Twenty Years Ago Today: Genocide, Day One

Agathe Uwilingiyimana, rightful President of Rwanda - until she was murdered on the first day of genocide. Twenty years ago today, killers were loose on the streets of Kigali and across Rwanda. But they were not the kind of murderers that police hunt down. Nor were they foreign invaders intent on conquest and loot. They were neighbours, colleagues and even friends of the people they turned upon.

There was no police force to call for help, because the police were collaborating. There was no army to defend the victims, for the army were wielding the knives along with the militias. This was the day the Rwandan genocide began in earnest.

Hutus were the killers, seeking the minority Tutsis who had once been their overseers in colonial times. But first they targeted any Hutu moderates who sympathised with the Tutsis. One of them was the Prime Minister, who should have become President. Agathe Uwilingiyimana was murdered by the Presidential Guard along with her husband, and the Belgian peacekeepers who tried to defend her were dragged away to torture and death.

There had been even more killings overnight: ministers and judges and party leaders were killed in their homes along with their spouses. By midday, the moderate Hutu leadership was dead or in hiding, and any hope of preventing the genocide died with them.

Rwandan ID card from 1994, clearly identifying the holder as a Tutsi - as good as a death sentence.

The killing of Tutsis accelerated during the 7th of April, spreading throughout the country. A crowd gathered in Gisenyi province, the heartland of Hutu extremism. Crowds were ordered to begin their work and spare no one, not even babies. On this first day, it was easy to tell who was Tutsi and who was Hutu: you held them down and rifled through their pockets or bags for their identity cards, which recorded their ethnicity. Those caught with Tutsi ID cards did not survive.

There was nothing to stop the Hutu population from turning on their Tutsi neighbours. The UNAMIR peacekeepers sent to monitor the ceasefire were completely out of their depth. The army and police were part of the conspiracy. The ministers that might have calmed the tensions were dead in the streets.

And so the killing began.

Twenty Years Ago Today: The Nightmare Begins

Juvenal Habyarimana, third president of Rwanda. Twenty years ago today, an airplane fell to earth in Rwanda. But this was not just any airplane. This one carried the presidents of two nations. Both of them were killed, though it was the death of Juvenal Habyarimana of Rwanda which sent his nation into hell. Nor was it an accident: witnesses reported seeing missiles flying towards the plane. Something terrible was about to happen.

Rwanda was divided between two main ethnic groups, the majority Hutus and the minority Tutsis. This had been the case ever since independence from their Belgian colonial masters, though there's some doubt as to whether the two groups had existed beforehand. The Belgians may have simply segregated the population according to those they were willing to trust as overseers (Tutsis) and those they were not (Hutus). Or they may have co-opted existing ethnic divisions to enforce their own ideas of racial purity. It's hard to tell, when the only records were made by a bunch of racist colonists whose main interest was screwing as much money out of the country as possible.

Habyarimana led a coalition of Hutu groups and was increasingly seen as too moderate, while a fragile ceasefire was holding between his government and the rebel Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) led by the Tutsi leader, Paul Kagame. The Rwandan president was returning from a conference to discuss ways to quell the ethnic tensions across the region, doing his best to resolve the conflicts that had dogged his country and those around it.

All hopes for peace died with Habyarimana. The missiles that killed him were alleged to have been fired by Kagame's forces (though later analysis showed that this was unlikely). Within only a few hours, Hutus were responding to the terrible news with a terrible vengeance. Explosions were heard in the capital, Kigali. Radio stations were issuing cries of hatred against the Tutsis. Machetes were being sharpened.

The genocide had begun.

Twenty Years Ago Today: News Roundup

No NewsTwenty years ago today, it was another one of those days when not much was happening. Except for all the things that were, but none of them were so compelling or historic as to merit a blog post of their own. So here's some quick bits & bites of what else was going on...

  • London Underground introduced a penalty fare of £10 for people without tickets - which had to be paid on the spot. The ticket inspectors (who had been renamed Revenue Protection Inspectors) were permitted to accept only one excuse: that the ticket office was closed and the ticket machine was broken. And they had a machine with them that allowed them to check. 300 people were caught out on the first day, and LU confidently expected the annual £30m cost of faredodging to be significantly reduced. Don't all laugh at once.
  • The Home Secretary, Michael Howard, was preparing to tell twenty people that they would be staying in prison for the rest of their lives, rather than the sentences they were originally given. These people were as yet unidentified, but were presumed to include the most notorious of killers: Myra Hindley, Dennis Nilsen and Donald Neilson among them. Rose West - still no more a suspect in the killings she committed with her husband - would one day join them. No one seriously wanted these particular individuals set free, but there were worries about a politician taking on this kind of power.
  • 28 year old Des Moloney survived falling out of an airplane while it was flying upside down. His ejector seat broke from its mountings, and he tumbled 3,000 feet to the ground near Colchester. Luckily, the ejector seat had a parachute built in. Less luckily, it was ripped and didn't slow him as much as it could have. In a further adjustment to Mr. Moloney's luck, the seat itself took the brunt of the impact when it hit a grass verge outside a Sainsbury's supermarket, smashing into pieces. He was left dazed and bruised, but otherwise fine.
  • A less fortunate air traveller was Frank G. Wells, CEO of the Walt Disney Company, who was travelling in a helicopter on a skiing trip through the Ruby Mountains of Nevada when it crashed, killing him and two others. Clint Eastwood narrowly avoided the crash by heading home an hour earlier. Wells was credited with turning around the fortunes of Walt Disney, which released The Lion King in 1994.
  • The Royal Navy reported that they had discovered that the wreck of the Royal Oak, which was sunk by a u-boat at Scapa Flow in 1939, had been visited by souvenir hunters who used explosives to blast their way inside. They were apparently in search of brasswork and fittings, rather than plundering for treasure. Nevertheless, a debate soon followed about how divers visiting wrecks should be regulated.

Twenty Years Ago Today: War Crimes

The same image you always see whenever anyone in the UK wants to to a piece on the Falklands War. Twenty years ago today, an Argentinian newspaper, Clarin, published accusations that British soldiers had committed war crimes during the Falklands war (which, incidentally, began thirty-two years ago today, when Argentine forces invaded). The accusation was one that has been made against soldiers all through history: that when the enemy surrendered, they were not dealt with according to the laws of war. Instead, they were simply murdered.

Normally this would be treated with derision by the UK media and denial by the UK government. But an investigation was already nearing completion into accusations of British war crimes during the battle of Mount Longdon, instigated by a memoir written by Vincent Bramley, a veteran of the the third batallion of the Parachute Regiment. He claimed to have seen Argentine POWs gunned down, and a British soldier cutting ears from the bodies of the dead.

Scotland Yard had already finished their work and handed the case to the Director of Public Prosecutions, Barbara Mills, who was still deciding whether or not to press charges. There was predictable opposition in the press. The Daily Mail described it as 'a betrayal of our fallen heroes', while the editor of the Daily Telegraph pleaded for the 'lunacy' to stop.

Mills decided not to prosecute in July 1994, since the evidence was 'not such as to afford a realistic prospect of conviction of any person for any criminal offence' (although the police who investigated had thought otherwise). Vincent Bramley was relieved; he was of the opinion that these things happen in the heat of battle - so why bother prosecuting? Others took it as a complete exoneration of the soldiers, and that no crimes had taken place at all. The Argentine War Veterans' Federation had another opinion: they called it a cover-up.

This was not the last accusation of war crimes during the Falklands War, although it's a conflict that produced relatively few such incidents. In 2012 another veteran, Tony Banks, wrote of crimes on both sides: Argentinians who shot British soldiers approaching under a flag of truce, followed by his own side killing Argentinians trying to surrender. This time, the Daily Mail serialised the book, seemingly oblivious to their opinion of such accusations twenty years earlier. Or maybe they just agreed with Vincent Bramley that such things happen in war and there's no sense gnashing teeth over it.

And now if you'll excuse me, I'll just point out the obvious: yep, war crimes happen in war. They're virtually impossible to stop. When pissed off people are facing each other with guns, they won't always follow nice little rules when using them. The same overabundance of weapons, contempt and blind hatred means that civilians will also be injured, killed and raped in war crimes that can and have been even more horrific than anything done to soldiers.

We've been trying to regulate war since at least the Middle Ages, a time when looting, murder and rape was often regarded as a soldier's right after victory (and was the whole point of many conflicts). But all the regulations, from the codes of Chivalry to the Geneva Conventions to the International Criminal Court, have done precious little to stop atrocities from happening.

So let's stop fussing about war crimes and do the obvious thing: call war itself a crime, and stop bloody doing it.

But somehow, I don't think that's going to happen any time soon.


Twenty Years Ago Today: April Fool, Rail Travellers!

britishrailTwenty years ago today, a momentous step was taken in the history of practical jokes. It was a jape so grand, so vast and so long-lasting that the hilarity of it rings out even today, causing rail travellers throughout the United Kingdom to grimace in exasperation at the wheeze that was pulled on them back in the nineties. To understand this particular joke, it's necessary to explain how things used to be. Once upon a time, if you wanted to make a journey in Britain without spending a fortune on petrol, you went to a quaint old Victorian shack in a run-down part of town that sat alongside a gleaming metal pair of rails. Regardless of how much notice you gave, you bought a ticket at a reasonable price. After a lengthy wait, you boarded a train painted in a dull blue colour that bore a symbol which was unchanged since 1965, and maybe the words "InterCity 125" if it was a really posh service. You found a seat, parked yourself there and waited while the train rolled its way through the countryside at a sedate speed, giving you time to watch the cars on the motorway fuming in their traffic jams. And then when the journey was done, you got out and went on your way, knowing that while the train had been late, the food had been awful, the seats uncomfortable and the rolling stock one step away from a museum, it was still a reasonably reliable system.

April the 1st, 1994 was the day that British Rail was broken up into the units that would later be sold off to the highest bidder: the railway lines that we know today, and the infrastructure in a separate company called Railtrack. Nobody riding the rails on that day would have noticed the comedy begin. The trains stayed the same. The fares stayed the same. The food stayed the same. The staff looked a bit worried and the unions were fuming, but the government promised (while stifling their giggles) that it was all for the best and greater competition would lead to the whole thing costing the taxpayer less. And maybe, just maybe, ticket prices would go down.

Since then, the hilarity has just kept on coming.

The seats on the trains are more comfortable by far - but you'll be lucky if you get a seat at peak times. Or indeed at most other times on some journeys. The food has become edible, but the trolley can hardly get past all the people crowding in the aisles and corridors. The trains have bright, fresh livery that makes trainspotters drool with pleasure and the rest of us wonder why the train companies bother, because they'll only have to paint the trains again when the franchise goes to someone else. The carriages and locomotives are new and powerful, though they hardly ever get the chance to run at full speed and still have to sit motionless outside Birmingham New Street while the passengers stand with aching feet, jammed in beside the swish new toilets from which they can hear every splash and splosh.

And, yes, the fares have gone down - as long as you only want to travel between London and Southend. On every other line, the fares have either remained relatively stable (if the government has forced the companies to keep them that way) or have risen by three times the rate of inflation (if the government has given the train operators free rein). Of course you can get a cheap ticket if you don't mind planning two weeks ahead for every single journey, but how often can you do that? The freedom to go where you want, when you want has been replaced by the freedom for train companies to gouge their passengers at every opportunity.

Nor has it saved the taxpayer any money. The government subsidy for the railways went down after 1994, but only until they realised the companies couldn't operate without it. Since then, it's fluctuated up and down, sometimes more than it was under BR, sometimes less. It didn't help that Railtrack went belly up in 2002 and had to be rescued by the government, causing even more cost to the taxpayer.

But never mind. Even if the joke wasn't remotely funny for anyone actually travelling on the trains, I'm sure that the executives who run all the new companies have been laughing more or less constantly in the last twenty years - all the way to the bank.

Twenty Years Ago Today: Australopithecus Afarensis

Your great-great grandmother would like a drink, please Three and a bit million years ago today, life was good for our ancestors in East Africa. The climate was warm, but did not spoil the fruit hanging from the branch. The rains came in their season and made the land lush and green. And while there might have been some pesky beasts with big teeth and better eyes than our forebears, there were plenty of trees to climb. In fact, it's altogether possible that they spent very little time outside the trees, given how well suited their arms were for climbing.

Life was so easy that the men and women of what would one day become Ethiopia evolved very little over the course of a million years. And why would they? There was nothing to really trouble their lives, which meant no major evolutionary pressure to force any change. Doubtless some small alterations were made in their bodies and minds, but nothing that made any significant physical difference.

So for thousands of years, they lived in a kind of paradise, though of course there were still accidents. One of them drowned in a river. Whether it was just a foolish swim beyond his depth or a terrible storm that burst the banks and swept him away to his death, we'll never know. All we can say is that fragments of his skeleton were found in the late twentieth century, smashed beyond recognition - but still susceptible to patient, careful reconstruction.

His skull was in over 200 pieces, but once it had been pieced back together, paleontologists realised that this man was a relative of a woman whose skeleton had been found in 1974, who had been dubbed 'Lucy' by her finders and 'Dinknesh' - 'Wondrous One' - by Ethiopians. And yet they were separated in time by 200,000 years, with 10,000 generations lying between them. Those who nicknamed him 'son of Lucy' were just a teensy bit inaccurate; he was her great-great-great-grandfather to the power of lots.

And so, twenty years ago today, a paper was published in the scientific journal Nature which described the finding of Lucy's ancestor. The paper argued that with this piece of evidence, they could now link this with Lucy and a few other specimens ranging in age between 3.9 and 2.9 million years ago, and say that they were a single species - Australopithecus Afarensis, named for the Afar region in which their remains were first found.

The cause of their extinction is not fully known, but climate change and competition from other species like Homo Erectus are possibilities. Their simple, easy world disappeared along with them, and what was left became just that little bit busier and more demanding. A process which eventually leads to us. Where it leads after that is another question entirely...



Twenty Years Ago Today: The Scott Inquiry Closes

Sir Richard Scott, a man charged with the task of finding out just how rubbish government really is Twenty years ago today, the last evidence was given before the Scott Inquiry, a judicial investigation which had grown massively in scope since it first began in 1992. Having been given a remit to look into why a prosecution against the engineering firm Matrix Churchill had collapsed so spectacularly, the inquiry had ended up examining the way in which ministers and civil servants habitually keep secrets for no other reason than to cover their own backsides.

Matrix Churchill was an engineering firm based in Coventry which had been supplying Saddam Hussein's Iraq with machine tools which could be used to build weapons. Since Iraq was an ally at the time, this was regarded as being a good and normal thing - at least until 1991, when the UK went to war against Iraq. Oops.

So of course the government launched a prosecution against the directors of Matrix Churchill for the crime of supplying the enemy with widgets that could be used against us. What transpired was that Matrix Churchill had done everything through the proper channels and had even been advised by the government on how to get the bits and bobs exported without any fuss. And just to put the icing on the cake, one of the directors claimed that he'd actually been passing information about Iraqi defence capabilities to Mi6, the British foreign intelligence service. Oops again.

The judge in the court case had some difficulty in figuring this all out, because the government issued a number of Public Interest Immunity certificates that allowed them to avoid giving evidence that they claimed was crucial to national security. And so the evidence that might exonerate the directors of Matrix Churchill could not be heard because it had been declared secret. The judge then decided that the PII certs were a load of rubbish, and forced government ministers to give evidence regardless. This led to the edifying spectacle of Alan Clark, former Minister for Trade, admitting that he'd been a bit economical with the actualité. And yes, those were his actual words. Triple oops.

After the collapse of the trial, Sir Richard Scott was charged with the job of finding out how deep the rabbit hole went. It went pretty deep indeed, and confirmed an awful lot of cynical suspicions about the interior workings of government. Much to the feigned shock of everyone, it turned out that HM Government had been so desperate to avoid accountability that it was willing to declare anything a secret which might in any way embarrass ministers or civil servants. Matrix Churchill's dealings with Iraq were an embarrassment - and so its directors were prosecuted to make sure the blame could not be laid at the government's door.

It's at this point that cynicism takes a big, happy sigh and says: "My work here is done," shortly before pouring itself a brandy, lighting a cigar and taking a few weeks off until the next political crisis.

Twenty Years Ago Today: Whose Death Penalty Is It Anyway?

nooseTwenty years ago today, a stay of execution was given in the case of two absolutely vile men. Lincoln Guerra and Brian Wallen had been convicted of terrible crimes. They had attacked a young family with machetes and knives, raping Leslie Ann Girod before slitting the throats of her and her seven month old baby. Her husband, Brian, was left severely wounded in the attack, but managed to survive and crawl away for help. His testimony condemned the two killers, and there was no doubt as to their guilt. This terrible crime happened in 1987, on the Caribbean island of Trinidad. Such a senseless murder carries an automatic death sentence on the island, though the authorities there were usually loath to actually hang anyone, and generally kept condemned men on death row - until the week before this, when the commissioner of police said that they should break some necks to bring the crime rate down. Guerra and Wallen were given no more than three days notice that their sentence was to be carried out.

They would surely have hanged, but for one small detail in the legal apparatus of the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago. They had once been part of the British Empire, and still retained a part of the British legal system as their final authority on matters of law. Which is to say that their court of final appeal was the Queen herself. She rarely troubles herself with such details, instead delegating them to "The Queen in Council", which means the Privy Council, which means... well, basically, a bunch of judges and lawyers in London who have the final say over legal matters in islands that are otherwise completely independent.

Lawyers for the condemned men scrambled to get in touch with London, and the judges there took a dim view of the matter, granting a stay of execution. It wasn't that they were trying to prevent the hangings altogether (since, after all, they were ruling on Trinidadian law, not British law), but more that the sentence was to be applied so suddenly, with so little warning - a contravention of the mens' constitutional rights.

The word came down from London only 95 minutes before the executions were to take place. If it weren't for the fact that London was four hours ahead of Trinidad, giving the British judges a chance to wake up and convene meetings even as the executioners were preparing for hangings at dawn, the two men would probably have been dead before anyone in London even knew about it.

This strange state of affairs persists to this very day, and it's not just Trinidad and Tobago that are affected - most of the former Caribbean possessions of Britain also have to defer to British judges. London has been called on to make rulings many times since, and - despite the British aversion to capital punishment, demonstrated in the UK Parliament earlier in 1994 - have even allowed executions to go ahead in some cases.

Guerra and Wallen survived their brush with death, and their sentences were commuted to life imprisonment in 1995. Wallen has since died in prison, while Guerra has sued the authorities for beatings inflicted while in jail. The Privy Council holds that while the death penalty may be legal in Trinidad & Tobago, keeping people on death row for more than five years constitutes cruel and unusual punishment, so most death sentences end up not being carried out. Nevertheless, capital punishment is still very popular as a policy with the public, so there's little chance that it'll be abolished any time soon.


Twenty Years Ago Today: The Shell House Massacre

Twenty years ago today, 20,000 or more Inkatha Freedom Party demonstrators converged on Shell House, the headquarters of the African National Congress. The demonstration was angry, and loud. Security staff inside the building were nervous. There'd already been violence between the IFP and the ANC. Then the shooting began.

Eyewitnesses (including a journalist) inside Shell House said that pistols and shotguns were fired towards the building from the crowd, shattering windows and forcing people to take cover. Inkatha disagreed, and stated that there was no provocation for the security guards to blast the crowd with bullets from assault rifles. Either way, nineteen people lay dead once the shooting was over, and all of them were from Inkatha. The scandal rumbled on for years. Nelson Mandela admitted in 1995 that he had given an order for the security guards in the building to defend it with lethal force if they felt it necessary. Amnesty was eventually granted to eleven people by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, but the massacre remains a sore point between the ANC and IFP.

Yet both of these parties were opposed to Apartheid. Both of them had much to gain from its end, and the elections that were soon to come. The leader of the IFP, Mangosothu Buthelezi, had been a member of the ANC in his youth. You'd think they had a lot in common. But in spite of everything, Inkatha was planning to boycott the elections in protest. How did it come to this?

I can't give a full account of the differences between the two parties, but I can give you a quick summary. So far as I can make out, this is what happened...

The ANC was formed more than a century ago, in protest at the white domination of South Africa. It has a long tradition of opposing Apartheid - sometimes violently, through the Umkhonto weSizwe paramilitary organisation, formed because they despaired of ever achieving anything through political means. The Inkatha Freedom Party was created more recently, in 1975, building on the foundation of a cultural organisation in KwaZulu. Unlike the ANC, it pursued a peaceful path to power - but only on a local level, and through a system that used ethnic differences to ensure that native peoples would be kept divided.

Map showing the Bantustans, just before they were dissolved

Bantustans were areas in which black ethnic groups were given varying degrees of autonomy by the Apartheid government. But they were not particularly good places to live. Their governments were usually corrupt, and most people lived in poverty, forced to travel to South Africa proper for horrible, underpaid jobs. Inkatha came to represent the Zulu monarchy, and held power in the KwaZulu 'homeland'. This wasn't the worst Bantustan, but Inkatha was certainly complicit in the Apartheid policy of 'divide and rule'. With the end of white rule came the end of the Bantustans, which were folded back into South Africa during the course of 1994, and the people there given full citizenship so they could vote in the elections. KwaZulu became part of the KwaZulu Natal region, and the power base of the Inkatha Freedom Party.

The ANC, though, wanted to represent everyone, and they weren't always bothered with whether or not people wanted this. So they campaigned against Inkatha in KwaZulu Natal, which inevitably annoyed Inkatha in the extreme. This wasn't a new problem; they'd been butting heads on this issue since the 1980's. When right-wing elements of the police offered military training and weapons in order to fight back, Inkatha accepted (as we saw earlier in the year). And thus two groups of people that could have been working together ended up trying to kill each other.

The Shell House Massacre was not the beginning of the enmity, nor was it the end. It was just one more horrible step along a path of rivalry that was only growing worse as the elections drew near...

Here's a 2013 news report on a protest to commemorate the massacre:

Twenty Years Ago Today: First Flight of the Typhoon

The Eurofighter Typhoon: so sophisticated and European that it's wearing a moustache. You may have heard that the RAF have picked up some cool new fighter aircraft over the last decade or so. And surprisingly, we actually build some of them ourselves! Well, okay, we build them in concert with European partners, because this instils European amity or something. Although mainly it seems to result in political squabbling, like the time Helmut Kohl vowed to cancel the project and then discovered he couldn't because his predecessor had built all kinds of horrible penalties into the contract.

The aircraft in question is the Eurofighter, which is officially known as the Typhoon now that it's in active service - although it was in development for so long that everyone still thinks of it as the Eurofighter. For a while, they were going to call it the Spitfire II, but the Luftwaffe objected to operating an aircraft with the same name as one they were fighting against in world war two. So instead it was named after a world war two ground attack aircraft, because apparently the German Army don't care about this quite as much as the German Air Force.

And twenty years ago today, it flew for the first time.

It was already over budget by this point in 1994. Of course it was. It was a massively complicated technical project being built by engineering geniuses and overseen by highly competent managers who, unfortunately, answer to politicians. This kind of cost overrun is endemic to such programmes, and legendarily so in the United States, where politicians from the various states scream loudly if the money and jobs provided aren't spent in their districts, leading to such interesting results as the US Army saying they don't need any more tanks but Congress forcing them to take them anyway because otherwise jobs would be lost.


Now imagine this kind of insanity happening between different countries that speak different languages and have different governments. That's why there are four production lines in four nations, all making little bits of the planes. The left and right wings aren't even made in the same place. It's small wonder that the budget ballooned from £7bn in 1988 to £17bn in 1997, and then to... well, actually, the UK government stopped releasing official cost estimates in 2003, so it's hard to say. By 2011 there was a guess of £37bn by the National Audit Office, while German authorities said that the price was in a state of perpetual increase. No wonder the French left the project and made their own fighter instead.

But still, the Typhoon is flying. Well, most of them are. The RAF contingent were grounded in 2010 due to a lack of spare parts, and were only brought back into service by cannibalising some of them. Nevertheless, they flew their first combat operations in 2011, despite having a lack of pilots as well as spare parts, and did actually manage to drop some bombs on Libya very successfully - although they had to rely on older Tornado ground attack aircraft to do the targeting, because the Typhoon pilots hadn't been trained how to do it yet.

The Tornado has now been retired, leaving the Typhoon as the only air defence fighter used by the RAF. It won't be deployed by the Royal Navy on their new aircraft carriers (which are also late, and also over budget) because the government decided in the late 90's that they should rely on the American F-35 instead, what with the Eurofighter being a disaster in the making. Because surely the yanks can organise a pissup in a brewery design an aircraft in an aircraft factory, right? Well, not so much. The F-35 is currently about as late and over budget as the carriers it's supposed to fly from. So they'll probably go together just fine.

The RAF version can also be deployed in 'handlebar' mode

Despite all this ham-handedness, it is, by all accounts, a very nice aircraft. It's unlikely to be tested in air to air combat any time soon (unless Vladimir Putin really loses his marbles), but it's manoeuvrable, fast, packs a punch and can go toe to toe with anything else out there (or so the simulations and wargames say). It's just the human element that lets it down: we always seem to make a mess of procuring these things when there's so much money at stake and we don't have an actual war to fight.

But never mind. The next generation of fighters will be free of human taint. They'll be pilotless drones, designed by computers, built by robots, and directed to their targets by Skynet. Humanity will probably be doomed, but at least our extinction will be brought about on time and under budget.

Here's a nice little video from the Science Museum that shows what it's like in the cockpit of a Typhoon:

Twenty Years Ago Today: Death of Dame Whina Cooper

Whina Cooper Twenty years ago today, a 98-year old woman died in Panguru, New Zealand. Whina Cooper was born Whina Te Wake, daughter of the Maori leader Heremia Te Wake - though this didn't exactly make her a princess. She was born on the mud floor of a cookhouse, and though she was recognised for her intelligence and leadership skills from an early age, she still spent a great deal of her life working as a shopkeeper, a teacher, a gum digger, and a farmer. Maori aristocracy don't seem to enjoy the same kind of privilege as their British counterparts.

Her father favoured her before his sons, realising that she was something special. Sadly, this kind of attitude was all too rare. Maori women were usually expected to keep quiet when dealing with important matters - but she refused to be silenced. They were also supposed to marry whoever they were told to marry - but she made her own choice. She annoyed a lot of people, though her father protected her from the anger of the community. She endured hardship once he was gone, despite having proved her worth at the age of sixteen, in a protest against a white farmer who was trying to claim Maori land. She was too radical for some, in the first few decades of the twentieth century.

Her greatest fame came in 1975, at the age of eighty, when she led five thousand people on a seven hundred mile march to Wellington to protest the seizing of Maori land over the last 135 years of European occupation. It didn't make any immediate difference, but the sight of an elderly, arthritic woman making herself heard helped to radicalise a younger generation of Maori activists. Yet when she accepted accolades from the establishment, such as her knighthood in 1981, she was castigated by some of these younger people for what they saw as a willingness to appease the domination of European colonists. She was too conservative for some, in the latter decades of the twentieth century.

She carried on all the same. As far as she was concerned, accepting awards just made her job easier. Civil servants couldn't refuse her calls when she was a Dame Commander of the British Empire (no matter how much they wished they could avoid the earache). This was useful when working for social causes, something she'd been doing for decades. She founded the Maori Women's Welfare League in 1951, which helped support people during the mass migration into cities. Her goals were anything but separatist, or violent. She was looking for racial harmony, not racial strife. Her last wish was that the two peoples of New Zealand learn to live together and love one another.

She was given many, many honours during her lifetime. But among all the honours bestowed on her in the name of the British Empire, there was one that was purely Maori: Te Whaea o te Motu - Mother of the Nation.

Here's a profile on her from New Zealand TV:

Twenty Years Ago Today: Operation Quickdraw

US Marines boarding a transport plane to leave Mogadishu. Twenty years ago today, the United States rolled out of Mogadishu in a planned withdrawal that they termed 'Operation Quickdraw', presumably because that sounds so much better than a retreat. And yet a retreat it was (albeit a well-organised and orderly one), for the US was leaving without having achieved its aims, which were to assist the UN mission in bringing about a peaceful resolution to the Somali Civil War.

Not that you'd know that if you asked Major-General Thomas Montgomery, the commander of the US forces, who claimed that the operation had been a success. "We are very proud of what we have done," he said. "We know there are hundreds of thousands of Somalis alive because of what we did." He was referring to the relief work that the US had conducted, which had been the original purpose of the mission. But that had little to do with why they were leaving. Their departure had more to do with the thirty Americans and hundreds (possibly thousands) of Somalis who had died in battle. Most of these casualties happened during the First Battle of Mogadishu in October 1993, when an operation to capture one of the faction leaders, Mohamed Farah Aidid, went disastrously wrong. You've probably seen the movie.

For the US, this must have been tremendously frustrating - despite all the equipment and incredibly well trained people at their disposal, they still couldn't eliminate Aidid, who was one of the main stumbling blocks to getting a peace settlement between the warring factions. And he wasn't exactly a military genius. He was a petty warlord running a militia. No, forget frustrating - this was embarrassing. Possibly even mortifying.

So the US pulled out, leaving the UN mission's other contributor nations to keep on trying for another year before they finally gave up and pulled the plug on the operation, leaving Somalia to its fate.

The Americans had decided that peacekeeping was not worth the lives it would cost them, and subsequent forays into this kind of work largely happened at a safe distance, using air strikes (in Bosnia and Kosovo, for example). When the US next launched major combat operations on the ground, it would be as part of the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 - the kind of thing that most military forces are far better suited for. The kind of thing they believed would result in a swift, simple victory. The kind of thing that peacekeeping could never give them.

If there's a moral to this story that military planners and politicians really ought to pay attention to, it's this: there is no such thing as a swift, simple victory. And if you think there is, then you're probably the reason why there isn't.

Twenty Years Ago Today: Gas Explosion Razes Apartment Buildings

Edison ExplosionTwenty years ago today in the town of Edison, New Jersey, a gas pipe finally gave way after decades of use, and a burst of flame leapt into the air. (Well, technically this happened five minutes before it was twenty years ago today, but it wasn't until a few minutes past midnight that the flames were actually threatening a complex of apartment buildings, so I'm treating this as March the 24th. Okay? Okay. Let's move on).

The force of the blast knocked people from their beds in the nearest buildings, smashed cars to pieces and left a massive crater - but it wasn't until some minutes later that the fires actually reached the structures of the Durham Woods apartments, where a couple of thousand people were living at the time.

"It sounded like thunder, but it just wouldn't stop," said a resident. "It just kept getting louder and louder and louder. Everything in our apartment was just orange. . .  It reminded me of a King Kong kind of movie where people are just running in every direction, not knowing what they are doing--just grabbing kids, people falling, tripping, running, people just scattering in every direction to just get out of there."

The residents fled - to the woods, to railway tracks, to anywhere that was away from the blaze. Only one person could not flee: Sandra Snyder, who collapsed with a heart attack and died. Eight buildings were incinerated in the conflagration that night, and there were fears that some bodies had been completely destroyed. But in the end there was only the one fatality. The explosion had been its own warning, and 1,500 people were given enough time to run for their lives. Only sixty were injured. Here's what it looked like on the ground:

The gas pipe that burst had been weakened during excavation works conducted by the gas company several years before. Laws regarding digging near pipelines were tightened up all over the US as a result, to the extent that companies needing to excavate now have to check to see if there's anything beneath the ground. Because clearly this wasn't regarded as sensible or obvious before...

In addition to this, the pipes were being run over capacity, were made of brittle materials and suffered from faulty valves. So the gas company had little defence as the residents turned to lawyers for redress. $65m had been paid out in damages by the year 2000 (with a substantial portion going to the estate of Sandra Snyder).

Meanwhile in New York, the radio show host Art Bell was talking to the noted lunatic Neal Chase, who claims to be the current successor to the Throne of David. Chase had predicted that there would be a nuclear attack on New York on this very day. Lo and behold, at the beginning of the interview, news of a large explosion in New Jersey came in: an airline pilot was screaming that Newark had been nuked, and that a Hiroshima-style mushroom cloud was rising into the sky.

Funnily enough, Art Bell is reported to have 'lost his radio composure' at this point. And also presumably his shit. Recordings of this moment seem not to be available online, which is a crying shame. If anyone locates one, let me know...

Twenty Years Ago Today: 1994's Most Bizarre Suicide

Falling ManTwenty years ago today, Ronald Opus jumped to his death from the roof of an apartment building. But he didn't die by smacking his head into the pavement. Instead, his head was blasted by a shotgun as he fell past one of the windows below. And that was only the beginning of the weirdness.

The President of the American Association for Forensic Science, Don Harper Mills, recounted the increasingly odd circumstances of Ronald Opus' demise at an association meeting in August of 1994. Opus had most certainly intended to kill himself; his mother had cut off financial support and he was thoroughly suicidal. But if the shotgun blast hadn't intervened, he would have survived, for safety netting had just been put in place for some workmen toiling away on the outside of the building. So was this actually a murder?

The only problem with a charge of murder was that the shotgun blast wasn't even aimed at Ronald Opus; it was randomly fired out of a window. Except that it wasn't entirely random. It was fired by his father, who was busy threatening his mother in one of their regular arguments. And just to complicate things even further, the shotgun was not normally kept loaded - yet on this occasion, it had been loaded by Ronald Opus himself, in the hope that his father would accidentally kill his mother - his revenge for her cutting him off. His father missed his mother when he pulled the trigger, and Ronald just happened to be falling past the window at that exact moment.

So was this a murder or was this a suicide? The medical examiner ruled it as the latter, although you might have heard differently, because you may have been told this story before. It's been adapted for film and television several times, usually as a knotty problem in a police procedural. The most notable version, though, is this segment from the beginning of Paul Thomas Anderson's 1999 film, Magnolia (which will, if nothing else, help you get your head around the craziness of the events):

The names are changed, the identity of the shooter is switched, the date is set back more than thirty years and the final charge is altered to murder - but it's essentially the same story. Quite a tale!

Except that none of it is true.

Paul Thomas Anderson wrote the script for Magnolia, but he didn't create this story. It has often been attributed to a 1998 article for the Associated Press under the byline "Kurt Westervelt" - but Westervelt doesn't exist, and the AP never actually published that story. The first real sighting of the story was when it spread across the internet by email in late 1994, going viral before anyone had actually come up with the term 'going viral'.

It referred to two key dates: the August 1994 dinner at which pathologist Don Harper Mills spoke, and the 23rd of March 1994, when Opus supposedly died. How the story acquired those dates is unknown, for nothing of the sort happened on those days. And we know this because Don Harper Mills admitted to having invented the story for a completely different meeting of the American Association for Forensic Science back in 1987.

It was a complete fabrication from end to end - but with a useful purpose. The point of the tale was to present a complex case for a medical examiner to resolve, as a test of legal knowledge in extreme circumstances. Mills had no idea who released the story to the internet, but had to field hundreds of enquiries as a result, including from professors of law who wanted to cite it as a legal precedent.

And what verdict should you, the casual internet user, give upon this case? Why, the answer is simple: if you hear a strange story that seems too amazing to be true, check it first. Your first stop should be Snopes, as mine was when I encountered this story associated with this date (something that saved me a good deal of embarrassment!) And if that fails you, then there's always The Straight Dope, or any of a myriad of Skeptical resources, provided by people who spend their lives figuring out what's real and what isn't.

Twenty Years Ago Today: The Iron Heart of a Meteorite Exposed

See all that gas and dust swirling around the sun? In four and a half billion years time, some of that will be you. Four and a half billion years ago (or thereabouts), the sun ignited. But there was more to the solar system than just the sun. The disc of gas and dust that swirled around the new star began to clump together to make planets and moons and asteroids. They melted under the pressure of their own increasing gravity and became so hot that the heavier elements sank within them down to their cores, leaving them with deposits of iron right at the heart of each one.

One such body flew on in its orbit around the sun for untold millions of years, cooling off until it was solid through and through. It could have gone on forever, until the heat-death of the universe put an end to all light; but it was not to be. The solar system was stuffed to the gills with lumps of rock and iron, so many that they smashed into each other over and over. Sometimes this would make a bigger chunk of rock and iron. This time it just smashed the asteroid apart, breaking up the iron core into tiny pieces that swung on around the sun in new orbits, going on for more millions of years...

Until one of them hit China.

In 1516, a fireball was observed over Nantan county in the province of Guangxi. The meteor flared bright, but it was too big and heavy to vapourise. It broke apart into a shower of meteoritic chunks weighing nine and a half tons between them. They smacked into the ground across the county, each one too small to do much damage or even to be noticed. And there they lay for centuries - ignored, forgotten, perhaps occasionally uncovered, but never desired so much that anyone went looking for them.

Until one day China had a desperate need for iron.

Mao Zedong, a man who counted his successes in terms of how many millions of people died as a result

By 1958, Mao Zedong had already removed all opposition to Communist rule by the simple expedient of asking for suggestions on how things could be improved, and then purging the half a million or so people who actually replied. So he was now free to push forward with his ideological campaign to industrialise China by forcing the heroic peasants to make a Great Leap Forward in production of all goods - including steel.

But the campaign was woefully mismanaged. Steel production couldn't be conjured from nothing, with no infrastructure. So to fulfil the ever-increasing quotas, people would melt down pots, pans and anything else they could lay their hands on - which included any meteoritic iron that happened to be lying around. And so the lumps of metal that fell from the sky centuries before were uncovered, and dragged off to makeshift furnaces. But they wouldn't melt. The iron had been mixed with nickel when it was formed, and the resulting alloy had a melting point far beyond the capability of the peasants struggling to meet their quotas. The meteorites were put to one side while 36 million people died in the famines caused by the disaster that was the Great Leap Forward.

The Nantan meteorite, once it had been sliced open.

By 1994, China was finally making rapid progress towards real industrialisation, mainly because Mao and his old supporters had died off, leaving the more practically minded (if still somewhat brutal) Deng Xiaoping in charge. Contact with the rest of the world blossomed, and some of the haul of meteorites from Nantan were sold off - one of them to a consortium of European museums for the princely sum of $25,000.

And so, twenty years ago today, a lump of iron and nickel weighing 255kg was sliced up into five pieces at a specialist cutting firm in Redditch, which was surprised but overjoyed to get the chance to prepare the meteorite for the Natural History Museum. The resulting shard was briefly put on display before being given over to research that would help to explain the story of the early solar system, and how dust and gas could go on to form the planets and moons and asteroids that we know today...


Twenty Years Ago Today: A Live Action Parliamentary Puppet Show!

A photorealistic image of John Major, the British Prime Minister Twenty years ago today, Spitting Image was between its fifteenth and sixteenth series, and therefore not on the air. Instead, the good folk of Westminster were doing their best to create a live-action Spitting Image sketch. Eyebrows were raised throughout Downing Street as a terrifying sound issued forth from the office of the Prime Minister: the monumental boom of an outraged Ulsterman.

It was an argument about the Northern Ireland peace process, of course. The loud Ulsterman was none other than the Reverend Ian Paisley, leader of the protestant Democratic Unionist Party. In those days, they were a group of hardliners who opposed any accommodation with the catholic opposition, but their support was needed if the process was to go ahead.

Behind Ian Paisley's booming voice lay the calculating brain of that most terrifying of creatures: a politician.

Paisley's refusal to participate was annoying the PM somewhat, and it's said that Mr. Major - a man caricatured by Spitting Image as so dull that his colour control was set to permanent monochrome - flew off the handle, shouting that Paisley was talking 'total rubbish', and throwing his papers around the room. Paisley - who needed no caricature for anyone to know that his volume control was set to a permanent maximum - claimed that he actually had to raise his voice to be heard.

Paisley dismissed the peace process as 'iniquitous and a farce' and 'a rotten sinking vessel which is going down now in confusion.' Major accused him of constantly misrepresenting the situation, and the bellowing continued to rise. 'I have a better voice than him when it comes to volume,' said Paisley later on, but it wasn't his office; after half an hour of the two men screaming at each other, Major threw him out.

Both sides were swift to present their own interpretation of events, with Paisley's being by far the more entertaining, depicting him as standing up for his principles in the face of a prime minister who threw his papers around the room in frustration. His intended audience was probably not the British government, nor even his true opponents, Sinn Fein - but his own people back home. As the years progressed, his intransigence would continue to win him support among Unionists until his party supplanted the former leading Unionist party, and took power after the eventual peace agreement. Because after all, the biggest fights in politics are usually more between allies than enemies, and in-fighting is vastly more popular (and profitable) than actual fighting.

And for those of you who can't remember what Spitting Image was all about, here's a reminder:

Twenty Years Ago Today: I Can't Believe It's Not the Oscars

Golden_Raspberry_AwardTwenty years ago today, the glitter people of Hollywood were looking forward to a self-congratulatory schmoozefest on the following day, because it was that time of year when they like to reward people whose studios paid for massive advertising campaigns with statues of anatomically incorrect little gold men. But elsewhere in the wilderness of Los Angeles, another awards ceremony was in progress, though this is one that few of the recipients are ever brave enough to attend. For tonight was the night of the 14th Golden Raspberry awards, in which the very worst of the past year's films would be derided and mocked with all the solemnity of a hyena on laughing gas.

The big films up for mockery this year included:

  • Indecent Proposal: in which Robert Redford tries to pay a million dollars to sleep with a married woman, and murdery hi-jinks result.
  • Body of Evidence: in which Madonna gives a treatise on the creative use of molten candle wax when applied to Willem Dafoe. Or something like that. The candle wax scene was the point when I walked out of the cinema to seek an alcoholic remedy for my boredom.
  • Cliffhanger: in which Sylvester Stallone shows how much fun you can have with mountains and camera cranes. Not so much with the story or acting or anything.
  • Sliver: which was something to do with voyeurism and CCTV. Or possibly there wasn't a film at all and just a UB40 music video that you were forced by law to watch before every other goddamn film that year.
  • Last Action Hero: the year's biggest box office disaster, in which Arnold Schwarzenegger made a film that mocked both him and the pictures he'd been making for the last decade.

These were all horrible movies - except the last one, which was primarily a horror to the studio accountants. In my opinion (bolstered by a recent rewatch of the film), the Razzies failed to spot a future trend in film and television: growing awareness of the medium itself, and a willingness to take the piss out of its conventions. Last Action Hero had many problems, but it still had more charm and wit than most other films from 1993, and featured characters who were genre savvy before anyone even invented the term. Scream would take the same kind of obsessive movie knowledge and turn it into a hit in 1996 - but Last Action Hero was a financial disaster.

Part of the problem was that they were trying to mock massively-budgeted blockbuster films by making... a massively budgeted blockbuster film. The ridiculous budget meant that they had to get the largest audience possible, while the section of the audience that appreciated metafiction wasn't big enough to support the cost of the film. Whereas Scream, a much cheaper film in a genre where the fans were even more obsessive, could easily do so.

But there were lots of other screwups as well - the production was a nightmare, the script was heavily rewritten by lots of people, the schedule was so tight that they barely got it finished, and somebody thought that a magic film ticket was a good plot device. It's a miracle the film hangs together as well as it does. Yet despite its faults it still gave us the best version of Hamlet ever, Charles Dance in full-scale villain mode, Ian McKellen as Death himself, and Arnold Schwarzenegger being aware of his own ridiculousness. And unlike all those other films being 'honoured' at the Razzies, this one has actually improved with age.

Twenty Years Ago Today: An Exemplar of British Aristocracy

Darius Guppy (on the left) with Earl Spencer in better times. Twenty years ago today, it was revealed that a notorious fraudster was willing at last to tell police exactly where in Switzerland he'd stashed his loot. But this was no ordinary fraudster. Darius Guppy was educated at Eton and Oxford, was a member of the Bullingdon Club, and a friend to both Earl Spencer and Boris Johnson. While he had both British and Iranian heritage, he was an aristocrat through and through who could trace his line back to Francis Dashwood (of Hellfire Club fame) and the Plantagenet royal family.

To say that Guppy had a privileged upbringing would be to observe that water is wet, whisky is intoxicating, and rich people have a poor grasp on reality. Young Darius preferred to live by his own rules, which Boris Johnson described as a 'Homeric code of honour, loyalty and revenge.' Unfortunately, Johnson wasn't suggesting that Guppy was likely to spend most of his time sulking in a tent (as Achilleus does in The Iliad), but instead that he was perfectly willing to engage in extraordinary criminal activity in recompense for any slight against himself or his family. The offence, in this case, was to his father, who lost a fortune in the financial crisis suffered by Lloyds of London. Therefore Guppy enlisted a friend to help fake a jewel heist in New York, during which enough stones were 'stolen' to trigger a £1.8 million payout from Lloyds. This went off perfectly until Guppy's friend betrayed him, leading to a prison sentence of five years.

As Guppy was entering Brixton prison, he joked with a guard that it would probably be a lot like going to Eton. But after only a few weeks inside, he was beginning to regret this bravado. A former cell-mate told The Sun that Guppy was a wreck, living in fear of sexual assault from other inmates. He was apparently so terrified of all the offers of intercourse that he had taken to locking himself in his cell. One can only assume that this is not what he meant when he compared prison to Eton. Although this is The Sun we're talking about, so feel free to reach for a pinch of salt.

It's possible, though, that Guppy's willingness to help the police came from another source. By March of 1994 his appeal had been denied, with the judge taking a dim view of Guppy's claims that he only had a couple of hundred thousand pounds to spare, not nearly enough to pay back the insurers. But if he were willing to co-operate, perhaps the matter might be reconsidered...

Guppy was released after serving three years of his sentence, and immediately demonstrated how much he'd learned from the experience by beating up Earl Spencer. He accused the earl of having an affair with his wife while he was in prison (Spencer had made the mistake of giving his friend's wife and their infant daughter a house in which to live during those years).

Guppy then relocated to South Africa, from where he occasionally bemoans the state of modern Britain as an urban hell whose political and financial leaders are a bunch of clowns lacking in any vision. And given that he went to school with most of them, he should know...

Twenty Years Ago Today: The Conspiracy Ran Deep in South Africa

Inkatha Freedom Party supporters at a rally in 1994 South Africa in 1994 was on the rocky road to ditching the old system of apartheid. But it wasn't a simple process; both the white minority who had been running the country and the black majority who had endured systematic oppression were riven by divisions. In particular, there was a deep divide between the Khoi-San people who made up the bulk of the ANC, and the Zulus who formed the Inkatha Freedom Party; a divide that some within the white security forces sought to take advantage of.

Twenty years ago today, it was revealed that a whistleblower from the police had approached a judicial commission with evidence that hard-liners within the police had been deliberately supplying Inkatha with weapons, and training their fighters to use them against the ANC - all in the hope that the movement to end apartheid would dissolve in a black-on-black civil war. This conspiracy was not unsuspected; and in this case the conspiracy theorist who suspected it was Nelson Mandela himself (along with quite a lot of other people, no doubt). But until this day twenty years ago, his suspicions had been disregarded as mere paranoia, at least as far as the authorities were concerned.

It had been going on since at least 1989. Weapons used in a war against Namibia were cleaned in acid and their serial numbers were removed. They were distributed to Inkatha, along with some that were manufactured by members of the police force. The effort was led by a group of senior police officials, including one who had once led Vlakplaas, a notorious police assassination unit that had since been disbanded (though some members were still working in hit squads with the collusion of the police). Violence in townships and massacres on trains had been the result, and the situation between the ANC and Inkatha remained tense at a time when it was desperately important that they co-operate in ensuring peaceful elections.

The National Party government was swift to deny any involvement, and, at least as far as the leadership was concerned, this seems credible. F. W. de Klerk, the president of South Africa at the time, was doing his level best to manage the transition to majority rule peacefully, and had made an effort to prevent the police from continuing their murderous activities. That he was being undermined by forces within the police just goes to show how desperate some people were to maintain their tyranny.

Here's a film about Eugene de Kock, one of the unpleasant people behind all this: