THE WRAP — 27 August 2016

The Italian earthquake

A frantic search for survivors continues across the Umbrian countryside after Wednesday’s late night earthquake levelled several towns. Rescuers are using bulldozers and specially trained dogs to sift through misshapen piles of stone that were once historic churches, homes, and hotels. The death toll currently stands at 250 but is expected to rise further since hundreds are still missing. The US Geological Survey say the earthquake measured 6.2 on the Richter scale, striking near the town of Norcia in the early hours of Thursday morning. It was felt two hundred kilometres away in Rome and Naples. Initial efforts to scour the ruins were frustrated on Thursday when a series of strong aftershocks collapsed already damaged buildings.

The idyllic 15th-century town of Amatrice was among the worst hit; the local Mayor estimates that 1 in 10 of the town’s population of 2,000 may have perished. A famed 16th-century clocktower still stands amongst rubble-strewn streets, it’s clock stuck on 3:36. The town was teeming with tourists and foodies ahead of this weekend’s scheduled food festival (the well-known pasta dish Amatriciana originated there). As many as 25 tourists are believed to be beneath the rubble of one collapsed hotel, and at least half the town’s structures have been flattened. Pescara del Tronto, Arquata del Tronto, and Accumoli have also been devastated. An entire family was killed instantly in Accumoli when the city’s famous 12th century church tower collapsed onto their home.

From Rome, Italy’s Prime Minister Matteo Renzi has announced an emergency relief package for the affected towns, saying that, “Today is a day for tears, tomorrow we can talk of reconstruction.” Questions are already being raised as to why Italy, the most earthquake-prone of all Western European nations, is still so vulnerable. It is reminiscent of the 2009 L’Aquila earthquake that killed 300 and destroyed many priceless historic buildings. Anti-earthquake building standards that were implemented in 1980 have been largely ignored and it’s estimated that 70% of all Italian buildings constructed in the interim do not abide by them. Efforts to reinforce the nation’s substantial number of historic buildings (many towns in Central Italy are over 500 years old) have been piecemeal. Fear for the loss of churches, palaces, artworks, and antiques runs high as people begin counting the costs of the quake.

France’s Burkini controversy

The photograph above, which depicts a Muslim woman being forced to disrobe at the beach by armed French police, has electrified debate surrounding France’s ‘Burkini’ ban. The photo went viral this week; galvanising critics of the ban and igniting internal conflicts about France’s self-image. The ban has been criticised for being anti-libertarian, Islamophobic, and sexist, with critics across the globe pointing out that forcing a woman to take off her clothing is as disrespectful as forcing one to cover themselves up. All across France debates are being had as the French try to resolve this conflict between their two cherished ideals: feminism and secularism. The highest court in the land began hearing arguments this week from the Human Rights League who hope to have the ban overturned.

The controversy over the Burkini started following the atrocity committed in Nice by an ISIS-sympathiser in July. Since then, the French Riviera has experienced a stiffening of anti-Muslim sentiment. Several towns have banned the ‘Burkini’ (which is essentially full-body swimwear for anyone who wishes to cover themselves — not just Muslims, and not even just women). The rationale for the ban is that the ‘Burkini’ conspicuously displays one’s religion, and that evokes strong emotions in a state that was founded upon fiercely secular ideals. It is worth noting that this is not the first such action to have taken place in France. In 2010, the French government opted to ban the burqa and niqab from public spaces, again with mixed results.

Public spats have emerged between leading French politicians, most notably Prime Minster Manuel Valls (a supporter of the ban who somehow tenuously links the ‘Burkini’ with slavery) and his Muslim-born education minister Najat Vallaud-Belkacem. At a public forum between London Mayor Sadiq Khan and his Parisian counterpart, Anne Hidalgo, Khan demanded an end to the “hysteria” of the ban. The two cities, and indeed the two countries, are experiencing a similar rise in right-wing Islamophobic sentiment. On Thursday, a group of 30 Muslim and non-Muslim women hosted a ‘beach party’ in front of the French embassy in London. The protesters dumped sand near the front of the building and wore all manner of swimwear to highlight the normality of ‘Burkinis’.

Afghanistan’s deadly university attack

Kabul was shaken on Wednesday night when two heavily-armed men detonated a car bomb in front of the American University of Afghanistan and fought their way into the compound. Moving from building to building, the gunmen killed at least 12 students and staff, and wounded 44 more. The ordeal lasted for hours before the pair of assailants was finally killed by security forces on Thursday morning. Many survivors had to pretend they were already dead as the fighting swept through classrooms. Although no group has claimed responsibility, the Afghan Taliban remains the prime suspect. Violence has spiralled out of control in 2016 as the Taliban has vigorously renewed its attacks on the central government; a record-breaking number of civilians have been killed in the first half of the year.

Trump and Clinton trade blows

Hillary Clinton has launched a blistering attack on Donald Trump for allowing an “emerging racist ideology” into the Republican Party platform. She zeroed-in specifically on Trump’s new campaign chief executive Steve Bannon, the former head of ulta-right website ‘Breitbart News’. Bannon’s website is credited with driving a large portion of disaffected young white supremacists (the “alt-right” movement) into Trump’s arms. Meanwhile Trump has repeated accused his rival for being a “bigot” towards African-Americans. The Republican candidate also appears to have backed down on his bizarre promise to deport 12 million undocumented immigrants in one day. Clinton’s attack this week successfully hijacked the news cycle which had begun to turn on her after the latest turn in her email controversy. The FBI has requested 15 million emails from the Clinton Foundation to search for improper ‘cash-for-access’ deals.

Turkish troops in Syria

Turkey has forcefully intervened in the Syrian Civil War, sending tanks and special forces soldiers across its Southern border to expel ISIS from the border town of Jarablus. More than 1,500 Free Syrian Army (a Turkish proxy) fighters, backed by Coalition airstrikes, successfully drove ISIS forces from the town. Jarablus is a key town on the Western bank of the Euphrates river, a strategically vital waterway. The heavy presence of Turkish armour suggests that the operation is directed as much at their enemies in the Kurdish SDF militia. The US-backed SDF has been the most effective anti-ISIS fighting force in northern Syria for years, but Turkey is wary of the Kurds creating an independent state along its border. Clashes have already broken out between the FSA and SDF, presumably two groups that should be allies in the fight against ISIS and the Syrian government.

Brigadier Nils Olav — Sir Nils Olav, pride of the King of Norway Guard, has been promoted to the rank of brigadier in a full military ceremony. Olav, a penguin (but not just ANY penguin), had previously been knighted. Now he’s had another promotion. What you see in the image above is Sir Nils actually performing an inspection of the Guard. You couldn’t really blame Sweden if they were tempted to invade Norway…

The Pearl Fisher — A little over 10 years ago, a fisherman from Palawan Island in the Philippines got his anchor caught on a giant clam. When he opened it, he found a big rock. For reasons that are not understood, he decided to keep that rock under his bed as a ‘good luck charm’, and there it lay for a decade. Except that now someone has finally realised that the rock, which weights 34 kilograms, is in fact the world’s largest pearl. Its estimated value? A cool $140 million. So what’s under YOUR bed?

Edible batteries — Scientists have built an edible battery using skin pigments that can be used to power futuristic electronic medical devices implanted in the body. The best bit? It is made from pig freckles! We can’t wait to see what they do with the moles.

No more Harambe jokes — The zookeepers at Cincinnati Zoo have begged the immature denizens of the internet to stop making jokes about Harambe (their dead gorilla). The zoo had to kill the gorilla earlier in the year after a child fell into its enclosure. The meme started after a spate of rage from animal activists who felt that the child’s mother was to blame for the incident. RIP Harambe.

The saddest thing we heard this week was the admission (even though it is a step in the right direction) that the United Nations had inadvertently facilitated the spread of cholera in overcrowded camps which housed displaced Haitians following the devastating 2010 earthquake. The disease proved nearly impossible to contain and killed more than 10,000 people.

On the other hand, the single best news story we saw all week was this: The rebel group FARC finalised its peace deal with the Colombian government and ended the Western hemisphere’s longest war (52 years). A conflict that had claimed nearly a quarter of a million lives. Bravo.

That’s it for another week. Rest up.

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