A ‘never-ending nightmare’ for Yemenis one year since blockade

A woman holds a malnourished boy in a malnutrition treatment centre at the al-Sabeen hospital in Sanaa, Yemen October 6, 2018. REUTERS/Khaled Abdullah TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY - RC17865BEC40

By Heba Kanso

BEIRUT (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – One year after a Saudi coalition imposed a blockade on Yemeni ports temporarily halting life-saving supplies, Yemenis are still living a “never-ending nightmare,” low on food and fuel, a senior aid official said on Tuesday.

Yemen, one of the poorest Arab countries, is locked in a nearly four-year-old war that pits Iran-aligned Houthi rebels against the government backed by Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and the West.

For several weeks at the end of 2017, the Saudi coalition imposed a blockade on Yemeni ports which it said was to prevent Houthis from importing weapons. This had a severe impact on Yemen, which traditionally imports 90 percent of its food.

Jan Egeland, a former U.N. aid chief who now heads the Norwegian Refugee Council said since the blockade, food and fuel imports remain low and prices have soared, leaving millions on the brink of starvation as violence continues.

“The past 12 months have been a never-ending nightmare for Yemeni civilians,” he said in a statement.

Here are some facts about what has been happening inside the war-torn country:

-The brutal war has caused the world’s worst humanitarian crisis, according to the United Nations, with 22 million Yemenis dependent on aid out of a population of around 25 million.

-The U.N. aid coordinator warned that a further 10 million Yemenis could face starvation by the end of the year. More than 8 million are already severely short of food.

-Aid group Save the Children said a million more children in Yemen risked falling into famine, taking the total number to 5.2 million.

-Fighting flared this week in Yemen’s main Hodeidah port, where most food imports and relief supplies enter, leaving thousands trapped on the southern outskirts of the Red Sea port, according to the U.N.

-Western countries, like the United States and Britain, have called for a ceasefire to support efforts to end a war that has killed more than 10,000 people.

-After international pressure the Saudi-led coalition lifted the blockade but tightened ship inspections, slowing down imports.

-Soaring prices have put some basic commodities out of reach for many Yemenis and the central bank has struggled to pay public-sector salaries on which many depend as foreign exchange reserves dwindle.

Sources: Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC), Save the Children, U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), Reuters

(Reporting by Heba Kanso @hebakanso; Editing by Jason Fields. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women’s and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking, property rights, and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org)

Yemeni children die as warring sides block aid deliveries: UNICEF

A malnourished boy lies on a bed at a malnutrition treatment center in Sanaa, Yemen October 7, 2018. REUTERS/Khaled Abdullah

By Stephanie Nebehay

GENEVA (Reuters) – Yemeni children are dying from starvation and disease as trucks with life-saving supplies are blocked in port, leaving medical staff and desperate mothers imploring aid workers to do more, a senior U.N. official said.

Geert Cappelaere, Middle East director for the U.N. Children’s Fund (UNICEF), described “heart-breaking” scenes of emaciated children in hospitals in the main port city of Hodeidah and the capital Sanaa, both held by Houthi insurgents.

“We have evidence that today in Yemen every 10 minutes a child under the age of 5 is dying from preventable diseases and severe acute malnutrition,” he told Reuters from Hodeidah.

The United Nations says about 14 million people, or half Yemen’s population, could soon be on the brink of famine in a man-made disaster.

Already 1.8 million Yemeni children are malnourished, more than 400,000 of them suffering from severe acute malnutrition, a life-threatening condition that leaves them skeletal with muscle wasting, Cappelaere said.

“But there is more. Many children are dying from vaccine-preventable diseases. Today not more than 40 percent of the children throughout Yemen are being vaccinated,” he said.

Measles, cholera and diphtheria can be deadly for children, especially those under five, and are exacerbated by malnutrition.

“Because of this brutal war, because of obstacles, obstructions being made, it is unfortunately not possible do much more,” Cappelaere said.

“We may not yet be at the level of a famine but we should not wait until we have declared a famine to step up and to pressure the parties to the conflict to stop this senseless war,” he said.

U.N. envoy Martin Griffiths aims to convene peace talks this month to seek a ceasefire in the three-and-half year war, which pits the Yemeni government, backed by a Saudi-led coalition, and the Iran-allied Houthi insurgents.

As Cappelaere spoke, coaltion forces were massing for an assault on Hodeidah.

“HEART-BREAKING”

Seven trucks carrying life-saving medical equipment and medicines had been blocked at Hodeidah port for two weeks awaiting clearance after being off-loaded, Cappelaere said.

“It was heart-breaking that an hour before I was sitting at al-Thwara hospital, and I have all the doctors, all the medical staff pleading with me to get more medical supplies, to get more medicines,” he said.

A UNICEF spokeswoman said the trucks had been cleared by Houthi authorities on Friday and supplies would be distributed.

Several extremely malnourished children were in the hospital ward, Cappelaere said.

“All the mothers were telling me that they are simply missing that small amount of money to transport their children from their communities to the hospital,” he said.

Hodeidah is a lifeline for food and other goods for much of the country.

But, said Cappelaere, “There was hardly any activity in the port. Only one ship was berthed, that was it.

“Today it looks more like a graveyard than anything else.”

(Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay; Editing by Angus MacSwan)

U.N. expert says Myanmar government employs starvation policy in Rakhine

REFILE - CORRECTING TITLE Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar, Yanghee Lee (R) gives her report next to the Chairperson of the Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar Marzuki Darusman, during the Human Rights Council at the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland, March 12, 2018. REUTERS/Denis Balibouse

GENEVA (Reuters) – The Myanmarese government appears to be pursuing a policy of starvation in Rakhine state to force out the remaining Muslim Rohingya population, a U.N. investigator said on Monday.

The military has also started new offensives in Kachin and Kayin states, Special Rapporteur Yanghee Lee told the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva.

Lee said atrocities against the Rohingya Muslim minority “bear the hallmarks of genocide”. She called for the council to set up an entity in Bangladesh, where more than 650,000 Rohingya have fled, to collect evidence for potential trials.

Myanmar’s envoy Htin Lynn rejected Lee’s remarks and called for the council to fire her.

Lee said the violence in Rakhine had eclipsed anything seen in recent years in Myanmar, where the government has also fought insurgents in Shan, Kayin and Kachin states.

She had received information that the military mounted new ground offensives last week using heavy artillery in Kachin’s gold and amber-mining area of Tanai.

Myanmar’s military had also advanced into Mutraw District in Kayin State, an area controlled by the Karen National Union, despite a ceasefire agreement, she said.

“This ceasefire violation led to 1,500 villagers from 15 villages having to flee. I am very concerned about these continuing offensives; the path to peace is through inclusive political dialogue, and not through military force,” she said.

In Rakhine state, Myanmar appeared to be pursuing a policy of forced starvation to make life there unsustainable for the Rohingya, Lee said.

Marzuki Darusman, chairman of a fact-finding mission on Myanmar set up by the council, said his team had received a flood of allegations against the security forces in Rakhine, Kachin, Shan and elsewhere.

“All the information collected by the Fact-Finding Mission so far further points to violence of an extremely cruel nature, including against women,” he said.

“The Fact-Finding Mission has met with women who showed fresh and deep bite marks on their faces and bodies sustained during acts of sexual violence.”

Myanmar’s ambassador Lynn did not respond to the criticism in detail but told the council it was wrong to assert that Myanmar’s leadership remained indifferent to the allegations.

“Our leadership and the government shall never tolerate such crimes. We are ready to take action, where there is the evidence,” he said.

(Reporting by Tom Miles; Editing by Angus MacSwan)

Two million children in Congo at risk of starvation, U.N. warns

GENEVA (Reuters) – More than 2 million children in the Democratic Republic of Congo are estimated to be at risk of dying from severe acute malnutrition if they do not get the aid they need, the United Nations warned on Friday.

U.N. humanitarian chief Mark Lowcock will meet donors next week in the country where conditions in many areas are worsening, U.N. spokesman Jens Laerke told a Geneva briefing.

“We have a great responsibility in the DRC…now is the time to stay the course,” Laerke said.

The 2 million children at risk of starvation include some 300,000 children in the Kasai region, Bettina Luescher of the U.N.’s World Food Programme (WFP) said.

(Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay, editing by Tom Miles)

‘Migrate or die’: Venezuelan migrants flood into Colombia despite crackdown

Venezuelans line the street at the border between Venezuela and Colombia, in Cucuta, Colombia February 21, 2018. REUTERS/Carlos Eduardo Ramirez

By Julia Symmes Cobb and Anggy Polanco

MAICAO/CUCUTA, Colombia (Reuters) – The desert wind whipping their faces, hundreds of Venezuelan migrants lugging heavy suitcases and overstuffed backpacks trudge along the road to the Colombian border town of Maicao beneath the blazing sun.

The broken line snakes back 8 miles (13 km) to the border crossing at Paraguachon, where more than a hundred Venezuelans wait in the heat outside the migration office.

Money changers sit at tables stacked with wads of Venezuelan currency, made nearly worthless by hyperinflation under President Nicolas Maduro’s socialist government.

The remote outpost on the arid La Guajira peninsula on Colombia’s Caribbean coast marks a frontline in Latin America’s worst humanitarian crisis.

Venezuelans pray as they gather at a dining facility organised by Caritas and the Catholic church, in Cucuta, Colombia February 21, 2018. REUTERS/Carlos Eduardo Ramirez

Venezuelans pray as they gather at a dining facility organised by Caritas and the Catholic church, in Cucuta, Colombia February 21, 2018. REUTERS/Carlos Eduardo Ramirez

The Venezuelans arrive hungry, thirsty and tired, often unsure where they will spend the night, but relieved to have escaped the calamitous situation in their homeland.

They are among more than half a million Venezuelans who have fled to Colombia, many illegally, hoping to escape grinding poverty, rising violence and shortages of food and medicine in their once-prosperous, oil exporting nation.

“It’s migrate and give it a try or die of hunger there. Those are the only two options,” said Yeraldine Murillo, 27, who left her six-year-old son behind in the Venezuelan city of Maracaibo, some 56 miles (90 km) across the border.

“There, people eat from the trash. Here, people are happy just to eat,” said Murillo, who hopes to find work in Colombia’s capital Bogota and send for her son.

The exodus from Venezuela – on a scale echoing the departure of Myanmar’s Rohingya people to Bangladesh – is stirring alarm in Colombia. A weary migration official said as many as 2,000 Venezuelans enter Colombia legally through Paraguachon each day, up from around 1,200 late last year.

Under pressure from overcrowded frontier towns such as Maicao, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos announced a tightening of border controls this month, deploying 3,000 additional security personnel.

But the measures are unlikely to stem the flow of illegal migrants pouring across the 1,379-mile (2,219 km) frontier.

At Paraguachon, where a lack of effective border controls has long allowed smuggling to thrive, officials estimate 4,000 people cross illegally daily.

“We left houses, cars. We left everything: money in the bank,” said former electronics salesman Rudy Ferrer, 51, who sleeps outside a warehouse in Maicao. He estimates there are 1,000 Venezuelans sleeping on the town’s streets every night.

‘THE MADURO DIET’

Some 3 million Venezuelans – or a tenth of the population – have left Venezuelan since late Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez started his Socialist revolution in 1999.

Despite four months of violent anti-government protests last year, Chavez’s hand-picked successor Maduro is expected to win a fresh six-year term at elections on April 22. The opposition, whose most popular leaders have been banned from running, is boycotting the vote.

Mechanic Luis Arellano and his children were among the lucky ones who found beds at a shelter in Maicao run by the Catholic diocese with help from the U.N. refugee agency. The 58-year-old said his children’s tears of hunger drove him to flee Venezuela.

“It was 8 p.m. and they were asking for lunch and dinner and I had nothing to give them,” he said, spooning rice into his 7-year-old daughter’s mouth.

Children from Venezuela eat a meal at a dining facility organised by Caritas and the Catholic church, in Cucuta, Colombia February 21, 2018. REUTERS/Carlos Eduardo Ramirez

Children from Venezuela eat a meal at a dining facility organised by Caritas and the Catholic church, in Cucuta, Colombia February 21, 2018. REUTERS/Carlos Eduardo Ramirez

“This isn’t the size they should be,” Arellano said, raising his children’s spindly arms.

Migrants told Reuters they were paying up to 400,000 bolivars for a kilo of rice in Venezuela. The official monthly minimum wage is 248,510 bolivares – around $8 at the official exchange rate, or $1.09 on the black market.

Food shortages, which many migrants jokingly refer to as the “Maduro diet”, have left people noticeably thinner than in photos taken years earlier for their identification cards.

The shelter – where bunk beds line the walls of the bedrooms – provides food and shelter for three days and, for those joining family already in Colombia, a bus ticket onwards.

It will soon have capacity for 140 people a night – a fraction of the daily arrivals.

Colombia is letting the migrants access public health care and send their children to state schools. Santos is asking for international help to foot the bill, which the government has said runs to tens of millions of dollars.

‘NO WORK’ FOR VENEZUELANS

At another shelter in the border city of Cucuta, some 250 miles (400 km) to the south, people regularly spend the night on cardboard outside, hoping places will free up.

The largest city along the frontier, Cucuta has borne the brunt of the arriving migrants. About 30,000 people cross the pedestrian bridge that connects the city with Venezuela on daily entry passes to shop for food.

Conditions are desperate for migrants like Jose Molina, a 48-year-old butcher unable to find work after leaving his wife and son in Venezuela’s northern Carabobo state four months ago.

People sit on a makeshift bed, on a street, where Venezuelan migrants gather to spend the night, in Maicao, Colombia February 15, 2018. REUTERS/Jaime Saldarriaga

People sit on a makeshift bed, on a street, where Venezuelan migrants gather to spend the night, in Maicao, Colombia February 15, 2018. REUTERS/Jaime Saldarriaga

“I feel so depressed,” said Molina, his face puffed and tired after sleeping outside a church. “I got sick from eating rotten potatoes but I was hungry so I had to eat them.”

Molina is so hopeless he has considered returning home.

“My wife says everything’s getting worse and it’s best to wait,” he said. “I don’t want to be a burden to them. They don’t have enough to eat themselves.”

While many feel a duty to welcome the migrants, in part because Venezuela accepted Colombian refugees during that country’s long civil war, others fear losing jobs to Venezuelans being paid under the table.

After locals held a small anti-Venezuelan protest last month, police evicted 200 migrants who were living on a sports field, deporting many of them.

Migrants are verbally abused by some Colombians who refuse them work when they hear their accents, said Flavio Gouguella, 28, from Carabobo.

“Are you a Veneco? Then no work,” he said, using a derogatory term for Venezuelans.

In Maicao, locals also worry about an increase in crime and support police efforts to clear parks and sidewalks.

They already have to cope with smuggled subsidized Venezuelan goods damaging local commerce, and have grown tired of job-seekers and lending their bathrooms to migrants.

Spooked by police raids, migrants in Maicao have abandoned the parks and bus stations where they had makeshift camps, opting to sleep outside shuttered shops. Female migrants who spoke to Reuters said were often solicited for sex.

Despairing of finding work, some entrepreneurial migrants turn the nearly-worthless bolivar currency into crafts, weaving handbags from the bills and selling them in Maicao’s park.

A man sells bags made out of Venezuelan banknotes, in Maicao, Colombia February 16, 2018. Picture taken February 16, 2018. REUTERS/Jaime Saldarriaga

A man sells bags made out of Venezuelan banknotes, in Maicao, Colombia February 16, 2018. Picture taken February 16, 2018. REUTERS/Jaime Saldarriaga

“This was made from 80,000 bolivars,” said 23-year-old Anthony Morillo, holding up a square purse featuring bills with the face of South America’s 19th century liberation hero Simon Bolivar. “It’s not worth half a bag of rice.”

($1 = 28,927.5000 bolivar)

(Reporting by Julia Symmes Cobb in Maicao and Paraguachon and Anggy Polanco in Cucuta and La Parada; Writing by Julia Symmes Cobb; Editing by Helen Murphy, Daniel Flynn and Daniel Wallis)

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)

Years late, Syria’s children of war learn to read and write in school

Students sit in a classroom at a school in Sahnaya, near Damascus Syria February 4, 2018. Picture taken February 4, 2018.

By Samia Nakhoul and Laila Bassam

DAMASCUS (Reuters) – – Hussein al-Khalaf, aged 13, burst into tears as he sat in his classroom at the Ahmed Baheddine Rajab school near Damascus, recounting why he is learning to read and write for the first time in his life.

He was five years old when the Syrian conflict began in 2011, shattering his life and that of his family in the city of Albu Kamal, which soon became a bastion for Islamic State.

Khalaf is one of thousands of Syrian children in a UNICEF emergency education program for those born during the war and who haven’t been able to attend school. Their school runs two shifts a day to allow as many children as possible to catch up with other kids.

“My parents said I should be in grade 1 but I wanted to be in grade 5 so that other children here won’t ridicule me. They mock me because I’m in grade 1 but I don’t respond”, said Khalaf, who fled with his family to Sahnaya near Damascus last year.

“I haven’t been to school since I was born. Daesh wanted to take us to join them,” he said, using the Arabic acronym for Islamic State.

“My friends all left, we all got separated. I found a phone number for one of my friends and called him. He told me ‘your friend Majed died’,” said a tearful Khalaf.

“Majed used to play with us. We were all together and living happily before Daesh came in. I want nothing. I just want to see my friends again.”

 

VICTIMS

Besides the fear that Islamic State would indoctrinate their children or take them as fighters, many parents did not send their children away because they might still be exposed to heavy bombing by Syrian and Russian planes.

Most children at the Rajab school were from the war-torn areas of Raqqa, Aleppo, Deir al Zor, Idlib and Albu Kamal. They were all displaced during fierce fighting.

These children are among the principal victims of the war, now entering its eighth year. The trauma of what they have been through is visible on their faces, in their uneasy silences, sad eyes or tearful outbreaks.

They have paid a high price in a conflict beyond their understanding. Their lives have been broken with grief, their families displaced and dispersed, and they have been robbed of an education and a future.

In Syria, an estimated 7.5 million children are growing up knowing nothing but war, according to Save the Children, an international NGO.

 

WAR AND DESTRUCTION

“All that was there was war and destruction,” said Saleh al-Salehi, 12, who fled eastern Aleppo, a rebel bastion subjected to massive bombardment.

“My brother was killed. They dropped barrel bombs on us and fired rockets,” said Salehi, adding that it felt strange to be going to school for the first time in his life.

The school itself bears the scars of war. Classrooms are freezing cold and heating is a luxury, with fuel available only at sky-high prices.

The desks and benches are decrepit. Nothing of what is now common in modern schools, from laptops to digital activity centres, a library or cafeteria, was to be seen.

Even the headmaster was rushing out to a second job to make some more money to support his family. After 25 years, one teacher said her monthly salary was $80 and this had not increased in seven years.

Many kids look malnourished with black circles under their eyes, tattered clothes and torn shoes not warm enough to withstand the bitter cold.

 

Hussein al-Khalaf, 13, reacts as he sits in a classroom at a school in Sahnaya, near Damascus Syria February 1, 2018. Picture taken February 1, 2018.

Hussein al-Khalaf, 13, reacts as he sits in a classroom at a school in Sahnaya, near Damascus Syria February 1, 2018. Picture taken February 1, 2018. REUTERS/Omar Sanadiki

EMBARRASSED

While most said they were happy to have the opportunity to catch up with other children, they felt embarrassed and uneasy about their age and new environment.

Ali Abdel-Jabbar Badawi, 12, said: “I was dreaming about school. I haven’t been to school at all. A rocket fell on the school in our neighborhood and destroyed it. I want to catch up with the other kids of my age.”

Aya Ahmed, 13, from eastern Ghouta, a fought-over suburb of Damascus, said she was terrified of coming to school because she knew nobody and had no friends.

“In Ghouta I had friends but we couldn’t play. I didn’t know how to read and write.”

“I feel embarrassed when people ask me what grade I am. They look at me and say, all this height and you’re in grade 1. I was very late to get into school but I want to study and become an important person. I want to be a lawyer.”

The headmaster, Thaer Nasr al-Ali, said: “The conflict has affected all the people but the children paid a big price. They were deprived of education and were psychologically hurt. The schools were shut, they were cut off from education.”

“We had severe cases of trauma among the children because of the war and the violence they witnessed. Many kids lost parents and relatives and saw horror and death in front of their eyes.”

As well as losing out on education, many kids had to work to help their families or were recruited by militias and fighters, Ali and U.N. officials said.

CATCHING UP

UNICEF set up an emergency plan for accelerated learning in coordination with the education ministry so that students can catch up with other children.

The plan compresses one year into two and runs two shifts a day. There are 64 teachers for each shift and each class has 40-50 students. The school has 1,750 students, double the number before the war.

Syria had 20,000 schools before the war but only 11,000 are functioning; the rest are destroyed, semi–destroyed or being used by the armed forces or militia groups, UNICEF said.

In seven years of civil war, marked by sieges and starvation and the death of 400,000 people, half the 23 million population has been displaced or forced into exile. One third of the country has been internally displaced.

According to UNICEF there are 2.5 million Syrian refugee children living outside the country and 2.6 million internally displaced. The long term-impact on these children is huge.

“The drama of the Syrians is not finished. Even if the war ends tomorrow, the impact will be felt for generations,” said one relief official in Damascus, who declined to be named.

(Writing by Samia Nakhoul; editing by Giles Elgood)

60,000 North Korean children may starve, sanctions slow aid: UNICEF

A North Korean flag flies on a mast at the Permanent Mission of North Korea in Geneva October 2, 2014.

By Stephanie Nebehay

GENEVA (Reuters) – An estimated 60,000 children face potential starvation in North Korea, where international sanctions are exacerbating the situation by slowing aid deliveries, the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) said on Tuesday.

World powers have imposed growing sanctions on North Korea for its nuclear and ballistic missile programs. Last week the United States announced fresh sanctions on nine entities, 16 people and six North Korean ships it accused of helping the weapons programs.

Under United Nations Security Council resolutions, humanitarian supplies or operations are exempt from sanctions, Omar Abdi, UNICEF deputy executive director, said.

“But what happens is that of course the banks, the companies that provide goods or ship goods are very careful. They don’t want to take any risk of later on being associated (with) breaking the sanctions,” Abdi told a news briefing.

“That is what makes it more difficult for us to bring things. So it takes a little bit longer, especially in getting money into the country. But also in shipping goods to DPRK. There are not many shipping lines that operate in that area,” he said, referring to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

Sanctions on fuel have been tightened, making it more scarce and expensive, Abdi added.

Reuters, citing three Western European intelligence sources, reported exclusively last week that North Korea shipped coal to Russia last year which was then delivered to South Korea and Japan in a likely violation of U.N. sanctions.

“We are projecting that at some point during the year 60,000 children will become severely malnourished. This is the malnutrition that potentially can lead to death. It’s protein and calorie malnutrition,” said Manuel Fontaine, director of UNICEF emergency programs worldwide.

“So the trend is worrying, it’s not getting any better.”

In all, 200,000 North Korean children suffer from acute malnutrition, including 60,000 with the most severe form that can be lethal, according to UNICEF.

UNICEF had projected 60,000 children would suffer severe acute malnutrition last year, and reached 39,000 of them with therapeutic feeding, spokesman Christophe Boulierac said.

“Diarrhoea related to poor sanitation and hygiene and acute malnutrition remains a leading cause of death among young children,” it said in Tuesday’s appeal to donors that gave no toll.

UNICEF is seeking $16.5 million this year to provide nutrition, health and water to North Koreans but faces “operational challenges” due to the tense political context and “unintended consequences” of sanctions, it said.

It cited “disruptions to banking channels, delays in clearing relief items at entry ports, difficulty securing suppliers and a 160 percent increase in fuel prices”.

“It’s a very close, and tightly monitored intervention which is purely humanitarian in its essence,” Fontaine said.

UNICEF is one of only a few aid agencies with access to the isolated country, which suffered famine in the mid-1990s that killed up to three million people.

(Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay; Editing by Peter Graff)

Displaced by war, some Yemenis sift through garbage for food

Ayoub Mohammed Ruzaiq, 11, stands in a garbage dump where he collects recyclables and food near the Red Sea port city of Hodeidah, Yemen, January 13, 2018.

HODEIDAH, Yemen (Reuters) – After persistent Saudi-led air strikes on their home area in northwest Yemen, the Ruzaiq family packed their belongings and fled to the relative safety of Hodeidah port on the Red Sea.

But with no money or relatives to shelter them, the 18-member family joined a growing number of displaced Yemenis living on or next to the garbage dump of the Houthi-controlled city.

Despite the health risks, the dump has become a source of food for hundreds of impoverished Yemenis and given some young men a chance to try to earn some income.

People collect recyclables and food at a garbage dump near the Red Sea port city of Hodeidah, Yemen, January 14, 2018.

People collect recyclables and food at a garbage dump near the Red Sea port city of Hodeidah, Yemen, January 14, 2018. REUTERS/Abduljabbar Zeyad

“We eat and drink the food that is thrown away,” said 11-year-old Ayoub Mohammed Ruzaiq. “We collect fish, meat, potatoes, onions and flour to make our own food.”

The United Nations estimates that more than two million people have been displaced by the war, which intensified in 2015 when an Arab coalition intervened to try to restore President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi to power after the Houthis forced him into exile.

The war has killed more than 10,000 people, crippled the economy, caused a cholera epidemic that has killed nearly 2,000 people and pushed the country to the verge of famine.

The Saudi-led coalition denies Houthi accusations that it targets civilians or civilian property in its operations. Riyadh sees the Houthis as a proxy militia linked to regional rival Iran. Both Iran and the Houthis deny any military cooperation.

Fatema Hassan Marouai, 53, who was driven from her home in Hodeidah by economic hardships, said that apart from picking up food thrown away by better off Yemenis, some displaced people collect metal cans and plastic bottles to sell to merchants for some cash to cover daily needs.

Ayoub Mohammed Ruzaiq, 11, stands in a garbage dump where he collects recyclables and food near the Red Sea port city of Hodeidah, Yemen, January 13, 2018.

Ayoub Mohammed Ruzaiq, 11, stands in a garbage dump where he collects recyclables and food near the Red Sea port city of Hodeidah, Yemen, January 13, 2018. REUTERS/Abduljabbar Zeyad

But she said income from that activity was also declining.

Merchants who once paid up to 50 Yemeni rials ($0.11) for a kg of plastic bottles, now offer 10 rials only, she said.

“We had been in a bad situation and the war made things worse,” said Fatema.

Ruzaiq family patriarch Mohammed Ruzaiq, 67, said Yemenis were not asking for any aid from outside, just a goodwill effort to end the war.

“All we want is for them to stop this war and this calamity and God almighty will provide for us,” he said.

(Reporting by Abduljabbar Zeyad, writing by Sami Aboudi, Editing by William Maclean)

United Nations hopes imports will help stave off famine in Yemen as diphtheria spreads

A nurse holds a premature baby in an incubator at the child care unit of a hospital in Sanaa, Yemen January 16, 2018.

By Stephanie Nebehay

GENEVA (Reuters) – United Nations aid agencies called on Tuesday for the Yemeni port of Hodeidah to remain open beyond Friday, the date set by a Saudi-led military coalition, to permit continued delivery of life-saving goods.

Yemen is the world’s worst humanitarian crisis, where 8.3 million people are entirely dependent on external food aid and 400,000 children suffer from severe acute malnutrition, a potentially lethal condition, they said.

The Arab coalition, under international pressure, eased a three-week blockade which was imposed on Yemeni ports and airports in November in response to a ballistic missile fired by the Houthi movement toward the Saudi capital Riyadh.

Four mobile cranes arrived in the important Houthi-controlled Hodeidah port, the U.N. said on Monday, after the coalition agreed to let them into Yemen, where nearly three years of war have pushed it to the verge of famine.

“The port in theory is going be open to the 19th of this month. Then we don’t know if the coalition will close or (leave) it open,” Meritxell Relano, U.N. Children’s Fund (UNICEF) Representative in Yemen, told a news briefing in Geneva.

“Obviously the feeling is that they extend this period so that the commercial goods can come in, but especially the fuel,” she said, speaking from the capital Sanaa.

Before the conflict, Hodeidah port handled around 70 percent of Yemen’s imports, including food and humanitarian supplies.

Fuel is vital to power water and sanitation stations to provide clean water and help avoid diseases, she said.

More than 11 million Yemeni children – virtually all – need humanitarian assistance, Relano said. UNICEF figures show 25,000 Yemeni babies die at birth or before the age of one month.

A child lies in a bed at a hospital in Sanaa, Yemen January 16, 2018

A child lies in a bed at a hospital in Sanaa, Yemen January 16, 2018. REUTERS/Khaled Abdullah

“Yemen is in the grips of the world’s biggest hunger crisis,” World Food Programme (WFP) spokeswoman Bettina Luescher said. “This is a nightmare that is happening right now.”

“We appeal to parties on (the) ground in order to stave off famine that we can continue regularly to get food in, to get medicines in, to get fuel in, be it from the humanitarian or the commercial side,” she said.

Luescher, asked about prospects for the Hodeidah port lifeline to remain open, replied: “Obviously since the cranes were imported and are operational, we are hopeful and optimistic that our work can continue.”

A diphtheria outbreak in Yemen is “spreading quickly”, with 678 cases and 48 associated deaths in four months, Fadela Chaib of the World Health Organisation said.

The number of cases has doubled since Dec 22, when the WHO reported 333 people affected by the highly-contagious disease, with 35 deaths. Ibb and Hodeidah are the worst-hit of the 19 affected governorates, Chaib said.

“We can stop the outbreak by providing antibiotics and also vaccinating,” she said. Some 2.5 million doses have been imported for a planned immunization campaign, she said.

(Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay; Editing by Larry King, William Maclean)