Food aid scandals, airstrike deaths, and an ‘unspeakable attack’ in Mali: The Cheat Sheet

(Food distribution site in the Imvepi refugee camp in Northern Uganda. UNMISS)

Our weekly take on humanitarian news, trends, and developments from around the globe.

On our radar

 

Uganda tests WFP food samples after deaths

The World Food Programme and Uganda are awaiting tests to determine what caused more than 260 people to become sick after eating a fortified cereal imported from Turkey. Symptoms included mental confusion, vomiting, headache, high fever, and abdominal pain. The WFP said the outbreak began around mid-March in two districts in the Karamoja region. Tests on three of the four people who died were inconclusive, but one woman exhibited stomach tears consistent with ingesting a chemical additive, according to Fred Enanga, Uganda’s police spokesman. One sample of the “Super Cereal” tested positive for aflatoxin – a mould that can cause liver damage. Further lab results are expected in the coming weeks. Some 47,000 women and children in Karamoja and 102,000 refugees across 13 Ugandan districts receive Super Cereal supplements from the WFP. The Uganda case comes a month after The New Humanitarian reported on a separate investigation into a substandard batch of nutrition-boosting porridge mix purchased by the WFP for nursing mothers and malnourished children in several humanitarian hotspots. The Super Cereal was deemed safe, but some of it was found to be low in protein and fat.

 

UN to probe Mali attack as violence soars across the Sahel

 

The UN has sent human rights experts to central Mali to investigate what it called an "unspeakable attack" last weekend in which 157 Fulani villagers were massacred by armed men from the Dogon community. This was the latest in months of ongoing violence, rooted in intercommunal tensions and spurred on by rising extremism in the Sahel. Jihadists have recruited heavily among Fulani herders in recent months, fuelling distrust with ethnic groups such as the Dogon, some of whom have organised into militias. Violence has also spilled across the border into Burkina Faso and Niger, where tens of thousands are displaced. Compared to the same time period last year, ACLED reports that the number of civilians killed in direct attacks in the past five months rose by over 300 percent in Mali, by 7,028 percent in Burkina Faso, and by 500 percent in Niger. For months, The New Humanitarian has followed the conflict from central Mali and eastern Burkina Faso. In our latest special report, we report from western Niger, which is at the centre of this brewing storm. Read Part 1 here.

 

No let-up in civilian toll from airstrikes

 

It has been a deadly few weeks for civilians in the many parts of the world The New Humanitarian reports from: the UN says an airstrike by “international military forces” killed 13 civilians last Friday night in Afghanistan’s Kunduz province (initial reports say the toll includes 10 children, while a spokeswoman for the US military said Taliban fighters were hiding in civilian homes); Save the Children reports that eight people, including five children, were killed when a missile hit a hospital it supports in Yemen’s northwestern Saada province; and, despite an agreement that is holding off a government offensive in Syria’s northwestern rebel-held Idlib province, Amnesty International says President Bashar al-Assad’s Russia-backed forces have escalated airstrikes and artillery attacks in the the past month, hitting medical facilities, a bakery, and a school. The watchdog also says 14 civilians were killed in the five US drone and airstrikes it investigated in Somalia over the past two years (out of more than 100 total hits). The US says there were no civilians casualties, and in one case no strike on the day in question.

 

UN to Venezuela rivals: Stop politicising aid

 

The figures in an internal UN report leaked to media this week are shocking, but most aren’t new: 94 percent of Venezuela’s 28.8 million population in poverty; 2.8 million in need of healthcare assistance, including 300,000 whose lives are at risk. What’s not helping, says the March UN review sent to Juan Guaidó and Nicolás Maduro, is the politicisation of aid. Maduro, the elected president, says there’s no humanitarian crisis and refuses foreign aid (yet he accepts Russian planes of “specialist” personnel and equipment). The UN report suggests Guaidó, opposition leader and self-declared interim president, should also stop trying to manipulate the aid situation to his advantage. But most of all, The New York Times points out, the report “reads like an entreaty for a country on the brink of ruin”. If the move was intended to pacify the rival leaders, it hasn’t worked. Guaidó has declared a new mass mobilisation, while the Maduro government has just banned him from holding public office for 15 years.

 

Kenya threatens – again – to close Dadaab refugee camp

 

Kenya plans to close down the Dadaab refugee camp by August, according to a leaked UN document cited by Human Rights Watch and AFP news agency. The sprawling complex is home to some 230,000 people, many of them Somalis who fled the war in 1991. The document, dated Feb. 12, was sent to the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Refugees. Kenya asks that UNHCR “expedite relocation of the refugees and asylum-seekers” within six months. Kenyan authorities have often alleged links between the camp and members of the al-Shabab militant group, blamed for the Nairobi January attack that killed 21. It’s not the first time Kenya has made such threats. In 2016, a similar decision was overturned by the High Court, as The New Humanitarian reported. Rights groups insist any relocations or returns must be voluntary and safe. Inside Somalia, meanwhile, US airstrikes against al-Shabab have been escalating.

 

From the ground up: The state of local aid

 

Did you miss last Friday’s webinar on the state of local aid? It’s not too late to listen to Asia Editor Irwin Loy guide our three panelists – Regina Salvador-Antequisa from Ecoweb in the Philippines; Evans Onyiego from Caritas Maralal in northern Kenya; and Sune Gudnitz from RedR Australia – in a discussion on the aid sector’s “localisation” agenda. They spoke about (mis)trust and the fear of taking risks – and how this has slowed reforms to the way aid is financed and delivered. They questioned assumptions about what “capacity” really means when it comes to emergency response. And they told us why, in spite of years of stasis, they still have hope things will change. If you haven’t been following our ongoing coverage of local aid, it’s all in one place on our new site, and now’s a great time to catch up.

In case you missed it:

 

BANGLADESH: The UN is weighing whether to support a plan to relocate Rohingya refugees to a remote island in the Bay of Bengal. While insisting any returns must be voluntary, documents obtained by Reuters suggest the UN could be willing to help fund and facilitate the move.

 

MOZAMBIQUE: The first cases of cholera were confirmed in Beira, less than two weeks after Cyclone Idai devastated much of the coast, and parts of Zimbabwe and Malawi. A vaccination campaign is being launched to try to contain disease outbreaks among thousands of displaced.

 

THE PHILIPPINES: Clashes between armed groups and government forces on the southern island of Mindanao have displaced more than 50,000 people in recent weeks. The uptick comes as a new parliament is inaugurated, giving greater autonomy to minority Muslims in the region.

 

UNITED STATES: In another wake-up call to the aid sector, it has emerged that FEMA, the US government department that coordinates the response to disasters, shared personal data of 2.3 million disaster survivors with a contractor, exposing them to possible identity theft.

 

YEMEN: UN agencies and Médecins Sans Frontières both report a spike in suspected cholera cases in the past few months in Yemen, where cholera is endemic but a breakdown in healthcare and sanitation systems has led to several deadly outbreaks of the disease.

 

Our weekend read:

 

How’s it going in Central Sulawesi? Not so well

 

Six months ago this week more than 4,400 people died when a series of earthquakes sent tsunami waves crashing into coastal Central Sulawesi and liquefied entire neighbourhoods in the provincial capital, Palu. Ian Morse, who reported for us in the aftermath of the disaster, returned to see how survivors are faring. The answer is not very well, as he makes clear in the two stories that we’re offering as our weekend read. Four in five of the 170,000 people displaced still lack adequate shelter. Different layers of government blame each other for delays, while families are forced to live in makeshift accommodation, or cram in with friends, because hundreds of temporary shelters lack water and electricity. To combat the lack of media coverage – as even the national press moves on – one local group has set up its own “disaster news agency”, communicating with survivors and trying to hold official aid and rebuilding efforts accountable. At least someone is on the case.

 

And finally…

 

No doodling at school, especially in Burundi

Three teenage girls in Burundi arrested two weeks ago for doodling over the image of President Pierre Nkurunziza in their school textbooks are finally free after being granted provisional release. The charging of the girls with “insulting the head of state” sparked a viral social media campaign, hashtag #FreeOurGirls, with posts of the president in clown wig, twirly moustaches, pointy ears, and bloody fangs. “With so many real crimes being committed in Burundi, it’s tragic that children are the ones being prosecuted for harmless scribbles,” Human Rights Watch Central Africa director Lewis Mudge wrote. Members of the ruling party’s youth wing “have killed, arbitrarily arrested, abducted, beaten, raped, and intimidated real and perceived political opponents with impunity,” he added. In power since 2005, Nkurunziza’s decision to stand for a third term in 2015 triggered protests, a failed coup, and a brutal crackdown. It’s unclear if the charges against the girls – aged 15-17 – will now be dropped.

 

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