As the First Grain Shipped from Ukraine Weirdly Ends up in Russia-Allied Syria, Wheat Finally Heads to Hungry Africans
A tale of two shipments of grain from besieged Ukraine - one to a Russian ally, one to famished Ethiopians.
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Update August 29 - The Brave Commander, loaded with wheat from Ukraine, is in waters just off the port of Djibouti preparing to offload its cargo.
Track the Brave Commander via Marine Traffic
Original post - In the news, as in life, it's not uncommon to see a neat narrative devolve into murky complexity. Such is the case with the first shipment of grain to leave one of the Ukrainian ports blockaded and besieged by Russia.
Back on August 1, the bulk carrier Razoni steamed out of Odessa for Lebanon with more than 25,000 tons of corn and much fanfare. Read my initial coverage, with a headline echoing U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres's comment that the ship carried "corn and hope."
On August 3, the load of corn was inspected at sea by a four-country civilian team from the Black Sea Grain Initiative in Turkish waters.
Officials from the Russian Federation, Turkey, Ukraine and the United Nations visited the merchant vessel Razoni on 3 August 2022. (© UNOCHA/Levent Kulu)
That shipping initiative, brokered by the United Nations with help from Turkey to provide a safe humanitarian corridor for vital food shipments in a year of spreading hunger, began to gear up. More than a dozen ships have left port with Ukrainian grain, soy beans, sunflower seeds and other commodities - mostly overdue commercial shipments - since then under safe-passage agreements negotiated with Ukraine and Russia. (Click here for the latest tally.)
But the Razoni got the spotlight. Ukrainian government Facebook video conveyed the excitement. U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres said the vessel carried a double cargo - "corn and hope."
But things got weird just a few days after the ship transited the Bosphorus Strait and headed into the Mediterranean.
Here's a briefly blow by blow, before I shift the focus to a far more significant shipment that began today:
On August 10, according to regional press coverage, the Razoni paused in Turkish waters after the original buyer reportedly refused the corn, concerned about its quality after five months of delays. Some reports indicated that a small amount of grain was offloaded in Turkey before the ship headed to sea again, supposedly bound for Egypt.
But on August 12, the Razoni went dark, according to the Associated Press, with no signal sent since then by the transponder that all commercial vessels heavier than 300 tons are required to operate.
The last transponder reading was August 12. You can check for any updates on the Marine Traffic website.
On Monday, the Associated Press headline was "Location of 1st grain-carrying ship to leave Ukraine unknown."
Reuters cited anonymous shipping sources saying the vessel was approaching the Syrian port Tartus.
Today, thanks to satellite imagery provided by Planet Labs, the Financial Times and Associated Press confirmed that the Razoni and its corn are in this port of a key Russian ally. Here's the key image, posted with permission from Planet Labs PBC (the ship with the red decks):
It's worth noting that Russia has been bolstering its naval presence in Tartus, just a few piers away from where the Razoni is berthed.
So that first "corn and hope" shipment is not living up to initial billing, particularly given Syria's behavior in recent months.
According to the Associated Press:
"Syria remains sanctioned by the West over killing and abuses of civilians during the civil war, though food supplies have been exempted by the West. Russian military support has been key to Syrian President Bashar Assad remaining in power. Syria has recognized the Russian-backed breakaway eastern Ukrainian regions of Donetsk and Luhansk as sovereign entities, leading to Kyiv severing diplomatic ties with Damascus.
Since earlier this year, ships have carried Ukrainian foodstuffs from Russian-occupied territory to Syria. In May, satellite images showed the Russian-flagged Matros Pozynich at dockside in Latakia, Syria. Ukraine said the ship had 27,000 tons of grain Russia stole from it and initially tried to sell to Egypt, which refused to take the cargo."
The Ukrainian Embassy in Lebanon sent Reuters a statement from the Ministry of Transport, which said it was 'not responsible for vessel and cargo after it has left the Ukraine, moreover after vessel's departure from (a) foreign port.'"
So much for neat narratives.
As I wrote on August 1, the only way to mitigate the jolt to food security in some of the world's hungriest populations is for the war to end.
But in the meantime, overall, the Black Sea Grain Initiative seems, haltingly, to be working.
Wheat for the Hungry Horn of Africa
On August 12, wheat from silos holding last year's Ukrainian harvest was loaded into trucks to meet the Brave Commander in Odessa. Now the silos are ready to accept this year's crop. (World Food Program)
Early today, the MV Brave Commander, chartered by the World Food Program, left Odessa carrying 23,000 metric tons of wheat destined for relief efforts in the hungry Horn of Africa. This is the first direct shipment of Ukrainian grain for humanitarian food assistance since Russia invaded in February. You can follow her track here.
For decades, Ukraine had been a critical source of grain and other commodities for northern Africa and the Middle East.
In a news release today, WFP executive director David Beasley said:
“It will take more than grain ships out of Ukraine to stop world hunger, but with Ukrainian grain back on global markets we have a chance to stop this global food crisis from spiraling even further.”
The food program release also noted these key points:
A record 345 million people in 82 countries are now facing acute food insecurity while up to 50 million people in 45 countries are right on the edge of famine and risk being tipped over without humanitarian support.
Resumed commercial and humanitarian maritime traffic will allow Ukraine to empty its grain storage silos ahead of the summer season harvest.
These World Food Program images from March show Ukrainian wheat from pre-war harvests being distributed in Ethiopia.
Let's hope the Brave Commander has an uneventful cruise through the Suez Canal and down the Red Sea to Djibouti so fresh food supplies from this embattled breadbasket can get where they're needed most.
The invaluable Famine Early Warning Systems Network forecast for the Horn of Africa remains dire through October. In Ethiopia, the network says, "Food aid remains insufficient amid very high levels of hunger and malnutrition."
Here's the wider view:
Read my related Sustain What post from March 15: Food Worries Widen as Russia's Ukraine Invasion Turns a Global Breadbasket into a Battleground and watch the related discussion:
Keep track of hunger hot spots using the United Nations live Hunger Map:
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