Thursday 30 April 2009

Swine before birds

While we were all watching out for bird flu (see my blog of February 5th), swine flu has nipped in on the blindside and may inflict on the world its first flu pandemic since the one in 1968 that killed perhaps 1 million people.

We had got used to worrying about H5N1, but in fact it is a new version of H1N1 that has got the World Health Organisation to raise its alert to one notch below full pandemic status. H1N1 is the same strain that causes seasonal flu in humans fairly frequently, but this type incorporates genetic material from viruses that attack pigs and, yes, birds.

If the European Commission has its way, though, the name “swine flu” will be short-lived. They want it to be re-christened “novel flu” so it doesn’t stop people buying pork and bacon.

The outbreak seems to have begun in Mexico, where there have been 168 suspected deaths, though only 8 confirmed. Global travel has expanded enormously since the last flu pandemic, giving the virus opportunities to spread further and faster than ever before. There have already been confirmed cases in 13 countries, though only one death outside Mexico. So it is perhaps a hopeful sign that outside Mexico, the disease so far seems to have been generally mild. Touch wood!

Sunday 19 April 2009

Bloody connected anniversaries

This day, 16 years ago, saw the Waco siege end after 51 days. The stand-off at the Branch Davidian Church’s ranch in Texas had begun on February 28, 1993 when agents from the United States Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms tried to search the property, resulting in a gun battle in which four agents were killed.

The cult’s leader, David Koresh, had taken a number of its female members as “wives”, some of whom were teenagers. This brought allegations of child abuse, while Koresh’s launch of a business selling guns added to the disquiet. On April 19, FBI agents tried to force their way in to the compound, and up to 80 members of the group including 20 children and Koresh himself, were killed as fire engulfed it.

Exactly two years after the siege ended, on April 19, 1995, Timothy McVeigh detonated a huge truck bomb in Oklahoma City, killing 168 people – the United States’ biggest ever terrorist outrage before 9/11. McVeigh had spent a brief time in the army, and was decorated for bravery, but he began to fear the government was planning to abolish Americans’ constitutional right to bear arms. He went to Waco to watch the siege, and took the view that the FBI’s actions were illegal.

Soon after, he began planning the Oklahoma attack, which targeted a Federal building in the city. An hour after the explosion, McVeigh was stopped for a driving offence, and was found to be illegally carrying a concealed hand gun. He was executed in 2001, and an accomplice was sent to prison for life.

Saturday 18 April 2009

Tornadoes - in Britain!

This week, a tornado damaged the roofs of two houses in Newport, South Wales. Unpleasant enough for the people who lived there, but much less serious than the twister that hit north-west London in December 2006 which resulted in damage to up to 150 houses and many cars. Six people were injured, one seriously.

Astonishingly, the UK suffers more tornadoes per square mile than any other country on earth. About 30 a year are reported, but fortunately most are very weak. Britain’s deadliest ever tornado appears to have been one that hit Edwardsville, just a few miles from Newport, on October 27, 1913, killing six people.

The USA is generally regarded as the worst place for tornadoes, and it has been hit by many devastating twisters – the most deadly being the Great Tri-State Tornado of March 18, 1925 that killed more than 700 people, but the worst the world has ever seen was the one that struck Bangladesh on April 26, 1989, devastating at least 50 villages and killing an estimated 1,300.

Friday 17 April 2009


Sixteen people – including nine children - have been killed by a landslide in the Central Asian republic of Kyrgyzstan. It struck a village in the south of the country after heavy rains, though overgrazing of mountain slopes is also thought to have contributed to the disaster.

Probably the deadliest landslide in history was the one that struck Venezuela’s coastal areas in December 1999. Torrential rain caused flash floods and mudslides, and the shanty towns that clung to the steep escarpments around the capital Caracas were simply washed away. More than 20,000 homes were destroyed, and 140,000 people made homeless, as President Chavez used his own residence to house children who had lost their parents. The death toll was estimated at about 30,000.

Another dreadful landslide struck the Khait area of another Central Asian country, Tajikistan in 1949. Details are sparse, but there are claims that 33 villages were destroyed and up to 28,000 people killed.

Thursday 16 April 2009

Chechnya - war is over?

Russia has announced the end of its “counter-terrorism” operation in Chechnya, claiming that life there has been "normalised to a large degree". When the old Soviet Union fell apart, the Chechens tried to grab their independence, and there followed two Russian invasions. Now the country is ruled by a 32 year old pro-Moscow hard man, Ramzan Kadyrov, who has been rewarded with hand-outs of hundreds of millions of pounds to re-build the country.

The Chechens certainly needed it. The wars with Russia had turned their capital Grozny into what the UN described as "the most destroyed city on the planet". The first war from 1994-6 resulted in a humiliating defeat for Moscow, and the deaths of up to 100,000 people – most of them Chechen civilians, but the Russians effectively won the second war in 1999-2000.

The Chechens tried to retaliate by taking the battle into Russia. They seized 900 hostages at a Moscow theatre in 2002; 120 of whom were killed as Russian troops tried to free them. The next year suicide bombers hit a Moscow rock festival, killing 16 people, and an attack on a school at Beslan in North Ossetia in 2004 cost the lives of 330 people including 150 children.

Mr Kadyrov claims that terrorist attacks have now been halted, but thousands of people have disappeared, and his government is accused of kidnapping, torture and murder.

Wednesday 15 April 2009

A night to remember

Wreaths were laid in Belfast today to commemorate the 1,500 people who drowned when the Titanic sank exactly 97 years ago. The great liner was built at Harland and Wolff in the Northern Ireland capital, and although hers was not the worst shipwreck the world has ever seen – in wartime, that unwelcome distinction would apply to the Wilhelm Gustloff which took up to 10,000 people to the bottom, and in peacetime to the Filipino ferry Dona Paz, which claimed up to 4,375 victims - it remains probably the most famous.

Not surprising when you think that the passenger list read like a Who’s Who of the world’s richest people, that she was the fastest, most opulent ship on the sea, that this was her maiden voyage, and that she was commanded by her shipping line’s star captain Edward J. Smith, who had famously declared that it was not possible for a ship like this to sink –“modern shipbuilding has gone beyond that.”

In fact, an encounter with an iceberg a few minutes before midnight on April 14, 1912 sent the Titanic to the bottom in a couple of hours. (For more on ships and icebergs see my blog of February 20.) The watertight compartments that were supposed to make the vessel unsinkable had not actually been watertight. So the sea could fill up one, and then lap over into the next, and there were not enough lifeboats. (See my blog of January 21.)

Of the 705 people who survived the shipwreck, only one is still alive today - Millvina Dean, who was just nine weeks old. She was rescued along with her mother and her two year old brother. Her father, then aged 27, perished. This week she is selling the last of her Titanic memorabilia to help pay her nursing home fees.

Tuesday 14 April 2009

Chernboyl - a continuing disaster

Eight boys from Belarus, whose health has been damaged by fall-out from the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, have arrived in Wiltshire for a three-week visit designed to boost their immune systems. All the boys are either suffering from leukaemia, or are in remission. They are the latest of 46,000 brought to the UK by the charity Chernobyl Children’s Lifeline, which said the clean air and fresh food should give them an extra 18 months of life.

A survey last month revealed that insect populations around the plant still have not recovered, nearly 23 years after the explosion. A radiation cloud spread over much of Europe, but 70 per cent of it fell on Belarus.

In April 2006, a report from the World Health Organisation predicted up to 9,000 extra cancer deaths from the continuing effects of the fall-out, but some environmental groups claim the real number could be up to 200,000. At a Belarus children’s hospital, one senior doctor claimed that only one baby in four was healthy.

The nearby town of Prypiat, which was home to more than 300,000 people at the time of the disaster, was evacuated and now stands deserted. It is not expected to be fit for human habitation for centuries, but that did not stop looters moving in and removing everything they could from the empty buildings, right down to the toilet seats. For the full story, see A Disastrous History of the World.

Monday 13 April 2009

Labour anniversary + Indian massacre

It is 43 days since Labour’s deputy leader Harriet Harman announced on television that disgraced bank boss Sir Fred Goodwin would not be allowed to keep his £700,000 a year pension. The payment was “not going to happen.” The hapless Gordon Brown, she told us, had “said that it is not acceptable and therefore it will not be accepted.”

So what has Labour done in the six weeks that have elapsed since to keep their promise to the British people? Er, can’t think of anything offhand. Maybe they’ve just been too busy making up lies to try to smear opposition politicians.

On this day.....90 years ago, British soldiers opened fire on unarmed Indian demonstrators in the Jallianwala garden in Amritsar. The shooting went on for ten minutes, and at the end of it, according to official figures, 379 men, women and children lay dead, though some estimates put the real total at more than 1,000.

The officer in command, Brigadier-General Reginald Dwyer, was officially censured and resigned from the army, though the House of Lords passed a motion praising his conduct, and an appeal run by a British newspaper for him raised £30,000.

Saturday 11 April 2009

Malaria - new hope against old enemy?

A new anti-malaria drug is being developed by researchers in the United States. When mosquitoes feed on human blood, they produce a substance called haem that can poison them. The new medicine prevents them getting rid of the haem, and it can also enhance the effectiveness of traditional anti-malaria drugs like chloroquine and quinine, to which mosquitoes have been developing resistance. It could be a decade, though, before the treatment comes into general use.

Malaria has probably been around much longer than human beings. The parasite that causes it goes back perhaps 30 million years. The disease was described by Hippocrates in ancient Greece 400 years before Christ, and it may have killed Alexander the Great.

Its name comes from the Medieval Italian for “bad air”, and some historians believe that recurrent epidemics reduced the birth rate in Italy at the time of the Roman Empire, making it more dependent on “barbarian” auxiliaries to defend its frontiers, and eventually leading to its decline and fall. On the other hand, fear of the disease may have halted Attila the Hun in 452 when he seemed on the point of sacking Rome.

It was only at the beginning of the twentieth century that a British army medical officer, Major Ronald Ross, proved the disease was spread by mosquitoes, and today malaria still kills nearly 900,000 people every year – mostly young children in sub-Saharan Africa.

Friday 10 April 2009

War crimes in Sierra Leone

Three Sierra Leone rebel leaders have been gaoled for a total of 120 years for their part in atrocities in the country’s ten year civil war during the 1990’s. Their group - the Revolutionary United Front - was notorious for forcibly enlisting child soldiers, who became noted for their cruelty and ferocity.

The RUF’s favourite tactic was mutilation, and an estimated 20,000 civilians had arms, legs, or ears cut off with machetes and axes. Rape and murder were also common. Tens of thousands died in the war, and more than two million – a third of the population – were driven from their homes. In 2007, three other defendants were convicted for war crimes, but the leader and deputy leader of the RUF both died before they could be tried.

Thursday 9 April 2009

Rwanda - active anniversary

It was 15 years ago this week that the Rwandan genocide began, during which 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus would be slaughtered in just 100 days. Yesterday, a court in London refused to extradite four men to face trial in Rwanda for their alleged part in the massacres because of fears that they would not get a fair trial, though anti-genocide organisations decried the decision.

Three of the men were said to be local mayors who had organised killings, while the fourth was accused of being a militia organiser, and a close associate of the Hutu Rwandan president Juvenal Habyarimana. It was the death of President Habyarimana, when his aircraft was shot down on April 6, 1994, that sparked the violence.

Who targeted the Mystere Falcon – a gift from President Mitterand of France – remains a mystery. At first, extremist Hutus blamed Tusti rebels, led by Paul Kagame, and it was used as an excuse to begin the killing. Others though, including senior UN officials, believed that the culprits were more likely to be extremist Hutus who wanted to prevent President Habyarimana making a deal with the rebels, and, indeed, three days before the attack, an extremist radio station that would go on to help orchestrate the genocide, announced that “a little something” was about to happen.

Three years ago, though, a French investigative judge accused Mr Kagame, now the president of Rwanda, of being responsible. He was furious, and broke off diplomatic relations with France, and many other observers were highly sceptical about the claims, pointing out that the French were strong supporters of the old Hutu regime. President Kagame launched his own inquiry which accused 33 French military and political officials of being involved in the genocide, including President Mitterand.

See also my blogs of March 1, 4, 23 and 25.

Monday 6 April 2009

Italian earthquakes

At least 27 people have been killed by an earthquake that struck the Italian Mediaeval city of L'Aquila about 70 miles from Rome in the early hours of this morning. A hundred thousand people have fled their homes.

Italy is often prey to earthquakes because of two fault lines – one that runs the length of the country from north to south, and another that crosses the centre from west to east. In 2002, 25 people were killed in the southern town of San Giuliano di Puglia, while five years earlier, a quake demolished part of the famous church of St Francis at Assisi, with its frescos by Giotto. The death toll was ten.

Italy’s deadliest earthquake in recent years came in 1980, when 2,700 people were killed at Eboli about 50 miles south of Naples, while the deadliest the country has ever seen had its epicentre under the Straits of Messina that divide Sicily from the Italian mainland.

It struck on the morning of December 28, 1908, and flattened much of Messina on Sicily and Reggio di Calabria on the mainland. Some estimates put the number of people killed at more than 150,000, and martial law had to be imposed when gangs of looters descended on the stricken areas. Ships in the harbour at Messina were turned into floating hospitals for the injured, and Russian sailors in particular won praise for their courage in helping to free people trapped under the rubble.

Sunday 5 April 2009

World's biggest volcanic eruptions

This week the Indonesian island of Sulawesi was rocked by an earthquake. No great surprise there – Indonesia is the most seismically active country on earth, and was close to the epicentre of the undersea quake that sparked the great Christmas tsunami of 2004. This time there were no reports of any casualties.

How different from the great volcanic eruption of Mount Tambora on the Indonesian island of Sumbawa 194 years ago today. The Europeans who had started to settle in the islands in the sixteenth century believed the volcano was extinct. On April 5, 1815, it proved them wrong, generating the biggest eruption in recorded history – four times as powerful as the more famous Krakatoa.

The immediate death toll on the island was about 12,000, but as so often happens with volcanoes, the worst would come later, as the debris spat out into the atmosphere made the world dramatically colder. In the months that followed, up to 80,000 are thought to have died on Sumbawa and Lombok, while it is estimated that the chill weather and resulting poor harvests may have cost another 200,000 lives in Europe alone.

An even fiercer eruption rocked the Indonesian island of Sumatra in about 72,000 BC, and the volcanic winter it generated may have killed 99 per cent of the earth’s human population at that time. The full story of all these eruptions is in A Disastrous History of the World.

Saturday 4 April 2009

Carry on shooting + number crunching

Another mass shooting in the United States. This time a man walked into a room at Binghamton, New York State, where people were sitting exams to become US citizens. After killing 13 and critically injuring four more, the gunman, said to be of Vietnamese origin, shot himself.

Last Sunday, a man gunned down seven patients and a nurse at a nursing home in Carthage, North Carolina, before police shot and wounded him, while on March 10, a 28 year old Alabama man killed 10 people before shooting himself. (See my blog of March 12)

President Obama pronounced himself “shocked and saddened” at the latest shooting. Will he do anything significant to tighten up America’s gun laws? Same safety advice as yesterday – don’t hold your breath.

Number crunching. £300,000 - amount Labour MP Sir Stuart Bell claims mystery person is trying to make from selling details of MP’s expense claims. £93,000,000 – amount of our money MP’s claimed in expenses last year.

Friday 3 April 2009

Helicopter crashes + spot the difference

It’s now accepted that there’s no hope of finding any survivors from Wednesday’s helicopter accident in the North Sea. Sixteen people were aboard the Super Puma that crashed into the water 14 miles from Peterhead on its journey back from BP’s Miller oil platform.

The whole North Sea oil industry depends on helicopters to ferry personnel back and forth, and more than a hundred people have died in crashes since production began. Only in February another Super Puma came down in the sea in fog. On that occasion, all 18 people aboard were rescued, but 11 men were killed in 1992 when their Super Puma fell into the sea on a 200 yard journey from a production platform to an accommodation barge.

The world’s worst ever civilian helicopter accident happened in the North Sea in 1986 when a Chinook carrying workers home from the Brent field crashed as it was approaching Sumburgh Airport on Shetland. Its rotor blades collided with each other, and the aircraft came down in the sea and sank, killing 45 of the 47 people aboard.

Spot the difference. When Palestine’s democratically elected Hamas government refused to be bound by agreements that earlier Palestinian administrations had made with Israel, US President George W Bush orchestrated an international conspiracy (in which Labour enthusiastically joined) to starve the Palestinians into submission. Now Israel’s new Foreign Minister has repudiated agreements earlier Israeli governments made with the Palestinians. When do you expect President Obama to start trying to starve the Israelis into submission? Safety warning – don’t hold your breath.

Thursday 2 April 2009

Boat people 2009

The Libyan navy has called off its search for 250 or more migrants feared drowned after their flimsy boat sank in the Mediterranean. The vessel had made barely 30 miles from Sidi Bilal, near Tripoli, before it was capsized by strong winds. Designed to carry 50 people, it had on board nearly 300, all hoping to make new lives in Italy. Only 23 survivors have been found.

Another boat carrying 350 lost engine power and was drifting helplessly when it was spotted by an Italian tug and towed gingerly back to Tripoli. Migrants pay out about £1,000 each to make the hazardous crossing and 13,000 are estimated to have died during the last ten years. Many of the bodies are found by fishermen in their nets. Passengers on the rescued vessel came from Bangladesh, India, Pakistan, Syria, Egypt, Somalia, Eritrea, Ghana, Nigeria, Tunisia, Algeria and Morrocco.

There is usually a lull in the winter months, but this year observers say that, with the recession biting, the sailings have gone on all year round, and 31,000 people are estimated to have crossed from North Africa to the Italian island of Lampedusa in 2008 alone.

During the 1980’s, the name “boat people” entered the language to describe those who fled South Vietnam after the fall of Saigon in 1975. More than half a million tried to escape in similar flimsy boats. Often they fell victim to Thai fisherman turned pirates. From 1981 to 1983 alone, more than 750 were killed, and a further 600 disappeared. More than 800 women were raped.