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Ex-Paratrooper Spurns Rules to Aid the Hungry

Special to The Washington Post

Egil Hagen is the Rambo of relief work. For two years, when no other Western aid worker dared, Hagen single-handedly organized the delivery of thousands of tons of emergency food to more than 30,000 starving civilians in rebel-held southern Sudan.

To do it, the jut-jawed Norwegian, a former boxer, paratrooper and ski commando bodyguard to the king of Norway, broke many of the rules that often hamstring larger relief outfits.

When rebel military trucks were the only ones available, he used them to ship food, and he accepted a less than meticulous accounting of who ate the food. Some relief officials suspect that he may have given rebels a cut of the food in exchange for safe passage in their territory.

He defied both the Sudanese government, which strictly forbade aid operations in rebel areas, and conventional wisdom, which considered the Sudanese People’s Liberation Army too disorganized to be trusted. Fearing the wrath of Khartoum, Western relief agencies gave Hagen wide berth.

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“They didn’t want to know me,” he said. “I was like a leper.”

From Pariah to Point Man

But recently, however, Hagen has gone from pariah to point man. The U.S. government--fed up with Khartoum’s failure to move emergency food and increasingly pressed by Congress to prevent the recurrence of a famine that last year killed as many as 250,000 people--decided in January that it, too, would bypass the Sudanese government. Suddenly, back-door aid to rebel-held Sudan became fashionable--and so did Hagen.

Private relief agencies such as the California-based World Vision are trying to move U.S. food, and they are using Hagen’s channels to do it.

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As the sole representative for Norwegian People’s Aid, Hagen runs an agile, one-man show of a kind that red-tape-bound U.N. officials can only dream about. His office is in his two-story house in a Nairobi suburb.

“You have to give him credit for getting the food in there when no one else could, even if he broke every rule in the book doing it,” said the senior official of an American relief agency operating in Sudan.

In the balky, international bureaucracies that have grown up amid the assorted and seemingly endless disasters of East Africa--with their thickets of acronyms and bland, Western-relief terminology--Egil Hagen sticks out.

Boxes to Relax

At 38, he has the gruff manner of an ex-soldier, with hobbies to match. He races a dirt bike. He boxes to relax. He enjoys barking into a walkie-talkie.

“He’s a bulldozer. He’s courageous. He’s not stopped by anything,” said Rolf Strand, director of another Norwegian-funded relief agency based in Nairobi. In the past, Strand criticized Hagen as being a publicity hound, but now he says he was too harsh.

Hagen explained his approach: “The way we work is very clear. Rather than finding 99 excuses for why things can’t be done, we are trying to find the one reason why it should be done.”

Some of Hagen’s iconoclasm has been made possible by the nature of his support. Many of the relief agencies operating in Sudan have development projects in the north and feeding programs in government-held southern towns--and a lot to lose by incurring Khartoum’s wrath.

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Relief officials remember the Sudanese government’s expulsion of four relief agencies, including World Vision, in the last three years.

Support from Unions, Churches

Norwegian People’s Aid, however, is less encumbered. It receives support from Norwegian trade unions and a wide network of European Catholic and Lutheran churches that back Hagen to the hilt.

Relief officials here say that Hagen’s experience as a soldier and as an officer with U.N. peacekeeping missions in Beirut and Idi Amin’s Uganda gave him an edge with the rebels in Sudan.

“I know the minds of these rebel leaders,” Hagen said. “They can be very bloody, but once they strike a deal, they stick with it. If you have a deal, you have it. If you mess up, you are finished.”

In 1985, Hagen was in Khartoum as emergency coordinator for the U.N. Children’s Fund. Western relief aid was pouring into Sudan, but little got to the south.

In the capital itself 5,000 southern refugees encamped on a garbage dump were dying of hunger and disease. The government ignored them and insisted that private aid agencies do the same.

‘No One Lifted a Finger’

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“No one lifted a finger, because they were scared of jeopardizing their position,” Hagen said. “I asked myself: How is it possible that 5,000 people can sit on a garbage dump 15 minutes from the Hilton Hotel, in the middle of the world’s largest relief operation, and die of hunger?”

Answering the question led him away from the U.N. bureaucracy and to Ethiopia, where he negotiated directly with the SPLA leadership to deliver food to southern Sudan from neighboring Kenya.

The origins of the traditional Western relief organizations, Hagen said, make them unable to deal with modern famine. Most of them were established around the time of World War II, when wars were fought between regular armies. Their charters require evenhandedness, neutrality and monitoring of food distribution. In Africa, where the wars are between governments and guerrilla armies, Hagen believes those requirements cause unnecessary delays.

It took the International Red Cross more than a year to work out permission to distribute food and medicine on both sides of the Sudan conflict. “How long do you wait for the Red Cross to find a formula? By then, a lot of people had died,” Hagen said.

Sudanese rebels, who claim to hold 90% of the southern countryside, are considered by most relief agencies to be unreliable conduits for food. Some skeptics suggest that the secret of Hagen’s success may be looking the other way when rebels help themselves to emergency food. They even suggest, with no evidence, that Hagen regularly gives the rebels a cut of the relief food.

‘We Are Keeping People Alive’

Hagen denies that, saying the rebels are well-supplied by certain African governments and don’t need the civilian food. “But if I have to use a rebel truck to deliver food, I will use it. The way I see it, we are keeping people alive,” Hagen said. “We don’t make it a big paper exercise.”

He credits discretion for the continuing good will of the rebels toward his operation. “They say we have worked for 2 1/2 years in a war zone, and no sensitive military information has gotten out,” he said.

To some relief officials, that sounds too close to partisanship. Not so, Hagen said. “Yes, we sympathize with the root causes of this conflict--what the Arab north is doing to the Dinka tribe in the south is wrong. But I’m not sure that the SPLA will bring about a better Sudan than the government.”

He has resisted expanding his operation to include agricultural development. His job, he repeated, is to move the food, and that’s the way he likes it.

“It’s like preparing a unit for combat,” he said, “but instead of killing people, you are saving their lives.”


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