in Features

Small team hungering for a better world

Posted 12 November 2012 · Add Comment

Sharjah Airport Free Zone is home to one aviation organisation that is making a real difference. Alan Peaford reports.

 Every six seconds somewhere in the world a child dies from hunger. That is ten every minute – 600 every hour. It is more than die from AIDS, malaria and TB put together.

In a small office in the Sharjah Free Zone, there is one small team that feels that pain every six seconds and is working with the aviation industry to deliver change.

The office is the UN World Food Programme (WFP) aviation branch responsible for ensuring that aircraft used for delivering vital humanitarian aid are operated legally, safely and effectively.

Heading the operation is Captain Samir Sajet, a former Iraqi military and commercial pilot.

Having flown commercial jetliners, Antonov transporters and French helicopters, and suffered from the depravation caused by sanctions in war-torn Iraq, Sajet is perfectly positioned to understand the aviation demands of both fixed-wing and rotor wing – and also knows what it is like to live among despair.

“The average income in Iraq when I was lucky enough to join the UN was just two dollars a month and people survived on black bread,” he recalled.

Joining the UN in 1998 saw Sajet’s salary rise to a heady $500 a month and enabled him to support ten families.

“You only have to look at the statistics to know how important our role is,” Sajet said.

The aircraft used for UN humanitarian missions play an essential part in reaching the people that aid workers would otherwise be unable to serve. At any one time we have about 70 to 75 aircraft operating around the world and that is just in normal times. When we have a major international disaster, that number can increase threefold.”

The Sharjah office is responsible for the Middle East and Asian region and takes a global responsibility for aviation safety. It is one of five offices, the others being Brindesi in Italy, Accra in Ghana, Malaysia and Panama.

All came together in October when The UN held its humanitarian aviation safety conference in Jordan under Sajet’s management. Key safety and operational issues affecting the flying activities of all of the UN’s humanitarian agencies was discussed.

“These aircraft have to go into challenging environments and often in very stressful times. It is important to know that the operations can be carried out to the highest possible standards,” Sajet said.

Secretary general Kofi Annan assigned the aviation wing of the UN humanitarian organisation to the WFP in 2004 and Sharjah stepped in to volunteer.

“Sharjah Airport and the department of Civil Aviation have been fantastic for us,” Sajet said. “They donated this office to us and that has helped us tremendously.”

The WFP team is responsible for selecting operators and brokers to meet the sudden demands for aircraft to meet the UN’s humanitarian needs. “We have to be sure they meet or exceed international operational standards,” said Sajet. “Then we carry out risk assessments and look at the operational compliance and assess the experience of the crew and the equipment.”

As well as freight movements of humanitarian aid, Sajet’s office also manages the movement of people. “That can be aid workers going into hostile environments or evacuation of people from the scene of disasters,” Sajet said.

The core of the wing’s business is 12-70 passenger operations.

At the moment Afghanistan, Eritrea and the Sudan are among the most frequent routes.

“Maintaining high standards is vital,” Sajet said. “And when we do deliver a food drop or a take a team in, then we know we have done a small part towards our key goal – saving lives!” 

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