News & Current Affairs

September 7, 2008

Fireworks, spectacle open Beijing Paralympics

Fireworks, spectacle open Beijing Paralympics

BEIJING, China (AP) — The Paralympic Games opened in Beijing on Saturday with a burst of fireworks as China welcomed another chance to cement its role as a global player to an international audience.

Fireworks at Beijing's National Stadium greet the opening of the 2008 Paralympics.

Fireworks at Beijing’s National Stadium greet the opening of the 2008 Paralympics.

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Thousands of cheerleaders and dancers in puffy, rainbow-colored suits performed a dance routine in the center of the field at the National Stadium before athletes from 148 countries were introduced. The crowd cheered and waved flags as China’s Communist Party leaders and foreign dignitaries looked on.

The guest list included Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, German President Horst Koehler and South Korean Prime Minister Han Seung-soo.

Earlier Saturday, they shook hands and posed for photos with Chinese President Hu Jintao at the Great Hall of the People, the seat of China’s legislature in the heart of Beijing. Hu gave a brief speech and toasted the games.

“Caring for the disabled is an important symbol for social civilization and progress,” Hu said before raising his glass.

“China’s people and government have always attached great importance to the cause of the disabled,” he said in remarks televised on state television. “We insist on putting people first, carrying forward a humanitarian spirit and advocating equality and opposing discrimination.”

Opening just two weeks after the Beijing Olympics ended, the Paralympics are designed to be a parallel games for athletes with a wide range of physical disabilities. The 10-day competition begins Sunday.

Some 4,000-plus athletes will use many of the same Olympic venues, with 148 countries represented and 472 medal events contested — 170 more than the Olympics.

Hosting the Olympics and the Paralympics is a source of national pride for China and a way to showcase the country on the international stage. The Aug. 8-24 Olympics was overshadowed at times by human rights and censorship disputes surrounding the event.

China is keen to use the Paralympics to underscore what is says it has done for the country’s 83 million disabled citizens.

The official Xinhua News Agency said Beijing used much of its US$100 million budget for the Paralympics to improve handicapped facilities in competition venues, airports, the public traffic system, hotels, hospitals and tourist attractions like the Great Wall and the Forbidden City.

An editorial on the front page of the ruling Communist Party’s People Daily newspaper hailed the games as a “stage for the world’s handicapped people to realize their dreams.”

“Remarkable progress has been made in basic living standards, medicare, education and employment for the disabled,” the editorial said, “and the preparation for the Beijing Paralympics … recorded fresh achievement made by China in promoting the cause for the disabled.”

But the country has also had a contentious history with dealing with its disabled population.

The government has long advocated sterilizing mentally handicapped people. In the early 1990s, a draft law was presented to the legislature to reduce the number of disabled through abortion and sterilization, a move that unleashed international criticism.

In 1994, China ratified a law calling for the abortion of fetuses carrying hereditary diseases and restrictions on marriages among people suffering mental problems or contagious diseases.

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More recently, Beijing Olympic organizers issued an apology in June for clumsy stereotypes used to describe disabled athletes in an English-language manual compiled for thousands of volunteers.

One section described the physically disabled as “isolated, unsocial and introspective; they usually do not volunteer to contact people. They can be stubborn and controlling.

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August 13, 2008

Palestinians say farewell to poet

Palestinians say farewell to poet

Palestinians are lining the streets of Ramallah, on the West Bank, for the funeral of poet Mahmoud Darwish.

Leading mourners, Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas described the poet and author as a hero for all Palestinians.

Darwish was one of the most influential cultural figures in recent Arab history, encapsulating the Palestinian longing for independence.

He died after open-heart surgery in Houston, Texas, on Saturday at the age of 67.

The ceremonies in Ramallah are expected to be the biggest funeral in the West Bank since that of Yasser Arafat in 2004.

Darwish’s body was flown back from the US to Amman, Jordan, on Wednesday where an honor guard saluted as Palestinian Liberation Army officers carried the flag-draped coffin from the plane.

Military helicopter

Jordan’s Prince Ali bin Nayef attended the ceremony on behalf of King Abdullah.

The coffin was then taken by military helicopter to the government compound of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, in Ramallah.

Mr Abbas led mourners and read a eulogy to the poet.

Afterwards, the coffin was to be taken in procession to Darwish’s grave near the Palace of Culture about 4km (2.5 miles) away.

Mahmoud Darwish

Darwish won many international prizes for his work

People of all backgrounds in the West Bank feel they had a personal connection to the poet and take pride in a man who told their story in a way they could not.

Darwish was a national icon, whose work was often based on his experiences of life in exile and under occupation.

“He symbolizes the Palestinian memory,” one Palestinian mourner.

“He intended to convey a message: in the end we are all human beings and we have to work collectively for the sake of humanity.”

Thousands would flock to his recitals. His poems were transformed into popular songs and used in political speeches, and the words he wrote now form part of Palestinian daily life, our correspondent says.

Fierce criticism

Nor was he shy of talking of his people’s shortcomings.

Darwish penned fierce criticism of the divisions among Palestinians, believing, in some ways, what they were doing to themselves was worse than anything others had done to them.

He also penned the famous speech Arafat delivered at the United Nations in 1974: “Today I have come bearing an olive branch and a freedom-fighter’s gun. Do not let the olive branch fall from my hand.”

There is little doubt his work, not just on the Palestinian cause, but on love and hope and death, will endure across the Arab world, our correspondent says.


How will you remember Mahmoud Darwish? Will you attend a commemoration service?

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