(Formerly called IRIN) Journalism from the heart of crises

  • In Libya, a city once run by Islamic State struggles to start again

    Standing on the second floor of his ruined home, Salah AbuBaker gazes out from blown-out walls across the sparkling Mediterranean Sea.


    A year and a half since so-called Islamic State was ousted from Sirte, his property is half rubble, his mother’s downstairs bedroom piled high with sand and soil where the militants dug underground tunnels.


    Once the Libyan “capital” of IS, this city became infamous in February 2015 when the group filmed an execution of 21 people on a nearby beach. In AbuBaker’s house, walls of rooms emptied of furnishings are covered with graffiti, first from IS fighters, then over-scored with victorious scrawls by Libyan soldiers.


    Behind his house, the streets are lined with more crumpled houses and bullet-ridden shipping containers turned into barricades. The once densely populated centre of Sirte, which used to have an overall population of 150,000, was so fiercely defended by IS that it took Libyan forces three months to liberate it, leaving behind utter destruction.


    There are still skeletons amongst the rubble, mines and unexploded ordnance have not been cleared, and 3,000 people are registered with local authorities as homeless.

    Most of the people displaced from the city centre, like AbuBaker, are living in rented homes elsewhere in the city, unable to return home. According to the UN, 20,000 people are displaced in the city as a whole, and more than half of Sirte’s residents are still shuttling between temporary residences and their homes, while they rebuild. The three central districts of Campo (where AbuBaker’s house is), Giza, and Sirte 3 remain empty.

    Sirte has struggled to rebuild before, after extensive fighting in the 2011 uprising against Muammar Gaddafi, who was born nearby and killed here. This time around, the destruction is worse. Yet locals say they’ve had even less help from Libya’s competing governments and the international community.

    After 2011, “the Americans came… and said they wanted to compensate us and help with the reconstruction,” says AbuBaker. Although some money was then disbursed to Sirte residents, he believes Libya’s first post-2011 interim government blocked help, and he says only a few people received compensation for their ruined homes.

    AbuBaker wonders why the world, now, is even less interested: “We want to know why the international community wanted to help us back in 2011, but not after 2016."


    Tom Westcott/IRIN
    IS made Sirte's Mediterranean beaches infamous with when they filmed an execution on a beach near AbuBaker's house.

    Starting from zero with little help


    Successive faltering Libyan governments saw Sirte as a Gaddafi stronghold, and neglected to intervene as security deteriorated after 2011. Even before IS declared full control of Sirte in early 2015, residents had limited access to aid because of the extremist elements the city attracted.


    A local tribal elder, speaking on condition of anonymity, says Ansar al-Sharia, the Libyan al-Qaeda affiliate, came to prominence in 2012, and aid organisations that had been working in the area moved their offices elsewhere.


    “Most help and support stopped being sent from late 2012 and early 2013 because people were scared,” the elder says – a situation made worse after 2014, when Michael Greub, an aid worker from the the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), was killed in Sirte.


    The UN and other major aid agencies are still active in Libya – often through local partners – and the UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR, said in a recent report that in the past few months it had given streetlights, waste management items, and supplies to schools and clinics in Sirte.


    Working with the UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA), the UN Development Programme has allocated $7.6 million to Sirte for 2016-2018 to rebuild critical infrastructure. As of the last publicly available update in June 2017, UNDP said it had provided ambulances to hospitals and rehabilitated one school (although eight total are planned).


    Despite this help, many in Sirte say they are disappointed. After years under Ansar al-Sharia and then IS, residents had high hopes 18 months ago. Now, they feel a creeping and, they say, familiar, sense of neglect.


    Tom Westcott/IRIN
    Bashir Bonaiss finds a ruined album of family snapshots in one of the two rooms that are still standing in his Sirte villa.

    Empty promises


    Locals like Bashir Bonnaiss take pictures of their homes, hoping if they document the destruction they’ll eventually receive compensation from someone.


    Stepping through grass that has sprung up amidst the rubble of his villa in Campo, where only one small room and a toilet still stand, Bonnaiss says he and his neighbours “come back [from their temporary accommodation elsewhere in Sirte] to look, take photos, and make reports about our situation for the government and international organisations, although we’ve not had help from anyone so far.”


    He picks through all that is left of his former life – a charred copy of the Quran, a handful of books, a child’s bag, and an album of mottled family photographs.


    As Bonnaiss emerges from the rubble, a passing man shouts that unexploded rockets are in the garden, now hidden by the grass.


    Sirte police officer Bashir al-Gaid, whose extended family lost all three of their homes, says no Sirte resident has yet received compensation or financial support for rental costs or rebuilding from the government in Tripoli under whom the Libyan forces fought IS in Sirte.


    “We’ve had nothing from anyone,” he says. “A committee [from the GNA] came here and took photos and made promises, but that was a year ago and we’ve still received nothing.”


    Earning 500LYD (around $360 per month), al-Gaid is one of the more fortunate in Sirte. But his salary barely covers the rent. “Whenever I’m not at work, I go fishing in the sea, to feed my family,” he says.


    Tom Westcott/IRIN
    With his Sirte home in ruins, Issa Arhuma and his family now sleep in a shack built for animals.

    Former resident Issa Arhuma, 39, struggles to pay the rent on the corrugated iron-roofed shack built for animals where he now lives with his wife and three children in a Sirte suburb.


    He estimates that more than 1,200 houses were destroyed by fighting in Sirte’s three central districts: Campo, Giza, and Sirte 3 (a senior local official told IRIN that 3,000 Sirte residents are still missing and remain unaccounted for).


    Gesturing hopelessly towards his yard in Giza, towards charred sticks that were once trees, Arhuma says: “I built this house myself, and the garden was full of trees and animals and now look at it: it’s finished and everything’s dead.


    “We were so happy to come home after liberation [in December 2016], thinking about our future, our house, and thinking we’d have a good life; so we were very shocked to find everything destroyed.”

    Skeletons and mass graves

    The destruction is so severe that most residents assume central Sirte will have to be razed and rebuilt. But there’s more work to be done before that process can begin, including clearing the skeletons of IS fighters that still lie in the open, lodged on broken staircases or beneath collapsed roofs.


    Tom Westcott/IRIN
    A damaged stairwell in central Sirte, at the top of which are the skeletons of two IS fighters (not pictured).

    The Misrata Red Crescent, which was tasked with removing corpses from Sirte, says they have completely cleared the town. But IRIN saw several corpses, including one in military fatigues.


    Residents aren’t sure who is responsible for taking the bodies away. Bonnaiss says an organisation claiming to be the Red Cross had taken DNA samples from all the IS bodies. “But they didn’t take away the corpses,” he says, adding: “No one has.” The International Committee of the Red Cross says it isn’t currently conducting any forensics work in Libya, but is supporting Libya’s capacity to do this work.


    It’s not only bodies of IS fighters that were left behind after the Sirte battle. Bonaiss shows IRIN a mound of earth where he and other returning residents buried 17 young men in a mass grave. They appeared to have been lined up and executed in the garden, and he speculates that they were killed for refusing to fight alongside IS.


    Al-Gaid, the policeman, found the corpses of a women and three children in one house. He says that for the first year after liberation the smell of the corpses was almost unbearable. The smell has diminished over time, but he says returning residents are still distressed to find skeletons in their homes. Al-Gaid says some swear they’ll never return again, believing their homes to be haunted.

    Lethal remnants of war

    The bodies are distressing, but remnants of war are an even greater barrier to returning home. IS relied heavily on IEDs and landmines, and the three central districts are littered with unexploded ordnance.


    “This area is very dangerous because it still hasn’t been de-mined, and we urgently need engineers here,” says al-Gaid in Sirte 3, picking up an unexploded grenade before casting it carelessly aside.


    Tom Westcott/IRIN
    Unexploded ordnance litters homes and roads in the three Sirte districts worst damaged during the 2016 battle against IS.

    Al-Gaid says Libya’s overstretched de-mining organisations, which lost many engineers in the 2016 conflict, only had the resources to clear the residential areas civilians are actually returning to, and have been unable to undertake the huge task of clearing Campo, Giza, and Sirte 3.


    The UN Mine Action Service, UNMAS, says it is assisting the Libyan authorities and other partners with IED clearance in Sirte and says there is an “emerging and expanding threat from IEDs in Libya”.


    In October 2017, then-British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson mentioned a group of private UK investors with “a brilliant vision to turn Sirte into the next Dubai. The only thing they have got to do is clear the dead bodies away.”


    These remarks both offended and concerned locals who worried that they might never get their homes back (although the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office told IRIN that Johnson's comments referred to a proposal by an independent management consultancy to create a free zone in Sirte, not to any British government plans).


    For Arhuma in his rented animal shack, or for AbuBaker who has IS tunnels under his wrecked home, this vision of Sirte as some kind of new Dubai can’t seem further away from reality.


    “There was nothing, not one single stick of furniture we could recover from our house, and we had to start from zero,” Arhuma says, speaking from the tin-roofed structure that  is now home to his family. “We have to beg local charities for milk and nappies. There’s nothing left. We are finished.”



    (TOP PHOTO: Months of fighting left no property untouched on a former residential street in Sirte. CREDIT: Tom Westcott/IRIN)
    Thousands of Sirte residents are left with destroyed homes, landmines, and little help
    In Libya, a city once run by Islamic State struggles to start again
  • Returning from Libyan detention, young Gambians try to change the migration exodus mindset

    Mustapha Sallah knows all about taking the “back way”, the Gambian expression for migrating to Europe, a journey that for many citizens comes to a brutal halt in a Libyan jail.


    Having experienced detention first-hand, 26-year-old Sallah and the group he set up last year, Youths Against Irregular Migration, are now using the airwaves in his home country, as well as social media and roadshows, to try to deter others from following in his footsteps.


    “The phone-in discussion was on the consequences of migration – good or bad,” Sallah told IRIN after his recent weekly half-hour segment on Capital FM radio. “One guy called in and said, ‘Italy is already full. There are many things you can do here [in The Gambia].’”


    Jason Florio/IRIN
    Mustapha Sallah and Jacob Ndow on the air.

    According to the World Bank, Gambians make up Europe’s second largest diaspora as a share of home-country population (in their case 1.9 million).


    “The Gambia has never had a group of returnees trying to discourage youths from travelling irregularly,” Sallah said. “We went there [Libya] and saw and experienced everything, so when we talk [here] we use our own stories on their level. When people see us, they say ‘this is what we needed, you are really supporting society’.”


    The Gambia is emerging as a test case for international efforts to reverse irregular migration across the Mediterranean. Sallah was among 2,674 Gambians flown home from Libya by the UN’s International Organization for Migration between January 2017 and June 2018.


    These operations only became feasible with the fall of president Yahya Jammeh’s dictatorial regime to a democratic coalition government in January 2017.


    Concerns remain over the capacity to assist large numbers of returnees, but the strategy appears to be working: recent IOM data shows that The Gambia has dropped out of the top 10 league of migrant nationalities arriving in Italy for the first time since the Mediterranean crisis began in 2014-2015.


    Anecdotally, there is consensus that fewer people appear to be leaving, but there is no hard data to support this assumption.


    Benefits of staying


    As well as highlighting the perils of migration, YAIM seeks to draw attention to the potential benefits of staying in The Gambia.


    YAIM member Saihou Tunkara, a 22-year-old who returned from Libya with Sallah, told Capital FM listeners about enrolling in a hairdressing course sponsored by the anti-trafficking campaign “I’m Not for Sale”.


    “If I had had that support before, I would not have gone the ‘back way’,” he said after the radio show. “Gambia is a place where people don’t support you at the grassroots level. If you are on the journey [to Europe] then they support you, they start sending money, but that is not the right solution.”


    The belief that you can only make it in Europe is so entrenched among most Gambians that many families would still rather bet their last dalasi on the hope their youngsters will succeed on the dangerous journey than support them in developing livelihoods at home.


    Jason Florio/IRIN
    YAIM co-founder Jacob Ndow.

    “Changing the minds of the sponsors [relatives and friends] of this irregular migration is the most difficult thing. They lack confidence in the youths and this country,” Sallah told IRIN. Sitting in his crowded family compound with friend and co-founder Jacob Ndow, they explain the organisation’s genesis and why they think their message really hits home.


    Treated like slaves


    “Youths Against Irregular Migration was created by migrants in the [Libyan] prison. We were there for each other against the hardship. Everybody was saying I wouldn’t even want my enemy to take this journey,” said Sallah, who spent four months in detention.


    “We were treated like slaves; we didn’t take a bath for months, so we tried to escape and they beat us seriously,” added Ndow. “That’s when I met Mustapha. He was also punished and he couldn’t stand. That’s when we decided that we must make people aware that the ‘back way’ is a bad road.”


    YAIM has just completed the second of its “youth caravans”, with funding from the German Embassy in Banjul. They travelled to communities in two regions particularly affected by irregular migration, sharing their experiences in market squares and meeting places.


    A female member of YAIM, who asked to remain anonymous, explained how on the tours she recounts her experiences of being kidnapped and sold. “The ‘back way’ is a dangerous journey, especially for women. We face too much maltreatment,” she said.


    Such tales are softened by performances. Ndow is one of the star acts, singing the song he made up in prison. Upon his return he recorded his single, “The back way isn’t an easy road”, which gets regular airplay.


    “Even the kids and elders are singing that song, and it will change their concept of travelling because they will know it’s not an easy road,” he said.


    Coming home is not an easy option either, and another returnee group is trying to establish its own reintegration project to overcome the stigma of being a so-called “failed migrant” and to lead by example.


    “Libya was full of ugly experiences: slave labour, torture. It became a living hell. But how you are looked upon as a returnee is really stressful,” said Pa Modou Jatta, a member of Returnees From The Backway (RFTB), which was also founded in a Libyan detention centre.

    “You feel that you have betrayed yourself and your family because you had aims of becoming someone great.”


    Jason Florio/IRIN
    Tea with the Returnees From The Backway association.

    A new dawn?


    Gambians are great tea-drinkers, and often make an elaborate ritual of it, called attaya, which is especially popular among young men. So RFTB uses attaya sessions to spread its message, often after football training sessions.


    RFTB has been given farmland in the Kerewan Local Government Area by village elders inspired by their cause. The grand plan is to establish a farming cooperative with other returnees and become role models for local youths, then spread the scheme across other regions.


    None of RFTB’s members are farmers, so they have persuaded IOM to fund their agricultural training. “You have to seize opportunities to do well in life,” said the group’s chairperson Alhagie Camara.


    This optimistic spirit appears to be part of a bigger shift following decades of economic stagnation under the previous regime, which controlled most of the country’s meagre industries.


    New government programmes to tackle high levels of youth unemployment and under-employment are being hastily implemented, bankrolled by the EU’s Trust Fund for Africa, which was controversially launched in 2015 to stem the flow of irregular migrants to Europe.


    EUTF’s 11-million-euro Youth Empowerment Project is generating an “entrepreneurial awakening”, according to Raimund Moser, a YEP project manager from the International Trade Center, which runs the market-led skills and job creation scheme on behalf of the government. “For those who have the skills and determination this is a better time,” he added.


    But YEP schemes are aimed at the general youth population, and the programme has drawn criticism over an onerous requirement to fill in a three-page business plan.


    Migrants from The Gambia were the least likely to have completed formal education and were most likely to be unemployed at time of departure, according to IOM’s survey of the top five migrant nationalities in 2017.


    More EUTF funding is going into developing short-term practical programmes for low-skilled migrants and they will be linked through a referral system to the IOM-EU’s Migrant Protection and Reintegration Programme that launched in November. IOM Gambia expects to provide tailor-made reintegration packages to 3,000 migrants within 12 months.


    Its chief of mission, Fumiko Nagano, said: “It is building on the ‘you can make it in The Gambia’ motto. We believe that’s what will ease the whole return process.”


    But The Gambia is a long way from being ready to absorb the reintegration of tens of thousands of migrants stranded in Europe. A 2017 report on migration governance under the new government highlighted concerns over instability if returns were ramped up too quickly.


    “Many things are getting better, but the job market for youths will take time. Nobody has pressed a switch and The Gambia is suddenly a paradise for jobs,” added Moser.


    The current economic reality doesn’t stop Alhagie Camara from dreaming big. About to start his agricultural training with fellow RFTB members, he said: “We are impatient to begin.”



    The belief that you can only make it in Europe is deeply entrenched
    Returning from Libyan detention, young Gambians try to change the migration exodus mindset
  • From evacuee to humanitarian: aid goes local in conflict-torn Marawi

    Until 23 May 2017, Samira Gutoc had been a human rights activist and a resident of Marawi, a lakeside city on the southern Philippine island of Mindanao. But when Islamist militants barricaded themselves in the city center last year, igniting a fierce five-month battle with the army, Gutoc found herself thrust into a new role: humanitarian worker.


    She wasn’t alone. Local NGOs, civil society leaders, and an army of volunteers took the early lead – including many who were doing humanitarian work for the first time while putting themselves in harm’s way. The fierce clashes and martial law – imposed by the government on the first day of the siege – meant that the international aid groups already working in Mindanao couldn’t reach the worst-hit communities with immediate emergency assistance.


    Now, these local organisations are pushing to take a greater role in responding to disasters and crises and in fostering peace in troubled Mindanao.

    “We need to highlight that there are groups working on the ground… so that international NGOs can also respect the efforts of local groups where they can't reach,” Gutoc says.


    Wes Bruer/IRIN
    Before turning to humanitarian work, rights activist Samira Gutoc lost her home during the siege. She continues to advocate for Marawi’s displaced: “We need to highlight that there are groups working on the ground.”

    But to do that, these local groups must upend a lopsided system that funnels the bulk of donor money through international aid groups – leaving local ones continually struggling for survival.


    ☰ Read more: Why the aid sector wants to go local


    The global humanitarian system is overstretched. In 2017, the UN asked for a record $22.2 billion to cover emergencies in 33 countries. But the funding gap continues to widen as the price tag soars.


    What is local aid?

    The global aid sector has broadly committed to an agenda to “localise” aid – putting more power in the hands of locals working on the ground where emergencies hit.


    Why local aid?

    The aim of of the “localisation” agenda is to improve humanitarian response by making it faster, less costly, and more in tune with the needs of the tens of millions of people who receive humanitarian aid each year. Local aid workers are closer to the ground, they can access areas that international aid groups can’t reach, and they know the needs of their own communities.


    Who are local aid workers?

    Local humanitarian aid includes a broad spectrum of potential on-the-ground responders to crises and disasters: local NGOs, civil society groups and community leaders, indigenous peoples, local governments, as well as people who are themselves affected by crises, including refugees, displaced people, and the everyday volunteers working to help their own communities.



    In May, Philippine NGOs, including some involved during the Marawi siege, launched a fund billed as the first in the country to raise money that directly goes to local groups to use during disasters – offering a potential alternative to the traditional international aid funding system.


    Stable, local funding could equip groups to respond quickly, but it’s still short-term; at the moment, local groups are struggling to maintain their operations.


    Charlito Manlupig, who heads Balay Mindanaw, an NGO based in northern Mindanao, says his organisation already relies on private donations from within the Philippines – but this funding dwindled as the Marawi siege dragged on. Now, he’s back to preparing one-off proposals for international donor money.

    The stakes are high. Parts of Mindanao are home to a decades-long separatist movement, fuelled by generations of marginalisation and soaring poverty among minority Muslims in majority-Catholic Philippines.


    Locals fear rebuilding plans for Marawi may ignore the views of the very people who call the city home – and provide fresh fodder for a new generation of militants. And the post-siege landscape in Marawi is pockmarked with intricacies that make it difficult for outsiders to navigate.


    “Locals know the spoken and unspoken sentiments. They know the culture,” says Regina Antequisa, who heads Ecoweb, an NGO based in nearby Iligan City, where many of Marawi’s displaced bunkered down.


    “This is an important role of local organisations that can be played only by them, especially in a conflict setting. We know one false move can ruin good intentions.”


    Marawi a catalyst for local aid responders


    Today, the local organisations that stepped to the forefront during the Marawi siege continue to lead on the ground.


    When Tropical Storm Tembin swept through parts of Mindanao in December, killing more than 100 people, it also hit evacuees still displaced by the Marawi siege. The same local groups that responded during the conflict used their resources to launch early damage assessments and mobilise funding.


    The UN says such efforts were crucial in helping the government and other aid groups plan a response.


    But Antequisa says most of the money that flows to local groups is short-term, meant to support projects that last for a finite period, rather than stable funding that could sustain and grow a generation of local aid workers. At the same time, most local groups lack the technical staff to take charge of the onerous grant applications that are a necessity for funding in the aid sector – and the skilled staff that do come up through the ranks are often poached by bigger international organisations.


    “I know I cannot always provide stable jobs,” she says. “I cannot assure that after this project we will have another. That’s the life of some local organisations.”


    These local groups say their roots are their greatest strength. Marawi can be a complex environment for outsiders to grasp. The city is both a commercial hub and the spiritual heart of the Maranao, a predominantly Muslim people whose homeland circles Lake Lanao on Mindanao. Long-running feuds among family clans can fuel new conflict from old rivalries. And local customs can dictate even how aid is perceived.


    Salic Ibrahim, who heads Maradeca, a Marawi NGO whose entire staff was displaced, says that while some outside aid groups were preparing to reach people in government evacuation centres set up as the siege wore on, local aid workers knew that most of the needy would be harder to find.


    He says the traditional Maranao code of honour, known as maratabat, meant that extended families would be obligated to take in their displaced relatives – rather than have members of their clan be seen in public evacuation centres. The vast majority of Marawi’s displaced – more than 90 percent – refused to go to evacuation centres.


    Wes Bruer/IRIN
    Some 69,000 people are still displaced, months after the Philippine army declared an end to fighting in Marawi. Some local NGOs are helping to deliver aid in government-run evacuation centres, but they say the entire region needs far more support.

    “Most of the aid agencies who came for the Marawi response do not know the locality,”  Ibrahim says. “They have targets for the number of IDPs and evacuation centres, and realised later that their targets are hard to obtain. Especially the sense of pride of a Maranao, the maratabat: if this will not be handled properly, it will ruin your whole plan.”


    This local knowledge – and restrictions faced by international aid groups – meant there were more opportunities for locals to lead. Rhoda Avila, the humanitarian policy manager for Oxfam in the Philippines, says she was struck how one consortium of local aid groups spearheaded on-the-ground needs assessments – the crucial first step for any humanitarian operation. It was the first time she had seen this happen.


    “Usually Oxfam leads the assessment work, including the development of the response strategy,” Avila says. “The difference now is that they led the assessments, they developed the response strategy, and they asked us if we could support them.”


    Safety passes and fickle funding


    Before the crisis, Gutoc had been a prominent local activist in Marawi. But the violence suddenly put her on the front lines, along with other local leaders pushed out of the city.


    It was a “humanitarian nightmare,” she says. “There were no responders along the streets when people are walking. You could physically find people were dropping off their feet because they couldn't walk anymore.”


    Listen to Samira Gutoc on the humanitarian nightmare.

    Gutoc became a part of a coalition of evacuees called the Ranao Rescue Team. Volunteers, including some from Gutoc’s organisation, staged brazen rescue missions to free civilians still trapped in the city. Local groups used their connections to reach civilians who fled to hard-to-reach areas, advocated for the rights of the displaced, and delivered food and other emergency aid amid the clashes.


    The fighting “limited our freedom of movement and limited our access to affected communities,” says Mark Bidder, head of office for the UN’s emergency aid coordination body, OCHA, in the Philippines. “This is where the local actors really played an important role.”


    ☰ Read more: From evacuee to aid worker


    Fighting left much of Marawi and its surrounding areas a no-go zone for aid workers. But help still trickled in, thanks in part to an army of volunteers from the city itself.


    The violence uprooted the entire staff of Maradeca, a Marawi-based NGO. Salic Ibrahim, who heads the organisation, says they were faced with a simple choice: help their own community, or stand in line themselves to wait for food rations. They chose to help.


    Their makeshift headquarters outside the city was an office during the day; at night, it became a shelter for Maradeca staff who had nowhere else to go.


    Ibrahim recalls a volunteer who didn’t show up for work one day. The volunteer broke down in tears when she explained why she was absent.


    “We don’t have anything to cook,” she told him. “That’s why we went out to look for food.”


    Duyog Marawi, a church-run NGO set up during the siege, works with 140 local volunteers displaced from Marawi. The benefits are obvious – the volunteers work with the very communities they come from.


    But Rey Barnido, the group’s executive director, says he also has a larger goal in mind: he believes the volunteers are the same types of people Islamist extremists would seek to recruit – young, marginalised, and frustrated.


    Aisah Mamosaca works with Ecoweb based in nearby Iligan City. She says she understands what the evacuees are going through – because she is one herself.


    “When you ask them what are their needs, they right away cry,” she says. “And they say, ‘you should not ask because we have the same experience and we have the same needs.’”


    Mamosaca counts herself lucky – she has relatives to stay with in Iligan. But the city she calls home lies in rubble.


    “I still haven’t moved on from this,” she says.



    Rey Barnido is part of Marawi’s Catholic minority and heads Duyog Marawi, a humanitarian organisation created by the local church during the siege.


    “We do not need safety passes,” Barnido says. “We are from the city. So we can go to those other areas where other NGOs do not enter.”


    Listen to Rey Barnido on access.


    Wes Bruer/IRIN
    Rey Barnido leads Duyog Marawi. He says the group’s 140 volunteers, who were displaced during the fighting, are integral to building peace: “They speak the language. They know that the communities.”

    But this also exposes the glaring imbalances that permeate through the aid sector.


    In a conflict zone like Marawi, locals took immense risks to deliver aid in areas off limits to international staff – without the substantial security budgets of the big NGOs. Local groups commonly see a fraction of international donor funding, which is mostly filtered through the UN and larger NGOs before it reaches the ground.


    Barnido says two members of his organisation were killed early on in Marawi – one felled by a sniper’s bullet, the other caught by an exploding bomb.


    Wes Bruer/IRIN
    Philippine soldiers man a checkpoint as civilians briefly return home to Marawi. Continuing militarisation in Mindanao is a major grievance for Muslim communities. The government declared martial law after the siege began, but it’s still in effect.

    Ecoweb’s Regina Antequisa says local volunteers and aid workers put themselves in danger without the luxury of even basic risk insurance.


    “If we would really like to become better in our humanitarian response, I think there is this need to somehow adjust the balance,” she says. “So at least the risk the locals are taking will be lessened, and the protection the internationals are getting for their staff can also be enjoyed by the locals. There is this imbalance as of now.”


    An uneasy peace and a ‘ticking bomb’


    Today, the guns are silent in Marawi; the Islamist militants who overran the city are dead or scattered. But the scars are everywhere: the urban core has been flattened to rubble, more than 69,000 civilians are still displaced, and local aid workers say the region teeters on the edge of violence.


    Wes Bruer/IRIN
    Roughly 69,000 people are still displaced in Marawi. The central city lies in ruins. Local aid group say tensions are high, and that any missteps in the government’s rebuilding plans could fuel new grievances.

    In July, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte signed into law a long-awaited peace deal that would grant more autonomy to Muslim areas of Mindanao, including Marawi. But martial law still hangs over Mindanao, the government has been accused of not including Marawi’s displaced in their rebuilding plans, and extremist militants are still active.


    On 31 July, a truck bomb killed 10 on Basilan, off of mainland Mindanao; a military official blamed it on Abu Sayyaf, whose leader was killed in Marawi last year.


    Local aid workers told IRIN that Islamist militants continue to recruit in nearby municipalities, though on a lesser scale than before the siege – a troubling sign given the shortage of jobs and education opportunities for Marawi youth after last year’s violence, which destroyed at least 17 schools, says Duyog Marawi’s Barnido.


    “There was a whole population of young people who had nothing to do,” Barnido says.


    Listen to Rey Barnido on young people.

    Families are returning to parts of Marawi, but the economy is at a standstill. Barnido fears the consequences of the continuing uncertainty.


    “The grievance, the pain, and the anger are building out, which we are very much worried about,” he says.


    Drieza Lininding, a Marawi evacuee who heads the Moro Consensus Group, a local peacebuilding organisation, says the city remains a “ticking bomb”.


    “The civilians will be the ones who will suffer the most in any fighting or any conflict,” Lininding says. “So if the government will not properly handle the issues on rehabilitation, this will explode in the future.”


    (Additional reporting by Irwin Loy)



    How a shattered Philippine city has become a test case for localisation
    From evacuee to humanitarian: aid goes local in conflict-torn Marawi
  • Meet “Baba IDP”: the local hero making sure Boko Haram victims get healthcare

    Since fleeing his home in Nigeria’s Borno State six years ago, retired civil servant Iddrisu Ibrahim Halilu has fought tirelessly on behalf of those who, like him, have been displaced by violence meted out by Boko Haram.

    Halilu, 62, is the health coordinator of a camp in the Durumi district of Abuja where some 3,000 people have made a temporary home. In all, the Boko Haram insurgency has claimed more than 20,000 lives and uprooted some 2.4 million people.

    Reed-thin with greying hair and a leathery face, Halilu is seen as a saviour by fellow residents. He spends much of his time trying to source funds to meet the urgent medical needs of people like motorbike-taxi driver Jafaru Ahmed, who suffered multiple fractures in a hit-and-run accident in April.

    Unable to pay for medical care, Ahmed was left largely unattended as he lay in a coma with badly swollen limbs in Abuja’s National Hospital. That was until Halilu facilitated his transfer to a cheaper facility, where he now receives much-needed treatment.


    Halilu’s work is never done: Ahmed may be in better shape, but other camp residents have varying degrees of medical needs. As health coordinator, he feels it is his duty to continue sourcing funds.


    People call him “Baba IDP” – father of internally displaced persons – a term of endearment that suits him.


    A widower who has outlived his own children, Halilu looks on his fellow displaced as his family now, and is deeply troubled by the frequent failure of his relentless fundraising efforts.


    The concentration of local and international health NGOs in Nigeria’s Boko Haram-ravaged northeast means problems in places like Abuja, even though it is the Nigerian capital, are often overlooked.


    ☰    READ MORE    Close to the ground: the push for ‘local aid’ in crises



    What is local aid?

    - The global aid sector has broadly committed to an agenda to “localise” aid – putting more power in the hands of locals working on the ground where emergencies hit.


    Who are local aid workers?

    - Local humanitarian aid may include local NGOs, civil society groups and community leaders, local governments, indigenous peoples, as well as people who are themselves affected by crises, including refugees and displaced people working to help their own communities.


    Why local aid?

    - The aim of of the “localisation” agenda is to improve humanitarian response, by making it faster, more efficient, and more in tune with the needs of the tens of millions of people who receive humanitarian aid each year. Local aid workers are closer to the ground, can access areas that international aid groups can’t reach, and know the needs of their own communities.

    - The global humanitarian system is overstretched. In 2017, the UN asked for a record $22.2 billion to cover emergencies in 33 countries.

    - This includes the crisis in northeast Nigeria, where conflict between the government and Boko Haram is in its ninth year. The UN says it needs more than $1 billion to bring aid to more than 6.1 million people in Nigeria. So far, less than half of this has been funded, but humanitarian needs continue to rise.


    Local NGOs, with little capacity to administer treatment, visit the camp occasionally, but international NGOs are largely absent. Contacted by IRIN, Phillips Aruna, country director for Médecins Sans Frontières, said the medical charity was not aware of the needs of IDPs in Abuja, and promised to investigate.


    A man on a mission


    Given the absence of a structured system, the burden of healthcare and advocacy for thousands of displaced people inevitably falls on the few educated members of the camp.


    Halilu studied at the University of Mogadishu in the 1970s, and it was in Somalia that he first came in contact with insurgents and violent extremists.


    When Boko Haram started spreading messages of hate in Maiduguri, his hometown, Halilu was outspoken against them and had to flee Borno State in 2009 after the group targeted him.


    Every day at 8am, Halilu reports at the secretariat of the National Commission for Refugees, Migrants and IDPs in the capital, hoping against hope for an audience with the commissioner.


    He dons his usual garb: a blue-chequered waistcoat complete with the logo of “St Regis Secondary School” on top of a white-and-brown striped polo shirt.


    Pairing these with a red baseball cap or, occasionally, an embroidered fila (traditional hat), and sporting an unkempt, grey beard – Halilu always stands out from the crowd. Employees of the secretariat often point and whisper loudly, “Who is that man?” and “Why is he always here?” But the whispers matter little to him.


    Halilu has written dozens of letters to the commission, marked “SOS” and seeking financial assistance. When they go unanswered, an already-poor Halilu often resorts to taking out personal loans to make sure feed patients get fed.


    Shola Lawal/IRIN
    Halilu writes yet another letter at the commission's head office in Abuja.

    Across Abuja, more than 10,000 displaced persons face similarly poor health conditions. But they have to compete for attention and assistance with millions in the northeast: last year, thousands of IDPs in Borno State took to the streets to protest appalling living conditions, demanding for the freedom to return to Bama, their hometown.


    Debtors detained


    Doctors at Abuja’s National Hospital have grown weary of treating the IDPs Halilu brings in, especially as so few are able to pay. It is hospital practice to keep in patients who haven’t settled their bills, even after they’ve been healed.


    When IRIN caught up with him, Halilu was working to secure the release of one such patient.


    "I don’t know where to start the journey because I need money for the hospital bills,” Halilu said, frustration etched into his weathered face. He did not understand how the government could neglect IDPs who live just a few miles from Aso Rock, the presidential villa.


    “We can’t afford even 100 naira (28 US cents) [and] we are talking of bills of 100,000 naira, 200,000 naira,” he said.


    The National Commission for Refugees, Migrants and IDPs has not been forthcoming with financial aid despite a supposed 2017 agreement between the commission, the IDPs, and the National Hospital in Abuja.


    National Hospital spokesman Tayo Haastrup said the commissioner, Hajiya Sadiya Umar Farouk, had failed to make good on a verbal commitment she gave last year to pay IDP medical bills.


    “We wrote to the commission, stating that the IDPs had a bill of over five million naira to pay, but they wrote back [saying] that they are not aware of what we are saying,’’ Haastrup said. “They (the refugee commission) should support us, they should even pay money in advance for their care.”


    The commission failed to respond to IRIN’s request for comment.


    Cramped conditions


    Halilu explained how diseases spread easily as the camp’s batchas – makeshift shelters fashioned from flimsy tarpaulin sheets and old cement sacks – are so close together.


    Last year, a mysterious sickness characterised by persistent coughing ran quickly through the camp, particularly affecting children.


    Halilu’s batcha is built near a refuse dump, where residents defecate in the open for lack of sufficient latrines. Inside it, beneath the many books he has left open and a single mattress, are paperboards – a flimsy attempt to keep rainwater at bay.


    The onset of rains, which run from June to September and are forecast to be especially heavy this year, has made things even worse in Abuja’s camps and led to an outbreak of cholera.


    “Be Human. Defend the Undefended. Help the Helpless.”

    Umaru Gola, a smallish man in his forties with a tribal mark that runs diagonally from the bridge of his nose to his left cheek, is just recovering from a bout of the disease.


    When Boko Haram attacked Gwoza, a district of Borno, in August 2014, Gola’s four siblings and parents were among those killed. He himself only escaped the massacre by chance.


    Gola used to own three stores in Gwoza. “I was running a business of almost 15 million naira. Now, I don’t have [even] 100,000 naira,” he said.

    To keep himself busy, Gola now focuses on his job as the camp’s spokesperson.


    “Look at all our batcha now: if you throw a cup of water on [the roof] and go inside you will see the water in the room,” Gola said. The materials used to make the huts have gone up in price, putting running repairs out of the reach of many camp residents.


    Gola had hoped that in a camp in the capital, right under the nose of the president, he and his young family would be able to safely get on with life after Boko Haram.


    But what little sense of security they’ve managed to hold on to is now threatened by the unsanitary health conditions.


    “If you look around,” Gola said, gesturing towards the camp, “most of our problems [are related to] the health [situation].”


    Shola Lawal/IRIN
    The health ministry visits the camp for the first time to administer malaria treatment and treated nets. The nets provided were only 500, yet IDPs number over 3,000 in Durumi camp.



    A few months ago, Halilu took a few camp residents to the hospital to donate blood. To his shock, all of them tested positive for hepatitis B, a potentially deadly liver infection that can be passed on through contact with blood and other bodily fluids.


    When a local NGO tested the rest of the camp’s population, they found around 60 percent of them were infected.


    According to Halilu, the government hasn’t made available any vaccines, which are 95 percent effective in preventing infection. Yet, he is certain the commissioner is aware of the outbreak, as he informed her in one of his many letters.


    The shelves of the small camp clinic are empty and the doctor who volunteers to treat residents visits only occasionally. Poor case-surveillance and documentation mean those infected with the virus continue to mix freely with the larger population, putting thousands at risk, according to Halilu.


    A health ministry official who chose to be identified only as Comfort told IRIN the ministry wasn’t aware of the outbreak and said residents should complain directly to the ministry.


    When Halilu first arrived in Abuja six years ago he had hoped to meet the interior minister to raise the plight of those affected by Boko Haram. The minister was unavailable, so he wrote him a letter. Since then, he hasn’t stopped writing, to anyone he thinks can help.


    He sends copies to the Nigerian Human Rights Commission, the health minister, the UN’s refugee agency, even the president. When he visits the commission in person, he is told to put his complaint in writing, so he writes another letter.


    Everywhere he goes, Baba IDP is armed and ready to fire off further missives, carrying sheafs of paper topped with a typed letterhead of his own devising: “INTERNALLY DISPLACED PERSONS” in bold capitals. Underneath is a simple entreaty: “Be Human. Defend the Undefended. Help the Helpless.”



    Broken promises leave thousands of Nigeria’s displaced unable to cover costs
    Meet “Baba IDP”: the local hero making sure Boko Haram victims get healthcare
  • In Rohingya camps, traditional healers fill a gap in helping refugees overcome trauma

    When doctors and Western medicine couldn’t help him, Abdul Amin turned to a last resort in his own community: a religious healer in Bangladesh’s sprawling Rohingya refugee camps.


    Abdul is one of more than 700,000 Rohingya who fled a military crackdown in Myanmar’s northern Rakhine State last August. Since arriving in Bangladesh, he says he has been unable to shake a persistent pain that runs through the left side of his body, despite twice seeing doctors at an NGO-run hospital in the refugee camps.


    For Abdul, the pain is a constant reminder of memories he desperately wants to forget: the sound of gunfire in his village and the frightful exodus from his homeland.


    “I don’t sleep that much. I think a lot about all those things that happened,” the 60-year-old refugee said, starting to cry as a religious healer sitting beside him muttered verses from the Quran into a bottle of massage oil.


    “I’ve lost so much,” Abdul said.


    Refugees say Myanmar soldiers burned down homes, raped women, and slaughtered civilians during last year’s violence – part of a military campaign that senior UN rights officials are calling ethnic cleansing. Médecins Sans Frontières estimates at least 6,700 were killed.


    With 900,000 Rohingya now living in Bangladesh’s refugee camps, aid groups say there are crucial gaps in recognising and treating trauma. The UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR, estimates that only half of Rohingya refugees who need trauma counselling or other mental health services have access to it.

    “I don’t sleep that much. I think a lot about all those things that happened.”

    That’s why some refugees like Abdul are turning back to traditional methods of addressing trauma and mental health concerns: religious teachers and spirit healers who are themselves refugees.


    Aid agencies and grassroots groups say this indigenous community support is a vital but poorly understood part of dealing with psychological pain and trauma in the camps.


    They hope to better understand – and incorporate – Rohingya culture and interpretations of trauma into outreach efforts.


    Mohamed Elshazy, the mental health and psychosocial support officer for UNHCR in Bangladesh, said that after widespread trauma, traditional spiritual and religious healers are an important part of the “indigenous healing mechanism” – particularly when overall mental health services are in short supply.


    “We cannot simply ignore or undermine them,” he said. “Since they are not doing any harm, it’s always better to engage with them.”


    A recent IOM survey to identify the mental health and psychosocial needs of Rohingya refugees found that almost half of the 229 respondents feel sadness at all times, while four percent of youth reported suicidal thoughts.


    Olga Rebolledo, the mental health and psychosocial coordinator for the UN’s migration agency, IOM, worries that without the proper support the situation could deteriorate further – underscoring the importance of taking advantage of existing community networks, including traditional healers, and pairing them with more formal mental health services.


    “If we don’t combine these different things, at the end of the day, we would definitely need more specialised services,” Rebolledo said.


    A man sits on the ground reading and holding a bottle
    Dene-Hern Chen/IRIN
    Gias Uddin, a religious teacher, recites verses from the Quran for Abdul Amin, right, who says that he has been in pain since he fled Myanmar in 2017.

    Seeking help  


    Gias Uddin, the religious healer who treated Abdul, said the number of people coming to him for help has more than doubled since last year’s influx – from roughly 30 people each month to 70. The most common complaints are non-stop headaches and chest pains, which he believes stem from the violence recent arrivals lived through.


    “The headaches happen because there is a lot of thinking,” he said. “They describe that they feel scared all the time and that there’s the pain in their chest. I think it is happening because of the persecution they faced, the troubles that they have encountered, the loss of their things.”

    His cures rely on his knowledge of the Quran; he recites proverbs and verses over massage oils and bottles of water. “If I cure it according to the Holy Quran, they will feel better,” said Uddin, who is also a refugee, having fled Myanmar during a previous exodus in 1992.

    His four-year-old son had been waking up crying and screaming every night since they fled Rakhine last year.

    Other refugees are turning to traditional spiritual healers, known as boidou, for support.


    Halima Khatum, 35, describes her treatments as expelling negative enchantments or spirits, known as jinns.


    “Sometimes, the illness is from other evil jinns, and, if it is, then I can cure them,” she said.


    Nurul Amin, 27, said his four-year-old son had been waking up crying and screaming every night since they fled Rakhine last year.


    “He told me that he feels the soldiers shooting him in Myanmar. Even when he is sleeping, he still talks a lot in his sleep, and he would say out loud, ‘They’re coming, they’re coming,’” he recalled.


    The nightmares stopped after Amin took his son to see Khatum.


    A lack of understanding


    Jessica Olney, programme director for the Center for Social Integrity – a US-based civil society group that works with Rohingya community leaders and volunteers – explained that because there is so little research on the Rohingya, there is little understanding of how they deal with trauma and stress.


    Her organisation has conducted focus groups and mental health training sessions with Rohingya women to better understand their perceptions of trauma and how they envision the concept of healing.


    “The women said that they have to get trauma out so that it doesn’t get ‘stuck,’’ Olney said. “If it’s stuck, it will cause suffering. But if they express it and let it out, then they can heal.”


    “It is a very somatic experience where suffering can happen in the body if you keep trauma inside. It seems like emotional and physical suffering are intertwined, which is where Western psychiatry is heading in terms of understanding trauma.”


    Olney’s group is working to train young Rohingya on how to provide psychosocial support to their communities.


    In July, UNHCR started discussions with religious and spiritual healers to learn more about how they help other refugees with mental health concerns. The UN refugee agency hopes they can be part of a support network that identifies and refers the most severe cases to formal services, such as clinically trained psychiatrists.


    A woman looks at the camera in front of a refugee camp in Bangladesh
    Dene-Hern Chen/IRIN
    Formin, an 18-year-old Rohingya refugee and community health worker also trained on mental health issues. After her training, she started seeking out other Rohingya refugees in need of counselling.

    A shared experience


    Some Rohingya volunteers who were already trained in the camps have found that simply offering to listen can help worried refugees feel “lighter”. Formin, 18, was trained as a community health worker by UNHCR, and has also taken a workshop on mental health issues.


    “If a person has a problem and they don’t share it to anyone, it will add more and more problems,” she said.  “This kind of pile-on can make people feel crazy.”

    Formin said she also lost family and friends when she fled Rakhine last September, making her well positioned to understand what other refugees are going through.


    “When I first got here, I myself was lonely and thinking a lot about this,” she said. “Once I got the training on mental health, I felt better.”


    Uddin, the religious teacher, believes a mental salve could be found if the refugees were able to be productive.


    “If they don’t have work, they are just sitting around, thinking, and they cannot control their thoughts,” said Uddin.


    But the ultimate panacea to ease psychological suffering?


    “The solution,” said Uddin, “is if they can get peace – they can return to their country and get their homes back.”

    (TOP PHOTO: Halima Khatum is a traditional spirit healer in the Rohingya refugee camps in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh. Aid groups say they need to better understand and incorporate Rohingya culture into mental health outreach. CREDIT: Dene-Hern Chen/IRIN)

    (Additional reporting by Abu Rehan)



    Only half those who need counselling or other mental health services have access to it
    In Rohingya camps, traditional healers fill a gap in helping refugees overcome trauma
  • The orphans of so-called Islamic State left in Libyan limbo

    A year and a half after so-called Islamic State was kicked out of its last stronghold in Libya, 24 parentless children of its foreign fighters are growing up in a high-security, makeshift orphanage tucked away down a sidestreet in the northwestern city of Misrata.


    They are the last of 155 children brought out of Sirte in late 2016 after many of their parents were killed in a six-month battle to liberate the northern coastal city from IS.


    Most have since been repatriated, released to extended family members, or reunited with female relatives incarcerated in a prison in Misrata, some 275 kilometres northwest of Sirte. But Najeeb al-Raiss, head of the Misrata branch of the Red Crescent, said the governments of the remaining children’s parents – Tunisia, Egypt, Senegal, Nigeria, and Ghana – have shown no interest in repatriating their young citizens.


    So they remain in a walled-off orphanage guarded by a local militia, cared for by an organisation that never expected to look after them for more than a few months. Raiss said the local Red Crescent has spent more than half a million dinars ($350,000) on medical treatment and basic care for the orphans and is running out of money.


    “The government, the international community, and [aid] organisations all deluded us,” said Raiss, who began caring for the children on what was meant to be a temporary basis in late 2016. “[International organisations] all talked about humanity, charity, and amnesty and promised lots of help, but it was just words. Nobody stuck to their promises and now we are alone.”

    Life in a high-security orphanage

    Misrata makes an odd refuge for children of IS members: forces from Libya’s third largest city led the fight against the militants in Sirte, and many lost their lives. The Red Crescent is worried about revenge attacks from locals as well as IS sleeper cells who might take an interest in the children, so they’ve put up high walls and employ a small local militia for round-the-clock security.


    “Our city paid a very high price for liberating Sirte, and there is a chance that someone crazy could try to do something bad to these children,” Raiss told IRIN. “It’s not likely, but we have to be alert to that threat.”


    The walls are high enough that the children can play in a small courtyard – half sand, half astroturf – without being seen from neighbouring houses. The outer gate and main living areas are locked.

    “They had no part in IS or the war. They are victims who have been left very vulnerable."

    The Red Crescent employs a nanny and a tutor in lieu of formal schooling and, on the rare occasions the children leave the orphanage, the road is sealed off before they are ushered onto a bus, under guard.


    In the early evening, the orphans’ high-pitched recitations of Quranic verse can just be heard in the courtyard, before the older children carry large cooking pots of macaroni into their small living area. There are only three bedrooms, and everything here is modest. Donated clothes are often outsized, trousers tied with string, furnishings are sparse, and they have few toys.


    The staff appear to have strong relationships with the children, but the locked doors and its small size mean this home sometimes resembles a prison. One little girl grasped the hand of a departing visitor, pleading: “Please take me with you.”


    But Raiss said this is still the best and safest option for the orphans, the youngest of whom was carried out from the rubble of Sirte when she was just two days old, and has known no other home. The oldest is 14.

    “These children are a big responsibility, and we do as much as we can for them,” said Raiss. “We know it’s not much, but we do our best.”

    Unwanted and forgotten

    The children first came into the Red Crescent’s care traumatised and withdrawn, recalled Dr. Faisal Mohammed Jelwal, a psychologist who volunteers at the orphanage. Many did not speak for months, others refused to eat and drink.


    Once they began talking, Red Crescent volunteers, with the help of the imprisoned widows of IS fighters, were able to build a database of their names and nationalities.


    They were helped by the fact that all IS families were hunkered down together in the final months of the battle for Sirte, contravening the group’s practice of separating families by the social standings of their husbands.


    “They knew each other very well in the end, so we’ve been able to identify names and nationalities of all the children, even the babies,” explained Jelwal.


    Some children were reunited with female relatives in Misrata prison, while any Libyan children were released to extended family members. According to the Libyan Red Crescent, only 27 IS-affiliated women and children – from the Philippines and Sudan – have been repatriated by their governments since 2016.


    Taher al-Baher, head of the technical department of the Misrata charity Alemdad, which initially worked with the Red Crescent to care for the children and works closely with the UN on multiple projects, told IRIN that earlier this year 21 Somali, Eritrean, and Djiboutian women and children were taken to Canada as part of UN-funded evacuation programmes. He said one woman was taken to Germany. The UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR, did not respond to IRIN’s requests for comment on the resettlements.


    Raiss and Jelwal said the remaining orphans’ home countries – 21 of them are from Tunisia and Egypt – have expressed no interest in taking them back.


    “We’ve tried to contact all international humanitarian agencies and tried to keep the pressure up on relevant governments – both [on] the Libyan government and these orphans’ home governments, to get them to take them back to their own homes and preferably family members,” Jelwal said. “Unfortunately, we’ve received no responses.”


    A spokesperson from the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) told IRIN it “has been “working on restoring family links with… [the children’s] families, with the aim of eventually facilitating their repatriation.”

    Injured and traumatised

    While the Red Crescent hopes to eventually send the children home, for now it provides much-needed medical and mental healthcare.

    Food and drinking water were scarce in the final months of the battle for Sirte, and those who escaped were severely malnourished. Some children still bear the scars from injuries they sustained, including gunshot and shrapnel wounds: the arm of one three-year-old had to be amputated, while another little girl has extensive burn marks across her face and neck.


    Jelwal said the psychological damage was just as serious. It took about four months for the children to begin exploring the orphanage or to ask after their parents and family members. The younger children have regained some sense of normalcy and talk to the orphanage’s occasional visitors – they mostly ask for toy cars – but the older ones are uncommunicative and withdrawn.


    The trauma is not surprising given the horrors many of these children have seen. Major General Mohamed al-Ghossri, former spokesman of the Libyan forces who fought in Sirte, told IRIN that 15 women detonated suicide vests in the civilian corridors that the children used to flee.

    “[International organisations] all talked about humanity, charity, and amnesty and promised lots of help, but it was just words. Nobody stuck to their promises and now we are alone.”

    Two of the children currently housed in the orphanage ran away in terror after watching their father pour petrol over their mother and her sister and set them alight – an apparent effort to protect them from arrest by the advancing military.


    Part of Jelwal’s work is countering IS ideology, although not all the kids know their parents were a part of the group.


    “The younger ones don’t realise their parents were with IS and don’t understand everything that happened. But some of the children, mostly aged seven or older, perhaps understand their parents were with IS,” he said.

    Little help…and what future?

    While Jelwal volunteers his time, taking care of the children has been expensive. Heavily reliant on private donations, the Libyan Red Crescent is struggling financially.


    Raiss was frustrated. He described support from the UN and major aid agencies as “disappointing”, limited to modest funds from the ICRC and beds donated by the UN’s migration agency, IOM.


    “We hear in the media about many huge humanitarian organisations working all over the world, but here we have seen no humanity from the international community,” Raiss said. “Most of these organisations have only visited these children to take photos and collect information. But [they have] not given any concrete help.”


    An ICRC spokesperson told IRIN it had sent a local team to do renovations on the orphanage, and provided toothbrushes, soap, and other hygienic goods.


    Jelwal singled out UNICEF for providing no assistance at all, but the UN agency’s regional spokeswoman Juliette Touma told IRIN: “UNICEF has provided some recreational assistance to the children in this orphanage. UNICEF continues to advocate with local authorities for the release of children affiliated with armed conflict and the reunification of these children with their extended families.”


    While one Senegalese girl may soon be sent home to her grandparents, the rest of the children are likely to remain in this small Misrata compound for the foreseeable future. It’s not clear how the local Red Crescent will cope.


    “Every day the children are getting older and bigger and need more space,” said Jelwal, stressing that – whatever role their parents might have had during IS rule in Sirte – the orphans themselves were blameless.


    “The plight of these children is a consequence of war,” he said. “They had no part in IS or the war. They are victims who have been left very vulnerable. The world should care about them.”



    The orphans of so-called Islamic State left in Libyan limbo
    “The plight of these children is a consequence of war”
  • In appreciation: Barbara Harrell-Bond, refugee advocate and researcher, 1932-2018

    In the current international climate, refugees can use all the supporters they can get. But last week, refugees around the world lost an irreplaceable champion with the passing of Dr. Barbara Harrell-Bond.

    Barbara worked tirelessly for more than 35 years to improve protections for refugees, to ensure that their voices were heard not only in academic research but in real-world policy debates.

    Barbara was never short of outrage at how badly refugees were being treated throughout the world. To her, fighting that injustice was the most important thing – it was all-consuming. Her research and teaching were inspirational to generations of scholars and practitioners of refugee and forced migration studies. Most memorably, she never shied away from speaking truth to power, taking on donor governments, UN bodies, large non-governmental organisations, and host governments alike. Indeed, her bold criticisms, backed by robust evidence, have inspired generations of scholars to follow her example and hold to account officials charged with assisting refugees.


    Refugee advocate and academic Barbara Harrell-Bond, at home in June 2017
    Unni Karunakara
    Barbara Harrell-Bond in 2017. Her research and teaching were inspirational to generations of refugee studies scholars and practitioners.

    I first met Barbara in 1988 while studying anthropology at the University of Oxford. I had spent the whole year studying subjects like witchcraft and totemism – things that can make people seem more exotic than understood – and I wanted to use my training in a more useful way. My tutor sent me along to meet Barbara. I stepped into her office and found a wonderful, diverse world of people who were doing exactly what I wanted to be doing – using academic research to try to make a positive difference in the world.

    Trained as a legal anthropologist, she studied at Oxford under the supervision of eminent anthropologist Edward Evan Evans-Pritchard.

    Her engagement with refugees and African studies came later, but her commitment to social justice was clear even from her 1967 dissertation, an ethnography of a deprived housing estate in the Oxford suburbs, Blackbird Leys. She went on to research law and dispute resolution in traditional courts in Sierra Leone.

    Barbara’s work on refugees began in the early 1980s. She established the Refugee Studies Programme at Oxford (now known as the Refugee Studies Centre). Run by a tiny but dedicated team, this institution quickly became a crucial resource and meeting point for academics, practitioners, and refugees themselves. Barbara led the way in establishing refugee studies as an interdisciplinary academic field. At its centre: an agenda for influencing policy and bringing a refugee-centred focus to debates about asylum policy, social integration, and refugee assistance.

    Barbara’s seminal 1986 book Imposing Aid: Emergency Assistance to Refugees was based on research she and a band of Oxford students and local researchers conducted in what is now South Sudan. In it, she makes the very simple argument – she was the first to agree it should not have to be made – that refugees are not helpless victims, but always and everywhere have agency, resilience, and dignity, and that this must be the starting point for any assistance. Showing how badly wrong things can go when they fail to keep this basic truth in mind, this book – as well as Rights in Exile: Janus-Faced Humanitarianism (which she co-authored) – called to account those acting to aid and protect refugees. Her criticisms were always sharp, direct, and – most embarrassingly for their targets – meticulously substantiated with evidence. She did not suffer fools or egos gladly.

    I worked for Barbara in 1989-1990, helping to put together material for training courses for people working with refugees. She had me working late into the night and on weekends. I remember working on New Year's Day, stepping outside the office only to buy bread, salami, and Barbara's cigarettes. When my work permit expired after a year, she somehow managed to get it extended through a connection in the British government’s Home Office – much to my surprise, as that was a regular target (along with the UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR) of her strident criticism.

    These days I am less surprised; these organisations are sprinkled with people who were influenced by her, who carry with them a streak of critical boldness even as they work inside the belly of the beast.

    Many years later, when we started a master's degree in ‘Migration, Mobility and Development’ at SOAS, she told me that she was sorry we had focused on migrants of all kinds rather than focus exclusively on refugees, as she thought that the latter needed greater protection. She picked fights over this issue with many people, and she was not easy to get along with. At the same time, she was fiercely loyal to her friends, and we remained in regular contact over three decades, up to just a few weeks ago.

    Barbara’s research and teaching were inspirational to generations of scholars and practitioners of refugee and forced migration studies. She was crucial in the founding of the Journal of Refugee Studies and the Forced Migration Review – respectively the world’s leading academic and practitioner publications on refugees and displacement. She also set up the Rights in Exile web portal that provides essential information and a network of experts who provide pro bono legal assistance to asylum seekers.

    Barbara was also a founder of the International Association for the Study of Forced Migration, the leading professional association for scholarship on forced migration. The association will meet next week in Thessaloniki, Greece, where she was to have received yet another lifetime achievement award, and seen the launch of a new film about her life, Barbara Harrell-Bond: A Life Not Ordinary.





    Barbara’s vision of refugee studies demanded being close to the regions and people with whom it is engaged. Disturbed by the idea of a refugee studies centre isolated in the ivory tower of Oxford, she worked with colleagues to establish the Refugee Law Project at the University of Makerere, Uganda, and refugee studies centres at Moi University in Kenya, the American University in Cairo, and others. Out of these centres have come many of the strongest and most interesting voices in refugee studies today, including academics who are or have been refugees themselves.


    Her home in north Oxford was a hive of activity – every guest was pressed into voluntary service to contribute to scholarship or advocacy on refugee issues. Refugees found safe haven there. Stray academics found purpose in her fierce commitment to social justice.

    When I now think about Barbara's legacy, I realise that almost everyone I have collaborated with or respected in the field of refugee studies has a Barbara connection. In some cases she introduced us to each other. In other cases I feel a connection to someone and only find out much later that Barbara touched their lives in some way, in some part of the world – Uganda, South Africa, Kenya, Egypt, India… Whether she introduced us to each other or not, having been in her orbit changed all of us and made us into a strong, subversive, passionate clan.


    A few years ago I went to visit her again. She sat in her living room, which continued to be a cottage industry for refugee protection. Three student interns sat at computers. A fourth was cheerfully preparing lunch for everyone. They had all, like me all those years before, been seduced by Barbara's passion.


    In appreciation: Barbara Harrell-Bond, refugee advocate and researcher, 1932-2018
  • In Conversation With: George Okoth-Obbo, head of operations at the UN refugee agency

    Monsoon season in Bangladesh’s Rohingya refugee camps, formerly refugee-friendly countries closing their borders, and an international refugee response system at “breaking point”: these are just some of the things that keep the man who oversees the delivery of UN aid to millions of refugees up at night.

    George Okoth-Obbo, the UN refugee agency’s assistant high commissioner for operations, sat down recently with IRIN Director Heba Aly and opened up about the challenges of helping tens of millions of forcibly displaced people around the world amid unrelenting new emergencies, rising needs, and an increasingly hostile political environment.

    In an unusually frank conversation, Okoth-Obbo lamented UNHCR’s challenges to influence antagonistic governments, acknowledged “inter-agency strife” at the UN, and looked for a “more equal relationship” with the NGOs that carry out its programmes.

    A lawyer by training, Okoth-Obbo took over UNHCR’s operations in 2015 after decades spent at many levels in the organisation, from field worker in Botswana to director of the Regional Bureau for Africa.


    George Okoth-Obbo

    The interview – held at UNHCR’s annual meeting with hundreds of its NGO partners in Geneva in late June – came as the UN gears up to agree a more effective way of responding to refugee crises at its General Assembly in September, after two years of negotiations around a new global compact for refugees.

    Okoth-Obbo also expressed concern about regressive moves in protecting refugees around the globe. For instance, IRIN has reported on Jordan closing its border to Syrian refugees; Kenya threatening to close its largest camp for Somali refugees; and Pakistan’s constant threats to send Afghan refugees home. In the United States, the separation of Central American migrant children from their parents recently caused an uproar around the world.

    “We are seeing some of the most serious forms of retrenchment from good asylum protection-based policy – policies of compassion, policies of receiving people – either in deliberate policy and legal terms or in practice,” he said.

    Along with the rolling back of rights to asylum and protection, he noted a deterioration in the circumstances in which refugees live.

    “The conditions of life of refugees really are terrible – and in fact weakening with time,” Okoth-Obbo said.

    George Okoth-Obbo on the roll-back of refugee protections

    George Okoth-Obbo on the roll-back of refugee protections

    He acknowledged UNHCR’s “weakness in performance” in meeting even the most immediate needs of refugees at times, but put this largely down to a lack of resources, noting that despite an overall budget increase the agency’s spending per capita has dropped from $1.24 per refugee per day in 2009 to about $0.60 today. “This is the reality that we face: on a per capita basis, our programmes are becoming poorer.”

    Highlights of the conversation follow, edited for clarity and length:

    Myanmar, “the single most preoccupying situation”

    Top of mind for Okoth-Obbo are nearly one million Rohingya refugees packed into densely populated camps in Bangladesh and now facing the monsoon season. He said he regretted not having found an alternative to housing the refugees in crowded camps, which increase the risk of disease and sexual and gender-based violence, and the impact of the monsoons.

    “The single most preoccupying situation that has kept me awake is the Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh, because they faced… still face today, and will continue to face through to September the risk not just of harm but potential death if the monsoons and the cyclones were to come with the vigour that we have all feared...

    “The single greatest failure of protection – and that's our mandate – is if the people that we are interested to serve end up being exposed to risk. The most extreme, and most unacceptable, of those risks is where there is loss of life or great brutalisation of personal safety and dignity.”

    In Bangladesh, UN agencies “played off” each other

    Okoth-Obbo acknowledged a rivalry between UNHCR and the International Organization for Migration over leadership of the aid response in Bangladesh, widely seen to have hampered relief efforts to the Rohingya. As IRIN has reported, Bangladesh refused to let UNHCR lead the response, as it typically does in such situations, because the government had a closer relationship with IOM. Okoth-Obbo also noted competition between UN agencies over control of the increasingly lucrative business of cash transfers to refugees.

    “We need greater unity among ourselves as the United Nations agencies because, quite frankly, in [the case of Bangladesh] there were also considerable weaknesses on our side, which allowed the situation to be exploited... [If] we are perceived as being in competition with each other... that will magnify the opportunity for one to be played off against the other...

    “There has been inter-agency strife – let's put it like that – between UNHCR and [the World Food Programme] at this particular stage in the evolution of the application of cash in humanitarian refugee programmes...

    “Those things have occurred,” Okoth-Obbo said. IRIN's reporting has uncovered  “massive disagreements” in particular programmes in Turkey and Lebanon. 

    “But let us not overgeneralise, because since 2016 to the end of last year, UNHCR dispersed $1.2 billion in cash in 95 countries,” Okoth-Obbo said. “This strife – if that's what it is – is not the character at all in the majority of those operations.

    “What we are increasingly working at is the ‘straight line’ approach… At head of agency level, especially between us and WFP, we are hoping that we can resolve these questions as quickly as possible so that the general pattern will be one of focusing, by far the most of all, on the people themselves.”

    In dealing with strong governments, the UN is “a bit lost”

    Okoth-Obbo said the UN is most comfortable working in fragile states, where governments generally demand less influence over the UN's direction. But “when we confront strong governments, we are a bit lost”. While many governments "truly seek to abide by their obligations" under refugee law and provide international protections for refugees and other displaced people, most governments also have interests that might not coincide with those objectives, he said.​

    “It's a very tense relationship and we are an intergovernmental organisation, which must remain constantly sensitive to our ability to do business. In other words, we have to be on the ground to be able to work on a day-to-day basis...

    “This kind of work,” he said, referring to long-term outreach with both assertive governments and communities on the ground, “we are not very good at as UNHCR.”

    “A more equal relationship” between UNHCR and NGOs

    UNHCR and its partners must shift their focus away from pure aid delivery towards influencing the “hearts, souls, and attitudes” of both host governments and host communities, which increasingly espouse anti-refugee positions, Okoth-Obbo said. NGOs could play an important role.

    “We need somehow to have a partnership [with NGOs]… that is much more dynamic in reaching out to decision makers and to political constituencies at home… everywhere – from the United States to my own country, Uganda...

    “Quite a lot of the energy we spend duelling with each other… I have definitely seen it in cases where [what is meant to be joint advocacy] comes out as fundamentally a battle between NGOs and UNHCR. This then creates in-house a dynamic of sort of feeling defensive, which is wasted energy, isn't it?...

    “So how do we optimise this power of voice [that NGOs have] so that most of the energy is spent in the right direction?...

    “The answer to this question cannot be anymore: ‘UNHCR will be the voice and then our partners will wait to follow operationally.’ I think we have to create a more equal relationship.”
    He cited as an example UNHCR's relationship with BRAC, Bangladesh’s largest development NGO, which "quite frankly has – at least on some issues – more leverage with the government than we do”, noting that BRAC was successful in engaging both the government and local communities in tandem with UNHCR.
    George Okoth-Obbo on UNHCR leading from behind



    A system at “breaking point”

    So far this year, UNHCR has received $1.9 billion from donors, about half of what the agency spent in 2017, and far less than the $8 billion it has requested. Okoth-Obbo said this has forced the agency to prioritise some thematic sectors, like hygiene, shelter, or advocacy, over others in any given emergency.​

    "We are obliged because of resource constraints to do constant revisions and reprioritisation."

    George Okoth-Obbo on why refugees regularly protest the quality of services they receive



    “As we sit here, one human being is being displaced every two seconds; 44,000 every day; and three million from one year to the next. While we have old situations that are not going away – whether it is in Yemen, the Sahrawi situation, CAR [Central African Republic], Colombia – more and more are being added each year. The system is at breaking point…

    “If I was to choose one thing which all of us should work on very strongly for the 12 months, it would be capacity. Because we are really at the limit of the capacity…

    “In the case of Myanmar, at the beginning there was hardly really any conversation in terms of doing something about the factors which are causing people to be displaced… Take the Venezuela situation, for example, or South Sudan – whatever we are doing on the humanitarian side, more should be done on the prevention side because the system, in my view, has reached the limit, or is very close to reaching the limit, of being able to absorb the situation.”

    A new approach to refugee response “is working”

    A more predictable and comprehensive approach to handling refugee influxes, known as the Comprehensive Refugee Response Framework, aims to relieve the pressure on humanitarian agencies by encouraging more sustainable, long-term responses that encourage self-resilience and share the so-called burden among a wider number of countries. Is this working?

    “I would not pretend that there are not problems… [But] it is working,” Okoth-Obbo said.

    “[For example], Venezuelans [fleeing into other South American countries] have found solutions through different pathways, without a cost to the humanitarian system.”

    Even in countries that are not formally part of the CRRF, like Cameroon, he said refugees are being integrated into existing national socio-economic systems and international development plans, rather than helped by aid agencies through emergency response.

    Keep your ‘refugee protection talk’ out of here

    The CRRF is an example of a new push towards a closer relationship between long-term development and short-term emergency aid providers in protracted emergencies. But the so-called humanitarian-development nexus has raised concerns about the ability of humanitarians to remain independent while working with development agencies who are often closely aligned with governments.

    Refugee response is no exception. A longer-term approach to refugees, including increasing emphasis on integrating them into national development plans, is absolutely needed, Okoth-Obbo acknowledged, but in his eyes, it also risks weakening the protections woven into humanitarian response.

    George Okoth-Obbo on how UNHCR must protect its space amid a push to work more closely with government and development agencies



    IDPs: the ‘poor cousins’ of refugees

    While admitting failures in some refugee responses, Okoth-Obbo was even stronger in condemning UNHCR’s approach​ to people who are displaced within their own countries but have not crossed international borders. Internally displaced persons (IDPs) make up almost two thirds of those forced to flee globally, and yet, by UNHCR’s own admission, its response to them is less predictable, consistent, and coherent. For instance, UNHCR was much faster to respond to some 30,000 refugees from the Democratic Republic of Congo in Angola than to the millions of people internally displaced within the DRC. An internal review recommended in September 2017 changes to the way UNHCR staffs and budgets its operations to more quickly and automatically respond to such crises. Ahead of a year-end deadline for implementation, what tangible progress has been made towards putting those recommendations into action?

    “To be absolutely candid with you, we are still in the middle of setting up all these changes, and particularly in terms of the internal systems and capacities that will have to be created.” While noting that the agency had trialled some of these recommendations when responding to displaced people in the Kasai region of Congo, Okoth-Obbo said: “the truth is that we are still in the stage of working those through...

    “It is absolutely correct to say that, today, IDPs remain poor cousins if you compare them, for instance, to refugees… We acknowledge that the response at large, including ours, could be much stronger. The overall response to IDPs, not only of UNHCR, but of the system as a whole, is still too heavily weighed down by processes, particularly coordination processes.”

    Putting people first… later?

    So where is UNHCR in its quest to “put people first”, a common mantra nowadays and the theme of this year’s annual UNHCR-NGO meetings? UNHCR is rolling out a new system in 21 countries in which its NGO partners – and the refugees themselves – can much more actively participate in the design of its programmes, Okoth-Obbo noted.

    “We tend to be driven by the imperatives that we ourselves have to respond to operationally, and those then include a very big mix of things that do not always in all cases coincide with what the refugees themselves would have wished.”

    George Okoth-Obbo on why a bid to build the capacity of local organisations failed



    “There are operations in which engagement – whether of women, young people, or people with disabilities – is very successful. But I also have to be very honest that there are others where we are much further behind. We still have operations today where, for instance, women's participation is very difficult. We still have operations today where you'll find a refugee leadership group that is made up not only of men, but very old men actually...

    “So it varies. What is common across the board is our commitment more and more, day-in day-out, to work towards this greater inclusivity. And not only consulting with, talking with and listening to refugees, but engaging them in the decisions that we make that ultimately impact their life.”

    Watch the whole interview here:





    The senior UNHCR executive opens up about his agency’s challenges influencing antagonistic governments, its fractious relationship with other UN agencies, and a refugee response system at "breaking point"
    In Conversation With: George Okoth-Obbo, head of operations at the UN refugee agency
    In Conversation With is an occasional feature that presents in-depth interviews with the people shaping humanitarian responses around the globe
  • For Kurds in Southeast Turkey, the urban conflict continues

    In July 2015 a new phase of the decades-old conflict between the Turkish government and Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) militants erupted after a two-and-a-half year peace process failed: the largely rural guerrilla war entered majority-Kurdish towns and cities in the southeast as government forces went house-to-house to root out PKK-linked fighters.


    Fighting was most intense in the central neighbourhoods of Sur district, a UNESCO World Heritage site in the provincial capital of Diyabakir, where ancient fortified walls surround historic mosques, churches, and synagogues. The ten months of conflict, including a three-month siege that damaged or destroyed the majority of buildings, has left many of those displaced by the violence feeling as if they must now fight for their homes and for their community and culture to live on.


    On the hunt for votes ahead of his June re-election, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan visited Sur in March, promising to renovate the district as part of a 2.3-billion Turkish lira ($500 million) plan to revitalise the southeast. He spoke of creating a vibrant economy and a new tourism boom.


    But most of Sur’s original residents – the majority Kurds, 24,000 of whom are still displaced by the fighting, which lasted until March 2016 – won’t be able to afford the new buildings going up where their homes once stood.


    Diego Cupolo/IRIN
    Newly constructed houses and rubble where houses once stood in eastern Sur, a UNESCO World Heritage site once home to a largely Kurdish community.

    This situation has expanded the enmity between local Kurds and the central government. Many displaced residents say they believe that Erdogan’s administration — which, following a June election victory, will remain in place until 2023 with expanded executive powers granted by a 2017 referendum — is profiting from displacement and engaging in demographic re-engineering by pricing out displaced Kurds, a minority long discriminated against by the state.


    “The reconstruction is aimed at shaping the society through space, erasing the memory and creating a new memory,” said Nevin Soyukaya, an archaeologist with the SUR Platform, a group of citizens monitoring the reconstruction of Sur. Soyukaya personally helped place the district on the UNESCO World Heritage Site list in 2015, just months before conflict erupted. “Therefore, this is an attempt to change not only the physical structure, but also the demographic structure.”


    Many of the dwellings in Sur were “gecekondu”, a Turkish term for informal structures meaning “built over night”. State officials have come to view gecekondus as urban blight – areas of high crime and drug use – and have looked to raze them and rebuild to contemporary standards. This has happened elsewhere in the country, but in Sur the process is moving quickly, prompted by the damage from fighting.


    For Cengiz Abis, a Kurdish Sur resident whose family home was razed, not only is government compensation too low to allow him to buy back what will eventually be built in its place, but the area where he grew up still feels like a warzone.


    "Diyarbakir has been invaded,” he says. “The whole city is filled with police stations, with armoured vehicles. When we look around, all we can understand is that we are under occupation. There are plain-clothed police everywhere. We are being followed and monitored all the time."


    Nurullah Bilgin, provincial director of Turkey’s Ministry of Environment and Urban Planning, told state media in late June that the redevelopment project in Sur is worth two billion lira (around $420 million), with 340 homes now under construction and 1,500 new residences planned.


    “Sur will become an attraction center,” Bilgin said, with the potential “to draw one million tourists.”


    The Housing Development Administration of Turkey, known as TOKI, has not released the names of the private contractors involved in rebuilding, nor did it respond to numerous requests for comment. Residents, employees at non-governmental organisations, activists, and politicians interviewed for this article said that the lack of transparency in the process has led them to assume that the most likely recipients of large-scale contracts are business leaders with close ties to Erdogan’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP).


    Diego Cupolo/IRIN
    Cengiz and Emine Abis are now staying in Baglar, Diyarbakir, having been displaced from their home in Sur.

    “It was everything we had”


    The 2015 breakdown in a ceasefire between the state and the PKK led to ten months of street fighting followed by ongoing skirmishes, which, according to an International Crisis Group tally, claimed almost 4,000 lives, including 452 civilians.


    Many of the casualties came from urban militant strongholds like Sur, where Cengiz Abis and his wife Emine each grew up and later bought a two-room flat together.


    Around half of Sur’s 120,000 mostly Kurdish residents fled during the fighting, but the Abis family had tried to stay in their home to protect their property, despite military curfews, fighting, and water and electricity cuts. But in March 2016 they were forced out and spent 15 months in prison, while their children were sent to a state orphanage.



    All they have left of their Sur home are mobile phone pictures of living room furniture slashed open and flipped upside down on top of clothes scattered on the floor.


    The photos were taken by a friend who tried to recover Emine’s treasured wedding gown after she and her husband were sent to prison for allegedly aiding the PKK during the fighting (they were accused of acting as human shields and providing material aid to the group).


    But the dress was nowhere to be found, and the home’s appliances were gone.


    When they were released and reunited with their children, they found they could not go home. Their house was in the walled-off security zone that covers the eastern half of Sur, where most residential buildings had been razed after the state declared all war-damaged structures unfit for habitation.


    The place where the house once stood is now a field of weeds, frequented by the occasional stray cat, Emine said.


    While state authorities are rebuilding the area, local Kurds argue that government compensation and offers of discounted housing elsewhere are inadequate.


    “I saved up to buy [our house in Sur] for years and we fixed it up with our own hands,” says Cengiz, now renting in Baglar, the low-income Diyarbakir neighbourhood where many displaced Sur residents have resettled. “It was everything we had,” Emine adds. “We will never feel at home anywhere else than Sur, and now it’s gone.”


    The changing face of Sur


    In west Sur, where most houses remain intact, the area’s rich history as a cultural centre from Greek and Roman times, through the Byzantine and Ottoman periods, to the present day can still be seen in some of the aging structures left behind. Its alleyways still serve as communal patios where neighbours drink tea as their children play, away from the hectic traffic in the busy, new areas of Diyarbakir.


    But, in recent decades, Sur has also come to represent poverty, a place where homes are rudimentary and lack proper sewage and heating. First proliferating during the mass rural-to-urban migration following World War II, construction of gecekondus intensified in places like Sur during the 1990s as conflicts ravaged surrounding villages, driving people into the cities.


    The central government introduced renewal plans for the neighbourhood in 2012, but they were put on hold until fighting subsided in 2016.


    When the siege ended, security barricades closed off damaged areas and state officials ordered an “emergency expropriation” of about 60 percent of Sur properties. Large swathes of residential areas had been abandoned, and many houses collapsed under bombardment. These properties are now in the possession of the Ministry of Environment and Urban Planning.


    Some religious and historic buildings were preserved, as the state embarked on ambitious plans to see Sur become a world-class tourism destination, following a promise by former prime minister Ahmet Davutoglu in 2015 to turn it into the next Toledo.


    “These cities have faced unplanned growth since the 1990s, and would need urban renewal even if these events hadn’t happened,” he said at the time.


    Diego Cupolo/IRIN
    Damaged buildings in Sur's walled-off eastern half, former residents whose homes are declared uninhabitable are offered financial compensation or a discount on subsidised housing elsewhere.

    In September 2016, then-prime minister Binali Yıldırım introduced an updated reconstruction plan for southeastern Turkey, which included an initiative to build 7,000 new homes in Sur. But the new homes now sprouting up will be relatively expensive: prices are believed to be in the range of 400,000-600,000 lira, or $87,000-130,000, far beyond the reach of many Sur residents like Emine and Cengiz.


    “I just want the field, the space where my house was”


    Displaced residents of Sur whose homes are declared uninhabitable have a few options: accept a compensation payment, accept a discount on government-subsidised housing elsewhere, or fight it out in court.


    The compensation varies widely and is based on the property size and the value of a household’s furniture.


    Remziye Tosun, 37, gained unwanted fame when security footage was posted on YouTube showing her being searched while she was evicted from Sur in March 2016.


    Like the Abis family, she defied the government’s orders and remained in her home during the conflict to protect her belongings, and was arrested as a result.


    Upon release, Tosun was offered 57,000 lira ($12,400) for her house, but declined it, claiming she had spent at least 120,000 lira ($26,100) to purchase and renovate it. She accepted 7,000 lira ($1,500) for the furniture and home appliances she lost, but continues to pursue more compensation in court.


    Tosun, like many displaced residents, also receives monthly compensation of 1,000 lira ($217) – though these payments are distributed inconsistently, according to those who receive them.


    “This is hush money,” says Tosun, recently elected as a deputy for Diyarbakir with the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP). “I told them, ‘I don’t want your money, I don’t want your TOKI [subsidised housing], I want my house back.” She adds: “I just want the field, the space where my house was. We will rebuild it. I would even be happy living there in a tent.”


    The Abis family are of a similar mind. Emine and Cengiz were offered 47,000 lira ($10,200) for their house. They say that amount wouldn’t even cover their most recent renovation costs and have launched a lawsuit to get a better offer.


    Tempted by a TOKI?


    Aside from cash payments, the state is offering displaced residents a discount on apartments in state-subsidised, low-income housing or in high-rise buildings that locals call TOKIs, after the national housing administration. They are more modern than the gecekondus of Sur, but they don’t appeal to everyone.


    “TOKIs are far, far away [from the city centre] and there is nothing near TOKIs except more of them, so you are isolated,” Cengiz says. “Inside the buildings, you don’t know your neighbours because you never see them. In Sur, it was different. We had close relations with our neighbours. We knew who they were.”


    “It’s not about the price,” he continues. “It’s like taking a bird from nature and putting it in a cage. We want our freedom, and Sur’s where our freedom was.”


    Diego Cupolo/IRIN
    Most of the traditional buildings in western Sur remain intact, and some residents have returned home

    Even with the discounts and reimbursements the state is offering, TOKIs, at between 150,000 and 200,000 lira ($32,600-43,500), are out of reach for most displaced former Sur residents.


    Not everyone views the reconstruction plans with cynicism. Altan Tan, who was born and raised in Sur and recently ran for office unsuccessfully with the moderate Islamist Saadet Party, said the gecekondus needed to be demolished and were unfit for occupation.


    “I grew up in a gecekondu, and it’s only nice for those who don’t understand what that means,” Tan says. “[The residents of Sur] are objecting because they are not getting enough compensation for their property. They know they can’t buy a new home with whatever the state is offering them. It’s a question of money, not politics, like everyone will have you believe.”


    Regardless, Tosun says she and others like her are determined to go back to Sur, to reconstruct the community they once had.


    “The displaced residents of Sur… they are saving that rent money and waiting to buy the field where their house used to be.” she says. “So when they are able to go back, they will, and they will start rebuilding and rebuild their lives. No matter what, one day, I will live in Sur again.”

    (TOP PHOTO: Two young men sit on Sur's fortress walls near the Nasuh Paşa, an Ottoman-era mosque. CREDIT: Diego Cupolo/IRIN)



    The fighting has ended, but fears that a culture will be erased remain
    For Kurds in Southeast Turkey, the urban conflict continues
  • When Artificial Intelligence meets humanitarian jargon

    On the sidelines of an AI for Good conference in Geneva, where humans and robots mingled and discussed how machine learning could help global development, IRIN rolled up its data science sleeves and deployed a bot on an important new challenge: making up names of aid agencies and aid job titles.


    It’s a new take on some of the jargon and repetitiveness that can be found in the relief and development sector, and hopefully gives a taste of the rudiments of machine learning.

    *Update 31 May: Following suggestions from readers, we applied the machine learning code to 4,500 project titles from the International Aid Transparency Initiative dataset to generate some surreal but somehow familiar new project ideas. Scroll down for a taste... 

    First we downloaded a list of over 9,000 aid organisations from the UN’s Financial Tracking Service (FTS) database. The A-Z list goes from “A Call to Serve International” to “Zwanan Development Organization”. Then we fed them into a machine learning system running open-source code in the Python language.


    The aid organisation names were processed by a recurrent neural network built on the TensorFlow system. We won’t (also, can’t) explain how the maths works in detail. However, it functions like any machine learning process – the foundation of the current explosion in “AI” across a range of sectors – it analyses the patterns of letters and words and then attempts to generate new examples using the rules it has deduced from the original data.


    (Our idea to explore the jargon and nomenclature in aidspeak owes much to Janelle Shane, who feeds machine learning algorithms with unlikely lists, such as the names of craft beers or the names of pet guinea pigs).


    Here are some of our favourites, generated entirely by code.


    Update: Aid project titles produced by AI

    Here are 12 favourites generated from studying a dataset of 4,500 IATI project titles:

    • Support to South Savable Girls
    • Emergency Womens Affected Host Technocons 
    • Support to complication against agriculture in The Rehabilitation
    • Tender Support to State Final Emergency II​
    • Emergency WASH project for Visibility
    • Develop Award Girls in Good Di Minion
    • Bossing Support​
    • Emergency WASH Election Response in South Sudan​
    • Mid-term Education Most Hard African States in Kosovo
    • Support to the GBV Livestock Strategy of Integrated Host Communities in IDPs in Laba
    • Support to the poops in Emergency​
    • Transit come response for the improved EU Development of the Sudanian State​


    Aid agency names produced by AI


    Some sound quite plausible – if you do set one up, please let us know and send the logo.

    Support International Aid Foundation

    Community Aid Association for Development

    Association des Femmes de l'Environnement

    Medicultural Community Foundation

    Some a little pompous:

    International Council of Society

    Internationalist Fund for Rehabilitation

    Save Foundation

    Others, possibly creative and/or radical:

    Sure Vision for Red Cross

    Africa Relief and Empower Swedish Family

    People Trust of South ye Community Humanitarian Family

    Water World Sudan

    AI-generated NGO: People Trust of South ye Community Humanitarian Family

    Sometimes our bot seemed to get a little lost and confused:

    Alliance for Development and Development

    Miseration Mission for Comment of Africa

    Alliance Save the Development International

    Gy Alliance Conflicted Now Women International

    El Organisation des Futures

    And, some are just plain weird (sorry not sorry):

    ACF and Development Porn

    Scam for National Aid

    Bin Welfare Relief and Training

    Association Premirerianista

    Next, we moved onto humanitarian job titles. We fed the bot more than 2,000 vacancies on the UN’s ReliefWeb jobs pages. And these are some of the best new jobs titles it came up with. Perhaps some of these fit your current role? Or make you wish you could apply?

    AI-generated job title: Regional Regionalization of International Programme for Head of Party  


    Humanitarian job titles invented by AI


    Chief of Party (Sex)

    Sneak Specialist

    South Changes Manager

    Chef of Finances and Grant & Manager

    Regional Leader (Interant) Livelihood and Consultant

    Multiple International Director

    Nation demonic Manager


    Safe Manager

    Consultant Africa and Charging and Programme

    Hand Officer

    Projectories Analyst

    Regional Regionalization of International Programme for Head of Party  

    Changing Director

    Communications Coordinator and Memaliature Manager

    Integration Director (Support) (H/F)

    International Parent (H/F) Adviser

    Street Communication Laborator

    Development Coordinator – Safety Senior Charge Policy Specialist

    And some that sound more like entry level roles:

    Engager Programmes Intern


    Project (unimation volunteer)

    Reliefancer Coordinator

    Editor Intern Coordinator

    As always, comments and reactions are welcome below - tell us your favourites!


    When Artificial Intelligence meets humanitarian jargon
    Could you be the next Hand Officer at Bin Welfare Relief and Training?

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