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Stranded in Belarus: one Syrian’s bid to rescue his parents near Polish border

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October 29, 2021

By Joanna Plucinska and Charlotte Bruneau

SIEMIATYCZE, Poland (Reuters) – Gordi, a Syrian Kurd who lives in Austria, says his parents are trapped in forest between the Belarusian and Polish borders with little food or water and he has journeyed to Poland in a desperate bid to rescue them, despite the risk of arrest.

His parents are among thousands of migrants from the Middle East and Africa seeking to enter Poland, part of the European Union, from Belarus but face a new Polish razor wire fence erected by Warsaw under a state of emergency.

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The EU says the migrant flow has been orchestrated by Belarus in retaliation for sanctions imposed on Minsk over human rights abuses. But humanitarian groups accuse Poland’s ruling nationalists of violating the international right to asylum by pushing migrants back into Belarus instead of accepting their applications for protection. Poland says its actions are legal.

Gordi, now staying at a hotel in the eastern Polish town of Siemiatycze, 30 km (19 miles) from the border, is one of a handful of relatives of stranded migrants that have gathered near the frontier in hopes of shepherding their kin to safety.

Gordi said he bought tickets for his parents to fly from Syria to the Belarus capital Minsk in mid-October. In arranging their trip, he said he understood a smuggler would pick up his parents from the border and bring them to his home in Austria.

But when his parents reached the isolated, rural frontier overland from Minsk and tried to cross, his mother suffered a leg injury. Communicating with his parents via text and voice messages, Gordi said he learned his mother was taken to a nearby Polish hospital but was signed out without proper treatment and pushed back with his father across the border into Belarus.

A spokesman for the hospital said patients could not be signed out before treatment is completed but did not comment on the case of Gordi’s mother due to patient confidentiality.

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TRAPPED IN OPEN AS WINTER APPROACHES

Gordi showed Reuters video of the forested area where he said his parents were marooned along with around 300 other migrants, with winter cold setting in.

The video, sent by one of roughly 300 migrants there, showed what he said appeared to be two dead bodies. Reuters could not independently verify the footage or information Gordi provided.

“My mother sometimes refuses to speak to me,” Gordi said, adding that she preferred to write to him so he does not notice the exhaustion in her voice.

At least seven migrants have been found dead inside Poland from exposure and other ailments during the crisis, officials say.

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Gordi said he had tried to approach the border but was turned back several times by police on the lookout for smugglers paid by migrants to be driven across Poland to Germany.

“Even if they stop me, there simply can’t be a law anywhere in the world that forbids you to help your parents,” he told Reuters near his hotel. Gordi spends every waking moment talking to local media and humanitarian groups looking for a solution.

Gordi himself was once a migrant: he settled in EU member state Austria in 2010 after a journey through Turkey, Bulgaria, Romania and Hungary, and now works as a barber.

Polish activists told Reuters they advised Gordi not to enter the restricted state of emergency zone, a three-km-wide strip along the frontier where he could face arrest or fines.

Human rights lawyers said he could face smuggling charges in Poland if caught with his parents.

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A spokeswoman for Poland’s Border Guard said anyone wishing to visit their family abroad should do so through “legal means, ideally…where the family resides”. Those crossing a border illegally are detained and face legal procedures, she said.

    Belarusian authorities did not respond to a Reuters request for comment on conditions at the border.

(Reporting by Joanna Plucinska, Charlotte Bruneau and Kacper Pempel with additional reporting by Pavel Polityuk in Kyiv; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

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Indonesia Semeru volcanic eruption kills 13; 10 evacuated

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December 5, 2021

JAKARTA (Reuters) – Ten people trapped after Indonesia’s Semeru volcano erupted have been evacuated to safety, the country’s disaster mitigation agency (BNPB) said on Sunday, as the death toll from the disaster climbed to at least 13 and with dozens injured.

Semeru, the tallest mountain on Java island, threw up towers of ash and hot clouds on Saturday that blanketed nearby villages in East Java province and sent people fleeing in panic.

The eruption severed a strategic bridge connecting two areas in the nearby district of Lumajang with the city of Malang and wrecked buildings, authorities said.

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BNPB official Abdul Muhari said in a news release that 13 people have been killed after the eruption, two of whom have been identified. Ninety-eight have been injured, including two pregnant women, and 902 have been evacuated, the statement said.

Thoriqul Haq, a local official in Lumajang, said earlier that sand miners had been trapped around their work sites.

BNPB said at least 35 people had been hospitalised, while Lumajang’s deputy head said 41 people suffered burns.

Semeru, more than 3,600 metres (12,000 feet) high, is one of Indonesia’s nearly 130 active volcanoes. It erupted in January, causing no casualties.

Indonesia straddles the “Pacific Ring of Fire”, a highly seismically active zone, where different plates on the earth’s crust meet and create a large number of earthquakes and volcanoes.

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Separately, an earthquake of magnitude 6 struck north of Halmahera on Sunday, the European-Mediterranean Seismological Centre (EMSC) said. Halmahera is about 2,000 km (1,200 miles) northeast of Semeru.

(Reporting by Stanley Widianto and Nilufar Rizki; Editing by Ed Davies)

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Analysis-Modi’s farm reform reversal to deter investment in India’s agriculture

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December 5, 2021

By Mayank Bhardwaj and Rajendra Jadhav

NEW DELHI (Reuters) – India’s repeal of agriculture laws aimed at deregulating produce markets will starve its vast farm sector of much-needed private investment and saddle the government with budget-sapping subsidies for years, economists said.

Late last year, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government introduced three laws meant to open up agriculture markets to companies and attract private investment, triggering India’s longest-running protest by farmers who said the reforms would allow corporations to exploit them.

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With an eye on a critical election in populous Uttar Pradesh state early next year, Modi agreed to rescind the laws in November, hoping to smooth relations with the powerful farm lobby which sustains nearly half the country’s 1.3 billion people and accounts for about 15% of the $2.7 trillion economy.

But by shelving the most ambitious overhaul in decades, Modi’s backtracking now seemingly rules out much-needed upgrades of the creaky post-harvest supply chain to cut wastage, spur crop diversification, and boost farmers’ incomes, economists said.

“This is not good for agriculture, this is not good for India,” said Gautam Chikermane, a senior economist and vice president at New Delhi-based Observer Research Foundation.

“All incentives to shift towards a more efficient, market-linked system (in agriculture) have been smothered.”

The u-turn does allay farmers’ fears of losing the minimum price system for basic crops, which growers say guarantees India’s grain self-sufficiency.

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“It appears the government realised that there’s merit in the farmers’ argument that opening up the sector would make them vulnerable to large companies, hammer commodities prices and hit farmers’ income,” said Devinder Sharma, a farm policy expert who has supported the growers’ movement. 

But the gruelling year-long standoff also means no political party will attempt any similar reforms for at least a quarter-century, Chikermane said.

And, in the absence of private investment, “inefficiencies in the system will continue to deliver wastage and food will continue to rot,” he warned.

COLOSSAL WASTE

India ranks 101 out of 116 countries on the Global Hunger Index, with malnutrition accounting for 68% of child deaths.

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Yet it wastes around 67 million tonnes of food every year, worth about $12.25 billion – nearly five times that of most large economies – according to various studies.

Inadequate cold-chain storage, shortages of refrigerated trucks and insufficient food processing facilities are the main causes of waste.

The farm laws promised to allow private traders, retailers and food processors to buy directly from farmers, bypassing more than 7,000 government-regulated wholesale markets where middlemen’s commissions and market fees add to consumer costs.

Ending the rule that food must flow through the approved markets would have encouraged private participation in the supply chain, giving both Indian and global companies incentives to invest in the sector, traders and economists said.

“The agriculture laws would have removed the biggest impediment to large-scale purchases of farm goods by big corporations,” said Harish Galipelli, director at ILA Commodities India Pvt Ltd, which trades farm goods. “And that would have encouraged corporations to bring investment to revamp and modernise the whole food supply chain.”

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Galipelli’s firm will now have to re-evaluate its plans.

“We have had plans to scale up our business,” said Galipelli. “We would have expanded had the laws stayed.”

Other firms specialising in warehousing, food processing and trading are also expected to review their expansion strategies, he said.

PERISHABLE PRICES YO-YO

Poor post-harvest handling of produce also causes prices of perishables to yo-yo in India. Only three months ago, farmers dumped tomatoes on the road as prices crashed, but now consumers are paying a steep 100 rupees ($1.34) a kg.

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The laws would have helped the $34 billion food processing sector grow exponentially, according to the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII), an industry group.

Demand for fruits and vegetables would have gone up. And that would have cut surplus rice and wheat output, slicing bulging stocks of the staples worth billions of dollars in state warehouses, economists said.

“Crop diversification would also have helped rein in subsidy spending and narrow the fiscal deficit,” said Sandip Das, a New Delhi-based researcher and farm policy analyst.

Food Corporation of India (FCI), the state crop procurement agency, racked up a record 3.81 trillion rupees ($51.83 billion) in debt by last fiscal year, alarming policymakers and inflating the country’s food subsidy bill to a record 5.25 trillion rupees ($70.16 billion) in the year to March 2021.

However, while the federal government now has limited scope for change, local authorities “can opt for reforms provided they have the political will to do so,” said Bidisha Ganguly, an economist at CII.

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Similarly, venture capital-funded startups have also expressed interest in India’s agriculture sector.

“Agritech, if it is allowed to take root, has the potential to enable a better handshake of farmers and consumers through their technological platforms,” Chikermane said.

(1 = 74.83 rupees)

(Reporting by Mayank Bhardwaj and Rajendra Jadhav; additional reporting by Aftab Ahmed; editing by Gavin Maguire and Kim Coghill)

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Orthodox priest shouts ‘Pope, you are a heretic’ at Francis in Athens

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December 5, 2021

By Philip Pullella and Karolina Tagaris

ATHENS (Reuters) -An elderly Greek Orthodox priest shouted “Pope, you are a heretic” as Pope Francis was entering the Orthodox Archbishopric in Athens on Saturday and was taken away by police, a reminder of the lingering distrust between the two divided churches.

Video showed the man, who was dressed in black robes and black hat and had a long white beard, shouting the words in Greek outside the building before police bundled him away.

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Witnesses said he shouted loud enough for the pope to hear the commotion. The man appeared to have fallen while being taken away and was lifted up by police.

Francis arrived in Greece on Saturday for a three-day visit that Greek Catholics hope will bring the Eastern and Western churches closer together.

Christianity split into the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches in 1054 in what is referred to as the Great Schism, and for centuries relations were rocky.

In his address to the archbishop, Beatitude Ieronymos II, Francis asked forgiveness in the name of the Roman Catholic Church for its part in the historical wrongs that led to the breakup.

“Tragically, in later times we grew apart. Worldly concerns poisoned us, weeds of suspicion increased our distance and we ceased to nurture communion,” Francis told Ieronymos, whom he met during his first trip to Greece in 2016.

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“I feel the need to ask anew for the forgiveness of God and of our brothers and sisters for the mistakes committed by many Catholics,” Francis said.

Pope John Paul II first asked forgiveness for the Catholic role in the break-up when he visited Greece in 2001.

Catholics and Orthodox have been involved in dialogue aimed at eventual reunion for decades and cooperate in many social initiatives but the two sides are still far apart theologically.

“We believe you have the courage and the sincerity to examine the failures and omissions of your fathers,” Ieronymos told Francis. “Between those who want to be called Christian brothers, the best language is, and always will be, honesty.”

(Reporting by Philip Pullella; Editing by Alex Richardson)

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