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Syria protests, Mali escalation, and a Chinese map flap: The Cheat Sheet

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


On our radar

Sky-high prices fuel second week of Syria protests

Anger over spiralling prices and a shattered economy have bubbled over into a second week of anti-government protests in parts of Syria. The scenes – including protesters reportedly burning a banner of President Bashar al-Assad, calling for his ouster, and shutting ruling party offices – have stirred up reminders of the 2011 anti-government uprising that mushroomed into a civil war, a migration emergency, and an ongoing humanitarian crisis. The demonstrations started in southern Sweida, a heartland for the minority Druze community. The latest Sweida protests were first sparked by August cuts to fuel subsidies that have sent food and fuel prices soaring. Frustrations over a decade of spiralling conditions are driving the continued protests: “They came out into the street to call for the fall of the regime because they realised that the situation won’t change without a change to the political situation,” Rayan Maarouf, editor of activist news outlet Suwayda24, told The New York Times.


When will food aid resume fully in Ethiopia?

Three months into a freeze on food aid to 20 million Ethiopians (and five months in for some), malnutrition rates are hitting 30% in parts of northern Tigray and the drought-affected south and southeast, with growing reports of hunger-related deaths. The Famine Early Warning Systems Network has called for the immediate lifting of the food aid suspension “to prevent further loss of life”. It has warned the poorest households are facing “catastrophe” levels of hunger, which could persist beyond the September harvest. The halt to relief deliveries by the World Food Programme (WFP) and USAID began in Tigray in March, and was extended countrywide in June. It followed the discovery of large-scale – and officially sanctioned – thefts of food supplies. The agencies said the freeze would stay – aside from a small recent trickle of aid – until investigations are completed. In a new twist to the politically charged affair, the development newswire Devex, has reported the Tigray police are looking to interrogate three WFP staff members. It’s not clear whether they are accused of involvement in the scam, or possess information on the long-established yet unaddressed scandal of aid manipulation.


For a different take on the struggle Ethiopians have been facing, especially since conflict erupted in Tigray in November 2020, read this poem by Oromo storyteller and journalist Soreti Kadir, and watch below for her interview with Senior Editor for Inclusive Storytelling Patrick Gathara.



Calls to re-run Zimbabwe election fall on deaf ears

Zimbabwe’s opposition are demanding an election re-run, a call reinforced by international observer missions that described last week’s poll as flawed. According to ZEC, the country’s electoral body, President Emmerson Mnangagwa won 53% of the vote – nine points clear of his main challenger, Nelson Chamisa. But ZEC has failed to release the individual polling station result forms, and what data it has provided has been challenged by parallel vote count watchdogs. In an unprecedented move, the observer mission of the regional body SADC – to which Zimbabwe is a member – has been highly critical of the election process. Its preliminary report pointed to problems over voter suppression and intimidation – and also noted the issue of “judicial capture”, which is why the opposition has not taken their case to court. The mission’s verdict is significant as SADC can recommend fresh elections – a diplomatic disaster for Mnangagwa. A SADC “panel of elders” is trying to negotiate a solution. But it’s a step that’s been undermined by South Africa in particular, which this week officially welcomed Mnangagwa’s win.


Potential new front opens up in Mali conflict

Mali’s military reportedly carried out airstrikes this week against non-jihadist armed groups in the north, an escalation that risks opening up another conflict front in the country, which is already embroiled in a long jihadist war. Mali claims to have struck jihadist positions in the Kidal region, but the non-jihadist armed groups – organised under the banner of the CMA – say they were targeted. Last month, the CMA also accused Malian forces and its Russian mercenary allies of attacking its members in the Timbuktu region. The CMA is a coalition of Tuareg and Arab groups that signed a 2015 peace agreement with Mali’s government following a separatist uprising. No side has committed to fully implementing the accord, and relations between signatories have deteriorated since a military junta took power in 2020. A UN peacekeeping mission has been a key guarantor of the pact, but it is now leaving Mali at the request of the junta. 


The Chilean state finally steps in to search for Pinochet-era missing

The families of the 1,469 men, women, and children killed and disappeared during General Augusto Pinochet's 17-year long dictatorship (1973-1990) will finally have the official support of the state in their search for their missing ones. As Chile prepares to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the military coup on 11 September, President Gabriel Boric presented the country's first National Search Plan, aimed at finding and identifying the remains of those who are still missing – so far only 307 people have been identified. The plan, announced on the International Day of the Victims of Enforced Disappearances, includes an ongoing budget to explore sites where the victims may have been buried, and the use of new software to centralise and digitalise the information dispersed across the justice system, human rights organisations, and national archives. The move represents a big – albeit belated – step forward in a country where, until now, it has been left to the victims’ relatives and civil society groups to seek truth and justice. 


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In case you missed it

AFGHANISTAN: As of 31 August, the International Committee of the Red Cross has ceased supporting more than two dozen hospitals due to funding shortfalls. In Kabul, the Islamic Emirate’s Ministry of Public Health said it will pull from its budget to pay wages and keep the facilities running. 

DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF THE CONGO: Nearly 50 civilians have been killed by Congolese security forces during protests against a UN peacekeeping mission in the country. Videos circulated online show soldiers piling lifeless bodies onto a military truck in the eastern city of Goma. Read our recent piece to understand why Congolese are demonstrating against the blue helmets.

GABON: President Ali Bongo Ondimba has been overthrown in a military coup, after winning a third term in office in a controversial election. Gabon’s new leader, General Brice Oligui Nguema – a relative of Bongo – is set to be sworn in on 4 September. The army takeover has received strong public backing.

HAITI/US: The US government has been criticised for deporting dozens of Haitian nationals back to the country just hours after it urged its own citizens to leave due to the worsening gang violence and security situation. For more on possible moves to deploy an international force to help quell the violence, read our analysis.

LIBYA: A video apparently showing the lifeless body of a woman lying on the floor of a migration detention centre in Tripoli is putting a fresh spotlight on abuses against asylum seekers and migrants in the country. As arrivals across the central Mediterranean to Europe have increased this year, the EU has doubled down on its support for Libyan efforts to curb migration, despite human rights concerns

MEDITERRANEAN DEATHS: Fifty-six civil society organisations released a statement on 28 August warning that more people are likely to die in the central Mediterranean following the detention of three NGO search and rescue vessels by Italy in less than 48 hours. More than 2,000 people have died attempting the crossing from North Africa to Italy so far this year, compared to 1,417 all of last year. 

NIGER: Sanctions imposed by West African leaders following last month’s coup are restricting the importation of humanitarian supplies, and causing a spike in food and commodity prices, the UN has warned. Fuel shortages are also disrupting the mobility of aid workers, limiting humanitarian and protection programmes.

POLLUTION IN SOUTH ASIA: A University of Chicago study has found that air pollution is reducing the lifespan of people in South Asia by an average of 5.1 years. Four countries – Pakistan, India, Nepal, and Bangladesh – are considered the most affected. Bangladesh is the world's most polluted country: People there are expected to lose 6.8 years of life on average per person due to unclean air. Life expectancy in New Delhi, considered the most polluted city, is shortened by more than 10 years.

SAUDI ARABIA: Ignoring human rights concerns, German police and the US military both provided training to Saudi security forces accused by Human Rights Watch of killing hundreds of Ethiopian asylum seekers and migrants at the Saudi-Yemen border. The US government reportedly knew last year that the killings were taking place, but chose not to share the information publicly.

SYRIA: Kyrgyzstan repatriated 95 wives and children of Islamic State fighters from Syria’s al-Hol camp on 30 August in its third such mission since 2021. The US, UNICEF, and the ICRC helped with the repatriations. Thousands of Central Asian fighters joined militias during Syria’s ongoing civil war. For more on the troubled efforts to bring families back from al-Hol, read our recent news feature from Kyrgyzstan.

UNITED STATES: Hurricane Idalia ripped across Florida’s gulf coast on 30 August, leaving a trail of flooding, broken trees, and residents without power, before continuing its path north as a strong storm. Florida was spared worse damage because the hurricane made landfall in a sparsely inhabited coastal region. But the way the storm rapidly intensified as it approached land by feeding on warm water carries a warning for how climate change is likely to make hurricanes more dangerous. 


Weekend read

Clown festival brings critical aid and inspiration to a struggling Amazon community

On the banks of the Itaya River, a tributary of the Amazon, Belén is one of Peru’s most marginalised communities: Suspended on wooden stilts for much of the year above seasonal floodwaters, its residents are prone to alcoholism, waterborne disease, and gender-based violence, as well as chronic malnutrition. It is easy to be despondent, to give up hope. But in recent years, as Anthony Wallace reports in our weekend read, the people of Belén have found inspiration from an unexpected source: a festival of clowns. What started as an outside affair is now driven by the local community itself. A blend of humanitarian aid, art activities, and just plain fun, the gathering offers health clinics, mural painting, and workshops that help to sustain life in a district where childhood can be hazardous and short. “Little by little things are improving,” says Rossana Céspedes, one of the local volunteer clowns. “The world cannot be changed in one day, but in many years, and drop by drop.”



And finally…

New China map reopens old disputes

China’s Ministry of Natural Resources has published a map that lays claim to contested territories on the nation’s borders with Russia and India, and in the South China Sea. Moscow has so far remained quiet on the matter, but New Delhi has called the map an “absurd” claim. India is upset that the so-called “standard map of China” has seemingly seen Beijing annex the state of Arunachal Pradesh and the disputed region of Aksai Chin. India’s foreign minister, Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, described the map as part of a “habit” by Beijing to lay claim to land it doesn’t own. Malaysia, meanwhile, slammed China for making “unilateral maritime claims” in its states of Sabah and Sarawak.

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