Bushmeat loses its appeal as Congo city fights Ebola

MBANDAKA, DR Congo: In the city of Mbandaka, “bushmeat” is a cheap, time-honoured form of food — monkeys, bats, antelopes, crocodiles and other species caught in the wild.

But local bushmeat hawkers say sales have slumped since an outbreak of Ebola was declared in the northwest of the Democratic Republic of Congo on May 8.

While scientists say contaminated bushmeat carries an Ebola risk, local people are pointing to rumours of sorcery — that the bushmeat has been “cursed”.

“Takings have fallen,” said Sebastien Nseka Lokila, who manages the biggest market in the city of 1.2 million people, blaming a lack of supplies from Bikoro, a remote rural area that is the epicentre of the outbreak.

Far fewer shoppers than usual were in front of the bushmeat stands on Tuesday. Hawkers chopped up pieces of meat with gloveless hands, and many buyers, also without protection, touched and poked the meat as a prelude to haggling over the price.

“I love fresh bushmeat — it’s never caused any disease,” said Nelly Mboyo, a housewife in the market, but other women passed by the bushmeat stand without stopping.

Health experts say the virus that causes Ebola holes up in species of tropical fruit bats.

The bats themselves are asymptomatic — they do not themselves fall ill, but pass it on in their droppings to other mammals, including monkeys, which in turn fall sick.

The disease then gets passed onto humans if they hunt and butcher an infected animal. The virus may enter the bloodstream through a scratch or a cut, infiltrating cells and then multiplying.

Scientists say this risk — and that posed by eating smoked or cooked bushmeat — seems to be low.

They warn the problem amplifies when an infected human comes into close contact with another, helping the disease to spread through body fluids.

Since the outbreak was declared in Bikoro on May 8, 58 cases of Ebola have been reported with 27 deaths. Seven cases have surfaced in Mbandaka districts, the UN’s World Health Organization (WHO) said on Wednesday.

One superstition that has spread in Mbandaka, said nurse Julie Lobali, is that Ebola began in Bikoro as “a curse on those who ate stolen meat.”

Blandine Mboyo, who lives in the district of Bongondjo, told AFP “a hunter put a curse on the village because his big game was stolen.”

“This curse is so powerful because it hits those who ate this meat, having heard about the theft or having seen the stolen animal,” said Nicole Batoa, a market vendor.

Epidemic’s ‘ground zero’

In December 2014, a German-led team of scientists determined that the world’s biggest Ebola epidemic could be traced to a colony of free-tailed bats that lived in a hollow tree in a remote village in Guinea.

“The close proximity of a large colony of free-tailed bats … provided opportunity for infection. Children regularly caught and played with bats in this tree,” they reported in the journal EMBO Molecular Medicine.

Guinea, along with Sierra Leone and Liberia, bore the brunt of an epidemic that ran from 2013-15, with 29,000 recorded cases and 11,300 deaths.

Bushmeat, for many poor Congolese, is not an exotic food but a cheap and unpretentious part of their diet.

According to the Centre for International Forestry Research (CIFOR), people living in the Congo Basin annually eat five million tonnes of bushmeat — the equivalent of the cattle production of Brazil and the European Union.

Many anthropologists contend the risk from Ebola is relatively small and are angry with those who, they say, are harming poor people in rural areas by demonising the practice.

Conservationists, for their part, are deeply worried about bushmeat’s impact on biodiversity, which adds to habitat loss as a threat for vulnerable species. — AFP

Anwar’s release marks the end of his 20-year dark episode

KUALA LUMPUR: The full pardon for an immediate release of jailed Datuk Sri Anwar Ibrahim today marks the end of 20 years of going in and out of prison, and the resumption of the political career of a leader touted to be the country’s next prime minister.

Anwar’s journey over the past two decades added colour to the country’s political landscape with the emergence of the reformation movement that eventually contributed to the Pakatan Harapan (PH) taking control of the federal administration in the 14th general election on May 9.

After his release, Anwar told reporters his appeal for the pardon was on the basis of a ‘miscarriage of justice’ or ‘travesty of justice’ and this meant that his convictions and sentences had been erased from the records.

The 71-year-old PKR de facto leader was born on Aug 10, 1947, in Cherok Tok Kun, Bukit Mertajam, Penang.

He received his early education at Sekolah Kebangsaan Cherok Tok Kun, Sekolah Kebangsaan Stowell and the Malay College Kuala Kangsar, and acquired his Bachelor’s Degree in Malay Studies at Universiti Malaya.

Anwar married Datuk Seri Dr Wan Azizah Wan Ismail on Feb 28, 1980. The couple has six children, namely Nurul Izzah, Nurul Nuha, Mohd Ihsan, Nurul Ilham, Nurul Iman and Nurul Hana.

Anwar has been actively involved in politics since his university days. He was also involved in the setting up of the Malaysian Islamic Youth Movement (ABIM). He was a committee member of the Asia Youth Council; a member of the World Youth Council and a committee member of the Asia Pacific region for the World Assembly of Youth.

The political leadership of Anwar, who was elected as a member of parliament in 1982 after winning the Permatang Pauh seat, was also recognised by world bodies, especially during his tenure as the finance minister.

In 1996, Euromoney recognised him as one of the world’s four best finance ministers and Asiamoney named him Asia’s Best Finance Minister.

Besides serving as the finance minister, Anwar also held various other posts, such as Deputy Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department; Culture, Youth and Sports Minister; and Agriculture Minister. He was appointed the Deputy Prime Minister on Dec 1, 1993.

On May 19, 1997, Anwar was appointed the acting Prime Minister and Home Minister during the absence of Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad who was then on leave for two months.

Anwar was sacked as the Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister on Sept 2, 1998, and it was followed by his expulsion from Umno the next day.

Then began Anwar’s dark episode. He was sentenced to six years in prison on April 14, 1999, by the Kuala Lumpur High Court.

He was found guilty of four corruption offences in relation to abuse of power by interfering in police investigations into alleged sexual misconduct.

Anwar was released on Sept 2, 2004, after nearly six years in prison.

On Aug 28, 2008, Anwar returned to the Dewan Rakyat after winning the Permatang Pauh by-election on a PKR ticket following Dr Wan Azizah’s resignation as the MP of the constituency to give way to Anwar to contest the seat.

He retained the seat in the 13th General Election, in 2013.

However, Anwar was sentenced to five years jail on March 7, 2014, by the Court of Appeal, after the court found him guilty of having sodomised Mohd Saiful Bukhari Azlan six years earlier. — AFP

Healing wounds in Spain’s Basque Country after ETA

PORTUGALETE, Spain: Ivan Ramos often sees the ETA-linked murderer of his mother in his Basque town of Portugalete and has had to learn to live with it.

Just a five-minute drive away, Encarni Blanco, a one-time collaborator of the Basque separatist group, has struggled to piece her life back together years after she said police detained and tortured her.

Once on opposite sides of the deadly campaign waged by ETA for an independent Basque homeland in northern Spain and southern France, both went through years of therapy to try and come to terms with what happened and move on.

Their individual struggle is a micro-example of what awaits the region as it tackles the delicate balancing act of healing and remembering after ETA’s expected dissolution next month.

No to hate, resentment

“I was one of the first victims who coexisted with the murderers of my mother,” says Ramos, 44, sitting in a bar which used to be part of the Socialist party headquarters in the industrial town of Portugalete.

Behind him is a mural representing part of Picasso’s anti-war painting Guernica complete with “1987” — the year his mother Maite Torrano, an activist of the Socialist party in power in Spain at the time, was killed by separatists who threw petrol bombs inside.

She later died of her wounds, one of at least 829 victims of ETA, a group created in 1959 at the height of Francisco Franco’s dictatorship that laid down its arms in 2011.

Not content with having killed his mother, one of the perpetrators taunted Ramos for years after his release from prison, following him in the streets for instance.

While that has stopped, he still sees him often.

“I’ll go to the pool, and he’ll be in a hammock there … My son will play in the same park as his son,” he says.

With the help of a “great psychiatrist,” Ramos learnt to deal with it.

But while he has yet to tell his eight-year-old how his grandmother died, he has one thing clear — he will never reveal who murdered her.

“I don’t want to pass on any hate, any resentment to him.”

He warns though that as more and more ETA prisoners are released after serving their sentences, other victims are going to face the same problem. And they “aren’t being prepared for this.”

Ramos himself has put hate behind and participates in regional government or Church-run gatherings where he recounts his experience — part of a process towards reconciliation.

‘Shatter as a person’

Some of these meetings gather together victims of ETA and those whose loved ones were hurt or killed by anti-ETA groups like the GAL death squads — later found to be linked to the Spanish interior ministry — or tortured by police.

People like Blanco, 59, who still wakes up with a start when she hears noises at night, years after the Guardia Civil police came for her and her husband in January 1992.

For five days, she was held incognito and says she was hooded, beaten up and given electroshocks, a case she later took to the United Nations which criticised Spain for not investigating it.

“You shatter as a person,” she says, standing next to the entrance of the apartment building in the Basque town of Santurtzi where police came to get her in 1992, and which she eventually left after years of sleeplessness.

“At the end you ask ‘what do you want of me. Whatever you want, I’ll do it because I want to get out of this hell.’ When they said I was going to prison, I was happy.”

She and her husband Josu were sentenced to six years in jail for collaborating with ETA — a fact they don’t deny.

Blanco says they had agreed to house ETA members when they were in town, even if that never happened in practice.

But she insists the state should recognise what they did to her and others to move on, speaking on the same day as ETA itself acknowledged the harm done and apologised to its victims — although not to those it considered legitimate such as police.

According to a December report commissioned by the Basque regional government, more than 4,100 complaints of police torture were made between 1960 and 2014.

Gaizka Fernandez Soldevilla, a historian for the Memorial Centre for Terrorism Victims in the Basque capital Vitoria, estimates around 60 people have been proven to have died at the hands of the GAL, para-police or far-right groups.

“That must be told, but you can’t put it all on the same level,” he says.

For him, the Basque separatist left-wing movement is trying to portray decades of bombings and kidnappings as a conflict between two belligerent sides to justify what happened.

But for Fernandez, “there was a terrorist group that killed.”


He adds it is crucial to teach the past in schools in a country where dark periods of history like the 1936-9 civil war or ETA violence are often skirted over.

Especially given around half of the Basque population wants to “turn the page without having read it first,” according to a survey conducted by the centre.

“Fear of talking politics is still very present in the Basque Country,” he says.

But “if you don’t know your history, there is a danger that you will repeat the worst of it.”

And that’s where gatherings attended by the likes of Ramos are of double help.

Manu Arrue, a Jesuit priest active in the reconciliation process, recalls one such meeting last year when a woman who attended “talked for the first time of her father who had been killed (in the civil war), of an uncle who is still missing.”

“These meetings help to unite, to build bridges between … all sorts of different sufferings.” — AFP

As the Castro era wanes, Cuba’s youth have doubts, and dreams

THEY are the children of the new millennium. Like their parents, they have known no leader but the Castro brothers. Now, on the eve of a historic generational change, Cuba’s young people hold conflicting opinions about a future they will help to forge.

The island’s youth tend to see the announced departure of President Raul Castro, who will pass the mantle of leadership to a new generation on April 19, as natural and necessary.

“Many generations have passed since the revolution (of 1959) triumphed,” said communications major Hayla Torres, evoking 86-year-old Raul Castro and other members of the revolutionary old guard.

“But they are people of another time, and society is demanding change,” added the 19-year-old from western Matanzas province, who wore a Real Madrid team shirt tied around her waist.

For the first time in more than 40 years, the Cuban president will not be named Castro and will not come from the generation that spearheaded the revolution. For now, the government’s current number two, 57-year-old Miguel Diaz-Canel, is expected to assume the top role.

“Time has passed,” said Yoendris Alarcon, a 22-year-old student at the aptly named University of the Isla de la Juventud (Isle of Youth) in southwest Cuba, adding that it was time to give a new generation a chance to “take Cuba forward”.

“I have confidence in our future,” Torres added. “I believe that despite everything that has been happening, one can see the results of things.” She praised the first reforms undertaken by Raul Castro to “update” the Cuban economic model.

‘Everything will stay the same’

Others, however, were quick to express their reservations about Raul Castro’s legacy and the changes that can be expected ahead.

“At the rate things are going, I do not think we’ll see improvement,” said Marlon Borrero, 19, who is doing his compulsory military service. “I think everything will stay the same.”

“Life is complicated for my family,” he said, adding that there was little work available and “if you don’t work, you don’t live”. Just to keep up one’s weight, Borrero said, “almost requires magic”.

The son of a public official, Borrero plans to pursue a career in tourism, probably working “more abroad than in Cuba”.

He hopes that will take him to the United States, “because whatever you say, there is a better way of life there. You work a little more, but in the end the sacrifice is worth it,” said Borrero, a hip-hop fan who sports tattoos and wears earrings and who had decided to grant himself a day off.

Yoel, a 24-year-old unemployed youth in Havana, said he, too, is sceptical of promised change, and he rejects Cuba’s indirect voting system to elect a new president, saying it was designed to keep power in the hands of those who already have it.

“The people play no part in that vote, so we continue on the same path,” he said. “We will never see change.”

‘Nothing is impossible’

Yet while many young Cubans are not optimistic, they realise that the island’s future rests partly on their shoulders, and they say they are ready to take up the burden.

“The young people of Cuba can contribute,” said Luis Orlando, a physical education student, as he walked the streets of the south-central city of Cienfuegos. “We need to take this revolution forward.”

“I understand that we have to open ourselves more to other countries, market ourselves better … and leave the old thoughts behind if we are to make Cuba better,” said Orlando, a soccer fan.

Hayla agreed. “The Cuban economy has declined, but nothing will lower the spirit” of the island’s youth, who are ready to “play their part,” she said.

“Nothing is impossible,” added Yoendris. “We are going to keep fighting. Everything depends on us putting our heads down and staying in the fight.” — AFP

In Oklahoma, teachers struggle to make ends meet

JENNIFER Thornton, an elementary school teacher in Oklahoma, has had to go to a church food pantry with her teenaged son to get something to eat because she lacked money for food.

“It’s a hard pill to swallow,” said Thornton, tears streaming down her face. “You lose a lot of dignity.”

She is among the thousands of schoolteachers taking part in a state-wide strike to demand a pay hike and greater education spending in Oklahoma, where teacher salaries – at an average of US$45,276 (RM175,172) – rank 49th in the country, according to the National Education Association union.

Some teachers work extra jobs to make up for the shortfall, but health issues prevent Thornton from doing so.

She had brain surgery two years ago and at 38, she suffers from obesity and fibro myalgia, which causes constant muscle pain and fatigue.

Thornton, who teaches in a low-income neighbourhood in Tulsa, about a two-hour drive from Oklahoma City, makes US$1,952 (RM7,552) a month after taxes.

After paying for her rent, electricity, internet bill, health insurance and gas, she has little left for food.

‘How much is in my wallet?’

She finishes teaching around 3pm and then attends after-school meetings or union gatherings before going home to her son to rustle up dinner.

“We see if there is something in the fridge or the pantry,” Thornton said. “How much is in my wallet? In his? Do we have to call Mom?

“We generally hit the dollar menu at McDonald’s,” she said. “When you’re really poor, it’s hard to get any quality nutrient food.”

“We have gone to the food pantry 10 to 15 times in the last three years,” she said.

Thornton said she doesn’t regret her career choice – at age five she said she knew she wanted to be a teacher.

“I love my job and my students and I’m good at it,” she said. “I’m a good teacher.”

But she regrets what it means for her son.

“He doesn’t get birthday gifts and Christmas gifts,” she said, and would be unable to play sports or do other activities without help from her family.

“He shouldn’t ever have to scrounge in the cabinet for food and come home to an eviction notice or no electricity when I work as hard as I do,” she said.

“I feel I did what I was supposed to do. I worked hard, went to university, got my degrees.

“I’ve worked really hard to become an excellent teacher,” Thornton said. “My family shouldn’t have to suffer from these choices.”

Thornton said that while the situation in Oklahoma “is bad, bottom of the barrel in terms of spending per pupil”, it’s also bad elsewhere.

“I know that across the country teachers are overworked, underpaid, disrespected,” she said.

Higher-paying jobs elsewhere

Buoyed by a nine-day strike in West Virginia which led to a five percent pay raise, teachers have also walked off the job in Oklahoma and Kentucky and are threatening to do the same in Arizona.

Scott Teel, 46, teaches history at a high school in an Oklahoma City suburb.

He also works as a real estate agent and as a sports coach.

Teel pointed to lawmakers as the source of the problem, saying there has been a “lack of vision about education from the state legislature.”

“The last 20 years of votes have been extremely anti-tax in the state,” he said, leading to steep cuts in spending on education.

“I’m not a guy that loves to pay taxes either, but everything costs something,” Teel said.

“They’ve cut 28% of our education budget and we’ve added 40,000 students. There’s not enough money to do the job correctly.”

Teel teaches history using 10-year-old books in a prefabricated trailer with peeling paint.

There is no budget for a photocopier or staplers and Teel said parents and teachers dip into their pockets to provide supplies.

Moore High School, where he teaches and whose colours he proudly wears, is still considered among the 10 best in the state, he said.

Teel makes about US$3,500 (RM13,542) a month, has a master’s degree in education and 25 years of teaching experience.

Weekends, evenings and during school holidays he works as a realtor, drumming up clients and showing houses.

“I consider quitting sometimes,” Teel said. “When you have a bad day I think, ‘Why am I doing this?’

“But I do it for the relationship with the students.”

Teel said he could earn about US$15,000 (RM58,035) more a year if he moved to Texas, but he promised his eldest son they would stay in Oklahoma until he finished high school.

“I made no such promise to my younger son,” he said. — AFP

Suicides rise as years-long war grinds down South Sudanese

BY the time her 19-year-old son was shot in front of her, Ayak had already lost her four brothers and witnessed countless deaths in South Sudan’s brutal war.

Living alone in a miserable structure of plastic sheets and tin in a huge camp for displaced people, watching as relentless rains turned earth to mud, it all became too much to bear for the 44 year-old.

“I have seen it all. When I thought about the lives of my relatives and their deaths, I decided to take my own life, too,” Ayak says, falling silent as tears fill her eyes.

She survived her suicide attempt but is only one of a growing number of people trying to end their own lives in the camp.

Some 24,000 people are holed up at the site, located a short drive from Malakal — a once flourishing trading hub reduced to a ghost town by years of conflict.

In 2017, 31 people in the camp attempted to kill themselves — 15 women and 16 men — and six people died, according to the International Organization for Migration (IOM). The previous year, four people died.

In Dec last year, South Sudan entered the fifth year of a civil war that has killed tens of thousands and displaced some four million people.

With no peace deal in sight, and yet another ceasefire recently crumbling within hours of its signing, many of Malakal’s dispossessed have lost hope.

Their previous homes are just a few km away in the nearby destroyed town.

In the camp — known as a “Protection of Civilians” or PoC site — there is no privacy and most families sleep on thin mats on the floor, already dreading the rainy season, due to arrive in the weeks ahead.

Movement is confined to the camp, clustered around a UN base, as many still fear insecurity on the outside.

“People entered the PoC when they were children. Children are becoming adults here and are looking at the future and feel hopeless,” says the Danish Refugee Council’s country director Raphael Capony.

Hopelessness and PTSD

In a study, the US-based National Centre for Biotechnology Information found that at least 40% of participants asked across South Sudan showed symptoms of post-traumatic stress.

“A lot of problems compound before a person tries to commit suicide.

“Living conditions, a lack of food variety and the difficulty of confinement can contribute to it.

“It’s a big burden to not have hope for change,” says Raimund Alber, a mental health worker for Doctors Without Borders (known by its French acronym, MSF).

Yet Ayak and dozens of other suicide survivors have given life a second chance. Today she’s plugged into a widows’ group and receives regular psychological support.

“Many people have the strength to deal with hardship, they have coped with a lot. We’re noticing that strength and support it,” said IOM psychologist Dmytro Nersisian, who works with Ayak at the camp’s support centre.

Aid agencies are filling a gap left by South Sudan’s dysfunctional and war-focused government, providing what little mental and psychological support is available in Malakal.

“We’ve especially seen an increase in suicide attempts since July 2017, which is when we started working on a prevention campaign,” Nersisian says, adding that while causes and triggers for suicide vary, people of all ages have made attempts.

James, 32, is another survivor at the centre. When his house was attacked in 2014, he took refuge in the camp with his family where he has since lived in cramped, basic conditions.

“I thought about killing myself for two years. The situation got worse and I barely had any food. I decided it was enough,” he tells AFP.

“My friend found me before I could do anything. We sat on the floor together and I started crying.”

‘You are not alone’

Having received counselling and support over the last year, James recently decided he wanted to help prevent suicide in his community and started out as a volunteer with IOM.

“I knew people here who killed themselves and I understand where they are coming from.

“I use my experience to talk to them. Dying is not a solution to your problems,” James says, adding that he was surprised to find out that suicide was happening all over the world.

In the crowded camp, where people have set up small shops and are cooking sorghum in front of their tents, Ayak has found her place once again, but she says it’s not easy.

She sits between a group of other widowed women, wearing a colourful beaded necklace and a black hat.

“I want to tell people to be patient. Life is difficult here, but don’t think you are alone with your problems,” she says. — AFP

Fifty years on, Yuri Gagarin’s death still shrouded in mystery

YURI Gagarin, feted as a Soviet national hero for being the first man in space, was killed in a plane crash 50 years ago but the details of his death remain shrouded in mystery.

On March 27, 1968, at 10:18 am, Gagarin was preparing for a training flight in his MiG-15 plane at the Chkalovsky aerodrome near Moscow, his former cosmonaut colleague Vladimir Aksyonov recalls.

“Yuri and I consulted the same doctors and listened to the same weather forecasts, my takeoff was due an hour after his,” the 84-year-old tells AFP.

But Aksyonov’s flight was cancelled. At 10:30 am, when he returned to his base, Gagarin and his co-pilot Vladimir Seryogin were no longer responding to radio calls.

At 2:50 pm, helicopter crews searching for the plane said they found parts of the wreckage 65km from the aerodrome.

Gagarin’s body was found the next day. He was 34.

‘Gagarin is dead!’

Sergei Kravchinsky, 74, remembers learning of Gagarin’s death when he was a young space engineer and had just finished a gymnastics class.

“We heard a scream in the corridor: ‘Guys, Gagarin is dead'”!

“It was a shock, all the women were crying,” he recalls.

For the first time in Soviet history, a day of national mourning was declared for someone who was not a head of state.

The engineers knew Gagarin was training on a MiG and that he had already experienced landing problems. When they heard the investigation commission give its conclusions, they were perplexed.

According to the official version, the plane’s crew had to make a sudden manoeuvre because of a “change in the situation in the air”, which led to the crash.

“The report of the official commission, which was 29 volumes, was never published,” Alexander Glushko, a historian studying the Soviet space industry, told AFP.

“This pushed colleagues and experts to start their own research.”


At the time, wild rumours surrounding Gagarin’s death were circulating around the Soviet Union: that he was killed by the Kremlin, drunk in the cockpit or kidnapped by aliens were just some popular theories.

In 2011, to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Gagarin’s historic 1961 flight into space, the Kremlin released some fresh information on his death.

Newly declassified documents said “one of the probable reasons” for the crash was a sharp manoeuvre made to avoid a weather balloon after which Gagarin and Seryogin lost control of the aircraft.

“One of the probable reasons! This wording does not mean anything. None of the documents from the 29 volumes of the investigation was published in full,” said historian Glushko.

He believes that the secrecy around Gagarin’s death was retained to hide “the flaws in the organisation and the functioning of the Soviet space sector,” a symbol of the USSR’s might.

“In the absence of the truth, rumours are multiplying and continue to circulate to this day,” he added.

The second plane theory

“My parents always assured me that Gagarin died because he was drunk,” says Alexander Volodko, a policeman from the Siberian city of Novokuznetsk, on a recent visit to Moscow’s Museum of Cosmonautics.

Volodko tells AFP that he would like “the truth to be finally revealed”.

He said he personally believed the version put forward by legendary cosmonaut Alexei Leonov — the first ever to go on a spacewalk — after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991.

According to Leonov, who was a member of the 1968 investigation commission, a Sukhoi plane approached Gagarin’s planned route, passing less than 20 metres from his plane. This would have caused Gagarin’s aircraft to spin and crash.

In June last year, 83-year-old Leonov repeated this version: “I saw a declassified document of the investigation that confirmed (this),” he told state news agency RIA Novosti.

Leonov believes the commission covered up the truth to protect the Sukhoi plane’s pilot, whose name he refuses to reveal but describes as “quite famous” and currently “old and sick”.

“This is no longer a secret: it is about negligence and a violation of aviation rules,” he insists.

But until the investigation’s official documents are made public, said historian Glushko, “this claim is just a hypothesis”. — AFP

Hollywood femme-fatale Hedy Lamarr’s amazing double life

LOS ANGELES: Once proclaimed “the most beautiful woman in the world,” Hedy Lamarr is remembered as the silver screen siren who scandalized show business in a 1930s nude scene.

The raven-haired actress, who died at the turn of the millennium at age 86, wrote in her memoirs that “any girl can be glamorous: all you have to do is stand still and look stupid.”

In reality, as a new PBS documentary reveals, Lamarr’s sultry beauty stood in the way of her getting the credit she deserved as an ingenious scientist and engineer whose inventions helped revolutionize modern communications.

Lamarr never publicly talked about her life outside the movies, and her family thought her story had died with her, but in 2016, never-before-heard tapes of the actress telling her own life story emerged.

“People have the idea that I’m sort of a stupid thing. I never knew I looked good to begin with, because my mother wanted a boy named Georg,” she says on one of the tapes.

“Unfortunately I didn’t become that and she wasn’t too thrilled about it. I was different, I guess. Maybe I came from a different planet, who knows? But whatever it is, inventions are easy for me to do.”

Combining the recordings with intimate reflections from her children, closest friends, family and admirers, “Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story” explores Lamarr’s true legacy as a technological trailblazer.

The film, co-executive produced by Oscar winner Susan Sarandon, attempts to shine a light on the atmosphere that created the disconnect between her brilliance and beauty.

Sultry temptress

An Austrian Jewish emigrant who invented a covert communications system to try to help defeat the Nazis, Lamarr was ignored and told to sell kisses for war bonds instead.

It was only toward the end of her life that tech pioneers discovered that it was her concept that is now used as the basis for secure WiFi, GPS and Bluetooth technologies.

In 2016, former Forbes journalist Fleming Meeks discovered several tapes of a 1990 phone interview with Lamarr, providing a rare insight into her private thoughts.

“Oh my God, she was the best-looking movie star that ever lived. She became my inspiration,” veteran filmmaker Mel Brooks says in the documentary.

“I don’t know whether it’s true, but you hear things. I heard that she was a scientist.”

Born in Vienna in 1913, Lamarr was an intuitive tinkerer as a child, always interested in mechanical things and an inveterate seeker of knowledge.

She won a few minor roles when, still going by her real name Edy Kiesler, she made a fleeting appearance without her clothes in the Czech film “Extase”.

Pope Pius XI denounced the movie, Hitler banned it, and the offending scenes were excised from most European and American versions.

She married millionaire arms manufacturer Fritz Mandl, entertaining top businessmen and politicians including Mussolini and Hitler, but grew tired of life as a trophy wife and fled to Hollywood.

Meaty roles eluded the actress — although she famously turned down Ingrid Bergman’s role in “Casablanca” — and she became increasingly typecast as the sultry temptress in such movies as “Algiers” (1938) and “Lady of the Tropics” (1940).

In 1941, Lamarr and an avant-garde composer, George Antheil, filed a patent based on “frequency-hopping,” in which a radio transmitter and its receiver jump from one frequency to another to prevent their signal being intercepted.

Their gadget was aimed at developing radio-controlled torpedoes for the US Navy that could not be jammed by German warships.

But the idea was so far ahead of its time that the Navy didn’t grasp its importance and it took years to reach fruition.

‘Derailed by her beauty’

Today, frequency-hopping is the basis for quick and secure communications in espionage, the military, mobile phones and the internet. But Lamarr never gained a penny for her stroke of inventive genius.

“In a different era, she might very well have become a scientist. At the very least, it was an option that was derailed by her beauty,” says film historian Jeanine Basinger.

Lamarr had faded from fashion by the time Cecil B. de Mille chose her to play the most famous femme fatale of all in “Samson and Delilah” (1949), the biggest box office hit of her career.

She was seen as difficult to work with, however, and the upturn in her fortunes fell away as quickly as it had begun.

An attempt to revive her career, and her ailing bank balance, with a 1966 autobiography largely failed.

Along the way, Lamarr was acquiring and losing husbands — she had a total of six — and by the late 1950s could count more divorces than film roles.

In 1997, she finally received an honour as an inventor: a prize from the US Electronic Frontier Foundation for her pioneering contribution to society.

But the work had long since dried up and Lamarr remained unmarried for the last 35 years of her life, shunning family living as a lonely recluse before succumbing to heart failure in January 2000.

“They think I’m a bad actress. I think sometimes in life I act more than on the screen,” she says.

“Bombshell” premieres in the US on May 18 on PBS. — AFP

Local honey hunters defy angry bees to harvest treetop treasure

ON a moonless night deep in the rainforest, two men perched precariously on high branches use a smoking torch to draw thousands of bees from a treetop hive, braving the angry swarm to collect their prized honey.

The honey hunters, as they are known, are rag-tag groups of villagers who head to remote corners of the jungle every year in search of the rare nectar, hidden in towering tualang trees.

“This is the real thing,” said Abdul Samad Ahmad, 60, who has been harvesting honey in this way for more than 20 years.

“There’s a lot of nutrition in this honey. You can make it into medicine, for your cough or cold.”

Like New Zealand’s manuka honey, also hailed for its supposed medicinal qualities, local tualang honey is expensive, fetching RM150 a kilo – a huge amount for people from poor, rural communities.

But the generations-old practice faces myriad threats, from environmental destruction and falling bee numbers to a lack of interest among the young.

The die-hard hunters remain optimistic – for them, there is no greater buzz than climbing trees 75m tall to gather honey made by bees gorged on sweet nectar from exotic jungle flowers.

‘Sting until your body is swollen’

The honey-collecting season in Greater Ulu Muda forest runs from February to April, when giant honey bees arrive from other parts of Asia to make their hives in the trees that stretch high above the rainforest canopy.

On a recent trip, Abdul Samad and six others travelled far into the forest, boarding two small boats and sailing across a lake to reach a tualang. They nailed branches up its trunk a few feet apart to create a makeshift ladder, replacing old ones from the previous year.

As night fell, after layering up and donning thick jackets, the group lit vine roots twisted together to create a smoking torch.

They clambered up the tree, hitting the torch against the trunk as they approached a hive. A flood of embers showered below, and a team member called out to the bees: “Come down, black sweet, come down.”

A swarm of bees rushed out, chasing the sparks of light – granting the hunters precious moments to cut through the hive and fill a bucket with chunks of honeycomb.

The men worked through the night, slowly moving around the tree’s many hives and only stopping just before dawn, having collected 43kg of honey.

The hunters were stung numerous times but continued working, insisting they are used to the pain.

One of the group, Zaini Abdul Hamid, said he and his fellow hunters are not aware of any deaths resulting from the risky pastime, “but if you’re in the wrong place, at the wrong time, the bees will sting you until your body is swollen”.

Vanishing forests

Demand for tualang honey exceeds its limited supply, and the bounty is split equally among the group, who sell it in their village or to dealers from out of town.

None of those on the recent expedition were younger than 45, with some in their 60s, and they said younger people from their villages have no interest in taking up honey-hunting.

“They’re not brave,” said Mohamad Khairi Mohamad Arshad, while Zaini lamented that the younger generation “prefer to play with their gadgets – we asked them to come, but they’re not interested”.

The hunters said it was common to see four to five groups from a single village harvesting from tualang trees in the 1960s, but these days there are far fewer.

The number of bees in the Ulu Muda forest also appears to have fallen in recent years, with heavy logging regularly reported and some blaming the destruction of their natural habitat.

The problem may also be global. Experts have long been sounding the alarm about declining honey bee populations worldwide, blaming climate change and disease as well as habitat destruction.

No comprehensive studies have been done on bee populations in Ulu Muda, but Makhdzir Mardan, a bee expert from Universiti Putra Malaysia, said that on an expedition into the forest in 1983 he had spotted 128 hives on a tree, while now you could expect to find 40 at most.

As they trekked deeper into the jungle, the honey hunters mourned the loss of the bees’ habitat, particularly the flowers they feed on.

“The places where the bees look for food are disappearing,” said Mohamad Khairi Mohamad Arshad, 50.

“If there aren’t a lot of flowers, then the bees will not come.” — AFP

Undaunted by Trump’s wall, migrants vow to go over it

ELADIO Sanchez is unimpressed by the eight border wall prototypes looming over his house in Tijuana, Mexico, almost within spitting distance of where US President Donald Trump will visit Tuesday.

At age 30, he has already snuck over the border several times, and doesn’t expect Trump’s wall will have much effect on undocumented migrants like him.

Pointing to the only prototype with an angular barrier at the top – a concrete structure built by Texas Sterling Construction Company – Sanchez says that one might slow him down a little more than the others.

But, he told AFP, “you can get over it anyway”.

“It’s just a little more complicated. But people are always looking for a way to get over – out of necessity, not because we want to.”

In Tijuana, Trump’s visit to the prototypes looks like just the latest slap in the face from a man who launched his presidential campaign calling Mexican immigrants “criminals” and “rapists” and has since driven US-Mexican relations to their lowest point in recent memory.

It’s as if “he wants to come just to tell us he’s here, that he’s going to do what he promised with the wall,” says Sanchez, who lives in a small gray house in a poor neighbourhood that juts up against the border, across from Otay Mesa, on the outskirts of San Diego.

‘We will never pay’

Sanchez has watched the barrier between the United States and Mexico grow over the years, blocking his view of the mountains more every time.

It started with a fence built during the Bill Clinton administration, then was beefed up with barbed wire.

“They just keep adding more, making it taller,” he said from his rooftop.

From there, he has an unimpeded view of the hulking prototypes, which stand about nine metres tall and cost US$300,000 (RM1.17 million) to US$500,000 each.

If Trump gets his way, whichever prototype or prototypes win will snake across much of the nearly 3,200-kilometre border.

The cost is estimated at up to US$20 billion. Trump’s insistence that Mexico will foot the bill is a source of national outrage.

Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto reportedly cancelled plans for a visit to Washington recently over the issue – the second time he has done so.

“He firmly repeated what all Mexicans have always said: We will never pay for a wall on the border,” said Foreign Minister Luis Videgaray.

‘Powerful energy’

An estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants live in the United States, many of them Mexicans or other Latinos.

“They are the proof that it’s possible to get through. More Mexicans are getting through all the time,” says Sergio Tamai, the founder of immigrant advocacy group Angels Without Borders.

Tamai runs a shelter for migrants in the border city of Mexicali, which sits across from Calexico, California.

The Migrant Hotel, as it’s known, is not far from the rusted metal border fence that separates the two cities. On the Mexican side, the fence is covered in colourful graffiti, including the words “penetrate me” in giant letters.

Migrants, says Tamai, will always find a way.

“The desert. The mountains. Human traffickers. You can’t take away that desire to cross to the other side. That desire to build a better life for your family is such a strong, powerful energy.”

‘All alone’

For many Mexicans who have been deported from the United States, things have gone from bad to worse under Trump.

“Everything is more difficult with Trump. He’s really racist,” says Carmelo Alfaro, 56, sitting on a mattress on the floor in the Migrant Hotel.

He was deported recently after working for 15 years as a gardener in San Francisco.

He now plans to move back “all alone” to his native state of Jalisco, in the west, and says he is resigned to living the rest of his life without his three US-born children. He and his wife decided they would be better off in the United States.

Salvador Moreno, the elderly deportee who cleans the hotel, is more optimistic.

A native of the western state of Michoacan, he was deported from California two years ago, and has since tried to go back twice. Both times he was arrested by the US border patrol.

“It’s harder for us now,” he says.

But, he added, “God willing, I’ll go back.” — AFP