Near-historic level of humanitarian need right now

U.S. Agency for International Development rep Nancy Lindborg spoke with NPR Morning Edition.

“We are probably at a near-historic level of humanitarian need right now … We have, for the first time in the history of USAID’s Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance, four disaster assistance response teams deployed … to high-tempo, big crises around the world at the same time. And this is in addition to … ongoing needs that are being met in Nigeria, Gaza, Burma, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Afghanistan, Pakistan and the emerging crisis in Ukraine.”

Lindborg noted a striking contrast between addressing all the current crises and the aftermath of Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines last November and December. “It was up and over in about a month,” she says.

“However, what we have now…are really complex, difficult crises that are fundamentally the result of non-democratic governments.” In the Philippines, “Nobody was shooting anyone. And so, for humanitarian workers to be able to go in after there was a clear beginning and move progressively toward a better outcome, there’s something very satisfying about that in contrast with the kind of crises we’re seeing.”

International humanitarian agencies are “at their limit”

Ebola is only the latest among several large-scale humanitarian responses around the world that USAID’s disaster response officials are currently managing.

It’s the first time in history the agency has had to respond to four such humanitarian operations. The other three are in South Sudan, Syria and Iraq.

In a radio interview, Thomas Staal, senior deputy assistant administrator in USAID’s Bureau for Democracy, Conflict and Humanitarian Assistance, said that the international humanitarian agencies coordinating on all four situations are currently “at their limit.”

Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone are facing the worst Ebola virus outbreak in history, and the team responsible for coordinating the U.S. government response effort has a grim equipment request: more body bags.

With more than 1,000 deaths already reported and concerns that the virus could spread further, humanitarian agencies and their partners taking part in the international emergency response are preparing to ramp up their efforts.

Tim Callaghan, the U.S. Agency for International Development’s disaster assistance response team leader, said that to treat patients, medical professionals must receive additional training specific to the virus and follow a “meticulous” system to ensure they are confident and capable enough to mitigate risks.

USAID’s team is responsible for assessing conditions that might hamper the response and assistance effort. Callaghan did not identify any current bottlenecks for equipment, personnel or coordination, but did note that the persistence of rumors and misinformation has made things more challenging.


Humanitarian workers and reverse culture shock

You’re in a country where everything feels different. The food isn’t what you’re used to; the people don’t make sense. It’s sensory overload and you’re bewildered by all the things around you — the language, the music, the faces, the smells.

Everyone is moving at lightning speed, and you’re still staring at the food in the grocery store, confused about what to buy.

Erin Curtis, a Peace Corps volunteer, isn’t talking about her time in Kazakhstan. She is referring to her trip to the local grocery in Lexington, South Carolina, last month.

Curtis, like many long-term volunteers and workers who return from abroad, was feeling what is known as reverse culture shock.

Five common grievances of returning workers and volunteers
  Waste – “The ridiculous amount of trash we produce in the U.S. was hard for me to look at every day,” said returning Peace Corps volunteer Erin Curtis.
  Choice – Many volunteers feel overwhelmed by the wide variety of choices in the U.S.
  Pace of life – “You feel so rushed in this culture and bombarded with things,” said returned Peace Corps volunteer coordinator Jodi Hammer.
  Relationships – Not only do volunteers miss the connections they made abroad, but they may find they’ve grown apart from their friends at home.
  Language/Communication – Sometimes it’s hard to find the right words after speaking another language for a long time.

For many volunteers and workers, coming home can be harder than going abroad, said Jodi Hammer, a coordinator for returned Peace Corps volunteers.

Read full article 

Insights behind U.S. intervention in northern Iraq

Besides rescuing Yazidis, who are ethnically identified as Kurds, Erbil was another main cause that drew President Obama back to combat in northern Iraq, two and a half years after he fulfilled a campaign pledge and pulled the last troops out.

Erbil is the capital of the oil-endowed Kurdish Regional Government, in northern Iraq. There the United States built political alliances and equipped Kurdish peshmerga militias, and since 2003 it has been the most stable place in an unstable country.

[View maps of Iraq, including location of Erbil, Sinjar mountains, ISIS control etc]

A secure Kurdistan could provide sanctuary for those fleeing ISIS. “The Kurdish region is functional in the way we would like to see,” Obama explained in a fascinating interview with Thomas Friedman. “It is tolerant of other sects and other religions in a way that we would like to see elsewhere. So we do think it is important to make sure that that space is protected.”

Obama’s advisers explained to reporters that Erbil holds an American consulate, and that “thousands” of Americans live there. The city has to be defended, they continued, lest ISIS overrun it and threaten American lives. Fair enough, but why are thousands of Americans in Erbil these days? It is not to take in clean mountain air.

ExxonMobil and Chevron are among the many oil and gas firms large and small drilling in Kurdistan under contracts that compensate the companies for their political risk-taking with unusually favorable terms.  The status quo in Kurdistan also includes oil production by international firms, as it might be candid to mention.

[Read full “New Yorker” article]

400,000 people driven from their homes by ISIS since June

With U.S. airstrikes keeping ISIS at bay and the help of Kurdish Peshmerga forces, thousands of Yazidis have been able to evacuate Iraq’s Sinjar Mountains, making a U.S.-assisted evacuation mission “far less likely,” Pentagon spokesman Rear Adm. John Kirby said.

James Jeffrey, a former U.S. ambassador to Iraq, told CNN’s “New Day” that while the operation is a success so far for Obama, it is a mistake to declare victory too early.

The United Nations on Wednesday announced its highest level of emergency for a humanitarian crisis, saying the number of people on the run from ISIS is of grave concern.

It estimates that more than 400,000 people have been driven from their homes since June, when ISIS swept across the border from Syria into Iraq. Of those displaced, more than 200,000 have poured into Dohuk province in recent weeks, where refugee camp populations have swelled since ISIS began its assault against Yazidis, Christians and Kurds.

Thousands of other refugees sought protection inside the northern Kurdish region of Iraq.

“To be blunt, we don’t have housing for all of them. We don’t have shelter,” a spokesman for the U.N. human rights commissioner, Edward Colt, told CNN at a camp near the Peshkhabour bridge where Iraqis are entering the area. “Thousands of tents are being erected as we speak.”


Conditions for Russian aid to eastern Ukraine

A convoy of 280 Russian trucks reportedly packed with aid headed for eastern Ukraine on Tuesday, but Ukraine said it would not let the mission in because it is not being coordinated by the International Red Cross and could be a covert military operation.

The goods would be stopped at the border and transferred to other vehicles, Reuters news agency reported, citing Ukrainian presidential aide Valery Chaly.

Among the pre-conditions is that these much-needed supplies would be distributed by Ukrainian authorities.  Also, the convoy must cross at a point controlled by the military, not the pro-Russia separatists.

The Russian trucks departed Naro-Fominsk on Tuesday after an agreement was initially reached between Russia and Ukraine on Monday to allow a Red Cross-led humanitarian mission into the eastern region of Luhansk. Luhansk has borne the brunt of the fighting, and food and energy supplies are running short.

Russia has told reporters the trucks will be taking 400 tons of cereals, 100 tons of sugar, 62 tons of baby food, 54 tons of medical drugs and stock, as well as 12,000 sleeping bags and 69 power generators to the civilians of Luhansk.

[Al Jazeera]

Rescue for thousands of besieged Yazidi refugees in Iraq

At least half of the 40,000 Yazidi people besieged by jihadists on Mount Sinjar had escaped by Sunday night, aided by Kurdish rebels who crossed from Syria to rescue them.

The refugees, all members of the Yazidi sect, began streaming back into Iraqi Kurdistan after a perilous journey past Islamic State militants who had vowed to kill them and had surrounded their hideout on Mount Sinjar after storming the area.

Fleeing Yazidis said their escape had been aided by the YPG, a Syrian Kurdish rebel faction, and by US air strikes on Islamic State, positions which had forced the jihadists to withdraw for around six hours on Saturday. Their retreat gave a window for thousands of Yazidis, all desperately low on food and water, to begin streaming down the mile-high mountain and north across the Nineveh plains.

Though many Yazidis have now reached safety, the siege of Mount Sinjar is not yet broken; many thousands more are thought to remain on the southern side of the 60-mile-long ridge, unable to reach the safe passage that the Kurdish fighters had secured towards the Kurdish north.

Britain said it had airdropped food and water to those still trapped. Iraq and Turkey, along with the US, had also delivered aid. However, Yazidis said much of the food and water dropped by the US using parachutes had disintegrated when it hit the ground.

One man who made the escape to Duhok, Ghassan Salim, 40, said: “The situation is critical. It is a human catastrophe. The children are in particular need of urgent assistance. And it is not only Yazidis – all the minorities, like Shabbak, Christians … need desperate help.”

“The drops didn’t reach more than 10% of those who need them. Helicopters and pilots were afraid to come close to the southern part of the mountain – thousands of people in that part received nothing.”

The past week has uprooted Yazidis, Christians, Turkmen and Shabak Shias from lands in which they had lived for several thousand years.

[The Guardian]  

Some humanitarian relief for Gaza

The latest 3-day cease-fire between Israel and the Hamas militants allows some humanitarian aid into Gaza neighborhoods and the reopening of indirect talks on a more lasting and comprehensive deal.

On Monday morning, high school students in Gaza filed the streets as they headed off to pick up their graduation certificates. And people waited to buy fuel for generators as power and communication workers struggled to fix cables damaged in the fighting, while long lines formed at ATMs.

Turkey is pursuing a humanitarian aid corridor into Gaza, with the government’s plan to set up a hospital in Gaza.

Turkish aid organization the Humanitarian Relief Foundation (IHH) will attempt to send a humanitarian convoy to Gaza by sea in spite of Israel’s naval blockade, they have announced. The organization, part of the Freedom Flotilla Coalition, said representatives from 12 countries had met in Istanbul over the weekend and would send ships loaded with humanitarian aid to the Gaza strip “in the shadow of the latest Israeli aggression on Gaza”.

The conflict that began July 8 and has left more than 1,900 Palestinians dead and nearly 10,000 wounded, according to the Gaza Health Ministry. In Israel, 67 people have been killed, including three civilians, according to the Israeli military.

[Associated Press, Reuters]

Iraqi humanitarian chaos

In Iraq, one of the most dire humanitarian nightmares has unfolded on Mount Sinjar, where tens of thousands of Yazidis have been trapped for over a week, after fleeing when ISIS fighters stormed the town of Sinjar.

On Sunday night, the U.S. military made a fourth airdrop of food and water, according to U.S. Central Command. In total, U.S. military aircraft have delivered more than 74,000 meals and more than 15,000 gallons of fresh drinking water, Centcom said.

Britain and France have said they will join the United States in the airdrops. A British C-130 cargo plane delivered aid to Iraq on Sunday, a Ministry of Defense spokesman said.

Iraqi security forces have been able to airlift about 100 to 150 people a day off Sinjar Mountain, said Marzio Babille of UNICEF, the United Nations’ children’s agency. The Iraqi air force and fighters with the Kurdish peshmerga carried out a dramatic rescue mission Monday at Mount Sinjar, taking supplies to desperate Yazidis and bringing some on board the helicopter to make it safely out.

Teams hurled out bags and boxes of food, water, milk and diapers from as high as 50 feet before approaching the ground. “We landed on several short occasions, and that’s where — amid this explosion of dust and chaos — these desperate civilians came racing towards the helicopter, throwing their children on board the aircraft. The crew was just trying to pull up as many people as possible.”

It’s already too late to save dozens of children who’ve died of thirst. But for the 20 or so people rescued Monday, the relief was palpable. The crowd on board the helicopter burst into tears as it took off.


US responds to humanitarian crisis in northern Iraq

ISIS (Islamic State in Iraq and Syria) recently began an offensive on Sinjar, a city in the north western region of Nineveh in Iraq and home to at least 200,000 of the world’s 700,000 members of the Yazidi faith. While most fled to refugee camps in semi-autonomous Iraqi Kurdistan, some 30,000 families ended up on Mount Sinjar, where they are now stranded, surrounded by jihadists.

U.S. military cargo planes airdropped 5,300 gallons of water and 8,000 meals onto Mount Sinjar, where it has been reported some Yazidi children had died from dehydration.

The British government said Friday it would support the U.S. humanitarian effort and planned airdrops of its own.

Meanwhile, the United Nations in Iraq was “urgently preparing a humanitarian corridor to allow those in need to flee the areas under threat,” said Nickolay Mladenov, the special representative to the U.N. secretary-general.

After the airdrops, President Obama then authorized “targeted airstrikes” against ISIS. The militant group’s new, abbreviated name, Islamic State, reflects its goal to establish a Sunni caliphate stretching from Syria to Baghdad. Obama made clear he had no intention of sending in ground forces.