(Formerly called IRIN) Journalism from the heart of crises

  • 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


    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


    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


    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


    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


    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


    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


    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


    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)



    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.
  • In Cúcuta, a soup kitchen and a long road ahead for Venezuelans

    The Colombian border town of Cúcuta is the main point of exodus for Venezuelans leaving their troubled homeland, with up to 40,000 people crossing backwards and forwards here each day.


    Most arrive with hopes of new lives and new opportunities in Colombia, while others aim to travel, often by foot, on to other South American countries like Ecuador and Peru. Somewhere between three and four million Venezuelans have left since 2015.


    Read more: International politics and humanitarian aid collide in Venezuela


    Journalist Steven Grattan went to Cúcuta, once a thriving hub for Venezuelan tourists, and discovered how it is struggling to host hundreds of thousands of new migrants who have landed in a region where education and health institutions are now at breaking point.


    Harsh realities greet many new arrivals, as their journeys and dreams of a fresh start become derailed by their own lack of resources and by the shortage of opportunities they find in Colombia.




    Steven Grattan/IRIN

    Some Venezuelans cross into Colombia simply to buy basic food and supplies to take back to Venezuela. They bring suitcases, like the man in this photo heading back along the Simón Bolívar border bridge – the main point of entry between the two countries. Flour, eggs, toilet roll, and toothpaste are hard to come by, or are extremely expensive. Many are now scared to migrate, knowing that Colombia and other nearby countries are saturated with their fellow citizens, as jobs and opportunities abroad have dried up.

    Colombian refugees returning


    Steven Grattan/IRIN

    As recently as a decade ago Venezuela was one of the richest countries in the region, playing host itself to more than a quarter of a million Colombians fleeing war and persecution during the armed conflict between Colombian government forces and leftist FARC rebels. Freddy Garzon, 49, was one of those whose family fled Colombia and moved to Venezuela, in 1974. He is now fleeing the other way with his children, aged seven and nine. “I can’t imagine going back [to Venezuela] again. It’s really affected my head,” he says.



    A long line of people outside of a soup kitchen
    Steven Grattan/IRIN

    This is the priority line for parents with young children outside a church-run soup kitchen in Cúcuta. Some 7,500 meals are provided here six days a week, Monday to Saturday. There is a line for the elderly too. Many depend on these meals to help them through the first steps of their migration into Colombia. However, many Venezuelans who live near the border also cross daily and queue for rations as food on the other side is so scarce.

    The cooks


    Steven Grattan/IRIN

    Cooking plantain for 4,000 people’s lunch is no easy task. Elvis Baracho (at the front), 25, is a Venezuelan migrant who has worked at the soup kitchen for almost two years. His salary is minimal ($26 a month), but it allows him to pay for basic needs and he gets two free meals a day. Angel Jose, 25, (behind) lives in a tin house on the outskirts of Cúcuta with his wife and disabled child. In addition to his work at the soup kitchen, he cuts hair. He charges 2,000 pesos (63 cents) per cut, half of which goes to the woman who rents him the clippers.

    Twelve to a room


    A woman stands in the shade with her cart selling Aloe Vera juice
    Steven Grattan/IRIN

    Since migrating to Colombia six months ago, Lesther Lopez, 42, has been selling her Aloe Vera concoction around Cúcuta. It supposedly helps with liver, kidney, and cholesterol problems. She says that coming to the soup kitchen for lunch each day means the little money she earns can go toward paying the $95 in monthly rent she is charged for the one room she shares in Cúcuta with 11 others, including her children aged 22, 19, and 14.

    Scraping by to send money home


    A 48 year old man stands near a colorful wall holding a box of small goods for sale
    Steven Grattan/IRIN

    Jesus Betancurt sits on the pavement in the sweltering heat on the Simón Bolívar bridge selling biscuits and sweets to passersby. He crossed over a week ago in search of a job. “I live with the hope of being able to send something back to my family,” says the 48-year-old from Carabobo State. “I’ve been trying to find work, but this is all I can get for now.”

    Moving on


    A closeup of a printed map showing a route for migrants
    Steven Grattan/IRIN

    This map is given by the Red Cross to Venezuelan migrants walking into Colombia. It shows a 47-hour walk to the city of Bucaramanga, a small fraction of the route many will take on to Ecuador or Peru. The road winds high into hills, and people often have to sleep rough in cold nighttime temperatures.

    Hitching a ride

    For those leaving Cúcuta, the first stop is the hilltop town Pamplona. Many come on foot on their way to Bucaramanga. In the photo above, migrants leaving Pamplona are trying to hitch a ride from a passing lorry, The migrants often travel vast distances on from here on foot, through the Colombian wetlands, many with suitcases and few resources.

    Escaping the heat


    A group of men, women, and children in the back of a shipping lorry
    Steven Grattan/IRIN

    Most don’t get picked up, but these migrants are lucky enough to hitch a ride on the back of an empty lorry. The heat on the road is intense, so they are happy to catch a break. Most of these migrants are trying to leave Colombia for Peru and Chile because they believe there might be more opportunities for work in those countries. Others are searching for family members who have gone before.


    For more on the situation within Venezuela, read our in-depth reporting: A humanitarian crisis denied.

    (TOP PHOTO: Sergio Carmargo, 59, in the elderly line at the church-run soup kitchen in Cúcuta. CREDIT: Steven Grattan/IRIN)


    In Cúcuta, a soup kitchen and a long road ahead for Venezuelans
  • The choices they made: Hondurans at the US-Mexico border

    As another “caravan” of Central Americans, mainly from Honduras and 12,000 strong, enters Mexico, several thousand members of the group that travelled in October are still waiting on the US-Mexico border. Photographer Tomás Ayuso spent a week speaking with some of them recently in a ramshackle tent city in Tijuana.

    They told him why they left Honduras – now dealing with fresh political protests – and about their tricky decisions to either apply for asylum in the United States or in Mexico.


    “Deportation [back to Honduras] would be the death of us,” said Mayra Santos*, describing how she and members of her family had to flee drug-related violence in Santa Barbara, a city in western Honduras.


    Those who choose to request asylum in the United States must register and then wait their turn to see an asylum officer. It can take weeks, even months, to secure this preliminary interview – designed to establish if the person faces a credible fear of persecution or torture if returned to their homeland.


    If they pass this and are allowed to enter the United States, they must wait again, this time for a hearing with an immigration judge. Due to a backlog of hundreds of thousands of cases, it can take years before a final decision is reached – with deportation back to their country of origin a constant threat.


    ☰ Read more: A system in crisis


    In the past decade, migration across the southern border of the United States has undergone a dramatic change. Every year since the late 1970s US Border Patrol agents apprehended close to a million or more undocumented migrants entering the country. In 2007, that number began to fall, and last year there were just over 310,000 apprehensions – the lowest number since 1971.

    At the same time, the proportion of people entering the United States from the southern border to claim asylum has increased. Ten years ago, one out of every 100 people crossing the border was seeking humanitarian protection, according to a recent report published by the Migration Policy Institute (MPI), a non-partisan think tank in Washington DC. Today that number is about one in three.

    According to Jason Boyd, policy counsel at the American Immigration Lawyers Association, or AILA, the increase is being driven by ongoing humanitarian emergencies in El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala, an area of Central America known as the Northern Triangle. These countries have some of the highest homicide rates in the world and are wracked by gang violence, gender-based violence, extortion, and extra-judicial killings. “Many of the individuals and families arriving at the US southern border are literally fleeing for their lives,” said Boyd.

    But the system that is supposed to provide them protection is in crisis. Beginning in 2010 the number of asylum requests lodged in the United States started to balloon, mirroring an upward trend in global displacement. Last year, 79,000 people approached the US border saying they had a credible fear of returning to their home country, compared to 9,000 at the beginning of the decade.

    The increase in credible-fear claims, as well as asylum requests made by people already in the United States, has strained the system to a “crisis point”, according to the MPI report. This has led to a backlog of hundreds of thousands of cases in US immigration courts and people having to wait many months, if not years, to receive a hearing and a decision.


    Some don’t wait for the initial meeting and try to cross illegally in the hope of claiming asylum once inside the United States. They must navigate a border lined in places with concertina wire and patrolled by US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agents. Journeys through less well guarded stretches of desert are long and dangerous and migrants and asylum seekers often resort to hiring smugglers, known as coyotes, to help them.


    For the thousands of asylum seekers still waiting at the US-Mexico border and the thousands more set to join them, a string of policy changes by the US President Donald Trump and the government’s recent five-week shutdown have all made their next steps less certain.

    ☰ Read more: How the US shutdown has impacted the border situation


    The shutdown had already resulted in more than 40,000 cancelled immigration court hearings as of January 11, according to the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC) at Syracuse University. More than 80,000 individuals awaiting their day in court may have been impacted by the time the shutdown ended and hearings could restart on Monday, 28 January.


    Every week an estimated 20,000 more cases are added to the active case backlog, which is already above 800,000, according to TRAC. Those whose hearings come up have already been waiting up to four years and could have to wait another three or four years until their next date is called. Only those detained are having their cases processed.


    Slower processing means that border officials are also filtering in less applicants from Mexico – between 20 and 90 per day – putting further pressure on those trying to make sure there are enough food, clothing, and medical supplies at shelters across Tijuana.


    For those who choose to try to make a life in Mexico, newly inaugurated Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador has expanded a programme for humanitarian visas and political asylum, but Mexico too has a long backlog of claimants and has faced criticism for detaining people for long periods in squalid conditions.


    The Mexican government has also launched a national jobs initiative, offering asylum seekers thousands of new positions across the country. These are mostly geared towards unskilled labour, but the government has said it will try to match an individual’s skills with more specialised jobs. Almost 30,000 people claimed asylum in Mexico last year – a more than ten-fold increase since 2014.

    Months of living rough has taken its toll, and a few migrants are choosing to return to Honduras. They give themselves up to Mexican migration authorities, who take them into custody and deport them. As one man who took this option, Wilmer Rosa, said: “I never had anything to begin with, so in a way I didn’t lose anything by trying.”

    A new chance after being left for dead


    Tomás Ayuso/IRIN

    Abel Martinez, 23, from Tegucigalpa.


    Abel Martinez* said he fled the Honduran capital, Tegucigalpa, after a botched execution left him on the side of the road bleeding out but not dead. For weeks, he said, a gang had been trying to recruit him to sell drugs. He refused. Finally, a gang member, a childhood friend, demanded he join, or else. Martinez said he said “no”, and was shot five times in his head and torso.


    Months later, he still has three slugs in his body. When Martinez left the hospital he and his mother moved to his aunt’s home in southern Honduras, joining some 200,000 Hondurans displaced by violence or natural disaster. When he heard news of a caravan, he caught up with the group as it crossed into Guatemala.


    Martinez has decided to stay in Mexico and is trying to get his paperwork in order so he can start a job. He must be patient as the Mexican immigration authorities in Tijuana are overwhelmed by demands for visas and work permits.


    Martinez is determined to use the opportunity the caravan afforded him. “It’s God’s will anyway, in this life and the next,” he said. “If he brought me back from the otherside, I only hope he has a purpose for me here.”


    Fleeing a life of forced criminality


    Tomás Ayuso/IRIN

    Alexander Estrada, 24, from El Progreso.

    Growing up in El Progreso, near the northern city of San Pedro Sula, Alexander Estrada* watched criminal groups begin to take over urban neighbourhoods in 2014. Trafficked drugs arrived in the jungles of the Honduran east by air and were then smuggled through El Progreso to Guatemala, a key hub in the northward supply lines. Local gangs began buying cocaine from the smugglers and selling it in the city. Once only a transit country for drugs, the growth of the gangs has also helped to make more Hondurans consumers of the drugs.


    A local drug lord approached Estrada to demand that he sell drugs. He had been without work for three years and agreed, worried about providing for his family. “I tried working construction, security, warehouses,” he said. “But I just couldn’t find anyone that would hire me.” At the same time, the economy took a dive and taxes spiked, disproportionately affecting those in the middle and lower classes.


    Estrada said he had been working since he was 15 and dropped out of school because education was a luxury and in Honduras one only gets a job through nepotism or other connections – which he did not have. Slinging drugs brought food to the table, but it also brought him tremendous shame. He was desperate to leave but feared repercussions from the drug gangs. When the caravan departed, Estrada fled, telling only his mother, who supported his decision.


    Now, he said, he is grateful to Mexico and Mexicans for giving him safe passage and for giving him space for his own renewal. “It’s been hard, but I know that by getting asylum in Mexico, I have another shot at making a living the honest way,” he said, before breaking down in tears and stating what he now understood to be true. “I don't think I’ll go back to Honduras again in my lifetime.”


    Leaving a country that failed them


    Tomás Ayuso/IRIN

    Mayra Santos, 28, and her two-year-old son, from Santa Barbara.


    Mayra Santos’* said she never used to think she’d leave Honduras: she had a house and a store. But she feared that her son would grow up surrounded by men involved in drug trafficking and that he would have no choice but to join them.


    Then her teenage niece, whom she adopted after her mother abandoned her, started being stalked by the local drug strongman in their western Honduran town on Santa Barbara. “It's a different country, it's a different city,” Santos said, referring to the growth in drug trafficking. “We don’t have anyone to look out for us. She [her niece] knew – we all knew – we had to leave.”


    As the threat of sexual violence grew, Santos, her son, and her niece left home for shelter in Guatemala. When the caravan set off, they joined, eager to move further from Honduras and reasoning that with so many people the northward journey could be made in relative safety.


    Santos is determined to enter the United States and stay there. She has plenty of evidence of the threats her family faced: text messages from the men who hounded her niece, as well as audio notes in which the family describes the violence that was bearing down on them. Her children’s future, Santos said, is no longer in Central America, as much as it pains her to accept that. The truth, she added, is that Honduras failed her family, not the other way around.


    Finding love, hoping for humanitarian protection


    Tomás Ayuso/IRIN

    Marlan Pena, 20, from Trujillo, and Xiomara Enriquez, 29, from Santa Rosa de Copan.


    The couple met on the journey north, somewhere in southern Mexico. Their stories of departure, however, are very similar to those of others in the Honduran LGBTQ community – they are frequently harassed and attacked especially in the more conservative parts of the country. A string of catcalling incidents that escalated into outright threats of sexual violence pushed Marian Pena to leave her coastal city, where she said she faced daily harassment.


    She, like others, said the group trek to the US-Mexico border was a lifeboat out of Honduras: “Maybe up north I can be free, and be myself; have all the opportunities I never had back home because of who I was.”


    Xiomara Enriquez did not openly admit her sexual identity to start with, unlike Pena. She feared the reactions of the people in her small town. But the desire to live without secrets grew more by the day. She had heard of LGBTQ Hondurans leaving the country to be able to live their lives as they chose, and that freedom appealed to her. “I wanted to be free to be who I was, to love who I wanted,” she explained. “In Honduras, in a way, I could never be free. There was too much homophobia,” she said.


    During the group’s slow crawl through Chiapas, Pena approached Enriquez and they quickly fell in love. They’ve since been inseparable. The couple met with American lawyers working with LGBTQ asylum seekers in Tijuana and are filing for humanitarian asylum in the United States. While waiting to have their cases heard by asylum officers at the border, they remain optimistic. “Being together during this process has made this journey that much easier,” says Pena. “Without her, I don’t know if I could’ve made it all the way here.”


    Taking a chance on an illegal crossing


    Tomás Ayuso/IRIN

    Dinora Rivera, 35 and Isaac Montufar, 12, from Santa Barbara.


    Dinora Rivera’s husband died suddenly in late 2017. Since then her life has been in freefall. Although she worked several jobs to support herself and her son, her financial situation was precarious. In mid-2018, the factories where Rivera worked closed and she was left without her main source of income, even as the price of basic goods and services rose.


    Then the “caravan” passed through her town of Santa Barbara. “We had never seen anything like it,” she recalled. “People were almost dancing on their way to the border.” She had already been in talks with a local smuggler to take her to the border for several thousand dollars. Instead, she joined the group of other self-exiled Hondurans on the northward march.


    In Tijuana they slept on a sidewalk, and later in a church. Unlike others seeking asylum due to death threats, Rivera’s motivation is purely economic, which gives her little chance of being admitted into the United States. “Unless you know someone, you aren’t going to find a job,” she explained. “All we ask for is a chance at dignity, and I think in America we can find it.”


    Soon after this photo was taken, Rivera met men who claimed to be able to smuggle her and her son across the border. After days wrestling with the decision, she took up the offer and left with a group of other “caravanners”. She hasn’t been heard from since.


    Returning home, on his terms


    Tomás Ayuso/IRIN

    Wilmer Rosa, 32, from San Pedro Sula.


    In his zoot suits and long, draping jackets, Wilmer Rosa, the sharply dressed Honduran of Tijuana, cuts a unique silhouette against the layers of donated sweaters most other migrants wear. “Just because I am displaced doesn’t mean I shouldn’t care for my appearance,” he said. He dressed in formal attire back home, he said, and he was lucky enough to find similar items in the piles of donated clothes brought to the shelters.

    In Honduras, Rosa worked at a textile plant, one of the working poor of San Pedro Sula who earn enough to buy food but little else. Two months after arriving in Mexico, he was fed up. The last straw was when he was robbed of the little money he had earned working odd jobs for a fishmonger.


    The day this portrait was taken, Rosa decided it was time to hang up his dream: the stakes of crossing illegally were too high and he couldn’t stand to just wait any longer. He could go back with his head held high, he reasoned. He had his health, and he saw it as a victory that he accomplished what he set out to do: walk to the border.


    Rosa planned to turn himself in for deportation. He would then wait in a jail until a flight of Honduran deportees to San Pedro Sula was filled, and he’d be home after a wild two months in Mexico.


    “I am happy that I am making this decision myself and not being forced to do it on someone else’s terms,” Rosa said.


    He said his goodbyes and walked through the crowd towards the police station. Other Hondurans near the post asked him to reconsider: “C’mon man stay, you’re almost there! You are going to give up at the finish line?”


    But Rosa was done: he wanted to go home.

    (*Name changed for security reasons)


    “We all knew we had to leave”
    The choices they made: Hondurans at the US-Mexico border
  • Fleeing the last days of Islamic State in Syria

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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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

    A dangerous escape


    Constantin Gouvy/IRIN

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


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


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


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


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


    Food shortages


    Constantin Gouvy/IRIN

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


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


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


    The threat from the air


    Constantin Gouvy/IRIN

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


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


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


    IS supporters among those fleeing

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


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


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


    Hidden fighters

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


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


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


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


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

    Foreign wives and children


    Constantin Gouvy/IRIN

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


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


    Sent for screening


    Constantin Gouvy/IRIN

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


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


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



    Fleeing the last days of Islamic State in Syria
  • “The world forgot us”: Women and healthcare in ruined Raqqa

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


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

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


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


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


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


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

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


    Medicine on the move

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


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


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


    ‘A bad situation’ for women

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


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


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


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


    ‘They give us medication’

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


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


    Dirty water and disease

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


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


    Ailments from dust and debris

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


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


    Malnourishment and depression

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

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


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


    ‘We are abandoned’

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



    “The world forgot us”: Women and healthcare in ruined Raqqa
  • What 2018 looked like on the ground

    In the flood of facts and figures, data and doom that defined much of 2018’s humanitarian news, it was sometimes easy to overlook the people at the heart of those stories: the families trying to rebuild homes and lives in Iraq or the Philippines or Afghanistan; Malians and South Sudanese hoping for peace; Congolese and Venezuelans facing healthcare crises; aid workers intent on doing their jobs in Indonesia or Syria or Ukraine or Myanmar.


    As 2019 begins, we offer a glimpse of some of their stories to mark the year past and to open the way to the on-the-ground stories we’ll report in the new year.



    Afghans return to danger


    KANDAHAR, AFGHANISTAN – As European countries tightened borders and asylum policies, the number of Afghan asylum seekers pushed out of Europe soared. Returnees like those above, on the outskirts of Kandahar, found a volatile country shaken by violence and ongoing conflicts. Conflict uprooted more than one million people over the last two years and civilian casualties were at near-record levels. “I can’t go home,” one returnee told IRIN. “I can’t stay here. I can’t go back. I really don’t know what to do with myself.”


    Displaced by Myanmar’s other conflicts


    A boy stands in the middle of a displacement camp on a church compound near Myitkyina
    Verena Hölzl/IRIN

    MYITKYINA, MYANMAR – While the Rohingya refugee crisis dominated headlines, long-standing conflicts in other parts of Myanmar continued. They included clashes in Kachin State, where this displacement camp was set up. Local aid groups said increased government restrictions hampered the delivery of humanitarian assistance. "The other day our aid workers had to turn around halfway because the soldiers didn't let them pass," one worker told IRIN.




    At the centre of Ukraine’s HIV epidemic

    SEVERODONETSK, UKRAINE – The two Russian-backed breakaway regions at war with the Ukrainian government – the “Luhansk People’s Republic” and the “Donetsk People’s Republic” – are entered via checkpoints like this and are not recognised by the international community. Aid workers faced hurdles in delivering help in separatist areas, including to patients in one of Europe’s worst HIV epidemics, which was compounded by a tuberculosis epidemic. Some organisations even took their work underground. “Medical workers are really afraid,” one aid worker told IRIN, “but it’s the patients who suffer most.”


    Rebuilding Mosul

    MOSUL, IRAQ – “Imagine, this whole area was full of homes and each home was full of people, many related, whose families had lived here for centuries,” a former resident said as he surveyed the rubble that had been his home. A newly built bridge, new businesses, and a fairground with carnival rides greeted some returnees, but not in parts of the old city where the final and most ferocious battle against so-called Islamic State in Iraq’s second city took place. Residents complained that government aid for rebuilding was slow or non-existent.





    Hungry in South Sudan


    Stefanie Glinski/IRIN

    JUBA, SOUTH SUDAN – “There are only onions and rice in the market. It’s all I eat every day,” said Moses, 14, a vendor who fled fighting and didn’t know where his family was. A five-year civil war and mass displacement in South Sudan wrecked food production and undermined rural markets, leaving more than seven million people at risk of starvation even as officials struggled to collect the data needed to declare famine.



    Leaving Venezuela


    Bram Ebus/IRIN

    CÚCUTA, VENEZUELA – On the Puente Internacional Simón Bolívar, the main crossing point for Venezuelans into Colombia, the influx of people seemed continuous, and Jozef Merkx, country representative for UNHCR, worried that Colombia’s hospitality was already at breaking point. By year-end, more than one million Venezuelans lived in Colombia. “Colombia is a refugee-producing country,” Merkx said in March. “For the first time, it’s a receiving country, and they are not ready.”




    Life after Afrin


    An exterior face of a destroyed building with the silhouette of a young girl in an open doorway on the second floor
    Afshin Ismaeli/IRIN

    AHRAS, SYRIA – More than 100,000 civilians from the Syrian-Kurdish enclave of Afrin found what shelter they could in 12 abandoned villages. They had fled a months-long push by Turkish-backed Syrian rebels to claim the city and the wider enclave. Many people fled with children, like this girl whose family made this destroyed house home. One father of four, Rashid Ararat, 33, said: “We left Afrin because of our children. They killed a lot of people and, after an airstrike hit our neighbour’s house, killing 15 people, we knew we had to leave.”


    Rohingya refugees await monsoon season

    COX’S BAZAR, BANGLADESH – Shafiqa, a 25-year-old single mother of two who fled to Bangladesh last year, built a mud wall to protect her home during monsoon season. But camp residents and humanitarian groups feared that weeks of work to reinforce structures could prove futile as there was no evacuation plan or storm shelters for the majority of people. "I don't think these walls will do much, but there's nothing else I can do," one resident said, standing knee-deep in a pool of mud he was using to build a barrier around his home.




    Back in Marawi, to ruins


    Wes Bruer/IRIN

    MARAWI, PHILIPPINES – A year after IS-aligned militants stormed Marawi, the Philippine city remained in ruins after the government reclaimed the city and the rebuild stalled, with hundreds of thousands still displaced. As he surveyed the damage in the shell of his former home, Abdulhakim Salem, who returned for the first time since fleeing the fighting, said he still couldn’t believe fellow Muslims would cause so much damage to other Muslims.



    Battling DRC’s ebola outbreak


    Junior D. Kannah/AFP

    MBANDAKA, DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF CONGO – In Congo’s ninth Ebola outbreak since 1976, the Ministry of Health recorded 54 confirmed cases, including 33 deaths, between May and July in northwestern Equateur Province. The spread of the disease to the outskirts of Mbandaka, a port city on the Congo River with road and air links, increased fears of a wider epidemic and was described by the WHO as a “major game-changer”. Thomas, a boat owner in Mbandaka, and other residents worried about what they saw as a slow response by the officials. “Time is flying and the virus is getting near our homes and families,” he said. The outbreak in Equateur Province officially ended on 24 July. But days later, another outbreak was declared in North Kivu in eastern DRC. It is expected to continue into 2019.


    Casualties of Afghanistan’s ‘low-intensity’ conflict


    A father at his son's hospital bare hospital bed
    Alessio Romenzi/IRIN

    KABUL, AFGHANISTAN – The UN has acknowledged that the “low-intensity conflict” in Afghanistan has escalated once more into war, with violence uprooting hundreds of thousands of people from their homes. Here’s what that escalation looked like in one Kabul emergency room: in 2017 the hospital averaged more than 12 new patients a day; in May 2018, the hospital’s busiest month ever, more than 400 people were treated. “To understand the country, simply look at the numbers at this hospital,” one doctor working there told IRIN. “Look at the numbers and faces of the people.”




    After Somalia’s floods


    Christina Goldbaum/IRIN
    BAIDOA, SOMALIA – More than 200,000 people were displaced from their homes – many of which had been makeshift shelters intended to offer short-term respite from a year of drought – after the heaviest rainfall in over three decades. Shamso Hassan, 25, with her child, came to Baidoa last year after drought devastated her family’s small farm, roughly 45 kilometres away. When the rains first arrived, most of her makeshift home was swept away in a flash flood. She scavenged to collect sticks, rope, and tarps to rebuild. Her husband had returned to the family farm. “I’m praying the farm produces this year,” she said. “If it does then we can finally return home.”

    Dying for peace in Colombia


    Tomás Ayuso/IRIN

    CAUCA, COLOMBIA – Two years after the official end of the Colombian conflict, the sound of gunfire continued to echo in the forests of coca-growing regions as the military conducted a new, more secretive war against new armed groups filling the void left by FARC guerrillas. The peace deal itself hung in the balance after staunch conservative Iván Duque won the presidency. He had campaigned to overhaul terms many Colombians see as too kind to the FARC. “We’re being killed, one by one,” a representative of a national coca growers’ cooperative explained. “The people paying the price are once again farmers.”




    Braving the vote in Mali


    BAMAKO, MALI – As millions of Malians cast their votes in the first round of fiercely contested presidential elections, 30,000 security personnel were deployed after militia groups and al-Qaeda-linked extremists vowed to disrupt balloting. “I am praying for peace,” said one would-be voter, who was turned away because he had arrived without identification. A Fulani herdsman, he had been ambushed and injured by militiamen earlier in the month. Mali’s president, Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta, won a second term in a run-off vote.



    EU migration policy’s human toll


    AGADEZ, NIGER – In Niger’s smuggling hub of Agadez, the economy used to be propped up by money made from ferrying people to the Libyan border. Under EU pressure and promises of millions of euros in compensation, the government cracked down on the migration business in 2016. But 18 months on, only a few hundred of the 7,000 people who stopped the illegal activity were receiving support, the local economy was in meltdown, and fears of renewed rebellion and militancy were growing. “All the benefit is for our government, not for the people,” Mohamadou, a 37-year-old former middleman in the migration business, said.



    Risky rebuilds in Nepal


    Vivien Cumming/IRIN

    RASUWA DISTRICT, NEPAL – More than three years after the powerful earthquakes that struck Nepal in April and May 2015, government reconstruction subsidies had not covered the cost of rebuilding. A rush to meet government deadlines to access earthquake reconstruction funds pushed people to take on high-interest loans or build tiny, uninhabited homes they couldn’t afford to finish. “The money I borrowed to rebuild my home is expensive,” Parang, whose home was flattened in 2015, told IRIN. “The interest is 36 percent per year. The bank won’t pay me, so people in the village lent me the money.”


    Surviving Kerala’s floods


    Shawn Sebastian/IRIN

    KOCHI, INDIA – Severe flooding in India’s southern Kerala state led to the deaths of more than 500 people, displaced 1.8 million others, and left thousands of workers in the agriculture, industrial, and tourism sectors without jobs. The cost of recovery and reconstruction could reach $4.4 billion, according to government and UN estimates. This man and his family were living at a government camp for displaced people but returned to their home daily to clean it bit by bit.




    Back to Lesvos

    MYTILENE, GREECE – Parts of Lesvos look like an island paradise, reporter Eric Reidy wrote of his first visit to the island since 2016. But Moria refugee camp isn’t one of those places. “I recently returned to discover that conditions have only become worse and the people forced to spend time inside its barbed wire fences have only grown more desperate. The regional government is now threatening to close Moria if the national government doesn’t clean up the camp.”


    Navigating the US counter-terror crackdown


    Aaref Watad/UNICEF

    GENEVA – The US government reinforced counter-terrorism controls on aid operations in Syria, requiring US-funded organisations to get special permission to provide relief in areas controlled by extremist groups. The new terms showed that USAID was “coming down hard” on compliance, said a US-based NGO policy specialist, who asked to remain anonymous. The move further complicated aid operations for those trapped in Syria’s last rebel stronghold, Idlib, where two thirds of its estimated three million people need assistance. These children were recent arrivals to a UN camp north of Idlib.



    Rethinking aid in Indonesia


    A truck labelled

    PALU, INDONESIA – Several weeks after September earthquakes and a tsunami washed away homes, destroyed entire neighbourhoods, and uprooted more than 80,000 people in Indonesia’s Central Sulawesi Province, some aid groups had to rethink their response plans when the government stated that foreign staff would not be allowed on the ground – spurring a larger debate about how the aid sector prepares for crises around the world. The government said that restrictions were necessary to coordinate the 85 international NGOs that offered help. A spokesman for the foreign affairs ministry said that without the regulations, “the presence of foreign aid workers, who have good intentions, may hamper the rescue and recovery work carried out by the national team”.

    Solutions to Afghan drought


    A man in Afghanistan picks from his vegetable plot
    Stefanie Glinski/IRIN

    BADGHIS, AFGHANISTAN – In a drought that destroyed harvests, killed livestock, and forced 250,000 people from their homes across the country, a simple solution made a difference: new water systems and rehabilitated pumps that kept hundreds of local families from abandoning their homes in search of help. Haji Bismillah, a 45-year-old farmer, tended tomato plants in his garden – a patch of greenery surrounded by sparse hills. “I’ve always been a farmer, but all of my rain-fed crops have died,” he said. “This plot has changed our lives.”


    Venezuela in crisis

    CARACAS, VENEZUELA – Reporter Susan Schulman found stark evidence of the humanitarian crisis swirling within Venezuela’s borders by taking a rare inside look at the country’s medical system. She found severe shortages of drugs and equipment, hospitals and clinics in disrepair, people dying because they couldn’t find or afford medicine. The government maintains that a humanitarian crisis does not exist. Antonia Martinez Lozada, above, said that she “had to sell everything to get medicine” to treat the lung cancer she was diagnosed with. Chuckling, she added, “We even sold the cheese slicer.”



    Volunteering to save lives on the US-Mexico border

    SONORAN DESERT, UNITED STATES – In the lead-up to the US midterm elections, President Donald Trump stoked fears about undocumented immigration and ordered the deployment of more than 5,000 soldiers to the southern US border. On that border, American volunteers risk being arrested and charged with trespassing, littering, or 'harbouring illegal aliens' for trying to stop people from dying in the desert wilderness by leaving water for them. “I found it shocking,” Brian Best, a volunteer, said of the situation. “I had no idea how many people had died. I had no idea the extent of the humanitarian crisis.”


    Warning of famine in Yemen


    Mohammed Huwais/UNICEF

    SANA’A, YEMEN – After three and a half a years of war, with Yemen’s currency collapsing and food prices shooting up, the UN warned of a “clear and present danger of a great big famine engulfing” Yemen. But declaring a famine is a technically complicated (and often politicised) process, and the call cannot be made simply because large numbers of people are going hungry, or even dying: it must be based on very specific data. The difficulty of collecting data in a country at war left some worrying that the deaths might come before any declaration. As Peter Thomas, an analyst at Famine Early Warning System Network, a US-funded food security monitor, put it: “By the time we get to famine, a response is almost already too late.”




    From Cameroon’s anglophone conflict, a lost generation

    BAMENDA, CAMEROON – In the Northwest and Southwest regions of Cameroon, the conflict between anglophone separatists and francophone armed forces pushed more than 430,000 people to flee their homes. It also left some 20,000 school-age children living in the bush with no access to a formal education. Parents and officials worried that the children could be driven to take up arms, becoming a lost generation that perpetuates the conflict and the humanitarian crisis. “Imagine that these children miss school for five or 10 years because of the fighting, hearing the sound of guns every day, and seeing people being killed; what will become of them?” asked a 45-year-old mother of four.


    In South Sudan, peace on paper


    Sam Mednick/IRIN

    JUBA, SOUTH SUDAN – As South Sudan marked five years of conflict in December, a September peace deal held, shakily. The violence has left 400,000 people dead and 4.5 million displaced, including the people above. Progress toward peace was stifled by continued delays, missed deadlines, and ceasefire violations. By early 2019 almost 50 percent of the country may face severe food insecurity and 36,000 will be on the brink of starvation. “There are tough, tough times ahead,” a journalist who has long covered the conflict told IRIN.

    A photo album
    What 2018 looked like on the ground
  • In photos: Life and death in Venezuela’s depleted hospitals

    Venezuela’s government says there is no humanitarian crisis in the country. But the stories of worried families navigating its crumbling health system suggest otherwise.


    Journalist Susan Schulman went to Venezuela to report on the humanitarian impacts of an economic collapse that has seen more than 1.6 million people flee the country in the last three years – roughly five percent of its total population.


    Her images, taken at a hospital and a clinic in the eastern city of Cumana, show a debilitated health system: shortages or a complete dearth of antibiotics and other medicine, run-down equipment, dirty facilities, and often no running water.


    Amid the shortages, tiny medical organisations are taking on the responsibilities of the state. Fundación Jesed is one of them. Vanessa Ramos and her husband run the charity out of their living room in Cumana. Desperate patients, their families, and even medical staff turn to these micro-NGOs – there are dozens of them around the country – to source and supply the medication missing from Venezuela’s hospitals.


    Schulman accompanied Ramos as she visited clients at Hospital Universitario Antonia Patricio Alcalá in the city centre. Ramos is a life-line for many here. Walking discreetly through derelict hallways, she delivers supplies to a handful of families waiting with bedridden patients.


    “People are worried because they don’t have resources to buy medicine and they can’t get it,” Ramos says. “They look to me for a way to help them get hold of these medicines”.


    A family frets over their two-year-old child, whose pneumonia can’t be treated because the hospital has run out of the right medicine – as well as bandages and gauze. Another family waits for emphysema drugs that no one can find. One father is just grateful for a bottle of water: the hospital has no running water.


    Ramos says she feels the weight of the families who depend on her.


    “Most of the cases,” she says, “are life and death”.


    A gift from the dying

    Vanessa Ramos runs Fundación Jesed out of her apartment. She’s not a doctor: she works a full-time administrative job in the city. She started her charity last year after seeing how a close friend struggled to find leukemia medication for a dying child.


    Most of the medication donated to her foundation is sourced and shipped from contacts abroad. Sometimes, she’s able to find drugs inside Venezuela – medicine leftover after patients have died. She keeps the donated drugs in a small cupboard in her living room.


    Flies and filth

    Vanessa enters the hospital discreetly, careful to avoid the attention of armed security guards. Her foundation is registered as a charity, but she’s still wary of upsetting authorities. Venezuela has continually rejected international aid and denies there’s a humanitarian crisis in the country.


    “I go in without making a fuss,” she says.


    Flies and filth are everywhere in the hospital’s hallways. The electricity is out; generators supply limited power to high-priority departments. Patients line corridors on stretchers; intravenous tubes hang from the frames of missing ceiling panels. Floors are bloodstained. Piles of rubbish swarm with bugs.


    What malnutrition looks like

    Barbara Sanchez, 11, is on the hospital’s children’s ward. She suffers from severe malnutrition, pneumonia, and a low hemoglobin count. Her father, 61-year-old retiree Jose Sanchez, waits by her bedside. Ramos gives the father a small box of medication meant to ease the child’s breathing.


    A missing diagnosis

    Nine-month-old Oranel Enriquez sits in his mother's arms in the children's ward. His mother is distraught. Oranel has a high fever and has been having convulsions. Doctors fear it could be meningitis but they don’t have the supplies to do a test that would confirm it. Ramos brings the mother antibiotics and anticonvulsants, used to treat seizures.



    In lieu of drugs, sweet rolls

    Over the last year, Ramos says the number of people coming to her for help has soared as medicine grows scarce across the country. Ramos visits the hospital’s cancer ward even though she has no drugs to offer. Instead, she brings sweet rolls and small jars of pureed food.


    Ramos recalls trying to help her friend’s two-year-old child, who had leukemia.


    “The medicine was extremely expensive and we couldn't get it in Venezuela,” she says. “When we finally got the medicine, the girl was really ill and she passed away.”


    “We don’t have the money”

    Vanessa visits the waiting room for relatives of patients in intensive care.


    Five women are in the room. One of them, Noreiva Hijosa, 56, is distraught. Healthcare is meant to be free in Venezuela, but the doctors have asked her to find a scarce antibiotic for her 34-year-old son, Hilbert.


    “He has emphysema and needs to take medicine every day,” she says. “But I can’t find it and now he has an infection. We don’t have the money and the medicine doesn’t exist here”.


    Hijosa says her son developed emphysema from his work as a fireman. His colleagues turned to social media to look for the medicine; they found it once, she says, but she couldn’t afford to pay for it.


    “He was saving lives and now, look,” she says.


    Grateful for water

    One-year-old Deiker Marcano lies on a cot while his father, Adonis, 25, looks on. Deiker has gastroenteritis and internal bleeding, and a makeshift oxygen mask covers his head.


    Adonis is worried for his son’s health. “We don’t have any money to buy antibiotics or medicine,” he says. “Or water”.


    He has become grateful for small kindnesses.


    “A woman gave us water as a gift,” he says. “There’s none here.”


    On this visit to the hospital, Ramos sees five of her patients. But another five people ask her to find medicine for them.


    “In the beginning I became depressed because I had cases where there was no medicine, the parents were worried seeing the children suffer, and I didn’t have the resources to help them,” Ramos says. “But now I am dealing with it, because I suppose I have to be someone who motivates others, to give them hope that we are going to find the medicine”.


    “A sense of impotence”

    The situation has exasperated medical staff working in Venezuela’s neglected health centres. In a small clinic in another part of Cumana, Dr Rafael Piroza says he has no supplies – not even running water.


    The few drugs he is able to find don’t come from the government, but from the tiny medical charities like Fundación Jesed.


    In protest of the health conditions now facing the country, staff at the clinic have papered the fence outside the building with signs declaring what’s missing: “No hay antibióticos”; “no hay tratamiento para infectados”; “no hay oxigeno”. The lengthy list written in block letters covers a five-metre section of a chain-link fence. 


    “There is a frustration and a sense of impotence,” Piroza says. “We are formed to give and fight for life, and that we can’t do that makes us feel like accomplices”.



    In photos: Life and death in Venezuela’s depleted hospitals
    Part of a <a href="https://www.irinnews.org/special-report/2018/11/20/venezuela-humanitarian-crisis-denied">special report</a> from inside Venezuela, reporting on the humanitarian impacts of the country's economic collapse.
  • “If the water finishes, we will leave”: Drought is forcing hundreds of thousands of Afghans from their homes

    Afghanistan is besieged by decades of conflict, but more people this year have been displaced by drought than war.


    The severe drought has dried up riverbeds and water sources, withered crops, and forced 250,000 people from their homes.


    Journalist Stefanie Glinski spent a week between Herat and Badghis – two of the hardest-hit provinces in western Afghanistan. As these images show, she found parched fields, abandoned homes, and families struggling to cope.


    In the barren hills of Badghis, a gravel road winds through a dusty landscape, where wells and rivers have dried up completely.


    As desperation rises, some families have turned to selling off their daughters, through child marriage, in order to pay off swelling debt.


    Tens of thousands have fled to urban centres, living under simple tents. Available water, food, and healthcare fall far short of what’s needed. Aid groups have stepped in with limited emergency aid, but they acknowledge it hasn’t been enough to reach all the estimated 1.4 million people who require help.


    The Famine Early Warning Systems Network, which tracks food security around the world, is warning of more difficulties ahead: it predicts that the combination of a stumbling economy, instability, and failing crops will increase the need for food aid into next year.


    In remote Qapchiq, a village in Badghis’ Abkamari district, community leader Saskidad says  his family has already lost their entire harvest.


    This year’s drought, he says, is “the worst I’ve ever seen”.

    A barren landscape

    The drought has dried out rivers and left the landscape scorched and dusty in Badghis province.


    Farmers complain that rains have been poor over the past two years. This year, pastures for livestock have withered, as well as 95 percent of cropland.


    While farmers say the soil is good, the lack of water has prevented their crops from growing. Families have started eating the seeds that were supposed to be used during the upcoming planting season starting in November. They say Badghis' hills can be productive farmland – as long as the area receives enough rainwater.

    A daily search for water

    A boy fetches water in Badghis province. Families often send their sons to fetch water, which can involve travelling several hours to find a functioning well.

    Desperate measures

    Khatema is seven years old and already engaged to be married – but she doesn’t know it.


    Her mother, Badro, says they promised their daughter last year to a man the family knew in exchange for wheat, corn, sheep, and money.


    “Four months ago, her [future] husband came here and said he wanted to take Khatema,” Badro says. “We wanted to pay the money back, but we don’t have it, so we will give the girl.”


    Child protection monitors identified 73 cases of forced child marriage among drought-displaced families, according to the UNICEF, which believes the figure to be under-reported.


    “Early child marriage is a wider issue in Afghanistan and the drought has caused an increase,” says Dwain Hindriksen, the operations director for World Vision in Afghanistan, which runs emergency response projects in both Herat and Badghis. “Although it is not the first coping strategy, when families have to borrow money for food, vulnerable girls can become a way for families to survive.”


    Khatema knows nothing of the deal her parents have struck, nor that she is married. She sits cross-legged in her family’s simple tent – blankets held up by wooden sticks. “I like to play with dolls, but I don’t have any here,” she says. “We have no toys.”

    Tent cities emerge

    Badghis is a contested area, where Taliban insurgents and the Afghan army continue to battle, often at the expense of civilians who end up in the crossfire. Juggling insecurity and drought, tens of thousands have fled either to the provincial capital Qala-i-Naw, or further west to Herat city, capital of neighbouring Herat province.


    Displaced families say they receive water from humanitarian agencies through water trucks. But there is no official emergency shelter response, which has left families in makeshift tents.

    Malnutrition rises as food and water dwindle

    A health worker measures a child’s mid-upper arm circumference in a mobile health clinic for displaced people outside Herat city. A measurement in the red indicates severe acute malnutrition. According to aid groups working on nutrition, more than 33,000 acutely malnourished children under five need life-saving treatment in Afghanistan’s western provinces.

    As winter approaches, a scramble to build new homes

    Mohammed, 15, is deaf and works as a brickmaker. His family left Badghis due to the drought and has now settled outside Herat.


    Child labour has soared during this year’s drought. With winter approaching and not enough shelters to accommodate all the displaced people arriving from rural areas, some families in Herat have started to build their own homes by making bricks – using drinking water they have received from aid organisations.

    Earning a living on the margins

    Many displaced women have started small businesses to help them cope. This woman, who asked that her name not be used, is selling tea in an informal camp for displaced people outside Herat. This has become a common way for displaced women to earn money, which is used to buy food or pay for medicine.

    Women's markets help some displaced families earn money

    In Qala-i-Naw, women have taken up day jobs to support their families. While the drought has destroyed livelihoods, working as a tailor or vendor has helped some women get by. In Qala-i-Naw, a government-funded women's market was set up to support local businesses.

    Water runs dry

    Abdul Khaled, left, and Abdul Wassi, right, pump water from an underground river in Qala-i-Naw. They have a business with six tankers, and they fill each one 10 times a day to supply water to rural areas.


    “I don’t think this source will last much longer,” says Abdul Khaled. “If the water finishes, we will leave. There is nothing for us here anymore.”




    “If the water finishes, we will leave”: Drought is forcing hundreds of thousands of Afghans from their homes
  • In Vietnam, early-season floods warn of climate change risks to come

    The floods came early this year in Tua Sin Chai, a remote village in Vietnam’s northern highlands. In June, heavy rainfall unleashed landslides that tumbled through this hillside village, killing a family of four.


    Giang Hong Ky lost his son, daughter-in-law, and two grandchildren when the tide of earth and rocks cascaded down the hillside. The 65-year-old has spent his entire lifetime here, but he said it’s the first time a landslide like this reached his village.


    “My parents’ generation, my generation, and now my children’s have all been living in this village,” Ky said. “But we have never seen anything like that.”


    Yen Duong/IRIN
    Giang Hong Ky lost four family members when a landslide barrelled into his village in Lai Chau Province in June.

    The damage was part of a series of landslides and flash floods in June and July that killed nearly 70 people and submerged thousands of homes in Vietnam’s northern provinces, including Lai Chau, where Ky’s family lives. Vietnam is already intensely exposed to disasters, but environment experts say climate change is making extreme weather increasingly frequent, unpredictable, and more severe.


    Climate negotiators are meeting this week in Bangkok to continue hashing out guidelines that will determine how countries meet their commitments to tackle global warming.


    Climate justice advocates say the results of the forthcoming discussions must help vulnerable countries adapt to and mitigate the impacts of climate change – like, they would argue, the early-season floods and landslides that hit Ky’s family and many of Vietnam’s northern provinces.


    Experts say vulnerable families in remote communities are poorly prepared for the new climate reality: the escalating risks of damages and losses from increasingly unpredictable disasters, and preventable casualties in distant villages like Tua Sin Chai.

    ☰ Read more: Climate negotiations amid storm warnings


    Climate negotiators meet this week in Bangkok to continue hashing out the “rulebook” that will guide how individual countries keep their commitments to limit global warming.


    The spotlight during global climate pacts is often on temperature targets or emissions cuts. But environmental advocates say more must also be done to help developing countries prepare for climate risks. This includes ensuring stable financing to help vulnerable countries adapt to and lessen disaster impacts.


    There’s also a growing movement to financially compensate vulnerable countries for climate-caused “loss and damage”. The evolving field of “event attribution” – science that links human-caused climate change to specific extreme weather events – may play a role in future discussions on loss and damage. But developed nations have been reluctant to discuss financial compensation.



    Yen Duong/IRIN
    From his window, Giang Hong Ky can see the path of a landslide that killed his son’s family in June. It took a full day for villagers to find the bodies, which were buried under thick layers of rocks and soil.

    More frequent, more intense


    People in this region are used to the risks of floods and other dangers brought on by the monsoon season, which sends torrential rains over parts of mainland Southeast Asia – the heaviest downpours in Vietnam typically come in July and August. It’s also difficult to draw a definitive link between climate change and specific storms – or the resulting damage from floods and landslides. But climate scientists say all the signs of a changing climate are there: more frequent storms, erratic timing, and extreme impacts.


    “Vietnam is experiencing more frequent intensity and unpredictability of weather patterns over the recent years,” said Dao Xuan Lai, head of the climate change and environmental unit at the UN Development Programme in Vietnam.


    He points to Typhoon Damrey, which struck Vietnam last November – unusually late in the season. The storm killed more than 100 people and caused an estimated $422 million in losses and damages.


    Already, Vietnam frequently ranks among the countries most exposed to extreme weather. Damrey was the sixth storm to make landfall in Vietnam last year alone – aid group Care called the storm season in Vietnam one of the world’s most under-reported humanitarian crises. The World Bank says nearly 60 percent of the country’s land area and more than 70 percent of its population are at risk of multiple hazards, including typhoons, floods, drought, and landslides.


    ☰ Read more: Floods sweep across Southeast Asia


    Floodwaters have stretched across Southeast Asia this monsoon season, affecting hundreds of thousands and triggering disaster responses in multiple countries.


    As September begins, Vietnamese authorities warn more flash floods and landslides are on the way after days of heavy rainfall.


    In August, Tropical Cyclone Bebinca sparked new flooding in northern Vietnam that killed 10 people; led to flash floods and landslides in six provinces in northern Thailand; and exacerbated country-wide floods in Laos.


    In mid-July, Tropical Storm Son-Tinh brushed past the northern Philippines before slamming into Vietnam and mainland Southeast Asia. The storm sent floods into the Vietnamese capital, Hanoi, and worsened flooding elsewhere in the north.


    In Laos, the storm added to floods and high-water levels on the Mekong River. On 23 July, part of a hydropower dam in southern Attapeu province collapsed as waters rose, displacing at least 6,600. The floodwaters then surged southward into Cambodia, where this year’s floods have killed 26 people and uprooted nearly 32,000.


    In Myanmar, heavy monsoon rainfall displaced more than 164,000, beginning in early July. In late August, a breached dam flooded dozens of villages and displaced at least 63,000 people in Bago Region. While some of this year’s displacement may be short-term, the World Food Programme estimates some 109,000 victims will need ongoing cash assistance to get back on their feet.




    Lai said many remote communities in Vietnam lack an effective disaster forecasting and warning system. When warnings are received, they’re often late or communities underestimate the risks. This means families often have little time to prepare.

    Man-made factors have also exacerbated the risks.

    Soil erosion from deforestation and agricultural practices like slash-and-burn cultivation – common in Vietnam’s northern provinces – can make landslides more likely, Lai said.


    Yen Duong/IRIN
    Slash-and-burn agriculture is common in Vietnam’s mountainous areas. This practice can cause soil erosion, making the land more unstable and exacerbating the risks of landslides during heavy rains.


    Yen Duong/IRIN
    Tan Thi So, 56, says illegal logging in his part of Ha Giang province was once rampant. His land was destroyed by floods and landslides in June: “You could hear the sound of landslides thundering in the air… I have never witnessed anything like that.”

    Vietnam could take further steps to protect communities and help them cope with disasters and climate change, Lai said. This could include more sustainable land use, improved warning systems and communication of threats, better data collection, and insurance schemes to help people whose livelihoods are closely tied to the land and weather.


    The Vietnamese government acknowledges that it needs to better prepare and plan for disasters, having called last year for a nationwide “disaster strategy”.


    For now, remote communities hit by disaster this year are repairing the damage, but the heavy monsoon downpours continue.


    The same floods and landslides that struck villages in Lai Chau province also hit communities in nearby Ha Giang province.


    The damage is etched into the mountains: the paths of dozens of landslides are gouged into verdant hillsides like claw marks, scraping a trail through crushed wooden homes below.


    Yen Duong/IRIN
    The scars of the early-season landslides are still visible throughout Lung Tam Commune in northern Vietnam’s Ha Giang Province.

    Vang Thi Hoa recalls being startled awake by a neighbour’s screams on a Sunday morning in June. Floodwaters had seeped into her home; all her family’s belongings were afloat. Frantically, she grabbed her children and dashed to safety. Within minutes, masses of earth and boulders swept down the slope and battered her house.


    Hoa and her family survived. But the neighbour who roused her, Giang Thi My, died in the landslide.


    Yen Duong/IRIN
    Vang Thi Hoa’s house, furniture, and crops were washed away by a late-June landslide that killed her neighbour in a village in northern Vietnam’s Ha Giang Province. “I did not know what to do,” she says.

    My’s husband, Lo Chinh Co, was away working. He returned after the disaster to find his wife and four-year-old daughter dead. Like others in his village, he can’t remember the monsoon rains ever causing such irreparable damage.


    “We had been living there for 16 years,” Co said. “There had been heavy rain and mud flows, but the rocks had never reached our home.”



    The country finds itself increasingly on the disaster front line as storms become more erratic and intense
    In Vietnam, early-season floods warn of climate change risks to come
  • Four days in Kerala: India’s flooding in pictures

    Severe flooding in India’s southern Kerala state this month led to the deaths of more than 480 people, displaced 1.8 million others, and left thousands of workers in the vital agriculture, industrial, and tourism sectors without jobs. Officials estimate it could take several years to rebuild basic infrastructure following the state’s worst floods in nearly a century.


    Photojournalist Shawn Sebastian recently spent four days in Kerala, getting a first-hand look at the region’s “new normal”. He found miles of damaged roads, thousands of ruined houses, thousands of hectares of lost crops, and numerous washed-out bridges. Kerala citizens told him of their own personal losses: dead livestock, damaged homes, and lost livelihoods.


    As of 28 August, more than 1.4 million people were in evacuation centres, according to India’s disaster management agency. Total damages are estimated at $3 billion, according to the state finance minister, Thomas Isaac.



    Reconstruction of homes is the first order of business, the state’s head of disaster management, P.H Kurian, said. Government officials and engineers are promising interest-free loans to help the most severely affected rebuild their houses and re-establish their livelihoods.


    Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has pledged $85 million towards relief efforts and turned down most foreign assistance, refusing an offer of $100 million in aid funds from the United Arab Emirates. That move was widely criticised, including by Isaac.


    The government is also coming under criticism from environmentalists like Madhav Gadgil, who suggests many deaths and significant damage could have been avoided if mining and development had been curbed in the Western Ghats – a stretch of mountains that runs along the state’s western border and is considered one of the most biodiverse areas in the world. Most of the 400 deaths occurred during landslides, which Gadgil and others say were caused by increased stone quarrying, deforestation, and construction in the mountains.


    Wondering why the flooding caused so much damage wasn’t a priority for many of the people Sebastian met in Kerala last week, though. Many, like Lucy, 46, who was surveying her flood-damaged house and asked that only her first name be used, are simply trying to figure out how they can move forward. “All that we are left with,” she said, “are huge [piles of] mud and dirt.” She added: "We made our small house with with our hard labour and sweat in the last 25 years. Now, I can't stand the sight of our house shattered by the floodwater.”



    Shawn Sebastian/IRIN


    Fishermen from nearby regions used this and countless other boats to rescue people during the worst flooding. “All that we wished at that time was to save the lives of as many people as we can,” recalled Srjith, 36, who joined six other fishermen from Kochi, in central Kerala, to bring hundreds of people to safety over three days. “Fishermen risked their lives for the state,” said S. Sharma, a local politician and former fisheries minister who coordinated relief efforts with the fishermen. “The whole state is indebted to them.”


    Shawn Sebastian/IRIN


    This man was rescued by fishermen as water reached the roof of his home. He says he and his family now live at a government camp for displaced people but return to their home daily to clean it bit by bit. More than 30 percent of flood-damaged homes had been cleaned by 25 August, allowing thousands of people to return from camps, a tweet by the chief minister’s office stated. Families will receive 10,000 INR (about $142) from the state government to help with rebuilding and clean-up costs.

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    Streets are lined with drenched items placed out to dry, including documents such as identity cards and diplomas. Thousands of people lost personal documents and papers when they fled their homes. The government is considering how to help people replace basic identity documents, including developing software that would allow access to digitised versions of their papers.


    Shawn Sebastian/IRIN


    This stationery shop owner says his business is ruined and he is uncertain about how to rebuild it. The state is considering interest-free loans of up to 10,000 INR, or $142, for some business owners.


    Shawn Sebastian/IRIN


    The first floor of this school was under water during the worst of the flooding. Schools across the state were shut following the flooding, which peaked on 16 August. The government says that all schools will be open again by 3 September, and new textbooks have been printed to replace those damaged by water.


    Shawn Sebastian/IRIN


    These women face the task of clearing mud and other detritus from their home. Government workers and civilian volunteers are pitching in to clean private homes, with more than 70,000 people taking part in a recent clean-up effort in the Kuttanad region.


    Shawn Sebastian/IRIN


    This couple returned to their home to empty it of ruined goods. Many families are left with useless items, from kitchen utensils to clothes to electronic appliances. As in many emergency situations, the elderly and disabled have been disproportionately affected by the flooding and often lack resources and skills to rebuild and repair their homes.


    Shawn Sebastian/IRIN


    Public and religious buildings now serve as camps for those still displaced by flood damage. Volunteers from a Junior Red Cross Society served lunch at one camp. Private groups and individual volunteers have joined government efforts in ensuring the camps have adequate supplies.


    Shawn Sebastian/IRIN


    The government has recommended that to prevent the spread of water- and vector-borne diseases people wear face masks and take other precautionary measures while cleaning their homes. Health hazards also include snake bites, which have already caused several deaths.


    Shawn Sebastian/IRIN


    Water was shut off in all but one district of Kerala state after the flooding, and clean water is still scarce. In some regions, volunteers are providing clean water. Electrical service has been restored to nearly all areas, government officials said on 25 August.



    Life following the state’s worst floods since 1924
    Four days in Kerala: India’s flooding in pictures

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