IOM suspends some Ebola screening after three aid workers killed in South Sudan

IOM suspends some Ebola screening after three aid workers killed in South Sudan
By Denis Dumo

JUBA (Reuters) – The U.N. migration agency has suspended some screening services for Ebola after three of its aid workers were killed in South Sudan, the latest deadly incident involving relief staff in the violence-ridden country.

In a statement, the International Organization for Migration said the workers – two men and one woman – were hit by crossfire during clashes between rival armed groups in the country’s central Equatoria region.

It said the IOM had stopped screening for Ebola at five border points between South Sudan, Uganda and Democratic Republic of Congo, where an ongoing outbreak of the haemorraghic fever has killed thousands of people.

The dead woman’s four-year-old son was abducted along with another local female IOM volunteer during the armed clash, the IOM said. Two other male volunteers were injured, including one who is recovering from a gunshot wound.

Humanitarian workers are often targeted by rebels operating in South Sudan, which has been in the grip of war that first broke out in late 2013 between soldiers allied to President Salva Kiir and those of his former deputy Riek Machar. Last year, 10 aid workers went missing in Yei, in the same region.

“We …reiterate that humanitarians and civilians are not and should never be subjected to such heinous acts of violence – we are not a target,” IOM Director General António Vitorino said.

It was not clear who was behind the latest fighting.

In the past, government forces have clashed in the region with fighters from the rebel National Salvation Front, led by renegade former General Thomas Cirillo Swaka, who is not a party to a peace deal signed last year by Kiir and Machar.

Lul Ruai Koang, the government’s military spokesman, said that on the day of the attack Cirillo’s fighters had targeted a government position, and that one soldier was killed along with nine from Cirillo’s side.

“If they (National Salvation Front) went and killed the aid workers, this is what I do not know. But the attack on our defense positions didn’t involve any humanitarian workers,” Koang said.

The National Salvation Front was not immediately reachable to comment on the killings.

(Reporting by Denis Dumo with additional reporting and writing by George Obulutsa in Nairobi; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

Congo Ebola center set on fire after armed attack

Burned structures are seen after attackers set fire to an Ebola treatment center run by Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) in the east Congolese town of Katwa, Democratic Republic of Congo February 25, 2019. Picture taken February 25, 2019. Laurie Bonnaud/MSF/Handout via REUTERS

GOMA, Democratic Republic of Congo (Reuters) – Armed assailants attacked an Ebola treatment center in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo on Wednesday, setting off a fire and becoming embroiled in an extended gun battle with security forces, health officials said.

The identity and motive of the assailants were unclear. Aid workers have faced mistrust in some areas as they work to contain an Ebola outbreak.

Burned structures are seen after attackers set fire to an Ebola treatment center run by Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) in the east Congolese town of Katwa, Democratic Republic of Congo February 25, 2019. Picture taken February 25, 2019. Laurie Bonnaud/MSF/Handout via REUTERS

Burned structures are seen after attackers set fire to an Ebola treatment center run by Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) in the east Congolese town of Katwa, Democratic Republic of Congo February 25, 2019. Picture taken February 25, 2019. Laurie Bonnaud/MSF/Handout via REUTERS

Dozens of armed militia also regularly attack civilians and security forces in eastern Congo’s borderlands with Uganda and Rwanda, which has significantly hampered the response to the disease.

The health ministry said in a statement that 38 suspected Ebola patients and 12 confirmed cases were in the center at the time of the attack. Four of the patients with confirmed cases fled and are being looked for, it said.

None of the patients who have been accounted for were injured, nor were any staff members, the ministry added.

French medical charity Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF), which runs the center together with the ministry, condemned the “deplorable attack” and said its efforts were focused on the immediate safety of patients and staff.

The attack in the city of Butembo was the second in Congo’s Ebola-hit east this week. On Sunday unidentified assailants set fire to a treatment center in the nearby town of Katwa, killing a nurse.

The current Ebola outbreak, first declared last August, is the second deadliest of the hemorrhagic fever since it was discovered in Congo in 1976. It is believed to have killed at least 553 people so far and infected over 300 more.

(Reporting by Fiston Mahamba; Additional reporting by Giulia Paravicini; Writing by Aaron Ross; Editing by Gareth Jones and Rosalba O’Brien)

A child dies, a child lives: why Somalia drought is not another famine

A Somali girl is seen at a internally displaced camp in the northern Somali town of Dollow, Somalia, February 25, 2018. Picture taken February 25, 2018. REUTERS/Baz Ratner

By Maggie Fick and Katharine Houreld

DOLLOW, Somalia (Reuters) – At the height of Somalia’s 2011 famine, Madow Mohamed had to leave her crippled five-year-old son Abdirahman by the side of the road to lead her eight other starving children toward help.

When she returned to search for him, she found only a grave. He was among the 260,000 Somalis who perished.

“You can never forget leaving your child to die,” she says, wiping away tears at the memory seven years later. “It is a hell that does not end.”

This time, the drought has been harsher. Three seasons of rains have failed, instead of two. But none of Mohamed’s other children have died – and the overall death toll, although unknown, is far lower. The United Nations has documented just over 1,000 deaths, mostly from drinking dirty water.

Why?

Earlier donor intervention, less interference by a weakened Islamist insurgency, a stronger Somali government and greater access for aid workers have been crucial.

Somali women stand in line to receive infants food aid in the northern Somali town of Dollow, Somalia, February 26, 2018. Picture taken February 26, 2018.REUTERS/Baz Ratner

Somali women stand in line to receive infants food aid in the northern Somali town of Dollow, Somalia, February 26, 2018. Picture taken February 26, 2018.REUTERS/Baz Ratner

Another reason is that aid agencies are shifting from giving out food to cash – a less wasteful form of aid that donors such as Canada, Europe and Australia have embraced, although the United States still has restrictions on food aid.

The U.S. Congress will debate a move toward cash-based aid this year when lawmakers vote on a new Farm Bill. Christopher Barrett, an expert on food aid at Cornell University, is one of many scholars, politicians and aid agencies demanding reform.

“A conservative estimate is that we sacrifice roughly 40,000 children’s lives annually because of antiquated food aid policies,” he told Congress in November.

 

FROM FOOD TO CASH

In 2011, a few donors gave out cash in Somalia, but the World Food Programme only gave out food. It was often hijacked by warlords or pirates, or rotted under tarpaulins as trucks sat at roadblocks.

Starving families had to trek for days through the desert to reach distribution points. Their route became so littered with children’s corpses it was called “the Road of Death”.

Now, more than 70 percent of WFP aid in Somalia is cash, much of it distributed via mobile phones. More than 50 other charities are also giving out cash: each month Mohamed receives $65 from the Italian aid group Coopi to spend as she wants: milk, medicine, food or school fees.

Cash has many advantages over food aid if markets are functioning. It’s invisible, so less likely to be stolen. It’s mobile so families can move or stay put.

WFP said it gave out $134 million directly to Somali families to spend at local shops last year.

A woman walks past thw makeshift shelters at the new Kabasa Internally displaced camp in the northern Somali town of Dollow, Somalia, February 25, 2018. Picture taken February 25, 2018. REUTERS/Baz Ratner

A woman walks past thw makeshift shelters at the new Kabasa Internally displaced camp in the northern Somali town of Dollow, Somalia, February 25, 2018. Picture taken February 25, 2018. REUTERS/Baz Ratner

“We … basically gave confidence to the market to stay active,” said Laurent Bukera, head of WFP Somalia.

And money is more efficient than bags of food: in Somalia, cash aid means 80 cents in every $1 goes directly to the family, rather than 60 cents from food aid, said Calum McLean, the cash expert at the European Union’s humanitarian aid department.

Cash might have saved little Abdirahman.

“I could have stayed in my village if I had had cash. There was some food in the markets. It was expensive, but if you had money, there was food to buy,” Mohamed said sadly.

GLOBAL SHIFT

Aid groups have been experimenting with cash for two decades but McLean says the idea took off five years ago as the Syrian civil war propelled millions of refugees into countries with solid banking systems.

Donors have adapted. Six years ago, five percent of the EU’s humanitarian aid budget was cash distributions. Today, it is more than a third.

Most of the initial cost lies in setting up the database and the distribution system. After that, adding more recipients is cheap, McLean said. Amounts can be easily adjusted depending on the level of need or funding.

“Cash distributions also becomes cheaper the larger scale you do it,” he said.

Most U.S. international food assistance is delivered by USAID’s Food for Peace Office, which had a budget of $3.6 billion in 2017.

Just under half those funds came through U.S. Farm Bill Title II appropriations, which stipulate that most food must be bought from American farmers. The U.S. Cargo Preference Act requires that half of this be shipped on U.S.-flagged vessels.

Despite these restrictions, Food for Peace increased cash and voucher programs from 3 percent of the budget in 2011 to 20 percent last year.

But sourcing food aid in the United States is expensive and wasteful, said Barrett, who oversaw a study that found buying grain close to an emergency was half the price and 14 weeks faster. Arguments that food aid supported U.S. farmers or mariners were largely false, he said.

HOW IT WORKS

Aid groups use different systems to distribute cash, but most assess families, then register them in a biometric database, usually via fingerprints. Cash is distributed using bank cards or mobile phones or as vouchers.

Some charities place no restrictions on the cash; others, like WFP, stipulate it can only be spent at certain shops with registered shopkeepers.

In Dollow, the dusty town on the Ethiopian border where Mohamed lives with her surviving children, families say the cash has transformed their lives.

Gacalo Aden Hashi, a young mother whose name means “sweetheart”, remembers trudging past two dead children in 2011 on her way to get help. A third was alive but dying, she said, and her weakened family had to press on.

When she arrived at the camp, men were stealing food aid to give to their families, she said.

“Men were punching each other in line every time at food distributions,” she said. “Sometimes you would be sitting and suddenly your food would be taken by some strong young man.”

Now, she says, no one can steal her money – Coopi uses a system that requires a PIN to withdraw money. Most of her cash goes on food but with a group of other women she saved enough to open a small stall.

“The cash may end, but this business will not,” she said.

PROBLEMS PERSIST

Cash won’t work everywhere. In South Sudan, where famine briefly hit two counties last year, the civil war shut markets, forcing aid agencies to bring in food by plane and truck.

Sending cash to areas hit by earthquakes would drive up prices. But in a drought, where livelihoods have collapsed but infrastructure is intact, cash transfers are ideal, experts say.

Some problems remain. There’s often little co-ordination among donors – for instance, there are seven separate databases in Somalia, said McLean, and monthly stipends can vary widely.

In Uganda, authorities are investigating reports of fraud after the government used its own biometric registration system for refugees.

And if there’s no clean water or health service available, then refugees can’t spend money buying water or medicine.

But most scholars agree that switching to more cash aid would save more lives, a 2016 briefing paper by the Congressional Research Service concluded.

(Additional reporting by George Obulutsa; Writing by Katharine Houreld; Editing by Giles Elgood)

Islamic State suspected of killing six Afghan Red Cross workers: officials

Logo of International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) Courtesy of Wiki Commons

By Bashir Ansari

MAZAR-I-SHARIF, Afghanistan (Reuters) – Islamic State gunmen were suspected of killing at least six Afghan employees of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) on Wednesday as they carried supplies to areas in the north of the country hit by deadly snow storms, government officials said.

Another two employees were unaccounted for after the attack in Afghanistan’s Jowzjan province, ICRC said, but the aid group did not know who was responsible or why the convoy was targeted.

“This is a despicable act. Nothing can justify the murder of our colleagues and dear friends,” the head of the ICRC delegation in Afghanistan, Monica Zanarelli, said in a statement.

The aid workers were in a convoy carrying supplies to areas hit by snow storms when they were attacked by suspected Islamic State gunmen, Lotfullah Azizi, the Jowzjan provincial governor, told Reuters.

“Daesh is very active in that area,” he said, using an alternate name for Islamic State, which has made limited inroads in Afghanistan but has carried out increasingly deadly attacks.

A storm dumped as much as two meters (6.5 feet) of snow on many areas of Afghanistan over the weekend, according to officials, killing more than 100 people.

Three drivers and five field officers were on their way to deliver livestock materials to those affected by the snow storms when they were attacked, the ICRC statement said.

“These staff members were simply doing their duty, selflessly trying to help and support the local community,” ICRC president Peter Maurer said.

SEARCH OPERATION

Jawzjan police chief Rahmatullah Turkistani said the workers’ bodies had been brought to the provincial capital and a search operation launched to find the two missing ICRC employees.

Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid said his group was not involved in the attack and promised that Taliban members would “put all their efforts into finding the perpetrators”.

Last month, a Spanish ICRC employee was released less than a month after he was kidnapped by unidentified gunmen in northern Afghanistan.

That staff member was traveling with three Afghan colleagues between Mazar-i-Sharif and Kunduz on Dec. 19 when gunmen stopped the vehicles.

The other Afghan ICRC staff were immediately released.

In a recent summary of its work in Afghanistan last year, the ICRC said increasing security issues had made it difficult to provide aid to many parts of the country.

“Despite it all, the ICRC has remained true to its commitment to the people of Afghanistan, as it has throughout the last 30 years of its continuous presence in the country,” the statement said.

Zanarelli said it was still not clear how the deadly attack might change ICRC operations.

(Additional reporting by Mirwais Harooni and Josh Smith in Kabul; Editing by Nick Macfie and Ken Ferris)

Killings, Kidnappings and burnout; the hazards of aid work

Red Cross workers assist a collapsed migrant after he crossed Greece's border with Macedonia, in

By Katie Nguyen

LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – You’re an aid worker speeding back to base after a long, cold day questioning people who have fled fighting about what they need to survive. Out of nowhere a girl runs into the road and is knocked over by your driver.

Within minutes, your four-wheel drive is surrounded by bystanders. First they shout, then they start banging windows and rocking the vehicle. Before long they prise open the car door and pull your driver out. Some are armed. What do you do?

It’s perhaps the toughest dilemma aid workers face during their brief stint in war-torn “Badistan” – in reality, a training camp in the grounds of a golf course near Gatwick Airport where they are confronted with mass casualties, a minefield and gun battles in various role-play scenarios.

The three-day course run by security risk management company, International Location Safety (ILS), is one of scores aimed at mitigating the risks of working in the field where aid staff kidnappings have quadrupled since 2002.

The perils of the job came under scrutiny in November when a court in Oslo found the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) guilty of gross negligence and awarded damages to a former employee abducted by gunmen from a Kenyan refugee camp in 2012.

It was the first case of its kind to reach a court judgment, igniting debate over whether aid agencies would become more risk-averse as a result.

“There has been an increasing bunkerisation of aid workers who operate out of compounds and are restricted in where they go,” said ILS Managing Director George Shaw.

“It does worry me that it will continue to happen. But that would be a lack of understanding of what the (NRC) ruling means. It doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do high-risk programs. It means we should do high-risk programs safely.”

NO SUCH THING AS RISK-FREE

Michael O’Neill, a former director of global safety and security at Save the Children International and now deputy chair of INSSA, an international NGO safety and security group, said the NRC case made it clear that organizations could do better.

“It’s not enough just to write (a security risk management system) down on paper. It’s not enough just to say it’s there,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation. “If it can happen to NRC, then who among us is not vulnerable at some level?”

Convening the first World Humanitarian Summit on the biggest issues facing the delivery of relief, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has called on warring parties to respect and protect aid workers, as well as the wounded and sick, from attack.

The summit in Istanbul later this month comes as leading aid officials warn of ever-increasing humanitarian needs due to crises ranging from Syria’s conflict to climate change.

The year 2013 was the worst for aid workers with 460 killed, kidnapped or seriously wounded, according to Humanitarian Outcomes which has collected data on the topic since 1997.

Afghanistan, Sudan, Somalia, Pakistan and Syria have gained a reputation for being most dangerous for aid workers, with the majority of attacks over the past decade or so occurring there.

Afghanistan alone accounted for 27 percent of those attacks between 2005 and 2014. But Somalia, with fewer aid workers, has seen an even higher rate of violence against humanitarians.

National staff are by far the most vulnerable. In 2014, they accounted for 90 percent of victims, roughly in proportion to their numbers in the field, Humanitarian Outcomes said.

REDUCING THE THREATS

Few believe all risks can be eliminated, but many agree that one of the most important ways to lessen them is to get the support of locals.

Too often aid workers are targeted because they are no longer perceived to be neutral. Wouter Kok, a security adviser for Medecins Sans Frontieres, said assuring all sides in a conflict of the agency’s impartiality is key to its security approach.

“We have to get back to that independence,” said Kok, who works for the Dutch arm of the medical charity.

“What we’ve seen in the last 10 to 20 years is that belligerents have tried to use humanitarian aid to win hearts and minds, and sometimes organizations have allowed themselves to be used,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Understanding the nuances of a conflict, the local culture and people’s motivations, together with strong negotiating skills, are also critical to mitigating risks, experts said.

Big organizations are increasingly aware that aid programs need to be designed with security in mind, INSSA’s O’Neill said. “Good programming and good security go hand in hand.”

For example, poorly designed food distributions can quickly turn ugly. But seeking the input of local communities, giving people a clear idea of what they will receive and setting up a complaints table away from the lines are some ways to reduce the risk, he said.

Caring for the mental health of aid workers is an overlooked but crucial aspect of keeping them safe, said Sara Pantuliano, director of humanitarian programs at the London-based Overseas Development Institute.

“The one thing that is forgotten the most is the levels of stress and trauma aid workers experience, and that is particularly true for local staff because they often have family affected by this crisis,” Pantuliano said.

“I think people don’t even raise the issue of being under stress or the threat of burning out or needing a proper break, needing to recuperate, because they may be accused of not being fit for the job,” she added.

For more on the World Humanitarian Summit, please visit: http://news.trust.org/spotlight/reshape-aid

(Reporting by Katie Nguyen; editing by Megan Rowling and Ros Russell. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women’s rights, trafficking, property rights and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org to see more stories)