(Formerly IRIN News) Journalism from the heart of crises

  • Fleeing the last days of Islamic State in Syria

    As Kurdish forces advance on the last pockets of territory so-called Islamic State still controls in Syria, thousands of people are taking flight, and some of them say they have been living with extreme food shortages for months.


    Earlier this month IRIN was with the Syrian Democratic Forces – a Kurdish-led alliance of militias fighting IS – when they intercepted a convoy of cars, trucks, and tractors carrying exhausted, hungry, and sometimes injured civilians. They had travelled overnight through the desert from villages in rural Deir Ezzor province, taking a long route to avoid landmines and fighting.


    They are among thousands to have fled IS territory in the past days and weeks – a mass displacement that is ongoing.


    This Monday and Tuesday alone around 4,900 people fled a small enclave north of the Euphrates river where remnants of IS are holed up, according to the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. Those fleeing included what the Observatory said were 470 members of IS and many of their family members.


    The UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR, says some 25,000 people have been displaced in the past six months by fighting and airstrikes in Deir Ezzor province, joining the more than six million Syrians who are still internally displaced.


    In the past few weeks, the SDF – backed by a US-led coalition but also facing an American withdrawal and the threat of a Turkish invasion – have taken key IS holdings including the town of Hajin and nearby villages like al-Shaafa, al-Sousah, and Abu Badran.


    Fadwa Baroud, a spokeswoman for the UN in Syria, told IRIN that as of late last week, some 12,000 people had fled the Hajin area since the beginning of December. She said the UN believes those who remain in IS territory “are in urgent need of protection, food, medical assistance, clean water and other support.”


    As they flee, they are likely to need more of the same.

    A dangerous escape


    Constantin Gouvy/IRIN

    Some of the recent escapees arrived with injuries and said they had no access to adequate medical care under IS.


    “I lost my two legs after I stepped on a mine laid by Da’esh [the Arabic acronym for IS] when we tried to escape from al-Shaafa 10 days ago,” 17-year-old Ammar said, as his father Ahmed drew back the blanket covering his legs, both blown off below the knee.


    Ahmed stood outside his pick-up truck trying to draw attention to Ammar, who begged for help from the driver’s seat. “Look at what they did to him! Bring an ambulance,” Ahmed cried. “Doctor, doctor!”  


    “We didn’t have access to a hospital, so I had to prepare his bandages at home, with salt and water,” explained Ahmed. His youngest son, sitting in the back seat, lost his legs in the same escape attempt.


    “I thank God we managed to flee at last,” Ahmed said. “But why did my sons have to go through all this pain?”


    Food shortages


    Constantin Gouvy/IRIN

    Some soldiers handed out soda cans and snacks to the new arrivals. Fatma (pictured second from left) said the last few months in besieged IS territory had been marked by extreme hunger: “There is no food and no water left in Da’esh territories, nothing,” she said.


    A few cars down, Khaled Jamal Mjayet said al-Shaafa had effectively been besieged for five months. “We were all starving there,” he said.


    Ahmed, Ammar’s father, said even when there was food, there was no way they could afford it because prices had soared during the siege: “How could we have paid 5,000 Syrian pounds [$10] for a kilo of flour?”


    The threat from the air


    Constantin Gouvy/IRIN

    Some of those in flight said they had to leave home because of airstrikes by the US-led coalition, like the one above in al-Shaafa.


    “I was living as a civilian in my village of Abu Badran, but I had to flee because of the coalition’s airstrikes,” 56-year-old Abu Abdullah said with anger.


    The coalition has relied heavily on airstrikes in its campaign to retake the Deir Ezzor countryside from IS. As the campaign ramped up in November, monitoring group Airwars said it tracked the highest civilian casualty count from airstrikes in Syria since the October 2017 fall of Raqqa, the group’s former capital. Airwars estimates that between 221 and 631 civilians were killed that month in coalition strikes, most of them in Deir Ezzor province.


    IS supporters among those fleeing

    While some people had risked their lives to flee IS and were outspoken in their criticism of the group, others remained vocal supporters.


    “Of course we enjoyed living under Da’esh, they treated us very well. We only left because of the airstrikes and hunger; we would have stayed otherwise”, said Hanin (pictured on the left).


    “When the airstrikes intensified and food became scarce, their behaviour towards us changed. We weren’t as happy there as before,” she added.


    Hidden fighters

    Both SDF soldiers and people in the vehicles like the tractor above said there were IS fighters hiding in the convoys.


    “Sometimes civilians cooperate with us to arrest fighters hiding in the convoys; they think they will receive preferential treatment if they do,” said Aram, an SDF fighter. “But their information is helpful; we’ve already arrested several Da’esh high commanders trying to slip through the net dressed as civilians these past weeks.”


    Brivan, a 23-year-old soldier with the mostly Kurdish Women’s Protection Units (YPJ), a part of the SDF, described the interception of the convoys as a “dangerous assignment”.


    “When we intercept these convoys, we don’t know which ones amongst them are civilians or fighters,” she said. “What we do know is that Da’esh wants to spread its sleeper cells to other areas in the region. You can be sure there will be fighters disguised as civilians in this convoy today.”


    The following day, an IS fighter dressed as a civilian in a convoy shot and wounded an SDF soldier at the same location.

    Foreign wives and children


    Constantin Gouvy/IRIN

    Among the arrivals were Russian, Uzbekh, and Kazakh women who were said to be the wives of IS fighters, although language barriers meant none were able to effectively communicate with the soldiers or journalists.


    The foreign women and their children (pictured above) were separated from the group, and the SDF said they would be sent to a camp in northern Syria. Foreign fighters were sent directly to prison.


    Sent for screening


    Constantin Gouvy/IRIN

    A YPJ soldier speaks to members of the convoy as they arrive. Syrians and Iraqis were also moved from the vehicles they had arrived in, with women and children separated from men, and both put in trucks. The SDF said they would be sent for screening by Kurdish intelligence, and that those who were not arrested would eventually be sent to displaced persons’ camps in the region.


    The UN says most displaced people from Hajin are currently staying in al-Hol camp, in Hassakeh province. In a statement earlier this month, UNHCR said many of the new arrivals to al-Hol are “exhausted, having fled on foot, and are clearly suffering.”


    “The dangerous and difficult journey and the conditions inside the enclave are reported to have led to the deaths of six children – all under 12 months,” the statement added. “Tragically, most have died after arriving at al-Hol, too weakened to survive.”



    Fleeing the last days of Islamic State in Syria
  • 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.



    Al-Shabab attacks, swine fever, and sexual harassment at the UN
  • Trump pullout plan leaves aid groups in northeast Syria scrambling

    As the United States and Turkey trade barbs over the US withdrawal from Syria, humanitarians operating in the country’s northeast say the diplomatic chaos has thrown open a Pandora’s Box of unpredictable security risks that threaten their ability to deliver aid to civilians.


    Since 2015, US troops have lent military, financial, and political support to the Syrian Democratic Forces, a Kurdish-led militia fighting the so-called Islamic State. The SDF has hostile relations with Turkey, a NATO member and US ally, and the prospect of major Turkey-SDF conflict is now at the heart of discussions over how and when any US withdrawal should proceed.


    Some two million civilians are thought to live in areas under SDF control, where relief operations provide support to the shattered city of Raqqa, aid to people fleeing conflict, and ongoing assistance to economically devastated resident communities.


    Northeastern Syria has a large Kurdish community, which has largely avoided conflict with Damascus, even as the SDF has carved out territory fighting off IS with international help from the air.


    A week after Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said he might send troops into Syria “at any moment”, US President Donald Trump tweeted on Sunday that he was beginning to move his own military out, and threatened to “devastate Turkey economically” if the country attacked Kurds in the region. An Erdogan-Trump phone call on Tuesday sought to reduce tensions and find common ground as the US continued to prepare its withdrawal.


    It has been nearly a month since Trump first announced he would remove his troops from Syria, but it’s unclear how the pullout will work. And with both Turkey and Syrian government authorities apparently counting the days until the Americans leave – leaving the SDF unprotected – working in the area has become a particularly risky prospect for an aid operation involving around 25 international NGOs, the UN, more than 150 local NGOs, and donors.


    Despite being an agriculturally productive region, conflict, displacement, economic collapse and poor harvests have left a significant part of the population in need of humanitarian help.


    “The last thing that northeast Syria needs is precipitate and unplanned moves,” David Miliband, a former British foreign secretary who now heads the International Rescue Committee, said in a statement shortly after Trump’s initial December announcement. “Relative stability could be replaced by chaos,” he warned.


    High humanitarian stakes


    The United States and its coalition allies have used airstrikes to target IS, but only maintain a limited ground force and civilian contractors in the northeast.


    Despite this small footprint, their presence has allowed at least some stability in the region, and by some measures the situation in northeast Syria has been improving over the past year. Displaced people are beginning to return home, particularly to Raqqa, despite the lack of infrastructure and services there.


    But many people still need help. Data compiled by the NGO Mercy Corps and made available to IRIN indicates that some 2.1 million Syrians live under SDF rule, including half a million who have already fled their homes at least once.


    That displacement continues even now, said Adnan Hezam, a Damascus-based spokesperson for the International Committee of the Red Cross. He told IRIN that local sources recently counted 3,400 fresh arrivals from the Hajin area in eastern Deir Ezzor province, where the SDF is still fighting IS holdouts. Many had walked for days to reach camps where aid groups operate.


    “There is rain and cold temperatures, they have no water, they’re scared of the shelling, some have lost family members on the way to the camp,” Hezam said. “There is also a risk of explosives and landmines contaminating the area.”


    Winter storms and heavy rainfall recently flooded some camps, adding to the crisis.


    And now the area is heading into an unknown future.


    Who will fill the void?


    “US troops will obviously need to come home and should do so as early as possible,” Refugees International Vice President Hardin Lang, who visited SDF-held areas in 2018, told IRIN. “But their withdrawal should not create a power vacuum that leads to renewed fighting.”


    But even with the withdrawal set to begin, mixed messages continue to come out of Washington.

    “US troops will obviously need to come home and should do so as early as possible. But their withdrawal should not create a power vacuum that leads to renewed fighting.”

    Earlier in January, National Security Adviser John Bolton said the United States may keep a separate base at al-Tanf in southern Syria, and would not exit the northeast until IS has been fully defeated and Syrian Kurds were safe from persecution.


    This triggered a sharp response from Erdogan. “Elements of the US administration are saying different things,” he said, refusing to meet with Bolton when he visited Turkey last week hoping to negotiate a deal that would secure the safety of Kurdish fighters.


    US officials seem ready to hand SDF territory to Erdogan and his Syrian rebel allies, despite the extreme hostility between Turkey and the SDF’s Kurdish core group. That group is an offshoot of the Kurdistan Workers' Party, or PKK, which has been waging a decades-long insurgency against the Turkish government.


    “The presence of a [PKK-friendly] area next to our border is not good for the future of Turkey,” a Turkish official told IRIN in a December interview. “We will keep fighting against this idea.”


    Although Erdogan has told Trump he will intervene with the purpose of finally defeating IS in the region, Turkey views the US withdrawal primarily as a chance to demolish SDF-backed authorities that were previously shielded by the American presence.


    In his tweet, Trump spoke about a 20-mile “security zone” along Turkey’s border, but offered no detail. Erdogan has long said he will establish a Turkish-controlled security zone in Syria, and when he responded on Tuesday, he portrayed Trump’s comments as a green light to drive the SDF away from Turkey’s borders.


    “They are terrorists,” the Turkish president said. “Can we leave this area to the terrorists?”


    A 20-mile Turkish “security zone” would cover most of northeastern Syria’s Kurdish-populated areas, including the cities of Qamishli, Amoude, and Kobane. Mercy Corps population data indicates that, depending on its exact borders, the area sought by Erdogan could include almost half the population in SDF-held areas.


    However, military, humanitarian, and regional analysts tell IRIN the primary target of a Turkish intervention would likely be the Arab-majority region around Tel Abyad, north of Raqqa. Turkish forces could then head south to bisect SDF territories and take Ain Issa, a strategically located Arab town that functions as a local administrative centre, including for humanitarian affairs.


    Kurdish officials in northeastern Syria say a Turkish incursion would bring chaos. “Attacks on the area would bring destruction and displace hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians,” warned Hediye Yusuf, a senior official in the SDF-backed local authorities.


    Desperate to avoid Turkish attack, Kurdish leaders are turning to Damascus and Moscow.


    Kurdish leaders have said they want Russia to broker a return of SDF-ruled areas to central government control, while ensuring some form of local autonomy and a “fair distribution” of resources. They say SDF fighters should be integrated into al-Assad’s armed forces, and Russian and Syrian army troops should guard the border against Turkish incursions


    Soon after Trump’s announcement, SDF leaders invited a symbolic Syrian army contingent to the outskirts of the flashpoint city of Manbij, on the far western end of the Kurdish-controlled region.


    On 8 January, Russian military police also turned up in the area, apparently drawing a line in the sand to prevent Turkish intervention. In theory, Russian backing could allow President Bashar al-Assad’s forces to step in to fill the role the United States has up until now played as a bulwark against Turkey.

    Even as all involved seem to want to avoid chaos, there is no clear solution that will satisfy all sides, and there is little trust among the warring parties.

    “If the regime comes to an agreement with the Kurdish and Arab forces in the region, it would prevent the land from being divided and occupied by Turkey,” Yusuf, the Kurdish official, told IRIN.


    However, Russia is also in talks with Turkey, which distrusts al-Assad and fears that Kurdish groups could use an agreement with Damascus to ensconce themselves behind Russian and Syrian government lines.


    Even as all involved, including Turkey, seem to want to avoid chaos, there is no clear solution that will satisfy all sides, and there is little trust among the warring parties.


    “I think northeastern Syria will be resolved transitionally and piece by piece,” said Sinan Hatahet, a senior fellow with the Istanbul-based Syrian think tank Omran Studies.


    Complicating an already fragmented response


    Sources linked to northeastern Syrian aid operations, who requested anonymity, have told IRIN that the see-sawing US policy is making it hard to plan ahead and ensure the protection of staff and local civilians.


    Beyond the risk of violence and displacement, changes in territorial control will likely disrupt northeastern Syria’s complicated humanitarian architecture.


    Some 200 non-Syrian aid workers currently live in SDF-held Syria, working with around 25 international NGOs that deliver food, healthcare, water, and education to local communities.


    Most of these organisations are not registered with the Syrian government, which often refuses to let NGOs work both inside and outside its control – they have to choose.


    That means these organisations cannot officially partner with the UN, which is represented in the northeast by an office in the border town of Qamishli that reports back to the UN’s Syria headquarters in Damascus. Syrian government officials have a presence in Qamishli, though most of the city is under SDF control.


    Even as it bans aid from its territories to Turkish-held regions of Syria, al-Assad’s government has allowed UN convoys from Damascus and Aleppo to reach the SDF-held northeast.

    But government forces routinely remove medical equipment from UN convoys.


    To compensate, the UN brings in medical supplies through the SDF-held Yaaroubiyeh border crossing between Syria and Iraq, using a permission granted by the recently renewed UN Security Council Resolution 2165 to deliver cross-border aid without government pre-approval.


    Meanwhile, most NGOs bring supplies in through the Fish Khabour crossing with Iraqi Kurdistan, which is also used by US troops.

    Stabilisation aid


    In addition to UN and NGO relief, SDF areas are also bolstered by civilian contractors working on behalf of the US-led anti-IS coalition, with funding from Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Germany, Denmark, and other US allies.


    Unlike humanitarian NGOs, which strive to maintain neutrality, the stabilisation contractors are explicitly tasked with reinforcing SDF governance against IS and al-Assad’s influence.


    In practice, however, much of their work takes the form of road repairs and the restoration of electricity, water, and sanitation – basic tasks that blend into the humanitarian effort and can often be a precondition for effective UN and NGO assistance.


    US officials have also supported the humanitarian community more directly by offering medical airlifts and pushing SDF officials to provide information and access for aid groups.


    Aid NGOs, which were mostly unwilling to speak on record, say their own work would suffer if the coalition stopped providing these basic services. They still take care not to be confused with coalition-funded contractors, in order to preserve neutrality, but for Damascus and Ankara the distinction is academic. Both governments regard NGOs that have chosen to work in SDF areas with suspicion, raising fears that local employees could be persecuted if the SDF loses control of the area.


    Planning for an uncertain future


    Even a non-violent shift in territorial control could hobble humanitarian operations in northeastern Syria. Although US authorities have stopped funding the stabilisation effort, an SDF official said the American presence remains the “nerve centre” of broader coalition efforts.


    If contractors working on water, electricity, and other basic services were to be withdrawn without a smooth handover to other capable actors, the humanitarian situation could deteriorate rapidly – especially if paired with violent conflict, new waves of displacement, border closures, and fragmenting local governance.


    Erdogan recently suggested Turkey could handle stabilisation and reconstruction efforts in the “security zone” through its urban development agency, TOKİ, but also hinted that it would require continued financial support from the anti-IS coalition. However, it seems unlikely that the coalition’s top stabilisation donors – Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates – would be willing to fund a Turkish presence in the area, given their frosty relationship with Erdogan’s government.

    There appear to be no inter-governmental talks to avoid sudden disruptions and gaps in humanitarian coverage after a US pullout.

    It is also unlikely that the Syrian government, which appears to have a very limited economic and institutional capacity in eastern Syria, could immediately take over stabilisation operations in SDF areas that fall under its own control.


    As it stands, there appear to be no inter-governmental talks to avoid sudden disruptions and gaps in humanitarian coverage after a US pullout.


    Aid actors themselves say they are busy with contingency planning, but sources informed about the planning told IRIN it’s a struggle given the lack of clarity about the future.


    Aid groups are simply faced with too many possible scenarios, sprouting from a host of unresolved questions, including the speed and scope of US withdrawal, the potential for Turkish-American, Turkish-Russian, or Damascus-SDF agreements, and the risk of an IS resurgence, to mention just a few.


    On a normal day, aid groups would be begging for funding and resources. But in Syria, they are now desperately demanding something else: information, coordination, and time to adapt.

    (TOP PHOTO: Some 10,000 internally displaced people currently live in northeast Syria's al-Areesha camp, which has been hit by heavy rains and flooding. CREDIT: Hisham Arafat/UNHCR)

    This work was supported in part by a research grant from The Harry Frank Guggenheim Foundation.


    As Turkey threatens an offensive, thousands of civilians face disrupted assistance and new displacement
    Trump pullout plan leaves aid groups in northeast Syria scrambling
  • 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)


    Nigerian militancy, refugee winters, and a drone in Yemen
  • “The world forgot us”: Women and healthcare in ruined Raqqa

    More than a year after Raqqa was liberated from so-called Islamic State, tens of thousands of people who returned to a devastated city are still struggling to rebuild, and basic services – especially for women and children – are notably lacking.


    After Kurdish forces and airstrikes from a US-led coalition ousted IS from Raqqa last October – the group still holds some territory in Syria – more than 166,000 people returned to the city and its surrounding villages, according to the UN. Raqqa once had some 300,000 residents, and as many as one million in the wider province of the same name.

    A suicide attack on Monday was yet another reminder that life in the militant group’s former capital is far from back to normal. IS claimed responsibility for the attack on what it called a “recruitment” centre for US-backed Kurdish forces. The UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said four civilians and one Kurdish fighter were killed.


    Returnees have found homes destroyed and clean water and electricity in short supply. The World Health Organisation says one of two hospitals and eight of 19 public clinics in the city still need “major reconstruction”.


    Read → First person: In Raqqa, you can’t go home again


    Without money to pay for petrol or transport, those living on the city’s outskirts find it even more difficult to access basic treatment, as Arianna Pagani and Sara Manisera found during three weeks reporting in the region in late 2018.


    They spent time with healthcare workers who were visiting villages dotted around the city.

    The network of mobile clinics and ambulances, financed by the EU and run by the Italian NGO Un Ponte Per (A Bridge To) and the Kurdish Red Crescent, is trying to fill the gaps, especially in healthcare services for women.


    Medicine on the move

    Residents of the village of al-Khalaya wait their turn at the mobile clinic, which stops by for three or four hours a week and sometimes sees as many as 100 patients in a visit.


    For many of the village’s estimated 6,000 people, this is their only chance to access free healthcare, as they can’t afford the 30 kilometre drive to Raqqa.


    In addition to visiting the villages outside Raqqa, mobile clinics also stop in rural areas of Hassakeh and Deir Ezzor provinces.


    ‘A bad situation’ for women

    Sherin Moustafa Ahmad, 38, fled Raqqa with her family after IS took control of the city in January 2014, declaring it the capital of its caliphate.


    She returned in 2017 after the liberation to find her home destroyed by shelling, and went back to work as a midwife in a mobile clinic.


    Ahmad says the shortage of clean running water and poor sanitation facilities means women and girls end up with a variety of gynaecological problems, like urinary tract infections or cystitis.


    “We try to reduce the suffering of all those affected by the war, [either] by IS or the coalition bombing,” she says. “It’s a bad situation. [Women] don’t have the money to go to private clinics so we provide them free gynaecological exams, ultrasounds, and [other] consultations.”


    ‘They give us medication’

    Medication is free at the mobile clinics. This woman, who asked not to be named or pictured, is picking up a prescription for her daughter. She stayed in the region even when IS took control, moving from house to house, and says that life is tougher in al-Khalaya now than it was before the war.


    “Before it wasn’t good, but a little bit better… IS entered our houses, they destroyed everything: doors, windows,” she says. “We don’t have money, we don’t have jobs, we can’t even buy basic food. My son [might as well] eat dust…. At least [at the mobile clinic] they give us medication, because otherwise I wouldn’t be able to afford it.”


    Dirty water and disease

    At Raqqa’s al-Rasheed clinic, one of the few places that provides free healthcare in Raqqa city, staff say they see up to 300 patients each day, most of them children. Common ailments include pneumonia, diarrhoea, typhus, flu, and respiratory infections.


    “The main causes of these diseases are dirty water and air pollution,” says Munir Hussein of the Kurdish Red Crescent.


    Ailments from dust and debris

    The fighting to take back Raqqa from IS, led by Kurdish forces on the ground backed by air support from a US-led coalition, left the city largely in ruins. Demining efforts are ongoing, as are efforts to clean up the city’s streets.


    “We’ve seen a reduction in blast-related casualties in the last few months, but people have a lot of other health problems due to exposure from the dust and debris that are everywhere in the city,” says the Kurdish Red Crescent’s Hussein.


    Malnourishment and depression

    Maha Hussein, 28, a paediatric nurse at al-Rasheed, says she regularly treats children and mothers who are undernourished.

    “This is a common problem, both for children and mothers, because they don’t eat enough food so there’s not enough breast milk. Most of the babies eat only starchy food, such as rice and potatoes. It’s not sufficient for a growing child. As a result you have many nine-month-old babies weighing only four kilos,” says Hussein.


    Anxiety and depression are also a major concern for the mothers Hussein sees: "It is as if they were still living in a state of war,” she says.


    ‘We are abandoned’

    Sheltering from the rain in an abandoned building in al-Khayala, Kheffe Mahmoud says the mobile clinic is one of the only visible presences of aid from the outside world: “They are the only ones helping us in this area. We are abandoned. The world forgot us.”



    “The world forgot us”: Women and healthcare in ruined Raqqa
  • Our 10 most popular stories of 2018

    Investigations, exclusives, and special reports dominate our most-read stories this year, but there’s room for some timely analysis and the odd news feature. Find out which IRIN articles created the most buzz in 2018 (by unique pageviews, most-viewed first). And once you’re on top of the news, why not test yourself with our year-end quiz?

    Cameroon’s anglophone war, part 1 and part 2

    Emmanuel Freudenthal became the first journalist to spend time with an anglophone armed group, trekking for a week with them in the sun and rain, across rivers and up steep hills, through dark rainforests and fields of giant grass. In this two-part series, he explored the make-up and motivation of the Ambazonia Defense Forces, and how the civil war brewing in Cameroon was changing the lives of fighters, civilians, and refugees.

    A gun in the foreground as soldiers stand in file in mismatched clothing


    EXCLUSIVE: Oxfam sexual exploiter in Haiti caught seven years earlier in Liberia

    IRIN found that the man at the centre of Oxfam sexual exploitation scandal was dismissed by another British NGO seven years earlier for similar misconduct. A former colleague revealed that Roland van Hauwermeiren was sent home from Liberia in 2004 after her complaints prompted an investigation into sex parties there with young local women.

    People walk in the distances abstractly


    Understanding Eastern Ghouta in Syria

    In February, the UN said nearly 400,000 civilians were trapped in the Eastern Ghouta suburbs of Damascus, the latest battleground in a series of bloody rebel defeats in Syria’s cities. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces and his Russian allies seemed poised for a major ground offensive on the besieged insurgent enclave. Syria analyst Aron Lund unpicked what we knew, and what we didn’t.

    A dust cloud from an explosion on a city


    Audit finds UN refugee agency critically mismanaged donor funds in Uganda

    This damning internal probe by the UN into waste and corruption in refugee operations in Uganda in 2017 went unnoticed by many. Ben Parker read the fine print and exposed the extent of mismanagement by the UN’s refugee agency, including a $7.9 million contract for road repairs awarded to a contractor with no experience in road construction.

    Two girls in a refugee camp one with her arm on the other


    Eritrea-Ethiopia peace leads to a refugee surge

    Inter-ethnic conflict over scarce resources saw more people internally displaced in Ethiopia in the first half of 2018 than in any other country. In the second half of the year, peace and an open border with Eritrea saw a sudden spike in Eritrean refugees. Addis Ababa-based reporter James Jeffrey travelled to the border regions to speak to new arrivals.

    Closeup of two Eritrean men looking away from the camera


    Inside the EU’s flawed $200 million migration deal with Sudan

    As millions of dollars in EU funds flow into Sudan to stem African migration, asylum seekers say they are increasingly afraid and living in fear of exploitation. In interviews with dozens of Eritreans and Ethiopians, as well as local journalists and lawyers, reporter Caitlin Chandler documented allegations of endemic police abuse, including extortion, violence, and sexual assault.

    An obscured portrait of a man's face behind purple and white drapes


    Former Save the Children staffers speak out on abusive culture under Justin Forsyth

    2018 was a year in which #AidToo scandals tarnished the image of the sector. In February, Justin Forsyth resigned from UNICEF, becoming the highest-profile departure in the widening scandal sparked by the Oxfam sexual exploitation case. Former colleagues of Forsyth told IRIN of their disappointment at what they saw as a half-hearted apology that failed to properly acknowledge his past misconduct.

    A man with a notebook sits on the floor with two people facing away from the camera


    EXCLUSIVE: Audit exposes UN food agency’s poor data-handling

    The year that brought us GDPR disclaimers also brought some belated realisation in the aid sector about the importance of data protection. In January, after an internal audit slammed failings across its systems, the World Food Programme told IRIN’s Ben Parker it was “working to get ahead of the curve” on data-handling, would address weaknesses, and spend more on systems.

    Two cards like credit cards that read: Humanitarian Assistance


    EXCLUSIVE: Refugees in Sudan allege chronic corruption in UN resettlement process

    Sudan, again. This time allegations of corruption within the UN’s refugee resettlement operations in Khartoum. Investigating the programme over a 10-month period, journalist Sally Hayden uncovered a bribery scheme that prompted it to be shut down while the UN refugee agency mounted an investigation. Her follow-up in July found further problems as potential witnesses expressed fears of retaliation and concerns over a lack of protection.

    Outside of an office with barbed wire


    Yemen PR wars: Saudi Arabia employs UK/US firms to push multi-billion dollar aid plan

    In a year in which Yemen was described as the world’s worst humanitarian crisis, the aid largesse of Saudi Arabia came under the microscope. IRIN revealed the extent of Riyadh’s PR offensive as critics suggested its multi-billion dollar aid plan amounted to propaganda and could reduce imports of vital goods into a key port held by the Houthi rebels, Saudi Arabia’s opponents in the three-year war.

    Men in camo, one with a camera, offload aid on a pallet

    (TOP PHOTO: Refugees from anglophone areas of Cameroon in camps across the border in Nigeria. CREDIT: Emmanuel Freudenthal/IRIN)


    From #AidToo and UN mismanagement to Cameroon and a siege in Syria
    Our 10 most popular stories of 2018
  • 2018 in Review: Returns and rebuilding

    This series

    In this week-long series, IRIN’s editors highlight five themes from across our reporting that will continue to inform our coverage of the humanitarian sector in the new year: local aid; women and girls; returns and rebuilding; policy and practice; and migration. Are there untold stories we should be covering in 2019 on these or other themes? Let us know: tweet us @irinnews or get in touch here. Happy reading.

    While it’s the death and destruction of wars and natural disasters that tend to grab headlines, civilians continue to suffer long after the television crews have packed up their cameras.


    Whether the cause is violence or an earthquake, civilians often return from a crisis to find their homes destroyed and the infrastructure – think water, healthcare, and schools – they once relied on decimated.


    The number of people forcibly displaced from their homes is growing: the UN says it rose from 59.5 million in 2014 to 68.5 million in 2017. IRIN has stayed on the story as these people, as well as refugees and migrants, go back home and try to rebuild their lives and communities.


    Here are some of the ways we covered rebuilding and returns in 2018:


    No way home

    In Iraq, families linked to so-called Islamic State suffer for their relatives’ sins

    Among the nearly two million Iraqis still displaced by the fight against IS are those with real or perceived ties to the militant group. Their communities don’t want them, their country doesn’t know what to do with them, and many are stuck in Iraq’s camps for the foreseeable future.

    closeup of a woman's hands with small markings as she sits on the floor


    Returning to nothing

    Razed villages and empty fields await Congo-Brazzaville’s displaced


    A December 2017 peace agreement sent some of the 108,000 people who fled fighting in the previous two years back home to Congo-Brazzaville, but our reporters found many homes had been burned to the ground, there was not enough food for returnees, and schools had been shuttered.

    A group of people in Republic of Congo sit outside their temporary shelter in various positions some smiling


    Slow and steady

    In Nepal, rushed earthquake rebuild leads to a mountain of debt

    Faster reconstruction isn’t always better. More than three years after a series of earthquakes and aftershocks in Nepal killed 9,000 people and turned parts of the country into rubble, a rush to meet deadlines for government help means people are taking on extra loans they can’t afford, and building new homes that are unlikely to withstand future earthquakes.

    A Nepalese man in a red coat repairs a roof with mountains in the background


    Turning the tide

    Returning from Libyan detention, young Gambians try to change the migration exodus mindset

    Among the thousands of Gambians who tried to make it to Europe only to be flown back from Libya’s squalid migrant detention centres is a group of young people now taking to the airwaves, streets, and social media to discourage others from making the same journey.

    A group of young men in a radio studio at mics


    A city destroyed

    First person: In Raqqa, you can’t go home again

    Raqqa is the former "capital" of so-called Islamic State, but for Syrian citizen journalist Mazen Hassoun it will always be his hometown. Now living in Europe, Hassoun describes what it’s like to hear from his friends and family about the destruction of the streets he once played in, as they try to rebuild their lives amidst the rubble.

    people working in rubble
    Highlights from our coverage
    2018 in Review: Returns and rebuilding
  • Trump pullouts, aid from mining firms, and that Amnesty ad: The Cheat Sheet

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


    On our radar


    Trouble at the top


    The overall coordination body for humanitarian aid lacks a vision, mission, strategy, and sound funding, according to a UN audit. The Inter-Agency Standing Committee, or IASC, formed in 1991, brings together the UN agencies, the Red Cross/Red Crescent Movement, and NGOs in a humanitarian über-cabinet. It is chaired by the head of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, Mark Lowcock. His office says he has been working to sort out the group since the period of the audit (2016 to mid-2017). A well-placed senior aid official, who asked for anonymity due to the sensitivities, said the committee was making progress on a few issues, such as preventing sexual abuse. The audit revealed problems found in confidential reviews in 2003 and 2014 persisted, notably “insufficient commitment to collective leadership”. The official said there is a “fundamental problem”: if members don’t have stronger incentives to cooperate, further attention to the IASC’s structure "is going to be tinkering at the edges".


    Strange bedfellows: mining firms and humanitarians?


    In February, a magnitude-7.5 earthquake rattled Papua New Guinea’s remote highlands region, toppling villages, killing dozens, and leaving some 270,000 in need of help. Aid groups requested $62 million to respond. International donors have pitched in, but the largest contribution – equivalent to nearly two thirds of the appeal – came from the private sector, including the mining, oil, and gas industries. A briefing released this week by the Melbourne-based Humanitarian Advisory Group explores how extractives companies responded. It’s a polarising issue for many in the aid sector: some organisations, researchers note, refuse to work with or accept money from extractives companies, which have been accused of causing environmental damage and “serious human rights problems” in the past. The HAG briefing notes that extractives companies often responded faster than aid groups after this year’s earthquake, and used their logistics resources to access remote areas blocked by the damage. But they also lacked formal training on humanitarian practices and principles: some aid workers thought companies were targeting only communities in their business areas, for example; others said companies dumped supplies without monitoring to ensure they actually reached their intended targets. Despite the problems, the researchers conclude there is “enormous potential” for engaging extractives companies in disaster response in the Pacific.


    Concerns around aid operations in South Sudan


    Médecins Sans Frontières is concerned its operations in South Sudan may be at risk due to revelations it made about mass rapes in the town of Bentiu in November. This week officials from the medical NGO said the report that at least 125 women and girls were raped by armed men – some in military uniform – had caused friction. “The government of South Sudan is not happy,” an MSF official was anonymously quoted as saying by Kenyan newspaper The East African. “So who knows, maybe our massive operations in Bentiu will come to a close and place at a risk thousands of lives.” The UN condemned the attacks, sent a team of human rights investigators to Bentiu, and called for the culprits to face justice. Human Rights Watch also called for an urgent investigation into the violence. Under pressure, the South Sudanese government sent an investigation team to Bentiu, but this week it claimed there was a “lack of evidence” to substantiate the rape allegations.


    Amnesty backs down over “offensive” online campaign


    Human rights group Amnesty International was forced to pull an online campaign about refugees in Greece after a cover photo was accused of being “fetishised and eroticised”. The picture, in an online magazine produced at its Dutch branch, showed a model apparently naked except for life jackets, intended as a parody of a fashion shoot. After protests on social media, Amnesty Netherlands apologised for “any offence caused” and for the “error of judgement”, but replaced the picture with a model with barbed wire over her eyes. Later, the parent organisation, Amnesty International, also apologised and took the whole project offline.


    Healthcare boost for Yazidis in Iraq’s Sinjar


    Some good news for a change. You may recall a series of three stories we did back in March and April on the Yazidis in Iraq’s Sinjar province, where the religious minority fled massacres and enslavement by so-called Islamic State in 2014. Reporter Tom Westcott found that tens of thousands of families had been returning to towns and villages once ruled by IS, only to face a healthcare crisis. In the bullet-ridden hospital of Sinjar town itself, one doctor with no ambulance was struggling to meet the needs of the many returnees. Today, the situation is greatly improved, Westcott reports. The hospital has moved to new and better premises, has several ambulances, and is being assisted by NGOs. In a visit on 15 December, Nadia Murad said she planned to use her $1 million Nobel Peace Prize money to build another hospital in Sinjar, her hometown.

    In case you missed it:


    AFGHANISTAN/SYRIA: President Donald Trump ordered a full US withdrawal from Syria and the drawdown of about half the 14,000 remaining American troops in Afghanistan. Critics rounded on both decisions as premature, with particular concern raised over the possibility of a new humanitarian disaster if the situation unravels in northern Syria. US Defence Secretary James Mattis announced his resignation on the back of the moves.


    THE DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF CONGO: Elections to replace President Joseph Kabila were postponed yet again this week, following a previous delay of more than two years. The country is on the cusp of its first ever democratic transfer of power, but a host of humanitarian crises – from Ebola to protracted conflicts – awaits the next leader.


    MADAGASCAR: The leading candidates in Madagascar’s election – both former presidents – have each claimed victory in this week’s polls. Marc Ravalomanana, who came to power in 2002, is up against Andry Rajoelina, who ousted him in a military coup in 2009. Rajoelina then ruled for five years until he was forced out in protests led by Ravalomanana. Official results are due next week. Nine in 10 of Madagascar’s 25 million population live on less than $2 a day, and the island faces huge health and malnutrition problems, made worse by drought and devastating El Niños.


    MYANMAR: Clashes between Myanmar soldiers and the Arakan Army, an armed group that advocates for the ethnic Rakhine community, have displaced hundreds of civilians this month in western Myanmar.


    Weekend read


    A generation of unschooled Cameroonians, another generation of conflict?


    Latest UN estimates put the number of people forced from their homes by conflict between Cameroon’s anglophone minority and the francophone-majority state at 437,500. Many have taken to hiding in the bush, including tens of thousands of school-age children. An untold number are missing out on an education as the insurgency escalates, school attacks and kidnappings spike, and separatist fighters demand schools stay closed. Our weekend read includes interviews with parents, officials, and kidnapped children, and explores how education was the starting point for this crisis, and how a generation of children now risks being recruited by armed groups and perpetuating the conflict.

    For more on the origins of the conflict and the motivations of the separatists, read our two-part special report, the first from inside rebel ranks.

    And finally…


    A vaccine with wings


    This week in a remote corner of the Pacific Island nation of Vanuatu, a commercial drone buzzed 40 kilometres above rocky terrain to deliver an important payload: vaccines to immunise 18 people, including a one-month-old child. It could be an early step toward Vanuatu’s health ministry integrating drone technology into its immunisation programme, which is challenged by scattered communities and inaccessible terrain. According to UNICEF, only one third of Vanuatu’s populated islands have airfields or roads, and one in five children in remote areas don’t have access to vaccines. Aid groups and health agencies have been testing humanitarian uses for drones for years. A US company uses drones to deliver medical supplies in Rwanda; humanitarians have explored using drones for post-disaster mapping; a non-profit in Fiji is trialling drones to unleash a swarm of dengue-fighting mosquitoes. In Vanuatu, proponents of the ongoing vaccine delivery trials say this week’s successful handoff is a ”big leap for global health”.


    To our readers: This is the last Cheat Sheet of 2018. We’ll be back on 11 January, but watch for special Friday coverage during the next two weeks. Best wishes for a brighter 2019.



    Trump pullouts, aid from mining firms, and that Amnesty ad
  • Climate disasters, Congo elections, and charitable countries: The Cheat Sheet

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


    On our radar


    Respite for Yemen’s Hodeidah


    It’s been a busy week for Yemen, at least in the realms of diplomacy and foreign politics. After a week of peace talks in Sweden, on Thursday the UN announced the warring sides had agreed to a ceasefire in the key port city of Hodeidah and the wider province of the same name. Their fighters are to withdraw the city within 21 days, and UN Secretary-General António Guterres said the “UN will play a leading role in the port”. We’ll be keeping a close eye on this deal and what it means for civilians; you can read the fine print here. Later on Thursday, the US Senate voted to withdraw support for the Saudi Arabia-led coalition fighting in Yemen. It was a rebuke to President Donald Trump’s backing for the kingdom’s crown prince despite mounting evidence of his involvement in the killing of a dissident Saudi journalist, but a largely symbolic one, as Trump has vowed to veto the measure if it passes the House of Representatives and reaches his desk.


    Challenges as Congo prepares to replace Kabila


    The Democratic Republic of Congo's long-delayed presidential election is now just over a week away. But it's still far from smooth sailing, as thousands of voting machines were destroyed in a warehouse fire in the capital, Kinshasa, this week. Officials said the blaze seemed to be criminal in nature, but gave assurances it would not affect the poll. Use of the machines, a first in Congo, have raised opposition concerns of possible voter manipulation in favour of ruling party candidate Emmanuel Ramazani Shadary, who was chosen by President Joseph Kabila as his preferred successor. Kabila, who has been in power since 2001, won’t stand for re-election on 23 December, but said he may contest the 2023 poll. The EU meanwhile renewed sanctions on leading Congolese politicians, including Shadary, saying they were open to reviewing the decision after the election. Kabila, however, has refused to accredit EU election observers, calling the sanctions “politically motivated” and promising to retaliate. One to watch.


    Linking climate change and extreme weather


    Heatwaves in China and the Mediterranean; drought in East Africa and the United States, heavy flooding from parts of Asia to South America: all of these weather extremes that struck across the globe in 2017 would have been “virtually impossible” without the impacts of climate change, according to new research released this week. The study, published in the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society, is part of the growing body of “attribution science”, which explores the links between climate change and extreme weather events. The AMS says 70 percent of its research on the topic has found a “substantial link” between extreme events and climate change. There’s a growing push among vulnerable nations to be compensated for loss and damages from climate-linked disasters, but it’s among the more sensitive topics in global climate negotiations – including the COP24 summit set to conclude 14 December in Poland. While countries debate a path forward, communities on the front lines of climate change are already struggling to adjust. Read more on what coping with climate change means for people already living with its impacts.


    Gas guzzlers put on notice


    Humanitarian organisations are large-scale polluters, don't have renewable energy strategies and waste $517 million a year on fuel costs. Those are some of the blunt messages of a new report published by think tank Chatham House. It finds that although it  makes up about five percent of spending, fuel use is not closely tracked and there are few incentives to be more efficient. The study surveyed 21 aid operations in Burkina Faso, Kenya, and Jordan. In Kenya, partly because of heavy generator usage in remote locations, seven agencies were found to spend $6.7 million a year on fuel and related maintenance. There are some exceptions: solar systems for refugee camps in Jordan save $7.5 million a year; adding solar and wind power at a single WFP store in Afghanistan should save $60,000 a year. Donors could push for higher standards by demanding data on emissions, efficiency, and usage, the report argues.

    In case you missed it


    Ebola: Frontline health workers in South Sudan will begin receiving vaccinations for Ebola next week, the WHO said, as the country faces “very high risk” from an outbreak that's killed more than 300 people in neighbouring Congo. Ebola has not spread beyond Congo, but as a precaution, vaccinations also began in Uganda last month.


    International Humanitarian Law: The latest multinational effort to shore up respect for the laws of war has failed. The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) expressed "strong disappointment" that states could not agree on a “safe space” concept to consider war crimes.


    Papua New Guinea: Powerful volcanic eruptions on Manam Island, off Papua New Guinea’s northern coast, have triggered lava flows and ash fall and displaced multiple villages. A previous eruption in August destroyed two villages, while eruptions in 2004 forced the entire island to evacuate.


    The Philippines: The Philippine Congress this week extended martial law on the southern island of Mindanao through December 2019 – drawing criticism from rights groups. Parts of the island are preparing for a January plebiscite that could create a new autonomous region comprising majority-Muslim areas.


    Syria: UNICEF said that two sick babies died in the past week at Rukban, an isolated camp where 45,000 Syrians are trapped between the Jordanian border and Syrian government front lines. A convoy delivered supplies to the area in November. Before that civilians had gone with almost no aid since January. Meanwhile, the UN Security Council extended authorisation for cross-border aid deliveries elsewhere.


    Weekend read


    South Sudan: The humanitarian toll of a half decade of war


    The statistics speak for themselves: an estimated 400,000 dead, 4.5 million displaced, seven million said to be in need of aid. As South Sudan marks five years of war on 15 December, there is no question that the conflict has exacted an enormous human cost. Our weekend read curates our recent coverage along with a new slideshow and updated timeline of the conflict. As the war enters its sixth year on Sunday only the most optimistic of observers is voicing much hope that the revitalised peace agreement, signed in September by President Salva Kiir and his former rival and soon-to-be vice president (again) Riek Machar, will hold for very long. Regardless, it hasn’t brought an end to the violence, the hunger, and the need for broad-based reconciliation. Look out too for South Sudan analyst Alan Boswell’s stark assessment of where things stand heading into 2019.


    And finally...


    The axis of helpful

    Indonesia, take a bow. A new survey, The World’s Most Generous Countries Report, finds that Indonesians are the most charitable nationality. 153,000 interviewees in 146 countries were asked by pollster Gallup if they a) donated money, b) volunteered their time, or c) helped a stranger. Extrapolating the numbers, Gallup suggests 2.2 billion people helped a stranger in 2017 (about 43 percent of the world's adults). Glass half full: good neighbourliness is alive and well. Glass half empty: what is wrong with the other half? Gallup combines the results into a score per country. Australia, New Zealand, Ireland, and the United States make up the rest of the top four. The bottom scorers for "civic engagement" are China, Greece, and Yemen. Does that seem fair?

    (TOP PHOTO: A woman who fled fighting in Hodeidah arrives at an informal shelter in Aden, Yemen. CREDIT: Ammar Bamatraf/UNHCR)


    Climate disasters, Congo elections, and charitable countries

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