The World Today for March 21, 2019

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Steps Forward, Steps Backward

BBC reporters recently discovered a sad date scribbled on a school blackboard in Foubé in northern Burkina Faso: December 15, 2018.

That’s the last time children attended class in the building.

“A lot of schools have been torched. Teachers have been attacked and some even killed,” headteacher Samuel Sawadogo told the BBC. “When a teacher is killed, no one does anything – so we have to save ourselves.”

Education and other services have stopped in sections of the landlocked West African country following an explosion of violence stemming from Islamist militants who became active around three years ago.

The tragedy is that, until recently, Burkina Faso had been one of the rare countries in the region that avoided jihadist violence. The fighting started, however, when an insurrection toppled former president Blaise Compaoré after 27 years in power, noted an Al Jazeera video. Now, unrest that has been rampant in Mali, Niger and Libya has bled into the country.

Now potential links between al Qaeda and the jihadist groups have led the US to consider whether to send military advisers and drones to the country on the edge of the Sahara, CNN reported.

The jihadists have sparked further violence between ethnic communities in the north, where the majority Mossi people have accused Fulani herders of supporting the terrorists. The fighting has also prompted 115,000 people to seek safety in emergency camps, overloading government officials and international aid agencies, the United Nations Refugee Agency said in a press release. It warned that the situation would likely grow worse.

Bibata Diande was in her last year of high school when she fled torch-wielding terrorists who rode into her village on motorcycles in January. “We brought nothing,” she told Reuters at the camp for displaced people where her family now lives. “I do nothing all day.”

This year, the government of President Roch Marc Christian Kaboré declared a state of emergency, giving expanded power to security forces fighting Ansarul Islam and other jihadist groups, wrote the Defense Post.

Those forces have come under criticism, however. The Burkinabé Movement for Human and Peoples’ Rights recently reported that while the government claimed it had “neutralized” almost 150 terrorists, in fact the troops had summarily executed 60 people who were mostly Fulani – raising questions about whether the military was acting illegally against a minority group.

On March 24, voters in Burkina Faso are slated to vote in a referendum that would reduce the power of the president and enact other reforms, like an independent judiciary.

It’s a pity the country might soon take a step forward even while still losing ground.



Happy, Still

Finland topped the list of the happiest countries in the world for the second year in a row, and the US fell to its lowest level yet according to the World Happiness Report released Wednesday.

The top ten included four other Nordic countries, the UK’s Daily Mail reported, namely Norway, Denmark, Sweden and Iceland. The US fell to 19 out of 156 countries from as high as 14 two years ago.

Happiness and misery are fuzzy concepts, of course, so the report considers factors like life expectancy, social support and corruption. With those factors in mind, it’s no surprise that South Sudan ranked dead last.

The CEO of the Copenhagen-based Happiness Research Institute credited the Nordic countries for “converting wealth into well-being.” In contrast, Jeffrey D. Sachs, director of the Center for Sustainable Development at Columbia University, said rising incomes in the US have been accompanied by “worsening health conditions for much of the population, declining social trust, and declining confidence in government.”


Justice, Upheld

A United Nations appeals court in the Hague on Wednesday upheld the convictions of former Bosnian Serb President Radovan Karadzic for genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes and sentenced him to life in prison.

Karadzic, 73, stood and accepted the sentence without much outward display of emotion, but survivors of his crimes burst into applause and wept and hugged one another, the Associated Press reported.

Prosecutor Serge Brammertz said the verdict should finally quiet supporters in Bosnia who continue to see Karadzic as a hero. But Karadzic’s lawyer, Peter Robinson, said that Karadzic criticized the ruling as motivated by politics.

The former leader was earlier sentenced to 40 years in 2016, but Brammertz said that sentence “underestimates the extraordinary gravity of Karadzic’s responsibility and his integral participation in the most egregious of crimes.”

The verdict comes after the suspect in the New Zealand mosque slayings provided a grim reminder of Karadzic’s crimes, as his notorious video of the attack depicts him listening to a Bosnian Serb song that praises the war criminal.


Tragedy Befalls Tragedy

An Italian bus driver kidnapped 51 seventh graders Wednesday, pouring gasoline on the floor of the bus and setting it ablaze in response to the large numbers of migrants who die attempting to cross the Mediterranean from North Africa to Europe.

The Italian carabinieri, or military police, managed to rescue all the children, as well as two teachers and a janitor, as the bus burst into flames, the New York Times reported.

In the wake of months of fierce anti-immigrant rhetoric from Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini of the far-right League party, the narrowly averted tragedy sent an ominous signal about the deep fissures in Italian society.

Osseynou Sy, an Italian of Senegalese origin, said that “he wanted to vindicate the dead of the Mediterranean,” according to a carabinieri spokesman. Around 282 people have drowned attempting the crossing this year, though migrant arrivals to Italy are down 94 percent from a year earlier according to the interior ministry.


Hear Me Sing

For over a century, scientists have been trying to determine the origin of human speech by studying other mammals, such as monkeys and mice.

Until recently, trained monkeys had displayed an ability to control sound in a complex way similar to human speech, but no such thing had been seen in mice.

Scientists, however, have discovered that a mouse native to the mountains of Central America is able to engage in “conversations” similar to those of humans, the New York Times reported.

The mice, known as Alston’s singing mice, produce their own “songs” when communicating, but unlike other rodents, their chatter doesn’t overlap.

Neuroscientist Michael A. Long and his team discovered this after noting that two male specimens were taking turns talking to each other – as if they were having a conversation.

“They’re polite in conversation,” said Arkarup Banerjee, one of Long’s team members.

The team studied a patch in the critters’ brain cortex, which is essential for controlling their singing, and concluded that it was crucial to the mice’s special communication.

“We think of it as a conductor,” Long said. “It allows the animals to sing in this turn-taking way.”

Long’s research could help understand the evolution of human speech, but also suggests that the singing mice might make good models for studying why autistic people have difficulty with conversations.

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