Twenty Years Ago Today: Nyarubuye

nyarubuyeTwenty years ago today, the genocidaires of Rwanda were learning their trade with a sickening efficiency. They'd realised that going house to house was a slow way to kill people. But if you could get all your victims in one place and trap them there, then you could deal with hundreds or thousands all at once. That's exactly what was happening, all over the country: Tutsis and moderate Hutus fled their homes and went to a place they hoped would be safe, only to be betrayed, penned in, and then massacred by the Interahamwe, working their way through screaming crowds with clubs, machetes, hoes, or whatever else came to hand. At Nyarubuye, it happened in a church.

This was far from unusual. In fact, it was common. There were houses of worship all over Rwanda to which people fled, and where the priests often betrayed them to the killers. Nyarubuye is just one where we know a reasonable amount about what happened, thanks to a handful of survivors who fell under the bodies of their family members while they were being hacked to bits by their friends and neighbours.

Their money was taken from them first. Then grenades were thrown as the killers shouted that snakes must have their heads chopped off. Children and infants had their heads smashed in with stones and hammers. Pregnant women were hacked open so their unborn children could be finished off. It began at 3 in the afternoon, and went on until the next day.

The survivors were battered and wounded, and did not dare leave the church for weeks on end, even as the bodies of their loved ones rotted around them. They drank rainwater and helped the weaker ones to survive with what little food they had. Wild dogs came to feed on the corpses, and were made to leave by thrown stones. Eventually, they were rescued, and some even survived the infections in their wounds. Other survivors were less fortunate. Some women were taken away to be used as sex slaves and raped hundreds of times, enduring unwanted pregnancies and AIDS infections - if they weren't killed later during the genocide.

Nyarubuye church still stands. The corpses have been removed to a mass grave. The buildings are used as a memorial and museum for those who perished: 1,500 victims who died in terror and agony.

Twenty Years Ago Today: The Presidential Debate

FW-de-Klerk-and-Nelson-Ma-001Twenty years ago today, two political titans clashed live on television. In the grand tradition of pre-election debates across the world, the two main candidates for the role of President of South Africa traded verbal blows and challenged each other's policies, all so that voters could get a sense of what these two people were offering the nation should they take charge of the country. Except that everyone already knew who was going to win. The next president would be Nelson Mandela. His rival, F.W. de Klerk, stood absolutely no chance. It was widely presumed that he would be offered a senior position in a coalition government following the election. So why even bother with the debate?

Because this was going to be a free and fair election, and having a debate is one of those things commonly done in a free and fair election. The fact that the outcome was already known was simply a function of just how popular Mandela was at that moment, now that the whole population was going to get a chance to vote. Mandela and de Klerk weren't really rivals; they'd been partners ever since Mandela walked free in 1990, working together to build the post-apartheid South Africa. It didn't make for the most enthralling of debates, although it swiftly became clearly that de Klerk had the greater skill, which he'd presumably honed during the 27 years that Mandela had been locked in a prison cell. It's doubtful that anyone changed their mind as a result of the debate - but the simple fact that it was happening was an achievement in and of itself.

However, there was still one major problem, which you could spot from the list of parties that ran up the screen at the end. The list was meant to include every single group participating in the elections, but one was missing: the Inkatha Freedom Party, which was still clashing violently with the ANC and refusing to take part in the elections. One of Mandela and de Klerk's more interesting clashes during the debate came as a result of this, as Mandela reminded his rival that Inkatha's fighters had been trained and funded by the police in order to create divisions within the black population of South Africa.

Despite everything, the story of the first free elections in South Africa were not over yet; with Inkatha still refusing to take part, there was still a chance that it could all go horribly wrong.

Here's a video of the debate if you'd like to watch.

Twenty Years Ago Today: Kigali in the Firing Line

rpf_buergerkrieg_ruanda_1994Twenty years ago today, RPF troops were consolidating their gains around the Rwandan capital of Kigali, even as killings of civilians outside their territory went on. The capital was not so very far from the territory in which the RPF was contained before the genocide began, and 600 of their soldiers had been trapped there in their barracks - but now they were breaking out and linking up with their comrades as key positions around the edge of the city were taken. The government, meanwhile, were busy fleeing to Gitarama, understanding that it was hopeless to try and defend the capital. Even as the government fled, the killings of Tutsi civilians continued, and would only end when the RPF established themselves there. It would not be long before Kigali fell - but taking the whole nation would not be so easy. It would be July before the RPF was in control of the country and the genocide could be said to be over. Rwanda may be one of the smallest nations in Africa, but it still took time to conquer.

Even so, it begs the question: how did the instigators of the genocide think they could get away with it? Did they think the RPF could be easily beaten back? Did they want to exterminate the bulk of the Tutsis so that they would always be a tiny minority, even if the RPF took the country? Did they simply ignore the threat from the RPF? They certainly spent some time planning to neutralise the UN forces in the country, and provoke nations like Belgium into withdrawing their forces - why didn't they take the same kind of trouble with the RPF?

As much as their actions were brutal beyond imagining, the Hutu leadership were not fools. They ran rings around the UN without too much trouble. The genocide itself was not a random, unplanned free-for-all of violence. There was a tactical and political approach to it that ensured that every member of the Hutu community would be implicated and unwilling to oppose it. Areas were sealed off with roadblocks first, and Hutus were sent in to search for Tutsis to kill. Rwanda had a tradition of obedience to authority, and most acquiesced. If they didn't, then they too would be killed. It was diabolical but effective: until the RPF stormed through an area, local opposition to the genocide was all but impossible. And it was also swift: despite using only guns, grenades, machetes and clubs, the rate of killing was higher even than during the Nazi holocaust. This was not an act of brutal stupidity. This was the application of intelligence to brutality. So why did this intelligence fail when assessing the force that would end the genocide?

Maybe the Hutu leaders really didn't think that the RPF would be able to stop them. Maybe their arrogance went so far as to assume that the RPF would be brushed aside if they made any attempt at rescue. I can't find any sources that really explain how on earth they thought they could get away with the genocide. They don't seem stupid enough to commit such a crime when there was an army already within their territory that could do nothing else but oppose them. But maybe, just maybe, they were blinded by their hatred - and maybe we can hope that all those who hate will be just as blind to the cause of their downfall.

Twenty Years Ago Today: Spam, Spam, Spam, Spam, Spam

SpamScreenShotTwenty years ago today a potent force for evil was unleashed across the world. It was not the truly serious and horrifying evil of genocide, nor the manic theatrical evil of a moustache-twirling madman, but the humble, everyday evil that we all contend with on a daily basis. Today was the day that the nightmare of spam was set free to torment the inboxes, comment sections and newsgroups of the world. It began on Usenet, the sprawling web of newsgroups that defined the communities of the internet before the World Wide Web. The newsgroups were essentially single-topic message boards like those on Reddit, arranged according to hierarchies. So the groups in Rec.* were all about recreation, Rec.Arts.* newsgroups were for arts, Rec.Arts.Movies.* were all for films, and Rec.Arts.Movies.Reviews was where you could find people pontificating on the latest cinema releases. Well, mostly a guy called James Berardinelli, but there were a few others. (There must have been. Surely?)

Twenty years ago, readers of 6,000 such groups witnessed a wildly off-topic posting: an advert, LARGELY IN ALL CAPS, that informed immigrants to the US that they could avail themselves of the attorneys Laurence Canter and Martha Siegel in their search for a green card. Heads were scratched and eyebrows raised, but it was not to be the last posting from the husband and wife team.

Strictly speaking, this was not the first piece of spam in the world: that title was won on the 18th of January by a post entitled 'Global Alert for All: Jesus is Coming Soon'. It was soon joined by an automated screed on the Armenian genocide. But spam found its true calling with Canter and Siegel: marketing. While the two were wildly vilified for their actions (and Canter was even disbarred), the technology behind it was simple enough that we now need more technology to prevent it from overwhelming us. Even on such a little-seen blog as this, there are 4,472 spam comments caught in the filter as of the moment I write these words, and the vast majority of all email consists of unwanted messages.

Why should this be so? Because the cost of spam is so incredibly low. All it takes is a few suckers to click on the wrong link, and the spammers can make back their investment with ease. No matter how advanced our technology grows, there will always be humans gullible enough to fall for the spam.

Meanwhile, the nice people who make the tinned meat known as SPAM are not amused. But they do have a nice little museum you can visit! There's even a Monty Python section...

Twenty Years Ago Today: Genocide, Day Five

Don Bosco Technical School. Note the flags on the flowerpots - this was once a Belgian barracks. The shooting started after they left. Twenty years ago today, the International Committee of the Red Cross estimated that 20,000 people had already been killed, though it was hard to say how bad things were outside the capital. Thousands of killings went unreported. That's why so many of the horror stories of the genocide come from Kigali: there were outsiders there to witness them. Elsewhere, the witnesses either died or had good reason to keep their mouths shut.

Before the nightmare began, the UN commander Romeo Dallaire had predicted one part of the Hutu strategy to accomplish genocide. Belgian soldiers would be killed, forcing Belgium to withdraw its peacekeepers, leaving the Tutsi population with vastly less protection than it had. His predictions were ignored - and were now coming true. The killings had happened at the beginning of the genocide when 10 soldiers protecting Agathe Uwilingiyimana were killed, and Belgian forces were in the process of being withdrawn.

For the Tutsis sheltering at the Don Bosco Technical School, it could not have come at a worse time. The school had been used by Belgian soldiers as a barracks, and was still occupied - by them and 2,000 people sheltering there who thought that the soldiers from their former colonial master would protect them. Yet the Belgians weren't allowed to do so. They could shoot dogs harrying corpses in the streets outside the school, but not the growing numbers of Interahamwe militiamen converging on the site.

The killers were well aware of how many people were huddling inside. All that stopped them was the risk that the soldiers might be provoked if they moved to take the barracks. As they waited, they drank beer and chanted Hutu slogans, leaving the Tutsis inside terrified and begging the soldiers to stay.

The soldiers were ordered to the airport during the afternoon. The Interahamwe moved in. And the killing began. Hours later, the majority of those who had looked to Belgium and the UN for safety were dead.

There was some hope, though. The forces of the Rwandan Patriotic Front were making swift gains towards Kigali, and shutting down the genocide as they went. But this did nothing to slow the killings in the capital. The slaughter went on.

Twenty Years Ago Today: Genocide, Day Four

Rwanda-Genocide-1994-1Twenty years ago today, foreigners escaping the hell of Kigali were beginning to tell their stories to the press. They spoke of gangs of men with knives, machetes and clubs roaming the streets, and bodies lying rotting in the sun. Being a foreigner was no protection from the killers, who would typically shake their victims down for money and, once satisfied, tell them that they were safe - until the next gang came along looking for someone to kill. For many relief organisations, it was rapidly becoming impossible to continue their work. The 13 staff of Medecins Sans Frontieres were pulled out, leaving Kigali hospital to its fate - a fate they could not have prevented even if they had stayed. Earlier that day, a hundred Tutsis who had survived attacks were slaughtered by militiamen, even as they being treated for their wounds in the tents put up around the hospital to cope with the influx of casualties. The International Committee of the Red Cross remained, but other groups would be compelled to leave as the days went on.

Seven miles west of Kigali, Tutsi staff at a Catholic orphanage were targeted and murdered. One of them was carrying a Hutu ID card but was killed anyway, simply because she looked like a Tutsi. Bodies were thrown into a toilet pit, regardless of whether or not they were still alive. And the people who did this were not strangers - they were Hutu youngsters known to the staff they were killing.

For once, this story has a happier ending. The surviving staff and nuns were able to get a number of women and children to safety with the aid of Belgian and French forces. If it had been an orphanage run by a local organisation, it's hard to see how this would have been possible. Doubtless there were many such places where every single person was killed, with no record of the murders and the bodies dumped in mass graves that gave no clue as to their identity.

Twenty Years Ago Today: Genocide, Day Three

Rwandan ChildTwenty years ago today, the world finally sat up and took notice of the killings spreading throughout Rwanda. Planes departed France, Belgium and the US with troops on board, heading for Kigali with one overriding mission: getting their own people out. Civilians from these nations were shepherded to their planes and whisked away to safety, but hardly any Rwandans were permitted to escape by this means - not even those who had worked at foreign companies and embassies. Convoys heading out by road towards Burundi were specifically prohibited from carrying any Rwandans, lest the whole column be stopped and trapped in the country. In Gikondo, the Pallottine Missionary Catholic Church was being used as a shelter by hundreds of Tutsis - but to no avail. Gendarmes were informed that inyenzi (cockroaches) were sheltering there, and entered to check ID cards despite the pleas of the priest that they were all regular worshippers. The Gendarmes did nothing else - they did not need to. Soon, a hundred members of the Interahamwe militia arrived with clubs and machetes, and the killing began. Children were not spared. Pews were ripped up so they could have no hiding place. They were hacked to pieces wherever they were found.

The church was Polish, and two Polish officers from UNAMIR witnessed the massacre. They radioed their command for help, but were told that none could be sent - similar reports were coming in from all over the city, far too many for the UN to be able to help. And in any case, they had orders to shoot only in self defence. They tried the Tutsi Rwandan Patriotic Front as well, but either couldn't get through or found that the Kigali contingent were trapped in their barracks.

In the afternoon, an ambulance from the Red Cross arrived to assist the officers and church staff who had been desperately trying to treat the wounded. They were able to take two survivors away to hospital - the only ones who escaped the massacre. Though whether they escaped the hospital is another question...

Twenty Years Ago Today: Genocide, Day Two

Paul Kagame's RPF stood against the genocide - but they were only present in a small part of the country Twenty years ago today, roadblocks were already in place throughout Rwanda, put there the day before by the army and the Interahamwe militia groups. The army and the militia were Hutu. The people they were looking for were Tutsi, and they were looking for them with guns and machetes, going house to house to find anyone who hadn't yet fled or been caught.

But this wasn't the case throughout the whole of the nation. There was a swathe of the country in the north still held by Paul Kagame's Rwandan Patriotic Front - the rebel Tutsi army that had been holding to a ceasefire before the death of the Hutu president sparked off the killings. There were no massacres in RPF territory, nor were the bulk of the RPF in any immediate danger - save for the 600 men trapped in the capital, Kigali. They'd been stationed there as part of the ongoing peace process. But now they were surrounded, their situation growing more desperate by the hour.

Romeo Dallaire's UN force stood against the genocide - but they were undermanned and underequipped.

For the only Tutsi army able to fight back, there was no choice: they had to respond. Kagame launched an offensive to rescue his troops and end the killings. But there was little hope that they could end the slaughter quickly. They hadn't been able to take the country when they were fighting before. Millions of Tutsis were still defenceless, no matter what the RPF did.

There wasn't much hope of rescue by the UN, either. The general in charge of the UN mission in Rwanda, Romeo Dallaire, sent a report to the UN detailing how the genocide was happening, and how it was being orchestrated by the civil government against its own people. But Dallaire was able to do little to stop the killing. He had only 2,500 troops at his command, equipped and trained to help a nation struggle towards peace - not to stop that nation from turning on itself.

The genocide was not unopposed - but it made little difference. The slaughter went on.



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.