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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.

Photo: Getty
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Empty highs: why throwaway plastic goes hand in hand with bankrupt consumerism

We are in the throes of a terrible addiction to stuff.

A University of California study revealed this week that mankind has produced more than nine billion tonnes of plastic since the 1950s, with almost all of it ending up in landfill or the ocean. With the terrible effects of our decades-long addiction to throwaway packaging becoming increasingly apparent, it’s clear that a fresh approach is needed.

In April 2010, David Cameron set out his vision for Britain in the Conservative Party’s manifesto. Keen to show that the Tories had turned away from the "I’m Alright Jack" individualism of the 1980s, Cameron sought to fashion a softer, more inclusive brand.

The good society, Cameron argued, embraced much higher levels of personal, professional, civic and corporate responsibility. There was such a thing as society, and we’d all do well to talk to our neighbours a bit more. The Big Society, however, was roundly derided as a smokescreen for an aggressive tightening of the Government purse strings. And on the advice of his 2015 election fixer Lynton Crosby, Cameron later dropped it in favour of well-worn lines about economic security and jobs.   

While most would argue that the Big Society failed to amount to much, Cameron was at least right about one thing. We are happiest when we are part of something bigger than ourselves. No matter how much the credit card companies try to convince us otherwise, mindless individualism won’t make us nearly as contented as we’re led to believe by big conglomerates.

By any measure, we are in the throes of a terrible addiction to stuff. As a nation, we have run up unsecured debts of more than £350bn, which works out at £13,000 per household. Fuelled by a toxic mix of readily available credit and interest rates at historic lows, we cripple ourselves financially to feel the empty high derived from acquiring yet more stuff.

Purchasing has become a leisure pursuit, ensuring the rate at which we acquire new stuff exceeds the rate at which we can find somewhere to put it. Burdened with ever increasing amounts of stuff, consumers are forced to outsource their storage. The UK didn’t have a self-storage industry 30 years ago, but now it is the largest in Europe.

With the personal debt mountain soaring, we’d all do well to realise that we will never have enough of something we don’t need.

The growth of rampant consumerism has coincided with an explosion in demand for single-use plastic. Like the superfluous possessions we acquire, throwaway plastic packaging helps satisfy our desire to get exactly what we want without having any thought for the long-term consequences. Plastic packaging is easy and convenient, but ultimately, will do us immense harm.

In 1950, close to 1.5 million tonnes of plastic was produced globally. Today, the figure stands at more than 320 million tonnes. The vast majority of our plastic waste either ends up in landfill or the ocean, and our failure to kick the plastic habit has put is in the ludicrous position where there is set to be more plastic than fish in global seas by 2050.

There is also growing evidence that our penchant for endless throwaway plastic might be storing up serious health problems for our children later down the line. According to a University of Ghent study published earlier this year, British seafood eaters risk ingesting up to 11,000 pieces of plastic each year. The report followed UN warnings last year that cancer-causing chemicals from plastic are becoming increasingly present in the food chain.

Something must give. Unsustainable as our reliance on fast credit to finance ever more stuff, our addiction to plastic packaging is storing up serious problems for future generations. The instant gratification society, high on the dopamine rush that fades so quickly after acquiring yet another material asset, is doomed unless decisive action is forthcoming.

So what is to be done? The 2016 US documentary Minimalism points to a smarter way forward. Minimalism follows the lives of ordinary people who have shunned the rat race in favour of a simpler life with less stuff and less stress. The most poignant bit of the film features ex-broker AJ Leon recounting how he chose to forgo the glamour and riches of Wall Street for a simpler life. After a meteoric rise to the top of his profession, Leon decided to jack it all in for a more fulfilling existence.

While challenging the view that to be a citizen is to be a consumer is easier said than done, there are small changes that we can enact today that will make a huge difference. We simply have no choice but to dramatically reduce the amount of plastic that we can consume. If we don’t, we may soon have to contend with the ocean being home to more plastic than fish.

Like plastic, our bloated consumer culture is a disaster waiting to happen. There must be a better way.

Sian Sutherland is co-founder of campaign group A Plastic Planet which is campaigning for a plastic free-aisle in supermarkets.