News & Current Affairs

September 3, 2008

India’s belated flood relief operation

India’s belated flood relief operation

Flood victims in Saharsa in Bihar

Hundreds of thousands are still stranded in the floods

Aid is beginning to reach the flood-affected in the Indian state of Bihar, but some say it is too late.

A long convoy of Indian army trucks is driving on the highway between the towns of Purnea and Madhepura in north Bihar.

They are carrying soldiers as well as rescue equipment, including boats.

Further ahead, they will be joined by Indian navy divers who will assist them in evacuating those villagers still stranded in flood waters.

Officials say they expect to bring out everyone in 72 hours.

At the Purnea air force base, two helicopters are being loaded up with emergency supplies – mostly food and medicines in packets.

These will be dropped from the air to the flood victims who are still cut off.

After facing a barrage of criticism for not doing enough, the Indian government has begun responding.

But for some, it is too late.

Sanjay is a migrant worker employed in the northern Indian state of Punjab hundreds of miles to the west.

He has rushed back to Murliganj in Madhepura, to try and save his grandfather who is marooned and very ill.

An army rescue team takes him to his village but by the time he gets there, his grandfather has died.

Overflowing camps

“He needed medicines – but they were unable to get any in the past 10 days because of the floods.”

Wrapped in a white shroud, his body is lifted on to the rescue boat to be taken away.

With the rescue operation in full swing, attention is now shifting to the relief camps which are all overflowing.

C Sridhar, the district magistrate in Purnea who is overseeing the relief effort there, says the government is doing all it can.

Villagers in Bihar gather relief material dropped by an air force helicopter in Madhubani district on 2 September 2008

Many people are still waiting for aid

“The government is prepared to provide assistance to all these people who have nowhere to go,” he tells me in his large colonial-era office where his phone is constantly ringing.

“We are in the process of building a mega-relief camp in Purnea district headquarters which will eventually have semi-permanent tents with roofs made of corrugated iron,” he adds even as he sends out instructions over the phone.

At the moment though, the focus is on just getting people into camps and getting them some immediate assistance.

Aid agencies and government medical teams have begun visiting some camps, where there are already reports of some people suffering from diarrhoea.

They are distributing oral rehydration salts and other medicines.

‘Fairly organised’

But sanitation levels at the camps are poor and there is concern that preventive measures may be too late.

Bjorn Nissen of Medicins Sans Frontieres has visited several camps to assess the situation.

“Aid is getting through and seems fairly organised.

“But yes, there is always a potential for water-borne diseases to affect large numbers of people. We are still trying to see what is needed and what we can do.”

Flood victims scramble for food packets in Saharsa in Bihar

The scale of the floods has overwhelmed relief efforts

India has not asked for international assistance. There is a strong sense here that it is not needed, that the government has enough resources to provide for those affected.

But it is not refusing all offers of help.

“We will certainly welcome international aid particularly those who can offer certain expertise,” says Mr Sridhar.

“Floods are a traumatic experience. Those who have suffered will need help in coping with their situation and eventually rebuilding their lives. This is an area where international groups can offer immense help.”

So why has it taken so long for the relief effort to hit speed?

There was one clue on Monday.

Minutes after the army convoy drove down the Purnea-Madhepura highway, it was followed by a long line of cars with flashing lights.

A senior Indian cabinet minister, Laloo Prasad Yadav, who is also a former chief minister of Bihar, had come visiting.

Bihar is currently governed by his political opponents – and so the state and federal governments have spent a lot of the past week blaming each other for the mess.

In between, the flood survivors wait for someone to take note of them.

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September 1, 2008

Uncertainty in India flood camp

Uncertainty in India flood camp

Courtesy BBC

By Sanjoy Majumder
BBC News, Purnea


Asha Devi

Asha Devi is among those who fled the floods – she paid $5 for a lift on a tractor

Outside the Bageecha relief camp in Purnea, Bihar, there is confusion.

A line of small trucks and vans carrying relief material have parked on the highway – scores of volunteers, dressed in white, are milling around.

They have just brought several tonnes of aid – but are not quite sure how to distribute it.

There is apparently no camp co-ordinator, no-one from the government.

It is symptomatic of what is happening across Bihar’s flood-affected areas.

God knows if my house is still standing
Janardhan Rishidev

“We have driven several hours to get here,” says Anil Chowdhury, whose cap identifies him as belonging to the Lions’ Club of Khagaria.

“We’ve made up bundles of supplies with rice, sugar, matches and candles.

“Since the government has unable to provide for these people, we’ve decided to step in.”

The lucky ones

Inside camp Bageecha there is more confusion.

Several hundred families have arrived here over the past five days.

The shelter they have been provided is modest – bamboo staves hammered into the ground with a plastic sheet roof to keep out the rain.

Water pump

Conditions in the camp are far from ideal

There is one hand pump for all of them to use to wash themselves.

On one corner, several men are stirring large cauldrons of lentils and rice. It may not seem much, but for many here it is their first cooked meal in days.

So despite the abysmal conditions, everyone here knows they are the lucky ones who got away.

“This is how high the water reached,” says Janardhan Rishidev, holding his hands waist high.

“When it started rising further, I knew it was time to leave. We packed a few things quickly, and placed the rest of our belongings on high shelves in our home.

“Then we fled. God knows if my house is still standing.”

Playing in dirt

Like most people here, Janardhan waded several hours through the flood waters, holding a small bundle of his valued possessions on his head.

Asha Devi and her husband Ram were slightly luckier. Along with their children they climbed on to the back of a tractor and drove out.

map

At a price – they paid the driver 200 rupees ($5) for the ride.

“We hadn’t eaten a proper meal in four days. My children were crying every day. At least here we’ve had some hot food.”

There appears to be a disproportionately high number of children at this camp – most of them unclothed, playing in the dirt.

There are no medical supplies here, or any doctors. But still everyone is grateful to have got out alive.

Sitaram is 85, and managed to come here only because his sons carried him on their back.

He squats outside his tent, smoking.

“Many people were left behind,” he says in a hoarse whisper, leaning forward.

“Old people whose children left them behind. I was lucky, my sons love me.”

Plenty of goodwill

But there is an air of restlessness as well.

Many of the villagers are concerned that eventually somebody will ask them to leave, or the supplies will run out.

“We need to go back,” says Asha Devi.

“We’ve lived off our land and that’s the only way we’ll survive. But how do we go back? When everything is under water, what will we do – swim?”

No-one has the answer to these questions, quite simply because there is no-one from the authorities here.

No government representative has been here to visit. Some international aid workers came by, but they have now left.

Outside camp Bageecha, it is complete gridlock.

Several aid trucks have blocked the road unsure of whether to pull the side or move on ahead.

There are no policemen, so a couple of volunteers decide to sort out the chaos.

“Where’s the government?” asks one volunteer angrily. “They should be here taking charge, instead they’ve left it to us.”

There is plenty of goodwill here and quite a bit of misplaced enthusiasm.

It is just not clear whether they are all aiding the relief effort or hindering it.

August 8, 2008

Kosovo lives: Not gone with the wind

Kosovo lives: Not gone with the wind

Courtesy BBC

Sani, Lili and Dani Nikolic in their room at the Greek K-For camp

The three women thought they would be left alone in Urosevac after the war because there were no men in their house

In the fifth and final piece by BBC journalists on life in Kosovo today, Patrick Jackson meets three Slovenian-Serb women who intend to be the bane of K-For’s life until they regain their ancestral home.

Their great-grandfather built Urosevac, the Nikolic daughters like to say, so how can they leave it now?

Sani (Santipa), the very image of mildness and physical slightness, beams mischievously at the memory of how she floored a US soldier with her karate skills, the day K-For came to evacuate her family.

I am not saying she is over 60, because her disabled younger sister Lili (Liljana) reminded me, when I inquired, that you must never ask a lady her age. A smile of assent crossed the mask-like face of their blind mother Dani (Daniela).

However, the soldier’s commanding officer was certainly impressed by Sani’s resilience, telling her she was “as tough as a Texan lady”, according to Lili.

The Americans evacuated them from Urosevac (Ferizaj in Albanian) on 18 March 2004, to save them from Albanian rioters, who then destroyed the house.

But the Nikolic women have refused to join the thousands of other non-Albanians who fled (most of them in June 1999).

They argue that K-For failed to defend their property and removed them against their will, so it should take them back.

And that is how they come to be living today inside a Greek army base outside Urosevac.

Sickbay

The sole civilians to live on a base in K-For’s eastern sector have a medical ward to themselves at Camp Rigas Fereos.

The Nikolic family's cooking arrangements in the camp

The facilities in the room meet the family’s basic needs

It is a large, spotlessly clean room equipped with the bare essentials such as a fridge and a microwave oven, but no television set or radio.

From the window they can see only the camp and the mountains in the distance. Some paper religious icons are stuck to the blank white walls.

What personal effects they have seem all to come from charity.

Asked what she misses most from her home, Daniela says her family photographs and her jewellery, including her wedding ring from her husband who died before the war (she had taken it off to wash her hands the morning they were evacuated).

There is also the antique furniture, her library of 1,800 “beautiful books in five languages” and her paintings, especially a 17th-Century Italian Madonna she brought with her from her native Slovenia when she married her Serb husband.

Theirs was a wealthy family in its time, Lili explains. Their great-grandfather helped found Urosevac, a late 19th-Century town that arose around the new Belgrade-Thessaloniki railway, after he persuaded the Turkish authorities to let him build there.

Thessaloniki played a new role in the Nikolic family’s history in 2004, when Greek K-For, having sheltered the evacuees at Camp Rigas Fereos for four months, transferred them to its military hospital.

All three women needed specialised medical help.

A military ambulance parked outside the family's room

Life for the women at the base is punctuated by bugle calls

During the evacuation, Lili, paralysed in one leg since a car crash in her youth, was struck by a rioter’s stone, which broke her bad knee.

Daniela was already going blind and Sani suffered from arthritis.

Nearly five years of constant stress had also taken its toll.

Their house was placed under 24-hour K-For guard in the summer of 1999 after intruders robbed and beat them.

The last time Sani had left the building was in October 2000, when she slipped past the guards to go to the nearby market.

Some teenage boys recognised her as a Serb and started to beat her. She fought back with her karate, but she says she “did not want to hurt them”. She returned home covered in blood.

The boys told the police she had fired a gun at them, she adds, and an Albanian policeman turned up at the house. But when he saw the K-For guards, he just said “no problem” and left, Sani says.

In November last year, the women left the hospital in Thessaloniki and returned to Camp Rigas Fereos at their own request.

Private property

While they were in Greece, new buildings were erected illegally on the site of their property, a prime location in the centre of Urosevac.

Sani Nikolic in her room at the Greek K-For camp
We have just this one card left to play, and we are playing it now. We have nothing else to lose
Sani Nikolic

Sani says she was phoned by an Albanian when she was still in Thessaloniki, and advised not to try to come back because there was “no room” in the town for her family now.

“I said to him: ‘You Albanians want to join the EU and from what I know, the English and the Americans respect private property very much. I don’t want yours, I just want my own back. And nobody can deny me that’.”

The UN refugee agency has offered them a new home in a village enclave near Urosevac but they are refusing.

“What would I do in a village?” asks Sani, an architect by profession.

“I have never lived in a village. I know nothing about agriculture. I am ill.

“If we agreed to be relocated to a village enclave somewhere, we know that we, like the other IDPs [internally displaced persons], would never get our home back.”

The newly elected mayor of Urosevac has taken an interest in their case and visited them at the camp this June. They gave him a file of property deeds.

The mayor pledged to ensure their information was processed through the legal system, K-For says.

Last card

K-For also says the Nikolic family cannot stay on the base indefinitely.

After all the family has suffered, and given their ill-health, age and isolation from other Serbs, I ask the women if it is not better to yield and accept a peaceful existence somewhere other than Urosevac – perhaps in Greece, which has they say, offered them asylum.

How can these three women, so proud and outspoken about their Serbian identity, even think of living again in a town that war turned against them?

They admit themselves that they feel uncomfortable in the camp, ever grateful to the Greek army for its hospitality and ever embarrassed about getting in the soldiers’ way.

Sani accepts the difficulty of returning now but her sense of grievance is greater.

“I will be frank,” she says.

“We know that we are like a thorn in the side for the Greek camp because as long as we are here, we are a problem they have to resolve.

“But this is the last card we have to play. We have nothing else to lose.”

August 7, 2008

China rejects Bush criticism of its affairs

China rejects Bush criticism of its affairs

Courtesy Yahoo

BANGKOK, Thailand – China rejected President Bush’s criticism Thursday of its human rights record and restrictions on religion, diplomatically telling him to stay out of its affairs even as he flew to Beijing to attend the Olympics.

In a speech outlining America’s achievements and challenges in Asia, Bush pushed for a free press, free assembly and labor rights in China, and against its detentions of political dissidents, human rights advocates and religious activists. He said he wasn’t trying to antagonize China, but called such reform the only path the potent U.S. rival can take to reach its full potential.

He antagonized the Chinese anyway, setting the stage for an interesting reception when he attends the opening ceremonies Friday evening, takes in some events — including the U.S.-China men’s basketball game — and meets with President Hu Jintao on Sunday after attending church.

“The Chinese government puts people first, and is dedicated to maintaining and promoting its citizens basic rights and freedom,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang said in response to Bush’s speech. “Chinese citizens have freedom of religion. These are indisputable facts.”

He said China advocates discussions on differing views on human rights and religions on “a basis of mutual respect and equality,” then indicated it didn’t see Bush’s criticism in that light.

“We firmly oppose any words or acts that interfere in other countries’ internal affairs, using human rights and religion and other issues,” Qin said.

Bush did offer praise for China’s market reforms. “Change in China will arrive on its own terms and in keeping with its own history and its own traditions,” he said. “Yet, change will arrive.”

Bush has been trying to walk a tightrope in attending the games, wanting to avoid causing Beijing embarrassment during its two weeks on the world stage while also coming under pressure to use his visit to openly press China’s leaders for greater religious tolerance and other freedoms. Chinese officials bristled when he met with Chinese activists at the White House last week.

“With this speech, Bush is trying to address two polar issues: easing the controversy created by those who oppose his visit during the Games and simultaneously maintaining America’s strategy with China,” said Yan Xuetong, an expert in U.S.-China relations at Beijing‘s prestigious Tsinghua University.

Making the repression issue timely, China has rounded up opponents ahead of the Olympics and slapped restrictions on journalists, betraying promises made when it landed the hosting rights.

Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd urged the international community “to speak with a strong and united voice” to maintain pressure on China over human rights. But he conceded Beijing’s record has improved.

“Remember, it was not all that long ago they were in the middle of the cultural revolution with people getting put up against a wall and basically knocked off,” he told Nine Network television before flying to Beijing.

The White House’s handling of the speech demonstrated the president’s balancing act. Bush’s address containing the criticism of China was delivered outside the country, in Thailand. The White House took the unusual step of releasing the text of it even earlier, about 18 hours before he spoke.

And the speech was followed by a string of events Thursday, by both the president and his wife, Laura, that were clearly aimed at shifting the focus to the repressive military regime in Myanmar, neighbor to Thailand, where Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej regards himself as a friend of Myanmar’s generals. Myanmar, also known as Burma, marks the 20th anniversary of a brutal crackdown on pro-democracy activists on Friday.

The Bush administration has become increasingly vocal about Myanmar in recent months, blaming a corrupt regime for failing to help its citizens after a devastating cyclone in May, in large part by initially failing to accept international help and then only with tight restrictions, and for violently suppressing democracy demonstrations by Buddhist monks in last September’s so-called Saffron Revolution.

Mrs. Bush, the administration’s highest-profile spokeswoman on the issue, flew for the day to northwestern Thailand to visit a border refugee camp. The Mae La camp is home to 38,000 Karen, an ethnic minority that human rights organizations say is the target of an ongoing Myanmar military campaign marked by murders of civilians, rapes and razing of villages. She also stopped at a health clinic run by a woman known as the “Mother Teresa of Burma.”

Remaining in Bangkok, the president was briefed at the U.S. ambassador’s residence on recovery from the cyclone that devastated Myanmar’s heartland and killed more than 80,000 people, had lunch with nine Burmese activists and did an interview with local radio journalists in hopes of influencing events across the border.

Bush called the activists “courageous people,” saying he wanted to hear their stories and their advice.

One of the activists, Lway Aye Nang of the Women’s League of Burma, said rape has long been used “as a weapon of war” in Myanmar and thanked Washington for imposing sanctions against her country.

“This is really hitting … the regime and their associates, who have been defiling the country’s natural resources for their own benefit and leaving ordinary citizens in extreme poverty,” she said.

Bush’s speech had been expected to prominently feature Myanmar. But it contained only a brief — though blunt — mention of the reclusive nation.

One of the world’s poorest countries, Myanmar has been under military rule since 1962, when the latest junta came to power after brutally crushing a pro-democracy uprising in 1988.

“We will continue working until the people of Burma have the freedom they deserve,” Bush said, calling for the release of pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi and all other political prisoners.

Bush also urged North Korea to live up to its promise to dismantle its nuclear weapons, adding: “The United States will continue to insist that the regime in Pyongyang end its harsh rule and respect the dignity and human rights of the North Korean people.”

About 25 people around the convention center where Bush spoke welcomed him. But a Muslim group shouted “Bush, get out. God is great” as the presidential motorcade passed. The protesters handed out leaflets saying “George Bush is a war criminal.”

August 5, 2008

Dutch climbers airlifted from K2

Pakistani helicopters have rescued two Dutch climbers from a group that lost 11 members over the weekend on the world’s second-highest mountain, K2.

Rescue climbers have reached an Italian mountaineer and are helping him to an advance camp high on the mountain slopes, Reuters news agency said.

About 25 climbers reached the summit on Friday but nine died on descent after an avalanche swept away their ropes.

Earlier, on the ascent, two climbers fell to their deaths.

Many regard the 8,611m (28,251ft) peak as the world’s most difficult to climb.

In the deadliest day in K2’s history, the avalanche occurred when a chunk from an ice pillar snapped away on a feature called the Bottleneck.

Several climbers were swept to their deaths; others froze to death after they were stranded high on the mountain.

Cpt Azeemullah Baig said a Pakistani army helicopter had already picked up the two Dutch climbers.

“Thanks to Almighty Allah, the rescue operation has started this morning,” he told Reuters news agency.

Four rescue climbers reached Italian mountaineer Marco Confortola after attempts to reach him by helicopter were called off in bad weather, Pakistani guide Sultan Alam told Reuters news agency from the K2 base camp.

The rescuers were guiding Mr Confortola to the advanced base camp 6,000 metres up the slopes of K2.

The head of an Italian mountaineering group who spoke to Mr Confortola by satellite phone said his feet were in “very bad” shape from frostbite but that he could still walk and that his hands were in good condition.

Mr Confortola’s brother also spoke to the stranded climber.

“Up there it was hell,” Ansa news agency quoted Mr Confortola telling his brother Luigi.

“During the descent, beyond 8,000 metres (26,000 feet), due to the altitude and the exhaustion I even fell asleep in the snow and when I woke up I could not figure out where I was”.

The Death Zone

The two rescued Dutchmen are being treated for frostbite in a Pakistani military hospital.

“Everything was going well to Camp Four and on [the] summit attempt everything went wrong,” one of the Dutchmen, Wilco Van Rooijen, told Associated Press news agency.

He said some ropes had been laid in the wrong position – a mistake which took several valuable hours to correct, delaying the summit push until just before darkness.

As climbers descended from the peak in the dark, the ice pillar collapsed, sweeping away climbers and stranding others in the high-altitude level known as the Death Zone – where there is not enough oxygen to support life.

Pakistani authorities said three South Koreans, two Nepalis, two Pakistani porters, and French, Serbian, Norwegian and Irish climbers had died on the mountain.

Expedition organisers only learned of the avalanche after a group of climbers arrived back at the mountain’s base camp on Saturday evening.

Reports from the mountain’s base camp say two separate parties of Serbian and Norwegian climbers were able to make it back to base camp.

The Serbians said they buried their team member as it was impossible to bring his body back. The Norwegians said their companion was lost in the avalanche.

Only a few hundred people have climbed K2 and dozens have died in the attempt.

The fatality rate for those who reach the summit at 27% is about three times higher than that for Mount Everest.

One of the worst single-day death tolls was on Everest on 11 May 1996, when eight people died in summit attempts.

Six people fell to their deaths or disappeared during a storm on K2 on 13 August 1995.

The summit of K2 was first reached by two Italians, Lino Lacedelli and Achille Compagnoni, on 31 July 1954.

Do you know anyone involved in any of the expeditions or have any information about them? Have you ever attempted to climb K2?

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