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Cholera surge, climate justice calls, and the return of the Rosetta Stone: The Cheat Sheet

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

On our radar

Violence, poverty, climate change drive global cholera surge

From Haiti to Lebanon to Syria, the World Health Organization has warned of a global spike in cholera cases, with war, violence, poverty, and – in a newer twist – climate change driving the surge. The WHO noted that 27 countries have reported outbreaks since the start of the year. Syria, where concern of spread into the war-battered Idlib region is growing, has reported more than 10,000 cases in the past six weeks. Lebanon, where a downward economic spiral has plunged three quarters of the population into poverty, recorded its first case of cholera since 1993. In Haiti, meanwhile, cholera recently returned after a three-year absence, and the timing couldn’t be worse. Rampant gang violence has led to an increase in cases, and has combined with fuel shortages to heavily restrict hospital services. After the devastating 2010 earthquake, the Caribbean country was hit with a cholera outbreak – traced back to UN peacekeepers – that infected some 820,000 people and killed an estimated 10,000. Cholera spreads through contaminated water or food and can kill within hours if untreated. It can be prevented with vaccines and treated with rehydration methods, but many patients don’t have access to these means. More cholera outbreaks have been reported in Afghanistan, Bangladesh, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Ethiopia, and Nigeria.

Yemen’s imperfect truce expires, bringing new war worries

Yemen’s nationwide truce expired on 2 October, as warring parties failed to agree on the terms of a renewal. With each side blaming the other for the failure and negotiations ongoing to find common ground, there’s concern that heavy fighting will kick off once again on familiar front lines, especially in the central province of Marib and the southwestern city of Taiz. While the gunfire and shelling never completely stopped over the past six months – in some places it got worse – it did offer some real respite for Yemenis who have suffered through seven and a half years of war: The UN says the monthly rate of people who were forced to flee their homes decreased by 76 percent during the truce, and the number of civilians killed or injured in fighting went down by 54 percent. While roads to besieged Taiz didn’t open up, and food prices continued to soar, alongside inflation in the south, there were also some serious diplomatic wins. As Yemeni photojournalist Nabil Alawzari told our readers in August (watch him in conversation with Middle East Editor Annie Slemrod here): “When you ask any Yemeni… ‘What do you think about the war?’ He’ll say ‘It’s enough… We need peace, we need safe roads, we need food… we need schools for our children, we need a salary, jobs… only these things; normal things.’”

African calls for climate finance grow ahead of COP27

A promise by wealthy countries to mobilise $100 billion a year by 2020 to finance climate adaptation and mitigation in Africa is – 13 years on – still to be met. That failure, branded as “shameful” by African ministers meeting this week in Egypt, is likely to dominate next month’s global COP27 climate gathering in the Egyptian Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh. Africa has been granted less than 5.5 percent of global climate financing, yet it suffers disproportionately from a warming world. Adding to the frustration has been Western pressure for Africa’s speedy transition away from revenue-earning fossil fuels – despite its low carbon footprint, and development gap. A climate-smart path to growth, meeting Africa’s development and climate goals, could cost an estimated $400 billion annually by 2030 – quadruple the ducked 2020 financing target. A battle is also looming in Sharm el-Sheikh over “loss and damage”. Despite Western resistance, a coalition of countries – including South Africa, Nigeria, Egypt, and India – are pushing for climate compensation to be on the formal agenda.

Colombia’s largest armed group comes back to the table

Two months after the inauguration of Colombia’s first leftist president, Gustavo Petro, the government and the National Liberation Army (ELN) guerrilla group said peace talks between the two will resume in November after a four-year hiatus. Petro campaigned on a “Total Peace” plan to get an ever-expanding list of armed groups to lay down their arms, amid rising violence and humanitarian fallout. The ELN is the largest of them, counting some 2,400 fighters along the Pacific coast, in north-central Colombia, and most significantly on and across the border with Venezuela. Peace negotiations between Bogotá and the ELN are expected to be held in Caracas, where President Nicolás Maduro, alleged to have backed the militants, will serve as a guarantor, together with Cuba and Norway. Petro’s background as a leftist guerrilla himself may help, but analysts see the role of Maduro, whose regime has been bolstered by its connections to the ELN, as a potential spoiler. Meanwhile, the US is reportedly offering to ease sanctions on Venezuela – allowing Chevron to pump oil in the country – if Maduro commits to reopening talks with the opposition on holding free and fair elections in 2024.

Is Burkina Faso’s coup a France-Russia pivot?

Army captain Ibrahim Traoré has been officially appointed president of Burkina Faso after ousting Paul-Henri Damiba, who had himself taken power in a January coup. A two-day standoff in Ouagadougou came to an end on 2 October as religious and community leaders mediated Damiba’s resignation. Damiba had promised to stem rising attacks by jihadist groups when he took charge, but violence only worsened under his watch and frustration built within the army. A militant attack in the north that left dozens of soldiers and civilians dead is thought to have exacerbated military schisms ahead of the coup. Tensions also built around Damiba’s perceived closeness to France – the country's former colonial power – and reluctance to pivot towards Russia (as the junta in neighbouring Mali has). Supporters of 34-year-old Traoré initially claimed Damiba was plotting a counter-offensive from a French military base in the country. France denied the accusation, but the charge appeared to galvanise support for the new leader and led to protests outside the French embassy. Traoré has said he won’t stay in power for long, but much remains uncertain. Read our recent coverage for a sense of what’s at stake.

US shoots early on IOM candidature

The United States has announced the woman it wants to see leading the UN’s migration agency, IOM. One small hiccup: the current director general, António Vitorino, hasn’t said he’s leaving. The State Department announced the nomination of Amy Pope, a current deputy director general, alongside a string of tweeted endorsements from prominent US officials and a campaign-style site positioning her as a reformer and a “visionary and inclusive leader”. Pope would be the first woman to lead the IOM in its 71-year history. For now, however, Vitorino “has not stepped down”. He “will communicate his intentions in due course,” IOM spokesperson Safa Msehli said in a statement. With an early nomination for what’s still an occupied seat, the US appears to be re-exerting its presumed control of a key UN position in an unusually public manner. The top job at the IOM has “traditionally” gone to Americans – all but two of the director generals have been from the US – in an often-criticised convention that sees world powers horse-trading key UN roles. The 2018 election of Vitorino, a Portuguese national, was seen as a snub to the Trump administration, whose controversial candidate finished last in voting. While the IOM leader is elected to a five-year term, every director general since the 1960s has held the seat for roughly a decade. The election for the IOM leadership will take place in June 2023.

In case you missed it

ANGELA MERKEL WINS REFUGEE AWARD: The UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR, has granted its highest annual honour, the Nansen Refugee Award, to the ex-German chancellor for her efforts to receive and integrate around 1.2 million asylum seekers and migrants in Germany in 2015 and 2016. Many were refugees fleeing Syria’s civil war. However, the move sparked an anti-migration backlash in Germany, and Merkel also supported efforts to curb the number of asylum seekers and migrants crossing the EU’s external borders. 

DOZENS LOST IN GREEK MIGRANT SHIPWRECKS: At least 22 people have died and 30 others are missing following two separate shipwrecks near Greek islands involving asylum seekers and migrants from Iran, Iraq, and Afghanistan. In one incident, a sailboat that set off from Turkey aiming to reach Italy smashed into rocks near the island of Kythira. In the other, 17 bodies were recovered after a boat ran into trouble near Lesvos. 

ETHIOPIA PEACE TALKS: Tigray’s ruling party and the federal government have both accepted an African Union invitation to attend peace talks this weekend in South Africa. It will be the first formal meeting between the two parties since conflict erupted in November 2020. Read our latest on the conflict for more.

HURRICANE IAN: Cuba’s largest protests in more than a year subsided as power was restored to the capital, Havana, days after the storm knocked out electricity across the island. Food and medicine shortages, and crackdowns since last July’s anti-government rallies, have seen a spike in outward migration along dangerous routes, including those who set off across the Florida straits amidst the hurricane. Further north, Ian became the deadliest storm to strike Florida in nearly a century, with the toll surpassing 100 and expected to rise.

IRAN PROTEST TOLL GROWS: Amnesty International says Iranian security forces have killed at least 82 people since 30 September in the provinces of Zahedan, Sistan, and Baluchistan. They reportedly began a violent crackdown in the region, mostly home to the Baluchi ethnic minority, during protests against the reported rape of a local 15-year-old girl by a police officer, and in solidarity with the ongoing nationwide uprising that began after 22-year-old Mahsa Amini died in Tehran whilst in the custody of the “morality police”. Nationwide death tolls from the protests range between 60, on state media, to more than 150 from rights groups.

MASS GRAVE UNEARTHED IN LIBYA: Authorities in Libya announced that they had discovered a mass grave containing 42 bodies in Sirte, a city that was once the so-called Islamic State’s capital in the country. Libya’s Missing Person’s Authority said the bodies were found in a school, and samples were being taken at a local hospital so that the victims could be identified.

MYANMAR’S SOARING DISPLACEMENT CRISIS: Some 1.3 million people have been displaced in Myanmar – more than 1 million of them since the February 2021 military coup, the UN reported this week. The vast growth in IDPs comes amid brutal civilian clearance operations carried out by the military, as well as ongoing fighting between junta forces and ethnic armed groups.

ROHINGYA BOAT CAPSIZES: At least six people died and 15 are missing feared dead after a boat carrying Rohingya refugees capsized off the coast of Cox’s Bazar. The boat was carrying an estimated 100 Rohingya attempting to sail to Malaysia. With little hope for repatriation and bleak conditions in sprawling refugee camps, many Rohingya continue to take the risky journey.

SOMALI MILITIA TAKES ON AL-SHABAB: The jihadist group al-Shabab is facing a local clan-based rebellion in the centre of the country – one the government hopes might be emulated in other regions. As resistance to the insurgent group has grown, MPs and clan elders have been joining the self-organised militia – known as Ma’awisley – in pitched battles against al-Shabab.

UKRAINE CONTINUES WAR GAINS: Following weeks of gains in the northeast, Ukrainian forces have continued to claw back territory in the south previously under Russian occupation – including areas illegally annexed by Moscow. The territory reclaimed since 2 October amounts to about 500 square kilometres, a significant sum in an area where fighting had been at a stalemate for months. Meanwhile, Russia’s battlefield struggles are putting pressure on top officials – including President Vladimir Putin – over their handling of the war.

UN UPS PAKISTAN FLOOD APPEAL: The UN has quintupled its Pakistan flood aid appeal, calling for some $816 million to address mounting needs. A summer of relentless monsoons caused catastrophic floods in Pakistan, with a third of the country flooded at its peak in September and some 33 million people impacted. With vast portions of croplands lost, officials fear an impending food crisis, while the blow to the medical sector and widespread waterborne ailments had the WHO director-general warn of a “public health disaster”. 

Weekend read

‘If I am killed, let it be in the name of education.’

On 30 September, a suicide bomber attacked an educational institute that prepared students for college entrance exams. At least 53 people were killed, most of them girls in their late teens and early 20s. The attack took place in the Dasht-e Barchi neighbourhood of Kabul, an area predominantly home to Shias and members of the Hazara minority. The attacks were just the latest in a neighbourhood that has faced repeated waves of violence over the past five years. Reporter Ali Latifi spent time in Barchi last weekend, speaking to survivors and relatives who refuse to let the violence deter their dreams. While the killings have yet to be claimed, the so-called Islamic State group has carried out similar attacks against the Shia population of Barchi in the past. And the latest murders, with their clear efforts to target women and girls, appear to have served as a tipping point, leading to rare protests in Kabul, Balkh, Bamiyan, Herat, and Nangarhar provinces. In Balkh, female students of the Balkh University were reportedly locked in their dorm buildings to keep them from demonstrating. In Kabul and Herat, women protesters were met with aerial fire and intimidation by Taliban forces. In Jalalabad, the capital of Nangarhar province, protesters called for vengeance for the blood spilled in Kabul. The demonstrations come amid growing anger over the continued repression of Afghan women and girls. Last month, after local officials tried to re-open girls' high schools, Taliban forces turned them away – leading to protests by schoolgirls and 18 arrests. Read this for more on those trying to make sure they can still get an education.

And finally…

Return of the stone

It has been 200 years since European scholars used the Rosetta Stone – a slab of stone that dates to 196 BC and features the same text in three scripts – to decipher Ptolemaic hieroglyphs, marking a massive achievement in cryptography and opening the gateway to the better understanding of an ancient civilisation.

While the British Museum is marking the occasion with a new exhibition, Egyptian archaeologists are using the anniversary to demand that the museum give the stone back. Their call has garnered some 2,500 signatures on an online petition, and some support has come from British academia too. 

London has been home to the stone since 1802, a few years after a French team from Napoleon’s Egypt campaign spotted it in a fort wall in the Nile Delta port city of Rashid (the French called the city Rosette). A French officer has been credited with the find; it was more likely to have been an Egyptian worker. Nearly a millennium before that (and before the British defeated Napoleon and ended up with the stone), Arab scholars had already made significant progress on deciphering hieroglyphics. Later scholars built on this work, usually without giving them credit.

So will the Rosetta Stone go back home? Some Western museums and collections are beginning to make moves in that direction, acknowledging the colonial acts of violence that often accompanied – or were part of – their “discovery”. The Benin Bronzes are a recent example of one such partial repatriation, and for a while it looked like the Elgin Marbles (also housed at the British Museum) might be headed to Greece. Then again UK Prime Minister Liz Truss said this week she does not support such a move. The debate goes on, and to delve deeper, check out Vice’s “unfiltered history tour” of more disputed objects at the British Museum – told by people from the places they were removed from.

“I am sure all these objects eventually are going to be restituted because the ethical code of museums is changing, it's just a matter of when,” says Monica Hanna, acting dean of the College of Archaeology in the Egyptian city of Aswan, and one of the archaeologists campaigning for the Rosetta Stone’s return. “The stone is a symbol of cultural violence, the stone is a symbol of cultural imperialism.”

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