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Syria’s descent into a narco state

“MuiTypography-root-134 MuiTypography-h1-139″>Syria's descent into a narco state

The World's Carol Hills spoke with Natasha Hall, a senior fellow with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, about Syria's drug trade and the country's descent into a narco state status. 

The WorldJune 24, 2022 · 3:45 PM EDT

Syrian authorities display Captagon pills, in rural Damascus, Syria, which they say they’ve seized while being smuggled in pasta, headed for Saudi Arabia, Nov. 30, 2021.

Syrian official news agency SANA via AP/File photo

Syria's government is enriching itself in the drug trade, according to a new investigation by the German newspaper Der Spiegel.

The report found that senior members of the Syrian government are at the center of the illegal drug trade of the smuggled drug known as Captagon. A picture is now emerging of Syria descending into a narco state.

The World's Carol Hills spoke with Natasha Hall, a senior fellow with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, about Syria's drug trade and the country's descent into a narco state status. 

Related: Syria is at the center of a booming trade in a little pill that's cheap, easy to produce and completely illegal

Carol Hills: The term narco state conjures up a lot of images. Why does it apply to Syria at this point?Natasha Hall: Well, I think that Syria has actually been a narco state for quite some time, but it's sort of risen to the media stature at this point as the drug trade increases. Small factories began emerging in 2013 and were likely connected to Hezbollah, which is a main ally of the Assad government. But as the plundering and seizures of assets that the regime has undertaken, as it's taken more territory in Syria, has somewhat dried up, this new revenue stream began to emerge and now what we're seeing is sort of industrial production-level capacity of this drug called Captagon.Captagon is the drug in question. What is it?So, it has a bit of a storied history. It was developed in 1960 by a German pharmaceutical company for the treatment of attention deficit disorders. But by the '80s, it was banned because of its side effects. But it continued to thrive on the black market, particularly from Bulgaria. It no longer uses the original ingredient, which was fenethylline, which is harder to come by. It's now primarily using pseudoephedrine.And is it a stimulant, a depressant? What are its addictive qualities? I mean, why do people take it?So, it's essentially a low-grade amphetamine. It could potentially become more dangerous, since obviously, it's not a standardized recipe, and we've seen that in the United States as low-grade-type amphetamines have become more dangerous and addictive over time.So, what is the evidence that the family of Bashar al-Assad is involved in the illegal Captagon business?So, that's what's so interesting about these new investigations in Germany because previously, there had been quite a bit of evidence beginning to mount that the Assad regime was at the center of this renewed and more robust drug trade. But it was very difficult to link these huge shipments that we were seeing in Salerno, in Italy, in the Gulf and other places with the actual point of delivery. And in this case, the case in Essen, Germany, could now change that.Briefly describe the case in Essen. What happened?Essentially, what was found is that one particular individual had long had ties to ports in Latakia, which is also a stronghold of the regime, in exporting the drug from there. But essentially, the investigators had been tapping into his phone lines and also tracking the trade for many years now, actually, before they were actually able to arrest him upon his arrival in Germany and tie him to a trade of nearly 130 million euros [$137 million], street value in Captagon.What does this mean for the future of Syria's economy? I mean, is this kind of it?I think it's difficult to determine now, but certainly that's what policymakers need to be looking into. What are the long-term development plans of this industry? You have Lebanon on one side and Iraq on the other, which have militias that are all tied to the Assad government, as well as Iran and global drug trade network. So, this is kind of the perfect storm for a global drug trade to emerge. And within that, you have a country that has been ravaged by war, didn't make more than probably $860 million in legal exports just a couple of years ago. And that compares to billions that it's been making from the Captagon trade.

This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

Roe v. Wade overturned: Will more Americans travel to Canada and Mexico for abortions?

“MuiTypography-root-134 MuiTypography-h1-139″>Roe v. Wade overturned: Will more Americans travel to Canada and Mexico for abortions?

After the ruling by the US Supreme Court to overturn Roe v. Wade, will more Americans travel for abortions? Inequalities created by this controversial decision will be revealed at border points.

The ConversationJune 24, 2022 · 2:45 PM EDT

Anti-abortion demonstrators outside the US Supreme Court on the day the court overturned the landmark Roe v. Wade abortion laws. 

Jacquelyn Martin/AP

The United States Supreme Court has overturned Roe v. Wade, the landmark 1973 decision that guaranteed federal constitutional protections of abortion rights for Americans.

For the countries that share a border with the United States, what will be the impact for Americans who want to travel to Mexico or Canada to get access to abortions?

First, people will still need abortions and will seek them out. Abortion is a component of health care for people, along with other reproductive matters.

Second, abortion is a right, even if contested, and should be available without shame or risk.

Third, the ways in which Americans seek out abortion will be stratified, meaning achieved in different ways and according to a number of factors related to inequality. This will determine who crosses state or international borders to seek out abortions if unavailable in their own states.

This is the immediate and main outcome of the overturning of Roe v. Wade: a situation in which abortion is legal and accessible in some states and illegal and possibly criminalized in others.

People will still seek abortions

Nonetheless, people will continue to require abortion regardless of what state they live in. Evidence shows that abortion bans don’t stop the procedure, they just alter how people acquire them. They force people to find providers in other jurisdictions, to rely on medical abortion through internet sources — meaning that they’ll purchase online the medication that can induce abortion and administer it themselves — or to seek out clandestine or illegal and unsafe procedures.

It’s worth emphasizing that all sorts of pregnant people need and want abortions: young and old; poor and affluent; Black, Indigenous, racialized, white, people who are cisgender, transgender or nonbinary; nonreligious and religious; abortion-rights advocates and anti-abortion activists. Gloria Steinem’s research even revealed that anti-abortion activists who picket outside abortion clinics sometimes get abortions in the same clinics they are protesting.

With the overturn of Roe v. Wade, and with access already seriously curtailed in many states, people have started to look to other jurisdictions for abortions.

Colorado, for example, reports a 1,000-per-cent increase in demand for abortion since the Texas abortion ban came into effect in September 2021. The law makes it almost impossible for people to access abortion in Texas.

By way of contrast, Colorado has guaranteed the right to abortion and made the state a safe haven for people throughout the US.

Abortion-rights demonstrators protest outside the US Supreme Court in Washington after the court issued a ruling that ended constitutional protections for abortion that had been in place nearly 50 years. 

Credit:

Steve Helber/AP

State bans expected

In a post-Roe v. Wade political landscape, approximately half of American states are expected to ban or severely restrict abortion.

This means people could travel to the remaining 25 or so states for abortions. But this isn’t so easy. Some states have already threatened surveillance and travel restrictions for the purpose of getting an abortion, and travel is expensive and invasive. Not all people will be able to pick up and leave for another state.

For people on the southern US border, Mexico will be a preferred option because they already cross the border regularly for medical and dental services or other kinds of exchanges and purchases.

Access to medical abortions is easy and cheap in Mexico, although there are reasons to be concerned about information and oversight. A medical abortion requires two drugs, mifepristone and misoprostol. The first can be purchased in a pharmacy in Mexico; the second requires a prescription from a doctor.

There is concern that people will only acquire the first medication and forgo the second, and will not receive proper care for the entire procedure.

Slipping across the border into Mexico is familiar, anonymous, inexpensive, quick and carries with it no surveillance or judgment. This is a good option for many people, especially those who are poor, racialized and/or particularly vulnerable to state surveillance. But the removal of constitutional protections for abortion will create a stratified reproductive rights regime, in which people will be forced to make choices based on their social positions.

Travel across state borders might be easiest for the most privileged people who are the least concerned about state surveillance and control; these are people who are not poor, racialized, vulnerable or under threat.

Demonstrators hold coat hangers in the air as they protest outside of the US Supreme Court in May 2022. 

Credit:

(AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

Travelling to Canada for abortions

Travel to Canada requires a passport, planning, time, money and medical management of the procedure. There are also relatively few abortion clinics in Canada, and there are concerns that they’re already at capacity and demand would soon outpace the ability to provide services.

Some of the states that would likely outlaw abortion — Michigan, North Dakota and Idaho among them — border rural parts of the provinces of Ontario, Manitoba, Saskatchewan and British Columbia.

This means demand might increase in the areas that are already struggling to provide abortion in underserviced and overstretched areas. And Americans who will pay out of pocket for abortions might increase wait times and further restrict access for rural, northern and Indigenous people.

The March for Life event on Parliament Hill in Ottawa last May, organized by those opposed to abortion, also attracted abortion-rights protesters. 

Credit:

THE CANADIAN PRESS/ Patrick Doyle

Justin Trudeau’s government has welcomed Americans to Canada and ensured that Canadian Border Services will permit entry, but there are still a lot of important details to sort through.

Would people have to declare their intention to have an abortion or could they state that they were going to visit a reproductive health clinic? What level of deeply sensitive personal information needs to be revealed to the border services agent?

Who will come to Canada — which pregnant people — and why is a matter of speculation at this point. But we can be certain there will be an increase in demand from across the border, that it will put pressure on the Canadian system, that the drug combination used in medical abortions will be increasingly scarce or hard to access and that stratified reproduction rights will be revealed and replicated.

The Trudeau government has been impressive regarding its rhetorical commitments to feminist foreign policy, gender equality and sexual and reproductive rights at home and abroad, but has often failed to achieve gender justice.

With the reversal of Roe v. Wade, let’s hope Canada is ready to honor its commitments to reproductive health and rights for people on both sides of the border.

Candace Johnson is a professor of political science at the University of Guelph. This article is republished from The Conversation, a nonprofit, independent news organization dedicated to unlocking the knowledge of experts for the public good. 

Mexico’s abortion laws have become more accessible

“MuiTypography-root-134 MuiTypography-h1-139″>Mexico's abortion laws have become more accessible

Mexico has slowly made reproductive health services more accessible over the last 20 years.

The WorldMay 24, 2022 · 1:30 PM EDT

A woman holds a banner reading in Spanish, "Legal, safe, and free abortion" as abortion rights protesters demonstrate in front of the National Congress on the "Day for Decriminalization of Abortion in Latin America and the Caribbean," in Mexico City, Sept. 28, 2020. A delegation of US state legislators toured several Mexican cities during the third week of May 2022 to learn about the work of abortion rights activists and politicians when access to voluntary interruption of pregnancy.

Rebecca Blackwell/AP

Mexico has slowly made reproductive health services more accessible over the last 20 years, largely because of changing political winds and women’s movements pushing for abortion access. The World’s Latin America correspondent Jorge Valencia reports. 

Abortion ruling exposes deep chasm over the issue in the US

“MuiTypography-root-229 MuiTypography-h1-234″>Abortion ruling exposes deep chasm over the issue in the USAssociated PressJune 24, 2022 · 1:00 PM EDT

The Supreme Court in Washington, June 24, 2022.

Steve Helber/AP

The US was convulsed with anger, joy, fear and confusion on Friday after the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade.

The canyon-like divide across the country over the right to terminate a pregnancy was on full display, with abortion rights supporters condemning the decision as a dark day in history, while abortion foes rejoiced and said it will save countless lives.

In eliminating the constitutional right to abortion that has stood for a half-century, the high court left the politically charged issue up to the states, about half of which are now likely to ban the procedure.

Hundreds of people surrounded the barricaded Supreme Court in Washington, some questioning the high court's legitimacy, while others cheered the ruling and proclaimed the dawn of a “post-Roe” world.

Many young people in the crowd wore red shirts that read “The Pro-Life Generation Votes," while chanting, “Pro life is pro woman!”

Others involved in the decades-long fight for women's rights felt an acute setback to the movement but remained hopeful it might prove temporary.

“It’s not unexpected, but I’m absolutely furious that we are seeing … the major backlash of white male supremacy. And that's what this is about. It's about controlling women's reproductive lives,” said Carol E. Tracy, the executive director of the Women's Law Project in Philadelphia.

“They want women to be barefoot and pregnant once again. But I have no doubt that women and like-minded men, and people in the LGBTQ community, who are also at great risk, … we're going to fight back. I think it's going to be a long, hard fight.”

Garrett Bess, who works with a lobbying arm of the conservative Heritage Foundation, watched the scene unfold at the Supreme Court and said his group will continue to press states to restrict abortion.

“We’ll be working with grassroots Americans to ensure the protection of pregnant mothers and babies,” Bess said. “This has been a long time coming, and it’s a welcome decision.”

Opinion polls show that a majority of Americans favor preserving Roe.

The reaction in statehouses across the country was swift. In Indiana, Republican Gov. Eric Holcomb announced plans to add abortion restrictions to the agenda of a special legislative session early next month meant to address inflation.

“The Supreme Court’s decision is clear, and it is now up to the states to address this important issue,” Holcomb said. “We’ll do that in short order in Indiana.”

Medical student LaShyra Nolen, the first Black woman to become class president of Harvard Medical School, feared the effect of abortion bans on minority and poor women, among others.

“In the past month, we’ve seen that this country is not prepared to make sure that babies have access to formula, to be fed everyday. We’ve seen that our children are not safe at our schools, because of a lack of gun control. We also continue to see devastating statistics that Black women are more likely to die in childbirth compared to white women,” Nolen said.

“So when you have these harrowing disparities that exist in our country, and you force someone to give birth," she said, “I think it's going to lead to really dangerous measures and really dangerous conclusions.”

‘We’re just breaking even’: Small businesses in Ukraine reopening in uncertain climate

“MuiTypography-root-134 MuiTypography-h1-139″>‘We’re just breaking even’: Small businesses in Ukraine reopening in uncertain climate

​​​​​​​Nearly half of the country’s small businesses closed when the war began. Now, many Ukrainians are returning home, and businesses are reopening. But they’re faced with serious financial challenges, among other concerns.

The WorldJune 23, 2022 · 4:00 PM EDT

Illona Kocharyan and her husband shuttered Finik Family, their boutique dry goods store in Kyiv, Ukraine, when war broke out. They reopened it on May 30.
 

Ashley Westerman/The World

Illona Kocharyan and her husband shuttered their boutique dry goods store in Kyiv, Ukraine, when the war broke out.

Her family waited out the war in Austria for two months before returning home in mid-May and reopening the store on May 30.

“We wanted to come home and open the shop and continue our work,” she said. “It’s difficult, yes, but we have to work and we will work every day.”

The Finik Family store in Kyiv, Ukraine, carries goods that hail from Ukraine, Armenia, the Middle East and even from as far as Hawaii.

Credit:

Ashley Westerman/The World

Nearly half of the country’s small businesses closed when the war began. Now, many Ukrainians like Kocharyan are returning home, and reopening their businesses. But with the future unclear, they face some serious challenges.

Some 4.5 million Ukrainians displaced by the war have returned home, according to the International Organization on Migration.

“Some of them have exhausted all of their resources,” IOM communications officer Varvara Zhluktenko said. “Also, if the security situation is much better, it also facilitates return.”

However, over 60% of returnees are without income since the war began and more than a third of the returnees say that they feel unsafe, according to IOM.

This uncertainty is acutely felt by the small business community, which depends on stability and spending customers, said Oksana Myronko, a spokeswoman for the European Business Association, a Kyiv-based nonprofit organization.

“The best thing that could happen for small businesses in Ukraine is for the war to end,” Myronko said.

Small businesses under threat

Ukraine’s once-vibrant small business environment has been decimated by the war. In March, 42% of the country’s small businesses had closed, according to the European Business Association.

By May, about a quarter were able to reopen, but the instability makes it hard to predict their long-term success.

“It’s really hard to predict something when you don’t understand what will be next in the country, and where the rocket will be next,” Myronko said.

And with no end to the war in sight, the financial sustainability of many of these businesses is deteriorating.

Credit:

Courtesy of the European Business Association

According to EBA findings, only about 34% of all small businesses have reported that their financial resources will be enough for several months, Myronkos said. Financial confidence was 7% higher before the war began.

Few businesses have enough money to stay open for at least a year.  

‘We’re just breaking even’ 

Finik Family is located on a leafy street near the city center in Kyiv. The inside is lined wall-to-wall with neatly designed packages of pears, figs, peaches and their signature stuffed dates. They also sell coffee and other beverages.

The store’s goods hail from Ukraine, Armenia, the Middle East and even from as far as Hawaii, Kocharyan said.

Illona Kocharyan said that after several months, she was eager to reopen her dry goods store in Kyiv, Ukraine.

Credit:

Ashley Westerman/The World

Business these days isn’t bad, but it isn’t good, either, Kocharyan said.

“We’re just breaking even,” she said, noting that they’re making five times less in in-store sales than before the war, and 10 times less in online orders.

It’s enough to sustain for now, but not enough to expand, she said.

There have also been supply issues, she said, particularly with vendors in the eastern part of Ukraine, closer to the front lines. And in some cases, she said, they’ve had to lower prices.

Related: Global arms industry getting shake-up by war in Ukraine — and China and US look like winners from Russia’s stumbles

Finik Family is located on a leafy street near the city center in Kyiv, Ukraine. The inside is lined wall-to-wall with neatly designed packages of pears, figs, peaches and their signature stuffed dates. They also sell coffee and other beverages.

Credit:

Ashley Westerman/The World 

But Kocharyan said that they’re committed to keeping the place going, and she doesn’t want to leave Kyiv again.

“I think that all will be good; all will be good. But not in one year or two years — it will be good in several years. Ukraine is a good country,” she said.

MBS visits Ankara as Turkey attempts to repair relations with its regional rivals

“MuiTypography-root-134 MuiTypography-h1-139″>MBS visits Ankara as Turkey attempts to repair relations with its regional rivals

Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman met with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan for talks in Ankara. The visit comes as Turkey seeks to repair ties with its regional rivals. Steven A. Cook at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington spoke with The World's host Carol Hills about the significance of the visit.

The WorldJune 23, 2022 · 3:30 PM EDT

Turkish President Recep Tayyip  Erdoğan and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman review a military honor guard during a welcome ceremony, in Ankara, Turkey, June 22, 2022.

Burhan Ozbilici/AP

Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman arrived in Turkey for talks President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan on Wednesday. The visit is an attempt to normalize relations between the two countries.

Ankara and Riyadh fell out after the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018 by agents of the Saudi government at the kingdom's consulate in Istanbul. The two countries were also on opposing sides during the Qatar diplomatic crisis that began in 2017.

Related: Uyghurs in Saudi Arabia risk deportation to China

The visit by Crown Prince Mohammed also comes as Turkey seeks to improve ties with a number of its regional rivals — including Israel, Iran, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt. Turkey has been struggling to contain its economic crisis and falling currency. Meanwhile, Erdoğan hopes to bring more stability to the country ahead of presidential elections next year.

Related: US sales of missiles to Saudis signal business as usual — almost

To discuss the rapprochement, Steven A. Cook, who follows the Turkey-Saudi relationship and is a senior fellow with the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington, spoke with The World's host Carol Hills.

Carol Hills: Steven, this isn't the first visit between MBS, the crown prince, and Turkey's president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. They visited in Saudi Arabia in April. Do you think this is the more significant of the two visits?Steven A. Cook: Well, it certainly is a more elaborate visit. President Erdoğan is hosting a state banquet for the Saudi crown prince. And I think the Turks are kind of pulling out the stops in order to court the crown prince. Of course, it's an extraordinary turnaround since President Erdoğan led the international effort to heap criticism on Mohammed bin Salman after the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.It certainly is. What does Turkey get out of fully normalizing relations with Saudi Arabia?The Turkish economy is in pretty bad shape and President Erdoğan has been forced to make a number of foreign policy U-turns, particularly with countries in the Persian Gulf, seeking finance and investment from those countries, hoping that this will spur Turkish economic growth, help refloat the Turkish lira ahead of presidential elections coming just about a year from now.So, what specifically does Turkey want from Saudi Arabia?Well, they certainly want whatever investment and whatever selling off of state assets the Turks are willing to do. But most importantly, they're interested in a currency swap. This is something that the Turks have been going around the world, seeking to swap their currency, which has lost more than half of its value over the course of the last couple of years, for deposits in the Saudi currency. The Turks have a currency swap agreement with the United Arab Emirates, with China, with Qatar, and it would be beneficial to them if they could enter into such an agreement with the Saudis. It also would signal to international markets a certain amount of confidence in the Turkish economy and President Erdoğan's stewardship of the Turkish economy.So, does this visit by MBS to Turkey, does it basically say that the Khashoggi affair is now water under the bridge?Even before President Erdoğan went to Saudi Arabia, the issue of Jamal Khashoggi's brutal murder in Istanbul became water under the bridge when the Turkish authorities transferred the case against those suspected of killing Khashoggi to Saudi authorities, essentially burying it and ensuring that those responsible won't really be held responsible.And so, that's that. Are there any international repercussions for sweeping the Khashoggi case under the rug at this point?There don't seem to be any international repercussions. After all, President Biden is going to visit Saudi Arabia in mid-July and he'll also meet with the Saudi crown prince. So, essentially the memory of Jamal Khashoggi and the memory of his brutal murder will be kept alive by human rights activists, his friends and others. But there's likely to be very little geopolitical accountability for the crown prince.MBS has been on a tour of the region in the last week. He's been to Egypt, Jordan and now Turkey. As you mentioned, he's also set to receive a visit from President Biden. Do you think this signals the end of his pariah status?Undoubtedly, that's the case. But he was never a pariah in the Arab world. Saudi Arabia is an important player, and as the heir to the throne and the keeper of the two holy places, Mecca and Medina, he was never a pariah. Even in the United States, its European partners have inched closer and closer to Mohammed bin Salman. Essentially, President Biden is the last holdout, and I think that his visit will absolutely bring an end to this episode where people sought to avoid being seen with the Saudis at the very least, but the rehabilitation of Mohammed bin Salman is well underway.And that rehabilitation is because all these countries that are now kind of cozying up to him need what he has.That's exactly the case. In the case of the United States, the president is doing everything he can to mitigate the pain that Americans are feeling at the gas pump right now. And Saudi Arabia is really the only country with the spare capacity who can produce oil cheaply enough to moderate prices in the relative short term.A lot of the major players in the region, like Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Israel, Egypt, they seem to be resolving their issues at the moment in an effort to move things forward. What is happening here?Yeah, it's been rather extraordinary. In the Middle East, a year or so ago, people were wondering where the next war would come from and which conflict would produce the next actual shooting war. But countries have determined that they have been unable to impose their will on each other through proxy fights and trying to outmaneuver each other in Libya or Syria or Iraq, other places where there is actual fighting, and have determined that the best way to go about — actually the regional competition is to reduce those tensions. In the case of Turkey and Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, for example, where there were very significant differences, and actually a war of words among these governments, the Saudis and Emiratis haven't exactly fallen in love with the Turks, but they see Turkish vulnerability in the deterioration of the Turkish economy and have sought to gain some leverage with the Turks that way instead of on the battlefields of Libya or Syria.How should the Biden administration be viewing this meeting between MBS and Erdoğan?Well, I do think that the Biden administration is somewhat relieved that the president is not the only one who is letting bygones be bygones with Mohammed bin Salman. It is something that I think the administration welcomes. They certainly don't want to see lots of tension in the Middle East as the president focuses on the conflict in Ukraine. So, less regional tension in the Middle East is better for the United States. At the level of politics and optics, again, the more people who rehabilitate Mohammed bin Salman before the president arrives in Saudi Arabia is probably better for the White House.

This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.AP contributed to this report.

‘Everything is destroyed’: Extreme flooding in Ghana tests climate resilience

“MuiTypography-root-134 MuiTypography-h1-139″>'Everything is destroyed': Extreme flooding in Ghana tests climate resilience

Accra has been hit with heavy rain and flash flooding in May and June, leaving many experts worried about the city’s capacity for climate resilience if trends continue. 

The WorldJune 22, 2022 · 5:00 PM EDT

Residents of the Accra, Ghana, suburb of Alajo patch up a road after severe flooding destroyed it. 

Ridwan Karim Dini-Osman/The World

Enoch Amoah woke up at about 2:30 a.m. to find almost everything in his room floating. 

Fearing for his life, he waded through floodwaters to a safer spot. 

This was the second such incident in three days for Amoah, who lives in the sprawling suburb of Alajo, just outside of Ghana’s capital, Accra, where heavy rains have created chaos and desperation. 

“This one is very very bad. It is not easy. Everything we have in our rooms is destroyed."

Enoch Amoah experienced extreme flooding in Alajo, a suburb of Accra, Ghana

“This one is very very bad. It is not easy. Everything we have in our rooms is destroyed,” he said.

Accra has been hit with a series of flooding in May and June this year, leaving many experts worried about the city’s capacity for climate resilience if trends continue. 

Alajo is completely flooded, leaving roads shredded and dozens of buildings submerged. In recent days, pedestrians could be seen scrambling for safety under shop awnings or inside buildings and containers. 

Related: ‘Too little too late’: Ghana’s small farmers worry fertilizer aid won’t arrive in time to avert food crisis

An Alajo home is still flooded long after floodwaters have receded. 

Credit:

Ridwan Karim Dini-Osman/The World

Standing barefoot with just a towel tied around his waist, Amoah said he doesn’t know where to go next since he has no relatives in Accra.

“It just came at once. We don’t know where to pass. We did not take anything. All our hard-earned belongings are gone,” he said.

Even though Africa has contributed relatively little to the planet's greenhouse gas emissions, the continent suffers some of the world's heaviest impacts of climate change — from famine to flooding.

Parts of West Africa have been hit with unusually huge amounts of rainfall this year, exposing vulnerabilities in many cities like Accra. 

The Ghana Meteorological Agency has put the entire nation on notice for more rains this month. 

Felicity Ahafianyo, head of meteorology at the Central Analysis and Forecast Office, said that conditions may worsen worse before they improve in southern, flood-prone areas like Alajo.

“We still have to pay attention to the forecasts from the Ghana Meteorological Agency. Per our model charts for the weekend, and the coming week and then up to 28 June, there are still higher chances of rain occurring over most places,” she said.

Flash flooding has shut down parts of Accra as contaminated waterways put people at the risk of diseases such as cholera, typhoid and dysentery. 

A major drain overflows during heavy rains and flooding. 

Credit:

Ridwan Karim Dini-Osman/The World

Disappearing wetlands

The influx of property developers who have built commercial and residential properties over wetlands is one of the root causes of Accra’s worsening floods, according to new research by the Institute for Environmental and Sanitation Studies at the University of Ghana. 

Wetlands function as natural sponges that trap and slowly release rainwater, slowing the speed and distribution of floodwaters over the floodplain.

Professor Christopher Gordon is a founding director of the Institute of Environmental and Sanitation Studies at the University of Ghana.

Credit:

Ridwan Karim Dini-Osman/The World 

“Some of the areas under protection as wetlands of special importance, or the Ramsar Sites, we’ve had encroachment of up to 40% of them,” said the institute’s founding director, professor Christopher Gordon. 

“And we have remote sense imagery which shows the change from vegetated areas to bare and built-up areas. So it is a problem,” he said. 

Related: Accra’s only surviving greenbelt is under threat. Ghanaians are fighting to protect it.

Ghanaian President Nana Akufo-Addo recently directed local authorities to demolish illegal homes built in or near streams and creeks that are impeding the flow of water — but that doesn’t address the problem of wetlands encroachment. 

Wetlands are critical to mitigating floodwaters, yet the United Nations says they are now disappearing three times faster than forests. 

“The worst-case scenario is that practically half of Accra will be unlivable — all will be damaged,” Gordon warned. 

He said that efforts should be made to restore most of the depleted wetlands, but added that it would be a long and expensive undertaking. 

View of a part of the Sakumono lagoon and wetlands in the Greater Accra region, June 8, 2014. 

Credit:

Natborks/Wikimedia Commons

Investing in climate resilience 

Rapid urbanization, inadequate infrastructure and the growth of informal settlements jeopardize those who already live in precarious conditions. 

Alajo resident Isaac Asomani and his family were forced out of their home by the floods and are now stranded.

Sitting in front of a local pharmacy with his wife and three young children, he said that all attempts to catch a ride to a family member have failed. 

“The water has come up to the windowsill,” he said. “The road is also flooded. No car, no bicycle, no motorbike, nothing. You can’t go anywhere,” he said. 

Asomani worries that he may never be able to rebuild their lives.

“I have no option until the government comes in. My years of investment are all gone. I have no option than to throw the things away,” he said.

Some residents patch up a road after being destroyed by floodwaters.

Credit:

Ridwan Karim Dini-Osman/The World

Flood-related catastrophes have increased by 134% since 2000, according to the World Meteorological Organization.

Experts say that African countries need reliable financing options to be able to adapt to the adversities of a changing climate and recommend urgent investments in capacity development as well as new technologies like early warning systems. 

But there’s a gap of $20 billion to reach the $100 billion target for climate finance as pledged by Western countries in the Paris Agreement. 

African climate negotiators at the last climate conference in Glasgow, Scotland, lamented the challenges of making headway on finance.

The $100 billion unfulfilled promise represents only .4% of the total global finance mobilized to tackle COVID-19 pandemic in less than two years. 

Related: Did the world 'build back better' since the start of the pandemic? Not so much.

The UN climate change conference in Egypt this year will give Africa an opportunity to leverage and secure a good deal for the region. But African negotiators are concerned that the Russia-Ukraine conflict has diverted attention from the West’s climate finance obligations. 

Meanwhile, Alajo residents continue to count their losses as more rains are forecasted through the end of June.

“Now, we would have to start life afresh and it won’t be easy at all because the economy is hard. God should just have mercy on us," resident Amoah said.

Spain and Algeria at odds over Western Sahara, energy and migration

“MuiTypography-root-134 MuiTypography-h1-139″>Spain and Algeria at odds over Western Sahara, energy and migration

Last week, Algeria severed trade and diplomatic ties with Spain, and has now threatened to cut off coveted gas sales — which have been protected under a two-decade-old friendship treaty.

The WorldJune 22, 2022 · 1:00 PM EDT

The Krechba gas plant in Algeria's Sahara Desert, about 1,200 kilometers (720 miles) south of the capital, Algiers, Dec. 14, 2008.

Alfred de Montesquiou/AP/File photo

Europe has struck a deal to buy natural gas from Israel to make up for lost Russian imports.

Madrid, no doubt, is happy about the decision, because Spain’s biggest gas provider, Algeria, is threatening to close the taps, or raise prices.

Spain bought more than 40% of its natural gas from Algeria in 2021. So far, Algeria hasn’t followed through on its threats to cut supplies or charge more. But last week, Algeria severed trade and diplomatic ties with Spain, and has now threatened to cut off coveted gas sales — which have been protected under a two-decade-old friendship treaty.

Related: 'Fire flocks’ of sheep and goats get deployed to help battle forest fires in Spain

This comes after Spain upended a long-standing agreement regarding its former colony, Western Sahara, and backed Morocco's claim that the region should have some limited autonomy, while remaining under its rule.

The dispute has brought up conflicts with Alergia around energy prices, the border and migration.

The conflicts are rooted in one of those seemingly intractable geopolitical stalemates. Since the Spanish left Western Sahara in 1975, Morocco and Algeria have been at odds, sometimes violently, over the region’s future. About 80% of the country is controlled by Morocco, and the other 20% by the independence-seeking Polisario Front.

After years of desert fighting between Morocco and Algeria, and Morocco and the Polisario Front, a ceasefire went into effect in 1991. But Morocco still wants the vast region to its south. It says it was once part of a greater Morocco. And Algeria backs the Polisario Front in Western Sahara.

The United Nations, meanwhile, has long said the people of Western Sahara, the Saharawi, should decide their own fate. For nearly half a century, no one has quite known what to do next. So, most countries have essentially done nothing. Until recently.

This past spring, Spain’s Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez told Parliament he was backing Morocco’s plan for autonomy in Western Sahara, under Moroccan rule. In return, Sanchez said, “we’ve protected our territorial claims.” That is, Spanish sovereignty over Ceuta and Melilla.

Ceuta and Melilla are Spanish enclaves in North Africa, surrounded by Morocco — vestiges from the colonial era —and Morocco lays claim to them. They’re also significant because they are among the places from where migrants are constantly trying to cross into Europe.

Professor Rafael Grasa at Barcelona’s Autonomous University said that Spain may have struck this sudden deal to solve that border problem.

“Spain could no longer accept the avalanches of migrants encouraged by Morocco. Or the shocking news reports of people being hurt.”

Rafael Grasa,  Barcelona’s Autonomous University

“Spain could no longer accept the avalanches of migrants encouraged by Morocco,” he said. “Or the shocking news reports of people being hurt.”

Last March, some 1,300 migrants, mostly from sub-Saharan countries, rushed the fences in Ceuta. Hundreds made it over. But many got cut on the barbed-wire or hurt in tussles with police.

“Spain believed this was never going to end, which appears to be why it decided to negotiate,” Grasa said.

Related: Barcelona is one of Europe's loudest cities. It's trying to turn down the volume.

By backing Morocco’s plans for Western Sahara, Spain may have gained some stability at its North African borders. But the deal comes at the expense of its relationship with Algeria, according to Dr. Hisham Hellyer at Cambridge University’s Center for Islamic Studies.

He said that using migrants as leverage to gain concessions from Europe isn’t new.

“So, the Turks have done that and other states in North Africa as well,” he said. “And of course, when it came to the Turks, they got a huge payoff from the EU.”

The European Union has paid Turkey hundreds of millions of dollars to ensure that huge numbers of, particularly Syrian, refugees are taken care of in Turkey.

“So that Europeans wouldn't have to deal with them,” Hellyer said.

“Migrants to Spain come through Morocco, Libya and Algeria,” Grasa said.

In fact, on June 8, on the day that Algeria cut diplomatic ties with Spain, 113 African refugees reached the Spanish island of Mallorca. They’d set sail from Algeria.

Grasa calls the Moroccan deal a diplomatic blunder. Especially when you factor in something in short supply these days: natural gas.

As Europe weans itself off Russian gas, Spain’s buying a lot more gas from the US. But it’s expensive, and fuel prices of all sorts have shot up there.

At a Barcelona gas station, 32-year-old delivery driver Alex Manuel pumps about $55 of gasoline into his truck. It’s just a third of a tank. But he’s short on cash.

“When gas prices go up, so does the price of food, transportation, everything,” he said. “The only thing that hasn’t gone up is my salary.”

But in diplomacy there’s always a Plan B — and C — Hellyer said. And the public may not know what’s going on behind closed doors.

“I would suspect very strongly that the Spaniards wouldn't have taken this step without being very, sort of, open-eyed about what sort of risks and what sort of benefits [there are],” he said.

Hellyer also points out that Spain isn’t alone in backing Morroco’s autonomy plan for Western Sahara. France, Germany, and the Netherlands have given it the nod, as has the US.

Abortion access in China has changed drastically amid declining birth rate

“MuiTypography-root-134 MuiTypography-h1-139″>Abortion access in China has changed drastically amid declining birth rate

For more than 30 years, the Chinese government had restricted most people to having only one child. Illegal and forced abortions were common, and it led to a massive drop in the country’s birth rate. A new policy that started last year allows couples to have up to three children now, but many people aren't interested.

The WorldJune 22, 2022 · 12:30 PM EDT

Anesthesiologist Liu Jianmin prepares for an abortion at a clinic run by Marie Stopes International in Xi'an in central China's Shaanxi province, Dec. 13, 2010.

Ng Han Guan/AP/File photo

Christina Wang, a mother of two, considered having an abortion when she was pregnant with her second child.

It was at a time before China’s one-child policy was reversed, and she risked getting fired from her job if she went through with the pregnancy.

“I was just a mess. For three months, I just couldn’t make a decision,” she said. “I went to the hospital and the doctor asked, ‘Do you want to keep it?’ I kept going back and forth, but finally, I decided to have the baby.”

For more than 30 years, the Chinese government had restricted most people to having only one child. Women had to apply for permission to give birth and prove that they didn’t have any other children. That led to a massive drop in the country’s birth rate.

Illegal and forced abortions were common. But in 2015, that policy changed, and two children were allowed. Then last year, the government loosened the policy even further, which now allows couples to have up to three children.

Related: Shanghai sees exodus as people flee China's lockdown woes

When Wang finally decided to have her second child, she and her family ended up facing the consequences. She had to quit her job at a university, and she couldn’t get a hukou, or "identity papers," for her daughter without having to pay a heavy fine.

Wang's parents didn’t approve of her decision even though they, themselves, did the same thing decades earlier, after Wang’s mother became pregnant with her when their birth control failed.

“My mom was the same,” she said. “She wasn’t supposed to have me. After I was born, she was sterilized and docked a year’s salary, but luckily she was not forced to have an abortion.”

Surgical instruments after an abortion procedure at a clinic run by Marie Stopes International in Xi'an in central China's Shaanxi province, Dec. 13, 2010. 

Credit:

Ng Han Guan/AP/File photo

Scientist Yi Fuxian remembers that era.

Related: Uyghurs in Saudi Arabia risk deportation to China

“So many women who were being threatened with forced abortions would reach out to me for advice,” he said.

Yi is a demographer at the University of Wisconsin. Back in 2000, he began a crusade against China’s one-child policy, arguing that it was completely unnecessary. He wrote articles online and recommended that the government abandon the policy altogether. At the time, his views were not welcome, and a book he wrote on the topic was banned. 

“The government didn’t realize how serious China’s population crisis would become. They were afraid of an explosion in population growth and worried the health care system couldn’t handle it. So, they chose to regulate the number of births,” he said.

And in China, where boys have long been heavily favored, many parents would secretly abort female fetuses. Single women often turned to abortion, too. The result, Yi said, is that China currently has one of the highest abortion rates in the world.

Related: Poland’s ‘pregnancy registry’ will further restrict abortion access, activists say

Now, as a result of the failed one-child policy, China is saddled with a whole stack of problems — an extreme gender imbalance, a declining birth rate and a quickly aging population. Also, reforms to family planning policies haven’t been the quick fix that officials had hoped for. And as China’s birth rate continues to drop, Wang said that few people want to have any more children.

“No one even wants a second child, because the costs of raising a child are just too much, and there is little social support.”

Christina Wang, mother of two children

“Don’t even talk about three kids,” she said. “No one even wants a second child because the costs of raising a child are just too much, and there is little social support.”

Related: Northern Ireland decriminalized abortion 3 years ago. But services are still difficult to access.

Earlier this year, China’s family planning association announced that it would take measures to reduce the number of abortions for unmarried women.

Yi, the demographer, said that now the government is trying to swing the pendulum back in the other direction.

“The government used to encourage abortion and in some cases would do forced abortions,” he said. “But now, they are trying to limit abortions. Now, in hospitals, it isn’t as easy to get an abortion; instead they want to encourage women to give birth.”

He added, though, that it's easier said than done.

“It’s easy to force people not to give birth,” Yi said. “But to force people to have children? That’s impossible.”

Absurd lines: Part I

“MuiTypography-root-134 MuiTypography-h1-139″>Absurd lines: Part I

What role does humor play in migration studies? This week's Critical State, a foreign policy newsletter by Inkstick Media, takes a deep dive into how joke-telling among Syrian refugees serves a vital social and political function.

Inkstick MediaJune 22, 2022 · 1:00 PM EDT

In this photo from 2019, Gasan, a 25-year-old Syrian, gives a hair cut to 31-year-old Ali from Baghdad, Iraq, in the overcrowded Moria refugee and migrant camp, Lesbos island, Greece.

Petros Giannakouris/AP

This analysis was featured in Critical State, a weekly foreign policy newsletter from Inkstick Media. Subscribe here.

What is a border to an island but a joke? The sea already bounds the space, a clear and tangible delineation between where a person can travel on foot and where they must swim or boat instead. For refugees and migrants arriving in the Greek isle of Lesbos in 2015, walking to shore meant crossing a border and stepping into the non-place of a refugee camp while waiting for paperwork that would formally expel their arrival from the island and grant them passage elsewhere.

Related: Troubled geography: Part I

Jokes serve vital social and political functions, letting the joke-tellers safely comment on their predicament without necessarily inviting the ire of powerful people around them.

That the stakes of migration are high makes the process and the mechanisms of state no less absurd. In “Laughable borders: Making the case for the humorous in migration studies,” Anja K. Franck of the University of Gothenburg looks at the function and role of humor among Syrian refugees. Franck argues that humor is an underexplored component of migration studies. Jokes serve vital social and political functions, letting the joke-tellers safely comment on their predicament without necessarily inviting the ire of powerful people around them. To be stateless is to be, at a minimum, at the mercy of those the state entrusts to your paperwork.

Franck’s research trip to Lesbos did not begin as one about humor among migrants but became one through observation. Franck and her colleagues made casual conversation with a group of Syrian refugees who had arrived by sea a day earlier, and the conversation turned to a proposal from the European Commission for the UN to use force against smugglers of refugees.

“Forgive me, but your policies are a little stupid, don’t you think?” one of the men in the group joked to Franck. Franck notes, “he continues to smile while observing our reaction: ‘I mean, how can you fight smugglers through bombing small rubber dinghies full of refugees?’ We all laugh and shake our heads in response. Because, obviously, you cannot.”

Related: Troubled geography: Part II

The refugees — many of whom had the means to get passage out of Syria during the civil war — joke about being greeted on the beach by an American woman handing them bananas, as though the solution to their plight was a volunteer with a mid-afternoon snack.

Throughout her description of the experience, the dignity of the people is juxtaposed with the absurdity of events through humor. The refugees — many of whom had the means to get passage out of Syria during the civil war — joke about being greeted on the beach by an American woman handing them bananas, as though the solution to their plight was a volunteer with a mid-afternoon snack.

The research method leaned heavily on the merits of “serial hanging out” on an Aegean island, observing and interacting with the people taking a big gamble on the mercy of states. It’s a good setting for exploring the hurdles of turning flight from war into state legibility.

Writes Franck, “Rather than clinging to suffering as if it was the only means of understanding migrant experiences, we can thus learn a great deal from recognizing migrants’ laughter and from analyzing what it tells about the contours of power that are so central to critical readings of contemporary border regimes.”

Borders are a tool of ordering the world — of deciding where and against whom violence is deployed. If we tell the story of borders as only tragedy, of only violence, we miss the fuller picture, especially of those corralled by borders joking about the predicament. Waiting for an expulsion certificate that grants passage to where a person wants to go is absurd. Laughing at that fact makes it easier to live with the absurdity.

Critical State is your weekly fix of foreign policy analysis from the staff at Inkstick Media. Subscribe here

‘We are here with one idea, one heart’: Ecuador’s Indigenous groups rally for rights in mass protests

“MuiTypography-root-134 MuiTypography-h1-139″>‘We are here with one idea, one heart’: Ecuador’s Indigenous groups rally for rights in mass protests

Indigenous leaders have 10 demands including reducing gas prices, halting new mining and gas projects, providing funds for health care and education, and economic relief for millions of families in debt.

The WorldJune 21, 2022 · 4:00 PM EDT

Demonstrators ride trucks as they arrive to the capital to protest against the government of President Guillermo Lasso, in Quito, Ecuador, June 20, 2022. 

Dolores Ochoa/AP

On Monday, thousands of Indigenous people from tribes across Ecuador marched to the capital Quito, marking the eighth consecutive day of protest.  

“The people united will never be defeated,” chanted a group of people as they crossed a bridge in the direction of the capital, livestreamed over Facebook by one local news channel.

“We are here with one idea, one heart. … We will continue to fight until they respect our rights.”

Chants heard at a recent Indigenous rights protest in Quito, Ecuador

“We are here with one idea, one heart,” said one leader from the edge of the march alongside a row of burning tires. “We will continue to fight until they respect our rights.” 

Indigenous groups are rallying for a range of rights that have been long-neglected in Ecuador; it's turning out to be one of the largest protest movements the country has seen in recent years. 

They say many live in chronic poverty and lack basic access to education. Those who live in the Amazon have also been devastated by foreign oil operations, and newer mining projects are also threatening their land.  

Indigenous people make up roughly 6% of Ecuador’s population, according to government figures. And 70% of Ecuadorians are mestizo, with mixed Indigenous and European ancestry. 

Conservative banker Guillermo Lasso was elected last year on a campaign promise to revive the economy, erase the deficit and jumpstart oil deals. But this didn’t sit well with most Indigenous groups. 

Indigenous leaders tried to negotiate with the Lasso administration, but after getting nowhere, they started protesting last week.

They have 10 demands including: reducing the price of gas, halting new mining and gas projects, providing funds for health care and education, and economic relief for millions of families in debt.

“Down with Lasso. Down with Lasso,” cried supporters lining the side of the road as Indigenous people from the Amazon made their way through a town south of Quito.

“For the last year, we have democratically requested that they listen to these 10 demands,” said Leonidas Iza Salazar, the president of CONAIE, the country’s largest Indigenous confederation, which is leading the protests. “The president of the republic should respond to these substantial issues to support the Ecuadorian people,” he said.

State security forces have been cracking down on the protesters. 

Videos posted over social media show people running and state forces firing rubber bullets and tear gas canisters into crowds at close range.

In another, a man’s face is covered in blood. He takes a sip of water while someone yells, “Get him to the hospital.”

President Lasso has decreed a state of exception in six provinces, giving security forces increased power and limiting some civil liberties, such as prohibiting large gatherings. 

An overnight curfew is in effect in the capital of Quito.

“Even in a state of exception, state forces should not unnecessarily harm demonstrators,” said Maria Espinosa, a lawyer with Amazon Frontlines, a group that supports Indigenous organizing in Ecuador. 

“But they are attacking people disproportionately. They are using weapons, not just with the goal of dispersing the crowds, but with the goal of attacking.”

Dozens have been injured and detained. One person has been killed. 

As of Monday, roadblocks made of burning tires, trees, and debris stretched north and south across the country. 

“Here we are!” yells someone off camera in this video shared over Twitter, as members of an Amazonian Shuar community stand around several huge trees blocking the highway. 

In a message over social media on Monday, President Lasso attacked the Indigenous movements for violence and vandalism. 

“We cannot allow a few violent people from stopping millions of Ecuadorians from working,” he said. “I am here to defend Quito, each family and the country.”

But Lasso’s words may not sway public opinion. 

During the pandemic, Ecuador’s health care system and economy took a beating, and they still haven’t rebounded, and more sectors of the middle class are backing the Indigenous protests. 

Quito-based political analyst Decio Machado said Lasso’s popularity has slumped below 20%.

“The country right now is in a situation of absolute tension, because there is brutal polarization between the protesters and the few people who support the government, plus the state security forces, which are mobilized across the country and which are repressing the people."

Decio Machado, political analyst, Quito

“The country right now is in a situation of absolute tension because there is brutal polarization between the protesters and the few people who support the government, plus the state security forces, which are mobilized across the country and which are repressing the people,” Machado said. 

Last week, Lasso responded to the Indigenous protests by promising to fix the health system, double the budget for education in Indigenous languages and increase credit and subsidies for farm workers. 

Indigenous leaders said these are positive steps, but don't address the overarching issues.

Protest leaders say they will not back down. 

And if past national actions in Ecuador are any sign of what is to come, tension on the streets in the coming days will continue.

“Lasso’s government has its back against the wall,” Machado said. 

“The fear that it may fall is creating violent tension in the streets. And the situation of tension could result in many deaths. That’s our biggest concern.”

Return of Patrice Lumumba’s remains to DR Congo gives ‘peace of mind,’ UN envoy says

“MuiTypography-root-134 MuiTypography-h1-139″>Return of Patrice Lumumba's remains to DR Congo gives 'peace of mind,' UN envoy says

Belgium has returned the mortal remains of Congolese independence hero Patrice Lumumba to Democratic Republic of Congo and his family. Georges Nzongola-Ntalaja, DR Congo's representative to the United Nations, discussed the move and its significance with The World's host Carol Hills.

The WorldJune 21, 2022 · 3:15 PM EDT

Juliana Lumumba, the daughter of Patrice Lumumba, speaks during a ceremony to return the remains of her father to the family at the Egmont Palace in Brussels, June 20, 2022.

Nicholas Maeterlinck/Pool Photo via AP

Belgian authorities returned a gold-capped tooth belonging to the slain Congolese independence hero Patrice Lumumba in Brussels on Monday — in another step toward reconciling Belgium's bloody colonial past.

Lumumba was the charismatic leader who led Democratic Republic of Congo as it gained independence from Belgium in the 1960s. He was then executed by a hit squad led by Belgian officials in a most gruesome manner. Lumumba was buried in a shallow grave and his remains were virtually erased with sulfuric acid.

But one of his gold-crowned teeth somehow survived.

Related: Belgian King Philippe’s visit to DR Congo stirs hope for a 'win-win partnership,' historian says

On Monday, Belgium returned the tooth to DR Congo and to Lumumba's family.

The private ceremony came weeks after Belgium’s King Philippe visited DR Congo to express his "deepest regrets" for his country's abuses in the former colony. After the return of the tooth, Belgian Prime Minister Alexander De Croo told Congolese officials and Lumumba's family that the restitution came way too late.

“It is not normal that Belgium held onto the remains of one of the founding fathers of the Congolese nation for six decades," De Croo said.

Congolese Prime Minister Jean-Michel Sama Lukonde said that the return will serve as an essential part of his country's national memory.

Related: Charges dropped against Congolese Canadian doctor accused of starting COVID outbreak

To discuss the return of the relic and its significance, The World's host Carol Hills spoke with Georges Nzongola-Ntalaja, the DR Congo's representative to the United Nations.

Carol Hills: George, the discovery of Lumumba's tooth is a story in itself. What happened?Georges Nzongola-Ntalaja: Well, the story was known for quite a while because the person who did it, the Belgian police officers who took the tooth, bragged about it openly and was interviewed by researchers. Professor Ludo De Witte wrote this really excellent book on Lumumba's assassination.So, it was a Belgian who was involved in Lumumba's assassination who took the tooth after killing him?Yes. He's the one who sliced his body like an animal, put that into sulfuric acid and then he took the tooth as a trophy, as a hunter's trophy somehow.And how did the tooth then end up with Belgian authorities to return to the Lumumba family?The Belgians, after the publication of Ludo De Witte's book, "The Assassination of Lumumba," the Belgian authorities learned about this. The Belgian police went and raided the house of the policeman and took the tooth that he had left behind with his daughter.It's really just an unbelievable story of just heinous behavior. What makes this moment — the return of Lumumba's tooth — so important?You do have some peace of mind once you know that the remains of your loved ones have been, you know, set to rest in a peaceful place. According to our culture, it is extremely important to bury the dead. We don't like the dead being left to rot in the sun or to be thrown in the rivers or lakes. We like to have them buried. And so, for the Congolese, it is another important moment in our history to honor this man or this mausoleum and to have a place where people can go and reflect on Lumumba's importance to our country's history, helping our country become independent and his dream, his vision for the future, which he wasn't able to fulfill.It's interesting, because the Belgians literally tried to erase him from Congolese history.Exactly. And [we] would have completely forgotten about that. And I think they didn't want to have a place where people can go and honor Lumumba. This is exactly what we have achieved.Do you believe Belgium should offer some kind of financial restitution to Democratic Republic of Congo for its involvement in the political instability there?Well, I'm speaking for myself and not for the government, but in my own view, I think that that is something that has to be negotiated [by sitting] down to see what form reparations should take. It may not necessarily have to be money, but it could be in terms of services, improving the health care system, the school systems, infrastructure, roads, for example. We have a country that has no paved roads, there are very few. Those are issues that should be negotiated by the two governments.

This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.AP contributed to this report.

Chinese Genshin Impact is one of the most-profitable video games on Earth. It balances mass appeal with Beijing’s blessing.

“MuiTypography-root-134 MuiTypography-h1-139″>Chinese Genshin Impact is one of the most-profitable video games on Earth. It balances mass appeal with Beijing’s blessing.

Genshin Impact’s unexpected global success highlights a precarious balance: How Beijing goes about nurturing Big Tech while holding true to Chinese Communist Party ideology.

The WorldJune 21, 2022 · 1:00 PM EDT

An image from the video game Genshin Impact.

Genshin Impact

One afternoon earlier this year, Naomi King, 5, found herself flying up a mountain, surrounded by ghosts.

“I’m hiding from the goblins and trying to be extra sneaky,” she said, almost under her breath.

Monsters danced across a sparkling landscape on the TV screen in front of her.

“She’s been learning about stealth in video games,” her father, Austin King, said. “That’s like her latest thing.”

And that latest thing is all part of Genshin Impact, a video game that has quickly risen to become one of the most profitable in the world, raking in more than $1 billion in revenue every six months. Apple and Google Play both named it “game of the year” in 2020. And best of all, it’s free.

“I think the surprising thing about this one that was a really big deal, especially when it first came out, was just how good it was.”

Austin King, editor at Screen Rant and host of the podcast Dragon Quest FM

“I think the surprising thing about this one that was a really big deal, especially when it first came out, was just how good it was,” said Austin King, who’s also an editor at Screen Rant and host of the podcast "Dragon Quest FM."

The other surprise? Where Genshin Impact came from: China. The game’s developer, HoYoverse (formerly MiHoYo), is based in Shanghai, not the traditional gaming powerhouses of Japan, South Korea and the United States. And it’s seen its game reach global success from inside a country where the central government shows every sign of hating video games — from setting strict time limits on children's gaming to keeping a stranglehold on approving titles for Chinese audiences.

Genshin Impact’sunexpected global success highlights a precarious balance: How Beijing goes about nurturing Big Tech while holding true to Chinese Communist Party ideology.

Related: Chinese govt cracks down on online gaming, TikTok — claiming that tech has outsize influence on society

'Electronic heroin'

Video games have been in the Beijing central leadership’s crosshairs for decades. According to Daniel Ahmad, a senior analyst at Niko Partners, a research firm covering the video gaming industry, China has “paternalistic oversight of entertainment.”

Ahmad and his colleagues have been following China’s love-hate relationship with gaming for years. In 2000, the country laid down a ban on all foreign video game consoles. Gaming, the party deemed, was akin to “electronic heroin.”

"‘We don’t want children to become addicted to video games.’ That was the official party line.”

Daniel Ahmad, senior analyst, Niko Partners

“The concern back then was, ‘We don’t want children to become addicted to video games,’” Ahmad said. “That was the official party line. It’s always been the party line.”

The government reversed course in 2015, allowing foreign consoles into what had become the world’s largest market for gaming. Today, the country boasts more than 700 million gamers, though China’s attitude toward gaming for children has not warmed. Last August, the government announced it would begin limiting kids under 18 to just three hours of video games per week. 

For one hour each Friday, Saturday and Sunday night, Chinese children can log in to their devices using their name and a specific ID number, which is then checked against a Ministry of Public Security database to identify the player and determine whether he or she is a minor.

“I would say that this is certainly the most stringent regulation or anti-deferral system put into place in maybe 20 years of regulations,” Ahmad said. “And this will be the one that has the most impact.”

The irony is that Genshin Impact, China’s most popular game, is all about addiction. HoYoverse doesn’t make money from downloads because it is free; it makes money from users spending real money as part of the game.

“There’s an addicting quality to it,” King, from Screen Rant, said. “You can play totally free, but there’s in-game currency that you get from completing quests, finding treasure, things like that. But if you don’t want to take the time to do all that, you can buy passes and other things to get that currency faster.”

Related: A fresh call for ‘pingpong diplomacy’ on the 50th anniversary of the first US-China games

You don’t pay money to get a particular character to round out your team. You’re paying for the chance to get the character or weapon you want, like spinning a prize wheel or opening a pack of baseball cards. If you don’t like what you get, just give HoYoverse more money and spin again.

Genshin Impact is following the model of “gacha games,” a phrase derived from Japanese vending machines that spit out random toys. It’s a popular model for free mobile games in search of revenue, especially those from Japan. But Genshin Impact itself — the content, the restrictions, the themes — feels distinctly Chinese.

Ahmad said developers included traditional and mythological aspects of Chinese history.

“So, there will actually be places in the game that are pretty much one-to-one recreations of places in China,” he said.

And because HoYoverse is a Shanghai-based company, it had to follow strict Chinese rules around game content. While the government may have lifted the ban on foreign consoles, it still tends to micromanage what exactly can show up in a game sold to Chinese audiences.

One example: blood. Censors don’t like it in video games. If it shows up in a game at all, it must be black, not red. Same-sex relationships are also off-limits. Last year, Chinese game developers signed a pledge to ban content that depicts “sissy men” or “gay love” — anything that might undermine the party’s anti-LGBTQ stance.

Most of all, though, the Chinese government has strict rules around language. What words can appear in a game, what themes are off-limits. There can be no references to the Dalai Lama, for example, and, if you’re a developer hoping to get your game approved by censors, it’s a safe bet to avoid any mention of Chinese leader Xi Jinping.

Ahmad said politics are generally best left out: “Hong Kong, Taiwan … it’s best to just avoid controversy in entertainment and media in general.”

Navigating censors

Jeff Knockel, a researcher at the Munk School of Global Affairs at the University of Toronto, has been studying Chinese censorship for more than a decade. In that time, he and his colleagues have looked at social media, instant message platforms, news media and entertainment — all in an attempt to see what gets past the censors, and what doesn’t.

Similar phrases always pop up across platforms: Falun Gong, the controversial spiritual movement; Taiwan; Tibet; anything that could be a headache for the Communist Party.

“We really wanted to get down to this question of, 'Do all apps in China censor the same things or are they just sort of left to come up with what to censor on their own?'” Knockel said.

He said he started looking at censorship in Chinese video games simply because there were so many of them. And what Knockel found was that censorship of games in China can be a bit capricious.

“You really see a lot of diversity in the content that’s censored in each game,” Knockel said. “So, you would, of course, see typical things like government criticism being censored, collective action being censored, things that have a more prurient nature.”

Related: Amid esports boom, China introduces new restrictions to regulate the industry

The party rules around these censors are intentionally vague. For example, games cannot have content that could “endanger social morality or national cultural traditions,” an edict that is intentionally unclear.

“And you can imagine why this sort of situation would be desirable for the Chinese government,” Knockel said, “because by keeping it vague, it forces companies to sort of censor additional things just to make sure all the categories are covered that might get them in trouble.”

Knockel said he knows of game developers in China that have taken to keeping a running list of unacceptable words, then sharing it with other developers who copy and paste those words to their lists. And because the authorities don’t do this officially, they have deniability.

Domestic game developers have navigated these censors for years, and if you’re a foreign company hoping to break into China’s $45-billion market, you have to play by China’s rules. “Localizing” games for different national markets is standard practice: Translate the game and cut anything that could be construed as insensitive or out of touch. China is more stringent.

Foreign developers must first partner with a Chinese company, like Tencent, then work with them to ensure the game’s content is in line with party rules. Chinese characters cannot be adversaries in story lines; political content is strictly off-limits; no worshiping money; no “effeminate” men.

“If you look at the number of domestically approved titles that have been approved, it’s always significantly higher than the number of imported or foreign or overseas games.”

Daniel Ahmad, senior analyst, Niko Partners

“I would say that if you look at the number of domestically approved titles that have been approved, it’s always significantly higher than the number of imported or foreign or overseas games,” Ahmad said. “ And you’ll find that even when developers submit a game, there’ll be this sort of back-and-forth between the regulators and the developer, where the regulators will tell them you can’t have this, or you can’t have that, or this needs to change.”

Games allowing free expression also find themselves banned in China. In 2020, the pro-democracy activist Joshua Wong was playing Animal Crossing: New Horizonsa game that allows users to customize their own private island. Wong decorated his virtual lawn with a banner reading “Free Hong Kong, revolution now.” Not long after, the game disappeared from Taobao, China’s version of eBay. It was a shot across the bow for game developers: If your game allows unfettered free expression, it’s not allowed in China.

In Genshin Impact, like many other Chinese games, this censorship manifests through the in-game chat function. Type in the word “Tibet” and you get five asterisks. “Hong Kong,” you get eight. Because Gensin Impact is a globally popular game that happened to be made in China, those rules get exported. No matter where in the world you play the game, the Chinese censors are always on. 

Meet the young people where they are

Whether Beijing will try to harness the game’s popularity for its own image is so far unclear.

It’s no new strategy for the Central Propaganda Department to evolve with new forms of media and get its message out, whether that be through rap videos, films and television shows, social media influencers or video games. In a recent report from Recorded Future’s Insikt Group, researcher Devin Thorne notes that a main priority of the CCP is to influence young people overseas.

That strategy stems, he writes, “from the belief that young people are impressionable, will hold foundational opinions and ideologies well into the future, and can serve as a bedrock of support for the party and China once they mature into positions of influence.” The Record is an editorially independent unit of Recorded Future.

It’s a bit of a double-edged sword. Overseas youth also pose a particular threat to the Chinese Communist Party, as they understand the culture, they speak the language and, unlike those living within China’s borders, they can loudly speak their minds.

The party’s response? Meet the young people where they already are.

“Video games [are] one form of media that the party recognizes is highly attractive to young audiences in China, but particularly overseas.”

Devin Thorne, researcher, Recorded Future’s Insikt Group

“Video games [are] one form of media that the party recognizes is highly attractive to young audiences in China, but particularly overseas,” Thorne told digital marketing company Click Here in an interview. “And the question that we see work units under the Central Propaganda Department actively researching is how to disseminate Chinese culture — as curated by the party, obviously — and Chinese policies into video games.”

The party, he notes, understands that the sort of “hard” propaganda is less salient for young audiences. More than a decade ago, China was trying its hand at “patriotic” video games like Shining Sword and Glorious Mission, an online first-person shooter put out by the People’s Liberation Army. But these sorts of “red” games, as analysts called them, found little lasting success.

Instead, Thorne said, the video games the CCP finds most useful for its propaganda efforts are those that avoid overt party praise or strong nationalist themes.

“When you start to have a lot of political motives that come in and you start to put a lot of overt messaging about socialism and the Communist system — I mean, maybe there’s a way to do it,” Thorne said, “but I think that’s a pretty tricky balance to maintain that and the entertainment.”

Thorne wouldn’t go so far as to label Genshin Impact, or similar Chinese games, as propaganda.

“I don’t know that they were specifically designed with this sort of political influence goal in mind,” he said.

Related: Chinese blockbuster war film salutes China's military might and heroism

But he pointed out that — from the party’s perspective —Genshin Impact does have propaganda value.

“And the propaganda value that has been highlighted in party state media in relation to Genshin Impact’s popularity overseas is that it’s transmitting Chinese culture, particularly traditional Chinese culture,” Thorne said. “It’s sort of packaging that in a very fun and engaging way that’s going to draw audiences in.”

For now, Genshin Impact is still one of the world’s most popular video game titles. It was the most tweeted-about game of 2021, according to Twitter, and more than half its players can be found outside China.

Austin King, the American host of Dragon Quest FM, said he doesn’t see the game as “explicitly pro-China.” He’s been playing since the day it came out and writes for Screen Rant about the game’s newest updates and story lines. More than anything, he said, Genshin Impact showed the potential of China’s video game industry.

“I don’t want to say necessarily that it’s made people take [China] seriously when it comes to gaming,” King said. “But I definitely feel like it’s one of those things where it’s made people be more excited for games that are coming out of this country.”

This article originally appeared in The Record on June 7, 2022. It was written by Will Jarvis, with additional reporting by Dina Temple-Raston.

Afghan women who escaped Taliban takeover continue their education at a Wisconsin university

“MuiTypography-root-134 MuiTypography-h1-139″>Afghan women who escaped Taliban takeover continue their education at a Wisconsin university

The students were able to escape Kabul because of the efforts of their school, the Asian University for Women in Bangladesh, which was holding remote classes for the students living in Kabul during the coronavirus pandemic. 

The WorldJune 20, 2022 · 5:45 PM EDT

Farzana (left) talks with UWM instructor Jennifer Mattson (right) and another student during a class called Basic Skills in Academic Listening, Speaking and Notetaking for Multilingual Students. WUWM is not showing the Afghan students' faces or publishing their last names to protect their families in Afghanistan.

Emily Files/WUWM

Last August, about 150 students from the Asian University for Women were evacuated from Afghanistan as the Taliban took over.

After a few months at Fort McCoy in Wisconsin, the women were sent to universities around the US to continue their education. Eight of the women are here in Milwaukee, studying in the Intensive English Program at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

On a recent afternoon, five of the Afghan refugees were working on their vowel sounds with English instructor Jennifer Mattson. 

The students seem upbeat and chatty. But these young women are still reeling at how much their lives have changed.

"It is not easy to just build a new life for yourself," 20-year-old Mahrukh said. "I know we have to start to build a new life, but still, we have lots of concerns."

WUWM is only publishing the students’ first names to protect their families in Afghanistan. 

The students were able to escape Kabul because of the efforts of their school, the Asian University for Women in Bangladesh, which was holding remote classes for the students living in Kabul during the coronavirus pandemic. 

It was a harrowing few days as the students tried multiple times to enter the Kabul airport, which was flooded with people trying to flee. They say during one of the escape attempts, a Taliban guard fired shots into the ground in front of them. Farzana, 21, said that she almost gave up hope.

"I didn’t believe, I just said, 'That’s it, it’s over,'" she recalled. "I cannot make it. I will be like my mom, just spend all of my life inside the home and be invisible."

Farzana said that during the final escape attempt, which was successful, she had to leave her home with just 15 minutes notice. Her mother wasn’t there, so she couldn’t say goodbye.

"I called her and said, 'I’m going to leave again — I’m going to try again.' So, it was very sad for me. I didn’t get to say goodbye," she said.

According to Humans Rights Watch, the Taliban government has restricted girls' education since coming to power, and millions of Afghan people are facing severe food insecurity. 

The students say leaving their families behind was the hardest thing they’ve ever done. But 21-year-old Tahera said it was their only choice.

"We lost everything we had in Afghanistan, but we had to fight for our rights," she said. "We want to continue our education, we want to continue our life. If we had stayed in Afghanistan, it was really hard for [all] girls."

Now, they are continuing their education in Milwaukee. UWM got involved because of its Intensive English Program, which prepares international students to earn a degree at an English-speaking university.

English Language Academy director Brooke Haley said that UWM was eager to help.

"This is the first time that UWM has taken in refugees like this," Haley said. "And when we first had the ask, it was a five-year full scholarship — up to a year of language study and then up to four years of undergraduate study."

UWM couldn’t provide that level of financial support, but it did discount the English program by 40%, which is now the official refugee rate, Haley said. The rest of the tuition costs are coming from Eastbrook Church, which is also providing host families for the students.

"It’s a great example of a public university working with private, even religious organizations in the community for a common goal — to support people who need it," Haley said. "I think it’s kind of a beautiful model."

Eastbrook is fundraising for the first year of the students’ undergraduate studies at UWM, which they’ll start in fall after completing the English program. Once their immigration status is settled, they'll be able to apply for federal financial aid. 

Before, the students say they had five-year full scholarships at the Asian University for Women. Farzana says she worries about being able to afford a four-year degree at UWM. 

"I’m very thankful of the people here and everyone that are supporting us," Farzana said. "But I’m just saying, we have very stressful life. We have many stresses, many things to think about, and then this is also one of the things we have to think about."

Mahrukh used a metaphor to describe it, saying it’s like carrying stones. One stone is worrying about their family, another is worrying about their country. Adding a third stone — the uncertainty about their own futures — won’t break them.

"It can’t change the girls who studied, who have a dream from Afghanistan," she said. "We are that much strong to start a new journey in a different country."

They still have dreams, even though leaving Afghanistan has altered them. Mahrukh wants to work for Doctors Without Borders. Farzana wants to be an advocate for refugees who have no say in the wars that displace them. She wants to help people like herself and her friends.

This story was originally published by WUWM.

Chileans have long struggled with a water crisis. Management practices are partly to blame, study says.

“MuiTypography-root-134 MuiTypography-h1-139″>Chileans have long struggled with a water crisis. Management practices are partly to blame, study says.

For years, people believed that climate change was to blame for the water shortage. But a recent study published in the Switzerland-based journal Water found that this shortage was not only due to the megadrought, but has also been caused by water misuse and management practices established under the country’s current legislation.

The WorldJune 20, 2022 · 1:00 PM EDT

Avocado plantations in Petorca, Chile.

Courtesy of Veronica Vilchez

Chile has been facing a megadrought for more than a decade, with central regions receiving 30% less rainfall than usual over the past 13 years.

Around 8% of Chile’s population does not have access to clean drinking water or proper sewage systems, according to the Chilean Ministry of Social Development.

For years, people believed that climate change was to blame. But a recent study published in the Switzerland-based journal Water found that this shortage was not only due to the megadrought, but has also been caused by water misuse and management practices established under the country’s current legislation.

Related: Why Chile moved ahead with COVID vaccines for the very young

That includes the process of diverting water sources away from populated areas toward crops instead — like avocados — that require a lot of moisture to grow.

Cistern truck delivering water in Petorca, Chile.
 

Credit:

Courtesy of Veronica Vilchez

In the municipalityof Petorca — a rural area about 120 miles north of the capital, Santiago — the population now relies on water delivery trucks for its drinking water supplies after the nearby River Petorca dried out several years ago.

Veronica Vilchez, a farmer who lives in the area, said that a truck delivers between 20 and 40 liters of water a day for her family. That’s only enough for each family member to take a two-minute shower.

This is despite a court ruling from March 2021 that set a minimum of 100 liters per day per person for Petorca.

“We don’t have people here who enforce the ruling,” Vilchez said.

She added that she lives with five other family members and that they all have to find creative ways to reuse the water multiple times.

“I clean the floor with the same water I use to wash my hair, do the dishes and water the plants,” she said.

“Our horses, cows, sheep, they are all dying. Schools are closing and people are moving away because there is no water.”

Veronica Vilchez, farmer who lives in Petorca, Chile

“In Petorca, it smells like death,” she said. “Our horses, cows, sheep, they are all dying. Schools are closing and people are moving away because there is no water.”

Vilchez is part of the organization Mujeres Modetima, a group of women activists who deliver water to nearby communities. But while people are suffering from severe water shortages, she said that she can see, from her window, rows of green trees from the avocado plantations covering the hills nearby.

Related: Electricity rates have skyrocketed in Brazil. The govt says the water crisis is to blame.

As a major avocado exporter, Chile produces nearly 220,000 metric tons of avocados per year, and the majority of them grow in Petorca. Avocado producers pump thousands of liters of water per second to irrigate the area, according to Chilean hydrologist Pablo Garcia-Chevesich, a professor at the University of Arizona. 

He said that Chile is one of the few countries in the world that allows full privatization of water.

“Just because a water course is flowing, in Chile, you can get the water rights from a river, and they give it to you for life, for free,” he said. “And then you can [divert] that river and use it [for] your convenience.”

It’s a water code that goes back to the early 1980s under the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet. Now, 90% of the country's fresh water rights are held by private companies.

Related: In Mexico, shuttered cemeteries mean financial ruin for thousands of flower farmers

Chile’s economy, being the largest in South America by per-capita gross domestic product, is built on water-intensive, extractivist industries, principally mining and agriculture.

So, García-Chevesich discovered that the root cause of Chile’s water crisis is overconsumption of water by the agriculture and mining industries, not climate change.

“The pattern is the same: A big exporting company arrives, takes all the water rights, drills very deep wells, [diverts] the rivers, and that means the aquifers deplete, the rivers dry out and the farmers don't have any more water,” he said.

“The final purpose for the freshwater is to create profit, not to provide welfare for citizens.”

Pablo Garcia-Chevesich, Chilean hydrologist and professor at the University of Arizona

“The final purpose for the fresh water is to create profit, not to provide welfare for citizens,” he added. 

A person holding a sign that reads, “No more water robbery" in Petorca, Chile.

Credit:

Courtesy of Veronica Vilchez

The researcher said that “[the] water crisis is by far the most urgent health, economic and environmental problem” in the South American country. 

Meanwhile, Chile’s President Gabriel Boric is now proposing a new constitution that would prioritize water for human consumption. It would also allow the government to suspend the rights of usage on threatened water sources.

But the plan needs a two-thirds majority in Congress to pass before it can be put to a national referendum for voters to decide on.

Garcia-Chevesich said that while deprivatization of water is a long overdue policy in Chile, it won’t solve the existing water emergency: “We will have to look at different sources of water, like [conducting] desalination, for example.”

He also said the country urgently needs an education program about the water crisis as well as a national ration plan.

In April, the governor of Santiago, Claudio Orrego, did announce a possible four-tier alert system to ration water to the city of nearly 6 million people.

Related: Iran's 'system is essentially water bankrupt,' says environmental expert

“We're in an unprecedented situation in Santiago's 491-year history where we have to prepare for there to not be enough water for everyone who lives here,” Orrego said. 

The four stages of the proposal, which hasn’t been implemented yet, will be based on the capacity of the Maipo and Mapocho rivers. The process will begin with public service announcements, moving onto restricting water pressure and ending with rotating water cuts of up to 24 hours.

Colombia picks 1st leftist president in tight runoff contest

“MuiTypography-root-229 MuiTypography-h1-234″>Colombia picks 1st leftist president in tight runoff contestAssociated PressJune 20, 2022 · 10:00 AM EDT

Former rebel Gustavo Petro, his wife Veronica Alcocer and his running mate Francia Marquez celebrate before supporters after winning a runoff presidential election in Bogota, Colombia, June 19, 2022.

Fernando Vergara/AP

Colombia will be governed by a leftist president for the first time after former rebel Gustavo Petro narrowly defeated a real estate tycoon in a runoff election that underscored people’s disgust with the country’s traditional politicians.

Petro’s third attempt to win the presidency earned him 50.48% of the votes Sunday, while political outsider Rodolfo Hernández got 47.26%, according to results released by election authorities.

The election came as Colombians struggle with rising inequality, inflation and violence — factors that led voters in the election’s first round last month to punish long-governing centrist and right-leaning politicians and pick two outsiders for the runoff contest.

Petro’s win in Latin America’s third most populous nation was more than a defeat of Hernández. It puts an end to Colombia’s long stigmatization of the left for its perceived association with the country's half century of armed conflict. The president-elect was once a rebel with the now-defunct M-19 movement and was granted amnesty after being jailed for his involvement with the group.

Petro issued a call for unity during his victory speech Sunday night and extended an olive branch to some of his harshest critics, saying all members of the opposition will be welcomed at the presidential palace “to discuss the problems of Colombia.”

“From this government that is beginning there will never be political persecution or legal persecution, there will only be respect and dialogue,” he said, adding that he will listen to those who have raised arms as well as to “that silent majority of peasants, Indigenous people, women, youth.”

The vote is also resulting in Colombia having a Black woman as vice president for the first time. Petro’s running mate, Francia Márquez, 40, is a lawyer and environmental leader whose opposition to illegal mining resulted in threats and a grenade attack in 2019.

Hernández, whose campaign was based on an anti-corruption fight, conceded his defeat shortly after results were announced.

“I accept the result, as it should be, if we want our institutions to be firm,” he said in a video on social media. “I sincerely hope that this decision is beneficial for everyone.”

Petro’s showing was the latest leftist political victory in Latin America fueled by voters’ desire for change. Chile, Peru and Honduras elected leftist presidents in 2021, and in Brazil former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva is leading the polls for this year’s presidential election.

But the results were an immediate reason to fret for some voters whose closest reference to a leftist government is the troubled neighboring Venezuela.

“We hope that Mr. Gustavo Petro complies with what was said in his government plan, that he leads this country to greatness, which we need so much, and that [he] ends corruption,” said Karin Ardila García, a Hernández supporter in the north-central city of Bucaramanga. “That he does not lead to communism, to socialism, to a war where they continue to kill us in Colombia. … (H)e does not lead us to another Venezuela, Cuba, Argentina, Chile.”

About 21.6 million of the 39 million eligible voters cast a ballot Sunday. Abstentionism has been above 40% in every presidential election since 1990.

Petro, 62, will be officially declared winner after a formal count that will take a few days. Historically, the preliminary results have coincided with the final ones.

Several heads of state congratulated Petro on Sunday. So did a fierce critic, former President Álvaro Uribe, who remains a central figure in Colombia’s politics.

Polls ahead of the runoff had indicated Petro and Hernández — both former mayors — were in a tight race since they topped four other candidates in the initial May 29 election. Neither got enough votes to win outright and headed into the runoff.

Petro won 40% of the votes in the initial round and Hernández 28%, but the difference quickly narrowed as Hernández began to attract so-called anti-Petrista voters.

Petro has proposed ambitious pension, tax, health and agricultural reforms and changes to how Colombia fights drug cartels and other armed groups. But he will have a tough time delivering on his promises as he does not have a majority in Congress, which is key to carrying out reforms.

“The people who do support him have very high hopes, and they are probably going to be disappointed pretty quickly when he can’t move things right away,” said Adam Isacson, an expert on Colombia at the Washington Office on Latin America think tank.

“I think you might find a situation where he either has to strike some deals and give up a lot of his programs just to get some things passed or the whole country could be gridlocked,” Isacson added.

Petro is willing to resume diplomatic relations with Venezuela, which were halted in 2019. He also wants to make changes to Colombia’s relations with the US by seeking a renegotiation of a free trade agreement and new ways to fight drug trafficking.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in a statement that the Biden administration looks forward to working with Petro.

Polls say most Colombians believe the country is heading in the wrong direction and disapprove of President Iván Duque, who was not eligible to seek reelection. The pandemic set back the country’s anti-poverty efforts by at least a decade. Official figures show that 39% of Colombia’s lived on less than $89 a month last year.

The rejection of politics as usual “is a reflection of the fact that the people are fed up with the same people as always,” said Nataly Amezquita, a 26-year-old civil engineer waiting to vote. “We have to create greater social change. Many people in the country aren’t in the best condition.”

But even the two outsider candidates left her cold. She said she would cast a blank ballot: “I don’t like either of the two candidates. … Neither of them seems like a good person to me.”

‘Death is still better than living in Russia’: A Ukrainian medic on the front lines says there’s no choice but to fight

“MuiTypography-root-134 MuiTypography-h1-139″>'Death is still better than living in Russia': A Ukrainian medic on the front lines says there's no choice but to fight

Ukrainian Cpl. Andrii Shadrin has been deployed to the Donbas region to fight Russian-backed separatists a half dozen times since 2014. The 26-year-old medic spoke to The World's host Carolyn Beeler from a makeshift base in the Luhansk region.

The WorldJune 17, 2022 · 2:45 PM EDT

Ukrainian Cpl. Andrii Shadrin is a 26-year-old medic who has been fighting in the eastern Ukrainian Donbas region. 

Courtesy of Cpl. Andrii Shadrin

The European Union’s executive arm recommended putting Ukraine on a path to membership on Friday, a symbolic boost for a country fending off a Russian onslaught that is killing civilians, flattening cities and threatening its very survival.

In another show of Western support, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson met with President Volodymyr Zelenskiy in Kyiv to offer continued aid and military training. The European allies' latest embrace of Ukraine marked another setback for Russian President Vladimir Putin, who launched his war nearly four months ago, hoping to pull his ex-Soviet neighbor away from the West and back into Russia’s sphere of influence.

Related: Lviv rents skyrocket as displaced Ukrainians scramble for housing

At Russia’s showpiece economic forum in St. Petersburg on Friday, Putin said Moscow “has nothing against” Ukraine joining the EU, because it “isn't a military organization, a political organization, like NATO.” He also reprised his usual defense of the war, alleging it was necessary to protect people in parts of eastern Ukraine controlled by Moscow-backed rebels and to ensure Russia’s own security.

Johnson’s trip to Kyiv followed one Thursday by the leaders of Germany, France, Italy and Romania, who pledged to support Ukraine without asking it to make any territorial concessions to Russia.

Related: Ukrainian doctors train for the possibility of a chemical attack from Russia

The European delegation's visit to Kyiv was heavy on symbolism. But what Ukrainians really want to know is whether it will translate into more shipments of heavy weapons to the front lines.

That’s top of mind for soldiers like Ukrainian Cpl. Andrii Shadrin, a 26-year-old medic who has been fighting in the eastern Ukrainian Donbas region. He's been deployed there a half dozen times since 2014. That's when Russia annexed Crimea, the peninsula where Shadrin was born. Shadrin joined The World from a makeshift Ukrainian base in the Luhansk region.

Carolyn Beeler: What have recent days been like for you? Cpl. Andrii Shadrin: It's been harder, harder than ever, I suppose. We've faced the strong enemy, so we had to think about how to change our movements and what we are doing. So, it's hard, but we're still operating, and I think it's kind of a success.And what have you been doing? Well, we are having a bunch of equipment placed all around the frontline in the Luhansk and Donetsk regions, and we are supplying the infantry with new equipment. We're installing it and making it operative and showing the infantry personnel how to use it properly. Each evening, we are checking on what is wrong and what isn't functional, trying to collect the information from the infantry, what can be wrong. And then, the next day, we're moving to the frontlines and fixing what's been broken by the Russians if it is possible.Russia controls much of Luhansk, where you are. How close are Russian troops to your base right now?I can’t provide this information, unfortunately. I’m sorry. We are reachable to the Russian artillery. So, not only the aviation and the rockets.So, are you seeing or hearing Russian drones flying overhead in addition to artillery?Yes, sure. Even though we've destroyed plenty of their air force and drones, they still like working together with the drones, so they can get online information of the effectiveness of the artillery working. But they just bring thousands of shells on the heads of Ukrainian infantry units like ours. They're using old-fashioned Soviet artillery systems, while Western countries are trying to make their weapons as accurate as possible. The Soviet doctrine, the Soviet strategy is to bring a wall of fire and just to make the whole region a wasteland. That's what they do right now, pretty much.So, the leaders of France, Germany, Italy and Romania arrived in the capital of Kyiv on Thursday. What would you tell them if you were able to stand in front of them and give them a message? I would ask the French president — or say — a big thank you for the Caesars, we got here. We like them, pretty much. I've seen them at work. The Caesars are the French artillery systems. I've seen them operating. And they're really, really effective. But in abandoned Russian tanks, we get so much French equipment, especially night vision systems that were made in France and shipped to Russia. And I suppose that a lot of them were made before 2014 when the embargo on weapons started working. So, you know, the whole Western world is supporting us and supporting us in a really good way, especially Great Britain and the US. And then we find Western equipment in abandoned Russian vehicles. That makes you pretty confused about what's going on in the world.You said you see Western weapons in Russian tanks and are confused. What do you mean? They have the system of night aiming that was made in France, and they're used to aim at night. And it's a big threat for Ukrainian infantry and for us, sometimes; the operator of a Russian armored vehicle can see you and effectively shoot you up to 2 kilometers at night with his 30-millimeter automatic cannon. I know you've been hit by shrapnel three times. How are you emotionally and mentally right now? How is your morale? How is your unit's morale? Well, death is still better than living in Russia, for us. I don't think we're going to give up. We've been given no choice, only to fight. So, we're fighting, doing everything we can and a little bit more, I suppose.You are a trained medic. Can you tell me about some of the soldiers that you've had to treat? I've been treating three civilian women in the Luhansk region. They were going to the grocery shop to buy a loaf of bread. And they were shot by shrapnel in their legs. And as a trained medic, when I put on a tourniquet, I always say that it's going to hurt … one woman was telling me … ‘who’s your daughter, I know it's going to hurt. I don't care.’ And when we were putting those women inside the vehicle, one of them asked me to kill as many Russians as I can.So, you have the support of the civilians. I wanted to ask you about your family. Your parents were born in Soviet Russia. I understand they moved to Crimea where you were born. What sort of communication do you have with them?Now, I have no communication. I've been in touch with medics who were in the Kyiv region … in the beginning of March, when those satellites of Kyiv were freed from Russian forces. And they were calling me and crying. Absolutely, adult people, soldiers; a lot of them have been serving for eight or more years. They were calling me and crying and I was trying to tell it to my mother. She told me that, "you know, when you're chopping in the woods, there are some small scraps of wood flying around and those people dead in Bucha are those scraps of wood when you chop the forest." And that was it for me. Like, I’m all done. "Thank you, mom. Bye. Hope I never see you."How do you keep going day after day? You've been out there for a long time. Well, nobody except me is going to do it. And you can always run away from something evil. But you will never defeat the evil running. So, we need to solve this Ukrainian-Russian problem. And I think the biggest threat [to] European security is Russia. I hope someday it's going to end. I hope that someday we're going to start building a European country, without looking back to this Soviet corpse that is smelling pretty bad behind our backs.

This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Global arms industry getting shake-up by war in Ukraine — and China and US look like winners from Russia’s stumbles

“MuiTypography-root-126 MuiTypography-h1-131″>Global arms industry getting shake-up by war in Ukraine — and China and US look like winners from Russia’s stumbles

Weapons manufacturers in China are likely to benefit most from Russia’s losses, while US companies will also see a boom.

The ConversationJune 17, 2022 · 3:15 PM EDT

Russia is losing tanks at an astonishing rate. 

Emilio Morenatti/AP

Russia’s war in Ukraine is upending the global arms industry.

As the US and its allies pour significant sums of money into arming Ukraine and Russia bleeds tanks and personnel, countries across the world are rethinking defense budgets, materiel needs and military relationships. Countries that historically have had low levels of defense spending such as Japan and Germany are bulking up, while nations that purchase most of their weapons from Russia are questioning their reliability and future delivery.

My research in this area suggests that, however this war eventually ends, the repercussions for the global defense industry, and for the countries whose companies dominate this sector, will be enormous. Here are four takeaways.

1. Russia will be the biggest loser

Russia’s general sales pitch for its weapons has been they’re “cheaper and easier to maintain than Western alternatives.” This is why Russia accounted for 19% of the world’s arms exports from 2017 to 2021, second only to the US, which had 39% of the market.

However, this pitch may no longer be effective for many countries that have seen Russian equipment losses and failures in Ukraine.

To date, the US estimates Russia has lost almost a thousand tanks, at least 50 helicopters, 36 fighter-bombers and 350 artillery pieces, according to Business Insider. Thousands of Russian soldiers have been killed, with estimates ranging from about 15,000 to as high as 30,000, and Russia is still unable to control Ukraine’s airspace.

The situation has become so dire that there are reports that commanders are trying to preserve equipment by forbidding troops from using them to evacuate wounded soldiers or to support units that have advanced too far.

Russia’s offensive weapons have also proved disappointing. Its missile failure rate — the share that either failed to launch, malfunctioned mid-flight or missed their target — may be as high as 50% to 60% due to design flaws and outdated or inferior equipment.

These problems, along with the Russian military’s slow progress achieving any of President Vladimir Putin’s stated objectives, have raised serious doubts among the country’s traditional customers for weapons exports. Russia sells almost 90% of its weapons to just 10 countries, including India, Egypt and China.

What’s more, Russia’s ability to replace these equipment losses has been hampered by economic sanctions, which bars key foreign components like circuit boards. And Russia will almost certainly need to replace its own military hardware before it exports anything abroad.

That means that even countries that want to keep buying Russian tanks and fighter jets will have to wait in line or turn elsewhere to fulfill their defense needs.

2. Russia’s loss is China’s gain

The country that will likely see the greatest gains from Russia’s displacement as a major arms supplier is China.

In recent years, the country has taken a 4.6% share of the global arms trade, putting it in fourth place behind France’s 11%. At the same time, seven of the top 20 global defense companies in terms of revenues earned from defense sales are Chinese, signaling the sector’s big ambitions.

Currently, the Chinese government buys most of its weapons and vehicles from these domestic arms makers, but China has the capacity to export more military products abroad.

For example, China is already the world’s largest shipbuilder, so exporting more naval ships is a natural next step. The country is expanding its niche role in drone technology and attempting to leverage modernizing its air force with domestically built aircraft to increase exports.

At the moment, only three of the world’s 40 biggest arms importers — Pakistan, Bangladesh and Myanmar — buy a majority of their weapons from China. That could change if China takes advantage of Russian weakness to position itself as a reliable national security, economic and political partner — a core feature of its Belt and Road Initiative.

China is not capable of supplanting US and European weapons, which are considered “top shelf” because of their high quality and price. But China may well fill the market niche that Russian arms makers dominated, thereby increasing Beijing’s role as a major weapons exporter — and gaining the political and economic benefits that accompany that.

One of China’s biggest challenges will involve proving that its weapons work well in live combat situations.

The U.S. has given Ukraine a third of its Javelin anti-tank missiles. 

Credit:

Ukrainian Defense Ministry Press Service via AP

3. American arms makers will also be big winners

US weapons manufactures dominate the global arms industry. The Ukraine war will likely ensure this stays that way for some time.

The world’s five largest arms companies are all American: Lockheed Martin, Raytheon, Boeing, Northrop Grumman and General Dynamics. In fact, half of the top 100 producers of arms are based in the US. Twenty are European. Only two are Russian — despite the country being the world’s second-largest source of arms.

The massive amounts of weapons being transferred from the U.S. to Ukraine will keep American arms makers busy for some time to come. For example, the U.S. has transferred about one-third of its stock of Javelin anti-tank missiles to Ukraine, and it will take three to four years for the Raytheon-Lockheed Martin joint venture to replace them. The $40 billion aid package recently signed by President Joe Biden includes $8.7 billion to replenish US weapons stocks.

The companies’ soaring stock prices are a sign investors believe profitable days are ahead. Lockheed Martin’s stock price is up over 12% since the invasion began — with most of the gains occurring in its immediate aftermath. Northrop Grumman has jumped 20%. At the same time, the broader stock market as measured by the S&P 500 has slumped about 4%.

4. More countries will become arms makers

The flipside to this is that some countries that relied on others for their defense needs may seek to become more self-sufficient.

India, which relied on Russia for almost half of its weapons imports in recent years, is realizing that Russia will need most or all of its production capacity to replace tanks, missiles, aircraft and other weapons used or lost in Ukraine, with less leftover for export.

That means India will need to either source spare parts for vehicles and weapons from other former Russia arms customers such as Bulgaria, Georgia and Poland, or build up its own defense industry. In April, India announced it would ramp up production of helicopters, tank engines, missiles and early airborne warning systems to offset any potential reduction in Russian exports.

Concerns about Russian reliability are also growing. In May, India canceled a $520 million helicopter deal with Russia. While there are reports U.S. pressure played a role, it also seems to be part of the government’s strategy over the past few years to build its own domestic defense industrial base.

Brazil, Turkey and other emerging market countries have also been developing their own defense industries over the past two decades to reduce their reliance on arms imports. The Ukraine war will accelerate this process.

Putin likely didn’t expect to shake up the global arms market with his effort to annex Ukraine — or cause the decline of his country’s weapons sector. But that’s just one more way his war is causing a geopolitical earthquake.

Terrence Guay is a clinical professor of international business and director for the Center for Global Business Studies at Penn State. This article is republished from The Conversation, a nonprofit, independent news organization dedicated to unlocking the knowledge of experts for the public good. 

Lviv rents skyrocket as displaced Ukrainians scramble for housing 

“MuiTypography-root-134 MuiTypography-h1-139″>Lviv rents skyrocket as displaced Ukrainians scramble for housing 

Rent prices in the western city of Lviv have nearly quadrupled in some cases since the war began, making it very difficult for displaced people fleeing war to find stable, affordable housing. 

The WorldJune 16, 2022 · 4:15 PM EDT

An apartment building that holds families from some of Ukraine's most devastated communities: bombarded Karkhiv near the Russian border, obliterated Irpin, and Kyiv, the capital itself, in Lviv, western Ukraine, April 3, 2022. 

Nariman el-Mofty/AP

Sergii Pakhomenko came to the western Ukrainian city of Lviv some three months ago after Russian shelling of his hometown of Mariupol made conditions there unlivable.

 “Very, very rapidly our life deteriorated to the level where we had to use bonfires to even boil water … all under complete and constant siege and bombardment,” said Pakhomenko, a 49-year-old history and political science professor at Mariupol State University.  

Pakhomenko and his family fled by car in mid-March and arrived in Lviv, a city near the Polish border that has become a popular transit site for people displaced by the conflict. 

But rent prices in Lviv have skyrocketed since the war began, making it difficult for displaced people like Pakhomenko to find stable, affordable housing. 

Lviv, with an estimated 721,000 people, has taken in hundreds of thousands more since Russia first invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24. Rent prices immediately spiked in March and April. Places that normally cost about $800 rose to three times or more, according to housing experts.

“The situation on the market was particularly dire at the time so the prices spiked up significantly."

Sergii Pakhomenko, Ukrainian displaced from Mariupol to Lviv during the war

Related: The Ukrainian city of Lviv is a sanctuary. But a humanitarian crisis is deepening.

“The situation on the market was particularly dire at the time so the prices spiked up significantly,” Pakhomenko said.

At first, they lived with one of his colleagues in the outskirts of Lviv, but after helping his wife and daughter get to Lithuania, Pakhomenko decided to find a place of his own.

It wasn’t easy.

Pakhomenko finally found a two-bedroom apartment to share with a roommate near Lviv city center for a little over $300.

He said he lives in an old building that’s wet, humid and cold.  

Pakhomenko cobbles together rent with income he continues to receive as a professor along with a small stipend from the Center for Urban History of East Central Europe in Lviv, where he works.

Rent prices across the city are starting to level off, but it’s not enough for the long term, he said, particularly if his family returns and they have to find larger accommodations.

‘They also need to eat’

Yulia Boyko, founder of Compass Realty in Lviv, said at the start of the war that her office was getting hundreds of calls a day even as rent prices doubled, tripled and even quadrupled before her eyes.

Nearly four months later, rent is starting to go down because people who may have transited through initially have settled abroad. Meanwhile, many people are also moving back to their homes in Ukraine.

“But now, we have a different problem,” Boyko said, noting that rent prices actually need to go back to prewar levels to make living in Lviv sustainable for refugees. 

Meanwhile, runaway inflation has prompted owners to set rent in US dollars rather than local currency.

“And if you see the exchange rate right now, $1 is about 36 hryvnia and before war it was about 28, so prices are becoming too expensive because of the dollar,” she said.

People who still have jobs are being paid primarily in the local currency, Boyko said, while many others have lost their incomes altogether and are running out of money.

“And [displaced Ukrainians] are also on hold. They don’t know what will happen next, or how long war will last. … They cannot spend their entire budget on rentals. They also need to eat.”

Yulia Boyko, Compass Realty, Lviv, Ukraine

“And they are also on hold. They don’t know what will happen next, or how long war will last,” she said. “They cannot spend their entire budget on rentals. They also need to eat.”

High rent is even pushing some people to return home to the east and closer to the front lines of the war. 

The International Organization for Migration says that over 7 million people have been displaced since February, but 4.5 million of them have returned home because they’ve exhausted all their resources and cannot afford to live anywhere else.  

Landlords are hesitant to lower their prices, arguing that they also have to make money. Boyko said that she stopped working with some owners because they refused to lower their desired rent to a more affordable price.  

“People are hard to convince,” she said.  

A need for regulation

The housing crisis in Lviv has revealed a more pressing issue: Ukraine’s need to regulate the rental market.

“Often people perceive rent not as a business but as a kind of mutual help. … This informality builds a really unequal power relationship.”

Alona Liasheva, sociologist and housing activist, Lviv, Ukraine

“Often, people perceive rent not as a business but as a kind of mutual help,” said Alona Liasheva, a sociologist and housing activist. “This informality builds a really unequal power relationship.”

She said that most Ukrainians think of housing as an asset and that only about 20% are renters.  

“And the rent market is almost ignored as a sphere of life that needs to be regulated by the state. [It] needs to be treated as [a] business,” she said.  

This would allow for more progressive housing policies and empower tenants to demand fair treatment. 

Some grassroots and municipality-level advancements have been made, but Ukraine needs to completely change its mentality about housing to spur real change, she said.  

For now, Pakhomenko in Lviv said he will not try to negotiate a lower price on rent with his landlord. 

He said he’d rather stay in his own apartment — even if it’s damp and cold — rather than have to depend on anyone else’s hospitality. 

“[At the beginning], you are greeted,” he said. 

“But with the passing of the time, that welcome runs out and I would rather be on my own.”

Dancing away the loneliness: In the UK, social prescriptions help fight isolation during the pandemic

“MuiTypography-root-134 MuiTypography-h1-139″>Dancing away the loneliness: In the UK, social prescriptions help fight isolation during the pandemic

Social prescriptions are relatively common in the United Kingdom, especially to treat loneliness and isolation. When these conditions were exacerbated by the pandemic, the UK already had a strategy in place to help those who need it most, including the elderly.

The WorldJune 16, 2022 · 4:00 PM EDT

A Posh Club performer leads club-goers in a conga-line.

Peter Robertshaw/The World

Sylvia Fifer always loved to dance.

Now 85, she met her husband at a dance in London one Saturday night in 1955. For more than six decades, they would go dancing a few times a week.

“I didn’t say we were good,” Fifer joked. “But we enjoyed what we did.” 

Their last dance together was in April 2020, when her husband contracted COVID-19 and died within a week of the diagnosis. 

The grief was almost more than Fifer could bear.

“I was very, very lonely,” she said. 

When Fifer sought help from her general practitioner, she was given more than just a pill. She wrote Fifer a social prescription — to a dance club.

Sylvia Fifer, 85, enjoys tea at The Posh Club.

Credit:

Peter Robertshaw/The World

Social prescriptions are relatively common in the United Kingdom, especially to treat loneliness and isolation. When these conditions were exacerbated by the pandemic, the UK already had a strategy in place to help those who need it most.

Medicine works for kidney ailments, diabetes and heart disease, but loneliness isn’t an organ or a disease that a pill can target, according to Dr. Ashwin Kotwal, a geriatrician and assistant professor at the University of California San Francisco’s School of Medicine. 

“As people get older, their lives become increasingly medicalized. Very few clinicians are actually thinking about people as a whole person.”

Dr. Ashwin Kotwal, geriatrician and assistant professor at the University of California San Francisco’s School of Medicine

“As people get older, their lives become increasingly medicalized,” he said. “Very few clinicians are actually thinking about people as a whole person.”

It requires a different approach.

Doctors now know that social isolation is linked to an increased risk of health problems like dementia, heart disease and stroke. Loneliness also increases the risk of high blood pressure. And people with fewer connections are also at greater risk of premature death.

In 2017, US Surgeon General Vivek Murthy called loneliness an epidemic. But in the five years since Murthy highlighted the issue, the US has devised no strategic approach to mitigate loneliness.

Related: The ‘forgotten victims’ of femicide in France: Women over 65

In the UK, however, doctors can deliver social prescriptions through link workers — a unique role that the National Health Service began to fund in 2019. 

Every general practitioner has access to a link worker and there are now more than 1,000 across the country.  

Fifer wasn’t necessarily looking for a social prescription when she made an appointment with her general practitioner in London.

“I just wanted company.”

Sylvia Fifer, 85-year-old British woman who lost her husband to COVID-19

“I poured my heart out to her,” she said. “I just wanted company.”

Her doctor chose to treat her depression and loneliness by increasing Fifer’s antidepressants and also issuing a prescription for social dance. 

Fifer’s link worker chatted with her several times before giving her a referral to try out The Posh Club.

‘Hello, Posh Club!’

On a Wednesday morning in March, a long line formed outside St. Paul’s Church in London’s borough of Hackney, as people waited to enter The Posh Club.

“I’ve got on my posh scarf and my 100-year-old posh jacket,” said Anita, 78.

Anita, 78, dances at The Posh Club.

Credit:

Peter Robertshaw/The World

The Posh Club is a unique place that offers a weekly afternoon tea party and cabaret for older people. 

The Posh Club is a weekly afternoon tea party and cabaret for older people.

Credit:

Peter Robertshaw/The World

The “posh” name is tongue-in-cheek. Entry to the club is less than $10. There is, however, one rule: “If you ain’t over 60, you ain’t getting in,” Azara Meghie, the host, quipped.

Under a disco ball inside a church-turned-club, many people gathered, accessorized with high heels, silk ties, shimmery shawls and tassel earrings, with Donna Summer’s “Hot Stuff” blaring through speakers. 

“I never envisioned that I would feel so strongly about meeting people,” said Fifer, who has been attending weekly for almost a year. 

The Posh Club was started by a queer nightlife collective called Duckie in 2013, after one of the group’s leaders noticed that his own 80-year-old mother was living in near isolation. 

The entrance fee comes with unlimited servings of tea and coffee, plus sandwiches, cakes and entertainment. The acts include dancers, musicians, drag performers and comedians.

Hackney club host Azara Meghie laughs with her mother Lorna, a Posh Club regular.

Credit:

Peter Robertshaw/The World

It also challenges stereotypes of what an older person enjoys, Meghie said.

“They're still being treated like there's life there.”

A squad of volunteers, much younger than the guests, brings the club to life each week.

Ministries of loneliness

In 2018, then-British Prime Minister Theresa May appointed a minister for loneliness and announced a national strategy to combat loneliness and social isolation. 

Later, the role was absorbed into the department for digital, culture, media and sport. 

Last year, Japan also added a minister of loneliness and Australia has proposed a national strategy.

Meanwhile, the US has no prescription for dealing with isolation and loneliness for its 54 million seniors.

American doctors tend to think it’s not their job to treat loneliness, said Dr. Carla Perissinotto, a UCSF geriatrician and professor. 

“The medical model for a long time has really separated social health — health outside of the physical being — from health.”

US Surgeon General Murthy, who did not respond to requests for an interview, — has made combating loneliness his mission, calling it a “public health threat” and a “growing health epidemic.”

Related: How poetry has helped a hospital chaplain in the pandemic

He advocates for greater attention to loneliness as a health issue in America in his book, “Together: The Healing Power of Human Connection in a Sometimes Lonely World.”

Social prescribing doesn’t fit neatly into the US health care system, a fee-for-service setup in which providers earn money based on the number of services. The more times a person goes to the doctor, the more money health care providers make.

The system incentivizes the wrong behavior, said Abner Mason, founder and CEO of California-based SameSky Health, which helps older people of color access Medicaid and Medicare Advantage.

“If you make more money the sicker people are, it's just not a good health care system.”

Abner Mason, founder and CEO of SameSky Health

“If you make more money the sicker people are, it's just not a good health care system,” he said. 

The Affordable Care Act set out to change the system to one in which providers are reimbursed based on the quality of care. Financial incentives encourage providers to create programs that reduce poor health outcomes — including loneliness. 

This could also help save money for the government.

Related: Can we improve the way we age?

A 2017 AARP study found that Medicare spends an average of $1,608 more annually for a person with limited social connections than for a socially active one — that’s an estimated $6.7 billion in added Medicare spending each year.

Not a perfect system

Social prescriptions come at a cost — not only in terms of the addition of link workers — but also for the patients. 

Britain’s National Health Service doesn’t cover Sylvia Fifer’s fee to enter The Posh Club, or any other costs incurred.

Fifer met new friends who love dancing as much as she does.

Credit:

Peter Robertshaw/The World

“It’s based on the assumption that there are services available in the community already and that somebody is funding them,” said Dan Hopewell, a director at the Bromley by Bow Center in London.

But that assumption is erroneous. The Posh Club’s funding, for example, ran out in March. They now await funding from the National Lottery, according to the club’s website. 

Fifer, who lives in a big city, may have other options. But social prescriptions are harder to fill in small towns or rural areas, where choices are limited.

Related: Feminist tango collectives take center stage in Argentina

The NHS does not provide subsidies for transportation to fill social prescriptions.

The National Academy for Social Prescribing also found racial inequities in the system, with Black, Asian and ethnically diverse people underrepresented in social prescribing.

Volunteers bring the club to life each week, dancing along with club-goers.

Credit:

Peter Robertshaw/The World

For Fifer, it’s been a life-changer. She made a friend at The Posh Club who lives nearby, which has helped immensely with her loneliness.

“Being thrust on your own is very difficult,” Fifer said. 

“But you know, when Elaine phones up and says, ‘Where are we going tomorrow?’ It’s brilliant.”

Sofie Kodner and Zachary Fletcher are writers with the Investigative Reporting Program at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. The IRP reported this story through a grant from The SCAN Foundation. 

Brazilians mourn deaths of journalist and anthropologist whose remains were recovered in the Amazon 

“MuiTypography-root-134 MuiTypography-h1-139″>Brazilians mourn deaths of journalist and anthropologist whose remains were recovered in the Amazon 

​​​​​​​The remains of two men missing in the western Amazon were found on Wednesday night. And two fishermen have been arrested in connection to the case. Indigenous and environmental leaders are mourning the deaths and asking questions about the government's role in protecting the Amazon.

The WorldJune 16, 2022 · 3:15 PM EDT

Workers of the National Indian Foundation, FUNAI, stand next to a banner with images of missing Indigenous expert Bruno Pereira, right, and freelance British journalist Dom Phillips, during a vigil in Brasilia, Brazil, June 13, 2022. Brazilian police are still searching for Pereira and Phillips, who went missing in a remote area of Brazil's Amazon a week ago.

Eraldo Peres/AP

In Brazil, the bodies of British journalist Dom Phillips and Brazilian anthropologist Bruno Pereira who went missing in the western Amazon on June 5 have been found while two suspects have been detained in the case.

“It was really very brutal the way our companions were executed. Their bodies were buried really far from the river,” said Kora Kanamari, an Indigenous leader from the Javari Valley Indigenous territory, in a message sent to friends over WhatsApp on Wednesday night that was also shared with The World.

Related: 'We still have a little hope of finding them': A journalist and anthropologist working in the Amazon have gone missing

Phillips and Pereira were in the region interviewing people from Indigenous communities for a book that Phillips was writing about sustainable development in the Amazon.

Pereira had worked for many years at Brazil’s Indigenous Agency. Their work called attention to the increasing numbers of illegal fishermen, hunters, loggers and narcotraffickers on Indigenous land.

Indigenous and environmental leaders are mourning the deaths and asking questions about the government's role in protecting the Amazon.

The search 

Pereira, 41, and Phillips, 57, were last seen on their boat in a river near the entrance of the Javari Valley Indigenous Territory, which borders Peru and Colombia. That area has seen violent conflicts between fishermen, poachers and government agents.

Related: Brazil’s Lula makes a comeback on a campaign to defend democracy

The 10-day search for their bodies was exhaustive, and largely led by the Union of Indigenous peoples of the Javari Valley together with Brazil’s federal police, and  military leaders.

The police have arrested two brothers in the case: Amarildo and Oseney da Costa de Oliveira. They are both illegal fishermen who allegedly threatened Phillips and Pereira earlier in their trip. On Wednesday, the federal police said that Amarildo had confessed to killing the men using a firearm and led them to the remains.

“A crime was committed. We have the material evidence. We are now in the phase of uncovering all of the authors of this criminal act and the circumstances and the real motivation of the crime.”

 a top member of the Federal Police in Manaus

“A crime was committed,” said a top member of the Federal Police in Manaus during a press conference on Wednesday night. “We have the material evidence. We are now in the phase of uncovering all of the authors of this criminal act and the circumstances and the real motivation of the crime.”

Authorities said Wednesday that they expected to make more arrests in the case. None had been made as of Thursday, but police said searches for the boat the two had used were about to restart while Phillips’ and Pereira’s bodies will arrive in Brasilia on Thursday evening for further investigation.

Related: Brazil's public health workers race to tackle dengue surge

Guilherme Torres of the Amazonas state police said that the missing men's boat had not been found yet but police knew the area where it purportedly was hidden.

“They put bags of dirt on the boat so it would sink,” he said. The engine of the boat was removed, according to investigators.

Authorities have said a main line of investigation has pointed to an international network that pays poor fishermen to fish illegally in the Javari Valley reserve, which is Brazil’s second-largest Indigenous territory.

Pereira, who previously led FUNAI's local office in the region, had taken part in several operations against illegal fishing, which usually lead to seizure of fishing gear and fines for violators. Only the Indigenous can legally fish in their territories.

But police have not ruled out other motives, such as drug trafficking.

Luto, or ‘mourning’ 

The Portuguese word luto, or “mourning,” has been shared by friends over WhatsApp, posted to social media and published on top of a black background on the front page of an environmental journal in Brazil.

Composer André Abujamra remixed a song featuring Pereira singing in an Indigenous language.

Pereira’s wife wrote on Twitter: “Now that Bruno’s spirits are wandering in the forest and spread among us, our strength is much greater.”

"Now we can bring them home and say goodbye with love,” said Phillip’s wife Alessandra Sampaio, in a statement. “Today, we also begin our quest for justice. I hope that the investigations exhaust all possibilities and bring definitive answers on all relevant details as soon as possible.”

“It’s sad but we need to take advantage of this moment, so we can ensure that their death is not in vain. “We need to organize in their memory. We need to continue their work.”

Barbara Arisi, anthropologist

“It’s sad but we need to take advantage of this moment, so we can ensure that their death is not in vain,” said anthropologist Barbara Arisi, who has lived and worked closely with communities in the Javari Valley. “We need to organize in their memory. We need to continue their work.”

Illegal invasions

Illegal invasions into Indigenous territories have spiked under Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro. He has vocally backed development in the Amazon and gutted resources to state agencies that once protected reserves, conservation areas and Indigenous territories.

Related: Samba schools at Carnival take a stand against the racism and violence that Black Brazilians face

Bolsonaro has been a frequent critic both of journalists and Indigenous experts and his government was accused of being slow to act in the disappearances. Before the bodies were discovered on Wednesday, he criticized Phillips in an interview, saying that locals in the area where he went missing didn't like him and that he should have been more careful in the region.

“We are concerned for the safety of our region and the Indigenous peoples after everything that has happened here,” said Eliesio Marubo, one of the leaders of the Union of Indigenous peoples of the Javari Valley. “We have been abandoned by the state. And we will surely continue to be abandoned. We have done our part. But the state must assume the responsibility of protecting the lives of those here.”

UNIVAJA, an association of Indigenous peoples of the Javari Valley, mourned the loss of “two partners” in a statement Wednesday, adding they only had help and protection from local police.

Colleagues of Pereira called a vigil outside FUNAI's headquarters in Brasilia.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

TikTok can be a ‘dangerous tool for hatemongers,’ Kenyan govt warns ahead of elections

“MuiTypography-root-134 MuiTypography-h1-139″>TikTok can be a ‘dangerous tool for hatemongers,’ Kenyan govt warns ahead of elections

A new Mozilla Foundation report states that election disinformation and hate speech are being spread through TikTok in the run up to elections in Kenya next month. After violence erupted during 2007 elections, the government created an agency to quell ethnic strife, and it warns against a repeat of the unrest.

The WorldJune 16, 2022 · 1:45 PM EDT

A view of the TikTok app logo, in Tokyo, Japan, Sept. 28, 2020.

Kiichiro Sato/AP/File photo

TikTok is known for its fun and silly viral videos. But a new report by the Mozilla Foundation has found that election disinformation and hate speech are being spread across Kenya on the popular social media platform. 

“That, I think, is part of TikTok's narrative, which is that they’re this place for a lot of fun and for a lot of, you know, silliness and happiness,” said Odanga Madung, the Mozilla fellow who authored the report. “But in reality, the truth is that that platform is as political as it can get,” he added.

Related: Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o’s famously banned play returns to Kenya

In the report, Odanga analyzed more than 130 videos that violated TikTok’s policies by spreading disinformation and hate speech in relation to Kenya’s upcoming presidential election in August.

He explained that the posts are trying to incite certain groups against others or very clearly trying to instill fear into certain ethnic groups.”

The videos have already garnered more than 4 million views.

The government has also expressed concerns about the role that social media is playing ahead of the election.

“The social media space has become a dangerous tool for hatemongers and disinformation propagandists.”

Samuel Kobia, chair of the National Cohesion and Integration Commission

“The social media space has become a dangerous tool for hatemongers and disinformation propagandists,” Samuel Kobia, chair of the National Cohesion and Integration Commission (NCIC), said last month.

The NCIC government agency was established after Kenya’s violent 2007 election, when more than a thousand people were killed in ethnic violence.

Kobia also said that the agency plans to create a system to monitor social media outlets throughout the campaign season.

Related: Kenyan environmentalists protest proposed forest bill amendments

But Mozilla’s Madung said that social media platforms like TikTok also need to do more to moderate content and support their overworked moderators.

“[TikTok moderators] are required to review over 1,000 videos a day. And what that means is, sometimes they do not have the luxury of watching a full video …"

Odanga Madung, fellow who authored Mozilla Foundation report on TikTok

“[TikTok moderators] are required to review over 1,000 videos a day,” he said. “And what that means is, sometimes they do not have the luxury of watching a full video all [the way] through or they have to watch it at three times the speed.”

Madung also said that TikTok needs to be more transparent about its fact checking process, and how it labels false content.

The World reached out to TikTok about Madung’s findings and a TikTok spokesperson replied that they had a "dedicated team working to safeguard TikTok during Kenyan elections." 

Related: ‘They don’t help us’: Apathy, disillusionment with the Kenyan govt blamed for low voter registration

The statement continues: 

"We prohibit and remove election misinformation, promotions of violence, and other violations of our policies and partner with accredited factcheckers, including Agence France-Presse (AFP) in Kenya. We're also engaging locally with NGOs [nongovernmental organizations] and will roll out product features to connect our community with authoritative information about the Kenyan elections in our app."

A spate of dolphin deaths in the Black Sea prompts scientists to search for answers

“MuiTypography-root-134 MuiTypography-h1-139″>A spate of dolphin deaths in the Black Sea prompts scientists to search for answers

Since February, hundreds of dolphins have been found dead off the coasts of Ukraine, Bulgaria and Turkey. Scientists have pointed to the war in Ukraine as a possible cause. Navy sonar systems used to locate other vessels create powerful sounds that may be disorienting the marine animals. 

The WorldJune 15, 2022 · 4:00 PM EDT

In just the first month of the war, scientists reported more than 80 dolphin deaths on the Turkish coast, according to the Turkish Marine Research Foundation. 

Durrie Bouscaren/The World

When looking for dolphins, follow the birds.

That’s the advice of marine biologist Ayaka Öztürk, who spends her days observing dolphins swimming in the waters of Turkey’s Bosphorus Strait. 

On one outing, Öztürk and her colleagues from the Turkish Marine Research Foundation (TUDAV) watched a small pod of dolphins with their calves swimming through one of the world’s busiest commercial shipping lanes. 

“The dolphins are feeding on the fish, so the fish come up to the surface and the birds can also feed on them,” Öztürk said. “Birds follow dolphins and we follow the birds!” 

But lately, the Black Sea has spelled troubled waters for the dolphins. Since February, hundreds of dolphins have been found dead along the coasts of Ukraine, Bulgaria and Turkey. And scientists have pointed to the war in Ukraine as a possible cause. 

Some dolphins have gotten entangled in fishing nets and washed ashore in a phenomenon known as “strandings.” Scientists speculate that navy sonar systems used to locate other vessels hundreds of feet under water are creating powerful sounds that disorient marine animals. 

Öztürk and her colleagues from the Turkish Marine Research Foundation settle in on their boat to search for dolphins.

Credit:

Durrie Bouscaren/The World

In just the first month of the war, scientists counted more than 80 dolphin deaths along the Turkish coast, an “extraordinary increase,” TUDAV reported. 

In normal times, there would only be a few. 

Pre-war estimates put the Black Sea dolphin population near 253,000. 

According to Öztürk, the fact that common dolphins and bottlenose dolphins are being caught in fishing nets is odd, because they tend to know how to swim out. 

The Turkish coast sits some 400 miles from the coast of Ukraine, on the southern edge of the Black Sea. 

Many dolphins also live in the narrow, polluted waters of the Bosphorus Strait — dodging oil tankers and litter from Istanbul’s 16 million people. 

Twice a month, Öztürk’s team completes a survey trip with cameras in tow, hoping to better understand if the dolphins they see are long-term residents or new arrivals from the north. 

Anecdotally, Öztürk said, she’s seeing an unusually high number of common dolphins in the Bosphorus Strait; a species that tends to prefer deeper, open waters. This could mean they’re seeking refuge from unusual activity in the Black Sea. 

Or they could be following higher than usual volumes of fish.

“This year, they tend to stay around. Which is unusual,” Öztürk said. “But we don’t really know.”

We’ll have to ask them, she laughed. 

Related: At the mouth of the Black Sea, a ship spotter watches for clues amid Ukraine war

Marine biologist Ayhan Dede and doctoral student Aylin Güler keep an eye out for dolphins on a survey trip in the Bosphorus Strait.

Credit:

Durrie Bouscaren/The World 

Listening to dolphins

To hear the dolphins’ vocalizations, the researchers have installed hydrophones (underwater microphones) in the Bosphorus. 

“It’s this multisensory noise,” said Dr. Ayhan Dede, a marine biologist with TUDAV and Istanbul University. “It’s unbelievable." 

Dolphins use echolocation to hunt, navigate, and avoid predators – especially in murky waters. Their hearing is sensitive, and when damaged, it can be life-threatening.

That’s why the underwater navy sonar systems used in the Russian invasion of Ukraine are being strongly considered as the source of the problem. 

To hear the dolphins’ vocalizations, the researchers have installed hydrophones in the Bosphorus.

Credit:

Durrie Bouscaren/The World

Simon Elwen, director of the South Africa-based Sea Search, said that their research on underwater mammals exposed to naval exercises shows that they respond to loud sonar as they would to a killer whale attack.

“Essentially, they get a big fright, they rush to the surface, and they scatter,” Elwen said. 

Deep diving animals that surface too quickly can experience decompression sickness the same way a scuba diver might, Elwen said. 

In shallower water, explosions or loud noises can permanently damage a dolphin’s hearing – and therefore their ability to use echolocation to hunt, navigate, and find each other.

“Behavioral changes like that can result in moving away from normal habitat, and – what seems to be happening in the Black Sea — getting caught in fishing nets because they aren’t familiar with the area, or panicking and not paying attention, or impaired hearing,” Elwen said. 

This research was done during naval exercises in peacetime, in controlled settings, he cautioned. 

“You can imagine that in war, a lot of the health and safety and environmental protocols do fall aside,” Elwen said. 

Proving that a dolphin has suffered acoustic trauma is difficult. 

Scientists must take a sample from the animal’s inner ear within 24 hours of the animal’s death. There are only a few specialized labs in Europe with the ability to analyze the samples, which requires an export permit. 

“Behavioral changes like that can result in moving away from normal habitat, and – what seems to be happening in the Black Sea — getting caught in fishing nets because they aren’t familiar with the area, or panicking and not paying attention, or impaired hearing."

Simon Elwen, director, Sea Search, South Africa

Scientists are trying to determine if underwater navy sonar systems used in the Russian invasion of Ukraine are a possible cause of recent dolphin deaths in the Black Sea. 

Credit:

Durrie Bouscaren/The World

Distressed dolphins

Öztürk and her team remain on the lookout for dolphins in distress. 

She’s in regular touch with city cleanup crews, fishermen and the Turkish Coast Guard, who alert her when they find a stranded dolphin. 

So far, she’s found one dolphin washed ashore who was pregnant and near term – her belly full of fish. 

She was healthy, Öztürk said, but somehow got entangled in a fishing net and suffocated. 

"It was very, very heartbreaking," Öztürk said. 

Dolphins can stay underwater for long periods of time but must reach the surface to breathe. 

Did this dolphin die because her hearing was damaged in the war? 

Öztürk said it’s too soon to say. 

Alternative causes of death — like disease or pollution — still have to be ruled out. 

“We just have to keep monitoring what’s going on,” Öztürk said. For now, she said, it’s a strong hypothesis. 

Troubled geography: Part II

“MuiTypography-root-134 MuiTypography-h1-139″>Troubled geography: Part II

How did changes in US gun policy contribute to the rise in gun violence in Mexico? This week's Critical State, a foreign policy newsletter by Inkstick Media, explores the reasons behind rising gun violence in Mexico.

The WorldJune 15, 2022 · 12:30 PM EDT

A police officer guards the area as investigators comb the site where more than a dozen people were believed to have been gunned down by armed men on Sunday, in San Jose de Gracia, head of the municipality of Marcos Castellanos, in Michoacan state, Mexico, Monday, Feb. 28, 2022. 

Armando Solis/AP

This analysis was featured in Critical State, a weekly foreign policy newsletter from Inkstick Media. Subscribe here.

A gun is a material fact, embedded in an ecosystem of supporting material facts. At the moment of violence, this long supply chain is irrelevant, but without it, the gun would never arrive at the moment of violence in the first place. When someone picks up a gun to do violence, they can only do so because people before them have made the gun’s parts, ammunition, and market availability, converting metal plastic and engineering it into a machine for igniting gunpowder and hurling metal into a human body.

Related: Troubled geography: Part I

To talk about gun violence is to talk about the whole of that process, the creation and distribution of guns and ammunition, and how that creation puts weapons in the hands of those who mean to do harm.

To talk about gun violence is to talk about the whole of that process, the creation and distribution of guns and ammunition, and how that creation puts weapons in the hands of those who mean to do harm. While the specifics of who does the harm, and for what ends, in what circumstances, can all vary and are worthy of study, the unifying factor in gun violence is the availability of guns.

Related: Democracy, interrupted: Part I

The murder rate in Mexico shot upward in the mid-2000s, after decades of decline. In “Why did Mexico become a violent country?,” David Perez Esparza, Shane D. Johnson, and Paul Gill look at the rise of gun violence in Mexico, and specifically examine how much of that change is downstream from changes in United States gun policy.

The US, through a series of policy changes starting in the Bush administration, has expanded both the production and the flow of guns.

The US, through a series of policy changes starting in the Bush administration, has expanded both the production and the flow of guns. The Assault Weapons Ban, a 1994 measure that prohibited the sale of semi-automatic weapons, expired in 2004. The Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act, a 2005 law that protected gunmakers from liability, further lowered the legal and financial risk to gunmakers. This is to say nothing of the variability of state law that in many states loosened restrictions for purchasing weapons. These laws, plus the massive expansion of gun manufacturing aimed at a civilian market, created the conditions for a massive influx of guns into Mexico.

Related: Democracy, interrupted: Part II

With guns easily available in US border states, the specific nature of gun-enabled crime in Mexico changed, built around the heavier and more rapid-fire weapons that came up for sale.

With guns easily available in US border states, the specific nature of gun-enabled crime in Mexico changed, built around the heavier and more rapid-fire weapons that came up for sale.

Write the authors, “since the mid-2000s there has been an increase in crimes that benefit from having access to an illegal firearm, such as extortion and kidnapping.” This change came alongside a change in targeting, with mayors and the Mexican Army itself subject to direct attacks from criminal enterprise in Mexico. The authors note that “organized criminal groups did not use high caliber guns until 2005,” and point to studies which “suggest that there has been a dramatic increase in mass shootings and criminal attacks on public figures (e.g., authorities, candidates, and political activists) since the mid-2000s.”

A free and open market for guns in the United States, paired with a massive upswing in production, fed well into existing criminal pathways in Mexico for smuggled weapons, legally purchased, to reshape the form and caliber of violence in the country.

ADD CITATION HERE

A free and open market for guns in the United States, paired with a massive upswing in production, fed well into existing criminal pathways in Mexico for smuggled weapons, legally purchased, to reshape the form and caliber of violence in the country. 

It’s a reminder, too, that one country’s political expedience may cause an open wound on its neighbor.

Critical State is your weekly fix of foreign policy analysis from the staff at Inkstick Media. Subscribe here

‘Fire flocks’ of sheep and goats get deployed to help battle forest fires in Spain

“MuiTypography-root-134 MuiTypography-h1-139″>'Fire flocks’ of sheep and goats get deployed to help battle forest fires in Spain

Shepherds in Spain are now training to start “fire flocks" that graze at the edge of forests to prevent wildfires from spreading to populated areas.

The WorldJune 14, 2022 · 2:00 PM EDT

Forest firefighters work on a wildfire near the town of Jubrique, in Malaga province, Spain, Saturday, Sept. 11, 2021. 

Pedro Armestre/AP

As summer nears in Europe, firefighters in Spain are gearing up to battle forest fires.  

On a recent day, men armed with gas-powered weed-whackers were working the perimeter of Barcelona, a city hemmed in by the sea on one side and, inland, by a huge forest called Collserola Park. 

Here, where the city meets nature’s edge, it’s crucial to keep the area clean in order to prevent forest fires. Shepherds are now being trained to start “fire flocks,” herds of sheep and goats that graze at the edge of forests to prevent wildfires from spreading to populated areas.

Related: Barcelona is one of Europe's loudest cities. It's trying to turn down the volume.

Weed-whacking worker Richard Verdum laughed at the idea. “If you bring in sheep and goats, they’ll eat everything within reach. All the vegetation will die,” he said.

But experts say that’s not exactly right. Spanish ecology professor Ferran Paunè explained that unchecked forest growth has thrown Spain’s countryside out of balance and goats and sheep — natural ruminants, or grazers — can help.

“As a society we look at a forest as a very good thing. … But for our countries,  it is a big problem, because there are few wild animals in the woods."

Ferran Paunè, ecology professor

“As a society we look at a forest as a very good thing,” he said. “But for our countries, it is a big problem, because there are few wild animals in the woods,” he said — and virtually none that graze.

“You recover vegetation, but not fauna. If you do not have herbivores, you have fire,” Paunè said.

Four flocks of sheep and goats are now working the hills above Barcelona. 

Dani Sanchez, 35, said his so-called “fire flock” tidies up the forest better than any machine.

“My sheep and goats are firefighters. … They’re our firewall.”

Dani Sanchez, 35, shepherd

Barcelona shepherd Dani Sanchez, 35, follows his flock through a park just above the city. His "fire flock" eats the underbrush that can fuel forest fires.

Credit:

Gerry Hadden/The World

“My sheep and goats are firefighters,” he said with pride. “They’re our firewall.”

Sanchez leads his 130 animals through a stand of pines just yards from Barcelona’s outermost road — within earshot of the weed whackers.

Vast strips of forest floor look like they’ve been mowed over the last two months. 

Sanchez’s fire flock is part of a pilot program run by Paunè, the ecologist, and the Catalan government.

If all goes to plan, they’ll provide the entire Catalan region with flocks, from the Ebro Delta to the south, all the way to the French border.

“We need even more flocks out here grazing,” Sanchez said. 

A sign in Barcelona's Collserola Park reads "No lighting fires." The summer is about to begin and people across Spain are expecting an increase in fires with the high temperatures.

Credit:

Gerry Hadden/The World

‘This isn’t sustainable’

Hotter, dryer days due to climate change and neglect in keeping forests clean are two main reasons behind the increasing intensity of the fires. 

Last year, in the Catalonia region of Spain, there were a record 51 blazes in July alone. 

One of last summer’s worst fires swept through the mountains about an hour away from Barcelona. Overnight, a 30-foot-high wall of flames incinerated about 7,400 acres of dense, overgrown wilderness. 

Planes and helicopters dumped water as local farmers bulldozed crops, making a protective fire-cut around the town of Santa Coloma de Queralt. Their actions likely saved the village.

Related: Residents remember their losses as they rebuild from La Palma's volcanic eruption

The next day, fire inspector David Borrell said that it’d be much more affordable to pay people to return to the countryside — to become its custodians again — compared to spending millions in fighting these ever-bigger and more frequent fires, or having to rebuild afterward. 

“This isn’t sustainable,” he said. 

Spain’s forests have grown large as people abandon the countryside for cities.

“Having a mix of farms, forests and grazing lands lets us to break up these large forests."

Related: Spain vows to help rebuild La Palma after devastating volcano eruption

A new generation of shepherds 

Back in Barcelona, Sanchez passes mountain bikers and hikers all day long. Occasionally, he scolds a dog owner for not using a leash. 

But mostly, people enjoy the presence of his flocks. 

“Ever since the sheep arrived, we’ve been running into each other,” a young jogger said as he ran by. “It’s great. It also gives Barcelona residents a different view on nature.” 

But where there are flocks, there must also be shepherds. 

As fate would have it, for reasons ranging from COVID-19 to worries over global warming, the job is gaining in popularity — even among younger people. 

An hour south of Barcelona, some 20 young people attended shepherding school under a hot June sun. 

One class taught how to use flocks to clear land around the suburbs — they call it “precision grazing.” An instructor explained how out-of-control fires can easily sweep through residential areas. 

But fire prevention isn’t what pushed 24-year-old Aina Solana to leave behind her life in downtown Barcelona, where she’d been a dancer and student. 

“I remember one day walking the streets of Barcelona,” she said. “Looking around, I said to myself, I don’t see beauty here.”

Related: Foragers in Catalonia embrace a new mushroom-hunting season after last year’s strict lockdown

Shepherd-in-training Aina Solana rests with goats on a hot day. Losana has given up city life to reconnect with her roots and with nature.

Credit:

Courtesy of Paroma Basu

Last year, Solana moved to her ancestral home, high in the Pyrenees, where her grandparents had been shepherds. 

She decided to follow their path.

“In Barcelona, I didn’t even know what I was eating or where it came from. Now that I’ve returned to the country, I know that my eggs come from my neighbor. It gives me peace of mind.”

Aina Solana, 24, shepherd-in-training

“In Barcelona,” she said, “I didn’t even know what I was eating or where it came from. Now that I’ve returned to the country, I know that my eggs come from my neighbor. It gives me peace of mind.”

Solana and her classmates are nearly finished with their studies. 

Afterwards, they could choose a solitary life in the mountains, or join a cheesemaking co-op.

But the shepherding gig with the most openings? Leading a so-called fire flock.

Because the rate of forest fires is only likely to increase.

‘The best is yet to come’: Cuban boxers make a professional comeback after 60-year ban is lifted

“MuiTypography-root-134 MuiTypography-h1-139″>'The best is yet to come': Cuban boxers make a professional comeback after 60-year ban is lifted

The Cuban government recently lifted a decadesold ban on professional boxing imposed by then-President Fidel Castro in 1962. This year, the Cuban boxing team “Los Domadores” made a triumphant professional debut on May 20 in Aguascalientes, Mexico.

The WorldJune 14, 2022 · 12:45 PM EDT

Boxers train at the Rafael Trejo boxing gym in Old Havana, Cuba, April 6, 2022.

Ramon Espinosa/AP/File photo

The Cuban boxing team made a triumphant professional debut on May 20, in Aguascalientes, Mexico.

It was Cuba’s first professional boxing match since the Cuban government lifted a decadesold ban on the professional sport in April. 

Two-time Cuban Olympic gold medalist Julio César La Cruz easily overcame Colombian Deivis Cásseres with a knockout — just a minute and 40 seconds into the second round.

And in a quick, precise move, Cuban boxing star Arlén López hit Fernando Galván’s chin with his left hand and won the match in the first round.

All six members of the Cuban team "Los Domadores" (Spanish for “The Tamers,”) easily won their fights, with five knockouts and a victory by unanimous decision.

Boxing roots in Cuba 

Boxing has been popular in Cuba for more than 100 years. 

It arrived on the island as a tourist attraction, mostly featuring championship bouts between North American boxers, writes researcher Louis Pérez Jr. in his book, "On Becoming Cuban: Identity, Nationality and Culture."

Related: Cuban govt supporters resorted to tactics they haven't used in decades to suppress political dissidents, professor says

Pérez Jr., who studied Cuban culture in the 19th and 20th centuries, said that the sport quickly became popular with the locals, many of whom became world-class champions themselves.

Boxers known as “Kid Chocolate,” the first Cuban to hold a world boxing title in the early 1930s, or “Kid Gavilán,” the undisputed world welterweight champion in the 1950s, are considered national heroes in Cuba.

Not long after the Communist revolution, then-President Fidel Castro banned professional sports on the island in the early 60s. He said the industry was riddled with corruption and that athletes were exploited by big economic powers.

Related: Kiki Valera on Son cubano and how he developed a unique musical perspective

Aerial shot of boxers training at the Rafael Trejo boxing gym in Old Havana, Cuba, April 6, 2022. 

Credit:

Ramon Espinosa/AP/File photo

As a result, many professional athletes left the island and moved to other places, like the US, Mexico, Puerto Rico and countries in Europe. Those who remained on the island have, for years, excelled during Olympics Games and in the amateur system.

Cuba has won 37 gold medals in boxing — second place on the all-time medal table, after the United States.

'The best is yet to come'

Alberto Puig de la Barca, president of the Cuban Boxing Federation, explained how the decision to lift the ban on professional boxing gained traction. 

Related: For the first time, 'children of the revolution are fighting the revolution' says former US rep

“A few years ago, we began to study what was happening in the professional boxing world and it resulted in the approved agreement between the country’s sport and the Cuban Boxing Federation with the Golden Ring Promotions [a Mexican sports management company], for the representation of Cuba in its entry into professional boxing,” Puig de la Barca said. 

He said there are two main motivations to lift the ban on professional boxing. For one, Cuban boxers are ready for a new challenge.

“We want to clash with the best in the world,” he said. 

Puig de la Barca said professional boxing is more humane nowadays and officiating is more ethical than it used to be.

The other motivation is money.

Related: How Indigenous women revolutionized Bolivian wrestling

Up until now, Cuban athletes had not been able to cash in on the big prizes. Now, they will get 80% of the prize money for each fight. The coach will get 15% and the medical staff will get 5%.

At the event in Mexico, the Cuban team wore matching red shorts instead of gear with brand names from sponsors — an important income source for many professional athletes. 

Right after his debut, Cuban fighter Julio Lacruz told Cuban journalists that he was thrilled to be able to fight as a professional for the first time.

“The best of Cuban fighters is yet to come,” he said.

‘We’re seeing the tip of the iceberg’: Neurologists in Zambia upend understandings of multiple sclerosis in the region

“MuiTypography-root-134 MuiTypography-h1-139″>'We're seeing the tip of the iceberg': Neurologists in Zambia upend understandings of multiple sclerosis in the region

For years, medical providers were taught that MS is very rare among Black Africans. But the presence of more neurologists in Zambia has upended previous thinking on the condition. Now, more people are getting diagnosed and treated for the disease.

The WorldJune 14, 2022 · 3:30 PM EDT

University Teaching Hospital in the capital Lusaka, Zambia is home to the first neurology residency program in the country. The program has trained seven neurologists since starting in 2018.

Farah Dosani/The World

Nala Phiri first noticed something was off about her walking soon after her son was born in 2016.

“I couldn’t walk the way I used to,” she said. “I was limping, and I’d literally be dragging my leg along.”

Phiri returned to the hospital in Lusaka, the capital of Zambia, where she had given birth. The X-rays came out normal. The doctor was not sure how to explain it.

Phiri was eventually diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, a disease in which the body’s immune system attacks the nerves of the brain, spinal cord and eyes. But it took three years and several medical evaluations before the diagnosis was even considered a possibility.

An estimated 2.8 million people worldwide live with MS. Most cases are found in North America and Europe. The disease has long been thought to be near-nonexistent in sub-Saharan Africa. But this notion is now being challenged by the growing presence of neurologists in the region.

Related: ‘Hope is not a plan’: Dr. Atul Gawande says global COVID funding is dwindling but the crisis continues

Nala Phiri relaxes on the couch while watching her son Sangu play in their living room. She first noticed symptoms of multiple sclerosis soon after Sangu was born in 2016.

Credit:

Farah Dosani/The World

A long road to diagnosis

Phiri tried physical therapy after her first medical evaluation, but her walking never fully recovered. Soon after, other problems arose that began to affect her ability to work as a banker.

“After some time, I would notice I wasn’t able to write,” Phiri said. “I would hold the mouse and not know that I was pressing on it.”

Over three years, Phiri was evaluated by 10 doctors. Each provided a different diagnosis: tendonitis, sciatica and stroke – among others.

By 2019, her leg had become weaker and increasingly numb. At the age of 34, she started to walk with a cane. This caught the attention of fellow church member, Dr. Deanna Saylor, a neurologist from Johns Hopkins. Saylor, based in Lusaka since 2018, specializes in MS.

“I was at church and noticed a young woman with a small child who was walking with a cane,” Saylor said. “I overheard her talking about how her problems had come back yet again.”

Saylor introduced herself and asked Phiri to come to her clinic. She agreed.

The next day, Saylor ordered a workup for Phiri at the University Teaching Hospital, including an MRI of her brain and spinal cord. 

The results were unequivocal. 

After three years, Phiri finally had an answer to her symptoms.

“I don’t feel that any of the doctors had considered multiple sclerosis,” she said.

RelatedBrazil's public health workers race to tackle dengue surge

Saylor said that, like most other medical providers around the world, she was taught that MS is very rare among Black Africans.

“That dogma is just so strong that MS doesn’t exist in sub-Saharan Africa. It’s so strong that people have stopped looking for it."

Dr. Deanna Saylor, neurologist

“That dogma is just so strong that MS doesn’t exist in sub-Saharan Africa. It’s so strong that people have stopped looking for it,” Saylor said. 

This notion results in a long road to diagnosis that has consequences for patients living with the disease.

MS flareups occur sporadically, but symptoms never fully resolve.

“Over time people can become quite disabled if they’re not treated,” Saylor said.

Nala Phiri adjusts the length of her cane while in the kitchen with her daughter Namila. Her leg weakness had progressed to the point where she had to walk using a cane. It has improved since being on treatment for multiple sclerosis.

Credit:

Farah Dosani/The World

Raising MS awareness

The cause of MS is largely unknown. The disease tends to affect adults beginning in their 20s and 30s. People who live further from the equator are more likely to have it and this is thought to be related to Vitamin D.

Saylor has been exploring the origins of how MS was understood to be rare in sub-Saharan Africa.

“I think the short answer is that people equated the absence of data to the absence of disease,” Saylor said.

Alarmingly few studies exist on MS prevalence in the region.

Saylor argues that historical estimates were also heavily biased; they were based on research out of South Africa during apartheid or from private hospitals in countries during and soon after colonialism.

Getting a better idea of the disease also requires the right technology and experts to diagnose it.

"We always like to say here: Is it the absence of MS in sub-Saharan Africa or the absence of neurologists and MRIs?” Dr. Mashina Chomba said. He is among the first group of Zambian neurologists who trained in the new neurology residency program at University Teaching Hospital, established in 2018 and led by Saylor.

Related: As global oil prices surge, some African countries may see a silver lining

Sub-Saharan Africa has the fewest neurologists per capita in the world — more than 100 times less than the United States. The program has trained seven neurologists to date and set up a clinic and hospital service.

“We got to see patients with different presentations that were sent to our care. … We got to see [that] we have patients who fit the description of multiple sclerosis.”

Dr. Mashina Chomba, neurologist

Neurologist Deanna Saylor (far left) evaluates patients at University Teaching Hospital during rounds with the neurology residents. Dr. Mashina Chomba (far right) is among them and is one of the first Zambian neurologists trained through the new program.

Credit:

Courtesy of Dr. Deanna Saylor

“We got to see patients with different presentations that were sent to our care,” Chomba said. “We got to see [that] we have patients who fit the description of multiple sclerosis.”

Since starting the program, they have diagnosed and treated about two dozen patients living with MS, such as patient Muchimba Kabeta.

Twice a year, Kabeta, 33, heads to the chemotherapy unit at the University Teaching Hospital to receive an infusion of the medication Rituximab, to help prevent MS flare ups.

Related: Why auto-disable syringes are key to vaccinating the world

Twice a year, Muchimba Kabeta gets infusions of the medication Rituximab at University of Teaching Hospital in Lusaka, Zambia. He was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis after ten years of struggling with symptoms.

Credit:

Farah Dosani/The World

Kabeta, a relatively new patient, is still learning how to position his hand correctly for the treatment. 

“I haven’t been a patient for too long. … My mind is still in denial.”

Muchimba Kabeta, 33, MS patient in Zambia

“I haven’t been a patient for too long,” he said. “My mind is still in denial.”

Kabeta was diagnosed after almost 10 years of unexplained symptoms.

He had been training to become an orthopedic surgeon, but ultimately had to stop because of his disabilities. He now works for the Zambian Ministry of Health.

Even as a physician himself, he never considered the possibility of having MS as an African man.

“And that’s the very first step,” Kabeta said. “If we can just say ‘what if’ [or] ‘could it be this,’ I think that would go a long way in MS awareness among the doctors.” 

Soon after his diagnosis, Kabeta and Saylor started the Zambian Multiple Sclerosis Society. In addition to spreading awareness, they aim to create a support and resource network among MS patients. The group has also advocated for better access to MS medications from the government. 

Muchimba Kabeta gets infusions of Rituximab twice a year to help prevent flares of his multiple sclerosis. After starting treatment, he has not had a flare since.

Credit:

Farah Dosani/The World

Along with their research, Saylor and Chomba are making efforts to educate the community. Their MS patients had symptoms for an average of four to five years before being diagnosed. Many of them also had more financial means than the average Zambian.

“That makes us worried that we are probably missing quite a lot of patients in our population who are not lucky enough to have the same resources and ability to pay for multiple consultations with doctors until they get diagnosed. We’re probably seeing the tip of the iceberg."

Dr. Mashina Chomba, neurologist

“That makes us worried that we are probably missing quite a lot of patients in our population who are not lucky enough to have the same resources and ability to pay for multiple consultations with doctors until they get diagnosed. We’re probably seeing the tip of the iceberg,” Chomba said. 

The realization about MS in the region follows a pattern where a country lacks medical expertise and resources in a particular field. That can lead to misperceptions, Chomba noted, like when Zambia lacked oncologists until the 1990s.

“We trained the first oncologists in Zambia, and we started diagnosing a number of cancers that we thought were very, very rare,” Chomba said. 

After Phiri was diagnosed with MS, she was able to get treatment and has not had a flareup since. She hopes others will never have to go through the same struggle that she did.

“I’m open to speaking to whoever who would listen. … So that even when they see another person experiencing something similar, it doesn’t have to take that long.”

Nala Phiri, MS patient, Zambia

Nala Phiri was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 2016 after three years of unexplained symptoms. She is pictured here with her children Namila and Sangu outside of their home in Lusaka, Zambia.

Credit:

Farah Dosani/The World

“I’m open to speaking to whoever who would listen,” Phiri said. “So that even when they see another person experiencing something similar, it doesn’t have to take that long.”

Phiri is now a mother of three. And she no longer uses a cane.

These women are trying to preserve an ancient Chinese language invented as a secret code

“MuiTypography-root-134 MuiTypography-h1-139″>These women are trying to preserve an ancient Chinese language invented as a secret code

Hundreds of years ago, women in China weren’t allowed an education and spent their days locked in rooms, embroidering and making crafts. They came up with a new language that men couldn't understand — Nüshu — and wrote it onto handmade fans to communicate with each other. A filmmaker is now trying to raise awareness to preserve it before it is lost.

The WorldJune 13, 2022 · 4:00 PM EDT

Hu Xin and He Yan Xin as seen in the film "Hidden Letters," directed by Violet Feng.

Courtesy of Feng Tiebing

Hundreds of years ago, Chinese women in the rural Hunan Province came up with Nüshu, a language that men could not understand. They needed a way to communicate with each other in a society that kept them largely invisible.

Back then, it was common for Chinese women’s feet to be bound, making it almost impossible for them to walk freely by themselves. They weren’t even allowed an education. And they spent their days locked in their rooms, embroidering and making crafts. So, women wrote this new language — Nüshu — onto handmade fans.

Hu Xin as seen in the film "Hidden Letters," directed by Violet Feng.

Credit:

Courtesy of Feng Tiebing

Film director Violet Feng said she only learned about Nüshu as an adult.

"Throughout the years, because of this secret language, women built this beautiful underground sisterhood."

Violet Feng, director of "Hidden Letters" film

“They created this secret language andthey would write poems and songs,” she said. “And throughout the years, because of this secret language, women built this beautiful underground sisterhood and shared their dignity and hope between themselves.”

Related: China's last remaining lantern craftspeople uphold a waning tradition

Nüshu is considered the only written script in the world for and by women and has been named an intangible cultural heritage by UNESCO.

The language has survived to this day, passed down from generation to generation. But it’s now in danger of going extinct.

Today, there are only a handful of women left who can read and write it. So, Feng decided to film the lives of two women — one in rural China and one in Shanghai — who are trying to preserve it.

“I wanted to follow the younger generation because they’re the ones that are at the crossroads, dealing with navigating their identity within the context of where China is.”

Violet Feng, director of "Hidden Letters" film

“I wanted to follow the younger generation because they’re the ones that are at the crossroads, dealing with navigating their identity within the context of where China is,” she said.

Her film, “Hidden Letters,” premiered on Saturday at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York. Feng said what interested her about the ancient Nüshu language was how it might relate to the lives of Chinese women today.

“Every woman's personal experience in their daily struggles is political,” she said. “We're always, always struggling between the social expectations, between our traditional values. And we want to be our individual identities. And that dilemma and struggle is in every woman, including myself.”

Related: Uncle Roger, YouTube's culinary avenger for Asian food

Simu as seen in the film "Hidden Letters," directed by Violet Feng.

Credit:

Courtesy of Feng Tiebing

Speaking about those struggles is not always welcome. And women’s bodies are on the frontlines.

The Chinese government has abandoned its one-child policy, and now allows couples to have up to three children, in the hopes of boosting China’s birth rate. But more and more young Chinese women are rejecting the path of marriage and children altogether.

“There's still not yet a support system for women, you know, legally and socially and emotionally to help us, to fulfill those kinds of expectations,” Feng said.

Feng added that the Nüshu language gave women in feudal China some agency.

Related: Shanghai sees exodus as people flee China's lockdown woes

“The power of it, even back then, is very much the Chinese way of feminism. It's not about throwing away the system or changing the system and having protests, which was completely impossible at the time. But they found a different way and they found a different approach.”

Today though, Nüshu is being used in ways that are at odds with its original purpose. In one scene in the film, a so-called “princess school” uses Nüshu to teach young girls etiquette wrapped in traditional Chinese values.

“You begin to see workshops to kind of reintroduce how women should behave, how to be elegant, how to be obedient and all of those things,” Feng said.

“People are using Nüshu to help women be all of those things, which is totally the opposite of what it was before.”

Related: China is boosting its efforts to nab gold medals at the Olympics

Today in China, Nüshu is also being commodified for economic gains. Government officials have discussed how they can build local tourism around the language. And entrepreneurs have used it to market their products —  including a KFC ad featuring Nüshu.

In the film, the women who care the most about the language struggle with how to preserve its authenticity. But filmmaker Violet Feng said, in the end, that saving the language itself is not as important as preserving that supportive space for the kind of sisterhood that Nüshu helped to create.

“To me, Nüshu is not just a language. It is art. It is a voice embedded in that art.”

Violet Feng, director of "Hidden Letters" film

“To me, Nüshu is not just a language. It is art. It is a voice embedded in that art,” she said. “And in that sense, as long as we carry the legacy of it, as long as it lives in the heart of every woman, I don't think it will ever die.”

This filmmaker is trying to preserve an ancient Chinese language invented as a secret code between women

“MuiTypography-root-134 MuiTypography-h1-139″>This filmmaker is trying to preserve an ancient Chinese language invented as a secret code between women

Hundreds of years ago, it was common for Chinese women’s feet to be bound, making it almost impossible for them to walk freely by themselves. They also weren’t allowed an education, and they spent their days locked in their rooms, embroidering and making crafts. So, women came up with a new language that men couldn't understand — Nüshu — and wrote it onto handmade fans to communicate with each other. Now a filmmaker is trying to raise awareness to preserve it before it is lost.

The WorldJune 13, 2022 · 4:00 PM EDT

Hu Xin and He Yan Xin as seen in the film "Hidden Letters," directed by Violet Feng.

Courtesy of Feng Tiebing

Hundreds of years ago, Chinese women in the rural Hunan Province came up with Nüshu, a language that men could not understand. They needed a way to communicate with each other in a society that kept them largely invisible.

Back then, it was common for Chinese women’s feet to be bound, making it almost impossible for them to walk freely by themselves. They weren’t even allowed an education. And they spent their days locked in their rooms, embroidering and making crafts. So, women wrote this new language — Nüshu — onto handmade fans.

Hu Xin as seen in the film "Hidden Letters," directed by Violet Feng.

Credit:

Courtesy of Feng Tiebing

Film director Violet Feng said she only learned about Nüshu as an adult.

"Throughout the years, because of this secret language, women built this beautiful underground sisterhood."

Violet Feng, director of "Hidden Letters" film

“They created this secret language andthey would write poems and songs,” she said. “And throughout the years, because of this secret language, women built this beautiful underground sisterhood and shared their dignity and hope between themselves.”

Related: China's last remaining lantern craftspeople uphold a waning tradition

Nüshu is considered the only written script in the world for and by women and has been named an intangible cultural heritage by UNESCO.

The language has survived to this day, passed down from generation to generation. But it’s now in danger of going extinct.

Today, there are only a handful of women left who can read and write it. So, Feng decided to film the lives of two women — one in rural China and one in Shanghai — who are trying to preserve it.

“I wanted to follow the younger generation because they’re the ones that are at the crossroads, dealing with navigating their identity within the context of where China is.”

Violet Feng, director of "Hidden Letters" film

“I wanted to follow the younger generation because they’re the ones that are at the crossroads, dealing with navigating their identity within the context of where China is,” she said.

Her film, “Hidden Letters,” premiered on Saturday at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York. Feng said what interested her about the ancient Nüshu language was how it might relate to the lives of Chinese women today.

“Every woman's personal experience in their daily struggles is political,” she said. “We're always, always struggling between the social expectations, between our traditional values. And we want to be our individual identities. And that dilemma and struggle is in every woman, including myself.”

Related: Uncle Roger, YouTube's culinary avenger for Asian food

Simu as seen in the film "Hidden Letters," directed by Violet Feng.

Credit:

Courtesy of Feng Tiebing

Speaking about those struggles is not always welcome. And women’s bodies are on the frontlines.

The Chinese government has abandoned its one-child policy, and now allows couples to have up to three children, in the hopes of boosting China’s birth rate. But more and more young Chinese women are rejecting the path of marriage and children altogether.

“There's still not yet a support system for women, you know, legally and socially and emotionally to help us, to fulfill those kinds of expectations,” Feng said.

Feng added that the Nüshu language gave women in feudal China some agency.

Related: Shanghai sees exodus as people flee China's lockdown woes

“The power of it, even back then, is very much the Chinese way of feminism. It's not about throwing away the system or changing the system and having protests, which was completely impossible at the time. But they found a different way and they found a different approach.”

Today though, Nüshu is being used in ways that are at odds with its original purpose. In one scene in the film, a so-called “princess school” uses Nüshu to teach young girls etiquette wrapped in traditional Chinese values.

“You begin to see workshops to kind of reintroduce how women should behave, how to be elegant, how to be obedient and all of those things,” Feng said.

“People are using Nüshu to help women be all of those things, which is totally the opposite of what it was before.”

Related: China is boosting its efforts to nab gold medals at the Olympics

Today in China, Nüshu is also being commodified for economic gains. Government officials have discussed how they can build local tourism around the language. And entrepreneurs have used it to market their products —  including a KFC ad featuring Nüshu.

In the film, the women who care the most about the language struggle with how to preserve its authenticity. But filmmaker Violet Feng said, in the end, that saving the language itself is not as important as preserving that supportive space for the kind of sisterhood that Nüshu helped to create.

“To me, Nüshu is not just a language. It is art. It is a voice embedded in that art.”

Violet Feng, director of "Hidden Letters" film

“To me, Nüshu is not just a language. It is art. It is a voice embedded in that art,” she said. “And in that sense, as long as we carry the legacy of it, as long as it lives in the heart of every woman, I don't think it will ever die.”

Poland’s ‘pregnancy registry’ will further restrict abortion access, activists say

“MuiTypography-root-134 MuiTypography-h1-139″>Poland’s ‘pregnancy registry’ will further restrict abortion access, activists say

The Polish government says it is establishing a national medical database, following a directive from the EU Commission, promising to ensure the protection of people's privacy. But in a country with a near-total abortion ban, rights activists are not so convinced.

The WorldJune 13, 2022 · 1:30 PM EDT

A group of women's rights activists with a sign reading "Abortion Without Borders" protesting Poland's strict anti-abortion law, outside the top constitutional court, in Warsaw, Poland, Wednesday, Jan. 26, 2022.

Czarek Sokolowski/AP

When 27-year-old Klaudia Kuzdub discovered she was pregnant in March 2021, she said she couldn’t contemplate the idea of having a baby at the time.

“I thought, ‘I am not ready. I don't want it.’ It wasn't planned at all, so I didn't know what to do,” said Kuzdub, who comes from the small city of Kielce, in southern Poland. 

Two months prior, the Polish government had outlawed abortion in all but the most exceptional of circumstances — if the health or life of the pregnant person is at risk, as well as in cases of rape or incest.

And recently, the government also announced plans to establish a database listing all pregnant people in Poland, sparking concern among abortion rights activists in the country that the registry would make it harder than ever to access a safe abortion.

Related: This Polish activist sent abortion pills to a woman in need. Now she's on trial.

In Kuzdub’s situation, she immediately contacted Abortion Dream Team, a Poland-based abortion support group, which then directed her to an international women’s group abroad. They offered to send her abortion pills through the mail.

Ten days later, the medication arrived and Kuzdub ingested it, but she went to her local hospital to have a scan when she became worried that it hadn’t worked. The doctor became agitated when she found out the reason for Kuzdub's visit.

“She [the doctor] became really, really angry. She didn't ask me how I was feeling, what symptoms I had, nothing. … The only question the doctor kept asking was, ‘Where did you get the pills? This is illegal.’”

Klaudia Kuzdub, 27, Poland

Klaudia Kuzdub, 27, shared her abortion story with the media after a harrowing experience. 

Credit:

Courtesy of Klaudia Kuzdub

“She [the doctor] became really, really angry. She didn't ask me how I was feeling, what symptoms I had, nothing,” Kuzdub said. 

“The only question the doctor kept asking was, ‘Where did you get the pills? This is illegal.’” 

The doctor threatened to call the police and the hospital’s lawyer.

Terrified, Kuzdub left the hospital, going against the doctor's recommendation to stay for testing, because she feared that the doctor would alert authorities. 

Abortion rights campaigners worry that Poland’s new “pregnancy register” will increase incidents like this. 

Related: Even once female Ukrainian refugees reach safety, they face new burdens as single heads of household

It is not technically a criminal offense to terminate a pregancy under exceptional circumstances, but providing abortion pills or assiting someone in any way to attain an abortion is illegal.

Abortion rights activists are concerned that having a database means the state could feasibly keep tabs on people who are pregnant and investigate if that pregnancy suddenly ends.

Doctors are not obliged to report abortions to the police, but abortion rights activists predict that that’s what will happen. 

The Polish government says the central medical database will also include details like blood type and allergies.

Health Ministry spokesperson Wojciech Andrusiewicz said on Polish TV last week that the database was being established following a recommendation from the European Union. 

In May, the EU Commission proposed a scheme to digitize medical records across the bloc. But the commission stated that patients should be able to control who has access to their files, and the plan remains at the proposal stage.

Andrusiewicz argued that the system will benefit Polish citizens traveling abroad, because doctors in other EU countries would be able to access their records in cases of medical emergencies. He said that only doctors would have access to the data.

But many women’s rights campaigners in Poland don’t trust medical professionals to keep the data private.

Marta Lempart, leader of the movement Polish Women’s Strike, has reason to be suspicious. Lempart took a COVID-19 test in December 2020 using Poland’s national health care service. Her positive test result was revealed on national TV, even before she had received the results herself, she said.

Lempart is a well-known figure in Poland and one of the key organizers of some of the biggest protest rallies against the country’s abortion laws in recent years. She pointed out that she has had numerous run-ins with Poland’s right-wing government and most of the country’s TV stations are state-controlled.

Related: Near-total abortion ban takes effect in Poland amid protests

Marta Lempart, a leader of Polish Women's Strike, uses a megaphone to address protesters who gathered for a protest, on International Women's Day in Warsaw, Poland, Monday March 8, 2021. 

Credit:

Czarek Sokolowski/AP

Activists are also concerned that people who have miscarried could also become targets of police investigations.

Lempart said there is already a dearth of psychological support for those who’ve had a miscarriage. Fearing a potential police investigation will only add to the trauma, she said.

“So, in this horrible state, she might be questioned, harassed, abused, treated as a suspect, I cannot even imagine,” Lempart said. 

The new abortion laws came into force in January 2021.

Since then, there have been a handful of cases of women who have died after doctors refused to carry out a termination. 

Izabela Sajbor, from Pszczyna, in southern Poland, was admitted to the hospital when she was 22 weeks pregnant. Doctors had already told Sajbor that the fetus had severe abnormalities and would almost certainly die in the womb. Her water broke prematurely and she knew she was at high risk of sepsis if the fetus was not removed.

But doctors refused to terminate the pregnancy.

By the time the baby’s heartbeat stopped, Sajbor was already in critical condition. "Because of the abortion laws, the doctors can do nothing," Sajbor told her mother in a text message. 

Less than 24 hours later, she died of septic shock.

Doctors are said to be afraid of carrying out an abortion since there is no definitive answer as to what constitutes a threat to a pregnant person’s health or life.

But Lempart has little sympathy for the medical professionals.

“I don't care what their explanation is. I don't care. Women die,” she said.

Only one in 10 Poles are reported to be in favor of the restrictive abortion laws.

Lempart said no Polish doctor has been charged or put in jail for carrying out an abortion in the last 30 years. She said she believes doctors are refusing to terminate pregnancies to protect their careers rather than fear of imprisonment.

Lempart herself is facing numerous charges and court trials in relation to her activism.

“I have about 100 trials, charges, investigations pending,” she said.

The charges include insulting a police officer, breaking anti-COVID-19 regulations, illegal occupation of a traffic lane and littering. Lempart said one of the charges could see her facing an eight-year jail term. But she refuses to be intimidated or silenced.

A month after Kuzdub walked out of the hospital in Kielce, the police turned up at her grandparents’ house looking for her.

They said they wanted to talk with her about what had happened at the hospital. But when Kuzdub went to the station for the meeting, there was no mention of the hospital visit.

“They were asking me only who gave me the abortion pills and who knew about the abortion. That's all. They never asked me about the situation in the hospital at all,” she said. 

Kuzdub doesn’t know why the police decided to investigate her case.

A few days after she left the hospital, she told her story anonymously on YouTube. 

The video went viral and Kuzdub said a couple of Catholic newspapers later reported her story and identified her. 

She has since spoken to Polish media widely about what happened. 

Kuzdub said she doesn’t know if the police investigation stems from a call from the hospital or following pressure from the state following her media exposure.

The police did not say if they were investigating her case any further, she said, but Kuzdub plans to leave Poland soon and move to Italy. 

It’s a Catholic country, too, she said, but in Italy, nobody terrorizes you for terminating a pregnancy.