Guatemalan families mourn death of children as hunger spreads

By Sofia Menchu

LA PALMILLA, Guatemala (Reuters) – Two-year-old Yesmin Anayeli Perez died this week of illnesses linked to malnutrition, the third small child to die from similar causes in an impoverished mountain village in eastern Guatemala within weeks, residents and health officials said.

Residents of the indigenous Mayan village, La Palmilla, and other parts of a region known as the Dry Corridor sunk deeper into poverty last year when economic damage wrought by droughts and two devastating hurricanes was compounded by the coronavirus lockdown.

The second of three children, Yesmin had a history of acute malnutrition, which causes rapid weight-loss and wasting, and for which she was hospitalized several times over the past year.

In the months before her death, Yesmin’s legs and arms were stick-like and her belly swollen by water retention, even though she had gained a little weight. Reuters visited her family in their home in October, where Yesmin, dressed in a purple t-shirt, was being fed a high protein mash by her mother.

In the early hours of Monday, Yesmin died, her eyes bulging and her frail body distorted by a persistent cough and long struggle with lung illness linked to her inadequate nutrition, her father Ignoja Perez told Reuters.

Just over half the normal weight for her age, she was suffering malnutrition and pneumonia made worse by the cold and damp weather that followed the hurricanes, local health official Santiago Esquivel said.

Sitting in front of her small coffin, in a home with a dirt floor and tin roof, her father said the family had been hopeful she would make a recovery.

“I bought her some vitamins on Sunday, to see if she would put on weight, we were going to start the treatment on Monday, with a spoonful,” Perez recalled. “But she got worse.”

Yesmin was buried on a hilltop along with some of her clothes, a bottle of water and a small, orange plastic drinking cup in a traditional ceremony on Tuesday.

The family had celebrated her second birthday with a bowl of chicken soup just a few weeks earlier.

The Guatemalan government denies that Yesmin was suffering malnutrition at the time of her death, or at any time during 2020. However, medical records reviewed by Reuters showed she was diagnosed as suffering from acute malnutrition at least until March.

Guatemala’s Food and Nutritional Security Secretariat said in a statement that Yesmin and her family had received support from authorities, in recognition that she had suffered malnutrition and lung problems at birth.

Asked why she was not classified as malnourished in 2020, the agency referred Reuters to the Health Ministry. The ministry did not respond to requests for comment.

TRAPPED BY POVERTY

Government data show acute malnutrition among the under-fives rose by 80% in Guatemala in 2020 compared to 2019.

The government said the jump was partly due to improved methodology. However, data gathered by Oxfam last year also showed large increases in families facing food shortages, including a four-fold jump in severe shortages in the province around La Palmilla.

At least 46 children under five died of hunger-related causes in 2020 in Guatemala, according to the government data, well below previous years. Ivan Aguilar, a humanitarian program coordinator based in Guatemala at Oxfam, said the drop appeared to be due to officials attributing deaths related to malnutrition to other causes, including the case of Yesmin.

Yesmin was the third young child to die in the village of around 3,000 people since October, local health official Esquivel said. Yesmin was buried a few feet away from another girl who died on Dec. 26.

The deaths are unusual even in a region that grew tragically accustomed to such deaths after drought destroyed crops every year for half of the past decade, Esquivel added.

“Sometimes a child would die, but not like this, one after the other,” he said.

The crisis is driving a new round of migration north.  But in La Palmilla and other villages in the eastern highlands, people said they lack the money to up and leave.

Without work for months during a lockdown from February, Perez borrowed money and sold his coffee crop, spending the little he raised to pay for Yesmin’s treatment in nearby city Zacapa.

The two hurricanes in November wiped out his field of beans, leaving only corn in the ground, and the walls of his mud-block house cracked with the rain, letting the winter chill inside.

“I wish I could go to the United States, but without money, we have to stay,” he said, looking down at his daughter’s still body.

(Reporting by Sofia Menchu; Writing by Stefanine Eschenbacher; Editing by Frank Jack Daniel and Rosalba O’Brien)

Americans give to charity like never before amid pandemic

By Jonnelle Marte

(Reuters) – Hundreds of cars line up before dawn on weekly distribution days for the Forgotten Harvest’s partner food pantries in the metro Detroit area, where visits are up by 50% this year.

The need has grown as the coronavirus pandemic has shut down offices and other businesses. So has the response.

Monetary donations to the food bank are on pace to top last year’s contributions, helping to fund a larger storage space and new mobile distribution sites required to distribute food safely during the crisis.

“The only good thing about this pandemic is that it’s made people care a little bit more about their neighbors,” said Christopher Ivey, director of marketing for Forgotten Harvest, one of the largest food banks in Michigan.

The economic crisis set off by the pandemic has widened the chasm between the “haves” and the “have-nots” in the United States in new ways. People who can work from home, often in higher-income jobs, are comfortable.

But over 20 million Americans rely on unemployment benefits, and hunger and poverty are rising.

The expanded rift has been accompanied by an outpouring of donations to local food banks, crowdfunding campaigns and other aid to financially devastated Americans.

Amazon shareholder Mackenzie Scott’s $4 billion in charitable contributions, announced earlier this month, may be the biggest. But plenty of Americans are also chipping in, donating $10 or $20, some for the first time ever.

Many non-profits have suffered this year as the pandemic shuttered galas and fundraisers. But donations to some small and mid-sized charitable organizations were up 7.6% in the first nine months of 2020 over 2019, according to a recent analysis by the Association of Fundraising Professionals, which tracks nearly 2,500 groups. The number of donors is up by 11.7%.

The trend seems to have continued in December, typically the most active time for charitable giving in the United States, early data show. Charities received $2.47 billion in donations on Dec. 1, the Tuesday after Thanksgiving known as GivingTuesday, up 25% from 2019.

“People are giving like we’ve never seen before,” said Woodrow Rosenbaum, chief data officer for GivingTuesday.

Much of that is coming in small dollar amounts, suggesting that people across the income spectrum are stepping up their contributions, Rosenbaum said.

About 70% of the donations made to campaigns on GoFundMe were under $50 this year, up from 40% in 2019, according to a spokesperson for the fundraising website.

“What we have now is much more collective action,” said Rosenbaum.

America’s Food Fund, started this year, raised over $44 million on GoFundMe, the largest campaign ever on the fundraising website. Long-time programs like the United States Post Office’s Operation Santa, which matches donors with needy families who send letters to a special North Pole address, report unprecedented support.

Jonathan Cummings, executive director for Revive South Jersey, a ministry started in 2012 to tutor English, mentor and provide housing help in local communities, says a “groundswell” of volunteers signed up to deliver food every two weeks after the organization realized that many of the families it supports were struggling to afford groceries.

Giving Tuesday donations tracked by Share Omaha, a Nebraska organization that supports local nonprofits, nearly doubled this year from 2019, to over $3 million, with a third coming from first-time donors. When the group asked for volunteers earlier in the year for packing meals for the homeless and other tasks, it got 700 applications, up from the 200 monthly average.

“Even if people are out of work or furloughed, they want to give back to the community,” said Marjorie Maas, executive director for the organization.

Janette McCabe was one of the hundreds of people waiting in cars before sunrise on the Monday before Christmas in a parking lot in Warren, Michigan, for a Forgotten Harvest food bank distribution.

McCabe and her husband lost their jobs recently and have been relying on food stamps. She has been coming to the food bank distribution for about a month and a half.

“The volunteers are fantastic,” McCabe said. “I don’t know what we would do if we didn’t have them.”

(Reporting by Jonnelle Marte; Additional reporting by Emily Elconin; Editing by Heather Timmons and Dan Grebler)

Freed Nigerian schoolboys return home, tell of beatings and hunger

By Afolabi Sotunde

KATSINA, Nigeria (Reuters) – Scores of schoolboys who were rescued from kidnappers in northwest Nigeria arrived back home on Friday, many of them barefoot and wrapped in blankets after their week-long ordeal.

The boys, dressed in dusty clothes, looked dazed and weary but otherwise well as they got off buses in the city of Katsina and walked to a government building.

One, who did not give his name, said the captors had told him to describe them as members of the Islamist militant group Boko Haram, although he suspected they were armed bandits.

“They beat us morning, every night. We suffered a lot. They only gave us food once a day and water twice a day,” he told Nigeria’s Arise television.

A week earlier, gunmen on motorbikes raided the boys’ boarding school in the town of Kankara in Katsina state and marched hundreds of them into a vast forest that spans four states.

Security services rescued them on Thursday, authorities said. However, many details surrounding the incident remain unclear, including who was responsible, whether a ransom was paid, how the boys’ release was secured and whether all of them are now safe.

The abduction gripped a country already incensed by widespread insecurity, and evoked memories of Boko Haram’s 2014 kidnapping of more than 270 schoolgirls in the northeastern town of Chibok.

Six years on, only about half the girls have been found or freed. Some were married off to fighters, while others are assumed to be dead.

Any Boko Haram involvement in this kidnapping would mark a geographical expansion in its activities from its base in the northeast. The region is also plagued by armed gangs that rob and kidnap for ransom.

Hours before the rescue of the boys was announced on Thursday, a video started circulating online purportedly showing Boko Haram militants with some of the boys. Reuters was unable to verify the authenticity of the footage or who released it.

The boy interviewed by Arise TV was one of those who spoke in the video.

“They said I should say they are Boko Haram and gangs of Abu Shekau,” he said, referring to a name used by a Boko Haram leader. “Sincerely speaking, they are not Boko Haram … They are just small and tiny, tiny boys with big guns.”

Another of the boys told Reuters that the kidnappers had initially taken them to a hiding place.

“But when they saw a jet fighter, they changed the location and hid us in a different place. They gave us food, but it was very little,” he said.

TEARS OF JOY, PRAYERS OF THANKS

On Friday, the boys from the Government Science Secondary School walked from the buses in single file, flanked by soldiers and armed police officers, and were taken to the government building to meet the governor.

“We are very grateful. We are very grateful. We are very grateful,” a man who said he was the father of two of the pupils told Arise TV.

The boys were later brought back to the buses and driven off for medical checks, officials said.

A group of parents waited to be reunited with them in a shaded parking lot in another part of town.

Hajiya Bilikisu, in a cream-colored veil, said she had started to lose hope that she would ever see her son, Abdullahi Abdulrazak, again.

“I was just crying, crying with joy, when I saw them, my son” in pictures after the release, she told Reuters.

“They have to recovery psychologically,” she said. “They went through trauma. We have to try to counsel them, so they can now become normal persons.”

Hafsat Funtua, mother of 16-year-old Hamza Naziru, said she ran out of her house with joy “not knowing where to go” when she heard the news.

“I couldn’t believe what I heard until neighbors came to inform me that it’s true,” she said in a phone interview. She later returned home to pray.

The mass kidnapping piled pressure on the government to deal with militants in the north of the country.

It was particularly embarrassing for President Muhammadu Buhari, who comes from Katsina state and has repeatedly said that Boko Haram has been “technically defeated”.

Buhari said he had congratulated the state’s governor and the army, in a brief clip from an interview posted on his Twitter account earlier on Friday.

Information Minister Lai Mohammed told journalists on Friday the abduction was “totally unacceptable”.

“Our children should not have to go to school in trepidation. The federal government is doing everything possible to secure all our schools, and indeed all Nigerians,” he said at a press conference in the capital, Abuja.

(Reporting by Ismail Abba in Katsina; Additional reporting by Maiduguri newsroom, Ardo Hazzad in Bauchi, Garba Muhammad in Kaduna, Camillus Eboh and Felix Onuah in Abuja, and Alexis Akwagyiram in Lagos; Writing by Alexis Akwagyiram and Andrew Heavens; Editing by Alexandra Zavis and Mike Collett-White)

Trump or Biden’s big economic challenge: millions of struggling Americans

By Jonnelle Marte

(Reuters) – The winner of the race for the White House will face a generation of low-to-middle income Americans struggling to get back to work because of a health crisis not seen in more than 100 years.

Whether it’s President Donald Trump or Democratic challenger and former Vice President Joe Biden, the reality is grim: about half of the 22 million who lost their jobs during the pandemic are still out of work.

New hiring is slowing, dimming prospects for the low-wage workers hit hardest by job losses. Infections of the virus that killed more than 225,000 Americans are rising to new records. Hotels, transportation companies and food providers warn that more layoffs are coming, and the government aid that helped many pay the bills is long gone.

Securing a future for a vast, growing underclass “is the most important challenge America faces over the next few years, 10 years, 20 years,” said Gene Ludwig, a former comptroller of the currency under President Bill Clinton and author of “The Vanishing American Dream,” a book about the economic challenges facing lower and middle income Americans.

“We cannot sustain a democratic society that has these kinds of numbers of low and middle income people that aren’t able to have a hope for the American dream and live decently.”

Congressional Democrats and the Trump administration have been trying to negotiate a $2 trillion coronavirus aid bill, but many Senate Republicans object to the cost and question whether more stimulus is needed. A deal may not be reached until early 2021.

SAVINGS DRY UP

That’s going to be too late for some.

Direct cash payments and enhanced unemployment benefits established by the CARES Act, which added $600 a week to state unemployment benefits, lifted more Americans out of poverty in April even as unemployment soared, according to research by the Center on Poverty & Social Policy at Columbia University.

People receiving the enhanced benefits were able to spend more, build savings and pay off debt, according to an analysis by the JPMorgan Chase Institute.

But after the benefits expired at the end of July, poverty is once again on the rise – with the monthly poverty rate reaching 16.7% in September from 15% in February, according to the Columbia study. After a decade of decline, hunger is rising nationwide.

Lisandra Bonilla, 46, saved roughly a third of the enhanced unemployment benefits she received after she was furloughed in late March from her job at an employment agency in Kissimmee, Florida. “I had saved a lot because I didn’t know what was going to happen,” she said.

It was smart planning: in August her benefits were cut to $275 a week before taxes, the maximum in Florida, down from more than $800.

Bonilla returned to work part-time in late September, but now she is struggling to pay the bills on half her previous pay, and fears her savings will be gone by December.

If she isn’t hired full time soon, she needs to find another job.

“We’re trying to shovel ourselves out of the hole, but at the same time the hole is getting bigger,” said Wendy Edelberg, director of the Hamilton Project and senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.

Two factors are particularly worrying, she said. More than 420,000 small businesses shuttered between March and mid-summer, which is more than three times the typical pace, she estimates. And permanent layoffs are also on the rise, hitting 3.8 million in September from 1.3 million in February – similar to levels seen before the 2008 election.

THE LONGTERM UNEMPLOYMENT TRAP

Bishop Donald Harper has been on more than 50 job interviews since he was furloughed in March.

Harper, 55, a veteran chef, most recently oversaw five restaurants at an Orlando resort. But with occupancy still low, it’s not clear when he’ll get back to work.

Applications for jobs at super markets or in health care have also been fruitless.

“I can do anything and everything,” said Harper, who also serves as a bishop for a nondenominational church. He is struggling to pay for food and utilities on $275-a-week unemployment, and three months behind on his $1,900 a month rent.

“I don’t want to be homeless,” said Harper, who lives with two children ages 10 and 13. He has reached out to more than 20 groups seeking rental assistance, with no luck.

The United States has 2.4 million and growing “long-term” unemployed, officially defined as those who have been out of work for 27 weeks or more. Getting everyone back to work is crucial, but economists say these job seekers are at greater risk of dropping out of the labor market or taking lower paying jobs.

This week, the U.S. Commerce Department is expected to report that Gross Domestic Product surged in the third quarter, thanks in part to fiscal stimulus that kept U.S. workers afloat, but has mostly expired.

Now, people who are out of work or in low-wage jobs need rental support, direct cash payments and food assistance, as well as federal jobs projects and retraining programs, labor economists say.

If elected, Biden has pledged to raise the federal minimum wage, and roll out trillions of dollars in infrastructure and green energy programs. But he’ll need the votes in Congress to do it.

Trump has signaled support for more federal stimulus, but has offered fewer specifics on jobs.

Until help arrives, workers are struggling.

Rachel Alvarez, 44, a single mother of three in Naples, Florida, starts a new job this week as a server at a restaurant – her first time working since she lost her job in March.

Restaurant workers who depend on tips aren’t making much money, because business remains slow due to the coronavirus, she said. She hasn’t paid rent since June, and is still waiting to hear from the county government about a grant.

“I’m going to keep my head up, because if shit like this ever happens to my children I want them to keep their head up too,” said Alvarez.

(Reporting by Jonnelle Marte. Additional reporting by Andy Sullivan and Richard Cowan; Editing by Heather Timmons and Edward Tobin)

In Argentina’s north, indigenous children sicken and die from malnutrition

By Miguel Lo Bianco

TARTAGAL, Argentina (Reuters) – In Argentina, once one of the world’s richest countries and long a major supplier of beef, children are dying of hunger.

In Argentina’s far northern province of Salta, in a small indigenous community plagued by extreme poverty, eight children died in January alone from malnutrition and a lack of access to clean drinking water, health authorities say.

Women from the indigenous Wichi community carry their children who are undergoing treatment for malnourishment at a hospital, in Tartagal, in the Salta province, Argentina, February 27, 2020. Picture taken February 27, 2020. REUTERS/Ueslei Marcelino

The issue affects other places, too, and has prompted the national government to announce a plan to tackle hunger. The governor of Salta has declared a public health emergency, vowing to work with the national government to provide clean water in the province.

In the province last week, children from the Wichi community, with a population of just 1,200, played barefoot in the mud, outside homes constructed by hand from wood and cloth.

In Tartagal, the small town nearest to where the Wichi live, hospital beds are filled with Wichi children battling malnutrition and a host of other health issues linked to a lack of clean water, health officials said. Sometimes, the children arrive too late to make a recovery, according to Juan Lopez, manager of the hospital in Tartagal.

Complications related to the issues led to the deaths of the eight Wichi children in January, he said. The community also has one of the country’s highest rates of infant mortality.

A spokesman for Argentina’s ministry of health said, “We are constantly liaising with the province of Salta. We are doing food assistance and health assistance.” He added that there were teams from the federal government working in the province.

Liliana Ciriaco, a 45-year-old Wichi woman, said in an interview that there had been “many sicknesses.”

“There are some pregnant women who die, there are children who die, the elderly, too, and we don’t know what is going on,” she said.

A century ago, Argentina was one of the world’s most affluent countries, but it has weathered a series of economic crises in recent decades. The latest one began in 2018. Inflation hovers above 50% and the poverty rate is at 35%. Argentina’s indigenous communities, historically poor, have been especially hard hit.

A child from the indigenous Wichi community holds onto a feeding tube at a hospital, in Tartagal, in the Salta province, Argentina, February 26, 2020. Picture taken February 26, 2020. REUTERS/Ueslei Marcelino

For the Wichi community, the lack of access to safe water is a critical problem.

“The place where they access their water source has high salinization or even chemicals that have been used for agriculture, which cause many gastrointestinal diseases, diarrhea, malnutrition and, above all, dehydration,” said Diego Tipping, president of the Red Cross in Argentina.

Argentina’s new center-left President Alberto Fernandez campaigned on promises to address hunger, poverty and unemployment. In December, he announced a plan to combat the issue in the most affected areas of the country called “Argentina Against Hunger.”

Alejandro Deane, president of the Siwok Foundation, which is dedicated to improving water access for indigenous communities in northern Argentina, called the situation for the Wichi community “disastrous.”

“There is no good news. What needs to be done? What can be done? Here we need a long-term plan, not a short-term plan,” Deane said.

(Reporting by Miguel Lo Bianco; Additional reporting by Marina Lammertyn and Cassandra Garrison; Editing by Richard Chang)

Warding off hunger, Venezuelans find meals in garbage bins

A man sits on a rubbish container in Caracas, Venezuela February 26, 2019. Picture taken February 26, 2019. REUTERS/Carlos Jasso

By Shaylim Valderrama

CARACAS (Reuters) – Tony, a 36-year old security guard, rummages through the garbage bins of a wealthy district in Caracas on his days off work, scavenging for food as Venezuela’s economic meltdown has left even the employed struggling to find enough to eat.

“I smell it and if it smells good, then I take it home,” said Tony, who declined to disclose his last name because he does not want his wife and four children to know how he has been putting food on their table for more than a year.

He said he typically finds scraps of meat, cheese and pieces of vegetables on his garbage runs. “I wash it with vinegar, a lot of water, and I add onion and sauce.

Scenes of Venezuelans picking through garbage in a search for something to eat has for years been a symbol of the nation’s economic meltdown, which has been marked by widespread shortages of food and medicine as well as hyperinflation.

But the problem received renewed attention this week after the South American nation’s socialist government deported American journalist Jorge Ramos, who showed a video of people eating garbage while he interviewed President Nicolas Maduro.

Maduro, who has been in power since 2013 and was re-elected last year in a vote widely viewed as fraudulent, has previously dismissed journalists’ questions about garbage consumption, saying they were part of a U.S.-backed propaganda campaign against his government.

He denies there is a humanitarian crisis in his country and says foreign governments are seeking to undermine him.

Venezuela’s Information Ministry did not immediately reply to a request for comment.

It is not uncommon for poor and indigent residents of the world’s wealthiest nations to root through dumpsters. But it is rare in those nations for people with full-time jobs to rely on garbage to sustain their families.

Prices in Venezuela are rising more than 2 million percent per year, and the country’s minimum wage, worth around $6 per month, buys little more than a tray of eggs.

Many Venezuelans rely on remittances from relatives who have joined an exodus of an estimated 3.4 million people since 2015, according to the United Nations, while others depend on government food handouts.

Opposition leader Juan Guaido, who in January declared himself to be Venezuela’s interim president, led an effort last week to bring humanitarian aid into the country, but troops blocked trucks from getting in.

Most Western nations including the United States have recognized Guaido as Venezuela’s legitimate president.

“I’ve had to teach my children to eat everything,” said Estefani Quintero, 35, a mother of seven who travels two hours to Caracas from a distant suburb to trawl garbage bags. “Of course it’s the government that’s at fault for this. We used to eat breakfast lunch and dinner, we even threw away food.”

(Reporting by Shaylim Valderrama; Writing by Sarah Marsh and Brian Ellsworth; Editing by Paul Simao)

Starving girl shows impact of Yemen war, economic collapse

The sister of malnourished Fatima Ibrahim Hadi, 12, who weighs just 10 kg, carries her at a clinic in Aslam of the northwestern province of Hajjah, Yemen February 12, 2019. Picture taken February 12, 2019. REUTERS/Eissa Alragehi

HAJJAH, Yemen (Reuters) – Displaced by war, starving and living under a tree, 12-year-old Fatima Qoba weighed just 10kg when she was carried into a Yemeni malnutrition clinic.

“All the fat reserves in her body have been used up, she is left only with bones,” Makiah al-Aslami, a doctor and head of the clinic in northwest Yemen. “She has the most extreme form of malnutrition.”

Qoba’s slide into starvation is typical of what is happening in much of Yemen, where war and economic collapse have driven around 10 million people to the brink of famine, according to the United Nations.

The sister of malnourished Fatima Ibrahim Hadi, 12, who weighs just 10 kg, carries her at a clinic in Aslam of the northwestern province of Hajjah, Yemen February 12, 2019. Picture taken February 12, 2019. REUTERS/Eissa Alragehi

The sister of malnourished Fatima Ibrahim Hadi, 12, who weighs just 10 kg, carries her at a clinic in Aslam of the northwestern province of Hajjah, Yemen February 12, 2019. Picture taken February 12, 2019. REUTERS/Eissa Alragehi

Aslami said she is expecting more and more malnutrition cases to come through her door. This month she is treating more than 40 pregnant women with severe malnutrition.

“So in the coming months I expect I will have 43 underweight children,” she said.

She said that since the end of 2018, 14 deaths from malnutrition had occurred at her clinic alone.

Qoba, her 10 siblings and father were forced from their home near the border with Saudi Arabia and forced to live under a tree, Qoba’s older sister, also called Fatima, told Reuters.

She said they were fleeing bombardment from the Saudi-led coalition, which intervened in Yemen in 2015 to restore the internationally recognized government of Yemeni President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi after the Houthi-movement ousted it from power in the capital Sanaa in 2014.

“We don’t have money to get food. All we have is what our neighbors and relatives give us,” the sister said. Their father, in his 60s, is unemployed. “He sits under the tree and doesn’t move.”  

“If we stayed here and starved no one would know about us. We don’t have a future,” she said.

After trying two other hospitals which could not help, a relative found the money to transport Qoba to the clinic in Houthi-controlled Aslam, one of Yemen’s poorest districts with high malnutrition levels.

Lying on green hospital sheets, Qoba’s skin is papery, her eyes huge and her skeletal frame encased in a loose orange dress. A health worker feeds her a pale mush from a bowl.

Aslami said the girl needed a month of treatment to build up her body and mind.

The United Nations is trying to implement a ceasefire and troop withdrawal from Yemen’s main port of Hodeidah, where most of Yemen’s imports come from. But violence continues to displace people in other parts of the country, and cut access routes for food, fuel and aid.

There is food in Yemen, but severe inflation has eroded people’s ability to buy it, and the non-payment of government worker salaries has left many households without incomes.

“It’s a disaster on the edge of famine … Yemeni society and families are exhausted,” Aslami said. “The only solution is to stop the war.”

(This version of the story has been refiled to remove extraneous word “they” in paragraph six)

(Reporting by Reuters team in Yemen; Writing by Lisa Barrington; Editing by Alison Williams)

U.S. military ready to protect diplomats in Venezuela: admiral

People attend a protest against Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro's government at Plaza Bolivar in Lima, Peru February 2, 2019. REUTERS/Guadalupe Pardo

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. military is prepared to protect U.S. personnel and diplomatic facilities in Venezuela if needed, the U.S. admiral in charge of American forces in South America said on Thursday.

“We are prepared to protect U.S. personnel and diplomatic facilities if necessary,” Navy Admiral Craig Faller, the head of U.S. Southern Command, said during a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing.

He did not provide any details on how the U.S. military might respond.

Venezuela’s collapse under President Nicolas Maduro, with the country, plunged into poverty and driving some 3 million people to flee abroad, has forced nations worldwide to take a stance, particularly after opposition leader Juan Guaido declared himself president last month.

Major European Union nations have joined the United States, Canada and a group of Latin American countries in recognizing Guaido as the rightful interim ruler of the South American nation.

Faller said Venezuela had about 2,000 generals and the majority of them were loyal to Maduro because of the wealth they have amassed from drug trafficking, petroleum revenue and business revenue.

Still, he said, rank-and-file soldiers were starving “just like the population” of Venezuela.

“The legitimate government of President Guaido has offered amnesty, and a place for the military forces, most of which we think would be loyal to the Constitution, not to a dictator, a place to go,” Faller said.

He added that the Venezuelan military was degraded.

(Reporting by Idrees Ali and Phil Stewart in Washington; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and James Dalgleish)

Islamic State pinned in tiny eastern Syria enclave with families, U.S. backed force says

FILE PHOTO: Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) celebrate the first anniversary of Raqqa province liberation from ISIS, in Raqqa, Syria Ocotber 27, 2018. REUTERS/Aboud Hamam/File Photo

By Rodi Said

QAMISHLI, Syria (Reuters) – Islamic State fighters in eastern Syria are pinned down in a final tiny pocket with their wives and children, forcing a U.S.-backed militia to slow its advance to protect civilians, the militia said on Tuesday.

An aid agency said separately that 10,000 civilians had fled the enclave since last week and were arriving hungry and desperate at a camp.

The Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces, which have been backed by 2,000 U.S. troops and air support, are preparing for a final showdown with Islamic State in eastern Syria after helping to drive the fighters from the towns and cities that once formed the group’s self-proclaimed caliphate.

SDF spokesman Mustafa Bali said Islamic State fighters were now confined to a pocket of just 5-6 square km (around 2 square miles) by the Euphrates River. The presence of their wives and children meant the U.S.-backed militia could not launch an all-out storm of it, and was using slower, more precise tactics instead.

“There are thousands of Daesh families there. They are civilians at the end of the day,” Bali told Reuters, using an acronym for Islamic State. “We cannot storm the area or put any child’s life in danger.”

The SDF had refused an offer from the jihadists via mediators to surrender the territory in return for safe passage out, Bali said.

Clashes had slowed because of the presence of the civilians, and “precise operations” were taking more time. “Calm prevails on the frontlines but there’s a state of caution and waiting.”

The International Rescue Committee (IRC) charity said it was helping tend to a sudden influx of more than 10,000 people, almost all women, children and elderly, who had arrived at a camp in northeast Syria since last week.

Most were exhausted, extremely hungry, and thirsty as they fled Islamic State territory, the global aid agency said. Many arrived barefoot. The United Nations confirmed that 12 young children had died after reaching the al-Hol camp or on the dangerous journey there, the IRC added on Tuesday.

The SDF, spearheaded by the Kurdish YPG militia, has seized much of north and east Syria with U.S. help. It has been battling Islamic State remnants near the Iraqi border for months.

Last month, U.S. President Donald Trump declared that Islamic State had been defeated and announced the abrupt withdrawal of the U.S. troops, over objections of top advisors including Defense Secretary Jim Mattis who quit in protest.

The SDF vowed to escalate its operations against Islamic State this month after a bomb attack killed several people including two U.S. soldiers in northern Syria. SDF officials have warned of an Islamic State revival if Washington withdraws.

Kurdish leaders also fear a U.S. pullout would give Turkey, which sees the YPG as a threat on its border, the chance to mount a new assault. Washington has since said it will make sure its allies are protected when it leaves.

(Reporting by Rodi Said in Syria and Ellen Francis in Beirut; Editing by Peter Graff)

Two million more Venezuelans could flee next year: U.N.

By Stephanie Nebehay

GENEVA (Reuters) – An estimated two million Venezuelans could join the ranks of migrants and refugees next year, swelling the total to 5.3 million as the country’s meltdown continues, the United Nations said on Friday.

About 5,000 Venezuelans flee their homeland daily, down from a peak of 13,000 in August, said Eduardo Stein, a joint special representative for the U.N. refugee agency UNHCR and the International Organization for Migration (IOM).

Stein described the two million figure as a planning estimate for migrants and refugees leaving for neighboring countries in the next 14 months who will need aid.

“The region had to respond to an emergency that in some areas of concern was almost similar to a massive earthquake. We are indeed facing a humanitarian earthquake,” he told a news briefing.

The U.N. appealed last week for $738 million in 2019 to help Venezuela’s neighbors cope with the inflow of millions of refugees and migrants who have “no prospect for return in the short- to medium-term”.

About 3.3 million Venezuelans have fled the political and economic crisis in their homeland, most since 2015, the UNHCR said.

About 365,000 of them have sought asylum, U.N. refugee boss Filippo Grandi said.

“The reasons these people left are ranging from pure hunger to violence and lack of security … We at UNHCR believe many have valid reasons to seek international protection,” he said.

Colombia has taken in one million Venezuelan nationals, with most others going to Brazil, Ecuador and Peru.

A bipartisan group of U.S. Senators proposed on Thursday giving temporary protected status to Venezuelan migrants to the United States.

Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro blames its economic problems on U.S. financial sanctions and an “economic war” led by political adversaries.

The U.N. aid plan, presented to donors on Friday, aims to help Venezuelans to become productive contributors in host countries, said Antonio Vitorio, director-general of the IOM.

“This means focusing on access to the labor market, recognition of qualifications and also guaranteeing that the provision of social services in those countries – especially housing, health, and education – are up to the stress that derives from the newcomers,” he said.

(Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay; editing by David Stamp)