(Formerly called IRIN) Journalism from the heart of crises

  • Local NGO risks, White Saviours, and the Sahel’s million new displaced: The Cheat Sheet

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

    On our radar

    Sahel violence displaces another million people

    Rising conflict and insecurity are accelerating forced displacement across the Sahel, and a new upsurge of violence along the Mali-Niger border has left 10,000 people in "appalling conditions" in improvised camps in Niger's Tillabéri region. The UN says IDP numbers in Mali have tripled to around 120,000. The UN’s Central Emergency Response Fund, or CERF, has allocated $4 million to assist 70,000 people who have fled their homes in just two months in Burkina Faso. Around 4.2 million people – a million more than a year ago – are currently displaced across the Sahel due to a combination of armed attacks by extremist militants, retaliation by regional militaries, and inter-communal violence.

    All NGOs are not equal, especially when it comes to risk

    When it comes to safety, security, and risk, power differences between local and international NGOs can lead to “perverse incentives”, according to the summary of a new report. Local NGOs often do the last mile of humanitarian work, especially in insecure situations. They are funded by much bigger INGOs that act as donors. But while INGOs have sophisticated risk management (10 cooperated with this study by US-based NGO alliance InterAction), their downstream “partners” are not treated the same. The physical safety of local NGO staff, for example, gets much less attention than compliance with financial and counter-terrorism regulations. The report spells it out: INGOs “put a far greater emphasis on the risks of their local partners as opposed to the risks to them.” The study includes case studies from Nigeria and South Sudan, as well as recommendations based on examples of improved practice found during the research.

    First drought, now floods

    Flash floods and landslides have killed more than 70 people in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iran, with numbers expected to rise as on-the-ground assessments trickle in. Parts of Afghanistan are particularly hard hit, with nine provinces reporting displacement or damage to homes and agriculture. Some 21,000 people need aid in the southern province of Kandahar alone, according to the UN. Aid groups worry the situation could worsen with continued rain and snowfall expected. Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iran have been grappling with severe drought over the last several months, and heavy rainfall can increase the threat of floods on degraded land. An El Niño weather pattern could also bring more rainfall, combining with the drought impacts to make floods “more ruinous” this year, according to the UN. Which makes this a good time to read more on the complications of responding to emergencies in conflict-hit Afghanistan.

    Algeria rising

    Mass protests triggered by Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s decision to run for re-election in April were not quelled by the announcement that he “would not be a candidate” in future elections (after next month’s, that is). Bouteflika has been in power since 1999, was paralysed by a stroke in 2013, and does not speak in public. Demonstrators are speaking out about corruption, poverty, and poor social services – all issues causing young Algerians to attempt the journey to Europe, according to Omar Belchouchet, editor of an independent Algerian newspaper. “They are fed up with this authoritarian regime which is stifling people, which is pushing its own citizens to die in the Mediterranean,” he said. According to the UN, 7,300 Algerians arrived on Europe’s shores in 2018, up from 5,900 in 2017.

    An international treaty to protect women?

    Today is International Women’s Day, with events taking place across the globe. But this week also saw the launch of the campaign for an Every Woman Treaty, which would seek to limit violence against women the same way existing international agreements limit landmines and smoking. It’s a bold step, but systemic gender inequalities mean it’s more than just direct violence – like rape as a weapon of war – that the humanitarian sector needs to worry about. Women are disproportionately affected, whether they’re subsistence farmers most acutely feeling the effects of climate change, people displaced during conflict, or those abused by the very aid workers who are supposed to be helping them in times of crisis. Although women are also often on the front lines of disasters, leading the response in their communities, they still face barriers to inclusion. Explore our recent reporting to learn more about some of the key humanitarian issues facing women and girls today.

    A guide to ‘White Saviour’ media debates

    British TV audiences have a week’s blizzard of jokey fundraising to come, as Comic Relief gears up for a “Red Nose Nose Day” telethon. Almost as predictable as the line-up of UK comedians is controversy about its video packages from projects abroad. The use of famous Britons to frame field-based segments is accused of being sentimental, simplistic, and disrespectful. This year, early critics included online activists No White Saviours and British member of parliament David Lammy. Comic Relief responded by saying that “people working with or supported by Comic Relief projects tell their own stories in their own words.” The accusations and counter-arguments have a familiar feel: last year, Comic Relief’s segment with musician Ed Sheeran came under fire. Thinking you’d like someone to explain the cycle of critique and outrage from all sides? Take a look at  this blog, from communication academic Tobias Denskus of Malmö University: “White saviour communication rituals in 10 easy steps.”

    In case you missed it

    Central African Republic: Four of the 14 rebel groups that signed a peace deal with the government have reportedly withdrawn in protest of a newly formed government, which they believe is not representative. The fragile agreement was forged after negotiations in the Sudanese capital last month. For an inside look at efforts to keep the peace in CAR, check out our three-part special report.

     

    Iraq: Rather than considering children affiliated with so-called Islamic State as victims in need of rehabilitation, authorities in Iraq and the Kurdistan Regional Government have charged hundreds of young people with terrorism offenses because of affiliation with the group, according to Human Rights Watch. In a report released on Thursday, it said confessions are often obtained through torture.

     

    North Korea: The UN this week called for $120 million in funding for North Korea, warning of potential food shortages and the unintended impacts of sanctions blocking humanitarian aid. Nearly 11 million people in the country are considered undernourished – the root of health problems for many North Koreans. New reports suggest North Korea’s sanctions-hit economy has been imploding, with huge declines in exports in 2018.

    Syria: The UN says that as of 3 March, 90 people had died either en route or shortly after arrival to al-Hol camp in northeastern Syria, two thirds of them children under five. The camp’s population has swollen to more than 62,000 – 90 percent of them women and children – as thousands of people flee the last IS territory in the country. More than 5,200 new arrivals were reported by the UN between Tuesday and Thursday.

    US-Mexico: US officials say February was the busiest month for apprehensions at its southern border with Mexico in more than a decade – more than 76,100 people in total. The vast majority were families and unaccompanied children from Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador. The rise is unusual, but still well below the highs of the 1990s and 2000s when as many as 1.6 million people were apprehended annually.

     

    Weekend read

     

    How dire climate change warnings are becoming a reality in Bangladesh

     

    The extent to which specific extreme weather events – and related humanitarian disasters – can be attributed to climate change can be a contentious subject and remains a matter of some debate. But try telling that to rice farmers in Bangladesh’s northeast. They have been left bewildered by a succession of warmer winters, drier summers, and more erratic rains. Our weekend read offers a real-time glimpse of how dire climate displacement warnings can become a reality: village by depleted village; family by displaced family. Scientists in December published research that showed that human-induced climate change “doubled the likelihood of extreme pre-monsoon rainfall” in Bangladesh during March and April 2017. Farmers like Shites Das in the northeastern village of Daiyya are in no doubt. "We have no fertility of land like in the past,” Das says. “This has happened because of climate change.”

    And finally

     

    Somali Night Fever

     

    Check out this film for a different take on Somali refugees and for a rare glimpse into a Mogadishu of the 1970s and 1980s, when trendy nightclubs were graced by “musicians rocking afros and bell-bottom trousers”. When civil war erupted in Somalia in the 1990s, it separated friends and families, and destroyed a once cosmopolitan way of life. As people fled, they took their culture and music with them. As Somalia changed, so the sounds of funk, disco, soul, and reggae that once filled the airwaves also fell silent. Decades later, many Somalis still live in exile – some resettled in other countries, others in refugee camps. Meet Habib, now in Sweden, and Abdulkadir, living in Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya: two former band mates and best friends. Separated by the war, they remain wonderfully united by their love of music, and by their memories of a bygone era.

    (TOP PHOTO: An informal refugee settlement of Garin-Wazam in Diffa region, Niger. CREDIT: Vincent Tremeau/UNICEF)

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    Local NGO risks, White Saviours, and the Sahel’s million new displaced
  • Congo massacre survivors tell of canoe escapes and being left for dead

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

     

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

     

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

     

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

     

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

     

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

     

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

    Mass graves

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    Alexis Huguet/IRIN

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

     

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

     

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

     

    The uncounted dead

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    Alexis Huguet/IRIN

     

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

     

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

     

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

     

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

     

    Avoiding new trauma

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    Alexis Huguet/IRIN

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

     

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

     

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

     

    Surviving in the middle of the Congo River

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    Alexis Huguet/IRIN

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

     

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

     

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

     

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

     

    Left for dead

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    Alexis Huguet/IRIN

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

     

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

     

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

     

    Safety across the river

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    Alexis Huguet/IRIN

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

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

     

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

     

    Humanitarian needs

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    Alexis Huguet/IRIN

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

     

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

     

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

     

    Communities cut off

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    Alexis Huguet/IRIN

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

     

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

     

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

     

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

     

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

    Housseyni Diallo thought the smoke and flames he saw were from an early morning bonfire lit in the final revelry of a New Year’s Eve celebration. He was wrong: armed men were burning down parts of his village, in central Mali’s Mopti region.

     

    Diallo, a Fulani herdsman, hid in an abandoned house for safety, peering occasionally through the window as swarms of men from an ethnic Dogon armed group went on a rampage through the community; killing 37 men, women, and children, burning huts and granaries, and depriving villagers of their means of survival.

     

    “We never thought something like this could happen,” said the herdsman.

     

    The massacre – in a village called Koulogon – was one of the deadliest, most gruesome episodes in a year-long conflict between Dogon and Fulani armed groups that has enveloped this region of roughly two million people, emptying villages and leaving hundreds dead and wounded, according to the International Federation of Human Rights.

     

    In mid-February, the UN peacekeeping mission in Mali, known by its French acronym MINUSMA, said it is investigating two new attacks on Fulani villages in the region. In both cases armed men killed civilians and set fire to “huts, granaries, and livestock”, the UN said. Dogon communities are also facing attacks, according to local officials and displaced people interviewed by IRIN.

    The recent wave of violence comes despite stepped-up efforts to end the unrest here, including peace agreements between communities, ceasefire commitments, airstrikes by French forces, presidential visits, and a government-backed demobilisation, disarmament, and reintegration, or DDR, scheme that has just got going.

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    Philip Kleinfeld/IRIN
    A displaced Fulani herder taking refugee in Bankass town.

    But the efforts have not been enough to mend relations between central Mali’s different communities, which have been soured by the presence of al-Qaeda linked jihadists, whose recruitment of Fulani herders has fuelled distrust with the Dogon in particular.

     

    Read more: New violence eclipses Mali's plans for peace

     

    Armed groups on both sides are imposing sieges on villages, restricting access to healthcare centres, local markets, and fields, and triggering hunger and sickness among residents.

     

    The conflict is responsible for driving the highest death toll in Mali since the outbreak of war in 2012, while the number of internally displaced people has tripled since January last year to 123,000, according to the UN’s emergency aid coordination office, OCHA. More than 50 percent of those fleeing their homes are from Mopti.

     

    “Continuous displacement is taking place,” said Ute Kollies, OCHA’s head of office in Mali.

     

    Northern roots

     

    The violence in the centre has roots in a longer-standing crisis in northern Mali, where separatist Tuareg rebels joined by Islamist militants seized large parts of territory in 2012 following a military coup in the capital, Bamako.

     

    A 2013 French-led intervention pushed the Islamists back as they tried to march south. But they have since regrouped and expanded from the desert north into Mali’s fertile centre, turning Mopti into the country’s deadliest region.

     

    Known by some as the Macina Liberation Front, or FLM, the militants here have gained ground by recruiting from among the region’s Fulani community, a pastoralist group who have been disadvantaged by government and development programmes that favour agriculture.

     

    Many hoped the killing of their charismatic leader, Amadou Koufa, by French forces in late November, would halt the group’s expansion and quell the violence. But last Thursday a new video surfaced suggesting Koufa is in fact still alive.

     

    An “accelerated” DDR programme for the centre, launched by Prime Minister Soumeylou Boubèye Maïga in December, also raised hope of a resolution to the conflict, with 5,000 combatants registered as of January, including fighters from Dogon and Fulani self-defence groups.

     

    Meanwhile, international NGOs and Mali’s Ministry of Social Cohesion and Reconciliation are implementing inter-communal dialogues that have resulted in a string of local peace agreements between members of both groups.

     

    But on the ground the situation is deteriorating. In Koulogon, witnesses describe a brutal, premeditated attack involving up to 100 traditional Dogon hunters known as “Dozos”, supported by men from local Dogon villages. Local officials and witnesses said the attack was rooted in a decades-old grudge over land ownership. High-profile Fulani families were shot dead and then burnt inside their houses. Bodies were mutilated.

     

    “Now we are suffering,” said the herdsman, Diallo. “We don’t even have pots to cook.”

     

    In nearby Minima Kanda, 60-year-old imam Saydou Sidibe said his small hamlet was attacked at roughly 4am in mid-February by “young Dogon from local villages”. When soldiers finally secured the area, he returned to find five bodies on the ground – including his niece Weloore – and his livestock stolen.

     

    “They came to take our wealth and take our land,” he said. “Everything our ancestors built for us.”

    Hunters lose control

     

    Many lay the blame for these attacks on Dan Na Ambassagou – the main Dogon self-defence group in the region. The group is mostly composed of ramshackle fighters with artisanal weapons and traditional hunting uniforms. But UN officials say the group has received support from prominent figures in Bamako and may contain fighters from abroad.

    an_artisanal_hunting_rifle_used_by_the_new_dogon_self-defence_group_near_bankass_town_1920.jpg

    An old rifle leans against a tree
    Philip Kleinfeld/IRIN
    A hunting rifle used by the new Dogon self-defence group near Bankass town.

    The group’s national coordinator, Mamoudou Goudienkile, said they have not attacked any Fulani villages since signing a unilateral ceasefire agreement last September. A retired general in the Malian army, Goudienkile said his men are cantonned at more than 30 sites across Mopti, awaiting DDR.

     

    “We are not fighting,” said Goudienkile.

     

    But UN officials say that’s unlikely and that Dan Na Ambassagou does not have control over all Dogon fighters in the region in any case. The attacks in Koulogon and Minima Kanda suggest many are now acting independently, taking their cues from village chiefs and responding to the needs of their local communities as and when they arise.

     

    Read more: “I have lost everything”: In central Mali, rising extremism stirs inter-communal conflict

     

    “We can be attacked at any moment,” said the leader of one self-described “independent” Dogon self-defence group, which formed three months ago in a village near Bankass town.

     

    That fear is not misplaced. Dogon villages are also being attacked and civilians displaced at an alarming rate over the past weeks and months. Some locals blame Fulani self-defence groups, others blame Islamist militants, or a combination of both.

    Amadou Guindo, 41, a Dogon farmer from Boila, 67 kilometres from Bankass, said armed Fulani men “mixed with jihadists” entered his village a few weeks ago telling every Dogon to leave. “They said: ‘the Dogon have chased us away in Koro (an administrative region next to Bankass), so we won’t let you settle here’.”

    “Now we are suffering. We don’t even have pots to cook.”

    Guindo said the villagers decided to stay put because “we have been here for 30 years”. But six days later the armed men returned, shooting wildly at civilians and burning down houses and granaries. Three people lost their lives, Guindo said, among them a young woman shot dead in a chicken coop, and Guindo’s own son, 16-year-old Malick.

     

    “We lost everything,” Guindo said.

     

    Villages under siege

     

    Both Fulani and Dogon communities describe siege-like conditions, with armed men preventing civilians from leaving their villages to access local markets, fields, and healthcare centres. Many are falling sick.

     

    At the nutrition ward of Bankass hospital three-year-old Fousseyni Ziguime lay on a gurney, a feeding tube through his nose and a tattered pink cloth covering his skeletal frame.

     

    For three months, his mother said armed men left her too afraid to leave the village and seek medical attention. Instead, she relied on traditional medicine that has made matters worse. Now her son has malaria, a respiratory infection, and severe acute malnutrition. He can barely open his eyes.

    “We don’t have a lot of hope,” said Aminata Djire, the nurse looking after him.

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    A young child with medical equipment on a bed
    Philip Kleinfeld/IRIN
    Fousseyni Ziguime, a malnourished child, at Bankass hospital.

    To end the conflict, analysts say the government must address local grievances, particularly those that are turning Fulani herders into the hands of jihadists. This includes tackling state corruption, military abuses, and economic policies that work to the disadvantage of pastoralists.

     

    For now the government’s priority lies in convincing more fighters to join the DDR programme. But the process will likely take time, and will not include Islamist militants who, like their counterparts in northern Mali, are not party to any peace initiatives.

     

    “They will never come to us,” said Oumar Dicko, chairman of the DDR commission in Mopti.

     

    The fear is that so long as Islamist groups remain present in Mopti, Fulani communities will continue to be held collectively responsible and the cycle of retribution and revenge will go on.

     

    The new self-defence group in the village near Bankass certainly has no intention of disarming. During an interview with IRIN last week, the group’s leader – who asked not to be named – received a panicked phone call from one of his fighters. The fighter was monitoring activity in neighbouring villages and said armed Fulani men were mobilising to attack them.

     

    Checkpoints were quickly set up around the village’s perimetre and a motley crew of local youth armed with sticks and hunting rifles was assembled. In the end their presence proved enough to prevent an attack, the leader said later that day, but removing the fear everybody here is living with will be a much taller order.

     

    “We are all afraid,” he said.

     

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    “We can be attacked at any moment”
    As peace efforts falter, violence in central Mali spirals further out of control
  • The trouble with plans to send 116,000 Burundian refugees home

    Under pressure to go home, Burundian refugees in Tanzania face two bad options: return to face social and economic hardship and possible rights violations; or remain in chronically under-resourced camps that restrict their opportunities.

     

    With both governments confirming plans to return 116,000 Burundians by the end of 2019, it’s crunch time for the international community if it wants to ensure returns are truly voluntary and offer returnees the level of support they will need to reintegrate properly back in Burundi.

     

    More than 400,000 people fled Burundi, most into neighbouring Tanzania, following violent unrest and repression that accompanied 2015 elections, which saw former rebel leader Pierre Nkurunziza returned to power for a controversial third presidential term.

     

    Limited repatriations began in 2017, but funding shortages mean the process has so far been little more than an offer of free transport back across the border, with a return package of food, non-food items, and cash that doesn’t even last the three months it’s expected to cover.

     

    Given that many who fled were already amongst the most vulnerable, the daily struggle to feed their families had only increased since they returned.

    Despite this, some 62,000 Burundians have already chosen to go back home. But returnees interviewed by the International Refugee Rights Initiative (IRRI) said their decisions were driven by dire camp conditions coupled with the risk of abuse if they ventured outside.

     

    Back in Burundi, the lack of support to reintegrate refugees threatens to hinder their chances of getting food on the table and starting their lives afresh. If past failures are any indication, a botched repatriation on this scale could fuel new conflict and further waves of displacement.

     

    With elections due to take place next year, some of those interviewed by IRRI were fearful that political tensions will start building again and that renewed violence will erupt.

     

    Burundi appears to be calm for now, but this shouldn’t hide the fact that the government has restricted political space and refuses to engage in a regional dialogue with opposition parties. Ensuring a properly supported return process has never been more important.

     

    Problems back home

    A new report, based on 75 interviews IRRI conducted with Burundian returnees, their neighbours and local authorities in August and November last year, finds that many are stuck in a highly precarious situation.

     

    Several people told us they found the repatriation process slow. Others felt there was insufficient information to guide them through it, despite several systems put in place by the UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR, in Tanzania to inform refugees about the procedure.

    After the rations and money in the return package ran out, people told us support was limited. Given that many who fled were already amongst the most vulnerable, the daily struggle to feed their families had only increased since they returned.  

     

    Some were relying on the help of their neighbours or local authorities. But there were occasional tensions too as some who didn’t go into exile resented the fact that returnees received support – however insufficient.

     

    Returnees said they had been accused of being opposition supporters and some reported being threatened – even physical abused – by the ruling party’s notorious Imbonerakure youth wing militia.

     

    Another core issue was access to land. Previously unresolved land disputes from prior repatriations continued to cast a shadow over the return process.

     

    Many of those interviewed were landless and dependent on the meagre return package to secure a place to live. Ensuring equitable access to land is critical, not only to give people access to livelihoods, but also to a wider sense of belonging.

     

    More and longer support needed

     

    Effective reintegration of refugees and internally displaced people is a big challenge for countries recovering from conflict.

     

    In Burundi, the 2015 exodus reversed a repatriation process between 2002 and 2010 in which approximately half a million refugees returned following a number of peace agreements, including the Arusha Accord, which ended the country’s civil war.

    But while the returns made it look like Burundi had found peace, stability only went skin deep. The much harder and time-consuming work of genuine reintegration of returnees didn’t fit well with the short attention spans, or at least budgets, of the government and UN agencies.

     

    Something similar seems to be taking place now. While most refugees don’t want to return to Burundi because they know they’ll be returning to a volatile political situation and economic hardship, many feel they have no better choice.

     

    While the returns made it look like Burundi had found peace, stability only went skin deep.

    As the IRRI report demonstrates more fully, the situation faced by Burundian refugees in Tanzania is dire – many are abused when leaving the camps to look for firewood or menial jobs to supplement the insufficient humanitarian assistance.

     

    Burundi and Tanzania both want the refugees to return. Tanzania is tired of hosting them, fed up with aid that is sporadic and unreliable, while Burundi’s government wants to portray an image of a peaceful country. UNHCR and international donors, however, have been more reluctant to support returns, leading to friction.

     

    The repatriation process, already painfully slow, was completely halted in November when Burundi suspended international NGOs that refused to adopt ethnic quotas. Some NGOs have been able to reopen since, but others have left the country. Those refugees who were eventually assisted by UNHCR had to lower their expectations.

     

    Repatriation is a complex, long-term process that must be adequately supported.

     

    It must take into consideration the humanitarian and development needs of both returnees and the communities to which they are returning, and it needs to grapple with the underlying tensions that created the context for displacement in the first place.  

     

    But there seems to be lack of recognition – or, at least, of action – by the Burundian government and international actors in this regard.

     

    In a context in which displacement has had terrible consequences for the quality of life of hundreds of thousands of people, recognising repatriation as a long-term endeavour is key to breaking the cycles of conflict and displacement that have plagued Burundi’s recent history.

     

    Globally, repatriation is being pushed as the most desirable and “durable solution” to end displacement. It is therefore vital that the international community ensures that Burundians return voluntarily and are sufficiently supported and funded to reintegrate effectively.

     

    (TOP PHOTO: A camp in Tanzania for Burundian refugees. CREDIT: Anouk Delafortrie/ECHO)

    The trouble with plans to send 116,000 Burundian refugees home
    Hovil and Van Laer are Senior Researcher and Programme Director, Prevention and Resolution of Exile, with the International Refugee Rights Initiative, which works to inform and improve responses to the cycles of violence and displacement that are at the heart of large-scale human rights violations.
  • Briefing: Months after a massacre in Congo, little aid but plenty of fear

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

     

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

     

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

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

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

     

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

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

     

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

     

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

     

    What are the immediate needs?

     

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

     

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

     

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

     

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

     

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

     

    What are the long-term needs?

     

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

     

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

     

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

     

    What caused the violence?

     

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

     

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

     

    ☰ Read more: Witnesses describe how the massacre unfolded

     

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

     

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

     

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

     

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

     

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

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

     

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

     

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

     

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

     

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

     

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

     

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

     

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

    yumbi_alexis_huguet1_1920.jpg

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

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

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

     

    What might happen next?

     

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

     

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

     

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

     

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

     

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

     

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

     

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

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

    ld/si/ag

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

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

    On our radar

     

    New term, old problems for Nigeria’s Buhari

     

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

     

    Headaches in the ‘cash revolution’?

     

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

     

    UN peers into a dark Myanmar mirror

     

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

     

    Growing recognition for mental health

     

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

     

    Bond-holders in pandemic finance scheme untouched by Ebola outbreak

     

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

      

    In case you missed it:

     

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

     

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

     

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

     

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

     

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

     

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

     

    Weekend read

     

    UN probes substandard food aid for mothers and children

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

     

    And finally...

    Life resumes on Vanuatu’s volcanic Ambae Island

     

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

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

    bp-il-as-si-ha/ag

    Nigerian challenges, cash aid headaches, and making mental health matter
  • Ethiopia’s neglected crisis: No easy way home for doubly displaced Gedeos

    When the men came with their guns and their knives, Meret Sisay’s mother stopped them at the door to their home in Ethiopia’s Oromia region, while the 18-year-old slipped out the back and fled for her life.

     

    It was the second time in less than a year that Meret – like thousands of others from the Gedeo community who have lived in Oromia’s West Guji zone for decades – had been chased from her village because of her ethnicity.

     

    A merry-go-round of forced evictions by groups of armed young men and government-pressured returns has left tens of thousands of ethnic Gedeos trapped in dire conditions in makeshift shelters across this part of southern Ethiopia.

     

    Now in the village of Gotiti, in the Gedeo district of the Southern region that borders Oromia, Meret is one of an estimated 20,000 to 30,000 internally displaced people living in overcrowded shelters without roofs and sanitation as the rainy season approaches.

     

    The Ethiopian government has not formally acknowledged Gotiti's inhabitants as IDPs eligible for humanitarian aid.

    Aid workers say food assistance for IDPs in several areas near the border with West Guji, including Gotiti, has been blocked in order to encourage inhabitants to return to Oromia. They also say they’re worried about the spread of infectious diseases.

     

    When IRIN visited in February, families of up to 10 individuals were living in wooden shelters well below UN standards for camp shelter space. Many children had swollen bellies – a sign of malnutrition – as well as scabies, diarrhoea, and other indications of unhygienic living conditions.

     

    Meret was one of almost one million Ethiopians uprooted between April and June by ethnic violence in this part of the country, after Gedeos were accused by their Oromo neighbours of trying to annex land and resources.

     

    In December, after she and her seven siblings had followed government orders and returned home, she became one of around 15,000 who fled Oromia once again for the safety of Gedeo district.

     

    Those that arrived in Gedeo reported tales of castration, the cutting off of limbs, and gang rape by local youth and armed rebels, as well as general intimidation and extortion.

    meret_sisay_an_18_year_old_gedeo_idp_in_gotiti_1920.jpg

    Tom Gardner/IRIN
    Meret Sisay, 18, was forced to flee her home in West Guji twice last year. Now in the village of Gotiti, she lives in a makeshift shelter like thousands of other Gedeos.

    Meret had been back in her village for only two days before armed groups of young men began harassing her and her family. “When we arrived back we started building houses,” she told IRIN. “But [the men] took everything the government had given us... They sent us back empty-handed.”

     

    ‘At night they come in mobs’

     

    In total, more than 1.4 million Ethiopians were forced from their homes in the first half of last year – the largest internal displacement anywhere in the world in 2018 – as ethnic and land-fuelled conflicts exploded across the country following the appointment of reformist Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and the end of authoritarianism, which for decades had kept a lid on such tensions.

     

    The policy of the federal government is that displaced households should be safely returned to the communities from which they were evicted, though in some cases resettlement may be possible for those who do not wish to go back.

     

    A new ‘Action Plan’ drawn up in February by the National Disaster Risk Management Commission, or NDRMC, aims to resettle or return all IDPs within 60 days. A survey will determine which ones are expected to return to their original homes and which will be resettled elsewhere.

     

    The NDRMC’s commissioner, Mitiku Kassa, said the tight deadline was because of the approaching rains and the need for farmers to prepare their lands in time to plant crops. “Otherwise they will be dependent on food aid next year as well,” he said.

     

    Mitiku told IRIN he expected displaced Gedeos to return to their original homes. “We don’t have any plan to resettle Gedeos,” he said.

     

    Aid workers, as well as the IDPs themselves, expressed concern about the timeline for returns, which according to UN guidelines should be safe, voluntary, sustainable, and dignified.

     

    Several previous attempts to send Gedeos back to Oromia – sometimes by simply putting them on trucks and buses – have backfired. For example, mass displacement occurred in June last year shortly after the return of many of those evicted two months earlier.

     

    A survey conducted by the government and the UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR, at the end of last year found that at least 90 percent of IDPs in Gedeo did not want to return yet.

     

    “The government is saying we have to go back,” said Bekele Worasa, 45, a coffee farmer currently living in Gotiti. “But how can we do that when there are people dying there still?”

     

    “During the day it seems peaceful,” said Tegeno Tiba, 86, now living in an orphanage in the Gedeo town of Chelelektu. “But at night they come in mobs, singing and dancing. You can hear gunshots, and they throw stones. They harass and intimidate us.”

     

    1 / 3

    Berhanu Seid, 36, is from West Guji, where he lived with his family of eight. Now displaced in the town of Chelelektu, Gedeo, he stays with extended family and receives food aid from World Vision International.
    2 / 3

    Tegeno Tiba, 86, spent his whole life in West Guji, until nine months ago when he was displaced to Chelelektu in Gedeo. He now lives in an orphanage and survives on food aid. He has not returned home since.
    3 / 3

    Bekele Worasa, 45, is a coffee farmer and IDP committee leader. Since December, he has lived in a shelter around the Mekane Yesus Church in Gotiti, together with his wife and 11 children.

     

     
     
     

    Changing demographics

     

    Aid workers worry that the deadline could be connected to the upcoming national census, which is due to start in April and may further complicate the situation in West Guji, where tensions between the ethnic groups have been exacerbated by anxieties about their respective population sizes.

     

    The 2007 census found that 14 percent of the wider West Guji zone were Gedeo, and 79 percent Oromo.

     

    Berhanu Fekele of World Vision International explained how Oromos in Kercha, West Guji’s most unstable district, believed Gedeos had become the most populous ethnic group. This, he said, is what prompted the claims that Gedeos planned to annex it from Oromia and sparked the conflict.

     

    “You want to reverse-move people before a census and hope it doesn’t kick off?” one aid worker asked, concerned there would be further violence once the census begins in April. “That is what really keeps me up at night.”

    In places like Kercha, returning Gedeos are now sheltering in makeshift “collection centres” around the main town like coffee marketplaces or churches because they fear it is too dangerous to return to their villages. Many say their properties have been stolen or destroyed.

     

    inhabitants_of_a_makeshift_church_shelter_in_gotiti_1920.jpg

    A large group of people standing for a portrait in front of a large, makeshift church against a dramatic sky
    Tom Gardner/IRIN
    Leaders of the IDP committee in Gedeo say several thousand people live in a makeshift shelter near the Mekane Yesus Church in Gotiti village.

    Moreover, since August, NGOs working in West Guji have repeatedly expressed concern that returning Gedeos were being excluded from the lists of those in need of humanitarian assistance drawn up by local authorities.

    Ethiopia’s government tightly controls the process of determining those in need. Under its system of ethnically organised federalism that power is in the hands of low-level officials who may, according to aid workers, show bias towards those of their own ethnicity.

     

    Agencies operating in West Guji have reported that in some places the majority of those listed in need of assistance in recent months have not been IDPs. They have also reported that some households have been deliberately allocated food rations insufficient for their size.

     

    These reports are what are driving concerns that local authorities are trying to rid the zone of Gedeos. It is only in the past month that humanitarian agencies have been allowed to carry out formal verification checks before carrying out aid distributions.

     

    “We’re talking about systematic breaches of humanitarian principles – it’s tragic, actually, and it keeps on going,” the head of one international NGO working in the area told IRIN on condition of anonymity, due to concerns his group could lose access if it was openly critical.

     

    Food aid blocked

     

    In Gedeo, food distribution in Gotiti and certain other sites near the border with West Guji has been blocked since August in order to encourage IDPs to return to Oromia, aid workers and officials working with international organisations told IRIN, also on condition of anonymity.

     

    It is unclear whether this policy comes from the higher levels of the federal government. However, according to aid workers, a federal official from the newly formed Ministry of Peace visited Gedeo in December and instructed agencies not to give assistance at these sites.

    “This is an enormous problem for the government, but what is tragic is they are not accepting the support we are offering. They are forbidding us from operating.”

    The Ministry of Peace has since said that more than a million people displaced due to conflicts around the country – over 90 percent of the total – have now returned to their villages, a claim that many aid workers said they doubted.

     

    “This is an enormous problem for the government,” said a senior official with an international organisation working in the area. “But what is tragic is they are not accepting the support we are offering. They are forbidding us from operating.”

     

    According to Ayyale Maaro Bokko, head of the local administration of Gedeb, where Gotiti is located, all displaced Gedeos will receive humanitarian assistance in West Guji should they return.

     

    “We encourage them to go back and get the necessary support there. The government is fully supporting those who are in West Guji now,” he said, adding that any insecurity in the region would soon be resolved.

     

    According to the African Union’s Kampala Convention on IDPs – which Ethiopia has signed but still not ratified – displaced persons are entitled to freedom of movement and to adequate humanitarian assistance wherever they need it.

     

    But in the past month aid workers have reported that local authorities in West Guji have told them they cannot give assistance to IDPs who refuse to return to their original villages.

     

    In Gedeo, Abraham Dube, the leader of a committee of IDPs in Gotiti, said he had tried returning to Oromia as many as four times since April. He now lives with four families – 30 people in total – in a single four-square-metre tent.

     

    He said six people had died from malnutrition in his camp (known as ‘Spring Site’) and that he had not had any contact with government officials for the duration of his time there. He and all other IDPs in Gedeo – including those in other parts of the district who have been receiving humanitarian assistance – told IRIN they didn’t believe it was safe to return to Oromia.

     

    “We have nothing here,” said Abraham. “We grew up there and our land is there. But unless the government brings peace, we will die here.”

    (TOP PHOTO: Some 20,000-30,000 displaced people now live in makeshift shelters like these in the village of Gotiti. CREDIT: Tom Gardner/IRIN)

    tg/si/ag

    “Unless the government brings peace, we will die here”
    Ethiopia’s neglected crisis: No easy way home for doubly displaced Gedeos
  • Key donors freeze Uganda refugee aid after UN mismanagement scandal

    Uganda’s refugee sector may run into trouble after two major European donor countries froze funds to the UN refugee agency as a result of fraud, corruption, and mismanagement unearthed in an internal UN audit last year.

     

    Uganda is the largest refugee-hosting nation in Africa, catering to more than 1.2 million refugees, the vast majority of whom have fled conflict in the neighbouring countries of South Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

     

    Germany and the UK’s Department for International Development, or DFID, both confirmed to IRIN that they have frozen funding to UNHCR Uganda, following issues raised in last November’s audit report by the UN’s Office of Internal Oversight Services, or OIOS.

     

    The report found that the UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR, critically mismanaged donor funds in Uganda in 2016-2017.

     

    Uganda’s state minister for relief, disaster preparedness, and refugees, Musa Ecweru, called for continued and increased support from the international community, saying refugee hosting was a “shared responsibility”.

     

    “We have kept our doors open to refugees,” Ecweru told IRIN. “More refugees are coming despite the peace accord in South Sudan and elections in Democratic Republic of Congo. This is putting a strain on us.”

     

    The move by the UK and Germany – two of UNHCR Uganda’s top four country donors last year – could cause disruptions to essential life-saving assistance for refugees, the UN refugee agency says.

     

    Cécile Pouilly, a Geneva-based UNHCR spokeswoman, confirmed the aid freeze without naming the donors. Pouilly said education, water, and mental health support were among the services most at risk, and that negotiations with donors were ongoing.

     

    Read more: Audit finds UN refugee agency critically mismanaged donor funds in Uganda

     

    The November audit revealed that UNHCR Uganda wasted tens of millions of dollars, overpaying for goods and services, awarding major contracts improperly, and failing to avoid fraud, corruption, and waste.

     

    The European Anti-Fraud Office in December confirmed to IRIN that it was “investigating allegations of fraud and irregularities regarding specific projects funded by the European Union to support refugee settlements in Uganda.”

    “It's high time to hold individuals involved in corruption scandals accountable and find ways to continue to support refugees while minimising the risk of financial mismanagement.”

    Four Ugandan officials who were forcefully asked to step aside in February 2018, pending investigations – including the commissioner for refugees in the Office of the Prime Minister, Apollo Kazungu, and three of his staff – are yet to be arraigned and charged in court. UNHCR has not provided any information about disciplinary action, if any, taken against its employees.

     

    “It's high time to hold individuals involved in corruption scandals accountable and find ways to continue to support refugees while minimising the risk of financial mismanagement,” said Thijs Van Laer, programme director at the International Refugee Rights Initiative.

     

    Frozen funds

     

    With the exception of emergency funding to help prevent an Ebola outbreak, “DFID has released no further funds to UNHCR in Uganda since the allegations of corruption emerged,” a spokesperson for DFID in London told IRIN. The statement listed funding in 2016 and 2017, suggesting that DFID has not provided funding since January 2018.

     

    “We will only provide further funding when we are confident that UNHCR has properly addressed the issues raised in the recent audit,” the DFID spokesperson said. “We have asked UNHCR to provide detailed information on whether any UK funding has been lost due to issues raised in the audit.”

     

    DFID provided £20.1 million (about $25.9 million) in funding to UNHCR in Uganda during 2016 and 2017, according to the DFID spokesperson.

     

    “DFID has a zero-tolerance approach to fraud and corruption of any kind,” the spokesperson said, adding, “where British taxpayers’ money is misused, we expect our partners to take firm and immediate action.”

     

    In an emailed statement, German diplomats told IRIN their government’s money was “contingent on the implementation of stringent integrity measures”, and said Germany “will continue its funding in Uganda once the necessary measures have been adequately implemented.”

    Germany, UNHCR Uganda’s second largest donor last year with funding of over $15 million, continues to support the refugee agency’s other projects worldwide, the diplomats said, emphasising that funds allocated for humanitarian assistance must be used in the “most effective and efficient way”.

     

    UNHCR’s Pouilly said four of 12 critical issues identified in the audit had been resolved, including: strengthening partner selection and procurement; improving reception and registration or refugees; and bolstering management and oversight capacity.

     

    “While there have not been any funding cuts per se, two donors have decided to freeze funds until they receive additional information on the strengthening of our operational response in Uganda and our efforts to mitigate risks in a sustainable manner,” she said. “We are closely working with these donors to ensure that they receive the information and assurances they need to be able to restart funding our operations in Uganda.”

     

    Risks for the response

     

    UNHCR said the fund freeze threatened to disrupt humanitarian aid programmes and would put further strain on Uganda’s already limited public services. A drastic reduction in resources for UNHCR and its partners in Uganda will impact the range, the quality, and the management of life-saving services we are providing on the ground,” according to Pouilly.

     

    UNHCR had set a target of $448 million to raise for 2019 Uganda operations – for it and its 30 partner organisations. It only raised $173 million of its target in 2018 and currently has $130 million on hand.

    “The last thing refugees in Uganda need is a reduction in the means to support."

    “In addition to the $130 million I have authority to spend, we need 30 to 40 million now to be able to retain this minimum level access to services,” UNHCR country representative Joel Boutroue told journalists in the capital, Kampala. “The lack of funding directly translates into more hardships for the refugees, more hardships to the host communities and more tensions.”

     

    In December last year, South Sudanese refugees in Bidi Bidi, until recently the world’s largest refugee settlement, staged a violent protest over lack of food, destroying NGO vehicles and looting property. Similar protests have occurred in Uganda’s Arua and Adjumani districts.

     

    “Uganda can’t handle this crisis alone,” Ecweru said. “We continue to remind our donors, partners and friends [in the international community] that this is a shared responsibility. They should communicate to their capitals and government so that more support continues to come.”

     

    Pouilly said that without additional funding, reception facilities for new arrivals would remain inadequate – a particular concern given the risk of Ebola spreading from Congo.

     

    Read more: Inside efforts to prevent a regional Ebola crisis in Africa

     

    “The last thing refugees in Uganda need is a reduction in the means to support them,”  said Van Laer, from the International Refugee Rights Initiative. “The refugee response is already seriously underfunded and 2019 risks becoming a challenging year.”

    (TOP PHOTO: A South Sudanese woman walks back to her home in the Bidi Bidi refugee settlement in northwestern Uganda. CREDIT: Edward Echwalu/ECHO)

    so/si/bp/ag

    Key donors freeze Uganda refugee aid after UN mismanagement scandal
    “The lack of funding directly translates into more hardships for the refugees”
  • Reporter’s Diary: Still on the trail of Boko Haram

    The city of Kano stands surrounded by 700-year-old mud-baked walls, constructed to deter foreign attackers. Yet the walls, completed in the 14th century to protect the people living in one of West Africa’s oldest commercial hubs – now Nigeria’s second largest city – couldn’t protect them from Boko Haram.

     

    Boko Haram is the latest extremist group in town; Nigeria has seen many in its troubled past. In 2014, the city’s emir – the second most important Islamic leader in the country – asked citizens to “acquire what they need” to defend themselves against Boko Haram fighters.

     

    In the following week, more than 100 people gathered at the city’s central mosque for Friday prayers would die in attacks.

     

    The extremist group, which formed in 2002 in Nigeria’s northeastern city of Maiduguri and initially operated in the areas around it, had come south and westward, to places like Kano, where the attackers had hit several times earlier in the year.

     

    That July, reportedly under instruction from Boko Haram, girls and women detonated suicide bombs across the city, carrying out four attacks during the week of Eid.

     

    Two girls – one looked to be 11, the other maybe 18 – stepped out of a minibus and walked to a mobile phone market. The blast killed a reported 15 people. A girl believed to be 13 detonated a bomb outside a mosque. Another set off an improvised explosive on a college campus.

     

    In a neighbouring state, security agents arrested a 10-year-old girl with bombs strapped to her chest.

     

    Thursday afternoon that same week, I gathered with colleagues around a petrol station that had just been cordoned off with yellow tape. People stood on the curb watching uniformed men strut around. In answer to our questions, officials and witnesses told us a woman had asked an attendant for kerosene just before she blew herself up. It was the second bomb blast at a petrol station in Kano in less than five days.

    Four years later and the attacks haven’t stopped. Some schools remain closed, families are still displaced, and farmers are afraid to work in their fields – so hunger grows.

    My driver pointed to a spot on the ground, just past the shadow of the station’s canopy. A hand lay there, like a prop from a Halloween horror flick. It was her hand, with swollen flies creeping across the palm. Her five fingers, intact, were frozen in a gentle curve.

     

    The rest of her body was strewn in pieces around the gas pumps. My colleagues had turned away from the hand, shaking their heads. I kept looking at it, trying to attach it to someone: a name, a face, a story, a place, a birth, a family. That hand had been attached to a person. Why that person had decided to carry and detonate a suicide bomb, I will never know.

     

    After filing that story and dozens of others on Boko Haram for news outlets around the world since 2012, I still don’t know exactly what Boko Haram wants. For the past six years, I’ve been following the group’s trail, attack after attack.

     

    In 2015, President Muhammadu Buhari said Nigeria had “technically” won the war against Boko Haram.

     

    Yet, here we are, four years later and the attacks haven’t stopped. Some schools remain closed, families are still displaced, and farmers are afraid to work in their fields – so hunger grows.

     

    Last month, insurgents hit two villages in Borno State.

     

    This month, days before the initial 16 February date of the presidential election, the so-called Islamic State-affiliated faction of Boko Haram, known as ISWAP, attacked the Borno State governor’s motorcade.

     

    When the group opened fire in a community near Maiduguri, the Borno State capital, on the morning of the scheduled election, the Nigerian army said Boko Haram was trying to disrupt the vote. Voters eventually went to the polls on 23 February. Buhari won the vote, ahead of his main challenger, Atiku Abubakar.

     

    “Boko Haram is everywhere”

     

    Jamā'at Ahl as-Sunnah lid-Da'wah wa'l-Jihād, People Committed to the Teachings of the Prophet and Holy War, evolved into Boko Haram, a terrorist group sanctioned by the US government.

     

    The group began about 17 years ago as an ultra-conservative, Salafist organisation that wanted to protect what it felt was under threat: Islam. The members wanted to live in a society guided by a fundamentalist form of Islam rather than under Nigeria’s Western-influenced democratic government. In 2009, after the founder, Mohammed Yusuf, was killed while in the custody of state security agents, the members went underground to strategise and recruit. They quickly came back up to wage war on the Nigerian government.

     

    In the past decade, Boko Haram-related deaths have risen: 7,000, …10,000, …15,000, …20,000. The Washington, DC-based think tank Council on Foreign Relations calculated that as of 2018 more than 37,000 people had been killed, including civilians, government forces, and alleged Boko Haram fighters.

     

    Even when Boko Haram fighters are not visible, the group’s presence is felt. People rearrange their lives to stay alive, to stay out of the insurgents’ path.

     

    A few months ago, I was travelling by road from southern Borno north to Maiduguri. The daily military convoy that escorted me and hundreds of civilian commuters sped past villages abandoned after attacks, and the drivers in the cars alongside me kept up, swerving past freshly dug trenches and spiky tumbleweed.

     

    No one wanted to be left behind.

    chika_oduah_irin_long_read_photo_14_1920.jpg

    Chika Oduah/IRIN
    Members of the Civilian Joint Task Force patrol a checkpoint in Maiduguri. The volunteer group provides intelligence to the military and hands over suspected Boko Haram members.

    “Boko Haram is everywhere,” Jamilah*, a peace negotiator who is both hailed and feared for her close relationship with Boko Haram, told me in September. A mother of three, Jamilah knew Mohammed Yusuf and his followers years before they turned to violence and she’s garnered what seems to me to be an unbreakable bond of trust with Boko Haram. These days, she finds ways to send money and food to their camps in the bushes. Without her, the insurgents often refuse to talk peace with the Nigerian government.

     

    We were driving through Maiduguri to a field where hundreds of families from attacked villages had set up straw tents. She told me the group’s roots are now so deeply planted in local communities throughout northeastern Nigeria that dislodging them is nearly impossible.

     

    She pointed to the clusters of clay-walled, zinc-roofed homes along the road, signalling those where she said Boko Haram sympathisers live: here and here and here. “Everywhere.”

     

    A network of sympathisers and informants in Maiduguri keep Boko Haram in action. Tuk-tuk drivers in the city are perfectly positioned to supply the extremists with information, an undercover security agent once told me.

     

    Jamilah knows some of those who do. They drive their tuk-tuks near her and give her a slight nod as a gesture of respect for her relationship with Boko Haram.

     

    On my computer I have a picture of a few dozen boys standing in a walled-in compound. Some wear flip-flops, others are barefoot. Their heads covered in turbans, they stand in military formation, clenching AK-47 rifles. Boko Haram supposedly released it on Twitter in 2015, taken at a militant training camp said to be in or near Cameroon.

     

    Every now and then, I pull up that photo to remind myself that Boko Haram isn’t going away any time soon; none of the boys in the photo look older than 14.

    chika_oduah_irin_long_read_photo_19_1920.jpg

    Chika Oduah/IRIN
    Rebecca Sharibu is still waiting for her daughter after she was abducted in February 2018 from her high school in the northeastern Nigerian town of Dapchi.

     

    I think about that, too, when I remember Rebecca Sharibu, who is still waiting for her daughter Leah to come back after she was kidnapped last year from her school in Dapchi. And when I think of Rebecca Gadzama, an activist who is rebuilding the school in her hometown of Lassa, in southern Borno State, which Boko Haram fighters pass through on their way to carry out attacks in other parts of the state. Or Abba Aji Kalli, the Borno State commander of the Civilian Joint Task Force, or CJTF, a volunteer group that provides intelligence to the military and hands over suspected Boko Haram members.

     

    “A downfall for Nigeria”

     

    I started hearing about Boko Haram in 2011 when I lived in New York, where I worked for an online media outlet. We’d get text and email messages from people in Nigeria who had just witnessed, escaped from, or heard about a Boko Haram attack. Those tips always flickered my attention, but the spark never lasted long. The attacks were too far away for me to comprehend.

     

    Moving to Nigeria in 2012 forced me to pay attention.

     

    In the first weeks of September 2014, I monitored Boko Haram’s expansion. As the showers of the rainy season began to dwindle, towns in the northern nook of Nigeria’s Adamawa State, more than 700 kilometres southeast from Kano, fell one by one.

     

    In a place called Gulak, fields baked under the sun. Most farmers and townsfolk had run up to the mountains to hide after Boko Haram had moved in. But even before the group had raised their flag, the community had been on edge after a series of hit-and-run attacks in the months leading up to the takeover of their city.

     

    That July, I had spoken to a woman we’ll call Fatima*. Boko Haram fighters had sliced off her husband’s head in front of her, she told me. Her voice sounded like a dried leaf being crushed underfoot, thin and brittle.

     

    Beneath her hijab, her eyes looked fearful. The fighters had been there again not too long ago. She couldn’t walk beyond her front door, she was that afraid.

     

    After the capture of the lowlands, Boko Haram went into the highlands.

     

    In December 2014, more than 100 militants climbed up the mountains, from one terrace to the next, and entered the historic kingdom of Sukur. They slaughtered men, snatched women and girls, stole food and animals. Wooden houses collapsed under fires.

     

    In 2017, I travelled to Sukur, after the Nigerian army had reclaimed the area. The people of Sukur Kingdom, Africa’s first cultural landscape to be declared a UNESCO World Heritage site, were trying to rebuild.

     

    Quaint stone-paved walkways led to homes with toppled roofs; 500-year-old artifacts had been set ablaze.

     

    When Boko Haram came, they came with a mission to destroy us and erase our culture, the kingdom’s political and spiritual leader, Luka Gizik, told me. He pointed to the gaping holes in his palace walls – walls made of flattened rocks stacked mortar-less on top of each other generations ago and prized for their architectural ingenuity. He sighed deeply.

     

    Down below, the winding trail of Boko Haram’s devastation led to sprawling, overcrowded settlements that started springing up in 2013.

    Camps for the two million people uprooted from their homes, intended to support them for one or two years, have turned into semi-permanent communities with chiefs, classrooms, yearly budgets, clinics, and security forces. Some are government-sanctioned, others were set up by people who needed a place to sleep, eat, and let their children play in peace.

     

    After Boko Haram captured Gulak, and attacked Sukur and nearby areas, people who had lived in the mountains either ran east into Cameroon or headed more than 250 kilometres south, towards the Adamawa State capital of Yola.

     

    Some squeezed into a camp in Girei, 45 minutes north of Yola. When I visited in the first few weeks of 2015, camp officials were registering at least 100 people a day, just three weeks after opening. More than 4,000 people lived there.

     

    Organisations providing food and other aid included: the Nigerian National and State Emergency Management Agency; the Federation of Muslim Women of Nigeria; the Nigerian Red Cross; Oxfam; the Nigerian umbrella body of Muslim groups Jama’atu Nasril Islam; and the International Rescue Committee.

     

    Still, there was never enough.

    chika_oduah_irin_long_read_photo_4_1920.jpg

    Children in a displaced person camp around a cooking fire
    Chika Oduah/IRIN
    The insurgency has left thousands of children orphaned. Many of them end up in makeshift IDP camps where there is no government assistance.

    In fact, thousands of people were dying in northeastern Nigeria’s IDP camps, succumbing to starvation, malnutrition, and disease.

     

    In Girei, residents told me their “how-I-escaped” stories and cursed Boko Haram under their breath, refusing to utter their curses out loud. The men said they had never seen anything like Boko Haram, a throng of “demons” – as they described them – bent on wreaking havoc on everything in their path: Christians, Muslims, and everyone in between.

     

    An elderly, bearded man sat next to his wife Sarah, who bore a child in her old-age, like Sarah in the Bible. He set his Bible on his lap and showed me the gash on his legs where, he said, a Boko Haram fighter had slashed him with a machete. The men had killed their little girl.

     

    Across the yard, hundreds of children played in water, stomping and giggling when it sprayed in the air. I sat and watched them. Then I asked about their parents.

     

    Eight-year-old Jummai’s parents were dead. Her grandmother had brought her to the camp. Thirteen-year-old Fatimatu and her younger sister said they were fetching water when Boko Haram fighters drove into their village on motorbikes and killed their father. With their mother already gone, they were now orphans, like five-year-old Moses. The fighters had killed his mother, and when his father tried to bury her body, the fighters killed him, too. Rose, 25, was taking care of her 28-day-old nephew Ibrahim, also orphaned.

    chika_oduah_irin_long_read_photo_8_1920.jpg

    Chika Oduah/IRIN
    Rose takes care of her 28-day-old orphaned nephew Ibrahim, and five-year-old Moses, whose parents were killed by Boko Haram.

    A camp healthcare worker, Ahmed, told me: “It’s a downfall for Nigeria… these kids are losing their parents, and the president of Nigeria has not come here to console these orphans.”

     

    At the time, Goodluck Jonathan was in the middle of a fierce campaign, trying to keep his seat as president. Months before the general election, he had just made his first trip to the northeastern region since 2013, telling the displaced he cared about their plight.

     

    A week before the president’s visit, Boko Haram had razed the town of Baga, near Lake Chad, for four days – an attack so horrendous it even made international news headlines.

    “Boko Haram is still a threat to schools”

     

    Before Boko Haram began waging war on the Nigerian government, in 2007, eight million of the country’s primary school-aged children were not being educated. By 2015, in the thick of the insurgency, more than 10.5 million school-aged children weren’t in school, the majority in the north of the country. Today, that number has swelled to more than 13 million.

     

    Boko Haram members have disowned the phrase Boko Haram – coined by the media and Maiduguri residents because of the founder’s aversion to Western civilisation. They say the phrase, which can be understood to mean ‘Western education is sinful’, does not accurately capture their views. The group targets schools modelled on the Western-style, where subjects like art and literature are taught, secular views trump religious biases, and boys and girls sit in the same classroom.

     

    More than 1,000 schools have been severely damaged or destroyed, 19,000 teachers displaced, and 2,300 teachers killed since the start of the insurgency in 2009, according to UNESCO and Human Rights Watch.

     

    Following this strand of Boko Haram’s trail in March 2014, I drove through Buni Yadi town in Yobe State to visit a school that had been attacked a month before. When I got there, none of the townspeople wanted to accompany me to the school.

     

    It’s the scrap of a chequered shirt, wound around a shard of window glass and blowing in the wind, that I’ll never forget.

     

    The corpses had long been removed, but the blackened walls and empty bunk beds were still there. The stench of smoke lingered. Boko Haram fighters had overrun the boys’ school before sunrise, shooting, looting, and setting things ablaze. Fifty-nine boys died. Almost two dozen buildings were destroyed.

     

    The boys had been sleeping when the attack came. Some suffocated. Some ran out, with at least one tearing his shirt in the process. Parents later told me that among their dead sons were aspiring doctors, engineers, lawyers, and teachers.

     

    After the Buni Yadi attack, the federal government shut down five high schools in the northeast. Government-provided security was supposed to have been boosted under the state of emergency protocol, but that plan had failed.

    chika_oduah_irin_long_read_photo_10_1920.jpg

    A man stands talking to a group of boys and girls at a school
    Chika Oduah/IRIN
    A high school principal goes through safety guidelines at a morning assembly session in Maiduguri. He says five teachers have left the school in fear of Boko Haram.

    "It is unfortunate [that], up until now, they have not done anything for us in terms of providing some security measures to be taken in our schools,” Yobe State Education Commissioner Mohammed Lamin told me when I stopped by his office to see him again last year. He said the state was doing what it could to meet the federal government’s shortcomings.

     

    "Maybe they may come in the near future to start fencing some of the schools or providing some security equipment to us, but up until this moment nothing has been done. It is only the state government that has been providing all these things to our schools."

     

    Five years after the massacre, the Buni Yadi school is still closed. Reconstruction, managed by the federal government, started last year.

     

    Though the other schools in Borno State that were closed after the 2014 attack were reopened two years later, a high school principal told me last April: “Boko Haram is still a threat to schools in Maiduguri”. Five teachers had fled the school he heads.

     

    Fear and hunger

     

    Last year, I was able to get my hands on a couple of books that I’d been looking for: religious texts that Boko Haram uses. A vendor in the market was selling them for cheap. One, written by an Egyptian scholar, prescribes the harshest punishments for societal corruption and advocates for a violent jihad to protect “true Muslims”.

    With Boko Haram-approved texts readily available in the market, I wondered, how could the army ever defeat the militants?

    “This is the book they use,” Mustafa* told me. Mustafa, who had worked as an informer on Boko Haram for the government, and I spoke from time to time. He had spotted the books in a market and got them for me.

     

    Mustafa knew very well the religious books that Boko Haram members preferred. He’d once infiltrated the group, and the books he’d seen at the market, he said, were the same ones the insurgents read in the camps they lived in.

     

    With Boko Haram-approved texts readily available in the market, I wondered, how could the army ever defeat the militants?

     

    Finding those books drove home what the government won’t acknowledge: In many parts of northeastern Nigeria, even when you can’t see Boko Haram, their presence is felt. The fear is not going away.

     

    Fear has kept many farming and fishing families away from their land and their boats – contributing to a food shortage in the northeast. During the rise of Boko Haram, 90 percent of agricultural production was wiped out.

     

    With food production at dismal levels in northeastern Nigeria, humanitarian groups stepped in. The UN’s Food and Agricultural Organisation began distributing fertiliser, seeds, and water.

     

    Within a year, the number of people facing acute food insecurity in the states hardest hit by Boko Haram – Yobe, Borno, and Adamawa – fell from 4.7 million in 2017 to 2.3 million in 2018.

     

    But today food insecurity is high again.

     

    Since November, attacks by Boko Haram have increased, disrupting food production during dry season – when food stocks are traditionally low – and also blocking access for humanitarian aid to be delivered.

     

    And this was after Kashim Shettima, the governor of Borno State, had taken measures to revitalise agriculture.

    In many parts of northeastern Nigeria, even when you can’t see Boko Haram, their presence is felt. The fear is not going away.

     

    A specialist in agricultural economics, he distributed 270 tractors to farmers in June, hoping this would encourage them to return to their fields. They did. But after 12 farmers were killed by Boko Haram fighters while working their land on a single Saturday in October, the fields are again empty.

     

    Early this year, Governor Shettima wept when he met the Nigerian president in Abuja to discuss the upsurge in attacks.

     

    His tears said everything: Boko Haram is back and fighting.

     

    They never really left, though, despite the government’s repeated claims to have defeated the extremist group. In December, the insurgents overran a military base, taking ammunition, rocket launchers, and vehicles.

     

    In the northeast, when I’m on the streets of places like Yola, Damaturu, or Maiduguri, I hear people ruminating over conspiracy theories that blame Western multinational organisations for creating Boko Haram or local politicians for funding it.

    Whether those rumours have any nuggets of truth in them or not, it’s clear that the business of conflict has blessed some and devastated others. In Maiduguri, where it all began, government officials and wealthy businessmen are building expensive mosques and commercial plazas all over the city. The price of real estate has spiked.

     

    At the same time, many of the nearly two million Nigerians displaced by the insurgency still aren’t getting food.

     

    Earlier this month, frustrated IDPs marched out into the streets of Maiduguri. They said they’d been hungry for days and that the government had neglected them. In fits of rage, women and children knocked down political campaign posters.

     

    When the police came out to spray tear gas on them, they scattered.

     

    (*Name changed to protect identity of source for security reasons)

     

    co/js/si/ag

    How fear is shaping an entire generation
    Reporter’s Diary: Still on the trail of Boko Haram
  • Rival Venezuela pop concerts, the “triple nexus”, arming US aid officials: The Cheat Sheet

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

    On our radar

    Civilians may still be trapped in last Islamic State pocket in Syria

    A reported 2,000 people were evacuated from so-called Islamic State’s last pocket of territory in eastern Syria this week, but the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces said there may still be civilians remaining in the village of Baghouz. Once screened for membership in the extremist group, many leaving the territory are taken to al-Hol camp. The UN says 61 young children have died since December on the way there or soon after arrival. The World Health Organisation’s head in Syria told IRIN recently that the security checks were delaying urgent healthcare and that local authorities had denied a request to set up a medical waystation. The SDF denied the charges, but since then UN agencies say they have set up just such a transit site “to address the high number of child deaths”. Some people who had fled Baghouz told Human Rights Watch of hunger and being trapped under heavy shelling, air strikes, and IS threats.

     

    “One after the other”: Tropical storms swarm the Pacific

    The cyclone season has put parts of the southwestern Pacific on high alert. Cyclone Oma threatened the Solomon Islands and Vanuatu for five days, sending over 1,000 to evacuation centres. The storm later brushed New Caledonia’s coast and was due to push towards Australia. Earlier this month, the cyclone warning system in Tonga sent out repeated alerts as four separate “extreme tropical weather systems” threatened the country. Tonga escaped severe damage, but the country’s head meteorologist said facing so many in quick succession was exceptional. Storms in the Pacific islands needn’t cause headline-grabbing death tolls to leave a lasting impact; officials in Vanuatu and the Solomon Islands were expecting food shortages after Oma wiped out some smallholdings. Vast distances make repairs and recovery difficult. For more on preparing for Pacific disaster, see our recent story on women fighting for a seat at the table: Fiji’s storm-watchers.

     

    South Sudan rights violations may amount to war crimes

    Despite the signing of last year's peace agreement in South Sudan, ongoing violations including rape and sexual violence "may amount to international crimes, including war crimes and crimes against humanity," according to a new UN report. Investigators with the Commission on Human Rights in South Sudan noted a "confirmed pattern" in the way combatants attacked and destroyed villages, plundered homes, and took women as sexual slaves. Sexual violence has worsened markedly since the commission's last update in December 2017; those targeted included children, the elderly, and pregnant women. Many sides of the conflict, including the army, national security forces, and rebel groups, were blamed for the violence, while the commission also investigated sexual exploitation and abuse by UN peacekeepers. South Sudan remains one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises: 4.5 million people are displaced, seven million are in need of aid, and nearly 60 percent of the population will face severe food insecurity this year.

    Joining up billions in development, humanitarian, and peace spending

    The “triple nexus” may sound like an ice skating move, but it’s the new orthodoxy in aid. A “recommendation” was adopted today by members of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. The OECD says its donor states command over $74 billion of international funding in “fragile” situations. The new Development Assistance Committee policy says long-term development, peacemaking, and emergency relief should have complementary goals and together could “avoid the occurrence of humanitarian needs”. One aid agency nexus-watcher told IRIN that after much discussion in the aid community it was a relief to see clear definitions and terminology emerge. A source familiar with the discussions said “more must be done to prevent crises and deal with structural issues and root causes, rather than leaving the humanitarian system to pick up the pieces”. The text refers six times to continued respect for humanitarian principles: critics question how humanitarian neutrality and independence sit with politically-flavoured development and peace efforts.

    In case you missed it

    Burkina Faso: More than 100,000 people have been displaced by instability and fighting in the West African country, according to the UN. Tens of thousands have fled this year, as rising militancy and attacks by armed groups affect the North, Sahel, and Eastern regions.

     

    Madagascar: More than 900 people have died since a measles epidemic began in the huge island nation in September, the WHO said. Over 68,000 cases have been documented; those most at risk are infants from nine to 11 months old.

     

    Myanmar: Restrictions on humanitarian access in Rakhine State are affecting some 95,000 people due to ongoing clashes between the military and the Arakan Army, an ethnic Rakhine insurgent group, according to the UN’s humanitarian coordination arm. More than 5,500 people have been displaced since December.

     

    Refugee resettlement 2018: UNHCR says 55,692 refugees were permanently resettled in 2018. The UN refugee agency says that’s only about five percent of those they think were eligible. Despite deep cuts in its quota, the US took in more than any other nation. IRIN explored the numbers here.

     

    Yemen: UN envoy for Yemen Martin Griffiths told the Security Council on 19 February that the two main sides in Yemen’s war had agreed to withdraw from a small port and oil facility near the Red Sea city of Hodeidah, in a first step towards implementing a much-discussed ceasefire deal for the city.

     

     

    Weekend read

    Opinion: Why the Venezuelan opposition’s high-stakes aid gamble must pay off

    As we write this, Venezuela is top of many media headlines as a quarter of a million people are estimated to be assembling on the border, in Colombia. The presidents of Colombia and Chile are expected – and maybe even Richard Branson. He is backing the concert they’re all there to see, Venezuela Aid Live. The event’s sponsors say it will raise $100 million to help the millions of Venezuelans living with shortages of, well, nearly everything. Branson even suggests that the performance could help persuade Venezuela’s military to defy orders and open the border – sealed tight by President Nicolás Maduro – to aid shipments; shipments that opposition leader Juan Guaidó is inviting. Meanwhile, on the Venezuelan side of the border, Maduro is hosting his own benefit concerts on Friday and Saturday. What’s a humanitarian to make of all this? Analyst and columnist Francisco Toro offers a reality check in his essay on what he calls the “increasingly blatant politicisation of aid”. $100 million for food and medicine, for instance, “is completely out of proportion” with the scale of need in Venezuela. And if you’re concerned about the politicisation of aid, you might like to check out this from The Guardian, on the politicisation of, um, bread.

    And finally

    US-armed donor proposal stirs alarm

    A new type of US government aid official could be embedded with US intelligence or military forces in insecure hotspots to work on certain tactical projects. They would be “super enablers”, according to a proposal developed by consultants hired by USAID. The proposed two-person Rapid Expeditionary Development (RED) teams would be physically fit, armed, and able to deploy where USAID can’t send civilians. The proposals met with some support in the US military and intelligence communities, and mixed views from within USAID, the 75-page report said. The concept, first reported by Devex, has been met with dismay by some in the humanitarian Twittersphere, earning reactions such as “wannabe SEALS” and “incredibly unwise”. Also, it’s been met with a humanitarian principles meme (a Ranger tab is a badge indicating completion of a very tough two-month US Army training course):

    (TOP PHOTO: Some of those fleeing besieged IS territory in Syria. CREDIT: Constantin Gouvy/IRIN)

    bp-as-il-si/ag

    Rival Venezuela pop concerts, the “triple nexus”, arming US aid officials

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