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Forgotten Crises: The Top Ten Most Underreported Humanitarian Stories of 2007

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The group Doctors Without Borders has released its list of the top ten most underreported humanitarian stories of 2007. The list highlights the plight of people in places races ranging from the Democratic Republic of Congo, to Zimbabwe, Sri Lanka, Chechnya and elsewhere. As we approach the end of 2007, we take a look back at these forgotten crises with Nicolas de Torrente, executive director of Doctors Without Borders-USA. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZALEZ: It was almost a year ago to the day when the US-backed Ethiopian invasion of Somalia began. One year later, the conflict is widely considered Africa’s worst humanitarian crisis. The fighting has caused an unknown number of civilian casualties and the displacement of hundreds of thousands of people from the capital. An estimated 60% of Mogadishu residents have fled their homes.

But most people in the United States are not aware of what is happening in Somalia. The conflict rarely gets any airtime on any of the corporate networks’ nightly newscasts and is given little column space in the major newspapers.

AMY GOODMAN: Somalia is one of the top ten most underreported humanitarian stories of 2007, according to a list compiled by the international medical humanitarian group Doctors Without Borders, also known as Medecins Sans Frontieres. The list highlights the plight of people in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Zimbabwe, Sri Lanka, Chechnya and other places.

As we approach the end of the year, we take a look back at these forgotten crises. Nicolas de Torrente is the executive director of Doctors Without Borders-USA, joining us in our firehouse studio. Welcome, Nicolas. Good to have you here in the United States and in New York.


AMY GOODMAN: Go through these crises. Tell us what you’re paying attention to.

NICOLAS DE TORRENTE: Well, Amy, as you put it, I mean, the purpose of the list really is to try to, you know, highlight places where we feel that based on our experience as a medical humanitarian organization — and we’re not everywhere, but we — this is the presence of our teams on the ground, where there’s really such a mismatch between what is being — what we’re seeing in terms of the magnitude, the severity of the problems and then the level of media coverage. So, you know, it’s a subjective list. It’s not a perfect one in terms of the hierarchy of things.

But for us, as you put it, Somalia is really very much on the top right now. I mean, our teams are struggling to get in. We have now teams in Mogadishu. We have international staff on the ground. And we’re seeing a lot more now about what’s going on, and we’re having a better access to the population in terms of assistance. And the situation is very, very dire, in terms of the violence against civilians, you know, heavy, heavy fighting in highly populated areas, with, as we see it, quite a, you know, reckless disregard for civilians in Mogadishu. And hundreds of thousands of people have fled, and they’re fleeing to the outskirts of the city, but also as far away as — we have teams in Galcaio in the north, in Boosaaso, which is close to the Red Sea, and all the way into Yemen. We had a team just pick up — you know, try to provide assistance to survivors who were fleeing into Yemen, and there were fifty people had died in this particular ship. Fifty people were able to be rescued. So it’s really quite dramatic. People are very desperate, in terms of trying to flee what is happening in Somalia.

AMY GOODMAN: The Ethiopian troops that invaded are supported by the United States?

NICOLAS DE TORRENTE: Well, yes. There’s an international kind of community backing of the transitional federal government that was — that came in on the coattails of the Ethiopian military invasion that took out the Islamic Courts Union, who was present in Mogadishu at the time in southern Somalia. So there’s an international community kind of backing for this transitional government, and that government is heavily supported by the Ethiopian troops there.

But there’s also resistance. I mean, you know, the fighting is not one-sided. There, insurgent groups are also committing, you know, atrocities, in terms of bombings and disregard for civilians, as well. It’s not a one-sided affair here.

JUAN GONZALEZ: But why the disparity in some of the coverage of these crises? For instance, there are periodic full-page ads in the New York Times, the Washington Post, over the Darfur crisis, which is nearby to what’s going on in Somalia, and yet there is so little coverage of the situation there.

NICOLAS DE TORRENTE: Well, I mean, there are reasons in terms of also, you know, the difficulty of coverage for journalists. I mean, it’s not easy to get to Mogadishu, it’s not easy to get into Somalia. It’s very hard for aid organizations. We’ve — you know, we’re really struggling to work there because of the insecurity. That’s the same for Zimbabwe, for instance, where there are restrictions, you know, that are imposed on journalists being able to cover the situation and for aid organizations to work. So I think that’s part of the explanation.

And then there’s — I mean, there’s something very special that’s happened around Darfur in this country, a kind of coalition that came up and that mobilized a lot of attention, which is very unusual and very much the exception to the rule. I mean, if you look at the Democratic Republic of Congo, I mean, in terms of the death toll, the impact, the longstanding nature of the conflict and what’s going on there, that also has remained quite forgotten compared to what’s going on —-

AMY GOODMAN: What’s going on there? What are the numbers? Why is it happening?

NICOLAS DE TORRENTE: Well, there’s -— you know, the thing is, you know, the story of the Congo has been that there have been democratic elections. There’s a new president that has been elected. And the story was a hopeful one, that the country would now be — you know, move on beyond the civil war. And there have been two very serious episodes of that.

That’s not what we’re seeing happening in the eastern part, in particular, where today we have the Congolese army, backed by the UN forces, trying to take out a rebel commander who is holding up in the North Kivu province. And this is a place that is neighboring Rwanda, so there’s a lot of —- you know, ten years of interaction with what happened in Rwanda in 1994, the genocide there, people fleeing into Congo. And this is kind of the ongoing continuation of that, and it’s not resolved. And -—

AMY GOODMAN: The numbers dead?

NICOLAS DE TORRENTE: The numbers? I mean, we’ve — in this year, we’ve had about, you know, 300,000 or 400,000 new displaced. And these are people who have been affected by warfare for many, many years and who are again forced to flee because of the fighting and because of the way the soldiers on all sides behave. In the Congo, soldiers are not paid. They pay themselves, so to speak, on the back of the civilian population. This means looting, rape. Rape, sexual violence is very, very high in the Congo. And, you know, it’s just — there’s an unending cycle there, where — that is also fueled by the fact that there’s a lot of natural resources, especially in that area, and people, the different groups, are fighting over that. So there’s political and economic reasons for this ongoing conflict there.

JUAN GONZALEZ: What about some of these other underreported crises — Chechnya and some of the others — that get even less attention?

NICOLAS DE TORRENTE: Yeah, well, Chechnya, you know, the kind of intense fighting did drop off a few years ago. What we’re concerned about is that, you know, the consequences of the conflict still are very much present. I mean, there’s still a high level of instability in that whole region, and the people who have returned to Chechnya from neighboring republics are very traumatized, extremely impoverished, and the healthcare system has really been destroyed. So, you know, there needs to be much more of a focus there.

It was always an embarrassing — Chechnya was always an embarrassing topic for the international community, you know, backing Russia as a strategic partner. And this was always something that everyone preferred to ignore, what was going on in Chechnya. And now that the more, you know, overt fighting has decreased, it’s even easier now to just turn a blind eye to what’s continuing to occur in Chechnya and the ongoing effects of the war and the deep-seated problems that have not been resolved yet.

AMY GOODMAN: Nicolas de Torrente of Medecins Sans Frontieres, Doctors Without Borders, Burma?

NICOLAS DE TORRENTE: Yes. Well, Burma did get — I mean, of course, you’ve covered it, and others have covered what happened, the pro-democracy protests against the military regime there. But, you know, this is really, in a way, the tip of the iceberg, in terms of what’s happening in Burma, in terms of the conditions of the population throughout the country.

There are places, for instance, you know, Rakhine state, which is in the western part of the country, where the Rohingya population there — these are Muslims — are not even considered to be citizens of Burma. And so, they’re — you know, they have no rights, basically. And so, the government disregards them completely. There’s a lot of abuse. And their needs — in terms of basic healthcare issues, HIV/AIDS is a major problem in Burma, and TB and other health issues are major problems. And so, this is not being talked about.

What’s going on in the east with ongoing insurgencies, ethnically based insurgencies against the regime, again, not being covered. That area is sealed off. The government does not want aid agencies to be present. So, you know, there are a lot of restrictions to the operations of aid organizations. And there’s — since there’s a willingness to kind of cut off the regime and not to provide assistance that could support it, there’s also a lack of engagement on the humanitarian side. And we think that these things can be a bit dissociated and that there is a way to provide assistance quite — you know, more directly to the population in Burma and not necessarily strengthen the hand of the military regime, that doesn’t care about the population anyway.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And in Sri Lanka, which has to be one of the longest running, least reported battles, or ongoing battles, in the world.

NICOLAS DE TORRENTE: Right. I mean, Sri Lanka, the problem is that the war flared up again. And, you know, there was a big attention to the tsunami, and there was a big aid response to the tsunami, and then attention waned, and the war restarted. It’s interesting, actually, that there may be a connection, in fact, because the way the assistance was provided during the tsunami was a cause of grievance between the Tigers, the rebel movement in the north, and the government. I mean, the control over the aid flows, and so on, which were so massive, was one of the issues that reignited the fighting for the past two years. And, you know, it’s leading to a lot of displacement in the east and a lot of — the enclave in the north, where government services have been really curtailed.

And we see it in terms of medical personnel. The hospitals have lost their medical staff, have lost their surgical staff. So we’re able to go back in and provide services, but in a climate, as well, where there’s a lot of suspicion of aid organizations. And that’s also one of the consequences of the tsunami response, is that seeing this huge amount of aid, somewhat uncoordinated, somewhat unfocused, has raised a lot of suspicions on the part of the government, in terms of what aid organizations are there to do. And that has made it more harder for us to provide assistance there. So it’s a, you know, kind of an ironic twist, when there was such mobilization to help Sri Lanka in the wake of the tsunami.

AMY GOODMAN: You’re talking about some of the worst crises in the world. And according to Andrew Tyndall, publisher of the online media tracking journal, the Tyndall Report, the countries in context that you highlight at Medecins Sans Frontieres account for just eighteen minutes of coverage from January to November 2007 on the three major nightly newscasts.

NICOLAS DE TORRENTE: Right. And we — I mean, it’s one of the measures — I mean, people do get their news from a variety of different sources, and there are — you know, there are other ways of getting information. And there’s more hunger for that, and we see that in the proliferation of new media outlets, channels, people getting their information over the internet. I mean, you, of course, are extremely aware of this.

But still, the nightly news is a good measure of how the mainstream media — you know, the attention it focuses on these issues. And it’s a bit shocking, of course, to see that, you know, major, major problems just don’t get any attention at all, not even — that don’t even deserve — and that’s the problem. I mean, we don’t think that media coverage is the panacea, that if you get media coverage, you will automatically get a solution. Of course not, but if it’s not even reported, it’s not even on the radar screen, it’s not even on the map, then that’s a real issue.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to have to leave it there. I want to thank you very much. We’ll certainly link your report, Doctors Without Borders, at our website And if you want to see some of the video images of the countries that Nicolas has mentioned, you can go to our website, as well. Nicolas de Torrente is executive director of Doctors Without Borders-USA.

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