Naming the nameless: experts struggle to identify drowned migrants

Wooden crosses for an unmarked refugee grave

By Isla Binnie and Michele Kambas

ROME/ATHENS (Reuters) – Mose tapped the screen of his mobile phone to zoom in on a photograph of his wife, Yordanos, pointing to a mole under her eyebrow.

“She has a recognizable mark here,” the 26-year-old Eritrean said in a park in Rome; after fleeing compulsory military service back home, Mose now lives in an Italian reception center for migrants.

He has not seen Yordanos since May 26 when they left Libya, packed by people smugglers on to two separate boats bound for Italy. He was rescued, but her boat sank in the Mediterranean.

Helping people like Mose find out their loved ones’ fate is becoming ever more pressing as Europe’s migrant crisis drags on in its third year and the death toll rises.

Teams of forensic scientists in Italy and Greece are painstakingly trying to identify the victims of drowning found at sea, washed up on shores or recovered from wrecks.

However, there is no common practice to collect information about these deaths between states or even sometimes within the same country, and a plan by the Dutch-based International Commission on Missing Persons (ICMP) to start tracing lost migrants is still awaiting funding.

Kathryne Bomberger, director general of the ICMP, said the problem was too big to be left solely to front-line countries such as Italy and Greece.

“This is a complex, international problem,” she said, as the task of identification and notification involves tracking down relatives who may be in their home countries, in refugee camps, or building new lives in the likes of Germany or Sweden.

“We are ready to go, we have the necessary database systems, we have an agreement with Italy, we have done our homework. We just need the financial support.”

The ICMP and International Organization for Migration (IOM) are calling for a strategy to process the data, and a system for repatriating migrants’ remains.

REPLACING NUMBERS WITH NAMES

Mose, who withheld his surname for fear of reprisals from Eritrean authorities, clings to the hope that Yordanos was rescued and that she could be recognised from the photograph.

If she did not survive, and her body was recovered, her remains are likely to have been buried in one of hundreds of numbered graves in Sicily or the southwestern Calabria region for migrants who have drowned.

Both in Italy and Greece, which migrants have also tried to reach on a shorter but still dangerous sea crossing from Turkey, the forensic experts are trying to replace the numbers with names.

Sometimes they succeed, despite the practical and financial problems, as in the case of a baby boy found floating near the Greek island of Samos in January.

The child, no more than six months old, had been lost in a shipwreck on Oct. 29, 2015 when 19 migrants drowned. For over two months, his body drifted more than 150 km (95 miles) north until it was recovered from the water.

In the end, police identified the little boy from a DNA sample given by his Syrian father, who was among 139 people rescued when the boat sank in the Aegean off the island of Kalymnos.

“It is the least we can do for these people, under very difficult circumstances,” said Penelope Miniati, director of the Greek police’s Forensic Sciences Division.

For some, the tragedies recall Greece’s own history of migration, including in the 1950s and ’60s when many escaped poverty for a new life in countries such as the United States, Canada and Australia, breaking up families who sometimes lost contact with each other.

“We are Greeks, we also migrated and some people were lost in the journey … and each time people wondered what had happened to them,” said Miniati.

“IMPROVISATION”

More than three quarters of the 4,027 migrant and refugee deaths worldwide in 2016 so far happened in the Mediterranean, according to the IOM.

Most died between Libya and Italy. Hundreds also drowned on the Turkey-Greece route, although arrivals have fallen sharply since a deal between the European Union and Ankara on curbing the flow in March.

Many shipwreck victims are never recovered, but about 1,500 have been brought to Italy since 2013. So far, just over 200 have been identified.

In a “policy vacuum” the action in Italy and Greece has been driven by “improvisation”, the IOM said in June in a joint report with City University London and the University of York.

The report praised a deal that Italy’s special commissioner for missing persons struck with a university laboratory, which provides free forensic work, and the interior ministry, to adopt a protocol to identify victims and inform relatives.

The commissioner records details of corpses and sends notices through embassies and humanitarian organizations asking survivors for photographs of the missing, and personal effects such as toothbrushes that could harbor DNA.

In Athens, Miniati’s division has a database with information on 647 people who need identifying, about 80 percent of them the nameless dead of the migrant crisis.

People who drown and stay trapped underwater for months are often unrecognizable, so accounts of scars, tattoos and dental cavities help. Some people come to Italy to look for missing relatives in the commissioner’s files and some take DNA tests.

VALUES THAT COUNT

Deputy Italian Commissioner Agata Iadicicco said a shared international database would make it easier to reach migrants’ home countries and diasporas across Europe. “We need money to standardize this model and to involve all the migrant communities that mainly live in northern Europe,” she said.

With no sign of a let-up in the perilous voyages from North Africa, Italy feels that fellow EU countries should pull their weight more in handling the crisis.

The issue of graves for the victims has become caught up in the ill-feeling. Prime Minister Matteo Renzi said he sent the navy to raise a ship that sank last year and bury the more than 450 people found in the wreck to “tell Europe which values really count”.

For Mose, whose young son is still in Eritrea, even being sure Yordanos had died would be some comfort. “If I find her body, I can find some serenity,” he said. “If my son asks whether his mother is, at least I can say where she is buried.”

(editing by David Stamp)

Shorey gives last-minute preparation tips, says time is running out

John Shorey speaks during a last-minute preparation seminar on Grace Street on Thursday morning. Photo: Austin Metcalf

One of the most important messages from the last-minute preparation seminar John Shorey gave Thursday morning on Grace Street didn’t concern food, water, shelter, finances or security.

The long-time prepper mentioned all of those things, but began his address on another point.

Time.

“Are these the last minutes that we have to prepare?” Shorey said. “I believe they are.”

Shorey, the author of “The Window of the Lord’s Return” and “Unlocking the Mystery of the Book of Revelation,” said now is the time to start focusing on the last-minute preparation steps he laid out in his address, the third and final seminar he gave at Morningside this week.

Shorey’s other talks focused on food security and survival tips.

On Thursday, Shorey said he believes the Biblical tribulation period will begin this spring. He has continued to stockpile food and supplies to help him prepare for what he believes is coming.

“I would rather be prepared and be wrong than be wrong and not prepared,” Shorey said.

The seminar covered some of the final steps that people can take to bolster their preparedness, and Shorey delivered his remarks with a tone of urgency.

“We will see the signs of the last minute, and we need to not wait for the last minute,” he said.

FOOD

Shorey advised people to continue collecting food with long shelf lives, but added that now is the time to start stockpiling food that does not have long shelf lives, such as flour, mayonnaise and canned meats and fruits. Those items with the shortest shelf lives should be purchased last.

People should also consider if they want to raise animals that can generate food, Shorey said, and mentioned chickens and goats as possible options. If they opt to go that route, he said that people should make sure that they obtain the animals and stockpile feed before it’s too late.

Shorey also encouraged people to start securing ways to cook their food and heat their homes without relying on electricity, recommending solar ovens and wood and propane. Whenever possible, he said people must test their equipment ahead of time to ensure it works properly.

HOME

Shorey advised people to buy supplies like lumber, plywood and hardware, should they need to perform construction or repair projects. He also suggested obtaining gardening tools and manure, as he believes successful gardens can help slow the consumption of food stockpiles.

He also told people to pump their septic systems.

“You’re probably going to have more people in your home and it’s going to fill up faster,” he said.

Shorey advised people to cancel their utilities “when things start falling apart.”

FINANCE

Shorey said it’s important for people to have cash on hand, including small bills, for purchases, as there could be a time when ATMs do not function and stores can’t accept credit or debit cards.

He said there was some value in precious metals, recommending silver over gold because gold can be difficult to divide gold bars into amounts that can be spent. He mentioned that pre-1964 United States coins could be useful tools for bartering, as they have high silver content.

He advised people to pay off critical bills and try to prepay property taxes and several months of their mortgages.

HEALTH

Shorey said people should not put off dental issues or minor surgeries, noting dentists and doctors could be hard to come by. He also advised people should stock up on prescription medications and bolster their first aid kits.

He said to look for disinfectants with long shelf lives.

HELPING OTHERS

Shorey advised people to start looking to form groups, reiterating there is strength in numbers. He said while preppers may be asked to help people outside their core group — he’s anticipating a soup line at his home — their group should consist of people they’ve known for a while and know they can trust. He recommended having a wide range of backgrounds — gardeners, security officers, trained medical professionals — but acknowledged that is easier said than done.

“You’re probably not going to get all of these skill sets,” Shorey said. “But you know what you can do? You need to acquire all of the training materials, like good books on gardening.”

He said those groups should prepare to act as underground churches and should stock up on Bibles and other devotional materials to help win the lost. But he said it was also important to ensure the groups have ways to defend themselves from those who may try to cause them harm.

Shorey’s earlier seminars also touched on the importance of helping others in the last days.

All three will soon be available for purchase through The Jim Bakker Show’s online store.

Spiritual preparation tops Shorey’s list of 10 keys to survival

John Shorey speaks during a survival seminar on Grace Street on Wednesday morning. Photo: Austin Metcalf

Given that John Shorey spent an entire hour discussing food security only two days ago, it would be logical to think the subject tops the long-time prepper’s list of survival tips for the last days.

It’s not even in the top three.

Shorey, the author of “The Window of the Lord’s Return” and “Unlocking the Mystery of the Book of Revelation,” is at Morningside this week to host preparation seminars, giving those gathered on Grace Street and watching the ministry’s livestream some of his expert advice on how they and their families can get ready for the trials and tribulations that the Bible foretells.

His address on Wednesday morning was called “The Preppers’ Top 10 Keys to Survival,” and followed Monday morning’s talk on food security. Shorey spoke of the importance of having food, water and shelter, but the No. 1 item on his list wasn’t anything that could be purchased.

It was spiritual preparation.

The reason? The other items on Shorey’s list covered tips that pertained to survival on Earth, while Shorey said being spiritually ready is a vital component of ensuring eternal life in heaven.

“What is this all about?” Shorey said to those sitting in the Grace Street studio audience. “It’s not about us just getting to heaven and barely making it with the shirt on our back. No, it’s about making it and bringing others with us. That’s what it’s all about. I like to look at it from the standpoint that everyone you win for Christ in the last days are going to be your friends forever.”

Shorey said it would be “a shame” for someone to have enough physical items to allow them to survive until the rapture only to be left behind because they had not spiritually prepared.

He called on audience members to make amends with those who were angry with them, and not hold their own grudges as they worked to win lost souls and perform God’s will in the last days.

“Without spiritual preparation, many will not make it,” Shorey warned.

Shorey’s seminar echoed one of his messages from Monday’s talk about food security, during which he said the measure of one’s preparedness is how many people they will be able to assist.

All of the items he mentioned Wednesday included some component of helping others.

The No. 2 item on his list was location, and he shared his advice about where to live in the last days. He said rural locations were ideal, and he would avoid cities, coastal areas or communities on known fault lines, citing prophetic warnings about various disasters affecting those areas.

“No matter where you live, the safest place for you to be is in the center of God’s will,” Shorey told those in the audience. “If God is saying to stay where you’re at, God has a purpose in it.”

Shelter ranked third, with Shorey advocating for self-sufficient locations that can function without municipal water or electricity. He said the shelters should be able to accommodate groups, and people should have a plan to expand them with additional beds, if the need arises.

Food was fourth, and Shorey encouraged people to store a ton of beans, rice and wheat and 1,000 pounds of oatmeal. He called them “power foods” because of their shelf life and versatility.

“Think of how many people you could help if you have those commodities,” he said.

Water ranked fifth, with Shorey advocating for a well and a backup supply, should that fail. He also encouraged people to have plenty of filtration devices to weed out potential contaminants.

Security and community ranked sixth and seventh, with Shorey saying that people need to have a way to protect their shelters around the clock. He said there was “strength in numbers,” and also suggested supplementing their security efforts with high-tech devices like motion sensors.

Energy, communication and first aid rounded out the top 10, and Shorey suggested people have solar-powered generators, CB, HAM or shortwave radios and methods of preventing illnesses.

Shorey said while preparation was an important part of survival, faith also played a major role.

“Don’t put your faith in your preparation,” he said. “Put your faith in God. I’ve heard it said that if you share, God will see that you have enough. But if you’re putting your faith in what you have done, you’re in trouble. It’ll run out. The house might burn down, the thieves will come in and steal it. The most important part of preparation is making sure you’re right with your Father.”

He said faith can help ensure security, but cautioned against not taking proactive steps.

“We don’t want to be presumptuous,” he said.

Shorey is scheduled to give a “Last-Minute Prepping” seminar at 11 a.m. tomorrow on Grace Street. It will be live-streamed on jimbakkershow.com/watch-us-live and the PTL Television Network on Roku.

Shorey talks food security during Grace Street seminar

John Shorey addresses a crowd during a food security seminar on Monday morning on Grace Street. Photo: Austin Metcalf

John Shorey thought he was doing a commendable job of preparing for the trials of the last days.

The author had been storing food for several years, and knew he had enough tucked safely away to feed 30 people for four years. In a pinch, he said he probably could have been able to feed 50.

A few months ago, however, Shorey asked God exactly how many hungry people would come to him for help in the days ahead. Shorey thought he’d get some words of encouragement, with God saying his estimates were right on par. Instead, Shorey received a much different response.

“A number came into my mind so loud, it was not the audible voice of God, but it was as close as you could get,” Shorey recalled on Monday morning. “And the number was 100.”

Shorey made the comments as he delivered a food security seminar on Grace Street, the first of three preparation talks he is scheduled to give this week at Morningside. The story underlined one of the main messages of his address, that one can never have enough food stored away.

“It’s almost going to be impossible to have too much, because the measure of your preparedness will be the measure of how many people you can help,” Shorey said. “If you can help more people with more resources, how can you be too prepared? How can you have too much food?”

Shorey talks about storing food in his books, which include “The Window of the Lord’s Return” and “Unlocking the Mystery of the Book of Revelation,” though he used Monday’s seminar to offer tips that preppers can use to ensure they have enough food for the coming days.

He noted Christians might be asked to feed people who are outside their immediate families.

“What are you going to do when your neighbors and their kids show up at your door hungry and starving?” Shorey told the crowd. “Are you going to turn them away? When Jesus fed the 5,000 and they were hungry (Matthew 14:13-21), did he turn them away? No, he didn’t turn them away. … How we act and how we reach out to help people in the last days is going to determine whether or not God looks at you and says ‘Well done, thou good and faithful servant.’”

Shorey said simply having food wasn’t enough.

Preppers needed a good hiding spot to prevent their food from being stolen or confiscated, and they should also explore gardening and canning to help generate and preserve new harvests.

“I don’t care how much food you think you have stored,” Shorey said. “If you don’t have a means of replenishing that food, you can easily run out.”

He suggested that people should not keep any more than 25 percent of their food exposed to the naked eye. That way, if people should come to take their food, the majority of it will be hidden.

Shorey also suggested purchasing seeds, fertilizer and gardening tools to help them grow new food. He said canning those fruits and vegetables would help add to their shelf life, but warned of the potential health risks of improper canning, such as botulism. He encouraged people to research canning and practice it — and gardening — before they have to rely on them for food.

“If you wait until you need it until you practice, you could be in trouble,” Shorey cautioned.

Shorey also encouraged people to make sure they had enough rice, beans, wheat and oatmeal in their stockpiles, calling them the “staples of food storage” because of their lengthy shelf lives.

Successful gardens will help preppers slow down the consumption of those stockpiles, he said.

According to Shorey, there’s more to food security than stockpiling, gardening and canning.

Shorey said faith is also a key component, sharing Biblical messages of God’s ability to multiply food — such as the feeding of the 5,000. He believes God will do the same for those who share their food in the days ahead, and noted that feeding 100 is “impossible” for him, but not for God.

“We have to believe and trust God that as we do our part, God will do his part,” Shorey said.

Shorey is scheduled to give preparation seminars titled “The Preppers Top 10 Keys to Survival” and “Last-Minute Prepping” this Wednesday and Thursday. The seminars are set to begin at 11 a.m. and will be live-streamed on jimbakkershow.com and the PTL Television Network on Roku.

More than 170,000 without power after New England snowstorm

More than 170,000 homes and businesses were without power on Friday afternoon after a winter storm brought more than a foot of snow to parts of southern New England.

The Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency reported 99,439 customers were without power, while Eversource indicated 48,149 of its Connecticut customers were experiencing outages. National Grid said the lights were off for 22,585 of its customers in Rhode Island.

The outages came after a winter storm dumped double-digit snowfall totals in all three states, according to the National Weather Service. That included 13 inches near Stafford Springs, Connecticut, 12.5 inches near Worcester, Massachusetts, and a foot in Burrillville, Rhode Island.

The Weather Channel is calling the storm Winter Storm Lexi.

Selected cities in New York, New Hampshire and Maine had received more than 7 inches of snow as of 3 p.m. local time, according to the National Weather Service, and counties in Maine, Rhode Island, Connecticut and Massachusetts were still under winter storm warnings at 4:30.

In a statement, Connecticut Governor Dannel P. Malloy said he was receiving updates from local utility companies and “remained concerned” about the power outages. Temperatures were expected to dip into the teens and 20s overnight, according to the National Weather Service.

“They are working to restore power to those who have lost it and continue to deploy crews to alleviate the situation,” Malloy said in his statement, referring to the utility companies. “However, we urge patience – the situation may take time to resolve.”

The storm also disrupted travel in the region.

More than 200 flights to or from Boston Logan International Airport had been cancelled, according to flight monitoring website FlightAware.com, and another 213 were delayed. There were more than 300 cancellations and 300 delays at LaGuardia Airport, FlightAware reported.

The Connecticut State Police tweeted it had responded to 341 crashes and a portion of Interstate 84 was temporarily closed. It encouraged drivers to stay off the road if possible.

Billions pledged for Syria as tens of thousands flee bombardments

Nobel Peace Prize winner Malala Yousafzai (right) and 17-year-old Syrian refugee Mazoun Almellehan listen to speakers during the first focus event on education at the donors Conference for Syria in London on February 4, 2016. REUTERS / Matt Dunham / Pool

LONDON (Reuters) – Donor nations pledged on Thursday to give billions of dollars in aid to Syrians as world leaders gathered for a conference to tackle the world’s worst humanitarian crisis, with Turkey reporting a new exodus of tens of thousands fleeing air strikes.

With Syria’s five-year-old civil war raging and another attempt at peace negotiations called off in Geneva after just a few days, the London conference aims to address the needs of some 6 million people displaced within Syria and more than 4 million refugees in other countries.

Underlining the desperate situation on the ground in Syria, Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu told the meeting that tens of thousands of Syrians were on the move toward his country to escape aerial bombardments on the city of Aleppo.

“Sixty to seventy thousand people in the camps in north Aleppo are moving toward Turkey. My mind is not now in London, but on our border – how to relocate these new people coming from Syria?” he said. “Three hundred thousand people living in Aleppo are ready to move toward Turkey.”

Turkey is already hosting more than 2.5 million Syrian refugees. Jordan and Lebanon are the other countries bearing the brunt of the Syrian refugee exodus.

Several speakers said that while the situation of refugees was bad, that of Syrians trapped inside the country enduring bombardments, sieges and, in some places, starvation was far worse.

“With people reduced to eating grass and leaves and killing stray animals in order to survive on a day-to-day basis, that is something that should tear at the conscience of all civilized people and we all have a responsibility to respond to it,” U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry told the conference.

A U.N. envoy halted his attempts to conduct Syrian peace talks on Wednesday after the Syrian army, backed by Russian air strikes, advanced against rebel forces north of Aleppo, choking opposition supply lines from Turkey to the city.

Kerry told the conference he had spoken to his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov about the situation.

“We have agreed that we are engaged in a discussion about how to implement the ceasefire specifically as well as some immediate, possible confidence-building steps to deliver humanitarian assistance,” he said.

In a blunt attack on Russia, Turkey’s Davutoglu told a news conference that those supporting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces were committing war crimes and called on the United States to adopt a more decisive stance against Russia.

EDUCATION, JOBS

United Nations agencies are appealing for $7.73 billion to cope with the Syrian emergency this year, and countries in the region are asking for an additional $1.2 billion.

Conference co-hosts Britain, Norway and Germany were the first to announce their pledges, followed by the United States, the European Union, Japan and other nations.

Britain and Norway promised an extra $1.76 billion and $1.17 billion respectively by 2020, while Germany said it would give $2.57 billion by 2018. The United States said its contribution this fiscal year would be $890 million.

The almost five-year-old conflict has killed an estimated 250,000 people and stoked the spread of Islamist militancy across the Middle East and North Africa.

For European nations, improving the humanitarian situation in Syria and neighboring countries is crucial to reducing incentives for Syrians to travel to Europe.

U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said the first steps in the Geneva peace talks had been undermined by a lack of sufficient humanitarian access and by a sudden increase in aerial bombing and military activity on the ground.

“The coming days should be used to get back to the table, not to secure more gains on the battlefield,” he said.

The conference will focus particularly on the need to provide an education for displaced Syrian children and job opportunities for adults, reflecting growing recognition that the fallout from the Syrian war will be very long-term.

(Additional reporting by Andreas Rinke and Arshad Mohammed, writing by Estelle Shirbon; Editing by Mark Heinrich and Raissa Kasolowsky)

Winter brings new dangers for migrants crossing frozen Balkan peninsula

Migrants wait in line inside a registration camp in Presevo, Serbia, on January 20, 2016. REUTERS / Marko Djurica

PRESEVO/SID, Serbia (Reuters) – Migrants braved temperatures as low as 5 degrees Fahrenheit on Wednesday to cross frozen Balkan borders en route to western Europe, visibly unprepared for winter and in increasing danger from the cold.

Governments and aid agencies along the route have laid on heated tents and mobilized trains and buses to support the flow of migrants, most of them refugees from the war in Syria winding across the Balkan peninsula.

But the sheer numbers – though down from a summer peak of some 10,000 to just under 2,000 per day – mean many spend nights sleeping on tent floors.

A Reuters photographer saw children crying from the cold as they walked or were carried several kilometers across the Macedonian-Serbian border to waiting buses.

The United Nations and aid agencies warned on Tuesday that children were particularly at risk given their lack of adequate clothing or access to sufficient nutrition.

A spokesman for the U.N. children’s agency UNICEF said the risk of children freezing to death was “clearly very, very high.”

Most migrants wore jackets and sneakers; some had hats and gloves, and many were wrapped in gray blankets handed out by the United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR).

“It’s too cold, but what can I do? I’m wearing everything I have but it’s still too cold,” said a 22-year-old man at the town of Sid on the Serbian-Croatian border. He gave his name as Amr and said he was from the Iraqi town of Fallujah, where Islamic State militants hold sway.

On the highway in Serbia, hundreds of migrants received hot soup, tea and gloves from aid groups at a disused motel that has been turned into a refugee camp.

More than a million people fleeing war, poverty and repression in the Middle East and Africa reached Europe’s shores last year, most heading for Germany.

Aid agencies expect a similar number this year, testing the willingness of a divided Europe to take them in and putting unprecedented strain on the continent’s commitment to a Schengen zone of open borders.

(Writing by Matt Robinson, editing by Sarah Young)

Search for survivors after Marine helicopters crash off Hawaii

A CH-53E Super Stallion, used by the Marine Heavy Helicopter Squadron 463, carries off an A-4 Jet during a sling load operation aboard Barber's Point Naval Air Station, Marine Corps Base Hawaii on September 23, 2014, in this handout photo provided by the U.S. Marine Corps. REUTERS / U.S. Marine Corps / Lance Cpl. Aaron S. Patterson / Handout via Reuters

(Reuters) – The U.S. Coast Guard is leading a search for two Marine helicopters with a total of 12 people on board that collided near the island of Oahu in Hawaii, officials said on Friday.

The CH-53E helicopters, belonging to the 1st Marine Aircraft Wing from the Marine Corps Air Station at Kaneohe Bay, were reported to have collided just before midnight local time, Coast Guard spokeswoman Sara Mooers said.

No survivors have been rescued from the crash more than seven hours after it occurred, said another Coast Guard spokeswoman, Petty Officer Second Class Melissa McKenzie.

“We remain hopeful,” McKenzie said.

Just after midnight, the crew of a Coast Guard helicopter spotted debris in the waters off the town of Haleiwa on the north shore of Oahu, but did not find any of the passengers.

A Coast Guard cutter was on scene and another one was en route and expected to arrive shortly, McKenzie said.

Two U.S. Navy warships have also been sent to join the search, and local police and fire departments were assisting with helicopters, she said.

The initial effort was hampered by dark, cloudy conditions and waves of up to 15 feet, officials said.

The Marine Corps confirmed the search, but provided few additional details.

“Thoughts & prayers are with our Marines & their families in Hawaii as search efforts continue,” General Robert Neller, commandant of the Marine Corps, said in a message on Twitter.

(Reporting by Alex Dobuzinskis in Los Angeles and Susan Heavey, David Alexander and Laila Kearney in New York; Editing by Bernadette Baum)

Spiritual preparedness highlights Williams’ seminars at Morningside

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Dr. Paul Williams has authored a book that extensively details the practical steps people can take to prepare themselves for disasters, covering everything from purchasing emergency supplies to preparing evacuation plans. But there’s one area he wishes he could have gone into more detail — how people can be spiritually ready for whatever will happen in the days ahead.

Williams had the opportunity to do just that when he visited Morningside this week.

Williams, the author of “When All Plans Fail,” hosted three one-hour preparedness seminars for the Morningside community. Much of the doctor’s seminars focused on spiritual preparedness, something he only touched on in the book, with a common theme woven throughout his talks.

Williams asked those in attendance to ask themselves a series of questions.

“Has my desire to be prepared and protect myself and my family caused me to lose sight of my calling and life’s purpose in Christ Jesus?” he said. “Am I trying to hang on to an American Dream? Do I love Jesus more than things in this world? … Life does not consist of the things that a man possesses. That’s not what life is. The way you live your life portrays your true beliefs.”

The doctor’s seminars echoed recent calls from Pastor Jim Bakker to make 2016 the Year of the Bible and return to the Word of God to ensure people are spiritually prepared for Christ’s return.

Williams’ seminars focused on how people should live in the last days, tying in Biblical stories and messages and the own lessons he learned during his more than 200 medical mission trips.

“We live in very unique times, don’t we?” he said during one seminar at Morningside. “I guess that in any time that I’ve ever been here, this is probably one of the greatest in terms of the sense of responsibility for what’s coming down the pike and trying to get out the message and trying to mobilize us in terms of what needs to be done.”

Williams emphasized the importance of spiritual preparation during his final seminar.

“If you are not spiritually ready and all you have done is your physical preparation, it can be taken away from you,” he said. “You don’t know what’s going to be there. But (no one can) take your salvation away from you. They cannot take your spiritual walk with God away from you.”

He spoke of being ambassadors for Christ (2 Corinthians 5:20), being transformers in churches and neighborhoods and being ministers of reconciliation to a broken world. He said it was important for people to view things the way that God would want them to look at them, and not to focus on the headlines, but rather what these days truly mean for the true believers.

“You can become discouraged if all you do is look at the dangers around you,” Williams said in an interview. “If you just look at all the evils that are all around us — politically, financially, World Wars. … If (Christians) just look at what’s immediately around them, they lose sight of ‘You know guys, we’re going to win.’ Whether we live or whether we die, we’re victorious.”

He challenged those in attendance to go out into the world and put God’s will and words into action — not to just hear or read the words in the Bible, but go out and perform them on an everyday basis.

“I believe the need for what is being expressed is so great that we’ve got to get it down into our spirit and not just have it in our heads, but to actually have in our spirit and to actually take action on it,” Williams said during a seminar.

He said that the number of people who are “truly prepared” for the great trials ahead has increased a little bit, but it was “nowhere near where it needs to be.” He stressed he has also seen people letting their need to prepare get in the way of what remains truly important: God.

“We’re supposed to live for the Lord. Our purpose in life is to love him more than we even love family. What’s happened — particularly with certain teachings that have gone around … it’s almost as if Christianity and God are there to just supply our needs,” Williams said in an interview. “Now, don’t get me wrong, he does supply our needs. Matthew 6:33 very clearly says ‘Seek first the kingdom of heaven, and his righteousness, then all these things will be added to you.’ But before that, he said ‘after all these things that gentiles seek.’

“I think what’s happened, even in the area of preparedness, we’re seeking those things as opposed to God,” Williams continued. “God will take care of us. I’m not trying to downplay the importance of being wise and preparing. When you see a storm coming, you prepare for it. There’s wisdom there. But we don’t rely on ourselves. … God considers it as wickedness to rely on your own strength. It’s wicked, because what it says is we’re not really recognizing the source of all power and authority, which is in God himself.”

For those wondering what steps to take in these days, Williams offered some advice: Seek God.

“If you don’t see far in the distance, that’s OK,” Williams said during one of his seminars. “If you just know what the next step is going to be, if you just know what God wants you to do on the next step, just take that step and don’t worry about what the next one is.”

Williams goes into more depth about disaster preparedness and steps people can take to get physically and spiritually ready in “When All Plans Fail,” available in the Morningside store.

The seminars will be uploaded to the PTL Television Network on Roku in the coming days.

UN confirms severe malnutrition in Madaya, 32 deaths in one month

Residents who say they have received permission from the Syrian government to leave the besieged town depart after an aid convoy entered Madaya, Syria, on January 11, 2016. REUTERS / Omar Sanadiki

BEIRUT/GENEVA (Reuters) – The U.N. Children’s Fund UNICEF on Friday confirmed cases of severe malnutrition among children in the besieged western Syrian town of Madaya, where local relief workers reported 32 deaths of starvation in the past month.

A mobile clinic and medical team of the Syrian Arab Red Crescent was on its way to Madaya after the government approved an urgent request, and a vaccination campaign is planned next week, the World Health Organization (WHO) said.

Two convoys of aid supplies were delivered this week to the town of 42,000 under a months-long blockade. The United Nations said another convoy was planned to Madaya, sealed off by pro-government forces, and rebel-besieged villages of al-Foua and Kefraya in Idlib next week, and that regular access was needed.

“UNICEF … can confirm that cases of severe malnutrition were found among children,” it said in a statement, after the United Nations and Red Cross had entered the town on Monday and Thursday to deliver aid for the first time since October.

UNICEF spokesman Christophe Boulierac told a news briefing in Geneva that UNICEF and WHO staff were able to screen 25 children under five and 22 of them showed signs of moderate to severe malnutrition. All were now receiving treatment.A further 10 children aged from 6 to 18 were examined and six showed signs of severe malnutrition, he said.

UNICEF staff also witnessed the death of a severely malnourished 16-year-old boy in Madaya, while a 17-year-old boy in “life-threatening condition” and a pregnant women with obstructed labor need to be evacuated, Boulierac said.

Abeer Pamuk of the SOS Children’s Villages charity said of the children she saw in Madaya: “They all looked pale and skinny. They could barely talk or walk. Their teeth are black, their gums are bleeding, and they have lots of health problems with their skin, hair, nails, teeth.

“They have basically been surviving on grass. Some families also reported having eaten cats,” she said in a statement. “A lot of people were also giving their children sleeping pills, because the children could not stop crying from hunger, and their parents had nothing to feed them.”

She said her agency was working to bring unaccompanied and separated children from Madaya to care centers in quieter areas just outside the capital Damascus.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said three people in critical condition were evacuated to a hospital in the city of Latakia, on Syria’s government-controlled Mediterranean coast, from Kefraya and al-Foua on Friday.

DYING OF STARVATION

World Food Programme (WFP) spokeswoman Bettina Luescher said that the local relief committee in Madaya had provided figures on the extent of starvation, but it could not verify them.

“Our nutritionist…was saying that it is clear that the nutritional situation is very bad, the adults look very emaciated. According to a member of the relief committee, 32 people have died of starvation in the last 30-day period.”

Dozens of deaths from starvation have been reported by monitoring groups, local doctors, and aid agencies from Madaya.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said on Thursday Syria’s warring parties, particularly the government, were committing “atrocious acts” and he condemned the use of starvation as a weapon of war in the nearly five-year-old conflict.

“It can also be a crime against humanity. But it would very much depend on the circumstances, and the threshold of proof is often much more difficult for a crime against humanity (than for a war crime),” U.N. human rights spokesman Rupert Colville told a briefing in Geneva on Friday.

The United Nations says there are some 450,000 people trapped in around 15 siege locations across Syria, including in areas controlled by the government, Islamic State militants and other insurgent groups.

(Reporting by John Davison and Tom Perry in Beirut; Writing by Stephanie Nebehay and Mariam Karouny; Editing by Mark Heinrich)