Our editors’ weekly take on humanitarian news, trends, and developments from around the globe.
On our radar
… to support people in crisis, according to the World Humanitarian Day campaign launched by the UN’s emergency aid coordination body, OCHA. Stressing that affected people are always first to respond when disaster strikes, it goes on to profile many from different walks of life who offer support: from the teacher to the health worker, from the shelter specialist to the data analyst, from the fundraiser to the negotiator. The dangers of this work remain extreme. According to the Aid Worker Security Database compiled by Humanitarian Outcomes, more than 140 aid workers were killed in 2021, the most since 2013. As of 1 August, at least 73 major attacks had been recorded in 2022, with 44 deaths. World Humanitarian Day came about because of the 19 August 2003 suicide truck bomb attack on the Canal Hotel in Baghdad. Ten different nationalities were among the 22 dead that day, including UN special representative Sérgio Vieira de Mello, a Brazilian. But it’s worth noting that over 90 percent of the aid workers killed annually are local staff. To mark the day, we’ve collated eight TNH stories that offer a variety of reflections and perspectives. Have a read and share it around!
First visit for UN’s new Myanmar envoy
The newest UN special envoy for Myanmar, Noeleen Heyzer, travelled to the country for the first time this week, meeting with junta officials days after ousted leader Aung San Suu Kyi was sentenced to an additional six years in prison. Suu Kyi, arrested in February 2021 along with the rest of the civilian government amid a military coup, has already been sentenced to 17 years in prison on a range of charges. While Heyzer has called for the junta to end its indiscriminate violence against civilians, some have warned that her visit could lend credibility to the military leaders. On 18 August, a large village in central Myanmar was reportedly razed by junta forces – sending thousands fleeing. A mid-year update by the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED) noted that armed and unarmed resistance to the coup “shows no sign of stopping”. In a bid for some economic stability amid surging fuel prices, a military spokesman said this week that the junta would begin importing oil and gas from sanctions-plagued Russia. For more on the humanitarian fallout, read our coverage.
No send-off as French troops exit Mali
French troops got a warm welcome when they deployed to Mali in 2013 to battle jihadist groups. But there was no big send-off this week as Paris announced the last of its troops had slunk out the country for neighbouring Niger. The nine-year mission had some early success in clearing jihadists from urban strongholds. But military action skirted over the social and political issues driving jihadist recruitment, and insurgents soon spread across the Sahel region. Tensions between Mali and France deteriorated in mid-2021, when Paris announced plans to reduce its troop numbers. Mali’s ruling junta then brought in the Kremlin-linked Wagner Group. The bad blood intensified this week as Mali accused France of providing weapons to jihadists (without offering evidence). France rejected the accusation and called it insulting to the 59 soldiers it has lost in the country. Missing in the noise was much mention of Mali’s deteriorating conflict and its impact on civilians: According to ACLED, 2022 is on track to be the country’s deadliest year in over a decade. See our recent Mali briefing for more.
Can an East African force stabilise DR Congo?
Sticking to the topic of foreign intervention, Burundian troops have arrived in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, ostensibly as part of a new East African Community force. But details on the deployment are thin and there is plenty of concern among rights groups and civil society. Burundi’s army and youth militia were already conducting clandestine operations in South Kivu province against an anti-Bujumbura rebel group called RED-TABARA. Those operations resulted in numerous violations against Congolese civilians. DRC approved the formation of the EAC force shortly after joining the regional bloc in March. A collaborative intervention is seen as wiser than the individual operations DRC’s neighbours often conduct in the country (a dumping ground for foreign rebel groups). But it's unclear how Burundi’s new venture fits that plan. And there are wider questions about how the EAC force will be financed, and how it will sit alongside the longer-running UN peacekeeping operation (which East African countries already contribute to). Some Congolese feel a new force would repeat the mistakes of the UN mission, and there is wariness of outside intervention given past regional wars and ruinous colonial rule.
Tigray ceasefire wobble
Rebel Tigrayan forces have accused the Ethiopian government of breaking a five-month truce by shelling their positions this week in northwestern Tigray. The Tigray People’s Liberation Front said the government was not “serious about peace” (see press conference), but stopped short of abandoning a ceasefire that has seen both sides inch towards a peace process. The March truce has also eased a de facto government blockade of Tigray. The flow of aid to the roughly five million people – almost the entire population – going hungry has increased. But fuel stocks remain low, and a key rebel demand for the resumption of essential services – including electricity, telecommunications, and banking – has not been met. A government spokesperson said this week that safety guarantees for workers would be needed before services could be restored. Meanwhile, the government has slammed the head of the World Health Organization, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, who accused the international community of ignoring the “disaster” in Tigray – suggesting racism may be at the root of the silence. The spokesperson described the comments by Tedros, who is Tigrayan, as “unethical”.
Latin America’s growing gang problem
Emboldened by voids in state authority and their ability to adapt well to adverse business conditions following the pandemic, Latin American drug gangs are notching up new levels of violence. In Ecuador – a key cocaine smuggling route between Peru and Colombia – a deadly bomb blast in the port of Guayaquil on 14 August was blamed on a gang turf war. A state of emergency has been declared in three coastal areas due to the spate in gang violence. In northern Mexico, drug cartels unleashed a wave of violence by setting cars ablaze, attacking shops, and terrorising civilians. Further south, the government’s mass arrest of 167 members of a “self-defence” group with ties to the cartels backfired when the group kidnapped 25 members of the National Guard. President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, who has encouraged a policy of “hugs not bullets” towards the gangs, sent “big hugs” to the mayor of Celaya after his son was assassinated. He also accused journalists covering the violence of sensationalising the attacks. Meanwhile, in the Caribbean, US authorities reported a spike in weapons smuggling to Haiti, where an escalation in gang violence has left hundreds dead. The UN estimates that up to 1.5 million people – more than 10 percent of the population – are trapped by gang violence in the capital, Port-au-Prince, with limited access to basic services.
In case you missed it
AFGHANISTAN: At least 21 people were killed and 33 wounded in a bombing at a Kabul mosque during evening prayers on 17 August. An influential cleric was killed in the attack. Though no one has yet taken responsibility, it comes a week after Islamic State claimed the assassination of Sheikh Rahimullah Haqqani, a prominent Taliban cleric who had supported women’s education.
ISRAEL/PALESTINE: The Israeli military raided the offices of seven Palestinian NGOs in the occupied West Bank on 18 August, shutting them down. The Israeli government declared six of the groups as “terrorist” organisations in October 2021, a designation countered by the EU and rights groups.
KENYA: President-elect William Ruto vowed to forge ahead with building an administration that could tackle Kenya’s deep economic crisis as his defeated election rival, Raila Odinga, prepared a legal challenge to overturn his wafer-thin poll loss. Odinga has until 22 August to appeal. Meanwhile, the type of administration Ruto, a self-styled “hustler”, may run has generated both hope and despair.
MARSHALL ISLANDS: After staying almost entirely COVID-free for the duration of the pandemic, the Marshall Islands is now grappling with a rapidly spreading outbreak, with cases tripling in barely a week. Some 3,000 people out of a population of 42,000 have tested positive for COVID as the Omicron variant rips across the atoll nation. At least three people have died.
SYRIA: A rocket attack hit the northern town of al-Bab on 19 August, reportedly killing at least 14 civilians and wounding dozens more. Opposition monitors said the hit on the town, held by Türkiye-backed opposition fighters, was retaliation by Syrian government forces for a Turkish air raid on Syrian military posts. Meanwhile, at least one civilian was reportedly killed in an exchange of artillery fire between Turkish troops and Kurdish groups in the northern Syrian town of Kobane. Tensions are heightened as Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan has been threatening a new incursion to push Syrian Kurdish fighters out of the area and create a “buffer zone” near the border.
SYRIAN REFUGEES: A group of nearly 40 Syrian refugees who were stranded for a month on a spit of land in the Evros River between Greece and Türkiye has been taken to temporary accommodation by Greek authorities. One 5-year-old child in the group reportedly died of a scorpion sting, while her 9-year-old sister is seriously ill. The area has been the site of frequent pushbacks between Greece and Türkiye, both of which have been accused of shirking their obligations under international law.
THAILAND: Insurgents in Thailand’s Deep South carried out 17 attacks in three provinces on the night of 16 August, killing at least one person and injuring at least seven others. The string of bombings and arson attacks at gas stations and convenience stores represented the biggest wave of violence in the region in four years, according to Benar News.
UKRAINE: Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky met with UN Secretary-General António Guterres and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan this week in the western Ukrainian city of Lviv. Erdoğan, who still has the ear of Russian President Vladimir Putin, said the leaders discussed the Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant standoff, a possible prisoner swap, and ways to end the war. The meeting comes after an important humanitarian deal was brokered, allowing Ukraine to export some grain and other agricultural produce via the Black Sea.
YEMEN: More than 35,000 households across Yemen have been hit by heavy rains and floods that are expected to continue through next week. At least 91 people have been reported killed, and homes, tents, and other infrastructure have been washed away.
ZIMBABWE: A measles outbreak has killed 157 children, most of them unvaccinated due to their family’s religious beliefs, a government official said on 16 August. At least 2,000 cases have been reported this month – with reported deaths almost doubling in less than a week. The government has begun a mass vaccination programme.
The year the Taliban returned
The massive explosion that ripped through a Kabul mosque on 17 August (see above) was a reminder that Afghanistan is still far from being a country at peace. Small rebellions continue to fester and the threat from so-called Islamic State persists. That said, much has changed since the Taliban swept through a succession of cities in August 2021, culminating in the surrender of Kabul and the rapid departure of president Ashraf Ghani and his Western-backed government. Kabul-born journalist Ali Latifi was forced to leave in mid-September, but he returned this May to continue chronicling the turbulent events in his homeland. Yes, he found many people despairing – not only at rights abuses, retaliatory killings, and curbs on freedom of expression, but also at the growing humanitarian crisis amid a Western aid freeze. However, Latifi’s overriding impression is of a determination to carry on regardless: a quiet defiance. Look out for more soon, on the pro-Taliban youth who told Latifi they’re delighted to see the back of Ghani’s corrupt government and are hopeful of a more peaceful era ahead.
Free tampons… by law
Scotland’s Period Product Act came into force this week, making it the first country in the world to legally enshrine the right to period products. Councils and schools are now required to provide materials like tampons and pads for free to “anyone who needs them”. One study found that one in four women in Scotland had faced period poverty at some point in their lives, and that data was taken before the pandemic and the current spike in prices. The World Bank estimates that 500 million people worldwide lack access to period products and adequate facilities for managing their menstrual hygiene, like clean water or decent toilets. The problem keeps girls out of school, can cause serious health issues, and exacerbates gender inequality and discrimination. Talking about vaginas, blood, clots, tampons, menstrual cups, pads, and the lengths some women and girls are forced to go to if they don’t have proper period products makes many people (likely even some Cheat Sheet readers) uncomfortable, but stigma – and the lack of information and knowledge that goes with it – can be truly dangerous. Luckily, from Mississippi to Mumbai, there are plenty of brave people fighting the stigma, despite massive obstacles. For more, check out these recent articles from Lebanon and Syria about period poverty and some locally led solutions.