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The famine the Eritrean government doesn't want you to know about

Nurses have been banned from using cellphones, but have smuggled out images. 

A devastating famine has hit the Horn of Africa. El Nino has taken a terrible toll on the people across the region and Eritrea is no exception. The coming famine across the Horn was covered by the New Statesman a year ago, with predictions of its severity which have tragically come true.

An appeal by the UK’s Disaster Emergency Appeal has raised over £54m four weeks after it was launched. But unlike the victims in Somalia, Ethiopia and Kenya, the people of Eritrea are unable to benefit from this generosity.

The reason for this tragedy is simple: the Eritrean regime, led by the dictatorial Isaias Afewerki, is refusing all outside help. Denial is official government policy. Quoting the President the official media declared in January 2016: “The country will not face any crisis in spite of reduced agricultural output.”

But evidence of the scale of the suffering, particularly among the children, is now filtering out. It is being smuggled out by men and women of the "Freedom Friday" resistance network, at great personal risk. If they are discovered they will be jailed, indefinitely, and almost certainly tortured.

Nurses and carers working in clinics across the country have been banned from using their cell-phones, but some have dared to take the images below (click to reveal the full picture), and sent them abroad, in a desperate attempt to make the plight of these children know.

 

These photographs are from the town of Mendefera. Normally a bustling market town, in the fertile Southern region of Eritrea, it has a range of small scale factories that provide employment and an income.

 

But villagers in the vicinity, including Areza, Mai Dima, Awha, Adi Quala, Mai Mine, Enda Gergis, Adi Felesti, have been badly hit by the drought. These pictures are from the clinic in Mendefera, to which the children have been brought. The pictures and the information has been anonymized, for their security.

Since January this year 66 children, many of them babies, have been brought into the clinic suffering from acute forms of malnutrition the clinics were unable to cope with. Many revived, but two died and a further four children were sent to Asmara for specialist treatment.

They suffered from the swollen bellies typical of kwashiorkor, a severe type of malnutrition - the result of an extreme shortage of protein in their diet. The symptoms include swollen abdomens, skin disorders (hypo and hyper pigmented skin) and excessive fluid retention throughout the body.

Health workers believe they are only seeing the tip of the iceberg. Most children are simply not being brought to the clinics and the actual scale of the crisis is much more severe.

A national crisis

In other areas of the country the situation is, if anything, more dangerous.

There are reports of cholera in the area around the western town of Barentu. Villagers are having to draw water from pits dug into the Mereb river.

More than 1,300 patients were registered at one makeshift clinic when these images were smuggled out of the country in October last year. Thirteen deaths had been registered by the health workers. Teams of doctors were sent into the area to try to halt the spread of the cholera while roads were closed, transport halted and movement into and out of the effected areas has been tightly controlled. Members of the local militia, the police and the army were closely restricting movement.

There were reports of medical teams being sent to attend the cholera outbreak in remote areas, leaving their the patients in hospital unattended. The medics said there is constant pressure from security agents, who warn them warn them not to take any photos not and tell any one about what is taking place.

An aid worker operating inside Sudan described families crossing the border to seek aid. He said that those who arrived spoke of acute shortages of food and water. These people come from the remote regions of western Eritrea where villagers are used to some of the most challenging of circumstances. If they believe it is time to pack up and leave the situation must be very serious indeed.

Government in denial

Obtaining accurate information from Eritrea is extremely difficult, since the government prevents aid agencies and many UN organisations from operating.

As one crisis warning system put it: “The Eritrean government severely restricts the access of humanitarian actors inside the country. Very little is known about humanitarian needs: Unicef estimates that the total affected population is 1.5 million.” 

The UN’s children’s agency, Unicef, reported that: “Data from the Nutrition Sentinel Site Surveillance system indicates an increase in malnutrition rates over the past few years in four out of six regions of the country, with 22,700 children under five projected to be affected by severe acute malnutrition (SAM) in 2017.

This crisis was not unforeseen.

A year ago, aid agencies were already warning that the situation was looking bleak. Satellite imagery showed the scale of the looming drought. 

Current maps of the region now show no information for Eritrea: it is almost as if the country has vanished from the face of the earth.

Eritreans have become the silent victims of their President’s unwillingness to call for aid, and the inability of the international community to come to their aid.

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The failed French presidential candidates who refuse to endorse Emmanuel Macron

While the candidates of the main left and right parties have endorsed the centrist from nowhere, others have held back. 

And breathe.

At 8pm on Sunday night France, Europe, and much of the West let out a huge sigh of relief. After over a month of uncertainty, scandals, rebounds, debates and late surges, the results of the first round of the French Presidential Election was as predicted: Emmanuel Macron (24 per cent) will face off against Marine Le Pen (21 per cent) in the second round of the election on the 7 May.

While polls have been predicting this face-off for a while, the shocks of Brexit and the election of Donald Trump had thrown polling predictions into doubt. But France has a good track record when it comes to polling, and their surveys are considered some of the most reliable in the world. The irony is that this uncertainty has meant that the polls have never been so central to a campaign, and the role of polling in democracies has been a hot topic of debate during the election.

The biggest surprise in many ways was that there were no surprises. If there was a surprise, it was a good one: participation was higher than expected: close to 80 per cent – on par with the Presidential Elections of 2012 – whereas there were concerns it would be as low as 70 per cent. Higher participation is normally a bad sign for the extremes, who have highly motivated voters but a limited base, and who often do better in elections when participation is low. Instead, it boosts the traditional parties, but here instead of the traditional right-wing Republican (Fillon is at 20 per cent) or Socialist parties (Hamon at 6 per cent), it was in fact the centre, with Emmanuel Macron, who benefited.

So France has so far not succumbed to the populist wave that has been engulfing the West. The contagion seemed to be spreading when the Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi lost a referendum on reforming the constitution, but the fightback started in Austria which rejected the far-right candidate Norbert Hofer in its Presidential election and voted for the pro-European, former-Green independent candidate Alexander Van der Bellen. Those hopes now rest on the shoulders of Macron. After having dubbed Angela Merkel the leader of the free world during his farewell tour of Europe, Barack Obama gave his personal blessing to Macron last week.

Many wondered what impact Thursday night’s shooting on the Champs-Elysées would have. Would it be a boon for Marine Le Pen’s anti-immigration platform? Or even right-wing François Fillon’s more traditional law and order approach? In the end the effect seems to have been minimal.

In the second round, Macron is currently predicted to beat Marine Le Pen by more than 60 per cent of the vote. But how does Le Pen almost double her vote in the second round, from around 20 per cent to close to 40 per cent? The "Republican Front" that saw her father off back in 2002, when he received only 18 per cent of the vote, has so far held at the level of the two traditional political parties. Both Hamon and Fillon have called to vote for Macron in the second round to stop the Front National - Hamon put it nicely when he said he could tell the difference between political opponents, and opponents of the Republic.

But not everyone is toing the line. Sens Commun, the anti-gay marriage group that has supported Fillon through thick and thin, said that it will not call to vote for either party – a thinly veiled invitation to vote for Le Pen. And Nicolas Dupont-Aignan, a conservative, Catholic and anti-EU right wing candidate, whose 5 per cent is the reason Fillon didn’t make it to the second round, has also abstained from calling to vote for either. It is within this electorate that Le Pen will look to increase her vote.

The other candidate who didn’t call to vote for anyone was Jean-Luc Mélenchon, who fell back on a demagogic position of saying he would follow the wishes of his supporters after having consulted them. But as a spokesperson for the FN pointed out, there are remarkable congruities between their respective platforms, which can be categorised as a populism of the left and a populism of the right.

They in particular converge over the question of Europe. Aping Brexit, both want to go to Brussels to argue for reform, and if none is forthcoming put membership of the Eurozone to the electorate. While Le Pen’s anti-Europeanism is patent, Mélenchon’s position is both disingenuous and dangerous. His Plan A, as he puts it, is to attempt reform at the European level. But he knows fine well that his demands, which include revoking the independence of the European Central Bank and putting an end to austerity (the ECB, through its massive programme of quantitative easing, has already been trying to stimulate growth) will not be met. So he reverts to his Plan B, which is to leave the European Treatises and refound Europe on a new basis with like-minded members.

Who those members might be he hasn’t specified, nor has he explained how he would leave the EU - at least Le Pen had the decency to say she would put it to a referendum. Leaving the European Treatise has been in his programme from the beginning, and seems to be the real object of his desires. Nonetheless, having set himself up as the anti-Le Pen candidate, most of his supporters will vote for Macron. Others will abstain, and abstention will only help Le Pen. We’ve been here before, and the last thing we need now is complacency.

 

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