News & Current Affairs

September 1, 2008

MoD to hold bearskin hat meeting

MoD to hold bearskin hat meeting

Soldiers at Trooping the Colour

Bearskin-hatted guardsmen at this year’s Trooping the Colour

The Ministry of Defense is to meet an animal rights group to discuss alternatives to the bearskin hats worn by guards at Buckingham Palace.

People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (Peta) has approached Vivienne Westwood and Stella McCartney to design a new shape for the 18in hat.

The charity has previously called for fake fur to be used, but said the MoD was not happy with prototype designs.

Baroness Taylor, minister for defense procurement, will meet Peta on Tuesday.

Tourist sight

The MoD says it is open to alternatives to real bearskin, but that previous attempts to replace it with synthetic fur have failed because the material has not been durable or weatherproof enough.

The ministry also wants to avoid if possible any change in the look of the red-coated sentries guarding Buckingham Palace, whose uniforms have long been one of the top tourist sights in London.

However, Peta is proposing a new hat shape and has also approached designer Marc Bouwer as well as McCartney and Westwood.

Robbie LeBlanc, Peta’s director for Europe, said that although the group was proposing a different shape for the hats it did not mean the new design could not become “iconic”.

“Most people think it’s fake fur and when they find out it’s real and it takes one bear to make a hat, they are appalled,” he said.

‘Inexcusable’

The meeting is the culmination of a media campaign by Peta that has included a naked protest outside Buckingham Palace.

More recently, comedian Ricky Gervais sent an open letter to Prime Minister Gordon Brown, calling the continued use of real fur inexcusable.

“I understand and appreciate the importance of uniforms, but continuing to use real fur in the 21st century is inexcusable, regardless of ‘tradition’,” the letter said.

“The public are relying on you to bring about a humane changing of the guards.”

August 9, 2008

Aids conference ends with warning

Aids conference ends with warning

HIV particles

More than 30 million people around the world are infected with HIV

An international Aids conference has ended with a warning that commitments made by wealthy countries to fund access to HIV treatment may not be met.

The charity Oxfam said there had been an air of complacency from government and UN officials at the Mexico meeting.

In 2005, the G8 industrialised nations set a goal of providing HIV treatment to all who needed it by 2010.

But with less than two years to go, the G8 leaders have committed little more than a third of the promised resources.

Michel Kazatchkine, the head of the Global Fund to fight Aids, tuberculosis and malaria, said that although lives were being saved on an unprecedented scale, he was deeply concerned at the lack of funds.

Three priorities

“We should be deeply concerned that with less than two years to go before our deadline for universal access, the G8 has committed little more than a third of the resources that it has promised to deliver by 2010,” said Mr Kazatchkine at the close of the six-day conference.

What we have is the sense of real slippage
Robert Fox
Oxfam

Millions of lives were at stake, said Robert Fox, the leader of Oxfam International’s delegation in Mexico City.

“What we have is the sense of real slippage, that well you know it may not be 2010 and it probably will be 2015, as if that doesn’t matter,” he said.

Twenty-four thousand people attended the conference, and the organisers said the voices of those who bore the brunt of the HIV-pandemic had been loud and clear.

Mr Kazatchkine highlighted three priorities to take the battle against Aids forward:

  • Defeating the discrimination against those with Aids virus flourished
  • Focussing research on more coordinated research
  • Strengthening health systems in developing nations

The Mexico City conference was the 17th of its kind since acquired immune deficiency syndrome (Aids) emerged in 1981.

The next conference will be held in Vienna in 2010.

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.”

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