Zari was seven years old when her parents died, forcing her to move in with her uncle. But when he died four years later, his two widows beat Zari and forced her to work long hours weaving carpets. During her teenage years, Zari tried to kill herself.
After her suicide attempt, Zari, now 28, moved into a shelter for abused women. For the past eight years she has held on to the belief that things would get better. She made friends and learned to sew clothes, eventually teaching others to do the same.
But with the Taliban now in control of Afghanistan, she risks losing everything all over again.
Shortly after the hardline group swept to power in mid-August, ending the American-led war, the small shelter sent several of its residents home. Zari and four other women who also have no family are the only ones remaining.
Overnight, the unmarked building tucked away in the Afghan capital went from her sanctuary to a place of danger. “The (staff) curse us, they tell us, ‘Your life is in your own hands. You can go anywhere you want.’ I am scared. I don’t know where to go,” said Zari, who spoke to the Guardian on the condition that we didn’t use her real name.
The shelter is one of nearly 30 such facilities in Afghanistan. Built up over the past 20 years, they operated as a discreet and often hidden part of the international community’s commitment to advancing the rights of Afghan women. Most of the women’s cases were resolved within months, but some spent years at the shelter, learning new skills so they could reintegrate into society.
Over the past six weeks, this crucial lifeline has all but disappeared. Most of the shelters have closed their doors at the request of the Taliban, meaning women have either been sent home, often back to their abusers, or moved to secret locations. For those still operating, such as Zari’s, the future is uncertain. Of the three shelter directors who spoke to the Guardian, none are taking in new women.
The fate of the shelters symbolises the struggle for gender equality and the capacity to tackle violence against women in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan. The Islamist group has closed the women’s affairs ministry, replacing it with the headquarters for its “morality police”, created an all-male government and banned girls from attending secondary school. Human Rights Watch has documented Taliban abuses against women since they took over, including seeking out high-profile women, compulsory dress codes and denying freedom of movement outside their homes.
Mahbooba Seraj, a veteran women’s rights activist and manager of a shelter for 30 women in Kabul, says the Taliban are still figuring out what to do about women’s refuges. “They’re afraid that women in the shelters will leave, and end up on the streets and enter prostitution, which is very possible,” she says by phone from Kabul. “And they do not want that.”
Two weeks ago, 15 Taliban police officers , including secret police, visited Seraj’s shelter over several days, noting residents’ names and snooping around. The women wore veils so they could not be identified, Seraj said.
Seraj told the Taliban that their visit was exceptional – a man had never crossed her shelter’s threshold before. “They looked at me as if they didn’t believe me. And one policeman asked, ‘Even the Americans?’ I laughed and said, ‘Neither American nor Afghan. Period.’ Why they thought Americans visited is beyond me.”
Now Seraj, the 73-year-old founder of the Afghan Women’s Network, an umbrella rights group, wants to know what the Taliban are planning for abused women. Even before the group seized power, Afghanistan regularly topped the list of countries with the poorest protections for women.
“The problems of the women of Afghanistan are the same as they were before the Taliban came to power. Women are still being abused, still have abusive families and are still drug addicts.” Despite a landmark 2009 law on the elimination of violence against women, more than half of all Afghan women reported physical abuse and of those who were married, 59% were in forced unions, according to government studies.
The past 20 years have proved how invaluable protection services are for Afghan society, said Kevin Schumacher, deputy executive director at Women for Afghan Women, a Washington-based nonprofit that manages the largest network of shelters in the country. “Next time there’s a gross violation of human rights … and the victim happens to be a woman, where is she going to go? Society does not function based on our ideological views. If the Taliban want to run a country, they need to have answers for these very real social needs.”
However, this is not the first time Afghan women have been at risk of losing their safe houses. The previous, American-backed government repeatedly tried to bring the shelters under its control, describing them as corrupt brothels full of drug-addled women. In 2011, the government wanted to subject women entering shelters to medically baseless and humiliating “virginity tests”. International donors who fund the refuges successfully prevented the takeover.
The US state department, which had split funding of the shelters with the UN, estimates that about 2,000 women and girls – mostly in Kabul – have used the shelters each year. A state department spokesperson said it spent $11m (£8m) on the shelters annually.
It is now unclear what funding, if any, the shelters can expect. Afghanistan is bracing for economic collapse and humanitarian disaster, compounded by the worst drought in decades. During the Nato-led war, foreign aid propped up the Afghan economy, and its fate will now depend on whether or not the Taliban can garner support from its former enemies. Despite the Taliban’s plea to the UN last week for legitimacy, no country has recognised its government.
Earlier this month the UN managed to secure $1.2bn in emergency support for Afghanistan, but there is no guarantee these funds will be gender-sensitive. A 2019 report by the International Rescue Committee found that only 0.2% of global humanitarian funding from 2016–18 addressed gender-based violence.
“As donors look to try to stem the humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan they should remember to put some of that effort specifically toward helping women,” said Heather Barr, associate director of the women’s rights division at Human Rights Watch. “As the Taliban have cut off so many women’s ability to earn a living, it is also urgently important to save, as much as possible, protection services for women and girls facing violence.”
When a Kabul-based shelter that once housed 80 women closed during the Taliban takeover, its cook lost her income as well as a way to provide for her extended family. “My mother and I were the breadwinners but now we both sit at home, not knowing how we will survive,” says the 30-year-old, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Since last year she cooked, twice a day, receiving £190 a month and independence from her abusive husband, who was a crystal meth addict. Her mother, who was the cook at another shelter funded by the same western NGO, also lost her job.
“Now that I am locked up in my house, I suffer a lot, mentally and financially,” the daughter says. She fears for her own two daughters, who were meant to enter secondary school next year. “As an illiterate Afghan woman, I was working to help my two daughters go to school but now they can’t even get an education.”
Coronavirus BA.4 and BA.5: New virus, new Covid-19 wave | Opinion
Anyone wishing to know what the future of the Covid-19 pandemic looks like would do well to watch South Africa. It’s not because several forms of SARS-CoV-2 first emerged there and later spread across the planet – that, too – but because of the quality of its epidemiological research, conducted by scientists who put raw reality ahead of diplomatic discretion. Thanks to them, we’ve just learned that Covid waves are tied to the emergence of new variants with a greater ability to infect and to escape our immune systems. This strongly indicates that the evolution of the virus is much like an arms race between SARS-CoV-2 and our own antibodies, in what amounts to a classic mechanism of evolution. The crab’s shell becomes thicker to avoid being eaten by a lobster, and the lobster’s claws get bigger so it will keep catching as much food as before. Inside the body of a patient who has survived Covid, antibodies become increasingly efficient while the virus becomes ever more slippery. It’s the laws of nature.
The initial waves of 2020 were caused by the original Wuhan strain and a few others derived from it. The wave of winter 2020-2021 is linked to the beta strain, which was later replaced with the delta variant in the 2021 waves. In late 2021, when things seemed to be quieting down, we had the omicron strain, which came in two flavors or subvariants: BA.1 and BA.2. And now we have BA.4 and BA.5. Each new iteration spreads more than its predecessor and does a better job at eluding human antibodies. As expected, BA.4 and BA.5, the latest designs of viral evolution, are exceptionally good at bypassing our immune system. And they are starting to gain traction in South Africa and parts of Europe. Everything seems to indicate that we will see a new wave, this time caused by SARS-CoV-2 omicron BA.4 and BA.5.
But let’s remain calm: there is no indication that these two subvariants are going to cause a rise in serious Covid cases and hospital admissions. The population’s immunity, either through vaccination or previous infection, can accomplish very little to prevent contagion, but it does protect the infected individuals from developing serious Covid. Some scientists say, half-jokingly, that a single omicron wave could be viewed as a natural vaccination campaign. Of course, people with low defenses – those who are immunocompromised – would do well to protect themselves from infection. It is hard to predict what the virus could do to them, and not even vaccines can guarantee them the same degree of protection as the general population.
Virologists have made a family tree of SARS-CoV-2 and its variants. It shows that neither alfa nor beta nor gamma nor omicron are children of delta, but come from other strains that emerged at the same time as delta. This eliminates the mystical aura around omicron: it did not fall out of the sky six months ago, but simply revealed itself later than other variants. All this knowledge is helping identify which specific mutations are behind the high infection rate and ability to escape immunity. The data has not yet been peer-reviewed.
Alone under siege: how older women are being left behind in Ukraine | Global development
Halyna Vasylivna lives alone in a tiny “Khrushchevka” flat. At 94, she has outlived her sons and her husband, and her grandchildren live outside the city.
Her apartment, named after the Soviet leader under whom the five-storey buildings in Kyiv’s Podil district were built, is too far from the bunker so she hides in her pantry during airstrikes.
Vasylivna is grateful for her social worker Olya’s visits a few times a week. She wishes she did not live alone. “It’s important to have someone who can listen to you,” she says.
Vasylivna is one of 2 million older women in Ukraine who have remained largely invisible to authorities. Most of Ukraine’s elderly people are women – they make up two-thirds of those aged over 65 and 71% of those aged above 75 – partly because Ukraine has the sixth highest proportion of women in the world.
These women are reliant on tiny state pensions (Vasylivna’s is about £130 a month), and require support from social services, charities and international institutions. They have become the group most likely to be alone, whether through mobility issues, bereavement or a reluctance to leave familiar surroundings. The lucky few get help; many do not. Ukraine’s health and social care system was already under pressure before Russia invaded in February.
Despite progress through reforms, including decentralisation that allowed regional institutions to allocate budgets locally, an overstretched and underfunded health system is again in crisis. Ukraine’s expenditure on healthcare has declined from 7.8% of GDP in 2015 to 7.1% in 2019 (the last available data). The world average was 9.8% in 2019. Now the country is experiencing a humanitarian crisis, with dozens of accounts of rape and murder of Ukrainian elderly women – the biggest group left behind, of those allowed to leave, and least able to escape.
In Kyiv’s Holosiyevo district, there are 786 elderly people – 80% of them women like Vasylivna – alone, unable to leave their homes, and without relatives to care for them. Since Russia attacked, the number of social workers in the local centre has collapsed by more than 75%. Those women who remain are mostly elderly themselves, and now have four times as many clients to look after. They work five days a week, earning about £170 a month to supplement their small state pensions. “We need to support both our elderly clients and ourselves,” says 65-year-old social worker Nataliya Bodnar.
Social centre manager, Oksana Ruban, says they have faced multiple challenges. “Public transport was closed, the curfew lasted sometimes up to several days, shops closed, too. We had to make sure all of our clients were taken care of by someone – if not relatives or us, at least by neighbours or volunteers. We all worked relentlessly.”
The situation for older people is particularly acute in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions where a survey of more than 1,500 over-60s conducted in March revealed the scale of the problem: 99% do not want to leave their homes; 91% need help to get food; 91% are also experiencing extreme cold, with no heating due to electricity cuts; 75% need basic hygiene items; and 34% need urgent medication for chronic illness. These needs are exacerbated by a shortage of vital medicines and Russia destroying healthcare facilities.
“I wonder why some young people evacuate their cats and hamsters, but leave their parents behind,” says Roman Vodyanyk, head doctor at Severodonetsk hospital in Luhansk, the only functioning hospital left in the city. With no water, gas or electricity in Severodonetsk, Vodyanyk has turned the hospital, which has more than 50 patients, into a humanitarian hub, providing hot food, wifi and medical support. About 220 patients have left in the past month, but many elderly people have no desire to evacuate, with nowhere to go and no one to care for them.
“How do you evacuate a hospital in this situation? How do you leave them all behind?” asks Vodyanyk. So despite the shelling and along with local authorities, NGOs and volunteers, he is not leaving either.
Elderly people are often the forgotten category in any humanitarian crisis – an analysis of Google news search keywords between 24 February and 22 April found that 97% of all Ukraine-headlined articles that mentioned either children or the elderly were focused on children. Only 3% mentioned elderly people, of which only three touched on elderly women. Despite there being more than 50% more retirees in Ukraine than children under 15, the 390 UK NGOs operating in Ukraine are nearly twice as likely to be helping children than elderly people,
According to Justin Derbyshire, CEO of HelpAge International, the problem is global: elderly patients’ specific needs are neglected by governments and international bodies during and after wars. “This is systemic ageism and an example of how bad the global system is at responding to older people’s needs.”
Elderly people, such as Vasylivna and Bodnar, are at the centre of the crisis in Ukraine, as victims and rescuers. After a lifetime of looking after others, they are now vulnerable, not only to loneliness and hunger, but also to rape and murder.
“I’ve seen everything – the Holodomor [great famine of 1932-33], the second world war, so many horrors. What else could scare me?” says Vasylivna. She never imagined Russia would invade. It is her inability to take care of herself that scares her now. She feels trapped. “I would evacuate if I could take care of myself. I was working my whole life. It’s such a shame I can’t do anything any more.”
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The Ukraine war in maps: Ukrainian forces battle to recover Snake Island | International
May 13 | The battle for Snake Island
The all-out attack that Russian troops deployed at the beginning of the offensive in Ukraine did not leave out maritime control of the Black Sea: the Kremlin’s naval force soon took up positions the island of Zmiinyi, also known as Snake Island and located around 140 kilometers (87 miles) south of Odessa and 40km (25 miles) from the Romanian coast. The first map of the conflict published by the Institute for the Study of War (ISW) on February 25 showed it under Russian control even then. In a statement in February, the Ukrainian Navy said that the invaders had destroyed infrastructure on this island of one square kilometer. A comparison of satellite images captured before the invasion and in recent days shows that the destruction of the main building occurred between May 6 and 7.
August 23, 2016
May 6, 2022
Areas burnt by earlier attacks
May 7, 2022
May 8, 2022
Area of attack
(shown in video)
British intelligence warned last Tuesday that if Russian troops consolidate their position on the island, deploying air defense cruise missiles, they could control the northwest portion of the Black Sea. The permanent Russian settlement on Snake Islands entails sea, land and air control of that entire area, military strategy expert Oleh Zhdanov told the BBC.
The strategic importance of the islet, which grants control over maritime traffic in the port of Odes, is enough to justify the ongoing struggle for it. The Russian Defense Ministry has claimed that it destroyed several planes, helicopters, drones and a landing craft in the early hours of Sunday morning during a Ukrainian attempt to recapture the island. Ukraine claimed that it only attacked Russian troops deployed there. British intelligence stated that Ukraine has used drones to destroy Russian anti-aircraft defenses and supply ships, stranded after the invaders retreated to the Crimean coast following the sinking of the Moskva, the flagship of Russia’s Black Sea fleet.
The sensors of the European Space Agency’s Sentinel-2 satellites have made it possible to observe hot spots on the island which, in the context of war, can be associated with attacks. These indications of attacks have been recurrent since last February, and particularly intense during the last weekend, coinciding with a video of an attack on the island.
The proximity of Zmiinyi to NATO coasts has not prevented it from becoming a battlefield in the conflict. Armand Gosu, a professor of Russian Political History at the University of Bucharest, explained to Efe news agency that Moscow categorically dominates the Black Sea: “There is a huge military imbalance. Its ships patrol international waters without restriction, which has allowed the Russians to block a maritime outlet from Odessa,” he said. This blockade stifles Ukrainian sea exports that are essential to defend the coastal town from a hypothetical Russian siege like the one suffered by Mariupol.
March 8 A heat source can be seen in the northeast of the island, probably as a result of an attack, as well as a plume of smoke. The area inside the box contains most of the facilities.
March 23 Two weeks later, the Sentinel 2 satellite captured a new hot spot in a nearby area.
May 7 Once again a heat source can be seen, coinciding with a great column of smoke detected by satellites and shown earlier.
May 9 The last available image shows no hot spots, but the island’s vegetation has been largely burnt down as a result of the confrontation.
May 10 | Russian progress
In the two and a half months since the start of the Ukraine invasion, the Russian offensive has changed strategies: at first it sought to take control of the major cities, then focused its efforts on the separatist region of Donbas and on securing the borders. Since then, the frontline has moved in line with modest but systematic Russian advances that have only met with resistance at a spot that’s been highly militarized since 2014, when Russia annexed the Crimea peninsula. The change in the frontline can be seen in the following maps, which show the situation on the ground every two weeks since Russia changed its strategy on March 25. The red color shows areas under Russian control, which have been expanding for the last month and a half.
Donbas is an area covering around 52,000 square kilometers, roughly the size of Costa Rica. It is divided into two oblast (administrative units) – Donetsk and Luhansk. Along the northwest, it borders the Kharkiv region, home to the city of Izyum, which is the starting point for Russia’s attempt to encircle Ukrainian defenders holding the frontline. From there, Russian troops have been trying to advance towards Sloviansk and Kramatorsk, the military headquarters and de facto capital of Donetsk, although they have had limited success.
When the Kremlin’s troops announced that their target was eastern Ukraine, they were already controlling much of Donetsk, Luhansk and the area extending to Kharkiv.
Two weeks later, the situation on the front had barely changed after a reorganization of the invading troops except in the area of Izyum, the new Russian center of operations.
The siege of Mariupol, which made Ukrainian defenders retreat to an industrial site, allowed Russia to free up troops to cement control over the northern end of the city.
Despite Ukrainian counterattacks that are gaining back territory near Kharkiv, the areas under Russian control increasingly encircle the Donbas border
The Institute for the Study of War (ISW) believes that the Kremlin’s forces near Izyum are regrouping and resupplying before resuming offensive operations in the southeast and southwest.
In the south of the country, near Crimea and the Black Sea, there is a similar situation: slow but constant Russian advances and reinforced positions in places like Kherson, which was swiftly captured in the early days of the invasion. Ukrainian counterattacks have barely made a dent on Russian forces, who have increased the territory under their control week after week. Moscow has been concentrating anti-aircraft and missile systems in the northern area of Crimea, said the ISW. This could be a prelude to resume offensive operations towards Zaporizhzhia and Kryvyi Rih, in central Ukraine.
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