food to the people in need. Penny pinching is the goal, but ultimately, WFP will deliver supplies no matter what the cost. That means that Mulwanyi the truck driver will continue risking his life on the road to Juba. And that 32 Russian specialists in their leased Ilyushins will continue dropping food to the hungry at a cost of millions of euros per month.
For people of South Sudan faced with hunger, the airdrops are a blessing, as they are for Mulwanyi. Every load that he takes to Entebbe International Airport to load up the Ilyushins is a load that he doesn't have to drive into South Sudan.
But no matter which route the goods ultimately take, the up to 24,000-kilometer-long supply chain always ends at the refugees and internally displaced. Sacks of grain, loaded by sweaty workers in Tororo and unloaded by porters in their soaked overalls in Ugandan refugee camps like Bidi Bidi, Imvepi and Rhino, end up the field kitchens feeding new arrivals like Lasuba - or in front of the shack inhabited by Selena Gaba, a 40-year-old woman who fled the South Sudanese town of Yei one year ago.
When she arrived last year with her three children, five grandchildren and four other children from her neighborhood in Yei, Gaba had nothing with her aside from a dented aluminum pot. The fact that she has been able to make a new life for herself is thanks to Uganda, the country with some of the most welcoming refugee policies in the world.
Today, she owns 900 square meters of land and sells fried snacks from a small stand. She doesn't want to live from charity, but she knows full well: Without the World Food Program and its war on hunger, she wouldn't be where she is today.
The War on Hunger
The journey of photographer Maria Feck and reporter Christoph Titz through Uganda ended at the Entebbe airport in the belly of an Ilyushin Il-76. On the tarmac, they were able to meet the Russian crew of the transport plane, a group they found quite impressive. They were particularly taken with Sergey the packer, a cultivated ex-student of literature, and with a bald-headed airplane engineer who maintained an almost romantic relationship with his 92-ton aircraft.
Author: Christoph Titz
Translator: Charles Hawley
Photos, Videos and Video Editing:: Maria Feck
Animation: Arne Kulf
Graphics: Lorenz Kiefer, Gernot Matzke
Motion Design: Lorenz Kiefer
Production: Chris Kurt, Dawood Ohdah
Editing: Britta Kollenbroich, Jens Radü
Coordination: Anna Behrend
Additional Video Material: www.drop-rus.ru / Advanced Technologies and Service
This report is part of the Expedition #BeyondTomorrow project.