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Editors’ picks: Why you need to read these 2019 stories

Photo of police in Bunia at protests
A “mystery militia” in the Ituri region of DRC — where police officers patrolled after protests in the regional capital, Bunia, followed a suspected militia attack — is among the topics of our 2019 Editors’ Picks articles. (Philip Kleinfeld/TNH)

Our top 10 most popular stories are those you clicked on most in 2019. Here’s a more subjective selection – a handful of stories our editors love and wish more people had read, along with our thoughts on why they’ll matter in 2020.

They include: a true-crime tale tracing the killers of a young Venezuelan poet and revealing the slow death of the country’s middle class; days spent alongside Romida Begum, a young Rohingya woman, exploring well-intentioned yet fraught efforts to spur her and other women to take on leadership roles in Bangladesh’s refugee camps; and a visit to Ituri province in the Democratic Republic of Congo to chronicle the situation – largely overlooked amidst the world’s second-deadliest Ebola outbreak – facing more than 300,000 people displaced by a mystery militia.

Catch up on these and our other editors’ picks.

Middle East protests and religious division (or lack thereof)

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Mariam Al Kotob/TNH

Four nights this Ramadan, under the shadow of refugee returns

In 2019, journalist Laura Gottesdiener spent the better part of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan in a working class neighbourhood of north Lebanon, where she got to know the Lebanese, Syrians, and Palestinians who live, fast, cook, feast, and work together. In Lebanon, a country with longstanding divisions and the world’s greatest number of refugees per capita (many of whom are now under increasing pressure to return home), this is a rare story of how, sometimes, people manage to get along.

Why it matters in 2020

Since mid-October, Lebanese have been protesting against their government, and while the demonstrations began with anger about a proposed new tax, they have spread to include frustration with the sectarian system that governs the country. People from all walks of life – and all religions – have taken to the streets, and although violence and religious division have crept into the fray lately, the movement continues. People from both sides of the Shiite-Sunni split are also protesting in Iraq, despite a brutal crackdown from security forces, demonstrating that while sectarian divisions often help form a neat narrative, they do not form the whole story of either country. Both uprisings are likely to continue into the new year in some form or another, and we’ll be watching how they evolve, rattling (or perhaps emboldening) already fragile states, including how they impact those at the bottom rung of the socioeconomic ladder who are already struggling to get by.

Good money

Saving lives and making money: Can humanitarian impact bonds marry the two?

When relief operations are short of cash, regular donors tapped out, and future-looking panels convened, it’s common to hear about “innovative financial solutions”. This article is an in-depth look at one case: an attempt by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) to harness socially conscious capital to help rehabilitate the war-wounded. It’s a cautionary tale – for optimists and sceptics alike.

Why it matters in 2020

Humanitarian needs outpace the response funding, and there is growing interest in investments that pay a fair return and do some good. Matching the two will demand fresh ideas and a meeting of minds between the financial and nonprofit sectors. Smart financial engineering could supply more “investable” opportunities. But some schemes (including a World Bank pandemic contingency fund) have drawn fire for allegedly fattening the wallets of private investors at the expense of the very same taxpayers who usually foot the bill. Tempers can run high in what many find an ethical grey zone. We expect further announcements in 2020: from volcano insurance to new applications for Islamic finance, nexus funds, and more. We’ll weigh the costs and benefits and try to strip back the hype.

A Latin American exodus

Reporter’s Diary: The death of a poet, and Venezuela’s middle class

In tracing the death of a young poet killed in a street protest, reporter Magnus Boding Hansen portrays what life is like for Venezuela’s erstwhile middle class, caught in a humanitarian crisis few ever imagined and likely facing years of struggle to rebuild even if the political winds shift. This “true crime” tale, of a single death and a country unravelled, is a whodunnit with no good answer. “My own love of Latin America stems from the writer Roberto Bolaño, whose novels often feature dead or missing poets and blend the beauty and the horror of this region,” Hansen explains. Reporting the story, he said, “was like being caught up in a real-life Bolaño murder mystery”. Yet this story is real, as is, Hansen writes, “what it reveals about what Venezuelans will likely face for many years to come: long after the immediate crisis is over, people will struggle to rebuild what they once had”.

Why it matters in 2020

Parliamentary elections are planned for January, a test for opposition leader Juan Guaidó’s hold over the National Assembly and President Nicolás Maduro’s hold over the nation. If current trends continue, 6.5 million Venezuelans are projected to be living outside their country by 2020 – that’s close to the Syrian exodus in scale. Even without that “if”, though, 4.8 million people have already fled Venezuela, mainly to host countries in Latin America and the Caribbean, and gaps in funding to help meet their needs persist. For Venezuelans who are still at home, bright spots are hard to find. UN relief chief Mark Lowcock stated in early November that the country’s health system “is on the verge of collapse, with many hospitals lacking the most basic water and electricity infrastructure”.

Neglected conflict in DRC

Mystery militia sows fear – and confusion – in Congo’s long-suffering Ituri

The world’s second deadliest Ebola outbreak has stolen the limelight – and taken much of the resources – in the Democratic Republic of Congo this year. But in northeastern Ituri province another crisis has been unfolding with far less fanfare. Hundreds were killed and more than 300,000 uprooted from June onwards as a militia thought to be drawn from the marginalised Lendu community spread across the region, attacking mainly ethnic Hema villages. In July, TNH’s Philip Kleinfeld travelled to the province, finding villages deserted, displaced people wallowing in under-resourced camps, and women and children with gunshots and arrow wounds lying untreated in a solitary hospital. Rare interviews with unrepentant militiamen told a story of a long-suffering region haunted by an unresolved past and grievances that, as one aid worker put it, “are being transmitted from generation to generation”.

Why it matters in 2020

With the Ebola epidemic showing signs of slowing, now is the time to put the spotlight back on all the other crises Congo is facing – particularly Ituri. Though the leader of the Lendu armed group known as CODECO has expressed interest in demobilisation, attacks have continued – including on IDP camps – and many residents remain too afraid to return home.

Representation in crises

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Photo of Romida Begum sitting inside with her hand covering her smiling mouth
Verena Hölzl/TNH

For Rohingya women, refugee elections bring new opportunities – and new problems

In 2019, thousands of refugees in Bangladesh’s crowded Rohingya camps did something they were barred from doing back home in Myanmar: they voted in an election. Aid groups asked people in parts of the camps to choose their representatives. The goal was to give refugees – especially women in a conservative society – a stronger voice. But not everyone was ready for change, as reporter Verena Hölzl discovered when she met one newly elected leader. Romida Begum worked closely with aid groups and her community, but she also faced resistance and threats from men reluctant to answer to a woman leader. Over the course of a difficult year in office, Romida grew frustrated trying to balance her new (unpaid) responsibilities with the realities of being a refugee. “I am not sure if my voice really matters,” she said, after spending months as a camp leader.

Why it matters in 2020

Accountability” is one of the aid sector’s many buzzwords, but the roughly 900,000 Rohingya living in Bangladesh’s city-sized camps rarely have a say in the issues that affect them – from repatriation to Myanmar, to schooling, or even how they receive aid. As the current refugee crisis hurtles toward a third full year, there’s even more pressure on the Rohingya but fewer aid dollars to go around. Will they – and other communities caught in crises – be able to determine their own future?

A struggle to build trust after conflict

The young Ethiopians working for peace

Close to three million Ethiopians were driven from their homes when ethnic and land-fuelled conflicts exploded across the country following the softening of authoritarian control when reformist Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed came to power in April 2018. Among the worst examples of the unrest was the violence between Oromos and Gedeos that forced one million mostly ethnic Gedeos to flee West Guji in southern Ethiopia. Journalist Tom Gardner had earlier reported on the clashes, but in this article he explores the difficult journey towards reconciliation between the two communities as people return to their homes. It is a story of a determination to rebuild peace and trust – backed by the government and traditional authorities – in which tensions persist. Despite the peace committees that have been formed, and people once more sharing schools and churches, “beneath the surface, the peace here is a fragile one”.

Why it matters in 2020

Ethiopia goes to the polls in 2020 against the backdrop of intensified identity politics in which communities have increasingly been agitating for greater autonomy, and in some cases outright secession. It is a right enshrined in the country’s federal constitution. Abiy has tried to transcend ethnic politics, promoting a more pan-Ethiopian agenda. But the long-suppressed forces of balkanisation, awoken by his reforms, are powerful. The Gedeo/Guji conflict serves as both a warning, and an example of how peace and reconciliation needs to be still worked at in one of Africa’s most populous countries.

BEHIND THE HEADLINES: 10 Crises to Watch in 2020

Save the date: Our Ten humanitarian crises and trends to watch in 2020 list has now been published. Please join us at 3pm CET on January 20 for a special webinar, Behind the Headlines: 10 Crises to Watch. Hear from our specialist editors about the crises and trends we think will shape the agenda in 2020. Get the inside scoop on our most read annual feature. Ample time will be made for Q&A. Register for the webinar now.

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