Hungry Zimbabweans, deadly demos, and a growing threat in Colombia: The Cheat Sheet

The new Zimbabwean dollar, pictured here in Harare on 12 November, may help alleviate cash flow problems but won't tackle the roots of the country's economic crisis.
The new Zimbabwean dollar, pictured here in Harare on 12 November, may help alleviate cash flow problems but won't tackle the roots of the country's economic crisis. (Jekesai Njikizana/AFP)

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

On our radar

Zimbabwe’s unrelenting crisis

More than 11 million people are struggling with food shortages in nine Southern African countries due to drought – and the numbers will rise without urgent humanitarian action in the coming months, aid agencies warned in a “joint call for action” this week. Worst hit is Zimbabwe, where 5.5 million people are facing hunger and one in three people in major cities like Harare are in need of food aid. Local supplies of the staple crop, maize, could run out by January, according to World Vision. Zimbabwe has the second highest inflation rate in the world, after Venezuela, and the cost of basic commodities is soaring while wages remain stagnant. Rising child malnutrition reflects the household impact of the economic crisis. Sick Zimbabweans are now being forced to choose between buying medicine or food. Rising fuel prices and rolling power blackouts add to people’s woes. This week, the government introduced a new local currency to stabilise the economy, but it doesn’t address the underlying financial weakness. Look out for The New Humanitarian’s upcoming series of reports from the ground, exploring both rural and urban needs.

A month of deadly protests

Demonstrators, notably in the Middle East and South America, have taken to the streets in droves this month, despite a severe – and sometimes deadly – response from the governments they are challenging. In Iraq, more than 319 people have reportedly been killed and 15,000 injured in demonstrations that began late last month with complaints about poor service provision and corruption. Iraq’s security forces have fired at protesters, and on Thursday Human Rights Watch said they were attacking medics – an allegation TNH has also reported. Lebanon saw the first death in its own month-long protest movement on Tuesday, when a local party official was shot dead by a soldier after people poured outside in reaction to a controversial speech by the country’s president. In Chile, demonstrations began four weeks ago over a hike in metro fares. Now, the country has seen nationwide strikes, mass unrest, and riots, and 24 deaths. Last but not least, longtime Bolivian leader Evo Morales resigned on Sunday after weeks of outcry over alleged election fraud. A self-declared interim president is in place, but Morales’ supporters are not having it: that's right, they’re now demonstrating too.

The growth of the ‘ex-FARC mafia’

In recent months, The New Humanitarian has stepped up its reporting on Colombia’s fragile peace. Armed groups have proliferated since the 2016 peace accords, causing renewed conflict and soaring displacement as they fill the void left by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). But are the FARC themselves becoming a major problem once again? This week, InSight Crime – an investigative nonprofit focused on organised crime in the Americas – published an in-depth assessment of the threat posed by what it calls the “ex-Farc mafia” in the wake of an August “tipping point” – when Iván Márquez and several other former FARC commanders announced a return to the armed struggle. This exhaustive package of reports looks at everything from the criminal portfolio of the dissident groups to the growing importance of Venezuela as both a sanctuary and a theatre of operations. It concludes by considering various scenarios that could play out and what the future might hold for Colombia, and it doesn’t make for easy reading. As one official source is quoted as saying in the scene-setter: “Do not be deceived. The dissidents here are a sleeping lion.”

We’ll soon need a map to track Rohingya war crimes cases

After two years of inaction, a flurry of legal moves in courts across the globe this week accelerated accountability efforts for violence against Myanmar’s Rohingya minority. Judges at the International Criminal Court green-lit an investigation into cross-border abuses in Bangladesh, paving the way for war crimes prosecutor Fatou Bensouda to examine the alleged deportation of Rohingya refugees (Why deportation? Read our explainer here). Separately, The Gambia filed a lawsuit at the International Court of Justice asking the UN’s highest court to prosecute Myanmar for genocide. The ICJ is normally used to settle disputes between nations, while the ICC examines atrocity crimes and individual suspects. In another legal challenge, a Rohingya rights group launched a case calling on courts in Argentina to prosecute military and civilian officials in Myanmar – including de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi. The case hinges on the controversial legal concept of universal jurisdiction, where domestic courts are used to investigate international crimes. Keep up with our ongoing coverage of the Rohingya refugee crisis here.

Gaza flare-up leaves 34 Palestinians dead

This week’s spike in violence in Gaza and Israel appears to have calmed, with a fragile truce holding on Friday evening, but not before 34 Palestinians, including one family of eight, were killed. Early on Tuesday morning, Israel assassinated Baha Abu al-Ata, senior commander of Palestinian Islamic Jihad, in a missile strike that also killed his wife. Militants in Gaza – home to approximately 1.9 million people, including 1.4 million registered Palestine refugees – responded by sending hundreds of rockets at Israel. Dozens of Israelis received medical treatment after the retaliation, but no deaths or critical injuries were reported. Israel continued to strike Gaza, and has now reportedly admitted it erred in hitting a building where eight members of the Abu Malhous family, including five children, were killed. A UN- and Egypt-brokered ceasefire came into effect on Thursday morning, but rockets and airstrikes continued into early Friday, raising questions about how long the calm will last.

In case you missed it

THE DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF CONGO: A new Ebola vaccine, produced by Johnson & Johnson, was rolled out this week in the DRC. It will be administered to 50,000 people in the city of Goma, which is not regarded as a high-risk area. The new vaccine has never been tested in an outbreak setting. It will compliment an existing drug by Merck that has proven effective.

GREECE/ITALY: EU auditors flagged that only around one in five of 160,000 migrants targeted for relocation from Italy and Greece to other EU countries have been transferred. A damning report called for: accommodation to be improved on the Greek islands; the claims process to be speeded up; and a strengthening of return procedures.

HAITI: At least one in three Haitians is facing severe food insecurity due to recent unrest, price hikes, and poor agricultural production, according to the World Food Programme. More than one million (out of a population of 11 million) are in a food “emergency” – one step away from “famine” –H while more than four million people are expected to need food aid next year.

SOUTHEAST ASIA: Historically low levels on the Mekong River could spell dry-season water shortages in the coming months in Southeast Asian countries like Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, and Laos, the Mekong River Commission warned. The regional body says both climate change and upstream hydropower dams in China are likely responsible.

TURKEY/SYRIA: James Le Mesurier, the former British army officer who helped found and train the Syrian civil defence group known as the White Helmets, was found dead outside his Istanbul apartment on Monday. The Turkish police have said they found no evidence of foul play and are reportedly treating his death as a suicide.

Weekend read

A scramble for safety in flooded South Sudan town

This was supposed to be the week South Sudan’s political rivals, President Salva Kiir and opposition leader Riek Machar, turned the page on a civil war that began six years ago and has since claimed, by some estimates, almost 400,000 lives. Instead, the peace deal signed in September 2018 in Addis Ababa is again on the rocks, with key issues unresolved and a 100-day delay to the formation of a transitional unity government. Fair to say, what the country didn’t need right now was a flood disaster. However, aid groups are rushing assistance to almost one million South Sudanese affected by the region’s worst flooding in recent history – a disaster that, as we explained last week, threatens to reverse some of the humanitarian gains made during South Sudan’s year-long ceasefire. Our weekend read invites you to see for yourself the extent of the damage in the eastern town of Pibor, where photojournalist Alex McBride found thousands of displaced people crammed onto muddy high ground with no healthcare and only a few canoes to get about.

And finally…

‘Freedom’ at last for Manus refugee activist

Refugee, activist, and award-winning author Behrouz Boochani is now in New Zealand after spending more than six years in Papua New Guinea as part of Australia’s controversial offshore asylum seeker detention policies. Boochani, a Kurdish-Iranian journalist, plans to attend a literary festival after rights group Amnesty International sponsored his visa. Boochani and others have used social media to document their detention on PNG’s Manus Island. The UN, Médecins Sans Frontières, and others have found high rates of attempted suicide and mental health problems among detainees on Manus and Nauru. The Manus detention centre where Boochani was held was officially shut in 2017, but at least 562 people are still in limbo in either Papua New Guinea or Nauru. In February, Boochani was awarded an Australian literary prize for his book, “No Friend But the Mountains”, which was written and translated over WhatsApp messages. It’s unclear whether Boochani will return to Papua New Guinea: he told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation he’s considering applying for asylum in New Zealand.

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