Category Archives: Had You Ever Heard Of?

The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam

They are, or were, one of the world’s most organized terrorist groups and you probably know Sri Lanka’s Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam by their shorter name, the Tamil Tigers.  The separatist organisation, born in 1975 and composed of Sri Lankans of Tamil ethnicity, has been fighting for an independent state in northern and eastern Sri Lanka, called Tamil Eelam, since then.

Tamils represent over 10% of the country’s population and they feel persecuted by Sri Lanka’s ethnic majority, the Sinhalese. Differences between the two range from language to religion (the Sinhalese are mainly Buddhists whereas the Tamils are mostly Hindu) and their grudge has its roots in British colonialism. When the Island was called Ceylon, the Tamils were favoured by the colonial overlords and as soon as independence was achieved, the Sinhalese majority decided that the country’s official language and religion were to be its own, excluding the Tamils from any discussion.

The fight between the Tigers and the Sri Lankan government started soon after (circa 1980) and has been one of the longest and deadliest in Asia and the World. Acknowledging its inferior numbers, the group pioneered a number of techniques that have become common practice among  terrorist groups. They perfected suicide bombings by introducing the suicide belt and pioneering the use of women.

The means produced the intended ends and, since 1980, an estimated 80,000 civilians have lost their lives in the confrontation between the Sri Lankan government and the Tamil Tigers. The separatist group has been responsible for 200 suicide attacks, a dozen of high level assassinations, including two world leaders (1991 assassination of former Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and 1993 assassination of Sri Lankan President Ranasinghe Premadasa)- they are the only terrorist group to have done so.

They are known to have contacts with several criminal groups in Asia, and, reportedly, received military training from the Palestine Liberation Organization. They have also been said to have an operational alliance with Al-Qaeda, a tie that experts believe to be false.

Behind the fierceness of the Tamil Tigers is a complex organisation that manages and finances the guerilla effort. The group has separate departments responsible for procuring arms and explosives for the military branch (which has between 8,000 and 15,000 troops) but the economic side has not been forgotten. The group relies of donations from Tamils living in Western Europe and Canada, as well as on criminal activities (such as drug, arms and human trafficking to the UK and parts of Europe). It also owns a series of stocks and real estate investments in various parts of the world, and a large number of Asian grocery stores throughout the planet.

In 2009, the group was disbanded after a government offensive killed the Tigers’ founder and leader, Vellupillai Prabhakaran, but many believe that the group will respond and return in the near future. Among those that feel that way is the Sri Lankan government. Commemoration of Prabhakaran’s death and displaying the Tamil Tigers’ flag have been prohibited throughout the country, a clear sign that the government still fears the apparently extinct separatist movement.

Vellupillai Prabhakaran

Making cheap water from thin air

ground-w-t-picWe had already covered LifeStraw, a ground-breaking invention that filters up to a thousand litres of contaminated water, used by millions around the world since 2005. But what if you could make gallons of drinking water from thin air for as little as eight cents a gallon?

Meet the Atmospheric Water Generation Unit (aka GEN-G), a water generator that can produce up to 210 gallons (approximately 800 litres) of purified drinking water. As impressive as making water from the air sounds, that isn’t the real breakthrough. The news is that Water-Gen, the Israeli-based startup behind the invention, claims to do it far more efficiently than others.

The portable unit captures atmospheric humidity and uses its “GENius” heat exchanger to cool the air and condense water vapour. “It looks simple, because air conditioning is extracting water from air. But the issue is to do it very efficiently, to produce as much water as you can per kilowatt of power consumed,” Co-CEO Arye Kohavi told CNN. The easily transferable technology was initially developed for the Israel Defense Forces, but Water-Gen is already selling to militaries in seven countries, including the US and India. 

The obvious thought that comes to mind is how handy this would be for developing countries, right? (and that we may be fine if we run out of water after all, I guess) But I personally don’t see how, since prices for the smaller model start at $18,000, and at $30,000 for the larger one. In other words, while making clean water with this generator is a bargain, the technology itself is clearly not. So unless Water-Gen makes some kind of generous deal to get these shipped to water-scarce regions, GEN-G is not that much of a life saver. However, there may be something in the works as Kohavi also said the future of the company’s products is in civilian uses.

Both the award-winning LifeStraw and GEN-G are pretty revolutionary, but the problem with such life-saving creations often lies in the complexity of making them accessible to those in real need. The World Health Organisation estimates that 780 million people still don’t have access to potable water, and that 3.4 million die every year thanks to water-borne diseases. 

The North Sentinel Island

In the Indian Ocean’s Bay of Bengal lies a group of islands known as the Andaman and Nicobar islands. Approximately 800 km South-East from India, the archipelago officially belongs to and is under administrative control of India.

The geographical location of the North Sentinel Island
The geographical location of the North Sentinel Island

The North Sentinel island is 72 square km large and belongs to this group of islands. Nevertheless, to say that it is under the control of India is almost laughable. Indeed, the North Sentinel is an autonomous region that is known for being the home of one of the most hostile indigenous tribes in the world: the Sentinels.

The North Sentinel Island seen from above
The North Sentinel Island seen from above

There are no records of this people having ever been into contact with the modern world, and the few encounters between strangers and the Sentinels have usually ended up in drama. 

They are supposedly close to the Jarawa and Onge tribes, which inhabit other islands of the Andaman archipelago. Nevertheless, despite some initial hostility, these last tribes have had normal contacts with the outside world, whereas the Sentinels are known for killing (or at least injuring) any person that sets foot on the island, including foreign fishermen. 

For that reason, the Indian government prohibits all visits to the islands. In 2004, the Tsunami that severely affected South-East Asia, had begun in the area of the Andaman islands. When a helicopter was sent by the Indian government to the North Sentinel island in look for survivors, it eventually turned around and left when several men armed with bows and arrows started to point at it. Thus, there are no records of how that population was attained by the tsunami. In fact, there are not even records accounting for the exact population of the island!

We know little to nothing about the habits of the people, but it is assumed that they are hunter-gatherers and do not know agriculture. Hence, the Sentinels remain one of the few isolated peoples in the world. This hostility and isolation are comprehensible, when we think that most that comes from the outside world has probably been violence and disease, much like the indigenous peoples during the colonizing period.

Check out this amazingly interesting documentary of 1975, entitled “Man in search of man”, about the Andaman’s peoples and which portraits the contact with the North Sentinel island starting from minute 10. While filming this, the director received an arrow on his leg.

Senkaku / Diaoyu Islands: Small Land, High Stakes

In 1884, Japan allegedly discovered for the first time the Senkaku islands (aka Diaoyu islands, in China), which had been no man’s land. In 1895, the islands were officially annexed by Japan, after a short war against China. Some 170 km Northeast of Taiwan, these uninhabited islands have caused a lot of tribulations between Japan and China.

Map of Senkaku / Diaoyu Islands (Image by The Guardian)
Map of Senkaku / Diaoyu Islands location (Image by The Guardian)

Why is that? Because of the oldest and most common source of conflict in the world: natural resources. Here is a very brief story of the problem.

The islands are small and have little use. After the II World War and Japan’s defeat, they were under the United States’ control and were a ground for bombing practice. In 1972, they eventually got back under Japanese rule. Nevertheless, in 1968, it had been found that under the Senkaku’s seabed there were possibly oil and gas reserves, which was enough to stir a dispute between China and Japan (although it is undeniable that, in strategic terms, the islands are well located and represent a vast source of fishing ground).

China’s claim to the islands is based on the fact that at some point in its history, the Diaoyu islands were used as a navigational point for Chinese travelers, particularly before the 19th century, and that several 15th century Chinese books refer to these islands. China also defends that the Potsdam Declaration, which marked Japan’s surrender, stated that Japan would relinquish its rights to several islands, including to the Senkaku. Taiwan, which China also claims for itself, also asserts a right over the islands, for their proximity to its territory.

In the end of the day, effectively, the islands belong to Japan.

While in the 1970’s China and Japan agreed that this dispute was not going to be an issue, it still is. In 2010, Japan created an official commemoration day for the annexation of the islands (January 14th). Then in 2012, Japan bought three islands which were privately owned, thus gaining control over the whole eight islands that compose Senkaku.

These different events did not leave China happy, and ever since 2012, tensions have been escalating around this small piece of land. Learn more about it in this interesting BBC Q&A.

Mayam Mahmoud: Egypt’s first and fearless veiled rapper

Mayam Mahmoud started making headlines last October, as she took to the Arabs Got Talent stage dressed in a light pink outfit and a matching hijab. Performing in front of an audience for the first time, the 18-year-old from Cairo started rapping vigorously about the challenges women they face in the Arab world.

Although she insists “it was never about going on stage in a scarf,” it was her appearance that inevitably caught worldwide attention in the first place. You don’t come across a teenage girl in a hijab rapping every day in Egypt. Or ever.

Participating on Arabs got talent, Mayam told CNN, “was about going on stage and sharing a message.” Her feminist lyrics condemn sexual harassment of women in Egyptian society and stress the importance of girls’ education. In one of her denouncing raps, she goes: “I won’t be the shamed one. You flirt, you harass and you see nothing wrong with it. But even if it’s just words, these are not flirts, these are stones.”

Mayam’s mother introduced her to poetry at the age of 12 and encouraged her to start writing her own poems. Her dad persuaded her to always “talk about something with value”. While they were a bit reluctant when their teenage daughter turned to hip hop to voice her concerns, fearing it wasn’t feminine enough, Mayam says they eventually gave in and never stopped supporting her. When she recorded her first track in the city of Alexandria, they waited in a cafe round the corner. 

The economics undergraduate from Cairo decided to speak out because “Egyptian women undergo harassment and bullying on a daily basis”. Last November, a poll of gender experts concluded that sexual harassment, soaring rates of female genital mutilation and a spike in violence made Egypt the worst Arab country to be a woman. And according to a 2008 survey conducted by the Egyptian Center for Women’s rights, 83 percent of Egyptian women and 98 percent of foreign women have been sexually harassed. Mayam refuses to accept this reality. She wants to get people talking and inspire others to advocate for civil rights, too. 

With this in mind and as her audience grew, Mayam recently set up “Carnival of Freedom”, a Facebook event page where she challenges people to express themselves freely and post activities that are still considered off limits, such as “women playing football or going to a cafe.” What kind of reaction have her daring activities sparked? According to the Guardian, her fans tend to post up to 50 supportive messages a day on Facebook, but there are also unwelcome messages accusing her of “creating a bad name for Islam,” she said. “Or even that I’m an infidel.”

Last week, Mayam Mahmoud was honoured at the Index Freedom of Expression awards, winning this year’s Arts category. She received her award in a colourful floor-length dress adorned with women’s graffitis, explaining with a smile that each drawing stood for women’s rights – female street artists are a growing (and fascinating) breed in Egypt

“One of the strongest messages I’d like to send is, ‘Freedom is an obligation on others before it becomes my right,” she said. Seeing someone stand up for human rights is always commendable. Seeing a veiled teenager from an oppressed country embarking on such a brave mission is pretty inspiring. Let’s just hope no one silences her. 

For more Arab female rappers, check out Paradise, an Afghan singer who also advocates for women’s rights.

Somaliland

Somalia is best known for civil war, extreme poverty, lack of governance, corruption, piracy and the development of Islamic extremism. Somalia is best known for being a failed State. However, this country has a northern territory, Somaliland, a self-proclaimed independent State, that is all the opposite.

map-somalia-300x225

In the beginning of the 20th century, the lands on the Eastern horn of Africa were shared by the Italians, the British and the French. Each of these powers held a certain part of Somalia – which was not known by that name at the time. Upon the period of decolonization, the French Somaliland became the independent Republic of Djibouti in 1977, while the British State of Somaliland and the Italian Trust Territory of Somalia united to form the independent Republic of Somalia in 1960. The current self-proclaimed independent Republic of Somaliland is the former State of Somaliland, which was under British rule until 1960.

Although initially Somalia was able to have a constitutional democracy, in 1969 it suffered a coup d’Etat, which would transform it into a military dictatorship. The regime of Major General Siad Barre allegedly committed several human rights abuses throughout the country, including in Somaliland, which had been (and according to Somalia, still is) an autonomous region. Eventually, several resistance and militia groups were formed in the country, which led to the Somali Civil War, which ousted the dictator Siad Barre.

One of those groups was the Somali National Movement (SNM), which was led by one of Somalia’s main clans, and eventually, in 1991, proclaimed that the northern territory of Somaliland was an independent State.

Since then, Somaliland has proclaimed itself an autonomous State, with its own Constitution and government, although very little countries in the world recognize it as such. Indeed, secessions are rarely recognize in the international order, because that could lead to many other regions in the world to declare themselves as independents. Nevertheless, recognition is still one of the major attributes that a State needs to effectively be a State.

Whatever you consider it, the fact is that Somaliland has thrived in one of the most unstable regions of the world. It has its own currency, political system and a private system that actually works. This does not mean that Somaliland is not attained by poverty and many other problems, but rather that it is capable of standing out and this has allowed it to maintain foreign relations (independent from Somalia) with such powerful States as the United States, the United Kingdom or France. Mostly, it has also allowed it to escape the devastation to which Somalia has been put through in the recent decade.

somaliland-iyo-somalia
Somaliland, represented on the left, and Somalia, represented on the right.

As the International Business Times puts it, Somaliland is an “African Story of Success”. Nevertheless, while it has not attained recognition, it is stuck in a limbo, which is quite a shame because this region could be an example for its neighbors. For as long as Somalia refuses to acknowledge this region as independent, it is unlikely that Somaliland will be considered a full State in the international arena.

The strange world of war tourism

Fancy a trip to Iraq? How about the Democratic Republic of Congo? Of course not, it’s too dangerous, right? Well that’s exactly what makes the world of war tourism go around. The thrill of going into active war zones and past areas of conflict where there is “a higher than average level of risk”.

Take Toshifumi Fujimoto, a Japanese truck driver who gets his kicks from going into war-torn Middle Eastern countries. He was most recently spotted in Syria, where he told the AFP that being on the frontline is “very exciting, and the adrenaline rush is like no other.” Syria, which became embroiled in a civil war over three years ago, is also the world’s most dangerous country for journalists. While he claims that it’s more dangerous in Syria to be a journalist than a tourist, Fujimoto himself has been taking photos of the conflict that he shares with friends on his Facebook page. He explained that he’s not afraid of getting killed since he’s “a combination of samurai and kamikaze.”  

 We’ve heard this thrill-seeking discourse before from war journalists, for example. American political satirist and journalist P.J. O’Rourke famously claimed he was a “Trouble Tourist” rather than a “foreign correspondent”, for the latter was “too dignified a title”. In the introduction of his collection of stories, Holidays of Hell, O’Rourke explains that this kind of tourism requires “going to see insurrections, stupidities, political crises, civil disturbances and other human folly because… because it’s fun.”

This obviously doesn’t mean that all journalists desire to see war, but if you find yourself in the media industry, it’s not that unusual to hear adrenaline junkies saying that “war is fun”. Yet this observer’s main point is not to get into the endless debate of real bias. And most war reporters boast they’re documenting armed conflict purely for the sake of alerting the world to human suffering anyway.

But what if you don’t want to venture into a conflict zone on your own? I don’t blame you for not wanting to dodge bullets solo, but in that case you have to be willing to splash up to $40,000 on travel agencies such as Hinterland Travel and Warzone Tours, which specialise in the ultimate extreme travel. Whether it’s Kabul, Baghdad or Mogadishu, these experienced providers – who usually have a military or security background – strive to deliver tour packages that fulfil your excitement requirements.

Just bear in mind that the more ambitious you are, the higher the price tag. Security, logistics and planning in the world’s worst places come at a price. I wonder what the tour guides’ criteria is for accepting war tourists. How do they know that the visitors will be able to keep it cool when their guide drives along dangerous roads, bomb sites or disputed territories? Or that they will not freak out if somehow they end up with an AK-47 pointed to their heads?

Ethical criticism of war tourism is mainly targeted at the exploitative aspect of this niche form of travel, with the number one argument being that this vacation concept is twisted and somewhat heartless. It’s arguably not acceptable to have a fun, adventurous holiday, at the expense of someone else’s worst nightmare. Someone’s bombed home or local business, which will most likely end up on your Instagram account, shouldn’t become your holiday playground.

And, as Laura Moth points out, war tourists may even end up funding an oppressive regime: “think of flying the national carrier, paying for a visa or spending money that inevitably gets funneled upwards to the same old structures of power.” 

The fact that travel agencies are profiting from this is also an ethical concern. But they insist their guides provide the necessary context and encourage visitors to engage with locals. One could also argue that war tourists offer a helping hand to local businesses (the obvious benefit of tourism). And, if visitors happen to sympathise with the victims’ situation, they might try to help in some way.

War tourism is not to be confused with dark tourism – the latter doesn’t deal with active conflict zones – though there are some similarities. As dark tourists, most of us are drawn to “sites of death, disaster or the seemingly macabre”, such as the Tower of London, Auschwitz, Alcatraz Island, Cambodia’s Tuol Sleng Killing Fields or the World Trade Center. This idea that we’re naturally fascinated by death is certainly not new. 

But as far as the specific fascination with death-related sites goes, the Institute for Dark Tourism Research from the University of Central Lincolnshire, launched a couple of years ago, admits that “our understanding of both production and consumption of dark tourism remains limited”. However, they suggest that attendance at events such as Roman gladiatorial games or even medieval executions could be considered dark tourism. I guess that says something about our morbid nature.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa

On this day, 5th of December 2013, we grieve, since one of the greatest defenders of equal opportunities and freedom died. With Nelson Mandela’s death, it is also the end of an era in South Africa, that of the end of the Apartheid and of the beginning of the Rainbow Nation. All that we could write about Nelson Mandela, others have already written, more and better than us. We thus just pay a tribute to his memory, thank him for  all the good he did in the world and for being an inspiration for so many of us.

We also take the opportunity to talk about the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, a very important institutional body in the history of the post-Apartheid. This Commission, built up in the form of a court in 1995 by the South African governement, was intended to put an end to the grievances that were left amongst the South African society after 1994. Interestingly, the archbishop Desmond Tutu was nominated by Nelson Mandela to be its chairman. The Commission called people to express themselves on what human rights violations they had suffered during the Apartheid, and it tried to recover as much information as possible to what had occurred during that period. Nevertheless, contrary to a court (or tribunals such as the International Criminal Tribunals that exist in Rwanda or for the former Yugoslavia), it did not pursue those who had been “criminals” and had committed those violations. On the contrary, its purpose was to “reconcile” the society and learn from the mistakes of the past. In 1998 and 2003, the Commission issued several reports about the historic legacy of the Apartheid. Despite the fact that the Commission was often criticized for having ignored important aspects of the regime (such as ignoring those who had profited economically from it, and looking only to those that played an active role in it), or for not having been able to make the whole society cooperate, it was nevertheless a very important body for the history of South Africa. It will remain forever as an example of what peace and social mobilization can build up. Moreover, as it didn’t prosecute those who were “guilty”, it moved away from the conception of justice that had been present since the end of the World War II and the Nuremberg trials. However, some wonder if justice shouldn’t have been pushed forward, in order to appease the conflicts that still exist in the contemporary South African society.

The Lake that turns animals into stone

Nature really keeps on surprising us. It is always funny to read a news and realise that what is nowadays explained by science, would certainly be associated with curse in the past. Indeed, we discovered what would definitely be called a doomed lake i.e. the Lake Natron, a saline lake in northern Tanzania, close to the Kenyan border. Less than three meters deep, the Natron lake can reach temperatures of 60°C and reach a pH level of 10.5. In other words, animals that come in contact with the lake’s water have their skin completely burn, die and than mummify into stone. As National Geographic explains here, the harsh conditions of the lake are due to its proximity to the volcano Ol Doinyo that spreads alkari-rich natrocarbonatites that end up in the lake. Surprisingly, despite the difficulties to survive in such an environment, the lake is the home of no less than 2 million lesser flamingos that choose the lake as their breeding ground, due to the fact that predators avoid the area. British photographer Nick Brandt, known to photograph exclusively in Africa went to photograph this lake that turns animal into stone. He published the book “Across the Ravaged Land” which photos you check here.

The School of Palo Alto

Paul Watzlawick, an Austrian-American therapist and psychologist, defended the view that there is no non-communication, meaning that you cannot not communicate. As weird as this may sound, it is very true. From the moment that you are not alone, everything you do, every move you make, everything you say, you are communicating. This doesn’t mean that the person with whom you are trying to communicate with is understanding the message that you are trying to convey, or even the intentions behind your gestures; just that whether you want it or not, you are communicating (according to a study by UCLA, 93% of communication passes by the non-verbal, i.e. body language).

Communication is technically a simple process. There needs to be at least two subjects, a sender and a receiver. Throughout the years, several people have tried to theorize communication and its strategies. At the beginning, there were simple “sender” theories, that supported that from the moment that you, as a sender, told something to your receiver, he would understand it because you had told him your message. This couldn’t be further from the truth, since it is not because you are speaking that the other is necessarily understanding what you are saying. Then, there were also “receiver” theories, that admitted that from the moment the receiver had understood the message, communication would have worked. Surprisingly, these theories forgot to take into account the extreme importance of interpretation in human relations. As human beings, we interpret everything, whether we want it or not.

Then came along an interesting theory, developed by what is today called the “School of Palo Alto”, in California. Paul Watzlawick and several of his colleagues, like Gregory Bateson, developed the “interactional” theory. They inspired themselves in cybernetics (defined by Norbert Wiener, “father” of cybernetics as “the scientific study of control and communication in the animal and the machine.”), that heavily relied on the notion of feedback. The Palo Alto School came to say that communication depends not only on interpretation but also on relations. Indeed, for every message that you try to convey, there will be a different interpretation according to the context in which it is given, but also according to the person that will be giving it to you (within a family, your parents may tell you the same thing but you might not interpret it the same way). Indeed, while we are communicating, we tend to “speak” different languages. That is why feedback is so important. Indeed, this theory defends that when giving a message, one should always ask for feedback, because the other person may be interpreting, and thus understanding, something completely different.

When communicating, either verbally or not, we should always practice this exercise: asking for the feedback of our receivers is of extreme importance, because a lot can be lost in simple words and gestures. There would be a lot less misunderstandings, if we all accepted that we don’t understand things in the same way, and that we will never do.