Monday 30 November 2009

The final trial?

What may turn out to be the last war crimes trial of World War Two is due to open today in Munich. 89 year old retired US car worker John Demjanjuk is accused of helping to murder more than 27,000 Jews at the Nazi death camp of Sobibor in what is now Poland.

Demnjanjuk, who was born in the Ukraine, was captured by the Nazis while fighting against them in the Soviet army. He denies even being at Sobibor. In the 1980’s he was accused of being “Ivan the Terrible” – a notorious guard at the Sobibor and Treblinka extermination camps, and sentenced to death in Israel, but the conviction was overturned as unsafe by the Israeli supreme court.

The first World War Two war crimes trials started as early as 1943 when the tide of war in the east turned, and the Soviets began to drive back the German army. The Allies set up a War Crimes Commission in October of that year hoping that it might cause the Nazis to hesitate over their mass murder project, but it did not.

The most famous of the war crimes trials began at Nuremberg in November 1945. Goering managed to cheat the hangman by swallowing poison in his cell, but another ten defendants were executed.

Saturday 28 November 2009

Train bombings

The authorities in Russia are investigating whether last night’s derailment of the Moscow-St Petersburg express was caused by a bomb on the track. At least 25 people were killed, and another 19 are reported missing.

In 2007, an explosion on the same route derailed a train and injured 27 people. Two suspects were arrested. While in 2003 a suicide bomb on a commuter train in Stavropol Krai in southern Russia killed more than 40 people.

Russia’s worst rail disaster, though, came when the trans-Siberian gas pipeline ruptured near the city of Ufa in 1989. As two trains passed close to the leak, they set off a terrible explosion which produced a wasteland three miles long, and killed up to 800 passengers.

The worst terrorist attacks on trains were the Madrid bombings of 2004, in which 191 people died, and the Mumbai blasts of 2006 which cost 209 lives. (see my blog of Nov 26)

Thursday 26 November 2009

Mumbai bombings anniversary

Mumbai has been marking the first anniversary of the terrorist attacks that killed 174 people. The targets included luxury hotels and a railway station. The only surviving attacker is currently on trial in India while seven other people have just been charged in Pakistan with being involved. (see my blog of July 23)

The 2008 attacks were just the latest in a series that have targeted India’s financial capital. In 1993, a number of bombs hit targets such as the Stock Exchange, a shopping complex, and banks. A total of 257 people were killed, including 90 on a crowded double-decker bus.

During the winter before the bombings, about 900 people, mainly Muslims, had been killed in inter-communal rioting in the city – a sad blot on Mumbai's reputation for diversity and tolerance.

Another bombing campaign in 2003 cost the lives of more than 50 people. Then in July 2006, terrorists planted explosives on seven rush hour trains taking commuters home from the city. This time the death toll was 209. For more details, see A Disastrous History of the World.

Wednesday 25 November 2009

Global warming and wars + deadly cyclone anniversary

Researchers at the University of California believe they have shown that global warming directly increases the chance of wars in Africa. Looking back over the period 1981-2002, they have calculated that conflicts are 50% more likely in hotter years. The war in Darfur is often cited as the first major conflict directly caused by climate change. (see my blog of Sept 21)

Meanwhile in the UK, the Royal Society, the Met Office, and the Natural Environment Research Council have issued an alarming warning about the environmental effects of global warming. And all this as expectations for next month’s climate summit in Copenhagen grow more and more depressed.

On this day…170 years ago, a cyclone is said to have killed 300,000 people as it whipped up 40 foot waves that devastated the area around Coringa at the mouth of the Ganges on India’s east coast. The storm also destroyed 20,000 boats.

Fifty years earlier in December 1789, a cyclone produced three tidal waves in the area that are supposed to have drowned 20,000.

Monday 23 November 2009

Another Chinese mining disaster

The death toll in China’s latest mining disaster has now reached at least 104. Another four men are still missing after Saturday’s huge gas explosion at the Xinxing mine in Hegang close to the Russian border.

Apparently, attempts were being made to evacuate around 500 miners from the pit when the gas ignited. About a dozen women who went to the mine early today to complain about the lack of information, clashed with police and security guards, and some were driven away in a van. Reporters who tried to speak to the women were harassed.

Despite an 18% reduction in fatal accidents in the first half of this year, China’s coal mines remain among the most dangerous in the world. In the first six months of 2009, 1,175 miners have already been killed. Another 11 died yesterday in an explosion at another mine in Hunan province.

China was the scene of the world’s worst mining accident at Honkeiko in 1942, when 1,549 miners were killed. See also my blogs of Feb 22 and Nov 19.

Sunday 22 November 2009

Disaster history in Cambodia

The Khmer Rouge genocide is back on the curriculum of Cambodian schools. The subject dropped off the agenda in the mid-90’s when the remaining Maoist leaders made peace. The presence of former Khmer Rouge members in the government made it a particularly sensitive subject.

Now a new text book will tell the story of the murder of up to 1.75 million people – a quarter of the country’s population – in the five years during which Pol Pot’s fanatics ruled. The victims died from exhaustion, starvation, disease, torture or execution.

Meanwhile, in a Phnom Penh courtroom, final arguments will be heard this week in the case of Kaing Guek Eav, alias Comrade Duch, who ran the notorious Tuol Sleng “special interrogation centre” in the Cambodian capital, which was reserved for suspected “traitors” within the party. Now a genocide museum, of 15,000 people held there, only seven are thought to have survived.

Duch, who has become a born-again Christian, has asked for forgiveness for his crimes. See also my blogs of Jan 7, March 4 and June 29.

Thursday 19 November 2009

More deadly landslides - China and El Salvador

More than 20 people have been killed in Shanxi province in northern China by a landslide that engulfed six makeshift homes where migrant coalminers were living close to a mine.

Shanxi is the centre of China’s mining industry which is one of the most dangerous in the world. More than 3,000 workers died in accidents last year. The cause of the latest disaster is being investigated.

Heavy rain is being blamed for the landslide that buried the farming town of Verapaz in El Salvador last week, killing at least 130 people. Boulders – some weighing more than a ton – littered the streets, dead cows were found on rooftops, and half-buried cars stuck out of the mud.

The town, which is about 30 miles from the capital San Salvador, lies on the slopes of a volcano. See also my blogs of April 17 and November 12.

Wednesday 18 November 2009

Another ferry disaster

At least 50 people have drowned after a wooden ferry collided with a barge and then sank in Myanmar’s Irrawaddy Delta. There were about 180 people on board the Naywintun, or rising sun.

The delta is the area that was devastated last year by Cyclone Nargis. Most of the population of the low-lying region depend on river ferries which are often poorly maintained. At least 38 people were killed when a boat sank in the delta in July 2008, while the worst shipwreck in the area came in 1902 when the British steamship, SS Camorta, was caught in a cyclone and sank with the loss of 737 lives.

For other ferry disasters, see my blogs of April 15, Aug 7, Sept 6 and 26.

This day 22 years ago saw one of London’s worst fires of modern times as a carelessly discarded match caused a terrible disaster at King’s Cross underground station. The match set fire to rubbish that had accumulated through years of neglect beneath an escalator. Smoking was supposed to be banned on the escalators but the rule was poorly enforced. The story of how 31 people were killed can be seen in The Disastrous History of London.

Thursday 12 November 2009

Landslides - Africa, India, South America

Heavy rain has brought deadly landslides in Africa and India. At least 38 people have been killed in the Nilgiri Hills in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu. Continuing monsoon rains are hampering the rescue effort, and it’s feared the death toll may rise.

While in Tanzania’s Kilimanjaro province, four days of rain brought part of a mountain crashing down on the village of Goha, killing at least 20. Ironically, the area has been suffering from severe drought for the past two years.

The deadliest landslide in history was probably the one that devastated Venezuela’s coastal region in December 1999. Thirty-six inches of rain fell in just a few days, and flash floods and mudslides engulfed high rise buildings and effortlessly ripped away shanty towns perched precariously on ridges around the capital Caracas.

More than 20,000 homes were destroyed, and an estimated 140,000 people made homeless. The death toll has been estimated at anything up to 30,000. For more, see A Disastrous History of the World. (see also my blog of April 17)

Friday 6 November 2009

Native Americans

President Obama is holding the first ever conference for all of America’s native Indians. Delegates from all 564 tribes have been invited to the White House as the president promised them a better deal.

Estimates of the number of native Americans before the appearance of the white man range as high as 18 million. Then they were killed in wars or by being driven from their lands, but most of all by disease.

With no immunity to the infections brought from Europe, they died in their thousands, from chicken pox, smallpox, measles. In 1618, smallpox wiped out 90% of the Massachusetts Bay native Americans.

A century and a half later, the disease reached the northwest coast, and killed off 30% of the Indians there. In the Puget Sound area, a population of 37,000 was reduced to just 9,000, and epidemics continued on into the nineteenth century. Today, there are about 2 million Indians left in the United States and about 1 million in Canada.

Thursday 5 November 2009

Gunpowder, treason and plot + Nigeria road carnage

Today in the UK, we celebrate the failure of what nowadays would no doubt be called a terrorist attack – the attempt of Guy Fawkes and his fellow Roman Catholic conspirators to blow up the House of Commons in 1605. It will be interesting to see whether the recent disastrous decline in the reputation of MPs will lead to guys being burned or fireworks set off with any less enthusiasm.

It is not just that so many of our representatives seem to have been quite happy to rip off the people who elected them, it is also that so few seem to have been interested in doing their job. They have stood by as the Labour government has stripped us of our civil liberties, and they evidently do not bother to read most of the poorly drafted, ill thought out laws they pass under the instruction of the party whips.

For Nigeria, though, today is the anniversary of a disaster that DID happen. On November 5, 2000, one of the country’s perennial jams had brought traffic to a standstill on the Ife to Ibadan motorway. Then along came a rather decrepit petrol tanker which could not stop, and ploughed into the stationary vehicles.

Within seconds it blew up, and a huge fireball devastated the area. No one knows exactly how many people were killed, but it could be up to 200. Police were later accused of causing the original jam by setting up a roadblock so they could extort money from motorists, though major traffic accidents are nothing unusual in Nigeria. (see my blog of Oct 12)

Wednesday 4 November 2009

Vietnam storms

Tropical storm Mirinae has caused the deaths of at least 40 people in Vietnam as it dumped 13 inches of rain on the country, bringing widespread floods. Soldiers have been sent in to rescue people trapped by the rising waters.

Just a month ago, Vietnam was hit by typhoon Ketsana, which killed more than 160 people, as well as 300 more in the Philippines, Laos and Cambodia. (see my blog of Oct 2). It was Vietnam’s deadliest storm in years, but typhoons are a constant danger.

In 2006, the assailants were typhoons Xangsane and Durian. Xangsane killed 71 people and destroyed or damaged more than 300,000 homes, while from Durian, the death toll was 98, and nearly 900 fishing boats were sunk.

Two years earlier, typhoon Muifa brought torrential rains that destroyed crops over 500 square kilometres, and floods and landslides caused about 80 deaths.