In the Line of Fire

In the Line of Fire

Peter Vilbig


The headlines blare out tales of war, famine, and oppression. But lost amid the horror are the stories of heroism and personal sacrifice happening in the background. Whenever a crisis calls, legions of relief workers move in, often at great personal risk, to help the victims. These mostly youthful heroes distribute the food and set up the tents–sometimes dodging bullets in the process so that the victims of political misfortune have a chance to survive another day. Here are the stories of four people who, at a time in their lives when most young people are dreaming of a new car or job, chose instead to save the world–one person at a time.



At age 18, Nigel Pont was put in a situation few teens will ever confront: As the manager of a camp for 130,000 refugees in Afghanistan’s civil war, he and co-workers were distributing tents in a small village when they were caught in a crossfire between rival Islamic militias fighting for control of the country. Huddling under the gunfire, Pont learned what he considers an essential lesson-in relief work, you can check your machismo at the door.

“We could have dealt with that situation,” he says, still thankful that none of his coworkers were hurt, “by not getting into it in the first place.”

Pont has learned his lessons well, going on to become, at age 25, one of the premier relief workers in the world, with experience in some of the hottest trouble spots, including the Yugoslav province of Kosovo, where he managed camps in the worst refugee crisis in Europe since World War II.

Pont says his decision to become a relief worker probably owes a lot to his British parents, who were themselves relief workers. He was raised in Pakistan while they were working there. But this very practical, no-nonsense young man found that his experience in Afghanistan, bringing food and shelter to those displaced by tragedy, made him sure about his career choice.

“I found out that as a young guy I could make a difference,” he says. He also learned that he needed a college education, so he took a degree in environmental engineering.


After college, Pont went to Yugoslavia, where he worked for Mercy Corps, a relief organization based in the U.S. He was at ground zero during the increasing buildup of tension in the Serbian province of Kosovo, where Yugoslav dictator Slobodan Milosevic was forcing ethnic Albanians from their homes.

When NATO, the military alliance that includes European countries and the U.S., decided to bomb Yugoslavia, Pont was evacuated to nearby Macedonia, but he didn’t have long to wait before a stream of ethnic Albanian refugees–about 1 million were displaced from their homes by Yugoslav forces–began showing up at the Macedonian border. Pont was soon running a camp for several hundred thousand refugees.

“I remember receiving people at 4 a.m.,” he says. “They had run away from burning villages. They were shell-shocked, just sitting down on their bags and staring off into the distance.”

Next to such suffering, his own discomfort seemed a small matter. Maybe a similar sense of the urgency of his task has led him to ignore his age and plow in where only the most experienced are usually willing to go. “It’s important to emphasize developing teamwork and leading by example,” he says. “I’ve ended up managing quite a few people older than myself.”

As a manager, he’s learned that the decisions are often tough ones. In Afghanistan, Pont found himself with 700 tents and tens of thousands of refugees with no shelter. “You have to decide,” he says, “who needs the tents most.”



When Ed Brown rode in a convoy of trucks into a stadium in the rebel-controlled far north of Sierra Leone, a west African country that is among the most dangerous and violent places on earth, the scene looked like something out of the post-apocalyptic movie Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome.

“Things were all torn up,” says Brown, 28. “People were hanging off of banged-up vehicles with bandanas on, waving AK-47s.” His relief agency, World Vision, a nondenominational Christian group that delivers food and basic services to refugees in dozens of places around the world, had sent Brown and others to deliver food to starving refugees as the rebels looked on.

Brown was eyeball-to-eyeball with one of the world’s most hated guerrilla groups. After nearly a decade of war against the Sierra Leone government, the Revolutionary United Front (RUF), led by Foday Sankoh, had become infamous for its brutal methods, often entering villages and randomly amputating the hands of men, women, and children, hoping the terror campaign would keep the populace from cooperating with the government.


Yet as he talked to rebels, many of them teenagers toting automatic weapons and many of them drunk, the Denver, Colorado, native found himself unable to judge them harshly. Many, he believed, had been trapped in Sankoh’s war machine, and told to either fight for the rebels or watch as their parents were killed. “They were ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances,” says Brown, “and it makes you wonder if anybody could [handle] this.”

The food distribution in the rebel zone was part of Brown’s introduction to Sierra Leone last fall. Since then, government forces captured Sankoh, but the rebels are fighting under new leaders. A United Nations peacekeeping force of 13,000, the largest in the world, is the only thing that keeps rebel forces from overrunning the country, most observers say.

Brown is unfazed by the dangers of his job. “Food aid is the most instant-gratification job in the world,” he says. “You’re bringing food to people who are starving. The smiles on people’s faces, knowing they can feed their children that night–that’s it.”



Kathy Mahoney knew the drill. In her part of the Amazon River basin in Brazil, where she brought medical care to indigenous tribes, there were no hot showers. So one morning, as she laid out her things and prepared to bathe in a jungle river, she really wasn’t thinking about much of anything. Just then, an anaconda, a snake that can grow to 30 feet in length and kills its victims by squeezing them to death, began slithering out of a tree next to her and into the river.

“I counted one to 10 before he was completely in the water,” she says, estimating its length at about 15 feet. “I didn’t get a bath that day.”

Mahoney had spent her teen years dreaming of exotic travel. She began to look into nursing as a career after watching nurses care for her mother, who died of lung cancer when Mahoney was 16. “Till then,” she says, “I thought that nurses wore little white caps and worked on hospital floors.”

Today Mahoney, 29, can laugh about both her near-encounter with the snake and her naive ideas about nurses. After earning her nursing degree, the Wellesley, Massachusetts, native decided to join Doctors Without Borders, an international relief group that sends medical help to global danger zones. The group won the Nobel Peace Prize last year for its remarkable relief work in dozens of countries around the world, often in the middle of civil wars and political violence.


She was just 24 when she arrived at her base in a little town called Boa Vista. From there, Mahoney would travel by airplane, by dugout canoe, or on horseback to tiny villages in the deep jungle of the Amazon, principally visiting four tribes: the Macuxi, the Wai-Wai, the Ingarinko, and the Wapishani.

Dropped off by herself for several days at a time, she would treat dozens of villagers for diseases ranging from malaria to pneumonia. During her three years in the Amazon basin, she was stung by a scorpion and suffered dengue fever, a painful illness transmitted by mosquitoes, She traveled in unstable canoes through piranha-infested waters. But she says her biggest challenge came in trying to communicate with her patients, few of whom could read or speak languages other than their tribal tongues. She solved that problem by devising her own system of picture charts to teach her patients how to use medications.

In the villages, she often worked with local healers called paije, who used herbs and incantations. “We stressed that our medicine wasn’t a replacement,” she says.

The villagers she treated live on the edge of extinction, the victims of diseases spread by contact with outside civilization and outright prejudice against them. “They have such warmth and kindness and are such amazing people,” she says sadly, “but it’s not terribly hopeful.”



When C. D. Glin arrived in his village in South Africa, where he was to serve as a Peace Corps volunteer, he climbed out of his Land Cruiser, feeling psyched up, ready to go to work as a teacher of math, science, and English in a local school. But the people of the village of Phokoane (poe-KWAH-nee) stared at him strangely. Finally, one of the villagers said, “But we want a real American. We want a white one.”

Glin, an African-American who had grown up around the world with his Air Force dad, was a political junkie who during his teens wrote rap songs against apartheid, the system of racial segregation that, as in the American South before integration, denied basic rights of citizenship to blacks. After getting a political science degree from Howard University, in 1997 he jumped at the chance to become part of the first Peace Corps teams to go into South Africa following the end of apartheid in 1994. He soon found out that the scars and remnants of that system were everywhere.


On the one hand, he had to gain the trust of black villagers, who thought of the U.S. as an all-white country and were puzzled by the presence of an African-American in their midst. On the other hand, he confronted the still-powerful force of white racism. When he stood in line at stories, whites would simply cut in front of him. The first time this happened he said, “Excuse me.”

“Oh, my God,” the woman said. “You’re not one of ours!” After that she wanted to be friendly and ask him all about America. Such moments filled him with a bitter anger, but he tried to remind himself that apartheid had been a corrosive disease for all South Africans. “It was the same sickness for everyone,” he says.

When Glin began teaching in the local school, his first job was to persuade the village teachers to stop beating students who got answers wrong. Later, he raised funds to create scholarships so that good students in the village could go to college.

Now when Glin, 28, looks back on his Peace Corps days, he recalls those victories and says he would do it again. “I learned so much about myself,” he says, “and what I’m capable of.”

FOCUS: Young People Who Bring Hope to the Needy Around the World


To help students understand international relief work, specifically how young people are providing food, clothing, shelter –and hope–to poor people in underdeveloped countries around the world.

Discussion Questions:

* Would you consider spending a year or two serving as an international relief worker?

* Three of the four young people profiled in this article work for non-governmental organizations. Should governments of wealthy, industrialized countries be more involved in these kinds of aid and relief programs?


Photo Analysis: Have students study the photos in the article. What does each reveal about life in that area of the world? Could students imagine themselves in any of the pictures? What sacrifices did these young people make to serve poor people in distant lands? What are the advantages and disadvantages of such a career?

Cooperative Learning: Next, you might have students use the personal stories as the basis for ads designed to interest young people in volunteering to work for international aid programs.

Break the class into “recruiting teams” at the Peace Corps, World Vision, Mercy Corps, and Doctors Without Borders. Each team should use the photos and the young people’s experiences in their ad. What would they say in the ad? What qualifications do they believe prospective volunteers should possess?

Critical Thinking: Have students answer these questions: If you were C. D. Glin, how would you have answered the villager who said he wanted a “real American–a white one”? What, if anything, should the world community do to complete the work of Eddie Brown in Sierra Leone? Kathy Mahoney despairs that the Indian people she treats face extinction. If that’s true, why doesn’t she work where there is more chance of success? Nigel Pont says, “I found that as a young guy I could make a difference.” Why would youth be an advantage in the kind of work Pont performs?

Web Watch: For more on relief work, log on to the U.S. Peace Corps at or World Vision at

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