U.N. warns of extraordinary humanitarian disaster in southeast Congo

Internally displaced Congolese civilians receive food aid at Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) centre in Bunia, eastern Democratic Republic of Congo February 16, 2018. Picture taken February 16, 2018. REUTERS/Stringer

By Tom Miles

GENEVA (Reuters) – An upsurge of violence in southeastern Democratic Republic of Congo is set to cause a “humanitarian disaster of extraordinary proportions”, the U.N. refugee agency UNHCR said on Tuesday.

Congo’s Tanganyika province has seen a sharp escalation of violence since late last year, with new armed groups forming and an increase in attacks and the use of firearms, UNHCR spokesman Andrej Mahecic told a regular U.N. briefing in Geneva.

“We are warning today that a humanitarian disaster of extraordinary proportions is about to hit the southeastern part of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, as the province of Tanganyika plunges further into violence, triggering spiraling displacement and human rights abuses,” he said.

Clashes between militias representing the Luba, a Bantu ethnic group, and Twa pygmies, have already been going on for more than four years, driven by inequalities between Bantu villagers and the Twa, a hunting and gathering people historically excluded from access to land and basic services.

Mahecic said the intercommunal violence had led to atrocities and mass displacement, but there had also been fierce clashes between the Congolese armed forces and militia groups since the end of January.

UNHCR partner agencies had documented about 800 “protection incidents” including killings, abductions and rape, in the first two weeks of February. But much of the violence was going on in areas that were impossible for aid workers to reach.

The “lion’s share” of abuses concerned extortion and illegal taxation, mostly carried out by Congolese armed forces at road blocks.

The conflict is part of a worsening humanitarian crisis in Congo. Militia violence has risen since President Joseph Kabila’s refused to step down when his constitutional mandate expired in 2016.

Congo’s military has largely stamped out an insurrection that displaced 1.5 million people in central Congo in 2016-17 but militias are increasingly active along the eastern borders with Uganda, Rwanda and Burundi.

Tanganyika province is three times the size of Switzerland with a population of about 3 million, of whom 630,000 have been displaced by the fighting, a number that has almost doubled in a year.

“Given the circumstances we are only observing an upward trend in displacement right now,” Mahecic said.

“How high it could go is anyone’s guess, but clearly it is a major concern for us.”

Last year UNHCR received less than $1 per person to support the 4.4 million people displaced in Congo, he said.

(Reporting by Tom Miles; Editing by Matthew Mpoke Bigg)

Mad Max violence stalks Venezuela’s lawless roads

A child looks at a basket filled with mandarins while workers load merchandise into Humberto Aguilar's truck at the wholesale market in Barquisimeto, Venezuela January 30,

By Andrew Cawthorne

LA GRITA, Venezuela (Reuters) – It’s midnight on one of the most dangerous roads in Latin America and Venezuelan trucker Humberto Aguilar hurtles through the darkness with 20 tons of vegetables freshly harvested from the Andes for sale in the capital Caracas.

When he set off at sunset from the town of La Grita in western Venezuela on his 900-km (560-mile) journey, Aguilar knew he was taking his life in his hands.

With hunger widespread amid a fifth year of painful economic implosion under President Nicolas Maduro, Venezuela has seen a frightening surge in attacks on increasingly lawless roads.

Just a few days earlier, Aguilar said he sat terrified when hundreds of looters swarmed a stationary convoy, overwhelming drivers by sheer numbers. They carted off milk, rice and sugar from other trucks but left his less-prized vegetables alone.

“Every time I say goodbye to my family, I entrust myself to God and the Virgin,” said the 36-year-old trucker.

Workers pose for a picture while they load vegetables into a truck to sell them in the town of Guatire outside Caracas, in La Grita, Venezuela January 27, 2018.

Workers pose for a picture while they load vegetables into a truck to sell them in the town of Guatire outside Caracas, in La Grita, Venezuela January 27, 2018. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins

While truck heists have long been common in Latin America’s major economies from Mexico to Brazil, looting of cargoes on roads has soared in Venezuela in recent times and appears to be not just a result of common crime but directly linked to growing hunger and desperation among the population of 30 million.

Across Venezuela, there were some 162 lootings in January, including 42 robberies of trucks, according to the consultancy Oswaldo Ramirez Consultores (ORC), which tracks road safety for companies. That compared to eight lootings, including one truck robbery, in the same month of last year.

“The hunger and despair are far worse than people realize, what we are seeing on the roads is just another manifestation of that. We’ve also been seeing people stealing and butchering animals in fields, attacking shops and blocking roads to protest their lack of food. It’s become extremely serious,” said ORC director Oswaldo Ramirez.

Eight people have died in the lootings in January of this year, according to a Reuters tally.

The dystopian attacks in a country with one of the world’s highest murder rates are pushing up transport and food costs in an already hyperinflationary environment, as well as stifling movement of goods in the crisis-hit OPEC nation.

They have complicated the perilous life of truckers who already face harassment from bribe-seeking soldiers, spiraling prices for parts and hours-long lines for fuel.

Government officials and representatives of the security forces did not respond to requests for comment for this story.

Barred by law from carrying guns, the Andean truckers form convoys to protect themselves, text each other about trouble spots – and keep moving as fast as possible.

Aguilar said that on one trip a man appeared on his truck’s sideboard and put a pistol to his head – but his co-driver swerved hard to shake the assailant off.

On this journey, however, he was lucky. Just before reaching Caracas, assailants hurled a stone at his windscreen but it bounced off.

Even once Andean truckers reach cities, there is no respite.

Armed gangs often charge them for safe passage and permission to set up markets.

“The government gives us no security. It’s madness. People have got used to the easy life of robbing,” said Javier Escalante, who owns two trucks that take vegetables from La Grita to the town of Guatire outside Caracas every week.

“But if we stop, how do we earn a living for our families? How do Venezuelans eat? And how do the peasant farmers sell their produce? We have no choice but to keep going.”

GUNMEN ON BIKES

The looters use a variety of techniques, depending on the terrain and the target, according to truckers, inhabitants of towns on highways, and videos of incidents.

Sometimes gunmen on motorbikes surround a truck, slowing it down before pouncing like lions stalking prey. In other instances, attackers wait for a vehicle to slow down – at a pothole for example – before jumping on, cutting through the tarpaulin and hurling goods onto the ground for waiting companions.

In one video apparently showing a looting and uploaded to social media, people are seen gleefully dragging live chickens from a stranded truck.

The looters use tree trunks and rocks to stop vehicles, and are particularly fond of “miguelitos” – pieces of metal with long spikes – to burst tires and halt vehicles.

A ring-road round the central town of Barquisimeto, with shanty-towns next to it, is notorious among truckers, who nickname it “The Guillotine” due to the regular attacks.

In some cases, crowds simply swarm at trucks when they stop for a break or repairs. Soldiers or policemen seldom help, according to interviews with two dozen drivers.

Yone Escalante, 43, who also takes vegetables from the Andes on a 2,800-km (1,700-mile) round-trip to eastern Venezuela, shudders when he recalls how a vehicle of his was ransacked in the remote plains of Guarico state last year.

The trouble began when one of his two trucks broke down and about 60 people appeared from the shadows and surrounded it.

Escalante, about half an hour behind in his truck, rushed to help. By the time he arrived, the crowd had swelled to 300 and Escalante – a well-spoken businessman who owns trucks and sells produce – said he jumped on the vehicle to reason with them.

“Suddenly two military men arrived on the scene, and I thought ‘Thank God, help has arrived’,” Escalante recounted during a break between trips in La Grita.

But as the crowd chanted menacingly “Food for the people!”, the soldiers muttered something about the goods being insured – which they were not – and drove off, he said.

“That was the trigger. They came at us like ants and stripped us of everything: potatoes, onions, tomatoes, cucumber, carrots. It took me all day to load that truck, and 30 minutes for them to empty it. I could cry with rage.”

MAD MAX OR ROBIN HOOD?

Though events on Venezuela’s roads may seem like something out of the Mad Max movie, truckers say they are often more akin to Robin Hood as assailants are careful not to harm the drivers or their vehicles provided they do not resist.

“The best protection is to be submissive, hand things over,” said Roberto Maldonado, who handles paperwork for truckers in La Grita. “When people are hungry, they are dangerous.”

However, all the truckers interviewed by Reuters said they knew of someone murdered on the roads – mainly during targeted robberies rather than spontaneous lootings.

With new tires now going for about 70 million bolivars – about $300 on the black market or more than two decades of work at the official minimum wage – looters often swipe them along with food.

The journey from the Andes to Caracas passes about 25 checkpoints, where the truckers have to alight and seek a stamp from National Guard soldiers.

At some, a bribe is required, with a bag of potatoes now more effective than increasingly worthless cash.

Yone Escalante said that on one occasion when he was looted after a tire burst, policemen joined in the fray, taking bananas and cheese with the crowd.

In the latest attack, just days ago, he was traveling slowly over potholes in a convoy with four other trucks after dark, when assailants jumped on and started grabbing produce.

“Even though there were holes in the road, we sped up and swerved to shake them off,” he said. “It’s either us or them.”

(See http://reut.rs/2GVaX0s for a related photo essay and http://tmsnrt.rs/2sgqfJP for a map of one trucking route)

(Additional reporting by Leon Wietfeld in Caracas and Anggy Polanco in La Grita; Editing by Girish Gupta, Daniel Flynn and Frances Kerry)

At least 43,000 Cameroonian refugees flee to Nigeria: local aid officials

A still image taken from a video shot on December 9, 2017 shows Cameroonian refugees standing outside a center in Agbokim Waterfalls village, which borders on Cameroon, Nigeria.

By Anamesere Igboeroteonwu

ONITSHA, Nigeria (Reuters) – More than 43,000 Cameroonians have fled as refugees to Nigeria to escape a crackdown by the government on Anglophone separatists, local aid officials said on Thursday.

The figure is almost three times as high as that given by the United Nations and Nigerian officials two weeks ago.

Cameroon is a majority French-speaking country but two southwestern regions bordering Nigeria are Anglophone. Last October, separatists declared independence for a state they want to create called Ambazonia, sparking a military crackdown by the government of President Paul Biya.

In Nigeria’s Cross River state, which borders southwest Cameroon, more than 33,000 Cameroonians have taken refuge from violence, John Inaku, director general of the State Emergency Management Agency (SEMA), told Reuters by phone.

In neighboring Benue state, there are 10,216 refugees, said Emmanuel Shior, director general of the regional SEMA.

Earlier this month, the UN refugee agency had said more than 8,000 refugees were in Cross River state.

Explaining the disparity, Inaku told Reuters the UN agency was only registering people in Cross River coming in through conventional routes.

“This is a war situation and refugees are trooping in by the minute through the bush paths, rivers and every other unconventional routes open to them,” he said.

“During our advocacy to our border communities we told them to allow the refugees in and not be hostile to them so our communities have been receiving them warmly and accommodating them. These are very remote areas, hard to reach without good roads,” Inaku said.

Inaku said community facilities were becoming overstretched and so people were getting hostile toward the refugees, who were in “deplorable condition”, hungry and in need of medicine.

The Benue SEMA director general said the agency had also had difficulty counting refugees because they were in remote areas.

Early on Thursday, gunmen crossed from Nigeria to attack a border post in Cameroon’s southwest, security force witnesses said, with the incident likely to further damage relations between the neighbors.

The separatists pose the biggest challenge yet to the 35-year rule of Biya, who will seek re-election this year. The conflict is also fuelling tensions between Nigeria and Cameroon.

Cameroonian military officials and pro-government media accuse Nigeria of sheltering the insurgents, who since last year have waged a guerrilla campaign to establish an independent homeland for Cameroon’s English-speaking minority.

(Reporting by Anamesere Igboeroteonwu; Writing by Paul Carsten; Editing by Matthew Mpoke Bigg)

More than 8 million Yemenis ‘a step away from famine’: U.N.

More than 8 million Yemenis 'a step away from famine': U.N.

GENEVA (Reuters) – Warring sides must let more aid get through to 8.4 million people who are “a step away from famine” in Yemen, a senior U.N. official said on Monday.

A Saudi-led military coalition fighting the Iran-aligned Houthi movement in Yemen’s civil war blockaded ports last month after a missile was fired toward Riyadh.

Jamie McGoldrick, the humanitarian coordinator for Yemen, said the blockade has since been eased, but the situation remained dire.

“The continuing blockade of ports is limiting supplies of fuel, food and medicines; dramatically increasing the number of vulnerable people who need help,” McGoldrick said in a statement.

“The lives of millions of people, including 8.4 million Yemenis who are a step away from famine, hinge on our ability to continue our operations and to provide health, safe water, food, shelter and nutrition support,” he added.

That marked an increase from past U.N. estimates of around 8 million people on the brink of famine.

The coalition accuses Iran of sending weapons to its Houthi allies, including missile parts, through Yemen’s main Hodeidah port, were most food supplies enter.

Saudi state television said on Monday a U.N delegation of experts has arrived in Riyadh to meet the coalition and the Yemeni government the coalition supports “to prevent the transfer of weapons and rockets to Houthis”.

Iran has denied supplying the Houthis with weapons, saying the U.S. and Saudi allegations are “baseless and unfounded”.

The United Nations says food shortages caused by the warring parties blocking supplies has created the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.

The Saudis intervened in neighboring Yemen in 2015 after the Houthis advanced on the southern port city of Aden and forced President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi and his government into exile.

The conflict has killed more than 10,000 people, displaced more than 2 million and triggered a cholera epidemic that has infected about 1 million people.

The U.S. government on Friday called on the Saudi-led military coalition to facilitate the free flow of humanitarian aid to all of Yemen’s ports and through Sana’a airport.

A senior State Department official told reporters in Geneva on Monday that the United States had provided nearly $638 million in humanitarian assistance to Yemen in the U.S. fiscal year 2017 that ended on Sept 30.

“We have called on both sides to stop the fighting and seek a political solution to the problem,” the official said.

He said the United States had made its position clear to its allies to end the blockade and called on the Houthis to allow access for humanitarian supplies as “there are shocking shortage of food, fuel and medicines that are causing great suffering”.

(Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay, Writing by Reem Shamseddine and Sami Aboudi; Editing by Andrew Heavens and Alison Williams)

Famine survey warns of thousands dying daily in Yemen if ports stay closed

More than 8 million Yemenis 'a step away from famine': U.N.

By Tom Miles

GENEVA (Reuters) – A U.S.-funded famine survey said on Tuesday that thousands of Yemenis could die daily if a Saudi-led military coalition does not lift its blockade on the country’s key ports.

The warning came a day after the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) said 2.5 million people in Yemen’s crowded cities had no access to clean water, raising the risk that a cholera epidemic will spread.

Using the internationally recognized IPC 5-point scale for classifying food security, the Famine Early Warning Systems Network (FEWS NET) said that even before the current blockade, 15 million people were in “crisis” (IPC Phase 3) or worse.

“Therefore, a prolonged closure of key ports risks an unprecedented deterioration in food security to Famine (IPC Phase 5) across large areas of the country,” it said.

It said famine is likely in many areas within three or four months if ports remain closed, with some less accessible areas at even greater risk. In such a scenario, shortages of food and fuel would drive up prices, and a lack of medical supplies would exacerbate life-threatening diseases.

“Thousands of deaths would occur each day due to the lack of food and disease outbreaks,” said FEWS NET, which is funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development.

Famine remained likely even if the southern port of Aden is open, its report said, adding that all Yemeni ports should be reopened to essential imports.

The United Nations has said the Saudi-led coalition must allow aid in through Hodeidah port, controlled by the Houthis, the Saudis’ enemies in the war in Yemen.

U.N. humanitarian agencies have issued dire warnings about the impact of the blockade, although U.N. officials have declined to directly criticize Saudi Arabia.

Jan Egeland, head of the Norwegian Refugee Council and a former U.N. aid chief, was blunt in his criticism, however.

“US, UK & other allies of Saudi has only weeks to avoid being complicit in a famine of Biblical proportions. Lift the blockade now,” he wrote in a tweet.

Last year Saudi Arabia was accused by then U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon of exerting “unacceptable” undue pressure to keep itself off a blacklist of countries that kill children in conflict, after sources told Reuters that Riyadh had threatened to cut some U.N. funding. Saudi Arabia denied this.

(Reporting by Tom Miles; Editing by Catherine Evans)

Fake meat from soy bean oil, free markets ease North Koreans’ hunger

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un smiles as children eat during his visit to the Pyongyang Orphanage on International Children's Day in this undated photo released by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) in Pyongyang

By James Pearson and Seung-Woo Yeom

SEOUL (Reuters) – Take the dregs left from making soy bean oil, which usually go to feed the pigs. Press and roll them into a sandy-colored paste. Stuff with rice, and top with chilli sauce. The dish’s name, injogogi, means “man-made meat.”

In North Korea for years it was a recipe for survival. Today it is a popular street food, traded alongside other goods and services on informal markets, known as jangmadang. Defectors say there are hundreds of these markets. The creation and informal trade of injogogi and other foods offers a window into a barter economy that has kept North Korea afloat despite years of isolation, abuse and sanctions.

“Back in the day, people had injogogi to fill themselves up as a substitute for meat,” said Cho Ui-sung, a North Korean who defected to the South in 2014. “Now people eat it for its taste.”

North Korea was set up with backing from the Soviet Union as a socialist state. The Soviet collapse in 1991 crippled the North Korean economy and brought down its centralized food distribution system. As many as three million people died. Those who survived were forced to forage, barter and invent meals from whatever they found. Since people started to use their own initiative, studies indicate, person-to-person dealings have become the way millions of North Koreans procure basic necessities such as food and clothing.

But the prevalence of informal markets also makes it hard to understand the exact state of the North Korean economy. And this makes it hard to measure how badly sanctions, which do not apply to North Korean food imports, are hurting ordinary people.

Pyongyang has said the curbs threaten the survival of its children. Defectors say a poor corn harvest this year has made it hard for people in rural areas to feed themselves. The agencies who want to help find all this hard to measure.

Pyongyang says 70 percent of North Koreans still use the state’s central distribution system as their main source of food, the same number of people that the U.N. estimates are “food insecure.” The system consistently provides lower food rations than the government’s daily target, according to U.N. food agency the World Food Programme (WFP). The U.N. uses this information to call on member states to provide food aid for North Korea – $76 million for “nutrition support” alone at its last request – of which it has received $42 million.

But surveys and anecdotal evidence from defectors suggest private markets are the main source of supply for most North Koreans.

“It becomes sort of ridiculous to analyze food distribution in North Korea by focusing on an archaic system that’s lost so much of its significance over the past couple of decades,” said Benjamin Silberstein, an associate scholar at the Foreign Policy Research Institute who researches the North Korean economy.

The WFP and the U.N.’s other main food aid agency, the Food and Agricultural Organization, said the U.N. relies on all available information and inputs, including official statistics. The agencies have a permanent office in Pyongyang and make regular visits to Public Distribution Centers, farms and occasionally markets in North Korea.

“We recognize that the data and their sources are limited but it’s the best we have available at present,” said the U.N. agencies in a joint statement, referring to the official North Korean government data.

The agencies said they have seen no sign that more food than needed is delivered to North Koreans. “The main issue … is a monotonous diet – mainly rice/maize, kimchi and bean paste – lacking in essential fats and protein,” the statement said.

The North Korean diplomatic mission in Geneva did not respond to questions about how international sanctions might be harming food availability and whether U.N. aid agencies had access to markets in North Korea to assess the products on offer.

Women wearing traditional clothes enjoy ice-cream in central Pyongyang, North Korea April 16, 2017.

FILE PHOTO: Women wearing traditional clothes enjoy ice-cream in central Pyongyang, North Korea April 16, 2017. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj/File Photo

SAND EEL SAUCE

Last year, North Korea’s economy grew by 3.9 percent – its fastest in 17 years and faster than many developed economies, according to South Korea’s central bank. It was helped largely by mining, market reforms, and dealings with China, its neighbor and now the world’s largest economy. Reporters saw signs of chronic hunger in North Korea as recently as 2013, but people who have defected say the food supply has improved in recent years.

Eight defectors told Reuters they ate much the same thing as people in the South. Asked about the contents of their food cupboards, most said they were stocked with privately grown vegetables, locally made snacks and rice, or if they were poor, corn, which is a cheaper staple.

Younger and wealthier defectors say they had plenty of meat, although it was often seasonal because electric power is too erratic to power fridges. Pork is common, but defectors also talked of eating dog meat, rabbit, and badger.

Even so, on average North Koreans are less well nourished than their Southern neighbors. The WFP says around one in four children have grown less tall than their South Korean counterparts. A study from 2009 said pre-school children in the North were up to 13 cm (5 inches) shorter and up to 7 kg (15 pounds) lighter than those brought up in the South.

The North’s Public Distribution System (PDS) stipulates that 70 percent of people receive ration coupons to spend at state distribution shops. The other 30 percent are farmers who are not eligible for rations because they grow their own vegetables in private plots. According to the WFP, the PDS had been reinstated by 2006.

Defectors say Kim Jong Un, who came to power in 2011, also quietly loosened the rules on private trade.

Some markets, known as “grasshopper markets” for the speed with which traders set up and take down the stalls, are still illegal. But there are also officially sanctioned markets, where traders are free to buy and sell provided they pay stall fees to the state.

Dog meat or "Dan go gi" in North Korean expression, is placed on a table at a famous restaurant

FILE PHOTO: Dog meat or “Dan go gi” in North Korean expression, is placed on a table at a famous restaurant in Pyongyang November 13, 2008. REUTERS/Lee Jae-Won/File Photo

Inventions like injogogi are among foods traded on these stalls. It is low in calories but rich in protein and fiber, to help muscle growth and keep hunger at bay, said Lee Ae-ran, a chef from the North Korean town of Hyesan who took a doctorate in nutrition in Seoul. “Because it contains so much protein, it’s also very chewy,” Lee said.

The sauce can be delicious, said Cho. “People who lived by the sea put shredded anchovies in the sauce; people living in the countryside used spicy peppers. I lived close by shore so I used shredded sand eels.”

The jangmadang are remotely monitored by a website called Daily NK, a Seoul-based operation staffed by North Korean defector journalists. It said in a report released this August that there are 387 officially sanctioned markets in the country, encompassing more than half a million stalls. Over 5 million people are either “directly or indirectly” reliant on the markets, “solidifying their place in North Korean society as an integral and irreversible means of survival,” the report said.

In 2015, a survey of 1,017 defectors by Seoul University professor Byung-yeon Kim found that official channels such as the PDS accounted for just 23.5 percent of people’s food intake. Around 61 percent of respondents said private markets were their most important source of food, and the remaining 15.5 percent came from self-cultivated crops.

So the official system may mean little to many North Koreans.

“WFP has consistently been asking (the North Korean government) to carry out a more detailed study on market activity and the role of markets in achieving household food security,” a spokeswoman said.

 

PIZZA IN PYONGYANG

As in other countries, North Korea’s wealthy have choice. Residents of the capital can order up a pizza in one of Pyongyang’s hundreds of restaurants, say regular visitors. Many of the eateries are operated by state-owned enterprises. Some used to cater only to tourists. Increasingly they now also collect dollars and euros from locals.

At a place people know as the “Italian on Kwangbok Street,” for example, moneyed locals and western tourists alike can pick vongole pasta for $3.50, or pepperoni pizzas for $10, the menu says. This compares with $0.30 for a kilo of corn or $0.50 for a portion of injogogi in the markets.

Reuters was unable to determine how the restaurant sources its ingredients such as pepperoni, although North Korea imports processed meats and cheeses from European countries and Southeast Asia – such imports are legal. Calls to the phone numbers on the menu failed and an operator for the Pyongyang switchboard said the numbers could not be connected to international lines.

As the economy in North Korea has changed, so have the tastes of a moneyed middle class keen to try new foods. Kim Jong Un has called for more domestically produced goods, according to state media, and there are more locally made sweets, snacks and candies. The country does not publish detailed import data but China’s exports of sugar to North Korea in January to September this year ballooned to 44,725 tonnes, Chinese data shows. That is about half of all China’s global sugar exports and compares with 1,236 tonnes in 2016 and 2,843 in 2015.

North Korea does not produce sugar. According to the International Sugar Organization, the North’s sugar consumption is fairly steady at around 89,000-90,000 tonnes a year – a very modest amount per head. Each South Korean consumes about nine times more than that.

At the other end of the social scale, Chinese data shows corn exports to North Korea also jumped in the first nine months of this year, to nearly 50,000 tonnes, compared with just over 3,000 tonnes in the whole of 2016.

Daily NK reporters say they call secret sources in North Korea several times a week to get the market price of rice, corn, pork, fuels and the won currency – which is traded at around 8,100 to the dollar, as opposed to the official rate of around 100 to the dollar.

So far, their reports suggest, petrol and diesel prices have doubled since the most recent round of U.N. Security Council resolutions. The market price of rice and corn has increased less sharply. Reuters was not able to independently confirm their reports.

And there are other ways North Koreans can supplement their diets.

“My dad often received bribes,” said one 28-year-old defector who asked to be identified only by her surname, Kang, because when she moved out in late 2010 she left her father behind.

He was a high-ranking public official. The bribes he received included goat meat, dog meat and deer meat, she said.

(For a graphic on ‘Rising costs, falling aid’ click http://tmsnrt.rs/2h95QBL)

 

 

(Additional reporting by Heekyong Yang in Seoul, Nigel Hunt in London and Vincent Lee in Beijing; Edited by Sara Ledwith)

 

Cholera claims unborn children as epidemic spreads Yemen misery

Children wait to be treated at a cholera treatment center in Sanaa, Yemen May 15, 2017. Picture taken May 15, 2017.

By Abduljabbar Zeyad

HODEIDAH, Yemen (Reuters) – One of the latest victims of the cholera epidemic that has killed more than 2,000 people in Yemen had yet to even take her first breath.

Her mother Safaa Issa Kaheel, then nine months pregnant, was brought into a crowded clinic in the Western port city of Hodeidah by her husband, who had to borrow the travel fare from a neighbor. “My stomach started hurting more and more,” said Kaheel, 37, a hydrating drip hooked into her arm.

Once there, she was referred by nurse Hayam al-Shamaa for an ultrasound scan which showed her baby had died of dehydration – one of 15 to perish in the womb due to cholera in September and October, according to doctors at the city’s Thawra hospital.

“I felt like death,” Kaheel said, her voice strained. “Thank god I survived the (delivery), but my diarrhea hasn’t stopped.”

The Red Cross has warned that cholera, a diarrheal disease that has been eradicated in most developed countries, could infect a million people in Yemen by the end of the year.

Two and a half years of war have sapped Yemen of the money and medical facilities it needs to battle the contagion, to which aid agencies and medics say the poor, the starving, the pregnant and the young are most vulnerable.

The cholera ward is full of children – some writhing in agony, others eerily still. The blanket over one boy too weak to move rises and falls with his shallow breathing.

Save the Children said in August that children under 15 represent nearly half of new cases and a third of deaths, with malnourished children more than six times more likely to die of cholera than well-fed ones.

Millions of Yemenis are struggling to find food and the baking desert plains around Hodeidah are hotspots both of hunger and sickness.

Yemen’s war pits the armed Houthi movement against the internationally recognized government of President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi, which is backed by a Saudi-led coalition that has launched thousands of air strikes to restore him to power.

At least 10,000 people have been killed in the conflict.

The country’s health sector has been badly battered while a struggle over the central bank has left public sector salaries for doctors and sanitation workers unpaid.

Soumaya Beltifa, spokesperson for the Red Cross in Sanaa, warned that a lack of funds and health personnel were blunting efforts to eradicate the disease, making it unlikely Yemen would be healthy again soon.

“The cholera epidemic has become a norm, leading to complacency in dealing with the disease, not only by civilians but also from the various (aid) organizations,” she warned.

 

Nearly 400 die as Myanmar army steps up crackdown on Rohingya militants

Rohingya refugees stands in an open place during heavy rain, as they are hold by Border Guard Bangladesh (BGB) after illegally crossing the border, in Teknaf, Bangladesh, August 31, 2017.

COX’S BAZAR, Bangladesh (Reuters) – Nearly 400 people have died in fighting that has rocked Myanmar’s northwest for a week, new official data show, making it probably the deadliest bout of violence to engulf the country’s Rohingya Muslim minority in decades.

Around 38,000 Rohingya have crossed into Bangladesh from Myanmar, United Nations sources said, a week after Rohingya insurgents attacked police posts and an army base in Rakhine state, prompting clashes and a military counteroffensive.

“As of August 31, 38,000 people are estimated to have crossed the border into Bangladesh,” the officials said on Friday, in their latest estimate.

The army says it is conducting clearance operations against “extremist terrorists” and security forces have been told to protect civilians. But Rohingya fleeing to Bangladesh say a campaign of arson and killings aims to force them out.

The treatment of Myanmar’s roughly 1.1 million Rohingya is the biggest challenge facing national leader Aung San Suu Kyi, accused by some Western critics of not speaking out for a minority that has long complained of persecution.

Police officers guard near a house that was burnt down in recent violence in Maungdaw, Myanmar August 31, 2017.

Police officers guard near a house that was burnt down in recent violence in Maungdaw, Myanmar August 31, 2017. RETUERS/Soe Zeya Tun

The clashes and ensuing army crackdown have killed about 370 Rohingya insurgents, but also 13 security forces, two government officials and 14 civilians, the Myanmar military said on Thursday.

By comparison, communal violence in 2012 in Sittwe, the capital of Rakhine, led to the killing of nearly 200 people and the displacement of about 140,000, most of them Rohingya.

The fighting is a dramatic escalation of a conflict that has simmered since October, when similar but much smaller Rohingya attacks on security posts prompted a brutal military response dogged by allegations of rights abuses.

Myanmar evacuated more than 11,700 “ethnic residents” from the area affected by fighting, the army said, referring to the non-Muslim population of northern Rakhine.

More than 150 Rohingya insurgents staged fresh attacks on security forces on Thursday near villages occupied by Hindus, the state-run Global New Light of Myanmar said, adding that about 700 members of such families had been evacuated.

“Four of the terrorists were arrested, including one 13-year-old boy,” it said, adding that security forces had arrested two more men near a Maungdaw police outpost on suspicion of involvement in the attacks.

About 20,000 more Rohingya trying to flee are stuck in no man’s land at the border, the U.N. sources said, as aid workers in Bangladesh struggle to alleviate the sufferings of a sudden influx of thousands of hungry and traumatized people.

While some Rohingya try to cross by land, others attempt a perilous boat journey across the Naf River separating the two countries.

Bangladesh border guards found the bodies of 15 Rohingya Muslims, 11 children among them, floating in the river on Friday, area commander Lt. Col. Ariful Islam told Reuters.

That takes to about 40 the total of Rohingya known to have died by drowning.

 

(Reporting by Reuters staff; Editing by Clarence Fernandez)

 

Mosul Old City residents spend hungry and fearful Ramadan under IS rule

Displaced Iraqi family from Mosul eat a simple meal for their Iftar, during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan at a refugee camp al-Khazir in the outskirts of Erbil, Iraq June 10, 2017. Picture taken June 10, 2017. REUTERS/Erik De Castro

By Ahmed Rasheed

BAGHDAD (Reuters) – For Salam, a resident in the Islamic State-held Old City of Mosul, the holy fasting month of Ramadan this year is the worst he’s seen in a lifetime marked by wars and deprivations.

“We are slowly dying from hunger, boiling mouldy wheat as soup” to break the fast at sunset, the 47 year-old father of three said by phone from the district besieged by Iraqi forces, asking to withhold his name fearing the militants’ retribution.

The only wish he makes in his prayers is for his family to survive the final days of the self-proclaimed caliphate declared three years ago by IS’s leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi from a nearby mosque.

The eight-month old U.S.-backed campaign to capture Mosul, IS’s de-facto capital in Iraq, reached its deadliest phase just as the holy Muslim month started at the end of May, when militants became squeezed in and around the densely populated Old City.

Up to 200,000 people are trapped behind their lines, half of them children, according to the United Nations.

Hundreds have been killed while trying to escape to government-held lines, caught in the cross-fire or gunned down by Islamic State snipers. The militants want civilians to remain in areas under their control to use them as human shields.

Many bodies of the dead remain in the street near the frontlines. Four of them are relatives of Khalil, a former civil servant who quit his job after IS took over Mosul.

“Daesh warned us not to bury them to make them an example for others who try to flee,” he said, using an acronym for Islamic State.

Those who decide not to run the risk of fleeing are living in fear of getting killed or wounded in their homes, with little food and water and limited access to healthcare.

“Seeing my kids hungry is real torture,” said Salam, who closed his home appliances shop shortly after the start of the offensive as sales came to a complete stop.”I wish the security forces would eliminate all Daesh fighters in a flash; I want my family to have normal life again.”

Where food can be found, the price has risen more than 20-fold. A kilo of rice is selling for more than $40. A kilo of flour or lentils is $20 or more.

The sellers are mainly households who stockpiled enough food and medicine to dare sell some, but only to trusted neighbors or relatives, or in return for items they need. If militants find food they take it.

Residents fill water from a few wells dug in the soil. The wait is long and dangerous as shelling is frequent.

“The well-water has a bitter taste and we can smell sewage sometimes, but we have to drink to stay alive,” said Umm Saad, a widow and mother of four, complaining that the militants are often seen with bottled water and canned food.

“We have been under compulsory fasting even before the start of Ramadan,” she said. “No real food to eat, just hardened old bread and mouldy grains.”

About 800,000 people, more than a third of the pre-war city’s population, have already fled, seeking refuge either with friends and relatives or in camps. But in areas still held by the militants escape has become harder than ever.

“Fleeing is like committing suicide,” said Khalil, the ex-civil servant, who lives near the medieval Grand al-Nuri Mosque, the offensive’s symbolic focus, where Baghdadi proclaimed himself caliph.

IS’s black flag has been flying over its landmark leaning minaret since June 2014, when the Iraqi army fled in the face of the militants, giving them their biggest prize, a city at least four times bigger than any other they came to control in both Iraq and neighboring Syria.

(Reporting by Ahmed Rasheed; editing by Peter Graff)

As Yemen faces famine, U.N. works to avert attack on food port

A woman and her children, displaced by the war in northwestern Yemen, are pictured next to their makeshift hut on the pavement of a street in the Red Sea port city of Hodeidah, Yemen May 15, 2017. REUTERS/Abduljabbar Zeyad

By Michelle Nichols

UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) – A quarter of Yemen’s people are on the brink of famine, parents are marrying off young daughters so someone else can care for them and cholera cases are escalating, U.N. officials warned on Tuesday as they work to avert a Saudi-led attack on a key port.

The United Nations has warned the Arab alliance fighting Iran-aligned Houthis against any attempt to extend the war to Hodeidah, a vital Red Sea aid delivery point where some 80 percent of Yemen’s food imports arrive.

“An attack on Hodeidah is not in the interest of any party, as it will directly and irrevocably drive the Yemeni population further into starvation and famine,” U.N. aid chief Stephen O’Brien told the U.N. Security Council, urging all U.N. member states to help keep the port open and operating.

“Yemen now has the ignominy of being the world’s largest food security crisis with more than 17 million people who are food insecure, 6.8 million of whom are one step away from famine. Crisis is not coming, it is not even looming, it is here today,” he said.

The Saudi-led coalition has said it was determined to help Yemen’s government retake all areas held by Houthi militia, including Hodeidah port, but would ensure alternative entry routes for badly needed food and medicine.

U.N. Yemen envoy Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed told the Security Council on Tuesday he had made clear to the parties to the conflict that they must reach a compromise to avoid the “horrific scenario” of military action moving to the port.

However, he noted the Houthis and the allied General People’s Congress, the party of former President Ali Abdullah Saleh, did not meet with him in the capital Sanaa to discuss a possible agreement that he had proposed.

O’Brien said a $2.1 billion humanitarian strategy and plan for Yemen was only a quarter funded.

“Yemen is not facing a drought. If there was no conflict … a famine would certainly be avoidable and averted,” he said. “Families are increasingly marrying off their young daughters to have someone else to care for them, and often use the dowry to pay for basic necessities.”

O’Brien also said there had been some 55,000 suspected cases of cholera since April and estimated another 150,000 cases were expected over the next six months.

“Had the parties to the conflict cared, the outbreak was avoidable,” O’Brien said.

(Reporting by Michelle Nichols at the United Nations; Editing by James Dalgleish)