Wednesday 30 September 2009

Samoan tsunami

At least 90 people have been killed by a tsunami in Samoa, American Samoa and Tonga. Thousands have been made homeless.

Large parts of the islands are only just above sea level, and a senior official in American Samoa reported that the waves had devastated all the low-lying areas. Samoa's Deputy Prime Minister said the trademark of a tsunami – the sudden rushing out of the ocean – had come just five minutes after houses were shaken by the underwater earthquake.

Young men had tried to raise the alarm by banging gas canisters, but many of those killed were people who had gone to pick up fish stranded by the antics of the sea.

About four in five of the world’s tsunamis happen in the Pacific, and this is the worst since the one in July 2006 that killed up to 800 people on Java.

Tuesday 29 September 2009

Afghanistan and Iraq - continuing carnage

As the sabre-rattling directed at Iran grows louder and louder, reminders arrive from both Iraq and Afghanistan about how big a mess we still have to clear up in those places.

A series of bombs across Iraq in the last two days have killed at least 13 people, including seven near a police station in the northern city of Ramadi. Last month saw 393 civilian deaths in the country – the highest total for more than a year.

Meanwhile, in southern Afghanistan, at least 30 people lost their lives when a bus hit a landmine as it travelled from Nimroz to Kandahar City. A UN report said that last month was the worst of the year for civilian deaths in Afghanistan too. Up to the end of August, 1,500 had been killed so far this year – an increase of more than 350 on the same period in 2008.

See also my blog of Sept 2.

Monday 28 September 2009

Philippines - now a typhoon

Following the sinking of SuperFerry 9 (see my blogs of Sept 6 and 26), the Philippines has suffered more misfortune, with a visit from Typhoon Ketsana. At least 140 people are believed killed after torrential rain struck the capital Manila and 25 provinces.

A record 16 inches of rain fell in just 12 hours on Saturday, exceeding the usual average for the whole month of September. About four fifths of Manila was submerged, driving 450,000 people from their homes. The head of the National Disaster Co-ordinating Council said the emergency services were overwhelmed.

An 18 year old building worker is reported to have tied a rope around his waist and saved his brothers and sisters before going back to rescue his parents. Then he helped neighbours who were stranded on rooftops to get away, before leaping into the water to grab a mother and her baby. Tragically, he was then swept away himself.

Ketsana is the most devastating tropical storm to have hit the Philippines since Typhoon Ike in 1984 which brought fierce winds and floods that killed nearly 1,500 people.

Saturday 26 September 2009

Ferry disasters - an anniversary

In the Philippines, hearings are being held into the sinking of SuperFerry 9 off the Zamboanga Peninsula three weeks ago with the loss of ten lives (see my blog of Sept 6), but today also marks the seventh anniversary of one of the world’s worst ferry disasters – the wreck of the Joola off the coast of West Africa.

The ship was en route from Ziguinchor in Senegal to the capital Dakar on September 26, 2002. Because it was low season for tourism, there were few vehicles on the car deck, but many more passengers than the 536 the Joola was supposed to carry, making the vessel dangerously top heavy.

As it was hit by a fierce rainstorm on the starboard side, people rushed to port to take shelter, and the ferry capsized almost immediately. Just 64 people survived, mainly picked from the sea by fishermen. It took the official rescue services eight hours to respond, and Senegal’s ministers for transport and the armed forces both resigned, while the commander of the navy was sacked.

It is estimated that up to 1,940 people lost their lives. For the full story, see A Disastrous History of the World.

Thursday 24 September 2009

Battling malaria

Fourteen African countries have joined forces to fight malaria, which still kills nearly 900,000 people a year – most of them young children in sub-Saharan Afirca – that’s more than AIDS and tuberculosis combined in those areas. No less than 86% of all the world’s malaria cases, and 91% of the deaths happen in the Dark Continent.

The African Leaders Malaria Alliance has raised nearly £2 billion to buy 240 million mosquito nets treated with insecticide. The aim, which cannot be faulted for ambition, is to stop nearly all malaria-related deaths within six years.

The announcement came just as the World Health Organisation was reiterating the concern that the malaria parasite was growing increasingly resistant to artemisinin, regarded as the most effective drug for combatting the disease.

Malaria is one of the oldest illnesses known to man, and has been infecting human beings for at least 50,000 years. (See also my blogs of April 11th and May 30th)

Wednesday 23 September 2009

Rwanda genocide - fresh arrest

Another suspect has been handed over to the UN tribunal investigating the 1994 genocide in Rwanda. Gregoire Ndahimana, a former mayor, was one of a dozen indicted people still at large.

He was arrested in the Democratic Republic of Congo last month, and is accused of responsibility for the massacre of 2,000 Tutsis sheltering in a church. During the mass murder, more victims are said to have perished in churches than in any other kind of building.

Last week, Michel Bagaragaza, who had headed Rwanda’s tea industry, admitted complicity in the massacre of Tutsis and moderate Hutus, bringing to 47 the number of cases that the court has dealt with.

The Rwanda genocide was the fastest campaign of mass murder in history, with 800,000 people slaughtered in just 100 days. (see also my blogs of January 23, March 1, 4, 23, 25, April 9 and July 16)

Monday 21 September 2009

Darfur - the first war over global warming?

Reports of the death of Darfur’s civil war appear premature. That hopeful diagnosis had been made last month by the outgoing head of the joint African Union-United Nations peacekeeping force, General Martin Agwai.

The lastest clashes came in the north of the region and are said to have cost the lives of about 20 civilians. The UN says that altogether 300,000 have died in the conflict since 2003 with 2.7 million driven from their homes. Peace talks are due to resume next month in Qatar.

The war is seen by some as the world’s first global warming conflict, as drought stirred up tensions between African farmers and Arab animal herders who used to happily coexist on the same land. (See also my blog of March 5th)

Sunday 20 September 2009

The Harrying of the North

On this day….940 years ago, the army of Svein Estrithson, King of Denmark, with the support of English rebels against William the Conqueror, took the city of York. William had won his famous victory at Hastings just three years before, and his hold on the crown was less than secure.

Now he also faced rebellions in Dorset, Somerset, Staffordshire and Cheshire. Having crushed the rising in the West Country, he turned north. At Nottingham, he learned about the occupation of York, and began his advance on the city, devastating the countryside as he went, leaving no house standing and sparing no man his cavalry could outrun.

Just before Christmas, he reached York and burned it to the ground. Then he paid the Danes to go home and embarked on what became known as the Harrying of the North –the systematic destruction of a huge part of his new realm. The damage was still apparent when the Domesday Book was compiled 17 years later, with scores of villages left uninhabited.

Even some Normans were disturbed, with one monk complaining it amounted to “wholesale massacre” with William destroying “both the bad and the good in one common ruin.” For more details, see A Disastrous History of Britain.

Saturday 19 September 2009

Lockerbie - fight for the truth

The fight to get to the bottom of what really happened 31,000 feet over Lockerbie on December 21st, 1988(see my blogs of July 27, Aug 16 and 22) has taken a fresh turn. Dr Jim Swire, whose daughter was killed in Britain's worst ever terrorist outrage, has joined forces with the UN observer at Abdelbaset Ali al-Megrahi's trial, Hans Koechler, and Professor Robert Black, one of the architects of the trial, to urge the UN General Assembly to hold an inquiry into the bombing.

Prof Black says the normal approach would be to ask the Security Council to instigate such a move, but that the UK and the US would block it. However, they have no power of veto over the General Assembly.

Meanwhile al-Megrahi has posted a huge dossier on the internet as part of his own campaign to establish his innocence. It casts serious doubts on the evidence of the Maltese shopkeeper who was the only witness to link al-Megrahi to the bombing.

Scotland's top prosecutor has protested about the release of the documents, but the Libyan's lawyers may be about to make further revelations. Lockerbie is proving a bigger and bigger test for the Obama regime. Are we really going to get a new US politics based on honesty and openness or the same old deception and cover-up?

Friday 18 September 2009


Just back from Dubrovnik. My first visit, and it was just about possible to discern through the fog of a million visitors what a delightful jewel it is. It might be even more delightful if it had been spared a devastating earthquake in 1667 that destroyed most of the city and killed 5,000 people.

The famous city walls and some notable buildings survived, like the Sponza Palace, the Rector's Palace and St Saviour's Church. I was disappointed to see how many of the churches were locked, without any apparent information as to when they would open.

The earthquake hit Dubrovnik when it was a prosperous independent republic, but it never really recovered, and in 1802 it was conquered by Napoleon, and then handed over to the Austrian Empire after the French Emperor's defeat.

In more recent times, Dubrovnik got caught up in Yugoslavia's civil war, and was struck by 2,000 shells during 1991-2. The Sponza and Rector's Palaces were seriously damaged as were two in three of the city's characteristic red-roofed houses. Outside the old city, many walls still bear the marks of bullets and shrapnel.

Sunday 6 September 2009

Philippine ferry disasters

A remarkable 931 people are now said to have been rescued from the Philippine SuperFerry 9 which sank off the Zamboanga peninsula about 500 miles south of Manila. Of the ship’s 851 passengers and 117 crew, nine are known to have died.

The vessel had begun listing during the night, but the captain seems to have managed an orderly evacuation using life rafts before she went down, and, fortunately, there were a number of other naval and merchant vessels in the area to pick up the survivors.

It was an altogether happier outcome than the sinking of another Philippines ferry, the Dona Paz, in 1987 in which up to 4,375 people were drowned (see my blog of August 7th), making it the world’s worst peacetime shipwreck.

The islands have suffered a number of other major maritime disasters, such as the loss of the Dona Paz's sister ship, the Dona Marilyn, in 1988, which cost up to 300 lives, and the wreck of the Princess of the Stars ferry which capsized during a typhoon in 2008 at the cost of 800 lives.

Saturday 5 September 2009

The real Tudors - the Pilgrimage of Grace

How heartening to see the BBC devoting so much reasonably prime time television in The Tudors to the story of the Pilgrimage of Grace – the great rebellion against Henry VIII in the north of England that began in 1536 in protest at the king’s dissolution of the monasteries. Henry is best remembered for the judicial murder of two of his wives, but his treatment of his northern subjects is a tale of far greater infamy.

Of course, the programme does play a bit of ducks and drakes with history. It was actually the Duke of Norfolk and not the Duke of Suffolk who played the leading role in the suppression of the uprising, but they have got the basics of the story pretty well right – an unremitting catalogue of betrayal, deception and cruelty by the authorities. Today’s politicians think they are awfully modern, but, in fact, lying has long been a favoured tactic of those in power.

I don't want to spoil the rest of the series for anyone who doesn't know the ending, but it is rather satisfying that Thomas Cromwell went to the scaffold himself. Norfolk had been due to follow him on January 28, 1547, but was saved when the king died. Henry VIII, who has the unusual distinction of having happily executed both Protestants and Catholics for their religious views, died in his bed, though tormented by leg ulcers and probably syphilis.

For the story, see A Disastrous History of Britain.

Friday 4 September 2009

AIDS - some (kind of) good news

On April 11, I wrote about a new drug that may offer us hope against malaria, now there are grounds for some optimism in the global battle with AIDS. Researchers have discovered two powerful new antibodies against the virus.

They are found in only a minority of those infected and are the first of their type to be identified in more than a decade. It is hoped that the discovery may speed up the search for an effective vaccine, though Keith Alcorn, of the HIV information service NAM, warned that that prospect was still a long way off.

He said this was an extremely complex project and that “we certainly shouldn't expect these findings to lead to a vaccine in a few years.”

Across the world last year, the World Health Organisation said that there were 33 million people living with the AIDS virus, and that 2 million had died from the disease during 2007. About 1.6 million of those deaths were in sub-Saharan Africa - the region that is worst affected with two thirds of the world’s cases. Countries such as Botswana, Swaziland, South Africa and Zimbabwe all have infection rates of over 15 per cent. (see my blog of Feb 18th)

Thursday 3 September 2009

Mass murder - how justice works

Police in Chile have arrested 25 former officials for alleged involvement in President Pinochet’s campaign of torture and murder during the 1970’s and 80’s. Warrants are out for another 100. More than 3,000 people were murdered, more than 30,000 tortured, and more than 80,000 imprisoned without trial during Pinochet’s reign of terror.

His former chief of secret police, Manuel Contreras, is already serving a life sentence for murder, kidnap and torture.

Pinochet himself never stood trial. After he fell from power, he was arrested in London in 1998 at the request of the Spanish authorities who wanted to try him over torture of its citizens in Chile. In 2000, though, the UK authorities declared he was unfit to stand trial, and allowed him to go back to Chile.

There he was stripped of his immunity from prosecution, and a number of attempts were made to bring him to justice, but none had succeeded when he died in 2006. I am not sure how vociferously the United States protested at the UK’s decision to release this mass murderer on compassionate grounds. Perhaps readers of this blog can help.

Wednesday 2 September 2009

Afghanistan v Iraq + Great Fire

In the grim competition to establish which is the greater disaster area, Afghanistan today forged briefly ahead of Iraq, as at least 23 people were killed by a suicide bomb at a mosque in Mehtar Lam, east of Kabul. Just a week ago, a massive truck bomb in Kandahar killed more than 40 in the biggest attack in a year.

Last year, Afghanistan looked for a time as though it might grab the title, ending with 436 people killed in suicide bombs – just 27 fewer than the total for Iraq (see my blog of March 28th). Now, though, Iraq is once again establishing its unenviable lead, with 393 civilians killed during last month alone.

Whoever wins the grim contest, our experience of both countries is likely to reinforce the old saying – “invade in haste, repent at leisure.”

In the early hours of this day…343 years ago, the Great Fire of London broke out in Pudding Lane, just north of London Bridge. Roused from his bed, the Lord Mayor took a quick look at the blaze, declared: “a woman might piss it out,” and went back to sleep. Five days later it had devastated 436 acres of the City – more than the Blitz managed. (For the full story, see The Disastrous History of London.) How wise Sam Goldwyn was when he advised: “never make forecasts, especially about the future.”