Friday, 21 November 2014

Birmingham pub bombings + 40. Who were the killers?

Forty years ago today, I was a reporter at ATV (the forerunner of Central Television covering the English Midlands) covering the Birmingham pub bombings. Two pubs in the city centre were blown up by the IRA, killing 21 people and injuring more than 180 others in what was then the worst terrorist attack in British history.

Today we still do not know who was responsible. The ‘Birmingham Six’ were wrongly convicted of the crime, and were released in 1991. Devon and Cornwall Police later conducted an inquiry into the West Midlands Police investigation. The authorities have decreed its contents must remain secret for another 55 years.

Julie Hambleton, whose sister was killed in the bombings, has been highly critical of this decision. The current Chief Constable for the West Midlands, Chris Sims, has maintained the investigation remains open, but Ms Hambleton has accused the police of lack of commitment to investigating Britain’s ‘largest unsolved mass murder,’ saying they seemed to be waiting for evidence to ‘drop on their desks’.

Another blow to those wanting to bring the killers to justice was the revelation that 35 pieces of evidence had gone missing, including a bomb that failed to explode. Mr Sims said it seems the items had been disposed of in the 1980’s, and that this was ‘not unusual at the time.’ 

Thursday, 13 November 2014

Korean ferry disaster trial - villains and heros

The captain of the South Korean ferry, Sewol, that sank in April with the loss of more than 300 lives (a memorial is pictured above) is now starting a 36 year gaol sentence (see my blog of April 20). Lee Joon-seok, on trial with 14 crew members, was convicted of gross negligence. He was cleared of homicide.

The chief engineer got a 30 year sentence, and the other 13 got gaol terms of up to 20 years. A separate trial is taking place for employees of the firm that operated the ferry, but the billionaire chairman fled after the disaster and was later found dead.

The sinking was blamed on a number of factors - illegal redesigns of the vessel, overloading, failure to secure cargo and the inexperience of the crew member steering. They led to her overturning as she made a tight turn. Lee was filmed leaving while many passengers were still inside the ship.

At least 3 crew members, though, perished trying to save those on board, including an engaged couple, and the youngest, who gave her lifejacket to a passenger. The Korean government was heavily criticised over the rescue effort, and the coast guard is due to be disbanded and replaced.

Thursday, 6 November 2014

Typhoon Haiyan: How (not) to commemorate a disaster

How do you commemorate a disaster that killed thousands, and raise some money for survivors? Not with a dance party, seems to be the answer ringing out from the Philippines.

A year ago, Typhoon Haiyan (known as Yolanda locally) left about 7,000 dead or missing, and millions homeless. A survivor organised a ‘dance party’ to be held tomorrow in Tacloban, the worst hit area, with the slogan: ‘Party like it never happened, remember because it did.’ The proceeds were meant to help set up educational scholarships.

But the announcement of the event brought protests that it was insensitive, to which the organisers bowed, cancelling it, and apologising to those who had ‘misinterpreted’ the reasons for holding it. They said it was meant to be a celebration of survival, and that they would go on selling a tee shirt reading: ‘not even the strongest typhoon could bend the strongest people.’

With gusts hitting nearly 200 miles an hour, some consider Haiyan the strongest storm ever to make landfall. President Aquino declared it a ‘national calamity’.

Monday, 3 November 2014

Remembering World War One

Went to the Tower of London yesterday to see the 888,246 ceramic poppies planted in the moat - each one representing a British military death in World War One. Although I arrived early, there were already hundreds of people there.

In spite of the precision on British losses implied by the number of poppies at the Tower, there is much less certainty about overall casualties in the Great War, partly because of the immense social dislocation the conflict brought, with four of the combatants facing revolutions around its end.

Estimates put the total number of military deaths at more than 8 and a half million, with Germany and Russia each suffering about one and three quarter million, and Austria-Hungary and France each losing well over a million.

Coming up with an authoritative figure for the civilians who perished through massacre, accident, disease, hunger, exposure and hardship is even more difficult, but some estimates put the number even higher than that for military casualties, at around 13 million.

Thursday, 30 October 2014

The cost of stopping Ebola

The current death toll of nearly 5,000 means more people have been killed in the present ebola outbreak than in all previous ones put together. If you're wondering why the stricken countries in West Africa have been finding it so difficult to halt the epidemic, the Economist has crunched some interesting numbers.

Experts reckon ebola could be brought under control if 70% of the sick could be got into clinics or treatment centres where the spread of the virus can be halted, but to deal with the kind of case numbers being predicted for the next few weeks, that would require tens of thousands of beds.

Medecins Sans Frontieres and other charities, as well as governments like those of the US and the UK, have been busily building, but the WHO calculates that running just a 50-bed ebola hospital would cost nearly $1 million a month. No wonder the UN says a 20-fold increase in aid is needed.

And it's not just the buildings. The three countries where most people have died - Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia - have only a few hundred doctors between them, and some of those have now died of the disease. 

Friday, 24 October 2014

Who killed who in Rwanda?

Twenty years after the genocide in Rwanda in which up to a million people were murdered in 100 days, the Rwandan government wants to prosecute the BBC over a television programme which challenges the accepted view of what happened.

The conventional wisdom is that Hutu extremists massacred mainly Tutsis as well as some Hutu moderates. The programme, Rwanda: the Untold Story, includes contributions from an academic who argues that there were only about 500,000 Tutsis in the country, and that 300,000 survived, so most of the victims must have been Hutus.

Prof Allan Stam paints a picture of a general breakdown in law and order, and says most of the victims may have been Hutus. When he presented his findings, the government rejected them, and he was asked to leave the country.

The genocide was sparked by the mysterious shooting down of the president's private jet. The programme includes allegations that Rwanda's current president, Paul Kagame, a Tutsi, was behind the attack, but he has always denied such allegations, and blamed Hutu extremists.

Thursday, 23 October 2014

Wisdom and plagues

A Spanish website quotes from my account of a devastating plague that hit Rome in the second half of the 2nd century AD in my Disastrous History of the World.

One of those carried off by the epidemic, which raged for 15 years, was the Emperor Marcus Aurelius. The historian Edward Gibbon considered him the last great Roman emperor before the rot set in, and begins his famous Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire with Marcus Aurelius's death. (It is also the starting point for the film, Gladiator.)

The emperor refused to see his son before he died in case he passed on the sickness, and his last words were: 'Weep not for me; think rather of the deaths of so many others.' This philosopher emperor had already written in his Meditations that the pestilence was less deadly than falsehood and evil conduct.

One thing we are not sure of is what exactly the disease was. It used to be thought that it was bubonic plague, but some scholars now believe it was smallpox.