Saturday, 28 September 2013

Mumbai building collapse death toll rises to 42

At least 42 people are now known to have died when a four-storey residential building collapsed in the western Indian city of Mumbai.

Some 33 survivors have so far been pulled from the rubble of Friday's disaster, some with serious injuries.

Between 83 and 89 people were in the building near Dockyard Road in the east of the city when it collapsed.

The collapse is the latest in a series in Mumbai. Poor construction practices have been blamed in earlier incidents.

As rescuers equipped with cranes searched the rubble, a young girl was dragged alive from the the ruins on Friday, nearly 12 hours after the collapse, and a 50-year-old man was pulled out on Saturday with serious injuries.

The cause of the collapse is not yet known.

Municipal employees

"Five members from my family were trapped inside. So far, two have been rescued. I am praying to God others will also come out alive," Preeti Pawar, among crowds of relatives and onlookers outside the ruins, told Reuters news agency.

Rescuers worked for six hours to free the survivor found on Saturday. The man's leg had been crushed by a wall.

Alok Awasthi, local commander of the National Disaster Response Force, said rescuers had not found signs of life recently but vowed to continue the search.

The building had been home to more than 20 families of employees of the Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai.

Officials say the municipality asked the residents to vacate the property earlier this year.

Property prices and rent in Mumbai are among the highest in Asia. Many citizens are forced to live in old, dilapidated properties in a land-scarce city.

More than 100 people have been killed in five building collapses in Mumbai between April and June alone.

And between 2008 and 2012, there were 100 building collapses in the city in which 53 people died and 103 others were injured, authorities say.

Saturday 28 September 2013

continue reading

Victims Memorial in Spain Awaits Names of the Dead

A pyramid is being built in the old San Rafael cemetery in the southern Spanish city of Málaga – a monument to thousands of people shot by firing squads here during the 1936-1939 Spanish Civil War and the 1939-1975 dictatorship of General Francisco Franco.

Their bodies were exhumed from the biggest of the mass graves from that era scattered around Spain.

On a Wednesday Sept. 25 visit to the cemetery, which was closed in 1987, IPS saw the nearly complete mausoleum in the shape of a pyramid, which will be covered in slabs of white marble engraved with the names of the people buried there.

The rest of the abandoned cemetery will be a public garden.

The monument and mausoleum will be completed in a few weeks. But it will be many years before the remains of each body to be placed there are identified and, in some cases at least, handed over to the families.

“The only thing I remember are my mother’s screams when they took him away,” said José Dorado, 79, who was three years old when Franco’s troops shot his father, Pedro Dorado, a railway worker, in the nearby village of Bobadilla.

It was 1937. The body of Pedro, 33, was dumped along with the corpses of his workmates in a huge ditch dug in the San Rafael cemetery, Dorado told IPS.

Documents show that 4,471 people were shot by right-wing firing squads here during the civil war and the early years of the dictatorship, presumably because they were “republicanos” – in other words, they belonged to the side that was defeated by the Franco troops or Franquistas in the civil war.

From October 2006 to October 2009, 2,840 bodies were recovered here, in one of the largest exhumations carried out in Western Europe.

The rest of the bodies may have been moved at some point to the Valley of the Fallen in Madrid – a monument that the Franquistas built in the 1940s and 1950s, said Francisco Espinosa, with the Málaga Association against Silence and Oblivion – Historical Memory, which represents more than 400 relatives of victims.

Dorado, the president of the association, describes himself as “a person who likes to give battle.” In 2002, he started to wage the struggle to exhume the bodies in the common grave in San Rafael, which finally got underway in 2006.

The University of Málaga took DNA samples from the bodies to compare to the DNA from over 1,000 relatives of the people killed here, Antonio Somoza, a founding member of the association, told IPS.

The remains now lie in boxes, waiting to be put in the new mausoleum.

The names of the 4,471 victims have been identified. But it will take years to match the specific remains in the boxes to names, Somoza explained, adding that none of the 2,840 bodies recovered had been specifically identified so far.

Over the space of four decades, between 88,000 and 130,000 people were killed and buried in common graves across Spain, and some 30,000 babies were stolen and sold in illegal adoptions, according to human rights groups.

“We are asking that the bodies be removed from the ditches so they can be buried as people,” said Espinosa, 76, who has struggled for over three decades to find the body of his father, a carpenter from Argentina.

“My father died here. I was still in my mother’s belly, and my brother was three years old,” he told IPS in the San Rafael cemetery.

No attempt at investigating the mass graves around the country has been successful, because the courts invoke the 1977 amnesty law that blocks investigation or prosecution of Franco-era human rights crimes.

Moreover, the conservative government of Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy closed down the office that was coordinating the exhumations around the country and the funds collecting money to help pay for the costly DNA tests.

Emilio Silva, the 47-year-old grandson of another of the Málaga victims, took part in a Monday Sept. 23 meeting in Madrid with two experts from the United Nations Working Group on Enforced and Involuntary Disappearances visiting Spain Sept. 23-30 to examine the measures taken by the government on the prevention and eradication of forced disappearance, and the response given to the victims’ families.

In the meeting, the victims’ relatives asked the Working Group to review its decision not to address forced disappearances committed before 1945, when the United Nations was founded.

“We have hundreds of well-documented cases from prior to that date, and forced disappearance is an ongoing crime [not subject to any statute of limitations],” Silva told IPS.

His grandfather, Emilio Silva, was executed in October 1936 in Priaranza del Bierzo, in the northern Spanish province of León.

“He was the first victim of Franquista repression in Spain to be identified through a DNA test,” said Silva, a member of the Association for the Recovery of the Historical Memory. “Now he is buried next to my grandmother.”

The U.N. experts “should be flexible and should accept the cases of forced disappearance dating before 1945. If they don’t, the majority of the cases of the victims of reprisals will be left out,” said trade unionist Cecilio Gordillo, who coordinates the Todos los Nombres (All the Names) web site, which has a list of the names of nearly 78,000 victims.

There is a possibility that the Working Group will reconsider its decision when it presents its final report to the U.N. Human Rights Council in 2014.

The Working Group urged the government to repeal the 1977 amnesty law.

The Truth Commission Platform launched the campaign #DiseloalaONU (Tell the U.N.) this week, to denounce that “there are more than 2,500 common graves that have not been exhumed.”

Dorado hopes to bury his father’s remains in Bobadilla, where the body of his mother Pilar Cubero, who was 29 years old when her husband was killed, rests. “If I’m alive then [when the bodies are identified through DNA tests], I’ll take him there. I’ve already bought a niche,” he said.

Investigating in Argentina

On Tuesday Sept. 24, a Spanish prosecutor challenged the arrest of four former agents of the dictatorship requested by Argentine Judge María Servini.

Servini is investigating human rights crimes committed in Spain, based on the principle of universal jurisdiction. Hers is the only investigation of Franco-era crimes.

Under the principle of universal jurisdiction, crimes against humanity, genocide and terrorism, which are not subject to statutes of limitation or amnesties, can be tried at any time in any place.

The trade unionist Gordillo, who met Friday Sept. 27 with the U.N. Working Group experts in the southern city of Seville, said one aspect of Judge Servini’s investigation involves forced labour to which political prisoners were subjected in Spain.

“The state ‘rented out’ prisoners to private companies, which used them as slave labour to build roads, airports and canals. There were around 250,000 victims of forced labour,” said Gordillo, whose great-uncle was killed by the firing squads.

Emilio Silva said most of the exhumations around the country have been carried out thanks to the work of the victims’ families and volunteers.

Miguel Alba, another founding member of the Málaga association of families, is the grandson and great-grandson of a mayor and justice of the peace who were killed by the firing squads.

For eight years, he has investigated forced disappearances in 31 villages and towns in Axarquía, a comarca or region east of Málaga.

“It’s not about opening old wounds,” Alba told IPS. “It’s about closing them in good conditions, and without political bias.”

Saturday 28 September 2013

continue reading

Another quake jolts shattered Balochistan district, kills 15

At least 15 people were killed Saturday when a powerful 6.8-magnitude earthquake struck Balochistan in a region already devastated by a massive quake earlier this week, officials said.

The most recent deaths bring the total toll from the two quakes to 374. Spokesman for the Balochistan government Jan Mohammad Buledi said several people were also injured in the powerful quake.

According to the US Geological Survery, the epicentre of the quake was recorded at 96 kilometres northeast of Balochistan's Awaran district and 14 kilometres deep.

The local meteorological office recorded the intensity of the earthquake at 7.2 on the Richter scale and said the epicentre of the quake was 150 kilometres southwest of Khuzdar.

Eight people were killed Saturday in Nok Jo, a small village in Awaran with a population of around 15,000. Four deaths were reported from Mashkay area, said Rasheed Baloch, deputy commissioner in Awaran district.

He said more than sixty mud-walled houses collapsed when the earthquake struck the village. He said said four bodies from the quake earlier in the week were also retrieved from the rubble.

Baloch said a rescue operation was underway in the district and its surrounding areas to retrieve the bodies and shift the injured to hospitals. “Poor communication system is a major hindrance in the way of relief operation,” he said.

Strong tremors were felt in different parts of the province.

People panicked and came out of their homes in Quetta, the provincial capital. “I was sitting in my office when the earthquake struck,” said Nazeer Ahmed, a provincial government official in Quetta.

The Balochistan Assembly session was underway when the earthquake struck. Television footage showed ministers and members of the assembly walking out of the session due to the tremors as the session was temporarily suspended.

Aftershocks were felt in Kech, Khuzdar, Kalat and other towns of the province. The tremors were also felt as far away as Naushero Feroz, Shikarpur, Karachi and Hyderabad in Sindh province.

Meanwhile, the death toll from a 7.7-magnitude earthquake which jolted the same area earlier on Tuesday rose to 359 on Friday with over 600 people injured. The September 24 quake had struck Balochistan’s Awaran and Kech districts and relief work was continuing in the area.

Patients undergoing treatment at the Awaran district hospital also came out of hospital wards after the tremors. “More than one hundred injured are now outside Awaran hospital,” Muhammad Tariq, a local journalist said.

Saturday 28 September 2013

continue reading

Indonesia rescuers search for dozens missing after asylum seeker boat sinks

Rescuers battled strong currents and high waves Saturday while searching for dozens of people missing and feared dead one day after a boat carrying asylum seekers sank off the coast of Indonesia's main island of Java, killing at least 21 people.

The boat capsized and sank in waters off West Java's Sukabumi district after being hit by high waves Friday. Survivors said about 100 people were aboard the vessel.

Twenty-eight people were rescued and taken to the Sukabumi immigration office for identification, Brig. Gen. Tatang Zainudin, the National Search and Rescue Agency's operation chief, said by phone from the scene. Among those rescued were three Lebanese nationals who were found early Saturday after being stranded on an island about 20 kilometers (12 miles) from where the boat sank, Zainudin said.

He said 21 bodies were pulled from the water Friday afternoon, including seven children.

A helicopter and more than a dozen boats were being used Saturday to search for about 35 people believed to be missing, but strong currents and high waves were hampering the operation, Zainudin said. PHOTO: In this photo taken with a mobile phone, villagers stand around the bodies of the victims of a boat that sank off Java island, on Sinarlaut beach in Agrabinta, West Java, Indonesia, Friday, Sept. 27, 2013.The boat carrying dozens of asylum seekers sank en route to Australia off the coast of Indonesia's main island of Java on Friday, an official said. (AP Photo) In this photo taken with a mobile phone, villagers stand around the bodies of the victims of a boat that sank off Java island, on Sinarlaut beach in Agrabinta, West Java, Indonesia, Friday, Sept. 27, 2013.The boat carrying dozens of asylum seekers sank en route to Australia off the coast of Indonesia's main island of Java on Friday, an official said. (AP Photo)

"We fear those who are still missing were unable to survive," he said.

There were conflicting reports about the exact number of people on the boat due to the lack of a manifest, but some survivors told officials that about 100 asylum seekers from Lebanon, Pakistan and Iraq were believed to be aboard, said a local police chief, Lt. Col. Deddy Kusuma Bakti.

Survivors said the boat was headed for Australia's Christmas Island.

Lebanon's official National News Agency said 17 Lebanese drowned in the incident. Nine members of a single family were among the Lebanese victims, with a woman and her eight children dying and her husband surviving, the agency reported.

The boat capsized and sank after being hit by up to 6-meter (19-foot) waves hours after leaving Sukabumi early Friday, Zainudin said.

Saturday 28 September 2013

continue reading

Georgia: Two decades later, still searching for the missing

The last time 76-year-old Venera Oshoridze saw her son, Kakha, was September 15, 1993.

A pensive 20-year-old who loved his friends, his mother’s fried potatoes, and dreamed of going to college, Kakha volunteered to fight in the Abkhaz war just days before Tbilisi lost the battle for Sokhumi on September 27, 1993.

“He wasn’t like the others. He was a quiet boy, always thinking about something,” Oshoridze said, pointing to photo of a serious young man with solemn brown eyes.

Both of Oshoridze’s sons went to war, but while her elder son returned, Kakha vanished without a trace. Like nearly 2,000 other men and women (most of them Georgian) from the 1992-1993 war between Tbilisi and separatist forces in Abkhazia, he has been missing for the past two decades.

Immediately after the conflict, Oshoridze started looking for her son, as scores of Abkhaz and Georgian parents joined forces to locate, identify and, when possible, rebury their children.

The grassroots effort, eventually led by the Georgian non-governmental organization Molodini (Expectations) and the Abkhaz NGO Mothers of Abkhazia for Peace & Social Justice, used personal connections and references from government officials to find answers.

Georgian parents like Oshoridze traveled to Abkhazia to search, learning firsthand of their children’s deaths through scraps of clothing and body remains. Working together with the Abkhaz, they unearthed and identified bodies based on fragments -- a bandaged arm, dollars folded in a pocket, the remains of a synthetic jacket.

Eventually, the bilateral search helped return 314 bodies to Abkhaz and Georgian families, according to historian Vladimir Dobordjginidze, who, together with the current Georgian state minister for reintegration, Paata Zakareishvili, was involved in the initial project.

Finding the missing and returning the dead, noted Dobordjginidze, whose son, Zura, disappeared during the fight for Sokhumi, is a non-political issue that provided a connection between Abkhaz and Georgians. “We had great contacts [with the Abkhaz],” he said. “My son died, but that does not mean I am mad at them. We met as ordinary people.”

The Abkhaz also emphasize the “humanitarian” nature of the initiative. “In the Caucasus, it’s important to go to your loved one’s grave. [It’s] like a birthday,” said Asida Lomaia, a project associate for the Mothers of Abkhazia for Peace & Social Justice. Her cousin, Arzamet Tarba, is among those missing.

“It doesn't matter what nationality -- you keep hope that they may be alive.”

The 2008 war between Russia and Georgia, which resulted in Moscow formally acknowledging breakaway Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent states, has complicated the search for the missing.

The last exchange, in 2006, involved the return of 62 bodies from a mass grave of 95 Georgians at Sokhumi’s Babushera Airport. (And the return of the living as well -- two young women, said Dobordjginidze).

Another two bodies from Sokhumi were sent to Georgian families “via independent channels” this spring, according to Leonid Lakerbaia, Abkhazia’s de-facto prime minister.

The 2008 war heightened the sensitivity of these joint searches for both sides, but also provided a new urgency for finding the missing. Inspired by the success of an ICRC-organized mission in breakaway South Ossetia, the Abkhaz and Georgians agreed to a Red-Cross proposal for a similar format for identifying the missing from the 1992-1993 war.

Kakhaber Kemoklidze, head of the analytical department at the Ministry of Interior Affairs in Tbilisi, said the ministry, which keeps records on missing individuals from the Abkhaz war, is willing to help efforts to locate and identify the missing. But, Kemoklidze added, it is as much an issue of trust as it is of political will.

Cooperation with de-facto Abkhaz authorities has not always been easy, Kemoklidze noted, adding that the ICRC’s role as mediators is “really important and invaluable.”

Lakerbaia agreed that the present operation would not be possible without the Red Cross’ help. “I don’t see any straight cooperation with Georgia possible,” he said, “but we have a common goal -- to find unknown remains, identify them and return them to their relatives. That’s the main task for all of us.”

Under the ICRC’s oversight, two official representatives from each side meet once a year in neutral locations, such as Istanbul, Kyiv and Yerevan, to compare and exchange lists of names and information on gravesites. The information includes how bodies were buried, their condition, and the names of any witnesses of the death or burial.

Agreement now has been reached to continue the search at Sokhumi’s Glory Park, where the bodies and remains of 63 unknown individuals are buried. The ICRC recently sent DNA samples from this first batch of remains, exhumed by Argentine forensic scientists, to Zagreb, Croatia for comparison with DNA from families of the missing. Russia, which has troops stationed in Abkhazia, is not involved in the process.

Meanwhile, the families wait. “The exhumation process for many mothers is a starting process of non-acceptance to acceptance. The families need some sense of closure,” said Khatuna Logua, a psychologist at the ICRC office in Sokhumi.

Psychological counselling for these families, whether in Sokhumi or Georgian-controlled territory, has not been an official priority. “Some people don’t want to believe their relatives are dead,” said Logua. “You hear people talk of fantasies of secret prisons [containing the missing] on both sides.”

So far, noted Oshonidze and other Georgian parents, time has worked against identification efforts. Surviving family members of the missing have died or moved, taking with them vital information that could help identify bodies.

For Georgian pensioner Tristin Andriadze, whose son, Konstantin, went missing in October 1993, the only hope is that families on both sides will be given another chance to find their loved ones. “After so many years, it is likely they are dead, but, in my heart, I still have hope that something will be found; at least, where they were buried,” he said.

Saturday 28 September 2013

continue reading