Tuesday 21 December 2010

Lockerbie + 22 - the tangled web

On the 22nd anniversary of Britain’s worst ever terrorist outrage – the Lockerbie bombing – the only man ever convicted of it, the Libyan Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed al-Megrahi, is said to be in a coma and close to death.

Later today, a US senator is due to unveil the results of his own personal inquiry into Megrahi’s compassionate release last year. What the authorities on both sides of the Atlantic seem desperate to prevent, though, is any inquiry into who really planted the bomb that blew up the Pan-Am jumbo.

Megrahi was released only after he agreed to drop his appeal against conviction, and ten days ago it was revealed that an 800 page dossier compiled by the Scottish Criminal Cases Review Commission, examining the flaws in the case against him, is to be kept under lock and key. The commission had identified at least six grounds for thinking Megrahi may have been wrongly convicted. The UK government has also rejected requests for a full public inquiry.

Dr Jim Swire, who daughter was one of the 270 victims of the bombing, believes Megrahi was released in order to prevent an appeal that the authorities might have found ‘very embarrassing’. Now two of the Libyan’s children say they are preparing to sue the powers-that-be in Scotland for wrongfully imprisoning their father. Will that lead to the issues finally being properly examined? Or will the authorities just pay up so they can maintain the silence? Come on Wikileaks!

Saturday 18 December 2010

Lancashire pit disaster exhibition

A new exhibition at the Museum of Wigan Life in Lancashire commemorates the 100th anniversary of the county’s worst ever mining disaster, and the third worst in British history.

On December 21, 1910, about 900 men and boys were working on the day shift at the Hulton Colliery No. 3 Bank Pit, Westhoughton, known locally as the Pretoria Pit. Just before eight o’ clock in the morning, flames shot out from the main shaft, following an explosion below.

In all 344 miners were killed. As ever they were drawn from tight-knit communities around the pit. One local woman lost her husband, four sons and two brothers. An inquest jury decided that the probable cause was that an overheated safety lamp had ignited gas and coal dust.

The worst mining disaster in British history occurred at Senghenydd, near Caerphilly, less than three years later, on October 14, 1913. A total of 440 miners died after an explosion there. The chief inspector of mines said there had been ‘a disquieting laxity in the management of the mine’, and the manager was fined £24 for five breaches of mining regulations.

For more on both disasters, see A Disastrous History of Britain. The exhibition at Wigan entitled ‘Don’t go down the mine’ runs until March 22, 2011.


Thursday 16 December 2010

Boat people

The deaths of at least 28 people, and possibly many more, in the shipwreck on Christmas Island is a reminder of the lengths to which people desperate to leave their country will go. A flimsy wooden boat carrying suspected asylum seekers from Iraq and Iran was dashed onto jagged rocks in very high seas.

More than forty people have been rescued, but it may be that the boat was carrying more than 100. It is believed it may have been on its way from Indonesia to Australia. The engines seem to have failed, and the craft was quickly smashed to pieces. It seems to have managed to evade detection and the alarm was raised only when local residents heard screams from the passengers.

Perhaps the biggest unofficial exodus by sea ever mounted was by the Vietnamese boat people. During the late 1970’s, an estimated 2 million fled South Vietnam as the Communists took over.

Apart from the usual hazards of taking to the ocean in small and often unseaworthy vessels, they had to run the gauntlet of pirates, and even if they made it to refugee camps, they were often ill-treated there too. An estimated half million died.

Sunday 12 December 2010

A date for your diary

I am giving a free talk on London's Disasters at Shoe Lane Library, 1, Little New Street, London EC4A 3JR at 1230 on January 4, 2011.

See you there!

Saturday 11 December 2010

Rwanda genocide - preserving history

An archive of the Rwanda genocide of 1994 has just opened at the Kigali Genocide Memorial in the country’s capital. It includes thousands of documents, photographs and video and sound recordings collected from survivors, witnesses and perpetrators of the mass murder.

It’s a joint initiative by the Rwandan government and the Aegis Trust, which works to prevent genocide and crimes against humanity, and the memorial site is on slopes above mass graves believed to hold the bodies of up to a quarter of a million victims.

The site’s director, himself a survivor of the genocide says that many people in Rwanda still deny the genocide, and that the archive will help ‘fight them with facts.’ The Aegis Trust is also working with the UK’s University of Nottingham to create a comprehensive map of Rwanda’s genocide sites. So far more than 1,000 have been identified in Kigali alone.

The Rwanda genocide, during which Hutu extremists murdered moderate Hutus and Tutsis was the most rapid in history, with 800,000 people murdered in 100 days. (See also my blogs of Jan 23, March 1, 4, 23; April 9, July 16, May 6, Sept 3, 9, 23; Oct 8, 30; Dec 15, 2009, 25 Feb, 2010.)

Thursday 9 December 2010

Chile prison fire

A fire in a Chilean prison has killed more than 80 inmates. The blaze at the San Miguel prison in Santiago is reported to have been started when mattresses were set on fire during a fight between rival gangs.

The blaze is the worst ever in a Chilean prison. More than 5,000 people gathered outside the gaol, and many complained they could get no information about the fate of their loved ones. There were also reports that prison guards at first refused to let in firefighters.

Chile has one of the highest per capita prison populations in Latin America, and the San Miguel gaol was grossly overcrowded. Built for 700, it was holding nearly 2,000. Chilean President Sebastian Pinera described the system as ‘inhumane’ and called for reform.

Overcrowding was also a factor in perhaps the worst ever prison fire, which swept through the Ohio State Penitentiary in the USA on April 21, 1930. The prison should have held 1,500 inmates, but 4,300 were packed inside, and more than 320 died. The following year Ohio set up a parole board that eventually released thousands of prisoners.

Sunday 5 December 2010

Progress on AIDS

Slow but sure progress appears to be being made in fighting AIDS across the world. Last year was the 12th in succession in which there was a fall in the number of deaths, and in the number of new cases.

Even so, according to the United Nations, about 2.6 million people contracted the HIV virus last year, though this is nearly 20 per cent fewer than the figure in 1997, the worst year ever recorded. The worst year so far for deaths was 2004, when the total was 2.1 million. Last year, it was down to 1.8 million.

The executive director of the UN’s AIDS programme, Michael Sidibe said: ‘We have halted and begun to reverse the epidemic.’ There are more than 33 million people living with HIV; two-thirds of them in sub-Saharan Africa, still the worst affected region. (See also my blogs of Sept 4, 2009 and Sept 18, 2010.)

*For the history of AIDS, see A Disastrous History of the World. Reviews of the new paperback edition:-