Friday 30 October 2009

Rwanda - the long arm of justice

The latest war criminal to be gaoled for his role in the Rwandan genocide of 1994 was imprisoned in faraway Canada. Desire Munyaneza, who will spend at least 25 years behind bars, was convicted in the first case brought under Canada’s War Crimes Act, which allows people to be tried for crimes they committed abroad.

Munyaneza, whose lawyer says he will appeal, was accused of leading a militia whose members raped and killed dozens of Tutsis, and of orchestrating a massacre of 300-400 in a church. Astonishingly during the 100 day genocide, in which 800,000 people died, more victims were said to have been murdered in churches than in any other kind of building. Earlier this year, a former priest was convicted for his part in the genocide (see my blog of March 1).

The Rwandan had sought asylum in Canada, but was arrested in 2005. The United Nations’ International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda has so far completed 47 cases (six defendants were acquitted). There are 26 cases in progress and another three people are awaiting trial.

See also my blogs of January 23, March 4, March 23 April 9, July 16, Sept 23, and Oct 8.

Wednesday 28 October 2009

Sombre October

The bloodbaths in Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan go on. More than 90 people – most of them women and children - were killed today by a huge car bomb at a busy market in Peshawar. The Taliban have denied responsibility but many believe it is part of their campaign of retaliation against the Pakistan government’s assault on their strongholds in South Waziristan.

This is the third major bombing in Peshawar this month, and brings to more than 150 the number killed there. Across the country in October, a series of attacks has caused nearly 300 deaths.

Iraq too has been having a dreadful time. A militant group linked to al-Qaeda says it planted the two car bombs that killed more than 150 people in Baghdad on Sunday. It was the deadliest attack in the country for more than three years.

Meanwhile, in Afghanistan, at least five UN workers have died in an attack on a guesthouse in Kabul. The Taliban said it was part of a campaign to disrupt next week’s second-round presidential election. Earlier this month, a suicide bombing at the Indian embassy killed 17.

Monday 26 October 2009

Child soldiers

Just been to see Johnny Mad Dog – the story of a group of boy soldiers in an unnamed African country. It’s an odd thing to say about such an enveloping, gut-wrenching film but in some ways the story seemed to me a little sanitised.

There was almost no examination of the way their kidnappers turned terrified children into terrifying killers. The boys also seemed to have something of a charmed life. We did not see them being wounded, maimed and killed in the numbers that surely would have been inevitable, nor, therefore, the effect this would have on their comrades. Nor did we see the fate of those who are captured. Nonetheless it is an extremely powerful film on an important subject.

The Brookings Institute have estimated that child soldiers fight in about three quarters of all the world’s wars, while in 2007, Human Rights Watch put their number at up to 300,000.

Among those currently on trial who are alleged to have used child soldiers are former Liberian president Charles Taylor (see my blog of July 15) and Congolese warlord Thomas Lubanga (see my blogs of Jan 29 and March 23). While in February, three rebel commanders in Sierra Leone were convicted of forcing children to become soldiers. (see my blog of March 4)

Sunday 25 October 2009

Egyptian train crashes

A collision between two passenger trains in Egypt has killed at least twenty people. The accident happened when one train stopped after hitting a water buffalo about 30 miles south of Cairo, and a second ploughed into the back of it.

Egyptian railways have suffered a number of serious accidents over the last few years. Last year, more than 35 people died when a train collided with a number of vehicles on a level crossing about 270 miles north-west of Cairo. A truck had failed to stop and pushed the other vehicles onto the crossing, while in 2006, the death toll was at least 58, when a commuter train collided with another that had stopped just outside a station at Qalyoub, 12 miles from the capital.

Egypt’s worst rail accident ever, though, happened in February 2002, when fire broke out aboard a service from Cairo to Luxor about 40 miles into its journey. Unaware of what had happened, the driver sped on, fanning the flames as he went.

Witnesses saw people throwing themselves from the carriages, and soon the tracks were lined with dead and injured. An opposition newspaper, complaining of poor safety standards, said the government should find out who was responsible and “hang them in public squares”. For the story, see A Disastrous History of the World.

Saturday 24 October 2009

Swine flu emergency

The US government has declared swine flu a national emergency. This is essentially an administrative move designed to give the authorities a freer hand in dealing with the disease, but it also reflects the widespread worry that the virus could become a more formidable foe as winter approaches.

More than 1,000 deaths have been linked to the illness in America, while in Britain the figure is 122, with nearly 100 others currently critically ill. Over the last week, the number of cases in the UK almost doubled to 53,000, but earlier estimates that we might start seeing 100,000 new cases a day (see my blog of July 6) have been scaled back dramatically, and the UK authorities are predicting a total of perhaps 1,000 deaths.

The World Health Organisation says that nearly 5,000 people have died from swine flu across the globe, and that there have been more than 400,000 confirmed cases, though it says this is a very considerable underestimate as countries are no longer required to report individual cases.

See also my blogs of Feb 5, May 13, and July 11.

Friday 16 October 2009

Bosnian war crimes + Parliament burned down!

A former Bosnian Serb army commander has been sentenced to 30 years in gaol for his role in the 1995 Srebrenica massacre in which 8,000 Bosnian Muslims were killed in just a week. Milorad Trbic was found to have taken part in the planning of the mass murder, which happened in what was supposed to be an enclave protected by the UN.

The former Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic is due to go on trial at The Hague in ten days time, while the former Chief of Staff of the Bosnian Serb Army, Ratko Mladic, remains at large.

On this day…..
175 years ago, the Houses of Parliament burned down! The blaze had begun in a heating furnace and spread with alarming speed. In the name of Parliamentary privilege, the building was exempt from most safety legislation, and ministers, peers and MP’s had to race through a baffling rabbit warren, breaking down doors to try and rescue priceless relics.

Sightseers flocked to the scene, including the great painter J M W Turner, who sketched away furiously. London’s new fire chief, James Braidwood, decided to concentrate on saving Westminster Hall, the only remaining part of the original 11th Century Palace of Westminster. He achieved his objective, but most of the rest of the complex was destroyed, and replaced by the Gothic masterpiece we see today. For more, see The Disastrous History of London.

Wednesday 14 October 2009

Stop Blair! Prevent a disaster!

This week the families of British people killed in Iraq have been trying to stiffen the backbone of Sir John Chilcot's inquiry, and ensure that it finds out exactly what lies we were told, why, and by whom. And what of the man who brought you the UK's greatest foreign policy disaster in at least half a century? Well, he is being touted for further aggrandisement.

Those who want Tony Blair as the lavishly rewarded President of Europe have been joined by……. the Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi. By their friends ye shall know them. Mind you, Mr Berlusconi may find himself rather too busy to campaign very actively. Now that his claim that he should be above the law has been dismissed, he could face three court cases, including one in which he is alleged to have handed over a huge bribe to get the estranged husband of one of Mr Blair’s henchpeople to give false evidence.

It is, of course, a scandal that Europe’s “President” should be chosen secretly in some stitch-up by national political leaders. But we don’t just have to stand by and accept it. Sign the “Stop Blair” petition now!

See also my blogs of Feb 25, 28, March 1, 11, 22, May 1, June 16, 22, July 30, August 3.

Monday 12 October 2009

Nigerian road disasters

A reminder over the weekend of how deadly the roads can be in Nigeria. At least 70people were killed when a fuel tanker overturned and exploded in the southern state of Anambra. The vehicle was reported to be trying to negotiate deep potholes on the Enugu-Onitsha highway when it toppled over, spilling its load across the road.

The fuel caught fire and set half a dozen packed minibuses blazing. A car is said to have crashed into the debris. A transport official warned that if major improvements were not made to the country’s road network, Nigeria could expect further tragedies.

Nearly nine years ago, in November 2000, a poorly maintained tanker careered into a traffic jam on the motorway from Ife to Ibadan. It exploded, sending a huge fireball up into the sky. More than 100 vehicles were destroyed, and up to 200 people were killed. It was the fourth deadly road accident in the country in just three months.

For the full story see A Disastrous History of the World.

Saturday 10 October 2009

Philippines - more floods

Less than two weeks after at least 300 people were killed in floods caused by the heavy rain from Typhoon Ketsana (see my blogs of Sept 28 and Oct 2), the Philippines have now been struck by the fall-out from Typhoon Parma.

Heavy rains triggered by the storm have caused landslides in Benguet province, where a number of towns have been hit and houses buried. At least 120 people are said to have been killed there. In Pangasinan province, the authorities have had to open dams to relieve the pressure from the rising waters, and about 30 towns have been flooded, leaving thousands stranded on rooftops.

The floodwater, landslides and continuing heavy rain are hampering the rescue effort, and the province’s deputy governor said the east of the state had “become one big river.” Across the country, the death toll is at least 160.

Three years ago, in February 2006, ten days of heavy rain and a minor earthquake brought a huge mudslide in the province of Southern Leyte. It caused widespread damage and the deaths of more than 1,120 people.

Thursday 8 October 2009

Rwanda genocide - another arrest

According to the old saying, the wheels of justice grind slow, but they grind exceeding small. Fifteen years after the Rwandan genocide in which 800,000 people were murdered in 100 days, another suspect has been arrested.

This follows the detention last month of a former mayor, and the conviction of the former governor of Rwanda’s capital, Kigali, in July. This time the indicted man is a former intelligence chief and senior figure at Rwanda’s elite military training school, Idelphonse Nizeyimana, who was apprehended in Uganda.

He is accused of organising the killing of thousands of people, setting up roadblocks and organising special military units to carry out the slaughter. Troops said to have been under his command rampaged through the University of Butare killing Tutsi lecturers and students.

A spokesman for the prosecutor at the UN-backed tribunal at which he will be tried said: “there is no time limit for justice.” The court is still searching for another 11 fugitives. (See also my blogs of March 1, 25, April 9, July 16, Sept 23.)

Tuesday 6 October 2009

Sumatra search called off + Great Fire of Newcastle

Officials in the Sumatran city of Padang have called off the search for survivors from last week’s earthquake, as hopes have run out of finding anyone else alive. At least 1,000 people have died, and 1,000 more are still missing.

The urgent task now is to feed the survivors, provide clean water and clear away decomposing bodies. Already children are returning to makeshift schools, and businesses are re-opening, but the island’s infrastructure has taken a terrible blow, with more than 180,000 buildings destroyed or badly damaged.

On this day…..155 years ago a fierce fire devastated Newcastle upon Tyne and Gateshead. The first flames were seen in a mill on the Gateshead side of the river, and they spread rapidly and overwhelmed the efforts of firemen.

With lots of highly inflammable goods in warehouses along the Tyne, the blaze had plenty to feed on, and by the time it had been put out, 53 people had been killed. For the story, see A Disastrous History of Britain.

Monday 5 October 2009

India - forgotten terrorism

We are used to hearing about Islamic terrorism in India, but another bloody insurgency has attracted relatively little attention. Over the last 20 years, Maoist rebels have fought a campaign in which more than 6,000 people have been killed.

The Maoists want to establish their own state and are active across large parts of central and eastern India. In their latest attack, they killed 16 people at a village in Bihar. A survivor, whose son died, said the assailants tied up the victims – labourers and poor farmers - then shot them. India’s Prime Minister has said the Maoists are now the most serious security problem facing the country.

Last month, one of their leaders, Kobad Ghandy, was arrested in Delhi. From a prosperous background, he was educated at one of India’s most exclusive schools and then trained as an accountant in London. According to friends, it was there that he became radicalised, denouncing India as "semi-feudal, semi-colonial".

Saturday 3 October 2009

India - storms, rains, floods

Following the torrential rains that brought havoc to the Philippines (see my blog of Sept 28), it is now the turn of the Indian states of Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh. At least 125 people have been killed there in a three-day downpour.

Hundreds of people are still stranded, including many pilgrims in the holy town of Mantralaya, which is under water. The Indian air force and specialist military boats have been taking part in the rescue.

Once again, the underlying problem is a tropical storm – this time a cyclone in the Bay of Bengal. More than 22,000 houses are said to have been damaged, and crops have been broken down.

India often falls a victim to flooding. See also my blog of July 20.

Friday 2 October 2009

Pacific death tolls rise

As predicted (see yesterday’s blog), the death toll from the Sumatra earthquake has increased to more than 1,000, and as rescue teams struggle to dig survivors from the rubble, it is expected to rise even further. Indonesia’s Health Minister has appealed for help from abroad.

The quake registered 7.6 on the Richter scale, compared with the 9.3 clocked up by the one that triggered the Boxing Day tsunami of 2004.

Meanwhile in the Philippines, nearly 300 people are now known to have been killed by the floods unleashed by Typhoon Ketsana (see my blog of Sept 28). In addition, 99 have died in Vietnam, along with 16 in Laos and 14 in Cambodia. Tens of thousands are homeless.

And the death toll from the tsunami that hit Samoa and Tonga (see my blog of Sept 30) has risen to at least 119. A disastrous week in the Pacific.

Thursday 1 October 2009

Coincidental quake

The earthquake that has just devastated the Indonesian island of Sumatra was a separate event from the earlier Pacific tsunami that hit Samoa (see yesterday’s blog) though some experts believe the Samoan event may have brought the Sumatran quake forward by a few days.

At least 464 people have been killed on Sumatra, though an official at Indonesia’s disaster centre predicted the death toll could eventually run into thousands. The initial shock came beneath the sea, 50 miles north-west of the city of Padang. An eye-witness said many concrete buildings had collapsed and that fires were burning in the ruins.

Indonesia is in the Pacific’s “Ring of Fire”, the most seismically active region on earth, which suffers up to 7,000 earthquakes a year. Five thousand people were killed by a quake in Yogyakarta in 2006, while 170,000 Indonesians perished in the Boxing Day tsunami of 2004.

The country has also suffered some of the world’s most notorious volcanic eruptions such as Tambora in 1815, and Krakatoa in 1883. The most powerful of all, though, struck Sumatra about 74,000 years ago, when the Toba eruption and the volcanic winter that followed wiped out 99 per cent of the human race. See A Disastrous History of the World.