You are here
Military counterinsurgency operations are causing widespread hunger and malnutrition among Myanmar’s oppressed Rohingya minority, according to internal UN reports that directly contradict government statements.
Most of Myanmar’s approximately one million ethnic Rohingya Muslims live in northern Rakhine State, which has been almost completely off limits to journalists and aid workers since insurgents launched deadly attacks on police posts on 9 October. There have been widespread reports of abuses of Rohingya civilians during military “clearing operations”, which have also disrupted harvests and markets, as well as nutrition programmes.
The UN and rights groups have repeatedly urged the government to allow an independent investigation into alleged atrocities, and to give full access to humanitarian agencies. The government has instead formed its own commission, which said in its interim report that it could find no evidence of alleged abuses, including widespread reports of rape. The report also gave a positive assessment of the food security situation.
“No cases of malnutrition were found in the area, due to the area’s favourable fishing and farming conditions,” the commission said last week.
Two UN assessments, which have not been released publicly but were provided to IRIN, found precisely the opposite.
A 29 December report by the UN’s emergency aid coordination body, OCHA, was based partly on findings in parts of Maungdaw and Buthidaung townships where aid workers were allowed. In the preceding week, about 5,000 people were able to access nutrition programmes, it said.
“Despite a low overall turnout, a number of severely malnourished patients is proportionately higher than the pre-9 October intake,” said the report.
A “remote emergency assessment” carried out over the phone by the UN’s World Food Programme found that "severe food insecurity appears highly widespread” and has worsened since October in Maungdaw, a Rohingya-majority township on the Bangladesh border.
“The main source of food for most of the households have been neighbors or relatives lending or gifting food."
“The main source of food for most of the households – 94 percent in the north and 71 percent in the south – have been neighbors or relatives lending or gifting food,” said the WFP report.
People surveyed by WFP said that markets in southern areas of Maungdaw were functioning, although supplies were low, and the price of rice shot up by 21 percent even though it is right after the harvest. Market “access appears safe only to the population living nearby”, the report said.
In northern Maungdaw, where military operations have been concentrated, the picture was far bleaker. “Markets appear not to function with nearly all respondents reporting serious damages to market infrastructure or exhausted food stocks,” said the report.Government unconvinced
Myanmar’s government was unimpressed by those findings.
“I am asking now: 'what is their proof?'” said Zaw Htay, a government spokesman. “What is their data?”
He said the health ministry needs more time to conduct a nationwide survey on nutrition rates, in coordination with the UN.
“We need concrete, sound, and reliable data about malnutrition around the country,” he said in a phone interview.
Last month, the Rakhine State government secretary, Tin Maung Shwe, also questioned reports on hunger. “We have a survey of every village, and there is no starvation and no malnutrition,” he told IRIN.
Yet, malnutrition in northern Rakhine State has been a longstanding problem – and one previously acknowledged by the government.
Pierre Peron, an OCHA spokesman, noted that programmes to treat malnutrition have been “implemented by the UN and International NGOs in northern Rakhine State for many years, under MOUs (memorandums of understanding) agreed with their relevant line ministries.”‘Alarming malnutrition rates’
A 2015 survey in the northern Rakhine townships of Maungdaw and Buthidaung “showed alarming rates of global acute malnutrition”, according to the UN children’s agency, UNICEF.
Aid agencies measure the weight and height of young children to assess Global Acute Malnutrition and compare those rates to a population with normal levels of nutrition.
The survey found GAM rates of 19 percent and in Maungdaw and 15 percent in Buthidaung. The rates of Severe Acute Malnutrition, in which children become skeletal and require urgent treatment to survive, were 3.9 percent in Maungdaw and 2 percent in Buthidaung, according to the 2015 survey.
The situation in Maungdaw deteriorated even further after the 9 October attacks by a group called Harakah al-Yakin [“Faith Movement” in Arabic], which formed after hundreds were killed and 140,000 forced into displacement camps during violence between minority Rohingya and majority ethnic Rakhine Buddhists. The vast majority of victims were Rohingya, who are denied citizenship in Myanmar and live under an apartheid system.
Rohingya communities suffered even more as aid groups lost access to the area.
“Approximately 3,400 children in northern part of Rakhine State were being treated for Severe Acute Malnutrition prior to 9 October and are at serious risk due to the disruption to their assistance,” OCHA said in a 13 December report.
In addition, the report noted that 7,600 pregnant women were unable to access healthcare, while more than 10,800 people could no longer receive nutrition treatment.
Despite such warnings, Myanmar government statements, and articles in the state-run Global New Light of Myanmar newspaper, have consistently downplayed the crisis.
For example, an article that appeared one day after the OCHA warning stated: “All residents of Maungdaw region were provided with humanitarian assistance in the form of food and supplies.”Promises of access
The government has made repeated promises that aid groups will be allowed full access to northern Rakhine State, but that has yet to happen as military operations continue.
Meanwhile, reports of military rapes, killings, and disappearances continue to emerge from Maungdaw, and Rohingya keep fleeing across the border into Bangladesh. The UN reported that 22,000 people arrived in Bangladesh between 3 and 9 January, bringing the total to more than 65,000 since October.
Yet, some aid workers are hopeful the promises on future access might soon turn into reality.
Health Ministry officials were presented with data on malnutrition at a meeting this week with senior representatives of aid agencies. Sources who attended the meeting told IRIN that the ministry accepted that malnourishment was a widespread problem and expressed a willingness to fight it.
“I feel much more hopeful that we can help children suffering from Severe Acute Malnutrition,” said Bertrand Bainvel, the country representative for UNICEF.
es/jf/agSay Tha Mar Gyi camp for displaced persons, near Siitwe, the capital of Myanmar's Rakhine state News Migration Food Human Rights Politics and Economics Myanmar operations driving up malnutrition rates among Rohingya minority Emanuel Stoakes IRIN Asia Myanmar
Proghyananda Vikkhu stood in his purple monk’s robe in front of gleaming gold statues of the Buddha, recalling the night that a mob of nationalist Muslims attacked his monastery in eastern Bangladesh.
“This monastery is 300 years old and it was totally demolished on that night in 2012,” he said. “Within one year, the Bangladesh government totally rebuilt it with help from the army.”
The mob also sacked a village next door, motivated in part by twisted retribution for attacks by ethnic Rakhine Buddhists on ethnic Rohingya Muslims on the other side of the border, in Myanmar.
The government and military responses to violence against Bangladesh’s Buddhist minority and Myanmar’s Rohingya Muslim minority couldn’t be more different.
Hundreds of people were killed in Myanmar’s Rakhine State in 2012 and 140,000 were forced into displacement camps. Almost all the victims were Rohingya, burnt out of their homes by mobs of ethnic Rakhine Buddhists, and about 100,000 remain in camps today.
The 157-year-old mosque in the state capital, Sittwe, is still damaged. It’s now off-limits to worshippers, and instead serves as a police post.
Unlike Buddhists who enjoy the rights of full citizens in Muslim-majority Bangladesh, Myanmar’s Rohingya Muslims saw their citizenship stripped away during decades of military rule.
Today, overwhelmingly-Buddhist Myanmar is led by a nominally civilian government headed by Nobel Laureate Aung San Su Kyi, but this shift away from direct military rule has not helped the Rohingya. They live under an apartheid system, with their movements severely restricted, along with their access to healthcare, education, and employment.
Decades of oppression have fuelled anger in the Rohingya community, which has recently given rise to an insurgency that threatens stability in Myanmar as well as Bangladesh. Analysts warn that the insurgency could attract support from international Islamist militant groups, including the so-called Islamic State.
“We cannot take this lightly, either as Bangladesh or members of the international community,” said A.N.M. Muniruzzaman, a retired major-general who now heads the Bangladesh Institute for Peace and Security Studies.
He said Bangladesh should sponsor a UN Security Council resolution that would aim to resolve the humanitarian crisis in Rakhine State and stop Myanmar from forcing Rohingya over the border.
On 30 December, 11 Nobel Peace Prize Winners also urged the UN Security Council to take action, and they accused Myanmar of “ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity”. Aung San Suu Kyi, who won a Nobel Peace Prize for her decades-long struggle against Myanmar’s former junta, was not among the signatories.Jared Ferrie/IRIN Proghyananda Vikkhu, associate director of the Sima Bihar monastery in Ramu Rising insurgency
It was in direct response to the 2012 violence that some Rohingya began organising the nascent insurgency, according to a recent report by the International Crisis Group. A committee of Rohingya in Mecca oversees the group, which is called Harakah al-Yakin [“Faith Movement” in Arabic], and 20 Rohingya with international experience in guerrilla warfare are leading operations on the ground, ICG said.
Harakah al-Yakin struck first on 9 October, with hundreds of insurgents carrying out coordinated attacks on Myanmar police border posts that killed nine officers in Maungdaw, a frontier township. Four soldiers were killed in clashes on 11 October, while another soldier died and several more were wounded on 12 November before the insurgents retreated to a village, pursued by troops.
“Several hundred villagers, armed with whatever they had to hand [knives and farming implements], supported the attackers, seemingly spontaneously,” ICG said.
The military called in air support after a lieutenant-colonel was shot dead, and two helicopter gunships “allegedly fired indiscriminately" at villagers trying to flee, according to the report. After the 12 November battles, “the military considerably stepped up its operations” in Maungdaw, said ICG.
Since then, there have been reports of widespread military abuses against Rohingya civilians, including rapes, killings, and disappearances. Rohingya have been fleeing by the tens of thousands into Bangladesh.
“Violence and abuses are likely to boost support for the armed group,” ICG warned. “People pushed to desperation and anger, with no hope for the future, are more likely to embrace extremist responses, however counterproductive.”Uncooperative
Allegations of abuse have been met by flat denials from the government, which refuses to allow journalists and investigators into Maungdaw. Myanmar’s Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Aye Aye Soe told IRIN she did not believe the International Organization for Migration when it said at least 34,000 Rohingya had crossed into Bangladesh since military operations began.
The new arrivals join as many as half a million Rohingya who have fled to Bangladesh during attacks on their communities over the past few decades. Impoverished and overpopulated, Bangladesh struggles to host the refugees, and it now faces the potential that the overcrowded camps could become recruiting grounds for Harakah al-Yakin. Already, hundreds of Rohingya refugees have crossed back into Myanmar to join the insurgency, according to ICG.
Still, Myanmar continues to insist the situation in Rakhine State is “not an international issue”, as a 19 December article posted to the Ministry of Information website put it.
Muniruzzaman said Bangladesh has unsuccessfully tried to “woo” Myanmar into working together to resolve issues in Rakhine State. He noted that Aung San Suu Kyi has visited virtually every other country in the region aside from Bangladesh.
Bangladesh’s Foreign Ministry summoned Myanmar’s ambassador in both November and December to offer its cooperation on resolving issues in Rakhine State so that the Rohingya can go home.
On 23 November, the ministry urged Myanmar to consider allowing an “independent investigation” into allegations of military abuses. The ministry also requested that Myanmar “take urgent appropriate measures so that Muslim minorities in the Rakhine State are not forced to seek shelter across the border”, according to a statement.
Myanmar has thus far failed to do either.Complicated history
Many of the problems facing the approximately one million Rohingya in Myanmar are rooted in one overarching issue – statelessness. Unfortunately, full citizenship is largely based on membership in one of the 135 “national races”, which do not include the Rohingya.
“It goes way, way past in history, whether they are citizens or not,” said Aye Aye Soe. “And then it depends on a lot of issues. You have to consider both communities in Rakhine State.”
The other community – ethnic Rakhines who comprise about two thirds of the state’s population – largely consider the Rohingya illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. It is a sentiment widely shared throughout Myanmar, but it’s based on a false history that nationalists have propagated over decades: that the Rohingya, whom they call “Bengalis”, arrived during the British colonial period or afterwards.
Myanmar’s Ministry of Religious Affairs and Culture even announced in mid-December that it would publish a treatise showing that the Rohingya are not from Myanmar.
The ancient ancestry of the Rakhine and Rohingya people is the subject of much debate, but historians say that both identities emerged from the kingdom of Arakan, which encompassed much of today’s Rakhine State, as well as areas that are now in Bangladesh. The identity of each is based to great extent on religion, and there is ample evidence of both a Buddhist and Muslim presence in the kingdom.
Archeologists have unearthed coins from the 15th century that show Arakanese rulers using Islamic titles. But Michael Charney, a historian at the University of London School of Oriental and African Studies, argues that there were relatively few Muslims residing in Arakan until slave raids in the 17th century greatly boosted the population.
“Although there is very little evidence of a rural Muslim community in Arakan prior to the 1570s, they clearly made up a substantial proportion of the population in the 1770s, prior to Burman rule,” he writes.
The Burmans, who comprise modern Myanmar’s most populous and politically-powerful ethnic group, conquered Arakan in 1784. But Burma ruled for only 40 years before the British took it over, after which there was further migration into the region from what is now Bangladesh.A group of Rohingya who fled Myanmar have taken refuge in the village of Hazi Para Citizenship
Myanmar insists that, in order to receive citizenship, Rohingya Muslims must provide evidence that their families were living in Rakhine State before the British conquest in 1824.
From an international perspective, it is anomalous to disenfranchise the descendants of people who arrived 193 years ago or even later. If other countries were to impose similar restrictions, many people who fled Myanmar during half a century of military dictatorship would suddenly find themselves stateless too.
It’s also difficult for many Rohingya to prove their lineage, even if it does pre-date British rule. Identification documents have been lost throughout the years, including some that burnt along with their houses.
The differences between citizenship policies in Myanmar and Bangladesh are striking. Minority Buddhists who find themselves living in a predominantly Muslim country – on one side of a border arbitrarily drawn by the British – do not have to prove their right to be citizens. They are born Bangladeshi.Buddhist teachings
Even so, anti-Rohingya prejudice is also common in the Rakhine Buddhist minority community in Bangladesh, according to Kya Thein Aung, who is Rakhine and head of Cox’s Bazar City College.
“Our parents told us Rohingya means a floating culture: people who don’t have a place,” he said. In contrast: “We are the original people of this land.”
Kya Thein Aung said he doubted that most reports of abuses against Rohingya were true. “If Myanmar denied to give them citizenship, then you can take them to another country,” he added.
Proghyananda Vikkhu, the Buddhist monk who is associate director of the Sima Bihar monastery in Ramu, had a more enlightened view.
“The Myanmar military is responsible for torturing Rohingya people,” said Vikkhu, who is a member of the Barua ethnic minority.
He said Buddhism teaches that all people have the right to be happy and live peacefully, and he condemned Buddhists who participated in attacks against Rohingya communities.
“The people who take part in this kind of violence don’t follow the rules of Buddhism,” he said. “They are not real Buddhists.”
(TOP PHOTO: The Bimukti Bidarshan Bhabona Kendra Buddhist temple in Ramu was one of 16 temples damaged or destroyed by mobs of nationalist Muslims in 2012. The government and the military rebuilt them. CREDIT: Jared Ferrie/IRIN)The roots and risks of Myanmar’s new Rohingya insurgency coxs_bazar_1.jpg Jared Ferrie Analysis Migration Conflict Human Rights Politics and Economics Ramu BANGLADESH IRIN Asia Bangladesh Myanmar
The UN has warned authorities that plans to demolish hundreds of homes belonging to ethnic minority Rohingya Muslims will “heighten tensions” in Myanmar’s Rakhine state, where the military is accused of abusing civilians during counterinsurgency operations.
The warning came in a 28 December letter, obtained by IRIN and addressed to Rakhine State Chief Minister Nyi Pu. It said that more than 100 structures have already been destroyed, and the UN has “received reports that the Border Guard Police have served orders to demolish 819 buildings owned by Muslims, including 696 houses.”
The UN is also concerned about a “household survey” underway in areas where tens of thousands of Rohingya have fled military operations, according to the letter. The survey could mean that the displaced are struck from the official list of residents, leaving them unable to legally return home once the violence stops.
UN officials have confirmed the authenticity of the letter, which was signed by the UN’s senior advisor on Rakhine State, Chris Carter.
In the letter, Carter called the demolitions and the survey “provocative”.
The demolitions and survey are taking place in northern Rakhine State, where the military has been conducting "clearing operations" after a Rohingya insurgent group attacked border police posts on 9 October. Rohingya who fled over the border into Bangladesh have told journalists and rights groups that soldiers have committed widespread atrocities, including burning houses, as well as raping and killing civilians.
Demolitions are not unusual in Myanmar, where laws require the destruction of structures built without permits. But there is confusion among government officials as to why the survey and demolitions are taking place now, while the military is clashing with insurgents and about 80,000 civilians have been displaced.
“We already told them to hold their plan in this very sensitive situation,” said Zaw Htay, a spokesman for the office of President Htin Kyaw, referring to orders given to state officials. “The central government has already intervened.”
A UN official, speaking on condition of anonymity, told IRIN the UN has received similar assurances from the central government, but structures are still being destroyed.
“We are still trying to determine whether the ongoing demolitions are just actions by rogue local officials... or a more calculated move by others,” the official said.
Tin Maung Shwe, the deputy director for Rakhine State at the central government’s powerful General Administration Department, told IRIN there has been “a misunderstanding at the grassroots level”.
“We are making inquiries,” he added.Growing tensions
Rohingya Muslims comprise about a third of Rakhine State’s population of just over three million, where the majority are ethnic Rakhine Buddhists. There have long been tensions between the communities, and violence in 2012 killed hundreds of people and displaced about 140,000. Almost all the victims were Rohingya, and about 100,000 still remain in camps.
Almost all Rohingya are stateless, having had their citizenship stripped by Myanmar’s former military rulers. Although Rohingya have lived in the area for hundreds of years, many in Myanmar consider them illegal immigrants from neighbouring Bangladesh. They are forced to live under an apartheid system in which their movements are strictly controlled.
Rakhine State conducts the household survey on a yearly basis for the purpose of monitoring the Rohingya community. Only those on the “household lists” produced by this exercise are eligible to reside in their homes.
“It usually takes place in January in northern Rakhine, but began in November this year,” said the UN official. “It's not happening elsewhere in Rakhine at this time, only in the three northern townships.”
The three northern townships of Rathedaung, Buthidaung and Maungdaw have been highly militarised since 9 October. The townships are home to most of the state’s Rohingya – and all of those displaced by the counter-insurgency operations. That means tens of thousands of people who have fled their villages could be made permanently homeless, since they can’t take part in the survey.
The decision to conduct a household survey now and destroy homes will have the effect of “heightening a state-led campaign of atrocity crimes and ethnic cleansing,” said Matthew Smith, executive director of Fortify Rights, a group that has recently collected testimonies from Rohingya of atrocities committed by soldiers.
“If they aren't on the list, they will have no choice but to flee to Bangladesh,” he told IRIN. “Giving people no option but to flee the country can be considered forced deportation.”
The UN has similar concerns. The letter refers to reports that the “names of missing people identified by the new household survey are being permanently struck from the household lists.”
More than 50,000 Rohingya have fled into neighbouring Bangladesh in the past three months, according to the government there, while the UN has said another 30,000 people are internally displaced.
As many as half a million Rohingya are already living in overcrowded camps Bangladesh, having crossed the border during attacks against their communities since the 1970s.
(TOP PHOTO: A camp outside the Ralhine State capital, Sittwe, for Rohingyas displaced by violence in 2012. CREDIT: David Longstreath/IRIN)201402121347360083.jpg News Conflict Human Rights EXCLUSIVE: UN warns Myanmar that demolishing Rohingya homes will ‘heighten tensions’ Emanuel Stoakes IRIN Asia Myanmar
While 2016 taught us to expect the unexpected, IRIN’s eyes and ears on the ground have given us an idea of what to look out for in the new year. We can’t promise everyone else will be covering these stories, but here are ten we’ll be watching:The impact of Trump
Since Donald Trump’s election, speculation has been rife about what his presidency will mean for the wider world. His many statements and tweets on the campaign trail suggest that he intends to prioritise domestic and security interests over foreign aid spending and will roll back efforts made during the Obama administration to combat climate change.
But many in the humanitarian sector have been adopting a glass half full attitude, publicly at least, by pointing out that foreign aid has bipartisan support and Republicans in Congress will oppose any major cuts to foreign assistance. Others are predicting that even if the Trump administration doesn’t significantly cut overall aid spending, it will favour channelling aid through partnerships with the private sector and results-oriented initiatives like the Millennium Challenge Corporation, rather than through traditional recipients like the UN and international NGOs.
A Trump administration seems likely to allocate less aid to reproductive health and family planning programmes, and funding for initiatives relating to climate change will almost certainly be on the chopping block too. Trump has appointed a number of climate change sceptics to his cabinet, including Rick Perry, who will head the Department of Energy and Scott Pruitt, who will lead the Environmental Protection Agency.Venezuela undone
The oil-rich nation has been unravelling in almost every conceivable way in 2016 – from runaway inflation and empty supermarket shelves to the virtual collapse of the public health sector with the resurgence of previously eradicated diseases like malaria and diphtheria. The government closely guards data on what appear to be steep rises in maternal and infant mortality rates, poverty and malnutrition, but doctors and civil society groups have been monitoring the worrying trajectory.
With the government of President Nicolas Maduro still in complete denial about the growing humanitarian crisis (let alone accepting some responsibility for it), the downward spiral will only continue in 2017. Vatican-mediated talks between the government and the opposition that started in October have so far failed to yield an agreement to lift the country’s ban on international aid, a change that could alleviate critical medicine shortages.
Maduro successfully stalled a recall vote that would likely have unseated him in October 2016. Under Venezuela’s constitutional rules, should Maduro lose a referendum in 2017, he will still be able to hand over power to his vice president and keep the United Socialist Party in power. With a political solution virtually off the table, more social unrest seems inevitable in 2017. Increasingly, Venezuelans will be forced to cross borders in search of livelihoods, healthcare and affordable food. Look to Brazil and Colombia, who will likely bear the brunt of this growing forced migration.Yemen’s downward spiral
A small sliver of the world is finally paying attention to Yemen. That’s in part due to activist campaigns pushing the United States and Britain to stop selling arms to Saudi Arabia, not to mention the Saudis’ grudging admission they had used British cluster bombs in the war (followed by Britain’s statement of the same).
But the war and humanitarian catastrophe marches on. Despite assurances by the Saudi-led coalition that they take great care to avoid collateral damage – to IRIN no less – there have been attacks on markets and funerals, and now more than 4,300 civilian deaths since the war began last March. And that’s only what the decimated health system can count.Mohammed Yaseen Ahmed Ibrahim/IRIN 3.3 million people are displaced in Yemen
Peace talks don’t offer much hope. The UN-backed peace process – already a set of negotiations between elites that didn’t take into account the reality on the ground – is going nowhere, and Houthi rebels have set up their own government.
And now, Yemen is at serious risk of sliding famine. Before the war, the country relied on imports for 90 percent of its food. With the economy in tatters, importers are finding it hard to bring in what the country needs, and families simply don’t have the cash to buy food.The post-Aleppo future of Syria
The final fall of the last pocket of resistance in east Aleppo, with fighters and civilians evacuated outside the city, was major victory for Syrian president Bashar al-Assad. But it does not signal the end of the war or the suffering. Rebels still control the province of Idlib and much of Deraa, the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) have Afrin in the north, while Turkey appears to have territorial ambitions. Plus there’s so-called Islamic State, resurgent in Palmyra and still in control of Raqqa.
Aleppo also marks yet another failure for diplomacy. The last round of Geneva talks seems a distant memory, and while a new ceasefire brokered by Russia and Turkey appears to be holding in some parts of the country, the truce doesn’t include all rebel groups. If this deal doesn’t pave the way for planned peace talks in Kazakhstan and full-scale violence begins again, it’s not clear where al-Assad will take the fight next. But it seems likely that the siege tactics that have typified the war will lead to more local truces and evacuations.
Once again, this year looks bleak for Syria’s civilians – those bussed from Aleppo are headed into warzones in the middle of winter, joining the 6.3 million civilians already displaced into their own country.Myanmar’s Rohingya – a long-running crisis and a new insurgency
There are few groups as persecuted as the Rohingya. During decades of military rule, Myanmar’s generals gradually stripped away most of their rights, including citizenship, and imposed the apartheid system they live under today.
About half a million Rohingya have fled across the border during attacks on their communities over the past decades, but Bangladesh doesn’t want them either and refuses to even register them as refugees. The last few months of 2016 saw a new wave of migration over the border as Myanmar’s military allegedly carried out widespread abuses of civilians in the wake of attacks by a new insurgent group.
Myanmar’s heavy-handed approach is unlikely to crush the group, known as Harakah al-Yakin [“Faith Movement” in Arabic]. In fact, there is a good chance that by targeting the civilian population, the military will drive more youth to join the insurgency. So far, the insurgents have targeted only Myanmar security forces and their motivation seems purely local – to push the government to grant the Rohingya citizenship. But there is a danger that international Islamist groups, including IS, could capitalise on the movement, which could threaten regional stability.Genocide and famine warnings in South Sudan
South Sudan’s descent continues, and it’s likely to only get worse in 2017. The civil war drove 400,000 people across the border into Uganda since a peace deal broke down in July, and there are now more than 1.8 million people internally displaced.
Ongoing fighting has disrupted farming and made it impossible to provide humanitarian relief in many areas. The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization warns: “All available indicators point to an unprecedented deterioration of the food security situation across South Sudan in 2017. The risk of famine is real for thousands of people.”
The war and competition for scarce resources have also led to the “extreme polarization of some ethnic groups,” warned Adama Dieng, the UN’s special advisor on the prevention of genocide, in November. If that process continues, he said, “there is a strong risk of violence escalating along ethnic lines, with the potential for genocide.”
Unfortunately, efforts to pressure the government and rebels to return to peace talks have failed. South Sudan enters 2017 under the shadow of looming famine and possible genocide, and the international community seems unable or unwilling to force leaders to stop fighting before they drive their country into an even deeper crisis.Iraq’s displacement crisis
All eyes are on Mosul – the battle that could finally finish off IS in Iraq. Aid groups warn that as many as one million civilians are trapped inside, and more than 110,000 people have already fled the surrounding areas. But there’s another, related problem, brewing in Iraq. Overall 3 million people are displaced across the country, many from areas controlled or already liberated from IS.
For Sunnis from Anbar province – from cities like Fallujah and Ramadi – going home is far from a sure thing. Those thought to have ties to IS can’t go home, and are stuck in camps, makeshift shelters, or elsewhere. Ignoring this problem risks radicalisation of a population that has already feels scapegoated and has in the past been controlled by both al-Qaeda and IS.
It’s not just Sunnis at risk here. Some Christians say they are too afraid to go home to liberated villages near Mosul. The Iraqi government can hardly keep the lights on and has focused its limited resources on the fighting. But this shortsightedness comes at the country’s future peril.In Afghanistan, more than a million people “on the move”
It’s been a while since Afghanistan had a good year, but the last one has been especially tough – and it’s set the scene for a disastrous 2017.
After a decade and a half of “boots on the ground” style warfare, the United States withdrew almost all of its troops. This triggered a surprisingly unexpected economic collapse that the country is still struggling to bounce back from. The past year also saw the emergence a migration crisis that will further complicate any economic recovery.
Two of Afghanistan’s neighbours, Pakistan and Iran, have been Afghan refugees back over the border in massive numbers, while the European Union signed a deal that made aid contingent upon the Afghan government’s agreement to accept rejected asylum seekers. The first plane carrying Afghans deported from Germany arrived in mid-December. In addition, record numbers of people were internally displaced by conflict in 2016.
Going into the new year, Afghanistan is struggling to support 583,174 people displaced by conflict over the past year, as well as 616,620 people who returned from other countries.Andrew Quilty/IRIN Outside the UN’s intake centre between the Pakistan border and the city of Jalalabad, in Afghanistan's Nangarhar province
There’s no sign that the Taliban insurgency will ease up, and efforts at convincing them to talk peace with the government have so far been spectacularly unsuccessful. Afghanistan’s military is also battling other insurgent groups, notably IS, which has emerged as a brutal force to be reckoned with in the eastern province of Nangarhar. Meanwhile, Iran continues to push Afghans back home, Europe is likely to return more, and Pakistan says it will begin forced deportations of all Afghans who have not left the country by March.Kabila stays on in Congo
The political false dawn of 2016, Hillary Clinton apart, was the electoral concession that wasn’t by the autocrat running Gambia. The announcement turned out to be just a ploy by President Yahya Jammeh to buy himself more time to work out how he might extend his 22-and-a-half years in power. But we're also shifting our attention from Africa’s smallest mainland country to its second largest – the Democratic Republic of Congo, where President Joseph Kabila appears to be engaged in similar manoeuvring that has already cost dozens of lives and led to hundreds of arrests.
Although violent unrest in the Gambia shouldn’t be discounted, the consequences of Kabila clinging to power could be even more disastrous. At the moment, an uneasy truce of sorts seems to be holding. Opposition parties have agreed, in principle at least, to allow Kabila to remain as president until the end of next year, but discussions ahead on a transitional government and delayed elections could quickly unravel. Kabila might also try to amend the constitution again to delay elections into 2018 and beyond. With neighbouring Burundi already in extended turmoil over term limits and memories still fresh of the 1998-2003 Second Congo War that dragged in nine African nations and led to an estimated six million deaths, events in Kinshasa are worth keeping a close eye on in 2017.
The opposition is weak and, in Kinshasa at least, unarmed, so with little international pressure being brought to bear and the media spotlight elsewhere, the received wisdom is that Kabila will quietly cement his hold on power. But if 2016 taught us anything, it’s to be ready for the unexpected.Famine in the Lake Chad Basin region
In terms of sheer numbers and need, one humanitarian crisis that could overshadow all of the above next year lies in the vast Lake Chad Basin. It has had little coverage by journalists; perhaps more under-reported than any other humanitarian emergency of a similar scale. Despite military progress against Boko Haram extremists, 2016 saw conditions deteriorate fast in this troubled region, where Cameroon, Chad, Niger, and Nigeria meet.
Mausi Segun, a senior researcher for Human Rights Watch, told IRIN that such appalling scenes, including the faces of thousands of starving children, haven’t been seen here since the 1967-70 war with secessionist Biafra. Early warning network FEWS NET says 4.7 million people need emergency food assistance in northeastern Nigeria alone and warned on 13 December that a famine is already likely to have occurred and to be ongoing in remote pockets of the region. Across the border in Chad, conditions are little better – more than 130,000 people displaced by the Boko Haram conflict are scattered around camps, competing for slender resources with vulnerable host communities.
And it’s not just Boko Haram that is the problem: a combination of human water use and climate change has shrunk the lake itself to a 20th of its original size since the 1960s. The crisis is already enormous and only likely to deepen in 2017.Ashley Hamer/IRIN The majority of people at this food distribution site on Lake Chad hail from the Buduma ethnic group
(TOP PHOTO: Approaching the militarised “red zone” towards the border with Niger, displaced families in the Lake Chad Basin gather for another distribution of cash handouts. Ashley Hamer/IRIN)
ks/jf/as/ag-asimg_4665.jpg Analysis Aid and Policy Migration Environment and Disasters Climate change Conflict Human Rights Politics and Economics Ten humanitarian stories to look out for in 2017 IRIN Africa Burundi Congo, Republic of South Sudan Cameroon Chad Gambia Niger Nigeria Americas Venezuela Asia Afghanistan Myanmar Global Middle East and North Africa Iraq Saudi Arabia Syria Yemen
From Syria to Afghanistan to South Sudan, 2016 has seen some of the worst humanitarian crises in living memory. As we look to the new year ahead, here are some numbers we shouldn't forget.Humanitarian headlines of 2016 by the numbers Miranda Grant/IRIN
(TOP PHOTO: Refugees gather around a fire at the abandoned warehouse behind the bus station in Belgrade. CREDIT: Igor Čoko/IRIN)2016_posterframe.png Video Aid and Policy Migration Environment and Disasters Conflict Food Health Human Rights Politics and Economics Humanitarian headlines of 2016 by the numbers IRIN GENEVA Africa Americas Asia Europe Global Middle East and North Africa
Every week, IRIN's team of editors curates a selection of humanitarian reports and opinion you may have missed, from in-depth analyses and features to academic studies and podcasts:
This week, at long last, Saudi Arabia admitted it had used British-made cluster bombs in Yemen and said it would stop doing so. British Defence Secretary Michael Fallon was finally forced to cop up to it too. Their use wasn’t much of a surprise, nor is the fact that Yemen’s humanitarian crisis has reached catastrophic levels – we’ve been saying it ad infinitum.
Part of the reason Yemen is comparatively neglected is the complexity of the conflict – it’s not just Saudis v Houthis. Adam Baron at the European Council on Foreign Relations has a useful briefing on the state of play. He also has suggestions for the EU and its member states, including engaging with key actors on the ground that are currently excluded from the UN-led peace process. A bit of this is going on, with some efforts by European diplomats to understand the different dimensions of the conflict and reach out to key figures in the Southern Movement. Yes, peace feels far away in Yemen. But that doesn’t mean it’s not worth trying for, and as Baron says, and we’ve long argued: “’One size fits all’ attempts to resolve Yemen’s myriad conflicts, particularly peace processes that only involve elites and are Sana’a-centric, are doomed to fail.”
Pakistan has historically been a refuge for millions of Afghans who fled war over the past few decades. But the government pushed more than 500,000 refugees back over the border during the second half of 2016. This happened just as Afghanistan was forging closer relations with India, Pakistan’s archenemy. Coincidence? The author of this report from the Afghanistan Analysts Network thinks not. “Unhappiness at the flourishing India-Afghanistan friendship has translated into open hostility towards Afghan refugees,” it says. Pakistan has eased off its pressure on refugees for the time being, but it plans to start mass deportations in March if they don’t all leave by then. This is happening at the same time as Iran is also pushing Afghans back, while increasing conflict has displaced record numbers of people internally. For more on Afghanistan’s migration crisis, see our in-depth page.
News on Thursday that 100 more people had drowned trying to cross a stormy Mediterranean in rubber dinghies brought the total number of migrant deaths in the Mediterranean this year to 5,000 – the highest annual death toll ever recorded. But behind the grim figures are individuals with families back home who may not learn about the fate of their loved ones for weeks or months. Some will never know. In early 2015, journalist Eric Reidy was introduced to one such man, an Eritrean refugee called Yafet whose wife and young daughter had gone missing seven months earlier when the smuggler’s boat they boarded in Libya vanished without a trace somewhere in the Central Mediterranean. The Ghost Boat, as Reidy dubbed it, had 243 people on board, most of them Eritreans fleeing their country’s repressive government. Over the next 18 months, Reidy enlisted the help of thousands of readers to try to find out what had happened to the Ghost Boat’s passengers. They scoured satellite photos taken at the time of the boat’s departure, talked to smugglers, and visited mass graves where the bodies of unidentified migrants are buried. In this final instalment of the 10-part series, Reidy meets Yafet in Khartoum and has to break the news that the investigation has yielded no clear explanation of what happened to his wife and daughter.One to listen to:
The UN may be worried that it is. But it’s not doing anything about it. This NPR story features soundbites of Samantha Power, the US ambassador to the UN, making a strong and graphic case this week as she tried to convince the Security Council to take action immediately. The UN says armed groups are mobilising as ethnic hate speech spreads, and more than 400,000 people have fled across the border into Uganda since July. “History is going to show what each of us did, where each of us stood when the sirens were blaring,” says Power. But it may be too late for proposed sanctions and an arms embargo to have any effect, Alan Boswell, an IRIN contributor who’s writing a book on South Sudan, tells NPR, adding: “There’s a lot of face-saving going on.” A new report by International Crisis Group does offer some suggestions. There is a window of relative stability at the moment; regional and international powers should pressure government and military forces to negotiate a political solution – before it’s too late.One from IRIN:
There are at least two sides to every tale, but the government’s version of military events in Myanmar’s Rakhine State beggars belief. The difficulty with disproving it is that access to journalists has been denied since armed clashes began in Maungdaw Township in October between militants and government security forces. So-called “clearance operations” began soon after, ostensibly a search for those involved in 9 October attacks on border police outposts. Unable to get into Maungdaw, IRIN Asia Editor Jared Ferrie did the next best thing: he travelled to the other side of the border in Bangladesh where tens of thousands of Myanmar’s Rohingya Muslims have fled. The stories elderly Rohingya, women, and children told Ferrie, of rape, shootings, and abuse are horrific. Added to a raft of evidence collected by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, among others, the dossier of abuse becomes damning. Ferrie beseeched Aung San Suu Kyi’s government for a straight answer, but foreign ministry spokeswoman Aye Aye Soe insisted operations had been conducted “with very much restraint”. What about rape, ethnic cleansing? “Completely false”, apparently.Coming up:
Had enough of 2016 yet? To round off the last Top Picks of this most turbulent of years, we cast our gaze forward to explore what 2017 might bring. January will of course see one momentous change: the arrival of President Donald Trump in the White House. Further ahead, crucial elections in France and Germany may decide the future course of a Europe already reeling from Brexit. In the humanitarian sphere, conflict in South Sudan and Iraq’s Mosul loom large, while the growing food crisis in northeast Nigeria and the Lake Chad Basin region, and the forced returns of more than half a million refugees to Afghanistan remain largely neglected and under the media radar. New and escalating unrest and insecurity will mean more displacement, even as the developed world seeks to deter refugees and outsource migration policies to the developing world. A Trump administration may also mean less funding to respond, although some are predicting that America’s foreign aid budget might not shrink even if US priorities do change. Meanwhile, we’re reading Trumpian talk of nuclear weapons and an arms’ race. Happy New Year everyone!
(TOP PHOTO: A Rohingya woman and child in the Kutupalong informal settlement, Bangladesh, in June, 2014. CREDIT: Will Baxter)
as-jf-ks/agbangladesh_1.jpg News Migration Conflict Human Rights Politics and Economics This week's humanitarian reading list IRIN GENEVA Global
Evacuations from east Aleppo have progressed fitfully, but there is limited monitoring, and aid agencies and human rights groups have expressed concern for the conditions awaiting those bussed away, as well as those left behind – civilians and fighters alike.
IRIN was there at the start, with a 360-degree camera, when some of the first evacuees crossed into rebel-held territory. See for yourself as ambulances and green Syrian government buses pull into al-Rashideen on day two of the process, 16 December, with some evacuees hanging out of windows and chanting religious slogans.Aleppo evacuations Watch the evacuations in 360 degrees
Coming after months of brutal siege and the city’s descent into what outgoing UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called “a synonym for hell”, evacuations from the rebel-held enclave have been far from smooth – buses have been set alight, shots fired, and halts imposed thanks to ongoing deal-making. But the International Committee of the Red Cross now estimates that more than 25,000 people have been taken out of the besieged neighbourhoods.
Ankara and Moscow have said the evacuations may be finished soon, with some human rights groups expressing concern that the late and limited remit of monitors demanded by a UN Security Council Resolution is too little too late.
This is far from the only siege or evacuation in Syria that warrants watching, and many displaced are headed to warzones in the middle of winter, in desperate need of assistance. Some 6.3 million Syrians are displaced in their own country, and 4.9 million (at the UN's last count) live in areas that are besieged or hard to reach. Humanitarian access continues to be tied up with political negotiations.Limited monitor remit
While some have expressed concern that by the time monitors arrive there will be nothing left to see, Jens Laerke, spokesman for the UN’s emergency aid coordination body, OCHA, told IRIN that many appeared to misunderstand the mandate.
“It’s important to understand that this is not a separate monitoring mission where you will have UN staff with an armband,” Laerke said. “It strengthens [UN] partners and institutions that they work with to provide this monitoring.”
He said some UN staffers who were already in Syria had now been sent to west Aleppo, with more on the way, but “we don't have direct access as the UN into still besieged east Aleppo”.
UN staffers are on the ground as buses cross out of rebel-held east Aleppo, “counting buses”, for example, as well as providing aid, Laerke said, stressing that the ICRC and the Syrian Arab Red Crescent “have been running [the evacuation] operation since it began” and are serving as the monitors in east Aleppo.
Representatives of the ICRC or SARC were not immediately available for comment.
(TOP PHOTO: Displaced people southeast of the city of Aleppo, in Jibreen, as ICRC and SARC visit collective shelters in November. Sana Tarabishi/ICRC)
East Aleppo evacuations in 360 v-p-sy-e-00681.jpg Video Aid and Policy Migration Conflict Human Rights IRIN Middle East and North Africa Syria
For leverage, Helen grips the rungs on the side of the rusting hospital bed with her toes. “Sindika!” encourages Aisha Ayikoriu. “Sindika! Sindika!” In Luganda, the Bantu language widely spoken in Uganda, Sindika means “push”.
Built in the early 1990s to serve 10,000 local Ugandans, Ocea Centre Two is now the biggest of four clinics serving Rhino, a settlement of some 85,000 South Sudanese refugees.
As the UN makes repeated statements about ethnic cleansing and budding genocide in South Sudan, Uganda can barely open camps fast enough to accommodate the influx of refugees. An average of 2,500 have been arriving every day since July, with that figure as high as 7,000 earlier this month. A massive settlement for 100,000 has just opened in Moyo district in the tip of the north. With dry season offensives expected to begin any day now, it could be overflowing before mid-January.
In its most recent update, on 19 December, the UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR, says 584,573 South Sudanese refugees have arrived in Uganda since the civil war broke out in December 2013. Almost 400,000 of them have come since July, fleeing an upsurge in fighting and indiscriminate bloodletting in the southern Equatoria region.
The lack of resources for the refugees is evident. There isn’t enough water, let alone sanitary pads for women, and schools for children. It may be safer in Uganda, but the conditions here are inhumane.
At Ocea Centre Two, there are two beds for women in labour. On the other side of the green fabric that serves as a curtain are five mothers with newborns. They share cots and use cloths to cushion themselves and their little ones on the concrete floor. Mothers fuss over the babies. Though the situation is grim, the scene isn’t sad.
The “inpatient” unit is 14 beds in a tent. It is the only clinic at Rhino equipped to do minor surgical procedures. The beds in the tent are always full and often overrun, with patients sharing beds or staying on the floor.
For any major operations, patients must be sent to the nearest hospital, 72 nauseatingly bumpy kilometres to the west, in Arua, the closest main town. There is only one ambulance available. Vincent Debo, a clinical officer, looks embarrassed when he shares these statistics.Frontline Equatoria
The fight that has ruined the world’s newest nation turned three on 15 December. South Sudan itself is just five, having celebrated its independence in July 2011.
The conflict is an ethnically tinged power wrangle between the SPLA (government forces made up mostly of President Salva Kiir’s Dinka tribe) and the SPLA-IO (opposition forces – initially mostly Nuer people loyal to former vice president Riek Machar, but now increasingly mixed with members of South Sudan’s 63 other tribes).
Equatoria had remained a bastion of relative calm while war over resources and power infected the rest of the country, but the seat of the conflict has shifted. A failed, internationally-brokered August 2015 peace agreement positioned IO troops alongside the SPLA in these states, priming the place for a bloodbath. In July, fighting broke out in the capital Juba, located in the south in the middle of the Equatoria region. A chase down country for the ousted Machar was followed by massacres that have yet to stop.South Sudan refugee flows to Uganda since July 2016
Refugees from Equatoria say they left because staying at home was untenable. If it weren’t for the gunshots every night, the bodies in the streets, the families burned alive in their homes, and the women gang raped by the side of the road, they would have stayed.
“Fear made me come here,” Peter Dada, originally from Laniya in central Equatoria, tells IRIN at Rhino settlement. “There is killing, continuously. No compromise.”
Dada says if the government soldiers see you, they kill you. If IO soldiers see you, expect the same. He blames the SPLA alone though for the massive levels of rape, saying: “That one is being done by the government soldiers.”
Most refugees say both sides are complicit in the sexual assault that has reached “epic” levels in South Sudan.
It is less violent across the border, but the living conditions are dreadful.Shortages
The largest encampment in Uganda opened on 3 August, at Bidi Bidi. A small village a few months ago, it is now the world’s second largest refugee settlement, with a population of more than 260,000. Like Rhino, it is spread out across unforgiving terrain.
The majority of the refugees at Bidi Bidi and Rhino are from a mixture of South Sudan’s smaller, marginalised tribes, like the Kakwa and the Acholi. In the northeast of Uganda, the settlement at Adjumani hosts another 60,000 South Sudanese, but they are mostly of Kiir’s Dinka tribe.
Of the 100,000 school-age children in Bidi Bidi, only 10,000 attend classes. There is just one primary school.
Robert Baryamwesiga, Bidi Bidi’s camp commandant, says the biggest challenge is water. There are 70 boreholes on the sprawling 250-square-kilometre property. Sixty-five percent of the water is trucked in from the Nile. Each refugee has about eight litres a day for drinking, washing, cooking, and bathing. The World Health Organization recommends that 15 litres a day is needed for survival: drinking and cooking.
"Every day, more refugees were arriving than new boreholes could be drilled to supply them water,” said Harmen van den Berg, a hydrogeologist with UNHCR.
Jean-Luc Anglade, the country representative for Médecins Sans Frontières in Uganda, explained that a substantial amount of money is being spent exploring the groundwater in Bidi Bidi. Normally, a hydrogeology survey is completed before a plot of land is selected for a refugee settlement. In this case, it’s ongoing, after the camp is already full. “The water supply is too low in terms of quality/quantity delivered despite lots of efforts from partners,” Anglade told IRIN by email.
The water situation at Rhino isn’t any better.
Grace Ropani says it takes two or three people to “farm” the water. Pumping from the boreholes is exhausting, and can take two hours.
Ropani’s grandmother was macheted to death on 5 August. She didn’t see it happen; her neighbours gave her the news. “Here, we don’t hear the sound of guns,” she says of life in Rhino camp. Unlike others, Ropani isn’t concerned about the food supply, but she does need soap and salt, and she says the women need sanitary pads and underwear.
Yasmin Abdayy was elected by the Rhino refugee community to be an unpaid watchman for Oxfam’s water tank 171. As a truck pumps 20,000 litres into the tank, Abdayy keeps an eye on the line forming at the spouts. Everything is orderly, except the boys who dangle the truck’s dribbling hose into their containers to get every drop.
According to Abdayy’s calculations, each family gets two jerry cans’ full, about 40 litres, each day. Going by the WHO standards of 15 litres per person as the basic emergency level, a family of five would needs 75 litres to survive. Abdayy says there is just half the water needed. What he really wants is simply a notebook and a pen to keep track of the situation, so he can do his job correctly.
Food is also an increasingly acute concern.
In August, the World Food Programme cut rations by 50 percent for all refugees who had been in Uganda before July 2015. Now, the organisation faces a funding shortfall of $62 million for all refugee operations in the country for the next six months. If this is not met, WFP will be forced to cut the quota for new arrivals as well. Even though they are allegedly getting the requisite amount of food, the majority of newly arrived refugees, including Abdayy and Dada in Rhino settlement, speak of hunger and say they don’t have enough to eat.
It is 1pm, and neither Abdayy nor his five children have eaten. “The food is finished,” he says, adding that his family won’t eat that day unless he can find a way to do some small paid labor, or perhaps make a trade. Other refugees spoke of exchanging supplies like pots for food.
Some aid organisations attribute the lack of schools, health services, food, and water to the scale of the influx. But Shoshon Tama-Sweet, Africa and Middle East programme manager with Medical Teams International (MTI), finds that rationale lacking.
“They [UN and NGOs] prepared for 700,000 refugees before the Mosul offensive [in Iraq],” he told IRIN. “South Sudan has been at war since 2013. The refugees started flooding Uganda in July. They used surprise as an explanation for lack of preparation. Now, it's December. They still can't be surprised. We're running to stand still.”
Speaking again to the relativism other aid staffers apply to explain conditions, Tama-Sweet said: “You can't say: 'Well, they wouldn't have water in South Sudan either.' In South Sudan, they had community coping mechanisms, they knew the land. This isn't the same thing."Birth
Back at Ocea Centre Two in Rhino settlement, Ayikoriu, the midwife, is giving instructions.
Helen is 25. This is her first child. She purses her lips and screws up her eyes in painful effort, but she doesn’t make much noise.
She hasn’t taken any pain medication. Lili Aya, the birth attendant, and Ayikoriu shift Helen into the most comfortable position; first draping her arm over her back and moving her onto her side, then holding her neck and massaging her breasts and belly. Helen’s only cover is a limp plaid blanket. It’s a physical process; the women are comfortable with each other.
Beads of sweat form on Helen’s lips. The room smells vaguely of hay. Ayikoriu advises her patient to push like she’s trying to go to the bathroom. “She’s putting her effort here,” Ayikoriu says, indicating her neck. “I’m telling her to push down.”
Ayikoriu ties a rubber glove around Helen’s arm. She’s found they make perfect tourniquets. She gives Helen an intravenous drip of glucose for energy, and some oxytocin to speed up her slowing contractions.
Now, Helen is not contracting at all. A clinical officer calls the ambulance. It’s time to take Helen to the hospital. Ayikoriu is not worried about Helen’s health, but she is concerned the baby will suffocate. The ambulance is already on its way to the hospital with someone else. It will be hours before it can come back for Helen.
(TOP PHOTO: Mother and newborn asleep on the floor of Ocea Center Two, Rhino settlement, Uganda. CREDIT: Amanda Sperber/IRIN)
as/agRhinoCamp.jpg News Migration Conflict Food Health Human Rights South Sudan: From war to want Amanda Sperber IRIN Rhino settlement Africa East Africa South Sudan Uganda
She’s watching the road just outside her house, sitting on a tree trunk used as a barricade during anti-government protests last year against President Pierre Nkurunziza. And she’s talking to herself.
“This person walks like Benny. Even his shirt looks like Benny’s,” she says, her grief heavy, as a man walks past the house.
Janet Bizimana’s* son disappeared on 19 January, 2016. Her neighbour says that on the 19th of each month she stays up crying through the night.
Burundi has been through many dark days of brutal violence: its two civil wars and repeated bouts of ethnic cleansing have all left scars in this small, densely populated country.
And the violence is far from over. For almost two years now, Burundi has been torn by renewed political conflict in which hundreds of people have been killed, and thousands detained and tortured – all creating fresh layers of trauma.
Opposition to Nkurunziza flared over his decision to run for a third presidential term, which many viewed as unconstitutional. He won the controversial elections in July last year after surviving an attempted coup, and Burundi has teetered on the brink of civil war ever since.
The conflict, which is in danger of re-opening the ethnic-based fault lines of the past, has forced 327,400 Burundians to flee into neighbouring countries. Burundi has a total population of just 10 million.Two narratives
While Burundian human rights activists say 1,000 people have been killed and more than 9,000 detained since April 2015, the government insists the situation is improving, and was backed recently by the president of the National Independent Human Rights Commission, Jean-Baptiste Baribonekeza.
"The country is calm; we no longer hear gun shots in the capital,” Baribonekeza was quoted as saying by IWACU English News. “If we visit places of detention, we notice that the number of arrested people has significantly decreased from more than 9,000 in 2015 to about 6,000 today. In general, there has been an improvement compared to last year.”World Economic Forum/Eric Miller President Pierre Nkurunziza won elections in July after an attempted coup
Mutakura is a low-income district of junior civil servants and small-scale company workers outside the capital, Bujumbura.
It’s also the home of Bizimana*, the 70-year-old mother of Benny Runyaga*, who was a well-known member of the opposition Movement for Solidarity and Justice, a party linked to the rebel RED-Tabara group.
“When the phone rings at home, she’s the first to run to pick it up. She thinks her son will be on the line,” explains a family friend. “It’s the same thing when someone knocks on the door. She tries to be the first to open the door, believing her son will come home.”
Benny Runyaga was the father of two children. The youngest was born only a month before he disappeared, presumably picked up by the police.
“The oldest child takes his father’s clothes, lays them out, and calls his mother and says, ‘mum, here is dad’,” explains a neighbour.
Not knowing whether Runyaga is alive or dead is torturing the family, especially Janet. The neighbour is worried she might need institutional care.“Feeding on blood”
Jane* is also a victim. Her husband, an army officer, died in an attack on their home in Bujumbura. Their four children still ask when he will come back to them.
“Only the oldest child, who is almost nine, seems to understand what happened to us. Every day, he asks why the world is so mean to refuse him the right to hold his father’s hand,” Jane tells IRIN.
“Every time we visit his grave he tells me that he’s scared that those who killed my husband can see us.
“He tells me: ‘They are here, mum; they are following us; they don’t want us to come here. They are animals, mum: beasts feeding on blood.” Her voice is shaking.
Apart from the emotional impact, the loss of Jane’s husband has had a devastating economic effect on the family.
“I’ve had to leave the house we lived in before the attack for another, cheaper one. I am not paying the rent because I don’t have a job. Friends, acquaintances, and some old colleagues of my husband are paying for me and the children,” she explains.
“They are doing it secretly because they are afraid too. We never got the results from the investigation [into her husband’s death].
“Even old friends of my husband, although members of the security forces, or in defence, are asking about the investigation into his death, like I am.”
Jane doesn’t want to talk about whether he had any political affiliations.Disorders
Jean-Pierre Ntamatungiro* is a psychologist with a private office in Bujumbura’s city centre.
“Before the crisis, I was seeing at least three patients with signs of trauma,” he tells IRIN. “Today, I receive nine or 10 every day. Do the maths and you’ll see the number of people we receive every month. It’s a big number for a small country like Burundi.”
The people who come for counselling are only those who can afford it. Others are left on the streets, and many young people are taking to drugs, the psychologist says.
“[This crisis] affects young people from all political parties in Burundi: opposition and pro-government alike,” says Ntamatungiro*. “Some of them have developed suicidal tendencies, following what they have seen. There are others who have lost the ability to speak, following what they went through or witnessed.”The future
Last month, IRIN watched three boys playing on the streets of Bujumbura’s southern Musaga district. It’s an area known for opposition to the government, and therefore also for crackdowns by the security forces.
One of the boys was imitating a policeman. “Get out of your house or I’ll shoot the door,” he commanded.Phil Moore/IRIN Musaga district is known for opposition to the government
Another had a small round stone, which he pretended was a grenade; the third was singing a popular song from last year against the re-election of Nkurunziza.
They were scattered back to their families by an older man – made uncomfortable by what he was witnessing and the presence of a journalist.
“They are only repeating what they saw here,” explained a passer-by. “But I have doubts for the future of these children in such a country.”
* Names have been changed to protect identities for security reasons
(TOP PHOTO: Relatives of a student killed in the Jabe neighbourhood of Bujumbura mourn at home in the Burundian capital on June 28, 2015. Phil Moore/IRIN)
jw/oa/agRelatives of a student killed last night in the Jabe neighbourhood of Bujumbura mourn at home in the Burundian capital on June 28, 2015. At least two people were killed last night during violence Feature Conflict Human Rights Burundi mental scars deepen as fear rules Jeffrey Williams IRIN BUJUMBURA Africa East Africa Burundi
A middle-aged man stands in front of a freshly covered grave, a flag tied around his neck. The flag has blue and white stripes and a white dove in its top left quadrant, but these are not the colours of any country recognised by the United Nations.
That is something this man and thousands like him in the two western English-speaking regions of Cameroon want to change. They are agitating for secession, and the creation of a brand-new country called the Republic of Ambazonia.
The grave contains the body of a young man shot dead by security forces on 8 December in Bamenda, the largest city in Cameroon’s Northwest Region. He was one of four people who died that day, as they demanded the rolling back of French influence.
“Innocent southern Cameroonians (a reference to the pre-independence name of the two Anglophone regions: Southern Cameroons) went out to the streets to complain, without weapons: no guns no bullets. But here is our younger brother, lying here,” he says to a group of men paying their respects at the graveside.
“The time is now. Our independence is our inherent right,” he says. “We are calling on the United Nations and all African heads of state [to support us]. Brothers, go back to Bamenda safely. Tomorrow, a new fight is starting.”
There’s a collective yell of “forward ever, backward never”, and the men troop out of the cemetery in Kumbo, the second-largest city in Northwest Region.“Swamped”
Cameroon is a bilingual country; the constitution gives equal status to both English and French. But Cameroon’s two English-speaking regions, Northwest and Southwest, are seething over their perceived marginalisation, swamped by Cameroon’s eight other regions and majority French-speaking population.Wikipedia
They believe they are treated as second-class citizens, and over the past few months there has been a series of demonstrations in defence of their language and culture.
The movement began as protests by lawyers and teachers in October, striking over the increasing use of French in courts and schools. It has since snowballed.
Clashes with the security forces in Bamenda on 21 November left one person dead and more than 100 arrested. Students supporting the strikers at the University of Buea, the largest English-speaking university in the country, were teargassed and beaten on 28 November, with images of the violence going viral on social media.
The discontent, known as the “Anglophone problem”, has been bubbling since the 1990s. It is fanned by the perceived lack of benefits earned from the oil produced in the region; the government’s failure to appoint English-speaking Cameroonians (with the exception of the prime minister) to senior positions; and the difficulty faced in the job market by those for whom French is not their first language.“Excessive force”
Paul Atanga Nji, the minister of special duties at the presidency, denies there is a systemic problem. In what was seen as a provocation in the heated political atmosphere, he decided to hold a rally of the ruling CPDM in Bamenda on 8 December.
It went badly. Protesters blocked the roads to the city. They stopped everyone they found wearing CPDM colours, stripped them, and set their clothes on fire. They pulled down the Cameroonian flag on administrative buildings and hoisted the secessionist southern Cameroon flag.
Atanga’s car was torched, and he was forced to seek refuge in a nearby hospital as a military helicopter flew to his rescue. Other politicians had to be rushed out of the venue, escorted by soldiers mounted on pickup trucks firing into the air.
Police and soldiers used what the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights described as “excessive force”. Among their victims was a 12-year-old boy, shot while fetching water from a public tap.
The government, though, has characterised the protesters as quasi-terrorists. According to press reports, some 100 people arrested in Bamenda have been flown to 101 Military Base in the capital, Yaoundé, and are currently being held in an undisclosed location.
They could face the death penalty if tried under Cameroon’s controversial anti-terrorism law, enacted in the wake of Boko Haram attacks in the country’s Far North Region.
Government spokeman Issa Tchiroma Bakary said at the weekend that the comparison with Boko Haram was apt. He said security forces had been confronting a well-planned act of urban guerrilla warfare, while the raising of the Southern Cameroons flag was insurrectionary.Call for investigations
But Amnesty International has urged the government to immediately conduct “thorough, impartial and effective investigations”, into the actions by the security forces.
“Responding to incidents of violence during protests with unnecessary or excessive force threatens to further enflame an already tense situation and could put more lives at risk,” Amnesty said in a statement.
Southern Cameroons was under British colonial rule at the end of World War I, and administered as part of neighbouring Nigeria. In a referendum in 1961 it chose to join French Cameroon, and the two territories were formally united.
The men at the graveside in Kumbo, and other secessionists, represent the hardline option. The more mainstream position in western Cameroon is for federation, returning to a system of governance that existed from independence until 1972.No dialogue
The Cameroon Anglophone Civil Society Consortium, made up primarily of lawyers and teachers involved in the strike action, are among the groups pushing for the federal option, so far with little success.
Ayah Paul Abine, an opposition politician and the lone Anglophone among five advocates-general on Cameroon’s Supreme Court, is putting together a list of eminent leaders to negotiate with the government.
“We will dialogue with the government to have federalism, and if we can’t have that, both Cameroons will go their separate ways,” he told IRIN.
But the depth of anger in western Cameroon has so far been best expressed by Member of Parliament Wirba Joseph, who made an impassioned speech to the national assembly that has become a local internet sensation.
Furious over the actions of what he described as an “army of occupation”, he announced, “those saying that we should break Cameroon are right”.
Quoting Thomas Jefferson, he added: “When injustice becomes law, resistance becomes duty.”
TOP PHOTO: Bamenda. CREDIT: Gabriel de CastelazeNon, merci: English-speaking Cameroon rises up, wants Republic of Ambazonia bamenda.jpg Mbom Sixtus Feature Conflict Human Rights Politics and Economics Bamenda IRIN Africa Cameroon
In a rapid offensive lasting less than a month, forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad have recaptured the last opposition enclave in east Aleppo. On Monday evening, the army cleared street after street as artillery and air strikes pounded rebel positions northeast of Ramouseh district. By midnight, only a tiny speck of territory remained in opposition hands and celebratory gunfire lit the darkened skies over west Aleppo. On Tuesday evening, finally, news came of a deal brokered by Russia and Turkey that would see the remaining rebel fighters evacuate to opposition-held territory outside Aleppo, while civilians were to remain in the city under government control.
The collapse of the east Aleppo pocket marks the end of a four-and-a-half year struggle for control over northern Syria’s largest city, often referred to as the country’s industrial and economic capital.
To al-Assad loyalists, this is a great victory. In an email interview, a source close to the government in Damascus spoke of Aleppo’s “liberation from terror groups”, saying that the restoration of army control would “allow the hundreds of thousands of displaced persons to return to east Aleppo”.
There is clearly a sense of relief among government loyalists in Aleppo, who feel that their city may finally be on the path back to normality. On Monday night, the state broadcaster al-Ekhbariya ran loops of footage from street celebrations in pouring rain, where young men fired in the air and honked their car horns as television anchors handed out chocolates.
But to the Syrian opposition, the fall of east Aleppo is a political disaster that threatens to sap morale and undermine international support for the uprising. Yet opposition representatives struck a defiant tone.
“We can’t ignore the fact that the revolutionaries in Syria have been left alone to face a large group of enemies, including the regime, Hezbollah, Iran, Russia, the militias, and Iraq,” Omar Mushaweh, a Turkey-based leader of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, told IRIN in an online interview.
But, like other opposition sympathisers interviewed, Mushaweh gave no hint of wanting to surrender. Indeed, with the al-Assad government’s own weaknesses demonstrated by its recent loss of Palmyra to the self-declared Islamic State, no one is under any illusions: the war will go on.Civilians at Risk
Beyond the political consequences, however, recent events in Aleppo mark the brutal conclusion to four years of human suffering. To Syrians with friends and family in the collapsing rebel enclave, the past weeks have been a nightmare. All through Monday and Tuesday, desperate messages and pleas for help trickled out from east Aleppo through private contacts and social media. Though many civilians had already managed to flee into government-held western Aleppo, the last days of the enclave saw tens of thousands of people thronging the streets.
“People are moving around and fleeing as they can in a very volatile situation, as front lines continue to shift on a daily basis,” Linda Tom, a spokeswoman for the UN’s emergency aid coordination body, OCHA, told IRIN in an emailed comment on Saturday. Tom estimated that more than 40,000 civilians had already been displaced at that point, with a further 100,000 still in rebel-held territory, though she stressed that all figures were uncertain.*
Médecins Sans Frontières has called the fall of east Aleppo one of the worst crises they have seen in years. For some of the displaced civilians, fleeing meant risking everything – not only their lives, but also their homes.
Though the Syrian government claims to welcome and protect civilians fleeing eastern Aleppo, many pro-regime militias are poorly organised and undisciplined, and they have a history of looting and destroying abandoned property. Even the governor of Aleppo, Brigadier-General Hussein Diab, recently complained about the waves of looting that tend to follow every successful army offensive in Aleppo.
Though the UN has reported allegations that rebel groups forcibly prevented civilians from leaving in an attempt to use them as human shields, UN officials have also received reports that military-age men are being arrested after crossing into west Aleppo. Indeed, many civilians in the rebel zone seem to have held off fleeing to government territory until they simply had no other choice. “They have been killing us for so long, why would they have mercy?” one resident told the Washington Post.
The Syrian government is eager to deny any such abuses.
“Men of military age leaving the east are being checked and having their details taken down as part of the amnesty and reconciliation process,” a Syrian colonel working for the man running military operations in Aleppo, Lieutenant-General Ziad al-Saleh, said in a statement provided to IRIN by an intermediary. The colonel stated that those guilty of “severe criminality” will be tried and judged, but insisted that “the state is open to these people returning to their normal lives”.
Indeed, as much as they may want to completely crush the opposition and avenge themselves on rebel fighters, al-Assad’s men seem to realise that a softer touch is in their interest. Aleppo will be seen as a major test case for the government’s strategy of imposing local truces and forcing the evacuation of rebel fighters to peripheral regions like Idlib, as al-Assad shores up control over central Syria and major cities elsewhere.
Nevertheless, as the rebel pocket finally collapsed on Monday and Tuesday, opposition media filled up with references to Srebrenica 1995 and Rwanda 1994, even to the Holocaust. These claims were not backed up by reporting and even overtly pro-rebel media channels had, at the time of writing, produced no evidence of anything remotely similar to these atrocities. According to a spokesperson, the UN had received reports about the killing of 82 civilians at the hands of pro-al-Assad forces on Tuesday. As horrifying as that is, it is no genocide.
That said, the fears of opposition sympathisers in the city are real. Other deaths may have gone unreported and at this point no one is quite sure whether the evacuation deal will hold or what the future will bring. With no outside monitoring of the situation or of the conduct of al-Assad’s forces, there are great and legitimate concerns about the mistreatment of prisoners and vulnerable civilian populations. This gruesome chapter in Syria’s history is still being written.
* A note on the population statistics: Throughout the conflict, the number of civilians in rebel-held Eastern Aleppo has been hotly disputed. Until the rebel stronghold finally collapsed, the United Nations had put the number of people in Aleppo at 250,000-275,000. After the attack began, most UN estimates seemed to add up to around 140,000 civilians. On 9 December, I was told by UN OCHA spokesperson Russell Geekie that in the absence of definite information it would be premature to conclude that the UN number had been too high, though Geekie acknowledged that preliminary figures did seem to point in that direction. During my most recent visit to Damascus in October and November, Syrian officials provided wildly varying estimates that ranged from 97,000 people (according to Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem) to 200,000 people (according to President Bashar al-Assad). On December 11, a Damascus-based source close to the Syrian government insisted, in an email interview, that the UN has allowed itself to be misled by opposition activists and told me that in a final count the total number of civilians in Eastern Aleppo “will not exceed 100,000.”
(TOP PHOTO: The Masaken Hanano district of east Aleppo. Sevim Turkmani/ICRC)
al/as/agv-p-sy-e-00690.jpg Analysis Migration Conflict Human Rights The Fall of Aleppo Aron Lund IRIN STOCKHOLM Middle East and North Africa Syria
Aleppo is nothing short of a chaotic horror story. Its surviving civilians are either trapped, in flight, or hunkering down under airstrikes and shelling.
What’s left of the rebel-held east of the city has been under assault by forces allied with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad for a month now, and under siege for far longer. More than 110,000 civilians have been killed since the fighting broke out in 2011. And that’s a conservative estimate.
After the indiscriminate barrel bombs, hospitals flattened and aid denied, there’s understandable fury at the failure of the international community to broker anything more than the occasional pause. Observers are now warning that the imminent fall of the last remaining pockets of Aleppo represents the beginning of the end of the fight against the Assad regime.
The world couldn’t, or wouldn’t, stop the war. But will it at least try to bring those who have committed its worst crimes to justice? Condemnations of “war crimes” and even “genocide” have punctuated the past five years, but what do these terms actually mean and do they really apply here?
IRIN sought expert help to navigate the complexities of international law and explain the legal lie of the land:Is it genocide?
With dramatic images and videos of bloodied bodies under the rubble in Aleppo (and elsewhere), it’s perhaps no wonder that many consider what is happening in Syria “the crime of crimes” – genocide.
For the most part however, experts say that Syria has not witnessed genocide, at least according to the legal standards set out in the 1948 Genocide Convention. That’s in part because the law was framed with a very particular event in mind: the Holocaust.
Proving genocide requires showing that the intent of the perpetrator is to destroy a racial, ethnic, national, or religious group.
Because of the narrow definition, plus the “difficulties of proving intent, the vast majority of crimes in Syria could not be qualified as genocide”, Marko Milanovic, associate professor of law at the University of Nottingham, explained.
”That does not mean, however, that these crimes are any less bad or less worthy of condemnation,” he stressed, pointing out that killing gay people, the disabled, or social or political opponents would also fail to qualify.
That’s why even the “killing fields” of Cambodia – where well over one million people were murdered because of class or perceived opposition to the Khmer Rouge – did not make the legal cut.
There may have been one act of genocide in Syria – in June 2016 the UN Commission of Inquiry on Syria concluded that so-called Islamic State was committing genocide against the Yazidis. It documented killings, sexual slavery, torture and more that it said was to an attempt to destroy the ethnic group – concluding that it amounted to genocide.
William Schabas, a professor of international law at Middlesex University in London, is considered to be one of the world’s leading experts on genocide.
He told IRIN that while he respects the UN commission’s work he doesn’t believe the Yazidi situation meets the legal standard. Genocide, he said, “raises the temperature and it raises the shock value.” That’s why NGOs often use the word – and victims understandably want what was done to them recognised.
Schabas said he believes “the important thing for people to understand is that giving it the label genocide doesn’t give it any value added” in terms of making crimes easier or clearer to prosecute. That’s because, in his opinion, “the case for crimes against humanity [in Syria] is really clear”.
Rogier Bartels, legal officer in chambers at the International Criminal Court, agreed, although he said there is some evidence that sentencing may be greater when the label genocide is attached.
“To me… ultimately what matters is that there is no impunity and that someone is prosecuted and punished if found guilty for unlawful behaviour,” he told IRIN.So what’s left?
In international law, there are three categories of crimes that individuals can be held criminally responsible for: war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide.
War crimes can only be committed during an armed conflict – the International Committee of the Red Cross began to explicitly refer to the war in Syria as such in July 2012, although that seemed clear far earlier, at least on an instinctive level, to many observers.MSF Two ambulances in Eastern Ghouta were destroyed in an airstrike earlier this month, while parked near a makeshift hospital
Once there’s an armed conflict, the basics of what you can and can’t do in war are codified by the Geneva Conventions as well as the Rome Statute that founded the International Criminal Court.
A few basics that will sound all too familiar with regards to Syria: it’s a war crime to launch an attack on civilians; it’s a war crime to intentionally attack medical facilities; it’s a war crime to attack peacekeepers or humanitarian workers.
An isolated incident, for example one mistreatment – or killing – of a prisoner of war can constitute a war crime.
This, Tufts University visiting professor of international law John Cerone explained, is “as opposed to a crime against humanity, which by definition has to occur within a larger criminal context – and that larger criminal context is a widespread or systematic attack directed against a civilian population.”
There is a small complication.
There are two types of armed conflict – international and non-international. In short, there’s a smaller list of war crimes that apply in a non-international armed conflict, which legally speaking Syria may be. That’s basically because the Syrian government never officially objected to foreign bombing of IS, or to Russian intervention.
The non-international aspect label may sound counterintuitive to observers given the number of actors involved, but simply put it is a legal nuance that experts say probably won’t matter a great deal.
Starvation is not a crime in a non-international armed conflict. But as Bartels puts it, “if you look at the Syrian situation there are [so many likely crimes] – attacks on humanitarian convoys, civilians, and hospitals that may be easier to prove… so very specific instances, specific crimes may be more difficult to charge [if Syria is considered a non-international conflict]. But overall with what’s going on, they won’t have trouble finding crimes.”Prosecution?
The law has clearly not served as much of a deterrent in the Syrian war, but that doesn’t mean wrongdoers won’t eventually be brought to book. It probably won’t be by the International Criminal Court, however.
This is because Syria is not a member of the ICC, and without membership it takes UN Security Council referral for investigation – this was attempted in May 2014 but voted down by veto-wielding powers Russia and China.
Given Russia’s alliance with Assad and now its deep involvement in the conflict, future vetoes would be a near certainty if this route is attempted.Sana Tarabishi/ICRC Syrian IDPs south of Aleppo are staying in collective shelters
The same goes for ad hoc tribunals like the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia and the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda – both required Security Council backing to be created.
The only individuals likely to be investigated by the ICC are foreigners from countries who have signed up to the court’s jurisdiction – European nationals who have joined IS and are fighting on Syrian soil, for example.
But “these tend to be people who play pretty secondary roles,” said Schabas. “And when we talk about prosecuting, we are looking for the Eichmanns, not the low level people,” he added, referring to Holocaust architect Adolf Eichmann.
Cerone did see the possibility of a “very narrow referral [to the ICC]” on the chemical weapons issue, but had concerns about its viability.
There are options outside the ICC: national courts that accept what’s called “universal jurisdiction” can charge individuals with international crimes – war crimes, crimes against humanity, and even genocide – in their own courts. But which country will have the political will to pursue such charges after the conflict?
And as for justice within Syria itself, there’s no telling right now what a post-war Syria might look like or how it would look to deal with the horror of the past few years. Transitional justice attempts could include trials, or an Assad still in power might attempt to prosecute members of the opposition.With what evidence?
Assuming some sort of justice does come to pass, courts will need evidence. And that’s one thing they are likely to have.
Groups like the Commission for International Justice and Accountability have been meticulously gathering and storing evidence with an eye to future prosecutions – it alone has smuggled more than 600,000 documents out of Syria.
Stephen Rapp, US ambassador-at-large for war crimes issues, told the New Yorker that CIJA’s documentation “is much richer than anything I’ve seen, and anything I’ve prosecuted in this area” – and he’s worked on prosecutions in Rwanda and Sierra Leone. The CIJA is also not the only group collecting evidence.
Bartels at the ICC told IRIN that international courts have in the past had “very little documentary evidence” and have had to rely on witness testimony – this can be unreliable as memories fade and accounts contradict each other.
He said the mountain of evidence gathered over Syria “is useful and potentially can be used” but “needs to fulfill regular evidentiary standards”.
Evidence gathered during conflict “has been admitted before other tribunals,” Milanovic, from the University of Nottingham, pointed out.To what end?
Milanovic, for one, worries that “mass impunity for crimes in Syria is by far the most likely scenario, in the next few decades at least.
“We might see some isolated prosecutions by states on the basis of universal jurisdiction, if they get their hands on specific defendants,” he said. “But it… seems exceptionally unlikely that such defendants would be of very high rank.”
Schabas struck a slightly more optimistic tone.
“We should see it [prosecution] as a very real possibility and we should be very careful about drawing conclusions about our ability to prosecute war crimes simply because of the frustration of dealing with it during the conflict.”
“There is a good likelihood that some of the people will fall into the hands of those who would like to see them punished.”
But for those who don’t, the long list of unresolved ICC indictments attests to the fact that arresting suspects is often harder than charging them.
And, most pertinent of all perhaps, how do you get justice for crimes perpetrated by key figures in the Assad regime if it is still in power?
(TOP PHOTO: An ambulance parked in front of an Eastern Aleppo hospital was hit by airstrikes in late November, leaving only its metal frame. Karam Almasri/MSF)
as/agmsf180963_high_res.jpg Analysis Conflict Human Rights Syria war crimes: a guide for navigating the legal minefield Annie Slemrod What justice might look like and why “genocide” is an unhelpful label IRIN Russia Middle East and North Africa Syria
David Salah sits on the South Sudan side of the Kaya river. A wooden bridge separates him from Busia, a border crossing in Uganda. He wears a black-and-red jersey and black shorts. His smile is friendly enough, but he keeps a well-worn AK-47 by his side.
Salah spent most of his early life as a student in Uganda, where he acquired the excellent English he speaks. In 2003, he moved back home to South Sudan. Since then, he has worked as a farmer in the fertile southern Equatoria region.
This is not the future he had in mind. Salah wanted to return to Uganda and study for a Bachelor of Business Administration at Makerere University. But, he says, the government would not sponsor him to go.
Salah believes the South Sudanese government keeps scholarships only for the Dinka, the largest ethnic group in the country. It is the community to which President Salva Kiir belongs, as do the majority of senior figures within his administration.
Like many non-Dinka in South Sudan, Salah thinks the government is solely dedicated to keeping the Dinka people in power. Kiir is backed by the influential Jieng (Dinka) Council of Elders and supported by military chief-of-staff General Paul Malong Awan.
To the bush
Salah is a Kakwa, a relatively small ethnic group that straddles southwestern South Sudan, northwestern Uganda, and northeastern Democratic Republic of the Congo.Amanda Sperber/IRIN Captain Salah's bridge
Last year, he joined the rebel SPLA-IO, a movement associated with the country’s second largest ethnic group, the Nuer. But the insurgency is also attracting the loyalty of existing community-based militia in the Equatoria region and beyond – anyone to challenge the Dinka’s perceived hold on national power and resources.
Salah is a captain in the SPLA-IO. Asked how he thinks fighting will bring about the political resolution he wants, he laughs and says something about how this is the only way to bring about change in this part of the world.
Salah's comrade-in-arms, Samuel Denyag, was a policeman in the capital, Juba, where he says he saw ethnic chauvinism first-hand. Denyag claims his Dinka commanders fixed the books, adding dozens of ghost names to the payroll, and then shared out the proceeds among just the Dinka cops.
When South Sudan’s civil war broke out in December 2013, over a contest for power between Kiir and his rival, former vice president Riek Machar, Denyag headed home to western Equatoria. He joined the Arrow Boys, a broad militia originally formed to defend the community against attacks by Uganda’s notorious Lord’s Resistance Army.
The LRA are gone. Now there are new threats. Local anger has long been stoked by the encroachment of heavily armed Dinka cattle herders onto farmland, and the disappearance of young men in the government’s heavy-handed counter-insurgency operations.
As armed groups bubbled up in western Equatoria in 2015, some Arrow Boy factions threw in with SPLA-IO. Denyag was one of them.
Some of these emerging armed groups looked to be absorbed into the national army under an agreement negotiated in 2015 to end the civil war. But the accord didn’t last. Although Machar finally returned to Juba to join a government of national unity in April this year, three months later he was fleeing for his life, heading south through Equatoria and over the Congolese border.
Fighting followed in his wake. Yei, in southern Equatoria, was previously thought of as one of the safest places in South Sudan. But Human Rights Watch reported in October “numerous cases” of abuse by the army against civilians as they hunted for SPLA-IO supporters.
IRIN was unable to get comment from the government.
Among the most brutal of the government’s forces are the all-Dinka Mathiang Anyoor militia, created by Malong. They were instrumental in the purging of Nuer neighbourhoods in Juba in 2013.Amanda Sperber Lona Saima Revenge
The violence has spurred opposition, increasingly united in a sense of victimhood. It has also generated a cycle of revenge. In October, armed gunmen attacked a bus on the Yei-Juba road, separated the 21 Dinka from the other passengers, and shot them.
“The history of mass atrocities suggests that ethnic violence is normally a political tool waged for – often petty – political purposes. South Sudan is no different,” researcher Alan Boswell told IRIN. “It’s a political war for a new state that never fully formed, but is now being fought over as it collapses.”
The brutality under way in Equatoria has forced 246,000 South Sudanese to flee to northwest Uganda in six months. Tens of thousands of them – if not more – have crossed Captain Salah’s rickety bridge.
“These atrocities are not an abuse of power per se, but rather the desperation of the weak lacking true state power,” said Boswell. “This is ethnic cleansing as desperation, not strength.”
Lona Saima walked for seven days with her family from Yei to reach safety. In early December, she’d just been trucked from the South Sudanese border to Kuluba Transit Centre in Uganda.
“If they [the Dinka] get you, they will slaughter you like a chicken,” she told IRIN. “They want to kill anyone because they don’t trust you… they think you are hiding rebels.”
Saima has tuberculosis and hasn’t been able to access medicine for two months, since war shut the hospital and supply lines down. Her body aches.
At least 85 percent of the people in the heaving camps are women and children. The men have stayed to fight and to protect their property.Amanda Sperber/IRIN No shortage of guns in South Sudan
Otto John Adema bucks the trend. An HIV-positive preacher with 12 children, he arrived from Torit, in southeastern South Sudan, in August. He sits against the mud brick house he built in Bidi Bidi camp, holding his baby boy.
He saw three civilians shot, but doesn’t know if it was the SPLA or the rebels who did the killing. He is sure, though, that it was five SPLA-IO raping a woman in the street with a stick.
Ethnic killings have been a feature of South Sudan’s civil war since it began. Kem Ryan, who was the head of operations for the relief and protection section of the UN’s peacekeeping mission, has plenty of evidence.
“I have hundreds of photos from the three years of war in South Sudan of people killed, mostly civilians, many bound and executed,” he told IRIN. The violence forced 200,000 people from their homes in 2015.
The UN didn’t use the terms “ethnic cleansing” or “genocide” then, but now they do.
On 11 November, Adam Dieng, the UN Special Adviser on the Prevention of Genocide, said South Sudan risked “outright ethnic war” and genocide. The last time he was in the country was in 2014.
The UN Human Rights Commission said in statement on 30 November: “there is already a steady process of ethnic cleansing under way in several areas of South Sudan using starvation, gang rape and the burning of villages.”
No one knows how many people have been killed in South Sudan’s civil war. There are estimates of up to 300,000, but the phrase “tens of thousands” is normally used in news reports.
“The UN is the only actor in South Sudan with the capacity to collect and verify death tolls and they chose not to,” said International Crisis Group’s South Sudan senior analyst, Casie Copeland.
“Death tolls are important for our humanity, to raise awareness and as empirical evidence of how the war evolves.”
Richard Batili also guards the bridge on the Kaya river. He sees no end in sight to this conflict. “What is going to happen will be unacceptable,” he told IRIN. “This fighting will continue to our children.”
TOP PHOTO: Bidi Bidi is the fastest growung refugee camp in northwest Uganda CREDIT: EU/ECHO/Anouk DelafortrieSouth Sudan: “This fighting will continue to our children” bidi_refs.jpg Amanda Sperber Feature Migration Conflict Human Rights KAYA SOUTH SUDAN IRIN Africa South Sudan Uganda
Last Friday, the unbelievable happened in Gambia: after 22 years of autocratic rule, Yahya Jammeh peacefully conceded defeat in a historic presidential election. By Monday, 19 political prisoners, including former opposition leader Ousainou Darboe, had been released from jail.
It has been a head-spinning few days for the nation as it breaks free from oppression to rebuild what the incoming coalition government, headed by Adama Barrow, has branded “New Gambia”.
The challenges ahead are daunting. Ensuring a safe transfer of power and reassuring the country that the new government has a strong reform plan are the immediate tasks.
But after more than two decades of misrule, Gambians are also impatient for change and the list of problems is long: a prostrate and undiversified economy, a high rate of outmigration, heavily politicised state institutions – including a military and a criminal justice system used to operating by fear.
Expectations are sky-high as so much already seems to have happened so quickly.
Coalition 2016, officially formed only one month before the election, swept to victory on Friday with 46 percent of the vote, to Jammeh’s 37 percent. Independent candidate Mama Kandeh trailed on 18 percent.
Soon after the announcement that Jammeh was to stand down, delivered by the reportedly trembling chair of the Independent Electoral Commission, Gambians began pouring onto the streets, shouting for joy and dancing as car horns wailed.Jubilation
The jubilant scenes shared through social media were a collective release. “It was like we had been under a magician’s spell and the spell had just broken,” said Alieu Bah, a 24-year-old activist and writer.
“Twenty four hours earlier we were in the polar opposite situation. It was like a dream. No one saw this coming, even the most optimistic of people.”Steve Cockburn/Amnesty International Gambia celebrates
The coalition’s popularity was no surprise. Its two weeks of electoral campaigning had culminated in youthful and energised crowds packing streets for several kilometres in the rallies held in the urban coastal areas. But nobody expected Jammeh, who had vowed that only God could remove him from power, to accept defeat without a fight.
“People were ready for change, but knowing the type of person Jammeh is, they did not believe that he would concede defeat without contesting the results,” said exiled journalist Alhagie Jobe, reporting from Dakar, Senegal. “Hopes were not high for a peaceful transfer of power.”
Gambians were bracing for the worst after Jammeh, without warning, imposed a total internet and telecommunications ban at 8pm on the eve of the election. “We thought there would be Ivory Coast-style electoral violence,” said Jobe, referring to a 2010-11 crisis that led to civilian massacres.
But the communications blackout ultimately failed to intimidate voters, and activists and journalists within the country published rolling results via SMS and on satellite phones, in a victory for transparency.
“Jammeh was not happy,” said Jobe, who had been tortured and imprisoned for 18 months by the regime. “He fought behind the scenes. He did all he could to hold on to power, but because there was such a strong atmosphere for change he knew he couldn’t stop it: the people had spoken.”What next?
There are now great hopes – and pressures – on the coalition to deliver their promise of a New Gambia, especially among youths who voted for change in unprecedented numbers.
“Youths came out and voted in this election and their voices have been heard,” said Dakar-based rapper Jerreh Badjie.
Youth activist Mariama Saine said she hoped that once the new government took back all the industries owned by Jammeh, including farms and factories, there would be more employment opportunities that would provide an alternative to high-risk migration.
“Jammeh has monopolised any sector youths could fit into, now these will be areas the new government can develop for youths.”
For Bah, a new referendum should be held on the constitution to guarantee the secular nature of the country, introduce term limits, and guarantee human rights, and freedom of movement.
“Jammeh also needs to be held to account,” he said. “He should face justice through a fair trial."Steve Cockburn/Amnesty International Jammeh concedes in a phone call to Adama Barrow
Bintou Kamara, a Paris-based Gambian who founded an organisation to disseminate information about migration, said: “Now, there is a new window of hope for the entire population.
“Some migrants I have spoken to who are in a deplorable situation in Europe are thinking of going home. They will be empty-handed but they will be coming back to hope. There will be lots of returnees.”Freedom of speech
The most immediate change for Gambians is the ability to speak freely. Over the weekend, the scenes from former businessman Barrow’s victory parade showed partying crowds and people tearing down and stamping on Jammeh’s paternally smiling election banners.
Bah, one of the few activists to criticise the government through social media while living in Gambia, told IRIN that before the election he could have been arrested at any time. “People really feared for my life, but I survived. This is what it means to triumph over a dictatorship. Gambia has become a beacon of hope. This is what we want to be remembered for.”
Photojournalist Alhagie Manka also needs no reminder of the brutal regime the country has just broken free from.
He was one of three journalists detained by the security forces at the start of the electoral campaign in a bid to intimidate the press and the electorate. “I was held for seven days, but they did not tell me why. They just kept asking me who I work for in the diaspora.”
Commenting on what the outcome means for him, Manka said: “I am overjoyed, knowing that I have witnessed history. We have been living in hell under Yahya Jammeh, and we thank God he is leaving now, and I hope he will leave in peace.”Who’s in charge?
Behind the grins, people are understandably nervous about the transfer of power.
With Barrow’s inauguration not taking place until mid-January and a large military presence remaining on the streets, it’s clearly a highly sensitive security matter.
Human rights organisations Amnesty International and Article 19 have called for a “safe transfer of power”, but said they cannot comment further.
Sheriff Bojang, a Gambian journalist at West Africa Democracy Radio in Dakar, said there was still uncertainty about who is in charge of the military.
“It worries many people that the military hasn’t said anything so far to assure the population that there is no need for concern and that the country is safe and that the will of the people will continue to prevail,” he said.
President-elect Barrow is due to meet outgoing Jammeh at State House soon, and address the nation. In the meantime, the release on bail of Darboe and the 18 other political prisoners arrested during protests in April is a “positive step”, according to Amnesty International.
Fatoumatta Sandeng, whose father Solo Sandeng was allegedly tortured to death by the regime for protesting in April, told IRIN the new government is “a dream come true. It means freedom for the Sandeng family. It means justice.
“We are glad that my father didn’t die in vain, and his efforts – and that of all those who have contributed their part in making sure the Jammeh regime ends – have paid [off].”
TOP PHOTO: Celebrating a historic election victory CREDIT: Steve Cockburn/Amnesty InternationalThe challenge of building “New Gambia” gambia_2.jpg Louise Hunt Feature Human Rights Politics and Economics DAKAR IRIN Africa West Africa Gambia
The trial of Dominic Ongwen, a senior member of the notorious Lord’s Resistance Army, opens on Tuesday before the International Criminal Court in The Hague. Many horrors will be recounted, but the case also throws up deep ethical questions: is a child, brutalised and turned into a killer, fully responsible for his or her actions? If the abuses of government forces aren’t also being investigated, at what point does it become victor’s justice?
Abducted by the LRA at the age of 10, Ongwen became a protégé of rebel leader Joseph Kony and was forced to witness and carry out acts of extreme violence. He will be appearing before Trial Chamber IX to answer 70 charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity. They include allegations of murder, rape, sexual slavery, torture, pillaging, and the conscription of children aged under 15 for combat.
It is the first time in the history of the ICC where the alleged perpetrator himself was a child soldier.
“I know it’s a delicate balance. It’s about accountability. It’s about whether Ongwen was responsible for the atrocities or not,” Herman von Hebel, the ICC registrar, told reporters on Monday in the Ugandan capital, Kampala.Sympathy
In northern Uganda, epicentre of the two-decade-long insurgency, Ongwen is not uniformly thought of as a monster. Among many former LRA child soldiers, now back in their communities after amnesty and reconciliation programmes, there is sympathy.
Like Ongwen, they were forced to commit serious crimes, and some fault the government for not having protected them.
“He is a victim and not an abuser,” Thomas Otim, a former LRA combatant, told IRIN. “Ongwen, like many of us, had to obey and execute Kony’s orders. If he didn’t, he could have been killed…. He should be forgiven and pardoned.”
Even some LRA victims agree with Otim. Sarah Angee lost her parents and relatives in an LRA attack in her northern home district of Amuru.
“As a victim and survivor, I have accepted to forgive Ongwen for the atrocities and suffering he caused,” she told IRIN. “As a child soldier, he was conscripted and indoctrinated to kill, maim, rape women, mutilate, attack camps, abduct children, and other horrible atrocities.”
The LRA terrorised northern Uganda between 1987 and 2006. It emerged in the tumult of a divided Uganda, in which President Yoweri Museveni’s southern-based National Resistance Movement had fought its way to Kampala and overthrown the short-lived military rule of Tito Okello, an Acholi. Although the LRA was an Acholi-based movement, its victims were overwhelmingly from its own community.
In 2000, the government introduced a blanket amnesty for anyone who abandoned the group and renounced involvement in the war. Close to 30,000 took up the offer, but the government subsequently excluded the most senior commanders like Ongwen.Richard Mugisha/IRIN Ugandan soldiers hunting for the LRA in the Central African Republic
He is the only one of five indicted LRA figures to have surrendered, giving himself up in Central African Republic in January 2015. With the exception of Kony, the other three wanted men are believed to be dead.
Rather than the ICC’s retributive justice, Angee would like to see Ongwen pardoned and, like many of the ex-LRA who returned home, enrolled in a traditional Acholi reconciliation process known as Mato Oput.
“Let the ICC leave him to come back home and be given amnesty like other top LRA commanders. He will be cleansed and reconciled with the relatives and communities that he wronged and offended during the conflict through [our] local mechanism,” she said.Meeting Ongwen
But Betty Oyell Bigombe, a senior director at the World Bank who – as a state minister for northern Uganda – worked for years to broker an end to the conflict, disagrees with the notion of pardoning Ongwen.
“I met Ongwen during the peace talks. He was the most hostile. I was very scared of him,” she told IRIN. “Ongwen can’t be left to get off scot-free. It’s true, Ongwen was abducted. It’s true, he was a victim. But, like so many others, he had an opportunity to defect. But he didn’t surrender for all those years. This raises a moral question. Why didn’t he?
“I am a stronger believer in forgiveness. But forgiveness has to have a limit. Forgiveness has to have reasons. Victims never really recover if justice is never there. It wouldn’t be good to see Ongwen in a suit driving a car and [the victims] have nothing,” she said.
“Whatever comes out of it [the trial] can be discussed,” she added. “[But] I also think this is important for the existence of the ICC. The ICC was created to protect the voiceless. It acts as deterrence so that any other person who has those intentions in future should know the consequences.”Why mixed feelings?
Phil Clark, a Great Lakes expert at SOAS, University of London, believes victims' feelings toward Ongwen are mixed, and filtered through their own experiences.
“Many victims I have interviewed say they have children just like Ongwen – children who were abducted but who committed horrific atrocities, including back in their home communities. These victims therefore hate the crimes Ongwen has committed, but are sympathetic to him because of the way he was forced into the rebel ranks,” he told IRIN.Richard Mugisha/IRIN Dominic Ongwen at a press conference soon after his surrender
Lino Owora Ogora, a transitional justice and peace-building activist based in the main northern city of Gulu, agrees with Clark over the tangled emotions stirred by the case.
“The sentiments of victims towards forgiveness can also be explained by the fact that for a long time amnesty was promoted and embraced by the people as a means of ending the conflict,” he noted. “Because many commanders who surrendered before Ongwen were granted amnesty, the people feel he also deserves amnesty.”
“Yes, I think the government politicised and manipulated the ICC in the war against the LRA. The government used the ICC to isolate the LRA from the international community and to officially label the LRA a terrorist organisation,” said Ogora.
“How else can you explain the fact that today the same government that invited in the ICC in the first place is the same government that has turned into a bitter critic of the ICC, with President Museveni openly calling the ICC a 'bunch of useless people'?”
But Clark also faults the ICC. “As part of the pre-referral negotiations, the ICC prosecutor promised the government there would be no investigations of state actors as long as the government cooperated with the court. The Ugandan government was only too willing to cooperate. This meant the ICC would target the government's opponents such as the LRA while protecting the state from the threat of prosecution,” he said.
“In the eyes of affected communities in northern Uganda, this immediately delegitimises the ICC,” Clark suggested. “Local communities view both the LRA and the government as responsible for the atrocities they have suffered. Some communities even see government crimes as worse because the state – unlike rebels – is supposed to guarantee citizens' protection and security.”Government crimes
Ongwen’s call to the dock on Tuesday has prompted fresh calls for investigations into alleged crimes committed by the army, the Ugandan People’s Defence Force, during the long counter-insurgency war in the north, in which human rights violations were committed.
“We need a full accounting for the atrocities, where both parties involved in the conflict have to account. The absence of accountability from the UPDF side will always remain an issue if not addressed,” said Joyce Freda Apio, a transitional justice expert.
“The heavy reliance by the Office of the Prosecutor on evidence gathered by Ugandan military intelligence raises concern if what is being pursued is the victor's justice,” she told IRIN.
Clark said that by ignoring government atrocities “for the sake of expediency”, the ICC had destroyed its reputation among the local communities.
“They see the court and the government as one and the same – and blame the court for protecting and even emboldening the state to continue committing crimes. For example, its violent crackdown against civilians in the three national elections held since the ICC intervened in Uganda.”
But Bigombe, the World Bank director and former state minister, sees that as disingenuous. “There have been complaints, but no organisation has communicated to [the] ICC and said, ‘Could you investigate UPDF as well?’ The ICC as an institution will not deal with outcries and rumours. If there was a letter or invitation to invite ICC to investigate the UPDF for their role in northern Uganda, I would be surprised if ICC turned their back.”
The Ugandan government referred the LRA case to the ICC in 2004 – alleged UPDF atrocities were not in the terms of reference. However, the government argues that it has always investigated allegations against its soldiers, and those found guilty have been punished harshly.
But there was also the government’s controversial strategy to force most of the population of the north into “protected villages”, a policy condemned by rights groups and local politicians.
Ongwen will enter a plea of guilty or not guilty to the charges being brought against him on Tuesday. The court will then adjourn to 16 January, when the prosecution will begin presenting its evidence. It’s a case Ugandans will follow with rapt attention.
A decade on from leaving Uganda, the LRA now numbers just a few hundred, operating in the remotest regions of the Congo, CAR and Sudan, but the legacy of the group’s violence still casts a long shadow over people’s lives.
TOP PHOTO: Dominic Ongwen at his first hearing at the ICC in 2015. CREDIT: ©ICC-CPIKony’s killers – are child soldiers accountable when they become men? ongwen3.jpg Samuel Okiror Analysis Conflict Human Rights Child soldiers GULU IRIN Africa East Africa Uganda Global