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Light Relief. Episode One.

January 9, 2019

So here’s an experiment. This is the first of a series of posts containing some writing a did a while back about my experiences in various relief and development situations. Some of the details have been changed to protect organizations or individuals, and events have sometimes been moved around for dramatic or comic effect, but I can assure you that all of this happened, more or less. 😉

This is just a very small slice of the range of situations out there, but I hope it might give some colour to descriptions of what some jobs in this business are like.


It’s the winter of 1999 in Kosovo, and I’m at the non-food warehouse of a large international NGO that I won’t name. I’m arguing with our fleet manager about how much water there is in the diesel fuel, and how the bitter temperatures are causing it to freeze in the fuel filters of the Land Rovers.

There’s a fuel shortage in the province, and we truck in all of our diesel from Macedonia, storing it in a tank in the warehouse car park. The problem is that the suppliers keep cutting it with all kinds of crap. This means that every couple of days the fuel filters in the cars need cleaning out, or else they turn into a solid block of ice, sometimes leaving our teams stranded in the middle of nowhere.

A humanitarian aid convoy in Kosovo, Winter 1999. Note the snow on the ground, and the armored Jeep convoy escort.

A humanitarian aid convoy in Kosovo, Winter 1999. Note the snow on the ground, and the armored Jeep convoy escort.

The fleet manager is explaining that he’s doing his best to persuade the vendors to steal from us in less inconvenient ways when I get a call on the radio.
One-One-Mike, this is One-Two-Foxtrot.

I pull the handset from my belt, holding my thumb to the push-to-talk button.
Foxtrot – send.
Mike – I have Zero-One-Kilo on the phone, she has someone from HQ who is wanting to know why there is a fact-checker from the New York Times asking whether we are distributing cigarettes to refugees, over.” Kilo is the call sign of the Mission Director for our organization. She’s kind of a big deal.

Tell Kilo we don’t distribute cigarettes – tell her they cause cancer, over.
OK Mike, but give me something, is there any way a reporter might have gotten the idea that we are distributing cigarettes over?
I pause for a burst of static on the radio. “I don’t think so. Can I get back to you Foxtrot? I’ll look into it, over.
Sure thing, see you shortly, out.

We don’t distribute cigarettes. I’m pretty sure of it, but I want to check with one of the other project managers before I talk to the Mission Director. I leave my argument about fuel, walk inside and, with a terrible sinking feeling of realization, pull my radio from its belt clip and push the talk button.
Nine-Lima, Nine-Lima, One-One-Mike.
A couple of seconds later there is a burst of static. “Charlie-One-One-Mike, this is Charlie-Nine-Lima, send your message, over.
Lima, are you at the warehouse? Over.
Affirmative Charlie-One-One-Mike, over.
I’ll come right up.

Can I see the distribution schedule for the Lucky Ducks?” One of this guy’s responsibilities is to oversee a bunch of special distributions, mostly Serb enclaves that don’t have any market access or income. These are nearly all groups of elderly and sick people who are sheltering in a ramshackle collection of buildings including an Orthodox Church, an old seminary, and a monastery.

All of them are guarded 24 hours a day by NATO soldiers who protect them from being burned out by Kosovo Albanians bent on reprisals for years of Serb oppression. He christened them the ‘Lucky Ducks’ because, while most people get the standard World Food Program ration of rice, flour, oil, and beans, they get a comprehensive assistance package in recognition of the fact that it’s not safe for them to leave their collective centers to buy anything, and they don’t have any money even if they could. We’re providing them absolutely everything. They quickly got re-christened the ‘Sitting Ducks’ by the rest of the team, for all the same reasons.

Yep – here it is”. He hands me the paper, and I sit down to read it. Sure enough, it’s a ‘comprehensive food and non-food package’. This month’s distribution includes flour, rice, beans, vegetables, oil, tinned meat, tinned fish, soap, deodorant, toothpaste, and sanitary towels. And cigarettes.


‘Comprehensive food and non-food package’. In the Balkans. Of course it includes cigarettes. I asked him to put together a package of everything the Sitting Ducks would need, and he did.

I push the talk button on my radio again – “Foxtrot, Mike”. There’s a crackle, and then “Mike, Foxtrot?
Foxtrot, there are some issues. I don’t think Kilo is going to be very happy. Over.
“OK Mike, Kilo is with me – she’s going to need to see you about it re damage control over.
Understood Foxtrot, I’ll be over in an hour. Out.



If this site is as useful to you as a book you might have paid for please consider buying my Kindle eBook, which contains much of the content from this site, thoughtfully formatted for off-line reading on a Kindle, iPad, laptop, or other e-reader. It’s $7.99, and honestly, what can you get for that these days? Get it here.

One Comment leave one →
  1. Randy Coutts permalink
    June 27, 2016 8:30 am

    Awesome story and so typical in that just when an Int Dev professional thinks they have it figured out…we don’t! (:>) I think that is one of the best parts of the job…knowing that every day could bring a smile to your face from some ridiculous (yet often quite logical) situation. Thanks for sharing!

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