The New Humanitarian Annual Report 2021

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Two massacres, continents apart: The Cheat Sheet

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

(Louise O'Brien/TNH)

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

On our radar

Outcry over Bucha

The massacre of what authorities say is at least 320 civilians in Bucha, a small city northwest of Kyiv, has captured global attention. Between 150 and 300 bodies were buried in a mass grave in the city while others were left scattered along a street for weeks. Hundreds were also killed in other towns outside of Kyiv, such as Borodianka and Hostomel, while an alleged Russian missile strike on a railway station in the southeastern city of Kramatorsk on 8 April killed at least 50 civilians, including several children. Across the country, Ukrainian prosecutors are investigating 5,000 potential war crimes. But it was images of the bodies in Bucha – revealed after Russian troops withdrew from areas outside the Ukrainian capital last weekend – that spurred the international community to action: The US has imposed a fresh round of sanctions, with the UK and EU following suit; and the UN General Assembly took the rare step of voting to suspend Russia from the organisation’s leading human rights body. As justified as they are, the outrage and calls for accountability – which may ultimately be difficult to enforce – stand in stark contrast to the lack of attention or effort to prevent atrocities and hold perpetrators accountable elsewhere in the world, be it in Mali (see below), Yemen, Syria, Myanmar, or a host of other countries.

Silence over Moura

As the Bucha killings triggered global outcry, an atrocity involving Russian forces in the central Malian town of Moura garnered far less attention. Mercenaries from the Kremlin-linked Wagner Group are accused of executing between 300-500 people while conducting an anti-jihadist offensive alongside the Malian army. Rights groups say the massacre – which started on 27 March – is the worst single atrocity reported in a decade-long armed conflict. Mali’s ruling junta has opened a military tribunal to probe the incident but is preventing the UN from visiting Moura to conduct an independent investigation. The Malian army claims 203 “terrorists” were killed during the operation, but reports suggest the majority of the casualties were civilians from the pastoralist Fulani group – long stigmatised after its members joined local jihadists in large numbers. Wagner Group fighters arrived in Mali late last year, prompting France and allied European countries to withdraw their anti-jihadist forces. Rights abuses have soared ever since. Read our recent briefing on the situation for more.

A tentative ceasefire holds (for now) in Yemen

Yemen is one week into a nationwide ceasefire that is supposed to last (an extendable) two months. While both sides accused the other of violations almost right from the jump, the UN-negotiated deal does appear to be holding for now. The UN is hoping that the truce, which coincided with the start of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, will be an opening for talks and the eventual end of a seven-year war that has brought on death, economic collapse, and widespread hunger – a crisis that may soon become an even bigger problem as bread prices rise thanks to the war in Ukraine. The ceasefire is also supposed to allow fuel ships into the northern port of Hodeidah, which could provide some relief to civilians dealing with increasing food and transport costs caused by shortages. The deal also says some civilian flights will be let in and out of the Sana’a airport for the first time in years, and negotiations will begin about opening roads into the long besieged city of Taiz. Various agreements have come and gone over the course of the conflict: Could this be the one that sticks? 

Alarm bells for the dammed Mekong

Climate disasters and “unsustainable development” are threatening food security for tens of millions who depend on the Mekong River, the head of the intergovernmental Mekong River Commission warns. “Given the state of the Mekong today, we just cannot relax. Our feet should be on fire, and we need to act to survive,” Anoulak Kittikhoun said in a speech on 5 April. It’s a relatively blunt message from a usually taciturn organisation set up to promote cooperation along the Mekong system, which winds through parts of China, Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam. The Mekong powers agriculture and fisheries across the region, but it’s struggling. Wet-season water flows have halved, and the monsoon-driven season itself has even shrunk by a month. Wetlands are disappearing, there’s less sediment to supercharge floodplain agriculture, and rising salinity is damaging rice crops. Climate change is a factor, but human-caused development – like an extensive system of hydropower dams, particularly in Laos and China – has a “profound” impact on wet-season droughts, a March report from the US-based Stimson Center think tank found. While scenarios for the Mekong are alarming, there’s also a degree of measured hope in uncertainty: It’s too soon to say if low water levels are a new normal, researchers said. Regardless, better cooperation on managing upstream flows will lessen downstream suffering.

Colonial conservation in DR Congo

Foreign-funded guards and soldiers protecting the Democratic Republic of Congo’s Kahuzi-Biega National Park are accused of violently expelling Indigenous Batwa communities in a new report from the London-based Minority Rights Group (MRG). Batwa were expelled from their ancestral homelands in the 1970s when the park was created but rebuilt their villages in late 2018 after promises of resettlement and reparations were broken. Park guards and Congolese troops then conducted a three-year expulsion campaign that allegedly saw villages burnt, women gang-raped, and at least 20 people killed. The park’s international partners – which include the German and US governments – were informed about the rights violations but continued their funding, according to MRG. The report describes the expulsions as emblematic of a colonial conservation model that views parks as “unpeopled” spaces to be enjoyed by foreign tourists and conservationists, at the expense of Indigenous inhabitants.

Ukraine, the climate crisis, and fuel taxes in Peru

Deadly protests against soaring fuel, food, and fertiliser prices in Peru, which prompted the government to introduce a curfew before rescinding it a day later, are an extreme example of the challenges many countries face as commitments to tackle the climate crisis collide with inflationary realities spurred by the war in Ukraine. While President Pedro Castillo’s embattled government announced the suspension of fuel taxes in an attempt to reduce the unrest, authors of a new report published in Geneva warned it was “now or never” to make deep and immediate emissions cuts to avoid a global climate emergency. The 2,900-page report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is the final instalment in the current cycle of scientific research by the UN body. In an interview republished this week by The New Humanitarian, a lead author of the food section of one of the recent IPCC reports urged more inclusive adaptation strategies to confront the global food crisis, including through the use of Indigenous knowledge. For a related solutions lens, check out Anthony Wallace’s in-depth report this week exploring how farmers in the Navajo Nation are embracing sustainable agriculture to overcome health disparities and racial neglect.

In case you missed it

BURKINA FASO: Former president Blaise Compaoré has been sentenced in absentia to life in prison for his involvement in the murder of revolutionary leader Thomas Sankara, who was gunned down in a coup in 1987. Two other key suspects were given life sentences in a six-month trial that was suspended on several occasions. Experts say the role foreign powers – including France and Libya – may have played in Sankara’s death remains unknown.

EL SALVADOR: Nearly 6,000 people were arrested after police and military were deployed to gang-controlled areas following the declaration of a state of emergency. The UN expressed concern over the detentions, while a leading independent news publication muted itself in reaction to a reform in the penal code making anyone who “reproduces and disseminates” messages from gangs liable to long prison terms. A spate of indiscriminate killings preceding the measures appeared to be a warning from the MS-13 gang to President Nayib Bukele to renew covert negotiations.

ETHIOPIA: Amhara officials and security forces engaged in a campaign of ethnic cleansing in western Tigray, according to a report from Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. Hundreds of thousands of Tigrayans were expelled from their homes amid killings, sexual violence, and mass arbitrary detention. Western Tigray was occupied by Amhara at the outset of the civil war, which began in November 2020. Both regions claim rights to the land.

LEBANON: Lebanon has reached a preliminary deal with the International Monetary Fund for $3 billion in loans over four years. The country’s economy has been collapsing since late 2019, and the deal – subject to approval by the IMF’s board – would see it make various reforms. 

MEDITERRANEAN SEA: Over 100 people died while attempting to cross the central Mediterranean Sea from North Africa to Europe in the course of one week, including 90 who perished in a single shipwreck. The boat had drifted for at least four days, according to four survivors who were rescued. The NGO MSF condemned Italy and Malta for neglecting to assist boats in distress. For more on why these deaths are not a tragic anomaly, read our interactive guide: The European approach to stopping Libya migration.

NIGERIA: A week after the shock ambush of a commuter train by “bandits” that killed eight people in northern Nigeria, more than 160 passengers remain unaccounted for (although given the widespread corruption in ticketing, the real figure is likely higher). A video has emerged of armed men suggesting a political reason for the 28 March attack and abduction of passengers – aside from just ransoms. Its precision points to a long-feared link between jihadist insurgents and criminal gangs operating in the northwest, who have made swathes of the region ungovernable.

PALESTINE/ISRAEL: Nearly one year after tensions over planned expulsions of Palestinians in Jerusalem turned into all-out war, a deadly 7 April shooting at a Tel Aviv bar has deepened concerns of a new surge in violence. The killing follows several deadly attacks on Israeli civilians, killings of Palestinians in raids by the Israeli army in the West Bank, the settler occupation of a hotel in Jerusalem’s Old City, and an Israeli police crackdown on protesters during Ramadan. 

SOMALIA: The African Union’s representative, Francisco Madeira, has been expelled from Somalia for engaging in acts “incompatible with his status”. The expulsion order on 6 April by Prime Minister Mohamed Roble followed the leak of a tape that appeared to demonstrate Madeira’s backing for President Mohamed Abdullahi “Farmaajo” in his feud with Roble and the opposition. His removal is seen as an important step in trying to secure better public support for the AU’s peace enforcement mission, now known as ATMIS. Its predecessor, AMISOM, was often derided as ineffective and corrupt.

SRI LANKA: A “drift towards militarisation” has hurt Sri Lanka’s ability to weather an economic crisis that has pushed protesters to the streets, challenging the rule of the powerful Rajapaksa family, the UN’s rights office warned. Sri Lanka is struggling under massive debt. There are fuel, electricity, and medicine shortages, while inflation is spiralling.

SUDAN: The first trial on atrocities committed in Darfur began this week at the International Criminal Court. Ali Mohammed Ali Abd-Al-Rahman, also known as Ali Kushayb, is accused of commanding Janjaweed forces who carried out killings, rape, torture, and other crimes in West Darfur in 2003 and 2004. The landmark case comes amid a new surge in violence in the western region. See our in-depth reporting for more.

SYRIA: Four children were killed by Syrian government shelling whilst on their way to school in the rebel-held northwest province of Idlib on 4 April. A UNICEF spokesperson said there have been more than 750 attacks on educational facilities and personnel since the start of Syria’s war 11 years ago.

WEST AFRICA: Some 27 million people in West Africa are going hungry – a number that could rise to 38 million by June. The unprecedented level of need – an increase of more than a third over last year – is driven by “drought, floods, conflict, and the economic impacts of COVID-19 [that has] forced millions of people off their land, pushing them to the brink," Oxfam said in a press statement. Food prices have increased by 20-30 percent over the past five years, with the war in Ukraine adding further fuel to inflation. A similar set of circumstances is deepening hunger in the Horn of Africa. If rains fail again this month – the fourth consecutive drought – up to 28 million people will struggle to feed themselves.

Weekend read

A Ukraine diary: When the war came to me

It started with watching explosions and fireballs light up screens showing newsfeeds from Kharkiv and Kyiv. Then, finding keys for doors that never had to be locked before. Just a month later, the neighbour’s house is on fire after taking a direct hit from a Russian bomb. In this day-by-day, first-person diary, a Ukrainian and Middle Eastern civilian living in a village near Kyiv recounts a month and a half of life on the front lines of Russia’s invasion. As reports come in of alleged extrajudicial killings in the vicinity, they describe the physical and psychological impact of war: how to prepare a home for attacks; how to get used to the sounds of the “apocalypse”; what it feels like to wake up to a nightmare that is real each morning; and how to find faith and dare to dream again. “I don’t know if my loved ones and I will make it out of this alive,” they write, “but an onslaught so unfair and unjust cannot ever prevail.”

And finally…

A Poem for Refugees

 By Raj Tawney, a multiracial American poet and journalist.

Home sweet

lost, gone

Not yours or mine

Theirs

Your land, taken and tarnished

No questions asked

Your sacred space is now a danger zone

Ran from, for your life

From whom or what? To where?

Any. Where. Seek safety.

Lately, no ground is bound for saving

Start over, rebuild, return within your heart

Yesterday and tomorrow are two worlds apart

Citizen of self, no flag hangs high

No mast at half staff

No mourning of the past

Today may be your freedom at last

Welcome home.

The New Humanitarian is always open to diverse pitches, or ideas that go beyond the standard journalistic fare. We published our first piece of fiction last year. 

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