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‘He’s close to us’: Wheelchair users in Africa await pope

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'He's close to us': Wheelchair users in Africa await pope

When Pope Francis arrives in Congo and South Sudan next week, thousands of people will take special note of a gesture more grounded than the sign of the cross. Watching from their wheelchairs, they will relate to the way he uses his.

The pope, who began using a wheelchair last year, is visiting two countries where years of conflict have disabled many, and yet they are among the world’s most difficult places to find accessibility and understanding. His visit is heartening Catholics and non-Catholics alike.

“We know that it’s a suffering, but it also comforts us to see a grand personality like the pope using a wheelchair,” said Paul Mitemberezi, a market vendor in Goma, at the heart of the eastern Congo region threatened by dozens of armed groups. “Sometimes it gives us the courage to hope that this isn’t the end of the world and one can survive.”

Mitemberezi, a Catholic and a father, has been disabled since he was 3 because of polio. He works to support his family because he can’t imagine a life of begging. On the way to market, his three-wheeled chair crunches the stones of unpaved roads. Without a ramp at home, he must leave the brightly painted vehicle outdoors, at risk of theft.

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Every morning, before he leaves for basketball practice, he makes sure the chair’s still there before crawling out his front door. “It is my legs, which helps me to live,” he said. He applies a bicycle pump to the wheels and is off, weaving through traffic of motorcycles and trucks.

Pope Francis is still adjusting to a life that Mitemberezi has long accepted. The pope was first seen publicly in a wheelchair in May, with an aide pushing it. The pope, at age 86, never propels himself. Sometimes he walks with a cane, but he uses the chair for longer distances and has a wheelchair lift to get on and off planes.

Francis has insisted that his mobility limitations don’t affect his ability to be pope, saying “You lead with your head, not your knee.” He has lamented how today’s “throwaway culture” wrongly marginalizes disabled people. He makes it a point to visit places serving the disabled during his foreign trips, and routinely spends time greeting wheelchair users at the end of his general audiences.

“No disability — temporary, acquired or permanent — can change the fact that we are all children of the one Father and enjoy the same dignity,” Francis wrote in his annual message for the U.N. International Day of Persons with Disabilities in December. He said people with different abilities enrich the church and teach it to be more humane.

Such messages are warmly awaited by wheelchair users in South Sudan, where a five-year civil war killed hundreds of thousands of people. As in Congo, data is lacking on just how many people are disabled by conflict or other means.

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While the road leading to the Vatican’s embassy in the South Sudan capital, Juba, was paved by city authorities this month for ease of travel, residents who use wheelchairs said they have long gone without easy access to schools, health centers, toilets and other public facilities.

South Sudan, unlike Congo, is yet to ratify the U.N. Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. Both countries, however, face vast challenges including underfunded health systems, poor infrastructure and conflicts that leave many disabled people vulnerable as others flee.

Even displacement camps and shelters often are not accessible, the United Nations has said, and wheelchairs are not always available.

Discrimination is another problem. “People see those who get around using a wheelchair as useless,” said James Moses, who leads a local organization in South Sudan for disabled people and uses crutches after being wounded by a land mine.

He and others called on South Sudan’s government to give them special consideration during the pope’s visit, and they hope that Francis will advocate for them. “He’s close to us,” said Susan Samson, a wheelchair user and mother.

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They hope they will have a chance to greet the pope at the airport with congratulatory messages and flowers. ”Put us in front so the pope will see us,” urged wheelchair user Seme Lado Michael.

The Vatican’s ambassador to Congo, Archbishop Ettore Balestrero, said he believed the sight of a wheelchair-using pope could be a powerful teaching moment in a culture where disabilities are often viewed with suspicion and superstition.

Families often abandon their disabled children, he said.

Seeing someone like the pope suffer should make Francis more approachable for people during his visit, Balestrero said. “They identify, in a way, even more with him.”

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Israel insists it is doing all it can to protect civilians in Gaza and denies genocide charges

Israel insists it is doing all it can to protect civilians in Gaza and denies genocide charges

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Israel insists it is doing all it can to protect civilians in Gaza and denies genocide charges

Israel strongly denied charges of genocide on Friday, telling the United Nations’ top court it was doing everything it could to protect the civilian population during its military operation in Gaza.

The International Court of Justice wrapped up a third round of hearings on emergency measures requested by South Africa, which says Israel’s military incursion in the southern city of Rafah threatens the “very survival of Palestinians in Gaza” and has asked the court to order a cease-fire.

Tamar Kaplan-Tourgeman, one of Israel’s legal team, defended the country’s conduct, saying it had allowed in fuel and medication to the beleaguered enclave.

“Israel takes extraordinary measures in order to minimize the harm to civilians in Gaza,” she told The Hague-based court.

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A protester shouting “Liars” briefly interrupted Kaplan-Tourgeman’s final remarks. The hearing was paused for less than a minute while security guards escorted a woman from the public gallery.

South Africa told the court on Thursday that the situation in the beleaguered enclave has reached “a new and horrific stage” and urged judges to order a half to Israeli military operations. The court was holding a third round of hearings on emergency measures requested by South Africa since it first filed its genocide case at the end of last year.

According to the latest request, South Africa says Israel’s military incursion in Rafah threatens the “very survival of Palestinians in Gaza.” In January, judges ordered Israel to do all it can to prevent death, destruction and any acts of genocide in Gaza, but the panel stopped short of ordering an end to the military offensive. Judges will now deliberate on the request and are expected to issue a decision in the next weeks.

ICJ judges have broad powers to order a cease-fire and other measures, though the court doesn’t have its own enforcement apparatus. A 2022 order by the court demanding that Russia halt its full-scale invasion of Ukraine has so far gone unheeded.

Most of Gaza’s population of 2.3 million people have been displaced since fighting began.

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The war began with a Hamas attack on southern Israel on Oct. 7 in which Palestinian militants killed around 1,200 people and took about 250 hostages. More than 35,000 Palestinians have been killed in the war, Gaza’s Health Ministry says, without distinguishing between civilians and combatants in its count.

South Africa initiated proceedings in December 2023 and sees the legal campaign as rooted in issues central to its identity. Its governing party, the African National Congress, has long compared Israel’s policies in Gaza and the occupied West Bank to its own history under the apartheid regime of white minority rule, which restricted most Blacks to “homelands.” Apartheid ended in 1994. 

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Ukraine braces for ‘heavy battles’ as Putin says Russia carving out Kharkiv buffer zone

Ukraine braces for ‘heavy battles’ as Putin says Russia carving out Kharkiv buffer zone

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Ukraine braces for 'heavy battles' as Putin says Russia carving out Kharkiv buffer zone

Ukraine’s top commander warned on Friday of “heavy battles” looming on the war’s new front in the northeastern Kharkiv region as Russian President Vladimir Putin said Moscow was carving out a “buffer zone” in the area.

Russian forces attacked the Kharkiv region’s north last Friday, making inroads of up to 10 kilometres (6 miles) and unbalancing Kyiv’s outnumbered troops who are trying to hold the line over a sprawling front nearly 27 months since the full-scale invasion.

Colonel-General Oleksandr Syrskyi said the attack had expanded the area of hostilities by around 70km and that Russia had launched its incursion ahead of schedule when “it noticed the deployment of our forces”.

“We understand there will be heavy battles and that the enemy is preparing for that,” the head of the Ukrainian armed forces wrote in a statement on the Telegram app.

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Speaking during a state visit to China, Putin said Moscow’s forces were creating a “buffer zone”to protect Russian border regions, but that capturing the city of Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second largest, was not part of the current plan.

The Russian leader told a news conference the assault was a response to Kyiv’s shelling of Russian border regions such as Belgorod.

“Civilians are dying there. It’s obvious. They are shooting directly at the city centre, at residential areas. And I said publicly that if this continues, we will be forced to create a security zone, a buffer zone. That is what we are doing,” Putin said.

Russian forces were able to advance 10 kilometres in one place, but Ukrainian forces have “stabilised” the front, President Volodymyr Zelenskiy told Ukrainian media outlets in comments published on Friday.

HEAVIEST ASSAULTS IN EAST

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Moscow’s forces are mounting their heaviest assaults in the eastern Donetsk region, according to data compiled by the Ukrainian General Staff, which said the eastern Pokrovsk front had faced the most regular assaults in recent days.

In his comments, Syrskyi said Ukrainian forces were preparing their defensive lines for a possible new Russian assault on the Sumy region, which would mark another front more than a hundred kilometres to the north of Kharkiv.

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Four dead in New Caledonia riots, France declares state of emergency

Four dead in New Caledonia riots, France declares state of emergency

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Four dead in New Caledonia riots, France declares state of emergency

France declared a state of emergency on the Pacific island of New Caledonia on Wednesday after three young indigenous Kanak and a police official were killed in riots over electoral reform.

The state of emergency, which entered into force at 5 am local time (1800 GMT), gives authorities additional powers to ban gatherings and forbid people from moving around the French-ruled island.

Police reinforcements adding 500 officers to the 1,800 usually present on the island, have been sent after rioters torched vehicles and businesses and looted stores. Schools have been shut and there is already a curfew in the capital.

Rioting broke out over a new bill, adopted by lawmakers in Paris on Tuesday, that will let French residents who have lived in New Caledonia for 10 years vote in provincial elections – a move some local leaders fear will dilute the Kanak vote.

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“No violence will be tolerated,” said Prime Minister Gabriel Attal, adding that the state of emergency “will allow us to roll out massive means to restore order.”

He later signed a decree declaring a state of emergency that will last for 12 days and announced that French soldiers would be used to secure New Caledonia’s main port and airport.

Authorities also decided to ban video app TikTok, which the government during a bout of riots on France’s mainland last summer said helped rioters organise and amplified the chaos, attracting troublemakers to the streets.

TikTok could not immediately be reached for comment.

Earlier in the day, a spokesperson for New Caledonia’s President Louis Mapou said three young indigenous Kanak had died in the riots. The French government later said a 24-year-old police official had died from a gunshot wound.

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“He took off his helmet (to speak to residents) and he was shot right in the head,” Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin said.

Noumea resident Yoan Fleurot told Reuters in a Zoom interview that he was staying at home out of respect for the nightly curfew and was very scared for his family.

“I don’t see how my country can recover after this”, Fleurot said, adding he carries a gun during the day when he goes out to film the rioters he called ‘terrorists’.

Police were outnumbered by protesters, locals told Reuters.

Electoral reform is the latest flashpoint in a decades-long tussle over France’s role in the mineral-rich island, which lies in the southwest Pacific, some 1,500 km (930 miles) east of Australia.

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France annexed the island in 1853 and gave the colony the status of overseas territory in 1946. It has long been rocked by pro-independence movements.

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New Caledonia is the world’s No. 3 nickel miner and residents have been hit by a crisis in the sector, with one in five living under the poverty threshold.

“Politicians have a huge share of responsibility,” said 30-year-old Henri, who works in a hotel in Noumea. “Loyalist politicians, who are descendents of colonialists, say colonisation is over, but Kanak politicians don’t agree. There are huge economic disparities,” he said.

Henri, who declined to give his full name, said there was significant looting, with the situation most dangerous at night.

The French government has said the change in voting rules was needed so elections would be democratic.

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But it said it would not rush calling a special congress of the two houses of parliament to rubber-stamp the bill and has invited pro- and anti-independence camps for talks in Paris on the future of the island, opening the door to a potential suspension of the bill.

The major pro-independence political group, Front de Liberation Nationale Kanak et Socialiste (FLNKS), which condemned the violence, said it would accept the offer of dialogue and was willing to work towards an agreement “that would allow New Caledonia to follow its path toward emancipation”.

Most residents were staying indoors.

Witness Garrido Navarro Kherachi said she moved to New Caledonia when she was eight years old, and has never been back to France. Although eligible to vote under the new rules, she says she won’t “out of respect for the Kanak people”.

“I don’t feel I know enough about the history of Caledonia and the struggle of the Kanak people to allow me to vote,” she said.

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