Thursday, 30 July 2009

Iraq - Labour's last chance

Sir John Chilcot’s Iraq inquiry opens today. It ought not to be the thing uppermost in his mind, but he probably represents the last chance for Labour to re-establish itself as a fundamentally decent and honest party that foolishly allowed some bad apples to dominate it. That can happen if the inquiry is searching, open, independent and fearless, and if those responsible for the Iraq disaster are held to account. If Sir John serves up another bucket of whitewash, the conclusion of the British people is likely to be that the whole party is irredeemably corrupted.

There are some hopeful signs – Labour’s attempt to hush the whole thing up by conducting the inquiry in secret has been thwarted, but overall the indications are not good. Sir John Chilcot is an establishment man to his fingertips, and has a track record of letting Tony Blair and his cronies off the hook as an underling on the Butler inquiry. The inquiry panel has been packed with Blair apologists, and Labour has specifically told Sir John that he is not supposed to “establish civil or criminal liability”.

All a bit odd isn’t it? When Baby P was killed, Labour was only too happy to apportion blame and sack those responsible. Why should it be different when we are dealing with the much greater disaster of Iraq?

So far the only people to lose their jobs over Iraq have been the chairman and director-general of the BBC, and the BBC reporter who dared to tell the truth. And Labour wrings its hands, claiming not to understand why people are so cynical about it.

Wednesday, 29 July 2009

The Nigerian Taliban

Just as Foreign Secretary David Miliband urges the Afghan government to start talking to the Taliban, the so-called “Nigerian Taliban” has started to wreak havoc in West Africa.

The Muslim fundamentalist Boko Haram sect (its name means "Western education is a sin") is alleged to have shot and stabbed civilians at random in the north of the country, as well as attacking police stations and government buildings. The military has retaliated by shelling the compound of the sect’s leader.

The government has tried to evacuate civilians, but many are still in harm’s way, and up to 150 people are said to have been killed in the last four days. The group wants to see Sharia law imposed right across Nigeria, instead of just in the Muslim north as it is at present, even though half the population is Christian.

Boko Haram is not thought to have any direct links with the Afghan Taliban, and some say the nickname was invented by its opponents to try to ridicule the group.

Tuesday, 28 July 2009

Tanshan + 33

On this day….33 years ago, the Chinese industrial city of Tangshan was devastated by the country’s worth earthquake in four centuries. In just 20 seconds, 20 square miles was shaken into rubble.

Survivors said the ground moved around like the sea. Tangshan was the site of one of China’s biggest coalmining complexes, and about 15,000 miners were working underground when the quake struck.

Bizarrely, only 13 of them were killed, whereas above ground the total was at least 242,000. That was the number that the Communist authorities officially admitted to three years later, though by then there were already claims that secret documents had put the death toll at more than 655,000.

There is a belief in China that earthquakes go hand in hand with political upheaval. Six weeks after Tangshan, Chairman Mao died. For the full story see A Disastrous History of the World.

Monday, 27 July 2009

Lockerbie - bomber or victim?

The only man convicted of Britain’s worst ever terrorist outrage has asked to be released from prison on compassionate grounds. Abdelbaset al-Megrahi, a Libyan intelligence officer, was jailed for 27 years for the Lockerbie bombing in 2001. His co-defendant was acquitted.

Al-Megrahi, who is suffering from terminal cancer, was alleged to have got the bomb onto PanAm Flight 103 in December 1988 via a connecting flight from Malta, though many people, including families of some of the 270 victims of the attack, are not convinced of his guilt, and believe he was the fall guy in a sordid stitch-up designed to end Libya’s diplomatic isolation.

In particular, sceptics have pointed to the fact that it was never mentioned at his trial that there had been a break-in at a Heathrow baggage store just 18 hours before flight 103 departed, and that someone could have smuggled a bag on board by getting it into this area.

Al-Megrahi is appealing against the verdict, and in June 2007, the Scottish Criminal Cases Review Commission said it feared he may have been the victim of a miscarriage of justice. If his conviction were to be overturned it would, of course, raise some very inconvenient questions.

Sunday, 26 July 2009

The dust bowl drought

As the hot weather sends devastating wildfires across southern Europe, a reminder that 74 years ago this week, America’s dust bowl heatwave reached its height, with temperatures soaring to 104°F (40°C) in Milwaukee and 109°F (44°C) in Chicago.

The prairies had a terrible time in the thirties as the longest drought of the century coupled with decades of over-intensive farming killed off the grasses that normally kept the top soil in place. And it literally blew away, producing great dark clouds which sometimes blackened the sky as far as Washington DC.

Altogether, America’s heatwave killed perhaps 15,000 people from 1934 to 1936. Record temperatures were seen in many states, and one observer said that the “wide Missouri” at Kansas City had been reduced to “a languid thread of water in a great bed of baked mud.”

For more, see A Disastrous History of the World.

Friday, 24 July 2009

Iran air crashes - a long arm

Another Iranian passenger aircraft has crashed – this time at Mashhad airport, where it skidded off the runway and burst into flames, killing 17 passengers. It comes just ten days after another Iranian flight came down in the north of the country, killing all 168 people on board.

The aircraft involved in today’s crash is reported to be a Russian-built Ilyushin, while the one that came to disaster last week was a Russian Tupolev. The causes of the two accidents are not yet known, but Iran has a poor air safety record, partly because of the trade sanctions imposed by the US which have left the country reliant on ageing fleets, and often unable to buy spare parts.

Bad blood between Iran and the USA and UK goes back a long way. In 1951, the highly popular Dr Mohammed Mossadegh was elected prime minister, but when he nationalised the country’s oil reserves, the US and the UK engineered his removal, and the installation of the Shah’s despotic regime.

After the Shah was deposed in the Iranian revolution of 1979, a group of radical students took 52 people hostage at the American embassy claiming that it was a “nest of spies” and the US was up to its old tricks again, plotting to overthrow the new regime. In response America imposed sanctions, and they have remained in place with varying degrees of severity ever since.

Thursday, 23 July 2009

The trial goes on

The trial of the main surviving suspect for last November’s terror attacks in Mumbai, that killed more than 160 people, will continue in spite of his confession. 21 year old Mohammad Ajmal Amir Qasab's defence team had called for proceedings to end and judgment to be given.

The accused had originally denied all the 86 charges he faces, then this week he suddenly changed his plea, dismissing suggestions that it was an attempt to secure more lenient treatment. Qasab’s nine accomplices, who had arrived with him by boat from Pakistan, were all shot dead by Indian police during the attack.

In his confession, Qasab said he had been disappointed by the small amounts of money he was earning as a decorator and had been planning to turn to armed robbery. Instead he decided to become a "Mujahideen". He could face the death penalty if convicted.

Mumbai, noted for its racial and religious diversity, has faced a number of attacks from Muslim extremists, like those of March 1993 that killed 257, and the train bombings of 2006 that accounted for 209. Hundreds of Muslims had been killed in riots in the city during the winter of 1992-3.

Monday, 20 July 2009

Monsoon floods

Monsoon floods have killed at least 36 people in the Indian state of Orissa, while over the border in Pakistan, at least 26 have been killed in Karachi – mainly from collapsing walls or being electrocuted.

The city’s ageing drainage system means that every year the monsoon tends to cause havoc. In August 2006, 35 people died as a result of the rains, while in India in 2005, hundreds were killed in the area around Mumbai, as a record 26 inches fell in one day.

Perhaps the deadliest monsoon flood of all time struck India in September 1978. The Ganges and Yamuna rivers burst their banks, flooding hundreds of towns and villages, and cholera broke out as drinking water was contaminated.

In the first week of October, the flooding was made worse by a cyclone. Altogether, 15,000 people are estimated to have died, and no fewer than 43 million had to flee their homes.

Sunday, 19 July 2009

The Great Fire of Rome

On this day….1,945 years ago, one of the worst fires in history devastated Rome. Flames first appeared in a row of shops at the Circus Maximus, the main stadium for chariot races. Fanned by the wind, they quickly swept through the closely packed wooden buildings that made up most of the city. Some people managed to escape into the countryside, but many were overtaken by the flames.

When I was at school, I was told the famous story that the emperor Nero fiddled while Rome burned. It could not have been true, because the violin was not invented until the sixteenth century, but stories swept Rome that he had sung or played the lyre while his capital burned.

The story gained credence from two things. First, it was known that Nero hated the slums and haphazard layout of the city and would have loved the chance to rebuild it. The second was that mysterious gangs of thugs roamed the streets preventing fire fighters from tackling the blaze, and using torches to keep it going, though, of course they may just have been looters who wanted to profit from the disorder.

It was nine days before the flames were extinguished. Of Rome’s 14 districts, three were levelled to the ground, and another seven were, in the words of the great historian Tacitus “reduced to a few scorched and mangled ruins.” Thousands of people had lost their lives.

Nero had actually played an energetic part in fighting the fire, and provided generously for the tens of thousands made homeless, but suspicion still clung to him. His excesses grew more and more extreme, and four years after the Great Fire, he slit his own throat. For the full story, see A Disastrous History of the World.

Saturday, 18 July 2009

Unpronounceable killer

Twenty-nine people have now died from swine flu in the UK. Bilharzia kills 280,000 every year in sub-Saharan Africa. The disease, which also has the less pronounceable name schistosomiasis, infects 200 million people every year, and across the world 20 million have to live with the anaemia, chronic diarrhoea, internal bleeding and organ damage it brings.

The illness is caused by tiny flatworms that live in water, and use forked tails to burrow into the skin of humans. For more than 20 years, we have had a cheap drug that can combat bliharzia, but the problem is that it does not prevent people from being infected again.

Now scientists have decoded the worm’s genetic blueprint. That’s the good news. The bad news is that it is complex - made up of nearly 12,000 genes, about ten times as many as the genome of the malaria parasite.

However, the researchers are confident that it reveals new ways in which the worm can be fought, and they also say it has helped them to identify more than 60 drugs that we already have that could disrupt its deadly activities.

Friday, 17 July 2009


Just seen Andrzej Wajda’s film Katyn, telling the story of the notorious massacre of up to 22,000 Polish officers and others seen as part of the country’s elite, during World War Two. It happened after those two champion mass murderers, Hitler and Stalin, teamed up to partition Poland. The film is a gripping but dignified portrayal of the ordeal of those who were killed, and of their loved ones left ignorant of their fate.

The crime began to come to light after the tyrants fell out, and the Soviet Union found itself conscripted to the allied side by Hitler’s invasion. The Polish government in exile in London agreed to co-operate with Stalin, but when a Polish general asked for 15,000 p.o.w.’s to be transferred to his command, the Russians replied that most of them had escaped to Manchuria, and could not be found.

In 1943, the Germans announced that they had found the mass graves of nearly 4,500 Polish officers in the Katyn forest, near Smolensk in the USSR. The victims had apparently all been shot from behind. In a dramatic change of story, the Russians now said the Poles had been working in the area, and had been killed by the invading Germans in August 1941. A Red Cross investigation, though, produced evidence that the massacre had happened early in 1940 when the area was under Soviet control.

Still, the Soviet lie remained the official version of the story in Poland throughout the time the Communists held power. After they fell, the fiction was no longer maintained, and in 1990, President Gorbachev admitted that the Soviet secret police had been responsible. Wajda’s own father was killed in the massacre.

Thursday, 16 July 2009

Also called to account

While the trial of former Liberian President Charles Taylor on war crimes charges continues at the Hague (see yesterday’s blog), the former governor of the Rwandan capital Kigali has been gaoled for life for his role in that country’s genocide in 1994.

The court decided that Lt Col Tharcisse Renzaho, aged 65, had incited soldiers and Hutu extremists to build roadblocks where they could intercept and kill fleeing Tutsis. He was also convicted of being involved in the killing of more than 100 Tutsis at a church. Many victims of the genocide were killed in churches, including 5,000 at Ntarama. Altogether 800,000 people were slaughtered in 100 days – most of them hacked to death with machetes.

Lt Col Renzaho’s lawyer said he would appeal. So far the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda has convicted 33 defendants and acquitted six. (see also my blogs of January 23, March 1, 4, 23, 25, and April 9)

**Spanish-speaking readers of this blog, please note that A Disastrous History of the World has just been published in Spain as Historia mundial de los desastres (Turner ISBN 978-84-7506-879-4)

Wednesday, 15 July 2009

Called to account

Former Liberian President Charles Taylor has been in the witness box at the Hague, defending himself against 11 charges of war crimes. Taylor, a Baptist lay preacher, is accused by the UN-backed tribunal of directing and arming rebel groups in Sierra Leone in return for diamonds, as they committed murder, rape and torture, and terrorised the civilian population.

An estimated half million people suffered in these atrocities, many of which were committed by child soldiers who had often been drugged. Taylor, the first African leader to be tried by an international court, has dismissed the charges as “lies”. He said he only wanted to bring peace to Liberia’s neighbour.

Back in 1985, Taylor made an astonishing escape from an American prison by sawing through the bars of a laundry room, climbing 12 feet to the ground on knotted sheets, and then climbing a fence. He had been detained there pending extradition to Liberia for allegedly embezzling nearly $1 million from its government and then fleeing the country.

Four others who escaped with Taylor were caught, and only he got away from the USA, leading to claims that there was some collusion from American interests who wanted to see him overthrow the existing Liberian government, which he did in 1990. In the present trial, the prosecution has called 91 witnesses, and the defence says it may call 249. (see also my blog of May 6)

Sunday, 12 July 2009


After the death of 15 British soldiers in 10 days in Afghanistan, Gordon Brown and his Labour colleagues have again been banging the “War on Terror” drum. How instructive last night, then, to watch the thought-provoking Terror! Robespierre and the French Revolution on BBC-2.

It was the Reign of Terror of Robespierre and his henchmen that gave us the word “terrorism” – “the systematic use of violence to create a general climate of fear in a population and thereby to bring about a particular political objective”. (Encyclopaedia Britannica).

However, governments of all colours have managed to obscure an important fact. The most dreadful acts of “terrorism” are almost invariably perpetrated by them, rather than the rebel groups to whom the term is normally applied. Hardly surprising as governments usually command far more powerful weapons.

So we are constantly told that 9/11 was the world’s worst terrorist outrage – killing nearly 3,000 people, but, of course, it does not compare with, say, the USAF’s bombing of Tokyo in 1945 that killed perhaps 140,000, nor with Hitler’s mass murder campaign that accounted for perhaps 20 million, or Stalin’s cruelties that killed up to 30m, or Mao’s – maybe 70 million. Robespierre’s terror, incidentally, saw off about 55,000.

As a few of those around him raised the odd timorous voice to express half-hearted misgivings about the ever-more intrusive and paranoid regime he had created, Robespierre retorted: “innocence never fears public scrutiny.” Or as Labour tends to put it when critics object to its National Identity Register or its project to snoop on all our emails etc, etc – “if you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear.”

Saturday, 11 July 2009

Swine flu worsens + the real "Great Fire"

Since my last blog on Monday, swine flu has taken quite a turn for the worse in the UK. Then there were 4 deaths, now there have been 15 – meaning the death rate may be around one in 500 rather than the 1 in 1,875 we were talking about five days ago. We have also had the first death of someone without any other underlying medical problems.

The government is still stressing that for the vast majority of people, it will be a mild infection from which they soon make a complete recovery, but if they are right that the number of new cases may reach 100,000 a day by the end of next month, plainly many more people will die.

One of the disturbing things about the 1918 pandemic was how it appeared in the spring as a relatively mild illness, but by the autumn it had become much more lethal. Of course, today we have weapons that doctors lacked 90 years ago, like anti-viral drugs and perhaps soon a vaccine, but the ending of the swine flu story is one that we do not yet know.

On this day….797 years ago (or perhaps 796 – historians cannot agree), London suffered what may have been its deadliest ever peacetime fire. This “Great Fire” broke out to the south of the Thames in Southwark, and spread quickly. Crowds had poured onto London Bridge – some to try to rescue people from its buildings, others just to watch – when the flames leapfrogged them, and set buildings on the north bank ablaze, trapping them.

Some estimates put the number of people killed at an astonishing 3,000. That is hard to accept, but this fire certainly killed many more than the “Great Fire” of 1666, though that devastated a much bigger area. To learn more, see The Disastrous History of London.

Monday, 6 July 2009

Swine flu v bird flu

Swine flu has now overtaken bird flu. We have had 262 deaths from bird flu (H5N1) against 382 from swine flu (H1N1). Bird flu remains far more virulent, with its 262 deaths coming from just 436 confirmed cases, while there have been nearly 90,000 cases of bird flu.

The World Health Organisation says that most people who catch swine flu can expect a mild infection from which they make a full recovery within a week, and that the main risk is to pregnant women or people with other health problems.

The virus has now spread to 100 countries, and there are some peculiarities in the figures. Argentina has had 26 deaths at a rate of about 1 for every 60 cases – the highest in the world. Mexico, where the disease first appeared, has suffered 119 deaths at about 1 in every 85 cases. The United States has the highest number of deaths – 170 – but the rate is only about 1 in 200 of those infected.

Europe has suffered much less so far. The UK has been worst hit with nearly 7,500 cases, but only four deaths – a rate of 1 in 1,875. However, the government is warning that by the end of next month, Britain could be seeing 100,000 new cases every day. Could that produce the same kind of devastating effect on public services that we saw in the great flu pandemic of 1918, when schools closed, fire stations had no firemen, buses stopped?

That epidemic was dubbed “Spanish flu”, because it was there that the world first became aware of the virus. This time around, Spain has had 760 cases and just one death. Even so, yesterday, the Spanish newspaper El Pais decided to publish the section on flu from my book A Disastrous History of the World. This is the link to the story:-

Saturday, 4 July 2009

Child survivors

It has now been revealed that the sole survivor of Tuesday’s air crash off the Comoros islands in the Indian Ocean was only 12 years old. Baya Bakari had been travelling with her mother who was among the 152 people killed.

Twenty-four years ago, in the world’s worst disaster involving a single aircraft, two children were among just four people who survived out of 524 on board. When rescuers reached the JAL jumbo which had hit a mountain ridge in Japan, they found two girls aged eight and 12, along with two women aged 25 and 34.

Children have been the only people left alive in a number of other air disasters. A three year old boy was the sole survivor of an air crash in Sudan in 2003 that killed 116. A nine year old girl alone escaped from a flight that blew up over Colombia in 1995, while two years later a one year old Thai boy was the lone survivor from an airliner that came down near Phnom Penh airport in Cambodia. According to one analyst, there have been 13 air accidents since 1970 where only one person survived, and in six cases that sole survivor was a child.

So is it just coincidence, or do children have a better chance of coming out alive? There are a number of theories. One is that aircraft seats offer better protection to smaller bodies – adults are more likely to be hit on the head or legs, and killed or injured, by flying debris. In addition, bones grow more brittle as we get older, and some believe that the human body reaches its maximum vigour at about the age of 11. There is also a suggestion that children may be better able to survive in water – a factor that may have helped Baya Bakari.

Wednesday, 1 July 2009

Amazing escape + air crashes over the ocean

A 14 year old Marseille girl plucked from the water appears to be the only survivor of yesterday’s air crash eight miles off the Comoros islands in the Indian Ocean. Rescuers spotted her swimming in rough waters among bodies and wreckage. They threw her a life buoy, but she could not grab it, then a man leapt into the water to save her. Altogether, there were about 153 people on board.

In the five deadliest aviation disasters over the world’s oceans, there were no survivors. The worst three were no accidents either. The worst of all involved the Air India 747 brought down by a terrorist bomb over the Atlantic in 1985, killing all 329 people on board.

Three years later, an American warship shot down an Iran Air Airbus over the Straits of Hormuz killing all 290 passengers and crew. The death toll was 269 – again everyone on board – when Soviet jets shot down Korean Air Lines flight 007 just west of Sakhalin island in 1983.

The worst ever accident involving a commercial airliner over the ocean came on July 17, 1996 when a TWA flight to Rome blew up in mid-air about 12 minutes after taking off from New York’s JFK airport. All 230 people on board were killed. At first, there was speculation that there might have been a bomb on the jumbo, but investigators concluded the most likely cause of the explosion was faulty wiring.