(Formerly IRIN News) Journalism from the heart of crises

  • Hurdles on the road to peace in the Central African Republic

    The government of the Central African Republic and 14 of the most powerful armed groups operating in the country came together to sign a peace deal last month.

    If it goes to plan, the signatories will be responsible for leading the country into a new era of peace, allowing its incredible potential to blossom. However, failure will further solidify CAR’s place as one of the world’s most fractured states.

    Conflict in CAR – rooted in a series of ethnic, socio-economic, and geographic cleavages – has raged with waves of intensity since 2012, displacing millions of civilians and enabling countless crimes against humanity.

    Read more: Little peace to keep, but 4.7 million lives to live

    Despite committing an untold number of atrocities, the country’s armed groups have up until now offered the best chance of representation for much of the population that has long remained on the margins of political life. A successful transition will create a more representative government and secure a peaceful path forward.

    The Political Agreement for Peace and Reconciliation, signed in Khartoum in February, lays out a series of actions that the government, armed groups, and international and regional partners must undertake to fortify a lasting settlement.

    But to ensure its long-term success, involved parties should exercise caution when dealing with the most fragile of these issues, including the creation of a truth and justice commission, the use of amnesty and impunity, and the formation of an inclusive government.

    Justice and citizen involvement

    One of the most powerful critiques of the recent agreement is its failure to build off the 2015 Bangui Forum, which represented a much broader cross-section of Central Africans.

    While ultimately unsuccessful, the Bangui Forum more fully addressed issues of justice and reconciliation with much more input from victims and victim advocates than the current agreement.

    The pursuit of justice in the wake of conflict and human rights abuses, like those experienced by Central Africans, is critical to building a lasting peace.

    In order to facilitate the implementation of justice, the government is responsible for establishing a Commission on Truth, Justice, Reparation, and Reconciliation. This commission will seek to identify all victims of the conflict and to form a working group focusing on how best to preserve peace and find justice.

    In a post-conflict environment, justice can sometimes be given a lower priority in the face of the myriad pressures facing the peace process. This is even more likely in countries like CAR, given the extreme complexity of conflict dynamics, issues of territorial control, and long history of atrocities.

    But failure to give justice its due would cause untold damage to the psyche of the country while increasing the chance for violence to escalate again in the near future.

    That’s why CAR’s government must also continue educating its citizens on the terms of the agreement. It is important that Central Africans understand and agree with the terms, as an engaged public will contribute to its success. Additionally, citizen support of the agreement will strengthen democracy and build support for the government.

    Amnesty and impunity

    While the agreement recognises that impunity has contributed to the cycles of violence experienced by CAR, and even though it does not deliver general amnesty nor offer impunity to any armed group members, major concerns remain.

    One of the more problematic clauses of the agreement gives President Faustin-Archange Touadéra the power to grant amnesty in addition to his established ability to pardon convicted individuals. So, while not expressed in the agreement itself, there is still an opportunity for those who have committed acts of war to remain free from justice.

    Amnesty is the issue with the greatest potential to derail the agreement. If Touadéra is to grant amnesty to any members of armed groups, he should do so only as a last resort, and with the understanding that this action revictimizes his own citizens. Amnesty should not be given lightly and must be discussed in-depth and with guidance from the AU and the UN.

    If these powers are over-exploited to protect armed group members from justice, then war will inevitably return to the country.

    It is also important to continue building judicial capacity in CAR. The delivery of justice will depend a great deal on local and prefecture courts. With assistance from outside partners, CAR has made great strides in strengthening the judiciary over the last years, and these efforts must continue.

    Finally, international organisations who have a long history of prematurely moving on from crises in CAR, must do more. The people of the country deserve better than to be forgotten once again.

    Inclusivity and compromise

    Regional and international observers have hailed the agreement as a step toward a final peace. But less than a month after the agreement was signed, uncertainty emerged.

    Early in March, the CAR government published a list of new ministerial appointments with several new appointees coming from within the ranks of the armed groups. However, the government was keen to avoid undermining President Touadéra and his allies and selectively left out several groups.

    Acting against what they perceive as Touadéra failing to adhere to the terms of the agreements, several of the armed groups have taken action, including recalling their representatives and blocking a road in the west of the country. If the CAR government does not address this situation, it is unlikely that the agreement will move forward.

     

    If, however, the CAR government capitulates, it will have set a new pace for future negotiations. The current situation shows the precarious balance of bringing armed groups into the political fold while simultaneously protecting the interests of entrenched political actors.

    One of the most important actions for creating political inclusivity will be the transformation of armed groups into effective and legitimate political parties. The previous election, held in 2016, was the first democratic election in CAR since 1993. The next election will start in late 2020 and, in order to participate, these groups must meet agreed-upon standards.

    Peace is within grasp for the first time in many years. However, if participants and observers act recklessly, the numerous vulnerabilities could spell the undoing of the current agreement and lead to a resurgence of conflict in CAR.

    Hurdles on the road to peace in the Central African Republic
    “Failure to give justice its due would cause untold damage to the psyche of the country”
  • Local NGO risks, White Saviours, and the Sahel’s million new displaced: The Cheat Sheet

    IRIN editors give their weekly take on humanitarian news, trends, and developments from around the globe.

    On our radar

    Sahel violence displaces another million people

    Rising conflict and insecurity are accelerating forced displacement across the Sahel, and a new upsurge of violence along the Mali-Niger border has left 10,000 people in "appalling conditions" in improvised camps in Niger's Tillabéri region. The UN says IDP numbers in Mali have tripled to around 120,000. The UN’s Central Emergency Response Fund, or CERF, has allocated $4 million to assist 70,000 people who have fled their homes in just two months in Burkina Faso. Around 4.2 million people – a million more than a year ago – are currently displaced across the Sahel due to a combination of armed attacks by extremist militants, retaliation by regional militaries, and inter-communal violence.

    All NGOs are not equal, especially when it comes to risk

    When it comes to safety, security, and risk, power differences between local and international NGOs can lead to “perverse incentives”, according to the summary of a new report. Local NGOs often do the last mile of humanitarian work, especially in insecure situations. They are funded by much bigger INGOs that act as donors. But while INGOs have sophisticated risk management (10 cooperated with this study by US-based NGO alliance InterAction), their downstream “partners” are not treated the same. The physical safety of local NGO staff, for example, gets much less attention than compliance with financial and counter-terrorism regulations. The report spells it out: INGOs “put a far greater emphasis on the risks of their local partners as opposed to the risks to them.” The study includes case studies from Nigeria and South Sudan, as well as recommendations based on examples of improved practice found during the research.

    First drought, now floods

    Flash floods and landslides have killed more than 70 people in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iran, with numbers expected to rise as on-the-ground assessments trickle in. Parts of Afghanistan are particularly hard hit, with nine provinces reporting displacement or damage to homes and agriculture. Some 21,000 people need aid in the southern province of Kandahar alone, according to the UN. Aid groups worry the situation could worsen with continued rain and snowfall expected. Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iran have been grappling with severe drought over the last several months, and heavy rainfall can increase the threat of floods on degraded land. An El Niño weather pattern could also bring more rainfall, combining with the drought impacts to make floods “more ruinous” this year, according to the UN. Which makes this a good time to read more on the complications of responding to emergencies in conflict-hit Afghanistan.

    Algeria rising

    Mass protests triggered by Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s decision to run for re-election in April were not quelled by the announcement that he “would not be a candidate” in future elections (after next month’s, that is). Bouteflika has been in power since 1999, was paralysed by a stroke in 2013, and does not speak in public. Demonstrators are speaking out about corruption, poverty, and poor social services – all issues causing young Algerians to attempt the journey to Europe, according to Omar Belchouchet, editor of an independent Algerian newspaper. “They are fed up with this authoritarian regime which is stifling people, which is pushing its own citizens to die in the Mediterranean,” he said. According to the UN, 7,300 Algerians arrived on Europe’s shores in 2018, up from 5,900 in 2017.

    An international treaty to protect women?

    Today is International Women’s Day, with events taking place across the globe. But this week also saw the launch of the campaign for an Every Woman Treaty, which would seek to limit violence against women the same way existing international agreements limit landmines and smoking. It’s a bold step, but systemic gender inequalities mean it’s more than just direct violence – like rape as a weapon of war – that the humanitarian sector needs to worry about. Women are disproportionately affected, whether they’re subsistence farmers most acutely feeling the effects of climate change, people displaced during conflict, or those abused by the very aid workers who are supposed to be helping them in times of crisis. Although women are also often on the front lines of disasters, leading the response in their communities, they still face barriers to inclusion. Explore our recent reporting to learn more about some of the key humanitarian issues facing women and girls today.

    A guide to ‘White Saviour’ media debates

    British TV audiences have a week’s blizzard of jokey fundraising to come, as Comic Relief gears up for a “Red Nose Nose Day” telethon. Almost as predictable as the line-up of UK comedians is controversy about its video packages from projects abroad. The use of famous Britons to frame field-based segments is accused of being sentimental, simplistic, and disrespectful. This year, early critics included online activists No White Saviours and British member of parliament David Lammy. Comic Relief responded by saying that “people working with or supported by Comic Relief projects tell their own stories in their own words.” The accusations and counter-arguments have a familiar feel: last year, Comic Relief’s segment with musician Ed Sheeran came under fire. Thinking you’d like someone to explain the cycle of critique and outrage from all sides? Take a look at  this blog, from communication academic Tobias Denskus of Malmö University: “White saviour communication rituals in 10 easy steps.”

    In case you missed it

    Central African Republic: Four of the 14 rebel groups that signed a peace deal with the government have reportedly withdrawn in protest of a newly formed government, which they believe is not representative. The fragile agreement was forged after negotiations in the Sudanese capital last month. For an inside look at efforts to keep the peace in CAR, check out our three-part special report.

     

    Iraq: Rather than considering children affiliated with so-called Islamic State as victims in need of rehabilitation, authorities in Iraq and the Kurdistan Regional Government have charged hundreds of young people with terrorism offenses because of affiliation with the group, according to Human Rights Watch. In a report released on Thursday, it said confessions are often obtained through torture.

     

    North Korea: The UN this week called for $120 million in funding for North Korea, warning of potential food shortages and the unintended impacts of sanctions blocking humanitarian aid. Nearly 11 million people in the country are considered undernourished – the root of health problems for many North Koreans. New reports suggest North Korea’s sanctions-hit economy has been imploding, with huge declines in exports in 2018.

    Syria: The UN says that as of 3 March, 90 people had died either en route or shortly after arrival to al-Hol camp in northeastern Syria, two thirds of them children under five. The camp’s population has swollen to more than 62,000 – 90 percent of them women and children – as thousands of people flee the last IS territory in the country. More than 5,200 new arrivals were reported by the UN between Tuesday and Thursday.

    US-Mexico: US officials say February was the busiest month for apprehensions at its southern border with Mexico in more than a decade – more than 76,100 people in total. The vast majority were families and unaccompanied children from Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador. The rise is unusual, but still well below the highs of the 1990s and 2000s when as many as 1.6 million people were apprehended annually.

     

    Weekend read

     

    How dire climate change warnings are becoming a reality in Bangladesh

     

    The extent to which specific extreme weather events – and related humanitarian disasters – can be attributed to climate change can be a contentious subject and remains a matter of some debate. But try telling that to rice farmers in Bangladesh’s northeast. They have been left bewildered by a succession of warmer winters, drier summers, and more erratic rains. Our weekend read offers a real-time glimpse of how dire climate displacement warnings can become a reality: village by depleted village; family by displaced family. Scientists in December published research that showed that human-induced climate change “doubled the likelihood of extreme pre-monsoon rainfall” in Bangladesh during March and April 2017. Farmers like Shites Das in the northeastern village of Daiyya are in no doubt. "We have no fertility of land like in the past,” Das says. “This has happened because of climate change.”

    And finally

     

    Somali Night Fever

     

    Check out this film for a different take on Somali refugees and for a rare glimpse into a Mogadishu of the 1970s and 1980s, when trendy nightclubs were graced by “musicians rocking afros and bell-bottom trousers”. When civil war erupted in Somalia in the 1990s, it separated friends and families, and destroyed a once cosmopolitan way of life. As people fled, they took their culture and music with them. As Somalia changed, so the sounds of funk, disco, soul, and reggae that once filled the airwaves also fell silent. Decades later, many Somalis still live in exile – some resettled in other countries, others in refugee camps. Meet Habib, now in Sweden, and Abdulkadir, living in Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya: two former band mates and best friends. Separated by the war, they remain wonderfully united by their love of music, and by their memories of a bygone era.

    (TOP PHOTO: An informal refugee settlement of Garin-Wazam in Diffa region, Niger. CREDIT: Vincent Tremeau/UNICEF)

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    Local NGO risks, White Saviours, and the Sahel’s million new displaced
  • Venezuela on the brink, WhatsApping hate, and a Davos bright spot: The Cheat Sheet

    IRIN editors give their weekly take on humanitarian news, trends, and developments from around the globe.

     

    On our radar

    What next in Venezuela?

     

    The crisis in Venezuela has bubbled away for months, demanding media attention only when protests flare or the sheer number of people fleeing the freefalling economy and increasingly authoritarian state becomes difficult to ignore. Not now. Since President Nicolás Maduro was sworn in two weeks ago for a new six-year term, things have escalated quickly. No sooner was a revolt by members of the National Guard quelled than protesters took to the streets demanding he step down. Opposition challenger Juan Guaidó on Wednesday declared himself leader and has since been recognised as such by the United States and a clutch of regional powers. No one knows what will happen next. Talk of a US military intervention seems to be just that for now, but there’s no sign either that Maduro – still backed by Venezuela’s armed forces – is prepared to accept any offer of amnesty and leave quietly. If he does go, it won’t cure Venezuela’s ills overnight, but it would provide the change in government some argue is the only long-term solution to a humanitarian crisis Maduro has long denied – one that has left his people desperate, hungry, and sick. A study published in The Lancet Global Health Journal this week indicates that infant mortality rates have risen back to 1990s levels.

     

    “If you’re bitten by a snake, you’ll be afraid of a millipede”

     

    Around 9,000 Nigerians who say they fled armed clashes involving Boko Haram are “shuttling” back and forth in the Cameroon border area, a UN official said in Geneva. The group was pushed back after trying to take refuge in the neighbouring country, with Cameroonian officials admitting that insecurity forced the government to take exceptional measures, despite its supposed "open doors" policy. UN humanitarian coordinator for Cameroon Allegra Baiocchi told a press conference "the right of asylum is being tested". She said many of the group were women and children. Cameroon’s director of civil protection Yap Mariatou told IRIN that a recent attack on the border town of Achigashia by an armed group had put the authorities on edge. “If you’re bitten by a snake, you’ll be afraid of a millipede,” she said. The UN is appealing for $299 million to help 2.3 million people in Cameroon, including about 100,000 refugees from Nigeria and more than 400,000 internally displaced by an ongoing separatist rebellion.

     

    Mediterranean crossing just got even more dangerous

     

    The EU’s troubled naval mission against people smuggling in the Mediterranean faced yet another setback this week as Germany announced it was suspending participation, a decision MPs said was the result of Italy’s consistent refusal to allow rescued migrants entry at its ports. The removal of Germany’s ship leaves the mission, Operation Sophia, with only two vessels. Meanwhile, migrants continue to drown in the Mediterranean – 201 so far this year – including in two recent shipwrecks, one off the coast of Libya, the second between Morocco and Spain. Many of those rescued are being brought to Libya, and Médecins Sans Frontières says it has seen a “sharp increase” in the number of people held in crowded detention centres there – conditions are dire, with shortages of clean water and food. Human Rights Watch said EU policies, including the decision to enable the Libyan Coast Guard to intercept and return people, are contributing to a “cycle of extreme abuse” against migrants in the country. For a forensic examination of one Mediterranean incident in 2017 in which at least 20 migrants died, check out this film, “How Europe Outsources Migrant Suffering at Sea”, from Times Insider.

     

    Forwarding hate

     

    There’s increasing scrutiny on the real-world impacts of the spread of misinformation and hate speech on social media. This week, messaging app WhatsApp announced a five-recipient limit for message forwarding. WhatsApp messages – which can be rapidly distributed through group and broadcast features – have been linked to a spate of lynchings in India and a pre-election flood of false news in Brazil. Sri Lanka also temporarily shut down Facebook, WhatsApp, and others after anti-Muslim violence last March. WhatsApp recipient limits were recommended in a “human rights impact assessment” commissioned by Facebook, which owns WhatsApp. That report focused on Facebook usage in Myanmar, where UN investigators say the company was ”slow and ineffective” in stemming hate speech on its platform amid the violent 2017 purge of more than 700,000 Rohingya. But hate speech on WhatsApp could prove even tougher to contain: the company may enforce “community standards” on Facebook, but WhatsApp messages are encrypted.

     

    Overheard in Davos

     

    Sure, the mood at the World Economic Forum’s annual meeting in Davos this week was generally sombre, but there was a bright spot for some: the increasing spotlight on social issues, including humanitarian response. Humanitarian topics included sessions on private sector investment in fragile states and the use of artificial intelligence in crises. The WEF, the World Bank, and the International Committee of the Red Cross launched an initiative to promote so-called humanitarian investing – the private sector working to boost economies in crisis-affected areas in order to help people get back on their feet and avoid becoming dependent on aid. The IKEA Foundation pledged 6.8 million euros to help create livelihoods for refugees in Jordan. Still, investors were honest about the constraints of putting capital into fragile states at scale. On the tech side, AI was front and centre with discussions on its use in crisis zones. It has huge potential – from predicting famines to chatbots that help refugees further their education to facial recognition for identifying family members separated by war. But what happens when AI-aggregated data falls into the wrong hands? Or when machines reinforce political or human biases in the data? Many agencies, one observer noted, are pushing ahead with pilot projects and thinking about due diligence later. For more from Davos, see our roundup on IRIN’s event, “Meet the new humanitarians changing the face of aid.”

    In case you missed it:

     

    Central African Republic: Talks aimed at ending CAR’s long-running conflict began in Sudan’s capital, Khartoum, this week. Brokered by the African Union, the negotiations involve representatives of the government and 14 armed groups. Aid officials say a successful peace accord is critical to ensuring the ongoing humanitarian crisis doesn’t deepen.

     

    Indonesia: Dozens of people were killed after heavy rains battered Indonesia’s South Sulawesi province this week, leading to floods and landslides. Local authorities say the rains caused rivers to burst their banks, inundating homes and forcing more than 3,000 people to evacuate.

     

    Philippines: A majority voted to ratify a long-awaited peace deal in the conflict-torn Mindanao region, according to unofficial results from the first stage of a referendum held this week. A vote in favour will expand autonomy for Mindanao’s Muslim community.

     

    Yemen: After just a month on the job, the retired Dutch general overseeing the not-yet-implemented ceasefire for the port city of Hodeidah is reportedly about to step down. It’s not clear why. Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to Yemen thinks the deal is make-or-break for peace negotiations: read our interview with him to find out why.

     

    Zimbabwe: Half-a-million government workers have gone on strike across the country, adding to uncertainty after fuel protests and a violent crackdown by security forces left several people dead and hundreds arrested. Accusations that protesters were raped by members of the military have been accompanied by warnings that social unrest and instability are spiralling out of control. Look out for our full briefing next week.

     

    Weekend read

     

    Fleeing the last days of Islamic State in Syria

     

    No, as we flagged in our 10 crises to watch in 2019, the war in Syria is not over. The focus towards the end of last year was on the potential for a humanitarian catastrophe if President Bashar al-Assad’s Russian-backed forces moved in to retake Idlib. While this risk hasn’t gone away, especially as al-Qaeda-linked fighters cement control over parts of the northwestern province, our weekend read takes us elsewhere. In the eastern province of Deir Ezzor, a US-backed Kurdish-led alliance of militias called the Syrian Democratic Forces is trying to snuff out the last pockets of so-called Islamic State in Syria. This photo feature takes us inside their operations as they intercept a convoy of people escaping what remains of the militant group’s territory. But with IS members disguising themselves as civilians to make last-gasp attacks, how do you tell who is who? Those fleeing – nearly 5,000 in just two days this week – are hungry and exhausted. Some say there’s no food at all in areas under IS control.

     

    And finally…

     

    Top Libyan photographer dies in crossfire

     

    Libyan freelance journalist – and occasional IRIN contributor – Mohamed Ben Khalifa was killed last Saturday while covering militia clashes in the capital city of Tripoli, prompting demonstrations by his colleagues denouncing violence against journalists. Ben Khalifa was 35, and is survived by his wife and young daughter. A well-respected photographer who covered the often violent instability that has plagued Libya since the 2011 uprising against Muammar Gaddafi, Ben Khalifa was known for his sensitive portrayals of the migrants whose bodies washed up on Libya’s shores, including this 2015 IRIN piece. His death “is a reminder of the utter lack of protection for journalists in Libya, as well as the dangers of photojournalists in the battlefield,” said the Committee to Protect Journalists. The week of fighting in Tripoli left 16 people dead (including Khalifa) and 65 injured, and rival militias have since agreed to a new ceasefire deal.

     

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    Venezuela on the brink, WhatsApping hate, and a Davos bright spot
  • Q&A: Why new peace talks on CAR really matter

    As a new round of peace talks between armed groups and the government of Central African Republic is scheduled to begin this week, the UN’s top humanitarian official in CAR warns that continued violence could push the country closer to famine.

     

    Around 2.9 million people in CAR, or 63 percent of the population, need humanitarian assistance and protection – an increase of 16 percent in 2018. Of those in need, 1.9 million require acute and immediate aid, according to OCHA, the UN’s emergency aid coordination body. Food security and protection are among the main concerns.

     

    In Cameroon to attend a press conference on the latest situation on the ground in the Central African Republic, Najat Rochdi, the UN’s humanitarian coordinator for the country, told IRIN that increasing levels of violence are driving the ongoing crisis.

     

    CAR has seen near-constant conflict since fighting broke out between the mostly Christian anti-Balaka militia and mainly Muslim Séléka rebels in 2012. While a peace agreement was reached in January 2013, rebels seized the capital that March, forcing then President François Bozizé to flee. Rival militias have been battling each other since, and much of the country is overrun with armed groups despite the 2016 election of President Faustin-Archange Touadéra.

     

    Despite relative calm in some areas last year, which allowed more than 240,000 people to return, forced displacement continued in several regions. And the UN has said that attacks against civilians and aid workers rose in 2018.

     

    The new peace talks, this time organised under the auspices of the African Union, are the latest attempt to broker peace. Rochdi spoke with IRIN about the most pressing humanitarian needs, her hopes for a new peace agreement, and where the talks, due to start in the Sudanese capital, Khartoum, on Thursday, may lead.

     

    IRIN: The UN says the number of people displaced and in need of humanitarian assistance in CAR is at levels unseen since the height of the crisis in 2013-2014. Why is this happening now?

     

    "For me as humanitarian coordinator, this is hope – a hope that there will be a lasting peace agreement and that everybody is going to respect it."

    Najat Rochdi: One in four is displaced, whether within the country as an internally displaced person (IDP) or outside as a refugee. And 63 percent of the population is in need of humanitarian assistance. The reason why we have this increase in terms of humanitarian needs is because of the violence, and the upsurge of violence in 2018.

    We ended the year 2018 with two IDP sites [housing] more than 90,000 people that were completely torched by the armed groups. And obviously we had different hotspots which are new hotspots, including in areas where we didn’t use to have any violence before, which were really stable to the point where we started facilitating the voluntary returns. Unfortunately, we had to stop that because of this upsurge in violence… But [the humanitarian needs are] not only because of that.

     

    The violence and insecurity in some areas prevented farmers from going to the fields, and working their fields, and therefore this impacted directly and immediately on food security.

     

    Read more: Central African Republic: Little peace to keep, but more than 4.7 million lives to live

    This is the first time ever, actually, where the Central African Republic will reach level four in IPC, which is the level just before famine.

     

    (The Integrated Food Security Phase Classification system has five worsening degrees – level five means famine. For more, read our primer.)

     

    Thirteen percent of the population in the Central African Republic today is in level four. We have never seen that before. And as long as people cannot go back to their fields and work their fields, the [food] production is not going be there and, therefore, the needs on food will become more and more and more acute.

    In a country where you just throw a seed and it grows up without anything, it is really... a tragedy.

    IRIN: Armed attacks and violence seem to be rising. What do you hope the new peace talks will achieve?

     

    Rochdi: Those peace talks have been prepared for a while, and the government has taken the lead, which is really translating a real political will to come up with a sustainable peace agreement.

     

    For me as humanitarian coordinator, this is hope – a hope that there will be a lasting peace agreement and that everybody is going to respect it. And hopefully the return of IDPs and refugees will be at the centre of those peace talks and negotiations, because the Central African Republic needs all its daughters and its sons to feel that they are part of the country and also to be able to go back to their houses, to their lands, and to get back their properties.

    IRIN: What does it look like on the ground when 63 percent of a country's population is in need of humanitarian assistance?

     

    Rochdi: Well, it is about needs in terms of shelter, needs in terms of access to water, it is needs in terms of health support and health services, it is needs in terms of food assistance, obviously. But it is also the need for protection, the need for schools, hospitals, health centres and, above all, the need for recovery actions because humanitarian assistance alone cannot be the answer.

     

    This is why we already started and initiated in 2018 a specific programme nationwide regarding the humanitarian development nexus where, yes, it is important to provide emergency humanitarian assistance, but immediately it is also important to have the recovery actors and development actors, including the national and local authorities to provide alternatives to the youth, to women, and to men, to help them and support them so that they can come up with income-generation activities.

    IRIN: What is the biggest gap in assistance in CAR, and why isn’t it being filled?

    Rochdi: The biggest gap is that we are not getting 100 percent funding. If we had 100 percent funding [in 2018] then we would have addressed all the gaps. And since we got only 50 percent, obviously we could not address all the gaps. That is the reason we have focused mainly on critical humanitarian assistance, which is actually very close to life-saving [support].

    "The Central African Republic needs all its daughters and its sons to feel that they are part of the country and also to be able to go back to their houses, to their lands, and to get back their properties."

    This year it will actually be the same scenario if we do not get all the funding. When we are issuing an appeal, and when we put that we need $430 million... and if we don’t get $430 million, it means that a lot of things that we have planned are not going to be achieved. And therefore, this is adding to the vulnerability of the people who are already very vulnerable.

     

    So the gaps are really translated in all the sectors. In the health sector, we have a lot of outbreaks for example; in terms of child mortality, in terms of maternal mortality, in terms of malnutrition. If we do not have enough funding to distribute food and also to distribute vitamins, of course there will be malnutrition. If we don’t have enough shelters, it means that protection is at stake, and it means also that IDPs are very vulnerable to attacks. If we don’t have recovery actions, it means that the people will depend 100 percent on humanitarian assistance.

    Read more: In Central African Republic, war crime survivors dare to hope for justice

     

    Besides humanitarian assistance, it is very important also that the basic social services are improved, and this is much more on the side of the government and development actors. It is also important that we all work together.

     

    Obviously, above all of that, we need more security, hence the importance of the peace talks.

     

    IRIN: What is the worst-case scenario for this year? How will the humanitarian situation change?

    Rochdi: I love saying that we plan for the worst but we hope for the best. Hoping for the best is that the peace talks that are going to happen in Khartoum will lead to a sustainable peace agreement. Therefore, we will have a more conducive environment to help people come back and to have people also go and work their fields. And therefore the [food] production would be much better; hence, less need in food distribution, which will be great news for all of us.

    The worst-case scenario would be that violence will continue and therefore the need for humanitarian assistance would become bigger and bigger and bigger.

     

    My fear is that people will keep suffering. It is very difficult; there is a certain level of suffering that [people] cannot take anymore. I have to express all my admiration for the women, men, and people I have met in the field. They have amazing resilience, an amazing belief that there is a future, and I share that belief with them.

     

    (This interview was edited for length and clarity)

    Q&A: Why new peace talks on CAR really matter
    “My fear is that people will keep suffering. There is a certain level of suffering that people cannot take anymore."
  • In Central African Republic, war crime survivors dare to hope for justice

    It was two nights before Christmas in 2013 in a suburb of Bangui, the capital of Central African Republic. All Claire’s grandchildren were gathered in her house, playing, seemingly safe from the horrors outside.

    On the streets, brutal fighting between Muslim Séléka rebels and Christian anti-balaka vigilante groups had been raging since the rebellion began a year earlier.

    Suddenly there was a knock on Claire’s door; anti-balaka militiamen were looking for her Muslim son-in-law, who had joined the Séléka. Claire, herself a Christian, told them he wasn’t home. They forced their way in, locking all 12 children away, before brutally raping both Claire and her daughter in the living room. The assault left her daughter infected with HIV and impregnated with a child who also suffers from the disease today.  

    “I can try to move on with my life, but my daughter is left by herself, sick with no assistance. She is not working, and she cannot take care of her daughter,” said Claire, now 57, whose full name IRIN can’t reveal for security reasons.

    Claire’s story is not unique in CAR. Countless war crimes have been committed during an ongoing civil war since 2012 that has forced a quarter of the population to flee their homes. The country’s pervasive culture of impunity means perpetrators continue evading both arrest and investigation, very often living side-by-side with those they have victimised.

    When he was elected to office in 2016, CAR President Faustin-Archange Touadéra said “reconciliation cannot be achieved at the cost of impunity”. But with few results delivered since then, victims have become deeply sceptical about the prospect of any real justice.

    This may be about to change.

    Last week, former anti-balaka militia commander Alfred “Rambo” Yekatom, was extradited by CAR authorities to The Hague, where he is set to become the first Central African combatant to stand trial for war crimes and crimes against humanity at the International Criminal Court.

    The news came two weeks after the long-awaited Special Criminal Court held its opening ceremony in the capital Bangui. The local court, which is assisted by the ICC, will investigate and prosecute other war crimes and genocide committed before and during the civil war.

    Human Rights Watch said the new hybrid national/international court presented “a significant opportunity to end the widespread impunity that victims of the cycles of violence in the Central African Republic have faced”. A report by Amnesty International said it has the potential to “help build public confidence in the CAR justice system and bring an end to the pervasive culture of impunity”.

    dsc04767_edit.jpg

    The young priest Frederic Nakombo sits in his office filled with case files, books and a large map of the Central African Republic on the wall behind him.
    Florian Elabdi/IRIN
    Fréderic Nakombo, secretary general of the Justice and Peace Commission, sits in his office.

    Encouraging victims to come forward

    CAR’s civil war began in 2012 when Muslim rebel groups from the country’s north called Séléka (i.e. alliance) moved towards Bangui and overthrew president François Bozizé. To counter the Séléka’s growing repression, Christian vigilante groups called anti-balaka (i.e. anti-machete) started bloody reprisal attacks against Muslim civilians.     

    As a result of the anarchy, the Séléka disbanded and gave back power to an internationally recognised government that today controls around a fifth of the country. In the rest of the former French colony, ex-Séléka and anti-balaka militias are still battling for control of territory and natural resources.

    The armed conflict has been characterised by widespread war crimes committed against civilians on both sides. A 2015 UN commission of inquiry determined that the scale of attacks against the Muslim minority constituted ethnic cleansing, but without genocidal intent.  

    The latest developments, however, are a boost for local efforts to convince victims to bring cases before the SCC tribunal.

    The Catholic Church’s Justice and Peace Commission launched an initiative in 2013, with support from Advocates Sans Frontières, to establish so-called “Listening Centres” throughout the country.

    “There were many people who didn’t want to file their cases at the police because of bad experiences with the authorities,” explained Fréderic Nakombo, secretary general of the commission. “When they heard about the Listening Centre, they were willing to tell us what happened to them.”

    IRIN met Claire at a Listening Centre in Bangui when she arrived to seek legal advice. Her case caught the attention of a local human rights group because of its brutal nature and is one of five the tribunal has so far decided to investigate and prosecute.

    However, it is close to impossible to find the perpetrators in cases like Claire’s where no suspects have been identified. Even in cases where there are clear suspects, victims have seen several examples of notorious warlords getting away with their crimes with impunity, so they are doubtful their low-ranked offenders will ever face justice.

    ☰ Read more: CAR’s culture of impunity

     

    Earlier this year, former anti-balaka leader Patrice Edouard Ngaïssona was elected to the executive committee of the Confederation of African Football, or CAF, the largest of FIFA’s six continental confederations.

     

    Elsewhere, in parts of the country outside of the government’s reach, ex-Séléka rebel commanders like Abdoulaye Hissène and Noureddine Adam, both under UN sanctions, continue to lead groups that have committed atrocities.

    At the same time, former president Bozizé, who was ousted in the 2013 coup, is also under UN sanctions for war crimes, but still lives safely in exile in Uganda.

    Elected as an MP in 2016, Yekatom himself is another example of the extent of non-liability for alleged war criminals.

    Yekatom, who commanded around 3,000 militiamen, is allegedly responsible for crimes such as murder, torture, recruiting child soldiers and more, all committed in the period between December 2013 and August 2014.

    He was only arrested last month after firing a gun during a parliament debate. It was this unrelated arrest that triggered his extradition to the ICC, which could potentially have an accelerating effect on the presently stagnant hunt for other warlords in the fragile state.  

    “Predicting the future is a risky business, but now that an anti-balaka commander is in The Hague, it would not be unreasonable to anticipate a Séléka arrest very soon,” Patryk Labuda, Global Fellow at New York University, argued in a recent analysis for OpinioJuris.

     

    Jurists running the project argue that in a country plagued by years of intercommunal violence, seeking justice for victims is a precondition for reconciliation and future peacebuilding.

    “We cannot begin a real process of reconciliation in this country before the perpetrators of atrocities have been brought to justice or the victims have received compensation,” said Sosthène Mbelesso, legal coordinator at Bangui’s Listening Centre.

    “It is massively important that justice prevails and there is no impunity. There have been so many atrocities committed that we cannot just forget.”

    dsc04754_edit.jpg

    A man stands in front of shelves full of files stacked
    Florian Elabdi/IRIN
    Sosthène Mbelesso, legal coordinator at Bangui's Listening Centre, looks at the cases piling up in the office's wooden cabinet.

    ‘There is justice on Earth’

     

    Regina Nicole Yamalet was also at the Listening Centre in Bangui. She had come to talk about her 24-year old brother who was killed by Chadian peacekeepers in a shooting rampage in the city that also killed two other teenage boys. He died the day before his twin sons turned three months old.

     

    “Every time I glance at the children, I immediately think of my brother,” she said. “As a woman, you’re often harassed in our neighbourhood. Everytime it happens I come to think of my brother because he was so courageous and strong and he would always be there to protect me.“

    Yamalet explained how the killing of her brother has left her in deep sorrow. Yet she remains one of the few Central Africans who are optimistic that justice will be served.

    “As a Christian, I was taught to trust in God and leave things in the hands of God. But the priests in the local church and awareness campaigns in the radio taught us that we should not just leave these cases. There is justice on Earth, before justice in heaven,” she said.

    Yamalet’s optimism is the outcome of the Listening Centre’s efforts to change people’s attitudes towards the SCC tribunal. Through radio programmes, billboards and sermons, the Listening Centre has tried to convince people to take their cases to the court despite preconceptions stemming from religion or general mistrust in the legal system.

    Through the Listening Centres initiative, the commission has received thousands of testimonies and compiled some 6,250 potential cases. The centres across the country assist all victims regardless of religion.

    ‘Grounds for optimism’

    The overriding question remains whether the SCC, made up of 13 local judges and 12 international judges, can be the beginning of the end of CAR’s widespread impunity.

    The recent inauguration of the SCC after almost four years of preparatory work and last week’s extradition of Yekatom does show “grounds for optimism”, said Patryk Labuda from NYU School of Law, adding: “There is a real opportunity to break the cycle of impunity in CAR.”

    “The SCC has taken a long time to be established, but the international community and Central Africans have used this time wisely.” he said.

    “There is a real opportunity to break the cycle of impunity in CAR.”

    “The government of Touadéra remains committed to the fight against impunity, despite pressure from various states and regional actors to seek compromise. The SCC ultimately depends on the goodwill of the host state, so it is critical that the right people remain in power in CAR.”

    But there are challenges. The main ones being security and outreach in a country where 80 percent of the territory is controlled by rebels.

    “It will be important for the SCC to be more than a Bangui court – it has to find a way to communicate its work to people outside the capital, and this is likely to be a huge challenge given the prevailing security dynamics,” Labuda said.

    Back in the Listening Centre in Bangui, Yamalet still had hope that her brother’s killers would be found.

    “I have a real trust that justice will be served in this country,” she said. “We should trust that once the local judicial procedure starts to work, the international court will assist and I’m sure if they all work together, there will be justice.”

    Claire was not nearly that confident.

    “I cannot identify the men who did this to us and I don’t believe they will be brought to justice, but the least I hope for is some kind of economic compensation. I’m living under immense stress and anger because of our situation,” she said, with tears in her eyes.   

    (TOP PHOTO: Anonymous man, 44, gives testimony. His house was burned down in the sectarian violence in 2014. His five children fled the country and are still living in a refugee camp in Cameroon. He hopes that the tribunal will give him financial compensation so he can rebuild his house and bring back his children. CREDIT: Florian Elabdi/IRIN)

    fe/si/ag

    “There is a real opportunity to break the cycle of impunity in CAR”
    In Central African Republic, war crime survivors dare to hope for justice
  • Hospital refuge, urban crisis, and laser detection: The Cheat Sheet

    IRIN editors give their weekly take on humanitarian news, trends, and developments from around the globe.

     

    On our radar

     

    A 'horror scene' in CAR

     

    More than 5,000 civilians are seeking refuge in a hospital in Batangafo in northern Central African Republic after clashes displaced some 25,000 people from their homes. "It was like a horror scene. We saw hundreds of households in flames,” says the MSF field coordinator in the town, Helena Cardellach. "Batangafo is a ghost town. In the morning when there is a lull, people come out of their refuge in the hospital to try to live their lives, and then they go back to the hospital at night." Many lost everything in the fires that ravaged their homes while others are hiding in the bush with little access to food or water. Meanwhile, across CAR, nearly 643,000 people remain internally displaced, while another 575,000 live as refugees in neighbouring countries. For more on the situation in the country, read our three-part special report on peacekeeping, aid access, and sexual abuse.

     

    Reanimating the peace process in Yemen

     

    After 10 days of fierce clashes around Yemen’s Red Sea port city of Hodeidah, the Saudi Arabia- and UAE-led coalition fighting Houthi rebels in the area has reportedly ordered a pause in the offensive. While this move appears to be a reaction to growing international pressure ahead of possible UN-led peace talks, there is no official ceasefire, and some skirmishes continue. The uptick in airstrikes, shelling, and gunfire made it difficult to deliver humanitarian assistance in some parts of the city, and the UN counts 34 civilian deaths in the first week of November – although the real number is likely to be higher. There are other signs Yemen’s long-stalled peace process may be about to get an injection of energy, including an announcement from the UK’s foreign office that the coalition would allow the evacuation of some injured Houthi fighters by plane. We’ll have more for you soon on the negotiations to end Yemen’s long war.

     

    African cities on the front line of climate change

     

    Will urban centres be the future sites of global conflict and humanitarian crisis? In a world of rising temperatures, growing populations, and dwindling natural resources, cities – especially those in Africa – face huge threats over the next 30 years. According to the 2018 Climate Vulnerability Index, 84 of the world's 100 fastest-growing cities are at "extreme risk" from the effects of climate change, and 79 of these are in Africa. Verisk Maplecroft, the risk consultancy group responsible for the study, warns that the poorest will pay the highest price, saying: “The highest risk cities already lack adequate healthcare services and disaster mitigation systems.” Among major potential threats: disease outbreaks; an increase in crime and civil unrest; drought; crop failure; and instability leading to cross-border and rural migration. The list of highest risk cities includes dozens of the continent’s capitals and commercial hubs, among them Kinshasa in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Lagos in Nigeria, and Luanda in Angola. For more, read our in-depth series last year on the challenge of urbanisation in Africa.

     

    Polio progress stalls

     

    Global progress on stopping polio transmission has “stalled and may well have reversed”. In a report this month, the Independent Monitoring Board of the Global Polio Eradication Initiative blamed insecurity in polio hotspots for the rise in the number of wild poliovirus cases detected this year – 25 as of October – more than in all of 2017. “Access limitations due to insecurity continue to represent the biggest threat to polio eradication,” the board said in its report, citing a year-on-year doubling of cases in Afghanistan, and a black hole of information in areas of Nigeria controlled by Boko Haram. Insecurity is not the only factor: In Afghanistan, large numbers of children miss repeated rounds of polio vaccination due to misinformation and outright refusal by sceptical parents (we took a firsthand look at some of the problems earlier this year). Recent research published by UNICEF delves into this issue, asking, “Why do some Afghan parents say ‘no’ to polio drops?”

     

    US votes against new deal for refugees

     

    Two years of international negotiations have drawn up a new package of support for 25 million refugees, and the countries hosting them. The global compact for refugees, according to the UN’s refugee agency, aims for a "stronger, fairer response to global refugee movements”, to help refugees become self-reliant, and to ease pressure on hosting countries. The agreement is due to be adopted by the UN General Assembly after passing committee stage this week. The United States was the only vote against the refugee compact taken on 13 November, and had pulled out of a sister compact on migration last year. A US representative told a UN committee the text is "inconsistent with United States immigration policy". Three other countries abstained on the non-binding agreement: Eritrea, Liberia, and Libya.

    In case you missed it:

     

    AFGHANISTAN: Escalating clashes this month between the Taliban and pro-government forces have displaced thousands and left districts in Uruzgan and Ghazni provinces in a state of “siege” with no access to healthcare, according to the UN’s emergency aid coordination arm. The UN says the violence, which has engulfed previously peaceful areas, reflects “increasing inter-communal tensions”.

     

    ERITREA: International sanctions imposed against Eritrea nearly a decade ago were lifted by the UN Security Council this week, months after the country signed an historic peace agreement with Ethiopia in July. After two decades of tensions, Addis Ababa and Asmara are working towards peace, also reopening their border in September. While communities in both countries welcomed the move, our report from the border this week reveals how the diplomatic thaw has also led to a new surge of Eritrean refugees into heavily burdened Ethiopia.

     

    LIBYA: Italy hosted a two-day summit on Libya this week, but a chance for the country’s competing leaders to discuss key economic, security, and political issues was overshadowed by one general’s late arrival and a Turkish walk-out. The UN got no binding agreement to its timetable for elections, but its envoy for Libya nonetheless said the conference was a “first step in the right direction”.

     

    MYANMAR: Authorities in Myanmar say they have detained more than 100 Rohingya found on board a boat near the commercial capital of Yangon on Friday. Bangladesh authorities earlier intercepted a boat carrying 33 Rohingya, raising fears of a repeat of 2015’s regional boat crisis, which saw thousands of Rohingya refugees and Bangladeshi migrants stranded when traffickers abandoned their human cargo on the open waters.

     

    PALESTINE: An Egyptian-brokered ceasefire appears to be holding in Gaza after a major flare-up in violence at the start of this week prompted by a Sunday night botched Israeli raid in the Palestinian enclave. For now, Israeli airstrikes have stopped, as have mortar and rockets from Hamas and other Palestinian factions.

     

    Weekend read

     

    Rakhine peace efforts, amid concerns over forced returns

     

    Plans to begin returning Rohingya refugees to Myanmar on Thursday were met with protests in Bangladesh’s refugee camps. Authorities said they were ready to begin repatriations but couldn’t find any Rohingya refugees willing to go. The situation remains volatile: rights groups say Bangladesh authorities have been pressuring hundreds of refugees to return, while aid workers in the camps told IRIN some Rohingya had gone into hiding. The UN and others say it’s not yet safe for Rohingya to return to their former homes in Myanmar’s impoverished Rakhine State. Rohingya there face enforced segregation, heavy restrictions, and animosity from the ethnic Rakhine community. But not everyone in Rakhine shuns the Rohingya. For our weekend read, reporter Verena Hölzl profiles the Rakhine peacebuilders working to bridge the deep rifts. They’re often forced to work in the shadows, facing threats from sceptical hardliners and increasing government restrictions. Read more on the uphill battle to forge peace in Rakhine.

     

    And finally…

     

    A fair trade trade fair?

     

    Tents, Land Cruisers, and *checks notes* a sarin gas detector were among the goods on view in a cavernous exhibition hall on the outskirts of Brussels this week. Nearly 200 exhibitors set up stands at AidEx, whose organisers claim it's the largest trade show for the international development community. Although there are billions of dollars in supply contracts every year, ranging from food to blankets, it's a tricky market to sell to, several vendors told IRIN. Dealing with the purchasing bureaucracies of the big aid agencies "drives me insane", one said. Another stallholder thought the sector was "clubby" and hard to break into. A third bemoaned a gaggle of buyers who "all want to run their own race". Malmo University academic Tobias Denskus, attending the event as part of his research into communications in the development sector, said he was struck by how the "outdoorsy" and "yurts and glamping" markets overlap with the relief sector. IRIN too found plenty of "dual-use" suppliers – water purification systems, survival equipment, life jackets – who said they often have more lucrative outdoor and military customers but keep plugging away at the nonprofit sector anyway. Swedish firm Serstech was showing a battery-operated laser device that can detect and identify illegal drugs, commercial pharmaceuticals, and toxins in a matter of seconds. CEO Stefan Sandor said he had talked with health organisations about detecting poisons in floodwaters, or air pollution. He said the device was already in use to verify usage of chemical weapons in Syria. See this Twitter thread from IRIN’s Ben Parker for more products at the show.

     

    bp-as-il-si/nc/ag

    Hospital refuge, urban crisis, and laser detection
  • No child soldiers: The next steps in Central African Republic

    Last September, Central African Republic became the 167th country to ratify the UN child soldier treaty, known by its acronym, OPAC. The government thus committed to outlawing the use of child soldiers.

     

    Yet verified cases of child recruitment quadrupled in 2017 compared to 2016, according to the UN’s latest Children and Armed Conflict report, with 196 boys and 103 girls affected. The numbers are likely far greater; with 80 percent of the country controlled by armed groups, confirming child recruitments is an onerous task.

     

    More difficult still is ensuring that the 12,000 children who are known to have returned home since 2014 integrate back into society and resist joining up again – as well as ensuring that new children aren’t recruited. 

     

    Local volunteers and workers have taken on those tasks, cooperating with the government and international organisations. But they need help.

     

    The ratification of OPAC was a positive step, and a year on there are signs that the government is trying to tackle the issue. The Ministry of Justice is finalising a dedicated national law to criminalise recruitment of under-18s by both government and non-government actors, and the UN report shows that 1,816 children were formally released from armed groups last year.

     

    In June, the Mouvement Patriotique pour la Centrafrique, part of the former Séléka coalition of armed groups, signed a UN plan in which they committed to ending child recruitment.

     

    “Despite this milestone, the situation in CAR remains extremely worrying,” UN Special Representative for Children and Conflict Virginia Gamba said. “Intercommunal violence and confrontations between armed groups have dramatic consequences for the civilian population and, more so, children.”

     

    Dieudonné Kougbet knows that first-hand. Forced to flee to a refugee camp five years ago as violence erupted in Bangui, the capital of CAR, he has been back in the city’s PK5 neighbourhood for 10 months. A retired secondary school teacher, Dieudonné is part of a network of community volunteers who work in the largely Muslim district to protect children from recruitment by armed groups.

     

    PK5 is among the most volatile areas in the city. Armed figures patrol its many roadblocks and extortion is widespread; exploitation of children by those who control the streets is a daily reality.

     

    In 2012, militia overthrew president François Bozizé and the power grab sparked deadly violence among the mainly Muslim Séléka armed groups and the predominantly Christian anti-balaka militias, as well as others. The ensuing civil war has killed thousands and displaced more than 700,000.

     

    Read more in IRIN’s special report:  

    Little peace to keep, but 4.7 million lives to live

     

    In PK5, at least 66 neighbourhood children are known to be associated with Muslim and Christian armed groups, Dieudonné said – some were released but have since re-joined. As conflict in CAR has become more fractured, with more and more groups vying for control, Dieudonné says engaging those armed groups is increasingly difficult.

     

    “The actors aren’t really known, and neither are their motivations,” he said. “Sometimes their agendas are hidden. If only we knew what they really wanted we could address it. In the meantime, we act to help children.”

     

    Some children are forced to fight, and many are exploited as domestic and sexual slaves. A large proportion of the 14,000 children known to have been “recruited” by armed groups in CAR over the past six years were kidnapped, but many joined because they wanted to protect themselves and their communities. This is especially so with the poorly equipped and organised anti-balaka groups, which emerged as local militias to protect specific neighbourhoods.

     

    And keep in mind that because many cases of child recruitment go unverified, it’s likely that many more than 14,000 children have been recruited. The fact that armed groups often operate in residential communities increases the likelihood of children joining or re-joining such groups.

     

    Raising awareness

     

    In Pissa, a town a short drive from Bangui, several children were known to have joined anti-balaka groups. Many local residents were unaware of the OPAC ratification or a national labour law that incorporates a child recruitment ban. Several people said they believed that boys and girls as young as 13 were ready to be tasked with adult responsibilities.

     

    Lea, a local volunteer working to prevent recruitment, said engaging girls who had returned was difficult. The girls had worn military uniforms when they belonged to armed groups, she explained, and that helped them feel “superior”, but now at home “they no longer have the opportunity to be big.”

     

    Returned child soldiers had experienced power and influence within the armed groups, and some had earned money, another local resident said. Many such children had “lost the taste” for school, she added. “How can we convince them to go back to school and not take up arms?”

     

    Local volunteers like Lea, Dieudonné, and others are eager to help, but they can’t do it alone. Support for reintegration is key, but of those 12,000 children known to have been released since 2014, more than 5,000 have not yet received any, UNICEF figures show.

     

    Government-facilitated vocational schemes in Pissa designed to help returned child soldiers have, for example, been marred by delays and funding shortfalls. As a result, several former child soldiers who could have been helped are no longer eligible for the programmes, since they are now over the age of 18.

     

    Meanwhile, the failure of government negotiations with armed groups has meant demobilisation, disarmament, and reintegration support programmes for adult fighters are yet to start. So children remain in communities that are still armed and afraid or struggling for either power or survival.

     

    In this atmosphere, what can help Dieudonné and others ‘help the children’? Wider awareness of the long-term ramifications of child recruitment is a start. “We are planning a large awareness raising campaign but there is a lack of resources, especially for visibility because some of our members cannot move around easily,” Dieudonné said.

     

    He and his colleagues were the first to receive materials put together in a collaboration among local groups in CAR, the government, the UN, and our organisation. These are designed to guide volunteers in promoting dialogue around the negative effects of recruitment on children and their communities. Other materials focus on helping organisations and communities understand the legal framework around child recruitment and learn to advocate with armed groups for the release of children.

     

    Dieudonné and his colleagues know they have a lot of work to do. And they know they can’t do it alone. “We will start in small groups with the leaders and local authorities for each neighbourhood, who can then invite the warlords,” he explained.

     

    The signing of OPAC by the CAR government opened the door to a better future for tens of thousands of the country’s children. But only with the help of communities, of Dieudonné and other local volunteers, will that future begin.

    (TOP PHOTO: Children released by armed groups in Central African Republic. CREDIT: Anthony Fouchard/UNICEF)

    No child soldiers: The next steps in Central African Republic
    At least 12,000 children have returned from armed groups in CAR. Now what?
  • War in Idlib, peace in CAR, and Annan’s mixed legacy: The Cheat Sheet

    Every Friday, IRIN’s team of specialist editors offers a curation of humanitarian news, trends, and developments from around the globe.

     

    On our radar:

     

    Uganda erupts

     

    More than 30 years after coming to power as a rebel movement in the wake of the horrors of dictators Idi Amin and Milton Obote, Uganda’s ruling party still likes to portray itself as a champion of liberation from tyranny, and a guarantor of peace and stability. This message no longer cuts much ice with the country’s young population, 78 percent of whom, being under the age of 30, have known no president other than Yoweri Museveni. Deep-seated frustrations over unemployment, education, and Museveni’s bid to extend his rule indefinitely erupted into street protests after the 13 August arrest of pop singer-turned independent MP Robert Kyagulanyi, better known as Bobi Wine. Security forces violently put down the protests and on Thursday, Kyagulanyi was charged with treason, in apparent connection with the stoning of Museveni’s vehicle during a by-election campaign rally in the northwestern town of Arua. Kyagulanyi has claimed that the bullet that killed his own driver in Arua was meant for him. “Museveni established his rule as the antidote to the preceding political violence and chaos. The manifest violence of recent days has put an end to this image for good,” the African Arguments website declared on Thursday. All eyes on what happens next.

     

    Idlib and chemical weapons

     

    A year after then-president Barack Obama said the use of chemical weapons in Syria would be a “red line” for the United States, hundreds of people suffocated to death on 21 August 2013, foaming at the mouth, in the Damascus suburbs. UN investigators determined the victims had been exposed to sarin, delivered via surface-to-surface missiles. The UN did not assign blame, nor were its investigators asked to, but the White House and France said only the government of President Bashar al-Assad had the capability to carry out this sort of attack; al-Assad and his Russian allies blamed rebels. Five years later, the red line has been crossed multiple times, and the Syrian government appears to be readying for an offensive on Idlib and its surroundings, the last major rebel-held area of Syria. Britain, France, and the United States issued a joint statement on Tuesday’s grim anniversary, promising to “respond appropriately to any further use of chemical weapons by the Syrian regime,” mentioning the Idlib assault in their staid text. US national security advisor John Bolton took a more plain-spoken approach: "Just so there's no confusion here,” he said, “if the Syrian regime uses chemical weapons we will respond very strongly and they really ought to think about this a long time."

     

    A Yemen PR misfire

     

    Regular readers of Cheat Sheet may recall that earlier this month we noted that dozens of people had been killed when the Saudi Arabian-led coalition hit a bus carrying children in Yemen’s northern Saada province. There was outrage from various corners of the world, the coalition said it was a “legitimate military action,” then later announced it would investigate. CNN has done some digging of its own, and found that the bomb was sold to Saudi Arabia by the US in a State Department approved transaction, and manufactured by none other than major defense contractor Lockheed Martin. The Pentagon declined to comment on the bomb’s provenance, but CNN traced back other bombs and civilian deaths in Yemen to Raytheon and General Dynamics. Then, in a display of how a PR move can backfire fast, Lockheed Martin put out a call on Twitter for “an amazing photo of one of our products”, to be featured for #WorldPhotoDay, 19 August. Users responded with pictures of the Saada bomb, and the blue UNICEF backpacks the victims had been wearing. The company’s original tweet? Deleted, natch.

     

    The Annan legacy

     

    Ghanaian Kofi Annan, former secretary-general of the United Nations, died on 18 August at the age of 80. The veteran diplomat, through his foundation and a peace and human rights group, “The Elders”, continued his diplomatic work after retiring from the UN 12 years ago, including recent stints on Syria, Myanmar, and Zimbabwe. His family described him as a “stubborn optimist”. Tributes praising his diplomatic skills, personal qualities, and demeanour continue to flow. Kenyan newspaper columnist Macharia Gaitho wrote of Annan’s mediation following contested elections and violence in 2008 “saving the nation from hell”. A more critical assessment came from American author Philip Gourevitch. Writing in the New Yorker, he referred to Annan’s reputation for “preternatural calm” but described him as having a “curious mixture of grandiosity and unaccountability”. Gourevitch claimed Annan never accepted appropriate personal or institutional responsibility, particularly on Rwanda. Annan was head of the UN’s peacekeeping department in 1994, when the UN did not stop or contain the Rwandan genocide in which hundreds of thousands were killed. On a lighter note, we recommend this story about him being mistaken for Morgan Freeman.

     

    All we are asking…

    The Central African Republic has only enjoyed intermittent let-ups in armed violence since a mainly-Muslim rebel coalition ousted president Francois Bozizé in 2013. As we reported in May, there is often little peace for the blue-helmeted troops of the UN mission there to keep. The killings and looting by the rebels five years ago prompted retaliation by a loose alliance of militia known as anti-Balaka that targeted Muslim civilians and led to charges of ethnic cleansing. The African Union has been leading a peace process, without making much progress. Now, armed groups in CAR have given the AU a lot to chew on: a list of 97 demands in return for peace. These include a blanket amnesty, restructuring the army, renegotiating military deals with Russia, and setting up a government of national unity. The country’s current government, which barely has any authority outside the capital, Bangui, has repeatedly rejected any preconditions for peace.

    In case you missed it:

    GAZA: Israel said that a man its forces shot dead in Gaza this week, after he shot and threw a grenade at soldiers, was a nurse for Médecins Sans Frontières. MSF confirmed the man, Hani Majdalawi, had been killed, adding that the aid group “is working to verify and understand the circumstances regarding this extremely serious incident, and is not able to comment further at this stage.”

    INDIA: India’s Kerala state has been hit by what the Red Cross calls the worst flooding in a century, killing nearly 400 people and forcing one million to flee their homes. Reduced rainfall has allowed some of the displaced to go home, but most people remain in temporary camps, and aid groups say they’re worried about accessing remote areas, not to mention the damage to houses, agriculture, and infrastructure. The government of India has reportedly declined offers of cash from foreign countries, including the United Arab Emirates, Maldives, and Qatar.

    UKRAINE: As Ukraine, today, holds its fifth Independence Day parade since the February 2014 Maidan revolution, the conflict in its eastern Donetsk and Luhansk regions shows no sign of abating. This week saw the heaviest clashes in months, with five Ukrainian soldiers added to the list of more than 10,000 people killed since Russia’s annexation of the Crimean Peninsula in April 2014.

    VANUATU: Ambae used to be one of the Pacific Ocean republic of Vanuatu’s 65 inhabited islands. Not any more. As of last week, all 10,000 residents have been evacuated to the nearby islands of Maewo and Santo due to a volcanic eruption. As this evocative Guardian photo essay flags, this is second such mandatory evacuation in less than a year.

    YEMEN: At least 26 civilians, including 22 children and four women, were reportedly killed in Yemen’s Hodeidah province Thursday night. Houthi rebels blamed an airstrike by the Saudi-led coalition, while United Arab Emirates state media said a Houthi ballistic missile attack had killed one civilian and injured dozens of others in the same area.

     

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    Alana Holmberg/IPPF
    Evacuations in Vanuatu.
    Our weekend read:

     

    Syrian militants served American food aid

     

    If the main item above didn’t make it clear enough, Syria’s Idlib is about to become major news, and not in a good way. A large, if complicated, humanitarian operation has been in place in northwest Syria for some time, but the scale of need is expected to go off the chart if and when the looming government offensive becomes a reality. That is what makes our weekend read this week so infuriating. Delving into USAID inspector general reports, IRIN’s Ben Parker discovered that a relief organisation had been caught diverting aid to rebel fighters in breach of US anti-terrorism laws. After trawling the likely suspects, Parker found out it was probably Catholic Relief Services, who confirmed they had “closed” operations in the region and dismissed staff. Analysts point out it is not just aid agencies but donors too who need to get real. Bad timing, bad optics, own goal.

    (TOP PHOTO: Uganda's prominent opposition politician Robert Kyagulanyi known as Bobi Wine, centre, walks ahead of appearing at the general court martial in Gulu, northern Uganda on 23 August 2018. CREDIT: AFP)

    as-am-bp/ag

    War in Idlib, peace in CAR, and Annan’s mixed legacy
  • Central African Republic, part 3: ‘I have no power to complain’

    About This Series:

    Philip Kleinfeld spent five weeks reporting from inside the peacekeeping mission in CAR. His three-part series looks at UN operations in one of the world’s most neglected and least understood conflicts, the violence that hobbles humanitarian efforts, and rape victims left to fend for themselves long after initial revelations of their abuse by peacekeepers faded.

    Read part 1, Inside Mission Impossible: Peacekeeping in the Central African Republic

    Read part 2, ‘We have become the targets’: Aid workers are caught in a fast-fragmenting conflict

    The young girl approached the patrol of peacekeepers at noon on another hot day in Dekoa, a remote town in the Central African Republic countryside. She had walked into town from her makeshift home in the bush to sell cassava to displaced people living in a Catholic church. In the middle of a war zone, the UN troops were the last people she thought would cause her harm.

    She was wrong.

     

    A peacekeeper with a Burundian patch on his arm beckoned the girl over and told her he wanted to have sex. She refused and said she was too young. He didn’t listen. While another Burundian soldier stood idly by, the man pinned her down and raped her. When he was finished, he thrust a biscuit into her hand and waved her away.

    “It was the first time I had sex with a man and it was by force,” recalled the girl, whose name has been withheld to protect her identity. “I was scared.”

     

    The year was 2014, the girl was just 15 years old, and her story would become part of a wave of more than 150 sexual abuse allegations made against UN peacekeepers deployed in this small, dusty town between 2014 and 2015.

     

    The victims came forward to the UN’s peacekeeping mission in CAR, known by its French acronym, MINUSCA, in April 2016, a year after another sexual abuse scandal involving French peacekeepers in CAR’s capital Bangui made headlines around the world.

    “The international community doesn’t work very well for the population, but I have no power to complain.”

    The UN says it began investigating the allegations in Dekoa, which received less media attention, shortly afterwards, as well as supporting the women through UN agencies and partner NGOs.

     

    But two years on, IRIN’s reporting reveals stark gaps in victim assistance, a flawed investigation that triggered an internal UN review, and new allegations from women who have not previously come forward out of fear they would be stigmatised. Today, all of the victim’s cases remain “pending”, according to the UN’s database of victims.

     

    Since the Dekoa allegations, the UN has tried to improve its response to sexual abuse allegations by appointing Victims’ Rights Advocates in CAR and elsewhere, setting up a Trust Fund, and introducing a system that enables victims to report cases to members of their local community.

     

    UN Secretary-General António Guterres recently introduced a “new approach” aimed at rooting out sexual abuse from within the organisation’s ranks. But IRIN’s reporting suggests there is still a long way to go in terms of providing support and justice to victims.

     

    Years after she says she was abused, the young girl raped by the Burundian peacekeeper sat under the shade of a grass-weaved hut in a black skirt, flip flops, and a faded t-shirt, picking off strips of straw from the roof and arranging them on her lap. While media attention has long since faded, for her a slow, largely silent struggle for justice, assistance, and social acceptance has continued.

     

    It is two years since she last went to school. After she was raped, her parents said she had become an adult and stopped paying the fees. The $35 she received two years ago from UNICEF wasn’t enough to keep her in class. She says she deals with the same taunts every day (“People call me the ‘Burundi wife”) from the local community. There is no counsellor or therapist to help her.

     

    “The international community doesn’t work very well for the population,” she said softly. “But I have no power to complain.”

    Victims of sexual abuse by UN peacekeepers find little support or justice
    Central African Republic, part 3: ‘I have no power to complain’
    Patchy support and botched investigations

    In press releases, the UN and partner NGOs say they provide wide-ranging support to victims of sexual abuse and exploitation (SEA), including monetary assistance and medical, psychosocial, and legal help.

     

    In Dekoa, IRIN interviewed 11 alleged victims of sexual abuse, four of whom came forward for the first time and seven who MINUSCA confirmed it was aware of and supporting.

     

    Of the seven, none said they had received regular, individual counselling and just one of the women – who are now aged between 15 and 23 – said she had received support for school fees.

    IRIN has also found that a catalogue of errors was committed during the original investigation into the Dekoa allegations.

    Two women who claimed to have been raped by Gabonese troops said they were looking after the children of those rapes on their own (the UN disputes the paternity in these cases). Without exception, every woman said they felt abandoned.

     

    IRIN has also found that a catalogue of errors was committed during the original investigation into the Dekoa allegations, which began in mid-2016 and was conducted by Gabonese and Burundian investigators together with the UN’s Office of Internal Oversight (OIOS).

    The probe, which remains unfinished, was supposed to identify victims and perpetrators of sexual abuse. But a former UN investigator with first-hand knowledge of the Dekoa investigation said DNA evidence was mishandled and interviews were conducted in ways that may have jeopardised the wellbeing of victims and adversely impacted their cases.

    The errors were so serious that a secondary inquiry into the investigation was commissioned by OIOS director Ben Swanson, who had overall responsibility for the UN’s part in the Dekoa investigatory mission.

    Out of sight, out of mind

    It takes around five hours to drive to Dekoa from Bangui: two on one of the few paved roads outside the capital; three on a short but bone-crunching dirt road that cuts through the forest and past dozens of tiny villages.

     

    Inside this unassuming, mid-size town almost everybody seems to know a victim of sexual abuse at the hands of UN peacekeepers. During the four-month investigation that began in mid-2016, more than 150 women were identified as potential victims and 41 peacekeepers from Gabon and Burundi were identified as suspects. Allegations were also made in Dekoa against French peacekeepers deployed on a separate mission called Sangaris.

    The Dekoa allegations came a year after another sexual abuse scandal involving peacekeepers in CAR hit the headlines. In April 2015, an internal UN report was handed to the Guardian newspaper by an American advocacy group, AIDS-Free World, whose

    Code Blue Campaign aims to end impunity for peacekeeper sex abuse. It contained allegations that children as young as nine had been raped and sodomised by French Sangaris soldiers.

     

    The alleged abuse took place in a camp for internally displaced people at Bangui M’Poko airport between December 2013 and June 2014. The soldiers had been deployed to protect civilians after a predominantly Muslim alliance of rebels from northern CAR, called the Séléka, ousted then-president Francois Bozizé and triggered a brutal civil conflict that is still reverberating today.

     

    Instead of acting on the allegations, an independent review in December 2015 found that the UN passed the issue “from desk to desk, inbox to inbox, across multiple UN offices, with no one willing to take responsibility”. The review, led by a Canadian judge, highlighted “unconscionable delays” in providing the children with basic medical care, psychological support, shelter, food, and protection.

     

    ☰ Read more: The children of M’poko

     

     

    IRIN also found problems with victim assistance in Bangui after interviewing three young women aged 18-20 who said they were being supported by UNICEF but described infrequent contact with the agency’s staff and a lack of psychosocial support. The women said they had been enrolled in different vocational training programmes over the past year but none were in school and their programmes had all finished.

     

    “I have got nothing,” said one, who was living in her grandmother’s small two-bedroom house, just a stone’s throw from the site of the now closed displacement camp where she said she had been raped.

     

    In PK12, a district of Bangui, IRIN met with the director of a local NGO, Yamacuir, that supports 12 young victims abused by international forces. The director, Paulin Baifo, said its contract with an international NGO had ended last year and it was unable to pay for the children’s school fees, forcing many to drop out.

     

    Monthly food packages and other material support had also stopped. The NGO was so short of cash Baifo said its staff were selling coal at a local market to pay the bills. Baifo said he had raised the issue with UNICEF at a recent meeting, but “they have done nothing”.

     

    “We don’t have the means to support the children at the moment,” he said.

     

    UNICEF said it had no partnership with Yamacuir but would “look into” IRIN’s findings.

     

    Interviewees also expressed disappointment in the decision not to bring charges against Sangaris troops. The decision came even though many victims had provided detailed descriptions of the men who abused them.

     

    One teenage girl who said she was raped by a French soldier in Bangui when she was 14 said her abuser was tall, muscular, and had a tattoo that began on his neck and snaked down his arm.

     

    “Justice is important,” she said, “But there is nobody to support me so that it can be served.”

     

    In Dekoa as in Bangui, it was again at a displacement camp that peacekeepers targeted many of their victims.

     

    A second alleged Dekoa victim told IRIN she met a Gabonese peacekeeper at a checkpoint at the entrance to the camp and began what she described as an “official relationship”.

     

    “‘We have come to protect the population, but I need to have a woman and I have fallen in love with you,’” she recalled him saying.

     

    The peacekeeper offered her $7 to rent a house 50 metres away from his base. “I had regular breakfast and food every day thanks to him,” she said.

     

    The relationship continued for four months until the soldier told her he was returning to Gabon. By that stage, she said, she was visibly pregnant with his child. The soldier told her he would send money to support the baby. But when she tried to contact him after he left, the line never connected.

     

    Left alone with the child, she turned to UNICEF, which was tasked with providing victim assistance and did so in partnership with local NGOs. After registering her name and taking her details, she said she was given a one-off payment of around $35, a kit with sugar, soap, a toothbrush, toothpaste, a plastic jerrycan, and a one-off group counselling session with around 30 other women.

     

    None of it was sufficient. She spent the $35 almost immediately on a trip to Bangui for her uncle’s funeral. The sugar and hygiene kit lasted just a few weeks. Even the group counselling session wasn’t enough to make sure “we don’t make the same mistakes again”, she said.

    Today, the young woman ekes out a living selling a locally brewed alcohol at Dekoa’s central market. It takes her a week to prepare a single batch that she then sells for $7. It’s not enough to buy daily food and clothes for her child, let alone for her to return to school.

     

    “At first I thought we would register and receive support,” she said. “But it didn’t come.”

     

    Swanson, the UN’s top investigator, disputes some of the women’s accounts. He told IRIN that DNA testing “on around 20 victims and their children” has shown “with a high degree of confidence, that the soldiers identified were not the fathers of the children they were alleged to be.” These DNA results have not been made public.

     

    Every victim IRIN spoke to described a similar lack of support. A third woman, aged 23, said she was raped by a Gabonese peacekeeper one evening back in 2014. After he had finished, she said he gave her around $2 and said “come back tomorrow and we will discuss”. She met the man early the next morning and engaged in “consensual sex” on three further occasions because she needed the money.

     

    She made no eye contact and barely took a breath as she raced through her story. She said she wants to move away from her family to escape stigmatisation – “everyone calls me the Gabonese wife” – but needs money to start a business. She said she was currently at school but on the cusp of dropping out because her father had not paid this year’s fees. Worst of all, she said she is in almost the same financial position that led her into the relationship with the man who raped her.

     

    “If I had more money it would help me forget and it would mean I would not have to consider trading sex for money,” she said.

     

    ☰ Read more: The struggle for social acceptance

     

     

    Some of the most disturbing allegations from Dekoa involved French troops working separately to the UN. According to information leaked to AIDS-Free World, four girls were allegedly tied up and forced to have sex with a dog by a Sangaris military commander in 2014. Each girl was given the equivalent of $9 and released.

     

    IRIN established that at least two of the girls involved were forced to relocate to other parts of the company to escape stigmatisation. One of the girls was reported to have been labelled the “Sangaris dog” by members of the local community.

     

    Such stigmatisation appears to have kept a number of women from reporting cases of abuse by Sangaris troops. Four said they were speaking of their experiences for the first time in interviews with IRIN. These new alleged victims, aged between 21 and 32, provided names and physical appearances of the soldiers.

     

    One woman, aged 30, described beginning a relationship with a Sangaris soldier involved in military logistics. She said she met him two or three times a week over a six-month period at the Sangaris base, receiving between $2 and $10 each time. She said he promised her a passport so that she could travel to meet him in France, but then left without saying goodbye.

     

    When NGOs began registering people’s names for distributing aid, the woman said she was too ashamed to come forward and did not consider what had happened to her as sexual abuse or exploitation. Now, she said she has begun to think differently.

     

    “I was living as a refugee and I had no money,” she said. “This is why he abused me.”

     

    Another victim, now aged 21, said she met a clean-shaven 18-year-old Sangaris soldier on three separate occasions during his deployment. She said they met in an abandoned house close to the Sangaris camp. The man would bring a mat for the floor and food packs for her to sell on at the displacement camp. With her father absent and her 27-year-old sister recently deceased, he offered a crucial lifeline.

     

    “There was nobody to support me,” she said.

     

    Like the first women – and several others interviewed by IRIN – the 21-year-old said she had been too afraid to come forward when the NGOs began registering names.

     

    “They call you ‘women of Sangaris’,” she said. “I didn’t want this to happen to me.”

     

    IRIN shared the names of women who had given their consent to the UN’s Conduct and Discipline Team in Bangui, which said it would investigate their allegations.

     

     

    In a statement to IRIN, UNICEF said it provides “recurrent distributions” of hygiene kits and other non-food items to sexual abuse victims in Dekoa and confirmed a one-off cash payment of between 10,000 to 20,000 CFA, or $20-$35, was provided to victims in June and July 2016.

     

    “We continue to improve our programming with partners to provide appropriate assistance to victims,” a spokesperson said.

     

    UNICEF added that “Dekoa is one of the hardest to reach places in the Central African Republic”, and that “the security situation is very volatile”.

     

    Dekoa has experienced bouts of insecurity. Currently, though, it is free from armed groups. IRIN reached the town by taxi from Bangui in under five hours, on a road controlled by the UN and national gendarmerie.

    “A failure of management”

    In peacekeeping missions, responsibility for investigating and prosecuting suspects of sexual abuse lies with the country that contributes the troops. Last year, the UN secretary-general recommended member states take six months to complete their investigations.

     

    But two years after the investigation began in Dekoa, according to the UN’s public database, all cases remain pending.

     

    When IRIN visited the town in March, Gabonese investigators were back in the field, sitting on the grounds of Dekoa’s Catholic church, dressed in military fatigues in the prickly heat.

     

    MINUSCA’s spokesman Vladimir Monteiro said they had returned “to complete the national investigation, following further exchanges regarding evidence that needed to be gathered.”

    Asked what had happened in the intervening two years, the UN’s top official in CAR, Parfait Onanga-Anyanga, blamed “administrative delays” in both Gabon and Burundi.

     

    “There was no proper follow-up by national authorities,” he said. “When you ask why we are facing delays, you find things are falling into the administrative cracks.”

     

    But a senior UN investigator posted to CAR during the Dekoa inquiry and involved in the 2016 investigation told IRIN the probe was hampered by delays, sudden changes of leadership, and inappropriate questioning by Gabonese and Burundian investigators, which may have harmed victims’ cases by compromising the accuracy of their testimonies.

     

    The source – who has since left the UN but did not want to be named – said the investigation was “painfully slow” to get off the ground. Repeated requests for resources and logistical support from MINUSCA’s senior leadership were listened to but not acted on.

    “There was no proper follow-up by national authorities.”

    When the investigation did get going, the source said a former London Metropolitan Police officer with no experience in CAR was suddenly sent by Swanson to Dekoa to lead the inquiry. The former police officer was given just a few days to prepare, while candidates who had been working on the case for months were sidelined.

     

    “Swanson said: ‘we will run this like a Metropolitan Police investigation’”, the ex-investigator recalled. “But Dekoa was not a London borough.”

     

    Swabs taken from women and soldiers involved in paternity claims were also handled incorrectly and had to be redone after lab tests were unable to extract DNA, likely delaying the investigation even further.

     

    UN staff quickly became concerned about the work of Burundian and Gabonese investigators, whom IRIN’s source said had no training in how to interview traumatised sexual abuse victims.

     

    A UN manual on interviewing survivors of trauma makes clear the importance of “empathy”, “rapport”, and avoiding “retraumatisation”. But in Dekoa women and young girls were aggressively cross-examined by the Burundian and Gabonese who were, said the former investigator, “trying to protect their country’s reputations”.

     

    “Without open questions and empathy you simply won’t get an accurate account of the event,” the former investigator said. “This is what research [in how to interview trauma victims] shows.”

    UN staff working alongside the Gabonese and Burundian officials should have protected victims and intervened more quickly, said IRIN’s source.

    “Some would say, ‘this is not appropriate’, but others would just let it continue,” the former investigator said, adding that OIOS leadership in New York failed to communicate how important it was to monitor the conduct and questioning of Gabonese and Burundian investigators.

     

    “It was a failure of management.”

     

    Asked whether these errors had prompted a secondary investigation, Swanson confirmed to IRIN the existence of a recently completed review document. He said the report has since been used to train other UN staff on the “lessons drawn” from Dekoa. The report has not been made public and has not been seen by IRIN.

     

    “I am not going to wash our dirty linen in public,” Swanson said in a telephone interview.

     

    Swanson confirmed “shortfalls” in the “quality of interviewing by national investigators and some of our own interviewers”, as well as problems with DNA evidence on “2-3 swabs”. He admitted his “own management of the operation could have been better” but did not accept that the overall investigation was flawed.

     

    “This revisionist approach which seeks to rubbish [our investigators’ work in Dekoa] and attack OIOS is as repulsive as it is unwelcome,” Swanson said, adding that further delays in the investigation are the responsibility of Gabon and Burundi, not the UN.

    “I am not going to wash our dirty linen in public.”

    Monteiro, the MINUSCA spokesman, said the results of Gabon’s investigation are expected “soon” and that Burundi has submitted its investigative findings “but additional information has been requested”.

     

    A spokesperson for the French prosecutor’s office, meanwhile, told IRIN that its own judicial investigation is ongoing in Dekoa but did not provide a timeline for completion or explain why it has taken so long.

    Costly errors?

    Precedent suggests the delays and errors will weaken victims’ cases. Last January, a panel of French judges decided not to bring charges against the Sangaris troops deployed in Bangui, citing a lack of evidence and inconsistencies in testimony.

     

    Emmanuel Daoud, a French lawyer who has been following the Sangaris case for the NGO ECPAT, which fights against sexual exploitation of children, said the investigation was badly managed, making the January dismissal “inevitable”. He said the children were subjected to multiple interviews “by different actors, at different times”.

     

    “The lack of coordination between those actors led to many contradictions in the declarations of the children, and therefore to the insufficiency of the charges,” Daoud said.

     

    ☰ Read more: Preventing peacekeeper abuse

     

     

    To improve its record on sexual abuse, MINUSCA set up a new community outreach system last September. The system enables victims to report cases to members of their local community, who can then refer the issue  to the UN. Victims can also report incidents using a toll-free number or email.

     

    In Dekoa, IRIN spoke to two members of the community-based network, which was established in September last year: Gerard Moussa, from the ministry of social affairs, and local government official, Guy Mbetigaza. Both said the network lacked funds and that its volunteer staff had received insufficient training given the gravity of the task. They said they had attended two short workshops last September and November. Moussa said he was unsure about what counted as sexual violence.

     

    “I need more sessions to understand this,” he said. “The subject is very complicated: in two three-hour sessions what are you going to learn?”

    None of the victims interviewed by IRIN said they were aware of the network or knew which local community or administrative representative to contact if they were abused again. None had access to computers, and the majority did not have functioning mobiles phones.

     

    The head of MINUSCA’s Conduct and Discipline team, Innocent Zahinda, told IRIN the unit had provided members of the network with 21 prepaid mobile phones and notebooks. He said the network had embarked on a public awareness campaign – putting up posters in the centre of town and going around in a vehicle announcing it on a megaphone – and added that the unit would conduct a follow-up assessment in Dekoa to “identify any gaps in their operation”.

     

    Paula Donovan from the group AIDS-Free World said the UN’s approach to sexual abuse and exploitation victims is largely catered towards people who live in the capital, Bangui, and have relatively easy access to social and medical services.

     

    “The UN says we'll have a hot-line, we're going to put up posters, we’ll refer you to the nearest psychologist for psychosocial support, we will ensure that you have immediate medical attention, a rape kit, that sort of thing,” Donovan said.  “But the UN knows that those services are extremely rare in Bangui, and they are pretty much impossible to find in the country’s remote areas.”

     

    In 2016, a Victim Assistance Trust Fund was established by the UN secretary-general to help address gaps in the provision of victim assistance. Its budget is currently $2 million, which is spent on sexual abuse and exploitation victims in projects based in CAR, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Liberia.

     

    When asked how much had been spent in CAR to date and on which projects, a spokesperson for the UN’s Department of Peacekeeping Operations said they had not received funds until 2017 and that "the project's implementation” had not yet begun.

     

    The budget of the Trust Fund includes voluntary donations from member states and payments withheld from UN personnel when sexual abuse allegations against them have been substantiated. But Donovan said “there is no direct compensation for the individual victim whose plight ended up channelling funds to the trust fund.”

     

     “She may never see a dime,” Donovan said.

     

    The UN has also created victims’ rights advocates to help raise the profile of victims of sexual exploitation and abuse. But Donovan said they cannot be impartial advocates for victims' rights because they don't work for victims – they work for the UN, which also employs or contracts the alleged perpetrators.

     

    “That's a glaring conflict of interest.”

     

    Donovan also pointed out that the advocate in CAR, Natalie Ben Zakour Man, was assigned the role in addition to her regular job as child protection officer.

     

    “Her caseload includes hundreds of victims of UN civilian and military personnel who are subject to dozens of different UN agency regulations and legal jurisdictions,” said Donovan. “The victim/advocate ratio alone tells us that equal access and adequate assistance for victims were never the UN's objectives."

     

     

    While the number of abuse cases by peacekeepers has fallen since the 2016 Dekoa scandal erupted, most crimes still go unpunished, said Donovan, co-director of the group AIDS-Free World.

     

    Donovan argued that the UN should not be involved in investigating its own staff and that reports of abuse “should be received and handled by independent, external, neutral parties, who are looking for justice rather than carrying any bias.”

     

    Troop-contributing countries whose soldiers regularly commit sexual abuse, and whose investigators regularly conduct bogus investigations, “should no longer be contracted by the UN,” Donovan added.

     

    With their abusers long gone and memories of dates and details fading, women interviewed by IRIN in Dekoa seemed to be setting conservative expectations.

     

    “I am expecting support from the international community,” said a 26-year-old woman raped by a Burundian peacekeeper. “They are the ones who sent the troops that abused me. That would be justice.”

     

    pk/ag

  • Fragile lives, flickers of hope, and following up on sexual abuse: The Cheat Sheet

    Every Friday, IRIN’s team of specialist editors offers a round-up of humanitarian trends and developments from around the globe.

     

    On our radar:

     

    Fate of Yemen port in the balance

     

    In an attempt to slow down the battle for the Red Sea port of Hodeidah, Martin Griffiths, the UN’s envoy to Yemen, has certainly been busy of late, meeting with various parties to Yemen’s war and, most recently, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. Griffiths has had some success in staving off a full-scale military press while he tries to restart negotiations, but civilians in the city and wider province are in a dangerous limbo, with 33,000 fleeing since the start of June and many more risking it all to stay put and protect homes and livelihoods. As it can often seem like just the voices of foreigners talking about the importance of Hodeidah, here’s a just-published open letter from a group of Yemeni experts on the risks of further military escalation in the province. Check back with us soon for a view from the ground in a country where the UN estimates more than 11 million people need urgent humanitarian assistance to survive.

     

    “Collective punishment” in Gaza?

    Last Monday, in response to a series of incendiary kites and balloons sent from Gaza over the past few weeks, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced he was closing Israel’s border with the Palestinian enclave to almost all goods: only supplies Israel classifies as humanitarian are allowed in; no exports can leave; and the area Palestinian fishermen can use has been reduced. The move was condemned by human rights groups as collective punishment, while the EU said it “expects Israel to reverse these decisions”, and a UN expert said the restrictions would worsen Gaza’s already “dire humanitarian crisis.” This week, UN humanitarian coordinator Jamie McGoldrick visited Gaza and said he was especially concerned about the impact of fuel shortfalls on health, water, and sanitation services, warning: “we are steps away from a disastrous deterioration”.

    War and peace in Afghanistan

     

    Civilian deaths the highest in a decade, casualties from suicide attacks soaring, schools increasingly under attack: these are all alarming trends from the UN’s latest tally of conflict casualties in Afghanistan, released this week. The mission recorded 1,692 deaths through the first half of the year – the most since the UN began tracking and releasing civilian casualty figures in 2009 (when it recorded 1,052 deaths from conflict). It’s hard to imagine a positive takeaway from such disconcerting stats, but here’s one attempt: for three short days in June, when the government and the Taliban both agreed to put aside their weapons for an end-of-Ramadan ceasefire, the UN recorded almost no civilian casualties caused by either side (fighters aligned with the so-called Islamic State, who were not part of the ceasefire, claimed two suicide attacks that killed dozens). A few more cautiously promising signs: Taliban officials have reportedly ordered a stop to suicide bombings in civilian areas, while the White House is also reportedly mulling talks with the Taliban, which has insisted any potential peace plan must include direct negotiations with the United States. As the International Crisis Group notes in a briefing looking at how to build on the June ceasefire: “The US speaking directly to the Taliban is the best bet for… kickstarting a long-overdue peace process.”

     

     

    One to listen to:

     

    Speaking of the US in Afghanistan…

     

    It’s no secret that a long history of missteps in Afghanistan’s post-war reconstruction have contributed to today’s humanitarian crisis, but this “lessons learned” report on 15 years of US “stabilisation” efforts makes for a sobering read. The new season of NPR’s Rough Translation – a podcast favourite among a few IRIN editors – takes a deep dive into one short-lived US military programme that immersed a handful of US soldiers in Afghan culture and languages. Take a listen to learn more about the controversy of stopping for pizza in Kabul, how to turn a cooking show into an anti-corruption metaphor, and a heartbreaking twist – which, like this Cheat Sheet, nevertheless includes a flicker of hope.

    Report watch:

     

    Handle with care

     

    Countries shouldn't have to be in full-blown meltdown to merit aid and attention. And if the international system concentrates only on "fire-fighting" crises that have already broken out, it risks storing up trouble for later, missing opportunities for preventing countries from slipping off the edge. Don’t believe us, believe this new survey from the Paris-based Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, which says some 2.3 billion people now live in "fragile contexts". It's not just about war: corruption, climate change, organised crime, and chronic poverty are just some of the ingredients in an OECD methodology that combines dozens of indicators to come up with a ranking of 58 fragile contexts – 15 of them extremely fragile. In the highs and lows, Cambodia and Lesotho no longer count as fragile, but circumstances in Djibouti, Iran, and Nepal worsened and led to their inclusion in this year's report. It's a whopper: 281 pages and some extra statistics on code-sharing website GitHub – plenty to get your teeth into.

     

    Our weekend read:

     

    Misery and misunderstandings, part 1

     

    In this high summer season for migrants crossing the central Mediterranean – and consequently for deaths at sea – there’s plenty of media coverage about EU in-fighting and “burden-sharing”. Critics cry foul that hastily cobbled EU compromises are building a “Fortress Europe” and amount to an offshoring of asylum processing that cuts against human rights law. There is certainly plenty of blame to go around: the EU condemns NGO rescue vessels for acting as a pull factor; they in turn accuse the Italian government and the Libyan Coast Guard of leaving stricken women and children to die. But what of as many as one million migrants and refugees stuck in Libya wrestling with whether to go for it, stay put, or seek resettlement or repatriation? In May, regular IRIN contributor Tom Westcott gained rare access to detention centres in Libya and interviewed dozens of migrants and asylum seekers who had an array of frustrations, dreams, and stories to tell. This latest instalment of our “Destination Europe” series is a two-parter profiling the people at the heart of the exodus and highlighting their confusion as they try to work out what EU and UN initiatives – with their complex eligibility procedures – can do for them. Given the poor conditions in Libya, the endless wait, and the lure of a possible new life in a Western democracy, many are still deciding to risk it and get on a smuggler’s boat.

     

    Coming up:

     

    What happened to sexual abuse victims in CAR?

     

    In April 2015, long before the days of #MeToo and #AidToo, a sexual abuse scandal erupted in the Central African Republic. It made headlines around the world and profoundly damaged trust between Central Africans and the UN peacekeeping mission there. The first testimonies were from young children who claimed to have been raped and sodomised by French soldiers at a camp for internally displaced people in 2013 and 2014. Then, during a four-month investigation in 2016, more than 150 women came forward as potential victims and 41 peacekeepers from Gabon and Burundi were identified as suspects. Anger over alleged cover-ups and slow responses gave way to investigations, independent reviews, and promises victims would be looked after. But what happened next? We can’t give much away now, but look out next week for the third and final part of Philip Kleinfeld’s special report from CAR in which he follows up on all of the above, with shocking and sad results.

     

    Kleinfeld spent five weeks in CAR meeting peacekeepers, warlords, aid workers, and civilians whose lives intersect in a country rich in resources but impoverished by coups, mutinies, and civil war. To get up to speed, check out his first two stories below, or, for more, including a revealing interview with Kleinfeld himself, click on this series link:

     

    Inside mission impossible: Peacekeeping in the Central African Republic

     

    “We have become the targets”: Aid workers caught in a fragmenting conflict

    (TOP PHOTO: A displaced family fleeing Hodeidah on 18 July 2018. CREDIT: NRC)

    bp-as-il/ag

     

    Fragile lives, flickers of hope, and following up on sexual abuse

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