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‘I didn’t eat for days’: hunger stalks Venezuelan refugees | Malnutrition

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A seemingly endless lake of cardboard and tin shacks surrounds the perimeter of a former airport runway in Colombia’s desert-like city of Maicao. Known locally as La Pista, the area is home to more than 2,000 families, and is one of 44 informal settlements to have emerged around the city in the past two years.

The old airport has become a landing strip for desperate migrants and bi-national indigenous Wayuu people fleeing the economic and political crisis in Venezuela, where the basic essentials of life are hard to come by.

Maicao is in La Guajira, the most northern region of Colombia, and sits on the border with Venezuela. It is the second busiest entry point for migrants after the main border city of Cúcuta.

The stench of urine fills the air inside the roasting hot tin shack where Elaine Rojas lives with her family. There is no toilet so the family of six go where they can. Rojas, 27, came from the Venezuelan city of Maracaibo four years ago in search of a decent life for her children.

Her frailty is a sign of malnutrition; food was in short supply in her homeland and has been since she arrived in Colombia.

“It’s not better [than Venezuela] but at least we have some food, though sometimes we don’t have enough,” says Rojas. “When it rains it’s awful, the whole place floods.”

Yulexi del Carmen, 16, outside the shack where she lives with Valeria, her seven-month-old daughter. She has lost two babies to malnutrition.
Yulexi del Carmen, 16, outside the shack where she lives with Valeria, her seven-month-old daughter. She has lost two babies to malnutrition. Photograph: Nadège Mazars/Guardian

Rojas and her husband, who both survive by recycling plastic, built their hut themselves, starting out with plastic bags and pieces of wood before getting some corrugated iron. As no running or drinkable water is available in La Pista, everyone relies on water-sellers who charge a fee to distribute untreated barrels of it, carried between the homes on donkeys.

Many people in Maicao are suffering from malnutrition. Organisations such as Save the Children and Action Against Hunger are supporting families La Pista but the majority of families still eat only one meal a day, mostly made from flour but occasionally rice. Few can afford meat, fruit and vegetables. One tomato can cost an unaffordable 800 pesos (15p).

Such a diet is one of the main causes of malnutrition, says Mabis Mercado, who is in charge of looking after migrant patients at Maicao’s main hospital. She believes there are about 8,000 people in La Pista, and says cases of malnutrition have shot up since last year. The hospital dealt with 152 cases of chronic malnutrition in 2020; 68 among Venezuelans and 25 among indigenous communities.

“Those most affected are the indigenous populations,” Mercado says. “The water in La Pista is horrible; it causes a lot of intestinal problems, which add to the issue of malnutrition.”

In 2018 doctors started seeing more serious cases of malnutrition as Venezuela’s crisis intensified, she says. The pandemic has made the precarious situation even worse.

Venezuelan refugees living in La Pista must use cardboard for their shacks until they can find some metal.
Venezuelan refugees living in La Pista must use cardboard for their shacks until they can find some metal. Photograph: Nadège Mazars/Guardian

“Last year it was really critical because a lot of the migrants have informal jobs. With the pandemic lockdown, they couldn’t do anything, everything was closed down, so many people were going hungry, unable to afford food,” Mercado says. “We found newborns with malnutrition and children who, because of lack of access to milk … started to fall into malnutrition too.”

The hospital are giving out supplements. “But we’ve run out. We only had supplies for three months,” she says.

Data from Colombia’s authorities says 51,361 migrants live in Maicao, but Mercado and others working on the ground told the Guardian that these numbers were a conservative estimate. They say it is almost impossible to control migration, due to the many informal and dangerous border crossings, known as trochas, which are used to smuggle weapons, medicine and petrol.

“There are 180 trochas, and no control,” says Mercado. “It’s difficult to regulate and the data is not accurate.”

Inside the hospital, Rosa Primera, 29, sits with her 18-month-old son, whose light-coloured hair is a clear sign of malnutrition. Primera has been in Maicao for three months and has the same story as most: “I left [Venezuela] because of the crisis,” she says. “I didn’t have money for food.”

Dr Alberto Galue, who heads the children’s ward at Maicao’s hospital, says the malnutrition levels are “very serious … We are overwhelmed.”

Rosa Primera’s son Juan David is measured at Maicao’s hospital to gauge his malnutrition. In the week since he was admitted, he has gained a kilo in weight.
Rosa Primera’s son Juan David is measured at Maicao’s hospital to gauge his malnutrition. In the week since he was admitted, he has gained a kilo in weight. Photograph: Nadège Mazars/Guardian

In May 2019, the UN refugee agency, UNHCR, set up its first camp in Colombia, providing a temporary respite. In the last six months, though, dozens more makeshift dwellings have sprung up around the UN camp.

UNHCR’s Colombia representative, Jozef Merkx, says the agency is working with the authorities to address the “urgent needs in various informal settlements with many refugees, migrants and host families”.

“A large part of the population in the new, informal settlements are of Wayuu origin, mostly coming from the Venezuelan side of the border,” he says.

Wayuu people make up 56.4% of the overall population in La Guajira, and they do not recognise the border between Colombia and Venezuela.

One Wayuu girl who crossed into Colombia from Venezuela says she had lost two babies to malnutrition.

“They were sick. They had diarrhoea and vomiting and I had no resources,” says Yulexi del Carmen, 16, in her Wayuunaiki language, while her cousin translates into Spanish. “One died after a month, and the other when he was a year old.”

Two boys deliver water to a shack in La Pista.Water costs 3,000 pesos (about 5560p) a day for those who can afford it.
Two boys deliver water to a shack in La Pista. Water costs 3,000 pesos (about 60p) a day for those who can afford it. Photograph: Nadège Mazars/Guardian

Del Carmen and her family were preparing rice for lunch when the Guardian visited. In the evening they drink chicha, a traditional beer made from fermented maize. Their plastic water barrel was empty as they had run out of money.

Osmer José, a 20-year-old water-seller, says being in La Pista is “like being in Venezuela but money goes further”. Water costs 3,000 pesos ( 60p) a day for those who can afford it.

Many Venezuelans live in similar corrugated-iron shacks in Maicao’s city centre, including 33-year-old Ana Josefina Gutiérrez, from Los Puertos de Altagracia, over the river from the bigger city of Maracaibo, a few hours drive away. She has lived in precarious conditions here for about 18 months.

When she was pregnant she was penniless and at times had to sleep on the street with two young children in tow. “I didn’t know what to do,” says Gutiérrez, who is at a Maicao health clinic with her baby son. “I slept outside. I didn’t eat well. Sometimes I didn’t eat at all for two days.

“He had malnutrition because I was going through a rough time and I didn’t have anything to give him,” she says. “Never in my life did I think I’d be living like this.”

Gutiérrez, who is diabetic, received some emergency funds from Save the Children and has been able to get herself off the street and into basic housing. She says it costs her about 7,000 pesos (£1.35) a day to get by.

Florinda Uriana, finishes preparing lunch
Florinda Uriana, mother of Yulexi del Carmen, finishes preparing lunch for the seven members of the family present. It is a single dish of white rice. Photograph: Nadège Mazars

Her only furniture in the one-room shelter is a second-hand foam mattress and a crib. The home is made of tin and is surrounded by rooms housing other Venezuelans. The metal makes for a sweltering interior in daytime, but at least she is safe here for now. Her funds are likely to last for three months, she says.

Colombia’s border with Venezuela recently reopened, after closing in March 2020 to curb the spread of the pandemic. More people have already started to flood across, says Mercado.

As September’s rainy season approaches, concern is growing for the people living in La Pista. Their cardboard and tin houses will undoubtedly flood, and water will be further contaminated, causing more illness.

“I’ve asked God for no rain this year,” says Mercado. “It’s already been so tough for people, with the pandemic. Their homes will be destroyed.”

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Germany mulls restrictions for unvaccinated as cases soar

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The surge in Covid-19 cases due to the spread of the more contagious Delta variant has prompted a debate in Germany over whether people who have not yet been vaccinated should face restrictions – after other countries like France and Greece made similar moves.

“Vaccinated people will definitely have more freedoms than unvaccinated people,” chancellor Angela Merkel’s chief of staff, Helge Braun, said in an interview published on Sunday (25 July).

If infections continue to rise, unvaccinated people might be forbidden from entering restaurants, cinemas, theatres or sports stadiums because “the residual risk is too high,” he said.

Merkel has previously spoken out against making vaccination itself mandatory.

According to Braun, cases are increasing by 60-percent per week and are expected to continue rising.

“If the Delta variant were to continue to spread at this rate and we don’t counter it with a very high vaccination-rate or change in behaviour, we would have an incidence of 850 [cases per 100,000 inhabitants] in just nine weeks,” he said.

Braun argued that introducing further restrictions for unvaccinated people would be legal since “the state has the responsibility to protect the health of its citizens” – triggering a debate even within Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU) party.

The CDU candidate to succeed Merkel as chancellor in September’s national elections, Armin Laschet, has opposed such measures.

“I do not believe in compulsory vaccination, and I do not believe in indirectly putting pressure on people to get vaccinated,” he told ZDF television.

“We have had a rule that you must be tested, vaccinated or recovered and I think that is a good principle,” Laschet said.

For his part, the leader of the Social Democratic Party, Rolf Mützenich, warned that politicians are not going “to change the vaccination behaviour of individuals with threats”.

About 60 percent of Germany’s 83 million people have received at least one dose of a Covid-19 jab, while just 48 percent are fully-vaccinated.

All jabs approved in the EU – BioNTech/Pfizer, Moderna, AstraZeneca, and Johnson&Johnson – appeared to be effective against the Delta variant when both doses are administrated in the case of two-shot jabs.

Other countries like Italy, France, and Greece are trying to increase vaccination rates by imposing vaccine passport schemes or mandatory vaccination for certain workers, such as health and care staff.

Weekend protests

Those moves have sparked protests over the weekend.

Thousands gathered on Saturday in several French cities to speak out against the new Covid-19 restrictions for unvaccinated people and mandatory vaccination – with far-right activists and members of the ‘Yellow Vest’ movement clashing with police in Paris.

Similar rallies took place outside the Greek parliament in Athens for the third time this month, while large crowds took the streets in Dublin to protest against the introduction of vaccines passports.

As part of a so-called “Worldwide Rally for Freedom” campaign, protest against vaccine passports, wearing masks, and further lockdowns were organised in major cities across the world, including Sydney, London or Rome.

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Syrian Air Defenses Shot Down Rockets Launched Towards Damasсus Vicinity, Russian Military Says

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Middle East

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The Syrian government has repeatedly accused Israel of conducting regular airstrikes on its territory, calling on international organizations to denounce the attacks as violations of Syria’s sovereignty and introduce sanctions against the Jewish State.

Syrian air defense systems have destroyed two missiles fired by the Israeli F-16 fighter jets toward facilities in the Damascus region, Rear Adm. Vadim Kulit, the deputy head of the Russian Center for the Reconciliation of Warring Parties in Syria, said on Sunday.

This comes just after Russian-made Buk-M2E air defense systems downed all the rockets launched at the central Syrian province of Homs in the early hours of Thursday. The Russian military added that two Israeli F-16 fighters fired four guided missiles at several facilities in the Homs province. Syrian state media also attributed the strikes to the Israeli military, which never denied nor assumed responsibility for the attack.

According to the official, in the early hours of Sunday, two Israeli F-16 fighter jets conducted an airstrike against facilities in the Set Zaynab settlement, south of Damascus, without entering the Syrian airspace.

“Both missiles were destroyed by Russian Buk-M2E missile systems that are used by the Syrian military’s air defense forces,” Rear Adm. Vadim Kulit said.

On Monday, state-run Al-Ikhbariya TV reported that the Syrian air defense was repelling an air attack from Israel on the Syrian city of as-Safira in the Aleppo Governorate. The Russian military confirmed later that seven missiles fired by Israeli F-16s at Syria were destroyed by the Pantsir-S and Buk-M2 systems of the Syrian air defense.


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Sputnik / Mikhail Fomichev

Air Defense soldiers during exercise, Ashuluk firing ground

While Israel avoids commenting on foreign reports, as it says, in December, IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Aviv Kohavi did acknowledge that the Jewish State had conducted numerous attacks on Syrian territory to counter what he called Iran’s “retrenchment” in the Arab Republic.

It is also reported that Israel uses Lebanon’s airspace to launch strikes against Syria, while some of the rockets are launched from the occupied Golan Heights, captured by Israel in the 1967 war.



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Jehan Sadat obituary | Women’s rights and gender equality

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Jehan Sadat, who has died aged 88 of cancer, spent most of her life promoting social justice and women’s rights in Egypt. She continued to campaign decades after her husband, President Anwar Sadat, was assassinated, on 6 October 1981, by militants in the army avenging the imprisonment of fellow Islamists and condemning the 1978 Camp David accords that he had signed with Israel.

As a girl in Cairo, Jehan had explored the streets of her neighbourhood of Al-Manial, attributing her self-confidence to her supportive parents. She said that her fight against gender inequality started during her schooldays, when she was encouraged to focus on subjects such as sewing and cooking in preparation for marriage rather than the sciences that would lead to a university career. “I have always regretted that decision. I would never allow my daughters to close off their futures that way,” she wrote in her autobiography, A Woman of Egypt (1987).

Jehan had married Sadat in 1949 at the age of 15; a former army officer, he was twice her age and active in the fight against British control in Egypt. Three years later, he was a key player in the military coup that toppled King Farouk and later brought Gamal Abdel Nasser to the presidency. Sadat took a series of senior positions in the government and after Nasser’s death in 1970 was elected president.

President Anwar Sadat of Egypt, left, shaking hands with Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin of Israel, with Jimmy Carter looking on at the US presidential retreat at Camp David, Maryland, in 1978, before the announcement of the historic peace accords the following year.
President Anwar Sadat of Egypt, left, shaking hands with Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin of Israel, with Jimmy Carter looking on at the US presidential retreat at Camp David, Maryland, in 1978, before the announcement of the historic peace accords the following year. Photograph: Karl Schumacher/EPA

Jehan had begun her work for women’s rights in the years before she became first lady. She was vocal in condemning female genital mutilation and played a crucial role in the 1960s in the formation of a co-operative in the village of Talla in the Nile Delta that helped local women become skilled in sewing and therefore economically independent of their husbands.

She also headed SOS Children’s Villages, an organisation that provides homes for orphans in a family environment. In 1975 she led the Egyptian delegation to the UN international conference on women in Mexico City and to the 1980 conference in Copenhagen.

Most crucially, she was involved in a campaign to reform Egypt’s status law that would grant women new rights to divorce their husbands and retain custody of their children. The 1975 film Oridu Hallan (I Want a Solution), starring Faten Hamama, illustrated the struggles of Egyptian women under a conservative legal system that suppressed their rights.

“Over half our population are women, Anwar,” she told her husband, as she recorded in A Woman of Egypt. “Egypt will not be a democracy until women are as free as men.”

The attempts of some liberal clerics to defend the limited legal amendments supported by Jehan were undermined by the growing influence of Wahhabi Saudi Arabia. Despite the backlash from conservative Muslims, in the summer of 1979 her husband granted her wish and issued decrees improving the divorce status of women, as well as a second law that set aside 30 seats in parliament for women. These measures, which were later passed through parliament, became known as “Jehan’s laws”.

She was born Jehan Raouf in Cairo, into an upper-middle-class family, the third child of Safwat Raouf, an Egyptian surgeon, and his wife, Gladys Cotrell, a British music teacher, who had met in Sheffield when Safwat was studying medicine at the university. Jehan was raised as a Muslim, according to her father’s wishes, but she also attended a Christian secondary school for girls in Cairo.

She met Anwar at a summer party at her cousin’s house, not long after he was released from prison for the second time for his revolutionary activities; he was also recently divorced. The idealistic Jehan was impressed, despite her mother’s initial misgivings and the 15-year age gap. They married the following year, and went on to have four children.

In 1977 Anwar flew to Jerusalem to propose a peace settlement to the Israeli Knesset, and the following year he signed the Camp David accords, the first peace treaty between an Arab nation and Israel, with the prime minister Menachem Begin and the US president Jimmy Carter. Jehan, who was a far more visible first lady than President Nasser’s wife had been, later made a point of saying that she had stood by her husband even though the peace agreement was highly controversial in Egypt.

Jehan Sadat interviewed by Barbara Walters

While he had believed that the affection of the armed forces for him was such that they could not be infiltrated by militant Islamists, she later told the BBC: “I knew that he would be killed.” She begged him to wear a bullet-proof vest but he refused, and was proud of the new uniform that he had had designed for a military march-past on the outskirts of Cairo.

When people were looking up at the Egyptian air force planes flying in formation and doing aerobatics, Jehan noticed an army truck pulling out of the line of artillery vehicles and stopping in front of the reviewing stands. Then she saw soldiers with machine-guns running towards the stands. Her husband stood up, was riddled with bullets, and fell. The glass through which she and her grandchildren were watching was likewise splintered by bullets, and her bodyguard pushed her to the ground.

Jehan spoke of the shock of losing the man who was not only “my beloved husband whom I loved all my life, but … my partner”.

Her aspiration to higher education had eventually been realised, with a BA (1977) in Arabic literature and an MA (1980) in comparative literature at Cairo University, and she followed these with a PhD (1986). In later years she was a visiting professor at several US universities, and continued to promote international peace and women’s rights. A second book, My Hope for Peace, followed in 2009.

She is survived by her three daughters, Lubna, Noha and Jehan, her son, Gamal, and 11 grandchildren.

Jehan Sadat, women’s rights campaigner, human rights activist and writer, born 29 August 1933; died 9 July 2021

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