‘A Huge Demand’: Ukrainian Women Train to Clear Landmines

Learning to identify and defuse explosives is something Anastasiia Minchukova never thought she would have to do as an English teacher in Ukraine. Yet there she was wearing a face shield, armed with a landmine detector and venturing into a field dotted with danger warnings.

Russia’s war in Ukraine took Minchukova, 20, and five other women to Kosovo, where they are attending a hands-on course in clearing landmines and other dangers that may remain hidden across their country once combat ends.

“There is a huge demand on people who know how to do demining because the war will be over soon,” Minchukova said. “We believe there is so much work to be done.”

The 18-day training camp takes place at a range in the western town of Peja where a Malta-based company regularly offers courses for job-seekers, firms working in former war zones, humanitarian organizations and government agencies.

Kosovo was the site of a devastating 1998-99 armed conflict between ethnic Albanian separatists and Serbian forces that killed about 13,000 people and left thousands of unexploded mines in need of clearing. Praedium Consulting Malta’s range includes bombed and derelict buildings as well as expanses of vegetation.

Instructor Artur Tigani, who tailored the curriculum to reflect Ukraine’s environment, said he was glad to share his small Balkan nation’s experience with the Ukrainian women. Though 23 years have passed, “it’s still fresh in our memories, the difficulties we met when we started clearance in Kosovo,” Tigani said.

Tigani is a highly trained and experienced mine operations officer who served as an engineer in the former Yugoslav army during the 1980s. He has been deployed in his native Kosovo, Sri Lanka, Uganda, Congo, Rwanda and Kenya, and conducted training missions in Syria and Iraq.

During a class last week, he took his trainees through a makeshift minefield before moving to an improvised outdoor classroom featuring a huge board with various samples of explosives and mines.

While it is impossible to assess how littered with mines and unexploded ordnance Ukraine is at the moment, the aftermaths of other conflicts suggest the problem will be huge.

“In many parts of the world, explosive remnants of war continue to kill and maim thousands of civilians each year during and long after active hostilities have ended. The majority of victims are children,” the International Committee of the Red Cross testified at a December U.N. conference.

“Locating (unexploded ordnance) in the midst of rubble and picking them out from among a wide array of everyday objects, many of which are made of similar material is a dangerous, onerous and often extremely time-consuming task,” the Red Cross said.

Mine Action Review, a Norwegian organization that monitors clearance efforts worldwide, reported that 56 countries were contaminated with unexploded ordnance as of October, with Afghanistan, Cambodia and Iraq carrying the heaviest burdens, followed by Angola, Bosnia, Thailand, Turkey and Yemen.

Thousands of civilians are believed to have died in Ukraine since Russia invaded Feb. 24. Russian forces have bombed cities and towns across the country, reducing many to rubble.

Military analysts say it appears Russian forces have employed anti-personnel and anti-vehicle mines, while Ukraine has used anti-tank mines to try to prevent the Russians from gaining ground.

With Ukrainian men from 18 to 60 years old prohibited from leaving their country and most engaged in defending it, the women wanted to help any way they could despite the risks involved in mine clearing.

“It’s dangerous all over Ukraine, even if you are in a relatively safe region,” said Minchukova, who is from central Ukraine.

Another Ukrainian student, Yuliia Katelik, 38, took her three children to safety in Poland early in the war. She went back to Ukraine and then joined the demining training to help make sure it’s safe for her children when they return home to the eastern city of Kramatorsk, where a rocket attack on a crowded train station killed more than 50 people this month.

Katelik said her only wish is to reunite with her family and see “the end of this nightmare.” Knowing how to spot booby-traps that could shatter their lives again is a necessary skill, she said.

“Acutely, probably as a mother, I do understand that there is a problem and it’s quite serious, especially for the children,” Katelik said.

Minchukova, wearing military-style clothes, said she was doubtful that normal life, as they all knew it before the war, would ever fully return.

“What am I missing? Peace,” she said. “I’m dreaming about peace, about sleeping in my bed not worried about going to bomb shelters all the time. I miss the people I lost.”

The Kosovo training center plans to work with more groups of Ukrainian women, both in Peja and in Ukraine.

“We’re planning as well to go to Ukraine very soon and start with delivery of courses there, on the theater” of war, Tigani said.

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Despite Payment, Investors Brace for Russia to Default

Prices for Russian credit default swaps — insurance contracts that protect an investor against a default — plunged sharply overnight after Moscow used its precious foreign currency reserves to make a last-minute debt payment Friday.

The cost for a five-year credit default swap on Russian debt was $5.84 million to protect $10 million in debt. That price was nearly half the one on Thursday, which at roughly $11 million for $10 million in debt protection was a signal that investors were certain of an eventual Russian default.

Russia used its foreign currency reserves sitting outside of the country to make the payment, backing down from the Kremlin’s earlier threats that it would use rubles to pay these obligations. In a statement, the Russia Finance Ministry did not say whether future payments would be made in rubles.

Despite the insurance contract plunge, investors remain largely convinced that Russia will eventually default on its debts for the first time since 1917. The major ratings agencies Standard & Poor’s and Moody’s have declared Russia is in “selective default” on its obligations.

Russia has been hit with extensive sanctions by the United States, the EU and others in response to its Feb. 24 invasion of Ukraine and its continuing military operation to take over Ukrainian territory.

The Credit Default Determination Committee — an industry group of 14 banks and investors that determines whether to pay on these swaps — said Friday that they “continue to monitor the situation” after Russia’s payment. Their next meeting is May 3.

At the beginning of April, Russia’s finance ministry said it tried to make a $649 million payment due April 6 toward two bonds to an unnamed U.S. bank — previously reported as JPMorgan Chase.

At that time, tightened sanctions imposed for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine prevented the payment from being accepted, so Moscow attempted to make the debt payment in rubles. The Kremlin, which repeatedly said it was financially able and willing to continue to pay on its debts, had argued that extraordinary events gave them the legal footing to pay in rubles, instead of dollars or euros.

Investors and rating agencies, however, disagreed and did not expect Russia to be able to convert the rubles into dollars before a 30-day grace period expired next week.

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Second Bombing in 2 Days in Kabul on Eve of Eid al-Fitr Holiday

A bomb blast in a passenger van in Kabul on Saturday killed at least one person, officials said, in the second explosion in the Afghan capital in two days, as security concerns rise on the eve of the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Fitr.

“One woman was killed and three more injured,” Khalid Zadran, a spokesman for Kabul’s commander, told Reuters.

A day earlier, an explosion killed more than 50 worshippers after Friday prayers at a Kabul mosque amid a spate of mosque attacks during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.  

One witness to the passenger van blast, Ali Maisam, 19, who was waiting outside a nearby bakery at the time, said he saw a number of bodies.

“I saw people coming out of the minibus with bloody and burnt faces. … I saw that four bodies were taken out and a woman was among the dead,” he said.

No one has claimed responsibility for the blast, but most previous bombings have been claimed by an Afghan offshoot of the Islamic State militant group.

Security concerns have risen across Afghanistan as the country prepares to mark Eid al-Fitr on Sunday under Taliban rule for the first time in more than 20 years, after the group was removed from power following a U.S. invasion in 2001.

The Taliban retook power last August after foreign forces pulled out of the country.

Taliban authorities announced on Saturday that Eid would be marked the following day, leading to raucous rounds of celebratory gunfire in the streets of Kabul late on Saturday night.

The authorities also moved to assuage people’s fears over security ahead of Eid.

“We ensure our countrymen we will ensure security during Eid,” spokesman for Taliban interior ministry Abdul Nafee Takor said.

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Conservation Group Urges Tracking of Botswana’s Big Tusk Elephants

The Botswana Wildlife Producers Association, a group that focuses on the conservation and management of the country’s wildlife, says placing electronic tracking collars on big tusk elephants could help prevent indiscriminate hunts. The idea follows the recent killing of a so-called big tusker during a sanctioned hunt, which sparked outrage among conservationists.

The association’s chief executive, Isaac Theophilus, said while his organization is satisfied that the hunt of bull elephants is being handled properly, tracking some big tusk elephants could help.

An electronic elephant collar helps keep track of the animal so that unsanctioned hunts of these animals for their tusks can be prevented.       

“The hunt from the point of view of the association is that it was perfectly legal,” Theophilus said. “We are happy with the size of the trophy that was harvested, and we are glad we still have such big tuskers. Going forward, the association would like to work hand-in-hand with [the] government to ensure that we monitor elephant populations out there. Go out there and collar a few of the so-called big tuskers and follow them to ensure that they are not harvested or anything like [that].”  

Theophilus contended the criticism of Botswana’s decision to reintroduce hunting in 2019 is unjustified. The southern African country recently opened its annual hunting season, which ends in September.

“The issue might have attracted criticism from certain quarters that do not value Botswana’s conservation efforts,” he said. “This particular hunt is a very good tusker. We should as a country be very appreciative that our conservation efforts are bearing fruit. We still have big elephants in the conservation areas, particularly in the concession areas and in the parks, where no hunting is done.” 

Local professional hunter Randy Motsumi said hunters always target old bulls with big tusks, which is what their clients demand.

“Mostly the hunters are looking for big bulls, which are old and no longer breeding,” Motsumi said. “If natural death could have occurred, who would have benefited? No one would have benefited. The animal was going to rot in the bush. Now hunters have shot a bull and it has fed more than 700 people. There is money in the government coffers and the community got employed. All these people have gained from only one big elephant that is no longer breeding.”               

Conservationist Map Ives said shooting big elephants is what drives the hunting industry.

“It is truly an impressive elephant, and the hunting of large tusks elephant is very much at the core of what the hunting industry is selling to its customer base in the United States in particular,” Ives said. “That is what the professional hunting industry is all about; is to find the biggest, largest animal because they have lists and books of records, and everybody wants to be in that book of records and publish a story about him.”     

Among critics of the decision to gun down a big tusk elephant is British Conservative Party Member of Parliament Roger Gale. He argued that tourists pay for photographic safaris to see the big tuskers, and he is opposed to Botswana’s decision to reintroduce trophy hunting.

But Botswana government spokesperson William Sentshebeng says Gale seeks to undermine Botswana’s pragmatic and sustainable conservation policy.

While elephant populations are declining elsewhere on the continent, Botswana has seen its herd grow to more than 130,000, while the most it can support is estimated at 55,000.

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Eastern DRC Residents Accuse Army of Abuse

Forced to flee her home, 62-year-old Agathe fears never to see peace again as she recounts the violence she has faced in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo. But the abuse Agathe has suffered in the territory of Masisi in North-Kivu province is not by rebels who have terrorized the area for more than a quarter of a century, but by soldiers.

“I tried three times to go home, but the soldiers who took control of the village behaved like those in the forest,” says Agathe, whose name has been changed to protect her identity, referring to rebels.

“They force us to work for them, they steal half of our crops. They ask us to pay taxes to access our own fields and when we don’t pay, they whip us.”

Agathe, like thousands of others displaced in Masisi, fled the fighting between DRC armed forces and rebel groups after the authorities declared a “state of siege” in the troubled region nearly a year ago.

The stringent measure gave the army and police full powers to run the administration and wage war on the hundred or so armed groups.

But in witness testimony and reports, civilians accuse soldiers of murder, rape, torture, looting, forced labor and collaborating with rebels.

“We thought that the state of siege would put an end to harassment, but in fact, it’s much worse,” says a civil society figure, who wished to remain anonymous for security reasons.

“The extortion by soldiers is taking place in broad daylight and with complete impunity,” the person says.

‘Shot on the spot’

A U.N. document seen by AFP tells of troops committing hundreds of abuses including “attacks on protected people and places … abduction, recruitment and use of children,” as well as sexual violence and torture.

The abuses were documented in Masisi between May 6 last year and February 9, 2022, the U.N. Joint Human Right Office in DR Congo (UNJHRO) says.

A religious leader blames commanders. “The people will never be safe here while soldiers’ rations are stolen by their commanders,” he charges.

A health worker describes how soldiers from the 3410e regiment stormed into a health center in Loashi, 10 kilometers from central Masisi, in February looking for a rebel before they “shot him on the spot with three bullets.”

In another incident in December, soldiers from the same regiment raped 15 women held in underground cells after they were accused of witchcraft, according to a report by UNJHRO.

The soldiers demanded $200 for the release of each woman and refused to let them access health care, it adds.

The region’s armed forces spokesman, Lieutenant-Colonel Guillaume Ndjike, told AFP he was not aware of any accusations against the regiment.

“If necessary, they will respond [to any claims] … it’s not a problem.”

Several sources said the 3410e regiment left Masisi earlier this month, which Ndjike did not deny.

Sitting on a bench, a despondent Agathe remembers the happier times of her youth. “When I was a young girl, we could walk freely, there was no kidnapping, no shootings, no harassment,” she says, describing a world she no longer believes will return.

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India, Pakistan Reeling From Pre-Monsoon Season Heat Wave

Meteorologists warn the extreme heat gripping India and Pakistan is likely to have many cascading effects on human health, ecosystems, agriculture, water, energy, and the economy. 

For the past few days, hundreds of millions of people have been sweltering under temperatures of more than 40 degrees Celsius in widespread areas of India and Pakistan. The intense heat is predicted to continue until May 2 and then subside.

The World Meteorological Organization says both India and Pakistan regularly experience excessively high temperatures in the pre-monsoon period, especially in May. While heatwaves do occur in April, it says they are less common.

WMO spokeswoman Clare Nullis said national meteorological and hydrological departments in both countries are implementing measures that have been successful in saving lives in the past few years.

“A lot of work has been taken on heat health action plans specifically and in particular to protect the most vulnerable, and the most vulnerable in urban areas where the impact of the heat tends to be magnified,” she said. “So, we do hope that mortality from this ongoing event will be limited.”

Nullis said large swaths of Pakistan are experiencing daytime temperatures between five and eight degrees Celsius above normal for this time of year. She said the extreme heat will have a punishing impact on Pakistan’s mountainous regions of Gilgit-Baltistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.

“The Pakistan Meteorological Department is warning that the unusual heat has the risk of speeding up the melting of snow and ice, and this might trigger what we call glacial lake outbursts, which lead to flash floods,” she said. “These are, obviously, very deadly hazards.”

Meteorologists say it is premature to attribute the extreme heat in India and Pakistan solely to climate change. However, they agree it is consistent with what is expected in a changing climate.

In its latest report, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warns heat waves and humid heat stress will be more intense and frequent in South Asia this century.

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Remembering Havel, Czechs Feel Moral Responsibility to Help Ukraine

The Russian invasion of Ukraine has driven home the importance of NATO and the European Union for many of their newest members, according to Czech Foreign Minister Jan Lipavsky, who was in Washington this week for the funeral of Czech emigre and former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright.

“The reason we joined these two organizations is that it won’t happen to us,” Lipavsky, said at an event hosted by the Atlantic Council.

The fact that Ukraine did not manage to enter the two Western institutions “created a gray zone” that Russian President Vladimir Putin exploited, said Lipavsky, who had discussed the challenge facing Ukraine, among other topics, in an interview with VOA earlier in the day.

The people of Ukraine “want to be part of the Western society, they want democratic elections, they want freedom of speech,” and they want to enjoy the prosperity that comes with them, he said. “I feel our moral responsibility to help them.”

Lipavsky is part of a newly sworn-in coalition government comprising both conservatives and progressives. Led by Prime Minister Petr Fiala, the new Czech administration is expected to pursue an internationalist foreign policy that promotes democracy and human rights, harkening back to an era when the country was led by playwright-turned political leader Vaclav Havel.

On his limited itinerary in Washington, Lipavsky paid tribute to Havel, who is memorialized in what is known as the “Freedom Foyer” of the U.S. Capitol’s Statuary Hall. There, his bust sits in close proximity to those of Winston Churchill, Abraham Lincoln and George Washington.

Lipavsky gifted his American hosts with a collection of Havel photographs, including photos of Havel with Albright, who was born in then-Czechoslovakia and whose father was a member of the Czechoslovakian diplomatic corps.


The friendship between Havel and Albright was stressed by Lipavsky and other Czech dignitaries who came to Washington for the funeral. Among them were Czech senate president Milos Vystrcil, the senate foreign affairs committee chairman and three former ambassadors to the United States.


Albright is credited with having played a critical role in ushering the Czech Republic and other Central and Eastern European countries into NATO.

“Madeleine Albright made that possible, because she knew — she had suffered the consequences of policy failures, including American policy failures” in the 1930s and ’40s, said Daniel Fried, a former U.S. ambassador to Poland, at the Atlantic Council event alongside Lipavsky.

“Vaclav Havel, along with Poland’s Lech Walesa, pushed [then U.S. President] Bill Clinton on NATO enlargement,” Fried recalled. “One of their arguments was — I was around, I remember — ‘we have a window now to do it, don’t you Americans blow it!’ ”

Fried added that Havel and Walesa might not have “quite put it that way, but that was more or less their way, what they were saying.”

Speaking to VOA earlier by telephone, Fried took issue with widespread reports of “backsliding” on democratic governance in the former Soviet bloc countries of Central and Eastern Europe. “Except for Hungary,” he said, he sees the countries in the region “going back to their roots” of fighting for freedom and democracy.

Lipavsky, for his part, said he believes the countries of the region are attracted to the West by its “democratic identity.”

“This identity is built upon the vision that every person can pursue his and her own happiness, and you have very basic values like human rights, rights to own [property], rights to think, freedom of speech,” he said. “Baltics, Central and Eastern Europe, want to be part of that, is part of that.”

The Ukrainian people are “literally fighting and dying” for the very same choice, he said, and the Czech Republic will do its utmost to help them to prevail against Russia and become a member of the club of like-minded nations that is the EU.

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Ukraine Slows Russian Advance in East, South as Talks in Doubt

The continuation of negotiations to end Russia’s war against Ukraine is in doubt, with Ukraine’s president saying it is hard to discuss peace amid public anger over alleged atrocities carried out by Russian troops, while Russia’s foreign minister said Western sanctions and arms shipments were impeding the talks, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty reported.  


Ukrainian forces fought Saturday to counter a Russian advance in their country’s south and east, where the Kremlin is seeking to capture the industrial Donbas region. Western military analysts said Moscow’s offensive was going much slower than planned.

While Russia claimed on Saturday to have struck more than 380 targets overnight as it sought to take full control of the territories of Luhansk and Donetsk in Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region, the General Staff of Ukraine’s Armed Forces said the Russian military’s efforts to capture targets were “not succeeding — the fighting continues.” Ukraine’s second-largest city, Kharkiv, reportedly was targeted by mortar and artillery shelling Saturday.  


Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said in a televised address Friday night that Ukrainian forces had recaptured a strategically important village near the city and evacuated hundreds of civilians.  


RFE/RL reported that in a daily briefing Saturday, the Ukrainian military said the greatest enemy losses were taking place in the Izyum area, near Kharkiv.


Appeals in Rome


Meanwhile, the United Nations continued working to negotiate the evacuation of civilians from the increasingly hellish ruins of Mariupol, the southern port city that Russia has sought to capture since it invaded Ukraine more than nine weeks ago.  


Two Ukrainian women whose husbands are defending the besieged Azovstal steel plant in Mariupol were in Rome on Friday, calling for any evacuation of civilians to also include an estimated 2,000 soldiers holed up in the plant, the last stronghold of Ukrainian resistance in the strategic and now bombed-out port city. They cited fears the troops would be tortured and killed if left behind and captured by Russian forces.  


“The lives of soldiers matter, too. We can’t only talk about civilians,” said Yuliia Fedusiuk, the wife of Arseniy Fedusiuk, a member of the Azov Regiment in Mariupol; she was joined by Kateryna Prokopenko, whose husband Denys Prokopenko, is the Azov commander.  


“We are hoping that we can rescue soldiers, too, not only dead, not only injured, but all of them,” Fedusiuk said.


Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov told Saudi-owned Al Arabiya Television there was no need for anybody to provide help to open up humanitarian corridors out of Ukraine’s besieged cities.  


“We appreciate the interest of the [U.N.] secretary-general to be helpful,” he added. “[We have] explained … what is the mechanism for them to monitor how the humanitarian corridors are announced.”


Lavrov also accused the West of being “Russia phobic,” and he complained that his country never lived a day without being subject to sanctions by the West.  


“So … to believe that this latest wave of sanctions is going to make Russia cry ‘Uncle’ and to beg for being pardoned, those planners are lousy, and of course, they don’t know anything about [the] foreign policy of Russia and they don’t know anything about how to deal with Russia,” Lavrov said.

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UN Calls on Mali to Reverse New Media Restrictions

The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights warns that Mali’s new media restrictions reflect a growing intolerance toward freedom of the press in the region.

U.N. human rights officials are expressing deep dismay at Mali’s decision Wednesday to permanently suspend Radio France International and France 24 from operating there. They are urging Mali’s military authorities to reverse the ban and allow independent media to work freely in the country. 

The government temporarily suspended the two international broadcasters on March 16, accusing them of airing false allegations of human rights violations by the Malian army and Russian mercenaries.

U.N. human rights spokeswoman Ravina Shamdasani said the current climate of fear in Mali is having a chilling effect on journalists and bloggers.

“There is a lot of self-censorship. There is a lot of pressure,” she said. “There have been a number of journalists—local, regional, international, who have come under pressure. Licenses revoked.… Journalists are trying to avoid reporting on sensitive topics, so that they do not fall foul of the authorities.”  

Shamdasani said U.N. human rights monitors continue to document allegations of serious violations of international human rights law and international humanitarian law in many parts of Mali. If anything, she said the prevailing situation in the country demands more, not less, scrutiny.

However, she said Mali is not the only country where attacks on freedom of expression and opinion are occurring with increasing frequency and intensity.

“We are seeing a worrying trend in some of the other countries in West Africa as well,” she said. “And this applies not only to freedom of expression and then the work of journalists, but also civic space and civil society as a whole. There appears to be a growing intolerance for dissent, unfortunately.”  

Shamdasani said journalists all over the world are under threat, and journalists increasingly are being discredited for their reporting, accused of bias or of spreading misinformation. She said governments have many tools they can use to intimidate journalists and prevent the free flow of information. 

She said governments are increasingly using surveillance to monitor the work of journalists, adding that this makes it more difficult for them to protect their sources, to gather information, report on abuse, and bring perpetrators of crimes to account.

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Nepal Second South Asian Country to Grapple with Economic Woes

Nepal has banned imports of cars, alcohol and other luxury goods to conserve foreign exchange reserves as spiraling prices of fuel and food imports stemming from the war in Ukraine strain an economy already battered by the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Himalayan nation between India and China is the second South Asian country, after Sri Lanka, to face a foreign exchange crunch.

The goods that will not be imported include expensive televisions and mobile phones, the government said this week. The ban will remain in force until mid-July.

To conserve fuel, which Nepal imports, the work week in government offices has been shortened to five days.

“This is a short-term measure taken to prevent the economic condition of the country from going bad,” said Narayan Prasad Regmi, a senior official in the Industry, Commerce and Supplies Ministry.

Nepal’s central bank has said foreign exchange reserves are sufficient to cover just over six months of imports, down from 10 months in mid-2021. The landlocked nation of 29 million is heavily dependent on imports.

The government hopes the measures will help stave off a crisis like the one roiling Sri Lanka, where acute foreign exchange shortages have resulted in massive supply shortfalls, runaway price increases of fuel and food and a suspension of payments of its foreign debt.

Experts however call Nepal’s temporary ban on luxury goods and the shortening of the work week “desperate measures” that will not address the root cause of the problem that the economy faces.

“All this is only a quick fix and a Band-Aid over essentially what is a very big crack. The basic problem is that our imports far exceed our exports, so we face a huge balance of payments problem,” according to Santosh Sharma Poudel, co-founder of Nepal Institute for Policy Research.

Nepal’s foreign exchange crunch began during the COVID-19 pandemic. With tourism hit, earnings from foreign visitors plummeted in a country where more than a million tourists used to come before the pandemic.

Remittances sent by an estimated 3 million to 4 million Nepali migrants employed mostly in the Middle East and India have also taken a hit – before the pandemic they added up to as much as one-fourth of the country’s gross domestic product.

The war in Ukraine has added to its woes, as prices of both crude oil and food spiral in global markets — Nepal’s imports most of its essential needs, such as fuel, and food, such as cooking oil.

While Nepal’s economy is not as fragile as Sri Lanka’s, there is apprehension of what lies in store in one of the world’s poorest nations. The World Bank warned this week that the war in Ukraine is set to cause the “largest commodity shock” since the 1970s and “households across the world are feeling the cost-of-living crisis.”

They are households like that of Vijay Thapa, who works as a cook in New Delhi to support his family in a village in Nepal. “They can no longer manage in what I send. Prices of everything have spiked, whether it is cooking oil or wheat. Taxi fares have gone up by 50%.”

The situation is more worrisome for small countries, experts say.

“This is the second example in South Asia of how the war just after the pandemic is affecting us,” said Dhanajay Tripathi, a professor at the South Asian University in New Delhi.

“There are real worries for countries like Nepal because with smaller incomes it is harder for them to absorb the shock of high imports compared to larger countries such as India where the huge economy makes it possible to manage,” he said.

Analysts also warn that fixing the economy could be more difficult because Nepal also has some of the political problems that contributed to Sri Lanka’s crisis.

“We also have crony capitalism; corruption is high and there is political instability. That makes it harder to put long-term efficient policies in place,” Poudel said.

Economic mismanagement that led to the crisis in Sri Lanka has been blamed on the powerful Rajapaksa political dynasty that controls the government. Although some family members have resigned as ministers, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and his brother Mahinda, who is prime minister, still hold the top posts.

In Nepal constant infighting among political parties has resulted in short-lived governments for the last three decades.  For much of last year, the country was mired in political turmoil and is presently ruled by a fragile five-party coalition.

Plummeting COVID-19 cases, though, have encouraged the country to lift restrictions on tourists. Tourism earnings are up, although still far below prepandemic levels. And as Middle East countries increase crude output after the pandemic, when demand had plunged, jobs are coming back for Nepalese nationals, which could mean remittances will again pick up.

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In Scandinavia, Wooden Buildings Reach New Heights

A sandy-colored tower glints in the sunlight and dominates the skyline of the Swedish town of Skelleftea as Scandinavia harnesses its wood resources to lead a global trend towards erecting eco-friendly high-rises.

The Sara Cultural Center is one of the world’s tallest timber buildings, made primarily from spruce and towering 75 meters over rows of snow-dusted houses and surrounding forest.

The 20-story timber structure, which houses a hotel, a library, an exhibition hall and theater stages, opened at the end of 2021 in the northern town of 35,000 people.

Forests cover much of Sweden’s northern regions, most of it spruce, and building timber homes is a longstanding tradition.

Swedish architects now want to spearhead a revolution and steer the industry towards more sustainable construction methods as large wooden buildings sprout up in Sweden and neighboring Nordic nations thanks to advancing industry techniques.

“The pillars together with the beams, the interaction with the steel and wood, that is what carries the 20 stories of the hotel,” Therese Kreisel, a Skelleftea urban planning official, tells AFP during a tour of the cultural center.

Even the lift shafts are made entirely of wood. “There is no plaster, no seal, no isolation on the wood,” she says, adding that this “is unique when it comes to a 20-story building.”

Building materials go green

The main advantage of working with wood is that it is more environmentally friendly, proponents say.

Cement — used to make concrete — and steel, two of the most common construction materials, are among the most polluting industries because they emit huge amounts of carbon dioxide, a major greenhouse gas.

But wood emits little CO2 during its production and retains the carbon absorbed by the tree even when it is cut and used in a building structure. It is also lighter in weight, requiring less of a foundation.

According to the U.N.’s IPCC climate panel, wood as a construction material can be up to 30 times less carbon intensive than concrete, and hundreds or even thousands of times less than steel.

Global efforts to cut emissions have sparked an upswing in interest for timber structures, according to Jessica Becker, the coordinator of Trastad (City of Wood), an organization lobbying for more timber construction.

Skelleftea’s tower “showcases that is it possible to build this high and complex in timber,” says Robert Schmitz, one of the project’s two architects.

“When you have this as a backdrop for discussions, you can always say, ‘We did this, so how can you say it’s not possible?'”

Only an 85-meter tower recently erected in Brumunddal in neighboring Norway and an 84-meter structure in Vienna are taller than the Sara Cultural Centre.

A building under construction in the U.S. city of Milwaukee and due to be completed soon is expected to clinch the title of the world’s tallest, at a little more than 86 meters.

‘Stacked like Lego’

Building the cultural center in spruce was “much more challenging” but “has also opened doors to really think in new ways,” explains Schmitz’s co-architect Oskar Norelius.

For example, the hotel rooms were made as prefabricated modules that were then “stacked like Lego pieces on site,” he says.

The building has won several wood architecture prizes.

Anders Berensson, another Stockholm architect whose material of choice is wood, says timber has many advantages.

“If you missed something in the cutting you just take the knife and the saw and sort of adjust it on site. So it’s both high tech and low tech at the same time,” he says.

In Stockholm, an apartment complex made of wood, called Cederhusen and featuring distinctive yellow and red cedar shingles on the facade, is in the final stages of completion.

It has already been named the Construction of the Year by Swedish construction industry magazine Byggindustrin. 

“I think we can see things shifting in just the past few years actually,” says Becker.

“We are seeing a huge change right now, it’s kind of the tipping point. And I’m hoping that other countries are going to catch on, we see examples even in England and Canada and other parts of the world.” 

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Leading Algeria Opposition Figure Arrested, Rights Groups Say

One of Algeria’s leading opposition figures, Karim Tabbou, has been arrested again, rights groups have said.

Tabbou was one of the most-recognizable faces during unprecedented mass rallies, led by the Hirak pro-democracy movement, that began in February 2019. They demanded a sweeping overhaul of the ruling system in place since the North African country’s independence from France in 1962.

He was detained Friday evening at his home, the rights groups said.

Algeria’s Human Rights League (LADDH) said on its Facebook page: “We still don’t know the reasons for this new arrest.”

On Tuesday, Tabbou published on his Facebook page an “homage” to another activist, Hakim Debbazi, whose death the Rights League announced. Debbazi had been detained in February.

“Physically dead, the martyrs of the just causes are more than alive,” Tabbou wrote. 

He blamed authorities for the death of “modest and humble” Debbazi after a heart attack and said the activist had been “committed body and soul to the Hirak.”

Tabbou called on people to honor Debbazi’s “sacrifice” and “continue our fight for the advent of a state of law.”

Tabbou leads a small, unregistered opposition party, the Democratic Social Union (UDS).

In March 2020, he was sentenced to one year in jail for “undermining national security.” The conviction stemmed from his criticism of the army’s involvement in politics.

He was also detained and released on other occasions, including just before last June’s parliamentary election which Hirak boycotted.

The Hirak protests forced longtime president Abdelaziz Bouteflika to step down. Demonstrations continued in a push for deep reforms but the movement waned when the coronavirus pandemic struck.

More than 300 people are detained in Algeria over links to the Hirak or rights activism, the National Committee for the Release of Detainees (CNLD) says. 

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For Kenya’s Birds of Prey, Power Lines Are a Deadly Enemy

A blindfold calms the large black and white augur buzzard as two men glue a prosthetic leg into an insert on her body to replace the one that she lost.

The female is one of many injured birds of prey that turn up at Simon Thomsett’s Kenyan rehabilitation center, most of which, like her, have been crippled by electrocution.

The problem has progressively grown as Kenya has upgraded its electricity network, replacing wooden poles with steel-reinforced concrete, which can be conductive, and hanging inadequately insulated power lines between them, conservationists say.

That and the lack of deterrent markers along the cables are pushing Kenya’s already dwindling bird of prey populations closer to disappearance.

“Thirty years ago, the birds were coming in being hit by cars, diseased… or hitting things like clothes lines or …windows,” said Thomsett before/after helping to fit the prosthetic.

“Now we … the vast majority is electrocution.”

Many are killed outright by the shock, both via direct collision with power lines or from perching.

Kenya’s population of augur buzzards, historically one of its most common birds of prey has plunged 91% over 40 years due to electrocution, habitat loss, and poisoning, according to a February study by Thomsett and others published in Biological Conservation.

Over the same period, hooded vulture are down 88% and long-crested eagles by 94%, the study said.

The government-run Kenya Power and Lighting Company did not respond to requests for comment.

In some parts of South Africa, bird flight diverters have successfully been introduced to reduce instances of such deaths.

“These devices can reduce collisions by over 90% for some species,” said Lourens Leeuwner, who manages the wildlife and energy program at South Africa’s Endangered Wildlife Trust.

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Zelenskyy’s Invite to G20 Not Enough for Biden

Indonesian President Joko Widodo, who holds this year’s G-20 presidency, has invited Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy to the group’s summit in Bali later this year, despite Russian President Vladimir Putin’s plans to attend. However, Zelenskyy’s invitation may not be enough to secure the attendance of U.S. and other Western leaders keen on isolating Moscow. White House Bureau Chief Patsy Widakuswara has this report.

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Uzbeks Say Aircraft Flown From Afghanistan Are US Property 

Defying Taliban demands, authorities in Uzbekistan say dozens of aircraft flown into their territory as the former Afghan government collapsed last summer are the property of the United States and will not be returned to the interim government in Kabul.

The decision is likely to complicate efforts by the Uzbek government to engage with the Taliban and ultimately develop trade routes through its southern neighbor to Pakistan and the Indian Ocean.

Afghan air force personnel flew almost 50 helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft to Uzbekistan in mid-August as former Afghan President Ashraf Ghani fled the country and Taliban forces overran the capital, Kabul. Several more aircraft and Black Hawk helicopters were taken to neighboring Tajikistan to prevent them from falling into Taliban hands.

Taliban leaders have since insisted that the aircraft are Afghan property and demanded them back.

Addressing an Afghan air force ceremony in Kabul in January, Taliban Defense Minister Mohammad Yaqoob said his government would never allow the aircraft to be seized or used by its northern neighbors.

“I respectfully call on [Uzbekistan and Tajikistan] not to test our patience and not to force us to take all possible retaliatory steps [to retake the aircraft],” Yaqoob said without elaborating.

But Ismatulla Irgashev, a senior adviser to Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev, told VOA during a recent interview in Tashkent that the aircraft would not be going back to Kabul.

“The U.S. government paid for them,” said Irgashev, his nation’s most senior diplomat dealing with Afghan matters. “It funded the previous Afghan government. So, we believe it is totally up to Washington how to deal with them.

“We’ve kept this military equipment in agreement with the U.S. and have told the Taliban so.”

The escape of the pilots with the aircraft marked one of the Taliban’s few setbacks during the chaotic period that marked their complete takeover of Afghanistan.

Little has been said since about the issue, in part because of the sensitivity of the issue in Uzbek-Afghan relations and the reluctance of officials on all sides to discuss it.

But U.S. defense officials confirmed to VOA that both Uzbekistan and Tajikistan have no plans to give the aircraft to the Taliban.

“The aircraft continue to be the subject of regional security engagement with the governments of Uzbekistan and Tajikistan,” a U.S. Defense Department spokesperson, Army Major Rob Lodewick, said when asked about the fate of the planes and helicopters.

As of August 21, 2021, there were 46 aircraft in Uzbekistan and 18 in Tajikistan, the official said. These included Mi-17 UH-60 helicopters as well as PC-12, C-208, AC-208 and A-29 fixed-wing aircraft.

A U.S. defense official, speaking to VOA on the condition of anonymity in order to discuss the sensitive subject, that the U.S. has “gotten eyes” on the aircraft in the two countries and said that they technically belong to the U.S. military services that procured them for the Afghan security forces.

What ultimately happens to the aircraft, though, has yet to be decided.

“[The Department of Defense] is still determining final disposition options,” the official said, noting there is interest from government agencies inside the United States, as well as from foreign partners. “This isn’t going to be finalized for some time.”

Despite the mystery surrounding the fate of the former Afghan aircraft, U.S. officials have long expressed confidence that they would not be handed over to Afghanistan’s Taliban rulers.

“It’s safe to assume that they will not be sent into Afghanistan to be used by the Taliban,” Pentagon press secretary John Kirby said in January in response to a question from VOA. “But as to what they end up doing and where they end up going and who ends up with them, we are still working our way through that decision-making process.”

Unofficial estimates from the region say about 500 to 600 Afghans were aboard the aircraft that flew to Uzbekistan and another 140 to 150 flew to Tajikistan.

The pilots all were transferred to the United Arab Emirates in September and November last year and are being resettled in the United States.

Ayaz Gul in Islamabad and Jeff Seldin in Washington contributed to this report.

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Fighting Breaks Out in Ethiopia’s Amhara Despite ‘Humanitarian Cease-fire’  

Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed announced a humanitarian cease-fire five weeks ago, but it is already beginning to fray. In the northern region of Amhara, fighting had subsided. But, last week, it erupted again.

VOA spoke to witnesses who got caught up in the fighting when militants from the Fano militia group, on the border of the Oromia zone, in Amhara, allegedly opened fire on civilians close to the town of Shewa Robit.

Wendowessen Mamo says he was 3 kilometers away when the conflict erupted.

“Molale, the epicenter of the conflict, is almost burned to the ground like Ataye town was, where three such ethnic-based conflicts happened in the space of a year,” he added.

The hills of Amhara have been the scene of fighting between federal government forces, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) and militia groups for months.

Most people who spoke to VOA said they want to see peace now – among them Demeku Ali Abdu, who says her son was taken and killed after TPLF troops occupied her house last year.

“When I confirmed my child’s death, I felt so alone,” she said, as she started to cry. “I felt bereft for my future. And also, I thought about his two children growing up without a father. I hate to live without him.”

Ahmed Mohammed Seid, part of a local militia who fought to push the TPLF out of his hometown, hopes the fighting will soon end for good.

Seid said he hopes conflict will never return to his home. He believes that all parties involved in the conflict have learned lessons, and “I hope every person strives for the prevalence of peace.”

However, a spokesperson for the local government said the presence of the TPLF in Amhara has emboldened other militant groups.

Jemal Hassen, Oromo special zone government spokesperson, said, “Both TPLF and Oromo separatists have a common goal or target. Their marriage seems to have become more concrete as they have common agendas of dismantling the state apparatus and retaking control of politics.”

The special zone is an enclave of ethnic Oromos surrounded by the Amhara region.

In January, Abiy announced a national dialogue with the aim of bringing peace to the country. But the initiative has been criticized for failing to include many of the factions engaged in conflict, including the TPLF.

Ethiopian analyst Kiram Tadesse said, “There was optimism from all parties involved. Divergence has also started to emerge among these opposing parties, especially among those that are not included, and its credibility has been questioned.”

Given the renewed fighting in this area of Amhara, residents’ hopes for peace might not be realized.

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