Mass graves fuel fears of ethnic bloodshed in South Sudan

Thursday, 15. August 2019

Volatile situation … United Nations Mission in Sudan (UNAMIS) personnel guard South Sudanese people displaced by recent fighting in Jabel, on the outskirts of that capital Juba.Cairo: The United Nations says it has discovered a mass grave containing at least 34 bodies in Benitu in South Sudan and warns there are reports of two more mass graves in the capital, Juba, as the country slips further into chaos following more than a week of deadly clashes.

Originally the UN said 75 bodies had been seen but later corrected that statement to 34 bodies seen and 75 people missing and feared dead.

The gruesome discoveries come as the UN pushes to nearly double the size of its mission to South Sudan, which now stands at 6700 UN troops and 670 police officers.

The Security Council was due to vote overnight on a resolution approving the extra 5500 peacekeeping troops.

International mediation efforts have so far failed to halt the clashes, which broke out in the capital Juba on December 15 and have now reached the oil fields in Benitu in Unity State, the cornerstone of the fledgling country’s economy.

The official death toll remains at 500, although observers say at least thousands if not more have died.

“Mass extrajudicial killings, the targeting of individuals on the basis of their ethnicity and arbitrary detentions have been documented in recent days,” the United Nations human rights chief Navi Pillay said in a statement on Tuesday.

“There are reportedly at least two other mass graves in Juba,” she said, believed to be in the areas of Jebel-Kujur and Newside.

Tensions in South Sudan’s governing party emerged in July when President Salva Kiir, who is from the majority Dinka group, sacked his deputy Riek Machar, who is from the second largest group, the Nuer. Those tensions spilled over into fighting in the capital on December 15.

Now, Pillay says, “there is a palpable fear among civilians of both Dinka and Nuer backgrounds that they will be killed on the basis of their ethnicity”.

“There needs to be clear statements and clear steps from all those in positions of political and military control that human rights violations will not be tolerated and those responsible will be brought to justice.”

At least 80,000 people have been internally displaced by the crisis, with many seeking refuge in UN compounds around the country.

However, the total number of those forced to flee the fighting is believed to be much, much higher, as people take shelter in churches and other locations, the UN reported.

Several hundred civilians were reportedly arrested in house-to-house searches in Juba, while hundreds of members of the South Sudan National Police Service are also believed to have been arrested in police stations around the capital, the UN says.

Last week, United Nations officials said 2000 armed youths had attacked one of its bases in the town of Akobo, killing at least 11 civilians who were sheltering there and two of the peacekeepers trying to protect them.

Both President Kiir and the deposed deputy president Machar, who is now essentially leading the rebel movement against the government, have indicated a willingness to negotiate, but a government official told Reuters it would not meet Machar’s demands that detained opposition leaders be released.

The United States special envoy to Sudan and South Sudan, Donald Booth, met President Kiir in the capital and was granted access to 11 senior opposition politicians who “remain detained in Juba”.

“I can report that they are secure and well taken care of. These individuals communicated to me their desire – and their readiness – to play a constructive role in ending the crisis through peaceful political dialogue and national reconciliation.”

South Sudan only became a nation on July 9, 2011, after a decades-long civil war with the north left more than a million dead. It has experienced internal conflict ever since.

With AP

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Car bomb kills 15 in Egypt, raises fears of violence in Nile Delta

Thursday, 15. August 2019

Cairo: In one of the deadliest attacks since the Egyptian army deposed Mohamed Mursi from the presidency in July, a car bomb tore through a building in the northern city of Mansoura, killing 15 and injuring at least 140 people.

The blast was so powerful it reportedly shattered windows in buildings kilometres away, ripping apart the five-story building that housed the Daqahliya security directorate.

The attack sparked fears that deadly six-month campaign of violence in the North Sinai against police and security forces that has killed at least 200 was spilling over into the Nile Delta, and raised concerns about the environment in which Egypt will conduct a referendum on its new constitution next month.

Following the attack the cabinet released a statement declaring the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organisation, although interim Prime Minister Hazem Beblawi stopped short of openly blaming them for the attack.

Not so the cabinet spokesman Sherif Shawki, who was quoted by the Middle East News Agency as saying the Brotherhood had shown its “ugly face as a terrorist organisation shedding blood and messing with Egypt’s security”,

The Brotherhood condemned the bombing, releasing a statement on Tuesday saying it “considers this act as a direct attack on the unity of the Egyptian people.”

No one had claimed responsibility for the Mansoura bombing by Tuesday night, although it came a day after an al-Qaeda-linked group believed to be based in the Sinai called on police and army personnel to desert or face death.

In November a car bomb killed 10 soldiers in the Sinai, and 24 policemen died in an August ambush, meanwhile, there has been an ongoing Egyptian army operation in the Sinai in order, it says, to rein in the militants.

Speaking at a public forum on Monday, Egypt’s military spokesman Ahmed Mohammed Ali said the army crackdown has killed 184 militants and arrested 803 others.

But as human rights groups and most journalists have been denied access to the area, the details are impossible to confirm.

As darkness fell on Tuesday local media reported that crowds of people had stormed Mansoura – about 110 kilometres north of Cairo – torching buildings and shops they believed to be owned by Muslim Brotherhood.

Human rights groups fear that the bombing will lead to a further tightening of security and more abuses of power, as the mass arrests of Muslim Brotherhood members widens to include activists prominent in the January 25 revolution that overthrew the former leader Hosni Mubarak.

The bomb blast and its aftermath would create an atmosphere in which the referendum will take place as “anything but free and fair”, said Tamara Alrifai, a spokeswoman for Human Rights Watch in Egypt.

The interim government had already begun a campaign to encourage Egyptians to vote ‘yes’ in the January 14 referendum.

“Increased security, increased intimidation, but also increased attacks if they happen, will not make it easy for those who want to vote ‘no’ to go and vote ‘no’,” Ms Alrifai told Fairfax Media.

“Even before what happened today we had a concern about [whether] people could really express their opposition to the referendum.”

Last week prosecutors ordered Mursi and other Brotherhood leaders to stand trial on charges including working with foreign militants to carry out terrorist attacks in Egypt – charges the Brotherhood denies.

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How a Christmas baby grew into the Grinch

Thursday, 15. August 2019

It’s hard sharing your birthday with the world’s Christian population.Lesley Picking describes how sharing your birthday with Christmas has its pitfalls and what it’s really like watching others open presents on the big day.

I’ve always hated Christmas, but I’m getting better at hiding it as the years go on.

I’m one of those people who get harassed when they have to disclose their date of birth: the 25th of December.

“Oh you’re a Christmas baby!” people exclaim. I secretly seethe inside. All I want to do is finish filling in whatever form I’ve had to provide my ID and date of birth for; instead, I have to answer a raft of questions.

Yes, I often only get one present.

Yes, I did find it hard as a child, seeing everyone else open gifts on my birthday.

No, I’ve never had a birthday party on my birthday.

And yes, I did grow up with a deep jealousy of other people who had a special day just for them, and who didn’t have to share their celebrations with the entire Christian population of the world.

We did try alternatives. One year my mother nominated a birthday date in the middle of the year for my one and only party, but it felt fake and hollow, and everybody knew it wasn’t really my birthday. It didn’t go well at all.

As the baby in a family of six kids, my mum and dad were stretched financially during December, and the gifts and fuss I received certainly didn’t compare to what some friends got for their birthday or even Christmas. It was hard to understand how I was expected to enjoy my combined celebration books and hula-hoop when Santa had brought the kid nextdoor a bike. I thought that as part of his cost saving, Santa had figured out that I didn’t need much as I’d get otherwise. Santa sucked.

As I got older I learned not to be too hopeful about my special day. If I knew in advance I would be jealous and upset, then it didn’t hurt so much.

Thus my “grinchiness” emerged.

Having children shifted the focus – it’s much easier to grit your teeth when your kids are happy. As a single mum I ignored my birthday and focused on showing the kids and extended family a good time. Of course that involved cooking and hosting visitors and running around organising things, but hey, people shouldn’t miss out on their celebrations just because I got a year older, should they?

Then a couple of years ago I married my Mr Right, and for my birthday he organised the most amazing experience. We ran away camping, far from the decorations and lights and advertising, and pretended it wasn’t Christmas. It was my first real birthday and I loved it. But with five kids between us we can’t do that every year.

Now that we have our first grandchild, the fun in the planning is reappearing. I can focus on her and ignore the fact that my birthday gifts (if I get any) will be wrapped in Christmas paper, that I’m not likely to get any cards, and some family members will be so distracted they won’t remember to say happy birthday until mid-afternoon.

I admit I have a terrible hang-up about the whole ordeal. I’ve spent my lifetime feeling cheated and sad every time I see a garland of tinsel.

I also know that I’m only speculating about what birthdays are like for others. Maybe I have it all wrong and everybody’s birthday feels like just another day? Maybe it doesn’t feel special and unique and just for them?

I have a dream that one day I will go to a restaurant on my birthday for the very first time, and the menu won’t contain ham or turkey or brandy snaps. There will be a cake with candles and friends with gifts who won’t have anywhere to rush off to. And the only decoration in the place will be a banner that reads ‘happy birthday’.

Until then, I’ll enjoy the good food I prepare, and relish not having to go to work on my birthday. But please, when you pull a cracker this year, spare a thought for all the Christmas babies doing dishes, or cooking a BBQ, and just wishing they were somewhere else.

– ©Fairfax NZ

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Workplace crush, with beer

Thursday, 15. August 2019

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Kate and Luke work in a Chicago micro-brewery. They both have partners outside its friendly walls, although their respective relationships are at different points on the graph; Kate’s boyfriend, Chris, is resolutely withdrawing from her, while Luke and Anna are skirting around discussing the nitty-gritty of weddings. Like most people, however, they spend most of their time at work. They josh each other and share lunches. They are recognised at work as besties. They go for drinks after work. A lot of drinks.

“Most people in their lives have been through this,” says Swanberg. “You have a crush on someone you work with or someone to whom you’re in close proximity. You have trouble navigating that or you kind of vacillate between wanting that to become something more and feeling bad about the person you’re with, that you’re emotionally cheating.”

Swanberg’s films rely on actors, along with audiences, having been through similar rites of passage: all the dialogue is improvised, with actors called upon to tell stories that may well be their own. “One of the reasons I fell in love with movies is the voyeuristic peek it gives you into other people’s experiences.”

Among aficionados, Joe Swanberg is the leading light of mumblecore, the American school of low-fi film-making that uses digital cameras, tiny crews, free locations and frequently improvised scripts to deliver slices of ordinary 20-something life. As in the real world, improvising actors tend to talk over each other and leave sentences unfinished, hence the “mumblecore” moniker. Being cheap, it is also quick. Swanberg has been remarkably prolific, making 16 features in less than nine years and, at 32, has already been the subject of several retrospectives. Unfortunately, his films to date have been so definitively indie that they have largely been seen at festivals.

Drinking Buddies is his move into the slightly-less-smalltime; instead of his usual two crew and three actors, he had 40 crew and 20 actors, including recognisable faces Olivia Wilde (Kate) and Anna Kendrick (Anna); Luke is played by Jake Johnson, a television actor who was recommended to Swanberg by his friend Lizzie Caplan. “The casting process for my movies is interesting because there are a few things I really want to know about these people,” he says. “One of them is whether they have a rich, interesting life outside their acting work. I am going to be putting them in a lot of situations where they are going to have to talk and I need to make sure that all of their stories don’t circle back to some experience they had on a film set.”

A significant slice of experience he brought along himself was his interest in brewing. “I’m a home brewer and a big beer geek, so partially this was a selfish chance to get to spend a lot of time in a brewery,” he says. “The location is beautiful – all those big silver tanks look great on camera – but to me is also represents a growing scene of a return to craft, artisanal products and locally produced things.” Rather like his own films, in fact – because even with a 40-strong crew and a professed love of romantic comedy, Swanberg is not about to succumb to the cinematic equivalents of Anheuser-Busch. “I have a lot of friends who work in craft breweries,” he says, “This was a chance to show them the right way, rather than a big studio comedy doing a bad job of it.”

Drinking Buddies screens exclusively at Cinema Nova from Boxing Day.

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Boxing Day movies: All eyes on cinema’s blockbuster season

Thursday, 15. August 2019

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

Boxing Day movies

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Like cinema-goers all over the country, Australian filmmaker Jonathan Teplitzky always looks forward to Boxing Day at the movies.

“It’s always a nice thing to take the kids to,” says the director of Better Than Sex, Gettin’ Square and Burning Man. “It’s a good tradition.”

And so it is: it’s time to relax into the holidays. And on the biggest day of the year for cinemas, there is always a rich brew of new movies.

But Teplitzky has a special interest this year. He directed one of those movies – the emotional Colin Firth-Nicole Kidman drama The Railway Man, about a survivor of the infamous Thai-Burma railway during World War II who confronts one of his Japanese captors decades later.

While other Boxing Day releases are pitched at different audiences, it has to be a daunting proposition for any director to go up against Peter Jackson’s epic fantasy The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, Disney’s animated Frozen and Ben Stiller and Kristen Wiig in the comic drama The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty.

For audiences who prefer art-house films, there is also Judi Dench and Steve Coogan in the British drama Philomena and Short Term 12, an American drama set in a foster home for troubled teenagers.

“It’s a daunting part of the process whenever you release,” says Teplitzky. “You may as well go out when people are really keen to go to the cinema and they’re looking for all sorts of films to take their friends and family to.

“It’s a day when there’s a lot of choice but it’s also a day when there’s a huge audience looking for choice.”

After a patchy few months for Hollywood blockbusters, cinemas are expected to be buzzing from the first Boxing Day session.

A week ago, box office was less than $14 million over seven days. Over the next week, it will likely top $40 million.

Given the creep of ticket prices towards higher priced sessions over the past year, the national tally could easily top last year’s $44 million in the same period. That equates to more than 3 million cinema visits – almost 500,000 a day.

Cinema executives are unanimous in believing the second Hobbit movie will lead the box office over the next month.

While the middle movie was the least successful of Jackson’s earlier Lord of the Rings trilogy, it did well enough to still be among the 20 highest-grossing movies in Australian cinema history.

And the strong critical reception for The Desolation of Smaug – “nearly everything … represents an improvement over the first instalment,” said The Hollywood Reporter – suggests it will top the $42.9 million taken by the first Hobbit movie.

One in every three tickets sold over the next week is expected to be for a journey into Middle-earth.

While the industry thrives on hype and hope, there seems solid grounds for the optimism of cinema and distribution executives for the holidays, including continuing audiences for American Hustle and Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues.

While there is neither a big action movie (like Skyfall last year) nor an acclaimed foreign-language film, there is also nothing as disappointing as Parental Guidance last year or Tower Heist and War Horse the year before.

And if the new movies feel familiar, there are good reasons. Once Boxing Day was all about a new Lord of the Rings instalment; now it’s a new Hobbit movie. Past years have featured Ben Stiller in Meet The Parents movies and Tower Heist; now he’s in The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. And where there have been animated Happy Feet movies set in Antarctica, now there is Frozen set in an icy kingdom.

David Seargeant, the managing director of Amalgamated Holdings which owns Event cinemas, says he grew more confident about the movie line-up as Boxing Day approached.

“We had a very soft period over July-October,” he says. “With [the latest] Thor, we got a little bit of traction. Then [the latest] The Hunger Games has been fantastic. That all-important momentum – people talking about movies and what we’re going to see over summer – was on the radar.

“And there’s a lot there for everyone. It’s a really broad offering this year.”

Blending fantasy, adventure and a touch of romance, the new Hobbit is what marketers call a four-quadrant movie – playing to males and females, both under and over 25.

“That’s what people want – those big releases – on Boxing Day,” Seargeant says. “Then you support it with a lot of well-told stories.”

According to the chief operating officer of Hoyts cinemas, Matthew Liebmann, the movie line-up is spot-on.

“Your triple-A blockbusters like Hobbit and Frozen are going to cover the mass market, Mitty will do the same, and for those who have slightly more specialised tastes, there are a couple of great films for them as well.”

While weather can be a factor in how often we go to the cinema, Liebmann believes that won’t be the case these holidays.

“In our industry, we always like a bit of rain or a bit of extreme heat. But I honestly believe the line-up of films this Christmas is strong enough to withstand whatever weather.

“Sometimes we do the rain dance harder than other years. I think we can go a little easier this year.”

Taking into account the Meryl Streep-Julia Roberts family drama August: Osage County on January 1, distributor Troy Lum from Hopscotch calls it “one of the strongest line-ups in years”.

Also heading for cinemas in January are Walking With Dinosaurs, adapted from the acclaimed BBC documentary series, Geoffrey Rush in the literary adaptation The Book Thief, the action movies Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit and 47 Ronin, and the Oscar contenders Inside Llewyn Davis from the Coen brothers and Saving Mr Banks with Tom Hanks and Emma Thompson.

Considering the strong competition in cinemas as well as from sport, DVD box sets and improved summer television, some films are bound to get disappointing audiences.

As Lum says, movie-goers are drawn more often to “event” movies in both mainstream and art-house cinemas, which means films tend to be either hits or flops, with little in between.

“In the quality end of the market, you have to be what people want to see,” he says. “If you are, you’ll get results like Blue Jasmine or The Butler or what we’re hoping for with Philomena.

“Then again, we’ve had films this year like Red 2 that have really disappointed. Even Rush to a certain extent was a disappointment. We really thought that film would do a lot better but it just didn’t hit that bullseye.

“What you find is if you’re not hitting the bullseye, you’re really falling way short.”

Jonathan Teplitzky is hoping an interest in meaningful movies helps Railway Man hit that bullseye.

“There’s a great thirst among audiences for films about things, for films that have substance and for films that tell a great story,” he says. “And Railway Man is not just a great story; it’s a real story.

“There’s a real interest in those stories where you can go, wow, a real person went through those experiences.”

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