Thursday, November 26, 2009

When the French fought for Ireland’s glory

Some reflections on November 1798, and why the French are right to hate Thierry Henry.

“Behold at last Frenchmen arrived among you! Brave Irishmen our cause is common. Union. Liberty, the Irish Republic. Let us march. Our hearts are devoted to you; our glory is in your happiness.”

On those words, from the declaration of an Irish Republic by General Humbert in 1798, were relations between France and Ireland predicated for over 200 years, and thus smarts the hurt that Henry has inflicted on his own nation by his sleight of hand.

The French love affair for Ireland is deep, as deep as their antipathy for our mutual foe. And – last week’s blip apart – we owe much of who we are to the French, although if they had been better sailors history might have been different.

But this musing is not about Bantry Bay. It starts with an actual French landing, in August 1798, and finishes on 19 November, the day of the death of the great Theobald Wolfe Tone. The same day, 211 years on when we had to come to terms with the death of our World Cup dreams through French treachery, as opposed to her valour.

Of course it’s not right to compare the gravity of the events, but the quote, by Tone’s own son, finds an echo in November 2009: "The next day was passed in a kind of stupor. A cloud or portentous awe seemed to hang over the city of Dublin.

After many false dawns, the French landed in Killala under General Humbert (right). The village on the inlet was hardly the best place to launch an insurgency, but Humbert did remarkable things. To his disappointment, he was met, in Killala Bay by a few thousand-poorly equipped peasants with no prominent leaders. The French had been led to believe that the whole of Ireland would rise up and join the French once they had landed. (One supposes, given their previous inability to make landfall, we thought the day would never come).  Nevertheless, the French-Irish collaboration had immediate successes.

Humbert decided that he must advertise his presence in Ireland and fan the flame of hope that the risings of 1798 had already ignited. He chose to engage the British. He had learned of a force of 3,500 British troops advancing on his position. He surmised that he could be successful if he engaged them at Castlebar, County Mayo. Defeating the British at Castlebar, especially since the commander of the British forces was General Lake who had defeated the Irish pikemen in Wexford, would be the kind of demonstration that the Irish people needed to show that they could, with French help, defeat the British. 

With 700  French infantry cavalry and almost the same number of Irish rebels, Humbert conducted a twenty-five mile forced march through back roads to reach Castlebar. The strategy was brilliant. With only one cannon, the French overran the British and forced the British to run, leaving behind muskets, packs, cannons, flags, munitions, and even General Lake’s luggage. Known later as "The Races at Castlebar," (left) this defeat was one of the most ignominious defeats in British military history (pictured left, the Humbert Memorial, Humbert Street, Ballina, Co. Mayo, Ireland).

The French and the Irish established a provisional government in Castlebar. Then, a bit like last week, the Irish took their eye of the ball and, as we are wont to do, went on the lash. Humbert and his boys were wined and dined on a most lavish scale by the people of the Castlebar and environs. Those who did not sign up for active service came loaded with gifts of meat, butter, poultry, eggs, fish, etc., for the troops. One party came with a steer that had been cooked in a quarry near the town on heated slabs of limestone, a custom dating back to Hannibal's time. Gifts of clothing and footwear donated by merchants from Castlebar and the nearby towns also arrived.

Getting ready took time, and the British eventually encircled and defeated Humbert. Wolfe Tone’s brother Michael was hanged. At the time, Tone himself was on the way to Lough Swilly in Donegal with another French force which encountered a vastly superior English fleet.

Battle raged. Admiral Bombard nailed his colours to the mast, meaning he intended to go down fighting. The French officers urged Tone to escape in a frigate they had made ready. Remember that Tone was a VIP and more. He’d met with Napoleon several times, was a renowned writer and thinker, and at just 35 was poised to be one of the greatest Europeans of his day.

In the white heat of battle, facing defeat and almost certain death, what did Tone – a Protestant by the way -  do? Take the easy way out? A metaphorical handball? Hardly. He asked “shall it be said that I fled when the French were fighting the battles of my country? No, I shall stand by the ship”.

Such – gallantry – there’s no other word for it, leaves a huge lump in the throat. Tone commanded a battery fighting “like a lion, exposing himself to every peril” according to a 19th century historian. “One of the most obstinate and desperate engagements which have ever been fought in the ocean,” reads an another account. “During six hours she sustained the fire of the whole fleet till her masts and rigging were swept away, her scuppers flowed with blood, her wounded filled the cockpit, her shattered ribs yawned at each new stroke and let in five feet of water…a dismantled wreck… in shreds”. (pictured, right, the memorial plaque that stands today on the spot where Tone was arrested).

Captured and towed to shore, the prisoners were marched to Letterkenny where Tone was recognised by an old college companion, an Orangeman. He was handed over to the police and bound in irons, prompting only the comment: “I feel prouder to wear these chains than if I was decorated with the star and garter of England”. He was sentenced, for his treason, to death by hanging, despite his plea to be shot like a soldier. The only slight consolation was that his skull was not to be piked in a public place.

Some mystery surrounds his death. There is a suggestion that a an assassination attempt was botched, and a bullet-wound it his neck was slashed by a blade to make the original trauma look like suicide. The generally accepted version is that Tone cut his own throat to make the hangman’s work impossible.

His wound was dressed by, of all people, a French doctor, who whispered to an attendant that any attempt by Tone to move or speak would result in instant death of the patient. Tone had written farewell to his wife and children, and making a slight movement said “I can find yet words to thank you sir. It is the most welcome news you can give me. What should I wish to live for?”

So perished Wolfe Tone. With honour and with pride. With him died the rebellion of 1798, and the name of Ireland as a nation.


Tuesday, November 24, 2009

"They love us at night. They hate us the rest of the time”

In the run up to World AIDS day on December 1st my colleague, Jean-Luc Martinage, has been busy putting together a report highlighting the extent of the pandemic in Latin America - a region not normally associated with HIV/AIDS. The report was released yesterday together with a number of web stories about the lives of people living with HIV/AIDS. Head Down Eyes Open would like to feature one of these stories here.

Her name is Pamela. She is one of the dozens of transgenders selling their bodies in what the locals call “Calle del Pecado” (The street of the sin”) near the historical centre of Cali, Colombia’s third largest city.

We meet Pamela at a snackbar near the place she lives. “Housing is one of the first problems transgenders like myself keep facing”, Pamela explains. “Nobody wants to rent a flat to a transgender”.

Even if she officially became “Pamela” only a few years ago, since the age of 6, the boy that she was at that time immediately felt that he was different from the other boys and wanted to be considered as a “she”.

From stylist to sex worker

Pamela became a stylist and a hairdresser. However, she had a serious accident that left her slightly disabled and she could no longer do her job. “At the age of 35, I became a sex-worker”, she explains, telling us also about the long legal battle she had to face with the authorities to allow her to change her name to Pamela. “The civil servant who received my request just laughed at me and said he would never allow such a change”, she recalls. However, she took the matter to the Supreme Court who finally allowed her to change her name to Pamela. But on her identity card, she is still considered as a “male”. Pamela had thought about a change of sex but she gave up when she was told she was told that after all she might not be allowed to have surgery despite living as a woman for at least 10 years and having faced dozens of medical and psychatric appointments.

However Pamela kept her fighting spirit by creating a network of support for all transgender people. From just a dozen at the beginning, her small NGO called “Transmujer” now gathers around 700 people.

Tripling the price for unprotected sex 

“We need to help each other because we are faced with a high level of stigma and discrimination” says Pamela. “Men love us at night but they hate us during the day”, she sums up, explaining how besides being insulted on the streets, they also need to face numerous requests from men ready to triple the price to have unprotected sex. “I always say “no” because I am fully aware of the danger of being infected by HIV and other sexually-transmissible diseases. However, some transgenders need money so badly that they say “yes”, putting themselves into a highly dangerous situation.”

“Most of my customers are actually heterosexual men”, she says, “so in a way we are sometimes even more protected than our costumers’ wives who have no control at all on their own sexuality. I have seen terrible things like a girl who was providing sex without condoms against money while she was already infected with HIV. I managed to convince her to finally use condoms but my other concern is especially to make sure that transgender people who are not infected don’t catch the virus through unprotected sex”, she adds.

Pamela fought very hard to get access to condoms she could distribute to the other transgender sex workers. However, she never managed to have her status as an activit fully recognized. A while ago, she held a sensitization meeting in Cali and it happened that a Colombian Red Cross volunteer attended. The connection between her NGO and the Red Cross was quickly established and they are currently developing projects to provide a better access to condoms, to promote safe sex and voluntary testing as well as developing new prevention tools.

Working with the most vulnerable groups

“We won’t have a lasting impact on HIV infection if we don’t reach the most vulnerable groups such as the transgender sex workers,” says Dr. Yacid Estrada, coordinator of the Colombian Red Cross HIV programme. "Not only we will try to support Pamela in her prevention initiatives but we are even thinking of developing specific tools that will take into account the specificities of transgender sex. By doing this, we are in no way encouraging sex work but we believe no lasting breakthrough in reducing HIV infection can happen unless we take care of people such as transgenders who are highly affected by stigma and discrimination".

When asked how she sees her future, Pamela remains quite vague. She would like to become a full time activist for her community but her status is still not recognized by the authorities. 

But for the time being, Pamela is back in the “Calle del Pecado” facing an uncertain future. With several packs of condoms she can share with other sex workers who now are even looking for her at night since they know she has a better access to condoms.


Friday, November 20, 2009

Through Albino Eyes

Over the past two years at least 56 albino people in Burundi and Tanzania have been killed by hunters working for witchdoctors who sell their body parts as talismans for thousands of dollars.

The killings triggered a humanitarian crisis as thousands of albinos were either trapped in their villages, too frightened to move, or in the case of children abandoned in special schools for the disabled and shelters guarded by the police.

The spontaneous local humanitarian response to this emergency was coordinated by the Red Cross societies of both countries. It sharply highlighted the long-standing social and health problems of Great Lakes albinos, above all the skin cancer to which so many of them succumb. One of HDEO's intrepid friends, Alex Wynter, has just finished producing a ten-minute web documentary on this tragic story (below) as well as comprehensive advocacy report

A few figures

·         $75,000 - Tanzanian police estimate of the value to witch doctors of a complete set of albino body parts, including all four limbs, genitals, ears, nose, and tongue.

·         $4,000 - Amount raised by a local appeal organized by the Tanzania Red Cross in Kigoma to assist abandoned albino children – all from private contributions by Red Cross volunteers and other local humanitarian workers.

·         $246,000 - Amount the Tanzania Red Cross is appealing for now to expand humanitarian work with albinos throughout the two regions most seriously affected by the occult-based killings: Kigoma and Mwanza.

·         56 - Official number of albinos who have been killed by hunters over the past two years in Burundi and Tanzania (44 of them in Tanzania).

HDEO has featured a number of stories and photos on this issue over the last months, including:


Thursday, November 19, 2009

La Honte de Henry

It hurts. Sweet Lord how it hurts. A night of fitful sleep punctured by dreams of a winning goal on 121 minutes has passed and it still hurts like a punch in the solar plexus. It was one of the best performances ever seen from an Irish team, men who grew from journeymen in Stoke and Wolves, to giants playing with composure and skill. The truth is we deserved it. We deserved it more than the French. And for so long we had the champagne on ice, only for the grapes to turn sour by a mind-blowing piece of cheating.

But amid all that, amid the heartache and the tears and the it’s-just-not-fair of it all, three things stand out. One, that FIFA is a farcical organisation dancing on Jules Rimet’s dream by seeding playoffs (how, I mean HOW can they justify it, other than telling the truth – that a Mondial without Ronaldo and Henry rather loses its sheen). Two, the ref had a good game, apart from the obvious. He could easily have given France a penalty late in the second half and then it would have been good night Josephine anyway.

And third, though it hurts like hell to write it, Henry did the decent thing. OK, ok, he could have run over to the referee and said no, fair cop, I handled it. But would Robbie Keane have done that? Would Bobby Charlton, the cleanest player ever? Would he f…

Henry could have done a Maradonna and been smarmy in a hand of God way but no. He went straight over to our boys and didn’t just mutter “sorry lads” and give a patronising ruffle of the hair. He sat with them, while million voices roared “CHEAT” at screens from Dallas to Darwin (I, rather pretentiously hollered “La Honte” and worse at the few Frenchies in O’Brien’s of Kiev).

After the game Henry told the press: “I said that I handled it to Richard Dunne but he said to me … you’re not the referee”. 

And Sean St Leger, who’s hip deflected the ball into the net in Croke Park put it well: “it doesn’t look great, but he’s got his team to the World Cup finals. If it had been one of our team we’d have probably done the same. The blame doesn’t necessarily fall on him, but he’s handled it. Everyone can see it around the world.”

Sometimes luck vanishes. We had ours in ’87 when Scotsman Gary MacKay put us into our first finals with a goal from nowhere on a cold night in Sofia. But we’ve had precious little since. All the way from Schillaci to Squillaci, you might say.


Saturday, November 14, 2009

Afghanistan: We kill f**king civilians all the time

Keep an eye out for an online documentary coming soon called the battle for hearts and minds. This is a sneak preview below, only one and a half minutes or so and well worth a glimpse. As Obama tries to resolve his procrastination - to surge or not to surge - over Afghanistan, this documentary is set to give Americans a real uncomfortable close and personal view of events around the cosily coined "battle for hearts and minds." Some notable quotes from the trailer below: "We are experts in the application of violence..... ECHO company is going to change history starting early tomorrow morning .... We kill fucking civilians all the time". This will not only open American eyes to the illusion of their military might (please check out a previous post that interviewed Seymour Hersh, well known American journalist, on this issue) but it will also touch the hearts and minds of Afghans and their neighbours for generations to come!

Friday, November 13, 2009

Keeping an eye on South Sudan

Over the last 12 months or so violence in South Sudan has steadily increased. Rumours are rife that militias are being armed in the south to create fear and tensions in the run up to one of the most anticipated referendums in world politics scheduled for 2011 – to determine whether South Sudan secedes from Khartoum and opts for independence as stipulated in the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) signed in 2005. One thing is certain - the road to the CPA referendum vote will be bumpy if not potentially lethal.

There are many fractious areas where tensions can be easily stoked. Places like Malakal, Abyei, Kordofan and the Nuba Mountains. In Malakal, a beautiful town by the banks of the Upper Nile that lies along the north-south divide, more than 100 people were reported killed in clashes last month. This brings a total of more than 2000 people killed in Southern Sudan already this year. Arguably as explosive as the still unresolved Darfur conflict.

Nubian Wrestling

The Nuba Mountains, a former frontline region in Sudan’s north-south civil war is set to remain tense, years after the 2005 north-south peace agreement, local leaders and analysts say. It is an area famed for its rhythms, art, wrestling and, it has to be said, incredibly beautiful looking people.

Comprising some 48,000sqkm of green uplands and farmland, the area is part of northern Sudan’s Southern Kordofan State, but remains politically dominated by the southern-led Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM).

Tensions and mistrust have remained high between Sudan’s north and south - major political, ideological and religious differences are unresolved – not least in the Nuba region.

"Security is a big problem, with violations and hostility between two parties - the SPLM and the NCP [National Congress Party], and a lot of conflict between tribes," said Kamal al-Nur, commissioner of SPLM-controlled Heiban County in Southern Kordofan.

"We are concerned that violence will escalate as we come closer to the elections - and in the period after the elections - to the referendum," al-Nur added. General elections in Sudan are slated for April 2010, before a southern independence referendum in 2011.

During the war, the Nuba population suffered aerial bombardment, isolation, shortages, land expropriation and forced population movements, according to international human rights groups.

The area is characterized by a mix of ethnic groups and coexistence between Muslim, Christian and traditional believers.

"We fought for long years… for equality, for the right to live as we want and not under the [Islamic] Sharia law of the north," said Younan Albaround, the SPLM chairman in Kauda, the party’s former headquarters for Nuba during the war.

“Popular consultation” 

Unlike Southern Sudan and the oil-rich region of Abyei which are due to vote on independence and self-determination in 2011, the 2005 peace deal only set out arrangements for interim power sharing and ”popular consultation” in Southern Kordofan and Blue Nile states.

Abyei, Nuba Mountains and Blue Nile are sometimes referred to as Sudan’s “three areas” – transitional and contested-zones straddling the north-south political, military and cultural fault lines. 

"Whilst the South and Abyei have clearly defined rights to an independence referendum - guaranteed by the presence of the SPLA and thus with the option of unilateral secession should the peace deal fail to be fully implemented - the two `contested areas’ are only given the ill-defined concept of `popular consultation’ on their future status," said Peter Moszynski, a Sudan analyst who began working in the Nuba region in 1981.

The SPLA’s ranks in the Nuba Mountains were largely filled by local people, but those forces have officially pulled out of the region under terms set down by the peace agreement, with only special joint north-south units remaining.

Tensions have also risen following recent comments by senior Southern Sudanese officials in favour of separation, including a speech by the Southern president, Salva Kiir, that voting for unity would make southerners "second class" citizens.

"The Nuba people fear the breakaway of the south because they will be left as an isolated minority in the north - and will also be on the frontline of any future north-south conflict," Moszynski said.

"There are huge concerns that the Nuba Mountains could return to fighting," said Sudan analyst, John Ashworth. "They have no referendums - but many ordinary people are not aware of that yet and will be angry when it finally dawns on them. The `popular consultation’ is vague and probably meaningless."

Sentiments flagged already in October 2008 by International Crisis Group (ICG) in a report on Southern Kordofan entitled The Next Darfur? "If the NCP, SPLM and international community fail to pay the required attention to the divided region," the ICG warned, "their inaction could come back to haunt them in a way that threatens the stability of the already divided country." 

HDEO has a long and personal relationship with Sudan. "Big Country with Big Problems" as my Sudanese mentor (a Nubian Arab as it happens) told me in 2005 as the CPA was signed and Darfur was in flames. I could tell him after a few years experience that "Sudan also has a Big Heart." How else can Africa's largest nation continually overcome so much adversity? HDEO aims to post frequently as this amazing country approaches the momentous referendum in 2011.


This post is based on an IRIN report.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Fall of the Wall organically celebrated in a German garden

In case you hadn't noticed from the saturated media coverage it's been twenty years since the Berlin war crumbled under the weight of people power. The front page of the International Herald Tribune last Saturday ran with this photo which captures the moment in a somewhat more original manner (how many images have we seen of people chipping away at the graffitied wall?).

The photo, from Uwe Zucchi (at the European Press Agency), shows a tree growing through the bumper of a VW Beetle near Fuldatal, Germany. The Beelte is supposedly the first car to cross the German-German border after the Berlin Wall was opened. Hiddin in a garden, it stands as a small but symbolic memorial of a major milestone in contemporary history.


Friday, November 6, 2009

Albino kids running and hiding out of fear for their lives

It was the news all Tanzania had dreaded – especially the country’s albinos and their families, supporters, neighbours and friends who live near the Great Lakes of Victoria and Tanganyika.

After a three-month hiatus in the occult-based killings in the north-west, hunters seized a ten-year-old albino boy, Gasper Elikana, in the Geita district of Mwanza region last month and hacked him to death in front of his black father and neighbours, who had risked their lives to try to save him. 

The men fled with Gasper’s severed leg having first beheaded him to stop him screaming. The boy’s father, who received at least one machete blow to the head, was left fighting for his life in hospital but is now said to be out of danger. 

Mwanza is in shock.

“People are feeling very terrible about this new killing,” said Pauline Kilele, Mwanza regional coordinator for the Tanzania Red Cross Society (TRCS).

“We sent some of our volunteers to Mitindo [school for the blind, near Mwanza town, where more than 100 albino children have taken refuge since the albino killings began] to give moral support, but we don’t have the resources to do much else.

“We have to intervene on the humanitarian level now.”

$Sunburn injuries

The last reported killing of an albino in Tanzania had been on 18 July, police in Dar es Salaam say, and earlier this week a court in the northern town of Shinyanga
sentenced four more men to death for killing an albino man last year.

In September three hunters were sentenced to hang for murdering a young boy – the first death sentences in Tanzania related to albino killings.
But it was evident the albino hunters never really put away their machetes.
The most recent arrival of a fugitive albino child at the Kabanga school for the disabled in Kasulu, in north-western Kigoma region, was on 13 September.

Seven-year-old Enus Abel was brought to the school by his mother, who is black: they spent two weeks alone in the bush after fleeing their village, Kigaga, just ahead of albino hunters.

Enus’s head and neck are covered in raw sunburn-injuries, but he is safe.
He was the forty-ninth albino child to take refuge at Kabanga since the killings began in 2007.

The official total number of albinos killed by hunters in Tanzania, who sell their body parts to witchdoctors whose clients buy them for large sums to use as talismans, now stands at 44; some groups have put it higher at more than 50.
Senior police commanders in Dar es Salaam have said a complete set of albino body parts – including all four limbs, genitals, ears, tongue and nose – fetches the equivalent of 75,000 US dollars.

“Hiding in their backyards”

While hunters are known to bribe people to help them find albinos hiding in villages, stories still abound of black relatives and neighbours risking their lives to try to protect them.

Geita on 21 October 2009 was one more such story.
In remote villages, as opposed to the haunts of the mysterious wealthy buyers of body parts, the lure of money more than witchcraft alone is what proves fatal to Great Lakes albinos.

For the foreseeable future, the latest killing in Geita will also have destroyed any hopes of a return home for hundreds of albinos now clustering in schools and, in neighbouring Burundi, improvised shelters guarded by the police round the clock.

Much of the entire albino population – some 8,000 people by the official counts in both countries – will remain trapped in their homes, unable to move around freely to work, trade or study for fear of the hunters.

In the words of one Red Cross worker, “they are hiding in their backyards”.
Neither Kabanga nor the larger Mitindo school at Misungwi, whose total roll numbers 1,245, is now able to close during the holidays because it’s not safe for the albino children to return to their villages.

This places a major strain on the schools’ human and financial resources.

Neighbours unite

Despite the overstretched teachers’ best efforts to keep them covered up and in the shade, albino children there often suffer from acute sunburn.
Fear of the hunters has also spread to the two remaining refugee camps near Kasulu in north-west Tanzania – for Burundians, Congolese and Rwandans – which have been managed by the TRCS for a decade as part of an international programme now involving the American, Japanese and Spanish Red Cross.

Hawa Mwemtabu, 30, who is black, breast-feeds Mayange, her sick albino toddler, in the shade of an umbrella provided by a Tanzanian special-education officer in Nyarugusu camp, which hosts refugees from the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

When news of the killings first reached the camp its albino residents asked to relocate to be near the police station, but the Red Cross and other agencies advised them to stay put because clustering would make it easier for the hunters to find them.

The advice seems to have been vindicated: no albinos in the camp have been lost, and Hawa’s neighbours, she explains, are “united in protecting us”.
“I just thank God we can carry on.”

Local appeal

The Red Cross in both Burundi and Tanzania is now urgently seeking ways to expand local efforts to address the humanitarian plight of Great Lakes albinos.
Those efforts, which included a small local appeal in Kigoma that raised just over US$ 4,000, have so far been entirely unsupported externally.

Many Red Cross staff and volunteers, moved literally to tears by the condition of albino children after they first emerged from the bush, contributed out of their own pockets.

The TRCS is shortly appealing for international assistance to provide health education, wide-brimmed hats and long-sleeved tops, and vocational teaching-equipment for both albinos and non-albino children in the schools aimed at increasing the chances of albinos obtaining work indoors.

The overwhelming majority of albinos who are in paid employment (a very small proportion of the total) can only find work out of doors in the sun – the last place they should be – involving activities like roadside trading, market stalls and agricultural day-labour. Those who aren’t survive by tending small plots – again out in the sun.

This massively increases their susceptibility to the aggressive skin cancers that claim so many young albino lives. But as one young albino told the International Federation, “If you don’t go out in the sun you don’t eat.”

An already-mortal dilemma has been multiplied many times over by the killings.

By Alex Wynter in Dar es Salaam and Stella Marealla Masonu in Kasulu, Tanzania (from - again blogger won't let me post more than one photo -- for more go to the mother ship at ifrc.)


Thursday, November 5, 2009

New ocean forming in African desert

Earlier this year I read a fascinating book by the author Amos Nur called Apocalypse which argued that earthquakes and natural phenomenon have had far more influence on the shaping (or misshaping) of civilization than hitherto given credit, even more than war and politics.
Then today I learn that geologists have confirmed that the African continent is being torn in two, forming a new ocean. An international collaboration has shown that a 35 mile long rift in the Afar region of the Ethiopian desert, which opened in 2005, is likely to be the beginning of a new sea.
The recent study, published in the journal Geophysical Research Letters (well worth signing up for their emailed updates which provide short snippets of the latest initiatives and breakthroughs in scientific research) brings together seismic data from the formation of the rift, showing that it is driven by similar processes to those at the bottom of oceans.
African and Arabian tectonic plates meet in the desert, and have been slowly pulling apart for roughly 30 million years. The same movement has also been parting the Red Sea. But this is only at a speed of less than 1 inch per year.
The sudden cracking in 2005, referred to by geologists as a "mega-dike intrusion", opened up a rift over 20 feet wide in places. The study has found that this happened over only a few days. According to Cindy Ebinger, a co-author of the study from the University of Rochester: "We know that seafloor ridges are created by a similar intrusion of magma into a rift, but we never knew that a huge length of the ridge could break open at once like this." (Credit for photo accompanying this post also goes to the University of Rochester).
The investigation was led by Professor Atalay Ayele of Addis Ababa University in Ethiopia. As well as Rochester, other groups involved included Eritrea Institute of TechnologyNational Yemen Seismological Observatory CenterUniversity of Leeds, United Kingdom; Institut de Physique du Globe de Paris, France; and Columbia University, New York.
"The whole point of this study is to learn whether what is happening in Ethiopia is like what is happening at the bottom of the ocean where it's almost impossible for us to go," said Ebinger. "Because of the unprecedented cross-border collaboration behind this research, we now know that the answer is yes, it is analogous."
One to watch and follow for sure and while Nur's thesis, mentioned above, may not be water-tight accurate it is certainly compelling. A corollory of his analysis however can be proven from this interesting research and that is that despite the serious political difficulties between countries - such as Eritrea and Ethiopia - the search for truth through science and understanding knows no borders and has the power to unite even the bitterest of enemies.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Afghanistan and the lessons of history

I would never have thought that reflecting about my time in Afghanistan, and my fascination with a 19th century painting from the Anglo-Afghan war, would lead me to Tipperary and Meath.

Last week's suicide bombing and armed raids on a guest house frequented by UN staff in Kabul got me thinking, not for the first time, of this interminable part of the world. The UN bombing had been preceded a few days before hand by a suicide attack on the Indian embassy in Kabul that left at least 17 dead and dozens severely injured. Then, a few days after the UN bomb we had massive explosions in the crowded alleys of Peshawar's sprawling street markets that left more than a hundred civilians dead.

I remember back in 1999 when I had my Afghanistan time, the country - apart from a territory in the north - was presided over by the Taliban and an assembly of war lords. At that time there was no alcohol allowed, no women in the workforce (or anywhere else except mostly indoors), no television, no music - no fun basically. It was a tough time on many levels not least the psychological one. You have no idea how dreadfully depressing it can be to work with some twelve hundred colleagues all of whom are male with an average age of about 50! I longed for female company and I longed also for a cold beer at the end of the day.

Given the lack of social outlet and the very real security threats life was confined to work and (heavily gaurded) home - a good time to catch up on my reading and experiment with some herbal teas. At that time I became fascinated with the historical writings on what is know as the Great Game - the great rivalry between the British and Russian empires that lasted the best part of one hundred intriguing years ending in 1921 with a friendship treaty between the two great foes. The prize for the Great Game was the Indian sub-continent which Britain declared the jewel in its crown and feared mightily that Russia would conquer Afghanistan and use it as a launching pad to snatch India.

So, not for the first or last time in her long and illustrious history, the nation of Afghanistan found itself at odds - through no real fault of its own - with major military powers. A victim of its own geography. But, not being one to turn down a decent offer of a good fight, Afghanistan embraced the Great Game and played both sides off against each other, much like they did with Persia during the same period and of course the Americans and the Soviets in the 1980's.

Never conquered. Never Divided.
History will show that the whole of Afghanistan has never, not once, been controlled from the centre. And, while (in western eyes) treachery and deceipt are a frequent feature of their methods of warfare (rendering the Geneva Conventions culturally biased?) Afghanistan has incredibly remained solidly intact, never fragmenting along ethnic or religious lines and maintaining its borders since its inception. It clings fiercely to the origin of its name which is Sanskrit for "land of the allied tribes".

But, I digress. I did not intend a historical account, even a brief one. But it is necessary for the remainder of my tale. During those turbulent days back in 1999 we did manage to escape on rest and recreation every few months to Peshawar where the first destination was the long-established American Club - a place with cold beer, conversation with women and late night darts. At the entrance of this modest but grand old building, just before you climbed the stairs to the bar, hung a gilt-framed oil painting which always stopped me in my tracks and urged me to ponder awhile. It was an original copy of "Remnants of an Army" depicting a lone soldier, Scotsman Dr. William Brydon, at the gates of Jalalabad, which lie approximately half way along the 200 mile road between Kabul and Peshawar.

Brydon was reportedly the sole survivor of a sixteen thousand five hundred strong retreating British army that fled Kabul in 1842 - all but Brydon were mercilessly massacred with horrific efficiency by Afghan forces lying in wait (depicted above). The same Afghan forces, it should be mentioned, with whom they had been allied just a few days before - things can change very quickly in Afghanistan.

This effectively brought to an end the First Anglo Afghan War (1839 - 1842) and one of the lessons learned (for evaluation it seems was also a practice back then - makes you wonder if it is really possible to learn from our mistakes) was a telling and succinct recommendation whose relevance today is obvious: The First Afghan War provided the clear lesson to the British authorities that while it may be relatively straightforward to invade Afghanistan it is wholly impracticable to occupy the country or attempt to impose a government not welcomed by the inhabitants. The only result will be failure and great expense in treasure and lives.

From Tipperary to Afghanistan and back
Now, that painting (shown at the top of this post), as mentioned, fairly captivated me at the time especially as I was so enamored with Peter Hopkirk's writings of the Great Game that repeatedly recalled the resilience of the Afghans throughout their long and combative history. Staring at the forlorn figure of Brydon, the lone horseman, one didn't know whether to feel pity or pride. His form embodied defeat, set against an unforgiving and alien landscape; and such were the incredible odds against his survival that you were forced to wonder whether the Afghans let him loose on purpose - a barely living testimony to their military might.

The painting was the work of an artist called Lady Elizabeth Butler. When writing this post I could not remember her name so scoured the internet until I found it - and I found out a few other aspects which struck me as interesting. Elizabeth was born in Lausanne (Switzerland) but married an Irish soldier, writer and adventurer called William Francis Butler. William hailed from the impoverished famine fields of Tipperary and had risen to great heights in the British army. The couple returned to Ireland upon William's retirement and lived in Bansha Castle before moving eventually to the east coast of Ireland, settling down in Gormanstown Castle where they stayed till their final days and are buried at nearby Stamullen Graveyard.

Year's after my own Afghan adventure I tracked down some of Elizabeth's paintings at the Imperial War Museum in London, and I was not disappointed. I have heard that the painting of Brydon - the last remnant of a decimated army - now hangs at the Tate but will have to confirm that at a later date. It may be coincidence that a painting which had such a hold over me ten years ago somehow turned out to have strong Irish connections. Whatever the case, I'll be making my way to Stamullen cemetery the next chance I get to track down the last resting place of this incredible couple and pay them my respects.