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‘It’s death either way’: desperate Tigrayans flee starvation and forced conscription | Global development

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People in Ethiopia’s besieged Tigray region are taking dangerous smuggling routes out of the area to escape forced military service under one side and the starvation and repression imposed by the other.

Tigray has been largely shut off from the outside world during the conflict, with the Ethiopian authorities preventing access and closing down internet communications. Meanwhile, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) is forcing people to join its ranks as fighters.

Danay*, 30, and his five friends knew the route via the neighbouring Amhara region was dangerous when they decided to flee Tigray’s capital, Mekelle, in May. But as the humanitarian crisis worsened and the threat of having to join the fighting increased in their home town, they paid smugglers to take them out.

“If caught by the Amhara Fano fighters you will be killed. You also risk being murdered by machete-wielding mobs of residents. They all hate Tigrayans and are often merciless. Even paying large amounts of money to smugglers cannot be a guarantee. It depends on how lucky you are,” says Danay. He is now in a detention camp outside Jari, in Amhara, until he pays more money to his smugglers.

“I fled because the TPLF authorities have been intimidating the already starved residents to contribute money and food to the military. At times, they even nag us to feed the Ethiopian prisoners of war. They forcefully recruit, arbitrarily detain and decide whatever they want. On top of that, you see people dying from starvation and curable diseases due to the siege imposed by the Ethiopian government. It is death either way,” he says.

Ethiopia map

Danay is being held with up to 1,000 Tigrayans in overcrowded conditions after fleeing alleged “tyrannical rule”.

Ibrahim*, another man at the detention camp, says: “I did not have much problem with starvation – I was better compared to others. But I don’t want to go to war. It is not only because I am a Muslim, I just don’t want to kill people.”

Thousands of people have died since war broke out in November 2020, between Ethiopia’s federal government and the TPFL, the ruling forces in Tigray, and millions need food assistance. The UN and US accuse Ethiopia’s prime minister, Abiy Ahmed, of imposing a de facto blockade on Tigray and preventing aid from getting through.

In March, the Ethiopian government declared a “humanitarian truce” after months of international pressure.

All communications are blocked to Tigray, but the Guardian interviewed residents who managed to get out, as well as escapers in the Jari camp, who accused the TPLF of aid embezzlement and unfair treatment.

When the first 20 aid trucks arrived in Mekelle in April, after the truce, Tekele* and his family were hopeful that they would finally get some respite.

“I had seen the [World Food Programme] aid trucks. But the aid was not distributed. The reason the authorities provide to the media is shortage of fuel. But even private trucks have access to fuel and are operating, let alone the government,” says Tekele. “The aid that gets in is hardly reaching the starved. Meanwhile, TPLF authorities bother us every day to contribute from what we have. They have absolute power. They embezzle, and at times distribute the little aid that gets in based on political affiliation.”

Mehari*, who has two children, said that in April he was ordered to contribute 10,000 birr (£157) to the military.

“The papers are stamped by public offices. If you refuse to contribute, they arrest and threaten you to contribute. They arbitrarily decide who should pay, and how much,” he says.

Last month, the Tigray government claimed forced recruitment had stopped and it was not systematic. But Tigrayans who spoke to the Guardian on condition of anonymity insist it is getting worse.

“They passed an order recently that people from 40 to 55 should also join the army. Even families who previously sent five sons and daughters to the army are being forced to send more. The orders have the Tigray government office stamp. If you refuse or go into hiding the authorities arrest your parents.”

Thousands of people are paying smugglers up to 40,000 birr (£625) a person to escape the region. The network of smugglers includes Ethiopian army officers who take them to Jari where they are held until they pay a ransom. Then they cross the Amhara region to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s capital. Men in the camps say people face beatings, hunger, sexual propositions in exchange for leaving the camp and threats of forced recruitment by militias battling Tigray forces.

“They beat us. The camp is harsh. They harass the women, ask them for sex in exchange for leaving the camp. Escaping on your own is not an option because the Fano militia and residents threaten to murder us,” says Danay.

Kaleab* has made it outside Ethiopia. He says 80 people who were with him in the camp have disappeared after reaching Addis Ababa.

Tigrayans detained in Aba Samuel Prison in Addis Ababa.
Tigrayans detained in Aba Samuel Prison in Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia. Photograph: Reuters

“One month ago, they transported me and 80 others from the Jari camp to Addis. But when we got to Addis, they took and held us in the Torhayloch camp. They told us we will be recruited to an army wing that battles the Tigray force. Everyone refused. We said we all fled Tigray, hating to go to war and we don’t want to fight with our own brothers. I managed to escape. The rest disappeared. The unverified information I have is that they are forcefully transported to Humera [in Tigray].”

A Tigrayan government spokesperson told the Guardian the allegations were baseless.

“The aid after the truce is far from meeting the needs in Tigray,” said Kindya Gebrehiwot. “It is no surprise people are looking for alternative means to survive, including a dangerous journey to Addis, as the Ethiopian government has suspended all services.”

* Names have been changed

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Russian Intranasal Vaccine Effective Against All Coronavirus Strains – Developers

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MOSCOW (Sputnik) – The new Russian nasal vaccine against COVID-19 has demonstrated effectiveness against all variants of the coronavirus, Alexander Gintsburg, the director of Russia’s Gamaleya Research Center for Epidemiology and Microbiology, which developed the vaccine, told Sputnik.

“We’ve observed that the currently available and already registered intranasal vaccine is demonstrating high efficiency in protecting against all strains [of the coronavirus], forming mucosal immunity to the pathogen,” Gintsburg said.

The Russian Health Ministry registered the world’s first intranasal vaccine against COVID-19 in April.

Gintsburg told Sputnik in March that the new vaccine was effective against the Omicron variant. He said that the new vaccine was going to be used as a booster, in addition to the Sputnik V shots, until there was enough evidence that this new intranasal method gives the same level of protection as an injection.

In November of last year, Russian President Vladimir Putin offered to become a volunteer in the testing of the new vaccine and said that he felt no side effects after getting the procedure.

Russia became the first country in the world to register a vaccine against COVID-19, dubbed Sputnik V, in August 2020. The Russian Health Ministry has also registered a new, Sputnik M, vaccine for adolescents aged 12-17. Clinical trials of Sputnik shots for children aged 6-11 are currently underway in Moscow, according to Gintsburg.



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Nancy Pelosi: Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan revives the debate on international recognition of the island | International

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Nancy Pelosi’s brief and controversial visit to Taiwan could not have incited more contrasting reactions from the governments on either side of the Formosa Strait. President Tsai Ing-wen’s administration received the speaker of the United States House of Representatives with everything but a fireworks show, projecting flamboyant welcome messages on the island’s tallest building. Beijing, on the other hand, responded to what it considered a “blatant provocation” with a week of unprecedented military exercises. The superpower has also cut ties with Washington on key topics and recently published the first official report on Taiwan in two decades. Its aggressive reaction has brought to the forefront the debate about international recognition of the island, which functions as a state but is recognized by only 14 countries.

“My friends and I were very excited for a figure like this to come. It’s good to attract attention,” says Sun Hui’an by phone. “We are used to threats from China. We can’t let it dictate our lives,” adds the 29-year-old nurse.

Formosa was the place to which nationalist leaders and around a million people fled after the victory of the Communist Army in 1949 in the civil war. While in mainland China Mao Zedong declared the founding of the People’s Republic, Chiang Kai-shek, the leader of the Kuomintang (the formation that had presided over the country between 1927 and 1949), established a government in exile in Taiwan. Not until the 1970s did the United Nations and most Western countries began to recognize Beijing as the legitimate government of China, to the detriment of Taipei.

Taiwan is not a special administrative region of China like Hong Kong and Macau. It has a democratic government, a constitution and an army of 300,000 soldiers. It ranks as the 21st largest economy in the world, and it is the leading producer in the semiconductor industry. In 2019, it became the first place in Asia to legalize marriage between same-sex couples.

For the Chinese government, the island is a headache. The Asian giant considers Taiwan an inalienable part of its territory, whose “reunification” is, in the words of President Xi Jinping, “a historic mission of the Communist Party.” In recent years, especially since Tsai Ing-wen assumed the presidency in 2016, Chinese authorities have spoken with increasing assertiveness about a future unification, for which they have not ruled out the use of force. The rapport between the Tsai Administration and the United States, as evidenced by the recent visit of the American politician, has infuriated Beijing. On Wednesday, China published the first white paper on Taiwan in 22 years, drawing far more red lines than previous publications from 1993 and 2000.

Beijing’s discourse has never quite caught on across the strait. The two main Taiwanese parliamentary groups hold two radically opposed ideas about nationalism. While the Blue Coalition, led by the Kuomintang (KMT), aspires to an eventual unification with the People’s Republic, the Green Coalition, led by the Democratic Progressive Party (PDP), prefers to distance the island from Beijing.

Xulio Ríos, director of the Chinese Policy Observatory, points out that, however, that “the nuances are important”: “In the KMT there is everything from an intense blue –which defends unification and the idea of China – to a sky-blue, which understands that there are two different realities on both sides of the strait. The PDP advocated for independence, but today it does not defend it so aggressively and is committed to maintaining the status quo.”

Although historically opposed, the Kuomintang and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) have sometimes found ways to collaborate and prevent secession. KMT Vice Chairman Andrew Hsia is currently on a 17-day trip to the mainland to boost cross-border communication. “The cooperation between the KMT and the CCP really picked up momentum in 2008, with the victory of Ma Ying-jeou [KMT] in the elections. This made possible a rapprochement between the business and political elites of the mainland and Taiwan,” says Ríos.

Maintaining the status quo

That approach was cut short in 2014, when a group of protesters occupied parliament to denounce the approval, without bipartisan debate, of a controversial trade agreement with China. “The Sunflower Movement put the brakes on a whole process of rapprochement, which had generated the expectation of a possibility of peaceful unification through dialogue,” says Ríos. “After PDP’s victory with an absolute majority in 2016 is completely the opposite, a completely opposite path opened,” he adds.

Despite the two trends, the surveys carried out biannually by the Center for Electoral Studies of National Chengchi University (Taipei) since 1994 show that the vast majority of the 23 million Taiwanese are committed to maintaining the status quo. In its latest poll, from July, those in favor of unification are few (1.3%) and falling, while those in favor of declaring independence (5.1%) have also lost steam.

“My parents and I share the same opinion: we don’t care who rules Taiwan, but we don’t want to lose our freedoms. My grandparents and my parents had hopes for the principle of one country, two systems, but after what happened in Hong Kong we know that it is not viable,” says Wu, 32, who prefers to identify himself with a pseudonym.

Deng Xiaoping devised the one country, two systems model in the late 1980s. The goal was to ensure conformity to the idea that there is but one China, while ensuring that those areas that had developed their own economic systems could keep them under Chinese rule. The idea, originally conceived for Taiwan, has never been accepted by the island’s political parties.

Taiwanese fear that the idea’s acceptance will bring an erosion of democracy. China had agreed with the United Kingdom to guarantee Hong Kong’s system of freedoms until 2047. But after the 2019 protests, Beijing has become intransigent, with the approval of the draconian National Security Law and with an electoral reform that ended up placing Beijing-backed candidate John Lee as head of government in May.

“Once you visit the Chinese mainland, if you are green, you turn dark green. If you are blue, you go green,” Wu says, summarizing the Taiwanese’s misgivings. But given the obvious difference in opinion that has persisted in high political circles, the most intelligent response seems to be the one reflected by the polls. When asked what he would choose between preserving the status quo or moving towards complete autonomy from Beijing, Wu does not hesitate: “Independence does not deserve a war.”

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‘The Taliban no longer wanted to kill me. Now they wanted to marry me’ | Women’s rights and gender equality

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The day the Taliban entered my city last August, I started to receive renewed threats from Taliban commanders who wanted to punish me for my work as a news journalist. I was forced to leave my home that day, amid the loud explosions of an ongoing battle, hiding under a burqa, and praying to survive the journey.

What I did not know then was that this journey would continue for the next year.

Every few weeks, I moved from province to province, sometimes living in the heart of cities, other times hiding out in remote villages. In the first few days, I stayed at my uncle’s house in Sari Pul province, but once the local Taliban learned he was harbouring a fugitive, we had to leave in the middle of the night.

I went to Mazar-i-Sharif city in Balkh, and then took the road to Kabul, passing through Samangan, Baghlan and Parwan provinces. We were stopped at checkpoints in every province, and every time my heart would pound inside my chest. Luckily, I was under a chadari [the full Afghan burqa] and passed through checkpoints undetected.

In Kabul, the very air had shifted; there was fear and dread, alongside celebrations, as Taliban fighters from all over the country gathered in the capital. With the help of some friends, I was moved to a safe house, where I spent the next three months attempting to find ways to leave the country, but seldom even leaving the compound I was hiding in. The Taliban would launch random raids in the neighbourhood, looking for fugitives like me.

Somehow, our compound evaded suspicion, but when the number of raids increased, I knew I would have to leave Kabul soon.

In December 2021, I heard the news that my cousin had been killed by the Taliban. He was a policeman and often clashed with the Taliban during the years of conflict. Like me, he had been hiding for months, looking for a way to leave the country, but was caught and killed. I broke down, not just in grief over his loss, but also in incredible pain over what my life had turned into.

I decided to go back to my province, but did not go home because I didn’t want to risk my family’s lives. I hid at the home of another relative, but being so close to my family again made me homesick. I yearned for my mother’s embrace; I hadn’t seen her in months.

One day, I met my mother in a crowded marketplace. We hugged each other tight, and I cried, but she gave me strength. I knew I couldn’t give up now.

Over the next few months, I started weaving carpets to help support myself and my family. Since the Taliban takeover, we had not only lost income but my life in exile was costing my parents, who had already sacrificed so much to raise me and now had to support me. It was hard labour, and I developed rashes and sores on my hands, but it helped my family and took my mind off the threats I was still receiving.

Then the threats from the Taliban changed. They no longer wanted to kill me. They wanted me to marry one of their commanders. They reached out to my parents and community elders, pressuring them to give me away in marriage.

I couldn’t believe it was now happening to me. In the past, I covered stories of the Taliban imposing forced marriages on young girls. Now I was one of the women I had reported about last year.

When I refused, they sent me photos of AK-47s and pistols, threatening to kidnap me, and kill my parents. I blocked their numbers and deleted WhatsApp but they still found ways to send me threats. Eventually, I took out my sim card and broke it into pieces. I was terrified of what they would do to me, or worse, to my family.

So in July, with the help of friends, I made one more attempt to leave the country. First, with the help of my father, I moved to Mazar-i-Sharif, and then we took the road to Kabul again. I carried medical certificates, and every time we were stopped, we would say I was going to Kabul for treatment. I was nervous throughout the journey because the Taliban were more brutal than before.

Eventually we made it to Kabul, where I met with other women like myself. Together, under the pretext of seeking medical help, we were able to get on a flight leaving for a neighbouring country.

I am somewhat safer now, but not out of danger. I barely sleep because I fear for my family, who are still in Afghanistan. They are already being shamed because I ran away. A young unmarried daughter leaving by herself is considered very dishonourable in Afghan culture.

But I am fortunate in the support I have received from my parents, at great personal risk. They always prioritised my passion, my happiness, and now my security and future. Contrary to popular belief, many Afghan fathers would, like mine, rather face societal dishonour and threats than deny their daughters opportunities for a better future.

I appeal to our international allies to empower such Afghan families, particularly the women. We worked so hard to attain values of equality and freedom and have lost the most in the last year. But we are still resisting, and we are seeking allies to support us and amplify our voices.

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