Daily Press Briefing by the Office of the Spokesperson for the Secretary-General

The following is a near-verbatim transcript of today’s noon briefing by Stéphane Dujarric, Spokesman for the Secretary-General.

**Press Encounter Today

As you know, the Secretary-General is meeting at 12:30 p.m. with the Foreign Minister of Venezuela.  Following that, we have been told that around 1:15 p.m., we expect the Foreign Minister to speak to you on the ground floor by the elevators by the entrance.

And later today, as you will have seen, the Secretary-General will be meeting the President of Guatemala, Jimmy Morales, and that is at 5 p.m.

We haven’t been advised by the Mission that they would have a press encounter.  If that changes, I will let you know.

**Myanmar

In a statement today, the Secretary-General condemns in the strongest terms the attacks carried out against the Myanmar security forces in northern areas of Rakhine State.  He extends his heartfelt condolences to the families and loved ones of all those killed and wishes a speedy recovery to those injured.  He hopes those responsible for this unacceptable violence will be swiftly brought to justice.

The Secretary-General has been closely following developments in Rakhine State and is concerned over the escalating tensions in the region.  He reiterates the importance of addressing the root causes of violence, in particular issues related to identity and citizenship, and reducing intercommunal tensions.  He strongly urges all the communities in Rakhine State to choose the path of peace.

The Secretary-General stresses that, while taking the necessary measures to curb attacks by criminal elements in the region, the security forces must protect civilians at all times, in line with international humanitarian and human rights law.

**Yemen

Turning to Yemen, the UN Human Rights Office in that confirmed that 33 civilians were killed and 25 injured in the air strike by coalition forces that hit a hotel in Sana’a Governorate on Wednesday.

This was one of several air strikes by the coalition that day, which resulted in deaths.

In all these cases, witnesses said that there had been no warnings that an attack was imminent.

In the week from 17 to 24 August, according to our human rights colleagues, 58 civilians were killed, more than the number of civilians killed in the whole of June, when 52 were killed, and in July, which saw 57 civilian deaths.

Since March 2015, the Office has documented 13,829 civilian casualties, including 5,110 killed and 8,719 injured, but the Office stresses that the overall number is probably much higher.

As you know, the Secretary-General has repeatedly called on all parties to ensure the safety and protection of civilians.

**Syria

The UNICEF Representative in Syria, Fran Equiza, today spotlighted what he calls the staggering impact of the war on Syria, with heavy fighting having displaced thousands of families around Raqqa city and Deir-ez-Zour.

Mr. Equiza just wrapped up a visit to camps in Areesha, Ein Issa and Mabrouka, where he met with displaced children.

He said that he is overwhelmed by the profoundly traumatizing experiences children have been through, adding that they have endured brutal violence and lost friends and family members.

UNICEF has received reports that thousands of children are trapped in Raqqa in the direct line of fire and that the city is completely cut off from life-saving assistance.

He stressed that children and families who wish to leave Raqqa city must be allowed to do so in safety and in dignity.

For its part, the World Health Organization (WHO) said today that it has been supporting routine immunization programmes which restarted in north-west Syria.

As of this month, more than 35 centres in Idlib and Hama offered vaccinations against diseases such as tuberculosis, measles, polio and whooping cough.

**Somalia

In Somalia, the Under-Secretary-General for Political Affairs, Jeffrey Feltman, urged the country to continue with the processes of reconciliation and State-building.  Mr. Feltman just wrapped-up a two-day visit to the country in which he held discussions with Somali officials, including President Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed and Prime Minister Hassan Ali Khayre.

You can read more about his visit in the note to correspondents we issued this morning.

**Central African Republic

On the Central African Republic, our humanitarian colleagues in the country tell us that the situation continues to worsen in Bangassou.  2,000 internally displaced people remain confined in the Catholic Church.  Discussions are ongoing between the UN and Government partners for their relocation.

In Batangafo, 40,000 people are now internally displaced.  OCHA [Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs] says it is monitoring the situation very closely and holding discussions with armed groups on humanitarian access to prevent NGOs from being forced to leave.

In Zemio, the movement of heavily-armed groups has raised the level of tensions in the area.  Some 22,000 internally displaced people continue to be repeatedly displaced due to attacks by armed groups.  Humanitarian convoys and NGO compounds have repeatedly been attacked, forcing all humanitarian partners to leave the area.

And in Bria, the presence of armed groups in IDP camps continues to create tensions.  Fighting has been ongoing outside of the town since 21 August, with all major roads out of Bria impacted ,and commercial activities have been screeched to at a halt.

**Senior Appointment

On a related note on the Central African Republic, I have a senior personnel [announcement] to make:  the Secretary-General is appointing Kenneth Gluck of the United States as his Deputy Special Representative and Deputy Head of the UN peacekeeping Mission in the Central African Republic.

He succeeds Diane Corner of the United Kingdom.  The Secretary-General is grateful to Ms. Corner for her dedicated service and her steadfast political engagement during the start-up to the peacekeeping operation.

Mr. Gluck brings to the position several years of mediation and peacebuilding experience, and prior to joining the UN, he has worked with several international non-governmental organizations providing humanitarian assistance in complex emergencies. 

His bio is in my office.

**Nepal

The World Food Programme (WFP) has begun distributing aid to 180,000 people following flooding in Nepal which has affected 1.7 million people.

The floods have displaced some 460,000 people from their homes and left them without assistance.

WFP says that many people whose home were washed away were already extremely poor, and that families which lost food stocks have nothing to fall back on.

WFP has more information on its website.

**Cambodia

I wanted to flag that our colleagues at the UN Human Rights Office today expressed their concern over a rapid series of ministerial and administrative measures which have resulted in the suspension of radio programmes and licences, threatened a main English-language newspaper with closure, and shut down a foreign non-governmental organisation in Cambodia.

Ahead of next year’s general election, the Office called on the Government to guarantee full political and civil rights, and media freedoms.

**Climate

Our colleagues at the Food and Agriculture Organization warned today that global warming is expected to have a significant impact on future yields of everything from rice to fish, particularly in countries situated closer to the equator.

A meeting in Viet Nam of Agriculture Ministers from the APEC region heard that many key agricultural regions in Asia are already at risk of crossing key climate thresholds after which the productivity of plants and animals goes into decline.

**Guinea-Bissau

You will have seen yesterday, Modibo Ibrahim Touré, the Special Representative of the Secretary-General in Guinea-Bissau, briefed the Security Council.

**Snow Leopard

In a video message to the Snow Leopard Ecosystem Protection International Forum in Kyrgyzstan, the Secretary-General said we are all responsible for the survival of this species, and called on countries to invest in its habitat preservation, combat poaching, and tackle climate change — all causes for the decline of the snow leopard numbers.  Investing in this species is essential to preserve biodiversity, ensure prosperity in the region and achieve sustainable development.

And on the same note, our colleagues at UNDP [United Nations Development Programme] just launched a regional initiative to help save the snow leopard and protect its sanctuaries in 12 countries.

With only 4,000 snow leopards alive from Kazakhstan to China, the initiative will train wildlife, border and customs agents to help them combat the illegal trade in snow leopards, while at the same time boosting the exchange of knowledge on how to best protect their habitat.

**Next Week

Just as I mentioned, next week, there will be no noon briefings.  The Office will be staffed Monday through Wednesday — as you will recall Thursday is an official UN holiday — and Friday, we will be open.

We will reopen for live briefings right after the day that celebrates labour.

And I will stop there.

**Questions and Answers

Ali.

Question:  Thank you, Stéph.  Probably you heard what Ambassador Nikki Haley has to say on UNIFIL [United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon].  She harshly criticized UNIFIL, and, and, by name, she named the commander of UNIFIL as being blind on Hizbullah’s violation.  Do you have anything to say in response to that, those comments from the US Ambassador? Thank you.

Spokesman:  Excuse me.  First of all, I would say that we obviously stand by the Force Commander in UNIFIL and we have full confidence in his, in his work.  I think the men and women of UNIFIL are doing work in a very delicate area.  They report regularly and faithfully on what they, on what they see and on what they observe.

I understand there is a debate ongoing within Member States regarding the renewal of the mandate of UNIFIL.  We will let that debate play out.  It’s in the hands of the Security Council.  It’s done under their authority.

I think, for the Secretary‑General, for his part, he’s written to the Security Council, and you all have that letter and that reflects his opinion.

Yes, sir.

Question:  [inaudible] In Raqqa, Syria…

Spokesman:  Your microphone, please.  There you go.

Question:  In Raqqa in Syria, they have around 50,000 civilian.  You think they have any plan to evacuate these people?

Spokesman:  Well, I think the, what is important is that those civilians who want to leave should be allowed to leave freely and in dignity.  As we, we, from this podium and others in the UN system, have said we’re extremely concerned at the ongoing violence in, in Raqqa and how the civilians are suffering.  We understand, within any military operation, all care must be taken to protect, to protect civilians.

Yes, ma’am, and then Matthew.

Question:  Will the Secretary‑General, on Guatemala, will the Secretary‑General or is he considering removing the current commissioner there [inaudible]?

Spokesman:  I think the, obviously, we hope to have some readout for you after the meeting.  The Secretary‑General made his position clear a few days ago, standing by the work of the commission and the commissioner.

Mr. Lee.

Question:  Sure. I, and I’m sorry if you said it before, before I came in, but I wanted to ask you about Yemen.  There’s been another air strike in Sana’a, killing 14.  The ICRC [International Committee of the Red Cross] has already spoken on it and, and I guess I’m just wondering, one… particularly the envoy, what does he say about these, this escalation of civilian deaths?

And did you get any answer on… on Mr. Hisham al‑Omeisy, what, if anything, the UN system is doing to secure…

Spokesman:  All of us who work for the United Nations, whether it’s the envoy, whether it’s the Secretary‑General, whether it’s our other colleagues on the ground in Yemen, are extremely concerned and appalled by the increase in civilian deaths.  We’re aware there was another air strike which, according to our humanitarian colleagues in Yemen, killed about 12, killed 12 people.

Attacks targeting civilians, targeting civilian infrastructure, are clearly prohibited under International Humanitarian Law.  And all the parties have an obligation to uphold, to uphold that law.

On your, on your first question, we’re aware of the reports of Hisham al‑Omeisy’s detention by the de facto authorities and of the concerns expressed.  At this point, we do not have any more information.

Question:  I guess… thank you.  I wanted to just… I mean, given this, this recent visit to, to UN headquarters by the King Salman Centre and everything that was said afterwards, ICRC is saying that, of this most recent air strike, they found, having been on the ground, they found no military target nearby at all.  So, I mean, I understand what you’re saying.  I guess I’m just wondering…

Spokesman:  No, I would refer you, you did miss part of it in the beginning.

Correspondent:  Okay.

Spokesman:  I referred to…

Question:  The earlier strikes.

Spokesman:  Yes, and I think those concerns are echoed over and over again.  Our human rights colleagues, on behalf of the UN, are documenting these, these strikes and the damage caused to, the damage caused to civilians.

Question:  Would you say this makes it more or less likely that the Saudi‑led coalition would be listed in the annex to the children and arms conflict report?

Spokesman:  The Secretary‑General will do the right thing regardless of what pressures may be coming from inside the house or outside the house.

Mr. Roth.

Question:  I have three questions.  I can space them out.  I know I sound like someone else in this room.

Spokesman:  Just speak slowly.  Yes, go ahead.

Question:  The court in Brooklyn threw out the last class action lawsuit against the United Nations over the cholera epidemic, citing the organisation’s assertion of diplomatic unity… immunity.  What is the UN response to this?  It might be appealed.  What is, what’s the message to the Haitian people on this?

Spokesman:  The message to the Haitian people is that we remain fully committed to doing our utmost to combat and eradicate cholera in, in Haiti.  The Secretary‑General continues to consider this to be a matter of great priority and urges Member States that demonstrate their solidarity with the people of Haiti by supporting the new approach announced last year in increasing their contribution to eliminate cholera and provide assistance to those affected.

As you know, he recently appointed a Special Envoy on this issue who’s fully engaged, who’s fully engaged.

And, obviously, on the legal part, we’re aware of the order issued yesterday in the LaVenture case before the District Court, and I will leave it, I will leave it at that.

Second question.

Question:  Still no money coming in from countries?

Spokesman:  No, there is, there is money.  It’s up on the, it’s up on the website.  The total contribution of the funds, as of a few weeks ago, was $2.67 million.  I think some new money may have come in the last day or so.  Mathias in my office can give you the latest update.

I’m happy to entertain your second question.

Question:  I know it… you’ve been here awhile.  Don’t remind me, but…

Spokesman:  You’ve been here awhile, Richard.  I think…

Question:  No, I’m, I’m a twin brother, I’m the younger brother.  It’s not often, but it does happen with certain administrations that a UN staffer is called out, as witnessed this morning for UNIFIL.  And we’ve had certain nominees not get approved.  Will Mr. Guterres, if he’s in the building — I lost track — come down and defend his general?  Will the US, the UN bow to the US, should they press for removal of this gentleman?

Spokesman:  I think, as I answered to your colleague a few minutes ago, we stand by the general and the Force Commander, and he continues his work with the full support of the, full support of the Secretary‑General.

Question:  And the last one, I was going to ask what day the Middle East peace conference is scheduled during Mr. Guterres’ trip, but does he consult with Jared Kushner?  Does anybody speak between US and UN regarding the ongoing negotiating…

Spokesman:  No, there are contacts between the US and the UN.  I’m not aware of any direct phone calls between the Secretary‑General and Jared Kushner.  We’re, obviously, aware that he’s, that he’s in the region, and I will keep you updated on any contacts.

Yes, Ibtisam, and then… I’m sorry.

Question:  On Yemen, is the Secretary‑General going to call on independent investigation regarding the latest strike?  And when you, you said before that the Human Rights Council is collecting evidence.  So, is this…

Spokesman:  The Human Rights Office.

Question:  Oh, sorry.

Spokesman:  The Human Right Office in Yemen.

Question:  Yes.  Is this for a specific… for their work or a specific report, or is it for more than one apparatus in the…

Spokesman:  I think it’s important that they, there has to be accountability for crimes committed against civilians.  And, for accountability, you need information, and you need data.  And it’s important that that information be collected.

Question:  What about…

Spokesman:  I think they all, all of these incidents need to be, need to be investigated.  And I think part of the work, the transparency that we do is the work of the Human Rights…

Question:  Sorry.

Spokesman:  …Office.

Question:  On Yemen too, is there any update regarding the Sana’a airport?

Spokesman:  No, ma’am. None that I’m aware of.

The Associated Press.

Question:  The Secretary‑General is getting together with the Foreign Minister from Venezuela, and I think they will have plenty to talk about, not least because there’s been some US activity on sanctions for Venezuela in the last hour or so.  Anything you can tell us about what the message is there?

Spokesman:  I think, for, and I don’t want to pre-empt what the Secretary‑General will say, but I think the Secretary‑General has been very persistent and consistent in expressing his support for the ongoing regional efforts and the work of other international facilitators who are assisting the parties in trying to reactivate the negotiations.  But I will leave it at that.  I think the Foreign Minister will speak to you, and we will issue our own readout of the meeting.

Mr. Lee.

Question:  …ask about both Burundi and Cameroon.  One is, the Tanzanian Government has given, supposedly, UNHCR [Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees] seven days to repatriate thousands of refugees that are there, saying that, if they don’t, if UNHCR doesn’t do it, they, Tanzania, will do it unilaterally.  Many people working in the refugee field are pretty surprised by it, and I’m wondering if the Secretary‑General or his envoy, Mr. Kafando, have any view of this ultimatum by the Tanzanian Government?

Spokesman:  I haven’t seen report.  I would encourage you, as a first port of call, to call either UNHCR here or Geneva for a reaction.

Question:  My other… can you give any… I don’t know if it will, maybe next week, any, any update on what Mr. Kafando is doing?  because there have been announcements from the country of basically kind of a fourth term.  There’ve been outlawing…

Spokesman:  We’ll look…

Question:  …of political parties… 

Spokesman:  And, obviously, we will be posting highlights daily.

Question:  The other one is on Cameroon.  I know the Deputy Secretary‑General, Amina Mohammed, after meeting with the delegation of the Biya Government, said she didn’t want to use a sledgehammer, but she was going to continue to work on it. And the UK’s understanding is that it’s somehow on the radar.

Given that, like, a… journalists are now being arrested for just reporting on the Anglophone issue and there were people filmed in an underground prison, three of whom are now near death, what exactly has the UN done on the southern Cameroon issue since this visit to Amina Mohammed…

Spokesman:  The contacts are continuing, and, obviously, our, our principled stand on making sure that people are free to report stands.

Yes, ma’am.

Question:  On the visit of the Secretary‑General to Israel and Palestine, is the Secretary‑General going to address the issue of illegal settlements when he meets with Mr. Netanyahu?

And the other question:  regarding his meeting with Mr. Abbas, there is in the, like, increasing arrests of journalists, Palestinian journalists, by the Palestine authority.  So, because, a lot of times because they are very critical of different political steps that the Palestinian Authority is doing.  So, is the Secretary‑General going to address this issue, too?

Spokesman:  These are all issues of concern, and we’ll, we will give readouts accordingly after the, after the meetings.  There is a, there will be a press encounter, I think, after his meetings in, in Ramallah.

Yep.

Question:  Just wanted to ask…

Spokesman:  Yes, go ahead.

Question:  I just wanted to ask if you’re going to share details about the visit of Secretary‑General to…

Spokesman:  No, I mean, not more than what we had yesterday at this point.

Question:  Okay.

Spokesman:  Yeah.

Question:  Sure.  Just now at the stakeout, I asked Nikki Haley about this Michael Sharp and Zaida Catalán and the UN, the report to date, and she seemed to say that, that relying on, on the DRC [Democratic Republic of the Congo] to investigate is not acceptable to at least one of the countries of the two deceased.  So, what… I mean, I know that you’ve been asked, and I’m not sure I understand the answer.  What exactly… does the Secretary‑General intend to have there be an investigation that is not…

Spokesman:  There…

Question:  …DRC run?

Spokesman:  There needs to be a, there needs to be some sort of a follow‑up mechanism.  Those issues are currently being discussed within the house and with the Security Council.  Obviously, there are also issues of, of sovereignty and of the Security Council that need to be taken into account.  But I think the Secretary‑General is, first and foremost, wants to make sure that justice is done for these two young people who were doing work on behalf of the United Nations, on behalf of the Security Council, to try to bring light to illicit, onto illicit activity.  And so we are, we are dedicated to ensuring that there is accountability and that justice is done.

Question:  Thanks, thanks.  And I wanted to ask you again about this event that’s now, is going forward.  It’s in the Journal.  It will be televised.  And I’d asked you yesterday whether this World Organisation of Governance and Competitiveness… how it was vetted, and I didn’t get an answer from you, so I want to ask you…

Spokesman:  I don’t have any more to, I don’t have any information to share on that.  I’ll check… I’ll check…

Question:  Seems like…

Spokesman:  I’ll check again.

Question:  It’s beginning at 1:00.

Spokesman:  The SG is not participating.

Question:  Right.  But my question is this.  I went and looked up… 

Spokesman:  It’s sponsored, I think, by a Permanent Mission.

Question:  It’s listed, the Journal itself says World Organisation of Governance and Competitiveness.  So, I searched the ECOSOC database and… I just want to ask you because… when you answer on this.  It was only formed in 2016, and yet it says it’s an ECOSOC member organisation.  That’s how it’s sponsoring, and, I believe, paying for part of this event.  And when you go to the ECOSOC documents, it basically took over the name of another group called World of Hope International.

And so many people that work in this field… there’s a lot of controversy about the NGO committee in ECOSOC, but how can a group sneak under the radar by buying a name?  And I would like just to know from you, who’s paying for the event?  And what…

Spokesman:  Well, I think you should…

Question:  …connection does Carlos Garcia…

Spokesman:  You should ask, that’s a question, I mean, I will look… 

Question:  No, no, it’s the UN.  Who’s paying the UN…

Spokesman:  You should ask… 

Question:  Who’s transferring money to the UN?

Spokesman:  …ask the organisers as well.

Mr. Roth.

Question:  Stéphane, you’ve been here a long time.  Let me ask you.

Spokesman:  Is that going to be the preamble to every question, Richard?

Question:  No.

[Laughter]

Spokesman:  Is your hair naturally grey?

[Laughter]

Question:  These briefings have turned it grey.  Basically, it’s sort of a recommendation.  Do you think, and I know it falls under DPI, do you think that as we get closer to the GA that it’s possible, not to have the… you can have your annual security briefing, but, as you know, the reporters get very late notice on some of these events taking place in the building, offsite.  Is there any way to have a background briefing that perhaps various departments could say and explain and to highlight issues that tend to get overrun, maybe more this year, somewhere a week or two before, if they know…

Spokesman:  In fact, we, we were just discussing that this morning with some of my colleagues, so we’ll, we’re trying to arrange that.

Question:  And speaking of violence, do you have any pick in the Mayweather‑McGregor fight?

Spokesman:  We’re all for nonviolence.

Yes, sir.

Question:  Do you have any update for Qatar and Saudi Arabia and that problem between, you know, the Gulf and Qatar?

Spokesman:  No, I do not have any update on that, on that problem.

Have a good one.

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MIYA HELPING CRANES FLY HIGH

When the draw for the group phase of the African FIFA World Cup� qualifiers was made, Uganda was given little chance of qualifying for Russia.

Farouk Miya though, will have none of it and dismisses any suggestions that he is the star player out of hand. There is no star player in our team. That makes our team so strong. It is the unity that binds us and moulds us into a team, he told FIFA.com in an exclusive interview.

Ugandan fans might see it differently though. Drawn against former World Cup finalists Togo in the second round of the qualifiers, Uganda did much of the hard work in the first leg in Lome, winning 1-0. A near capacity crowd of 40,000 packed the Mandela Stadium in the Ugandan capital of Kampala for the return leg. And again the Cranes emerged victorious, this time 3-0.

Having qualified for the group phase, Uganda was drawn into Group E, where they faced Ghana, Egypt and Congo. As the bottom seed in the group, not many gave the side a chance. We were the underdogs. But that does not mean we did not believe in our chance, said Miya.

Their opening match in Tamale, saw the side return to east Africa with a more-than-credible goalless draw against the Black Stars. Some five weeks later, Congo travelled to Uganda, only to be beaten 1-0. Thus, after two matches played, Uganda has four points � second only to Egypt who have six. Ghana has just a point, while Congo is yet to get off the mark.

Astonishingly, Uganda is the only African side not to have conceded a single goal thus far in their World Cup qualifying campaign. Their record reads: played four, won three, drawn one, lost none; goals scored: five, goals conceded none. And of those five goals, all but one were scored by Miya, which in turn is why fans are giving him much of the credit.

Confidence and belief

“As a team, we grew stronger when we beat Togo. They have already played at the World Cup and we gained in confidence when we advanced at their expense. Even when we were drawn into the same group as Egypt and Ghana, not to forget Congo, we still believed that we could go through to the World Cup.

The 19-year-old, who plays his club football in Belgium for Standard Liege, whom he joined from Vipers SC, says qualifying for the World Cup would be huge � not only for the team, but for the whole country. We have the support of the whole of Uganda and we so much want to go to Russia for our fans. Qualifying for the World Cup would be a tremendous achievement.

With back-to-back fixtures coming up against the leading Pharaohs, Miya is aware that the team will have to be at their best. The task will presumably not have been made any easier by the fact that coach Milutin ‘Micho’ Sredojevic left the country a few weeks before the matches to join South African Premier League club Orlando Pirates. In his place, Moses Basena and Fred Kajoba will lead the team into battle against Egypt as interim coaches.

New direction for Cranes

Miya does not believe the change-over will have a detrimental effect on the team. Both coaches know the players and know how we play. I do not think there will be much of a difference and I certainly do not think that the team will be weaker as a result of our coach leaving.

Like his team-mates, Miya is indebted to the Serbian Sredojevic, for leading the team to the CAF Africa Cup of Nations earlier this year. It was the first time the side qualified since 1978 and provided the young � but experienced � striker a chance to play at the continental level for the first time.

That already was like a dream come true. It was a great feeling to be able to play there. We lost at the finals in Gabon against Ghana and Egypt, so having drawn with the Black Stars in the qualifiers shows that we are stronger now than we were then.

Miya, who is known as ‘Muyizi Tasubwa’ (A hunter who cannot miss), scored Uganda’s only goal at the finals in Gabon, in a 1-1 draw against Mali. His goals in the World Cup qualifiers could take the team to an even bigger stage: The World Cup.

Source: Confederation Africaine de Football

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Confessions of a Boko Haram Defector

MAIDUGURI/WASHINGTON � The way Bana Umar tells it, VOA and other broadcasters helped convince him to leave Boko Haram.

Until the night of August 18, Umar was a fighter for the Islamist radical group, living at a camp in the vast Sambisa Forest, one of the group’s long-time strongholds in northeastern Nigeria.

The experience was certainly exciting. Umar says he served as a bodyguard for a commander, Abu Geidam, who he describes as very close to Abubakar Shekau, Boko Haram’s best known leader.

And he saw action across Nigeria’s Borno State. “I have been to war about six times,” he says. “I fought in Wulari. I fought in Bita. I participated in the fighting around Chad. I was in the group that repelled Nigerian soldiers whenever they ventured into Sambisa.”

But his conscience was just as active as his gun. When asked if what Boko Haram does is good and right, he says it is not, because the group attacks people “mercilessly and unjustly,” and in his view, manipulates Islam to its own violent ends.

Radio prompted him to make an escape plan. Umar says he heard promises from the Nigerian chief of army staff, General Tukur Buratai, that defectors from Boko Haram would be welcomed, not punished. And he heard how Boko Haram’s deadly ambushes and suicide bombings were received in the outside world.

“Many of us listened to radio stations like BBC and VOA,” he says. “I listened to these radio stations frequently to the extent that when I laid down to sleep I would be thinking of what I heard. I realized that all our activities were evil. We killed. We stole. We dispossessed people of their properties in the name of religion. But what we are doing is not religion. Finally I got fed up with the group.”

Umar is now in the Borno state capital, Maiduguri, after fleeing the Boko Haram camp. He described his experiences this week in an interview with VOA Hausa Service reporter Haruna Dauda. His comments, translated from Hausa, provide insight into how the militants recruit and retain fighters and are managing to survive in the face of a multi-nation offensive.

Persuaded to join, scared to leave

Umar is 27 years old and hails from Banki, a town on Nigeria’s border with Cameroon. Until 2014, he made his living as a cell phone repairman and burning CDs.

But that year, Boko Haram overran the town. Umar says his friend, Abu Mujaheed, lured him into becoming a member of the group. All Nigerians are infidels, and only the followers of Abubakar Shekau are true Muslims, Mujaheed said. Join and you can fight to kill all the infidels.

Umar joined, but says he quickly got scared and wanted to run. He didn’t, he says, because Abu Mujaheed told him he would be killed if he tried to escape.

Asked this week if that was true, Umar said there is no doubt about it. “Even mere rumor or allegation that someone is contemplating leaving the group would lead to the killing of the person,” he says.

He says Boko Haram also discouraged defectors by telling them General Buratai’s promise of amnesty for any escapee was a ruse.

There are more than 1,000 Boko Haram members who would like to leave the group, Umar says. “There are many people that were abducted from their home towns who don’t know the way back to their places of origin. They [Boko Haram leaders] preach to such people not to leave, as if it was divine for them to be there.”

He adds: “Even some original members of the sect now want to leave because soldiers have intensified the war against them unlike in the past.”

All Boko Haram members must take new names when they join the group, and Bana Umar’s name was changed to Abu Mustapha. He says he became a fighter, not a commander. He said the militants were living in the Jimiya section of the Sambisa Forest, which, according to him, was the headquarters for Boko Haram.

At one time, he implies, living conditions were decent. In 2014, Boko Haram ruled large parts of Borno, Yobe and Adamawa states, and could operate almost at will.

Now, he says, “Life is difficult. It is not what it used to be in the past. Food is difficult for everyone.”

Some militants grow their own food, he says. “But even when you farm, your leader could take all your farm produce from you in the name of religion. You are always told that your leader has rights over all you have and yourself,” he says.

Boko Haram leaders also use religion as a prod to violence, he says.

“They use religion to tell us to kill with the promise of going to paradise. Leaders quote profusely from the Quran and the sayings of the prophet [Mohammed] to support their arguments. As they explain to make us understand their own point of view as the absolute truth, we must keep saying Allah is great, Allah is great. Then we would go out to kill,” he says.

A call to ‘repent’

Boko Haram has killed at least 20,000 people across Nigeria, Chad, Cameroon and Niger since it launched its insurgency against the Nigerian government in 2009. Attacks and bombings continue, even though the joint task force sponsored by those countries and Benin has stripped Boko Haram of nearly all the territory it once controlled, which leader Abubakar Shekau said would form the base of a “caliphate.”

With the weight of the group’s deeds bearing down on him, Bana Umar felt a growing need to flee. He didn’t act, however, until someone else encouraged him to believe what General Buratai promised.

He escaped on the night of August 18 with that person — the wife of his commander, Abu Geidam. On the 20th, they turned themselves in at a Nigerian army base in Maiduguri.

Asked what he would say to Boko Haram fighters still in the Sambisa Forest, Umar says: “I am calling them to repent, especially those who want to come out but are afraid… Let people know that soldiers would not do anything to whoever voluntarily repents. I came out and no one harms me. Not one single soldier lays his hand on me.”

Nigerian officials are currently debriefing Bana Umar, as they do with all Boko Haram members who leave the group voluntarily. When they finish, he will be reintegrated into Nigerian society, although not in his hometown of Banki. He will be taken to another location where he isn’t known, to make a fresh start.

Source: Voice of America

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