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Food Aid Drop In Syria Ends In Failure


We're going to hear now about a desperate attempt to help a starving city in Syria that ended in failure. The World Food Program was trying to airdrop 21 tons of food into Deir ez-Zor, a city of several hundred thousand people that's surrounded by ISIS. The city's cut off. Humanitarian aid can't get there over land. The World Food Program aircraft had to fly far higher than usual because of missile threats, and, sadly, the winds changed direction during the drop. Many of the food pallets were damaged. Many missed their target. Matthew Hollingworth is the World Food Program's deputy regional director for the Middle East, and he spoke to us from the Syrian capital, Damascus.

MATTHEW HOLLINGWORTH: Normally when we would airdrop around the world in very remote areas that we can't reach by road, for example, we'd only be dropping from around 300, 500, 600 feet. Because this is an area that surrounded by combatants, it's besieged. You know, there are snipers, people with rocket-propelled grenades. There are people with even, possibly, surface-to-air missile capacity. So we need to fly at a much higher elevation - altitude, to keep the crew safe. And you're trying to drop food onto an area, which is a little bit smaller than a football pitch, from around 20,000 feet.

GREENE: Like, an area the size of a football field from 20,000 feet.

HOLLINGWORTH: That's correct, yeah.

GREENE: Well, I gather, I mean, you do everything possibly can to try and get this food down there, even though it's traveling such an incredible distance from 20,000 feet. So what exactly went wrong in this case?

HOLLINGWORTH: Some of the factors, unfortunately, weren't helping us. The wind was faster than we thought it was going to be. Some of the gusts caused parachutes to actually close, and some of the items then plummeted much faster than they should - sadly, beyond our control. But what we're going to do now is take a breath, take the aircraft and do some other tests to see if we can resolve some of the issues we faced.

GREENE: Matthew, could you just give us the larger context here? Your organization has said that four-and-a-half million people are in Syria, and they're very hard to reach right now. I mean, what is the human cost of that?

HOLLINGWORTH: I mean, there are numbers that are very hard to even understand. We've got more than seven-and-a-half million in this country displaced today, more than 4 million people have left the country as refugees. Inside the country, there are these areas that are very difficult to reach, as well as areas besieged where over 4 million people are living today. We are running an operation where, every single month, the World Food Program feeds over 4 million people in Syria, many of whom live in these hard-to-reach or besieged areas. What we're trying to do now and what we're hoping to do is to save some of - the hostilities that should kick in tonight, we're hoping to be able to get into these areas by land. There are, unfortunately, very few areas, and Deir ez-Zor is one of them, where we just simply cannot reach by truck. So really our only, and last, resort for Deir ez-Zor is the airdrop.

GREENE: And, Matthew, if I could just finish by asking you about this airdrop, I mean, I just think about your mission and your organization's mission to get food to people in need, and I just think about how tough a moment like this has to be for you.

HOLLINGWORTH: Clearly with all the organization that it's taken, weeks of work, negotiations, coordination with people in the field who are, you know, taking considerable risk to help us make this work, to see it fail on the first trial is clearly very difficult to cope with for us. But we do know that this happens, and this is an operation that we plan to run for three months. Day one didn't go so well, but, you know, day two to day 90 we believe will go better, and we'll learn lessons from this first attempt.

GREENE: All right, Matthew Hollingworth is the deputy regional director for the Middle East at the World Food Program, and he was speaking to us from Damascus. Matthew, thanks very much.

HOLLINGWORTH: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.