Category Archives: Historic Fact

Chernobyl, 28 years later

On the 26th of April 1986, the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic, and particularly Chernobyl, a city in the North of Ukraine, was the stage of one of the major nuclear catastrophes ever witnessed. Its nuclear plant, located 16 kilometers from the city, had one of its four reactors explode, and due to several malfunctions there was no way to contain the radioactive wave which came out of it. 

Releasing hundreds of times more the amount of radionuclides that were dropped by the two nuclear bombs in 1945, millions of acres of land were contaminated and more than 300 000 people had to be evacuated.

The aftermath of Chernobyl. (source: BBC News)
The aftermath of Chernobyl (Source: BBC News)

Beyond these figures, this accident continued (and continues) to have extreme consequences for people, with thousands having been infected by the waste of Chernobyl, many having eventually died. Indeed, in high doses, radiation is lethal for living organisms, by changing cells and even DNA. Until today, an area of around 2 600 square kilometers is designated as the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, where access is highly restricted.

While some of us might imagine Chernobyl as a dark place full of weird, radioactive species, this region has developed a quite unique ecosystem. For years now, researchers have pursued field trips in Chernobyl, to explore the biological changes radioactivity has caused.

Though it has many abandoned infrastructures, the most affected area is full of a green and resilient vegetation, which turns it into a post-apocalyptical, yet, quite beautiful scenario. 

Abandoned bumper cars (Source: BoredPanda)
Abandoned bumper cars (Source: BoredPanda)

Although nature has undoubtedly suffered, as this The New York Times short film shows, several species have been able to adapt and live in areas of exposure which would be impossible for humans. 

Yes, biodiversity (from spiders to birds, to even trees) has been severely hit and has experienced mutations induced by radisation. It is undeniable that it has taken many years to be able to thrive again and big animals are seldom spotted in the region. Yet, hope is not lost. Chernobyl fortunately shows that despite what we, humans, might do to our environment, it will be always more resilient than us…

Nevertheless, Chernobyl remains a threat for human lives. While in 1986, a dome of concrete and steal was built around the exploded reactor to try to contain the contamination, this one is no longer safe. Hence, the Ukrainian authorities are now highly investing on a new structure that could definitely stop the spread of any other remnants of radiation. There are hopes that in a not-so-distant future, the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone will disappear, but we will have to wait and see. In the meantime, the efforts to clean the area continue.

You can read this very good piece by The New York Times, which will give you some insight about the Chernobyl catastrophe and its aftermath, or have a look at these amazing photos.

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Idi Amin

In 2006, The Last King of Scotland told the fictional story of a Scottish doctor who travelled to Uganda and became the personal physician of the dictator Idi Amin, a character immortalized by the brilliant performance of Forest Whitaker. Although the story of the movie was invented, it did show a partial portrait of one of the 20th century worst dictators of the African continent, Idi Amin Dada.

Born in the North of Uganda, in Koboko, Idi Amin grew up while his country was still a colony of the British empire. In 1946 he joined the British Colonial Army as an assistant cook, but by 1953 he was already a sergeant. His strength and size (1,95m) never passed unnoticed as he was the Ugandan box champion from 1950 to 1961.

In 1962, Britain granted Uganda its independence. By then, Idi Amin had built a close relationship with the new nation’s socialist prime minister, Milton Obote. He was promoted to army commander and worked closely with Obote until 1971, when he staged a military coup while Obote was attending a meeting in Singapore. By February 1971, Amid declared himself President of Uganda. Despite his promises to return to democracy, his eight years of leadership plunged the country into a human catastrophe and drove Uganda further away from peace.

As journalist Yasmin Alibhai-Brown argues in this documentary, the danger of Amin was that he was portrayed both as a fool and a villain. Big ego or simply ridicule, Idi Amin demanded many titles, among them those of “His excellency President for Life,  Lord of All the Beasts of the Earth and Fishes of the Sea, and Conqueror of the British Empire in Africa in General and Uganda in Particular.”

Idi Amin dancing
Idi Amin performing ritual dancings

By the mid-1970s however, his titles were worth little as he became best known as the ‘Butcher of Uganda’ for his brutal authoritarian rule. According to Uganda’s Daily Monitor, between 80 000 and 300 000 people were killed during Idi Amin’s rule. Simple criminals, peasants, opponents, and especially, members of the tribes who had supported the previous government of Obote. Thousands of innocents were killed under Amin’s commands; many of them on National Television in order to spread terror amid the population.

His attitudes towards the international community most certainly granted him the worst  reputation. He did everything he could to provoke the British. In 1971, when Britain entered in recession, Amin started the Ugandan ‘Save the British Fund’ to collect food for the starving British. The following year, he expelled all Asians in Uganda with British passports. This measure backfired, as the Asian community represented the biggest business owners in the country, and for years, Uganda was incapable of assuring supply of goods as basic as sugar or butter.

Even more chocking were Amin’s comments following the 1972 Israeli massacre in Munich by Palestinian terrorists. As a revenge for Israel’s refusal to train Ugandan soldiers, Amin sent a telegram to the United Nations’ Secretary where he wrote “Hitler and all German people knew that the Israelis are not people who are working in the interest of the people of the world and that is why they burnt over six million Jews alive on the soil of Germany.”

Unfortunately, the tells of Amin’s actions are too numerous to count. His reign lasted eight years, and in 1979, his troops – which he had sent to Tanzania to annex the Kagera region – were defeated, and the Tanzanian forces took over Uganda. Mr Amin fled to Libya, and later to Saudi Arabia, where he died in 2003.

He was never judged for his crimes.

Read more about Idi Amin in The New York Times and in The Guardian. And if you haven’t, make sure you watch The Last King of Scotland.

#AdiósAdolfoSuárez . By Silvia González Marroquín

#AdiósAdolfoSuárez: A small tribute to the man that could promise, and promised.

(Un pequeño homenaje al hombre que pudo prometer, y prometió.)

When we think about the Spanish Transition, terms such as consensus, pact, dialogue, democracy, rapidly appear in our memory, as well as the names of two men: Juan Carlos and Adolfo Suárez. Two elected men, not by the people, but elected (what a paradox, don´t you think?): the first one by Francisco Franco, and the second by his majesty the King, to accompany Spain towards democracy. It was not an easy task, because it was not easy to assure anything, between the happiness of many, and the tears of others, the dictatorship died and democracy was conceived. Our democracy was conceived by men and women, and Adolfo Suárez is without any doubt one of its recognized fathers. He led the Transition, without any valid models or references, as he himself highlighted it: “we were our own precedent”.

Well yes, Adolfo Suárez, the advocate of dialogue and consensus, revolutionized Spain´s History without revolutions. At the age of 43 and after 9 years in politics, this unknown technocrat, with little support from the elite of the time, achieved in only two years and a half to walk Spain from a dictatorial State to a constitutional democracy. He did it with a surprising integrity for those who still resisted accepting the waves of change in Spain by confronting the destabilizing canon shots of the extreme right and terrorism. He achieved his goals: he was able to elect a Parliament by universal suffrage for the first time since 1936, to draft the Constitution which was adopted by referendum, and to set the foundation for a democracy rooted in values of dialogue, understanding and harmony, in which the voice of all could be heard and listened to.

Those who today pay a tribute to Adolfo are those who once led to his withdrawal from what was already becoming a Roman circus. The defensive rise of Felipe González, the revival of Suarez´s past in the National Movement, joined with the UCD´s internal divisions, weakened him. The Spaniard´s disappointment and discomfort in 1980, together with civil-military conspiracies, carried Adolfo to humbly resign from the presidency of the Government.

The political animal and courageous democrat remained. On February 23, Suárez attended the investiture of his successor Leopoldo Calvo-Sotelo, when a Lieutenant Colonel of the Guardia Civil, a certain Antonio Tejero, attempted against the rule of law, the one that was costing so much to build, penetrating the democratic body with weapons. All deputies fell to the ground, all but three: Gutiérrez Mellado, Santiago Carrillo and Suárez.

Perhaps it was his political and personal generosity, which characterized him until the last moments of his life, leading him to express himself in this way when receiving the last visit of his confessor: “I’m always ready to give and to receive forgiveness “; perhaps it was his courage and vision of public affairs; perhaps his unwavering loyalty to the King and Spain; or perhaps the humility of a Christian, who combined his spiritual integrity with the great duties of a democracy thirsty for freedoms; perhaps, perhaps, perhaps. What is certain for me is that Suárez is one of the few Spanish men and politicians who inspire me.

His death has filled the Spanish society, which is going through a context of widespread political tension, complaints and alleged marches for dignity, with the nostalgia of a glorious past, in which prevailed the values of integrity, dialogue and consensus. Politicians and citizens must now go through the exercise of rethinking their duties and citizenship respectively, in our democracy, and avoid the temptation of threatening its principles which were championed by its founders, precisely the power of the word, integrity and courage against violence.

Neither the three days of official mourning, nor the more than 30,000 condolences and tributes that visited the funeral chapel, nor the almost unconditional recognition from the whole political spectrum, seems to me as sufficient to pay a rightful tribute to the courage, vision and faith of this statesman.

Demonstrations of affection are appreciated, but must go beyond political correctness. The real tribute is to change this circus in which the law of the jungle prevails. The real tribute is that each Spaniard makes an exercise of introspection, and applies the same level of requirement to others and to himself. Precisely today, when Spain is going through hard times we should remember the journey, not sublimating it, and look forward to the road that lies ahead. Neither the crisis nor the hardships or difficulties can make us forget that we owe ourselves to Spain, to a democratic Spain. It’s time to remember that citizens and politicians must keep working together for a society in which pluralism is respected and where the legality of the institutions is truly consolidated. I want to believe that with his death, Adolfo wanted to fill us with a message: the return to the spirit of the Transition, a spirit of harmony and of the construction a common project. A moment from which many good things blossomed, despite the fact that is was neither obvious nor easy to promise anything, as today it is not either.

Let’s give thanks and dedicate him a fairer, a more democratic, a better Spain. We need a reformer and visionary now! Lets be inspired by Adolfo, his moderation and humility as a man, a citizen, a politician and a Spaniard, but also by his weaknesses, in order to demand more from our politicians as citizens, but without forgetting that as citizens, we are called to aspire to be a little more like Suárez.

Gracias Presidente!

SILVIA GONZALEZ MARROQUIN is a Law student at Sciences Po Paris. She was raised between the US, France and Spain. She’s currently studying Law at IE University in Madrid.  

Watching the 1974 Portuguese Revolution through Facebook

What would an 18 years old middle class Portuguese think in 1974? What would he write in his Facebook page if he had one?

For the last month, an unknown Portuguese writer has been feeding a Facebook page pretending to live in 1974 – the year when the Portuguese revolution put an end to almost half a century of conservative dictatorship.

Pedro Xavier

The author puts himself in the skin of Pedro Xavier, a young man who fled to France in 1973 as he refused to fight for the colonial war. Despite his rejection for the country’s regime, Pedro’s love for a Portuguese woman who stopped answering his letters makes him comeback to his country at a crucial historical moment.

We are in March 1974, just one month before the Carnation Revolution. Through Pedro Xavier’s Facebook page, we discover his clandestine journey to enter Portugal and his arrival in Lisbon where he has to hide from his neighbors who could denounce him to the political police. We follow his hunt for his disappeared girlfriend, and learn about the first actions that led to the revolution of April 25th.

25abril

More than a Facebook page, Pedro Xavier’s page seems like a book of very small chapters describing an exceptional event through the eyes of a young runaway. The essence of it is in the small details, such as the many photographies and the scanned newspaper articles and advertisements of the time. This brilliant idea actually seems like a whole new way to teach History.

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Unfortunately, the Facebook page is only available in Portuguese but you could always give it a try! And for those of you who read French, check out this article from Courriel International.

The Rwandan Genocide: 20 years later

On April 6th 1994, the private plane of President Juvenal Habyarimana crashed after being shot down. That same day, the Radio Télévision Libre des Milles Colines announced that it was time to exterminate the Tutsis. Cutting “down the tall trees” was the code used by Hutu extremists.

Hence, for nearly 100 days, Hutus massacred Tutsis and moderate Hutus, in what is today regarded as one of the most brutal and shocking genocide in History. In mid-July 1994, it all ended when the forces of the Tutsi-led Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) were able to take the government down through a military offensive.

Now, 20 years later, what can be said of this historic legacy in Rwanda?

Justice took a long time to be made. Not only many Hutus fled to neighboring countries, but also the whole country was devastated by this event. The judicial system was so highly affected that by 2006 it was calculated that to continue providing justice to everyone, it would have taken 110 years more. In 2001, the Gacaca courts were created by the government to speed up justice and engage the communities in the process of transitional justice. In the meantime the United Nations created the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, in Arusha, with an international mandate to judge and prosecute high-ranking leaders. Many people did their time in jail, but is that enough to reconcile a population?

Hundreds of genocide memorials have been built, reconciliation groups have been created and commemorations are held annually. Every April for the past two decades, rwandan citizens must “Kwibuka”, which means “remember”. The mourning is done at the national level. Remembrance and reconciliation are at the forefront of the rwandan official speech about the genocide.

Nevertheless, the weight of the past is always there. It is the product of a complex reality, of thirst for power and cruelty. It is undeniable that there is still a divide in the society between the victims and the perpetrators. It is still called by the RFP government “The Genocide Against the Tutsi”…

For the rest of the world, the Rwandan genocide continues to represent the failure of the international community to act in periods of great crisis. It is undeniable that it is always hard to justify a foreign intervention in a civil war. But when comes the tipping point – the point in which the world can no longer stand-by and watch – ?… We believe the world still doesn’t know how to answer this question.

This ten year old piece by the BBC gives a chilling account of what this genocide represented for a normal person, that had nothing to do with the forces in command of the genocide. This recent video explains the genocide in 90 seconds.

Two other very interesting pieces have been released. One is a series of “Portraits of Reconciliation” by The New York Times, and the other is yet another very well done piece by the BBC, about “A Good Man in Rwanda”.

(Photo by The New York Times)

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.

The Paris Massacre of 1961

On October 17 1961, five months before the end of the colonial war that opposed Algeria and France for seven years, Paris witnessed a massacre where more than 150 Algerians were killed by the police forces. The events followed a peaceful demonstration of 30 000 Algerians protesting against an administrative measure which they considered racist. Indeed, a curfew had just been applied to “Algerian Muslim workers”, “French Muslims” and “French Muslims of Algeria” from 8:30 p.m. to 5:30 a.m. in order to prevent the spread of Algerian attacks in the French territory.

The head of the police, Maurice Papon – a man convicted in 1998 for crimes against the humanity for his role in the deportation of more than 1600 Jews to concentration camps – had mobilized 7000 policemen to block the demonstration. More than 11 000 people were arrested that day. Although at the time Papon spoke only of 2 casualties, historians have shown that at least more than 150 demonstrators were murdered, many of whom were thrown into the Seine to drown. It was the day where the river “Seine was red”.

Here_are_drown_the_Algerians “Here we drown Algerians”, inscription written on a bridge over the Seine

On October 31, a group of anonymous “republican policemen” published a text declaring that they had a moral obligation to bring their testimonies public. In it, Emile Portzer, who in 1999 admitted being its main author, wrote that “Among the thousands of Algerians brought to the Parc des Expositions of the Porte de Versailles, tens were killed by blows from rifle butts and pickaxe handles (…) Algerians captured in (…) traps were knocked out and systematically thrown in the Seine. (…) Not before having taken their watches and money. Mr. Papon, prefect of the police, and Mr. Legay, general director of the municipal police, assisted to these horrible scenes(…).”

Despite the extent of the killing, the massacre of 1961 remained for many years an absolute tabu. Following the events, the massacre was poorly covered by the French media, which was predominantly supportive of the government’s action regarding Algeria. Furthermore, it took 40 years for the government to acknowledge its responsibility, until the Mayor of Paris, Bertrand Delanoë put a plaque in remembrance of the massacre on the Saint-Michel bridge.

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 Gorongosa National Park

The centre of Mozambique hosts an amazing wildlife park known as the Gorongosa. Covering around 4 000 square km, it hosts a large array of species, from elephants to lions  and hundreds of bird types, making it an incredible ecosystem.

The story behind the Gorongosa National Park gives a lot to think about. It started in the 1920’s, when the portuguese government decided that the region should be protected and thus allowed the Mozambique Company to establish there a hunting reserve. Rapidly, the protected area, which initially encompassed 1 000 square km, grew to 3 000 square km. In 1940, the reserve passed to the government’s hands, hunting became forbidden and it progressively became a touristic attraction. In 1960, the portuguese government officially declared that the Gorongosa was a national park. The park made an enormous success thanks to the great amount and diversity of animals it had. It was a great opportunity for safari-tourism in Mozambique, which had never been known for that.

However, in 1964, Mozambique got torn apart by the independence war led by the Mozambique Liberation Front (Frelimo) against the Portuguese colony. Three years after the 1974 independence, the country got into a civil war opposing the Marxist-Leninist government and the rebel group known as RENAMO, endorsed by western powers (aka Mozambican National Resistance, MNR). From that moment on, until the end of the civil war in 1994, the Gorogonsa suffered terrible losses. In 1983, due to combats near that region, the park got shot down, and animals started to be hunted by the fighters, either for food or for profit (thanks to the sale of elephants’ ivory).

By the end of the war, according to scientists, the animal population of the park had been reduced by 95% compared to the 1960’s (some populations were reduced to numbers of 50, while they had walked the park by the thousands). Fortunately, several international institutions (amongst them the European Union and the African Development Bank) began a project of rehabilitation of the park, in order to stop illegal hunting and reinsert species. More importantly, in 2004, Greg Carr, founder of the Carr Foundation, took the rehabilitation of the Gorongosa into his own hands, looking to bring it back to its pre-civil war state. This project has been a huge success so far, largely thanks to the collaboration between the Carr Foundation and the Mozambican government.

Nevertheless, in recent times Mozambique has re-experienced some political violences between the old factions. Given that Afonso Dhlakama (i.e. RENAMO’s leader), has chosen the Gorongosa region as his headquarters and has put an end to the peace agreement of Lusaka, we can only hope that the Gorongosa National Park will not become once again a victim of political rivalries.

Read more about the rebirth of the park in this National Geographic article or visit the website of the park, which will give you a better understanding of the park’s history.

Boko Haram

Anyone who is not governed by what Allah has revealed is among the transgressors”, that is the motto of Boko Haram, an Islamic jihadist and takfiri terrorist organization based in the Northeast of Nigeria, along the border with Cameroon.

In 2002, Mohammed Yusuf, a powerful Muslim cleric, founded the organization and established a religious complex including a mosque and an Islamic school. Like stated in The JR Chronicle so many times when writing about terrorism, the success of the Boko Haram was deeply rooted in the poverty of its followers.

Indeed, many poor Muslim families enrolled their children at his school, and year by year, the number of Boko Haram’s militants just kept increasing. As Yusuf’s goal was to establish a pure Islamic state ruled by the sharia law, “Westernization” quickly became its archenemy.

Kidnapping and killing Westerners, bombing churches and police stations became their mode of action.

In 2009, following several police station attacks that killed hundreds of people, the Nigerian government captured Yusuf and declared Boko Haram defeated. Unfortunetly but clearly predictable, taking down the head of the terrorist organization did not destroy the network.

The group has continued to stage different attacks and“fuelling tension between Muslims and Christians”, in a region already affected by religious tension as the war in Central African Republic has revealed. Since their establishement, Boko Haram have killed more than 10 000 people.In 2013, they attacked a State School in Mamudo and killed more then 40 students in July and another 40 undergraduates in the College of Agriculture in Gubja.

Strangly, it seems that we hear very little about it. To learn more about Boko Haram you can read this BBC article and take a look at Ed Kashi’s photos in the National Geographic website.