Saturday 21 December 2013

London theatre disasters

Last Friday (the thirteenth, of December) I was watching a play at the Apollo Theatre in London. Six days later, the ceiling fell in on the dress circle, where I had been sitting, injuring 76 people.

Still, that was not nearly as bad as some of the earlier disasters that struck the capital's theatres. The first Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, was burned down in 1672. The second was declared unsafe and closed, while the third lasted just 15 years before it too caught fire, and was razed to the ground in 1809.

In the 17 years from 1863, there were 14 major fires in London theatres, and the head of the Metropolitan Fire Brigade, Sir Eyre Massey Shaw, produced a report lambasting the inadequacy of their safety precautions.

Shaw was a great friend of the Prince of Wales, later King Edward VII, and would tip the prince off if there was a particularly 'good' fire, so he could tag along for a bit of amateur firefighting. One blaze at the Alhambra in Leicester Square almost cost the future king his life when a wall collapsed, narrowly missing him.

For more, see London's Disasters.

Wednesday 18 December 2013

Joseph Stalin - unhappy birthday

On this day........134 years ago, Joseph Stalin was born. The Russian Communist dictator went on to be one of the greatest mass murderers in history, being responsible for the deaths of perhaps 30 million people.

In 1928, he embarked on a forced collectivisation of Soviet agriculture, but millions of peasants would have nothing to do with it, often slaughtering their animals rather than hand them over to the state. Hundreds of thousands of villagers died as they were marched off to Siberia.

Even when famine swept through the Ukraine in 1932, the government carried on seizing grain from farmers. How many died? ‘No one was counting’, shrugged Khrushchev, then one of Stalin’s aides. An official estimate in 1990 put the number at four million, but many believe it was far more.

Then came the purges - intellectuals, artists, engineers, army officers, police chiefs, communist officials, people who had made an unwise comment.  Millions were sent to the gulags, where the commandants were given a quota of inmates - 28% - who had to be shot or otherwise punished for anti-state agitation.

For more, see A Disastrous History of the World.

Tuesday 17 December 2013

Plague hits Madagascar

Plague has struck Madagascar again. More than 40 people in five districts have been killed by the bubonic version, spread by rats’ fleas, while two have died from the even more lethal pneumonic type, which is spread from person to person and can kill in 24 hours.

Last year, the island suffered more deaths from the disease than any other country – 60. There has been a programme to exterminate rats and fleas in Madagascar’s prisons, but the Red Cross warned in October that there was danger of an epidemic, following a fall in living standards since a coup in 2009.

Health officials have gone to the areas affected to investigate, but the local WHO office says medicines are in short supply.

Most, though not all, scientists believe bubonic and pneumonic plague caused the world’s deadliest epidemic – the Black Death, which killed perhaps a third of Europe’s population and countless more in Asia from about 1334 to 1351. 

Saturday 14 December 2013

Bangladesh war crimes execution

The execution that attracted most attention over the last few days was the killing – apparently by machine gun fire – of Jang Song Thaek, the uncle of North Korea’s young dictator, Kim Jong Un, but there was another of great significance in Bangladesh.

An Islamist leader, Abdul Kader Mullah, was hanged after being found guilty of crimes during Bangladesh’s bloody war of independence in 1971, which cost the lives of up to 3 million people. He was the first person to be executed following conviction by Bangladesh's International Crimes Tribunal.

At his trial, he was described by prosecutors as the ‘Butcher of Mirpur’, a suburb of the capital, Dhaka, where he is alleged to have been involved in the massacre of unarmed civilians and of intellectuals who supported independence from Pakistan. Mullah always denied the charges, and human rights groups have expressed concern about the court’s fairness.

Another 4 members of Mullah’s Jamaat-e-Islami party are also facing the death penalty. His execution has led to clashes in which at least 5 people have died.

Sunday 8 December 2013

Chile: the world's deadliest fire in a single building - 150th anniversary

On this day............150 years ago, the Chilean capital, Santiago, was the scene of perhaps the world's deadliest fire in a single building.  It happened in the church of La Campania on December 8, 1863 and up to 2,000 people perished.

The building was packed for a religious festival, and was 'hung from roof to floor with floating gauze and rich drapery'. There were also 'innumerable' paraffin lamps. A few, at the foot of a giant statue of the Virgin Mary, set fire to some fabric.

The flames spread through the building in no time and people rushed for the exits.  Women and girls fainted and were trampled to death, and soon the exits were so crammed with bodies that no one could get out.

Melting lead from the roof and burning oil from the lamps fell on the desperate congregation, and finally a huge bell came crashing down. At the time, the city had no organised fire brigade, but the disaster provided the necessary spur.  For the full story, see A Disastrous History of the World.

Thursday 5 December 2013

Disasters and politics

When the Maxima supermarket collapsed in the Latvian capital, Riga, last month, with the deaths of at least 54 people, (see my blog of Nov 22) it also brought down the government.  Prime Minister Valdis Dombrovskis resigned after the president, Andris Berzins, described the disaster as ‘murder’.

Disasters often have important political consequences. The Bangladesh cyclone of 1970 was the deadliest in history, killing up to a million people. It was also the last straw in the fractious relationship between East and West Pakistan. The response of the government in the West was seen as grudging and inadequate, and the East began a war of independence from which it emerged as the new nation of Bangladesh.

In 2008, another cyclone, Nargis, killed perhaps 140,000 people in Myanmar. Again, the government was heavily criticised, for the slowness of the relief effort and its reluctance to accept foreign help. Many saw this as the beginning of the current transition to democracy.

Going further back into history, a devastating hailstorm  that flattened crops across much of France in 1788 played a crucial role in fomenting the Revolution that came the following year, as it bankrupted the government through loss of tax revenues, and sent food prices into the stratosphere.

Wednesday 27 November 2013

Boat people - Haiti

There have been many sad stories about migrants in recent months – dying of thirst in the Sahara desert or drowning off the coast of Italy (see my blogs of Oct 4 and 31). In those cases, the victims were Africans, but a lot of Haitians are also desperate to leave their country, regarded as the poorest in the western hemisphere.

This week a vessel carrying migrants from Haiti capsized off the Bahamas. Up to 30 people may have been killed, and US coast guards reported 100 were clinging to the hull of the upturned boat. Rescue services have dropped food and life rafts, and a number of people have been winched up to helicopters.

In June of last year, eleven Haitians were drowned when their boat capsized also off the Bahamas, while in 2011, at least 38 died when their vessel sank off Cuba.

One of the worst incidents off recent years came in 2009 when about 70 migrants from Haiti were lost when their boat capsized off the Turks and Caicos Islands.

Friday 22 November 2013

Latvian supermarket collapse

At least 32 people have been killed after the roof of a supermarket collapsed in the Latvian capital, Riga. Three of the dead were emergency workers, and there are fears that more people could be trapped inside. It is the country’s worst disaster since it gained independence from the Soviet Union in 1991.

The supermarket won an architectural prize when it opened just a couple of years ago, and the cause of the collapse is unclear, though there are reports that a garden was being built on the roof. Police are investigating to see whether there have been any breaches of building regulations.

Relatives have been asked to call the mobile phone numbers of those still missing to help rescue services locate them in the rubble. Witnesses said customers tried to run out when the roof started to collapse, but that the supermarket's electronic doors closed, trapping them inside.

Probably the deadliest store collapse of all time happened in the South Korean capital, Seoul, in 1995, when the five-storey Sampoong department store collapsed, killing 501 people. A police investigation revealed that it had been built with sub-standard cement and had been inadequately reinforced. For the full story, see A Disastrous History of the World

Sunday 17 November 2013

Cambodia - justice and killing fields

Bringing alleged war criminals to justice decades after the event is never a straightforward process, and it has proved particularly difficult in Cambodia, where up to 2 million people, a quarter of the country’s population at the time, perished during Pol Pot’s 1970’s reign of terror.

Last month, the last two surviving leaders of the Khmer Rouge regime made closing statements at their trials. ’Brother Number Two’, 87 year old Nuon Chea (pictured) and Khieu Samphan, aged 82, the regime’s head of state, both deny crimes against humanity. A verdict is expected early next year, and they are still due to face genocide charges at some future date.

Nuon Chea expressed remorse for the suffering endured by the Cambodian people, but blamed it all on subordinates. The only leader convicted so far is Kaing Guek Eav, known as Duch, who admitted charges against him. (see my blog of 26 July, 2010) Another defendant, Ieng Sary, died in March, while his wife was ruled unfit to continue her trial. (see my blog of 16 March)

The country’s prime minister, Hun Sen, was himself a Khmer Rouge battalion commander, and the government has often seemed less than enthusiastic about  the court, but more than 100,000 Cambodians have attended the hearings.

Friday 15 November 2013

Forgotten cyclone hits Africa

While the eyes of the world have been on Typhoon Haiyan as it devastated the Philippines (see my blog of 12 Nov), a cyclone has killed at least 140 people in the Somali region of Puntland. Hundreds of homes have been destroyed, and livestock has perished by the thousand.

The authorities say many people are still missing, and fear the death toll could reach 300. Heavy flooding has made many of the region’s dirt roads impassable, making it hard to get supplies to stricken communities.

Makeshift shelters have been built to accommodate people driven from their homes, while the government has appealed to international aid agencies to help. The Somali government has pledged $1 million.

Puntland declared itself an autonomous state in 1998 in an attempt to escape the clan warfare that has disfigured so much of Somalia, but the region has not escaped armed conflict and has been used by pirates as a base for attacks on international shipping.

·        * Another Spanish review of my book Historia mundial de los desastres

Tuesday 12 November 2013

A deadly storm and a deadly anniversary

The strongest storms are not always the deadliest. It all depends where they strike. But Typhoon Haiyan has proved both strong and deadly. It has brought winds gusting at up to 170 miles an hour, and it has killed an estimated 10,000 people.

The worst hit area appears to be city of Tacloban on Leyte island in the Philippines, and the worst damage seems to have been done by the 45 foot waves the storm generated. More than 670,000 people have been driven from their homes.

The airport at Tacloban was damaged, at first preventing aircraft arriving to deliver supplies and evacuate survivors, but now the Philippines air force is getting transport aircraft in and out. Hundreds of thousands of people did leave before the typhoon arrived, but many evacuation centres were unable to withstand the winds and storm surges.

The deadliest storm of all time was probably the cyclone that hit Bangladesh 43 years ago today, on the night of November 12, 1970. Its winds peaked at 115 miles an hour as it devastated the low-lying islands of the Bay of Bengal, killing up to a million people. For the full story see A Disastrous History of the World.

Sunday 3 November 2013

More fireworks explosions

Fireworks can be spectacular, but following last month’s explosion at a Vietnamese fireworks factory that killed more than 20 people (see my blog of Oct 28), now there's news from China that 11 have died with another 17 injured at a fireworks factory at Cenxi in the southern region of Guangxi.

Two businessmen are reported to have been arrested. Controls on China’s fireworks industry are lax, and there have been a number of deadly incidents in recent years. In 2010, 19 people were killed in a blast in the southern province of Guangdong, and a similar number in an explosion at Yichun in Heilongjiang province.

India too is plagued by firework factory accidents. A blast in Thanjavur district of Tamil Nadu province on Friday killed nine people. The plant made high-decibel bangers and rockets.

And last month, two children lost their lives when a stack of fireworks exploded at a house at Dalowal in Pakistan. The blast was followed by a fire, and neighbours said the roof then collapsed before they could go in to help.

Thursday 31 October 2013

Migrants die of thirst in Sahara

Earlier this month, I blogged about the boat people drowned as they tried to reach Europe from Africa ( Now comes a story of migrants who perished trying to cross an African desert.

Rescue workers in Niger say they have found the bodies of 87 people who died of thirst in the Sahara. They may have been on their way to Europe, or going to work in Algeria, when their vehicles broke down.

It is believed they left the town of Arlit about a month ago. When their vehicles broke down, they set out on foot, and about ten managed to get back to the town to raise the alarm.

The bodies were found in searing heat about six miles from the Algerian border. At least 48 were children or teenagers. Niger is one of the world's poorest countries and suffers frequent drought and food shortages.

Monday 28 October 2013

Firework accidents

Earlier this month, more than 20 people were killed in a huge explosion at a fireworks factory in Phu Tho province, northern Vietnam.  The blast blew off roofs and blew in windows in nearby houses, and could be heard 6 miles away.

Traditionally, home-made firecrackers were used in Vietnam to celebrate weddings, but the government banned them in 1994, and decreed that fireworks manufactured in state-approved facilities should be used instead.

In 2008, about 20 people were killed in an explosion at an unlicensed fireworks factory in Istanbul, while 8 years earlier, a similar number perished in a blast in a depot at Enschede in the Netherlands, which specialised in importing Chinese fireworks for use at events like pop concerts.

Fireworks were also in great demand in London in the nineteenth century, and in 1854, a house in Westminster where a Mrs Coton made them, blew up, killing her husband and a boy who worked there. Mrs Coton had the house rebuilt, but four years later, it blew up again, killing five people, including, this time, Mrs Coton herself. Two years later, the government clamped down on firework manufacture.

·         Thanks to this Spanish Wikipedia entry for putting my Historia Mundial de los desastres as ‘further reading’.

Monday 14 October 2013

Fatal crushes and religious festivals

At least 115 people are now known to have died in a stampede at a Hindu religious festival in the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh. Panic broke out on a bridge near the Ratangarh temple, perhaps because of a rumour that it was about to collapse.

Most of the dead were women and children, some crushed, other who jumped into the river below. Hundreds of thousands had gathered for the festival of Navratra. The narrow bridge, which is about 550 yards long, had only recently been rebuilt following another stampede in 2006 that killed more than 50 people.

Stampedes often happen at Indian religious festivals. In 2008, more than 220 people were killed at the Chamunda Devi Hindu temple, while in 2011 more than 100 died in the southern state of Kerala.

The Muslim Hajj to Mecca has also seen a number of fatal crushes. In 1990, more than 1,400 died in a fearsomely hot tunnel after a few people had fallen. Four years later, at least 270 pilgrims died in another stampede, while in 2001, 244 people were killed at the traditional ceremony where stones are thrown at the devil, and 345 more perished at the same event in 2006.

(See also my blogs of November 23, 2010 and August 31, 2011.)

Friday 11 October 2013

War casts long shadow

An 83 year old Bangladeshi politician has been sentenced to life imprisonment for his part in the country’s bloody independence struggle in 1971, which cost up to 3 million lives. A special war crimes tribunal had found him guilty of involvement in the deaths of 372 Hindus.

Abdul Alim, of the Bangladesh National Party, was convicted on nine charges. Last week the tribunal sentenced another senior BNP figure, Salahuddin Quader Chowdhury, to death for crimes against humanity. 

Alim was spared the death penalty because of his poor health. Prosecutors say he headed part of a militia fighting on the side of the Pakistan government that was trying to stop Bangladesh, then East Pakistan, breaking away.

Six current and former leaders of the main Islamic party, Jamaat-e-Islami, have  been convicted by the same tribunal. Critics say the trials failed to meet international standards, and dozens of people have died in violent protests against the verdicts.

(See also my blog of July 19.)

Sunday 6 October 2013

Relief workers murdered

In Pakistan, a roadside bomb has killed two soldiers helping with relief work after last month’s earthquake in Balochistan. Three others were injured in the explosion near the town of Mashkay.

Up to 800 people were killed in the quake, with many more injured, and altogether 300,000 people are said to have been affected. No one has admitted carrying out the attack on the troops, but Baloch separatists have been fighting the army for years.

Rockets have been launched against army helicopters and members of the paramilitary Frontier Corps delivering relief.

The Pakistani army effectively controls large parts of the province - one of the country’s poorest - and insurgents accuse them of kidnapping and killing Baloch nationalists, charges the army denies.

Friday 4 October 2013

Boat people 2013

More than 200 people are still missing after the boat on which they were trying to escape Eritrea and Somalia sank off the Italian island of Lampedusa. So far 155 people have been rescued and 111 bodies have been found.

The 66 foot boat began taking on water as it neared the island, then it is said that some of the passengers started a fire to try to attract attention. As the flames spread, everyone moved to one side of the vessel, causing it to capsize.

On Lampedusa, a hangar has had to be turned into a makeshift mortuary, and Italy has declared a day of national mourning. The boat’s skipper has been arrested.

Since 1988, nearly 20,000 people have died trying to get into Europe, more than 2,350 of them in 2011 alone. (See also my blogs of April 2, 2009 and December 16, 2010.)

*Piece from a Spanish website about my Historia Mundial de los desastres.

Monday 30 September 2013

Chemical weapons

So the UN inspectors now have the taks of destroying 1,000 tonnes of Syrian chemical weapons. Such weapons were first banned by the Hague convention of 1899.

This relatively new rule book, though, was not enough to stop them being used during World War One, first by Germany, and then the Allies. They killed at least 90,000 soldiers.

During the 1930’s they were deployed by the Italians in Ethiopia and the Japanese in China. In the later stages of World War Two, President Roosevelt was advised by some to use them on the Japanese stubbornly defending Iwo Jima from caves and tunnels, where they would have been particularly vulnerable. He rejected the idea.

In the post-war era, Saddam Hussein employed chemical weapons against Iran and against the Kurds and other minorities in Iraq, while in 1995, a terrorist used a home-made nerve gas to attack commuters on the Tokyo subway system.

Thursday 26 September 2013

(Once) Britain's deadliest air crash

Last night I was fortunate enough to be invited to speak to Croydon Women’s Institute about the disaster history of their area. One incident that I mentioned was the air crash of 9 December, 1936, which was, at the time the deadliest in British history.

That day, Croydon Airport was shrouded by fog, with visibility down to about 50 yards, as a KLM DC-2 took off for Amsterdam.  Because of the fog, the pilot was having to follow a while line on the grass of the airfield to get the right line – a common procedure at UK airports at the time, and one that had been successfully used for a number of departures that day.

This time, the DC-2 veered off the line and, instead of heading west as it should have done, started to go south towards higher ground. After clearing the airport it struck the chimney of a house, and crashed into another, fortunately empty, home on the other side of the street.

Fire broke out, and the aircraft and two houses were destroyed. Of the 17 passengers and crew on board, only two survived. Among the dead was Arvid Lindman, a former Swedish Prime Minister.

Wednesday 28 August 2013

Syria - a lesson from (recent) history

As Britain plans to embark on its fourth Middle East war in little over a decade, a reminder from Iraq that the one thing you can be sure of when you start a war is that it WILL NOT turn out as you expected.

A series of co-ordinated bombings in Baghdad has killed more than 50 people and wounded dozens more. The bombs were detonated in Shia neighbourhoods during rush hour, and Sunni militants are suspected.

In July, the deadliest month for some time, more than 1,000 Iraqis were killed. So far this year, the death toll is more than 4,000, with 10,000 injured. 

In 2003 Britain invaded Iraq because the government BELIEVED Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. Now the government wants to invade Syria because it BELIEVES the Assad regime mounted the chemical weapons attack. Sound familiar?

But even if our politicians haven’t learned any lessons, the British people have. An opinion poll shows they want nothing to do with an attack on Syria. MP’s please listen for once.

Sunday 25 August 2013

UN inspectors move in - in Sri Lanka

As the Syrian government agrees to allow UN inspectors to visit the site of a suspected chemical weapons attack, the organisation’s human rights commissioner, Navi Pillay, has arrived in Sri Lanka for a fact-finding mission in areas scarred by that country’s long and bloody civil war.

The UN has said that at least 40,000 civilians, mainly Tamils, died in the final months of the conflict in 2009 as the Tamil Tigers were finally defeated. The government was accused of shelling hospitals and refugee camps, but it has resisted international calls for the allegations to be investigated.

Over the last two years, the UN Human Rights Council has passed two resolutions demanding that Sri Lanka launch an independent investigation, while Canada has called for a boycott of a Commonwealth summit scheduled to take place in Colombo in November.

Ms Pillay is expected to hold meetings with members of the Tamil community as well as with the Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa, before reporting back to the UN.

Thursday 22 August 2013

Sweating sickness - an ancient epidemic

On this day.........528 years ago, the Wars of the Roses ended at the Battle of Bosworth Field, and the victorious army of Henry VII carried the ‘sweating sickness’ with it to London.
The illness, perhaps what we later came to call influenza, would carry off three lord mayors in as many months. Altogether a ‘wonderful number’ of people died, and there were five more epidemics over the next 70 years.
During the 1517 outbreak, there was much comment about the suddenness with which the disease could strike, as people collapsed in the street and were with their maker four hours later, or, as one contemporary put it: they could be ‘merry at dinner and dead at supper’.  In Oxford, 400 people perished in a week.
In 1528, Anne Boleyn caught the disease, and desperately in love with her though he was, Henry VIII packed her off to her home in Kent, where she survived, but her brother-in-law died.  For the full story, see A Disastrous History of Britain.

Tuesday 13 August 2013

How smallpox conquered an empire

On this day…………….492 years ago, the Spanish conquistador, Hernan Cortes, took Tenochtitlán, now Mexico City. Cortes was a commander of extraordinary energy and daring, and he captured the Aztec capital with just a few hundred Spaniards, though it is often forgotten that his army also included tens of thousands of Indians.

And he had a secret weapon more deadly than any of the arms his men deployed so ruthlessly – smallpox. The Aztecs had no resistance to this disease introduced from Europe.

In the crowded streets of the capital, it spread like wildfire. The victims who found themselves covered from head to foot with agonising sores, called it the ‘great rash’. They ‘died in heaps, like bedbugs’, wrote a missionary.

Among those who perished was the Aztecs’ leader, Cuitlahuac. Still they held out heroically for three months, and when the Spaniards finally entered Tenochtitlán, they found themselves walking on the corpses of those killed by smallpox. For the full story, see A Disastrous History of the World.

Sunday 11 August 2013

Deadly tunnel

The Americans have been repairing the Salang tunnel in Afghanistan. Nearly two miles long and 11,000 feet up in the Hindu Kush mountains, it was an engineering wonder when it was built by the Soviet Union in the 1960’s. Now it has a leaky roof, a rutted surface, and failing ventilation and lighting.  

On November 3, 1982, the tunnel was the scene of one of the world’s deadliest ever road accidents – assuming that it was an accident.

The official Soviet version is that two military convoys collided, causing a traffic jam in which 64 Soviet soldiers and 112 Afghan people were poisoned by carbon monoxide.  Unofficial reports speak of a fuel tanker blowing up, perhaps as a result of an attack by Afghan guerrillas.

It is said that this resulted in a deadly chain reaction of explosions, while the Russians sealed off both ends of the tunnel, trapping hundreds of people inside. In this unofficial version, 700 Soviet troops and 2,000 Afghans may have died.

Wednesday 7 August 2013

Bird Flu bug spreads person to person

Worrying news from China that the new bird flu strain H7N9 has managed to pass from human to human. A 32 year old woman, who had had no contact with birds, died after nursing her father, who was also killed by the disease.

So far there have been 133 cases and 43 deaths from the strain.  Most victims had either had close contact with live poultry or had visited poultry markets. Researchers said there was no evidence of the virus being able to spread easily from person to person, but that there was ‘potential for pandemic spread’.

Dr James Rudge, of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, said limited transmission of this kind was not surprising and that it had also been seen with the H5N1 strain which has killed more than 370 people since 2003.  There are worries that the world is due, indeed overdue, for a new pandemic.

The most devastating flu epidemic the world has ever seen came in 1918 when up to 70 million people died, while the ‘Asian flu’ outbreak of 1957 killed up to 4 million. (See also my blogs of 5 Feb; 14, 30 April; 13 May; 6, 11, July; 24 Oct, 13 Dec, 2009 and April 15, 2013.)

Wednesday 31 July 2013

Dengue fever

Honduras has declared a state of emergency following the deaths of 16 people in an outbreak of dengue fever. Altogether more than 12,000 people have been infected with the virus that is borne by mosquitoes.
The disease causes flu-like symptoms and occasionally develops into a potentially lethal form called haemorrhagic dengue. Honduras’s worst outbreak happened in 2010, when 83 people died.
Earlier this year, the authorities in Brazil reported a steep rise in cases of dengue, with more than 200,000 people infected compared with 70,000 in the same period of 2012, though the health minister said most cases were less severe.
The World Health Organisation says that across the world there are 30 times as many cases as there were 50 years ago, with up to 100 million infections a year in more than 100 countries.

Wednesday 24 July 2013

India school meal poisoning - now a teachers' boycott

Following the poisoning of 23 schoolchildren in the Indian state of Bihar by a contaminated free school meal (see my blog of July 18), teachers in the state have announced they are boycotting the lunch service.

After the deaths, students at a school in the Nawada district of Bihar beat up their teachers, complaining about the quality of the food. Meanwhile it has been revealed that high levels of an agricultural pesticide was found in the fatal lunch dispensed in the village of Dharmasati Gandaman.

The authorities say they are still trying to find the school principal who is wanted on suspicion of criminal negligence.

About 120 million children in 1.2 million schools benefit from the free meals scheme, but teachers complain about corruption and poor quality food. The state says it cannot afford to hire other workers to implement the scheme.

Friday 19 July 2013

Bangladesh - the war goes on

It is more than 40 years since the brutal war of independence that allowed the new nation of Bangladesh to emerge from what had been East Pakistan. In that war, up to three million people died.

Now Bangladesh is torn by riots over the conviction of two leading politicians for collaborating with the Pakistan army to target pro-independence activists during the struggle. The spiritual leader of the Islamist Jamaat-e-Islami party, Ghulam Azam, has been sent to gaol for 90 years, while another leading member of the party, Ali Ahsan Mohammad Mujahid, has been sentenced to death.

The verdicts were handed down by the International Crimes Tribunal in Dhaka, set up in 2010 by the current government led by the Awami League. Two people have been killed in riots this week, and 100 so far this year.

Mr Mujahid was a student leader in 1971 who wanted to keep Bangladesh part of Pakistan. His party claims the trials are politically motivated, while Human Rights Watch has described them as "flawed".

Thursday 18 July 2013

Mass poisonings

Twenty-three children have died in the Indian state of Bihar after eating a contaminated school meal. Another 24 are ill. A doctor at the local hospital said that a chemical used in pesticides was the most likely culprit.

Some of the surviving children are said to have vomited after the first bite of the food, while others spat it out because it was too bitter. The Bihar State Education Minister said the cook had complained about the cooking oil, but the headmistress had insisted it was safe to use.  The headmistress is said to have fled.

Angry parents in the village of Dharmasati Gandaman demolished the school kitchen and set fire to police vehicles. The government provides 120 million free school meals for poor children, but the scheme is often criticised for poor hygiene.

One of the worst mass poisonings in history happened in Iraq in the early 1970’s when villagers made bread from imported grain designed for planting, not eating, and treated with a deadly fungicide. Up to 6,000 died.

Thursday 11 July 2013

Exploding trains

Canadian police now believe that about 50 people were killed in Saturday’s train disaster in Quebec. So far, 20 bodies have been found after a runaway train carrying 72 tankers of oil was derailed and then exploded at Lac-Megantic.

At least 30 buildings were flattened, and about 2,000 people had to flee from their homes.  The chief executive of the train operating company says they believed the driver had failed to apply a set of hand brakes.

The operating company also suggested that firefighters bore part of the blame after they were called to put out a fire on the train late on Friday night as it was parked about 7 miles from the scene of the accident.  

One of the most disastrous train explosions of all time came on the Trans-Siberian Railway on June 4, 1989, when leaking gas from an oil pipeline ignited as two trains were passing near the town of Ufa. One train was blown into the path of the other, and over 3 miles, the landscape was turned into a wasteland, while up to 800 people died.

Thursday 4 July 2013

Chinese lanterns and fires

On New Year’s Eve a few years ago, I stood on London’s Primrose Hill and enjoyed what was then the novel sight of a procession of Chinese lanterns floating beautifully through the night sky, without worrying too much about where they were going to come down.

Now it seems a Chinese lantern has descended in a wrong enough place to cause what some are describing as the worst fire ever in England’s West Midlands, a blaze at a recycling plant that occupied 200 firefighters and caused damage estimated at £6 million.

About 100,000 tons of plastic caught fire at the depot near Smethwick on Sunday, and a few firemen are still at the scene today.  A Liberal Democrat MP has now demanded a ban on the lanterns, and the local council has asked shops to stop selling them.

Their sale is already banned in Australia, while in most parts of Germany, it is illegal to launch them, as it is in South American countries such as Argentina, Brazil and Chile. They are also prohibited in the city of Sanya - in China.

Wednesday 3 July 2013

Deadly forest fires

An inquiry has begun into the deaths of 19 crack American firefighters in a forest fire at Yarnell Hill, Arizona. It was the worst death toll among US firemen since 9/11.

Altogether about 450 firefighters took on the blaze which destroyed 50 buildings and forced hundreds of people to flee their homes. It came during a heat wave which took temperatures close to all time record levels.

The victims belonged to a 20-man unit known as the Granite Mountain Hotshot crew, which had been trying to clear brush and trees that the flames were feeding on.  Only one member survived.

Perhaps the deadliest forest fire ever happened in Wisconsin in 1871. It began in the woods, but was carried on the wind to the lumber town of Peshtigo, where the sawdust that always clogged the streets provided ready fuel for the flames.  The whole town was burned to the ground and more than 1,150 people lost their lives. For the full story, see A Disastrous History of the World.

Friday 28 June 2013

Monsoon flood - a man-made disaster?

Nearly 3,000 people are still stranded by the monsoon floods in India’s Uttarakhand state, while more than 800 have been killed.  The rains are believed to be the heaviest in 80 years, and have swept away entire villages, while 100,000 people have had to be rescued.

Now there are claims that this has been a man-made and not a natural disaster.  Critics maintain that the root of the problem is the unchecked building of roads, hotels, blocks of flats, and hydroelectric dams.  

This has made the floodwaters more deadly as they have become laden with thousands of tons of silt, boulders and debris, while the escape routes they took in the past down streams and ravines have been blocked.

It is said that the Uttarakhand Disaster Management Authority, formed in October 2007, has never actually met, and that that there were no emergency evacuation plans.  Similarly, modestly priced radar-based technology that could have forecast cloudbursts was never installed.

Sunday 23 June 2013

Indian monsoon death toll rises

The death toll in India’s monsoon floods has now reached at least 600, and may eventually get as high as 1,000. 40,000 people are still stranded in the mountains of Uttarakhand state, the worst hit area.

The early monsoon rains are said to be the heaviest in 60 years, and with more downpours expected, search and rescue efforts are being stepped up. 33,000 people have been saved so far, but the terrain is difficult, and roads and bridges have been washed away.

These are likely to be the deadliest monsoon floods in India since 2008 when more than 2,400 people were killed between June and September in Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh and Bihar.
Perhaps the worst monsoon flood ever in India came in 1978 when up to 15,000 people were killed, and more than 40 million were driven from their homes.  The disaster was made worse by a cyclone.

Wednesday 19 June 2013

Deadly monsoon flood

Monsoon floods in northern India have now killed at least 138 people.  Officials in the state of Uttarakhand, famous for its many Hindu temples, said they were the worst ever known in the area.

Three thousand troops have been deployed to help with the rescue effort, as landslips and flash floods have been making the situation worse, and more rains are forecast from June 22. Twelve thousand pilgrims are stranded at the shrine of  Badrinath.

Because of rising river levels, more than 40 villages have been evacuated. Roads have been closed and crops destroyed, and there are fears of food shortages and possibly disease as bodies are left unburied.

Last August up to 50 people were killed in Uttarakhand when heavy rains triggered a series of flash floods.

Wednesday 12 June 2013

Bangladesh factory collapse - inspectors suspended

The Bangladesh government has suspended seven inspectors who it claims were negligent in their oversight of clothing factories in the Rana Plaza building which collapsed in April, killing more than 1,100 people.

An official said the inspectors never visited five of the factories and that one had been operating without a licence since 2008. A government investigation has blamed the use of poor building materials for the collapse of the block.

Over the last few years, the number of factories in Bangladesh has soared to more than 240,000, but there are only 50 inspectors.  The clothing industry alone employs more than 3 million workers, mainly women from poor villages.

The Rana Plaza’s owner and five executives and owners of factories housed in the building have all been arrested, but no formal charges have yet been brought.


Monday 3 June 2013

More deaths at work

Following the collapse of the factory building in Bangladesh, a disastrous fire at a poultry processing plant in China.   At least 112 people have been killed in the blaze at Dehui in Jilin province according to an official news agency.
Dozens of injured workers have been sent to hospital, while about 100 managed to escape, but the news agency added that the ‘complicated interior structure’ of the building and narrow exits had made rescue work difficult. It is also said that the front gate had been locked.
One worker said that as the lights went out, people panicked in the rush to find an exit. An investigation is underway, while according to some reports, the fire took hold after a series of explosions in an electrical system.   
This is China's deadliest fire since 2000, when 309 people died in a dance hall in Luoyang, Henan province, while back in 1845, 1,670 people were killed in the world’s deadliest ever theatre fire in Canton.

Saturday 1 June 2013

Rwanda 1994 genocide - more arrests

Five Rwandan men have been arrested by police in the UK on suspicion of involvement in the 1994 genocide in their country, following an extradition request from prosecutors in Rwanda, who want them to face charges of crimes against humanity.

The five lived all over the country – in Manchester, Bedford, London, Essex and Kent.   In 2009, four of them, who all denied any involvement in the genocide, won a legal battle to stop their extradition after senior judges ruled that they might not get a fair trial.   Three are former mayors.
Welcoming the arrests, Rwanda's chief prosecutor, Martin Ngoga, said Rwanda had made ‘significant progress’ on addressing concerns about fair trials since 2009.  The men are due to appear in court on June 5.

Rwanda’s genocide has the dubious distinction of being the fastest in human history.   In just 100 days, at least 800,000 people – mainly Tutsis – were murdered by Hutu extremists.


Tuesday 28 May 2013

Syria - lessons from Iraq?

As Britain’s Foreign Secretary William Hague itches to arm the rebels in Syria, a warning from Iraq that getting rid of a bad ruler does not solve all problems.  Yesterday, at least 66 people were killed in a dozen explosions targeting mainly Shia areas in Baghdad.

The United Nations says more than 700 people were killed in April, the worst monthly death toll in nearly five years.  So far this month more than 450 have died, raising fears that violence is heading back to the peaks seen in 2006 and 2007.

Many of the bombs were detonated in busy shopping areas and markets.  Last week, more than 70 people were killed in explosions at bus stations and markets in mainly Shia districts, while two weeks ago, 38 perished in an attack on a Sunni mosque.

Iraq’s Sunni minority has been complaining that the government, led by Shias, discriminates against them.

Saturday 25 May 2013

Darfur - lest we forget

So far this year, an estimated 300,000 people have fled their homes in Sudan’s Darfur region according to the United Nations.    After a peace deal was signed in 2011, violence had died down, but not out.
Altogether, about 1.4 million people are now homeless, and 300,000 are believed to have died since the conflict began in 2003.  While on a visit to a refugee camp, the UN’s top humanitarian official, Valerie Amos, said the situation was ‘extremely worrying’.
She said displaced people faced chronic food shortages, and had to walk in fierce heat to get water.  They also lacked access to health care and education, while rebels were obstructing the distribution of aid.
The conflict began with rebels complaining that the Sudanese government favoured Arabs and oppressed black Africans.  Since it started, the mainly Arab Janjaweed militia has been accused of carrying out ethnic cleansing and genocide, and President al-Bashir has been indicted by the International Criminal Court for alleged war crimes.
(See also my blogs of March 4, 5 March, 6 Aug, 21 Sept, 2009 and 27 May 2010.)
* The fifth in my series of videos on Britain’s 20 Worst Military Disasters features the Battle of Hastings.