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Conflicts and drought mean famine looms for 20 million Africans

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Catholic News Service

Conflict and drought are threatening more than 20 million people in four countries with the prospect of famine, and the U.N. has called this food crisis the largest humanitarian crisis since the world body was formed more than 70 years ago.

A man walks by a dead cow in Dong Boma, South Sudan, April 12. Up to 20 million people in South Sudan, Yemen, Somalia and northeast Nigeria face the prospect of famine this year. (CNS photo/Paul Jeffrey)

Additional resources and funding are needed “to pull people back from the brink of famine” in Yemen, South Sudan, Somalia and northeast Nigeria, the U.N. Security Council said in an Aug. 9 statement that commended efforts by international donors to provide humanitarian assistance for the crises in these countries.

Catholic church officials and representatives of Catholic aid agencies spoke with Catholic News Service about the enormous efforts being channeled into meeting the needs of those most vulnerable.

Governments “are reducing aid, while needs are skyrocketing,” said Elizabeth Carosella, who works for the U.S. bishops’ Catholic Relief Services in Abuja, Nigeria.

Humans cannot control the weather patterns, such as drought. But increasingly, aid officials find access to areas of need blocked by ongoing conflicts or inaccessible because of poor infrastructure.

Yemen situation ‘horrific

Jerry Farrell, country representative in South Sudan for CRS, was Save the Children’s country director in Yemen until mid-2014. He called the situation in Yemen “horrific,” a famine that is entirely man-made. Seventy percent of the country’s 14 million people need some form of humanitarian aid.

Yemen has relied entirely on imported food since 1991 and “now it is sealed off from the rest of the world,” Farrell said. Yemen has been embroiled in civil war since 2015, which includes a Saudi-led blockade of the country.

Yemen’s food system has collapsed, Farrell said, noting that even hospitals have been bombed, and it is “as difficult to get medical supplies into the country as it is to get food in.”

The World Health Organization reports 436,000 cases of cholera in Yemen.

Bishop Paul Hinder, who heads the Apostolic Vicariate of Southern Arabia from Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, told CNS that the blockade of Yemen hinders the reconstruction of the destroyed sanitary system.

“As long as the minimal infrastructure in many parts of the country is not functioning, we cannot expect that the cholera can be stopped” or that “the starving people” can be properly fed, Bishop Hinder said.

“Without bringing people again around the table” to agree on a cease-fire, “there will be only killing and destruction with disastrous consequences for the civilian population,” he said.

“As the church is reduced to a tiny group without any structure, little can be done from our side at present,” he said.

“As I believe in the power of the prayer, I can only ask the faithful around the world to keep in mind the suffering people in Yemen — Muslims as well as the few remaining Christians, including the Missionaries of Charity,” Bishop Hinder said.

2 million face famine in South Sudan

In South Sudan, nearly 2 million people are on the cusp of famine, Farrell said, and it is hard to get food to the hungry because the country has “virtually no infrastructure.” South Sudan, a country slightly smaller than Texas, has only 12,000 miles of road, which is “more like track than road,” said Farrell, noting that”the lack of infrastructure can’t be separated from the conflict.”

In the fertile land of South Sudan’s Western Equatoria state, which has avoided the drought afflicting other parts of the country, little grows because of the war, he said. And even if the residents were still able to grow mangoes and papayas in this “breathtakingly beautiful place,” there are no roads to get any excess food to people outside, he said.

“Fresh food rots because it takes weeks to get it out of there with tracks to follow instead of roads, and one can expect frequent ambushes along the way,” Farrell said.

In distributing food airdropped by the World Food Program, CRS finds “some places very difficult to get to because of active conflict,” he said. Other places are unreachable for many months because of flooding. People often walk four or five miles to food distribution points in South Sudan, he added.

About 200,000 of the 2 million internally displaced people in South Sudan are in U.N.-run camps, Farrell said. The rest have fled into the bush or into neighboring communities, “and they all want to go home to their land.”

Farrell said the tragedy of South Sudan “tires me out more and fills me with more sorrow” than even Yemen’s situation did. In 2013, two years after gaining independence from Sudan, South Sudan was caught up in a civil war.

“South Sudan is a new country, rich in resources, and all this suffering is preventable,” said Farrell, who is based in the capital, Juba.

“Education is what matters most for young people because they will be the new leaders,” he said. Instead, because of the conflict and violence, all efforts need to be directed into emergency feeding programs, “while 75 percent of women in the country cannot read or write,” he said.

Maryknoll Father John Barth, who is based in Eastern Equatoria state, told CNS South Sudanese “are giving up hope and moving to the camps in northern Uganda by the thousands; I see them along the road when I drive back and forth across the border.”

Uganda is hosting about 1 million refugees from South Sudan. They move because “they have no food,” Father Barth said.

Teachers and others with government jobs have not been paid their monthly salaries in five months, and “even if they had been paid it would be the equivalent of about $6, because the 500 percent inflation has ruined the value of the South Sudanese pound,” Father Barth said.

In Nigeria, 5 million need emergency food aid

In northeastern Nigeria, the effects of violent conflict as well as changing weather patterns have exacerbated poverty and led to 5 million people in need of emergency food aid, Carosella told CNS, noting that deaths from famine-related causes have already occurred in Borno state. Since 2009, more than 20,000 people have been killed and 2.7 million forced to flee their homes by the Boko Haram insurgency, aimed at creating an Islamic state in northeast Nigeria.

Carosella said while the severity of the region’s hunger crisis is caused by conflict, the shorter rainy season of recent years has dramatically reduced harvests, and much of Lake Chad has dried up, partly because of shifting climate patterns.

Many of those forced to flee the violence have sought refuge among communities in remote rural areas, she said, noting that these communities are themselves among the most vulnerable in the region and depend on humanitarian aid to survive. Remote rural communities hosting people displaced by Boko Haram attacks have been “immensely generous despite their own poverty,” she said.

Carosella said Maiduguri, the capital of Borno state, “used to be a trade hub, but its markets have been destroyed” by the Boko Haram attacks.

“People have lost their livelihoods and now can’t afford food and have no access to even basic services,” she said.

Even where food can be found, it is unaffordable for most people, she said.

Sometimes a very malnourished woman will sell part of her food ration for cash that will enable her to transport a sick child to a clinic, Carosella said.

“Having to make that choice is something no one should have to face,” she said.

She told of a 24-year-old woman she met at a hospital in Maiduguri.

“She fled her village with her four children, all under 5 years old, after seeing her husband and parents slaughtered” in an attack by Boko insurgents, Carosella said.

One of her children died in the 32 days it took her to walk to the hospital, where her “malnourished children were able to be rehabilitated,” Carosella said. “She was looking for livelihood opportunities when I met her,” she said, noting that “there are so many women in similar positions.”

Continuing conflict in Somalia

Somalia’s “continuous conflict and instability,” along with changing weather patterns, are responsible for its current crisis, Lane Bunkers, CRS country representative for Kenya and Somalia, told CNS.

The conflict started in 1991 when clan-based warlords overthrew dictator Siad Barre, then turned on each other. Today, the security threat posed by al-Shabab activity in south-central Somalia makes it difficult for CRS and others running emergency food programs to reach remote rural communities, Bunkers said.

Somalia is a “very undeveloped country that relies on rain, with rain-fed pasturelands,” and there has been insufficient rain for two years in a row, Bunkers said.

Drought conditions in Somalia are expected to continue, and recovery will not be until at least 2018, CRS said in a statement. More than 766,000 people have been displaced by the drought since November, it said.

In south-central Somalia, which includes the capital, Mogadishu, CRS has civil society partners to channel its resources for humanitarian relief.

“Somalia has very well-organized communities,” Bunkers said, noting that local communities have “stepped in to fill the void in education and health services” in partnerships with international nongovernmental organizations.

Somalis are “entrepreneurial people in a desperately poor country,” which has exceptionally active markets, Bunkers said. This is “born out of necessity” in a country that has had no functioning government for close to three decades, he said.

Somalis’ “wealth is held in their herd of animals,” Bunkers said, noting that in times of drought, men leave women and children behind and follow their goats, sheep or camels, seeking water and grazing land.

“It’s very rare to resort to killing animals for food” in Somalia, Bunkers said.

To help families where animals are already in distress, some relief agencies “pay the farmer for his goat and have him slaughter it so that his family has something to eat,” he said.

“The farmers are then able to use the cash at the markets to replenish their livelihoods,” he said.

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U.N. must help limit weapons of mass destruction, Vatican diplomat says

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UNITED NATIONS — Citing the words of Pope Francis, the Vatican’s permanent observer to the United Nations said it is necessary to boost cooperation among nations to end the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, especially among terrorist organizations.

An aide carries a case containing launch codes for nuclear weapons in Washington while following President Donald Trump before his departure to Camp David June 17. (CNS photo/Yuri Gripas, Reuters)

An aide carries a case containing launch codes for nuclear weapons in Washington while following President Donald Trump before his departure to Camp David June 17. (CNS photo/Yuri Gripas, Reuters)

Archbishop Bernardito Auza told an open debate during a meeting of the U.N. Security Council June 28 that efforts to increase coordination nationally, regionally and internationally must be strengthened so that the number of such weapons declines.

“The proliferation of weapons, both conventional and of mass destruction, aggravates situations of conflict and result in huge human and material costs that profoundly undermine development and the search for lasting peace,” Archbishop Auza told the council.

He quoted Pope Francis’ statements on the contradiction between efforts to seek peace and “at the same time, promote or permit the arms trade.” The diplomat said nonproliferation, arms control and disarmament are key to global security and to achieving the world body’s sustainable development goals.

The statement to the U.N. said that nations must overcome differences and find political solutions to prevent the involvement of nonstate actors in wars and regional conflicts.

“Without this, the human cost of wars and conflicts will continue to grow and the proliferation of biological, chemical and nuclear weapons, along with their delivery systems and the risk of their use by states or terrorist groups will remain very clear and present dangers,” Archbishop Auza said.

Bolivia introduced the topic for the Security Council debate. It came in response to unanimous adoption Dec. 15 of a council resolution calling for a framework to keep terrorists and their organizations, which the U.N. terms nonstate actors,” from acquiring weapons of mass destruction.

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U.S. bishops’ committee chair hails framework on Iran’s nuclear program as a step to peace

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WASHINGTON — The adoption of a framework related to Iran’s nuclear program by the United States and other countries is an important step in “advancing a peaceful resolution” to the questions surrounding the program, the chairman of the U.S. bishop’s Committee on International Justice and Peace.

An International Atomic Energy Agency inspector checks the uranium enrichment process inside Iran’s Natanz plant last year. The chair of the U.S. bishops' Committee on International Justice and Peace has praised the framework reached with Iran last week as "a step toward peace." (CNS/EPA)

An International Atomic Energy Agency inspector checks the uranium enrichment process inside Iran’s Natanz plant last year. The chair of the U.S. bishops’ Committee on International Justice and Peace has praised the framework reached with Iran last week as “a step toward peace.” (CNS/EPA)

Bishop Oscar Cantu of Las Cruces, New Mexico, said April 8 in a letter to Secretary of State John Kerry and April 13 in letters to every member of Congress that the framework was a milestone in the long-standing negotiations to curb the “unacceptable prospect of Iran developing nuclear weapons.”

Copies of the letters were released April 14 by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

The framework was announced April 2 in Lausanne, Switzerland, and involved Iran and what is often referred to as the “P5+1,” or the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council — China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States — plus Germany.

The talks have been criticized by some members of Congress, who argue that Iranian officials cannot be trusted to abide by any deal and that any agreement with Iran could be disregarded once President Barack Obama concludes his term Jan. 20, 2017.

Bishop Cantu wrote that despite the challenges in reaching an agreement over Iran’s nuclear program, “it is vital to continue to foster an environment in which all parties can build mutual confidence and trust in order to work toward a final accord that enhances peace.”

“For this reason, our committee will continue to oppose congressional efforts that seek to undermine the negotiation process or make a responsible multiparty agreement more difficult to achieve and implement,” the letter continued. “The alternative to an agreement leads toward armed conflict, an outcome of profound concern to the church.”

The letter cited the words of Pope Francis, who prayed Easter Sunday that the framework “may be a definitive step toward a more secure and fraternal world.”

“We share the Holy Father’s hope,” Bishop Cantu wrote.

The bishop called for a final agreement to secure peace in southwestern Asia and to “ensure its full implementation.”

“As we have noted in the past, Iran has threatened its neighbors, especially Israel, and contributed to instability in the region. We hope this agreement is a first step in fostering greater stability and dialogue in the region,” the letter said.

As congressional representatives received the letter, an advertisement supporting the framework was published in the April 13 edition of Roll Call, a newspaper that covers Capitol Hill.

More than 45 Christian leaders signed the ad, including Sister Simone Campbell, a Sister of Social Service, who is executive director of the Catholic social justice lobby Network; Sister Patricia Chappell, a Sister of Notre Dame de Namur, who is executive director of Pax Christi USA; Marie Dennis, co-president of Pax Christi International; and Stephen Schneck, director of the Institute for Policy Research & Catholic Studies at The Catholic University of America.

 

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Central African churchmen hope U.N. troops settle tense situation

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Catholic News Service

Church leaders in the Central African Republic are hoping the arrival of French and African troops will help settle a situation that has effectively left people barricaded in their homes in the capital, Bangui.

“It’s tense and dangerous on the streets and everyone is afraid,” said Msgr. Cyriaque Gbate Doumalo, secretary-general of the Catholic bishops’ conference.

“We’ve long appealed for the international community to intervene, since no one here can do anything. We hope the new forces will now act quickly to bring this crisis to an end,” he told Catholic News Service Dec. 5.

Msgr. Doumalo said he had been unable to leave his residence because of “constant shooting everywhere,” and said local radio stations, deprived of staff, were playing music rather than broadcasting news.

A woman runs from gunfire in Bangui, Central African Republic, Dec. 5. The nation’s Catholic leaders welcomed the deployment of French forces amid an upsurge of fighting in the capital. (CNS photo/Emmanuel Braun, Reuters)

He said St. Bernard Parish in the northern part of Bangui had appealed for help after refugees from the fighting, some with gunshot wounds, sought shelter in the church.

“The roads are all blocked and there’s no movement in the city, so we can do nothing,” Msgr. Doumalo said. “We need the international community to do something as soon as possible to separate the two sides and restore peace and hope.”

The priest spoke to CNS just hours before the U.N. Security Council authorized French and African troops as peacekeepers in the country.

As the vote on the authorization approached, international media reported the increase in fighting in Bangui. Agence France-Presse reported at least 16 people were killed in fighting Dec. 5, after Bangui was attacked in the early hours by supporters of former President Francois Bozize, whose ouster by rebels in March plunged the Central African Republic into chaos.

East of Bangui, Bishop Juan Aguirre Munoz of Bangassou said the presence of French and African reinforcements was already being felt in his diocese, with rebel soldiers on the run in some areas.

However, he added that Catholic missions in Bangassou and Bouca were still sheltering tens of thousands of displaced people, many of whom lacked food and medicine, and said a group of Christians and Muslims were working together to “promote peace and reconciliation through forgiveness.”

“The situation in Central Africa is different according to where you are,” Bishop Aguirre told Fides, the Vatican’s missionary news agency, Dec. 3.

“Sectarian tensions are strongest in the north, but with the deployment of French and African troops, I think we’ll be able to avoid interfaith collision,” he said.

The Catholic church’s nine dioceses make up around a third of the 4.4 million inhabitants of the Central African Republic, one of the world’s poorest countries, with Muslims comprising around a tenth.

The United Nations says one in 10 inhabitants fled their homes and a quarter were left in need of food, after Seleka, a rebel coalition of mostly foreign mercenaries, ousted Bozize and suspended the constitution. Church leaders say the rebels, not the nation’s Muslims, have been targeting Christians.

In a June statement, the bishops’ conference said Seleka’s occupation had left the country “looted and destroyed” and its “social fabric completely torn up.”

However, Msgr. Doumalo told CNS he was confident the planned French deployment, with a U.N. mandate to “take all necessary measures” to assist an African force of 3,600 troops, would quickly change the situation.

“A large part of our population, adults and children, is now displaced and terrified with nowhere left to go,” Msgr. Doumalo told CNS. “The fact that fighting is now centered on Bangui has already created a new situation, and I’m sure these foreign forces can now quite easily restore order.”

 

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