Wednesday 22 September 2010

North Korean disasters

In hyper-secretive North Korea, an extremely rare conference of its ruling “Workers’ Party” is expected to pave the way for 20-something Kim Jong-un to be confirmed as successor to his father, Kim Jong-il as the country’s third hereditary Communist dictator.

Meanwhile, the few fortunate enough to have escaped their regime tell stories of people starving in the streets as the economy performs even more disastrously than usual. Famine is nothing new in North Korea. In 1998, a visiting research team from the US Congress estimated that at least 900,000, and possibly as many as 2.4 million, had died of hunger over the previous 3 years.

The following year, overseas aid reduced the number of deaths, but in 2000, there were still reports of famine in most parts of the country outside the capital Pyongyang, and it was estimated that 10 million people were undernourished.

Earlier this month, North Korea was hit by Typhoon Kompasu, which, according to the official state media, destroyed more than 8,300 homes and 230 public buildings, as well as damaging roads, railways and power lines. “Several dozen” people were killed.

Monday 20 September 2010

Air India + 25 years - a conviction

More than 25 years after the deadliest ever terrorist attack on a single aircraft, a Canadian Sikh who helped make the bomb has been convicted of perjury. On June 23, 1985, an Air India Jumbo jet flying from Montreal to London exploded off the coast of Ireland, killing all 329 people on board.

In 2003, Inderjit Singh Reyat, who had already been gaoled for his role in another bombing at Tokyo’s Narita airport, was sentenced to five years in prison for manslaughter in connection with the Air India attack. It was widely believed that he had been given a light sentence in return for promising to testify against two other suspects.

At their trial in 2005, though, he said he could not remember anything about them, and they were acquitted. The bombings were believed to be in retaliation for the storming of the Golden Temple, the Sikhs' holiest shrine, by Indian troops in 1984. Reyat will be sentenced at a later date.

The Canadian security services were heavily criticised for a "cascading series of errors" that led up to the bombing. It was claimed that warnings were ignored, unauthorised people were allowed to wander freely on the aircraft, and that a sniffer dog had arrived too late to search it. For more on the attack, see A Disastrous History of the World.

Saturday 18 September 2010

AIDS - some progress in Africa

More than 20 countries in sub-Saharan Africa – the world’s worst affected region – have seen a reduction of over 25% in new cases of HIV infection. The United Nations says it is because of greater awareness and wider use of condoms. On the other hand, says the UN, cases are on the increase in Eastern Europe and Central Asia, and among gay men in developed countries.

Anti-AIDS drugs are having an increasing impact, with more than five million people now taking them – a 12-fold increase over the last six years. This has meant there were 200,000 fewer deaths in 2008 than in 2004.

Worldwide, though, there are still 7,400 new cases every day – with 40% of them among young people aged 15 to 24. Of every five people newly infected, only two get treatment. Tuberculosis remains one of the main causes of death among people infected with HIV, even though it is preventable and curable. Over half a million died this way in 2008.

The UN is calling for another £6 billion to be invested in the worldwide fight against the disease. (See also my blogs of Feb 18 and Sept 4, 2009.)

Thursday 16 September 2010

Another Khmer Rouge trial

Less than two months after the conviction of former Khmer Rouge prison boss Comrade Duch (see my blog of July 26), another four of its leaders have been indicted for genocide and torture in Cambodia in the 1970’s.

Duch was the first person convicted by the UN-backed war crimes court. Now Nuon Chea, deputy to the notorious KR leader Pol Pot, former head of state Khieu Samphan, former foreign minister Ieng Sary and his wife Ieng Thirith will come before it. All of them deny the charges.

Justice has been a long time coming. The events to which the charges relate took place more than 30 years ago. The defendants have all been held since 2007, and the trial is not expected to start before the middle of next year. All of them are now elderly, and Ieng Sary is in poor health.

The Cambodian genocide was one of the most vicious in history, accounting for perhaps one in four of the country’s people. Apart from those who were murdered – “bourgeois” elements such as lawyers, doctors, teachers, engineers, scientists and their families - many others died from hunger or overwork, as Pol Pot’s Maoist fanatics emptied the cities and drove people out into the countryside.

(See also my blogs of Jan 7, March 4, June 29 and Nov 22, 2009.)

Wednesday 15 September 2010

The Great Fire of Moscow

On this day…..198 years ago, Napoleon entered Moscow. It was virtually deserted, and the French army was unnerved by the eerie silence. In some parts of the city, fires were burning.

The next day, a strong wind began whipping up the flames, setting ablaze the stores on Red Square and soon burning debris had spread the fire to the Kremlin where the emperor had set up his headquarters. French soldiers interrupted their looting to help him out of the city.

By the following day, the whole of Moscow was ablaze, and many of the French army decided to follow their leader and get the hell out. Eventually rain put the flames out, but not before three-quarters of the city had gone up in smoke. An estimated 2,000 wounded Russians and up to 20,000 wounded French soldiers perished, plus an unknown number of Russian civilians.

Who started the fire? The Russians blamed the French, and the French blamed the Russians. Certainly the Russians had burned down depots holding ammunition, food and forage to deny them to the invaders. On the other hand, the French had been plundering and fires they started may have got out of control. For the story, see A Disastrous History of the World.

Friday 10 September 2010

"War on drugs" spills over

Mexico’s “war on drugs” (see my blogs of June 10 and Aug 18) is spilling over. Police in Honduras say that street gangs linked to Mexican drug cartels were responsible for the murder of 18 men in a shoe factory in San Pedro Sula.

A group of gunmen armed with assault rifles burst in and started shooting. It is believed to be part of a territorial dispute between rival groups of drug traffickers. The region where the attack happened is one where gangs refine cocaine before moving it north towards Mexico and the USA.

The drugs gangs have tens of thousands of members in Central America. Neighbouring El Salvador has been severely disrupted for three days by a strike in protest at a new law making gang membership illegal.

Many businesses closed after gangs circulated leaflets saying they would have to “face the consequences” if they stayed open. The law was introduced after gang members set fire to a bus, killing 17 people.

Thursday 9 September 2010

Genocide begets genocide?

The Rwandan government’s threat to withdraw its 3,400 personnel serving with the UN-African Union peacekeeping force in Darfur (see my blog of Sept 3) seems to have had the desired effect. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon quickly jetted into the Rwandan capital, Kigali, to tell President Paul Kagame that he was “disappointed” about the leaking of a UN report accusing Rwandan forces of murdering tens of thousands of Hutus in the Congo.

A team from the UN’s office for the High Commissioner on Human Rights has catalogued more than 600 incidents, and it claims that President Kagame’s Hutu forces were involved in more than 100 of them.

In 1996, for example, Rwandan troops are said to have gone to the Chimanga refugee camp. They told the refugees they would be going back home. Then, on an apparently pre-arranged signal, they opened fire, killing up to 800.

Back in 1994, it was President Kagame’s Rwandan Patriotic Front that put an end to the mass murder of Tutsis by extremist Hutus in Rwanda. Many of the perpetrators fled to the Congo, where they hid among a million other Hutus who had fled fearing for their lives under the new regime. It was when the genocide organisers started re-grouping that President Kagame ordered the invasion.

Tuesday 7 September 2010

Pakistan still flooding

Pakistan’s monsoon flood ordeal is far from over. Hundreds of thousands more people have had to flee their homes after fresh flooding in the southern Sindh province, which has had 19 of its 23 districts inundated.

Aid agencies say that at least 8 million people have been driven from their homes, and 1,600 have died. More than 45 major bridges and thousands of miles of roads have been destroyed or badly damaged.

Agriculture has also been severely hit. The Minister for Food says about a fifth of Pakistan’s crop growing areas have been flooded. More than a million farm animals have been drowned, farm equipment and irrigation infrastructure has been damaged, and there are worries that fields will be too waterlogged for farmers to sow winter wheat.

The total damage suffered by the country is put at up to £26bn. With Russian wheat production also badly hit by a drought, there’s growing concern about world food supplies.

* My book London’s Disasters has been reviewed by the Londonist website.

Saturday 4 September 2010

Pakistan - normal terrorism resumed

The monsoon floods have disrupted many things in Pakistan, but not, it seems, religious terrorism. A suicide bomb has just killed at least 50 people at a Shia Muslim rally in Quetta in the south-west of the country. Sunni Taliban militants say they carried out the attack.

It came just two days after another suicide bombing operation directed at a Shia procession in Lahore, which killed 31 people. Again the Taliban said they were responsible, and that the attack was in retaliation for the killing of a Sunni leader last year.

In Pakistan, Sunni Muslims outnumber Shias by about four to one. A Shia leader has appealed for calm.

This is the same murderous sectarian feud that has claimed so many lives in Iraq. One of the worst outrages there came on November 23, 2006 when a series of bombs went off during a Shia religious festival in Sadr City, killing at least 215 people. Shias retaliated with a series of attacks on Sunni targets.

(See also my blogs of March 28 and Oct 28, 2009 and Jan 3 and Feb 6 , 2010.)

Friday 3 September 2010

Another African genocide?

The mainly-Tutsi Rwandan Patriotic Front is justly praised for ending the genocide in that country in 1994, after 800,000 people had been slaughtered by Hutu extremists in just 100 days – the fastest mass murder in history. The story is chronicled in the film Hotel Rwanda.

Now though, the Tutsis find themselves accused in a leaked United Nations report of genocide in the neighbouring Democratic Republic of the Congo. When the genocidal Rwandan government was overthrown, more than two million Hutus are thought to have fled into the Congo, where some resumed attacks on Tutsis.

The Rwandan government then began backing Tutsi militias, who eventually overthrew the regime in Kinshasa. Other countries got involved – Uganda, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Angola – with the suspicion that they were trying to get their hands on a share of the Congo’s immense mineral wealth, and at least 5 million people died.

The leaked report accuses the Rwandans of killing tens of thousands of Hutu men, women and children. Rwanda has dismissed the findings as “insane”, and threatened to pull out of UN peace-keeping missions, which could be quite a blow for the organisation. The current commander of the joint UN-African Union mission in Darfur is a Rwandan.

(See also A Disastrous History of the World and my blogs of Jan 23, March 23, Sept 23, Oct 30, Dec 15, 2009 and Feb 25, 2010)

Wednesday 1 September 2010

Mao's great famine

A new book on the great Chinese famine of 1958-62 confirms the figure I use in A Disastrous History of the World – that chairman Mao was responsible for at least 50 million deaths. In Mao’s Great Famine, Prof Frank Dikotter concludes that the famine itself killed at least 45 million, and on top of that, of course, there was the Cultural Revolution, the reign of terror that established Communist rule in the first place etc.

Prof Dikotter battled tenaciously for access to Chinese archives, and exposes how the party ruthlessly used food as a weapon, punishing with starvation anyone who stood in its way. He says that the state terror was imposed so efficiently that no photographs are known to exist of the famine.

The disaster had its origins in two of Mao’s doctrines – the forced collectivisation of agriculture, even though this had been clearly shown to reduce food production, and the ‘Great Leap Forward’ – designed to catapult China into the big league of industrial nations.

It involved getting peasants to abandon the land to construct gerry-built dams (which often collapsed with catastrophic results) or make useless steel by melting down agricultural implements in backyard furnaces. While his people starved, Mao cut food imports and doubled exports – handing out free gain to North Korea, Vietnam and Albania. (See also my blogs of 6 Jan and 27 March 2009.)