Monday 22 December 2014

Can animals predict disasters?

Five tiny songbirds fitted with tracking devices appear to have fled their nests in Tennessee just a day before tornadoes struck in April. The golden-winged warblers had arrived at their nesting site only a few days earlier after a 3,000 mile journey from Colombia.

Scientists believe they flew 400 miles south to escape the storms which killed 35 people, then returned after a few days. They think the warblers may have been alerted by a very deep rumble in the air, inaudible to the human ear.

In 2004, there were stories of animals escaping the Boxing Day tsunami. Witnesses spoke of flamingos deserting low-lying breeding areas, elephants screaming and running to higher ground, and dogs and zoo animals refusing to go outside their shelters.

While more than 200,000 people died, there were relatively few animal casualties. At Patanangala beach in Sri Lanka’s Yala National Park, home to a wide variety of animals, 60 people were washed away, but the only animals lost were two water buffaloes. There is speculation that perhaps animals are able to detect vibrations in the earth that pass us by.

Friday 19 December 2014

Attacks on schools

Tuesday’s murderous assault on a school at Peshawar in Pakistan by Muslim fanatics that cost the lives of 132 children and 9 staff has caused revulsion across the world, but between 2009 and 2013, there were nearly 10,000 attacks on schools in 70 countries.

Diya Nijhowne, director of the Global Coalition to Protect Education from Attack, says murders and abductions of pupils and staff and the destruction of school buildings are seen by terrorists and criminal gangs as very effective ways of intimidating and undermining communities, and preventing them from becoming more prosperous.

Muslim fanatics, such as Boko Haram in Nigeria, are often particularly resentful if girls are educated. The group kidnapped hundreds of female pupils in April. While in Pakistan, girls often have to be taught in secret by teachers who are risking their lives, to avoid the murderous attentions of the Taliban.

The deadliest ever terrorist attack on a school happened at Beslan in southern Russia in 2004, when Chechen terrorists massacred 334 people, including 186 children.  For the full story, see A Disastrous History of the World.

Tuesday 16 December 2014

The shelling of Hartlepool + 100

100 years ago today…..German warships shelled a number of towns on England’s Yorkshire coast. The First World War had come home to Britain in an unforeseen way. Many had expected the first threat to civilians to come from air raids.

The first shells hit the important shipbuilding centre of Hartlepool at about a quarter past eight in the morning. Nine soldiers manning a battery and 7 sailors were killed, but most of the 100+ casualties were civilians – men, women and children.

The ships then moved on to Scarborough (pictured) where a church was hit during a Holy Communion service, while a shop that was damaged quickly put up one of those defiant signs saying ‘Business as usual’, which would become so familiar in both world wars. Whitby was hit too. The Times commented that there was ‘an entire absence of panic’, though many people fled to the countryside.

The attacks had one or two consequences the Germans may not have foreseen, with 22,000 Hartlepool men volunteering for the armed services and the town regularly winning prizes for the amount of money it raised for the war effort. For more on this story, see A Disastrous History of Britain.

Wednesday 10 December 2014

Islamic extremists for polio

Pakistan has recorded its highest number of new polio cases for 15 years, and is now one of only three countries in the world where the disease remains endemic. Health officials say the main reason is the killing of health workers carrying out immunisation programmes by Islamic extremists.

The extremists say the health workers are spies and that the immunisations are a Western plot to sterilise Muslims. They claim the US used a fake vaccination programme to track down and kill Osama Bin Laden in Pakistan in 2011.

The latest murder happened in the north-eastern city of Faisalabad where a 40 year old man was shot down by attackers on a motorcycle. Deaths among immunisation workers or police guarding them now number more than 60 over the last two years.

One result is that the World Health Organization has imposed travel restrictions, so that all Pakistanis must now carry proof of vaccination before going abroad. (See also by blogs of 24 February and 3 March.) 

Friday 5 December 2014

Football hooliganism - Argentina's 15th death this year

33 year old Franco Nieto has just become the 15th person to die in football-related violence in Argentina this year. He was the captain of a regional club Tiro Federal, who had been playing Chacarita Juniors in the town of Aimogasta in the north-west of the country.
The match had been stopped 15 minutes from time after the referee sent off eight players for fighting. It is reported that afterwards Mr Nieto was going to his car with his wife and baby daughter, when he was attacked by three people, one of whom hit him on the head with a stone.
Police say three people have been arrested. Much football hooliganism in Argentina is blamed on so-called Barras Bravas, gangs who control the terraces and the streets around the stadiums.

The deadliest sporting riot in history came in Constantinople in 532 when rivalry between supporters of two chariot racing teams morphed into a full-scale rebellion in which perhaps 30,000 people were killed. (see also my blogs of 30 March, 2009; 2 January, 2010; 2 February and 11 May, 2012.)

Wednesday 3 December 2014

Bhopal + 30

On the 30th anniversary of the Bhopal explosion, hundreds of protesters have gathered outside the Indian factory which was the scene of the world’s deadliest industrial disaster. They burned effigies of the plant’s owners, held up banners, and shouted ‘We want justice!’

In the early hours of the morning, 30 years ago today, about 40 tons of deadly methyl isocyanate gas leaked from a pesticide factory owned by U.S. multinational Union Carbide and was carried by the wind into the surrounding slums.

The government’s official total of deaths is 5,295, but activists say the true figure is about 25,000 and that many people still suffer from cancer, blindness, respiratory problems and immune and neurological disorders, and that they have received inadequate compensation. They also complain that toxic waste around the plant is still contaminating water supplies for 50,000 people.

Union Carbide’s present owners, Dow Chemical has denied liability, saying it bought Union Carbide a decade after the firm settled its liabilities to the Indian government by paying $470 million. (see also my blogs of March 17, 2010 and Dec 3, 2012.) For more, see A Disastrous History of the World.

Sunday 30 November 2014

Crystal Palace fire + 78

On this day……………….78 years ago, London’s Crystal Palace burned down. It was an extraordinary place – more than 600 yards long and more than 120 feet high, containing more glass than had ever before been seen in a single building. Originally built for the Great Exhibition of 1851, it was then moved to Penge Common.

The fire began in a ladies’ lavatory while the general manager, Sir Henry Buckland, was walking in the grounds with his daughter named (what else?) Chrystal. Encouraged by a fierce wind and the acres of timber flooring, the flames took hold in no time, and when the fire brigade arrived, the cause was already lost, and the efforts of more than 400 firemen came to nothing.

An estimated 100,000 people turned out to watch one of the most spectacular fires in London’s history. It could be seen from 8 counties. In Streatham, they hired out binoculars at 2d a look, while the better heeled chartered aeroplanes from Croydon Aerodrome.

Controversy now surrounds a plan to rebuild the landmark as part of a major redevelopment of the area, with complaints that local people are being kept in the dark.  For the full story of the fire, see my book London’s Disasters.

Friday 28 November 2014

'Flood: Nature and Culture" - new reviews

Two new reviews of my latest book: Flood: Nature and Culture (Reaktion Books)

Friday 21 November 2014

Birmingham pub bombings + 40. Who were the killers?

Forty years ago today, I was a reporter at ATV (the forerunner of Central Television covering the English Midlands) covering the Birmingham pub bombings. Two pubs in the city centre were blown up by the IRA, killing 21 people and injuring more than 180 others in what was then the worst terrorist attack in British history.

Today we still do not know who was responsible. The ‘Birmingham Six’ were wrongly convicted of the crime, and were released in 1991. Devon and Cornwall Police later conducted an inquiry into the West Midlands Police investigation. The authorities have decreed its contents must remain secret for another 55 years.

Julie Hambleton, whose sister was killed in the bombings, has been highly critical of this decision. The current Chief Constable for the West Midlands, Chris Sims, has maintained the investigation remains open, but Ms Hambleton has accused the police of lack of commitment to investigating Britain’s ‘largest unsolved mass murder,’ saying they seemed to be waiting for evidence to ‘drop on their desks’.

Another blow to those wanting to bring the killers to justice was the revelation that 35 pieces of evidence had gone missing, including a bomb that failed to explode. Mr Sims said it seems the items had been disposed of in the 1980’s, and that this was ‘not unusual at the time.’ 

Thursday 13 November 2014

Korean ferry disaster trial - villains and heros

The captain of the South Korean ferry, Sewol, that sank in April with the loss of more than 300 lives (a memorial is pictured above) is now starting a 36 year gaol sentence (see my blog of April 20). Lee Joon-seok, on trial with 14 crew members, was convicted of gross negligence. He was cleared of homicide.

The chief engineer got a 30 year sentence, and the other 13 got gaol terms of up to 20 years. A separate trial is taking place for employees of the firm that operated the ferry, but the billionaire chairman fled after the disaster and was later found dead.

The sinking was blamed on a number of factors - illegal redesigns of the vessel, overloading, failure to secure cargo and the inexperience of the crew member steering. They led to her overturning as she made a tight turn. Lee was filmed leaving while many passengers were still inside the ship.

At least 3 crew members, though, perished trying to save those on board, including an engaged couple, and the youngest, who gave her lifejacket to a passenger. The Korean government was heavily criticised over the rescue effort, and the coast guard is due to be disbanded and replaced.

Thursday 6 November 2014

Typhoon Haiyan: How (not) to commemorate a disaster

How do you commemorate a disaster that killed thousands, and raise some money for survivors? Not with a dance party, seems to be the answer ringing out from the Philippines.

A year ago, Typhoon Haiyan (known as Yolanda locally) left about 7,000 dead or missing, and millions homeless. A survivor organised a ‘dance party’ to be held tomorrow in Tacloban, the worst hit area, with the slogan: ‘Party like it never happened, remember because it did.’ The proceeds were meant to help set up educational scholarships.

But the announcement of the event brought protests that it was insensitive, to which the organisers bowed, cancelling it, and apologising to those who had ‘misinterpreted’ the reasons for holding it. They said it was meant to be a celebration of survival, and that they would go on selling a tee shirt reading: ‘not even the strongest typhoon could bend the strongest people.’

With gusts hitting nearly 200 miles an hour, some consider Haiyan the strongest storm ever to make landfall. President Aquino declared it a ‘national calamity’.

Monday 3 November 2014

Remembering World War One

Went to the Tower of London yesterday to see the 888,246 ceramic poppies planted in the moat - each one representing a British military death in World War One. Although I arrived early, there were already hundreds of people there.

In spite of the precision on British losses implied by the number of poppies at the Tower, there is much less certainty about overall casualties in the Great War, partly because of the immense social dislocation the conflict brought, with four of the combatants facing revolutions around its end.

Estimates put the total number of military deaths at more than 8 and a half million, with Germany and Russia each suffering about one and three quarter million, and Austria-Hungary and France each losing well over a million.

Coming up with an authoritative figure for the civilians who perished through massacre, accident, disease, hunger, exposure and hardship is even more difficult, but some estimates put the number even higher than that for military casualties, at around 13 million.

Thursday 30 October 2014

The cost of stopping Ebola

The current death toll of nearly 5,000 means more people have been killed in the present ebola outbreak than in all previous ones put together. If you're wondering why the stricken countries in West Africa have been finding it so difficult to halt the epidemic, the Economist has crunched some interesting numbers.

Experts reckon ebola could be brought under control if 70% of the sick could be got into clinics or treatment centres where the spread of the virus can be halted, but to deal with the kind of case numbers being predicted for the next few weeks, that would require tens of thousands of beds.

Medecins Sans Frontieres and other charities, as well as governments like those of the US and the UK, have been busily building, but the WHO calculates that running just a 50-bed ebola hospital would cost nearly $1 million a month. No wonder the UN says a 20-fold increase in aid is needed.

And it's not just the buildings. The three countries where most people have died - Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia - have only a few hundred doctors between them, and some of those have now died of the disease. 

Friday 24 October 2014

Who killed who in Rwanda?

Twenty years after the genocide in Rwanda in which up to a million people were murdered in 100 days, the Rwandan government wants to prosecute the BBC over a television programme which challenges the accepted view of what happened.

The conventional wisdom is that Hutu extremists massacred mainly Tutsis as well as some Hutu moderates. The programme, Rwanda: the Untold Story, includes contributions from an academic who argues that there were only about 500,000 Tutsis in the country, and that 300,000 survived, so most of the victims must have been Hutus.

Prof Allan Stam paints a picture of a general breakdown in law and order, and says most of the victims may have been Hutus. When he presented his findings, the government rejected them, and he was asked to leave the country.

The genocide was sparked by the mysterious shooting down of the president's private jet. The programme includes allegations that Rwanda's current president, Paul Kagame, a Tutsi, was behind the attack, but he has always denied such allegations, and blamed Hutu extremists.

Thursday 23 October 2014

Wisdom and plagues

A Spanish website quotes from my account of a devastating plague that hit Rome in the second half of the 2nd century AD in my Disastrous History of the World.

One of those carried off by the epidemic, which raged for 15 years, was the Emperor Marcus Aurelius. The historian Edward Gibbon considered him the last great Roman emperor before the rot set in, and begins his famous Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire with Marcus Aurelius's death. (It is also the starting point for the film, Gladiator.)

The emperor refused to see his son before he died in case he passed on the sickness, and his last words were: 'Weep not for me; think rather of the deaths of so many others.' This philosopher emperor had already written in his Meditations that the pestilence was less deadly than falsehood and evil conduct.

One thing we are not sure of is what exactly the disease was. It used to be thought that it was bubonic plague, but some scholars now believe it was smallpox.

Thursday 9 October 2014

Reminder - Flood talk TONIGHT

A reminder that I'm giving a talk entitled 'Are floods getting worse?' at Swiss Cottage Library, 88 Avenue Rd, London NW3 3HA tonight, October 9, at 1830, based on my book Flood: Nature and Culture. (Reaktion Books) Admission free.  All welcome.   

For full details, see my post of Sept 20.

Wednesday 8 October 2014

The march of ebola

This is now by far the worst ebola outbreak the world has ever seen, with 3,400 people dead, and 7,500 confirmed cases, though the true figure is thought to be much higher. The deadliest until now saw 280 people die in 1976 in Zaire, now Congo.

Most of the deaths have happened in Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia, with the World Health Organisation expressing concern at the poor state of the health services in those countries. Liberia says it is short of ambulances, and that it has only a third of the number of treatment centres it needs.

Now alarm is sweeping through Spain after a nurse who had been treating two missionaries who caught ebola in Africa, was found to be infected herself. It had been hoped that the stringent safety precautions available in modern hospitals would prevent the virus spreading.

Her husband and five other people are now in quarantine and another 50 are being monitored, while the European Commission has asked Spain for an explanation as to how the nurse became infected.

Sunday 5 October 2014

Where AIDS began

The origins of the AIDS pandemic have been traced back to 1920s Kinshasa in what is now the Democratic Republic of the Congo, 60 years before the disease first came to international attention. It has now infected nearly 75 million people.

Researchers from Oxford and Leuven used mutations in the virus’s genetic code to discover its roots. It is thought to have originated in chimpanzees before making the jump to humans.

When it arrived in Kinshasa, the city was growing rapidly. Thousands of male labourers had poured in, so that they outnumbered women by two to one. A thriving sex industry developed and medical records show that sexually transmitted disease was widespread.

It seems the virus then travelled via the railway network, and through vaccination campaigns where unsterilised needles were used. The researchers describe the conditions prevailing in 1920’s Kinshasa as a ‘perfect storm’.

Tuesday 30 September 2014

Mediterranean boat people

More than 3,000 migrants have died so far this year trying to cross the Mediterranean – the highest total on record. The official figure for 2014 so far is 3,072, though some claim the true number is three times as high.

Across the world, the official figure is 4,077, meaning three in every four of those who perished were trying to get to Europe. Since 2000, 40,000 migrants are said to have perished worldwide – more than half of them trying to get to Europe.

The worst incident of 2014 was the apparently deliberate ramming of a ship earlier this month by people traffickers off Malta, which resulted in 500 people being drowned.

The ship had been carrying Syrians, Palestinians, Egyptians and Sudanese, and survivors said it was rammed after a ‘violent confrontation’ on board.

Saturday 20 September 2014

Diary Date - flood talk October 9

I'm giving a talk entitled 'Are floods getting worse? at Swiss Cottage Library on October 9 at 1830, based on my book Flood: Nature and Culture.  Admission free.  All welcome.   

Last year, the UK’s Environment Agency issued a record number of flood warnings, while also in the last few years, Pakistan has had its worst monsoon floods in eight decades, Thailand suffered one of the costliest inundations in history, Colombia and Brazil experienced the severest in living memory, and Australia’s prime minister declared the Queensland floods perhaps the worst natural disaster ‘in the history of our nation’.

So are things actually getting worse? I will be revealing that floods are the natural disasters humans are most likely to experience, and that some of the most ambitious structures ever built have been put up to defend us against them.

I will also be telling how stories like that of Noah’s ark, about an apocalyptic flood which almost wipes out humanity, feature in dozens of religions all over the world. Floods caused by rain, melting snow, storms, tsunamis, tides, the failures of dykes or dams, or deliberate act of war all feature.

The talk will also look at the way floods have been portrayed in films, literature and art.

Wednesday 27 August 2014

Blaming people for earthquakes

I've just been quoted in an interesting article from Newsweek (for link, see below) about the dangers that human activities such as fracking might cause earthquakes.

I talk about two quakes - the first hit Antioch in what is now Turkey, but was then one of the biggest cities in the Roman empire, in AD 115. It nearly killed the emperor Trajan and the future emperor, Hadrian, commissioner of the famous wall.

Trajan believed it had happened because the spread of Christianity had made the old Roman gods angry, so he had the local bishop thrown to wild animals at the Colosseum in Rome. An estimated 300,000 people died in another earthquake in Antioch in 526, after which the city never recovered its former greatness.

The other earthquake I mention is the one that hit Lisbon, then the centre of a great global empire, on November 1 - All Saints' Day - 1755 (pictured). After the quake, fires burned for six days, destroying 85 per cent of the city including scores of convents, 30 monasteries, many churches and the headquarters of the Inquisition. The red light district emerged unscathed, to the amusement of many in Protestant countries.

For more details on both, see A Disastrous History of the World.

This is the Newsweek story -

Sunday 17 August 2014

Egyptian government accused of crimes against humanity

Israel’s assistant in the illegal blockade of Gaza, the Egyptian government, has been accused of crimes against humanity by the US-based organisation Human Rights Watch.

The group claims it committed mass murder in its violent suppression of protests in Cairo last summer, which cost more than 1,000 lives, and calls for the country’s president, Abdel Fatah al-Sissi, and at least nine other senior security officials to be investigated for their role in the massacres.

According to its report, the Egyptian authorities presided over ‘one of the world’s largest killings of demonstrators in a single day in recent history’ when they forcibly dispersed two big protest camps on August 14, 2013, leaving about 900 people dead.

One of those HRW wants investigating is Mohamed Farid el-Tohamy, head of Egypt’s General Intelligence Service, who met US Secretary of State, John Kerry, in Washington in April.

Monday 11 August 2014

Mystery of another civil airliner shot down over Ukraine

We are still no nearer to knowing exactly who shot down Malaysian Airlines flight MH17 over Ukraine (see my blog of July 20), and perhaps we never will be, but it was not the first civil airliner to be shot down over the country.

On October 4, 2001, a Siberia Airlines Tupelov Tu-154 (similar pictured) was hit by what was believed to be a Ukrainian missile while en route from Tel Aviv to Novosibirsk in Russia, and crashed into the Black Sea. None of the 78 people on board survived.

With the crash coming so soon after 9/11, the favourite explanation at first was terrorism, but Ukraine eventually admitted the aircraft had been hit by one of its missiles that had gone astray during a military exercise, and paid compensation to victims’ families.

Subsequently, though, the Ukrainian government denied responsibility for the disaster, and a claim against it by Siberia Airlines remains unresolved. 

Sunday 10 August 2014

The Yazidis - a history of persecution

The Iraqi government says ‘Islamic State’ militants have murdered at least 500 Yazidis, some women and children they buried alive. They are also accused of forcing 300 women into slavery.
Tens of thousands of other Yazidis are taking shelter on the hot, desolate summit of Mount Sinjar, with the Americans trying to drop aid from the air, and strike at the Islamists who are threatening the refugees.
The Yazidis’ religion is much older than Islam. They believe God created the world, but then left if to be ruled by seven angels and that after death, our souls are transferred to other human beings. They do not believe in hell or the devil.

Over the centuries, they have been persecuted by many groups including the Ottoman Turks, Muslim Kurdish princes, and Saddam Hussein’s government. Then after his fall, nearly 800 Yazidis were killed in 2007 in the deadliest terrorist act in history apart from 9/11. No one has admitted responsibility for the co-ordinated four-bomb attack, but it is generally blamed on al-Qaeda or other Sunni militants.

Friday 8 August 2014

Ebola outbreak deadliest ever

The current Ebola outbreak is by far the worst the world has yet experienced. So far more than 930 people have died in West Africa, while more than 1,700 cases have been reported. The previous worst death toll came in 1976, when 280 people died in Congo and Zaire.

The mortality rate this time appears to be about 55%, though it can reach 90%. The World Health Organisation has now declared an international health emergency, but it is not proposing any bans on trade or travel.

Ebola is a fearsome disease, with symptoms that include high fever, internal and external bleeding, and damage to the central nervous system. There is no vaccine and no cure.

One of the obstacles to containing its spread is the poor state of the health services in the countries it has struck, with a lack of medical staff, laboratory technicians and protective clothing for doctors and nurses.  (See also my blogs of April 4 and June 7.)

Thursday 7 August 2014

Two Khmer Rouge convicted of mass murder

Almost 40 years after the mass murder by the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia that left perhaps a quarter of the population dead, two of the regime’s leading lights have been sentenced to life imprisonment.

88 year old Nuon Chea (pictured) served as the notorious Pol Pot's deputy, while Khieu Samphan, now aged 83, was head of state. The judge said they were guilty of ‘extermination encompassing murder, political persecution, and other inhumane acts.’
The Maoist regime’s speciality was to drive people out of the cities and force into the countryside, where they were worked or starved to death. Many in Cambodia have criticised the slow pace at which justice has proceeded, and a judge resigned in 2012, complaining that investigations into suspects were being blocked.

The convicted pair deny the offences and say they will appeal, though they will remain in gaol. They could also face a further trial on charges of genocide.

Monday 28 July 2014

5 things we have learned from Gaza

1. Western governments do not seem to understand the word ‘terrorism’. Israel has killed more than 1,000 Palestinians – the vast majority of them women, children and other civilians. Hamas has killed 46 Israelis – almost all of them soldiers, and yet for Western governments, it is Hamas who are the ‘terrorists’.

2. The US, and its allies such as the UK, have squandered any influence they had in the region by their relentless, unquestioning support for Israel. Now the Palestinians take no notice of them because they are simply part of the enemy keeping them in servitude, and the Israelis take no notice because they know however badly they behave, the West will do nothing.

3. Understandably, would-be peacemakers are focused on just stopping the fighting. And, heaven knows that would be nice, but if the causes are not addressed – Israel’s blockade of Gaza, its illegal occupation of the West Bank and its constant theft of Palestinian land – then any ceasefire will just be an interval and war will soon be resumed.

4. The Israelis are not interested in any such settlement, particularly with American dollars and weapons pouring in. ‘Mowing the lawn’ (that’s what Israel calls its regular attacks on Gaza) is very popular.  After all, it allows Israel to steal a bit more Palestinian land every day, extending its empire and making the prospect of a Palestinian state a little more impossible every day.

5. However attractive it may appear in the short term, this does not represent a viable long-term strategy for Israel.  It is making the neighbours who surround it hate it more and more, while its cruel oppression of another people is corroding its own sense of right and wrong, and increasingly infecting its politics with racism and extremism. The window of opportunity for Israel to make an equitable, peaceful settlement with the Palestinians may be shorter than it realises. When empires collapse, it often happens surprisingly quickly.

Euripides warned: ‘The strong should not abuse their strength, nor the fortunate think Chance will bless them forever.' Israel needs to take note today. Tomorrow may be too late. shows some people in Israel are thinking about these issues.

Tuesday 22 July 2014

Gaza - a new way of seeing

The death toll so far – more than 600 Palestinians killed – most of them women, children and civilian men. 29 Israelis killed, almost all of them soldiers. And yet the UK and US governments keep telling us Hamas are the terrorists.

Whenever Israel’s apologists, like John Kerry or some chap called Hammond, who says he’s now the UK’s Foreign Secretary, are asked to condemn Israel’s slaughter of civilians they always fall back on the mantra that ‘Israel has the right to defend itself.’ But let’s imagine the boot was on the other foot.

Suppose it was the Israelis who had been expelled by terrorists from their country, and then blockaded in a giant prison camp or turned into a subject people whose menfolk could be rounded up and taken away by the occupying Palestinians whenever they felt like it, and who had a little more of their land stolen every day.

Suppose it was the Israelis who had been strung along for decades in a ‘peace process’ which was supposed to free them but never got anywhere. And suppose that every now and then they got fed up, and tried to resist, and that then the Palestinians slaughtered them by the houseful.

Would we hear Kerry and Hammond banging on about the Palestinians’ ‘right to defend themselves’? As one of the more intelligent Israeli newspapers put it: ‘The Palestinians are expelled from their homeland and later attacked in the refugee camps to which they fled, and the Jews boast of being more moral.’

Sunday 20 July 2014

Civilian airliners shot down by the military

From their frantic attempts to conceal and remove evidence from the crash site, it now seems clear that it was pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine who shot down Malaysian Airlines Flight 17, killing all 298 people aboard the Boeing 777. What is not yet clear is how deep was the involvement of President Putin of Russia.

In 1983, a Korean Air Lines Boeing 747 en route from Alaska to Seoul in south Korea was shot down by a Soviet fighter close to Sakhalin Island. All 269 people on board died. The aircraft had been passing through forbidden Soviet air space around the time of a US reconnaissance mission.

At first the Soviet Union denied shooting down the aircraft, then later admitted it, claiming the jumbo was on a spying mission. It took many years and the collapse of the Soviet regime before the flight data recorders were released.

In 1988, a US warship shot down an Iran Air Airbus A-300 over the Straits of Hormuz, killing all 290 people on board, in the apparent belief that it was an Iranian warplane. The US denied responsibility for the act, but in 1996, it paid more than $130m in compensation after Iran took a case to the International Court of Justice.

Friday 11 July 2014

AIDS cure hopes dashed

One of the most worrying and depressing features of the AIDS virus is that it appears to leave its victims infected, and able to infect others, for life. So there was great excitement back in March when it appeared that a little American girl, born with the virus, had been cured by retroviral drugs.

These medicines are able to keep the virus in check, but it had always seemed that once treatment stopped, the disease would advance again. Then along came the ‘Mississippi baby’ who was treated within a few hours of birth, with apparently dramatic results.

The shattering of these hopes with the reappearance of the virus in the four year old has been "obviously disappointing" in the words of Dr Anthony Fauci, director of the USA’s National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.  

The world has made progress on reducing the number of people newly infected with AIDS. In 2012, the figure was 2.3 million, down by a third since 2001, but that still leaves more than 35 million people across the world living with the disease.

Monday 7 July 2014

7/7 bombings memorial vandalised

While mourners and survivors prepared to mark today’s ninth anniversary of the London bus and tube bombings of 2005, vandals sprayed the 52 steel columns which commemorate the victims of the attack with slogans such as ‘4 innocent Muslims.’

Royal Parks staff cleaned off the graffiti before the event began. There is one column for each of the 52 who were killed by four Islamist suicide bombers a day after London won the contest to host the Olympic Games of 2012.

The then mayor of London, Ken Livingstone, described it as an attack on ordinary Londoners – ‘black and white, Muslim and Christian, Hindu and Jew, young and old’. And the names of the victims reinforced his message – Adams, Ciaccia, Gunoral, Ikeagwu, Islam, Rosenberg etc.

The radical imam, Anwar al-Awlaki, who was said to have inspired the bombers was killed by a US drone in Yemen in 2011.  

Friday 4 July 2014

More refugees than ever

This week 45 African men suffocated in the hold of a ship as they tried to get themselves smuggled into Italy. It is said they had begged to be released but that they were kept below in case the vessel capsized. Another 70 boat people were lost in the Mediterranean in a separate incident.

Over last weekend, patrol boats picked up 5,000 migrants, following a reversal in Italian policy. Until 2011, the country had tried to block them, sending those it caught back to Africa, but after 360 drowned off Lampedusa last year, it has started search-and-rescue missions.

Since then, the number of arrivals has ballooned to 65,000, compared with 8,000 in the first half of last year, while Greece has seen the number of illegal migrants more than double. Earlier this week, Italian police arrested five Eritreans they said were running a people-smuggling operation.

Across the world, 2013 saw 6 million people driven from their homes by violence and conflict, taking the global total for refugees to more than 50 million. The war in Syria has displaced 9 million people – nearly half the population.

Saturday 28 June 2014

Sarajevo 1914 - a bizarre chapter of accidents

100 years ago today, the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austro-Hungarian empire, went to one of its outposts, Sarajevo, to inspect the army. He had married his wife, a mere countess, in the teeth of opposition from his family, and she was banned from sitting at his side on ceremonial occasions – except when he was acting in his capacity as a field marshal of the army.

So on June 28, 1914, she rode with him in his open top car as a group of Bosnian nationalists lay in wait. One of them threw a grenade, but it hit the car behind. The Archduke insisted on going to the hospital to visit the injured, but no one told the drivers of the motorcade.

In the confusion that resulted, they found themselves having to back up into a narrow street where they came to a stop outside a café. Sitting inside was 19 year old Gavrilo Princip, one of the conspirators, who had gone there after the apparent failure of their plot. He crossed the street and shot Franz Ferdinand and his wife, who both died.

37 days later the first World War began, a conflict that cost the lives of perhaps 10 million military personnel and 7 million civilians. Nobody much wanted the archduke’s assassination to lead to a world war, but a series of bad decisions by politicians brought precisely that outcome. Princip was sentenced to 20 years in prison. In harsh conditions, he died of tuberculosis six months before Armistice Day.