Thursday, 31 March 2011

A final goodbye to Brian W. Taylor, killed in Christchurch earthquake 22.02.2011

Yesterday the 31 st of March in Christchurch, over 1300 people turned up to farewell Brian Warrington Taylor who was killed when the Canterbury TV building collapsed on 22 February, 2011.

From talking to many people he was not only a wonderful and very close friend of mine for over 49 years, but a loving and helpful husband, father, brother, friend, teacher, scientist, coach and mentor to many.

You were fittingly farewelled yesterday Brian and I am just sorry I couldn't make it for the service, and for the rip-roaring wake that I am sure followed where all your old friends from your running days gathered to honour, and toast to your memory. My two daughters Aroha and Ruia represented me and were deeply moved by the service. This presentation below has helped me grieve and mourn for you Brian, I hope it will help others too.
Here is a comment from my daughter Aroha who attended the service:
Thank you for introducing me to Brian. He was very generous with his time and he always encouraged me to go beyond my best. Brian’s Funeral was truly amazing and he was described by many as positive, generous with his time, interested in people and passionate. A record of achievments was remarkable. He was very ambitious as are you Dad and it is both admirable and honorable. I know he will be greatly missed by many, the running group will continue to do so well and sure they will forever recall those words of positivity and encouragement as I will. An outstanding Man. May Gods peace & love comfort Prue and Brian’s loved ones.

Wednesday, 30 March 2011

Thavrani, the poorest of the poor.

Some nights I struggle to sleep wondering how a disabled widow like Thavrani survives with three children in a very basic make-shift shelter, while I am in a sound hotel or apartment. We work in some villages where people are in desperate situations, but it takes time to get communities functioning normally after such a long and brutal conflict in the north of Sri Lanka, which has grossly affected so many people, and ruined infrastructure, livelihoods, dreams and minds. Getting funds for this life-saving programme has been so difficult and we have had to graft all the way.

In my blog posting one before last. I wrote about Vimala Rani ( SEE LINK:vimala) who has rebuilt her life after a long and cruel war in the north of Sri Lanka.  She lost her husband, her house and nearly all possessions. Now she has a Red Cross house, a small income through our livelihood programme, a toilet and running water, and her five children are doing well, one training to be a nurse, and the rest at school. It takes time, patience and dogged perserverance to fund raise for such projects.

Last Thursday after visiting Vimala Rani in the village of Vivekanandanagar in Kilinochchi I went to visit the village of Krishnapuram where we are building another 100 houses for people who lost theirs. Some houses are completed but the majority are in various stages of construction. I asked Dr Mahesh, who runs our IDP programme to show me some of the poorest people in Krishnapuram. He said, the initial survey conducted by Red Cross shows that a 33 year old woman, Thavrani, as one of the poorest.

Thavarani, and her youngest child.

Thavrani is a widow, and has three young children. She lives in a very basic temporary shelter, while her Red Cross funded house is being built. During the conflict she got hit by a shell or mortar and her left leg is withered and left her with a bad limp. Her left arm was damaged and twisted so the palm of her hand is always in a face up position. The reason Thavrani is in a worse situation than most other widows as being disabled limits her in what she can do, her extended family is minimal, and support group limited.
Thavrani with her basic shelter on the left and her Red Cross funded house going up in the background.

A closer look at her very basic home where she lives with her three children
Red Cross has workers like Surethi and Nithya (pictured on the extreme right above)  ride on a small motor cycle, supervising this owner-driven housing programme, visiting all people in the community and when they find someone las destituteThavrani, they have the skills to discuss and advise her on problems, and also able to provide counselling and material support. Thavani, like many others, is suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and needs regular visits and support. She also need Red Cross to provide her a voice for the future, and 'protection.'
Three of our staff supervising the housing programme Surethi and Nithya at the left and Chamini right, visit Thavarani and many others on a regular basis and do an amazing work helping them become self sustaining.

Thavrani's house will look like this within two months, and she will be able to move into it.

With the Sri Lanka Red Cross programme targetting 5000 familiers, it is frustraing seeing people suffering as they work even harder to get their houses completed before the next rainy season.

Thavrani maanges a broad smile as Dr. Mahesh asks her what additional help she needs. " I need a little extra help with laying the blocks, so I can finish it as soon as possible," she says.

As I walked away from her house I glanced back and saw her talking to  Surethi and Nithya and I know these two dedicated Red Cross workers  will watch over and care for Thavrani and her children, and ensure her house and other facilities are completed quickly.

It doesn't make me sleep easier as there are thousands of people like Thavani in Sri Lanka affccted by the aftermath of tsunami, recent floods and landslides and by a long and brutal war. But the hope comes from people like Nadeeka and Melinda from the Australian Red Cross who visited Jaffna, Kilinochchi and Vavuniya last week, and have given funding for over 300 houses, plus livelihoods, water and sanitation, and a little extra to support very vulnerables women like Vumala and Thavani.

We need continuing support from our partners and the general public out there to ensure people affected by war and natural disasters can live with dignity and hope.

Saturday, 26 March 2011

Latest Update from Red Cross in Japan

The Japanese Red Cross Society is offering all available assistance at the evacuation centres. Young people and the elderly can be particularly vulnerable, which is why they need extra attention. (Photo: Japanese Red Cross Society)

What a cruel disaster that swept Japan on 22 March 2011. I have been watching it closely and have been in touch with friends and colleagues in the Japanese Red Cross and IFRC. It is pleasing to see some of my old friends such Dr Jeyathesan Kulasingam, the IFRC’s health and psychosocial support delegate, with experience of the Sichuan earthquake operation in China, joining the efforts of the JRCS. Jeya and I worked together during the tsunami  operation in Indonesia. Patrick Fuller was the first in from the IFRC giving out crucial reports in those first 10 days and he has now been replaced by Kathy Mueller, who I worked alongside during the west Sumatra earthquake in late 2009. I post one of her recent articles later on. I have just heard that one of our best writers John Sparrow is currently en route to Japan to cover the tsunami and earthquake. The stories of rescue and immediate relief are dramatic, but now 16 days later the emphasis is shifting as needs and priorities change. Here is the latest:

Japan: Relief provided by Red Cross is more than just food and blankets

The article I post is by Sayaka Matsumoto, Japanese Red Cross Society and Francis Markus, IFRC

Even as a trained psychosocial nurse, Akemi Nitta is at a loss to try to capture in words the overwhelming impact of the emotions she faced, supporting grieving survivors as they identified the bodies of loved ones in the Japanese Red Cross Society’s hospital in Ishinomaki.

“I don’t know what words I can use to describe those people’s situation best. Whatever words we have used to talk about previous disasters, these descriptions seem totally inadequate to describe this situation,” she says.

For more than a week, Nitta worked as part of an eight-member team of dedicated psychosocial workers in the hospital following the disaster. One of their primary responsibilities was looking after the families, whose loved ones were assigned a black tag in the triage process, meaning that they were deceased.

“It’s not a matter of accepting or not accepting this person’s death; people don’t have a choice. They just have to face the situation,” says Nitta who has now returned to Yamanashi Red Cross hospital.

Amid the despair and numbness, there were shades of hope and comfort. In one family, a son brought the body of his 70-year-old mother to the hospital, not knowing whether his brothers were alive or dead. The next day, they appeared at the hospital, having heard that their mother was there. “She brought us here to meet up again,” one of the siblings said.

With nowhere else to lay bodies but in the car park of the hospital, some families want to take their loved ones back to a resting place at home. For many, however, nothing was left of their home after the tsunami.

The Japanese authorities, right across the disaster region, have to bury bodies rather than cremate them according to local tradition, simply because too many have lost their lives in this disaster. In such a situation, it’s all too easy for even trained psychosocial workers to feel inadequate.

“I could only do my best, that’s all I can say. I was beside the families and I felt affection for them and I cried. According to our psychosocial manual, the care giver can cry, but should try not to break down in tears,” Nitta says.

Many of the sources of comfort that help people come to terms with the death of a loved one are simply impossible to find in the aftermath of a tsunami, such as looking at a picture of a loved one or hearing their last words.

“The hurt of the people in this situation is so great, they can’t feel anything. So when things return to normality a bit, the emotions will burst out. People will feel anger, sadness and frustration that they can’t take anywhere. At that stage, there should be somebody or some system there to receive those emotions.”

Helping to plan the future roll-out of psychosocial support in the aftermath of this disaster is where psychology professors Kazuki Saito and Jun Maeda come in. They have just returned to Tokyo for consultations at the headquarters of the Japanese Red Cross after establishing a rotating system of psychosocial support teams at Ishinomaki.

“After most disasters Japan has experienced in the past, provision of basic relief is established within one to three days. This opens the way for survivors’ emotional reactions to be addressed through psychosocial support,” says Saito. The scale of devastation and the displacement experienced after the earthquake and tsunami in the north-east of Honshu Island made it impossible to wait until people’s physical situation stabilized, so relief and psychosocial support were delivered simultaneously.

Despite all of their experience, including the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami and Hurricane Katrina in the United States, nothing could have prepared Saito and Maeda for what they saw on reaching Ishinomaki, in the heart of the tsunami-battered prefecture of Miyagi two days after the disaster.

“We saw 20 dead bodies on a concrete floor, we saw the civil defence forces lining up bodies by the roadside,” says Saito. Despite the calm and professional demeanour of both men, it is impossible not to be affected by such experiences.

Clearly, the psychosocial welfare of Japanese Red Cross Society’s own psychosocial support personnel is itself an issue needing careful attention. Mr Saito says that when staff finish their rotations, they will be asked to fill in a questionnaire to give a picture of their own emotional state.

Experts say that it’s important to recruit local people to carry out psychosocial support in order for them to be able to relate to survivors in their familiar dialect. There’s also a need to ensure that the techniques are adapted, as a high proportion of the survivor population are elderly.

“It’s important to introduce community activities such as exercises, as well as their normal habits such as chatting and drinking tea. Older people also need health advice because that is their worry. But they also need some peaceful time too,” says Dr Jeyathesan Kulasingam, the IFRC’s health and psychosocial support delegate, with experience of the Sichuan earthquake operation in China, where the welfare of the elderly was also a major concern.

It’s understandable that psychosocial support will be a vital part of the humanitarian operation as Japanese Red Cross Society gears up to meet the needs of the hundreds of thousands of survivors of this disaster, not just in the immediate aftermath, but in the coming months and even years.

Japan: Red Cross teams fuel hope for survivors
The tsunami caused by the earthquake that struck of the coast of Japan on 11 March devastated more than 70 kilometres of coastline in Iwate prefecture in northeastern Japan. This photo was taken in Yamada town. (Photo: Katherine Mueller, IFRC)

By Kathy Mueller, communications delegate

Kathy Mueller talking to earthquake affected children after West Sumatra earthquake in 2009. Photo: Bob McKerrow

“The lack of fuel is a major problem for us. It is hampering our ability to assess, and is thereby making it difficult for us to get the full picture.”

“It’s frustrating. A lot of people want to volunteer. They want to help, but there is no fuel to get them where help is needed most.”

“Some buses are operating again, but sporadically. Because of bad road conditions and limited access to fuel, they can’t run their usual routes.”

These are just some of the comments made by emergency personnel from the Japanese Red Cross Society, who are trying to assist the hundreds of thousands of people devastated by the 11 March earthquake and tsunami.

Iwate prefecture was one of the areas hardest hit. Located several hours’ drive north of the epicentre, 70 kilometres of its coastline was obliterated by the ten-metre-high wave. Electricity, for the most part, is still out. Water pipes were broken along the entire length of the affected area. There are 2,773 confirmed dead in this prefecture alone; another 5,000 are still missing; and about 370 evacuation centres have been set up to house the 45,000 survivors – many as young as two and others in their eighties.

“People are definitely relieved to see us,” says Hidenobu Yokomatsu, a Red Cross logistician. “But it’s a major challenge for us to try to meet their needs. Whether it’s medical care or clothing, we just don’t have access to the amount of fuel needed to carry out such a large relief operation,” he continued.

The situation should improve soon – one of Japan’s largest oil refineries, in Yokohama, has recently resumed operations and will provide 270,000 barrels of oil a day. Whilst this is expected to significantly ease the current fuel shortage, the benefit is not being seen at the petrol pumps just yet.

As we leave Tokyo and head closer to the disaster zone, the longer the queues at service centres, some stretching for up to 2 kilometres. Some petrol stations have closed completely, whilst others are giving priority to emergency vehicles, including the Red Cross, although we too are rationed and only allowed to fill up with 10 litres at a time.

Fuel isn’t the only road block for those trying to help. Bad weather has grounded the helicopters that were delivering supplies. It snows on a daily basis, with temperatures hovering above the freezing mark, and evacuation centres often have little or no heat. Children run and play to keep warm. The elderly wrap themselves in blankets; the Japanese Red Cross Society has distributed about 125,000 already.

Despite all these challenges, progress is being made. Many evacuees are now getting three meals a day. Thousands are returning home as electricity is restored, and the government has started building more than 33,000 temporary shelters. Optimism about the future, however, is also in short supply.

“It’s very hard to see the reality. It is overwhelming,” says Hidenobu Yokomatsu. “We feel for the people. You can’t get that from watching the images on television. A young man came up to me the other day and asked: ‘How do you see the situation? Is there hope?’ I had no answer for him.”

For an excellent update from CNN, CLICK HERE:  LATEST EQ AND TSUNAMI

This week the President of the IFRC and Japanese Red Cross, wrote this very moving letter to all member countries of the IFRC.
This provides fascinating background information on the earthquake and Tsunami:

Tadateru Konoe (l) with colleague Naoki Kokawa survey the rubble left by the quake and tsunami in Japan. Photo: Reuters.

Dear Friends,

On 11 March at 2:46pm a huge earthquake of magnitude 9.0 on the Richter scale struck off the coast of Sanriku (lat. 38.0 N, long. 142.9 E). The quake reached level 7 on the Japanese seismic scale - the highest level possible for that scale - in the most affected area. A tsunami alert was immediately issued for the Pacific side of the whole Japanese archipelago. The first wave of the tsunami reached the Japanese coast within 30 minutes and swept its north-eastern coastline over an area extending for 500km. The height of the waves exceeded 15 meters in some areas. Tsunami waves repeatedly reached the Japanese coast several times afterwards. Large aftershocks are still continuing now, ten days later from the first hit, each one followed by a tsunami alert.

The north-eastern coast of Japan has long been prone to tsunamis and is known for the most advanced level of preparedness for such events in the world. Such preparedness includes solid and high banks, shelters for evacuation, warning systems and evacuation drills for the anticipated worst case scenario. But what happened this time was far beyond the most extreme predictions.

The first strike caused heavy and widespread damage to all kinds of infrastructure and basic services, including communication lines, transportation, electricity, water supply and sewage systems. This damage is still impeding the relief activities from being fully operational even after ten days.

Before we had grasped the overall consequences of the earthquake, the tsunami quickly swept many coastal cities and left them in ruins. It was so cruel that by the time the tsunami reached the people, they had already lost contact with others because of the earthquake. Fire broke out in many areas, which added another burden for the affected people to cope with for another few days. Many of these affected cities are located in the deep recesses of an indented coastline with sheer cliffs, known as a Rias coastline. This terrain made the access to the affected areas difficult either by land or sea. None of the administrative functions could work properly, therefore no relief could be extended to the areas for a few days and no information on these communities’ fate reached the outside world. Mobile phones and even the radio network system designed for disasters could not function, because of the blackout and the damage to the relay stations of the radio network.

The Government of Japan immediately set up an Emergency Task Force and started collecting information and dispatching Self Defence Forces teams, medical teams, fire brigade units and ambulances. The Japanese Red Cross Society also dispatched its own 14 disaster relief teams to the three affected prefectures within first five hours. As of 21 March, 122,530 blankets and 20,760 boxes of relief goods have been distributed. On the day of the earthquake, even in Tokyo, the train service was affected by the quake and authorities had to suspend the whole service until next day. Consequently, many people suddenly lost their usual means of commuting in Tokyo and had to spend all night stranded at stations and other places. Heavy traffic jams inevitably followed and forced us to wait patiently, spending long hours to cover a distance taking ten minutes in normal times. Highways to the affected areas are now open to emergency vehicles for relief, but the shortage of fuel is still affecting the situation.

The Japanese Red Cross Society is running several large scale Red Cross Hospitals in north-eastern Japan and naturally these function as base-camps to receive evacuees and to launch mobile health activities. The city of Ishinomaki, which is located in the coastal area of Miyagi prefecture, still counts 10 thousand people missing. The Red Cross Hospital in Ishinomaki is the only hospital in the city which was able to survive the earthquake and tsunami and stay operational. Naturally, it was filled with the injured and the evacuees, on top of many existing in-patients. The hospital had to adopt strict triage in order to maintain an appropriate level of medical service, but of course, such decisions entail a huge dilemma for the people, particularly the aged, who have nowhere to return to and nobody to depend on. In order to sustain the critical function of this Ishinomaki Red Cross Hospital, which has been operating around the clock, many doctors and nurses have been sent from other Red Cross Hospitals nationwide to back up Ishinomaki.

The tsunami put the local population in a ‘life or death” situation. Yet, paradoxically, not many were injured directly by the tsunami. Therefore, the well-organized Disaster Medical Assistance Team (DMAT) could work efficiently as it was originally designed for the earthquake. Many challenges remain, such as caring for many in-patients who had to evacuate their original hospitals, the patients who were soaked by the tsunami and endangered by the harsh wintery situation afterwards, those who lost the means to get necessary medicines for chronic diseases and those who need psychological care.

One week later, according to the police authority as of 21 March, 8,649 people are dead, 13,262 people are still missing and 2,644 people are wounded, and 14,637 buildings have collapsed. There are 2,113 evacuation centres up-and running and accommodating 349,349 people. From the beginning of our operation, we have faced large operational challenges, such as limited information due to paralyzed communications, transportation and administration lines, the lack of fuel which has impeded the smooth distribution of relief goods, the limited sites suitable for evacuation centres, and the wintery weather conditions that have prevented the evacuees from getting back on their feet. The involvement of volunteers has also had to be limited since the access to the affected area was not safe. These challenges have been gradually overcome day by day, following the recovery of essential services, the provision of more fuel and the establishment of more evacuee centres. Japanese Red Cross will continue to make maximum effort, primarily in its medical relief by mobilizing the resources of nationwide Red Cross hospitals collectively. We are also going to extend our relief work to the evacuation centres gradually by mobilizing the power of volunteers.

An international liaison/support team was sent to Japan, consisting of the secretariat, American Red Cross, Australian Red Cross, Canadian Red Cross, Red Cross Society of China, Korean Red Cross and Turkish Red Crescent. The team made a field visit to the affected area, accompanied by Japanese Red Cross staff. Its findings confirmed the wide variety of potential needs such as relief items, cash disbursement, tracing/psychological support, logistics support for relief, medical service for evacuation centres and volunteer intervention. We understand that a rough draft of our master plan for upcoming relief and recovery activity should be shared with you sooner than later. ICRC has been also helping us in establishing the special website for Restoring Family Links for this particular disaster.

However, the critical situation at four nuclear power reactors in Fukushima prefecture have been casting a shadow over the aforementioned positive developments in relief activities. Despite various professional efforts, the situation is still unstable. The people living in the vicinity of 30 km around the nuclear power reactors were forced to evacuate the area in case of further deterioration in the situation. And since these nuclear power plants are not small producers of electricity for Tokyo and the surrounding area, their troubles have been causing a shortage of electricity there. In order to overcome this shortage, so-called ‘rolling blackouts’ of electricity have been implemented in the targeted area in Tokyo and the surrounding area. Due to this scheduled suspension and the effort to save energy, public transportation has been partly suspended. Because of the needs for fuel and foods in the affected areas of north-east Japan, certain goods are temporarily in shortage in Tokyo and the surrounding area. In addition to the standard Red Cross Hospitals, Japanese Red Cross has specialized hospitals in Hiroshima and Nagasaki in the area of medical services for the radiation-exposed. They are on stand-by to contribute whenever required. The pressing need right now is obviously relief for the evacuees. Japanese Red Cross has been deploying relief teams in shifts, and at the same time, we are also trying to attend to other needs on a real-time basis.

This disaster is without doubt unprecedented in terms of the scale of damage and its comprehensive nature. In such a situation, I can never feel that our relief effort is good enough. Rather, I strongly feel that we should do more in terms of scale, timeliness and efficiency. Such frustration must be felt by all, not only by our beneficiaries, but also by those engaging in relief day and night including ourselves. From this perspective, it is unfortunate that not all offers of support from overseas could be utilized earlier, but I hope you can understand the uniqueness and complexity of this disaster, which combines the elements of earthquake, tsunami and problems at the nuclear power plants.

I hereby would like to state sincerely that all the condolences, encouragements and the offers of support from the global Red Cross Red Crescent family move us deeply and remind us of the Spirit of Togetherness that is at the heart of our Movement. On this firm basis of solidarity, we in the Japanese Red Cross Society will resolutely continue our efforts for the sake of the affected population in Japan.

Our challenge will be prolonged for years and a large amount of financial resources will be needed for the relief and recovery of the affected population. I sincerely appreciate all of your support in the past, the present and the generous help offered for the future.

Yours sincerely,

Tadateru Konoé

Thursday, 24 March 2011

Talking under a Tamarind tree

I arrived late  yesterday afternoon (Wednesday 23 March) in Vavuniya, northern Sri Lanka, en route to Kilinochchi where the Red Cross is running an integrated post conflict recovery programme for 5000 families badly affected by the 30 years conflict.

When I came home from the office last night,  I got an email from my good friend Yasuo Tanaka who returned to Japan on the day of the earthquake, as his Mother was seriously ill. He gave me the sad news his mother had died. Yasuo was my desk officer when I worked in Afghanistan in the mid-nineties, and we have become good friends over the years. Now he is having to cope not only with the death of his mother, but in working together with his Japanese Red Cross colleagues in the huge Rded Cross relief and recovery efforts.

This morning on waking up before daybreak, I checked my email before our planned 6.30 am start to Kilinochchi, to discover an email from my daughter in New Zealand. It read:

Brian has been found and his funeral is to be held at the Aurora Center next Thursday 2pm.

Good closure to know his where abouts.

Brian Taylor was in the Canterbury TV building in Christchurch on 22 February when that fateful earthquake occured killing over 200 people. He was my athletics coach and my best friend as a teenager, and we remained close friends all our lives.

I have been surrounded by death and destruction during a long Red Cross career, but when close friends die, the kick or the wrench is very painful. To Yasuo I send my heartfelt condolences on the death out your beloved Mother.

To Prue Taylor, sons and Suzanne, Brian's sister, I know you came to the realization Brian is dead, but to have found his body, brings the start of closure, but does not ease the pain.

I left at 6.30 am, somewhat heavy in heart, but knowing that I was travelling to Kilinochchi, where the Red Cross, the Government, the UN and many other humanitarian organistions are working is a coordinated manner to rebuild the lives of hundreds of thousands of people whose families, homes, villages, livelihoods were ruined by a cruel, 30 year long war. Virtually every family in the north lost a family member, many two or three. The destruction and the trauma caused  during the protracted conflict is indescribeable.

But the joy of travelling north this morning and seeing paddy fields with rice soon to be harvested, children everywhere going to new or repaired schools, new roads, water and electricity supplies reaching out to remote corners, and people getting their lives back together.

The Red Cross is playing a crucial role.

Seeing Vimala Rani and her family today showed me that we have got our recovery formula right, as the houses are going up quickly, they have toilets and water, and we are now providing livelihood training and financial support.

When I first went to her village, Vivekanandanagar in June last year, it was a scene of desperation. People living in tents, tarpualins or under very basic make shift shelter. Vimala and her family lived in a hovel. It is my fifth visit to her village where her new Red Cross house is one of 300 others that we built in the village. here is an aura of well being and happiness everywhere I looked..

Vimala has five children, her eldest on her right is training as a nurse and the next, 16, is doing well at high school. The young boy is her sister's son.

When I asked her about her life now, an uncontrollable smile swept her face, and was fixed there for minutes. She took Thiru, Zafran and I inside and showed us around. It was beautifully finshed with hard wood window frames, smoothly finished cement walls and floors, and lots of room.

Owner-driven houses allow people to build a core house, and they plan or dream of adding on to it.

Vimala Rani's house. A widower who has had to struggle to rebuild her life, now has a strong, airy and roomy house for her and her five children. Her old temporary shelter is on the extreme left. Photo: Bob Mckerrow

My day finished with visiting two villages where we are building 600 houses, going to a livelihood workshop where 100 villagers are deciding how to make an income from either agriculture (land), animal husbandry or small businesses. We run workshops where we provide expertise along with a livelihood grant.

Talking under a Tamarind tree:  Village people from Vivekanandanagar village where they have 300 new houses built by Sri Lanka Red Cross, and funded by German Red  Cross. Here, they discuss how to improve their family livelihoods with RC funding. Photo: Bob Mckerrow

As I sat under the peaceful Tamarind tree in Kilinochchi, I thought of my dear friend Brian Taylor, and the pain his family must be feeling. Had things worked out, we would have been in Sri Lanka together this month where he would have been coaching young aspirant athletic champions. I will think of this Tamarind tree as your Turangawaewae Brian, and your memory will be here forever. RIP, my beloved friend.

Wednesday, 23 March 2011

Agony and hope - Sri Lanka

We arrived in Vavuniya this afternoon, Zafran and I,  where we have established headquarters for Red Cross Post Conflict Recovery Programme which comprises the Sri Lanka Red Cross Society implementing, supported by the IFRC, German, Canadian, Norwegian, Australian and Japanese Red Cross, plus a number of multi-lateral donors.

On arrival I met Dr. Mahesh Gunersekera who heads our programme. A veteran of missions in Pakistan, Sudan, regional health coordinator for South Asia, he joined Red Cross when the Tsunami hit his homeland, Sr Lanka.

He told me how he met our good friend in Vivekanandanagar, Arunachalam. yesterday. He is  51 years old and the village potter. I first visited Arunachalam in June last year when he and fellow villavgers had nothing but tarpaulins and a few sheets of iron they called home. They had just returned after many years of bloody conflict to their ancestral village and were determined to build a new village on their land. Tissa Abeywickrama the DG of SLRCS and I presneted them certificates telling them they would receive the first funds for their owner driven housing programmethe next day, and\\\but they were somewhat sceptical, having been the recepients of so many broken promises.

Yesterday Mahesh visited Vivekanandanagar and nearly all the 300 houses are completed, all funded by Red Cross. Arunachalam proudly showed Dr. Mahesh his house. As they sat down to have a chat about the future, Mahesh took out his computer and showed him photos of his old make-shift shelter and the various stages of comstruction that is recored on our data base. Arunachalam, looked at them, then wept. It brought back memories of his son killed in the war, his struggle to set up a temporary shelter, and to make  a potter's wheel to eke out a living. To see Arunachalam's story, watch this video about his last few years of agony and hope,

(Left) Dr. Mahesh (r) and I having a talk about the IDP recovery

In October last year you could see the old bamboo framework in the foreground which was the rough temporary shelter, and behind the permanent Red Cross house coming up. Photo: Bob McKerrow

One of the aims of my visit was to see the volunteer programme which is building up Red Cross branches in areas devastated by 30 years of conflict. The programmes also involves the communities we are working with in building houses, water and sanitation, livelihoods, DP and health.The courses started on Monday in Kilinochchi and will finish over the weekend..

We at the Red Cross have had an opportunity and a mandate to assist this nation in achieving this goal. Governed by our fundamental principles, Strategy 2020 and the SLRCS’ Strategic Plan, we can assist communities to strengthen themselves by providing them with the tools necessary for the development that is so desperately needed.

This is what the Volunteers in Action (VIA) programme is designed to achieve. Taking a holistic view of the community and recognising the complexity of the needs of the people within it, the initiative seeks to build a group of multi-skilled volunteers who will be capable of meeting the physical and emotional needs of the beneficiaries they serve. The driving force of the programme is the fundamental belief that that a community is the fabric of a nation and that the resilience and success of either is both mutually beneficial and inter-dependent.

The Post Conflict Recovery Programme (PCRP) aims to facilitate a return to normality for the returning IDP families and set up more resilient communities within their original areas of residence. This owner driven and integrated programme seeks to achieve its goal through the repair and construction of permanent housing and by delivering software activities to this area of the country which remains in great need of development. The establishment of the branch interim committees in Kilinochchi and Mulaittivu districts and the focus on re-establishing the volunteer networks in these areas means that it is now possible to begin the software components of the programme – making PCRP the perfect vehicle for the VIA programme.

Photographs below are of the progrsammes we are conducting this week in Kilinochchi, northern Sri Lanka.
Kilinochchi. Villagers from Krishnapuram developing a Community Action Plan

A professional facilitator supporting Kilinochchi. Villagers from Krishnapuram developing a Community Action Plan

While parents are developing plans children are playing

Livelihood workshop for the villagers from Vivekanandanagar
People who participated in Red Cross assisstance programmes discussing in groups about their livelihoods

Villagers from Krisnapuram debating on common needs of their village.

Off early tomorrow morning to Kilinochchi. I love this programme as it is almost perfect and we have been able to put into practice, lessons learned from tsunami, especially owner driven housing and integrated programming.

Monday, 21 March 2011

25th Anniversary of the 1986 North Pole Expedition - Minnesota

I got somewhat of a shock this morning when I opened two emails from Will Steger, the leader of our 1986 North Pole Expedition and then another from Paul Schurke, co leader of the expedition. I have to be be in Minnesota by 14 May to join in the 25th reunion of our North Pole expedition. Paul has invited me up to his home on a lake north of Ely where we trained for the north Pole in the winter of 1985-86. We will be going on a canoe trip together.What an event this will be. They referred me to the website announcing this. Go to link.
north pole reunion

Minnestoa History Center

North Pole '86: 25th Anniversary

Events & Programs
North Pole '86: 25th Anniversary

The History Center honors the explorers who made this historic journey with two events in partnership with the Will Steger Foundation.

In March of 1986 the Steger International Polar Expedition, featuring Minnesotans Will Steger, Ann Bancroft and Paul Schurke, set out by dogsled to reach the North Pole. In a deliberate throwback to earlier explorers, the sought to complete the journey without resupply. They would be entirely reliant on the three tons of supplies they brought with them; there would be no airlifts with rested dogs, new equipment, or extra food and fuel. Fifty-five days and a thousand miles later, after enduring -70°F temperatures and crossing the Arctic Ocean as it began to break apart with the coming of spring, six team members completed the journey, making Steger only the fourth man known to have reached the North Pole, and Bancroft the first woman to have achieved that goal. The story of their trek forever transformed human perceptions of the Arctic from frozen wasteland to a living and changing part of the Earth.

North Pole Reunion Family Day

Sunday, May 15, 12 to 4 p.m.

Included with museum admission

On May 1, 1986 the expedition reached the “point around which the world spins,” the North Pole. Bring your family and experience the challenge of their historic journey.


• Experience an Arctic base camp and meet a sled dog

• Dress for an Expedition

• Learn how climate change is affecting the Arctic through hands-on activities

• Play the calorie consumption game

• Guess Arctic trivia and win prizes

• Create a Northern Lights picture and make Expedition Sun Goggles

• See North Pole expedition footage

• Book signing with Will Steger and team members

• Enjoy music with Minnesota singer/songwriter Ann Reed

• Visit resource tables and learn how to get outdoors and address climate change

North Pole '86 Expedition: 25th Anniversary Celebration

Tuesday, May 17, 7 p.m


Reservations required; call 651-259-3015 or purchase online. $12 adults ($10 MHS members); $5 college students w/ID and children age 9-17.

Bob McKerrow, training for the North Pole on Baffin Island, Canada

Saturday, 19 March 2011

Happy Nowruz !

A Buskashi game at Parwan, Afghanistan on Nowruz, 21 March, 1996. Note how low the winter snow is on the Hindu Kush. Photo: Bob McKerrow

Happy Nowruz ! I think of all those children in so many troubled countries who today will have big smiles on their faces as they celebrate Nowruz. With new clothes, a good meal and a day free of chores, they will be playing their favourite games in dusty, or snow-covered fields.

I have celebrated Nowruz many times in Afghanistan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan Bangladesh and India. With my wife being Moslem, we are celebrating Nowruz in our home tomorrow, 21 March. in Srei Lanka

So on the same day I am celebrating Nowruz, my birthday and "World Water Day" Is it coincident that Nowruz which is about celebrating snow, water and fertility, is on the same day as World Water Day..

The feritility pole with thousands of prayer flags tied to it, is raised at the Nowruz celebrations at the Blue Mosque in Mazar I Sharif, Afghanistan, March 21 1994. Photo: Bob McKerrow

It is probably celebrated with the most vigor in Mazar I Sharif in Afghanistan, where a huge fertility pole is raised with ribbons tied to it. Each ribbon represents someones prayers. Celebrated on 21 or 22 March, depending on the country, I never forget the dates as it falls on my birthday.

Nowruz is celebrated from Iran to Indonesia. In Bukhara, Uzbekistan, it is celebrated with great fervour. The Kalyan Minaret, Bukhara.Photo: Bob McKerrow

In Northern Afghanistan the feritliy pole is a pre-Islamic celebration seen as a phallic symbol. Around 21 March, the winter snows starts to melt and the celebrations and prayers are in the hope that the spring will bring plenty of water to nourish the crops and bring fertility to land and people.

The Holy Blue Mosque in Mazar I Sharif where the fertility pole is raised on Nowruz. Photo: Bob McKerrow

I celebrated Nowruz in Mazar I Sharif in 1994, 1995 and again in 2003. and on threether ocassion in Kabul. What a festival of food, horsemanship, flowers, poetry reading, pageantry, colour and fun.

An Uzbek drummer celebrates the fertility pole being raised in Mazar I Sharif at Nowruz. Photo: Bob McKerrow

The most important Zoroastrian festivals are the six Gahambars and Nowruz which occurs at the spring equinox. According to the late Professor. Mary Boyce[4]: It seems a reasonable surmise that Nowruz, the holiest of them all, with deep doctrinal significance, was founded by Zoroaster himself. Between sunset of the day of the 6th Gahanbar and sunrise of Nowruz was celebrated Hamaspathmaedaya (later known, in its extended form, as Frawardinegan). This and the Gahanbar are the only festivals named in the surviving text of the Avesta.

For many, Nowruz is a time for reflection. A Tajik man at the grave of poet Jami, near Herat, Afghanistan, Photo: Bob McKerrow

The Shahnameh, dates Nowruz as far back to the of Jamshid, who in Zoroastrian texts saved mankind from a killer winter that was destined to kill every living creature.

The mythical Persian King Jamshid (Yima or Yama of the Indo-Iranian lore) perhaps symbolizes the transition of the Indo-Iranians from animal hunting to animal husbandry and a more settled life in human history. In the Shahnameh and Iranian mythology, he is credited with the foundation of Nowruz. In the Shahnama, Jamshid constructed a throne studded with gems. He had demons raise him above the earth into the heavens; there he sat on his throne like the sun shining in the sky. The world's creatures gathered in wonder about him and scattered jewels aound him, and called this day the New Day or No/Now-Ruz. This was the first day of the month of Farvardin (the first month of the Persian calendar). The association with Jamshid can be seen that in Persian, the festival is also called Nowruz-i-Jamshidi (The Jamshidi Nowruz)

A soldier at Nowruz celebrations in Mazar I Sharif. Photo: Bob McKerrow

The Iranian scholar Abu Rayhan Biruni of the 10th century A.D., in his Persian work "The Tafhim" provides a description of the calendar of various nations. Besides the Persian calendar, various festivals of Arabs, Jews, Sabians, Greeks and other nations are mentioned in this book. In the section on the Persian calendar(تقویم پارسیان), he mentions Nowruz, Sedeh, Tiregan, Mehregan, the six Gahanbar, Parvardegaan, Bahmanja, Isfandarmazh and several other festivals. According to him: It is the belief of the Persians that Nowruz marks the first day when the universe started its motion..

In his work titled the Nowruznama, Omar Khayyam, a well known Persian poet and Mathematician writes a vivid description of the celebration in the courts of the Kings of Persia:

From the era of Keykhosrow till the days of Yazdegard, last of the pre-Islamic kings of Persia, the royal custom was thus: on the first day of the New Year, Now Ruz, the King's first visitor was the High Priest of the Zoroastrians, who brought with him as gifts a golden goblet full of wine, a ring, some gold coins, a fistful of green sprigs of wheat, a sword, and a bow. In the language of Persia he would then glorify God and praise the monarch..

Buskashi, a game of daring, courage and supreme horsemanship. Mazar I Sharif 21 March, 1995. This game was a Nowruz celebration. Photo: Bob McKerrow

This was the address of the High Priest to the king : "O Majesty, on this feast of the Equinox, first day of the first month of the year, seeing that thou hast freely chosen God and the Faith of the Ancient ones; may Surush, the Angel-messenger, grant thee wisdom and insight and sagacity in thy affairs. Live long in praise, be happy and fortunate upon thy golden throne, drink immortality from the Cup of Jamshid; and keep in solemn trust the customs of our ancestors, their noble aspirations, fair gestes and the exercise of justice and righteousness. May thy soul flourish; may thy youth be as the new-grown grain; may thy horse be puissant, victorious; thy sword bright and deadly against foes; thy hawk swift against its prey; thy every act straight as the arrow's shaft. Go forth from thy rich throne, conquer new lands. Honor the craftsman and the sage in equal degree; disdain the acquisition of wealth. May thy house prosper and thy life be long!"

The term Nowruz first appeared in Persian records in the second century AD, but it was also an important day during the time of the Achaemenids (c. 648-330 BC), where kings from different nations under the Persian empire used to bring gifts to the emperor (Shahanshah) of Persia on Nowruz.

Nowruz was the holiday of Arsacid/Parthian dynastic Empires who ruled Iran (248 BC-224 AD). There are specific references to the celebration of Nowruz during the reign of Vologases I (51-78 AD), but these include no details. However, We have reasons to believe that the celebration is much older than that date and was surely celebrated by the people and royalty during the Achaemenid times (555-330 BC). It was, therefore, a highly auspicious occasion for the ancient peoples. It has been suggested that the famous Persepolis complex, or at least the palace of Apadana and the Hundred Columns Hall, were built for the specific purpose of celebrating Nowruz. However, no mention of Nowruz exists in Achaemenid inscriptions (see picture) [9]. It also happened to coincide with the Babylonian and Jewish new years .

Extensive records on the celebration of Nowruz appear following the accession of Ardashir I of Persia, the founder of the Sassanid dynasty (224-651 AD). Under the Sassanid emperors, Nowruz was celebrated as the most important day of the year. Most royal traditions of Nowruz such as royal audiences with the public, cash gifts, and the pardoning of prisoners, were established during the Sassanian era and persisted unchanged until modern times.

Nowruz, along with Sadeh (celebrated in mid-winter), survived in society following the introduction of Islam in 650 AD. Other celebrations such Gahanbar and Mehragan were eventually side-lined or were only followed by the Zoroastrians, who carried them as far as Turkey. Nowruz, however, was most honored even by the early founders of Islam. There are records of the Four Great Caliphs presiding over Nowruz celebrations, and it was adopted as the main royal holiday during the Abbasid period.

Following the demise of the Caliphate and the subsequent re-emergence of Persian dynasties such as the Samanids and Buyids, Nowruz was elevated to an even more important event. The Buyids revived the ancient traditions of Sassanian times and restored many smaller celebrations that had been eliminated by the Caliphate. Even the Turkish and Mongol invaders did not attempt to abolish Nowruz in favor of any other celebration. Thus, Nowruz remained as the main celebration in the Persian lands by both the officials and the people.

Local variations
Today, the festival of Nowruz is celebrated in many countries that were territories of, or influenced by, the Persian Empire: Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, parts of the Middle East, as well as in the former Soviet republics of Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Azerbaijan,Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, and Kyrgyzstan. It is also celebrated by the Zoroastrian Parsis in India and Pakistan as well by certain Iranic inhabitants in Pakistan's Chitral region. It is also celebrated by the Iranian immigrants from Shiraz in Zanzibar. In Turkey, it is called Nevruz in Turkish, Sultan Nevruz in Albanian. In some remote communities located in parts of western Iran, the holiday is referred to as Nuroj, which literally means New Day in the Kurdish language.

In Iran, the greeting that accompanies the festival is Eydetoon Mobārak (mubarak: felicitations) in Persian. In Turkey, the greeting is either Bayramınız Mubarek/kutlu olsun (in Turkish (the same greeting applies for other festivals as well)).

Nowruz in modern Iran
In Iran, preparations for Nowruz begin in Esfand (or Espand), the last month of winter in the Persian solar calendar. Below is information about Nowruz as celebrated in Iran.

Khane Tekani

Persians, Afghans and other groups start preparing for the Nowruz with a major spring-cleaning of their houses, the purchase of new clothes to wear for the new year and the purchase of flowers (in particular the hyacinth and the tulip are popular and conspicuous).

In association with the "rebirth of nature", extensive spring-cleaning is a national tradition observed by almost every household in Persia. This is also extended to personal attire, and it is customary to buy at least one set of new clothes. On the New Year's day, families dress in their new clothes and start the twelve-day celebrations by visiting the elders of their family, then the rest of their family and finally their friends. On the thirteenth day families leave their homes and picnic outdoors.

During the Nowruz holidays people are expected to visit one another (mostly limited to families, friends and neighbours) in the form of short house visits, which are usually reciprocated. Typically, on the first day of Nowruz, family members gather around the table, with the Haft Seen on the table or set next to it, and await the exact moment of the arrival of the spring. At that time gifts are exchanged. Later in the day, the first house visits are paid to the most senior family members. Typically, the youth will visit the elders first, and the elders return their visit later. The visits naturally have to be relatively short, otherwise one will not be able to visit everybody on their list. A typical visit is around 30 minutes, where you often run into other visiting relatives and friends who happen to be paying a visit to the same house at that time. Because of the house visits, you make sure you have a sufficient supply of pastry, cookies, fresh and dried fruits and special nuts on hand, as you typically serve your visitors with these items with tea or sherbet. Many Iranians will throw large Nowruz parties in a central location as a way of dealing with the long distances between groups of friends and family.

Some Nowruz celebrants believe that whatever a person does on Nowruz will affect the rest of the year. So, if a person is warm and kind to their relatives, friends and neighbours on Nowruz, then the new year will be a good one. On the other hand, if there are fights and disagreements, the year will be a bad one.

One tradition that may not be very widespread (that is, it may belong to only a few families) is to place something sweet, such as honey or candy, in a safe place outside overnight. On the first morning of the new year, the first person up brings the sweet stuff into the house as another means of attaining a good new year.

Chaharshanbe Suri

The night before the last Wednesday of the year is celebrated by the Iranian people as Chahârshanbe Sûrî Persian: چهارشنبه سوری, (Azerbaijani: Od çərşənbəsi meaning wednesday of fire, Kurdish: Çarşeme surê, چوارشه‌مه‌ سوورێ meaning red wednesday), the Iranian festival of fire. This festival is the celebration of the light (the good) winning over the darkness (the bad); the symbolism behind the rituals are all rooted back to Zoroastrianism.

The tradition includes people going into the streets and alleys to make bonfires, and jump over them while singing the traditional song Zardî-ye man az to, sorkhî-ye to az man; This literally translates to "My yellowness from you, your redness from me," with the figurative message "My paleness (pain, sickness) for you (the fire), your strength (health) for me."

Serving different kinds of pastry and nuts known as Ajīl-e Moshkel-Goshā (lit. The problem-solving nuts) is the Chahārshanbe Sūrī way of giving thanks for the previous year's health and happiness, while exchanging any remaining paleness and evil for the warmth and vibrancy of the fire.

According to tradition, the living are visited by the spirit of their ancestors on the last days of the year, and many children wrap themselves in shrouds, symbolically re-enacting the visits. They also run through the streets banging on pots and pans with spoons and knocking on doors to ask for treats. The ritual is called qashogh-zany (spoon beating) and symbolizes the beating out of the last unlucky Wednesday of the year.

There are several other traditions on this night, including: the rituals of Kūze Shekastan, the breaking of earthen jars which symbolically hold ones bad fortune; the ritual of Fal-Gûsh, or inferring one's future from the conversations of those passing by; and the ritual of Gereh-goshā’ī, making a knot in the corner of a handkerchief or garment and asking the first passerby to unravel it in order to remove ones misfortune.

Haft sin table

Haft Sīn (هفت سین) or the seven 'S's is a major tradition of Nowruz. The haft sin table includes seven specific items starting with the letter 'S' or Sīn (س) in Persian alphabet). The items symbolically correspond to seven creations and holy immortals protecting them. The Haft Sin has evolved over time, but has kept its symbolism. Traditionally, families attempt to set as beautiful a Haft Sīn table as they can, as it is not only of traditional and spiritual value, but also noticed by visitors during Nowruzi visitations and is a reflection of their good taste.

The Haft Sīn items are:

sabzeh - wheat, barley or lentil sprouts growing in a dish - symbolizing rebirth
samanu - a sweet pudding made from wheat germ - symbolizing affluence
senjed - the dried fruit of the oleaster tree - symbolizing love
sīr - garlic - symbolizing medicine
sīb - apples - symbolizing beauty and health
somaq - sumac berries - symbolizing (the color of) sunrise
serkeh - vinegar - symbolizing age and patience

Other items on the table may include:

Sonbol - Hyacinth (flower)

Sekkeh - Coins - representative of wealth

traditional Iranian pastries such as baghlava, toot, naan-nokhodchi

Aajeel - dried nuts, berries and raisins

lit candles (enlightenment and happiness)

a mirror (symbolizing cleanness and honesty)

decorated eggs, sometimes one for each member of the family (fertility)

a bowl of water with goldfish (life within life, and the sign of Pisces which the sun is leaving)

rosewater, believed to have magical cleansing powers

the national colours, for a patriotic touch

a holy book (e.g., the Qur'an, Avesta, Bible, Torah, or Kitáb-i-Aqdas) and/or a poetry book (almost always either the Shahnama or the Divan of Hafez)

New Year dishes
Sabzi Polo Mahi: The New Year's day traditional meal is called Sabzi Polo Mahi, which is rice with green herbs served with fish. The traditional seasoning for Sabzi Polo are parsley, coriander, chives, dill and fenugreek.

Reshteh Polo: rice cooked with noodles which is said to symbolically help one succeed in life.

Dolme Barg : A traditional dish of Azeri people, cooked just before the new year. It includes some vegetables, meat and cotyledon which have been cooked and embedded in vine leaf and cooked again. It is considered useful in reaching to wishes.

Kookoo sabzi : Herbs and vegetable souffle, traditionally served for dinner at New Year. A light and fluffy omelet style made from parsley, dill, coriander, spinach, spring onion ends, and chives, mixed with eggs and walnut.

Sizdah Bedar
The thirteenth day of the new year festival is Sizdah Bedar (literally meaning "thirteen to out", figuratively meaning "hit the outdoors on the thirteenth"). This is a day of festivity in the open, often accompanied by music and dancing, usually at family picnics.

Sizdah bedar celebrations stem from the ancient Persians' belief that the twelve constellations in the Zodiac controlled the months of the year, and each ruled the earth for a thousand years at the end of which the sky and earth collapsed in chaos. Hence Nowruz lasts twelve days and the thirteenth day represents the time of chaos when families put order aside and avoid the bad luck associated with the number thirteen by going outdoors and having picnics and parties.

At the end of the celebrations on this day, the sabzeh grown for the Haft Seen (which has symbolically collected all sickness and bad luck) is thrown into running water to exorcise the demons (divs) from the household. It is also customary for young single women to tie the leaves of the sabzeh before discarding it, so expressing a wish to be married before the next year's Sizdah Bedar. Another tradition associated with this day is Dorugh-e Sizdah, literally meaning "the lie of the thirteenth", which is the process of lying to someone and making them believe it (similar to April Fools Day).

Newroz celebration by Kurds
The word 'Newroz' is Kurdish for 'Nowruz'. The Kurds celebrate this feast between 18th till 21st March. It is one of the few ‘peoples celebrations’ that has survived and predates all the major religious festivals. The holiday is considered by Kurds to be the single most important holiday of every year.

With this festival Kurds gather into the fairgrounds mostly outside the cities to welcome spring. Women wear gaily colored dresses and spangled head scarves and young men wave flags of green, yellow and red, the colors of the Kurdish people. They hold this festival by lighting fire and dancing around it ..

The main Kurdish greeting that accompanies the festival is, Newroz pîroz be! literally translating to Holy Newroz, or, simply, Happy Newroz!. Another greeting used is, Bijî Newroz!, simply meaning Long live Newroz!

The festival was illegal until 1995 in Turkey, where the majority of Kurds live [12], and Turkish forces arrested Kurds celebrating Newroz . In Newroz 1992 at least 70 people celebrating the festival were killed in clashes with Turkish security forces . The holiday is now official in Turkey after international pressure on the Turkish government to lift culture bans. Turkish government renamed the holiday Nevruz in 1995, and reclaimed it as a Turkish holiday.

Nowruz is still largely considered as a potent symbol of Kurdish identity in Turkey. Newroz celebrations are usually organised by Kurdish cultural associations and pro-Kurdish political parties. Thus, the Democratic Society Party was a leading force in the organisation of the 2006 Newroz events throughout Turkey. In recent years the Newroz celebration gathers around 1 million participants in Diyarbakır, the biggest city of the Kurdish dominated Southeastern Turkey. As the Kurdish Newroz celebrations in Turkey often are theater for political messages, the events are frequently criticized for rather being political rallies than cultural celebrations.

In other largely populated Kurdish regions in the Middle East including Iraq and Syria, similar celebrations are carried out with fires, dancing and music. In Iran, it is the most important festival of the whole year.

Nowruz in Afghanistan
In Afghanistan, Nowroz festival is traditionally celebrated for 2 weeks. Preparations for Nowroz start several days beforehand, at least after Chaharshanbe Suri, the last Wednesday before the New Year. Among various traditions and customs, the most important ones are:

Haft Mēwa: In Afghanistan, they prepare Haft Mēwa (Seven Fruits) instead of Haft Sin which is common in Iran. Haft Mewa is like a Fruit salad made from 7 different Dried fruits, served in their own syrup. The 7 dried fruits are: Raisin, Senjed (the dried fruit of the oleaster tree), Pistachio, Hazelnut, Prune (dry fruit of Apricot), Walnut and whether Almond or another species of Plum fruit.

Samanak: It is a special type of sweet dish made from Wheat germ. Women take a special party for it during the night, and cook it from late in the evening till the daylight, singing a special song: Samanak dar Josh o mā Kafcha zanem - Degarān dar Khwāb o mā Dafcha zanem

Mēla-e Gul-e Surkh (Persian: ميله‌ى گل سرخ): The Guli Surkh festival which literally means Red Flower Festival (referring to the red Tulip flowers) is an old festival celebrated only in Mazari Sharif during the first 40 days of the year when the Tulip flowers grow. People travel from different parts of the country to Mazar in order to attend the festival.

The Holy Blue Mosque in Mazar I Sharif. Photo: Bob McKerrow

It is celebrated along with the Jahenda Bālā ceremony which is a specific religious ceremony performed in the holy blue mosque of Mazar that is believed (mostly by Sunnite Afghans) to be the site of the tomb of Ali ibn Abi Talib, the fourth caliph of Islam. The ceremony is performed by raising a special banner (whose color configuration resembles Derafsh Kaviani) in the blue mosque in the first day of year (i.e. Nowroz). The Guli Surkh party continues with other special activities among people in the Tulip fields and around the blue mosque for 40 days.

Buzkashi: Along with other customs and celebrations, normally a Buzkashi tournament is held. The Buzkashi matches take place in northern cities of Afghanistan and in Kabul.

The annual Nowruz Buskashi tournament is an important event in Mazar I Sharif and Kabul . Photo: Bob McKerrow

Special cuisines: People cook special types of dishes for Nowroz, especially on the eve of Nowroz. Normally they cook Sabzi Chalaw, a dish made from rice and spinach, separately. Moreover, the bakeries prepare a special type of cookie, called Kulcha-e Nowrozī, which is only baked for Nowroz. Another dish which is prepared mostly for the Nowroz days is Māhī wa Jelabī (Fried Fish and Jelabi) and it is the most often meal in picnics. In Afghanistan, it is a common custom among the affianced families that the fiancé's family give presents to or prepare special dishes for the fiancée's family on special occasions such as in the two Eids, Barā'at and in Nowroz. Hence, the special dish for Nowroz is Māhī wa Jelabī.

Sightseeing to Cercis fields: The citizens of Kabul go to Istalif, Charikar or other green places around where the Cercis flowers grow. They go for picnic with their families during the first 2 weeks of New Year.

Jashni Dehqān: Jashni Dehqan means The Festival of Farmers. It is celebrated in the first day of year, in which the farmers walk in the cities as a sign of encouragement for the agricultural productions. In recent years, this activity is being performed only in Kabul and other major cities, in which the mayor and other high governmental personalities participate for watching and observing.

(left) An Uzbek woman sits by the entrance to a Mosque at Registan, Smarkand. Nowruz is celebrated fervently across Sntral Asia, Iran, Iraq and Afghanistan. Photo: Bob McKerrow

Zoroastrian Faith
Zoroastrians worldwide celebrate Nowruz as the first day of the New Year. Parsi Zoroastrians of South Asian origin celebrate it as "Nowroj", "Navroz", or "Navroj" on the fixed day of March 21, while Zoroastrians of Iranian background generally celebrate, like other Iranians, on the actual Spring Equinox date. Because different Zoroastrian communities in India/Pakistan and Iran have evolved slightly different calendar systems, there is some variance. Adherents of the Fasli variant of the Zoroastrian calendar celebrate Nowruz in March, but today, most other Zoroastrians also celebrate on this day.

Other variants of the Zoroastrian calendar celebrate the Nowruz twice: once as Jamshedi Nowruz on March 21st as the start of spring, and a second Nowruz, in July/August (see Variations of the Zoroastrian calendar), as either new year's eve or new year's day. That the second Nowruz is celebrated after the last day of the year, known as Pateti, which comes after a Muktad period of days remembering the dead. Many Parsis are confused by this, and mistakenly celebrate Pateti as if it were Nowruz, when in fact Nowruz is the day after. Some attribute this confusion by some as celebrating the last day of the year (contrary to what might be expected from a term that means "new day"), may be due to the fact that in ancient Persia the day began at sunset, while in later Persian belief the day began at sunrise.

Zoroastrians of Iranian origin generally put up a Haft Sin table as do other Iranians. Zoroastrians of Parsi (South Asian) origin do not traditionally use a Haft Sin. They set up a standard "sesh" tray- generally a silver tray, with a container of rose water, a container with betel nut, raw rice, raw sugar, flowers, a picture of Zarathustra the prophet, and either a floating wick in a glass filled with water topped with oil for fuel, or an "afargania", a silver urn with a small fire nourished by sandalwood and other fragrant resins.

Bahá'í Faith
Naw-Rúz in the Bahá'í Faith is one of nine holy days for adherents of the Bahá'í Faith worldwide and the first day of the Bahá'í calendar occurring on the vernal equinox, around March 21. The Bahá'í calendar is composed of 19 months, each of 19 days,[17] and each of the months is named after an attribute of God; similarly each of the nineteen days in the month also are named after an attribute of God. The first day and the first month were given the attribute of Bahá, an Arabic word meaning splendour or glory, and thus the first day of the year was the day of Bahá in the month of Bahá.[16][18] Bahá'u'lláh, the founder of the Bahá'í Faith, explained that Naw-Rúz was associated with the Most Great Name of God, and was instituted as a festival for those who observed the Nineteen day fast.

The day is also used to symbolize the renewal of time in each religious dispensation. `Abdu'l-Bahá, Bahá'u'lláh's son and successor, explained that significance of Naw-Rúz in terms of spring and the new life it brings.[16] He explained that the equinox is a symbol of the messengers of God and the message that they proclaim is like a spiritual springtime, and that Naw-Rúz is used to commemorate it.

As with all Bahá'í holy days, there are few fixed rules for observing Naw-Rúz, and Bahá'ís all over the world celebrate it as a festive day, according to local custom. Persian Bahá'ís still observe many of the Iranian customs associated with Nowruz such as the Haft Sîn, but American Bahá'í communities, for example, may have a potluck dinner, along with prayers and readings from Bahá'í scripture.

Nowruz around the world

Nowruz is celebrated in Greater Iran, Caucasus, Central Asia and by Iranians worldwide. It is a public holiday in: Iran, Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan , Tajikistan , Uzbekistan, Afghanistan, Kazakhstan, Kashmir, and Kyrgyzstan.

In Albania Sultan Nevruz is celebrated as a manily mystical day by the Bektashi sect, there are special ceremonies in the Tekke led by the clergy and large meals are served there. It is considered the historical Albanian New Year by the Bektashis, who refer to old Illyrian evidence.

Nowruz is also celebrated by Kurds in Iraq and Turkey  as well as by Parsis in India and Pakistan.

Other notable celebrations take place by Iranians around the world, such as Los Angeles, Toronto, Cologne and in United Kingdom, mainly in London.

But because Los Angeles is prone to devastating fires, there are very strict fire codes in the city. No fires are allowed even on one's own property. Usually, Iranians and Azerbaijanis living in Southern California go to the beaches to celebrate the event where it is permissible to build fires.

In Afghanistan during the reign of the Taliban, Nowruz was banned until 2001 where it came back as popular as it was before the Taliban.

Friday, 18 March 2011

Nuclear power will be the death of us

As a teenager I spent many hours over a number of years listening to a wise man, Warrington Taylor. (pictured right) A lawyer by profession who had read everything available in English on Hiroshima, Nagasaki and on nuclear fuel, nuclear power and nuclear weapons.

He said simply one day when sitting overlooking the river that flows into the small fishing port at Karitane, Otago, New Zealand, " if we don't continue to fight for nuclear disarmament and the use of nuclear power, it will be the death of us."

First there was Chernobyl, and now we see what is happening in Japan.

Having known Warrington Taylor's very clear and outspoken (at the time) views on nuclear holocausts and accidents ocurring, I can only write in support of a man who in 1960, was publicly ridiculed, when he stood for an Independent candidate on the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament ticket in Dunedin Central electorate in the general elections.. He was labelled a crackpot, certainly eccentric and got few votes.

On 22 February he lost his son Brian in the tragic Christchurch earthquake and now his nightmare of a nuclear holocaust is a possiblity. (Photo: below) Brian used to play the guitar well, and we used to sing the Joan Baez song 'The Times they are a changing' often and Warrington loved the words, especially this verse.

Come senators, congressmen
Please heed the call
Don't stand in the doorway
Don't block up the hall
For he that gets hurt
Will be he who has stalled
There's a battle outside ragin'.
It'll soon shake your windows
And rattle your walls
For the times they are a-changin'.

So to Warrington and Brian, I believe you are together now and you will be looking down on your nuclear prediction, a world destroying itself. I would like to write a little about a man who did so much for nuclear disarmament legislation in new Zealand, and for me personally.

I have a blog on Warrington Taylor is you want to know more about this remarkable man.

He was a pioneer in New Zealand's actions and policies on anti-nuclear legislation.Warrington Taylor was a generation ahead of his time. He had a huge influence on future generations of NZ leaders and politicians and his acts of courage and determination led to barring nuclear-armed ships into New Zealand..

In 1984, Prime Minister David Lange barred nuclear-powered or nuclear-armed ships from using New Zealand ports or entering New Zealand waters. Under the New Zealand Nuclear Free Zone, Disarmament, and Arms Control Act 1987,territorial sea, land and airspace of New Zealand became nuclear-free zones. This has since become a sacrosanct touchstone of New Zealand foreign policy.
Karitane, where I used to have holidays with Warrington and Brian Taylor. A peaceful place. Photo: Brian Taylor.

The Act prohibits "entry into the internal waters of New Zealand 12 miles (22.2 km) radius by any ship whose propulsion is wholly or partly dependent on nuclear power" and bans the dumping of radioactive waste within the nuclear-free zone, as well as prohibiting any New Zealand citizen or resident "to manufacture, acquire, possess, or have any control over any nuclear explosive device."The nuclear-free zone Act does not make building land-based nuclear power plants illegal.

After the Disarmament and Arms Control Act was passed by the Lange Labour government, the United States government suspended its ANZUS obligations to New Zealand. The legislation was a milestone in New Zealand's development as a nation and seen as an important act of sovereignty, self-determination and cultural identity. New Zealand's three decade anti-nuclear campaign is the only successful movement of its type in the world which resulted in the nation's nuclear-free zone status being enshrined in legislation.

But first, a bit more history:

Initial seeds were sown for New Zealand's 1987 nuclear free zone legislation in the late 1950s with the formation of the local Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) organisation between 1957-59. Warrington Taylor led the CND movement in Dunedin, my home town, and further afield. In 1959, responding to rising public concern following the British H-Bomb tests in Australia and the Pacific, New Zealand voted in the UN to condemn nuclear testing while the UK, US and France voted against, and Australia abstained. In 1961, CND urged the New Zealand government to declare that it would not acquire or use nuclear weapons and to withdraw from nuclear alliances such as ANZUS. In 1963, the Auckland CND campaign submitted its 'No Bombs South of the Line' petition to the New Zealand parliament with 80,238 signatures calling on the government to sponsor an international conference to discuss establishing a nuclear-free-zone in the southern hemisphere. It was the biggest petition in the nation since the one in 1893 which demanded that women must have the right to vote.

Mururoa atoll, and its sister atoll Fangataufa, in French Polynesia in the southern Pacific Ocean were officially established by France as a nuclear test site on September 21, 1962 and extensive nuclear testing occurred between 1966 and 1996. The first nuclear test, codenamed Aldebaran, was conducted on July 2, 1966 and forty-one atmospheric nuclear tests were conducted at Mururoa between 1966 and 1974.

In March 1976 over 20 anti nuclear and environmental groups, including Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth, met in Wellington and formed a loose coalition called the Campaign for Non-Nuclear Futures (CNNF). The coalitions mandate was to oppose the introduction of nuclear power and to promote renewable energy alternatives such as wind, wave, solar and geothermal power. They launched Campaign Half Million. CNNF embarked on a national education exercise producing the largest petition against nuclear power in New Zealand's history with 333,087 signatures by October 1976. This represented over 10% of New Zealand's total population of 3 million. At this time, New Zealand's only ever nuclear reactor was a small sub-critical reactor that had been installed at the School of Engineering of the University of Canterbury in 1962. It had been given by the United States' Atoms for Peace programme and was used for training electrical engineers in nuclear techniques. It was dismantled in 1981.

Regional anti-nuclear sentiment was consolidated in 1985 when eight of the thirteen South Pacific Forum nations signed the South Pacific Nuclear Free Zone Treaty or Treaty of Rarotonga.

Mururoa protests 
Community inspired anti-nuclear sentiments largely contributed to the New Zealand Labour Party election victory under Norman Kirk in 1972. Also in 1972, the International Court of Justice (case launched by Australia and New Zealand), ordered that the French cease atmospheric nuclear testing at Mururoa atoll.[18] However, the French ignored this ruling. Mururoa was the site of numerous protests by various vessels, including the Rainbow Warrior. In a symbolic act of protest the Kirk government sent two of its navy frigates, HMNZS Canterbury and Otago, into the test zone area in 1973. A Cabinet Minister (Fraser Colman) was randomly selected to accompany this official New Zealand Government protest fleet. This voyage included a number of local kiwi peace organisations who had organised an international flotilla of protest yachts that accompanied the frigates into the Mururoa zone. Many of the early NZ peace activists and organisations were enthusiastic young hippies and students, many of whom were involved with the counter-culture and the original opposition to the Vietnam War movements.

But let's remember and thank Warrington Taylor for his contribution to making New Zealand a nuclear free country and pray that things do not get out of control in Japan where they have  raised the alert level at its quake-damaged nuclear plant from four to five on a seven-point international scale of atomic incidents.

Steam rises from the No.3 reactor at the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power complex, March 16.

The crisis at the Fukushima Daiichi site, previously rated as a local problem, is now regarded as having "wider consequences".
The UN says the battle to stabilise the plant is a race against time.

The crisis was prompted by last week's huge quake and tsunami, which has left at least 17,000 people dead or missing.

Japanese nuclear officials said core damage to reactors 2 and 3 had prompted the raising of the severity grade.

The 1979 incident at Three Mile Island in the US was also rated at five on the scale, whereas the 1986 Chernobyl disaster was rated at seven.

Further heavy snowfall overnight all but ended hopes of rescuing anyone else from the rubble after the 9.0-magnitude quake and tsunami.

Millions of people have been affected by the disaster - many survivors have been left without water, electricity, fuel or enough food; hundreds of thousands are homeless.

Japan's upgrading of the Fukushima incident from severity four to five stems from concerns about the reactors in buildings 1, 2 and 3, rather than the cooling ponds storing spent fuel.

Level five is defined as an "accident with wider consequences". This was the level given to the 1957 reactor fire at Windscale in the UK and the partial meltdown of the Three Mile Island plant in the US in 1979.

Both met the level five definition of "limited release" of radioactive materials to the wider environment.

Windscale is believed to have caused about 200 cases of cancer, whereas reports into the Three Mile Island incident suggest there were no health impacts outside the site.

French and US officials had previously said the Fukushima situation was more serious than Japanese evaluations suggested.

Higher radiation levels than normal have been recorded in a few places 30km from the site, but in Tokyo, they were reported to be normal.

The national police say 6,911 people are known to have died in the disaster, and 10,316 are still missing.

On Friday, people across Japan observed a minute's silence at 1446 (0546 GMT), exactly one week after the disaster.

As the country paused to remember, relief workers toiling in the ruins bowed their heads, and some elderly survivors in evacuation centres wept.

Japanese officials continue to try to reassure people that the radiation risk is virtually nil outside the 30-km (18-mile) exclusion zone around the plant.

But foreign governments are taking wider precautions - Spain has joined Britain, the US and other countries in organising the evacuation of any of their citizens who are concerned.

And panic has spread overseas, with shops in parts of the US being stripped of iodine pills, which can protect against radiation, and Asian airports scanning passengers from Japan for possible contamination.

Shoppers in China have been panic-buying salt in the mistaken belief that it can guard against radiation exposure.
Meanwhile, Prime Minister Naoto Kan told a national television address: "We will rebuild Japan from scratch. We must all share this resolve."

He said the natural disaster and nuclear crisis were a "great test for the Japanese people", but exhorted them all to persevere..

International Atomic Energy Agency chief Yukiya Amano arrived earlier in Tokyo and warned the Fukushima crisis was a "race against the clock".

The IAEA announced it would hold a special board meeting on Monday to discuss Mr Amano's findings.

The Fukushima plant's operator Tokyo Electric Power (Tepco) said it was not ruling out the option of entombing the plant in concrete to prevent a radiation leak; a similar method was used at Chernobyl.

Fractured Fukushima

Reactor 1: Fuel rods damaged after explosion last Saturday

Reactor 2: Damage to the core, prompted by a blast on Tues, helped prompt raising of the nuclear alert level

Reactor 3: Contains plutonium, core damaged by explosion on Monday; roof blown off building; water level in fuel pools said to be dangerously low

Reactor 4: Hit by explosion on Tuesday, fire on Wednesday; roof blown off building; water level in fuel pools said to be dangerously low

Reactors 5 and 6: Spent fuel pool temperatures way above normal levels

Military fire trucks have been spraying the plant's overheating reactor units for a second day.

Water in at least two fuel pools - in reactor buildings 3 and 4 - is believed to be dangerously low, exposing the stored fuel rods.

This increases the chance of radioactive substances being released from the rods.

An electricity line has been bulldozed through to the site and engineers are racing to connect it, but they are being hampered  by radiation.

The plant's operators need the power cable to restart water pumps that pour cold water on the reactor units.

Military helicopters which dropped water from above on Thursday have been kept on standby.