(Formerly called IRIN) Journalism from the heart of crises

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  • Mozambique storm; North Korea aid; and conflict spikes in South Sudan, Syria, and Yemen: The Cheat Sheet

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

    On our radar

    UN warns of ‘worst humanitarian catastrophe’ in Syria

     

    The UN said it had received $6.97 billion in pledges at a Brussels donor conference for Syria this week, shy of the $8.8 billion it had asked for to aid Syrian refugees as well as those still in the country in 2019. While participants emphasised the need for a political solution to Syria’s war, now entering its ninth year, the uptick in violence in rebel-held northwestern Idlib province is a stark reminder that it is far from over. Conflict monitor Action on Armed Violence said Russian airstrikes in Idlib city killed 10 civilians and injured 45 on Wednesday; Russia said it was targeting weapons owned by the al-Qaeda linked group Tahrir al-Sham. A Russia-Turkey deal has so far been holding off a full-scale government offensive on the territory. UN relief chief Mark Lowcock warned the audience in Brussels that such an offensive would “create the worst humanitarian catastrophe the world has seen in the 21st century”.

     

    Storms, floods, and a cyclone batter southeast Africa

     

    Half a million people in Mozambique's fourth largest city of Beira were plunged into darkness when tropical Cyclone Idai made landfall late on Thursday night, knocking down trees and power lines and destroying homes. This follows a week of heavy rains and flooding across southeast Africa that has already killed at least 126 people in Malawi, Mozambique, and South Africa. More than a million people have been affected in all. In Mozambique, the floods have already destroyed more than 5,700 homes, while in neighbouring Malawi, over 230,000 people are left without shelter. Both countries are prone to extreme weather events. In Mozambique, floods in 2000 claimed at least 800 lives and another 100 in 2015. In Malawi, the 2015 floods left at least 100 people dead and more than 300,000 others displaced.

     

    North Korea sanctions disrupt aid programmes

     

    Broad economic sanctions against North Korea are disrupting humanitarian work and having a detrimental impact on ordinary citizens, a UN rights watchdog says. In a report to the Human Rights Council this week, the special rapporteur for rights in North Korea, Tomas Ojea Quintana, said aid programming continues to see significant delays due to UN and government-imposed sanctions. Banks, suppliers, and transport companies are afraid of running afoul of sanctions, leading to humanitarian supply chains breaking down. The US government has also imposed travel restrictions on its citizens and blocked the delivery of essential supplies like hospital equipment, he said. The UN this month called for $120 million in aid funding. But last year’s appeal was only one-quarter funded, and humanitarian aid only reached one third of the people targeted.

     

    Uptick of violence threatens Yemen peace bid

     

    The UN-brokered ceasefire deal for Yemen’s northern port city of Hodeidah suffered yet another blow this week, with a group of NGOs warning that there had been a “major outbreak of violence” in the city in the last few days. As we (and plenty of others) have pointed out, the Hodeidah agreement was meant to lead to further peace talks for the whole of Yemen. Don’t hold your breath. Just to the north of Hodeidah, in Hajjah province, recent airstrikes and renewed fighting have killed and injured civilians. UNICEF reported that more than 37,000 people were forced to flee their homes inside Hajjah in March alone, and humanitarians are having trouble accessing those who need help. As Nigel Tricks, East Africa and Yemen regional director for the Norwegian Refugee Council, put it in a Wednesday statement: “Whilst the eyes of the world are on Hodeidah, airstrikes and shells continue to rain down on civilians in other parts of Yemen, killing with impunity.”

     

    A backtrack from the UN’s refugee agency

     

    UNHCR has reversed a decision that could have seen tens of thousands of ethnic Chin refugees from Myanmar stripped of refugee status. Last year, the UN agency controversially began a review process to determine whether the refugees, originally from Chin State and other parts of western Myanmar, still required international protection. But UNHCR said this week that a “worsening security situation” in parts of Chin State “has affirmed that Chin refugees may still have ongoing international protection needs”. The agency also announced that it would stop its protection re-evaluation process for Chin refugees. In recent months, renewed clashes between Myanmar’s military and the Arakan Army, an ethnic Rakhine militia, have displaced thousands in Rakhine and southern Chin states, including more than 3,200 in Rakhine this month. But even before the latest violence, refugee rights groups say reviewing refugee protections for ethnic Chin was clearly premature. The Asia Pacific Refugee Rights Network says there are more than 33,000 Chin refugees living in Malaysia and India.

    In case you missed it:

     

    The Democratic Republic of Congo: Cases of deadly pneumonic plague have emerged along Uganda's border with the Democratic Republic of Congo, the World Health Organisation said, including in the Congolese province of Ituri, where health teams are struggling to tackle an ongoing Ebola outbreak.

     

    Rwanda-Uganda: Tension is rising between East African neighbours. Uganda denies it harasses Rwandan citizens and backs rebels. It says Rwanda is blocking trade. Rwanda’s president says it will never be "brought to its knees". His Ugandan counterpart said a “troublemaker” (unnamed) “cannot survive”. Regional mediation efforts have begun.

     

    Sudan: Diseases including measles, dysentery, and pneumonia are spreading rapidly in Darfur's Jebel Marra area, according to a rebel group, the Sudan Liberation Movement (SLM-AW), that controls much of the territory. It called for outside assistance, saying dozens of people had already died from a shortage of medicines and medical staff.

     

    Venezuela: Week-long power outages crippled water supplies and cut off telephone and internet services to millions of Venezuelans already struggling with shortages of food and medicines. Amid reports of chaos and looting in the second city of Maracaibo, President Nicolás Maduro blamed “sabotage” and “American imperialism”. Others pointed to a bush fire and crumbling infrastructure.

     

    Yemen: The US Senate voted for a second time on Wednesday to end US support for Saudi Arabia in Yemen’s war. The resolution is expected to pass the Democrat-controlled House of Representatives, but President Donald Trump has vowed to veto should it reach his desk.

     

    Weekend read

     

    In South Sudan, a ‘war on civilians’ despite six months of supposed peace

     

    On 15 December, South Sudan marked five years of war – almost 400,000 people dead, millions displaced, but also signs a peace deal was taking hold, with more people returning home to rebuild shattered lives. Sceptics, embittered by too many false dawns, advised against hoping too hard. It seems they were right. Not only, according to our weekend read, has fighting resumed, but it resumed some time ago – locals in the troubled Yei region even accuse the government of covering up violence to keep up the pretence of control. Tens of thousands of people have been newly displaced, Sam Mednick reports, many of them inaccessible to aid groups. Without new ideas and renewed international engagement, more violence and displacement appear inevitable, according to the International Crisis Group. First test ahead: the formation of a unity government in May.

     

    And finally…

     

    ‘Toothless’ UN migration document becomes far-right rallying cry

     

    Propaganda scrawled by a gunman involved in killing at least 49 people in New Zealand today referred to the Global Compact for Migration. A non-binding international agreement that one expert called “toothless” has become a rallying cry for the far-right and white supremacists worldwide. The three-year UN negotiation process aimed to agree “safe and orderly” migration after arrivals to Europe increased in 2015. It also hoped to stem xenophobia in wealthy countries and reassure developing nations that the walls were not going up entirely. But nationalist politicians pulled out of the process, led by President Trump, claiming the document would pave the way to more immigration. The compact sparked fierce political debate in New Zealand, even though it commits no member state to do anything. One analyst told IRIN it “doesn’t actually do much”. Well, you’d be forgiven for asking now whether it does, but in all the wrong ways.

    (TOP PHOTO: Families have taken shelter in a new makeshift camp north of Idlib, fleeing violence in southern rural Idlib. CREDIT: Aaref Watad/UNICEF)

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    Mozambique storm; North Korea aid; and conflict spikes in South Sudan, Syria, and Yemen
  • Congo massacre survivors tell of canoe escapes and being left for dead

    For 48 hours in mid-December, the remote fishing and farming region of Yumbi some 400 kilometres north of Kinshasa on the banks of the Congo River became the scene of a massacre.

     

    According to the UN Human Rights Office in the Democratic Republic of Congo, at least 535 people were killed in the town of Yumbi and surrounding villages when members of the Batende community attacked the Banunu, a different ethnic group.

     

    More than two months later, entire villages are still deserted. Nearly 30,000 people remain displaced, many on islands along the Congo River, as well as in neighbouring Congo-Brazzaville.

     

    The humanitarian needs are dire, and aid groups warn things could get worse.

     

    Read more: Months after a massacre in Congo, little aid but plenty of fear

     

    In January, photojournalist Alexis Huguet visited Yumbi to document the aftermath of the massacre, and found that tensions remain high between the two communities. Despite ongoing investigations into the massacre by the military prosecutor's office and the UN Human Rights Office, the attackers are still at large.

     

    For the survivors, the trauma and violence of those 48 hours in December remain with them. As a result, many continue to live displaced, in difficult conditions, rather than return to destroyed homes.

    Mass graves

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    Alexis Huguet/IRIN

    "We were both trying to escape,” said Lanjy Nguta (above), a survivor from the village of Bongende, standing beside the spot where his friend's body now lies, simply covered with dirt. “Instead of following the same path as me, my friend turned. In the meantime, the Batende arrived; they caught him and killed him.”

     

    The UN says at least 339 people are confirmed to have been killed in Bongende on Monday, 17 December. Hundreds of bodies – burned, mutilated – littered the alleyways of the town. After 10 days, Congolese Red Cross teams finally arrived on the scene. For several days they dug mass graves to bury the bodies.

     

    The UN Human Rights Office in Congo, which conducted an investigation in Yumbi territory in January, reported that it had found "more than 50 mass graves and individual graves", many of them in Bongende.

     

    The uncounted dead

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    Alexis Huguet/IRIN

     

    On 16 January, one month after the attacks, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights in Geneva issued a press release reporting that 890 people were killed in Yumbi territory during two days in December. At the beginning of February, they returned to a figure of 535 documented cases of people killed.

     

    But according to the testimonies of survivors recorded by IRIN, the bodies of a large number of people killed were thrown into the river. These are unlikely ever to be recovered and not included in the official count.

     

    In Bongende and the town of Yumbi, there are still skeletons and human remains that have not been buried. In the photo above, you can see the clothes and bones of a child lying in the courtyard of a house in Bongende.

     

    Two months after the killings, Bongende is still deserted. The inhabitants do not want to return, as their assailants are still at large, living in the surrounding villages.

     

    Avoiding new trauma

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    Alexis Huguet/IRIN

    In Bongende, almost nothing is left, as the two returning Banunu survivors found above: destroyed houses, mass graves, human remains, a few naval soldiers guarding the port, and a deafening silence.

     

    "It is important that the return of the population is not forced,” Nicholas Tessier, a psychologist who worked for Médecins Sans Frontières with both communities in Yumbi, told IRIN.

     

    “If people return too quickly to their destroyed homes, or to the place where they have seen loved ones killed, it can really have an impact on their mental health,” he said. “They will have to face the consequences of recent violence and this will generate quite strong emotions, perhaps even a re-emergence of trauma symptoms.”

     

    Surviving in the middle of the Congo River

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    Alexis Huguet/IRIN

    Opposite Yumbi, the Congo River is nearly 10 kilometres wide. From Yumbi, it takes almost an hour-and-a-half in a motorised canoe to get to this spot (above) on Moniende islet.

     

    To escape the attacks in Yumbi, Bongende, and another village, Nkolo, thousands of Banunu made the journey to Moniende and other islets on canoes. Some paddled with their hands.

     

    MSF said living conditions on the islets – which the villagers only usually inhabit during the fishing season when the river level drops – are particularly precarious.

     

    They said their partially built huts do little to protect them from rain, the coldness of the night, or the wind, with malaria in the coming rainy season a particular concern.

     

    Left for dead

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    Alexis Huguet/IRIN

    "I came across the attackers on my way home [in Yumbi town]. They shot me and hit me with arrows. I fell, and then they beat me up," said Abyssine Miniunga Bonkita, holding her child in her arms (above) on Moniende islet.

     

    "One of the assailants wanted to leave, but the other wanted to shoot me again to finish me off once and for all,” Bonkita said. “Finally they gave up to save their ammunition and because they thought I was already dead. They also burned down my house. I dragged myself to where I found my relatives. When the clashes stopped, I was taken to the hospital."

     

    Bonkita and her family then took refuge on Moniende islet, where they sleep piled up together in a hut made of plastic sheeting and wooden sticks.

     

    Safety across the river

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    Alexis Huguet/IRIN

    While many of the tens of thousands of displaced people took refuge on river islets around Yumbi, 16,000 of them crossed the river into Congo-Brazzaville. Most continue to live as refugees, largely in the Makotimpoko (pictured above) and Gamboma districts.

    At the time of the massacre, the rest of the country was focused on preparations for Congo’s long-delayed general elections, which finally took place on 30 December. Not many knew what was happening in Yumbi.

     

    After the first groups fled, bits of information began trickling in from Congo-Brazzaville: news of inter-communal clashes, dozens of people wounded, and thousands fleeing in canoes.

     

    Humanitarian needs

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    Alexis Huguet/IRIN

    Young Limbanda Bompinda (centre) is one of the thousands who managed to escape the attack on Bongende for the safety of Congo-Brazzaville.

     

    For those who took refuge across the river, local authorities say the needs are tremendous, including healthcare, shelter, food, and psychological support. But the area many fled to is landlocked, difficult to access, and the humanitarian response has therefore been slow.

     

    Some refugees, like Bompinda and her mother, take the risk of crossing the river by canoe to collect food – including manioc leaves, plantain bananas, and safou fruits – before returning to Congo-Brazzaville.

     

    Communities cut off

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    Alexis Huguet/IRIN

    While almost all the casualties of the massacre were Banunu, the humanitarian crisis that has followed the attacks is affecting both communities.

     

    Displaced Banunu no longer have access to the fields, mainly in the areas inhabited by the Batende. On the other hand, the Batende no longer have access to Yumbi market, located on the banks of the Congo River. With roads almost impassable (see picture above), this means they’ve also lost access to the main gateway for goods going to and from the capital, Kinshasa.

     

    Hundreds of Batende families – who, according to several witnesses, fled their homes in Yumbi in apparent anticipation of the killings – have also taken refuge in the surrounding forests and fields, leaving them vulnerable to disease.

     

    (TOP PHOTO: A member of the Congolese naval forces walks along the deck of a boat on the Congo River weeks after the massacre in Yumbi. CREDIT: Alexis Huguet)

     

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    Congo massacre survivors tell of canoe escapes and being left for dead
    Second in two-part series on the 16 and 17 December massacre in Yumbi. The <a href="https://www.irinnews.org/analysis/2019/03/04/briefing-after-massacre-congo-Yumbi-little-aid-plenty-fear">accompanying briefing</a> looks in more detail at humanitarian needs.
  • Briefing: Months after a massacre in Congo, little aid but plenty of fear

    Yumbi, a small farming and fishing town on the banks of the Congo River, is now mostly deserted.

     

    Days before the Democratic Republic of Congo’s long-delayed December elections, chaos erupted – a massacre left at least 535 people dead over 48 hours and caused 30,000 people from the town and the surrounding villages of Bongende and Nkolo to flee.

     

    Some 12,000 people who took refuge on river islands remain displaced in the territories of Yumbi and Lukolela. Another 16,000 crossed the river into neighbouring Congo-Brazzaville and are now living as refugees, mostly in the Makotimpoko and Gamboma districts.

    In photos: Congo massacre survivors tell of canoe escapes and being left for dead

    More than two months later, most people say they are still afraid to return home.

     

    Shelter, food, and mental health services for traumatised survivors are all in urgent demand. Assistance has so far been minimal. The remote location of Yumbi complicates the response as it takes three days to arrive by land from Kinshasa, or one day by boat up the Congo River.  

    Médecins Sans Frontières, currently the only aid organisation on the ground, said the situation may worsen with the coming rainy season, which is also likely to bring infectious diseases including cholera, measles, and malaria.

     

    Initial reports characterised the violence as intercommunal – Batende perpetrating attacks against minority Banunu – but subsequent reports from the UN and others have noted its “organised and planned” nature. Some witnesses have alleged local officials were involved.

     

    Violent disputes and occasional clashes had been reported between the Batende and Banunu over land and resources in previous years, but never before had it reached anything like the scale of the 16 and 17 December massacre.

     

    What are the immediate needs?

     

    MSF, which responded within the first week of the violence in Yumbi, said it arrived to find that medics had fled and health facilities were damaged. The UN reported that homes and public buildings were also destroyed.

     

    Fabrizio Andriolo, MSF’s emergency team coordinator, told IRIN that the rainy season – more specifically rising water levels of the Congo River – poses a serious threat to the thousands displaced on the islands.

     

    Not only will meagre shelters be destroyed if the islands flood, but cholera may reappear – MSF responded to an epidemic in Yumbi in March and April 2018. There are fears also of a measles outbreak, which could spread quickly in such precarious living conditions. The rainy months are also notorious for malaria, currently the main health concern.

     

    Food is also desperately needed. People are unable to access markets or return to their fields and fishing equipment. Andriolo said his team had already treated 120 cases of child malnutrition – a number he expected to rise in the ongoing absence of aid.

     

    Since no assistance has been provided to help rebuild damaged infrastructure and supply food in the towns or villages, the population has not yet begun to return. Many also refuse to return out of fear they may be attacked again.

     

    What are the long-term needs?

     

    Andriolo stressed the importance of long-term healthcare solutions in the region for when people do start to return, including support for mental health, since the brutality and subsequent trauma of the attacks is likely to have lasting effects.  

     

    “A lot of the population is extremely traumatised by the events, exhibiting insomnia, lack of hunger, and general lack of energy,” the MSF coordinator said. “Going back will reopen the trauma from seeing the places where the violence occurred.”

     

    Communities have also been cut off from their livelihoods: the river where they fish, the fields where they farm, and the market where they trade. Many tools of trade and supplies were also destroyed in the violence. Homes and buildings will also need to be rebuilt. In total, 17 schools and 967 houses were destroyed, leaving many without a place to live.

     

    What caused the violence?

     

    Most sources say the violence was provoked by the burial of Banunu chief Mantuma Fedor on land the Batende claim as theirs.

     

    The UN said the attacks “were conducted in a very organised manner and were most likely planned”. Witnesses claimed the attackers were positioned strategically at the entrances of villages during the massacre – which could indicate previous training or planning.

     

    ☰ Read more: Witnesses describe how the massacre unfolded

     

    Early on 16 December, a young Banunu man travelled from the village of Bongende to a Batende village a few kilometres away. Upon arrival, he was killed. The Batende sent a messenger back to the other Banunu, warning: “we will come back to attack you”.

     

    That afternoon in Yumbi, the attacks began, and continued for nearly three hours.

     

    “I saw a team of visibly armed men coming from Yumbi’s centre… they began to massacre the population with guns and knives (machetes),” recalled Jule Bango Bobongo, a teacher at Kasobongala secondary school in Yumbi.

     

    In an attempt to escape, many braved the waters of the Congo River, only to drown or be shot dead as they swam. “I was scared to die in the river,” Bobongo continued, “so I fled with others to the Yumbi hospital where we took temporary refuge.”

     

    When the sound of gunfire stopped, they left the hospital only to find their homes burnt and corpses sprawled on the ground. “We began picking up the wounded to bring them back to the hospital,” Bobongo recalled. “I told myself that ordinary civilians could not organise such an operation on their own… we went home with death in our souls.”

    By the evening, Dr. Bodo Molenga at Yumbi General Hospital had received a total of 133 wounded patients, 17 of whom died while receiving medical care. “It was really awful,” he said. “I saw some seriously injured people and some died in my arms.”

     

    The next morning, on 17 December, the villages of Bongende and Nkolo came under attack; the slaughter lasted seven hours, according to witnesses. “I found more than 300 bodies in complete decay,” said Nestor Longota, a priest who returned to Bongende from Kinshasa after the attack. “It was horrible, I saw bodies of children, mutilated women young and old who littered the earth for a whole week.”

     

    Dr. Molenga organised with the local Red Cross committee to bury the bodies. “In Bongende we dug four mass graves for 400 visible corpses,” he said. “But even today other corpses remain stuck between the walls of crushed homes and other bodies.”  

     

    The UN Joint Human Rights Office, or UNJHRO, would later find 59 mass burial sites and 40 individual graves in Yumbi.

     

    With more burial sites possibly still to be discovered, the eventual death toll could be as high as 800 – excluding an unknown number of people (estimated to be dozens) who drowned in the river while escaping and whose bodies will likely never be recovered.

     

    There are allegations that Congolese armed forces, police, or local authorities may have somehow been involved, but there are several competing theories and no clear evidence to implicate any official actors.

     

    Nestor Longota, a priest in Bongende, said he spoke to a Congolese naval officer who recognised some of his navy colleagues and police officers among the attackers. “How can a village like Yumbi, the largest one in the territory, be attacked for two days with no defense or military intervention?” Longota asked.

     

    One Batende man, who wished to remain anonymous for safety reasons, told IRIN that the security services and local administration were “in agreement” with the attackers. He and many other survivors pointed the finger at the Bana Mura, Joseph Kabila’s presidential guard.

    yumbi_alexis_huguet1_1920.jpg

    Alexis Huguet/IRIN
    Banunu refugees from Yumbi gather in front of Makotimpoko church in Congo-Brazzaville where they have sought refuge.

    To some, the alleged involvement of the military and police suggested voter suppression ahead of the elections that finally took place on 30 December, as the Banunu generally support the opposition and the Batende back Kabila.

    Opposition leader Felix Tshisekedi’s victory in the election marked Congo’s first orderly transfer of power since independence in 1960. However, independent vote monitors found Martin Fayulu, another opposition candidate, to be the winner, and there are allegations – denied by both parties – that Tshisekedi and Kabila struck some kind of deal.

     

    What might happen next?

     

    Due to the violence, Congo’s government postponed the vote in Yumbi from December until 31 March, a delay also imposed on the Ebola-affected cities of Beni and Butembo in the east.

     

    While the fighting has ceased in the months following the massacre, tensions between the two communities remain, and the Banunu who continue to live in Yumbi talk of sleepless nights, dreading that their attackers may return.  

     

    Those interviewed by IRIN nearly all stressed the importance of reconciliation among the two communities.  

     

    The Batende man who spoke to IRIN said: “Many of us [Batende] did not want this tragedy to happen and denounce it as barbarism… we want justice to be served and the perpetrators to be punished. The truth must be known after the investigations, and the two communities must come to terms [with it].”

     

    Local authorities, in conjunction with the Congolese military, are now urging people to return in time to vote later this month. But the date hardly seems feasible given that thousands remain displaced, many of them far away and some in neighbouring Congo-Brazzaville.

     

    “The government should first investigate the situation and respond to emergencies in Yumbi… and elections can come in two to three months,” said Jule Bango Bobongo, a teacher at Kasobongala secondary school in Yumbi.

     

    “Who is left to vote?” asked Priest Longota, “Everyone has been killed or displaced.”

    (TOP PHOTO: An MSF nurse provides care to displaced people now living Moniende island, in the middle of the Congo River, after they fled the massacre in Yumbi in December. CREDIT: Alexis Huguet/IRIN)

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    “Who is left to vote? Everyone has been killed or displaced”
    Briefing: Months after a massacre in Congo, little aid but plenty of fear
    First in a two-part series on the 16 and 17 December massacre in Yumbi. The accompanying <a href="https://www.irinnews.org/photo-feature/2019/03/07/congo-massacre-survivors-tell-canoe-escapes-and-being-left-dead">photo essay</a> includes personal accounts from survivors.
  • Nigerian challenges, cash aid headaches, and making mental health matter: The Cheat Sheet

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

    On our radar

     

    New term, old problems for Nigeria’s Buhari

     

    Nigeria's Muhammadu Buhari, who won a second presidential term this week, faces a variety of security challenges: a decade-long and resurgent Boko Haram insurgency in the northeast; endemic insecurity in the oil-producing Niger Delta south, and – less reported but often the most deadly – spiralling violence between pastoralist Fulani herders and local farmers in the northwest. Despite Buhari's 2015 claim that Boko Haram was "technically defeated", jihadists continue gaining ground across Lake Chad and West Africa, where the humanitarian fallout is, if anything, worsening. For a comprehensive look at the causes and the consequences of militancy in the Sahel region, check out this curation of our long-term reporting. And for a personal and graphic account of covering Boko Haram over the course of several years, this reporter’s diary from Chika Oduah is a must-read.

     

    Headaches in the ‘cash revolution’?

     

    Humanitarian cash aid programmes in Kenya’s drought-prone northeast are plagued with problems, according to this recent article by Kenyan journalist Anthony Langat published by Devex. Beneficiaries describe them as confusing, unreliable, and wide open to corruption. Families report not receiving what they think they’re due and/or not knowing what they ought to get, and they say there’s no effective system to address complaints. Local leaders are accused of manipulating lists of entitled families, and money transfer agents allegedly skim off unauthorised transfer fees. The Kenyan government and the UN’s World Food Programme – who run different cash initiatives in the area – say some problems are simply clerical, such as wrongly registered mobile phone numbers or ID cards. Earlier research from NGO Ground Truth Solutions showed that 62 percent of a sample of Kenyans enrolled in cash aid projects said they were satisfied with the service. However, 88 percent “did not know “how aid agencies decide who gets cash support”.

     

    UN peers into a dark Myanmar mirror

     

    The UN is launching an inquiry into its actions in Myanmar, where critics accuse it of inaction and “complicity” in the face of widespread rights abuses that led to the violent exodus of more than 700,000 Rohingya. The UN this week confirmed the appointment of Gert Rosenthal, a Guatemalan diplomat, to lead an internal review of UN operations in Myanmar. The news, first reported by The Guardian, follows a Human Rights Council resolution urging a probe into whether the UN did “everything possible to prevent or mitigate the unfolding crises”, including the military’s Rohingya purge and abuses against minorities elsewhere in the country. Critics say the UN mission in Myanmar was “glaringly dysfunctional”, marred by infighting over how to engage with the government. A UN-mandated fact-finding mission has warned that problems continue and said that some UN entities refused to cooperate with its own investigation. In a statement, UN spokesman in Myanmar Stanislav Saling said the review will look at how the UN “works on the ground and possible lessons learned for the future”. It’s unclear whether Rosenthal’s findings will be made public.

     

    Growing recognition for mental health

     

    In humanitarian terms, psycho-social support is often treated as the poor cousin to aid like food and shelter, with few mental health services available in crisis settings, as we recently reported from South Sudan. But just as the economic cost and importance of mental health is increasingly being recognised in society at large, so the issue is picking up steam in humanitarian contexts too. On the sidelines of this week’s UN pledging conference for Yemen, Dutch Development Cooperation Minister Sigrid Kaag urged humanitarian donors to invest more in mental health (“second line” healthcare, which includes mental health, makes up only $72 million of the $4.2 billion appeal for Yemen). The Netherlands is funding the development of tools to help aid agencies integrate mental health services into their work and will host a conference later this year to mobilise commitments from others. Psychiatrists argue that mental health support is not just a human right; it also strengthens people’s ability to benefit from other aid, such as education or livelihood programmes.  

     

    Bond-holders in pandemic finance scheme untouched by Ebola outbreak

     

    On Thursday, the World Bank announced it was to provide up to $80 million of new funding to combat Ebola in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Of that sum, $20 million is from its Pandemic Emergency Financing Facility, or PEF, set up after the 2013-2016 outbreak of Ebola in West Africa. PEF is a leading example of harnessing private capital and donor resources in humanitarian response. Private investors in PEF bonds can lose their investment if a major epidemic happens. Otherwise they get interest (paid by conventional donors) at a rate described last month as “chunky” by the Financial Times. The catch? PEF investors haven’t paid out a penny in Congo. That’s because the outbreak hasn’t spread to a second country, one of the conditions for a payout. IRIN asked a disaster insurance expert about PEF last year; he said it was “quite expensive”.

      

    In case you missed it:

     

    The Democratic Republic of Congo: Médecins Sans Frontières has suspended work at two Ebola treatment centres after the facilities in Butembo and Katwa were partially destroyed in two separate attacks in the space of four days this week. The caretaker of one patient was reported to have died trying to flee. The motivation of the unidentified assailants remains unclear. The outbreak, which began seven months ago, continues, with 555 deaths and counting.

     

    Gaza: A UN commission of inquiry said in a report released Thursday that Israeli soldiers may have committed war crimes or crimes against humanity in shooting unarmed civilians during mass Palestinian protests at the Gaza border last year.

     

    Indonesia: The country has recorded its first polio case since 2006. The World Health Organisation says a strain of vaccine-derived polio was confirmed this month in a child in a remote village of Papua province, one of Indonesia’s poorest regions. The WHO says the case is not linked to a polio outbreak in neighbouring Papua New Guinea.

     

    Iraq: Human Rights Watch says authorities in Mosul and other parts of the northern Iraqi province of Nineveh are harassing, threatening, and arresting aid workers, sometimes accusing them of ties to so-called Islamic State in an effort to change lists of people eligible for humanitarian assistance.

     

    Pakistan: Shortages of nutritional food and safe water could be leading to “alarmingly high” rates of disease and malnutrition in drought-hit Pakistan, especially for women and children, according to the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies.

     

    Somalia: Al-Shabab militants set off two deadly blasts outside a hotel in Mogadishu on Thursday, before seizing a nearby building. Soldiers battled through the night to try to dislodge them. As conflict and insecurity continue across the country, a new report revealed that 320,000 Somalis fled their homes in 2018 – a 58 percent rise on 2017. Some 2.6 million Somalis are now internally displaced.

     

    Weekend read

     

    UN probes substandard food aid for mothers and children

    The difficulty with this story, to steal from Donald Rumsfeld, are the known unknowns. The World Food Programme purchased 50,000 tonnes of porridge mix for mothers and malnourished children, and a proportion of it was lacking key nutrition-enhancing ingredients. It was sent to crisis zones around the world. It likely came from one of two producers who have a duopoly over the market. The deficiencies should have been picked up by third-party inspectors before the food aid was dispatched. But let’s look at what we don’t know – not for a lack of digging by IRIN’s Ben Parker or contributor Lorenzo D’Agostino in Rome. Where exactly did the faulty food aid go? What effect did the lack of protein and fat have on breastfeeding mothers, babies, and children? Which company produced the substandard porridge mix and why? How come the inspectors failed to find fault with the product? Who was told what, and when? Is operational error, negligence, or fraud, or a combination to blame? We await the findings of the investigation with interest.

     

    And finally...

    Life resumes on Vanuatu’s volcanic Ambae Island

     

    The most explosive volcanic eruption anywhere in the world last year came courtesy of Manaro Voui on Ambae Island, part of the Pacific nation of Vanuatu. The volcano spewed more than 540,000 tonnes of sulphur dioxide into the air, according to NASA. Volcanologists may be fascinated by Manaro Voui’s rumblings, but for 11,000 Ambae residents, the eruptions have been life-changing. They covered parts of the island with volcanic ash, which destroyed crops and homes and polluted drinking water. Residents have repeatedly been forced to evacuate, and at one point the government declared the entire island uninhabitable. For now, the volcano continues to be a in a state of “major unrest”, but some residents are moving back, and the government is preparing to begin a new school term for some returning students.

    (TOP PHOTO: Destroyed cars by the side of the road after a suicide bomber detonated their vest in Maiduguri, Borno State, Nigeria, in 2017. CREDIT: Ashley Gilbertson/VII Photo)

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    Nigerian challenges, cash aid headaches, and making mental health matter
  • First Person: To stop Ebola, ask the rebels to help

    The Democratic Republic of Congo is in the midst of its 10th Ebola outbreak. Since the first case was declared in the northeastern town of Beni in August 2018, almost 800 cases have been confirmed in 19 different health zones, and more than 500 people have died.

     

    I’ve worked on four Ebola outbreaks across Africa and have often found myself in tricky situations with local people who view outsiders with suspicion. During the 2014 outbreak in Guinea, for example, my team and I were threatened by villagers who ran after us with machetes.

    It only took a few days in Butembo before I was surrounded by an angry mob chanting “kill him”.

    It only took a few days in Butembo, responding to the current outbreak in eastern Congo, before I was surrounded by an angry mob chanting “kill him”, after they refused to allow our surveillance team to investigate a death in their neighbourhood.

    Such experiences have taught me that keeping your calm and speaking respectfully are the best ways to de-escalate tense and violent situations.

    But I still wasn’t prepared for my first experience of going face-to-face with Mai-Mai rebel leaders to negotiate access in Congo so our health teams could reach affected communities.

     

    Since this outbreak erupted in North Kivu province last August, health teams knew they would face big challenges. The virus had resurfaced in a densely populated, heavily travelled urban region where about 100 armed groups operate, restricting the response. The risk of rapid geographic spread was very high.

     

    Ebola is a highly contagious virus, and when a person contracts the disease all those they come into contact with need to be screened for symptoms.

     

    As the Ebola response coordinator in Butembo, my role was to organise surveillance activities to find these contacts as quickly as possible – that means before they start showing symptoms, become contagious, and spread the virus.

     

    Very early on in this outbreak we got an indication of just how hard this was going to be. Six days after I arrived in Beni, the epicentre, we heard that 30 contacts of confirmed Ebola patients had fled to Butembo, about 60 kilometres away and home to over a million people.

    Finding people who don’t want to be found is not an easy task.

    Finding people who don’t want to be found is not an easy task. It’s made even more difficult when those affected live in inaccessible areas controlled by armed rebel groups, including the Mai-Mai – self-defense militias feared by the local population because of years of crimes, including torture, kidnapping, and indiscriminate killings.

     

    Less than two months after I arrived in Butembo, we heard that the body of an eight-month-old boy who died from Ebola was in the Mai-Mai village of Tinge. Because the risk of Ebola spreading is most severe immediately after a patient dies, I knew we needed to gain access to people in Tinge as our only way of saving lives and avoiding disaster.

    I told our health teams and international partners we had to go to that village to vaccinate people. Everybody thought I was crazy.

     

    The Mai-Mai are known to be well armed and unafraid of the authorities. Even our national police and army don’t dare venture into some of these rebel-controlled zones. Only my driver and the titulaire – the nurse overseeing that health zone – agreed to join this uncertain and risky mission.

    The following morning, I got into the car not knowing if I would even come back alive. After a 45-minute drive on windy roads, followed by a 35-minute walk along muddy forest trails, we finally reached Tinge. About 50 people were gathered under big dark green tarpaulins, mourning the baby boy.

    We were greeted by a woman who asked what we were doing in their village. I told her I had to see the village chief because I had something important to tell him. She pointed me to his house.

    As an epidemiologist with a specialisation in molecular biology, my colleagues jokingly nicknamed me “the complete man” because I can perform all the tasks in the surveillance toolkits: investigate and validate alerts, take samples from suspect cases, and even test these samples in the laboratory.

    However, in this situation, my skills weren’t that useful. What we needed even more was to find a way to convince the sceptical local community to collaborate with us and stop Ebola.

     

    As I entered the house of the village chief, my heart was racing. I had heard so many scary stories about Mai-Mai fighters that I didn’t know what to expect.

     

    In the house, I saw five men at the dining table, waiting for lunch to be served. They were covered with the amulets the Mai-Mai use to protect themselves. The chief was sitting on a chair with large banana leaves beneath his feet.

    To my surprise, when they saw me, they invited me to join them at the table. A woman brought a small stool and hot water to wash my hands, before we were served pondu (cassava leaves), fufu (cassava flour with water) and one piece of meat.

     

    My hosts remained silent, observing and analysing my behaviour. Only when I began eating did the atmosphere lighten. My hosts started smiling and talking. The chief told me they appreciated my humility by agreeing to eat with them.

    That is when our conversation finally started. They had never heard about Ebola nor the vaccination. So I spent more than 30 minutes explaining the virus to them, how it spreads, what the preventative measures are, and how the vaccination works.

    Without saying a word, the village chief went outside and gathered the villagers. He said a few words in their local dialect while making big gestures. Then he allowed the titulaire to list all those who had been in contact with the baby boy so we could follow the chain of transmission. In total, 75 people came forward.

     

    Before leaving, we agreed to meet the next day in a neutral zone where vaccination teams and police agents would be allowed to come. At 8am, everyone arrived and our teams began vaccinating.

     

    Not a single person in that village developed the virus.

     

    After making contact with the chief of Tinge, I was able to meet other Mai-Mai chiefs, including a group that controls the area linking Butembo to the major city of Goma. I visited their village in December, where I spoke to a group of fighters for two hours, answering all the questions they had about Ebola.

    Later, in a one-on-one meeting with the chief, I called the Minister of Health and arranged for them to speak. The chief warmly thanked the minister for his commitment to ending the Ebola outbreak, guaranteeing that his fighters would not harm the response teams. A week later, I returned to the village with several boxes of medicines the minister sent the Mai-Mai to cement this collaboration.

    Earning trust during such a deadly outbreak is always hard. Which showed me yet again that respect, compassion, and humility can go a long way – even saving your life and the life of an entire community.

     

    (TOP PHOTO: Dr Shako with Mai-Mai fighters after a discussion about Ebola and negotiations with their leader in Rutshuru. CREDIT: Dr Jean-Christophe Shako)

    First Person: To stop Ebola, ask the rebels to help
    “I had heard so many scary stories about Mai-Mai fighters that I didn’t know what to expect"
  • Mediterranean death rates, networking in a rush, and a shaky ceasefire in Yemen: The Cheat Sheet

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

    On our radar

    Yemen deal in the balance

    So what about that ceasefire deal for Yemen’s port city of Hodeidah, the one agreed in late December, the same one Saudi Arabia’s envoy to the country told IRIN was key to moving the peace process? It has still not been implemented. A UN-led committee to redeploy (i.e. withdraw) fighters from the city and province has only met twice so far, and each side has accused the other of multiple violations. The two sides swapped a small number of prisoners this week, but nowhere near the scale of a larger swap agreement the International Committee of the Red Cross and Red Crescent is still waiting to carry out (the sticking point appears to involve lists of names). UN envoy Martin Griffiths says the Hodeidah ceasefire is “generally holding”, despite the extension of deadlines on key elements of the deal: “The initial timelines were rather ambitious,” he said this week. “We are dealing with a complex situation on the ground.”

    Mediterranean more dangerous for migrants

    The figures are in and EU leaders, through their migration policies, are “complicit in the tragedy”, according to a letter signed by dozens of NGOs. Arrivals to Europe across the Mediterranean and the overall number of deaths both fell sharply in 2018, but deaths per arrival went the other way: one in 269 in 2015 became one in 51 in 2018 (one in 14 from Libya) – and the number of deaths across the Western Mediterranean to Spain quadrupled last year. Two years since the EU-backed Italy-Libya deal sought to stem the flow by supporting the Libyan coastguard while Tripoli cracked down on smuggling operations, anger is growing as EU nations prevent rescue operations and refuse to allow migrant-carrying vessels to dock. The NGO letter sent on Wednesday to the EU contained three main demands: support search and rescue operations; adopt timely and predictable disembarkation arrangements; end returns to Libya. Renewing its criticism in a statement on Friday, Oxfam said "people are now in even more danger at sea and are being taken back by the Libyan coastguard to face human rights abuses in Libya". A double migrant boat disaster off the coast of Djibouti this week – more than 100 people dead or missing – was a reminder that this is not just a problem in the Mediterranean.

     

    For more on EU policies and how they affect migrants and refugees in Africa, read our “Destination Europe” series.

    “Speed-networking” at mass humanitarian hook-up

    A big-tent gathering of the humanitarian community kicks off Monday. The Humanitarian Networks and Partnerships Week (HNPW) offers a sprawling programme of 100 sessions across five days and 19 rooms in a Geneva conference centre. Over 2,100 relief professionals, diplomats, company representatives, NGO officials, and students have registered for the free event, backed by the UN’s emergency aid coordination body, OCHA, and the Swiss government. Organiser Jesper Lund told IRIN the aim is the “acceleration of collaboration”. In its fifth year, HNPW prides itself on being an open forum, allowing parallel sessions of like-minded networks, and tries to avoid predictable formats. This year there will be speed-networking sessions to match up interested parties for one-on-one contacts. (The IRIN team will be around, and we’re always up for some speed-tipoffs, obvs). The range of topics for the week covers everything from airport readiness for disasters to (oh look!) humanitarian journalism (that's on Friday).

    Talking peace, losing ground

    The Afghan government’s control of its own territory continues to shrink. The government now has control or influence in about 54 percent of its districts, according to numbers released this week by SIGAR – the US-government mandated watchdog tracking reconstruction in Afghanistan. Afghan control is at its lowest since SIGAR began reporting the data in 2015 (other metrics suggest the government’s grip is even more tenuous, and that the insurgent Taliban need not directly control territory to wield influence). It’s another sign of the rocky road ahead in Afghanistan, despite recent talks of Taliban peace negotiations. In the aid sector, there’s plenty of concern about what a bargained Taliban peace might mean, particularly for the rights of women and minorities. The Norwegian Refugee Council’s Jan Egeland says “dialogue for humanitarian access and protection have been pushed off the table”. For now, Afghanistan remains mired in crisis: hundreds of thousands displaced by war and an ongoing severe drought, refugees and migrants returning to instability, and rising civilian casualties.

    Opposition arrests in Cameroon

    Cameroonian opposition leader Maurice Kamto, who maintains he won last year's presidential election, was among some 200 people arrested this week after new protests took place against the re-election of veteran leader Paul Biya. Further marches, planned for this weekend and into next week, were also banned by the government. The October vote was marred by violence, especially in the Northwest and Southwest anglophone regions, which are in the midst of a separatist rebellion against the francophone government. Last year, IRIN embedded with Cameroon’s separatist forces to get an inside look at the fledgling armed struggle.

    In case you missed it

     

    Democratic Republic of Congo: More than 50 mass graves have been found by a UN fact-finding mission near the western town of Yumbi, where a spate of inter-communal violence last December left almost 900 people dead in just three days.

     

    Indonesia: Dengue killed more than 100 people across the country in January. The mosquito-borne illness is endemic in parts of Indonesia, but health authorities are reporting a surge in cases during the current rainy season.

     

    Nigeria: Some 30,000 people fled the northeastern town of Rann last weekend for neighbouring Cameroon, about a week after 9,000 refugees were reported to have been forcibly returned by the Cameroonian authorities. Further violence has sent another 6,000 Nigerians fleeing into Chad.

     

    Syria: The UN says 23,000 people, including 10,000 in the past week, have fled so-called Islamic State’s last territory in Syria since December, most of them to al-Hol camp in Hassakeh province. The World Health Organisation says the camp is overwhelmed, with thousands of people sleeping in the open without so much as blankets. In the past eight weeks at least 29 children are reported to have died, mostly from hypothermia, on the way to the camp or just after arrival.

     

    USAID: The US government is reshuffling its aid portfolio, bringing the Office for Foreign Disaster Assistance (OFDA) and Food for Peace under a single humanitarian department. The new arrangement should reduce unnecessary fragmentation, according to a Twitter thread by former OFDA chief Jeremy Konyndyk.

     

    Weekend read

    The choices they made: Hondurans at the US-Mexico border

    As US President Donald Trump orders “several thousand” more US troops to the Mexican border, what about those on the other side? Take some time this weekend to delve into this feature from award-winning photojournalist Tomás Ayuso. A Honduran native, Ayuso wanted to better understand the motivations of countrymen and countrywomen who continue to make the long march north, even as the welcome they can expect looks increasingly hostile. What he found was not a uniform answer. From the man left for dead after being “executed” for refusing to become a drug dealer, to the woman whose husband died suddenly and felt compelled to find a better life for her and her son, the choices people made were all different. At the US border, there are choices too. One man has had enough and is heading home. The woman and son mentioned above also had enough of waiting. They headed across the border with smugglers shortly after Ayuso interviewed them and haven’t been heard from since.

    IRIN Event

    The future of the UN agency for Palestine refugees

    On Wednesday, IRIN Director Heba Aly sat down for a public conversation in Geneva with Pierre Krähenbühl, commissioner-general of UNRWA, the UN’s agency for Palestine refugees. They talked about the agency’s funding ask for this year (it’s $1.2 billion), how UNRWA was only meant to be a temporary stop-gap but still exists 70 years on, and why it is frequently broke (Krähenbühl says those last two are related). The commissioner-general also addressed the Trump administration’s decision to cut funding from UNRWA, which serves some 5.4 million registered refugees in Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Gaza, and the West Bank (including East Jerusalem). Speaking of East Jerusalem, the commissioner-general said he’d had “no indication” from the Israeli government that the schools UNRWA runs there would be shut down, despite multiple statements to the contrary from the local municipality.

    And finally...

    “Australia’s loss”

    Kurdish-Iranian writer Behrouz Boochani is making a name for himself in Australia – but he’s not allowed to set foot in the country. Boochani is an unwitting resident of Papua New Guinea’s Manus Island, where he was sent in 2013 after trying to seek asylum in Australia. This week, Boochani’s book, “No Friend But the Mountains: Writing from Manus Prison”, cleaned up at the Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards, an annual contest in Australia. Judges called Boochani’s book, composed on a mobile phone, “a literary triumph, devastating and transcendent”, awarding it the non-fiction prize as well as the top honour – a haul worth 125,000 Australian dollars (more than 90,000 US dollars) . There are still about 1,200 refugees and asylum seekers on Manus and another island, Nauru – part of Australia’s criticised asylum policy, which saw boat arrivals pushed to offshore detention camps and barred from ever entering Australia. In an opinion piece published this week, the US official who signed a deal to take in hundreds of people stuck on Nauru or Manus says resettled refugees are putting down roots in their new American homes. Anne Richard, a former assistant secretary of state, writes about meeting the former detainees, now working in restaurants, attending evening classes, or sending their own kids to school. “Australia’s loss,” she writes, “is America’s gain”.

    (TOP PHOTO: Abdulrahman Mohammed Jahia (33) and his family heard a loud explosion outside their house in Sana'a, Yemen. Their neighbouring building was hit by airstrikes. CREDIT: Becky Bakr Abdulla/NRC)

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    Mediterranean death rates, networking in a rush, and a shaky ceasefire in Yemen
  • Al-Shabab attacks, swine fever, and sexual harassment at the UN: The Cheat Sheet

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

    On our radar

     

    Al-Shabab attacks civilians in Kenya and Somalia

    It has been a tragic week in East Africa, as militant group al-Shabab claimed responsibility for an attack in Kenya and was accused of kidnapping 60 schoolchildren in the Bakol region of southern Somalia. The commissioner of Tiyeglow district said the children were taken on Monday in a raid on a village and most likely recruited as fighters – a common al-Shabab tactic. On Tuesday, the al-Qaeda-linked group claimed responsibility for a 19-hour siege on an upmarket Nairobi hotel, which left 21 civilians dead. Al-Shabab said the attack was in response to US President Donald Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. It could also be retaliation for Kenyan and US military operations against al-Shabab in Somalia. The hotel attack took place on the eve of a verdict in the trial of men alleged to have been involved in the 2013 siege on Nairobi's Westgate mall, which left 67 people dead. Militancy is an ongoing threat across Africa, a trend we continue to watch in 2019.

     

    Swine fever threatens food security

    A highly contagious disease with a near-100 percent fatality rate for pigs and wild boars could have “devastating consequences” for food security over large swathes of Asia, the UN’s Food and Agricultural Organisation warned in a report this week. The FAO says African swine fever threatens to spread from China, where the virus has hit at least 24 provinces since it was detected there in August. The disease is not transmissible to humans, but pork is a key source of animal protein in China, the Korean peninsula, and Southeast Asia, while China produces half the world’s pigs. The FAO says the risk of the virus spreading beyond China’s borders represents “an imminent threat for the pig population in this region” and could damage livelihoods and food security. There is no vaccine. This week, Chinese agriculture officials announced the culling of more than 916,000 pigs, Mongolia reported its first outbreak, and Australia said it had found traces of African swine fever in six pork products seized at its airports. Since the virus was first discovered nearly a century ago in Kenya, there have been outbreaks in parts of Europe, the Caribbean, and Brazil, including ongoing cases in parts of eastern Europe.

     

    IS reminds US it still exists in Syria

    Days after President Trump said he had begun withdrawing troops from Syria, in part because so-called Islamic State had been defeated, the group claimed a suicide bombing in the northeastern city of Manbij that killed 19 people, including four Americans (two soldiers, a contractor, and a civilian defense department employee). The pullout was already controversial, not to mention confusing – nobody seems to know how or when it is happening – and Wednesday’s attack raised further questions about the wisdom of the move. In northeastern Syria, where some 2,000 US troops plus civilian contractors offer support to Kurdish fighters taking on IS, humanitarians are concerned about the  uncertainty (A Turkish invasion? New alliances? Shifting front lines?) and how it will impact their ability to deliver aid. Read Aron Lund’s latest timely analysis for an understanding of the many possibilities, and what they mean for the estimated two million Syrians in areas under Kurdish control.

     

    Voting on peace in the Philippines

    On 21 January, parts of conflict-hit Mindanao in the Philippines will begin voting on a long-awaited peace deal that will grant more autonomy and a new homeland for the southern island’s Muslim population. The proposed Bangsamoro Organic Law is the culmination of years of negotiations between Philippine authorities and multiple iterations of Muslim armed groups on Mindanao. Last year, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte signed into law a peace agreement with the largest Muslim armed group, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front. The upcoming referendum, which continues on 6 February, is the next step to putting the law into effect. Recent polling suggests large parts of existing Muslim-majority areas on Mindanao support the law, which would create a new territory, known as the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region, with greater control of resources and taxation. But it’s uncertain whether adjoining areas like Cotabato City, wedged in the middle of an existing region, will vote to join. If the referendum passes, Mindanao still faces a challenge building peace. Authorities must oversee the decommissioning of thousands of armed fighters. But other armed groups continue to clash, including extremist fighters that have in the past drawn from the ranks of disaffected MILF members.

     

    Sexual harassment at the UN

    One in three UN workers has been sexually harassed in the past two years, according to survey results published this week. More than 30,000 UN agency staff and contractors took part in the online survey conducted in November by business advisory firm Deloitte. UN Secretary-General António Guterres expressed disappointment, not just at the results but also at the low participation – only 17 percent of those polled responded. He said it showed how far the UN has to go before it can “fully and openly” discuss sexual harassment and counter ongoing “mistrust, perceptions of inaction, and lack of accountability”. Meanwhile, WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus has reportedly ordered an internal investigation after a string of anonymous emails containing allegations of racism, sexism, and corruption were sent to top managers at the UN health agency last year. Both reports follow hot on the heels of the announcement last month that the head of UNAIDS, Michel Sidibé, will step down six months early, in June, after a panel found that he tolerated “a culture of harassment, including sexual harassment, bullying, and abuse of power.” A preliminary report this week into the Oxfam scandal, which precipitated the #AidToo movement, called for a stronger system of safeguarding, for empowering and creating the space for staff to challenge negative power dynamics, and for investing in ways to more generally improve the culture of such organisations.

    In case you missed it:

    Democratic Republic of Congo: While global attention has been focused on Congo's disputed elections and the ongoing Ebola outbreak in the eastern regions, almost 900 people were killed in inter-communal clashes in western Mai-Ndombe province last month, the UN said. The fighting between Banunu and Batende communities took place in Yumbi, one of the towns excluded from the 30 December polls due to insecurity.

     

    The Hague: The International Criminal Court has acquitted former Ivorian leader Laurent Gbagbo of crimes against humanity, calling the case against him "exceptionally weak". Gbagbo spent more than seven years in custody, and was tried for allegations including involvement in election-related violence in 2010 and 2011, during which thousands of people were killed. Prosecutors said they would appeal the verdict and, initially at least, he remained behind bars.

     

    Syria: UNICEF reports that eight children, most under four months, have died in the past month at the makeshift camp on the Jordan-Syria border where some 40,000 Syrians have taken shelter. People at the camp, Rukban, are exposed to harsh winter conditions and are short on medical supplies and care; the last humanitarian convoy was in November.

     

    United States: Four humanitarian volunteers went on trial this week in Tucson, Arizona, facing misdemeanour charges for leaving water and other supplies in the desert for migrants crossing the US-Mexico border. Since 2017, at least 43 sets of human remains have reportedly been found in the wildlife refuge where the volunteers had left the provisions.

     

    Yemen: Days after the UN Security Council voted to send 75 observers to monitor a faltering ceasefire in Yemen’s northern port city of Hodeidah, bullets hit an armoured car carrying the mission’s head, retired Dutch general Patrick Cammaert. No one was injured, and the warring sides blamed each other for the incident.

     

    Zimbabwe: The UN has condemned Zimbabwe's “excessive use of force” in cracking down on protests, which were sparked by a dramatic fuel price hike last weekend. Five people have been killed, hundreds detained, and the government has imposed a total internet shutdown. There is concern that a prolonged crisis could lead to mass displacement and create a new humanitarian challenge for neighbouring countries.

    Weekend read

     

    Venezuela’s new humanitarians

    Venezuelan leader Nicolás Maduro faces mounting pressure at home and abroad as his disputed second term in office begins. Opposition politician Juan Guaidó is challenging Maduro’s rule, while some foreign governments, including the United States, are calling the Maduro regime “illegitimate”. Venezuela is mired in economic freefall and its citizens face severe food and healthcare shortages. The crisis has pushed some three million to flee the country, spilling the humanitarian emergency across the region. For our weekend read, journalist Susan Schulman has the latest from our reporting on local aid in crises. The story profiles Venezuela’s local NGOs, which have been forced to make drastic changes to respond to a humanitarian crisis the government denies. Local organisations that once focused on rights or development find themselves thrust into unfamiliar new roles: an education NGO that abandoned its training programmes because teachers were too busy queuing for food; a rights group that diverted its resources to feed hungry children. “We don’t know what a humanitarian emergency is,” says one local activist. “We didn’t know until now.”

    And finally...

    IRIN at Davos

    Look out for IRIN’s participation at next week’s annual World Economic Forum gathering of top business and political leaders in Davos, Switzerland. Join us on Tuesday 22 January at 7:30am local time (0630 GMT), for a live stream of “Meet the New Humanitarians”, our headline event aimed at showcasing emerging actors in the humanitarian landscape, not to mention our new name and brand (In case you missed our big announcement).

     

    And if you don’t mind a quick 10-second sign-in form (or are already signed on), check out the Humanitarian Action entry on Transformation Maps, the WEF’s new attempt to harness technology and collaboration to tackle complex global issues and better inform decision-makers. IRIN’s Ben Parker was the key contributor.

     

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    Al-Shabab attacks, swine fever, and sexual harassment at the UN
  • Inside efforts to prevent a regional Ebola crisis in central Africa

    The current outbreak of Ebola in the Democratic Republic of Congo is the second deadliest in history, killing more than 400 people and infecting hundreds more. Its location in both an active conflict zone and a busy border region has created what one of those leading the response describes as a “perfect storm” of risk for central Africa.

     

    Since the outbreak erupted in August, a massive response effort has built up around the epicentres in eastern North Kivu and Ituri provinces. It now involves hundreds of Congolese officials and World Health Organization staff, as well as hundreds of local and international aid and health workers. But a lesser-known parallel effort is also underway – within Congo but also in neighbouring countries – to ensure that a regional epidemic like the one that claimed more than 11,000 lives in West Africa in 2013-2016 isn’t repeated.

     

    Weeks of IRIN reporting, including trips to assess efforts in border areas, revealed some intensive monitoring and tight collaboration, especially between Congo and Uganda, but also a realisation from health officials of the extreme difficulty of policing thousands of kilometres of porous frontier in a busy trading area prone to spiralling violence.

     

    img_8613_1920.jpg

    A woman walks toward a man in a surgical mask
    Fiston Mahamba/IRIN
    Officials at Kasindi do body temperature checks as a first test for symptoms of Ebola.

    At the Kasindi border between eastern Congo and Uganda, a line of people waits to make the crossing. Before they get their documents checked, they stand – forehead first – in front of a hygiene official in a surgical mask who screens them with an infrared thermo-gun. Those found to have higher-than-normal body temperatures are tested further for Ebola-like symptoms.

     

    This screening station – just a simple wood and tarp gazebo, some plastic outdoor furniture, and a makeshift water tank for hand-washing – represents the front line of the cross-border system trying to prevent the deadly Ebola virus from spreading from one country to the next. More than a dozen similar stations are now dotted along the Congo-Uganda border, health ministers from both countries told IRIN. Across the border in Uganda, 22 of the highest risk areas have implemented additional monitoring measures to try and ensure Ebola stays out.

     

    Between 20,000 and 30,000 back-and-forth crossings – most by informal traders or people with cultural and family links – take place between the two countries each day, according to Congolese border officials. These large human flows have become a major challenge for those involved in the Ebola response.

    “People are crossing borders all the time,” Peter Salama, the WHO’s deputy director-general for emergency preparedness and response, told IRIN. “The challenge really is just the sheer volume of people. It requires a real level of cross-country collaboration to be able to ensure that a case on one side of the border is adequately traced on the other side of the border.”

    Fears of a cross-border epidemic aren’t restricted to Uganda, which is closest to the current outbreak. They also stretch to Rwanda, Burundi, and South Sudan.

    Up to 60,000 people cross between Rwanda and Congo daily, according to the Red Cross; while Congo’s ministry of health said more than 24,000 people cross between Congo and Burundi each month, and another 3,000 each month between Congo and South Sudan.

    Travel within Congo is also a concern – Ebola has already spread from an initial epicentre near Beni to more densely populated areas, such as the major trading hub of Butembo, home to more than one million people.

    “The context for this outbreak is a perfect storm,” said Salama. “There’s the combination of great insecurity that has been going on for decades – now increasing in severity and frequency – a highly mobile and also very dense population in urban areas, proximity to international borders, major logistical challenges, and of course the fact that all of this is occurring in an election period.”

    Together with the WHO and health NGOs, the governments of neighbouring countries say they have strengthened cross-border collaboration to keep the outbreak from spreading. The health ministers of Congo and Uganda told IRIN in December that they are working closely together to screen travellers and track potential cases. Salama said more than 26 million people have already been screened across various points of entry, and so-far two confirmed cases have been detected.

    But it is no easy feat.

    Busy border regions

    The Kasindi crossing into Uganda lies 82 kilometres east of Beni. It’s the third busiest point of entry between Congo and any neighbouring country after the port of Matadi (with Angola) and the town of Kasumbalesa (with Zambia). It has become even busier in recent months, as stricter entry and exit measures have been imposed at nearby irregular crossing points in an attempt to keep Ebola contained.

    The border region around Kasindi is also home to the Nande and the Konzo – communities who live between the two countries (the former in Congo, the latter in Uganda) but share the same ethnicity.

    “[People] have family members on both sides of the border. Over the years, they have crossed the border unofficially,” explained Eddy Kasenda, head of Congo’s border hygiene services. “But with response teams currently stationed at the places formerly used for irregular border crossings, there is a big influx at [Kasindi’s] port of entry and exit.”

    Kasenda said teams are now stationed at both formal and informal crossings to control local migration and help execute the six pillars of Ebola response, which include surveillance, contact tracing, and community engagement.

    A few people remain sceptical, some saying the response is nothing more than a business opportunity for international organisations, but Kitsa Musayi from Beni said almost everyone in his neighbourhood is now serious about complying with the Ebola response measures.

    Standing in line at the Kasindi border while his two friends disinfected their hands at the water tank, Musayi added: "when some of those resisting the response activities started to die from Ebola” is when people began to cooperate.

    Oly Ilunga Kalenga, Congo’s health minister, said the exchange of information between Congolese and Ugandan response teams was a big factor in the success, up until now, in preventing Ebola’s spread to Uganda. “We collaborate intensively, especially in sharing information on alerts. The disease control general directorates of both countries are in constant contact to facilitate the collaboration,” he said.

    img_8602_1920.jpg

    A lot of people crowd a road
    Fiston Mahamba/IRIN
    With more than 20,000 crossings between DRC and Uganda each day, monitoring everyone has become a major challenge.

    Regional prevention measures

    Ugandan health minister Jane Ruth Aceng said she viewed all of Uganda’s border districts with Congo as being at high risk.

    “There is a lot of information and training for health workers in high-risk districts,” she said. “Three thousand health workers have already been vaccinated in Uganda as part of Uganda’s preparations to face the epidemic. Teams from the Congolese health ministry came to Uganda to train Ugandan health personnel to administer the vaccine against the Ebola virus.

    “We are not waiting for the first confirmed case to launch the response. We are in the midst of deploying experimental treatments.”

    Rwanda and Burundi, although further away from the outbreak, are also on high alert. Several Congolese towns are located close to the border with Rwanda, including the capital of North Kivu province, Goma – a city of more than one million people that has an international airport. Burundi, meanwhile, shares more than 10 entry and exit points along Congo’s border.

    Both countries say they are conducting screenings at border crossings and building up the capacity of their response and healthcare infrastructure in case the outbreak spreads. Last month the UN Central Emergency Response Fund allocated $10 million to strengthen Ebola preparedness in neighbouring countries. Rwanda’s ministry of health, in collaboration with the WHO, also conducted Ebola simulation exercises in two border districts earlier this month.

    Perhaps the main neighbour of concern is South Sudan, which has three principal border crossings with DRC. Years of war have decimated South Sudan’s economy; it has no properly functioning healthcare service; and a lack of roads and infrastructure in some parts of the country – not to mention ongoing conflict – could seriously impede response and containment efforts if Ebola were to spread there.

    The worst-case scenario would be if "insecurity in DRC itself becomes so profound that it really limits entirely our ability to control this outbreak,” Salama said. This would have major implications for all neighbouring countries, especially South Sudan, which "will be one of the more difficult scenarios.”

    Like Uganda, South Sudan also started Ebola vaccinations for frontline health workers in December.

    “The government willingness is there,” said Salama. “But the issue with South Sudan is that after decades of conflict, and ongoing conflict, the primary healthcare system – which is really the first line of defense for surveillance, labs, community health work, for all of our detection and response – is really very rudimentary.”

    There are also major accessibility issues. “Outside of urban centres it’s extremely difficult even to access areas, either because of a lack of paved roads, or because of insecurity,” Salama said. “That poses a huge challenge and it’s really why it’s so important that if anyone is symptomatic with symptoms that could be consistent with Ebola, they are able to identify that at the points of entry with South Sudan. Because if they cross, it will be much, much more difficult outside of the urban areas to pick out the first confirmed case in that country."

    Internal spread

    So far, no confirmed cases of Ebola have been found outside DRC. But the WHO says alerts have been investigated in South Sudan, Uganda, Rwanda, and in one traveller returning from Burundi to Sweden.

    Inside Congo, cases have been confirmed in 17 different health zones. To try and stem the flow of potentially infected people, officials have set up checkpoints along the road between towns in eastern DRC, health ministry spokeswoman Jessica Ilunga said.

    Butembo, which saw its first case of Ebola in November, is one of the bigger concerns. Large numbers of people travel in and out of the city daily from all across the region, many of them traders buying and selling produce and supplies before moving on to other towns where they do the same.

     

    “Because there are relatively good road connections in these parts of the country, the population and the traders are very mobile,” Ilunga said. “We set up health control stations on the main roads being used by the population, including those leading to Uganda and bigger Congolese cities like Bunia, Kisangani, and Goma.”

    img_7612_1920.jpg

    A woman in medical gear outside of a medical tent
    Fiston Mahamba/IRIN
    Congo’s health ministry, NGOs, and the WHO have been tackling the outbreak for nearly six months.

    At some stations, she added, officials even check people’s identities to make sure their names are not on the lists of contacts health teams are tracing for possible exposure to Ebola.

    Travelling on the Beni-Kasindi road, IRIN met Jean-Jacques Mali, who trades between Butembo and Uganda’s capital, Kampala. He said many of those initially resistant to the extra preventative measures have now changed their minds.

    "Those who were most resistant have now started word-of-mouth communication within their communities, warning them about the risks of refusing the vaccine, for example,” Mali said. “Some have even helped people with Ebola-like symptoms to visit hospitals.”

     

    The key to tackling this outbreak is “not just [to] have community engagement, but also having the community driving the response,” Salama said, explaining that trying to access a highly mobile population in dense urban areas in a region where there are ongoing armed attacks means some affected populations may not be reachable.

     

    “In some of the most insecure areas, we have trained community health workers and given them cell phones so they are the ones who are following up on a daily basis, to see if the contact is becoming symptomatic and calling that information back into the central emergency operation centre,” he said, adding that response teams have been able to reach 16-20 percent more people who would otherwise have been inaccessible.

    Ilunga, the Congolese health ministry spokeswoman, expressed relief that Ebola hasn’t reached neighbouring countries or other big Congolese cities like Bunia, Goma, and Kisangani. But her relief was tinged with caution and acceptance of the scale of the challenge that still lies ahead.

    "We know that it can still happen,” she said. "As long as there are sick people and contacts who are travelling, there is still risk for the outbreak to spread. As long as the outbreak continues, we are still on high alert."

    Editor's note: Figures in this article were updated shortly after publication to reflect 26 million people screened (instead of 18 million mentioned previously) and two confirmed cases along the border

    (Additional reporting by Africa Editor Sumayya Ismail)

    (TOP PHOTO: Ebola screening stations are set up at more than a dozen points along Congo’s border region with Uganda. CREDIT: Fiston Mahamba/IRIN)

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    “We are still on high alert”
    Inside efforts to prevent a regional Ebola crisis in central Africa
  • Where there’s political will, there’s a way to protect civilians

    2018 was a disastrous year for civilians caught in conflict.

     

    In most conflict zones around the world, the majority of those killed were civilians. Those who survived suffered myriad physical, emotional, and economic hardships.

     

    In the Middle East, three permanent members of the UN Security Council – the body charged with maintaining global peace and security – conducted or supported military campaigns that massacred civilians.

     

    In Syria, Russia participated in the offensive on rebel-held Eastern Ghouta, which killed more than 1,000 civilians, some through the Syrian government’s use of chemical weapons.

     

    In Yemen, the US and the UK continued to support the Saudi-led coalition, despite mounting evidence that airstrikes there have hit hospitals, markets, and school buses, and that the on-off blockade it imposed has worsened an already catastrophic humanitarian crisis in which nearly 16 million Yemenis – more than half of the population – are on the brink of starvation.

    We have repeatedly seen that when political will to protect civilians is mustered, tangible progress is possible.

    In Afghanistan, insurgent groups increasingly targeted civilians, and the number of civilian deaths and injuries climbed steadily over 2018, reaching at least 8,050 by the end of September, according to the latest UN figures.

     

    In Africa, UN peacekeeping missions continued to fall short of their mandates to protect civilians. In the Central African Republic, for example, at least 70 civilians were killed in an attack on a displaced persons’ camp metres away from a UN base. In South Sudan, reports emerged of at least 125 women being raped as they made the multi-day journey to a food distribution site. In the Beni area of the Democratic Republic of Congo, the UN has failed to contain the killings of civilians, which some estimates put at 1,000 since 2014.

     

    Despite these discouraging examples, we at CIVIC have hope for 2019. Why? Because we have repeatedly seen that when political will to protect civilians is mustered, tangible progress is possible.

     

    In Yemen, the October murder of dissident Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi spurred a renewed push to end external actors’ involvement in the war – one factor in December talks that declared a desperately needed (if not yet implemented) ceasefire for the port of Hodeidah. In Syria, it appears that a political deal has prevented – at least for the time being – a military assault on the province of Idlib, which would undoubtedly have catastrophic consequences for civilians.

     

    The three-day Eid holiday ceasefire in Afghanistan last June offered a glimpse of what peace could look like, as Taliban fighters, Afghan military, and civilians mingled without fighting, despite two bombings in Nangarhar province, one claimed by the so-called Islamic State.

     

    At the international level, last May the UN General Assembly dedicated an entire week to discussing tangible ways to further the protection of civilians, and Secretary-General António Guterres called for all UN member states to adopt national policy frameworks on the issue.

     

    Just as we supported the Afghan government in its groundbreaking 2017 adoption of a civilian protection policy, we at CIVIC will continue to help governments around the world – from Iraq to Nigeria to Ukraine – looking to do the same: identifying potential improvements to their policies and laws; providing workshops to equip military and security forces to see their mission with a protection mindset; helping them to understand their obligations under international humanitarian law, and to account for civilian lives in their day-to-day operations.

     

    In South Sudan last January, UNMISS opened a base in Yei – an area devastated by violence in 2017 – to enable the UN mission to better protect civilians in the region. UNMISS is committed to using inter-communal dialogues across the country to prevent deadly conflicts between semi-nomadic cattle farmers and agricultural groups.

     

    In Congo’s Ituri province, the UN peacekeeping mission MONUSCO responded to escalating violence against civilians in the first half of the year by rapidly launching mobile troop deployments to high-threat areas and initiating peace dialogues between communities. This move was possible thanks to collaboration between officials, community leaders, and UN mission leadership – and most actors in the region agree that the peacekeepers’ quick action halted ongoing violence and likely prevented an escalation in fighting.

     

    These two peacekeeping wins are particularly encouraging as we approach the 20th anniversary of the first specifically mandated UN mission to protect civilians: the formation of UNAMSIL in 1999 was in part a response to global outrage following the massacre of civilians in Sierra Leone.

     

    We’re also hopeful for 2019 because even when political will wavers, the will of civilians themselves does not. We’ve seen repeatedly how meaningfully engaging communities about their own protection yields tangible advances. In Afghanistan’s Kandahar province, for example, community elders in two districts convinced the Taliban, at least temporarily, to remove and stop planting IEDs (Improvised Explosive Devices).

     

    In northeastern Nigeria, when community protection committees in Bama notified the military that local militia were sexually exploiting women near an informal displaced persons’ camp, the military banned all militia members who did not have family members at the site from entering. These same committees also obtained regular military escorts for civilians leaving the site, allowing 3,500 people to farm and collect firewood without fear of being attacked.

     

    This sort of determination is encouraging, but it cannot stand alone. Ensuring the protection of civilians in conflict requires consistent, committed, and courageous support from leaders at all levels.

     

    With strong leadership at the international level, true commitment and political will by key states involved in conflicts, and meaningful engagement of affected communities, protection is possible.

     

    We call on leaders to muster the political will to make the possible a reality in 2019.

     

    Civilians trapped in conflict zones don’t have another year to spare.

     

    (TOP PHOTO: A displaced South Sudanese woman in a Protection of Civilians site adjacent to the UNMISS base in Wau, South Sudan. CREDIT: Phil Hatcher-Moore/UNICEF)

    Where there’s political will, there’s a way to protect civilians
  • Nigerian militancy, refugee winters, and a drone in Yemen: The Cheat Sheet

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

    On our radar

    Militant attacks spike in Nigeria

    More than 30,000 people have fled fighting in northeastern Nigeria's Borno State, most from Baga on the shores of Lake Chad, as attacks by Boko Haram and its Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP) offshoot increased in recent weeks. The UN has expressed concern about the flood of newly displaced people into the state capital, Maiduguri. The impact of the fighting has been "devastating and has created a humanitarian tragedy,” said Edward Kallon, head of UN operations in Nigeria. Meanwhile, the Nigerian army said it had cleared jihadists from several towns, including Baga. The government has previously made claims that Boko Haram was "technically defeated". In reality, the insurgency, which began in 2009, has fragmented but continues – with an uptick in violence in some areas and jihadists targeting other countries in the region. Read more of IRIN's in-depth coverage on countering militancy in the Sahel.

    Winter has come

    Snow and flooding may affect 70,000 Syrian refugees in Lebanon this week, according to the UN refugee agency. Storm Norma, bringing rain, high wind, and snow at higher altitudes, will have already passed through Lebanon by Sunday but rain is forecast for next week, adding to flood risks. So far 361 refugee sites have been affected, and one eight-year-old girl died in floodwaters. Flimsy plastic and tarpaulin structures are no match for the heaviest snowfall – one informal settlement near Arsal is said to have been “buried”. Affected refugees have had to find alternatives and aid groups are working to provide shelter, clothing, and heating. The storm follows flooding of displacement camps within Syria: more than 20,000 people in 108 camps were affected in northwestern Idlib by early January, according to Save the Children.

    Congo election result challenged

    After 18 years of Joseph Kabila’s rule, this week saw Felix Tshisekedi, leader of the largest opposition party in the Democratic Republic of Congo, declared the provisional victor of long-delayed presidential elections. But another opposition candidate, Martin Fayulu, called the result an "electoral coup" and said he would file a court challenge against it this weekend. Since independence in 1960 from Belgium, Congo has never seen a peaceful transfer of political power. It is struggling to move on from decades of conflict and political unrest and still faces a host of humanitarian challenges, including its largest ever Ebola outbreak. There are fears these new tensions may lead to a fresh eruption of political violence across the country. Initial unrest has already included one demonstration by Fayulu’s supporters that reportedly left five civilians dead and 17 police officers injured in the southwestern city of Kikwit. Fayulu believes he won 61 percent of the vote, citing election observers from the Catholic Church, which also cast doubt on the result. Fayulu claims Tshisekedi only won because he made a backdoor power-sharing deal with Kabila's chosen successor, Emmanuel Ramazani Shadary.

    Deal or no deal? Yemen ceasefire falling apart

    The shaky ceasefire deal in Yemen’s port city of Hodeidah racked up another obstacle on Thursday when a Houthi drone attacked a military parade at a base that belongs to the Yemeni army and its allies in the Saudi-led coalition. Six soldiers were reportedly killed, and the government of internationally recognised (but exiled) President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi said the attack shows the rebels are “not ready for peace”. Efforts to implement the Hodeidah agreement – reached at talks last month in Stockholm – have been hampered by differing interpretations of the text, which Oxfam this week called too vague, not to mention what a UN spokesperson described as a “lack of trust between the parties”. Watch this space for more on the ongoing diplomatic efforts not just to sort out Hodeidah – a key entry point for aid and commercial goods – but to finally end Yemen’s war.

    Exploring peace amid fresh violence in Thailand’s deep south

    The long-running Malay Muslim separatist insurgency in Thailand’s troubled south is back in the spotlight early in the new year. January has seen renewed attempts at peace talks – as well as fresh bouts of violence. Thai peace negotiators and Malaysian intermediaries want leaders of the separatist Barisan Revolusi Nasional to join peace talks, though it’s unclear if insurgents affiliated with the group are prepared to do so. These peace overtures come amid continuing violence in the south, including a school car bomb (blamed on the BRN), which injured a 12-year-old student, and the killing of four defence volunteers at a school. Rights groups say such attacks on civilian targets are war crimes, but they also accuse Thai security forces of abuses, including extrajudicial killings, enforced disappearances, and torture. More than 6,000 people have been killed in violence in Thailand’s southern provinces since 2004, including more than 200 people last year, according to monitoring group Deep South Watch.

    One to listen to

    Keeping local staff safe

    Local staff continue to bear the brunt of violence targeting humanitarian groups. A guard working for an NGO in the Central African Republic was killed on 5 January, while a Syrian staff member of an international NGO was abducted and killed in Idlib. The most recent episode of the Humanitarian Incidents podcast tackles the issue of safety for local staff (including humanitarians working for subcontracted local partners). Nour Qoussaibany, security lead for the International Rescue Committee in Lebanon, speaks about local perceptions that international NGOs pay more attention to the safety of international staff, and explores what can be done to prioritise security for local aid workers. Hint to donors: boosting funding to build local security capacity would be a good start. Listen to the interview here.

    In case you missed it:

    BURUNDI: Disability NGO Handicap International (aka Humanity and Inclusion) is leaving Burundi, citing regulatory demands. In a re-registration process, the government now requires NGOs to apply a quota for the ethnicity of their Burundian staff, a measure the NGO called discriminatory and unconstitutional. [Your tips and views are welcome.]

    NEW VIRUS: A fruit bat has been found to host a previously unknown filovirus (the family that includes Ebola). In the laboratory, it can infect human cells, but the risk of transmission is unknown. According to Nature, researchers have called it Měnglà, after the area where the bat was captured in China.

    THE PHILIPPINES: At least 140 people have been killed in the Philippines since late December, when heavy rains from Tropical Depression Usman unleashed landslides and flooding in parts of southern Luzon and eastern Visayas. Philippine authorities say more than 56,000 people sought refuge in evacuation centres.

    SUDAN: Violence against protesters and medics must end, Human Rights Watch said, after a “particularly bloody” Wednesday in the Sudanese city of Omdurman. At least three people died after government forces opened fire and used tear gas against demonstrators demanding the downfall of President Omar al-Bashir. Officials say 22 people have died since protests started last month; HRW put the toll at around 40.

    WORLD BANK: World Bank President Jim Yong Kim is quitting for a role in private investment fund Global Infrastructure Partners. All previous Bank presidents have also been US citizens. As well as speculating on the backstory, observers are asking if the tradition of Washingon D.C. handpicking the candidate should continue.

    Weekend read

    Women, girls, and gender preparedness in aid

    It’s no secret that understanding how crises affect women and girls differently from men and boys is one of the keys to an effective humanitarian response. But Suzy Madigan, senior advisor for gender and protection for CARE International, says: “The talk is there, but to really put talk into action there needs to be concrete actions put behind it.” Get up to speed on gender issues in aid this weekend, not just with Madigan’s Q&A, which calls for more local women to be included in emergency response, but also with two stories from the ground that show why extra care and planning is needed. Discover how girls forced into conflict in South Sudan are finding it particularly tough to reintegrate into their communities in peacetime, and how the healthcare gap for returnees to Syria’s Raqqa affects vulnerable women.

    And finally...

    Brexit and the US shutdown

    It’s reaching crunch time for two massive news stories with humanitarian ramifications: Brexit, and the US government shutdown over President Donald Trump’s Mexico border wall. On the former, British Prime Minister Theresa May is expected to see her “only deal on the table” with the EU defeated in a vote on Tuesday. What’s next is anyone’s guess: she could resign, there could be a new general election, possibly another referendum, perhaps all of the above. As a rush of migrant vessels has made it across the Channel from France in recent weeks, we’ll be exploring whether the British government, in its response, has tried to manufacture a migration “crisis” to harden attitudes on immigration at this crucial juncture. On the latter, we’ve already reported on the real humanitarian crisis on the US-Mexico border, but look out for more on the possible impacts of a prolonged shutdown on humanitarian programmes.

    (TOP PHOTO: People carry the body of one of the attack victims during their burial ceremony at the Sajeri village on the outskirts of the Borno state capital, Maiduguri, on 8 January 2019. CREDIT: Audu Marte/AFP)

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    Nigerian militancy, refugee winters, and a drone in Yemen

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