Saturday 31 March 2018

Japan’s geisha battle to protect their future

Masamito from the Japan Times gives  a rare look into the world of geisha and how they are sustaining their ancient traditions in modern times. Read on: 

On a chilly evening earlier in November, geisha Kikuno and her two apprentice maiko host an event that gives guests an opportunity to experience a dinner party with traditional female entertainers.

The atmosphere at Sushi Isshin, a restaurant in Tokyo’s Yushima district, is boisterous as the guests chat among themselves or with their neighbors. The entertainers, who are visiting from Nara, invite the guests to sip on sake and enjoy a full-course sushi dinner served by second-generation owner Hirosada Okamoto.

However, a hush descends on the crowd when the three hostesses begin their performance, with Kikuno dancing gracefully to the soft plucking sound of the shamisen.

Home and away: Kikuno (center), her maiko apprentice and three other geisha from Kochi and Ehime prefectures traveled to New York to promote geisha culture. | KOTARO OHASHI
The guests applaud enthusiastically once the performance comes to an end, and the hostesses turn their attention to games. The games aren’t particularly difficult, but they’re often accompanied by a song and the loser is required to down a cup of sake. With Kikuno leading proceedings, the guests laugh loudly as each loser throws back their drink. It’s a scene reminiscent of a college party, albeit with wildly different participants.

At the conclusion of the evening, the guests shuffle out onto the street contented. Kikuno also looks satisfied, having proven to be a charming host with a dry sense of humor.

The evening is part of her Kagai Restoration Project in Ganrinin, which she launched in 2012 to revitalize geisha culture in Nara’s Ganrinin district, where she has been the only active traditional female entertainer for the past 15 years.

“It’s not enough just to continue doing what we have done in the past. I have a responsibility toward the younger girls,” Kikuno says. “Speaking as someone who has been part of this world for a long time, I want to give something in back.”

Kikuno has been involved in geisha culture for about 30 years. She describes herself as being a bit of a tomboy with short hair at school, and she initially had little interest in becoming an entertainer. Kikuno had just completed junior high school when she was scouted to become an apprentice through her aunt, who was running a teahouse for geisha at the time.

Kikuno’s training began at the age of 15, when she learned such things as how to fold and put on a kimono and how to sit with her legs folded beneath her. She was instructed to avoid spending time with her family and friends as well as shun pop music, because it would affect the way she could hear notes on a shamisen.

Dressed to the nines: Geisha Kikuno launched Kagai Restoration Project in
Ganrinin in 2012 to revitalize geisha culture in Nara. | KAZUHIRO TAKAHASHI
“I was completely isolated from the world,” Kikuno says, “but I was only 15 at the time and accepted it for what it was.”

Her days were filled with nagauta and kouta music lessons as well as classes on tea ceremony, flower arrangement, calligraphy and Japanese dance.

In the evenings, she was instructed to sit in the corner of a tatami room in a kimono and watch the geisha in the teahouse entertain. She learned when to change ashtrays, pour sake and how to converse with guests.

“At first, I just sat and watched, but it was interesting,” Kikuno says. “Men who had arrived with stern looks on their faces soon began loosening up after drinking and talking to the geisha.”

Kikuno made her debut as a maiko at the age of 18 and her life instantly became more hectic. She would put on her makeup and kimono and attend dance lessons in the morning. This was typically followed by a lunch party, after which she would go to a nagauta lesson and then attend an evening party, finding time to eat light meals in between. After 8 p.m., Kikuno would return to her teahouse and attend to guests until about midnight.

Kikuno recalls being so physically exhausted that she would collapse once every six months or so after suffering from such ailments as a hernia and liver damage.

She became a geisha at the age of 23. As the years passed, the other geisha in her circle retired or quit and, before she knew it, she was the sole geisha in Nara.

“I noticed a drastic drop in dinner parties about 17 years ago but no one did anything about it,” Kikuno says. “Some say it’s possible to be a geisha forever, but people grow old and their looks deteriorate. A geisha’s customers will eventually stop coming if they don’t offer something else, like being an excellent dancer or a great conversationalist.”

Kikuno (center), her maiko apprentice and three other geisha pose for a photo alongside members of the Hanaakari orchestra in New York. | KOTARO OHASHI

Experienced entertainers
Geisha culture dates back to the Edo Period (1603-1868). Some of the oldest and most prestigious karyūkai geisha districts in the country are Kyoto’s Gion Kobu and Kamishichiken, and Tokyo’s Asakusa, Kagurazaka and Shinbashi.

Sumi Asahara, a journalist who has been covering geisha for the past 20 years, finds the culture fascinating.

“These women are unique in the sense that they’re true masters of hospitality,” Asahara says. “They’re skilled in various traditional performance arts and they know how to entertain a guest.”

It is estimated that between 40,000 and 80,000 geisha operated nationwide in the early Showa Era (1926-89). Through her research, Asahara estimates that about 600 geisha are currently active in some 40 districts nationwide.

“Places that existed 20 years ago have since disappeared and the remaining geisha areas have lost their vitality,” Asahara says. “It is natural as more and more traditional restaurants close due to fewer customers and the entertainers’ age. Everyone is struggling to preserve this culture.”

Thirty years ago, geisha numbers in Niigata Prefecture were dwindling.

Renowned for its abundant rice paddies and thriving trade, Niigata served as a distribution hub on the coast of the Sea of Japan. With so many merchants coming to Niigata, traditional Japanese restaurants and their geisha flourished from the Meiji Era (1868-1912) to the early Showa Era. At its peak, researchers believe there were about 400 geisha in the Furumachi district of Niigata, but that number had dropped to about 40 by the mid-1980s.

But according to Susumu Nakano, a Niigata native and director and executive adviser of Bandai Silver Hotel, no apprentices in Niigata had started training for about 20 years, putting the youngest geisha in their late 30s. Like many other geisha districts, traditional Japanese restaurants had begun to close and fewer patrons supported the women.

In a bid to halt the slide, Nakano founded Ryuto Shinko, a groundbreaking corporation that hires women and trains them to become furisode and tomesode, terms unique to the company that mean “apprentice” and “geisha,” respectively.

“Businesses that lack successors will disappear … and we wanted to do something to preserve a culture that is valuable to us,” Nakano says. “Traditional arts and culture cost a lot of money to maintain … and that was when I came up with an idea to use the Takarazuka business model (as an example).”

The all-female musical theater group Takarazuka Revue was established in 1913 in Hyogo Prefecture by Hankyu Railway Co. founder Ichizo Kobayashi. The group is actually part of the rail company and, as a result, each member of the troupe is also an employee.

A former tomesode of Ryuto Shinko (center) and two furisode make waves with towels in Niigata Prefecture. | COURTESY OF DAIICHI PRINTING CO.
“The answer was to create a production company like Takarazuka to hire young women as “talents” and train them (to become furisode and tomesode),” Nakano says. “Without patrons to support (geisha culture), I proposed that we unite as one and become one huge supporter.”

Ryuto Shinko was established in 1987 with the financial backing of about 80 local companies. The company offers social security benefits, provides allowances for dancing and music lessons, and covers the cost of the entertainers’ kimono and wigs. The company also dispatches the women to events.

Nakano says that it was hard to attract women at first because the job wasn’t something that was on the radar of many high school graduates.

Ryuto Shinko was forced to offer a salary that was nearly twice that of regular first-year company employees, as well as provide accommodation.

“Those formative years were difficult,” Nakano recalls. “We talked to various young women and tried to persuade them to try it out for a year. We told the women … that everything would be provided for them.”

Thirty years on, Ryuto Shinko typically attracts between one and three new recruits each year, Nakano says. More recently, college graduates have joined the company and some continue to work after marriage and having children.

“Founding a company was the only way for this culture to survive,” Nakano says. “And if we hadn’t done so, the Furumachi geigi (geisha) and its rich history would no longer exist.”

Geisha Megumi (center, back) poses with other geisha in Hachioji. | COURTESY OF GEISHA MEGUMI

‘Seeking someone cheerful’
In the west Tokyo city of Hachioji, meanwhile, another group of businesses came together to support the local geisha community — in particular, an entertainer named Megumi.

Megumi was born into a family that had no ties to geisha culture. However, she was asked if she was interested in becoming a geisha after meeting her future mentor at a Japanese restaurant where Megumi worked as a waitress. She was 22 years old.

“Everything was new to me, so everything was wonderful,” Megumi says. “I didn’t even know that such a world existed. Everyone took care of me and welcomed me into this world … and I felt that I had finally found a place where I belonged.”

In the years between the Meiji and early Showa eras, Hachioji thrived on its textile industry. And as the city flourished, so too did its Nakacho geisha district, with more than 200 female entertainers operating in the neighborhood at its peak.

After World War II, however, women increasingly stopped wearing kimono and began dressing in Western-style clothing.

Hachioji’s geisha population faced certain extinction, with only 10 entertainers working in the industry in 1999, writes Asahara in “Geishashu ni Hanataba O: Hachioji Karyukai, Fukkatsu” (“Flowers for Geisha: The Revitalization of Hachioji’s Geisha District”), which was published by Fuuseisha Corp. in June this year.

“The relationship between garment shops and geisha was so intimate that the district’s prosperity was directly affected,” Asahara writes in her book, which details the manner in which Hachioji’s geisha district has made a comeback. The book documents Asahara’s decade-long reporting in the district.

Megumi continued to be the youngest geisha in Hachioji’s Nakacho district despite being well into her 30s at the time.

In 1999, she decided that she needed to find some new recruits and created an advertisement seeking candidates.

“Seeking someone cheerful who likes kimono,” the poster said. “Age up to around 30 years old; no experience necessary; an hourly wage of ¥3,000 or more; and free kimono rental. Part time OK.”

“I felt that many girls out there, like me, didn’t know about this world,” Megumi says. “To be honest, I didn’t start out on a mission to revitalize the geisha community or anything like that. Rather, I just wanted other women of my generation to know about geisha … and to attract a colleague, because everyone else around me was my mentor’s age.”

By coincidence, Hachioji Kurobei ni Shitashimu Kai, which was named after the Kurobei (Black Wall) street district where geisha once flourished, was also founded by local businesses in 1999 for the purpose of preserving geisha culture, says Shingo Fukuyama, current chairman of the group. Like the corporation in Niigata, businesses in Hachioji were also concerned with the decline of geisha culture in the city and decided to do something about it.

Fukuyama, owner of local liquor shop Tsuruya, says there are currently about 150 active members of the supporters’ group, including some women.

“To be honest, there’s nothing in it for us,” Fukuyama says. “We are not doing this to get something in return. We just want to support traditional Japanese culture and the geisha who have devoted themselves to doing something unique in this area.”

Megumi opened her own okiya boarding house for geisha in 2001, the first such establishment to open in Hachioji in 20 years. Three geisha at the lodging have since gone on to open their own boarding houses and in the 18 years since Megumi first put up the advertisement, Hachioji has seen its geisha population almost double. And last year, for the first time in more than half a century, a hangyoku apprentice called Kurumi made her debut.

In 2014, Megumi started Hachioji Odori, a dance performance featuring geisha, which played on stage to a full house at Hachioji Icho Hall. The second performance was held in May this year.

Her activities have even helped take geisha in Hachioji overseas to such locations as Australia’s Cowra, Hawaii and Shanghai. They’ve also performed in the lobby of a hospital, as well as at elementary schools.
Geisha Megumi 
Megumi even appeared in the German film “Fukushima, Mon Amour,” a fictional story inspired by her actions following the 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Tohoku. After the disaster, Megumi had taken a shamisen to a geisha in northeastern Japan who had lost everything.

“It is important to learn the traditions of a culture, but it is also important to continue evolving with the times,” Megumi says. “Through change, I think we are able to continue this culture.”

Asahara says the geisha district in Hachioji has recovered to some extent but the things that have worked there won’t help everyone, adding that change is also difficult to bring about if many active older geisha prefer to do things in a traditional manner. “Each geisha district needs to come up with its own way to revitalize the culture,” Asahara says. “It is very difficult to re-create a culture once it is gone, so it is important to do something about it while it still exists in order to hand it down to the next generation.”

Passing the baton
Back in Nara, Kikuno is also trying new strategies. Using the internet, Kikuno has begun to reach out to geisha from other parts of Japan that are also struggling to attract a new generation. Traditionally, geisha don’t collaborate with groups outside their geographical areas, but Kikuno understands that it’s time for her to take a different approach.

Kikuno also has a more personal reason for launching the Ganrinin project: She wishes to avoid dying alone. She has watched several geisha who don’t have an apprentice grow old without anyone to look after them.

She pauses at length, eyes welling with tears, when recalling the plight of her shamisen teacher of 15 years, who passed away surrounded by just a few of her students.

“Luckily, we were able to hold a funeral for my teacher, but there are geisha out there who can’t organize this on their own,” Kikuno says. “Elderly geisha end up dying in solitude, and I do think that could happen to me someday. That’s why I want to connect with other geisha.”

In February 2016, she hosted the inaugural Naramachi Hanaakari event and invited geisha from eight districts to perform their local dances. The event also included a symposium that featured experts discussing the rich history of geisha culture.

Just last month in October, she was joined by one of her maiko and three other geisha from Kochi and Ehime prefectures on a trip to New York to perform at the first Hanaakari project abroad.

Kikuno stresses the importance of preserving the good parts of the geisha culture but also the need to evolve, enter new territory and try various things.

Because of her determination and creativity, three maiko and one trainee are now working in Nara. What’s more, one of her maiko, an apprentice named Kikukame, is set to become a geisha in January. Kikuno will finally have another geisha with whom she can work together side by side.

“Like many other traditional arts and occupations, the world of geisha needs someone to pass the baton to the next generation,” Kikuno says. “As someone who has chosen to be a part of this world, I believe it is my fate as well as my duty to do so.”

Sumi Asahara’s tips on geisha terminology and manners

  • Geisha are female entertainers trained in traditional Japanese performance arts, including dance and shamisen. They are sometimes also called geigi or geiko.
  • Maiko are geisha apprentices, although the term is mainly used in Kyoto and surrounding areas. In Tokyo, they are called hangyoku.
  • Karyūkai and kagai are both words used to describe geisha districts nationwide. They both begin with the kanji for “flower.”
  • Call them by their stage names such as “Megumi-san” or “onee-san” (“older ma’am”). Even if the geisha is 100 years old, never refer to her as “obasan” (“middle-aged lady” or “obāsan” (“old lady”).
  • Always wear socks or stockings. Never stand on a tatami mat with bare feet.
  • Dress code should be business casual or more formal.
  • Don’t forget to offer some sake to the geisha.

Why the French love horses

In France, riding is the top outdoor sport, one enjoyed, according to the French Equestrian Federation, by two million men, women, and children, writes Chantel Tattoli  in the Paris Review. Read on: 

Years ago, the German photographer Jaroslav Poncar told me about running into the legendary French anthropologist Dr. Michel Peissel in Himalaya in the seventies. “People were saying, ‘Peissel is coming! It’s Peissel.’ So I went out to meet them—Peissel and his nice blonde companion,” Poncar added with a grin. Later, in Paris, Peissel and Poncar ended up living on the same street, and Peissel would hang around Poncar’s studio. He was, Poncar said, “a braggart.”

Peissel would do things like forget to mention the two mathematicians he met during his seminal travels on the steppes—as if he were the only European to venture so far afield. “And! Michel did not discover that horse,” Poncar had sniffed, referring to an archaic Tibetan breed called the Nangchen, which Peissel is credited with bringing to light.

“But the French love horses,” Poncar offered by way of explanation. I didn’t quite absorb his meaning. What he seemed to suggest was that Peissel could be forgiven because the French simply love horses so much. Recently, I attended the ninth edition of the equestrian competition Saut Hermès in Paris. There, people again and again recounted this fact: “The French love horses.”

In France, riding is the top outdoor sport, one enjoyed, according to the French Equestrian Federation, by two million men, women, and children. I had heard there are some five thousand equestrian centers here, a remarkable figure, but when I reached the federation to confirm, I was told, “In fact, we have 9,351.” A preponderance of France’s competitive horsemen and horsewomen came out of the pony clubs—France hosts more international equestrian competitions than any other nation and is home to Equidia, Europe’s only television channel dedicated to horse sports. (Not to mention, here in the capital, beyond carousels, all the major parks from the Luxembourg Gardens to Buttes-Chaumont tender pony rides.)

Horse country is up in Normandy. It is where, for example, most of France’s national stud farms, created in 1665 for the benefit of the nation’s cavalry, are located, including le Pin, the very best one, and where Thierry Hermès, a half-French, half-German orphan, went to learn the harness-making trade before founding a workshop in 1837 in the Grands Boulevards quarter of Paris.

In its earliest days, the Hermès brand was well known for its saddlery. The luxury leather-goods house, heralded by its orange Pantone, is now popular for the Birkin bag, but Hermès still makes saddles, starting at six grand—for puissance, polo, dressage, or all-purpose—as well as other accoutrements for your horse, including stirrups, ear nets, bits, and brushes. These products are advertised as “doubly bespoke,” crafted for the rider as well as for the ride. Hermès’s partner riders (whom you could—but shouldn’t—call sponsored athletes) consult with a staff veterinary surgeon to develop products that keep all parties happy in the saddle.

Saddles are the only thing still manufactured on-site at the Hermès HQ, on rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré, in a small atelier of twenty artisans. On-site, too, is a museum, closed to the public, of horse-related artifacts. Often, these items inspire the designers. There’s a leather-bound volume dating to the early seventeenth century,—which includes life-size illustrations of bridles and horses pulling ornate sleds with bears, ostriches, or mermen for coachmen—that’s influenced more than one scarf print.

The brand DNA is basically equine. Because of this, where the Louis Vuitton Cup and Rolex 24 at Daytona play as naked advertising opportunities, the puissance competition mounted annually by Hermès feels realer.

On the morning of the first day, we took seats in one of the two stadiums that flanked the main arena. It was bedded with damp sand and laid with jumps modeled on the facade of Hermès HQ, a rocking horse, chess knights, horseshoes, orange h’s, Gothic church windows, and flower trellises.

Edwina Tops-Alexander, an athletic blonde from Australia and last year’s titleholder, rode in on a reddish-brown mare with a scarlet ribbon tied in her tail named Lintea Tequila. They placed eleventh, for reasons beyond me. Like watching Olympic ice skating with nil knowledge of the sport, watching showjumping as a novice means you default to the obvious issue of grace. Not all horses who clear jumps are equal—that I could tell. Sometimes their legs looked rickety. Sometimes, in puissance speak, they “jumped clear”: charging and tucking, soaring something fierce through the course, and an announcer would declare, “Oh, parfait! C’est magnifique!” as speakers bleated a James Brown lyric (“So good / so good”).

Around the arena, the Grand Palais was set with an Hermès boutique, a library dedicated to books about horses, a club for the riders, a photo studio, an interactive station where you could mount and learn about the models of saddles, and an outpost of the saddle workshop itself. Marco, one of the artisans, showed off the stencils he uses to pattern the saddles from three types of exquisitely graded French leather. Each saddle takes him four hours to cut out—and another thirty hours of work for the rest of the atelier team to finish. An expert named Juliette demonstrated the EQUIscan, a spidery blue device that measures ninety-eight different points on the horse’s back, and with which she and colleagues travel across Europe, the U.S., Japan, and Australia, fitting the animals for saddles. “We watch them moving too,” she explained. “That’s very important.”

During the halftime for the show, the French horse trainer Bartabas, who is behind the popular Théâtre Équestre Zingaro, released some seventy Welsh ponies and one kicking donkey into the arena. They were unsaddled and unbridled. Their handlers kept to the sidelines, communicating only with rattles and whistles while the glass-domed exhibition hall swelled under the effect of classical music. It is hard not to like the sight of a horse herd.

Semiloose, swirling sheens of muscle under coats the colors of nuts and river stones: the horses recalled the walls of Chauvet and Lascaux Caves, upon which ancients sketched and painted their portraits. (Yesterday, in Paris, I trotted by an entire window display of books about these horse-art grottos.) As John Jeremiah Sullivan notes in Blood Horses, historic zoologists who catalogued the artwork in prehistoric caves found that “horses outnumbered every other group of animals.” Sullivan adds, “Our awe in their presence—who has not felt it, just standing across the fence from one?—is as old as anything we can call ours.”

Afterward, I went to browse the pop-up library. Among the titles were Le carrousel du roi-soleil, about the two days of horseplay that Louis XIV organized at Tuileries Palace to celebrate the birth of his first son, and Western Camarguais, on the very first Westerns, filmed in France’s rugged marshlands south of Arles. (“Bouillabaisse Westerns,” those silent movies were dubbed.)

The Rhône delta there is inhabited by the Camargues, a wild stock of gray-white horse bred by the Phoenicians and Romans, who brought them over, and recruited by Napoléon Bonaparte, who lived to ride as much as to rule. The emperor restored the national breeders that were shut down after the Revolution and boosted the cavalry into a fantastic force; usually, he is depicted atop a silvery mount called Marengo. (The warhorse was captured at Waterloo and brought to England, where he eventually died of advanced age; last year, his skeleton was put on exhibit at London’s National Army Museum.)

If you ask the French why they so love horses, many respond, “Because of Napoléon.” An architect—who self-identified as “end-of-race aristocracy”—explained how horse culture further embodies apparat: formality, prestige, pomp. A tired colleague answered, only half-joking, “Because we love lasagna!” She was referencing the 2013 scandal when horsemeat was found in ready-made beef lasagna sold in the UK. The revelation dominated headlines in Europe, and in a fun turn of national pride, French consumption of the horse steaks and horse sausages (still sold at boucherie counters) rose by fifteen percent.

I picked a digestion of Albert Lamorisse’s Palme d’Or-winning, Camargue-starring short film Crin Blanc (1953), handed back to me by the clerk in a signature orange shopping bag. If any one cultural product points up the French zoolatry, it’s Crin Blanc. White Mane, as the name translates, is the Gauls’ equivalent of The Black Stallion (1979). In it, a herd leader—a white stallion—is collared by ranchers. White Mane escapes them only to be approached by the young grandson of a fisherman, whom he nearly drowns, then befriends, and ultimately chooses over his herd. A horse and a human are better together.

Cathay Pacific completes two-leg journey, letting women wear trousers

Airline becomes one of few in Asia giving its female flight attendants an alternative to skirts

After more than 70 years of requiring its female flight attendants to wear skirts, one of Asia’s largest airlines has said it will let them don trousers instead.

Cathay Pacific has reached the agreement with flight attendant unions. It also covers other uniformed staff. The Hong Kong-based carrier said: “Choice for our people is as important as for our passengers.

“It is imperative that our customer-facing colleagues not only feel pride in wearing the Cathay Pacific and [regional airline] Cathay Dragon colours but that they also feel comfortable and empowered to carry out their duties to the best of their abilities.”

This month flight attendant unions called on the airline to drop its skirts-only policy. Cathay’s uniform for female flight attendants includes a red skirt with two slits at the back, black stockings and black heels.

Cathay Pacific staff at Hong Kong international airport. Photograph: Philippe Lopez/AFP/Getty Images
“There’s sexual harassment, not only in the workplace but even in public transport, people trying to take pictures under their skirts,” said Pauline Mak, vice-chair of the Hong Kong Dragon Airlines Flight Attendants Association.

“We’ve been encountering a lot of cases by our members … so I think this is one of the reasons why we tried to do something.”

Others wanted the airline to catch up with the times. “The stereotype of the flight attendant is very old-style already: looking pretty, full make-up and wearing a skirt. It is a good time to have a revamp of our image,” Vera Wu Yee-mei, chair of the Cathay Pacific Flight Attendants Union, told Hong Kong media.

The agreement came out of negotiations between union members and the company that concluded on Thursday. Mak said the option of trousers would be introduced at the next uniform refresh, which could take between three and five years.

Cathay Pacific and Cathay Dragon will join the few airlines in Asia offering their female staff such an option. After two years of negotiations with unions, British Airways agreed in 2016 to let all of its crew wear trousers.

(Source: The Guardian)

Brexit: Britain will be strongly in favour of staying in EU by 2021: Academics

Increasing education, greater ethnic diversity and more younger voters are poised to deliver a firm Remain majority in just three years

Britain will be strongly in favour of staying in the EU in just three years as society changes dramatically, academics warn today – as the clock ticks down to one year until Brexit.

Increasing education, greater ethnic diversity and new younger voters are poised to deliver a firm Remain majority as soon as 2021, as Theresa May’s planned transition deal is due to end.

The country is expected to be 52:48 in favour of EU membership by 2021, according to the study by experts at the University of Manchester - and have a majority of 54:46 by 2026.

“The Brexit majority is fragile and on the wrong side of powerful demographic pressures, with Eurosceptic social groups shrinking over time while more Europhile groups expand,” they write.

“All the Leave-leaning groups, such has school-leavers, white and British-born voters, and those who grew up before Britain joined the EU, are shrinking over time.

“Simultaneously, all the Remain-leaning groups – graduates, ethnic minorities and migrants, and the younger cohorts who came of age after the Maastricht agreement – are growing.”

The analysis comes with exactly 12 months to go until Brexit Day, as part of a wider study warning that Ms May has failed on her pledge for the exit process to deliver “as much certainty as possible, as early as possible”.

Instead, the negotiations are dogged by “chronic political and economic uncertainty”, preventing proper planning for the future outside the EU, it warns.

“Uncertainty reigns. This is having negative consequences for business and key sectors including agriculture, fisheries, aviation, the environment, higher education, the health service and financial services,” said Professor Anand Menon, director of The UK in a Changing Europe think-tank.

To mark one year until Brexit, the prime minister will spend the day touring all four UK nations to stress her belief she can “deliver a deal that works for every community”.

Starting in Scotland, she will visit textile workers at a factory in Ayrshire, before meeting a parent and toddler group in Newcastle, lunching with farmers near Belfast and hosting talks with business leaders in South Wales.

“I am determined that our future will be a bright one. It’s a future in which we trade freely with friends and partners across Europe and beyond,” Ms May said, ahead of the trip.

“The UK will thrive as a strong and united country that works for everyone, no matter whether you voted Leave or Remain.”

But The UK in a Changing Europe report highlights that:

* There is “no clear vision of immigration policy after Brexit, let alone any concrete policy decisions”.

* GDP growth in the UK was, on average, 0.6 per cent higher than other major economies before the referendum – but was 0.9 per cent lower last year.

* The Brexit vote increased inflation by 1.7 percentage points in the year following the referendum.

* In Ireland, the UK has failed to “provide the necessary detail to reconcile the need to avoid a hard border and leaving the single market and customs union”.

* Air passengers will be “hit especially hard” by a likely loss of some flights.

Professor Menon said: “When Theresa May triggered Article 50 she said she’d provide citizens and businesses with ‘as much certainty as possible, as early as possible’. One year on, our report shows she has failed to do this.”

(Source: The Independent)

Spy poisoning: Russia expels 60 US diplomats in tit-for-tat measure

Russia has expelled 60 US diplomats and closed the St Petersburg consulate in a tit-for-tat response to US action over a spy poisoning case in the UK.

Russia's foreign minister said other countries that expelled Russians could expect a "symmetrical" response.

On Friday, several ambassadors from Western countries were summoned to the Russian foreign ministry.

The move comes amid a row over the nerve agent attack on a former Russian spy and his daughter in the UK.

Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia were found unconscious on a bench in the city of Salisbury on 4 March, and the UK government has blamed Russia for the attack.

Sergei Skripal, 66, and his daughter Yulia, 33, have been in
hospital since the attack
Russia has vehemently denied any role in the Salisbury attack. Mr Skripal remains in a critical but stable condition. His daughter's condition is said to be improving.

More than 20 countries have expelled Russian envoys in solidarity with the UK. Among them is the US, which earlier this week ordered 60 diplomats to leave and closed the Russian consulate general in Seattle.

Whom is Russia expelling?
Russia declared 58 US diplomats in Moscow and two in the city of Yekaterinburg to be "personae non gratae".

Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said US ambassador Jon Huntsman had been informed of the "retaliatory measures".

"As for the other countries, everything will also be symmetrical in terms of the number of people from their diplomatic missions who will be leaving Russia," he added.

Later, a US state department spokeswoman said America reserved the right to take further action.

Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Russia would respond "in kind"
The Russian foreign minister also accused Britain of "forcing everyone to follow an anti-Russian course".

He said Moscow was responding to "absolutely unacceptable actions that are taken against us under very harsh pressure from the United States and Britain under the pretext of the so-called Skripal case".

He reiterated Russian calls for consular access to Yulia Skripal - a Russian citizen.

Russia, he said, was also seeking a meeting with leaders of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) to "establish the truth".

How did the tit-for-tat expulsions begin?
Following the incident in Salisbury, British Prime Minister Theresa May announced a series of sanctions, including the expulsion of 23 Russian diplomats alleged to be intelligence agents.

The Kremlin responded by expelling an equal number of UK diplomats and closing the country's British Council.

Then - in what has been cited as the largest collective expulsion of Russian intelligence officers in history - more than 20 governments expelled diplomats in their countries.

UK National Security Adviser Mark Sedwill, speaking in Washington on Thursday, said expulsions by Western countries were aimed at rooting out covert Russian intelligence networks.

What do we know about the nerve agent?
Britain says the chemical used in the attack was part of a group of nerve agents developed by the Soviet Union known as Novichok.

Experts from the OPCW arrived in the UK on 19 March to test samples. The results are expected to take a minimum of two weeks, the government says.

Police say the Skripals first came into contact with the nerve agent at Mr Skripal's home in Salisbury, with the highest concentration found on the front door.

(Source: BBC)

Friday 30 March 2018

Papua New Guinea earthquake: Strong tremor off New Britain island

A strong magnitude 6.9 earthquake has struck off the coast of Papua New Guinea's New Britain island, the US Geological Survey (USGS) says.

Hazardous tsunami waves were forecast for some coastlines but there were no immediate reports of damage.

The quake struck some 162km (100 miles) from Rabaul, on New Britain island, at 07:25 on Friday (21:25 GMT Thursday).

The USGS originally estimated a shallow depth of 10km but later revised it to 35km.

Dellie Minding, a receptionist at the Rabaul Hotel in the east of New Britain, told Reuters news agency the earthquake had been felt, with many guests running outside, but there had been no damage.

At the Rapopo Plantation Resort on the coast, receptionist May Dovon said she had not heard of any casualties or damage, the agency adds.

"We felt the earthquake, everything was moving so we went out of the building," the receptionist told Reuters. "Nothing was damaged."

The country is still recovering from a magnitude 7.5 quake on 26 February.

At least 100 people died in Enga province, where massive landslides buried whole villages.

It took weeks to establish the full extent of damage in the remote, worst-affected areas.

(Source: BBC)

Labour is definitely prepared to vote down Theresa May's Brexit deal: Keir Starmer

The shadow Brexit secretary says Labour will not 'step back' from the challenge, despite fellow frontbencher suggesting the party could back the deal even if it lacked detail, writes Joe Watts Political Editor of the Independent in his exclusive story. Read on: 

Labour’s Keir Starmer has said his party is definitely prepared to vote down Theresa May’s Brexit deal, after a fellow frontbencher suggested the party might back it even if it lacks detail.

The shadow Brexit secretary said Labour would not “step back from the challenge” of opposing the agreement, following Emily Thornberry’s comments at a think tank event.

Ex-Prime Minister Tony Blair also said Labour MPs should vote against their party today, if it looks like it is going to back Brexit without knowing exactly what future relations look like.

Writing exclusively for The Independent, Mr Starmer said: “Labour will not support a deal that fails to meet the six tests I set out last year. But, we will also not allow the UK to crash out without a deal.

“The next twelve months will be pivotal for the whole Brexit process. This is not the time to step back from the challenge. It’s the time to stand up and fight for our country’s future.”

Shadow Brexit secretary Keir Starmer said Labour is willing to vote against a Tory Brexit Rex
Shadow foreign secretary Thornberry raised eyebrows on Wednesday when she said the prime minister would return with an undetailed Brexit agreement, but that it would still likely pass Labour’s six tests set out by Mr Starmer last year.

Speaking at the Chatham House foreign policy think-tank, she said the agreement will likely be a “blah, blah, blah, divorce”.

She went on: “It’s not going to make any decisions. It’s going to continue to kick things down the road. We don’t seem to have come to any difficult decisions at the moment.

“The difficultly is going to be with the meaningful vote in October, which we have secured, is that, what is it we are going to be agreeing on?”

Ms Thornberry added: “We have our six tests. If you hold up blah, blah, blah, to six tests, you’ll probably pass it.”

In an interview with The Independent, Mr Blair also raised concerns Labour could back the Government’s Brexit deal, even if it failed to really set out what the UK’s relations with Europe will look like.

Urging Labour MPs to vote against their party whip if Labour backs the Government’s deal, he said: “I think all MPs have got a responsibility to do what they think is right and that’s why what I was urging MPs to do, whether Conservative or Labour, is vote according to what you genuinely believe.

“This is the most important decision since the Second World War and it’s going to decide the destiny of the country for future generations – do what you think is right, this is one moment surely to do that.”

Condoms don’t necessarily help teen girls avoid pregnancy

According to a new study, distribution in schools can actually increase fertility rates. Can alternative policies be more effective?

The logic seems so simple: more condoms, less disease, fewer teen pregnancies. That was the rationale behind a major policy push across the country in the early 1990s: Facing the then-fatal threat of HIV/AIDS, districts from Colorado to California to New York introduced condom-distribution programs in schools. According to a study published this month, over the course of just a few years, 22 districts in 12 states implemented this kind of program, affecting roughly 484 schools. In about two-thirds of the schools, kids had to go through mandatory counseling to get the condoms.

Condom access didn’t decrease the rate of teen births, though. It seems, in fact, to have increased it. The researchers estimate that these programs were responsible for roughly two additional births per 1,000 teens. And this rate was significantly higher when students could get condoms without any counseling. The effects would have been even greater if condoms were freely available to the entire U.S. high-school-age population, the researchers suggest—in that case, they projected, there would have been an additional five births per 1,000 teens.

The findings seem to pose a challenge to groups that advocate these kinds of school-based contraception-distribution programs. But they’re also troublesome for those who oppose sex education in schools. Easy access to condoms created worse outcomes for students, not better. But it seems that lack of access to information may have hurt them even more.

The debate over contraception distribution in schools often focuses on whether districts should only teach abstinence. In the schools included in this study, “counseling often included the message  that abstinence is the safest method of protection against STIs,” wrote the researchers, Kasey Buckles and Daniel Hungerman of Notre Dame, in an email. But the programs weren’t necessarily geared toward abstinence—“in some cases, a counselor might be required to show how a condom is put on, and in other cases a counselor might be forbidden from doing that.” Opponents worry that this kind of show-and-tell, paired with easy access to condoms, encourages kids to have sex or engage in risky sexual behavior. The researchers speculated that the ’90s-era condom programs might have done exactly that.

But a lot has changed over the last couple of decades, suggesting that alternative policies might have different outcomes. Since 1990, teen birth rates have fallen dramatically, declining from roughly 62 births per 1,000 girls aged 15 to 19 to roughly 24 among the same group in 2014. Teen abortions have also decreased significantly: In 2011, roughly 14 out of every 1,000 adolescent girls had an abortion, compared to 44 out of 1,000 in 1988. Teens are also waiting longer to have sex, and when they do, they’re doing it more safely.

The way young women use birth control is also changing. According to the CDC, condom use decreased by about half among women aged 15 to 19 between 1995 and 2010, while reliance on hormonal birth control has gone up, especially among women under 30. While women in their late 20s and 30s are more likely than teens to get IUDs, the greatest decrease in condom use as the only method of birth control was among teens.

These trends have likely been driven by a number of factors, including new public-health policies. Recently, a number of programs have shifted their emphasis away from condoms and toward hormonal birth control. While condoms are still the most common kind of contraception used by teens, they have higher failure rates for preventing pregnancy than hormonal birth control. As the researchers in this study point out, girls also have less control over condom use than they do over something like the pill; they can make a long-term decision to get on birth control, rather than deciding whether or not to use a condom when they’re about to have sex.

That’s why some states and localities are pushing for wider distribution of other kinds of birth control, including long-acting reversible contraceptives, or LARCs. An initial study of one such program—Colorado’s Family Planning Initiative, founded in 2009—suggests it has reduced teen birth rates in the state by about 5 percent.

Then again, as the researchers point out, some public-health organizations, including the American Academy of Pediatrics, have recently advocated condom-distribution programs in schools. Because of this, “many school districts (including Boston and Chicago) have recently considered the role of condoms in schools,” Buckles and Hungerman wrote in an email. In some areas of the country, alternative programs, including those that provide students with free IUDs, have had trouble catching on. This is especially true in conservative states like Texas, as my colleague Olga Khazan reported earlier this month.

For all of the positive trends involving teen sex, pregnancy, and contraception use in the United States, studies suggest that fewer teens are getting formal sex education in school now than in the past. While the Notre Dame study is a reminder that it’s difficult to predict the outcomes of public-health policies, it’s also a warning: lack of education, along with the specifics of how health policies are constructed, can be an important factor in teen birth rates.

“Our work suggests that if you get this type of intervention wrong, there could be unintended consequences,” Buckles and Hungerman wrote in an email. “That is a message that will probably never lose relevance!”

(Source: The Atlantic)

Crocs are cool again

Looking at what is considered fashionable today, it is clear that trends always come back into style.

First it was scrunchies, then Juicy Couture - now Crocs are making a comeback.

Always considered a divisive shoe, Crocs have officially come out on top and proven their place in the world of high-fashion - after Balenciaga’s $850 version of the shoe sold out before they were released.

Originally designed by Demna Gvasalia for Balenciaga, the foam-platform shoes took centre stage when they were introduced on the runway.

And now it appears they will be showing up on feet everywhere this season.

However, apart from a 10cm platform addition, it would be easy to mistake the new outrageously expensive Crocs for the now-retro ones of our childhoods.

Featuring the same pastel colours and buttons that can be attached for added flair, the Balenciaga Platform Crocs look almost identical to the real plastic-y slip-on Crocs you can purchase for a quarter of the price - but that hasn’t stopped people from going crazy over them.

With the Women Spring Summer 18 runway show, Balenciaga launches the “Foam” shoes, a 10 cm platform version of the iconic @Crocs clog.

— Balenciaga (@BALENCIAGA) October 1, 2017
The platform plastic shoes originally went on pre-sale on Barney’s website on February 1 - but within a matter of hours, all of the new and improved Crocs had sold out.

A lot of people are probably understandably confused, considering the comments and reactions from people mocking the shoes on Twitter when they were first introduced.

What a tragic era in fashion and it’s even worst that is from @BALENCIAGA

— • Kylo Blossom • (@KikeSalazar) October 2, 2017
The world is officially ending soon

— Busisiwe (@BusisiweThandoG) October 2, 2017
Burn Them All.
Balenciaga is Cancelled.

— No (@erisonic8) October 1, 2017
Despite the haters, Balenciaga has proved crocs can be cool - and worth $850.

(Source: Independent)

Laser mapping uncovers dozens of ancient Mayan cities

Advanced laser mapping has revealed more than 60,000 ancient Mayan structures beneath the jungles of northern Guatemala.

Set across dozens of hidden cities, the discoveries include houses, palaces and a 90-foot-tall pyramid that was previously thought to be a hill.

Made possible through special laser-equipped airplanes that can "see" through dense jungle, the groundbreaking research suggests that Mayan metropolises were far larger and more complex than previously thought.

Evidence of agriculture, irrigation, quarries and defensive fortifications were widespread, and extensive road networks point to initially unknown levels of interconnectivity between settlements.

Game-changing discoveries
The extent of the findings, first reported by National Geographic, may transform our understanding of how Mesoamerican civilization operated, according to one of the study's co-directors, Marcello Canuto from Tulane University in New Orleans.

"We're discovering that there is more of everything, and the scale is much bigger," he said in a phone interview. "In any given area there were more structures, more buildings, more canals and more terraces (than expected).'"

By extrapolating data from the 2,100-square-kilometer (811-square-mile) site, researchers have also revised their population estimates for the region. They now believe that 10 million people lived in the Maya Lowlands (an area covering parts of present-day Guatetmala and Mexico), a number that is "many times larger" than indicated by previous research.

"The general conceit over the last 100 years has been that the tropics were a bad place to have civilizations and that (the climate) is not conducive to sustaining complex societies," said Canuto, who has worked on Mayan archeology for more than 30 years. "There has always been this assumption that Mayan society was less populated and that there wasn't any infrastructure -- that they were small, independent city-states without much interaction.

"But we're finding that this just isn't true. This research shows that, not only were there lots of people, but also lots of ways that they modified the landscape to render it more productive. The defensive structures that we're finding (also suggest) that there were lots of people and lots of resources, which can create lots of competition."

'Revolutionary' aerial mapping
Central America's thick jungle has often made large-scale surveys of historical sites logistically difficult. But recent developments in a technique known as light detection and ranging (or "lidar") are allowing archeologists to see through even dense forest.

The aerial mapping process is carried out by attaching a lidar sensor to the underside of an airplane.

Using the same technology found in self-driving cars, the instrument maps the landscape by emitting pulses of laser light and the time taken for them to return.

The resulting data can reveal ground-level contours, pointing researchers toward man-made structures beneath the canopy. For archeologists, the method allows surveys of great detail and unprecedented size, Canuto said.

"This initiative is bigger than anything that has ever been done before. But it's not just big, it's also covering a wide swathe of this area, so it's actually a representative sample.

"For (archeologists) who work in the tropics, this is entirely revolutionizing the way we do everything," he added. "It's as if you were observing the sun and the stars with your naked eye and then someone invents the telescope."

Potential for archeology
Lidar sensors have previously been used to study other Mesoamerican settlements in Belize, as well as temple complexes in Cambodia. The technology may have archeological potential in other tropical areas, such as the Amazon and central Africa.

For now, the method's greatest barrier is the cost of chartering aircraft, Canuto said. His project was only made possible through funding from the Maya Cultural and Natural Heritage (PACUNAM), a Guatemalan non-profit organization that brought together a consortium of archeologists with different areas of expertise.

But as well as making research economically viable, this type of collaboration may provide new insight into the large datasets created.

"Now we're not limited to one site -- we can see everyone's data," Canuto said. "So instead of having 10 scholars working on 10 individual sites, we had 10 scholars working on individual questions across all the sites. That gives you a regional perspective that no one else has."

Moreover, if archeologists collaborate with experts in other fields, such as ecology and environmental science, aerial mapping may become more cost-effective and widely used.

"The data we use shows what's on the ground... but the other 95 percent of the data is providing a vertical profile of the canopy," Canuto said. "We, as archaeologists, want to know what's under there when you remove the trees. But ecologists want to see biomass and other things that archeologists don't care about."

The digital maps will later be used to carry out targeted ground research. Over the next three years, Canuto and his team hope to scan the entire Maya Biosphere Reserve, an 8,341-square-mile site in Guatemala's Petén region.

(Source: CNN)

DPD courier who was fined for day off to see doctor dies from diabetes

Don Lane’s widow says he was afraid of getting fined if he did not ensure his round was covered

A courier for the parcel giant DPD who was fined for attending a medical appointment to treat his diabetes collapsed and died of the disease, it has emerged. Don Lane, 53, from Christchurch in Dorset, missed appointments with specialists because he felt under pressure to cover his round and faced DPD’s £150 daily penalties if he did not find cover, his widow has told the Guardian.

DPD delivers parcels for Marks & Spencer, Amazon and John Lewis but only pays couriers per parcel delivered. It treats them as self-employed franchisees and they receive no sick or holiday pay. The company’s system of charging drivers if they cannot cover their round has been described as appalling by the chairman of the House of Commons’ work and pensions committee, Frank Field.

Lane had collapsed twice, including once into a diabetic coma while at the wheel of his DPD van during deliveries, when the company fined him in July after he went to see a specialist about eye damage caused by diabetes. He collapsed again in September and finally in late December having worked through illness during the Christmas rush. He died at the Royal Bournemouth hospital on 4 January, leaving behind a widow, Ruth, and a 22-year-old son. He had worked for DPD for 19 years.

Ruth Lane, the widow of Don Lane, who was a courier with DPD at its Bournemouth depot. Photograph: Richard Crease/BNPS
Ruth Lane told the Guardian: “There was a constant threat of a fine. They had to deliver the parcels to tight slots and the pressure to get them done was huge. He was putting the company before his own health. He wasn’t able to do his parcels first and make the hospital appointments, so he would cancel on the day.

“He collapsed in January 2017 and they knew that because they collected his van. It was after that Don cancelled three appointments. DPD had a duty of care to make sure he got to those appointments, but they failed in it.” She added that in March her husband had told her: “I think I am going to die.”

Lane’s death comes as concern mounts at the human cost of the gig economy, which accounts for 1.1 million people, many working as couriers and minicab drivers. It is likely to increase pressure on the government to make meaningful reforms to employment law in a delayed announcement on modern working practices expected this week.

Trade unions last night said the government must crack down on bogus self-employment. The TUC general secretary, Frances O’Grady, said: “The insecure work free-for-all has to end … this will be a real test of Theresa May’s government. Does she even have a domestic agenda any more?”

DPD, one of the most successful firms operating in the gig economy, made over £100m profit after tax in 2016. Both it and Hermes, another parcel company relying on self-employed couriers, are facing employment tribunal claims from people who believe they should be treated as employed.

Field described Lane’s death as “a new low for the gig economy” and called on Theresa May to urgently introduce new legislation to protect “this small army of workers at the bottom of the pile … who are being badly exploited”.

Lane disputed the £150 charge in July, insisting that he had told his bosses about the appointment months earlier. According to correspondence seen by the Guardian, he told his manager: “I have cancelled so many appointments because I couldn’t make the time to get there that the renal department have stopped treating me. I had to go.”

His DPD area manager replied: “I fail to understand why a full day off was required and as such do not see that the breach [the £150 fine] should be rescinded.”

During the appointment, doctors found Lane’s blood pressure and cholesterol were high, he had anaemia and rising levels of creatine in his kidneys, a warning sign of renal failure. In September 2017 he collapsed into another diabetic coma.

In the days before he died, he was feeling sick and vomiting blood, Ruth said, adding that he told her: “I really don’t want to work, but I have to.”. “They are like employees, not self-employed,” she said.

A colleague, who asked not to be named for fear that DPD would terminate his contract, said: “Don was falling apart, but they wouldn’t take it easy on him. They push drivers till they break. I definitely think they contributed to this. They knew Don was diabetic. They should have looked after him more.”

DPD said in a statement that it was “profoundly sorry” that it had charged Lane, but cited “confusion” at the time. “Don attended his appointment, but it isn’t clear why he was then charged, when the charge hadn’t been been applied at any other time,” it said. “We got it wrong on that occasion.”

Lane first collapsed on 27 December 2016 and Ruth texted his manager to say: “he knows he has to come into work tomorrow as he’ll get charged”. On that occasion, the manager responded that “he has no worries about being charged”.

“In relation to Don’s poor health at the end of December 2016 and into January 2017, we refute the claim that he was under pressure and threatened with a £150 charge,” DPD said. It said that it monitored Lane’s health during 2017 but did not know that he had suffered another diabetic coma in September. It said he had a quiet rural route with a relatively small number of deliveries, which suited him “as it was convenient for his hospital appointments”.

“In the runup to Christmas, it is normal in the industry for drivers to work additional days at the weekend and Don was working his normal route,” DPD said. “We weren’t made aware that Don was feeling sick and vomiting up some blood at this time. We were shocked and hugely saddened by Don’s death and our thoughts go out to his family and friends at this difficult time.”

DPD said its drivers “do not have to provide the service personally, and drivers have the option of providing a substitute driver in the event of sickness. Don was aware of the need to provide a substitute.” It said if a driver cannot find a substitute, it tries to reallocate the route among other drivers.

DPD uses around 5,000 self-employed couriers. They are under pressure to deliver parcels to restricted time slots, must wear a uniform, hire a DPD liveried van and not work for any other courier company. MPs and unions have argued that these strict conditions mean they are bogusly self-employed and should be treated as employed workers. Courier companies using self-employed drivers, including ParcelForce and UK Mail, have also sparked anger by levying fines if rounds are not covered.

DPD said that it charged fines in 4.6% of the cases where couriers did not provide a service, but declined to say how much it raised because this information was “operationally sensitive”.

“How can modern Britain allow workers who are dedicated to their job to be driven to an early grave by such appalling exploitation?” said Field. “DPD have been told time and again that their punitive regime is totally unjust, particularly as their workers are labelled ‘self-employed’. Such mistreatment of workers smacks of sweated labour from the Victorian era.”

(Source: The Guardian)

Thursday 29 March 2018

Back on the tourist trail: The hotel where women were raped and tortured

A Bosnian hotel where terrible crimes were committed by Serb paramilitaries is at the centre of conflict between survivors who want a memorial and those who would rather forget, writes Emma Graham-Harrison in the Guardian. Read on:

The TripAdvisor reviews for Vilina Vlas spa hotel are mixed. Only a couple mention the rape camp it once was – and if you do not speak French or German you would miss them. The rest are a mix of mundane complaints about dirty rooms, and enthusiastic tributes to the forest and its natural hot springs.

The hotel also features on the tourist website for historic Višegrad town, and older editions of the only guidebook to Bosnia-Herzegovina by Bradt. So unsuspecting guests travelling through Višegrad can – and do – book into a building used for murder, rape and torture by a sadistic paramilitary group less than 25 years ago.

And though the mattresses may have been changed, and the walls repainted, the bed frames that tourists sleep on today are the same ones on which dozens of women were attacked. The dated lobby is floored with the same stone that in 1992 had to be hosed clean of blood, and visitors using the swimming pool splash around in what was a killing ground.

“People who go there don’t know they are staying in beds where women were raped, and swimming in a pool in which people were executed,” said Bakira Hasečić, a native of Višegrad who established and now runs the Association of Women Victims of War.

In 1992 Vilina Vlas was commandeered as a headquarters by Milan Lukić, the sadistic leader of the Serb paramilitary group the White Eagles, which in a few months turned Višegrad into a charnel house and virtually emptied it of its Muslim population.

After years on the run, including some in Latin America, Lukić was captured, tried in the international criminal tribunal for the former Yugoslavia at The Hague and sentenced to life imprisonment for war crimes including murder, cruelty, persecution and other crimes against humanity.

A room in Vilina Vlas hotel. The spa resort is little changed since 1992 when dozens of muslim women were imprisoned and raped there. Photograph: David Gill for the Observer
While the war was horrific enough, the peace that followed brought new torment for the victims of Vilina Vlas. Hotel business resumed at the squat, red-roofed building: the rape camp was returned to use for tourists without even a change of furniture – much less a memorial.

Višegrad town is now run by people apparently bent on not only forgetting the campaign of death that transformed their town from one with a Muslim majority to one heavily dominated by ethnic Serbs, but erasing any trace that any of it ever happened.

Despite pages of testimony at the international court in the Hague, and a judgment that confirmed it was used as a rape centre, Višegrad’s mayor, Mladen Djurevic, denies ever having heard of rape, torture, or murder at Vilina Vlas.

“I don’t know what happened there,” he said. “I am not interested in going back to the past. Why would I read about that if I’m not interested in going back to that?”

His offices suggest his disdain for history is selective. They sit at the heart of Andrićgrad, a tourist-trap pastiche of a traditional Serbian town, recently built in tribute to Višegrad’s most famous son, Nobel-prize winning author Ivo Andrić.

 A memorial to the dead with the word ‘genocide’ reinstated by survivors. Photograph: David Gill for the Observer
Previous administrations have poured millions of euros into building this memorial to an imagined past, while doing their best to destroy evidence, in some cases, of painful recent events. For years they have tried to demolish the ruins of a house where 59 Muslim civilians were burned alive, issuing demolition orders to make way for a superfluous drainage pipe and then a road to nowhere.

In the town’s Muslim graveyard, swollen by graves from 1992, authorities ordered the word “genocide” to be chiselled off a memorial to the dead, then sent in a team of workers to get rid of it. Survivors responded by painting it back in blunt, black letters so they stood out more dramatically.

And at Vilina Vlas, after blocking a memorial and ignoring calls for the hotel to be pulled down – or at least remodelled – the local government instead poured money into repaving the road to the hotel and starting work on an expansion to add a “luxury” floor.

“I personally don’t think we should demolish anything. We should refurbish and expand,” said Djurevic when asked about calls by some victims for the hotel to be pulled down. Dwelling on the past stopped a town from moving forward, he added.

One of the strongest voices against this official campaign of forgetting has been Hasečić, a survivor of both sexual violence and the ethnic cleansing campaign partly run from the spa.

In 1992 she lived just a few miles down the road from the hotel and watched as it swallowed friends and neighbours. “No one knows exact numbers – we think around 200 women were taken through, based on testimony from survivors,” she said.

Word of the horrors began seeping out as a few of the men and women taken to Vilina Vlas – usually for murder and rape respectively – escaped or were rescued, often by Serb friends who managed to prise them away from their captors.

At least one girl who Hasečić knew, Jasmina Ahmetspahic, committed suicide by jumping from a balcony. Another was freed after the intervention of a Serbian friend but returned “her lips scratched, with a fever, shaking so much she couldn’t hold a cup of milk”.

Later, when she had escaped to relative safety, Hasečić began collecting more details about what had happened there. Much of it was confirmed as accurate years later in the trial of Lukić and his aides at The Hague, even though he was not charged with sexual violence.

“There was ample evidence about a large number of rapes, murder and other serious crimes being committed at the Vilina Vlas hotel,” said Dermot Groome, who led the prosecution of Lukić at The Hague, and is now a professor at Penn State Dickinson Law University, US.

The Serbian war criminal Milan Lukic in 1992 Photograph: AFP
Groome, a former sex-crime prosecutor in Manhattan, who also led the investigation of Slobodan Milosevic’s crimes in Bosnia, said the women tortured and abused at the hotel were “some of the most traumatised people I had ever encountered in my work as a prosecutor”.

None of them wanted to cooperate in a prosecution for sexual violence when initially contacted, because of their fears about appearing in court. However, the trial ended up hingeing on their testimony, as the rape survivors who had known Lukić in childhood played a critical role in dismantling his claim that he was not in Višegrad at the time of other attacks.

“To rebut his alibi, I needed to introduce a great deal of evidence of his sex crimes – evidence that would be sufficient to prove beyond reasonable doubt that he committed these rapes, and therefore was in Višegrad to commit the charged crimes,” Groome said.

Nerma Jelacic, a deputy director of the Commission for International Justice and Accountability, whose family is from Višegrad, said the aggressive refusal of the authorities in the town, and many of the ordinary Serbs who lived there, to even acknowledge these crimes was a fresh trauma for survivors, but also damaging to any longterm hopes of rebuilding.

Rape survivor Bakira Hasečić, who now campaigns on behalf of other female victims of the war. Photograph: David Gill for the Observer
“You have whole generations who have been raised with this denial – this systematic denial of the undeniable,” she said. “This has become another way of waging a war.”

Tragedy mingles with hope on the streets of nearby Sarajevo, where there are constant reminders of past horrors – from the “Sarajevo roses” etched in the streets by mortar rounds to the museums about the war – but also a sense that people who were victims are rebuilding their lives.

But Višegrad feels much more sinister, a town where streets are still half-empty from the ethnic cleansing of 1992, while Serbs who benefited from it or moved in deny the reality around them. Djurevic was happy to lament Višegrad’s shrinking population, while at the same time ready to attack the campaigns to remember the bloody events that drove most Muslims away. “Until the early 1990s we had around 25,000 citizens, and currently the population is half of that,” he said.

In 1991 there were about 23,000 people living in Višegrad, two-thirds of them Muslim. The most recent 2013 census found the population had fallen to less than half that, and barely 10% of them are Muslims.

Among the few who have come back is Bilal Memišević, who left a well-paid job in Dubai to grapple with the complex politics of Višegrad. He survived because he was studying abroad in 1992, but his parents were killed; he says he came home to honour their memory.

“My parents paid the highest possible price for Višegrad, so I had a moral obligation to go back and continue our family line, on our family land – and I succeeded in that,” he said.

Now he farms and breeds horses and is the only Muslim member of the municipal assembly. But he wishes more Muslim people would join him. “We have a problem that there are very few of us,” he said.

Vilina Vlas on TripAdvisor
He considers Vilina Vlas a “terrible kind of place” and was part of a civil society initiative to have a commemorative plaque put on the building. “You could prevent a future crime by telling about the terrible things that happened,” he says. But he doesn’t want the building torn down.

Historic hammams, or bathhouses, in the hotel grounds dated back to Ottoman times and had never been used for murder, he said. And the hotel was important to the town’s economy, employing about 70 people.

“I deal with the past in a certain way, because I want people who come back to Višegrad to have a future,” he says. “Rationally, you can’t blame buildings. It’s the ideology that needs to be changed. If you say we have to destroy the spa, by that logic you have to destroy half of Bosnia.”

Over 50 scary images depicting filth of Varanasi and River Ganges that went viral in China

In 2008, about 50 images posted with a first-hand account of a visitor who had spent a few months in India, had gone viral in China. Many Chinese forums and columns published them.  The images are disturbing, but not for the government and Indian people except some activists and NGOs.

Surprisingly, the images  depicting ugly side of India did improve sanitation condition in China. China has its own flaws, but it can’t be denied that Indian aren’t treating scared river as it should be. On the other hand, Indians don’t mind such embarrassment or they don’t actually know how India is perceived by rest of the world.

India enjoys an image of ancient civilization with spiritual values. There is no country in the world like India when it comes to cultural and social diversity. Tourist are nuts for places like Varanasi. Every state has something unique to offer to tourists. From Himalayas in the north to the costs in the south, from billion dollar buildings to poverty stricken slums, India makes a perfect destination for those who seek exposure to world’s biggest and successful democracy.

But India and Indians are ridiculed and embarrassed by other nations for its filth and religious hypocrisy. The River Ganges is considered holiest river for Hindus, and also most polluted. Despite being so sacred, there is nothing that is not dumped into the river. Raw sewage, plastic bags and bottles, industrial effluents, human waste, chemical from tanneries, discarded idols, cow dung, partially cremated corpses, flower-garlands, human remains, animal carcasses, butcher’s offal, chemical dyes from sari factories and construction waste, everything ends up in River Ganges. Daily, people defecate on the banks of this sacred river, while many others come long way to take bath in the same water.

The condition hasn’t changed much in 2015. In January 2015, more than 100 corpses, including children, were found washed up in shallow tributary of the River Ganges. The bodies were decaying and dogs and birds could be seen feeding on them. About 102 bodies were spotted near the village Pariyar, in Uttar Pradesh. All credit goes to India’s custom to give water burial. Many people do it because they can’t afford proper cremation.

(Source: Planet Custodian)

Crows are doing the best they can

It’s time to give these resourceful, community-minded creatures some credit, writes Elaine Godfrey in the Atlantic. Read on: 

The first thing to know about crows is that a group of them is called a murder.

In America, crows count as a Halloween decoration, like skeletons and mini-gravestones. Homeowners perch plastic ones in their trees to instill fear in passersby. People in many cultures consider the crow to be an omen, a harbinger of war and death. In Islamic hadith, reports about Muhammad’s sayings and practices, crows are one of the five animals “for which there is no blame on the one who kills them.” On the Faroe Islands, virginal women once had to throw a stone, a bone, and a clump of dirt at a crow for some reason. Farmers literally erect mannequins in their fields to scare them.

Can we give crows a break?

The world’s treatment of crows is grossly unfair. When I was a kid, my parents told me about their friend Linda, an elementary-school teacher in Illinois. One day, Linda and her class decided to adopt a zoo animal as a service project. When she was reading to them from a list of available animal adoptees, “crow” came up as an option. “Who would want a stupid old crow?” one little boy asked. The class adopted a polar bear instead.

When I heard this story as a child, it devastated me. I knew what it was like to get picked last. I would feel a pang of pity whenever I saw a crow perched on the power lines behind my house or pecking through the yard. Stupid old crow, I would say to myself sadly. But in fact, crows are not stupid. That little boy in Illinois can eat crow—because these birds are really, really smart.

Crows, along with magpies, jays, and ravens, are members of the family Corvidae, a group known for two things: exhibiting complex behaviors, and having massive brains. A New Caledonian crow named Betty once made a TED Talk audience go bananas by bending a wire to make a hook. And researchers believe the Hawaiian crow is likely to have the same talent.

“One of the reasons I got so excited by them was because hooked-tool use is something that only New Caledonian crows and ourselves have invented,” said Alex Taylor, a senior lecturer in psychology at the University of Auckland. “The great apes haven’t invented using hooks, and [humans] only invented using hooks probably around 100,000 years ago. It’s possible that crows beat us to that bit of technology.” Taylor says the birds have a high encephalization quotient, which means their brains are really big for their bodies. The crows he works with aren’t spooky; they’re observant: “Basically it feels like you’re constantly being observed and assessed,” Taylor says. “You’re dealing with a very smart and watchful animal.”

Kevin McGowan, an ornithologist at the Cornell Lab in New York, told me that the crow’s spooky reputation is pretty unwarranted. “It’s because they’re black and they’re scavengers,” McGowan said. Their bad rap started in northern Europe, where there are no vultures, so ravens and crows were always the first to show up to snack on animal carcasses. When Europeans came to North America, they brought their crow prejudice with them. “That whole combination of being near death, not having a very pretty song, that was all a big negative stigma for these guys to overcome.” He also wishes The Birds had never been made.

“Crows are beautiful,” McGowan says. “A big adult in the sunshine is beautiful, the way the light shines off their wings ... They’re just a really nice-looking bird.”

But sometimes crows are victims of mistaken identity. Grackles look like crows, except they are smaller and shinier, more of an iridescent purple. They bully other birds at feeders, and they can damage crops. They also make a horrible sound, like a screen door closing, or a rusty gate swinging open. Grackles are the birds that you hear and you think ugh. Crows, though. Crows are matte black, and they make a sharp, clear caw caw. Ravens, like the one who barges into the chamber in the Edgar Allan Poe poem, are also not crows. They are much larger, roughly the size of a red-tailed hawk.

“They’re not evil birds. They’re just trying to make their way and do the best they can.”
While humans might sometimes conflate crows with their avian relatives, research shows that crows rarely forget a face. John Marzluff, a wildlife biologist at the University of Washington, once conducted an experiment with two masks—a “dangerous” mask and a “neutral” mask. His assistants wore the dangerous mask to capture and band several crows, and for months afterward, he and his students wore both disguises around campus: The ones in the dangerous masks were repeatedly scolded by crows, while the ones in neutral masks were left alone. The crows also appeared to warn their friends of the danger at hand.

They have “great family values,” McGowan told WBUR in 2015. “They do neighborhood watch. They help each other out.” McGowan said. “They are very interested in working together to make the world a safer place for other crows.”

Kaeli Swift, a Ph.D. student at the University of Washington, researches crow “funerals.” On her blog Corvid Research, Swift writes that crows “appear to respond strongly once they discover a dead member of their own species.” They use death as a teachable moment, gathering around their fallen comrades in an attempt to identify potential threats. It’s something only a handful of nonhuman animals do.

And they can be generous gift givers, too: In 2015, an 8-year-old girl in Seattle named Gabi Mann started feeding her neighborhood crows scraps of food. In return, they left her dozens of little tokens—buttons and paper clips and pieces of colored glass. Gabi told the BBC that her favorite gift from the crows was a tiny heart charm. “It's showing me how much they love me,” she said.

It’s high time we give these resourceful, community-minded creatures some love in return. McGowan, who has spent more than 30 years studying and teaching people about crows, says he’s working to do just that. “I do try to tell people they’re not evil birds,” he said. “They’re just trying to make their way and do the best they can.” He tells me that this year at the Cornell Lab, the tagging color is orange, which means every crow identified by his team will get a little pumpkin-colored tag pinned to its wing. “It looks real nice, the orange with the black feathers,” McGowan says. “It looks really nice.”