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IRIN's Top Picks: Protecting civilians, rebuilding Gaza, and a vanishing island

Air raids on a residential neighborhood in Gaza by the Israeli air force. July 2014
(Wikimedia Commons)

Welcome to IRIN's reading list. Every week our global network of specialist correspondents share their top picks of recent must-read research, podcasts, reports, blogs and in-depth articles to help you keep on top of global crises. We also highlight key upcoming conferences, book releases and policy debates.

Five to read:

Going to Europe: a Syrian perspective

Many people in Europe and elsewhere struggle to comprehend the risks that refugees are prepared to take in order to reach a continent where they are increasingly unwelcome. The Danish Refugee Council interviewed Syrian refugees living in Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey in an effort to better understand the decision to head for Europe. Many mentioned the lack of access to work, education and healthcare, and depleting finances as major factors pushing them to consider moving on to Europe. Most relied heavily on the experiences of family or friends who had already made the journey. This word-of-mouth information was not always reliable and some had idealised projections of what life would be like in Europe. At the same time, not everyone was willing or able to travel to Europe. Some lacked the means, while others were reluctant to move further away from Syria to a place with an unfamiliar culture and religion.

Washed away by climate change

For this photo essay in Foreign Policy, photographer Jordi Pizarro travelled to a small island in the Bay of Bengal to put a human face on climate change. The people of Ghoramara, 145 kilometres south of the Indian city of Kolkata, are losing their livelihoods and their homes to erosion, which is amplified by rising sea levels and increasingly intense storms that batter the coast. The stark black-and-white images show the last vestiges of a population trying to live on a fast-shrinking island, which is now a landmass of only 7.8 square kilometres. In one sequence, a family builds a dyke to prevent their rice paddy from flooding, but the mud wall breaks and the sea surges in, leaving them to try and make up for their lost food source by catching fish trapped in the floodwaters. It’s only a question of time before residents of Ghoramara will be forced to abandon their homes to the encroaching ocean.

Civilians under fire

In the wake of recent attacks on hospitals in Afghanistan and Yemen and the repeated killing – and even targeting – of civilians in Syria, finding ways to reduce violations of international humanitarian law is ever more urgent. But it won’t be easy. States recently failed to adopt a proposal by the Swiss government and the International Committee of the Red Cross to increase respect for the laws of war through a new compliance mechanism. This policy brief by American NGO consortium InterAction calls on the United States to show leadership and prevent what the group’s director of protection Jenny McAvoy calls a “race to the bottom” in protecting civilians in war. “Much of harm inflicted on civilians is foreseeable, preventable, and cannot be dismissed as an inevitable consequence of conflict,” the group says. Among other things, the brief calls on the US to adopt a standing operational policy that would set a baseline trigger for investigations into civilian casualties of US military operations; and to condition US support for foreign forces on their compliance with IHL.

How an Israeli list is preventing the rebuilding of Gaza

Gaza has not been rebuilt, in case anyone is still paying attention. Why? One reason proposed in this helpful briefing by Gisha, an Israeli NGO that advocates for Palestinian freedom of movement, is the list of “dual-use” items that require special permission to enter the exclave. The growing register is supposed to include items that could be used for military purposes, but it boasts entries like castor oil and x-ray machines. A new rule has said that wood planks must be less than 1 cm thick and 5 cm wide, a problem for UNRWA, which is trying to reconstruct and refurnish Gaza’s schools. The restrictions, and this one in particular, have dealt the already flagging Gaza economy – where carpentry is an important industry – an unneeded blow. Nearly everything that enters Gaza must pass Israeli checkpoint and muster. The exception to this rule used to be goods smuggled from Egypt in underground tunnels, but the last Gaza war’s bombs and Egypt’s recent flooding of new burrows have all but cut that option off. This briefing handily unpacks the complex mechanism that controls imports to Gaza. Take a closer look. This is bureaucracy that matters.

Join us or die: the birth of Boko Haram

There is not enough good writing on Boko Haram: the Islamist militant group that is single-handedly behind the worst conflict-related death count in Africa and whose violence is spilling out across the region. So this excellent long read on the roots of the movement is long overdue. Boko Haram didn’t come from nowhere. “Among its ranks were people from all levels of society, from street kids and traders, to disaffected students and wealthy businessmen,” writes Andrew Walker. “They formed a ‘counter elite’, united by resentment of years of secular rule in Nigeria. These men dreamed of a sharia wonderland, and believed it would come to Nigeria through unremitting bloodshed.”

One from IRIN:

Turkey’s hidden humanitarian crisis

Kurdish human rights organisations say fighting across southeastern Turkey has displaced 200,000 people in the last two months alone. Turkish authorities put the number at 93,000. Either way, it’s a mass displacement. There are no camps, little aid, and almost no international awareness of what’s actually going on. IRIN contributor Jodi Hilton goes behind the scenes of the hidden conflict between Turkish government forces and separatist PKK rebels. In the frontline city of Diyarbakir, she finds a man displaced twice by the curfews that help the military root out rebels holed up in the old city of Sur. Neaz Tanlikulu, 75, has a radiator, a mattress, a few possessions and his six-year-old granddaughter, Elif, sitting beside him. “We are all desperate,” he says. “We don’t know where we can go.”

For more on how the PKK conflict overlaps with the Turkish government’s war against self-proclaimed Islamic State in Syria, this fascinating analysis by Aaron Stein in the American Interest is also worth a read.

Two to listen to:

How worried should we be about Zika?

Who better to give their verdict on Zika than Peter Piot, the Belgian microbiologist who helped discover the Ebola virus in 1976 and led efforts to contain the first ever outbreak. For Piot, there are two imperatives: confirm the link with birth deformities and devise a good test so that women, in particular, can find out quickly if they’re infected. “Because of the potential impact on babies and pregnant women, I think we really need to mobilise all resources, also to develop diagnostic tests, to develop the vaccines and better ways of controlling mosquito populations,” he tells the BBC World Service. Yes, there is some risk for the Rio Olympics in August, but Piot is far more concerned about Carnival season, happening right now. It is the height of summer in the Southern Hemisphere and mosquito breeding and Zika virus transmissions are at their peak. His advice for women who are pregnant or might become pregnant: don’t travel to Zika zones unless you really have to.

Good news from Timbuktu

Stability is slowly returning to parts of northern Mali after the chaos of the 2012 rebellion. Timbuktu, the ancient centre of learning, was captured by jihadists, and many of its priceless manuscripts – a treasure painstakingly restored by South African experts more than a decade ago – destroyed. But now, some rare and welcome good news: its mausoleums have been rebuilt and 14 were “sanctified” this week.

One to watch:

Migration is funny?

Yes it is. Steve Gerben has something to say about increasing immigration to the United States, and it’s smart, witty stand-up.

One to go see:

A fresh look at Africa

If you are in London, please visit ‘West Africa: Word, Symbol, Song’, which traces more than 1,000 years of history and culture through the medium of oral and written literature and song. This blog quotes Marion Wallace, lead curator of African Collections at the British Library as pointing out: “There is this big disjunct between popular views of Africa which are very conditioned by starving babies, child soldiers, Ebola, all which are true from time to time at least, and just simply not knowing about the cultures of Africa, the state building that occurred in Africa, not understanding that people lived in huge empires, controlled their own goldmines, just to name a few.”

People who read IRIN probably know that, but in the stream of constantly bad humanitarian news (of which we are a part) out of West Africa, it’s nice, just occasionally, to remind ourselves.

The exhibition runs until Tuesday, 16 February and under 18s go free.


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