Tuesday 30 June 2009

Ocean air disaster + ocean liners fire anniversary

An Airbus operated by the Yemeni state carrier, Yemenia Air, with 153 people on board has crashed into the Indian Ocean near the Comoros islands. A desperate search for survivors is now under way, with France taking a leading role. There are a thought to be a large number of French passengers on the flight.

It was en route from the Yemeni capital Sanaa to Moroni, capital of the Comoros. There are reports that the aircraft had made a failed attempt to land before it disappeared. If there are no survivors, this would be the second worst air crash this year after the loss of the Air France Airbus off Brazil. (see my blog of June 20)

On this day…..109 years ago, fire engulfed the ocean liner terminal at Hoboken, New Jersey, destroying one ship and severely damaging two others, and killing up to 400 people.

The blaze appears to have started on one of the piers which was piled high with cotton bales and barrels of oil and turpentine. It happened at a time when local people were allowed to come and look around the liners, and many of them were among the dead. The cause remains a mystery.

Monday 29 June 2009

Days of reckoning

One of the organisers of the Khmer Rouge’s mass murder campaign in Cambodia has come face to face in a Phnom Penh courtroom with one of its survivors. Kaing Guek Eav, alias Comrade Duch, ran the notorious Tuol Sleng “special interrogation centre” in the Cambodian capital, which was reserved for suspected “traitors” within the party.

Of 15,000 people held there, only seven are thought to have survived. One of them was Van Nath, who was spared because of his skill in painting portraits of Khmer Rouge bigwigs. He has now become one of Cambodia’s best known artists, and has used his skills to perpetuate the memory of the crimes committed by Pol Pot’s fanatical regime.

So far he has told the court about how prisoners were shackled and how a “meal” consisted of three teaspoonfulls of gruel. The 66 year old Duch has already admitted to his crimes, and begged forgiveness. Now a born-again Christian, he claims he was forced to run the interrogation centre.

Tuol Sleng – a high school until the Khmer Rouge turned it into a torture and murder factory – is now a genocide museum as Cambodia tries to come to terms with the terrible four years in the 1970’s when the Khmer Rouge killed up to 1.75 million people – a quarter of Cambodia’s entire population. (see also my blog of March 4th and A Disastrous History of the World)

Sunday 28 June 2009

A sombre anniversary

On this day…..95 years ago, the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the throne of the Austro-Hungarian empire, was assassinated in Sarajevo by a Serb nationalist, Gavrilo Princip. The killing set off a chain of events that resulted in Austria-Hungary declaring war on Serbia on July 28, 1914, Germany declaring war on Russia on August 1, then France on August 3, and Britain entering the war on August 4.

Princip, a 19 year old Bosnian Serb, wanted to liberate the whole of the Balkans from Austro-Hungarian rule. While Franz Ferdinand was on a visit to the Bosnian capital, then part of Austria's empire, one of Princip’s comrades threw a bomb at his car. It bounced off and exploded beneath the next vehicle, injuring two of the occupants and about a dozen people in the crowd. While the Archduke and his wife were on their way to a hospital to visit the injured, Princip shot them.

While the First World War was raging, Princip was tried and sentenced to 20 years in gaol – the maximum allowed for someone under 20 – on October 28, 1914. He was kept in harsh conditions and died of tuberculosis in April 1918.

The Treaty of Versailles was signed exactly five years after the assassination on June 28, 1919. The war is estimated to have cost the lives of about 8.5 million military personnel, and perhaps 13 million civilians from starvation, disease, being caught up in military action or massacre. It also put paid to the Austro-Hungarian empire.

Saturday 27 June 2009

Indian heatwave

A heatwave in India is now thought to have killed hundreds of people. With the monsoon rains arriving late, up to 200 have died in Orissa, and temperatures in many parts of the country have reached over 40 degrees.

Seventeen people are said to have perished in Jharkand and seven in Bihar. As so often happens, it is the poor who have suffered worst. Orissa’s minister for disaster management has been asking the federal government to declare the heatwave a “national calamity” so that the families of those killed get better compensation.

Hospitals have opened special wards for victims of heatstroke and mobile ice vans are patrolling the cities, while the government is organising special prayers for rain.

The worst Indian heatwave of recent years came in 1998 when more than 2,000 people died in Orissa alone. The deadliest heatwave of all was probably the one that swept Europe in 2003, and claimed up to 50,000 lives.

Monday 22 June 2009

Carry on covering up + a great fire of London

As Labour continues to try to hide the truth about Iraq (see my blog of June 16), in that unhappy country itself, the bombs go on exploding. The death toll from the latest – a huge truck bomb in Kirkuk – has now risen to at least 72. It went off as worshippers were leaving a Shia mosque, and there is speculation that it could be the work of al-Qaeda.

Meanwhile it’s been revealed that Tony Blair has been lobbying Gordon Brown to keep the Iraq inquiry secret. Apparently, he wasn’t very keen on being questioned in public and under oath about the decision to bomb, invade and occupy. I’ll bet he wasn’t. Not sure how much persuading was required, though. Do you think Mr Brown himself, not to mention Messrs Straw and Hoon would have been queuing up to tell us all?

On this day….148 years ago, what was then London’s worst fire since the Great Fire of 1666 broke out in the great line of warehouses that stretched between Tooley Street and the south bank of the Thames. The buildings were packed with inflammable goods – cotton, sugar, oil, tallow – and once they had got going, the flames spread mercilessly. The river itself caught fire as burning rum floated on its surface.

The Tooley Street inferno claimed the life of London’s first ever fire chief, James Braidwood – killed when a wall collapsed on him. The flames raged out of control for two days, and it was a whole month before they were put out completely. For more details, see The Disastrous History of London.

Saturday 20 June 2009

Air disaster mystery

As the French government starts to pay out compensation to the families of those killed in the Air France flight lost off Brazil on June 1st, we are no nearer discovering the causes of the disaster – the worst in Air France’s history.

The “black box” flight recorders have not yet been found, and the sonar signal that they give out to help those searching run for only 30 days at most, so investigators are now in a race against time. We do know that there was bad weather at the time of the crash, that the Airbus A330’s monitoring systems had sent out 24 automated error messages, and that the auto-pilot had been switched off.

Last year, Air France began to notice problems with speed monitors icing over on this aircraft, and started to replace them in April. This was recommended by Airbus, though it is not a requirement of the European Aviation Safety Agency. Air France has now said it is accelerating the replacement programme.

If the aircraft’s systems are receiving conflicting information on speed, it can cause the autopilot to shut down, and in extreme cases, the aeroplane may stall or go dangerously fast, so that there is a danger of it breaking up. Without the flight recorders, though, all of this remains conjecture, and there is a possibility that we may never know what caused the deaths of the 228 passengers and crew.

Thursday 18 June 2009

She did nothing wrong either

The all-pervasive saintliness of Labour MP’s has claimed yet another victim. “Treasury Minister” Kitty Ussher (of whom it was once said…”who?”) is the latest to resign because she was only obeying orders, er sorry, because she has done nothing wrong. (see also my blog of May 28).

Of course if you really HAD done nothing wrong, it would not be difficult to imagine how sickened you might feel to find yourself surrounded by the people who brought us Iraq, a police state, a bankrupt country etc etc (see my blogs passim). Ms Ussher is accused of temporarily flipping the designation of her main home just before she sold one of her abodes in order to avoid paying tax of at least £9,750. Her resignation letter does not deny this charge. If it is true, surely even Labour can see that it is completely unacceptable behaviour for a senior figure in the ministry responsible for making the rest of us pay tax. If Gordon Brown had any sense, he would make this abundantly clear in his reply.

How typical of Labour to get the worst of both worlds. The minister goes, but her refusal to offer even the most grudging apology to the British people means the resignation does nothing to begin the lengthy process of rehabilitating the party’s reputation.

Note to any further MP’s/ministers considering standing down. Please spare us any more of the sanctimonious, self-pitying, “I have done nothing wrong” drivel. If you have think you have done nothing wrong, but the dreadfully unreasonable British people seem to think otherwise, call a by-election and let your electors give their verdict.

Tuesday 16 June 2009

Iraq - the cover-up continues

Labour may have bankrupted the country, but there’s still one commodity for which it will always find plenty of money – whitewash. Labour ordered a huge new consignment yesterday as Gordon Brown launched his “inquiry” into the Iraq War. It will be run by an underling from the Butler Inquiry. It will be held in secret and its explicit brief will be to ensure that no one is blamed for what is certainly the biggest British foreign policy disaster in more than half a century, and may be treason and/or a war crime.

You must have misread my blog of June 6th, Gordon. I said that it was essential that the inquiry was “full, public and independent”.

In history, we often find that the cover-up is more damaging than the original deed. Remember Watergate. The act itself is often committed in haste and hot blood by a small group. The cover-up tends to be a cold, calculating enterprise carried out over weeks, months and years, by a much bigger body of conspirators – in this case, the entire Labour Party.

More than six years after the disaster of Iraq, the only people who have lost their jobs are the Chairman and Director-General of the BBC, and the BBC reporter who dared to tell the truth. And Labour MP’s keep wringing their hands and agonising over why people have no respect for politicians! The party’s determination to ensure that those responsible for Iraq are not called to account is a cancer that will destroy Labour unless it is cut out, but it is hard to see this discredited bunch having the guts or the integrity to do the deed.

Thursday 11 June 2009

Alexander the Great

On this day….2,332 years ago Alexander the Great died in Nebuchadnezzar’s palace in Babylon, aged 32, after a massive ten-day binge on food and drink. Was it over-indulgence, or malaria, or was he poisoned? We do not know.

Hailed as one of the greatest military geniuses in history, Alexander was also, like other great conquerors such as Genghis Khan and Tamburlaine, a ferocious murderer of civilians. In 335 BC, when he was just turned 20, he razed Thebes to the ground, killed 6,000 and sold the rest of the population into slavery.

Three years later, he took Tyre. Once again, there was wholesale slaughter, with all men of military age crucified and 30,000 women and children enslaved. It was in India, though, that Alexander’s worst atrocities were seen. Massaga was reduced to rubble, and its people slaughtered, and Ora and Aornos met a similar fate. At Malli, no one was spared whether man, woman or child.

Wednesday 10 June 2009

The holocaust in context

Just back from Berlin, where I visited the Jewish Museum for the first time. Not to be missed. The holocaust, of course, provides the prism through which you view every exhibit, and the red thread that guides you through the collection moves relentlessly towards it, but there is more, much more.

We know Jews settled in Germany as early as Roman times. Routinely, they faced discrimination. They were banned from craftsmen’s guilds, and there were professions they could not enter. Handily, though, they could lend money at interest which, for a long time, Christians were not allowed to do. Now there was always plenty of demand for borrowed money, especially among ambitious or improvident princes, so, not surprisingly, many Jews did become moneylenders , and, in the grand old tradition of “blame the victim”, were stigmatised for it.

Three German cities – Mainz, Speyer and Worms – became Europe’s centres for Jewish erudition in the Middle Ages. Persecution and murder, though, really began to take off around the time of the Crusades. Then the Jews got the blame for the Black Death in the fourteenth century (see my blog of March 31), and suffered more massacres.

When the German Empire was founded in 1871, Jews notionally became full and equal citizens, but anti-Semitism remained a powerful force. Twelve thousand Jews died fighting for Germany in World War One. (It was, incidentally, a Jewish officer who recommended Adolf Hitler for the Iron Cross.) That, though, counted for nothing when roaring inflation and mass unemployment swept the Nazis to power.

About half of Germany’s Jewish population managed to escape, but the Nazis murdered 200,000. After World War Two, around 20,000 Jews settled in Germany, and today there are more than 100,000 – many of them recent arrivals from the Soviet Union.

Monday 8 June 2009

Zimbabwe - forgotten disaster

Since Zimbabwe got its “power-sharing” government, the spotlight has moved away from the humanitarian disaster unfolding there, but it is clear that such political change as there has been has not put food in the mouths of those who need it, particularly the tens of thousands languishing in the country’s prisons.

The Red Cross says it is now feeding more than 6,000 prisoners, some of them severely malnourished. At one gaol, more than half of the 1,300 inmates are reported to have died last year, and a leading member of the MDC, now allegedly sharing power with Robert Mugabe, has provided an inside report.

Roy Bennett was locked up himself earlier this year, and he said some prisoners looked in a worse state than the inmates of Nazi concentration camps. Meanwhile, Zimbabwe’s Justice Minister has complained that he is not getting enough money to provide inmates with even basic rations. The Red Cross is also working on basic sanitary provision in the gaols as fears grow that disease will sweep through them.

Saturday 6 June 2009

The Last Days of Labour - a manifesto

By this time next year, the UK will have had to have had a general election. For Labour to avoid defeat will require take the biggest turnaround in British electoral history. This lot shows not the slightest sign of being up to it. We must, therefore, assume these are the last days of Labour. Few governments were blessed with so much good will at the start, and what did we end up with? Iraq, the construction of a police state, national bankruptcy, and a political culture based on lies and corruption.

So here is a programme for the next year to restore some honour to the name that once graced a great political party:

“We the Labour Party in Parliament would like to apologise for the many disappointments we have caused you. We know that it is very late, but we wish to make what amends we can in the time we have left. This our programme for the next year:-

1. A completely elected upper house of Parliament
2. Proportional representation for the House of Commons
3. Dropping of Identity Cards
4. Restoration of a progressive tax system so that the richest pay the highest rate
5. All Parliamentary select committees to be elected by secret ballot
6. An immediate full, public and INDEPENDENT inquiry into the Iraq War and its origins
7. Repeal of all legislation stripping you of your civil rights
8. The referendum on the Lisbon Treaty that we promised
9. A written constitution”

Labour MP’s – for once in your lives, just do the right thing. What have you got to lose?

Monday 1 June 2009

Bangladesh cyclone + and then there were none

There are fears that disease may strike Bangladesh following last Monday’s cyclone, which killed at least 200 people in the country and in the Indian state of West Bengal. Nearly half a million are homeless and there is an acute shortage of clean water.

Bangladesh suffered the deadliest storm in history in 1970 when 115 mile an hour winds funnelled a terrifying 40 foot wave onto what was then East Pakistan. The people never had a chance in their flimsy houses on flat, low lying land, and up to a million died. Whole villages disappeared, as if, said an eye witness, they had been sucked up by a giant vacuum cleaner. For more details see A Disastrous History of the World.

The last survivor of the Titanic, Millvina Dean, died yesterday, aged 97, in a Hampshire nursing home on the 98th anniversary of the ship’s launch. Miss Dean, the youngest passenger aboard at nine and a half weeks, was being taken by her family to start a new life in America.

She owed her life to her father’s quick thinking. The scrape with the iceberg had not seemed too serious to many on board. One survivor said it felt similar to what happens when a vessel touches the dock wall before berthing, but Mr Dean realised the danger and got them out of their third class accommodation onto the deck. Miss Dean’s mother and her two year old brother were also rescued, but her father perished. Only one in four of the third class passengers survived. The family came back to England and Miss Dean spent most of her life in Southampton. (See also my blog of April 15)