child soldiers
More than 250 children have been freed from a South Sudanese militant group called The South Sudan Democratic Army Cobra Faction. The militia has been fighting for four years, hoping to win greater rights for the Murle ethnic group.

After a peace agreement between the militia and President Salva Kiir’s government was finalized, the boys, ages 11-17, were released after years of toting AK-47s, raiding homes and cattle farms and taking part in deadly revenge attacks throughout South Sudan. Hundreds gathered in Gumuruk, South Sudan to watch the child soldiers be released back to their homes and families, although many have been displaced or killed.

The release of the 280 boys is the first of a series of releases that will eventually free an estimated 3,000 children from the militia. According to UNICEF, approximately 12,000 children have been forcibly recruited by armed groups to fight the civil war, which has increasingly worsened since December of 2013.

South Sudan has been riddled with violence and poverty for years, and the civil war has provided a cruel security for the young soldiers. One child soldier, 12-year-old Steven, said that he joined the militia willingly three years ago.

“There was nothing for me in Pibor – no roads or hospitals or even schools. Sometimes there was no food … But life in the faction was not good. There is no rest,” reported the child soldier.

Another boy, James, 13-years-old, said he joined after the deaths of his sister, uncle, grandfather and other family members. The military can provide shelter, water, purpose and a sense of safety.

Many of the freed children express their concerns of their unpredictable futures. With more than 1.5 million people displaced since the war, many of the boys have no way to contact their families, if they are even still alive.

At the ceremony on the day of the soldiers’ release, a former leader wiped tears from his eyes as the children recited their military chant for the last time. He said to the young children: “That song you sing, that is an adult struggle.”

UNICEF and many others are working to pave a path to success and peace for the young boys. After witnessing and participating in the horrors of the civil war, the boys are left with nightmares and instability. Counseling and social support will be provided to each child, depending on individual experiences and reactions. Family tracing units have been set up and hope to reunite as many children as possible with families. The most important thing to provide for these children is a sense of normalcy and a protective environment, free from violence and war. Many of the young boys are most looking forward to education.

“I don’t know how long I’ve lived in the faction— I don’t know how to count. I want to go to school now. I have never been to school,” said Joseph an 11-year-old.

The release of the child soldiers and the peace agreement gives a small sense of hope that the end of a civil war in South Sudan may be near.

Alaina Grote

Sources: BBC, Euro News, The Guardian, Reuters, Thomson Reuters Foundation
Photo: Amazon AWS

After the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, Tajikistan, a small country between Uzbekistan, Afghanistan and China, erupted in a civil war between the Moscow-backed government and Islamists.

The war lasted for five years, greatly hurting the nation’s economy. Around 50,000 people were killed and more than 10 percent of the population fled the country. The war only came to an end in 1997 when the United Nations facilitated a peace agreement.

Since the civil war, the economy of Tajikistan has not recovered and the country is currently Central Asia’s poorest nation. Almost half of the country’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) is earned by its citizens working out of the country. Meanwhile the nation itself relies on the economies of Russia and China, as well as oil and gas imports.

During the war one in every five schools were destroyed. Since the war, Tajikstan has worked to improve the country’s education.

Tajikistan currently has an enrollment of 97 percent for primary school, 80 percent for secondary school, and 17 percent for tertiary school. Late entry, combined with the early dropout of school aged children, especially girls, lower Tajikistan’s attendance for later schooling.

Although there is a very high rate of literacy, other issues affect its educational system.

Salaries paid to teachers are very low, which leads to low staffing and poorly qualified teachers in schools. This is in part due to the lack of government spending on education. In 1991, 8.9 percent of the GDP was spent on education. In 2005, this figure was down to 3.2 percent.

Due to the negative effects of the civil war on the Tajikstan economy and the immense loss of life, the school systems have been suffering ever since. Although the government has been working to improve access to education, there is still a lot of work that needs to be done.

– Lily Tyson

Sources: BBC, UNICEF, Eurasia
Photo: Asianews

The history of human rights violations against Somali citizens by their government under the rule of Siad Barre contributed to an overthrow that forced him to flee in 1991. The subsequent power vacuum led to the Somali civil war that continues to rage on to this day. For over 23 years, Somalia has been ravaged by human rights abuses, war crimes and the lack of a developed justice system to deal with these issues.

The main players at this moment are the Islamic backed forces, al-Shabaab, and the pro-government forces, the Federal Republic of Somalia, Ethiopian troops and African Union troops operating under the African Union Mission to Somalia. While the faces have changed throughout the 23 year conflict, the main points of contention  remain the same.

The Islamic forces wish for the country to become an Islamic state ruled under Sharia law, while government forces aim for the country to follow through with the constitution that founded the federal republic in 2012. Major human rights violations are committed on both sides of the Civil War, limiting positive change in the country.

Human rights violations include indiscriminate attacks against civilians, displacement of persons, restrictions on humanitarian aid, rape, recruitment and use of child soldiers, unlawful killings and torture by armed groups and armed piracy off the Somali coast. Various treaties including the Geneva Convention and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights forbid the indiscriminate use of force against civilians. According to Amnesty International, “all parties to the conflict use mortars and heavy weapons in areas populated or frequented by civilians, killing and injuring thousands of people, many of which are women and children under the age of 14.”

The killings not only affect those being killed, but they also the education of the Somalis. A report by Amnesty International states that, “in Somalia’s capital, Mogadishu, many schools have closed down as students and teachers fear being injured and killed on their way to school.” These indiscriminate killings by forces on both sides will lead to the further destruction of the country and its future. The Somalis need to continue their education in order to push the country towards a better path.

The topic of child soldiers has gained popularity in the last few years due to campaigns such as “Kony 2012.” The use of child soldiers is not limited to Uganda, however, and Somalia is a prime example of the horrible atrocities that occur while using them. According to a January 2013 Human Rights Watch report, “al-Shabaab has increasingly targeted children for recruitment, forced marriage, and rape, and has attacked teachers and schools.”

However, government forces have also used child soldiers, as described later in the same article. “In July 2012, the TFG [Transitional Federal Government] signed a plan of action against child recruitment; yet the same month, 15 children were identified among a group of new recruits sent to a European Union-funded training in Uganda.” Abuses are occurring on on both sides of the conflict, and further action may need to be taken by outside parties.

The problems with human rights violations occurring in Somalia do not seem to be getting any better. Unfortunately, humanitarian access to those who need aid is limited at the moment because of restrictions from allies to the conflict, diversion of aid and insecurity. The few humanitarian workers still in the country are being targeted, further limiting access to much needed aid.

– Kenneth W. Kliesner

Sources: Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, Human Rights Watch
Photo: Global Post

Liberian Education System
Liberia has a unique connection to the United States. African Americans immigrating from the U.S. to the West African Coast officially founded the nation in 1847. While the country has struggled to achieve prosperity and economic stability for its citizens, the Liberian education system has made considerable recent progress.

Liberia is still recovering from the civil wars that began in 1980 and lasted until 2003. As a result, Liberia ranks near the bottom of the United Nations Development Program Human Development Index at 174th out of 187. Correspondingly, nearly 36 percent of the Liberian population suffers from malnutrition.

During the years of civil car, educational systems were almost nonexistent. This leaves a massive gap in skilled workers entering the job market and by extension, extreme unemployment (close to 80 percent) and poverty. Liberia has a literacy rate of 60.8 percent, and an education system described as “a mess” by Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf.

Not all news about the Liberian education system is bleak, however. In 2011, President Sirleaf signed into law the Education Reform Act, which seeks to decentralize the education system and help create a new educational management structure more locally focused. The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) has also instituted the Liberia Teacher Training Program to help train, develop and recruit more teachers for the nation.

An additional component of USAID’s work in Liberia is encouraging participation in education by girls and women. The Girls’ Opportunities Access Learning Program hopes to increase school enrollment and retention for girls by identifying key policy issues with Liberia’s Ministry of Education.

According to the U.N. Educational, Scientific and Corporal Organization’s Education for All Initiative, at least 15 percent of a nation’s budget should be allocated for education. Currently, Liberia only spends around 3 percent of its national budget on education.  In order to fully jumpstart educational progress in Liberia, there is much more to be done.

– Taylor Diamond

Sources: The Guardian, USAID, WFP, Liberian Education Trust
Photo: International Book Bank

The Syrian peace talks in Switzerland at the start of 2014 have had little success. Members of the West insist on a transitory government away from the present Assad regime, yet that is a non-starter for negotiators from the regime. In the meantime, the Syrian people are still being killed, starved and stuck in the midst of battlefields. Relief organizations looking to bring in goods to the region have had repeated difficulties in doing so.

The one major development from the talks has been the agreement for a ceasefire at the city of Homs.

The city has been besieged for the greater part of the war, and while it is currently held by rebel groups, the people remaining in the city were still subject the whims of Assad’s forces.  The city had been under siege by Syrian Army troops for 600 days. This city where such horror has taken place was the one area where peace was actually achieved during the Switzerland peace talks.

During the week of evacuations, at least 1,400 Syrians were evacuated from the city.There were projected to be about 3,000 people in the city at the start of the conflict, with many women and children involved.

The effort was focused on getting those groups out of the city, yet some men aged between 16 years old and 54 years old were included as well.Issues arose around these men, who were detained and interviewed by the regime. Some were allowed to leave after declaring their allegiance to the Assad government, bu the evacuation was not extended in part due to the detainment of some.

Even with the ceasefire, there were reports of violence in the war-torn city. Belying the difficulties of administering relief during a time of war, some convoys were fired upon by unknown sources. The United Nations reported that 10 people were killed during the operation, though none were relief workers.

Despite the difficulties, a U.N. team leader said food supplies sustainable for 2,500 people for up to a month were delivered to the city.

The evacuation of Homs is an important first step for the Syrian peace talks, though it is not nearly enough for the international community to deserve praise.

The work that relief organizations did during the operation shows what can be achieved if these groups are given the chance. However, there is not enough work being done by governing bodies to give the people of Syria a fighting chance; it is up to advocacy groups to push governing bodies to do this work.

Despite obvious tensions on both sides, the soldiers on either side were operating in close proximity and there were no blows exchanged for the time of the evacuation. While fighting raged on in other parts of the embattled nation, in Homs there was at least peace for a week. This week showed that these two sides can at least peacefully coexist for a time, and hopefully is an example that could be used to better the situation of all Syrians soon.

– Eric Gustafsson

Sources: Los Angeles Times, International Business Times, CBS News
Photo: Daily Mail

A temporary pause in the fighting between the Syrian government and rebels allowed emergency personnel to evacuate 83 civilians from the embattled city of Homs on February 7, according to the United Nations.

The evacuation of the civilians  comes a day after the U.N. brokered a three day ceasefire,  under which women, children, the elderly and injured people will be allowed to leave Homs. That day, buses were allowed to enter Homs’ Old City, where as many as 2,500 people are believed to be trapped. The trapped residents have been unable to leave because they are caught in the fighting between the government and the insurgents battling Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime.

The departing residents will be greeted at a U.N. welcome center and will then give the authorities the names of people who want to stay behind. The provision of the names of citizens who do not want to leave was a key demand of Syria’s government, which wants to learn the identities of the men who reside there, the Washington Post reported.

In addition to the evacuation of these noncombatants, aid will be allowed to enter Homs’ Old City, parts of which have besieged by government forces since June 2012.  Under the temporary ceasefire between the government and the rebels, medical aid and food should reach Homs on Saturday.

The three-day ceasefire covering Homs, which was one of the first cities to take up arms against Assad’s regime, comes nearly two weeks after United States and Russian-sponsored peace talks on ending Syria’s civil war opened in Switzerland. The talks, which began in the Swiss city of Montreux on January 22 before moving to Geneva on January 24, paused last Friday. The negotiations between Syria’s government and a western-backed opposition alliance known as National Coalition of Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces are set to resume Monday in Geneva.

Assad’s government and the opposition had been expected to reach agreement early in the talks on localized ceasefires and on allowing humanitarian aid to be delivered to besieged areas, but the two sides were unable to even reach a deal on these issues.

The official agenda for the negotiations, known officially as Geneva II, is to reach agreement on the composition of a temporary government with full executive powers that would oversee Syria’s transition to democracy.  Syria’s government rejects the idea that goal of the talks is the establishment of a government that doesn’t include Assad, whose family has ruled Syria since 1971, while the opposition has insisted that any transitional government exclude the Syrian president and leading members of his regime.

Syria’s nearly three-year long civil war, which pits rebels largely drawn from Syria’s Sunni majority against a government controlled by the country’s minority Alawite sect and supported by Shia Iran, has stoked Sunni-Shia tensions across the Middle East, particularly in the sectarian tinder boxes of Iraq and Lebanon.

Shia Iran and its Lebanese proxy force Hezbollah have backed Assad, a longtime ally of both Tehran and Hezbollah, while Sunni gulf states and Turkey have supported the Sunni insurgents, buttressing the rebels through the provision of light weapons and cash.  Both sides seem to view the Syrian conflict as a proxy war between the Sunni and Shia branches of Islam.

– Eric Erdahl

Sources: BBC, BBC, Washington Post, New York Times
Sources: Elephant Journal

After 25 years, the civil war that plagued Sri Lanka and claimed thousands of lives is finally finished. The war, between the Sri Lankan government forces and the Tamil Tigers separatist group, is estimated to have killed over 40,000 people in its final months.

The long war was between the Sri Lanka government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE,) or simply the Tamil Tigers. The LTTE desired an independent state for the Tamil minority in Sri Lanka.

The Tamils claim to have been victimized by the Sinhalese majority once the country became fully independent in 1948.

But, just because the war is finished, does not mean its opponents are any less quiet. In fact, many human rights groups are accusing the Sri Lankan government of destroying mass burial sites in order to cover its fingerprints on various human rights abuses.

Australia’s Public Interest Advocacy Center detailed an in-depth report chronicling the various abuses perpetrated by both sides of the conflict. The Tamil Tigers have been accused of using civilians as human shields and recruiting child soldiers. While these violations are heinous, the report lays the majority of the blame at the feet of the Sri Lanka government forces.

A United Nations report shows the majority of those 40,000 killed in the war’s final months can mostly be attributed to government action.

The team of investigators highlight the years 2008 and 2009, where the Sri Lankan government is accused of mass civilian bombardment. For example, in 2009, civilians were blocked by rebel fighters from leaving the war zone; the government shelled the entire area.

U.N. satellite images show the area the government shelled was occupied by up to 50,000 noncombatants. The government forces are also accused of purposefully targeting hospitals as well as blocking food and medicine to civilians and miscounting the number of civilians located in the war zone.

The abuses have been noted by the United States Government, resulting in intensified relations between the two countries. Recently, the U.S. has floated the idea of a third U.N. resolution against Sri Lanka. It responded by denying a visa request for a State Department official.

The government remains obstinate in the face of international pressure. Its President Mahinda Rajapaksa stated that it would be a “great crime” to accuse the government of war crimes. He went as far as to say that those bringing these allegations against the Sri Lankan government shows they are “opposed to peace.”

It is uncertain where these U.N. resolutions will lead or if they will be effective at all in finding justice for the many thousands that were needlessly slaughtered by their own government.

– Zack Lindberg

Sources: Al Jazeera, CFR, ABC News
Photo: The Telegraph

Aid Effectiveness in South Sudan
South Sudan is looming on the edge of a civil war. An ugly political dispute between President Salva Kiir and former Vice President Riek Machar is at the heart of the fighting, but it is also fueled by endemic poverty and tribal warfare. The United States is especially vexed because of the $1.8 billion in aid it has given to South Sudan since 2011, and also because it has been South Sudan’s champion to the international community.

The pressing goal at the moment is galvanizing a ceasefire so that negotiations can take place. US National Security Advisor Susan Rice has been pressuring both Kiir and Machar to agree to an immediate ceasefire. Machar has voiced that he would not agree unless detainees held by President Kiir were released, but Rice has dismissed Machar’s misgivings as petty considering the continuing lives lost due to the ongoing conflict.

On a positive note, the US has convinced the UN Security Council to mobilize nearly six thousand more peacekeepers to South Sudan. However, this has not proven to be enough, and in what seems like a last-ditch effort, Secretary of State John Kerry has threatened to pull US assistance and diplomatic support from South Sudan, unless Kiir tries to curb his forces. As things stand now, US aid is being underutilized since constant fighting prevents access by aid workers and ultimately undermines aid effectiveness. The conflict has become so violent that the United States is considering military intervention.

Before attempting military intervention, the US will use targeted sanctions in order to pressure both of South Sudan’s senior leaders into submission. The possible sanctions would involve freezing US assets of the leaders and banning their travel to the United States. The prosecution of war criminals is also crucial in breaking the sense of impunity that enables these atrocities to continue.

Although all odds seem to be against them, Sudanese refugees from the state of Blue Nile offer a bright spot in an otherwise dark and violent story. When aid agencies in South Sudan pulled out due to the growing danger of warfare, these refugees stepped in to take over the responsibility of running the refugee camps, including protecting the resources provided by the UNHCR and keeping water pumps in working order.

Despite close proximity to the fighting, Adam Ilmi, UNHCR’s head of operations in Bunj, says that the morale of his staff is high, and UNHCR’s partner, the World Food Program, has ramped up its food rations. Aid provided by the United States may have given South Sudan a chance at greater peace and prosperity with enough time and stability. Unfortunately, war eats up everything in its path and no amount of money can stave off the destruction wreaked by constant fighting. The story of South Sudan thus far, is not an example of the ineffectiveness of aid, but rather of the overwhelmingly ruinous power of warfare.

Jordan Schunk

Sources: AllAfrica , The Daily Beast, Post Bulletin , Reuters
Photo: Guardian LV

syria rebels
Raging since early 2011, the civil war in Syria has left many wondering who will obtain the reins of power in the war torn nation. Will the rebel forces topple Bashar al-Assad’s regime, creating a power vacuum? Or will Assad maintain control?

These questions lie at the heart of what policymakers consider when sending aid to rebel forces who have managed to continue their three year war against the Assad regime with minimal support from the West.

One of the questions that has been most pertinent to American policymakers is who exactly are the rebels and to what extent are there Islamist extremists in their ranks.

Politifact points out politicians on both sides of the aisle, advocating both for and against aid to the Syrian rebels, who use questionable sources to justify the numbers of radical or moderate elements among the rebel forces.

For example, Senator John McCain has been a vocal proponent of aid to the rebels and has stated that close to 70 percent of the rebels are still moderate. When pressed on his certainty of where the rebels stand, McCain simply stated he visited the war torn country and through his visit, gained an understanding as to the leanings of the rebel forces.

Others such as IHS Jane’s, a British intelligence analysis agency, have estimated the radical element composes half of the 100,000 opposition fighters. Their conclusion is based off interviews and intelligence estimates that are extremely difficult to confirm.

Many have turned to social media to examine the political leanings of the rebels.

Caerus, a strategy firm that examines Syrian governance for government clients, examines major internet platforms such as YouTube to glean data about the rebels. They claim through examining social media, very reliable data can be constructed giving a better understanding of the ideological makeup of opposition fighters.

For example, the Free Syrian Army has a hefty YouTube footprint of over seven YouTube channels. Other rebel groups are active Facebook and Twitter users, posting propaganda sympathetic to their cause.

Unfortunately, David Kilcullen, CEO of Caerus, as well as many government officials have concluded that moderate opposition forces are losing influence to radical Islamist sects within the rebel forces.

The perception of Islamist elements among the rebels gaining ground has led some officials to suggest that Assad staying in power would be the best outcome for the protracted civil war. The Christian Science Monitor quotes Ryan Crocker, a former U.S. ambassador to Damascus, predicting Assad’s eventual victory in Syria.

He states, “And do we really want the alternative–a major country in the heart of the Arab world in the hands of Al-Qaeda?”

The different factions of moderates versus Islamist hardliners have contributed to the propagation of the Assad regime. Their incoordination among each other has prevented a cohesive strategy from forming against Assad.  And the radicalization of many forces has blocked the flow of foreign aid from countries unwilling to potentially support Al-Qaeda linked forces.

While many officials are now leaning toward the continuation of the Assad regime as the best outcome for the war, others have argued that the brutal tactics perpetrated by the regime was the main cause for their radicalization in the first place, and the failure by the west to adequately fund the rebel forces have led them toward radical ideals in an attempt to secure funding from wealthy Arab nations.

Now close to three years old, the Syrian conflict shows no signs of letting up and rebel groups no closer to toppling the Assad regime.

Zack Lindberg

Sources: NPR, The Christian Science Monitor, Politifact

An election crisis, a civil war and numerous human rights violations have sent thousands of Ivorians fleeing into Liberia. Since 2010, thousands of refugees have left the embattled Ivory Coast for other countries to escape political violence and abuse. These refugees have found reception in Liberia since they were displaced by the political crisis and those still displaced are eager to return home and begin reconciliation and the rebuilding of lives.

The Ivorian crisis began at the end of 2010 following the contested presidential election which was supposed to occur in 2005, but had been postponed for nearly five years. The election caused months of instability, abuse and outbreaks of violence in the country. The chaos that emerged from the election meltdown left hundreds dead and thousands displaced from their homes.

By the end of July 2011, the numbers of refugees fleeing the Ivory Coast exceeded more than 400,000 people who remained displaced from their home. This figure accounts for those displaced either within the Ivory Coast or within neighboring countries. Most who fled went to Liberia where about 171,000 refugees were housed within hosting communities and in camps. As of November, the Republic of Liberia had 57,724 registered refugees coupled with a national statistic of 19,964 households for perspective.

As of July, more than 10,000 Ivorians have returned home from Liberia with help from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR); this figure is almost double the figure for the whole of 2012. The limited resources of the Liberian government and the needs of Liberian citizens only one reason is why remaining a refugee in Liberia is unsustainable. Those who are displaced deserve the right to return home and return to their lives.

The road home for many Ivorian refugees had begun with the assistance of the United Nations.

The U.N. refugee agency working in collaboration with the Liberia Refugee Repatriation and Resettlement Commission and other partners, has been organizing road convoys for those seeking to return home. More than two years after fleeing post-election violence in Côte d’Ivoire means much has changed and much has been lost. The progression out of war into peace begins with a redress of rights and the return of those displaced.

This year has seen success in repatriation of Ivorian refugees. “Last year, we facilitated the repatriation of more than 6,000 refugees. For this year, our planning figure is to facilitate the repatriation of 16,000 refugees,” said UNHCR Officer-in-Charge Andrew Mbogori while thanking donors for their support of the  repatriation efforts.

“With 10,000 refugees repatriated over the past seven months, notwithstanding border security concerns a few months ago, we are definitely on track to attain our target,” he added.

The repatriation process has been interrupted by violent attacks on villages on the Ivorian side of the border. Border security has been a high U.N. concern as physically crossing borders safely back home is the goal of repatriation. Improvements in security have encouraged more people to return home and more security is still needed.

Besides the physical barriers of dangerous border crossings, refugees are also at the whim of nature and seasonal rains. These challenges have brought together aid agencies to enact road rehabilitation services which can guarantee passage and be maintained by security forces.

Once they have successfully returned to Côte d’Ivoire, former refugees will receive a cash grant, food and essential non-food items.

There are still remaining refugees waiting to return. There is still much to be done, and further security required providing the necessary platform for successful peace building endeavors. Security can only truly be reached when all parties participate and when aid organizations are able to freely operate within the application of restorative justice.

Nina Verfaillie
Feature Writer

Sources: Oxfam International, UNHCR, The UN Refugee Agency
Photo: National Geographic