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Mauna Lao Lava Inches Toward Highway 

Lava from Mauna Lao, the world’s largest active volcano, is inching its way toward the Daniel K. Inouye Highway, a key transportation artery on Hawaii’s Big Island.

The Hawaiian Volcano Observatory said in its latest update that the lava flow has “slowed down significantly over the past couple of days, as expected.”

The observatory said, “Advance rates may be highly variable over the coming days and weeks due to the way lava is emplaced on flat ground. On flat ground, lava flows spread out and inflate. … There are many variables at play and both the direction and timing of flow advance are expected to change over periods of hours to days, making it difficult to estimate when or if the flow will impact Daniel K. Inouye Highway.”

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Estonia to Buy US Rocket Artillery System in $200M Deal 

NATO member and Russia’s neighbor Estonia is boosting its defense capabilities by acquiring an advanced U.S. rocket artillery system in the Baltic country’s largest arms procurement project ever, defense officials said Saturday.

The deal signed Friday for the High Mobility Artillery Rocket System is worth more than $200 million and includes equipment such as ammunition and rockets, as well as training.

The package includes HIMARS rockets with ranges of 70-300 kilometers (43-186 miles), the Estonian Center for Defense Investment said in a statement. Lockheed Martin Corp. is expected to make the first deliveries in 2024. Estonian officials didn’t disclose the number of rocket launchers, but local media outlets said the purchase consists of six HIMARS.

“The HIMARS multiple rocket launchers are a new important step in the development of Estonia’s defense capabilities,” Lt. Col. Kaarel Mäesalu, head of the capability development department at the Estonian Defense Forces said in a statement. “This makes it possible to decisively influence the enemy even before coming into contact with our infantry units.”

Estonia’s Baltic neighbors Latvia and Lithuania either have or are currently in the process of acquiring their own HIMARS.

Washington has provided Ukraine with the rocket launchers during Russia’s invasion of the country. The Estonian Defense Ministry said the HIMARS systems “have helped to destroy Russian military ammunition warehouses, transport nodes, and command and control centers with pinpoint accuracy beyond the range of the howitzers Ukraine has been using.”

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US Forces Monitor Mideast Skies at Qatar Base Amid World Cup

As World Cup fans throng stadiums across Qatar, about 8,000 American troops stationed just nearby watch over the airspace of the tumultuous Middle East from a major base run by this energy-rich nation.

Built on a flat stretch of desert about 20 miles (30 kilometers) southwest of Qatari capital Doha, Al-Udeid Air Base once was considered so sensitive that American military officers identified it as only being somewhere “in southwest Asia.”

Today, the sprawling hub is Qatar’s strategic gem, showcasing the Gulf Arab emirate’s tight security partnership with the United States, which now considers Doha a major non-NATO ally.

At the height of U.S. wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria, more than 10,000 troops called the base and other sites in Qatar home. That number has dropped by a fifth since the Biden administration began drawing down some forces from the Mideast in preparation for the so-called Great Powers competitions looming with China and Russia.

But the Qataris have continued to pour money into the base — more than $8 billion since 2003. On a visit Friday, Associated Press journalists saw a new barracks and dining hall as airmen discussed other improvements on the way. And airmen said the creation of a new task force focused on drones and other off-the-shelf battlefield technology at Al-Udeid shows that Washington is there to stay, despite fears to the contrary.

“There is a tremendous commitment from the U.S. Air Force to this region,” U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Erin Brilla told the AP. “We are staying as an enduring capability.”

Al-Udeid’s birth and growth mirrors the “forever wars” that followed the Sept. 11 attacks in New York and Washington by al-Qaida. As Saudi Arabia asked American forces to leave the kingdom, Qatar offered Al-Udeid, built at an estimated initial cost of $1 billion.

Al-Udeid soon became the forward headquarters of the U.S. military’s Central Command. Its Combined Air Operations Center oversees combat missions, surveillance flights and drones across the Mideast, North Africa and Asia.

While the “forever wars” wound down, conflicts still rage across the region. As tensions with Iran run high, the U.S. and its allies are looking for ways to counter the low-cost drones employed in the region by Tehran and its militia allies, like Yemen’s Houthi rebels.

The Air Force’s new Task Force 99, newly stationed al Al-Udeid, is focused on countering them — or imposing the same “dilemmas” on militias that they do on the U.S. when they force allies to fire a “$1 million missile versus a $1,000 drone,” Brilla said.

That’s a real-world example. The Saudi military has fended off most of the Houthis’ barrages with its American-made Patriot surface-to-air missile system, typically firing two missiles at an incoming target. That has become expensive and inefficient, as each Patriot missile costs more than $3 million and the kingdom’s supply has run low.

Task Force 99 follows a similar force in the U.S. Navy’s 5th Fleet, which dispatches drones into Mideast waters. Like the Navy, the Air Force wants to focus on widely available off-the-shelf technology it could share with allied nations and not fret about losing, as opposed to the $32 million MQ-9 Reaper drones that have flown out of Al-Udeid in the past.

For Qatar, hosting the base provides protection in a fractured region, allowing it to defy its neighbors. Just two years ago, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and Bahrain mounted a boycott on Qatar, severing trade and travel links. Iran, which shares a huge natural gas field with Qatar, sits just across the waters of the Persian Gulf.

As the shared hub for the Qatari Emiri Air Force, the U.K. Royal Air Force and Central Command, the base boasts parking lots of C-17 transporters and the long runways to accommodate the heaviest bombers taking off in the desert heat that can reach 50 C (122 F) in the summer. It can feel like a self-contained bubble, albeit one with a Burger King, a Pizza Hut and a gym.

Even so, World Cup fever is seeping onto the base — a rare dose of the outside world for the U.S. troops typically more engaged in faraway wars than Qatar’s diversions. Signs in Arabic promote the World Cup. American troops said they often drive out to the eight stadiums in and around Doha to root for the United States national team when they get the time, with one service member even earning a reputation as a World Cup fanatic after attending seven matches.

“I am through and through very excited to see us compete and put their heart and souls on the field, just like our airmen here putting their hearts and souls into the mission,” said U.S. Air Force Capt. Kayshel Trudell, who saw the U.S. beat Iran 1-0 earlier this week at the stadium, where members of the Air Force Band crooned acoustic covers.

She also said she’d be decked out in red, white and blue, cheering on the U.S. at its match against the Netherlands on Saturday — the country’s chance to reach the quarterfinals for the first time since 2002.

Al-Udeid’s FOX Sports Bar, the base’s main watering hole, broadcasts the tournament, allowing troops passionate about soccer to follow the matches. FIFA has granted permission to the Defense Department’s American Forces Network to air the matches.

“It’s an exciting time to be here in Qatar with the World Cup right down the road,” Brilla said, adding that “just about every TV” in the command center shows the matches. She paused, apparently reflecting on the many screens tracking the sky. “Not the ones monitoring the air picture, but the others.”

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Fighting Words: Founding Fathers Irked England by Inventing American English

Thomas Jefferson, America’s third president, coined the words “electioneering” and “indecipherable.” John Adams (No. 2) came up with “caucus.” James Madison (No. 4) was the first to use “squatter” when referring to someone who occupies a property or territory they don’t own.

As they set out to build a new nation, America’s Founding Fathers were determined to give the fledgling republic its own identity and culture by making up new words that were unique to the American experience.

“It was thought by many of the early presidents — Jefferson, Adams, [George] Washington and others — that they were doing something important,” says Paul Dickson, author of “Words from the White House: Words and Phrases Coined or Popularized by America’s Presidents.” “It was this belief that we were separating ourselves from the British.”

The practice of making up new words outraged British purists, some of whom viewed Americans as people without a language who stole England’s mother tongue.

“Some of the first words that the British really went crazy over were the words ‘congressional’ and ‘presidential.’ They said they were barbarous,” Dickson says. “But those were words we needed. George Washington, one of the words he created — and again, this helped frame who we were — he talked about his ‘administration.’ That word never existed in terms of a noun to describe the body of people that ruled with you in your Cabinet.”

In some cases, the presidents didn’t come up with the words and phrases. Some were created by speechwriters, aides and other acquaintances and then popularized by the president. For example, John Jay, Washington’s secretary for foreign affairs, is said to have coined “Americanize.”

A key nonpresidential figure who helped codify these new Americanisms was Noah Webster, who published his first dictionary in 1806. Webster fought in the Revolutionary War, which secured America’s independence from England. While wandering through a New York military camp filled with war veterans, he saw the need for a unique American language.

“He was hearing voices of Indigenous people. He was hearing Irish brogues. He was hearing all sorts of different kinds of language and different kinds of speaking, and heavily accented,” Dickson says. “And he realized that this country is going to be a big mix of different people, different interests, and it needed a new language. It needed something called the ‘American language,’ which is a term he created. … Noah Webster actually said that creating a new language was an act of defiance.”

While future presidents also coined new words, Dickson says the founders were particularly prolific. Jefferson alone is credited for coming up with more than 100 words, including “belittle,” “pedicure,” “monotonously” and “ottoman” [footstool]. Fittingly, he also invented the verb “neologize,” which is the practice of coining new words or expressions.

Instead of saying “within doors,” Washington created the word “indoors.” The first president also came up with “average” and “New Yorker.”

Adams borrowed from the classic Spanish novel, “Don Quixote” to create the adjective “quixotic” [unrealistic schemes]. The first recorded uses of “hustle” [to move rapidly] and “lengthy” [long, protracted] came from Adams’ journal entries.

Although the earliest American leaders started the practice, neologizing eventually became something of a presidential tradition.

“There were certain presidents that have a knack for this, and some of it was conscious. Some of it was sort-of semi-conscious,” Dickson says. “It became, it was, sort of, the American way.”

Despite inventing numerous memorable words and phrases, America’s early leaders fell short of coining a term to describe themselves — the extraordinary group of men who founded the United States and created the framework for its government. That didn’t happen until a century later.

In the 1920s, President Warren Harding dubbed them the “Founding Fathers” and in doing so, created one of the most memorable and iconic Americanisms of them all.

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White House Says Biden Not Intending to Talk to Putin

The White House said U.S. President Joe Biden has “no intentions” at present of holding negotiations with President Vladimir Putin about ending the war in Ukraine, a day after Biden appeared to make a conditional offer to talk to his Russian counterpart.

“We’re just not at a point now where talks seem to be a fruitful avenue to approach right now,” White House national security spokesperson John Kirby told reporters Friday.

At a news conference Thursday with French President Emmanuel Macron, Biden said, “I’m prepared to speak with Mr. Putin if in fact there is an interest in him deciding he’s looking for a way to end the war. He hasn’t done that yet.”

Biden’s comments appeared to be a cautious diplomatic overture from the White House.

When asked about those comments Friday, Kirby noted that Biden said Putin has yet to show any interest in talking.

“Putin has shown absolutely no inclination to be interested in dialogue of any kind. In fact, quite the contrary,” Kirby said.

“The president wasn’t at all indicating that now is the time for talks. In fact, he has been consistent that only (Ukrainian) President Zelenskyy can determine if and when there’s going to be a negotiated settlement and what the circumstances around that settlement would look like,” Kirby said.

The Kremlin said Friday that Putin is ready for negotiations with the West — provided the West recognizes Russia’s “new territories” taken from Ukraine.

In a statement, the Kremlin said the West must accept Putin’s proclamation that the southern region of Kherson and three other partly occupied regions of Ukraine now belong to Russia, before any talks can take place. Russia’s invasion has been condemned as illegal by most countries.

Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov told reporters: “The president of the Russian Federation has always been, is and remains open to negotiations in order to ensure our interests.”

Also Friday, Putin spoke on the phone with Germany’s Chancellor Olaf Scholz. Scholz is quoted as telling Putin “there must be a diplomatic solution as quickly as possible, which includes a withdrawal of Russian troops.”

For his part, Putin accused “Western states, including Germany,” of making it possible for Kyiv to refuse to negotiate with Russia.

“Attention was drawn to the destructive line of Western states, including Germany, which are pumping the Kyiv regime with weapons and training the Ukrainian military,” the Kremlin said.

In a written statement, Scholz’s spokesperson said, “the chancellor condemned in particular the Russian airstrikes against civilian infrastructure in Ukraine and stressed Germany’s determination to support Ukraine ensuring its defense capability against Russian aggression.”

Speculation about negotiations to end the war has increased as Moscow’s military advances in Ukraine have stalled and in some cases been turned back. Russia’s missile strikes against Ukraine’s power infrastructure have left millions of Ukrainians without power, heat and water as winter sets in.

President Biden has not spoken with Putin since Russia invaded Ukraine. Last March, Biden called Putin “a war criminal.”

On Thursday, France announced its support for creating a special tribunal to try those accused of committing war crimes in Ukraine. Russia’s foreign ministry said Friday it was “outraged” by France’s position.

“We demand that French diplomats, who are so attentive to human rights issues, not divide people into ‘right’ and ‘wrong,’ ‘ours’ and ‘not ours,'” the foreign ministry said.

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said Wednesday that the EU would try to set up a specialized court, backed by the United Nations, to investigate and prosecute possible war crimes committed by Russia during its invasion.

Russia has denied targeting civilians and other war crimes.

U.N.-appointed investigators are examining whether Russia’s attacks on Ukraine’s critical infrastructure, leaving millions without heating as temperatures plummet, amount to war crimes, a member of the inspection team said Friday.

Fierce fighting continued Friday in Ukraine’s Luhansk and Donetsk regions, where Ukraine’s military said it fought off wave after wave of Russian attacks.

Kyiv said Russian troops attacked Ukrainian positions in 14 settlements, while carrying out 30 airstrikes and 35 multiple-rocket attacks on civilian areas.

The battlefield reports could not be independently verified.

The British Defense Ministry’s intelligence update Friday on Ukraine said, “Russia’s withdrawal from the west bank of the Dnipro River last month has provided the Ukrainian Armed Forces with opportunities to strike additional Russian logistics nodes and lines of communication.”

“This threat has highly likely prompted Russian logisticians to relocate supply nodes, including rail transfer points, further south and east,” according to the report posted on Twitter. “Russian logistics units will need to conduct extra labor-intensive loading and unloading from rail to road transport. Road moves will subsequently still be vulnerable to Ukrainian artillery as they move on to supply Russian forward defensive positions.”

The ministry said, “Russia’s shortage of munitions [exacerbated by these logistics challenges] is likely one of the main factors currently limiting Russia’s potential to restart effective, large scale offensive ground operations.”

Some information in this report came from the Associated Press, Reuters and Agence France-Presse.

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Prayers? Bombs? Hawaii History Shows Stopping Lava Not Easy

Prayer. Bombs. Walls. Over the decades, people have tried all of them to stanch the flow of lava from Hawaii’s volcanoes as it lumbered toward roads, homes and infrastructure.

Now Mauna Loa — the world’s largest active volcano — is erupting again, and lava is slowly approaching a major thoroughfare connecting the Big Island’s east and west sides. And once more, people are asking if anything can be done to stop or divert the flow.

“It comes up every time there’s an eruption and there’s lava heading towards habited areas or highways,” said Scott Rowland, a geologist at the University of Hawaii. “Some people say, ‘Build a wall’ or ‘Board up,’ and other people say, ‘No, don’t!”

Humans have rarely had much success stopping lava and, despite the world’s technological advances, doing so is still difficult and dependent on the force of the flow and the terrain. But many in Hawaii also question the wisdom of interfering with nature and Pele, the Hawaiian deity of volcanoes and fire.

Prayers to Pele

Attempts to divert lava have a long history in Hawaii.

In 1881, the governor of Hawaii Island declared a day of prayer to stop lava from Mauna Loa as it headed for Hilo. The lava kept coming.

According to the U.S. Geological Survey, Princess Regent Lili’uokalani and her department heads went to Hilo and considered ways to save the town. They developed plans to build barriers to divert the flow and place dynamite along a lava tube to drain the molten rock supply.

Princess Ruth Ke’elikōlani approached the flow, offered brandy and red scarves and chanted, asking Pele to stop the flow and go home. The flow stopped before the barriers were built.

More than 50 years later, Thomas A. Jaggar, the founder of the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory, asked U.S. Army Air Services to send planes to bomb a Mauna Loa vent to disrupt lava channels.

Lt. Col. George S. Patton, who later became famous as a general in Europe during World War II, directed planes to drop 20 272-kilogram demolition bombs, according to a National Park Service account of the campaign. The bombs each had 161 kilograms of TNT. The planes also dropped 20 smaller bombs that only had black powder charge.

Jagger said the bombing helped to “hasten the end of the flow,” but Howard Stearns, a U.S. Geological Survey geologist onboard the last bombing run, was doubtful. In his 1983 autobiography, he wrote: “I am sure it was a coincidence.”

According to the park service, geologists today also are doubtful the bombing stopped the lava flow, which didn’t end with the bombing. Instead, the flows waned over the next few days and didn’t change paths.

 

Local advises to go with the flow

Rowland said authorities could use a bulldozer to pile a big berm of broken rock in front of Daniel K. Inouye Highway. If the terrain is flat, then lava would pile up behind the wall. But the lava may flow over it, like it did when something similar was attempted in Kapoho town in 1960.

Rapidly moving lava flows, like those from Kilauea volcano in 2018, would be more difficult to stop, he said.

“It would have been really hard to build the walls fast enough for them. And they were heading towards groups of homes. And so you would perhaps be sacrificing some homes for others, which would just be a legal mess,” he said.

He said he believes most people in Hawaii wouldn’t want to build a wall to protect the highway because it would “mess with Pele.”

If lava crosses the highway, Rowland said officials could rebuild that section of the road like they did in 2018 when different routes were covered. There are no current plans to try to divert the flow, a county official said.

Thinking you should physically divert lava is a Western idea rooted in the notion that humans have to control everything, said Kealoha Pisciotta, a Native Hawaiian cultural practitioner. She said people need to adjust to the lava, not the other way around.

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US Designates Iran, China as Countries of Concern Over Religious Freedom

The United States on Friday designated China, Iran and Russia, among others, as countries of particular concern under the Religious Freedom Act over severe violations, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said.

In a statement, Blinken said those designated as countries of particular concern, which also include North Korea and Myanmar, engaged in or tolerated severe violations of religious freedom.

Algeria, the Central African Republic, Comoros and Vietnam were placed on the watch list.

Several groups, including the Kremlin-aligned Wagner Group, a private paramilitary organization that is active in Syria, Africa and Ukraine, also were designated as entities of particular concern. The Wagner Group was designated over its activities in the Central African Republic, Blinken said.

“Around the world, governments and non-state actors harass, threaten, jail, and even kill individuals on account of their beliefs,” Blinken said in the statement. “The United States will not stand by in the face of these abuses.”

He added that Washington would welcome the opportunity to meet with all governments to outline concrete steps for removal from the lists.

Washington has increased pressure on Iran over the brutal crackdown on protesters. Women have waved and burned headscarves, which are mandatory under Iran’s conservative dress codes, during the demonstrations that mark one of the boldest challenges to the Islamic Republic since the 1979 revolution.

The United Nations says more than 300 people have been killed so far and 14,000 arrested in protests that began after the September 16 death in custody of 22-year-old Kurdish woman Mahsa Amini after she was detained for “inappropriate attire.”

U.N. experts also have called on majority Shiite Muslim Iran to stop persecution and harassment of religious minorities and to end the use of religion to curtail the exercise of fundamental rights.

The Baha’i community is among the most severely persecuted religious minorities in Iran, with a marked increase in arrests and targeting this year, part of what U.N. experts called a broader policy of targeting dissenting beliefs or religious practices, including Christian converts and atheists.

The United States has expressed grave concerns about human rights in the western Chinese region of Xinjiang, which is home to 10 million Uyghurs.

Rights groups and Western governments have long accused Beijing of abuses against the mainly Muslim ethnic minority, including forced labor in internment camps.

The United States has accused China of genocide. Beijing vigorously denies any abuses.

The other countries designated as countries of particular concern were Cuba, Eritrea, Nicaragua, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan.

The U.S. Religious Freedom Act of 1998 requires the president, who assigns the function to the secretary of state, to designate as countries of particular concern states that are deemed to violate religious freedom on a systematic and ongoing basis.

The act gives Blinken a range of policy responses, including sanctions or waivers, but they are not automatic.

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UN Weekly Roundup: November 26 – December 2, 2022 

Editor’s note: Here is a fast take on what the international community has been up to this past week, as seen from the United Nations perch.

UN launches record humanitarian appeal for 2023

The United Nations launched a $51.5 billion appeal Thursday for humanitarian needs in 2023. Needs are the highest they have ever been, with 339 million people in 69 countries requiring some form of humanitarian assistance. That’s 65 million more people than at the start of this year. The U.N. and its partner agencies hope to reach 230 million of those most in need in 2023. U.N. Humanitarian chief Martin Griffiths said that 2022’s extreme events are spilling into next year, including deadly climate events such as droughts and floods, and the impact of the war in Ukraine. More than 100 million people are displaced globally and 828 million people are facing severe food insecurity. Famine is a real risk for 45 million of them. So far this year, donors have provided $24 billion as of mid-November, but the funding gap stands at 53% with just three weeks left in the year.

EU chief calls for UN-backed tribunal on Russia’s aggression against Ukraine

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen called Wednesday for a special U.N.-backed court to investigate and prosecute Russia’s crime of aggression against Ukraine. The U.N. secretary-general’s spokesman said any decision to establish such a tribunal, with or without U.N. involvement, rests with member states. But creating such a court may be difficult.

EU Calls for Special Russia Aggression Tribunal May Be Tough to Realize

Watch this explainer on how Russians accused of war crimes in Ukraine could face prosecution: Video Explainer: How Could Russians Accused of War Crimes in Ukraine Face Prosecution?

Russia donates 260,000 tons of fertilizer to African nations

Russia has donated 260,000 metric tons of fertilizer it produced that was sitting in European ports and warehouses for use by farmers in Africa, the United Nations said Tuesday. The U.N. welcomed the move, saying it would help alleviate humanitarian needs and prevent catastrophic crop loss in Africa. World fertilizer prices have surged 250% since 2019, due to the COVID-19 pandemic and now Russia’s war in Ukraine.

Russia Donates 260,000 Tons of Fertilizer to Africa

UNESCO warns Australia’s Great Barrier Reef at risk from climate change

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, or UNESCO, said Tuesday that “a rapid escalation of corrective measures” is needed to safeguard the future of the country’s Great Barrier Reef. The 2,300 kilometer reef runs along Australia’s northeastern coast and is home to 9,000 known species of marine life. In a report, UNESCO said Australia had failed to adequately address climate change and other key threats, including poor water quality and over-fishing. UNESCO’s World Heritage committee will consider next year whether to recommend the reef be listed as “in danger.”

UN Warns Australia Over Health of Great Barrier Reef

In brief

— UNAIDS said in a report to mark World AIDS Day on December 1 that gender inequalities are holding back the goal of ending the virus by 2030. Watch this VOA report about women at risk in South Africa: African Women and Girls Most at Risk of HIV

— U.N. Human Rights Chief Volker Turk called on Myanmar to suspend all executions and return to a moratorium on the death penalty Friday, following reports that more than 130 people have now been sentenced to death by secret military courts since the February 2021 coup. At least seven university students were also sentenced to death by a military court on Wednesday and as many as four youth activists were reportedly sentenced to death on Thursday. The U.N. human rights office said it is seeking clarification of those sentences. The high commissioner said the military is using the death penalty as a political tool to crush opposition and it shows their disdain for the efforts of regional bloc ASEAN and the international community in trying to end the violence and start a political dialogue.

— The International Labor Organization said in a report Wednesday that real monthly wages have fallen significantly in many countries, hurting low-wage earners the most. The ILO estimates that global monthly wages fell in real terms to minus 0.9% in the first half of 2022, making it the first time this century that real global wage growth has been negative. The organization attributed the decline to global inflation combined with the slowdown in economic growth, due in part to the war in Ukraine and the global energy crisis.

— The U.N. resident and humanitarian coordinator in Afghanistan, Ramiz Alakbarov, told reporters Wednesday that as temperatures begin to drop and snow will soon make many roads impassable, it’s urgent to pre-position humanitarian assistance across the country. Funding shortfalls are making that difficult, as the $4.4 billion humanitarian response is just under half funded. He said 6 million Afghans are a step away from famine levels of hunger and 25 million people overall need some form of assistance. Alakbarov said $768 million is needed to complete winter preparedness — $614 million by the end of this year.

— An inter-agency convoy of 16 trucks carrying 482 metric tons of food and other humanitarian supplies, crossed conflict front lines from Aleppo into Sarmada in northwest Syria on Wednesday. The U.N. said it is the ninth such cross-line convoy since the adoption of Security Council resolution 2585 in July 2021. While important, the U.N. says cross-line convoys are currently unable to replace the massive cross-border operation from Turkey into northwest Syria, which reaches 2.7 million people each month. That operation is up for renewal next month and is likely to face a contentious negotiation, as Russia and the regime in Damascus, have been opposed to its continuation for the last few years.

Quote of Note

“Peace is never easy — but peace is always necessary.”

Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, speaking to reporters Thursday in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, on the sidelines of the African Union-U.N. annual conference.

What we are watching next week

Let’s be honest … football. With the whole world represented at the United Nations, there is definitely some serious World Cup fever going on in Turtle Bay. As the field shrinks to 16, the excitement is growing.

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Hawaii Volcano Eruption Threatens Big Island’s Main Transportation Route

The lava flowing from Hawaii’s Mauna Loa, which is the world’s largest active volcano and erupted this week, is edging closer to the Big Island’s main highway.

The U.S. Geological Survey’s Hawaiian Volcano Observatory reported Friday that the main front of the lava flow was 5.2 kilometers away from the Daniel K. Inouye Highway, also known as Saddle Road, and could possibly reach it in a week.

But the USGS also said that because of the unpredictable nature of lava flows, it’s “difficult to estimate when or if the flow will impact” the highway, which is the island’s main east-west road.

If the main highway is cut off, Hawaii county officials say, traffic will be forced onto coastal roads, crowding them and adding hours onto a trip from Hilo, the largest city on the Big Island, to Kona, a tourist magnet, which takes just 90 minutes on the Daniel K. Inouye Highway.

Talmadge Magno, administrator of Hawaii County’s Civil Defense Agency, told reporters this week that if lava flows onto the highway it would likely take the federal government a few months to get it passable again once the flows halt.

After the eruption on Sunday, the lava initially moved quickly down steep slopes. Over the past day, it reached a flatter area and slowed significantly, moving at just 40 meters per hour. The sight has attracted visitors to the “once in a lifetime” spectacle.

The USGS says many variables influence exactly where the lava will move and at what speed. On flatter ground, lava flows spread out and “inflate” — creating individual lobes that can advance quickly and then stall.

Mauna Loa rises 4,169 meters above the Pacific Ocean, part of a chain of volcanoes that formed the islands of Hawaii. It last erupted in 1984.

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Detained American in Russia Makes Contact With Family

The brother of American Paul Whelan, who has been detained in Russia since 2018 after being convicted on espionage charges in 2020, says the former U.S. Marine telephoned his parents from Russia early Friday, the first contact in more than a week.

In a statement emailed to media outlets, David Whelan said that his brother said he was transferred to a prison hospital last week for a previously undisclosed treatment. During the call, Paul Whelan said he had been returned to his original prison facility.

Friday’s call was the first the family had heard from him since November 23.

“The call at least acts as a ‘proof of life’ even if nothing else has been explained: When Paul went there, why, why the calls stopped, why the US Embassy had to seek information about his whereabouts and the Russian authorities refused to respond,” said David Whelan.

Speaking on background to reporters Friday, a State Department spokesman said they could confirm Paul Whelan spoke to consular officers Friday and that Whelan had been transferred to a prison hospital Thanksgiving Day and returned to the IK-17 penal colony on Friday.

The spokesman also confirmed Whelan was able to call home Friday, and said the Embassy continues to press for timely updates on his condition.

“We’re grateful that we were able to establish that contact with him,” White House National Security Council spokesman John Kirby told reporters Friday. “We prefer obviously that he not be in a penal colony … but it was reassuring to be able to hear his voice.”

The Biden administration has been trying for months to negotiate the release of Whelan, a former Marine and Michigan corporate executive, as well as American WNBA star Brittney Griner, convicted and jailed earlier this year.

Whelan and Griner “shouldn’t have to do one more day in Russia, and we’re working very, very hard to see that outcome take place,” Kirby said.

The Associated Press, quoting a Russian diplomat, reported this week Russia and the United States have repeatedly been on the verge of an agreement on a prisoner exchange. The diplomat indicated a deal is still possible before the year’s end.

Some information for this report was provided by the Associated Press and Reuters.

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US Whistleblower Snowden Gets Russian Passport, TASS Reports

Former U.S. intelligence contractor Edward Snowden, who exposed the scale of secret surveillance by the National Security Agency (NSA), has sworn an oath of allegiance to Russia and received a Russian passport, TASS reported Friday. 

“Yes, he got [a passport], he took the oath,” Anatoly Kucherena, Snowden’s lawyer, told the state news agency TASS.  

Snowden, 39, did not immediately reply to a message seeking comment on the report. 

President Vladimir Putin in September granted Russian citizenship to Snowden, who fled the United States after leaking secret files that revealed the extensive eavesdropping activities of the United States and its allies. 

Defenders of Snowden hail him as a modern-day dissident for exposing the extent of U.S. spying. Opponents say he is a traitor who endangered lives by exposing the secret methods that Western spies use to listen in on hostile states and militants. 

 

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Russian Leaders Could Be Prosecuted for Crime of Aggression

A special court could be set up to prosecute Russian President Vladimir Putin, his ministers and top generals for the crime of aggression, following the invasion of Ukraine. Henry Ridgwell reports from London.

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Zelenskyy: ‘Ukrainian Rules Will Prevail’

The British Defense Ministry’s intelligence update Friday on Ukraine said, “Russia’s withdrawal from the west bank of the Dnipro River last month has provided the Ukrainian Armed Forces with opportunities to strike additional Russian logistics nodes and lines of communication.”

“This threat has highly likely prompted Russian logisticians to relocate supply nodes, including rail transfer points, further south and east,” according to the report posted on Twitter. “Russian logistics units will need to conduct extra labor-intensive loading and unloading from rail to road transport. Road moves will subsequently still be vulnerable to Ukrainian artillery as they move on to supply Russian forward defensive positions.”

The ministry said, “Russia’s shortage of munitions (exacerbated bv these logistics challenges) is likely one of the main factors currently limiting Russia’s potential to restart effective, large scale offensive ground operations.”

In his daily address Thursday, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy recalled a referendum held 31 years ago on Dec. 1 ”that united the entire territory of our state … Everyone expressed their support.”

“People confirmed the Act of Proclamation of Independence of Ukraine — freely and legally. It was a real referendum … an honest referendum, and that is why it was recognized by the world … Ukrainian rules will prevail,” the president said in a swipe at the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

The president also said in his speech that he wants to ensure Ukraine’s spiritual independence, in a likely reference to a recent raid on Ukraine’s Russian-affiliated Monastery of the Caves, a 1,000-year-old Eastern Orthodox monastery in Kyiv, where security forces were looking to flush out spies housed among the clerics.

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Ukrainian Engineers Scramble to Keep Mobile Phones Working

With Ukraine scrambling to keep communication lines open during the war, an army of engineers from the country’s phone companies has mobilized to help the public and policymakers stay in touch during repeated Russian missile and drone strikes.

The engineers, who typically go unseen and unsung in peacetime, often work around the clock to maintain or restore phone service, sometimes braving minefields to do so. After Russian strikes took out the electricity that cellphone towers usually run on, they revved up generators to keep the towers on.

“I know our guys – my colleagues – are very exhausted, but they’re motivated by the fact that we are doing an important thing,” Yuriy Dugnist, an engineer with Ukrainian telecommunications company Kyivstar, said after crunching through 15 centimeters of fresh snow to reach a fenced-in mobile phone tower on the western fringe of Kyiv, the capital.

Dugrist and his coworkers offered a glimpse of their new daily routines, which involve using an app on their own phones to monitor which of the scores of phone towers in the capital area were receiving electricity, either during breaks from the controlled blackouts being used to conserve energy or from the generators that kick in to provide backup power.

One entry ominously read, in English, “Low Fuel.”

Stopping off at a service station before their rounds, the team members filled up eight 20-liter jerrycans with diesel fuel for a vast tank under a generator that relays power up a 50-meter cell tower in a suburban village that has had no electricity for days.

It’s one of many Ukrainian towns that have had intermittent power, or none at all, in the wake of multiple rounds of devastating Russian strikes in recent weeks targeting the country’s infrastructure – power plants in particular.

Kyivstar is the largest of Ukraine’s three main mobile phone companies, with some 26 million customers – or the equivalent of about two-thirds of the country’s population before Russia’s Feb. 24 invasion drove millions of people abroad, even if many have since returned.

The diesel generators were installed at the foot of the cell phone towers since long before the invasion, but they were rarely needed. Many Western countries have offered up similar generators and transformers to help Ukraine keep electricity running as well as possible after Russia’s blitz.

After emergency blackouts prompted by a round of Russian strikes on Nov. 23, Kyivstar deployed 15 teams of engineers simultaneously and called in “all our reserves” to troubleshoot the 2,500 mobile stations in their service area, Dugrist said.

He recalled rushing to the site of a destroyed cell tower when Russian forces pulled out of Irpin, a suburb northwest of Kyiv, earlier this year and getting there before Ukrainian minesweepers had arrived to give the all-clear signal.

The strain the war is putting on Ukraine’s mobile phone networks has reportedly driven up prices for satellite phone alternatives like Elon Musk’s Starlink system, which Ukraine’s military has used during the conflict, now in its 10th month.

After widespread infrastructure strikes last week, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy convened top officials to discuss the restoration work and supplies needed to safeguard the country’s energy and communication systems.

“Special attention is paid to the communication system,” he said, adding that no matter what the Russia has in mind, “we must maintain communication.”

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Biden and Macron Say Russia Must Leave Ukraine for War to End 

US President Joe Biden and French President Emmanuel Macron agreed that they would never pressure Ukraine to negotiate an end to the war with Russia, saying the US and France stand as united as ever with their NATO allies against Moscow’s invasion. VOA’s senior diplomatic correspondent Cindy Saine reports.

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Protests in China Prompt Chinese Students in US to Speak Out

Chinese citizens living abroad have been attending rallies across the U.S. this week in support of myriad protests that have been taking place throughout China. They are the first mass demonstrations in China since the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests for political freedom in Beijing.

The current demonstrators are seeking freedom from China’s “zero-COVID” policy.

In the U.S. cities of Los Angeles, Washington and New York, Chinese students and residents at rallies have been critical of the Chinese government and the country’s leader, Xi Jinping, chanting in Mandarin “the Chinese Communist Party, step down” and “Xi Jinping, step down.”

“People are dying in China,” said Han Wang, a Chinese student who organized a candlelight vigil in Los Angeles on Nov. 29.

People in the U.S. and China have been protesting China’s strict zero-COVID policy, which has prompted sporadic and lengthy lockdowns through the country, making it difficult to get food for some residents.

“Way more people are dying because of this. They’re starving to death,” said a Chinese citizen currently living in Los Angeles who asked to be identified as “Max.”

She and many other people attending demonstrations in the U.S. covered themselves from head to toe, with dark sunglasses and masks, because they fear their protests in the U.S. will cause the Chinese government to retaliate against their families in China.

“A lot of the workers are all sealed up at home and can’t go out and can’t pay their mortgages. I think the continued lockdowns are not scientific. It’s not right,” said Liu Xiaomei, a Chinese citizen living in New York and using an alias.

Tragic catalyst

The simmering discontent exploded throughout China after a deadly apartment fire on November 24 in the city of Urumqi, in northwest China. The region is home to China’s Uyghur Muslims.

One Urumqi resident told VOA that because of the zero-COVID policy, the doors to the fire escape were chained from the outside, trapping people inside the burning building. A fire department official said the residents were not aware of an alternate fire escape. Local hospital employees told a U.S.-based Uyghur news outlet that 44 people died in the fire, but the government puts the official death toll at 10.

“Indeed, on social media there are some forces with ulterior motives relating the fire with the local response to COVID-19. The Urumqi city government has already held a news conference to clarify what actually happened, and refuted the disinformation and smears,” Zhao Lijian, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson, said Monday.

The vigil in Los Angeles was not only to commemorate the people who died in the fire, according to a student who wanted to be identified as “Kiki.”

“These 44 fellow citizens also represent every single person in China — could be you, could be me — we are actually inside the building, the big fire together. If we don’t speak out today, and don’t act, then no one in the world will hear. All the voices will be buried,” she said.

From Washington, Hamid Kerim has been following the protests in China and the rallies in the U.S. Originally from China, Kerim is Uyghur and owns two restaurants around the U.S. capital city. He said the protests are long overdue, given China’s repressive policy against Uyghurs, which he described as genocide and which China denies.

“The Urumqi fire ignited everyone’s heart. It made them, the people, stand up. I respect and support the protesters, but in my opinion it’s a little late. But it’s still not too late.”

Uyghur community

Some Uyghurs are encouraged the Chinese diaspora is recognizing what’s happening to their community in China.

“I hope the Chinese [living] around the world can stand together with the Uyghurs, and Uyghurs can also stand together with the Chinese. We can jointly realize our desire of having a peaceful and free country. That’s my hope,” Kerim said.

China has been rejecting criticism of its actions in the Xinjiang region, where many Uyghurs live. Beijing has said it is fighting against terrorism and has helped bring social stability and prosperity to the area.

“China is a country governed by the rule of law, and the various legal rights and freedoms enjoyed by Chinese citizens are fully guaranteed in accordance with the law. At the same time, any rights and freedoms must be exercised within the framework of the law,” Zhao Lijian, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson, said on Tuesday, regarding the protests against COVID-19 lockdowns in China that erupted after the fire.

Freedom quest

For some Chinese living in the U.S., the protests of China’s COVID control measures are transforming into a fight for additional freedoms.

“We are here to support them [people in China] to fight for freedom and democracy,” Chinese student Wang said. “The Chinese people, they don’t have the freedom to express themselves. They don’t have the freedom of publication. They don’t have the freedom of speech. Right now, they even lost their freedom to go out of their own house, so it’s so brutal.”

“No lockdown but freedom, no lies but dignity. We are tired of the party’s lies. I love China. I love my people, which is why I’m here. I, we don’t want the Cultural Revolution again. We want reform. We don’t want a dictator. We want to vote for our leaders,” Max said. “He [Xi] is a fascist leader. He is not a communist leader, he is a fascist leader and we need help.”

Even with protests in China and demonstrations in the U.S., a Los Angeles student who requested to be called “Kenneth” expressed doubt that change would happen.

“I think honestly it will do very little to stop China. China is way too powerful. And although we can fight here, although we could let our voice be spoken, we could do whatever we can, but at the end of the day, it’s a losing battle. But that does not mean that we should give up,” said Kenneth, who is a Hui Muslim from China.

He said China has been closing mosques and Islamic schools, and his community’s ability to practice their religion is being slowly wiped away.

Many overseas Chinese attending the rallies said they will continue to speak out for their friends and loved ones in China in hopes of a better life for them and the next generation.

Genia Dulot in Los Angeles and VOA Mandarin Service video journalists, Fang Bing and Jiu Dao in New York and Wang Ping in Washington, contributed to this report.

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US Sanctions 3 North Korea Officials After ICBM Test

The United States on Thursday imposed sanctions on three senior North Korean officials connected to the country’s weapons programs after Pyongyang’s latest and largest intercontinental ballistic missile test last month. 

The U.S. Treasury Department named the individuals as Jon Il Ho, Yu Jin, and Kim Su Gil, all of whom were designated for sanctions by the European Union in April. 

The latest sanctions follow a November 18 ICBM test by North Korea, part of a record-breaking spate of more than 60 missile launches this year, and amid concerns that it may be about to resume nuclear tests, which it hasn’t done since 2017. 

A Treasury statement said Jon Il Ho and Yu Jin played major roles in the development of weapons of mass destruction while serving as vice director and director, respectively, of the North Korea’s Munitions Industry Department. 

It said Kim Su Gil served as director of the Korean People’s Army General Political Bureau from 2018 to 2021 and oversaw implementation of decisions related to the WMD program. 

“Treasury is taking action in close trilateral coordination with the Republic of Korea and Japan against officials who have had leading roles in the DPRK’s unlawful WMD and ballistic missile programs,” said Brian Nelson, Treasury undersecretary for terrorism and financial intelligence, in the statement, using the initials of North Korea’s official name. 

“Recent launches demonstrate the need for all countries to fully implement U.N. Security Council resolutions, which are intended to prevent the DPRK from acquiring the technologies, materials, and revenue Pyongyang needs to develop its prohibited WMD and ballistic missile capabilities.” 

The sanctions freeze any U.S.-based assets of the individuals and bar dealings with them but appear largely symbolic. 

Decades of U.S.-led sanctions have failed to halt North Korea’s increasingly sophisticated missile and nuclear weapon programs, and China and Russia have blocked recent efforts to impose more United Nations sanctions, saying they should instead be eased to jumpstart talks and avoid humanitarian harm. 

“Targeting senior officials inside North Korea responsible for WMD and missile activities and working with South Korea and Japan are important, but it is an inadequate and symbolic response to 60+ missile tests, including 8 ICBM tests,” said Anthony Ruggiero, who headed North Korea sanctions efforts under former President Donald Trump.  

“The Biden administration should sanction Pyongyang’s revenue and force Kim Jong Un to make difficult decisions about his strategic priorities,” he said. 

U.S. national security adviser Jake Sullivan said earlier that Washington was committed to using pressure and diplomacy to entice North Korea into giving up its nuclear arsenal. 

He said the administration had no illusions about the challenges but remained committed to holding Pyongyang accountable. 

A spokesperson at the White House National Security Council said sanctions had been successful in “slowing down the development” of the weapons programs and Pyongyang had turned to “increasingly desperate ways to generate revenue like virtual currency heists and other cybercrime to fund its weapons programs.”  

“The DPRK’s decision to continue ignoring our outreach is not in their best interest, or in the interest of the people of the DPRK.” 

 

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EU Calls for Special Russia Aggression Tribunal May Be Tough to Realize

A new European Union proposal for an international tribunal to try Russian aggression in Ukraine has received mixed reviews — prompting a thumbs up from Kyiv and rights advocates but doubts from experts about its feasibility and whether it will receive broad-based acceptance.

“Russia must pay for its horrific crimes, including for its crime of aggression against a sovereign state,” said European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen Wednesday, laying out arguments for establishing a new, United Nations-backed court. “We are ready to start working with the international community to get the broadest international support possible for this specialized court.”

The United Nations-backed International Criminal Court — also known as the ICC — in the Netherlands is already looking into alleged Russian war crimes and crimes against humanity in Ukraine, as well as possible Ukrainian atrocities. Russia has denied committing war crimes and accused the international community of ignoring abuses by Ukrainian forces.

Special U.N.-backed tribunals aren’t new. The body proposed by von der Leyen, if ever realized, would focus on Russian aggression in Ukraine.  

First lady points to thousands of crimes

The Ukrainian government has been quick to support the idea. Visiting a London exhibition this week on alleged Russian war crimes, Ukraine’s first lady Olena Zelenska called for justice.

She said more than 40,000 Russian crimes had been registered in Ukraine. Look at the photos at the exhibition, she told her audience, and abstract ideas of war in Ukraine will become real.

Moscow has dismissed the idea of a new war crimes tribunal as having no legitimacy. Experts suggest it would be challenging to establish one.

“My reading of what Ursula von der Leyen said is that the EU doesn’t take for granted that there would be overwhelming international support — and that it recognizes there has to be a sort of campaign to win support for the idea,” said Anthony Dworkin, a policy fellow specializing in human rights and justice at the European Council on Foreign Relations, a think tank.

Proposal needs support from developing nations

Brussels will especially need backing from developing countries in Africa and elsewhere, said Dworkin.

“I think it’s very important that that should be done, rather than European countries kind of short-circuiting the attempt to win international legitimacy for the idea by just setting it up themselves,” he said.

Even if it’s up and running, such a tribunal could face obstacles if, for example, Russian President Vladimir Putin or other Russian officials face war crimes charges yet are still welcome to visit some nations. That was the case with Sudan’s former leader, Omar al-Bashir, who traveled to multiple countries despite ICC arrest warrants.

Charges against high-level Russian officials may also complicate any future Western efforts to end the war in Ukraine.

“A court is supposed to be politically independent,” said Dworkin. “And therefore, you wouldn’t for instance expect — if there is a kind of negotiation at the end of the conflict — that the charges would be somehow dropped as part of the negotiation. The charges will persist.”

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Russian-American Science Conference Held in US Despite War in Ukraine

The Russian-American Science Association’s annual conference was held November 18-20 in Los Angeles, California. The event had a different tone this year because of Russia’s war in Ukraine. Angelina Bagdasaryan has the story, narrated by Anna Rice. Camera: Vazgen Varzhabetian

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Afghans Show Mixed Feelings About US More Than a Year After Withdrawal

Despite its chaotic military and diplomatic withdrawal from Afghanistan over a year ago, U.S. global leadership approval has seen a slight uptick among some Afghans, a new survey conducted inside the country says.

Approval of U.S. leadership among all Afghans is measured at 18%, slightly more than the 14% measured last year, while U.S. popularity is sharply different among different ethnic groups in Afghanistan.

“The U.S. remains popular among Afghanistan’s Hazara ethnic community; 53% are still supportive of U.S. leadership,” Gallup said in a statement about its latest survey in the country.

The Shia Hazaras are an ethnic and religious minority in Afghanistan making up 10 to 12% of the country’s estimated 36 million people.

Gallup says its surveyors interviewed 1,000 men and women from 21 of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces this year.

Among Pashtuns, Afghanistan’s largest ethnic group, the U.S. remains widely unpopular with only an 8% approval rate, while among Tajiks, the second largest ethnic group, it’s reported at 23%.

Most Taliban leaders are Pashtuns who fought against the United States in Afghanistan from 2002 until U.S. and Taliban representatives signed a peace agreement in February 2020.

Despite its complex history of engagement in Afghanistan, the U.S. remains more popular in the South Asian country than China and Russia, whose leadership approval rates are equally ranked at 14% in the survey.

The U.S. spent about $2 trillion on the Afghan war for over two decades. More than 150,000 people lost their lives in the war, including at least 2,400 U.S. military personnel.

A majority of Americans, 69%, said the U.S. mostly failed in achieving its goals in Afghanistan, according to an August 2022 Pew survey.

Loss of hope

The drastic changes Afghanistan has seen over the last year seem to have disappointed an overwhelming majority of ordinary Afghans, according to the Gallup survey.

Nearly all Afghans, 98%, rated their living conditions as “suffering” under the new regime and only 11% said they have hopes for better opportunities for the next generation.

Afghans are also increasingly concerned about a sharp deterioration in women’s rights.

“A record-low 22% of Afghans say women in their country are treated with respect and dignity — down from the previous low of 31% in 2021,” reads a Gallup statement.

“The one positive we did see was in relation to the safety that Afghans feel within their communities. The percentage of Afghans who feel safe walking alone at night in their communities increased from 22% to 52%,” said Julie Ray, a Gallup analyst.

The Taliban’s return to power has crippled the Afghan economy, pushing 90% of the population into poverty, the United Nations has reported.

“Taliban’s rules of the 90s and currently can be encapsulated in one word: suffering,” Malaiz Daud, senior research fellow with the European Foundation for South Asian studies, told VOA.

“They lack the management, organizational and resource mobilization skills to run a polity designed to look after an entire country.”

Taliban officials, however, redirect all criticisms of economic paralysis to the West saying financial sanctions, assets freeze and a cessation of development assistance have pushed the country to the ongoing humanitarian crisis.

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this article incorrectly attributed a quote from Gallup analyst Julie Ray.