(Formerly IRIN News) Journalism from the heart of crises

  • Reporter’s Diary: Hope rises in Venezuela’s hunger-driven political crisis

    Smiles are more numerous here in Caracas than they have been for years. When I lived here last winter, apathy was widespread. President Nicolás Maduro’s soldiers had shot live rounds at protesters throughout the spring, quelling their courage and splitting the opposition. No one had the stomach for further protests, because what did it matter? Now, hope is on the rise again.


    Not even Juan Guaidó's wife knows where he is sleeping. Since the opposition leader proclaimed himself the legitimate president of Venezuela on 23 January – in the midst of street protests against Maduro’s regime – he has had to be cautious. He only appears in public at carefully planned events, people close to him say.


    From a podium on Saturday in Caracas shopping and leisure district Las Mercedes, he shares his plans with a crowd wrapped in flags and full of new hope. He will only serve as president until free elections can be held. His support from most of the world's democracies will make the army realise it’s time to abandon Maduro (only foot-soldiers at home and senior military people posted abroad have so far done so). A promise of amnesty to those who desert their posts will get the top brass to reconsider, says Guaidó, waving papers containing an amnesty law.


    This offer likely isn’t enough to tempt officials who make a lot of money from corruption, cocaine, food price speculation, and the artificially high exchange rate to change sides. But perhaps US sabre-rattling, the freezing of bank accounts, and a hunger crisis so bad even soldiers rummage through trash cans for food can get enough of the military to back Guaidó?


    Helena Carpio/IRIN
    Juan Guaidó speaks to supporters at Alfredo Sadel Plaza.

    The humanitarian crisis is now so bad that previously eradicated diseases like diphtheria and measles have returned, while the healthcare system, like the economy, is in a state of complete collapse. Maduro’s regime denies the crisis and refuses to accept most international aid, although the United States now says it will be sending aid at Guaidó’s request.


    Read more: As Venezuela’s denied crisis deepens, local aid groups shift tactics


    "Who is President?” the crowd chants. “Guaidó!” These scenes have been proliferating across the country. A few weeks ago, many protesters didn’t even know who Guaidó was. Here in Las Mercedes, they praise him as a national father figure, even though he is only 35 years old and his speech is quite forgettable. At least he's not Maduro. At least he has been able to unify the opposition. I stand a few metres from him; he looks calm and humble. He looks like someone who has had eight hours of solid sleep. Looks might be deceiving.


    “It’s now or never”


    "Venezuela will be free," says Gregory Sanabria with a smile. The 24-year-old theology student was released this summer after three years, eight months, and 26 days in the intelligence service SEBIN's snail-shaped torture palace, where grass grows in the crevices of the concrete and political prisoners disappear. Sanabria was accused of "participation in conspiracy", but his case never made it to trial. His eyes are still red, his forehead scarred by beatings, and the bones in his nose are broken. But now he is back on the streets – and an optimist again: "It’s different this time. Now, the world is on our side."


    Even while we speak, Guaidó has gained the support of several Western and Latin American countries. Most of the world's democracies are now backing him, while Russia and China – along with Cuba, North Korea, Iran, and Turkey – support Maduro.


    "It's now or never," says Sanabria, nervously smoking a cigarette.


    Venezuela may have two presidents, but only one of them, Maduro, has an army. If Guaidó is to have power, his supporters in poorer neighborhoods will have to continue facing down the military.


    I drive around between these areas on the back of a motorbike to sense the mood. You can drive for hours in Caracas and only see the sadness of slums: piles of burning garbage, mangy mutts, long queues in front of half-empty shops. We drive through red lights to avoid being mugged.


    Everywhere, anger towards Maduro is growing, but so is the brutality of his security forces. Some 850 people were arrested last week and at least 40 have been killed – many in their homes by the new FAES special forces. When ordinary soldiers refuse to kill, Maduro sends in FAES to do the job instead.


    Anger overflow


    "This shit has to end," rages Victor Marquez behind the Gato Negro metro stop, where Maduro comes to vote at elections. Marquez is a father of four. His minimum wage no longer allows him to buy enough food to feed his children. He lives in Catia in the western part of Caracas – once a Chavista stronghold, now a hive of rebellion.


    The riots began in earnest on 21 January, in Cotiza not far from here. Soldiers from the National Guard robbed an armory and seized a military barracks. When Maduro's forces moved in, the local residents took to the streets. Thrown bottles were met by live rounds, and eventually the rebel soldiers were taken away.


    But over the next few days, the rebellion in the slums just grew.


    Adriana Loureiro Fernández/IRIN
    Protests on 23 January 2019.

    On 23 January, the sound of shooting continued throughout the night in the José Félix Ribas neighbourhood, says a woman who is afraid to let her name be used.


    "It was ugly. Pow-Pow-Pow. It kept going, and garbage containers were set on fire in the middle of the street," she says, adding that she had to take a long detour to get home by bus.


    Maduro's enemies are in the majority, but his friends are better organised. Several are standing this Saturday afternoon in front of the peach-colored walls of the government palace of Miraflores, shouting "Chávez vive, viva Maduro", waving red flags, and listening to llanera folk music.


    "When Venezuela speaks, the cowards shake," a woman with very red lipstick sings.


    A woman from the poor neighbourhood of San Juan admits she is here because she received a threat: show up or lose the CLAP – the term for the boxes of food the government distributes free of charge to the country's poorest people.


    Read more: Hunger and Survival in Venezuela


    But 52-year-old Sixto Álvares – a Christian wearing a Cardenales de Lara baseball jersey and ripped jeans – is an ardent Maduro supporter. He calls Guaidó a coup instigator and a lackey for the empire, i.e. the United States. So, Guaidó should be jailed? I ask. "He’s just passed the age of responsibility, right?" the answer comes back.


    We are interrupted by a guard in civilian clothes with a moustache and walkie-talkie. I am not allowed to be here, he informs me, demanding to see my passport. I hand him my press credentials. “Passport,” he insists. "Wait here, and I'll get it to you right away," I answer, hurrying around a corner to get away. On Tuesday and Wednesday alone, 11 journalists were imprisoned or deported in Venezuela; only two have been released since. Like many others, I was also detained for hours at the airport when I arrived.


    "We've lost our fear"


    To get an idea just how much Maduro’s power is waning, I drive out to the infamous slum of 23 de Enero. It was named after 23 January, 1958 – the day the dictator Marcos Pérez Jiménez was overthrown. It is probably the most famous stronghold of the Chavistas. Here, Hugo Chávez lies buried. Here, the colectivos, motorcycle militias faithful to the government, patrol the streets with long rifles and black Sandoval helmets.


    And here, also, contingents of Cubans are in charge of medical care, social services and, not least, surveillance. They make lists of anti-Maduro protesters. These lists are used by the colectivos when they go door to door to tell Maduro’s opponents they are being punished and will no longer receive the free food boxes from the government.


    The Chavistas have the power, but have they lost the people?


    "It has been many years since a majority of us actually supported them. Now, we just pretend," says 60-year-old José Ochoa, who is wearing a net undershirt and has a tribal tattoo, and a grandson on his arm. He is a secretary in one of the local Chavista councils and works in the Ministry of Education; on paper, at least, a true Chavista.


    But this loyalty is now a mirage. He claims that 40 of the 52 council members, like him, simply fake loyalty to ensure benefits for themselves and their loved ones. Nothing new, perhaps. But it is new and surprising that many are now so angry that they are happy to be quoted. Before, they used to sneak into neighbouring opposition areas to demonstrate. Now, they’re ready to do it right here, in the Chavista stronghold where they live.

    "They seemed to be afraid. So am I."

    We talk together in the yard while two stoned men sell cannabis and some happy children chase a football. Here, at noon, the colectivos are joyfully absent.


    "We've lost our fear," says 30-year-old Adriana Rodriguez. On 23 January, she and most of her apartment complex knocked on pots and pans and demanded Maduro’s resignation. The army and police had withdrawn from several of their posts in the neighbourhood and left the riot control to the colectivos, who stood on the rooftop of the 12-storey concrete building and aimed their guns at anyone who ventured into the yard.


    "They always do that," says Rodriguez. "But, this time, we defied them. We shouted "mamahuevo" (cocksuckers) and "we’ll kill you when your kingdom collapses" at them. They seemed to be afraid. So am I."


    Reporter’s Diary offers personal perspectives on humanitarian emergencies from our correspondents in the field.

    (TOP PHOTO: Crowds gather to listen to Juan Guaido at Alfredo Sadel Plaza. CREDIT: Helena Carpio/IRIN)

    "It’s different this time. Now, the world is on our side."
    Reporter’s Diary: Hope rises in Venezuela’s hunger-driven political crisis
  • In Syria’s Aleppo, a slow rebuild begins

    More than two years after the Syrian government won a long and deadly battle for Aleppo, sounds of demolition and construction have replaced the explosions and gunfire that used to echo through the city’s centre.


    In the Old City’s labyrinthine markets, where government troops and rebel groups fought it out, shuttered shops are riddled with bullet-holes.


    The words “мин нет” [no mines] spray-painted on buildings signal where Russian de-miners have cleared up explosives. Rubble is piled up along the main roads, where it has been swept aside by clearers working for the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP).


    Those with enough money to self-fund rebuilding and get in new stocks are starting to reopen businesses: a few shisha cafes have sprung up, an expensive restaurant, a historic hotel takes in occasional guests.

    And in the central parts of the city that IRIN visited, some people are starting to rebuild their homes. Most civilians said they were grateful the violence had ended, regardless of who they supported in the fight for Aleppo or the broader war.

    But it’s a slow and limited process. Before the war, Aleppo was a thriving city with a population of at least 2.3 million. Accurate figures are hard to come by, but the UN estimates there are now 1.6 million people in the city, with 600,000 people returning to the wider province since forces loyal to al-Assad recaptured the last opposition holdout in east Aleppo in December 2016.

    By some counts, there are only 200,000 people living in east Aleppo, which was damaged on a scale far greater than the west, in part due to Russia-Syria coalition airstrikes in September and October 2016 that represented some of the war’s heaviest and most sustained bombing.


    Tom Westcott/IRIN
    Central Aleppo as seen from the Old City's citadel.

    Wrecked homes, local support

    Reconstruction in the midst of Syria’s near-eight-year war is controversial. Most American and European governments refuse to fund rebuilding on a large scale as long as al-Assad remains in power.


    On the UN’s part, Damascus-based spokeswoman Fadwa Baroud said it “does not, nor is it in any position to fund reconstruction [in Aleppo], which is estimated at hundreds of millions of dollars, although it remains committed to delivering lifesaving, needs-based assistance and protection services across Syria.”


    She said the UN does do “light rehabilitation” work, including repairing water and sanitation infrastructure, and funding other NGOs who are helping with installing new doors and windows. It does not fund the complete reconstruction of private homes.


    “A huge bomb fell right outside my house, killing all the Syrian army soldiers there, so I just took my children and ran, taking nothing, not even my money or jewellery because there was no time.”

    This impacts people like Dalida Hindoyan, who stood on her recently rebuilt balcony, looking out at crumpled homes, where once-horizontal floors are now folded towards the street at acute angles.


    Living opposite a large military base in central Aleppo’s mixed-faith Midan district had once given her third-floor apartment an aura of security but, in 2012, the area became a front line between government and rebel forces, thrusting its residents into danger.


    Hindoyan became accustomed to living in fear of snipers, mortars, and explosives-filled gas canisters that locals called “hell cannons” and say were deployed by rebel fighters.


    In 2014, the fighting escalated dramatically. “A huge bomb fell right outside my house, killing all the Syrian army soldiers there, so I just took my children and ran, taking nothing, not even my money or jewellery because there was no time,” Hindoyan, 53, recalled.


    She found temporary accommodation elsewhere in the city and did not return until most of Aleppo had been retaken by government forces in late 2016. She found the front of her apartment shattered and the rest looted and blackened by fire.

    Although Hindoyan started clearing rubble and scrubbing charred walls herself, she had no funds to cover the extensive repairs needed to make the premises habitable. Like many in this part of the city with a large Christian population, she turned to her local church for support.


    Tom Westcott/IRIN
    Even beside extensive destruction, some people are rebuilding apartments and restarting small businesses.

    The Armenian Church Relief Committee had recently signed an agreement with a French NGO, SOS Chrétiens d’Orient, to help rebuild Christian homes in Aleppo, and Hindoyan’s home was one of the first to be completed.


    “The Armenian Church does some basic repairs, but the damage to Christian homes in Aleppo is so extensive they really need the support of international NGOs to complete projects,” explained the NGO’s Aleppo project manager Matthieu Siossian, who has a total budget of $100,000 for restoring homes in the city.


    It costs around $2,000-$3,000 to fix up an apartment that has considerable damage like Hindoyan’s, a sum beyond the reach of most ordinary Syrians.


    There are some other options, including government compensation. However, one Aleppo resident, who preferred not to give his name, told IRIN he expected it would only cover around 10 percent of the total costs of rebuilding a home.

    Although a few of his acquaintances had received similar compensation, he said most residents he knew hadn’t and that with government funds still tied up in the war most didn’t expect to receive anything imminently, if at all.

    This makes rebuilding out of reach for many, especially given that funds are scarce and job opportunities limited. “Needs are extremely high, and the situation is extremely dire for many in Aleppo,” said the UN’s Baroud.

    Returning from abroad


    Despite the challenges, some people are coming back from abroad. The UN expects some 250,000 of the 5.6 million registered Syrian refugees to return this year, spurred on by growing pressure to leave host countries. Some of those people are headed for Aleppo.


    “After three years in Turkey, I came back within days of Aleppo being liberated,” said Mohamed, who 10 months ago reopened his shop in the city centre that sells roasted nuts and seeds. “All that time, I was just waiting to come back because this shop has been in my family for three generations,” he said. “The roof was caved in, but luckily the equipment had survived.”


    Armenian Church Relief Committee head Pierre Musali said there are many reasons why people want to return. “Some simply want [to] live in their home country, but others have found it very difficult to settle in Europe, because of money problems, a lack of job opportunities, and even the weather,” he explained.

    “Two years since the city witnessed some of the worst violence in this conflict, tens of thousands of Syrian families are still unable to return home and recover their lives.”

    Musali said 5,000 families are currently registered with the church committee for aid distributions, mainly basic foodstuffs.


    For others, including those who fled during the war in east Aleppo, return to the country and the city is still a distant prospect.


    Katherine Cooper/IRIN
    Residents and business owners are starting to return to inspect and rebuild their properties.

    “Two years since the city witnessed some of the worst violence in this conflict, tens of thousands of Syrian families are still unable to return home and recover their lives,” said Rachel Sider, advocacy advisor for the Norwegian Refugee Council.

    Poverty, destruction, and a lack of basic services are among the barriers to return, along with political and military affiliations. Although the Syrian government has promised amnesty for those who fled Syria to avoid compulsory military service, not everyone trusts this pledge, and it isn’t clear to what extent this applies to all of those who joined rebel groups.


    Last year Syria’s government introduced Law 10, a provision that allows the government to redevelop areas it sees fit, giving property owners only 30 days to prove ownership if they wish to receive compensation.


    The 30-day limit has since been extended to one year, but rights groups argue it will still be difficult, sometimes impossible, for displaced people – more than six million within Syria and millions more refugees abroad – to get paid for their ruined homes.


    Carpenter Abdul Gader has re-established his business in a friend's Old City premises. He keeps his pet pigeons in an abandoned adjacent premises where he says the owners once stored weapons for the rebels.


    “Five property owners from this small area can’t come back because they were with the [rebel] Free Syrian Army,” he said. “One is now in [rebel-controlled] Idlib and the others are in Turkey.”


    Father Fabien Alanziz Gonzalez ministers to 80 Catholic families, of the 150 that formerly lived in the Midan district. He said memories of the fighting, of extortion by rebels, as well as the subsequent destruction, had made some reluctant to return.

    “It’s not easy. Look around you,” he said, gesturing across the ruined expanse of the city from the rooftop of a new apartment block built by his church to house local families who have lost their homes. “But honestly, after [more than] seven years of war, everyone just says: ‘Thank God there are no more bombs’.”



    In Syria’s Aleppo, a slow rebuild begins
  • Fiji’s unheralded frontline disaster responders: women

    Before Cyclone Winston struck Fiji in 2016, Leba Volau made sure her home was tied down: the food was packed away into plastic bags and containers, and the crops were uprooted then buried so the storm didn’t get to them first. Armed with a booming voice and a mobile phone, she warned her neighbours to get ready.


    “It was I who was doing the shouting,” Volau said. “Where were the men? It was us women who were doing that. For disasters, it is women who do everything.”


    Volau is part of a network of women bolstering disaster preparedness and response in rural Fiji, where the threat of tropical storms and volatile weather has communities on alert throughout much of the year.


    The Women’s Weather Watch programme, run by Femlink Pacific, a women’s media organisation based in the Fijian capital, Suva, sends weather reports and preparedness advice by text messages to its network of 350 women across the country. They, in turn, spread the news throughout their often-remote communities, and feed back local conditions and needs to a regular radio show broadcast from Suva.


    The women help their communities prepare for storms and drought, protect their families when disasters strike, and tell distant decision-makers about submerged villages or dwindling food stocks.



    Irwin Loy/IRIN
    Leba Volau’s home collapsed during 2016’s Cyclone Winston. She remembers pushing her grandchildren out of the house as the walls caved in.

    In a region battered by frequent disasters, humanitarian groups say women like Volau must play a greater role in preparing for the risks. But within their own communities, they’re often sidelined when it comes to making key decisions.


    “Nobody comes and asks the women what you want or what you need. There’s nothing,” said Sarojani Gounder, a local district councillor who is also a member of the women’s network. “It’s just: get the rations, stay inside, eat, look after your children. And that’s it.”

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


    The global humanitarian system is overstretched. In 2018, the UN asked for a record $25.2 billion to cover 33 emergencies around the world. But the funding gap continues to widen as the price tag soars.


    This includes the Pacific Islands, where locals say they are often overlooked when it comes to international interest and funding for crises. The region is home to some of the world’s most disaster-vulnerable countries. Climate change is expected to increase these disaster risks as sea levels rise and weather patterns become more extreme and more intense.


    What is local aid?


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


    Why local aid?


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


    Who are local aid workers?


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


    “We women used to stay in the kitchen”


    In the hazard-prone Pacific Islands, it’s not a matter of if, but when the next disaster will strike. The southwestern Pacific averages seven tropical cyclones each storm season, which typically stretches from November to April. And here in the western dry zone of Fiji’s main island, Viti Levu, consecutive years of drought have also ransacked crops and the lifeblood sugarcane industry.


    Copernicus Sentinel/ESA
    The western side of Fiji’s largest island, Viti Levu, receives less rainfall than the east, leading to frequent water shortages during the drier months that follow the annual cyclone season.

    It’s a volatile mix for families who depend so acutely on the weather for their livelihoods: during cyclone season they fear the storms and too much rain; in the drier months they pray for more of it.


    The area saw nearly six months without a day of rain this past year, said Fane Boseiwaqa, who works with Femlink Pacific and leads monthly meetings for about 60 women in the area.


    “They need to be informed to prepare for any disaster,” Boseiwaqa said. “Women are leaders, but they do not have access to adequate information and communication.”


    Irwin Loy/IRIN
    Fane Boseiwaqa places posters on the wall before meeting with a group of rural women in Ba, Fiji.

    Frequent text message alerts, sent directly to women’s phones, provide some of that information, and Boseiwaqa’s monthly meetings reinforce the lessons.


    The get-togethers are part education, part community. The women discuss strategies on improving the local sugarcane industry – many run family farms hit hard by the frequent drought – or learn about international rights treaties or Fiji’s progress on gender equality.


    Sarojani Gounder on why women need to be involved in disaster response and planning.

    When drought is at its worst, they trade ideas for cooking with what’s available or tips for preserving staples; when storms approach, they remind each other how to prepare: bury the crops, store the food and water in containers, tie down the house.


    Each session wraps with Boseiwaqa recording a short dispatch interviewing women about their needs and concerns. The interviews are then broadcast from Femlink Pacific’s Suva studios.


    For many of the women, it’s the first time they’ve ever felt heard.


    “We women used to stay in the kitchen and we didn’t know how to voice up,” said Selai Adi Maitoga, a soft-spoken 49-year-old who joined the network in 2012.


    “In the community, only the men speak. The men overrule everything. When we sit in meetings, we are not supposed to talk. When we raise something, they say, ‘Who are you to talk, because you’re a woman?’”


    Selai Adi Maitoga on how women prepare their communities for disasters.

    First responders


    The programme is tapping into an often-overlooked resource for disaster preparedness and response: women. In rural Fiji, women run the households and make sacrifices to protect their communities – often in ways that men don’t grasp.


    Consecutive years of drought and storms have shrunk crop yields and income for farming families. When food stocks run low, Maitoga said she skips meals so that her children and husband can eat. When there’s no rain and the government’s emergency water trucks don’t show up, she treks two kilometres to a shallow river to fill a bucket. Gounder said women routinely share what food they have and cook communally so that families don’t go without.


    “Men don’t ask the neighbours. If they have money, they can go and buy food,” she said. “But the women, we talk to each other. That’s why women are the first responders. We do everything first.”

    ☰ Read more: Local aid, local women


    Women often face extra burdens and added health risks and gender violence during and after disasters, as infrastructure crumbles and they take on a larger share of household responsibilities.


    After Cyclone Winston, women were essentially first responders in their communities, particularly in remote villages that were cut off from food, water, and government help for days, says Fane Boseiwaqa.


    “Women were the ones going out looking for food to put food on the table for the family,” she said. “Men were trying to at least rebuild their homes again. But most of the hours have been spent by women.”


    Humanitarian experts say these differing needs and burdens are often overlooked when crises hit.


    The broader aid sector has also promised to “localise” humanitarian responses by helping local groups play leading roles. But these reforms aren’t always reaching local women.


    Most established local organisations are led by men, and analysts say donor regulations often see money rushed to these male-led groups, rather than funding and training more women responders and leaders.


    Many of the women now take the preparedness lessons they’ve learned in the programme and spread them within their own communities. Gounder, for example, said she meets with some of the women from the 465 homes in villages near her own home.


    Jaimati Prasad, a 60-year-old sugarcane farmer, also brings the lessons to neighbours in her distant hillside village.


    Irwin Loy/IRIN
    Jaimati Prasad says two rooms of her home were blown away during Cyclone Winston. She believes more attention would be paid to what women and children actually need if more women were involved in disaster response planning.


    Irwin Loy/IRIN
    Urmila Kumar and her husband Uday Kumar say their sugarcane crops have dwindled after years of rain shortages in the growing season; their rain-fed tapwater routinely runs dry: “There’s no rain. How can we plant? How can we get our income here?”

    And when a disaster alert arrives on her mobile phone, Volau makes sure she’s the first to warn her village, telling local leaders how to prepare the community’s evacuation shelter.


    “I told the village elders we should have access for people with disabilities too. The walkway should be accessible to disabled. Not just steps. And the toilets, there must be two or three toilets,” Volau said. “They just looked at me. Because I’ve been to many workshops and consultations. It’s an eye-opener for me. So when I go back and tell them, it is also new to them.”


    “Can I survive?”


    In Fiji, the bar by which all disasters are measured is still Cyclone Winston – one of the strongest tropical storms ever recorded.


    Nearly everyone in Fiji has a story to tell about Winston. The February 2016 cyclone churned a destructive path across the country, wiping out a third of the Pacific Island nation’s GDP. It landed a direct hit here on the northwestern edge of Viti Levu.


    Volau remembered huddling with her family in her battened-down home, shivering as the walls around her shook.


    The house won’t fall, her husband had told her, before the winds made it impossible to hear anything else. But when she pointed her torch up to where the ceiling should have been, she found herself peering straight into Cyclone Winston’s fiery winds. The storm had ripped the tin sheeting off her home.


    “There’s no roof! There’s no roof here!” she remembered screaming. Then the winds changed direction and the walls caved in.


    A woman looks out a slatted window.
    Irwin Loy/IRIN
    When food is scarce, rural women like Vani Tuvuki exchange ideas for preserving and preparing staple crops: “We share how to cook certain foods, changing it so that our children won’t know that we’re eating the same thing over and over again.”

    Each storm season brings another round of threats and worry. A near-miss marked the start of this year’s season in early January, but Cyclone Mona still sent hundreds to evacuation centres, and subsequent downpours have triggered flash floods and landslides.


    For Maitoga, each new storm warning brings memories of Cyclone Winston rushing back: hiding her children under the table, watching the waters rise, wondering if her house would collapse.


    “It’s still in the minds of us women. We suffered,” she said. “But what if it happens again? What will I do? How will I survive? Can I survive? It’s a question mark you cannot answer.”


    That’s why she attends the monthly meetings with a studious fervour: taking notes; asking pointed questions.


    “I need to be prepared,” Maitoga said. “And now I know what to do to be prepared for the next disaster.”

    (TOP PHOTO: The sugarcane industry on the western part of Fiji’s Viti Levu has shrunk after years of declining yields and increasing costs. CREDIT: Irwin Loy/IRIN)


    Fiji’s unheralded frontline disaster responders: women
  • ‘New humanitarians’ take a seat at the table

    At a time when more lives than ever are upended for longer periods and the traditional aid system is struggling to keep up, new players are unapologetically redefining what it means to be a humanitarian – and inviting others to join them.


    In an IRIN event convened in Davos on the opening day of the World Economic Forum’s annual meeting, leaders from the private sector, philanthropy, aid organisations large and small, and civil society shared their takes on the need to shake up what one called a “smokestack industry”.


    “We tend to discredit when people come with a different background,” said Jérôme Jarre, a Snapchat and Vine celebrity turned humanitarian. “In fact, that's exactly what the space needs. We came [from] outside of the box. We didn't know the process, what it means to be humanitarian.”


    As he told IRIN Director Heba Aly, who moderated the discussion before an audience that included entrepreneurs, aid workers, and others from the private and public sectors: “We didn't know the rules, so it was easy to break them. And we basically had a white canvas, which is the best place to start when you want to create change and innovation.”


    In 2017, Jarre and other social media influencers raised $2 million in 48 hours to respond to the pending famine in Somalia. He went on to found Love Army, a collection of celebrities and social media influencers who have raised $9 million from their followers for humanitarian projects around the world.


    Listen to Jérôme Jarre on the value of outsiders

    The urgency to make room for new players and new ideas is clear, Peter Maurer, president of the International Committee of the Red Cross, said: “The gap between what is needed today and what we are able to provide by the traditional model of doing is just enormous, and we have to recognise that we are failing millions of people whom we are not able to service.”


    ‘New’ and ‘old’ models of aid

    Tara Nathan, executive vice president, humanitarian and development at Mastercard, said she had seen a “positive trajectory” in the relationship between the private and humanitarian sectors, with a growing discussion around engaging the private sector, especially at the senior level. However, turning those high-level discussions into action on the ground will remain difficult until “that cultural message of trust between public and private permeates throughout the ranks of the organisations,” she noted.

    “We collaborate very well at panels,” she added. “How can we bring that collaboration down into the field, where we're actually side-by-side implementing solutions, addressing refugee needs, addressing the needs of the local communities?”

    Listen to Tara Nathan on partnerships between the private and humanitarian sectors

    For some, tension around ‘old’ and ‘new’ is rooted in finding the balance between passion and professionalism. It also arises, Maurer suggested, from a misunderstanding around the idea of collaboration. Rather than doing things together, humanitarian actors both old and new should be “trying to combine things that are complementary to each other”.


    Listen to Peter Maurer on 'collaboration'

    The key is to allow both traditional and newer players to use their strengths. Tapping the expertise of the private sector through market-based initiatives that stabilise fragile situations – restarting economies and rebuilding healthcare, education, and other basic services to stave off future crises or move out of existing ones – is one place to start, several panelists and commentators from the audience suggested.


    Another is to look at the humanitarian sector’s push toward ‘localisation’ as more than a mantra and to begin listening to the people on the ground. Local responders like Mayuri Bhattacharjee often reach people in need first and understand cultural and social norms. Yet, she said, they are not always seen or listened to by larger international players. “We do find a seat at the table,” she said, “but that seat is sometimes very low…. What we ask for is more visibility.”

    Listen to Mayuri Bhattacharjee on localisation and women

    Jarre also emphasised the need to listen to the people on the ground. Not coming from traditional humanitarian backgrounds, he said he and his team spent time in Somalia and in Bangladesh familiarising themselves with the situations there, “always asking the same questions: “‘How can we help you? Is this good enough? Do you have better ideas? How should we do it?'” The traditional aid sector needs to learn to re-ask those questions, he suggested, if it hopes to deliver the most useful aid most efficiently and empower aid recipients.

    Changing with the times

    Peter Laugharn of the Conrad Hilton Foundation noted that the traditional aid sector is “a bit of a smokestack industry” and needs to update its approach. “We're working in a system that was not set up to deal with the situation we've got now,” he said.

    He added that foundations, too, need to retool to be able to fund new humanitarian realities, such as complex emergencies and needs in fragile states; his foundation is taking a longer and wider view when determining what kinds of humanitarian efforts to fund. “Grant-making was set up mostly in the 19th and early 20th centuries,” he noted. “You make a big annual grant, you ask for reporting a year later, and things move really slowly.”

    Listen to Peter Laugharn on the roles foundations can play

    One private-sector company, Salesforce.com, looks to technology as a way to bridge old and new approaches. It encourages employees to donate their time and technical expertise to the humanitarian sector and elsewhere. Rob Acker, CEO of Salesforce.org, acknowledged that there “are questions on how do we collaborate in a multi-sector way.” But, he said, “we work with humanitarian-sector organisations like Peter’s [Maurer] to tap into that employee engagement talent and that technology, and work together better.”

    So are those employees and other citizen volunteers humanitarians? In the future, there may be no need to ask that question. As Nathan said: “I would love to see a world in which we all just consider ourselves humanitarians.”

    Highlights of the conversation, edited for clarity and length, are below. Watch the full event here.


    • Rob Acker, CEO, Salesforce.org
    • Mayuri Bhattacharjee, founder, Sikun Relief Foundation, Assam, India
    • Jérôme Jarre, founder, Love Army, and social media activist
    • Peter Laugharn, president and CEO, Conrad N. Hilton Foundation
    • Peter Maurer, president of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC)
    • Tara Nathan, executive vice president, humanitarian and development, Mastercard

    This event was organized in partnership with Mastercard and the International Committee of the Red Cross.


    Peter Hans Ward/Hub Culture

    Tensions between ‘traditional’ and ‘new’ humanitarians


    Jérôme Jarre: It doesn't take 20 years of humanitarianism to know how to help someone.… If your mom is starving, are you going to figure it out? What are you going to bring her, are you going to bring her a bag of rice? Are you going to bring her a restricted car? … Or are you going to ask her what she wants and really, really empower her?

    Listen to Jérôme Jarre on aid agency branding

    Peter Maurer: I'm deeply convinced that we need a new movement, which of course can come also from traditional organisations reflecting on what they have learned in the past and where the limits are, and are trying to reach out to new forms of investing and engaging in the humanitarian context.


    Tara Nathan: Neither side is right or wrong. … We need to bring the dialogue from one of who's right and who's wrong down to practical, tactical means to collaborate. And collaborate cannot be a concept.… If we really think that we can leverage the private sector, it's not saying, “Is it private? Is it millennials or is it traditional?” It's saying, “What are the core competencies of the respective actors? And how do you bring them together in a tactical way?”


    Corporate volunteers

    Rob Acker: Employees are the new humanitarians.… The number one attribute that millennials look for in their job is to have purpose. And companies need to give them that outlet for purpose.… Our employees volunteer. They did about a million hours last year alone. They're helping the humanitarian space with technology skills, and technology has changed. We can connect, organise, scale. If you look at the 68 million displaced people in the world right now, you can create highly personalised outcomes for each and every one of those individuals.

    Listen to Rob Acker on corporate volunteers creating purpose-built technology for the humanitarian sector


    The role of the private sector

    Nathan: There's a general acknowledgement that when you think about humanitarian, we need to think about development. We need to think about the journey, if you will, from humanitarian response through to development.… If you really want to address humanitarian needs, you have to go to the causes and conditions of what caused these situations to rise.

    So how can we focus on building local market capacity in fragile markets as a means to obviate all sorts of crises in the first place, but then also to build resilience? When you start to talk about building local markets as a prevention, if you will, going into the causes of humanitarian crisis, that's when you start to think, “Well, that's a key role where the private sector can play a meaningful role.”

    Maurer: I'm coming from the Red Cross movement, and I am always reminded of the creation of this movement, which was not Henry Dunant [often considered the founder of modern humanitarianism]. It was the women of Solferino and Castiglione who, when confronted with 40,000 dying soldiers, mobilised themselves and created a humanitarian movement. …Civil society has to reclaim the humanitarian space. Then we can discuss good ways of moving forward.


    The future

    Mayuri Bhattacharjee: We suffer from something called the tyranny of distance: Every year floods happen, and every year citizens of Assam and people who were affected complain there's not enough media attention. I would like to change the future. I want media and also the local actors to respond… to at least be sensitive to this crisis which happens every year. Every year, 1.5 million people are affected in floods in Assam. And yet, we sometimes cry for attention.

    Peter Laugharn: I would like to see innovation at the legacy level, if you like, and strengthening and deepening at the new entry-level.… We know what the overall mandate is and what we all need to rise to work on it together.

    Maurer: We are out of balance. We need to find a rebalancing of the system, which gives a better deal for people. At the end of the day, it's not about the system. It’s about whether we managed to service people in need and suffering from natural disaster and conflict. Whether we are able to serve them, that's the threshold of whether we are in a better balance in five, 10, 15, or 20 years.

    A conversation from Davos
    ‘New humanitarians’ take a seat at the table
  • South Sudan: “The whole country is traumatised”

    It has been more than a year since government soldiers attacked Mary Poni’s house in the South Sudanese town of Yei. They raped her elder sister and decapitated her father – part of a harrowing string of events that would eventually push her to attempt suicide, twice.


    “I don’t sleep,” 25-year-old Poni said in the capital, Juba, where she now lives. “Whenever I try closing my eyes, I see my dad’s head falling before me.”


    Since December Poni has received some psychological support, not as part of an organised programme but because she showed up – along with several other traumatised people – at the offices of Humanity & Inclusion, an NGO formerly known as Handicap International.


    Five years of civil war in South Sudan have not only killed almost 400,000 people, they’ve also left a nation of traumatised survivors in their wake – millions of them displaced and living in camps or squalid conditions that add to the mental and emotional strain.


    The government, reeling from the day-to-day fallout of the war and political dysfunction, offers little to no support. The entire mental health programme for a country of more than 10 million people relies on one hospital ward equipped with eight beds and served by one psychologist.


    Less than two percent of nationwide funding is put towards the health sector, and no money is specifically allocated for mental health services, according to Dr. Felix Lado Johnson, the state minister of health in Juba.


    Earlier this month India committed to building the country’s first mental health centre, but construction on the project, which will treat patients and train staff in Juba, has yet to begin. The Indian embassy wouldn’t comment on an expected date of completion.


    In the meantime, the burden falls on humanitarians.


    Read more: South Sudan: The humanitarian toll of half a decade of war


    Koen Sevenants, a doctor in psychology who leads the mental health and psychosocial support network in South Sudan on behalf of the International Organization for Migration, said that 76 agencies including the UN and international and national aid groups are involved in initiatives across the country.


    Informal support also exists, like the sessions Poni attends. Humanity & Inclusion psychologist Melodie Safieddine explained that she usually treats NGO workers, but when people arrive at her clinic in Juba in search of care, she tries to help the ones she can.


    Sam Mednick/IRIN
    A harrowing string of events led Mary Poni to attempt suicide, twice.

    Normalised violence


    Decades of fighting within Sudan caused widespread psychological distress even before the South gained independence in 2011. But the civil war that began in 2013 led to a large increase in the number of people dealing with mental health conditions, according to a 2016 report by Amnesty International.

    The country has no official mental health data, but a 2015 study by the South Sudan Law Society and the United Nations Development Programme reported that more than 40 percent of people surveyed across six states showed symptoms consistent with post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD. Aid group Médecins Sans Frontières documented more than 51,500 people seeking psychosocial support in 2017, a 35 percent increase from 2016.  


    Psychologists warn that years of conflict have normalised violence and death to an extreme degree, threatening people’s moral framework and mental health for the foreseeable future.


    “The level of disaster is enormous,” said Sevenants. “The consequences of what’s happening will be felt for the whole generation of kids growing up.”


    Read more: In South Sudan, girls forced into war face gender double standards in peace


    Anthony Feinstein, professor for the department of psychiatry at the University of Toronto and Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre, believes stunted developmental growth as a result of persistent trauma could even have far-reaching effects on South Sudan’s future leaders.

    “There will be those whose development has been scarred by war and conflict and their political decisions may well be influenced by this,” he said. “Decisions that are emotion-based may lack rationality, which… can generate further discord and conflict.”


    ‘I cried for death’


    For Poni, the past year has been one devastation after the next. After her father was murdered, she escaped with her four sisters, leading them out of town towards the village where she thought it would be safer, rather than joining the thousands fleeing across the border to neighbouring Uganda. But on the way, the girls were brutally attacked by five government soldiers who tied them down and systematically gang raped each one until they bled, Poni said.


    “I cried for death,” she said, recounting how several hours later their five bloodied and beaten bodies were rescued from the bush by the driver of a passing truck, who took them to a nearby church. But Poni’s three younger sisters were too badly injured and all died in the chapel. The youngest was 13 years old.  


    Since their deaths Poni has blamed herself for leading the family into the village instead of going straight to Uganda. “That’s why they were raped and killed,” she said.


    Safieddine, who has been treating Poni, said this “blame effect” is common in South Sudan because of the nature of the attacks. “People are seeing their perpetrators directly; they’re facing it,” she said.


    “The level of disaster is enormous. The consequences of what’s happening will be felt for the whole generation of kids growing up.”

    In her previous work in Afghanistan, many of the trauma patients had survived car bombs and explosions, but Safieddine said the majority of those in South Sudan had experienced something more intimate and personal, including abductions, being held at gunpoint, and the rampant use of rape as a weapon of war.


    Witnessing someone be sexually assaulted or beaten perpetuates a feeling of helplessness because people are watching things they can’t do anything about, explained Safieddine. These attacks also take more time, which means people have longer to think about it while it’s happening.


    Safieddine has treated about 20 non-NGO patients in the past 18 months. She says half have stories similar to Poni, whom she has diagnosed as suffering from PTSD, following the devastating events in her life.


    After Poni’s three sisters were killed, she and her surviving sister sheltered in the church for two weeks, until they decided to flee for Uganda. They walked for seven days through the bush; but then, right before crossing into safety, they were attacked and gang raped again by government soldiers, she said.


    During the attack Poni said she witnessed an elderly woman being shot and killed in front of her, and watched as soldiers ripped an unborn baby out of a pregnant woman’s womb and chopped it to pieces as the mother also died.


    This is not humanity. It’s insanity,” she said.


    Of around 50 people who set out from the church in Yei in December 2017, Poni said, only 11, including her and her sister, made it across the border to Uganda alive.


    Once inside Bidi Bidi refugee camp in northern Uganda, something inside Poni snapped.

    Traumatised, bitter, and distrustful of everyone, especially men, she retreated into herself.

    She said she began to label any man who crossed her path as a rapist. She was also guilt-ridden for being unable to save her sisters. During her 12 months in the camp, she tried to commit suicide twice – the first time on malaria pills, the second by drowning in a lake.


    Geraint Hill/MSF
    After seeing their villages and families destroyed, tens of thousands of South Sudanese, including Mary Poni, fled to camps in northern Uganda for safety.

    Social triggers


    MSF says mental health issues are often compounded when people are forced to live in squalid conditions with a lack of future prospects, like in refugee or internally displaced persons camps.


    Almost 200,000 people currently shelter in six UN ‘protection of civilian’ sites across South Sudan. Last January, MSF reported a spike in the number of attempted suicides in the Malakal site, which is home to almost 30,000 civilians. Eight to 10 people tried to kill themselves each month, 80 percent of whom were under the age of 35. While the number has now stabilised at approximately three to four attempted suicides monthly, MSF says things will only change if the underlying factors are addressed.


    “The lack of employment, the lack of prospect, the living conditions: these are the triggers for the mental health problems,” said MSF medical coordinator Endashaw Mengistu Aderie. “Dealing with those requires more than what we are doing. It requires stepping up efforts to provide services for the population.”


    “You can’t rebuild the country without rebuilding the mind and the hope.”

    However, issues like mental health are way down the priority list in South Sudan. Against the backdrop of collapsed markets in a devastated, war-torn economy, combating hunger and beating back famine takes precedence.


    More than five million people already face severe food insecurity, 36,000 of whom are on the brink of starvation, according to the latest analysis by the government and the UN.


    South Sudan is also struggling to fund the implementation of last September’s peace deal, while fighting still persists in pockets across the country. During the first week of January, 19 people were killed by armed men in the town of Katigiri, not far from Juba, with warring parties blaming each other for the attack.


    Read more: South Sudan: Peace on paper


    A few local counsellors do have some mental health training but it isn’t always enough to ensure that people experiencing trauma get the right support and advice.


    Safieddine of Humanity & Inclusion recalled how a social worker she knows told a rape victim it was okay because a lot of women are raped and it might happen to her again. She recalled another local counsellor couldn't understand why her patients didn’t want to return after she put the perpetrator and the survivor of sexual assault in the same room so they could hold hands and pray.

    Together with other trauma experts Safieddine is concerned for the country’s future if more isn’t done to help this generation of traumatised survivors of war and violence. “You can’t rebuild the country without rebuilding the mind and the hope,” she said.


    ‘We all really need help’


    After almost a year in the refugee camp in Uganda without assistance, Poni heard from a friend about Humanity & Inclusion in Juba and made the risky journey back to South Sudan to try to get psychological help. Since December she has been working with Safieddine to try to overcome her guilt and stop the disturbing cycle of thoughts in her head.


    “The one thing that’s changed my life entirely is (when Safieddine told me) ‘don’t blame yourself because it was not your fault’,” said Poni. Shifting the narrative has helped liberate her mind and for the first time in a year she began socialising again and attending church. She is also experimenting with art therapy and trying to help others.


    Last week, while walking to her counselling session, Poni encountered a troubled government soldier, bought him a bottle of water, and gave him some money to feed his starving family. She said he told her that “if he finds a quiet place, he’s going to shoot himself so he can rest”.


    It wasn’t easy for her to assist a man she used to regard as complicit with those who butchered her father and raped and murdered her sisters, but Poni said she did it out of human kindness. “The whole country is traumatised,” she said. “We all really need help.”

    (TOP PHOTO: Since civil war began in 2013, people have been subjected to brutal violence and no real support system to help them deal with the trauma. CREDIT: Dominic Nahr/MSF)


    Decades of war left almost half the population with post-traumatic stress symptoms and little mental health care
    South Sudan: “The whole country is traumatised”
  • As Venezuela’s denied crisis deepens, local aid groups shift tactics

    Roberto Patiño never intended to become a humanitarian. But today the 30-year-old heads an NGO that helps feed thousands of children a week as Venezuela’s economic crisis spirals.


    More than three million Venezuelans have left the country – the majority since 2015, according to the UN. They are fleeing an economic collapse that has triggered severe food and medicine shortages. Patiño’s organisation, Mi Convive, is among a handful of local NGOs in Venezuela that have stepped into the breach.


    Across the country, cash-strapped local organisations like Mi Convive are making drastic changes to their operations in response to a humanitarian emergency the government denies. Civil society groups that once concentrated on rights or development in Venezuela, an upper-middle income country, are transforming their operations to focus on more urgent needs as basic necessities become scarce.


    Patiño founded Mi Convive in the capital, Caracas, in 2013. It was originally built to promote human rights with a mandate for violence prevention. He worked in communities with high crime rates, holding town hall-style meetings intended to increase political engagement.


    But in early 2016, a child in a Caracas community where Mi Convive worked asked Patiño for food.


    “She said she was starving,” he recalls.  


    Patiño was stunned.


    “This is so urgent,” he remembers thinking. “We had to adapt and we had to change.”


    LISTEN: Roberto Patiño, founder of Venezuelan NGO Mi Convive, which has changed its operations to focus on the country’s humanitarian crisis.

    By May 2016, Mi Convive had refocused on child nutrition, launching an organisation called Alimenta La Solidaridad, which opened its first community kitchen, or comedor, in the La Vega neighbourhood perched high over Caracas.


    By 2018, the food programme was running 18 community kitchens in Caracas and 35 more across the country, feeding 4,500 children a week. It’s still not enough. The public kitchens have waiting lists and Alimenta La Solidaridad is trying to open more, Patiño says.


    As his contested second term in office begins, Venezuelan leader Nicolás Maduro faces mounting opposition at home and abroad. In November, the country quietly agreed to receive assistance from the UN’s emergency response fund for the first time. But analysts say the $9.2 million in funding for existing UN programmes is a drop in the bucket compared to a humanitarian emergency that has left households without stable food supplies and medicine. Facing glaringly inadequate government services and a lack of official aid, struggling local NGOs have found themselves trying to fill the gap.


    ☰ Read more: What to call a crisis


    Venezuela agreed to accept $9.2 million in funding from the UN’s emergency aid coffers in November, but it continues to deny the existence of a humanitarian crisis within its borders.


    The money, drawn from the UN’s Central Emergency Response Fund, will be used to scale up existing programmes by agencies already operating in the country, including UNICEF, IOM, UNHCR, WHO, and UNFPA.


    The infusion of funding is a welcome step for some – but observers say it represents only a fraction of the humanitarian need.


    “Nine million dollars is a drop in the ocean. It is a colossal humanitarian crisis,” says Richard Lapper, a Latin America specialist at the Chatham House think tank.


    By comparison, a 2018 plan formulated by the WHO, UNAIDS, and the Venezuelan health ministry to respond to HIV, tuberculosis, and malaria was budgeted at $122 million over three years.


    Tamara Taraciuk of Human Rights Watch says the government has made a subtle shift in recent months away from total denial. “They are recognising an economic crisis,” she says. “They still do not talk about a humanitarian crisis.”


    An effective and sustainable aid response would require a comprehensive assessment of the problems – which would inevitably involve admitting the scale of humanitarian needs.


    “Without a proper diagnosis there is no way this crisis is going to be solved, and for a proper diagnosis you need the government’s cooperation and statistics,” she says. “Or at least access to the country – full access to the country – to come up with an independent diagnosis.”


    “The real problem is that the state is not working,” activist and former diplomat Luisa Kislinger says. “There is no way a number of NGOs or one NGO can replace the state.”


    “The role of local groups is so important,” says Tamara Taraciuk, senior Americas researcher for Human Rights Watch, which has tracked the humanitarian impact of the crisis within Venezuela’s borders and around the region. She says local NGOs have been compelled to shift their operations toward something they had never foreseen: humanitarian work.


    “They are helping people who would otherwise not receive any aid,” Taraciuk says.


    This would be a challenge anywhere, but oil-rich Venezuela was uniquely unprepared: civil society was small; NGOs like Mi Convive largely focused on human rights or development. And, says Luisa Kislinger, a women’s rights activist and a former Venezuelan diplomat, the country had rarely seen humanitarian emergencies within its own borders.


    When the economy imploded, precious few organisations had experience doing humanitarian work.


    “We don’t know what a humanitarian emergency is,” Kislinger says. “We didn’t know until now.”


    Susan Schulman/IRIN
    Elderly people queue for food at a public kitchen in the Venezuelan capital, Caracas.

    Local groups morph


    The barren food supplies and run-down hospitals of today are a stark contrast with a few short years ago. Venezuela, a verdant country of 30 million with the world’s largest proven oil reserves, was riding high oil prices, which papered over underlying weaknesses in the economy. But by 2016 the country was in an economic tailspin created by a perfect storm of fiscal mismanagement and plummeting oil prices.


    Today, skyrocketing inflation has left many unable to afford food, and malnutrition is soaring. Daily departures rose to an estimated 5,500 people by the end of 2018, many citing hunger. The UN estimates the number of Venezuelans living outside their homeland could reach 5.3 million by the end of this year. Aid agencies say they need $738 million to tackle the humanitarian emergency in 16 countries now home to large numbers of Venezuelans.


    Susan Schulman/IRIN
    Ennio Prince, 70, sits in a home for elderly people in Carúpano. Malnutrition rates are rising across Venezuela. Local humanitarian groups say impoverished elderly people often do not have enough food to eat: “I am always hungry,” Prince says.

    But within the country, the Maduro government denies the existence of a humanitarian crisis, instead blaming his country’s economic freefall on foreign powers, sanctions, and political sabotage.


    ☰ Read more: Roadblocks for local aid


    Venezuela’s economic crisis has also claimed NGOs among its victims. Some organisations have been forced to close their doors as hyper-inflation made operations unsustainable or as staff and volunteers also fled the country.  


    But dozens of tiny local foundations have also emerged. They are often self-funded or supported by donations from abroad.


    Controls on foreign currency also make it tough for NGOs to operate. Staff at local organisations say it is difficult for NGOs to legally bring money into Venezuela.


    Like Patiño’s Mi Convive, the Caracas-based Fundación Educando Ninó Felices has been forced to switch its operations to address basic humanitarian needs.


    The organisation was first founded in 2016 as an education NGO, introducing new technology and teaching methods to schools.


    Within a year, however, it soon became clear that there were more pressing problems.


    “The teachers started to say that they couldn’t go to the school because they had to queue up to get food,” says former staff member Claudia Cova.


    Training teachers, Cova says, “suddenly became ridiculously unnecessary” compared to essentials like food and clothing.


    “We had to abandon these things and look after more basic needs such as ensuring that the children had shoes, that they had food, and making sure that they could continue attending their classes and that the teachers didn’t leave the school,” Cova says.


    The humanitarian emergency has also forced change on other organisations with long track records in Venezuela.


    A portrait of bearded man's face
    Susan Schulman/IRIN
    Jesus Villarroel, a priest and director for Caritas in the eastern Venezuelan city of Carúpano, says the country’s economic crisis has forced the Catholic charity to take on more humanitarian work.

    When the Catholic charity Caritas opened operations in Venezuela in 1997, its work was focused on pastoral care for prisoners, support for the sick, and human rights advocacy. But seeing hunger and malnutrition rising, the organisation started prioritising humanitarian work in 2016, says Jesus Villarroel, a priest and the director of Caritas in Carúpano, site of one of the largest churches in the eastern state of Sucre.


    Caritas has opened community kitchens across the country and expanded alliances with local organisations to strengthen its humanitarian response on food and healthcare.


    “We are absolutely playing a more important role now than before the crisis,” Villarroel says. ‘‘We don’t pretend to be a substitute for the state. Because of the indifference of the state, we are seeking to respond to the humanitarian crisis in the country, to make dignity from little.”


    The Caritas Carúpano headquarters is buzzing. Food for the 90 people who come here every day is prepared in the kitchen while a dozen people wait for medical clinics run by small local foundations working with Caritas.


    It is a godsend for Erimas Milagro Machado Rodriguez, 28. Her children, Sirian, one, and Damian, four, suffer frequent diarrhoea. Doctors tell her they are severely malnourished.


    ‘‘The children cry every day because they are hungry,” Rodriguez says, her shoulders slumping and eyes sinking into a gaunt face. “When I can’t find any food, I try to make juice from fruit and give them a lot of liquid to fill them up.”  


    Rodriguez has also come to the kitchen to try to get treatment for Damian. The child was diagnosed with a psychological disability, but unable to get him any help, she is desperate. “I don’t know what to do or where to go to get the children what they need,” she says biting her lip, her eyes glassy. “It makes me feel so bad as a mother.”


    Around the city of Machiques, on the opposite side of the country near the Colombian border, the local Caritas office has recently increased the frequency of free meals it provides to five days a week.


    “Years ago, only the homeless went,” says Dr. Ingrid Graterol, director of the Machiques Caritas office. “But today everyone goes.”  


    Caritas is planning on setting up a medical clinic in Tucoco, a small village nestled under the foothills about 16 kilometres from the Colombian border.


    A doctor checks on a child in a woman's arms
    Susan Schulman/IRIN
    Ingrid Graterol, a doctor who works with Caritas, checks on a child in Tucoco, a village near the Colombian border in western Venezuela.

    Graterol says malaria, malnutrition, diarrhoea, and pneumonia have claimed lives in Tucuco over the past three years, but a particularly severe bout of malaria ravaged the village last year.


    The organisation partnered with a local friar to bring medicine to the remote village. But it was too late for Lisbeth Alehandra Fernandez, who was born last May.


    The baby had arrived with a healthy scream, a shock of black hair, and an immediate curiosity about the world. Twenty-three days later, she was dead.  


    A grieving woman wipes a tear from her eyes
    Susan Schulman/IRIN
    Ludi Fernandez is dependent on local NGOs when she needs healthcare.

    Lisbeth didn’t die of the pneumonia written on her death certificate. She didn’t even die from the malaria she had contracted.


    She died because there were no medicines to treat her malaria in the local hospital and none in the private clinic two hours away. Left untreated, her condition worsened. By the time her parents managed to find the drugs on the black market and raise the money to pay for them, it was too late.  


    “We didn’t have anything and then there was a total lack of medicines,” says the baby’s mother, 32-year-old school administrator Ludi Mar Yakusa Fernandez.


    Threats and intimidation


    In Venezuela, undertaking humanitarian work in a crisis the government refuses to acknowledge comes with its own set of challenges.  


    When local NGOs try to set up new comedors, they face threats, false accusations, and intimidation from chavistas – a term used to describe militant supporters of the late president, Hugo Chávez, and his successor Maduro.


    Elizabeth Tarrio, who works for Alimenta La Solidaridad, says bureaucrats of the Maduro government and communal councils – the neighbourhood bodies set up in 2006 by Chávez to administer policies locally – have tried to boycott and obstruct their efforts.


    “Communal councils don’t want to show weakness so they prevent us doing things to improve things,” she says. “They are supposed to provide food, but they don’t so they don’t want us to bring food.”


    Mi Convive’s Patiño says chavistas may threaten to withhold government-subsidised food boxes from communities where the NGO is trying to start new aid programmes.


    The NGO workers have found that the solution is to slowly build a relationship with the community first.


    “The community leaders – the real community leaders, the mothers – are the ones who put a stop to it,” says Patiño. “For mothers and grandmothers, their first priority is children, regardless of political affiliation.”


    Even Caritas faces headwinds, despite its long history in Venezuela. In October 2017, Caritas Venezuela warned that some 280,000 children could die from malnutrition. Two weeks later, Maduro attacked the Catholic church in the country, saying that everything linked to it "is contaminated, poisoned by a counter-revolutionary vision and permanent conspiracy".


    Hunger reaches young and old


    The deprivations in Venezuela extend from its outer reaches to its capital, Caracas – the nerve centre of Alimenta La Solidaridad’s operations.


    The colonial Hacienda La Vega sits amid lush grounds in the centre of the city. Built in 1590, it has been home to a succession of aristocratic families. Today, though, it hosts the warehouse, kitchen, and headquarters of Alimenta La Solidaridad. Mountains of leeks and bananas lie on the grounds; hundreds of tins of nutritional supplements – donated mostly by Venezuelans abroad – share space with 19th-century leather-bound books, elaborate engravings of family trees, and portraits of nobility.


    A woman stands in a commercial sized kitchen area with notes written directly on the wall
    Susan Schulman/IRIN
    Elizabeth Tarrio, 59, works with Alimenta La Solidaridad, which runs more than 50 public kitchens around Venezuela, feeding more than 4,500 children a week.

    Elizabeth Tarrio, 59, is bustling around, checking on progress as volunteers sort and weigh food supplies and organise them for delivery to 18 communities in Caracas.


    “We have seen a huge rise in malnourished kids. Huge. That’s why we are trying to open more comedors,” she says.


    Throughout the country, however, needs continue to outstrip supply. Local NGOs are a stop-gap measure, not a replacement for basic government services. In addition to the food and medicine shortages, Venezuelans see frequent blackouts and water cuts, and soaring prices are a problem for groups trying to help.


    Tarrio opens a deep freeze. There’s a large fish but no meat.   


    A couple of days earlier, the government imposed price controls on meat, regulating prices at such low rates that many distributors refused to sell.


    A steep set of stairs winds up the hill, past a mural of the angel San Miguel, the namesake of this Caracas neighbourhood, past a sign advertising light bulb repair, past a stream of children, all clutching spoons, who form a long queue around a narrow staircase that rises to a small home. Inside, two dozen children sit at white plastic tables, their heads bowed in prayer. Vitamins are spooned into open mouths, bowls of food are gobbled down, and the next round of children comes in and takes their places.  


    This newest comedor was opened by Alimenta La Solidaridad in San Miguel last year. The number of children who come here doubled in its first three months; there are 18 more children on the waiting list.


    The hunger reaches both young and old.


    In another part of Caracas, the people waiting to take their places at a separate kitchen are the elderly. Some lean on walking frames, others on canes, anxiety scoring deeply lined faces.


    This public kitchen is run by Fundación Nacional Amigos de la Tercera Edad, an organisation started in 1977 – part social club, part social help. It too has been changed by Venezuela’s humanitarian crisis; it now focuses on feeding the elderly.


    Elderly people sit eating in front of a mural of the last supper in similar positions accidentally
    Susan Schulman/IRIN
    Elderly Venezuelans eat at a public kitchen run by Fundación Nacional Amigos de la Tercera Edad, a local NGO. The organisation says it doesn’t have enough resources to feed the growing number of elderly who need free food.

    Carmen Senovia Tovar, 77, is overseeing the second sitting of the day. She has worked at the foundation for 23 years; she says the situation has radically deteriorated over the last five years.  


    “We have people only eating one meal a day and sometimes none,” she says. “Sometimes they have to collect it from the garbage.”


    Susan Schulman/IRIN
    Carmen Senovia Tovar, 77, works with a local NGO to serve lunch to elderly people at a public kitchen in Caracas.

    Even as the needs increase, Tovar worries that her organisation’s ability to help is withering. Hyper-inflation continues to ascend, sending costs soaring on a daily basis. Funds that were once able to supply food for 200 now only cover 150, she says, and the organisation can only provide meals three times a week rather than its planned five.


    For the elderly Venezuelans who rely on the local NGO, however, the efforts are life-saving.


    “This place is not just very important, it is super important,” says 78-year-old Martin Burguillos as he waits his turn in the queue. “It’s the only place we can find food.”

    (TOP PHOTO: Children queue for lunch served by the NGO Mi Convive in the San Miguel neighbourhood of Caracas. CREDIT: Susan Schulman/IRIN)


    As Venezuela’s denied crisis deepens, local aid groups shift tactics
    One of a series of stories from within Venezuela, reporting on the humanitarian impacts of the country's economic collapse. <a href="https://www.irinnews.org/special-report/2018/11/20/venezuela-humanitarian-crisis-denied">Read more here</a>.
  • In eastern Burkina Faso, local grievances help militancy take root

    It is part of one of the most important nature reserves in West Africa, home to endangered lions, cheetahs, and elephants, attracting tourists from around the world. But in the forests of eastern Burkina Faso – a landlocked former French colony of roughly 17 million people – a new type of visitor can now be found: Islamist militants.


    The militants, whose affiliation remains unclear, are gaining ground by tapping into long-standing social grievances linked to poverty, poor social services, and the conservation of protected parks, local analysts and officials say.


    Since early last year, they have launched a string of deadly attacks on government officials, soldiers, and residents, turning the sparsely populated eastern region into the latest front of Burkina Faso’s three-year struggle against violent extremists.


    These attacks mark a significant geographical shift for militants operating in Burkina Faso, who were until recently limited to the country’s arid north, close to the border with Mali. This has left states that border the eastern region – Togo, Benin and Ghana, all on West Africa’s coastline – fearing they might be the next targets of a similar militant insurgency.


    With two battlefronts now open, the number of violent attacks in Burkina Faso is rising fast. Earlier this month ethnic clashes triggered by militant incursions in the north left at least 46 dead, while an ambush on government forces in late December killed 10 gendarmerie and injured three others, according to Burkina Faso’s security ministry. Last week, authorities extended the state of emergency imposed after the attack for another six months.


    In just 12 months, the number of people fleeing their homes – mostly in the north – has risen from 9,000 to more than 50,000. As medical workers abandon their posts, around 100,000 people have been left without access to healthcare facilities, while 96,000 children lack formal education following threats and attacks on schools.


    In 2019 the UN’s emergency aid coordination body, OCHA, estimates that 1.2 million people will be in need of emergency assistance.


    “The country has never experienced what it is going through now,” said Metsi Makhetha, the top UN official in Burkina Faso.


    Local grievances


    Much of the eastern area falls within the W-Arly-Pendjari (WAP) ecological complex, a series of protected parks spanning Burkina Faso, Benin, and Niger, parts of which are listed by international agencies and conventions including UNESCO and Ramsar.

    “They offer people dignity, economic opportunity, and land. They offer them back what the state has taken.”

    The protection of these spaces has led to conflicts over public access to land and mining sites, while new boundaries for pastoral zones for grazing animals has resulted in some residents being forcibly evicted from their villages. These are the kinds of grievances the militants have been quick to seize upon.


    “They offer people dignity, economic opportunity, and land,” said independent Burkinabe researcher Mahamoudou Savadogo. “They offer them back what the state has taken.”


    Mining sites, hunting concessions, tourism, and cotton production contribute substantial amounts to the national economy, but locals rarely benefit, Savadogo said.


    “It is a rich region, but people are very poor.”


    The militants also feed into wider national and regional dynamics. Burkina Faso is among a number of countries in the Sahel, including Mali and Niger, that are witnessing an alarming increase in violent extremism that is destabilising the region.


    In Burkina Faso, the extremists have found a country with a security apparatus weakened by the fall of Blaise Compaoré, who ruled the country for 27 years before a popular revolution sent him packing in 2014. It has been weakened further by the dissolution of Compaoré’s elite army unit, the Regiment of Presidential Security, or RSP.


    Hundreds of attacks have since been recorded, including major assaults on the capital, Ouagadougou, while a homegrown Burkinabe Islamist group known as Ansaroul Islam – which has close links to militants in Mali – has emerged in the country’s northern Soum province.


    Ansaroul Islam are now among the groups thought to be involved in the violence in the east, as are Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS), armed bandits, and young local men radicalised while studying at Islamic schools in Mali. In hushed voices some government officials even suspect the long arm of Compaoré and his dissolved, disgruntled RSP troops.


    “All analyses are plausible,” said Ousmane Traoré, the governor of the eastern region.


    A man sits at a desk
    Philip Kleinfeld/IRIN
    Ousmane Traoré, the governor of Burkina Faso’s eastern region, where locals say they feel left out of new economic initiatives.

    Civilians targeted


    While the militants have found common interests with some local residents in the east, the cost has been high for many others. In recent months dozens of troops have died in roadside bombs and ambushes, while a growing number of civilians are also being targeted.


    “They take root, then they show their true colours,” said a local official from one of the east’s most conflict-affected towns, who like many people interviewed by IRIN did not want to be named for fear of reprisals.


    School teachers, in particular, are in the firing line. Just 150 kilometres to the east of Fada N’gourma, in the commune of Kantchari, schools are closed and students are idle.


    In late November, militants forced the administrator of the largest primary school in town to round up the French language textbooks and set them on fire. A classroom and office burnt down in the blaze; the nearby schools closed down in fear.

    “Every day I am afraid of what might happen to my parents.”

    Only a fortunate few students have been able to relocate to safer areas like Fada N’gourma. But even in safety, life is challenging. A rail-thin 15-year-old girl with a deep cough said she is living alone in Fada N’gourma with her younger sister – only the generosity of her teachers ensuring she is properly fed.


    She was recently moved down a school year because there was no space left in her own age group and spends her days paralysed by fear of what is going on back in her village. “Every day I am afraid of what might happen to my parents,” said the girl.


    A young boy on a bike makes a serious face at the camera
    Philip Kleinfeld/IRIN
    A growing number of civilians are being targeted by militants on roads out of Fada N'gourma.

    As state officials flee the east, the government’s already limited capacity to help those in need is dwindling. In September, a landslide at a militant-controlled gold mine in the eastern town of Kabonga left between 50 to 100 people dead. Nobody knows the precise number because the state was unable to launch a rescue mission.


    A 35-year-old farmer on his first ever trip to the mine “had hoped to be blessed by God and find gold”, according to his younger cousin. Instead, he was buried alive – “immediately and brutally” – leaving behind a young wife and two small children with little means of support.


    “It is heartbreaking,” the cousin said.


    ‘They have hurt us so much’


    While the humanitarian toll of the violence in the east remains relatively low level, signs of what might come can be found in the Soum province of northern Burkina Faso, where clashes between militants and the army have caused tens of thousands of civilians to flee their homes in the past few months.


    It is here that Ansaroul Islam first set up base in late 2016 using a similar strategy of tapping into social grievances, and it is here where they continue to gain strength despite recent military operations against them.


    A 59-year-old farmer from Belede, a small village in Soum, said Ansaroul Islam militants spent two years harassing his neighbours for money and information on the whereabouts of local authority figures. When the villagers finally stopped cooperating, the militants grew angry. One day, three months ago, they rounded up locals at the market and told them to leave.


    “They said: ‘if we come back and find you here, you won't escape’,” the farmer recalled from a flyblown cafe in Kongoussi, 90 kilometres south of Soum. “When somebody tells you this, you do what they say.”


    Among the displaced are many who have fled abuses by the Burkinabe armed forces. They have engaged in killings and arbitrary detention during counterterrorism operations, according to Human Rights Watch.


    Most at risk are members of Soum’s majority Fulani ethnic group, who are targeted for recruitment by the militants and are stigmatised by security forces. One Fulani teacher who shares his surname – Dicko – with the founder of Ansaroul Islam, said four members of his family (all Dickos) were loaded onto the back of a military pickup truck near the village of Damba roughly a year ago, driven into the bush, and executed.


    “If you are a Fulani and a Dicko you are in trouble,” said the teacher.


    For months, humanitarians said the displaced in Soum did not want to register for aid because they were so afraid the militants would accuse them of speaking with “outsiders”. But as healthcare centres and schools closed and agricultural activities became harder to perform, many are left with few options.


    Students in a classroom with a chalkboard
    Philip Kleinfeld/IRIN
    Teachers are in the firing line, and 96,000 children are out of school because of ongoing militant attacks.

    The farmer from Belede said 18 members of his family now share a small rented house in Djibo, the provincial capital of Soum, one mattress and one mosquito net between them. As his savings dwindle, evening meals have become increasingly rare.


    “We need to act,” said Makhetha, the UN official, “and act urgently”.


    Military operations


    In the east, as in the north, the government's response has been to launch military operations. They have been supported by French troops from a 3,000-strong counterterrorism force in the Sahel called Operation Barkhane, on its first mission in Burkina Faso.


    But analysts say military force is unlikely to address the local grievances militants in the east are tapping into. Instead, they fear it will create a cycle of killings, distrust, and displacement – a cycle some feel has already begun.


    In December, a young homeless boy was found strangled to death outside the house of a local preacher in Namoungou, a village close to Fada N'gourma. Many say he was killed by militants after startling them with the light of a torch during an early morning operation. Others say he was killed by the army who mistook him for a militant.


    Whatever the truth, one local teacher said the sound of an approaching motorbike – the militants’ preferred mode of transport – is now enough to make the few students still in class freeze in terror.


    “Shocked,” said the teacher. “Everybody here is shocked.”



    “The country has never experienced what it is going through now”
    In eastern Burkina Faso, local grievances help militancy take root
  • Worries grow as more Venezuelans look to Peru

    As Venezuela’s Nicolas Maduro began a new six-year term on Thursday, Peru led Canada, the United States, and 12 other countries in the Americas in refusing to recognise his presidency, citing irregularities in his May 2018 election and despair over an economic collapse that has precipitated the largest exodus in the region’s history.


    But as Peru has recalled its diplomats and imposed travel bans and financial sanctions on Maduro and his allies, human rights advocates have raised concerns that the Peruvian government itself is taking an increasingly hard line on those fleeing Venezuela and failing to adequately prepare for a flow of migrants that shows no sign of abating.

    If thousands of migrants are forced to enter illegally and into the informal economy, officials and aid groups worry that a new humanitarian crisis will emerge. Rights advocates fear that tighter conditions for entry and for securing work permits and asylum – coupled with a lack of institutional support at border crossings – will leave migrants at greater risk to trafficking, sexual abuse, and labour exploitation.

    Although not a direct neighbour, Peru is the second largest recipient of Venezuelan citizens (after Colombia). Hundreds of thousands of migrants have made long and often dangerous journeys through Brazil, Colombia, and Ecuador to what is one of the fastest-growing economies in the region.

    According to the latest data from Peru’s migration office, by December some 635,000 Venezuelans were known to be in the country, more than four times the number in January. The UN is tipping that number to reach 1.4 million by the end of 2019.



    Initially drawn by Peru’s open-door policy, Venezuelans now need to adapt and find other ways to enter and stay in Peru as the government takes a tougher line on immigration. Representatives of international aid organisations in the capital, Lima, told IRIN that concerns are growing over the longer-term implications of current policies – as did at least one Peruvian official.

    Apprehensions come in part from the large number of asylum applicants versus the numbers of those who will be admitted as refugees.

    “We are concerned because at some stage, many (asylum) applicants will be told, ‘no’, they do not qualify as refugees,” said Selva del Rosario, an official at the regional asylum office in Puerto Maldonado, near the Brazilian border. “That is when a major humanitarian crisis will begin; when many will have to leave the country. Right now the big problem is that the current solutions... are only temporary.”


    During a recent visit to Geneva, Daniel Sánchez Velásquez, Peru’s deputy minister of human rights and access to justice, assured IRIN that Peru would continue to welcome Venezuelans in need.


    “If there is convincing information that the person is in danger and that it is in accordance with the [international] conventions on asylum and our law, (we would) immediately grant them that status,” he said. “What we do not want to see is that we put in danger the lives of anyone who arrives in this country requesting asylum.”


    Peru is a signatory to the 1984 Cartagena Convention, a non-binding agreement now incorporated into the domestic law of most Latin American states. It expands the definition of refugee status to include “persons who have fled their country because their lives, safety or freedoms have been threatened by generalised violence, foreign aggression, internal conflicts, massive violation of human rights or other circumstances which have seriously disturbed public order.”


    In 2015, Antonio Guterres – then the UN high commissioner for human rights, now the UN secretary-general – referred to the convention as a “humanitarian brand name”.


    The UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR, reported that by the end of October, more than 150,000 Venezuelans had applied for asylum in Peru, making it the number one destination for Venezuelan asylum seekers. Only around 1,000 have been granted asylum – a low number that suggests the Cartagena Convention’s definition of refugee status isn’t being applied in the case of most Venezuelans.


    A senior Lima-based official at a global humanitarian organisation, speaking to IRIN on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue, characterised the lack of long-term planning by the Peruvian government toward the migrant crisis as “catastrophic”.


    In December, UNHCR and the International Organization for Migration announced a $738 million “emergency plan” – the first of its kind in the Americas – to increase support for Venezuelans on the move and in host communities, including Peru.


    Seesaw policy


    Then-president Pedro Pablo Kusczynski announced early last year that all Venezuelans would be welcome in Peru under a temporary residency programme, or PTP, until June 2019. The permit allows migrants to work and reside in the country for one year, with access to basic services such as health and education.


    By August however, when the exodus from Venezuela spiked, the new government of President Martin Vizcarra changed gears, announcing that only migrants with passports would be allowed to apply for the residency permits. Failures in Venezuela’s passport system – which include shortages of paper and materials, breakdowns of its online application platform, and corruption – have made it practically impossible for hundreds of thousands to migrate legally.

    Peru’s passport requirement was reversed in October after a court order determined it violated Venezuelans’ right to free movement. However, Vizcarra’s government then set a new deadline for entry to Peru: 31 October for migrants holding either an ID card or a passport, with a year-end deadline to apply for the PTP.


    The latest change means that since 1 November Venezuelans have been able to enter only as tourists with passports, or as asylum applicants, which does not require a passport. Unsurprisingly, the number of Venezuelans applying for refugee status, which provides a two-month, renewable work permit while they wait for their request to be processed, has increased.


    By 31 December, an estimated 175,000 Venezuelans in Peru qualified for the temporary stay permits, while another 320,000 had begun the application process.


    People and a dog outside of an office
    Paula Dupraz-Dobias/IRIN
    Clemis, Solisveya, and Hilberto at the Peruvian migration office in Iñapari as they learn they are being refused entry to Peru.

    Caught in the bureaucracy


    Clemis, Solisveya, and their 18-year-old son Hilberto were among the many Venezuelans ready to consider all legal options to increase their chances of entering and working in Peru.


    After a long trek across the Brazilian jungle, the Venezuelan family was upbeat as they finally arrived on 1 December in Assis, just across the river from Iñapari on the Peruvian side of the border.


    Like most of the more than three million Venezuelans who have left their country since 2015 – equivalent to almost 10 percent of the population – the parents only made the decision to emigrate after they were no longer able to afford basics such as food and medicine.


    “With what you earn, you can’t buy food. It’s just not enough,” explained Clemis, a builder by trade. “We were eating less and less. And then people came to steal from our home.”


    Read more: Venezuela: A humanitarian crisis denied


    After leaving Venezuela in August, they spent four months in the city of Manaus in northern Brazil, working to earn the money they needed to pay for transport by bus and river boat to Peru. The route they took through Brazil’s Amazonian jungle is often riskier than the busier one through Ecuador as it is more prone to robbery and attacks.


    When they arrived at the migration office in the border town of Iñapari in southeastern Peru, they were told Solisveya couldn’t enter without a passport. The family was left curbside with their luggage and not allowed to reboard the minibus that was due to drive them to the regional hub of Puerto Maldonado, some three hours away, where asylum requests are processed.


    As they had expressed their interest in applying for asylum, it’s not clear why Clemis and his family were denied entry. As del Rosario, the asylum official in Puerto Maldonado, explained: “It is important to understand that – regarding asylum requests – anyone may apply at whichever point within the country.”


    Del Rosario said “100 percent of Venezuelans” who have entered through Iñapari since the temporary stay permits were introduced also applied for refugee status “allowing them to stay in the country and work” for 60 days at a time, or until a decision on their application was taken.


    At the main Ecuadoran crossing of Tumbes, major humanitarian organisations such as IOM and the International Committee of the Red Cross are present. But at Iñapari, none are – a fact confirmed to IRIN by the country heads of IOM and ICRC in December.


    “There are opportunities [for criminals] to take advantage of those travelling from Brazil to here,” said Carol Pezo, a human rights lawyer for Caritas based in Puerto Maldonado. She said a number of drivers are known to “promise” undocumented would-be asylum seekers transit past police checkpoints at exorbitant costs.


    Due to the lack of institutional support, including shelters – even in Puerto Maldonado – Pezo said many Venezuelans are also vulnerable to other abuses. “It becomes easier for them to be captured and taken to work in (illegal gold mining) areas such as La Pampa (a lawless region of Peru controlled by mafia groups). They could be abused, sexually and in their labour rights.”


    Orian Sanchez, a 32-year-old journalist from the northern Venezuelan state of Aragua who said his mother had died for lack of medicine, said he could no longer find any media organisation in Venezuela where he could practise balanced news reporting – a valid reason, he felt, to claim asylum when he arrived in Puerto Maldonado in February 2018.


    After months of waiting for his request to be approved, he decided to apply for a temporary stay permit, hoping it would give him the opportunity for short-term work. He promptly received his PTP and is now employed by a local Peruvian radio station.


    Meanwhile, on the same bus that should have taken Clemis and his family to Puerto Maldonado, a Venezuelan father and his young daughter – who had already been granted an initial permit to stay in Peru as asylum applicants – were stopped by police and told to disembark due to a recently expired passport.

    (TOP PHOTO: Venezuelan father and his young daughter are taken off the bus by police on their way to Puerto Maldonado from Iñapari. CREDIT:Paula Dupraz-Dobias/IRIN)


    Worries grow as more Venezuelans look to Peru
  • In South Sudan, girls forced into war face gender double standards in peace

    Women and girls bear an additional burden in any war, as the threat of sexual violence or abuse combines with the standard risks of conflict.


    The conflict in South Sudan is no different. Since it began in December 2013, both sides have been accused of using rape and sexual assault as a “weapon of war”. UN envoy Pramila Patten told the Security Council last month that the practice “escalated dramatically” in 2018.


    For women and girls kidnapped by armed groups, even if they survive widespread sexual violence and forced marriage, many are left unable to fully rejoin their communities, in part because the programmes intended to ease their transition back into society are traditionally designed for boys and controlled by men.


    In South Sudan, more than 950 children abducted by armed groups were released in 2018, as a peace deal, signed in September, tenuously holds. Around 28 percent of those officially released were girls. Many more have reportedly been leaving or escaping captivity unofficially.


    To join a reintegration programme, former militia members often have to be included on lists that their male commanders give to those negotiating their release.


    Although many women and girls have voluntarily joined armed groups in South Sudan, many others have been forcibly recruited, becoming ‘wives’ to militia members, who then won’t let them leave (it is hard to know how many, as the commanders are in control of the lists).


    While some girls kidnapped by armed groups are forced to fight, or to kill civilians while looting villages, most are taken to cook and clean.


    When Poni*, 17, was taken from her home in 2015 by an armed opposition group fighting the government, she says she didn’t struggle. “I was thinking... I am just a girl. I don’t have any power to resist and fight with those men,” she told IRIN.


    Poni decided her best chance of survival was to obey orders: to cook, clean, fetch water, even to loot. “If you refused to do it, they would immediately kill you,” she said. “I decided to do these bad things because I saw others shot dead, because they refused to obey orders.”


    In preliminary findings from a research trip in South Sudan, NGO Child Soldiers International noted in October: “Girls’ involvement in armed conflict is seen as less direct than boys.”


    Girls and women who find their way back to their communities on their own aren’t always seen as “soldiers” and consequently those with power don’t put them forward for programmes that could support them.


    “As a result, girls have often been excluded from demobilisation and reintegration initiatives,” Child Soldiers International said.


    Assistance for women and girls


    The UN says it has learned lessons around the support of girls. Since 2006, it has included gender in the guidelines it uses to plan demobilisation, demilitarisation, and reintegration (DDR) programmes in countries including South Sudan.


    One key change was the removal of a requirement that fighters hand in weapons or ammunition before they enter a reintegration programme; such a requirement excluded girls involved in armed groups in non-combat roles. Before this change, women and girls involved in the civil wars in Sierra Leone and Liberia were largely shut out of those DDR processes in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

    “There’s always a priority on economic reintegration... social reintegration is under-resourced and forgotten about.”

    Within South Sudan’s process, which was agreed as part of the September peace deal, the UN and its partners provide psychological and financial assistance to children like Poni, most of whom are reunited with their families. This includes three month’s worth of food rations and other necessities. The DDR programme also assists with education and skills development.


    Some NGOs say that still isn’t enough for the released girls. Such programmes, they argue, have historically been tailored towards boys, so female-specific needs – including access to post-rape counselling and care, or better social reintegration – aren’t being met effectively.


    “There’s always a priority on economic reintegration, meaning vocational training [and school],” Lyndsay Hockin, a child protection specialist with World Vision in South Sudan, told IRIN. Meanwhile, “social reintegration is under-resourced and forgotten about.”


    “Social reintegration” is shorthand for the intangible but ultimately crucial process of being accepted by families and communities again. It may not cost as much as training and counselling, but it requires more time, commitment, and relationship-building, said Hockin, who works in Yambio and the surrounding region of southwest South Sudan.


    Stigma and distrust


    South Sudan is a difficult place to be female in the first place: 80 percent of refugees and displaced people are women and children; around 75 percent of girls are not enrolled in primary school; more than 50 percent are married before the age of 18; and 58 percent of households are reportedly female-headed.


    Since the civil war started, more than 19,000 children are estimated to have been recruited into armed groups, according to UNICEF. Aid workers told IRIN that 20-40 percent of them are girls, but it’s impossible to know exactly.


    While some boys are kidnapped to become child soldiers, others join armed groups voluntarily – sometimes out of need, because they feel it is the only way they can feed themselves, said Timothy Irwin, UNICEF spokesman in South Sudan. The same is true of some girls and women in Pibor, in the east of the country, according to Child Soldiers International.


    In the region around Yambio, however, experts told IRIN that girls involved with armed groups tend to be abducted, many on their way to school.


    “In terms of our caseload, they were all taken against their will,” said Hockin. “They were wanting to be back with their families, and they were not wanting to be still married.”


    “Life was so bad, especially for the girls,” 16-year-old Maria* told IRIN. “They would rape us and take us to the commander.”


    Maria was abducted from her home by a pro-government militia in 2015. She was formally released in a ceremony arranged by the government’s National DDR Commission in February in Yambio. A total of 348 children were freed that day, 100 of them girls.


    The releases were negotiated by local religious leaders, who were escorted by UN peacekeeping troops to meet armed groups in remote areas. A group of women who had self-identified as survivors of sexual violence, many also single mothers, were linked up with the released girls as mentors. Meanwhile, daycare was introduced for young mothers who were going back to school.


    Children like Maria who have suffered sexual violence, who may have children themselves, can find it even harder to reintegrate due to the stigma of sex before marriage.


    The marriages themselves can carry repercussions too, given that they are often to men who have committed violence against the communities the girls are returning to. In Yambio, the local Zande ethnic group already has a “culture of rumour and suspicion”, said Hockin. Captured children are often used by armed groups to scout out areas ahead of attacks, meaning some are suspected of being spies on their return.


    “For the girls that are married… [people ask] was that marriage a conduit for intelligence-gathering?” Hockin explained. “It would be quite natural for the girl to be sharing information with her husband.”


    Read more → South Sudan: The humanitarian toll of half a decade of war

    Many returning girls were bullied by their peers in school, but keeping them apart wasn’t a good idea either, she said. “That was actually reinforcing a lot of stigma.”


    ‘Women live with violence’


    While the releases of child soldiers across the country have been from opposition forces and pro-government militias, the UN and the US State Department have reported that all sides in the conflict – including the national army, the South Sudan People's Defense Force (SSPDF) – use child soldiers.


    The government and the army usually deny abusing women and girls, but reports from the ground often contradict those denials.


    “You are supposed to leave children in peace.”

    The SSPDF, formerly know as the SPLA, was accused of mass rapes of women and girls as part of indiscriminate attacks against civilians in Unity State in April-May 2018. After a mass rape of at least 125 women in Bentiu in Unity State in November, the victims said armed men, many in military uniform, had attacked them. Almost two in three women and girls in South Sudan report having experienced sexual violence at least once in their lives.


    “Rape has long been condoned, normalised, and used to terrorise women and girls across South Sudan,” said Nyagoah Tut Pur, a South Sudan researcher for Human Rights Watch, adding that authorities should show they are serious about addressing the culture of impunity for such crimes.


    “It is not normal and it is not acceptable that women live with violence and that they are sexually abused,” UN Women Executive Director Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka said in October during a visit to South Sudan, where a joint UN-AU delegation said the participation of women was key to the successful implementation of the new peace deal.


    There seems to be some willingness to make women more visible in decision-making: the September deal has stipulated a new quota for 35 percent of women in government positions, raised from 25 percent when South Sudan gained independence in 2011.

    Even as many observers remain sceptical that peace will hold, with violence still continuing in parts of the country, Poni and Maria hope to move on with their lives. Both want to go to school, using skills they are currently honing on vocational training courses run by UNICEF in Yambio to earn money to pay their fees.


    “I was helpless, and now I am thankful,” Maria said.


    But it is hard for girls in South Sudan to move on from the trauma they have experienced.


    Poni didn’t want to talk about her family, but she did want to say that children like her should be free, that they should never have to go through what she did.


    “You are supposed to leave children in peace,” she said.


    *Names have been changed



    Additional reporting by Silvano Yokwe and Nancy Acayo

    The reporting for this piece was supported by the International Women's Media Foundation

    In South Sudan, girls forced into war face gender double standards in peace
  • A generation of unschooled Cameroonians, another generation of conflict?

    “As we trekked, they kept on telling us that they don’t want us to go to school again,” says 15-year-old Martha Lum, four weeks after being released by the armed gunmen who kidnapped her along with 78 other children and staff members in Cameroon.


    Lum’s story is becoming common across the country’s Northwest and Southwest regions, where the conflict between anglophone separatists and francophone armed forces that’s claimed hundreds of lives has made schools a battlefield.


    Since the anglophone conflict escalated in late 2017, more than 430,000 people have been forced to flee their homes. In May, the UN’s emergency aid coordination body, OCHA, said approximately 42,500 children were out of school. However, local rights groups estimate that number has now increased fourfold following frequent abductions.



    Some 20,000 school-age children now live in the bush. With no learning materials or trained teachers, they have no access to a formal education. Parents and local officials worry 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?” says 45-year-old mother of four *Elizabeth Tamufor.


    “We have been hiding in the bush for more than a year,” she tells IRIN. “I am sure the children have forgotten what they were taught in school. You think in five years they will still be hiding here? They will probably pick up guns and start fighting.”


    The fear of schoolchildren and young students joining the armed separatists is already a reality for some. *Michael, 20, used to be a student before the conflict started. He joined the separatists when his friend was killed by government forces.


    “I replaced books with the gun since then. But I will return to school immediately we achieve our independence,” he says.


    Right from the start


    The roots of Cameroon’s anglophone conflict can be traced back to education. The separatists fighting for independence from French-majority Cameroon say the current school system symbolises the marginalisation of the English language and culture.


    After years of discontent, in November 2016, anglophone teachers began an indefinite strike to protest what they said amounted to systematic discrimination against English-speaking teachers and students. In response, government security forces clamped down on protests, arresting hundreds of demonstrators, including children, killing at least four people and wounding many more.


    This caused widespread anger across the Southwest and Northwest regions, which a year later led to the rise of the armed separatist groups now fighting for independence and a new English-speaking nation called “Ambazonia”.

    ☰ Read more: How classrooms became a battlefield​


    The anglophone minority of francophone-majority Cameroon – one sixth of the population – has felt marginalised since two former colonies of France and Britain reunited in 1961 to form one country.  


    French and English are both official languages, and the country’s 1998 Orientation of Education law says its two “sub-systems” of education are “independent and autonomous”.


    But according to Sylvester Ngan from the Teachers Association of Cameroon (TAC), which defends the rights of English-speaking teachers, the francophone-majority government has been trying to wipe out the English system.

    “When the two countries decided to reunite in a federation, they agreed to maintain their different systems of education, but [a] few years after reunification every element of the anglophone educational system was slowly absorbed into the francophone Cameroon culture,” says Ngan.


    Originally, children in anglophone Cameroon were taught in English by English-language teachers. But after the country reunited, the central government began posting French teachers to the anglophone regions to teach children in English.


    They were also expected to teach the children using the anglophone sub-system of education, which has a different syllabus and different methods of evaluation and certification from the francophone sub-system.


    TAC also complains that competitive exams for the most prestigious public universities and colleges are set in French only; and qualified English speakers are often excluded in admissions into state schools, even in the anglophone regions.


    Explaining the practical challenges for schools in the anglophone regions, Dr. Valentine Banfegha Ngalim, a senior lecturer at the University of Bamenda, said: “For example, in the English sub-system, history and geography are two distinct subjects to be studied. On the contrary, in the francophone sub-system, the two subjects are combined and popularly described as ‘Histoire-geo.”


    Other challenges include: single subject certification under the English system and group certification under the French one; different course lengths; and different numbers of exams with different timetables of study.


    As a measure to erase these differences, the Cameroonian government launched plans to harmonise them. But this met with stiff resistance, mostly from anglophones who argued that it was just another way to systematically suppress their culture.


    “This completely undermined the original intentions of the founders of the nation to build a bicultural nation, respecting the specificity of francophone and anglophone Cameroonians,” says Ngan.



    Although the majority of teacher trade unions called off their strike in February 2017, separatists continue to impose curfews and abduct people as a means to push the local population to refrain from sending children back to school.


    As a result, tens of thousands of children haven’t attended school since 2016. Local media is awash with stories of kidnappings of children and teachers who do not comply with the boycott, while rights groups say the disruption of education puts children at risk of exploitation, child labour, recruitment by armed groups, and early marriage.


    “Schools have become targets,” a July 2018 Human Rights Watch report notes. “Either because of these threats, or as a show of solidarity by parents and teachers with the separatist cause, or both, school enrollment levels have dropped precipitously during the crisis.”


    In June, Amnesty International said at least 42 schools had been attacked since February last year. While latest statistics are not available, it is believed that at least 100 separate incidents of school kidnapping have taken place since the separatist movement turned violent in 2017. More than 100 schools have also been torched and at least a dozen teachers killed or wounded, according to Issa Tchiroma, Cameroon’s minister of communication.


    The separatist view


    Speaking to IRIN last month in Bali, a town neighbouring Bamenda – the capital of Northwest region – armed separatist leader *Justin says his group is enforcing the school boycott started by the teacher trade unions.


    “They (teachers) started a strike action to resist the ‘francophonisation’ of the anglophone system of education, and the evil francophone regime arrested and detained their colleagues, shot dead schoolchildren, and you expect us to sit down and watch them killing our people?”


    “We don’t want the schoolchildren of Ambazonia to be part of the corrupt francophone system of education,” he said. “We have designed a new school programme for them which will start as soon as we achieve our independence.“


    *Laba, who controls another group of armed separatists, is more categorical. “When we say no school, we mean no school,” he says emphatically. “We have never and will never kill a student or teacher. We just want them to stay home until we get our independence and begin implementing our own system of education.”


    There are about 20 armed separatist groups across the two English-speaking regions. They operate independently, and separatists have publicly disagreed on the various methods of imposing the school boycott.


    Both Justin and Laba accuse the government of staging “some” of the school abductions in order “to discredit the image of the separatists internationally”. But they also admit that some armed separatist groups are guilty of kidnapping and killing children and teachers.


    “We don’t kidnap schoolchildren,” Justin says. “We just impose curfews to force them to stay home.”


    But for many parents and schoolchildren, staying at home for this long is already having devastating consequences.


    School children in uniforms walk on the street toward camera
    Arison Tamfu/IRIN
    Schoolchildren returning from school in Buea, one of the few places in the English-speaking regions where some schools still function.

    ‘Everything is different’


    Parents who can afford it have enrolled their children in schools in the French-speaking part of the country – mostly Douala and Yaoundé. But the influx has caused fees to rise in the francophone zones. Tuition fees that normally cost $150 annually have now more than doubled to $350.


    Beyond the costs, parents also need to transport their children from the troubled regions, along a very insecure highway, to apply for enrollment.


    When they get there, success is far from guaranteed. A lot of the francophone schools are now at full capacity and have stopped accepting students from anglophone regions, meaning many children will likely have to stay home for yet another year.


    Those studying in a new environment can also take quite a while to adapt.


    George Muluh, 16, had been at a school in the Southwest region before the conflict but is now attending Government Bilingual High School Deido in Douala.


    “Everything is just different,” he says. “I don’t understand French. The classrooms are overcrowded. The teaching method is different. I am getting more and more confused every day. I just want the conflict to end so I can go back to the Southwest to continue my studies.”


    It might be a long while before George has that opportunity. To the Cameroonian government, the teachers’ grievances have already been solved.


    “The government has employed 1,000 bilingual teachers, allocated two billion CFA ($4 million) to support private education, transferred teachers who could not speak French and redeployed them to French zones. These were the demands of the teachers. What do they want again?” asks Tchiroma, the minister of communication.


    But Sylvester Ngan, from the Teachers Association of Cameroon (TAC), which defends the rights of English-speaking teachers in the country, says most of these measures are cosmetic and don’t solve key issues related to French-only exams and francophone teachers in English schools.


    Leave the children alone


    While the government and teachers’ unions argue about who is right and what education system to implement, the war is ongoing, people are dying, and tens of thousands of children are not in school.


    “No reason can be advanced to justify the unwarranted attacks on children in general and pupils who are seeking to acquire knowledge and skills,” says Jacques Boyer, UNICEF representative in Cameroon. “All children in the regions must be able to go to school in peace.”


    President Paul Biya, 85, who just won another seven-year term after 36 years in power, has ignored calls for an inclusive dialogue to end the conflict. The first related measure he undertook after the October election was the creation of a commission to disarm and reintegrate former armed separatists.


    Cameroonian political analyst Michael Mbah describes the move as “a joke”, saying that a ceasefire and dialogue must precede any serious attempt at disarmament and reintegration.


    Meanwhile, the next year looks bleak for children like Lum whose futures are being decided by a war beyond their control. “I have always wanted to become a medical doctor,” Lum tells IRIN, but she now fears her dream will be shattered by the persistent conflict.


    "Leave the children alone,” says *Raymond, a father of four whose offspring haven’t been able to study for close to two years now.


    “We, parents, cannot afford to raise a generation of illiterates,” he says. “The future of the children is being sacrificed, just like that."  


    *Names changed at the request of the interviewees for security reasons.



    A generation of unschooled Cameroonians, another generation of conflict?

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