NICARAGUA: Zelaya's Followers at Risk of Humanitarian Emergency

  • by José Adán Silva (managua)
  • Thursday, July 30, 2009
  • Inter Press Service

Spokespersons for the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) representative in Nicaragua, Alfredo Missair, told the press that an official U.N. mission toured the northern province of Nueva Segovia, on the border with Honduras, after Zelaya showed up in the area late last week, announcing his plans to return to his country.

The U.N. mission carried out an assessment of the humanitarian conditions in the border area, which has drawn hundreds of followers of the ousted president, who set up his base of operations in the town of Ocotal, which is near the Las Manos border post.

Zelaya did briefly cross into Honduras on Jul. 24. But after taking just a few symbolic steps into the country, he returned to Nicaragua, saying he did not want to be the cause of violence. Since then he has urged his followers to join him and ensure his 'triumphant return' to the country and the presidency.

On Thursday, Jul. 30 he headed to Managua.

The U.N. delegation was headed by Jozef Merkx, representative of the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Costa Rica, and María Rubiales, Nicaragua's permanent representative to the U.N.

The mission was accompanied by delegates from Nicaragua's health and food agencies, to draw up a list of people who have crossed the border in the last few days, assess their needs and evaluate the situation.

In several towns of Nueva Segovia, where Zelaya's supporters are staying in shelters and makeshift tents, the mission met with local officials, police and military chiefs, and non-governmental organisations.

Zelaya was dragged from his house by soldiers on Jun. 28 and put on a plane to Costa Rica, still in his pajamas. The de facto regime headed by Roberto Micheletti issued a warrant for his arrest on a number of charges, including an attempt to carry out a non-binding popular referendum, which was ruled unconstitutional by the courts.

Under the 'CA-4' migration accord between Honduras, Nicaragua, Guatemala and El Salvador, Hondurans are free to enter Nicaragua with just their identity card, and can stay as long as they like.

The U.N. mission said in a communiqué that it would issue a report on the humanitarian situation in the area in the next few days, along with specific recommendations for the authorities to guarantee the human rights of the Hondurans who have crossed into Nicaragua.

The objectives of the mission include assessing whether the Hondurans are all in Nicaragua voluntarily, why they came, and where they crossed the border – through border posts or areas not controlled by the authorities.

The delegation will also find out whether all of the visitors have documents confirming their identity and nationality, and thus their right to freely cross the border between the two countries.

Key aspects that the U.N. mission wants to clarify is how long the Hondurans plan to stay in Nicaragua, and how supplies of food, drinking water, basic services and health care can be provided, in accordance with the capacities of the central government and local authorities.

In addition, the mission must determine which of the Hondurans wish to apply for asylum or refugee status, in order to assess the needs for international and humanitarian protection.

The curfew imposed by the Micheletti regime since Jun. 28 has been extended on the Honduran side of the border, making it difficult for Zelaya's supporters to cross over and purchase supplies in local businesses.

The idea is for other international agencies, like the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), the World Health Organisation (WHO) and the Pan-American Health Organisation (PAHO), to provide food aid and medical assistance to the Hondurans massed at the border.

Nicaraguan Health Minister Guillermo González, who visited Nueva Segovia with the U.N. mission, told the press that the government is willing to help those considered refugees, but that the country's economic difficulties make it hard to do so.

'As a country, we do not have the capacity to ensure them certain minimum conditions that would allow them to get by in adequate conditions,' González said at a meeting Wednesday between the members of a national inter-institutional committee and the international mission at the hospital in Ocotal.

'We believe that a health emergency is flaring up here, and that it is thus our responsibility to call on the United Nations, in order for this to translate into concrete support,' said González.

The curfew in Honduras has created a humanitarian emergency, said activist Tom Kucharz, who formed part of a non-governmental International Mission of Solidarity, Observation and Accompaniment to Honduras, which visited the border area and took part in the meeting with the U.N. delegates and Nicaraguan officials.

Kucharz, an activist with the Spanish NGO Ecologistas en Acción, said human rights workers confirmed that there are hundreds of people trapped at army and police checkpoints along the highway from Tegucigalpa to the Nicaraguan border, who have not been allowed to cross the border in response to Zelaya's call or return to their hometowns.

These people are facing hunger, thirst and cold, because they are exposed to the elements on the side of the highway and are not allowed to move forward or go back, said Kucharz.

According to the activist, more than 1,000 people are facing a humanitarian emergency in the camps set up on farms and vacant lots in the border region.

Zelaya, who did not take part in the meeting with the U.N. mission, was staying at a small hotel under Nicaraguan police guard, and in the daytime was visiting the shelters and camps where his supporters are staying, with the aim, he said, to organise 'militias that will enter the country to restore democracy in my fatherland.'

A delegation from Nicaragua's Procuraduría para la Defensa de los Derechos Humanos (ombudsman's office), which also visited the border area, said in a statement that authorities had 'lost count of the number of Hondurans who have crossed into the national territory, but they are estimated at more than 2,500 people along the over 900-km shared border.'

Up to now, the Hondurans have received health care and food from the Nicaraguan Health Ministry, local city governments, NGOs, religious groups, and the general public.

The main shelter is a sports stadium in the centre of Ocotal, where mattresses have been put on the floor. But the ombudsman's office said the stadium does not provide minimum conditions of security or hygiene.

A more precarious shelter is a vacant lot known as 'Las Colinas', where plastic and cardboard shelters have been set up in a swampy area at risk of flooding as a result of the frequent heavy rains of the last few days. The people at the camp have no latrines or clean water.

'People have started to suffer respiratory ailments and diarrhea,' said the ombudsman's office.

© Inter Press Service (2009) — All Rights ReservedOriginal source: Inter Press Service

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