The UN peacekeepers are on red alert – a call has just been put out on the radio.
“Red zone, red zone”. There’s a ripple of sound around our truck as they cock their weapons ready.
The two-truck convoy we are in is entering one of the areas in the north east of the Democratic Republic of Congo identified as a ‘hotspot’.
Village after village in parts of Ituri province appear to have been attacked.
Many of the homes have been set alight and are destroyed through fire. Some are smashed to the ground, leaving just a pile of gravel.
On some of the walls still standing, there’s graffiti scrawled by various rebel groups. Many of the communities have been deserted, leaving behind the shells of vandalised buildings and the scraps of lives scattered around the dust.
There have been repeated attacks directed against residents. In Kafe village, which sits on Lake Albert, many have fled in boats across to Uganda which now houses the most number of refugees in Africa.
The UN Uruguayan contingent we are with set about fortifying their position in Kafe, laying out barbed wire, filling sandbags, setting up lookout posts surrounding our camp.
Peacekeepers have been killed and aid workers kidnapped elsewhere in this country, so they are under strict instructions not to take any chances.
Few areas are considered safe in the restive DRC right now. There are more than 16,000 UN peacekeepers in the country – the largest peacekeeping operation in the world – but peace seems a distant naive dream here right now.
The upsurge in violence which is threatening to engulf the DRC is being put down to the political instability amid increasingly strident calls for President Joseph Kabila to step down.
His second mandate expired in December 2016, but so far he has resisted calls for him to resign and hold elections.
Various government statements from ministers have insisted recently he will respect the constitution – and elections will be held in December but it has done little to quell the unrest or halt the violence.
It has all added to the growing humanitarian crisis leaving swathes of the country desperate for food and huge numbers of the population displaced – having been frightened away from their homes and communities and moved to other areas of the country.
They are now living in large crowded, squalid camps under tarpaulin bamboo tents where disease is festering and where despair is the only commodity not in short supply.
Aid agencies say the humanitarian situation in the former Belgian colony is reaching breaking point with more than 13 million people needing help – that’s the same number as in Syria.
Yet there is little worldwide awareness of what is going on in this mineral-rich country. DRC should be rich, her people should go to sleep with full stomachs every night.
The country is Africa’s largest producer of copper and has more than half of the world’s stock of cobalt under its soil.
Yet it is pitifully low on the UN Human Development Index and hasn’t experienced a peaceful transition of power since independence in 1960.
The increasingly autocratic DRC authorities have denounced the mounting humanitarian concerns as exaggerated.
The President and his administration are deeply unpopular and his army, of which he is Commander in Chief, is much feared.
Many suspect the Congolese soldiers are somehow involved in stoking the unrest.
The President has used it as an excuse not to hold elections in the past. And his administration has said it won’t attend an aid donor conference in mid-April which was due to raise billions for the country’s struggling people.
The UN convoy rolls into another village. They stop to chat to the residents. Their presence, they hope, instils some calm amongst the population and acts as a deterrent to the multiple militia groups doing the attacking.
In the crowd of hungry people, many of whom have fled their homes in Tche, we spot a small baby on the back on a child who herself only looks about eight years old.
The baby is crying. It’s a sick, hungry, wailing cry. It turns out Novita has been surviving here with her baby sister and four-year-old brother for three weeks now.
The three of them have been on their own for three weeks. They’ve somehow survived by begging for scraps from strangers.
They got separated from their parents when their village was attacked. They have no idea where their parents are or even if they’re still alive.
They look dusty, noticeably thin and terrified. They tell us the last time they ate was a couple of days ago.
The surrounding adults appear somewhat embarrassed at our questions about who is looking after them. Everyone here is hungry. Everyone. The UN Captain turns to me. “Yes. It’s awful. Truly, truly tragic.”
St Vincent volcano: Around 16,000 people flee communities after eruption of La Soufriere | World News
About 16,000 people have had to flee their ash-covered communities after a volcano erupted on the Caribbean island of St Vincent.
The eruption of La Soufriere on Friday has transformed the island’s usual lush towns and villages into a gloomy, grey landscape.
It was the 4,000-ft volcano’s first major eruption since 1979.
Thousands of residents have had to evacuate their homes and seek shelter with as many belongings as they could stuffed into suitcases and backpacks.
It comes after a strong sulphur smell was unavoidable on Saturday as ash blanketed large parts of the island.
There have been no reports of anyone being killed or injured by the initial blast or those that followed.
The had government ordered people to evacuate the most high-risk area around the volcano before the eruption after scientists warned that magma was moving close to the surface.
Government authorities delivered water, food and supplies to the shelters where many had fled to.
The island’s international airport remained blanketed in ash and smoke on Saturday making the runway barely visible.
Western Australian towns evacuated after tropical cyclone barrels down with 100mph winds | World News
A tropical cyclone has hit the western coast of Australia with winds of more than 100mph (170km) and much of the area put on “red alert”.
A spokesman for the Bureau of Meteorology, Todd Smith, said cyclone Seroja was now at category two but had reached “category three cyclone intensity” with damaging winds which would continue into the night.
Emergency services opened shelters in preparation for the high winds and coastal flooding.
Category 2 #TCSeroja rapidly moving southeast. Impacts to the west coast of WA begin this afternoon and inland parts this evening and overnight. Dangerous conditions including destructive wind gusts, intense rainfall and a dangerous storm tide. Latest info https://t.co/bku7VbhoZa pic.twitter.com/UD1DrGfve9
— Bureau of Meteorology, Western Australia (@BOM_WA) April 11, 2021
The Department of Fire and Emergency Services (DFES) said in a bulletin: “There is a possible threat to lives and homes.
“You need to take action and get ready to shelter.”
The DFES has so far put five coastal towns on “red alert”.
Some towns north of Perth were evacuated while sandbags were being made available to residents further down the coast.
A category three classification can see wind speeds of up to 170mph (224km).
After touching down on the north western town of Geraldton (124 miles/200km north of Perth) and dumping more than 10cm of rain in just two hours, tropical cyclone Seroja headed inland, lessening slightly in intensity.
However, officials were still braced for a “high degree of damage” to buildings in the area.
A spokesman for the Western Australia emergency services department explained that buildings were not constructed to withstand such strong winds in a region as it typically too far south to fall into the path of cyclones.
Russia: Inside the Kremlin’s military build-up along the Ukraine border | World News
At the Maslovka railway station just south of the Russian city of Voronezh, there’s a small military camp, a few trucks and a tent.
The clearing in front is rutted thanks to the steady unloading of military equipment in recent weeks.
A soldier recognises us from the day before.
“Hello spies,” he said.
Russia’s military build-up in Crimea and along the border with Ukraine has hardly been subtle.
It has coincided with the breakdown of the latest ceasefire in the simmering conflict between Ukraine and Russian-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine.
More and more videos have appeared on social media of Russian troop movements – artillery convoys along the bridge connecting Russia with Crimea; trains loaded with weaponry coming from as far east as Siberia.
These sightings from ordinary Russians alongside warnings from Ukrainian generals preceded the Russian military’s announcement of exercises in the region and sent alarm bells ringing across Western capitals.
The kit unloaded at Maslovka is headed to a nearby training ground, which has been turned into a huge military field camp.
It stretches for around a mile and a half and backs right onto a neighbourhood of dachas, the weekend homes of mostly Voronezh city-folk who tell us the build-up began in late March.
We accidentally drive right in, though the soldiers make no effort to come after us.
There are a large number of military trucks, row after row of tents, troops milling about.
The sign at the entrance is one that most Russian conscripts remember from military service – “Difficult on exercise, easier in the fight”.
The site was first identified through open source methods by the Conflict Intelligence Team (CIT) in Moscow.
“It looks more like preparing for an offensive operation, not just to protect our land,” CIT’s Ruslan Leviev told us in Moscow.
But he does not believe it’s a prelude to war.
“It looks like a show of force to put pressure on the Ukrainian government, to show your posture on the international stage, to show your position to the new American administration.”
Locals pottering around their dachas hardly spare a thought for the military build-up next door.
“If Zelensky (the Ukrainian president) isn’t a fool, then nothing will happen. If he is a fool, anything could happen,” said Nina, a pensioner who we meet watering her garden.
“‘Anyway, it’s not him who decides things, it’s the Americans.”
She does not want to give her surname.
“I hope I haven’t revealed any military secrets,” she added.
“There are always exercises here, every summer,” said Yuri, a local guard.
“Stop all this talk of war.”
But there are not exercises on this scale.
Neither here nor elsewhere along Russia’s border with Ukraine.
Not since the annexation of Crimea has Russia beefed up its presence there to this extent, re-deploying an air brigade from near the Estonian border and sending 10 naval vessels from the Caspian to reinforce the Black Sea fleet.
In response, the US has announced it will send two warships into the Black Sea.
The German chancellor asked Vladimir Putin this week to wind down the military build-up.
This Sunday after consultations with his US counterpart, Britain’s Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab tweeted the same.
It does not appear to be happening.
The Russian position is clear. What happens on Russian soil is Russia’s business.
It is hard to argue with that.
The UK 🇬🇧 & US 🇺🇸 firmly oppose Russia’s campaign to destabilise Ukraine. @SecBlinken & I agreed Russia must immediately de-escalate the situation & live up to the international commitments that it signed up to at @OSCE. Our support for Ukraine’s sovereignty is unwavering.
— Dominic Raab (@DominicRaab) April 11, 2021
But ostentatious muscle-flexing around Ukraine is not an option for the West to ignore – the stakes are too high, they are for all involved.
Ukraine’s leader Volodymyr Zelensky may clamour for fast-track NATO membership but he will not get it.
For all their loud protestations over NATO’s possible eastward-creep, the Kremlin knows that.
US President Joe Biden may declare his unwavering support for Ukraine’s territorial sovereignty and integrity but he will be wary of walking anywhere near potential conflict with Russia.
And surrounded as he is by Russian forces, president Zelensky knows re-taking the country’s eastern Donbas region, parts of which are held by separatists, is wishful thinking as is any large-scale fight with his powerful neighbour to the East.
It is of course hard to know what Russia is playing at but they seem to be eyeing the long game.
Coercive diplomacy to extract concessions in negotiations on Donbas, a powerful display of military muscle for the new US administration to take note of while the de facto annexation of the separatist regions of Ukraine chugs along apace.
According to Russian state news agency Ria Novosti, 420,000 people in the Donetsk and Luhansk people’s republics have already received Russian passports.
Russia is aiming for one million by parliamentary elections this September.
“It’s unifying their legislation with the Russian one, it’s providing them with the Russian vaccine, it’s providing them with passports. It doesn’t mean Russia wants to annex them,” said Maxim Samorukov from the Moscow Carnegie Institute.
“At least in the near future,” he added.
It also provides quite the justification for full-scale intervention should Russia’s calculus change.
President Putin has said allowing Ukrainian troops along Russia’s border with the separatist regions could lead to a Srebrenica-type massacre – the 1995 genocide of more than 8,000 Bosnian Muslims by Bosnian Serb forces.
Dmitry Kozak, Russia’s representative in negotiations on Ukraine, has threatened that a Ukrainian assault on Donbas would be a ‘”self-inflicted gunshot wound in the foot and to the head”.
“If the Srebrenica massacre takes place there, we will have to stand up for their defence,” he said.
Sharp rhetoric to match an aggressive display of military might.
All in the interests of deterrence? Perhaps.
But also an indication that eight years of sanctions has hardly served to deter Russia from at the very least flexing its muscles, if not more.
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