Syria strike, Mozambique militancy, and Burna Boy backfire: The Cheat Sheet

A Syrian boy holds a rose inside a charred tent following Syrian regime bombardment on a makeshift camp in the village of Qah near the Turkish border in the northwestern Idlib province on 21 November 2019.
A Syrian boy holds a rose inside a charred tent following Syrian regime bombardment on a makeshift camp in the village of Qah near the Turkish border in the northwestern Idlib province on 21 November 2019. (Aaref Watad/AFP)

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

On our radar

It’s not over in Idlib

Much of the news about Syria of late has focused on last month’s Turkish invasion of the northeast and the subsequent fallout, but this week brought another reminder that civilians are still suffering elsewhere in the country: at least 12 people were killed and dozens wounded on Wednesday night when missiles hit a camp for displaced people in the village of Qah, in northwestern Idlib province. The Syrian American Medical Society said “two surface-to-surface missiles containing cluster munitions” exploded near a maternity hospital it supports in the camp, damaging the facility, wounding staff members, and forcing them to evacuate patients. SAMS said the hospital’s coordinates had been shared with warring parties as part of the UN’s “deconfliction” mechanism, which is supposed to to keep hospitals and other aid operations from being targeted. More than 400,000 people, including many residents at Qah camp, have been forced to take flight since early May, following the escalation of violence in and around rebel-held Idlib, including heavy bombing by the Syrian government and its Russian allies.

Insurgency smoulders in Mozambique

The government doesn’t want to talk about it and few aid groups are on hand to help. But in Mozambique’s northernmost province of Cabo Delgado a suspected Islamist insurgency is becoming harder to ignore. TNH just returned from the region, where a surge in attacks blamed on a militant group known as Ahlu Sunna Wal Jamaa (ASWJ) has left dozens dead and villages empty. Residents describe it as some of the worst violence since the insurgency began more than two years ago. The attacks come on the heels of military operations by the Mozambican army – reportedly backed by Russian mercenaries – that have dispersed the insurgents into smaller groups, which are lashing out against civilians in response. More than 60,000 people are now displaced, though the government doesn’t want these figures published, and many more are going hungry after abandoning their farms. The so-called Islamic State group is claiming the attacks but many are sceptical and a religious message can be hard to discern amid seemingly indiscriminate village burnings and beheadings. The group has not released a manifesto and has no public leadership. Amid an information vacuum, rumours and conspiracies are flourishing. The same area was also hit by a deadly cyclone in April that destroyed or damaged some 35,000 homes. Look out for our upcoming reports on the double misery many residents are now facing.

Anti-xenophobia concert stokes… xenophobia

Billed as the “Africans Unite Concert” to confront xenophobia, it has proved to be anything but. A two-show tour in South Africa was cancelled this week due to a row over the headline presence of Nigerian superstar Burna Boy. The Grammy nominee had spoken out against the xenophobic violence that erupted in South Africa in September, and issued a robust defence of the Nigerian community in South Africa, which had been particularly targeted by the violence, triggering a diplomatic row. Among his milder tweets, he said: “Let’s not act like xenophobia is not real in South Africa”, and that he’d never visit the country until the government did something about it. Some South African artists seem fine with that, but the Tshwane Entertainment Collective called for Burna Boy to be banned for inciting hatred. Sho Madjozi of “John Cena” fame accused him of using xenophobia as a marketing ploy. Concert organisers said Burna Boy had been included to shed light on xenophobia and change the negative narrative to one of solidarity. “It seems we have failed in this regard,” they concluded.

Greece’s asylum solution: More ‘closed’ detention centres

For months, TNH has been calling out inhumane conditions at the Moria processing centre on the Aegean island of Lesvos, where 13,500 asylum seekers spill out of a facility originally intended for 3,000. This week, the Greek government finally announced plans to shut down the camp. Careful what you wish for? Perhaps. The proposed solution envisages five new detention centres by mid-2020 on five different Aegean islands, each housing a maximum of 5,000 people. These will be closed facilities – asylum seekers will remain locked up in them either until they receive refugee status and are relocated to the mainland, or until their claims are rejected and they are sent back to Turkey. But this was also the case at Moria, that is until this summer's spike in arrivals saw conditions deteriorate and residents overspill. How, we’re obliged to ask, will this be any different? With winter setting in, the Greek government has vowed to step up relocations to the mainland, but critics fear a new asylum law will see more fast-track deportations. Sixty-five percent of new arrivals this year have been from Afghanistan or Syria.

‘Another Syria’, in the Sahel?

Another week, another set of gloomy warnings from West Africa’s Sahel region. Marwa Awad, a World Food Programme spokeswoman who just returned from Burkina Faso – where nearly half a million are now displaced – said she feared the country could become “another Syria, while the food agency’s executive director, David Beasley, said malnutrition levels in the country have been “pushed well past emergency thresholds”. Neighbouring Mali and Niger are also experiencing nearly daily attacks, creating a “three-country crisis” that is putting a “whole generation at risk”, WFP said. The countries are supposed to be working together under the G5 Sahel – a five-nation regional counter-terrorism alliance – but the taskforce lacks funding and has failed to stem the rising violence. This week, Burkina Faso’s government criticised the Malian army for an “unauthorised” cross-border military operation that left three people dead. See our in-depth Sahel coverage for more.

In case you missed it

CENTRAL AFRICAN REPUBLIC: A Belgian child sex offender was given a job at the Catholic Church’s charity Caritas in Central African Republic despite a 2012 conviction in his home country. He faces charges of child sex abuse in CAR, following an investigation by CNN. A Belgian judge ruled in 2012 that the priest should be kept away from children until 2022, but his job allowed him access to vulnerable youth, and he became head of Caritas in CAR.

DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF CONGO: Clashes between Congolese troops and militants from the Allied Democratic Forces have left dozens dead in North Kivu province, an Ebola-affected eastern region where the government has stepped up its offensive against armed groups. The security situation has prevented some Ebola response teams from working. Despite a lull in new Ebola infections, several new cases were reported this week. The outbreak’s toll stands at 2,197.

DENGUE: A dengue outbreak in Pakistan has killed 75 people, among 47,000 confirmed cases, and there’s a risk the mosquito-borne virus could spread to neighbouring Afghanistan. Amid a global surge in recent decades, dengue cases in the Americas reached an historic high this year.

ETHIOPIA: A referendum is widely expected to approve Sidama as Ethiopia’s newest region. The Sidama, Ethiopia’s fifth largest ethnic group, have been agitating for greater autonomy and control of their own development budget. But the vote could also splinter the multi-ethnic south, as identity tensions in the country are on the rise. Results were expected Saturday.

LIBYA: The UN’s envoy has said a Wednesday morning airstrike on a biscuit factory in Tripoli that reportedly killed at least 10 people “may constitute a war crime”. It is believed that most of the dead were migrant workers. The UN’s migration agency estimates there are more than 110,000 migrants in the Libyan capital and surrounding areas, in addition to 2,000 in detention centres.

SOMALIA: Somali-Canadian rights activist Almas Elman was shot and killed on Wednesday after a meeting with EU officials at Mogadishu airport – the latest in a series of deaths of prominent returnees from the diaspora. African Union peacekeepers, who control the area, said she was likely killed by a “stray bullet”. Elman’s peace activist father was assassinated in the 1990s.

Weekend read

Briefing: What’s behind a flurry of legal bids to prosecute Myanmar for genocide?

“A headline I could not have imagined writing, once.” That’s how Reuters Myanmar bureau chief and erstwhile TNH contributor Poppy McPherson described the news this week that Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi plans to lead her country’s defence against genocide allegations at The Hague. As our weekend read explains, whether she will actually “lead” the legal defence or address the court remain unclear. The case, at the International Court of Justice, is one of three legal avenues being pursued simultaneously on behalf of the Rohingya. International Criminal Court judges this month authorised a separate probe, while Argentina’s courts will consider a lawsuit based on universal jurisdiction. What distinguishes each case and why the sudden flurry? Emanuel Stokes unpicks it all for TNH in a briefing that suggests Myanmar’s military leaders may not be quaking in their boots at the prospect of imminent justice just yet. The sudden whirr of legal activity – and the media attention it generates – may however be giving them pause and acting as a deterrent for future abuses.

And finally…

A new mural from Murad

Yemeni artist Murad Subay has been painting his moving, large-scale works for a while – first on the damaged and destroyed walls of his home country, and now in France, where he fled to a year and a half ago. This week, Subay unveiled a new mural in Paris called “Dance of the Dead”, featuring three harrowing black and white bodies on a red background. It was produced in collaboration with several NGOs who are speaking out about French arms sales to the warring parties. Subay said the work is inspired by “real stories of people who died in the war, and I am trying to convey how war has affected the people”. While some countries have begun to restrict the sales of weapons to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, who lead an anti-Houthi rebel coalition in Yemen, the arms trade continues, and activists say that means foreign countries are fuelling a war that, by one estimate, has killed more than 100,000 people. For the record, we’ve been unabashed fans of Subay’s work for some time: Check out his 2016 appearance on TNH (then IRIN), after his mural outside the central bank in Sana’a got us thinking about Yemen’s economy.

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