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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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Funeral held for Roma man killed in Czech police custody

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The funeral of a Roma man killed while in Czech police custody was held over the weekend. Stanislav Tomáš died after a Czech police officer kneeled on his neck, in scenes reminiscent of the murder of George Floyd by a US police officer in Minneapolis. Tomáš passed away 19 June, while being rushed to the hospital. The police have denied wrongdoing.

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‘Pelosi Republicans’: McCarthy Disses Cheney, Kinzinger Amid New Jan. 6 Committee Appointment

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US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) confirmed on Sunday that Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-IL) has been appointed to serve on the US House-approved select committee probing the January 6 attack on the US Capitol building. This move comes days after Pelosi rejected two out of five GOP recommendations from House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA).

Though it appears the January 6 commission will move forward, the House Minority Leader did not appear to change the GOP stance on the matter when approached by reporters on Monday. 

“Some Republicans have been saying … that the GOP should play ball on this committee. You could get the three,” a reporter asked in reference to Reps. Rodney Davis (R-IL), Kelly Armstrong (R-ND) and Troy Nehls (R-TX).

All three lawmakers received Pelosi’s approval for appointment, but they were ultimately held back by McCarthy, who demanded the House Speaker also appoint Reps. Jim Jordan (R-OH) and Jim Banks (R-IN). Pelosi has asserted that Jordan and Banks would endanger the probe’s “integrity.”

McCarthy brushed the reporter’s suggestion aside, arguing that Cheney and Kinzinger are the only House Republicans who would “play ball” in an effort for the commission to have a bipartisan quorum.

“Who is that, Adam [Kinzinger] and Liz [Cheney]?” he floated. “Arent they kinda, like, Pelosi Republicans?” 

Moments later, the House Minority Leader informed reporters that he has not decided whether the two anti-Trump Republicans will be punished for joining the select committee amid the House GOP’s boycott of the group.

Word of McCarthy’s latest dig traveled fast to Cheney, who abruptly panned his remarks as “pretty childish.” 

“We’ve got very serious business here. We have important work to do,” she asserted to reporters on Monday.

Both Cheney and Kinzinger are slated to meet up with their Democratic colleagues for their first select committee meeting on Tuesday. The group’s first witness is also expected to make an appearance. 

Presently, Democrats on the 13-member group include Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-MS), chairman of the select committee, Zoe Lofgren (D-CA), Adam Schiff (D-CA), Pete Aguilar (D-CA), Stephanie Murphy (D-FL), Jamie Raskin (D-MD) and Elaine Luria (D-VA). Kinzinger and Cheney are the sole GOP lawmakers assigned to the committee. 

McCarthy has maintained that Pelosi is pursuing a “sham process” by rejecting Jordan and Banks from the select committee. 


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REUTERS / Elizabeth Frantz

U.S. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) announces the withdrawal of his nominees to serve on the special committee probing the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol, as two of the Republican nominees, Reps’ Jim Jordan (R-OH) and Jim Banks (R-IN), standby during a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., July 21, 2021

“Speaker Pelosi’s rejection of the Republican nominees to serve on the committee and self-appointment of members who share her preconceived narrative will not yield a serious investigation,” McCarthy wrote on Sunday, shortly after Pelosi announced Kinzinger’s appointment. “The Speaker has structured this select committee to satisfy her political objectives. She had months to work with Republicans on a reasonable and fair approach to get answers on the events and security failures surrounding January 6.” 

Republicans have also argued that the investigation should focus on why the US Capitol was not properly secured on January 6, despite reports claiming law enforcement had information leading up to the attack.

“The U.S. Capitol and the men and women who protect it suffered a massive leadership failure. We must make sure that never happens again,” the House Minority Leader noted on Sunday, claiming the GOP will carry out its own probe on the deadly riot.  



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How ‘super-detector’ dogs are helping free Iraq from the terror of Isis mines | Global development

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On the wide, flat plain of the Sinjar district of northern Iraq, Naif Khalaf Qassim lets his dog, an eight-year-old Belgian shepherd, range across the dry earth on a 30-metre leash until Branco stops and sits, tail wagging, looking towards his handler with enthusiasm.

Branco has detected something underground and, when the mine-clearing team is brought in to investigate, they find an improvised explosive device (IED), known locally as a VS500.

It is about 30cm (1ft) wide, with a plastic casing and a central pressure pad. The VS500 is not the name Islamic State give the device; no one knows that. All that is certain is that it is one of thousands produced when the terror group held sway over this part of Iraq and commandeered plastics factories in their Mosul base, forcing the workers to make souped-up versions of the Italian-made VS50 landmine.

A VS50 could fit on the palm of your hand, and contains about 100g of explosives. The deminers call this type of mine the VS500 because it is 10 times the size and packed with up to 15kg (33lb) of explosives. The pressure pad is sensitive enough for a child to activate, even through 30cm of packed earth. The explosion can take out an armoured vehicle.

Branco is trained to sniff ahead in a controlled manner and stop if he gets a scent – so he doesn’t tread on the mine. Belgian and German shepherds are used because they are most adept at distinguishing scents.

“I knew Branco would find the IED,” says Naif proudly. “I believe in him and his abilities; I know him and what he can do. He is more of a friend to me than a dog.”

Dog and handler between two stakes on arid ground
Branco, with his handler Naif Khalaf Qassim, can do rapid searches either side of a known mined corridor

Four years ago, Iraqi forces managed to take the last stronghold that Isis had left in the country, the city and surroundings of Tal Afar. The Iraqi flag was raised on the historic Ottoman citadel at the heart of the city, and the militia was pushed into Syria.

The war might have appeared over by late August 2017, but retreating Isis forces seeded the towns, villages and countryside in that area of Sinjar with IEDs, and the job of clearing them is still far from done.

But it is moving at a much faster pace, thanks to the introduction of the small sniffer dog team, including Branco, and his handler, Naif, 35.

Mine-detection dogs are not new – the British-based Mines Advisory Group (MAG) has been working across northern Iraq for three decades. In the year from June 2020 to June 2021 the Iraqi dog team has found and destroyed 3,540 landmines and explosive remnants of war, including 670 improvised mines and 148 other improvised devices.

Now MAG has embarked on a specific programme to better detect the explosives used by Isis and other non-state groups.

Land mine with pressure pad on top
Isis made workers at plastics factories in Mosul produce the so-called VS500, based on an Italian landmine

Dogs are usually trained to sniff out explosives, mainly TNT, but the IED dogs take this a step further. Trained in Bosnia-Herzegovina, their noses are attuned to rubber, metal and batteries as well.

This is key where explosives are often improvised from domestic items such as pots and kettles, with detonators and batteries. Training dogs to focus on a wider range of scents allows for more opportunities to detect anomalies below the surface.

The new four-strong dog team (with two more on their way from Bosnia-Herzegovina) is currently working on 8sq km of land near Tal Afar that was used as a barrier minefield by retreating Isis fighters in 2017. While people armed with mine detectors painstakingly scour a known mined corridor, the dogs range across the areas either side, deemed low or medium risk, to seek out any randomly planted devices.

Woman in uniform and dog searching burnt out cars.
Vian Khaider Khalaf, with X-Lang, wants to clear landmines so families can return and farm the land

The programme for the “super-detector” dogs was curtailed until now by Covid and by difficulties negotiating with the administration in Sinjar – divided between the Iraqi federal government and the Kurdistan regional government.

The dogs start work at 5am, so that they can finish before the sun is too high – last week temperatures there hit 49C (120F). The handlers are from the Yazidi community.

Vian Khaider Khalaf, 26, was a student before starting work with the dogs in 2017. She works to support her family in Sinuni, but like everyone on the team, her driving motivation is to clear the mines so that families can return to their farms.

Vian Khaider Khalaf says some of her family, as Yazidis, are still in camps for displaced people
Vian Khaider Khalaf says some of her family, as Yazidis, are still in camps for displaced people

“We always had dogs at home, as my family are farmers and shepherds,” says Khalaf. “I fled with my family in 2014 when Daesh [Isis] came. I still have family in an IDP [internally displaced people] camp in Kurdistan. My family are afraid for me, of course. But they are proud of me and see me working hard and bravely, and that makes me want to take on more challenges.”

Khalaf has worked with her dog, X-Lang, since she started with MAG. He was originally a mine-detector dog, but was selected for the IED upgrade training. She says: “The relationship between me and my dog is not really that of a human and an animal. He is my dear friend. If I could take him home with me at the weekend, or live on the base with him, I would.”

After their shifts out in the fields, handlers and dogs spend the rest of the day together, often around the pool on the base.

The team supervisor is Salam Rasho, a former noncommissioned officer with the Kurdistan military, the peshmerga. He is also a Yazidi and has seen the devastation of his community. “Our aim is to return the people to their land, to get people farming the land again,” he says.

It’s impossible to estimate how much unexploded ordnance there is in Iraq – one of the most mined countries in the world, according to some estimates. There is little information about where mines were laid over the past 40 years, from the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s, to Saddam Hussein’s assaults on his own people, the Gulf War, and finally Isis. It is thought that in federal Iraq alone there are some 3,000 sq km of mined land yet to be cleared, with 8.5 million people living in close proximity.

Dogs in circular pool with rotator arm in middle
After a morning’s work the dogs can go into a custom-made pool that allows them to exercise in the heat

The real benefit of the dogs, says Salam, is that they can cover a huge area much quicker than humans – about 1,500 sq metres a day. The success of the Iraq deployment means that MAG is stepping up its IED dog training and even going to the next level – finessing the programme so that dogs can also be used to help clear booby-trapped homes.

Clearing Iraq of unexploded mines is a task that will take many more years, but at least now the land is being freed from the lingering grip of Isis at a faster pace than before thanks to Branco, X-Lang and the other dogs of war.

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