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DR Congo leader under pressure amid humanitarian crisis

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Alex Crawford, Special Correspondent

As pressure from the international community grows on Democratic Republic of Congo’s Joseph Kabila to hold elections, a deepening humanitarian crisis and unrest grips the country.

Warning: Some readers may find photos below distressing.

A baby with nothing, not even a name lies in a hospital cot in DRC’s central hospital in Bunia, fighting to live. His tiny skeletal chest heaves up and down as he battles for every breath with under-developed lungs.

His translucent hands are about the same size as the thumb of the doctor examining him. He has no clothes, no home, not even the cot to himself. He’s sharing it with the hospital’s latest arrival – another baby born earlier in the day, who looks equally fragile.

The two of them hover between life and death. It’s too early to say which will be their fate. But should it be life, their futures look decidedly bleak in this, one of the world’s richest countries in terms of natural resources.

The babies are two of the Democratic Republic of Congo’s “internally displaced”, basically a fancy name for refugees in their own country.

The baby is one of the Democratic Republic of Congo's 'internally displaced'
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The baby is one of the Democratic Republic of Congo’s ‘internally displaced’

There are 4.5 million others according to the United Nations, making them the largest number of internally displaced people in the whole of Africa. They’re people who’ve fled violence, left their homes and run trying to find safety anywhere.

Many are severely under-nourished. Some 7.7 million people are classified as severely hungry. They’re all desperately poor, prone to sickness and now living in the direst of conditions in huge squalid camps with little sanitation and where disease festers.

The two newborn babies fighting for their lives
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The two newborn babies fighting for their lives

The statistics are shocking. Some 13.1 million Congolese need humanitarian aid. That’s the same number as in Syria.

Looking at the little baby with no name battling for every gulp of air, struggling to hang on to this thread of a chance he’s been given, I thought of what lay ahead for him, should he win this, the first of a lifetime of challenges.

The dismal numbers scream out his life will be fraught with problems. Firstly, his 26-year-old mother, Lutove has to survive herself. She is also in the central hospital – but laying in a male ward because of lack of beds, weak through hunger and now ill with tuberculosis.

Democratic Republic of Congo's President Joseph Kabila
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There is pressure on Democratic Republic of Congo President Joseph Kabila to hold elections

When we saw her, she couldn’t haul herself upright and couldn’t walk, she was that weak. The doctor measured her upper arms using a tape meant for babies from three months to three years.

She gave birth three weeks ago after running away from machete-wielding men who attacked her village for the second time. She was 28 weeks pregnant at the time.

The 26-year-old mother is now suffering from tuberculosis
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The 26-year-old mother is now suffering from tuberculosis

The stress and panic triggered the birth of her baby some 14 weeks early. With little food throughout her pregnancy, she was under-weight and under-nourished and her baby son was born weighing less than half a bag of sugar.

Three weeks of hospital care had helped but when we saw him, he was still only 750 grammes with ribs which stuck out so you could count each and every one of them.

The central hospital paediatric wing is filled and overflowing into tents outside with mothers and babies lining the pavement and corridors.

Inside, there are frequently two babies to a bed. All of them are the children of the “internally displaced” – hungry, vulnerable to disease which is easily spread in the poor living conditions they now find themselves.

Lutove fled machete-wielding men who attacked her village
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Lutove fled machete-wielding men who attacked her village

It is a miserable lot – and many believe this is man-made tragedy – caused by decades of ethnic conflict, multiple militias controlling and fighting for territory, rampant corruption and a president whose term expired last year but who’s still clinging to power whilst most of his country cling to life.

DRC should be one of Africa’s rich countries. It’s Africa’s largest copper producer and has more than half of the world’s supply of cobalt laying beneath its soil. But it ranks very low on the UN Human Development Index.

More from Democratic Republic of Congo

President Joseph Kabila is now under pressure from the international community to hold elections as soon as possible as parts of his country descend deeper into chaos.

The baby with no name hardly has the strength to cry – but the cries around his country are growing louder and stronger for a new leader who may give fresh hope to the world’s most complex and longest standing humanitarian crises.

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Australia mice plague sees rodents biting people’s feet and crawling over their faces | World News

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A persisting plague of mice in a part of Australia is making life a misery for many with people woken up by the rodents biting their feet – or crawling across their faces.

The infestation in a rural area of New South Wales, triggered after a bumper grain harvest led to a mass breeding season, has caused tens of thousands of dollars worth of damage and sparked warnings that hard-hit residents face “meltdown”.

The pest invasion comes on the back of one of the worst droughts on record and bushfires.

Residents in the small town of Tottenham have been left exhausted as they struggle to deal with the swarm.

They have spent every morning since February sweeping away thousands of dead mice before laying out fresh bait and traps to kill more.

The onslaught did start to improve a few weeks ago with colder and wetter conditions.

But drier weather has caused the plague to ramp back up.

Tonnes of grain cannot be sold because it’s been contaminated by mice droppings and truckloads of hay will be burnt because of the damage.

The local school has also been inundated.

Principal John Southon said “kids don’t blink” when mice regularly scurry across their desk.

He has told students to bring their lunch in sealed containers.

Mr Southon said: “They are in every aspect of our lives, our homes our cars, washing basket.

“Eventually people are going to have a meltdown because it’s constant and wears you down.”

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Ireland’s health service shuts down IT systems over ‘significant ransomware attack’ | World News

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Ireland’s health service has closed down its computer systems after what it described as a “significant ransomware attack”.

The Republic’s Health Service Executive (HSE) said it had shut down its entire IT network as a “precaution.”

It said COVID-19 vaccinations were not affected by the attack.

“There is a significant ransomware attack on the HSE IT systems,” the HSE said on Twitter.

“We have taken the precaution of shutting down all our IT systems in order to protect them from this attack and to allow us fully assess the situation with our own security partners.”

It added: “We apologise for inconvenience caused to patients and to the public and will give further information as it becomes available.

“Vaccinations not affected are going ahead as planned.”

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Israeli ground forces launch attacks on Gaza as fighting worsens | World News

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Israeli ground forces began launching attacks on Gaza in a widening of hostilities as Israel braced for more internal strife between its Arab and Jewish citizens following Friday prayers.

The Israeli military said air and ground forces were firing at the Hamas-run enclave, though it does not appear to mean the start of a ground invasion, with Sky News witnessing troops launching artillery and tank rounds from Israel’s side of the border.

“I said we would extract a very heavy price from Hamas,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in a videotaped statement. “We are doing that, and we will continue to do that with heavy force.”

Streaks of light are seen as Israel's Iron Dome anti-missile system intercept rockets launched from the Gaza Strip towards Israel, as seen from Ashkelon, Israel May 12, 2021. REUTERS/Amir Cohen
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Israel’s Iron Dome anti-missile system has intercepted many of the rockets launched from the Gaza Strip

Thousands of Israeli forces along with tanks, armoured vehicles and artillery are massing along the frontier with Gaza, preparing to push inside if given the order, in what would be a hugely significant escalation.

Unperturbed, Palestinian militants continued to launch rockets from the strip towards Israel into Friday morning.

At least 109 Palestinians have died since the exchanges began on Monday, including 28 children and 15 women, according to Gaza’s health ministry. Palestinian militants have said 20 of their fighters are among the dead, though Israeli officials said this figure is much higher.

Almost half of the deaths happened on Thursday – the deadliest day so far.

On the Israeli side, seven people have been killed, including two children and a soldier.

But this is a crisis on many fronts, as decades of Israeli-Palestinian trauma erupt into clashes on the streets of many towns and cities inside Israel – with Arabs and Jews, who had lived together peacefully, turning on each other, prompting warnings of a risk of civil war.

Synagogues have been attacked, cars torched and individuals beaten up by mobs in the worst internal violence in decades.

New protests could erupt following Friday prayers, with al Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem’s Old City a potential flashpoint.

It was at this walled compound – one of the most sacred sites in Islam, which is also revered by Jews and Christians – that violence between Israeli police and Palestinian protesters on Monday sparked the first volley of rockets from Gaza into Israel that ignited the wider crisis.

A Palestinian boy looks at ruins of buildings which were destroyed in Israeli air strikes in the northern Gaza Strip. Pic:  Majdi Fathi/NurPhoto/Shutterstock
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The blockaded strip is home to some two million Palestinians who have no means to flee. Pic: Majdi Fathi/NurPhoto/Shutterstock

There is of course a regional dimension as well.

On Thursday night, three rockets were fired towards Israel from Lebanon. They landed harmlessly in the Mediterranean Sea in what appears to have been a show of solidarity with Gaza by Palestinian groups in Lebanon rather than the start of a separate offensive.

With so much at stake, frantic diplomatic efforts are underway to try to broker a ceasefire.

Egyptian officials have been speaking with both sides as have officials from the United Nations. The US has dispatched a senior diplomat to the region and Russian President Vladimir Putin has added his voice to those calling for both sides to de-escalate.

In Washington, President Joe Biden said he spoke with Prime Minister Netanyahu about calming the fighting but also backed the Israeli leader by saying “there has not been a significant overreaction”.

He said the goal is to “get to a point where there is a significant reduction in attacks, particularly rocket attacks that are indiscriminately fired into population centres”, and called the effort “a work in progress”.

The UN Security Council is due to hold its first public session on the situation on Sunday after the US objected to an open session on Friday, apparently wanting to give diplomacy a little longer to have an effect.

However, with bombardments between the two sides – unprecedented in their intensity – entering their fifth day, there is no obvious sign that diplomacy is cooling heads.

The Israel Defence Forces has hit close to 1,000 targets in Gaza, including multi-storey buildings, rocket launch sites and individual Hamas military commanders. But this blockaded strip of territory is also home to some two million Palestinians who have no means to flee.

Overnight, masses of red flames illuminated the skies as deafening blasts from the outskirts of Gaza City jolted people awake.

The strikes were so strong that people inside the city, several miles away, could be heard screaming in fear, according to the AP news agency.

At the same time, Hamas and Islamic Jihad, a fellow Palestinian militant group, have fired close to 2,000 rockets towards Israel. Many were shot down by the country’s air defence system but some have penetrated deep into Israeli territory, including the commercial capital of Tel Aviv, sending families racing into shelters.

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