2018: Not Such A Good Year (Me, War, Terror)

If you want to read a real journalist’s wrap of The Year, see The Age here, another from The Age here, 7:30’s, the Saturday Paper’s here, or for a cheerier wrap, see The Guardian’s Brigid Delaney here.  And this New York Times wrap of the year in photojournalism is great. I must acknowledge the heavy debt of what follows to Wikipedia, without which extraordinary resource much of which follows could not have been written by me.

Me, myself I had a lovely year, though I must be getting old: a child from my reader’s course became a QC (congratulations Dr Button QC); a kid below me at school is the Dean of Law at the University of Singapore (Professor Simon Chesterman); a youth I used to have morning tea with in Law School, Professor Carolyn Evans, is already an ex-Dean of the Melbourne Law School; her boyish husband who was admittedly quite good at mooting is the Solicitor General of Australia (Stephen Donahue QC); my body got grumpy.

Given how young I thought I was, in other words, it does seem remarkable how prominent in grown up public life are my cohort from Law School: to most of the above, add into the mix the Institute of Public Affairs’s John Roskam, federal health Minister Greg Hunt, Victorian opposition leader, former barrister Michael O’Brien, 774’s Raf Epstein, John Daley (CEO of the Grattan Institute), and Melissa Conley-Tyler, who used to recite from memory as a party trick the Rubiyat of Omar Kayam and is now ED of the Australian Institute of Public Affairs.

I sold and bought a house, moving from the bánh mì belt to the haloumi pie zone, acquiring in the process a bicycle commute to die for down the Merri Creek and the lovely bicycle super-highway that is Canning Street past the Exhibition Gardens and onto the Copenhagen-laned Latrobe St.

Generally speaking the year was professionally satisfying.  Some wild rides for four exceptionally different lawyers with serious mental health issues, all of whom were appreciative in their own different ways, kept things interesting and rewarding.

War, terror But for many, it was not a good year.  Here in Australia, the schadenfreude of watching the government put its foot in its mouth time after time was entertaining, but most of us do not live in a place where the public service is so robust and the polity so uncorrupted that who is and should be the prime minister this week is mainly an entertainment for dinner parties. I write these posts not to be pessimistic but because I feel that the very least one can do is be aware of the awful suffering of others; to pretend it does not happen, or put it out of your mind is cowardly, and far away from it all as we are down here at the bottom of the world, it is too easy for Melbournians to do so.

The most prominent good news story of the year involved a soccer coach getting his team of youngsters stuck in a Thai cave and the death of a rescuer.  A South Australian anaesthetist was key to the successful rescue of the boys.

Those who won the Nobel Peace Prize for their efforts in the realm of rape as a weapon of war achieved no peace at all, super-worthy as they were. I wrote quite a lot about Nadia Murad here. She shared the prize with Dr Denis Mukwege, a Pentecostal minister and surgeon who repairs Congolese women torn apart by being raped by soldiers. A few years ago a group of armed men entered his very secure home, held his daughters at gunpoint, and were about to kill him when his security guard created a distraction, giving his life in the process. The police did not investigate. Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un were also nominated.

Incredible grottiness characterized some of the ghastly wars which ground on in 2018.  Over 35,000 people died in the war in Afghanistan, nearly 5,000 in the war in Iraq, more than 30,000 in the war in Syria, more than 25,000 in the war in Yemen, more and than 13,000 in the drug wars in Mexico, according to Wikipedia.  Granted, this is not a particularly high level of fatalities compared with previous years, so there is that, but then that is only the tip of the iceberg. Many more were horribly injured in places with dreadful medical systems and little support for the disabled.  And none of these wars should be happening at all. Most of them are proxy wars with foreign-supplied weapons. I had keyhole surgery in one of Melbourne’s best private hospitals in 2018, by a surgeon who was once head of Royal Melbourne’s trauma unit, beautiful Irish nurses, and synthetic morphine whenever I needed it. That was bad enough. It really made me think about the people who die slowly, their blood running out into the dust, from shrapnel distributed by meatheads in helicopters armed by foreign states, or choke to death by chlorine gas.

I was appalled to read that Saudi Arabia used child soldiers from Sudan’s Darfur region armed with American supplied weapons in the war in Yemen against the Iran-aligned other side, referred to in the media as Houthi rebels.  Seriously, you could not make this stuff up; for some reason I just find this particularly ghastly (and the fact that the other side are no saints doesn’t really affect me). The New York Times reported that:

‘To keep a safe distance from the battle lines, their Saudi or Emirati overseers commanded the Sudanese fighters almost exclusively by remote control, directing them to attack or retreat through radio headsets and GPS systems provided to the Sudanese officers in charge of each unit, the fighters all said.’

In Yemen, 85,000 children under the age of five have starved to death in the last three years by virtue of a land, air and sea blockade by Saudi Arabia, backed by America, and fighters armed by England.  Once again, it was an image (this one) which brought home the reality of 1.8 million kids being severely malnourished on the way to what will become a man-made famine of Biblical proportions if things keep on as they are.  A kid is dying every 10 minutes, and there are 5,000 new cases of cholera a day. That is completely not ok, and my heart goes out to the parents of those poor children (and the widows) caught up in in a kind of cold war between Iran and Saudi Arabia, not to mention the men.

Assad continued to use chemical weapons against his own people.  Most notable was a 7 April helicopter drop of chemical weapons, e.g. onto a residential apartment tower, in Douma which killed 70 people in a particularly ghastly fashion and injured 650 others.  But there have probably been 85 chemical weapons attacks in Syria in the last three years without much response from the rest of the world.  Mind you the Russians, who vetoed an on the ground UN investigation, pointed out that the whole thing had been faked by British intelligence.  The attack, assuming that it was not faked by MI6, was entirely successful; the next day the rebels gave up the territory they controlled in the area.  The New York Times did amazing work on this story using 3D modelling and augmented reality using images of the scene of one of the bombings.

In Afghanistan, America participated in two ways. First, the regular army, with its nation building pretensions. Secondly, an Afghan crack force commanded, in fact if not in theory, and with less fastidiousness about the rules, by the CIA. In this long piece in the New York Times how well this is all working is queried.

There were terrible incidents of terrorism: a Taliban suicide bomber exploded an ambulance in Kabul killing 103 others and injuring 235, prompting the Mayor of Paris to turn off the lights on the Eiffel Tower; an Islamic State suicide bomber exploded himself at an election rally attended by at least 1,000 people in Pakistan, killing 149 others and injuring 186; multiple suicide bombings and gun attacks by Islamic State killed 255 (and 63 attackers) and injured 180, also taking hostages, in Syria; in Nigeria, Boko Haram, attacked a military base, shooting 118 soldiers dead and leaving 153 people missing, and seizing tanks, armoured vehicles, ammunition and weapons the better to continue their ongoing terror campaign.  And that’s just the incidents involving more than 100 deaths.  There were terrorist attacks every day of the year.  To give some further examples: in February 45 people were killed and 36 injured in Mogadishu in two car bombings and 12 people were killed and 50 injured in bombings in Bolivia; in March 30 people died and 85 were injured in terrorist attacks on the French Embassy in Ougadougou in Burkina Faso, a city I remember fondly from my trip on the Ougadougo – Bobo Dialassou Express; in April, 47 people were shot dead by terrorists in Mali; in May, gunmen equipped with grenades attacked the Notre-Dame de Fatima church in Bangui, in the Central African Republic, killing 26 (the same number as died in a shooting, stabbing and arson attack in Burundi the same month) and injuring 170; in July, Abu Sayyaf exploded a van in the Philippines, killing 9 and injuring 12; in September, Islamic State killed 25 people and injured 70 in an attack on an Iranian military parade; in October, Robert Bowers killed 11 and injured 7 when he shot up a synagogue (‘[the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society] likes to bring invaders in that kill our people. I can’t sit by and watch my people get slaughtered. Screw your optics, I’m going in.’).  In December, 5 people were killed and 21 injured in a Muslim’s shooting spree at a Christmas market in Strasbourg.

Americans kept shooting each other up.  For example, an ex student of Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida shot 34 students in February; in May a student shot 24 people at Santa Fe High School in Texas; in November a man shot 25 people who were line dancing.  But this is just the tip of the iceberg.  See the full, mind-boggling, list here.

Kids got active in 2018. One million kids walked out of school in the Enough! School Walkout to advocate gun reform in the US in response to the shootings. (Then March for Our Lives involved 1.2 to 2 million people. Report here.) Then conservative politicians excoriated 5000 high school kids in each of Melbourne and Sydney, and more in other cities for protesting the politicians boiling their futures in the Big School Walk Out, initiated by three urchins in Castlemaine. They demanded: 1. Stop Adani; 2. No new coal mines; and 3. Transition to 100% renewables. Resources Minister Matt Canavan dutifully read out what he was presumably told to by the coal people: “Taking off school and protesting? You don’t learn anything from that. The best thing you’ll learn about going to a protest is how to join the dole queue.”

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