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Morning news brief

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

The Gaza Health Ministry says that an airstrike in Rafah on Sunday killed 35 Palestinians and injured dozens in what was supposed to be a safe zone for people displaced by the war.

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

This strike comes just days after the U.N.'s International Court of Justice ordered an immediate halt to the Israeli operation in Rafah.

MARTÍNEZ: NPR's Hadeel Al-Shalchi joins us now from Tel Aviv. So what happened in Rafah last night?

HADEEL AL-SHALCHI, BYLINE: Yeah, late last night, the Israeli military says it was targeting a Hamas installation and that it killed two senior Hamas militants. This strike caused a fire in a tent encampment where dozens of displaced Palestinians were sheltering.

MARTÍNEZ: All right. Now, that tent encampment was an area considered to be safe for refugees. What's been the reaction there?

AL-SHALCHI: That's right. The strike hit the western neighborhood of Tel al-Sultan in Rafah, which the Israeli government had designated as a safe and humanitarian zone. The Israeli military, in fact, dropped leaflets last week telling people that humanitarian aid would be available there. NPR's producer in Rafah, Anas Baba, was at the scene of the strike and he spoke to people there.

ANAS BABA, BYLINE: What we can see here is total destruction. And when we talked here to multiple persons, they told us that we cannot even realize if this is a reality or a dream or even a nightmare. We're expecting that we are living inside of the safe area, the one that the Israelis announced before.

AL-SHALCHI: Before this month, Rafah had been the last refuge for Palestinians during this war, with so much of Gaza being devastated. In fact, almost 1.3 million Palestinians were sheltering in Rafah, but now the United Nations says over 800,000 have fled since the Israeli military expanded its ground operations there. But it's still densely populated in the areas that are not under evacuation order.

MARTÍNEZ: What do we know about the people who were killed?

AL-SHALCHI: Yeah, the Gaza Health Ministry says many people are still under the rubble and that the majority killed were women and children. And officials say that the number of killed will probably rise. NPR talked to Dr. James Smith. He's an emergency doctor working just outside of Rafah. He said that many of the injured were taken to a trauma stabilization center in Tel al-Sultan and then referred to surrounding field hospitals for further treatment.

JAMES SMITH: People, we're hearing, literally burnt alive in their tents. The trauma stabilization team that we work alongside have received people with varying degrees of injury.

AL-SHALCHI: He said that the airstrike is the worst he's seen in the weeks he's been working in Gaza.

MARTÍNEZ: You know, the timing of this strike comes just after the International Court of Justice ordered the Israeli military to halt its campaign in Rafah, and also after Israelis are protesting for their government to negotiate a cease-fire to bring hostages home. Given all that and everything else, what's the state of negotiations to end the war?

AL-SHALCHI: I mean, for weeks there have been talks about the talks. Israeli media is reporting that officials say that negotiations are supposed to resume next week. There were some high-level discussions in Paris this weekend. The Mossad, the CIA and the Qatari prime minister were all there. The talks have been breaking down over and over again in the past months, and Prime Minister Netanyahu is under great domestic pressure to come to a deal to release the remaining hostages in Gaza. But he's also being pressured by hard-liners in his government who don't want a complete cease-fire.

MARTÍNEZ: That's NPR's Hadeel Al-Shalchi in Tel Aviv. Thank you very much.

AL-SHALCHI: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTÍNEZ: Rescue and recovery efforts are ongoing in Papua New Guinea, where hundreds of people are feared dead following a massive landslide.

MARTIN: Yes, the remains of only six people have been recovered since the landslide on Friday buried more than 150 homes in the island nation's remote Enga province. The U.N.'s migration agency estimates nearly 700 people may have died, while the country's government has nearly tripled that estimate.

MARTÍNEZ: We're joined now by Stephen Dziedzic. He's a foreign affairs reporter with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. Stephen, what do we know about the rescue and recovery efforts, starting with this new figure from the government?

STEPHEN DZIEDZIC: Yeah, there have been two separate figures, as you mentioned, that have been put out. It's quite confusing. The U.N. says around 675 people have been killed. Papua New Guinea's government has suggested that figure could be closer to 2,000, perhaps even more. But, A, it's difficult to get a handle on it because so few bodies have been recovered.

As you mentioned, the recovery effort is painfully slow. That's largely because the area which we're talking about here is very, very remote. So there's simply no way, at least at this stage, to get heavy, earthmoving equipment in. That means that people in this part of Enga province are essentially digging through huge mounds of rubble, sometimes 6 or 8 meters in height, with their bare hands, with sticks and, if they're lucky, with shovels. So it's painfully slow progress.

MARTÍNEZ: What is it about the region that makes it very, very difficult to respond to a disaster? I mean, I know it's a remote region, but what else makes it difficult?

DZIEDZIC: Yeah, there are a few things here. Not only is it remote, but when landslips do happen - and it happens quite a lot because it's such mountainous terrain - the roads, which aren't of great quality, are washed away very quickly and very easily. So that means if you want to get through, it takes time or you have to use something like a helicopter. And helicopters, as you can imagine, are not non-existent in Papua New Guinea, but they are in short supply.

Then the other thing to consider, sadly, is tribal violence. There's been a resurgence in that tribal fighting over the last year or two. It's a long-standing problem but it's got worse. And so that's another thing that authorities, including U.N. agencies and other countries like Australia, have to weigh up closely as they look to try and go in. The last thing they want to do is get caught up in that, so that's yet another barrier to effective assistance.

MARTÍNEZ: But what about - a thousand people at least have been displaced. What are some of the biggest concerns for survivors?

DZIEDZIC: Yeah, well, it could be far more than that because not only are you looking at the people who were immediately displaced, there are also now murmurs that people who are essentially a bit further down the mountain, some 8,000 or even 10,000 people, they may need to be evacuated as well because of these persistent concerns that the mountain, which essentially partially collapsed on Friday, is that it may collapse further. So you've not only got around 1,000 or perhaps more people who need shelter and water - some streams have been buried in the debris - but you've also got potentially 8,000 or 10,000 people further down the mountain who may have to move. That's an enormous, enormous logistical ask on the Papua New Guinean government.

MARTÍNEZ: So we know there's been a request for assistance. What's the status of that request for international support?

DZIEDZIC: Well, only one government has responded so far. That's the Australian government, which only a few minutes ago actually announced that it would make an initial contribution of $2.5 million - so not a huge amount - to essentially bring in additional assistance, experts who are able to coordinate emergency response as well as emergency supplies. I don't know exactly what that means, but I imagine things like fresh water, meal packs and potentially blankets or tents.

But I don't think this will be the last commitment. A number of countries - including New Zealand, France and China - have already said that they're willing to make a contribution as well. I think the main challenge will be not so much bringing in donors but coordinating the response, particularly given the constraints that we see up in Papua New Guinea in terms of getting supplies on the ground. So there are plenty of willing countries who want to help. The difficult thing will be making sure they're not treading on one another's toes and that any response is effectively coordinated.

MARTÍNEZ: Any ideas as to what caused this landslide to be so devastating or is it maybe too early on that?

DZIEDZIC: Look, it's probably too early to say at this stage. I mean, this - the first thing to say is that this is not an unusual event. Landslips and landslides happen quite regularly in the Highlands. This does seem to be a particularly devastating one. Just the scale of it is extraordinary. I mean, the ABC, amongst other organizations, have reported before about the way that land clearing and the use of plantations in the Highlands have made these things more likely. But whether either land clearing or plantations have directly contributed to this landslide or not, we simply don't know. It may be that it's just a very large one, which has had the very terrible misfortune to land directly on a fairly highly populated area. It's simply too early to say at this stage.

MARTÍNEZ: That's Stephen Dziedzic, a foreign affairs reporter with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. Stephen, thanks.

DZIEDZIC: Thanks so much.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: It's Memorial Day, the day Americans honor members of the military who died while serving their country.

MARTÍNEZ: WUNC's Jay Price has been reporting for years on the nation's efforts to find and identify those declared missing in past wars. But something has profoundly shifted in all those years. Jay joins us now with more. Jay, what's changed?

JAY PRICE, BYLINE: Hey there, A. So this whole idea of going to great lengths to account for these remains is normalized now. But 50 years ago, it was all about the families of those missing in the Vietnam War, the POW/MIA movement. Everyone, you know, knows those black flags, right? They mobilized and persuaded the government this was the right thing to do. But there are now just a few hundred MIAs from that war who potentially can be found, so those recoveries have slowed to maybe a couple a year. But there's funding and a national will now to do this thanks to those POW/MIA activists. And the goal is to identify about 200 MIAs a year. So nearly all the cases these days have to be from World War II and the Korean War.

MARTÍNEZ: Wow. So what does that mean, then, when the military reaches out to family members?

PRICE: Well, I'll let one of the Army case officers who notify and work with the families to set up memorial ceremonies tell us.

WILLIAM COX: Probably about 60% to 70% we're dealing with now never knew the soldier.

PRICE: That's William Cox. On one case he's working on now, he's down to his 16th and final distant family member, trying to find one who cares enough to act as next of kin. Last week I talked with a family member who got that call, Barbara Weiss of New Bern, N.C. The case officer first asked if her grandparents were still alive then he worked down the list. Here's Barbara.

BARBARA WEISS: Then the next one would be an aunt. And then they were asking about my uncle, Al. He was gone. Then he asked, do you know Burtress? I said, that's my mother. Can we talk to her? And I said, she's past, too. And he mentioned my aunt's name, DiMeo (ph). And I said, no, she's passed, too.

PRICE: Most of those left didn't even know their fallen relative. At most, they can just recall family stories. And I should underline the extraordinary lengths the U.S. goes to for these cases, lengths no other nation comes close to, in fact. Most other countries don't even bother with this at all. The search teams, the lab work, it's some of the most sophisticated in the world.

MARTÍNEZ: So, Jay, I mean, I got to ask. And I know this is a terrible question before I ask it. But, I mean, if no one is left alive who knew these troops, I mean, is it even worthwhile to keep doing this?

PRICE: Well, I put that to anthropologist Sarah Wagner of George Washington University, who's written a lot about this. And she says absolutely.

SARAH WAGNER: Ultimately, this is about belonging. And it is about a state sort of performing the necessity of belonging and the need to take care of its military, past, present and future.

PRICE: So it's aimed at any family that's lost a service member and tells current troops that the nation cares about them and cares a lot. She also sees this as a message, one about strengthening the things that bind us all together as a society. In fact, at one funeral last fall, about 1,000 people turned out just to pay respects to someone they never knew. Not a single member of the soldier's family was still alive.

MARTÍNEZ: That's WUNC's Jay Price. Jay, fascinating stuff. Thank you.

PRICE: Thanks for having us. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

A Martínez
A Martínez is one of the hosts of Morning Edition and Up First. He came to NPR in 2021 and is based out of NPR West.
Michel Martin is the weekend host of All Things Considered, where she draws on her deep reporting and interviewing experience to dig in to the week's news. Outside the studio, she has also hosted "Michel Martin: Going There," an ambitious live event series in collaboration with Member Stations.

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