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Syrian abuses, locust swarms, and millennial musings: The Cheat Sheet

A weekly read to keep you in the loop on humanitarian issues.

A Syrian child who fled violence with her family after the recent Turkish offensive is taken by bus to a displacement camp near Dohuk in northern Iraq.
A Syrian child who fled violence with her family after the recent Turkish offensive is taken by bus to a displacement camp near Dohuk in northern Iraq. (ARI JALAL/REUTERS)

Our editors’ weekly take on humanitarian news, trends, and developments from around the globe.

On our radar

Syria’s children

A new report from the UN’s Commission of Inquiry on Syria focuses on abuses against children during the country’s nearly nine years of war. Unsurprisingly, it makes for extremely grim reading, cataloguing a litany abuses by all sides that have “left an enormous trauma on the physical and mental well-being of an entire generation of Syrian girls and boys”. Children have been killed by cluster munitions, bombs, and chemical weapons. Rape and sexual violence are widespread, particularly against girls, but boys have been assualted too. Minors have been detained and tortured, recruited into armed groups, and kept out of formal learning thanks to repeated attacks on schools and the “complete breakdown of the education system”. In some parts of Syria, it’s getting worse for kids, not better. Take Idlib, where, despite a recent ceasefire, at least 21 civilians, including children, were reportedly killed in bombings on Wednesday. The UN now estimates that nearly 350,000 people – 80 percent of them women and children – have been forced to flee the escalating violence in the rebel-held northwest since December.

Locust invasion

Locust swarms sweeping through the Horn of Africa “pose an unprecedented threat to food security”, the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation has warned, describing it as the “worst situation in 25 years”. The desert locust outbreak is destroying crops and pasture across eastern Ethiopia and neighbouring areas of Somalia, parts of Sudan, Eritrea, and Kenya, with a high risk of a further spread into Uganda and South Sudan. Some swarms have started to mature, which means egg-laying could be imminent, leading to hopper bands in February – and a further increase in swarms continuing into June. A typical swarm can munch through the same amount of crops in a day as 2,500 people – posing real risks for already food insecure regions. Aerial control efforts need to be “urgently and very quickly upscaled in all countries”, the FAO has said. But that is not possible everywhere, for example in central and southern Somalia due to insecurity. One local governor in Kenya noted that “counties are ill prepared technically, financially, and we lack the capacity and expertise” to handle the crisis.

Millennial war musings

Nearly half of millennials think a third world war is likely in their lifetimes, 37 percent say torturing enemy prisoners is sometimes OK, and a third believe captured soldiers shouldn't be allowed to contact their relatives. The survey of 16,000 millennials (under-40s) on behalf of the International Committee of the Red Cross points to "a lack of respect for the basic human values enshrined in international law", ICRC President Peter Maurer said – many respondents had never heard of the Geneva Conventions. The differences between the 16 countries surveyed often align with those who have only known peace and the rest: "Millennials in Syria, Ukraine, and Afghanistan confirm for us an obvious fact: the experience of war makes you hate war,” according to Maurer (read our recent interview here). Given a choice of 12 issues to worry about, corruption and unemployment came top. Climate change was eighth.



Soldiers in the Sahel

At a meeting with the leaders of five West African nations on Monday, French President Emmanuel Macron pledged to send 220 extra troops to fight growing militancy in the Sahel. The small increase is unlikely to be welcomed by aid groups, which have called for civilians to be the priority in the discussions and have criticised the region’s growing militarisation. Sahel analysts also questioned the lack of engagement with non-military solutions and the political conflicts behind the violence. Meeting in France’s southern city of Pau, the leaders of Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania, and Niger agreed to step up military cooperation by combining their respective forces under a single command structure, which will be called the Coalition for the Sahel. Macron called the summit amid a rise of anti-French sentiment in the Sahel. Anger against the former colonial power has been building in recent months as France’s 4,500-strong counter-terrorism operation struggles to contain the rapid expansion of al-Qaeda and so-called Islamic State-linked militant groups. French flags have been burnt in protests and wild rumours of its troops delivering motorbikes to terrorists have spread on social media. Going into the summit Macron had threatened to withdraw French military support to the region, but all seemed forgiven on Monday as the five leaders issued a joint statement backing France’s continued military engagement, even urging a greater “international presence” in the region.

Dengue warnings in Yemen

In the past few weeks, aid agencies have been raising the alarm about a spike in dengue fever cases in Yemen. On Tuesday, Save the Children said that 78 children under 16 had died from the viral illness by the end of 2019. Their statistics – and those used by many other aid organisations – are provided by local authorities, so it’s hard to say if they are 100 percent accurate, but Save said many of its own staff had contracted dengue. The disease is spread by mosquitoes, and most cases have been reported in urban areas, where rubbish often goes uncollected, sanitation facilities are poor, and health centres are already in a bad state due to the ongoing conflict. Dengue is endemic in Yemen; so is cholera, which spread through the country at pace starting in 2017 in an outbreak that has abated but could still flare up again. It’s not yet clear if dengue will take hold with the same fury as cholera did, but recent heavy rains and floods are unlikely to make things better. Yemen’s humanitarian crisis, meanwhile, isn’t improving either as the country prepares to enter a sixth year of war in March.

CAR returns

Former Central African Republic rebel leader and ex-president Michel Djotodia returned to the capital, Bangui, after years in exile last Friday – just a month after the man he overthrew, Francois Bozizé, did the same. The return of the two past presidents is likely to raise tensions ahead of presidential and legislative elections – which both may try to run in – slated for December. Djotodia was the leader of the mainly Muslim rebel alliance known as the Séléka which ousted Bozizé in 2013 after killing and pillaging its way through the country. He resigned as head of state after 10 months in power as CAR slipped into chaos; the abuses of the Séléka having prompted the creation of a Christian self-defence militia known as the anti-balaka, which Bozizé remains under UN sanction for supporting. Years of conflict ensued as the Séléka dissolved and different factions began fighting each other. The signing of a peace deal last February helped reduce the violence, but armed groups still control the majority of CAR, and one in four Central Africans remain either internally displaced or living in neighbouring states. Sporadic clashes have continued, with fighting last week in the northern town of Alindao displacing roughly 2,000 people, according to the UN's emergency aid coordination body, OCHA.


In case you missed it

CLIMATE CHANGE: Global temperatures are soaring and climate records continue to fall. Last year was the second warmest since record-keeping began in 1880, according to a new NASA analysis. It also capped the warmest decade on record (though decade purists may wait another 12 months to declare this).

KENYA/SOMALIA: The jihadist group al-Shabab killed three teachers in an attack on a town in eastern Kenya on 13 January, the fifth attack in two weeks. Earlier this month, the Somalia-based insurgents raided a Kenyan military base, killing three Americans and destroying aircraft. Recent gun and bomb attacks in the counties bordering Somalia have killed at least 25 people.

PAKISTAN: Avalanches, landslides, and other severe winter weather incidents have killed more than 100 people in Pakistan, disaster management authorities reported. More than three quarters of the casualties are in Azad Kashmir, the Pakistani side of the disputed Kashmir region.

PALESTINE REFUGEES: Investigations into malpractice at UNRWA are complete, according to the acting head of the UN agency for Palestine refugees. The agency says the probe did find abuse of authority and mismanagement in human resources. We’ve asked for details.

THE PHILIPPINES: Taal Volcano, about 60 kilometres south of Manila, has been erupting for days, putting nearly 500,000 people in limbo. Tens of thousands of people in a 14-kilometre danger zone have been evacuated, but volcanoes are unpredictable and it’s unclear how long the emergency will last.

SUDAN: The head of the transitional ruling council, General Abdel-Fattah Al-Burhan, has called a revolt earlier this week by former intelligence officers a “coup”. The mutiny, involving disbanded members of the General Intelligence Service, a formation loyal to toppled president Omar al-Bashir, was originally described as a dispute over a severance payout.

Weekend read

Hunger in Haiti: Ten years after catastrophe struck, a new crisis looms

It lasted less than 30 seconds, long enough to cause one of the deadliest natural disasters in history. Ten years ago, on 12 January 2010, a 7.0-magnitude earthquake flattened much of the Haitian capital, Port-au-Prince, and nearby towns like Léogâne. The columns of the president’s National Palace collapsed, lowering the unsupported cupola in a seeming symbol of a country bowed by catastrophe. The smell of death hung over the capital as bodies continued to be retrieved from the rubble for weeks – the final toll anywhere between 100,000 and 300,000. No one really knows. Promises to build back better, to sort out political dysfunction, to help millions of poor Haitians already facing hardship before disaster struck have gone unanswered. In our weekend read, journalist Jessica Obert tells of a new disaster, this time largely human-made: swelling slums; an economic crisis; a government under siege from angry street protests; nearly four million people gripped by severe hunger.

And finally…

Charity fundraising flap

The ice bucket challenge was a viral charity fundraising success – and doing something odd, or extreme, to raise money for a good cause is nothing new. But what if these exertions go wrong? Some do marathons. Others jump out of planes. Somehow a 1999 academic paper(*) has gone a bit viral on social media. It's old but we thought it's too good to miss. Academics looked at five years of flying fundraisers and published their findings in – wait for it – the journal “Injury”. The winner is… gravity. So many charity parachutists ended up in hospital in the UK study area that they cost the National Health Service 13.75 times what was raised for charity.

(*An earlier version of the Cheat Sheet incorrectly suggested this was a recent study.)


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