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6th August 2020

In_pictures The islands that want tourists as well as fish

In_pictures The islands that want tourists as well as fish


in_pictures A Faroe Islands villageImage copyright
Adrienne Murray

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The Faroe Islands are home to just 52,000 people

Hundreds of miles from its nearest neighbour, the remote Faroe Islands are surrounded by the Atlantic Ocean. Fishing has always been a way of life, and fish accounts for 90% of all exported goods. But coronavirus is hitting efforts to increase tourism.

The drive to the village of Glyvrar is nothing less than dramatic.

The road from the airport winds past mountains and fjords, and passes through tunnels cut into hillsides and burrowed under the sea.

Glyvrar is home to the Faroe Islands’ largest firm, Bakkafrost – which farms salmon.

At its state-of-art plant almost 60,000 tonnes of salmon is processed annually.

Image copyright
Getty Images

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Fish is the country’s biggest export

The operation is highly mechanised, with conveyor belts carrying the fish through a series of machines until the finished product is packaged. Then robotic arms sort boxes ready for shipping.

From hatcheries breeding juvenile salmon to a facility making fish feed, Bakkafrost has a foot in almost every tier of the industry. Even the company’s branded Styrofoam boxes are manufactured on site, characteristic of the Faroe islanders’ self-sufficiency.

“We were one of the first operations here in the early ’80s,” says chief executive, Regin Jacobsen. “We saw that being in the middle of North Atlantic, the supplies and logistics to get our products to market were quite difficult.”

But there was also opportunity, he says. “[We can] differentiate ourselves… and create high values.”

Globally, farming of Atlantic salmon has soared from 1.4m to 2.6m tonnes in a decade. Norway and Chile are the biggest producers by far, but Faroese salmon commands a premium price.

Image copyright
Adrienne Murray

Image caption

Production at Bakkafrost is highly automated

The Faroe Islands are located approximately 200 miles (320km) north of Scotland, and are an autonomous territory of Denmark. There are 18 main islands, and the population is just 52,000.

Its salmon typically sells for 10% more than average market price because of a number of factors. These include the use of quality fishmeal, high farming standards, sustainability and avoidance of antibiotics.

Mr Jacobsen says 15 years ago most of the country’s salmon exports went to the European Union, but today it’s sold around the world.

Russia and the US are the biggest buyers. In 2014 Russia banned food imports from the EU, in retaliation to sanctions against it over Ukraine. However, the Faroe Islands is not in the EU, unlike Denmark, and saw its exports to Russia grow.

Mr Jacobsen adds that sales have been boosted in recent years by the growing popularity of salmon sushi, and wider healthy eating trends.

But as the coronavirus pandemic has sent shockwaves around the world they have been felt in the Faroe Islands.

Image copyright
Adrienne Murray

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Salmon farms are located around the Faroe Islands

Total Faroese exports fell 7% in the first quarter of this year, with sales to China falling a whopping 65% as Beijing temporarily froze many food imports.

“The Chinese market has been becoming a more and more important market,” says Mr Jacobsen. “For Bakkafrost it’s even more important. Around 20% of our sales are in China in recent years.”

Conversely though, lockdown restrictions elsewhere have actually boosted business.

“We have very good growth both in the US and the European markets,” says Mr Jacobsen. “The supermarkets have had much higher sales than normal, because people are eating more at home.”

Image copyright
Adrienne Murray

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The Faroe Island’s economy remains strong

To protect its population and economy from coronavirus, the Faroe Islands has one of the highest testing rates worldwide, with a strong track and trace and quarantine strategy. And every person is tested on arrival in the country.

This preparedness was partly thanks to its fisheries. A veterinary laboratory established years ago to monitor disease, was adapted early in January, ready to help test human samples.

This has no doubt contributed to the fact that the territory has reported not a single death from Covid-19. And it has seen only 227 confirmed cases in total.

In_pictures Global Trade

More from the BBC’s series taking an international perspective on trade:

With the Faroe Islands’ economy in good shape, it’s well-placed to weather any coronavirus headwinds, thinks Heri a Rogvi, chairman of the Faroe Islands’ Economic Council.

“Corona has upset the economy a bit,” says Mr Rogvi. “But at the present time, we have an unemployment rate of 1.7%, which is extremely low. I think we’re probably the economy in Europe that’s doing the best.”

Led by its fish sector, which accounts for 20% of economic output, the Faroese economy has prospered. The most recent statistics show that its gross domestic product per capita (a country’s economic output per person) totalled $58,950 (£45,102) in 2017. That is almost as high as the US ($59,958), and more than both the UK ($40,361) and France ($40,109).

The territory also receives an annual subsidy from Denmark of about $100m. Keen to diversify their economy the Faroese have been targeting tourists in recent years, but visitor numbers are down sharply this year due to Covid-19.

“This is the only tour we do today. There’s 14 people on the boat,” says Gunnar Skuvadal, as he steers his motorboat, Froyur, towards the seabird cliffs near the town of Vestamanna. He usually runs tours from April, but the Faroe Islands only opened its borders in mid-June this year.

Image copyright
Adrienne Murray

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Tourist numbers are down as a result of coronavirus

“On a normal day in June, we would have probably done three tours with fairly full boats, meaning about 40 people on each.”

Germans, Danes and “staycationing” locals are among the passengers on-board snapping pictures of sea-caves and nesting puffins.

“If I can get through the summer without doing a minus [making a loss], I think we should be satisfied,” says Mr Skuvadal.

In recent years tourism has thrived, attracting record visitors. Viral marketing campaigns like Google Sheepview, and 2019’s “Closed for maintenance” campaign have put the Faroes on the tourist map.

Last year the country saw 130,000 visitors. New air routes from New York and London were set to launch this year.

“We will probably only have 20-30% of the annual visitors we were supposed to have in 2020,” says Gudrid Hoejgaard, director of Visit Faroe Islands. So it will really be a horrible year. But I’m quite positive for 2021.”

Image copyright
Visit Faroe Islands

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Gudrid Hoejgaard has led the drive to boost tourist numbers

She adds: “Tourism is still a small industry here [2% of the economy]. But it’s broadening the labour market. It’s created jobs in the service sector and creative area.”

The hope is that this economic diversification will encourage young islanders to stay rather than move abroad. A deep recession in the early 1990s saw thousands of people leave.

Then in the early 2000s, unemployment rose sharply again when disease rocked the salmon industry. Of the dozens of salmon companies at the time, most went out of business.

“We’re [still] quite vulnerable, but compared to where we were 15-20 years ago, it’s much, much stronger at this time,” says Mr Rogvi.

“There has been an ongoing struggle for, I think, at least 50 years to get the younger people to stay here.”

Many go to university abroad, and often don’t return. But with improved job and education prospects that’s begun to turnaround.

Meanwhile, rising immigration, coupled with Europe’s highest fertility rate, has seen the population climb to the already mentioned 52,000.

“For us that’s an enormously high number,” says Mr Rogvi.

6th August 2020

In_pictures Kashmir: ‘I could land up in jail if I express myself freely’

In_pictures Kashmir: ‘I could land up in jail if I express myself freely’


in_pictures Suhail NaqashbandiImage copyright
Abid bhat

Image caption

Suhail Naqshbandi quit his job after his newspaper refused to publish his work

On 5 August last year India revoked the special status of Jammu and Kashmir, split it into two federally-run territories and imposed an unprecedented lockdown. Jehangir Ali reports from Srinagar on why the move has come as a blow to freedom of expression in the valley.

Months after Narendra Modi’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) stripped the region of its autonomy, a homemaker in the Muslim-dominated valley told a friend of her son to be careful.

“Swear on me, son,” Shameena Bano told Ishfaq Kawa, “I want you to stay at home.”

The fears of the 58-year-old wife of an apple farmer were not unfounded.

Her son Ashiq Hussain Dar had gone out on work from his home in the restive Shopian region in 2014. The 27-year-old never returned home.

Ashiq was among the thousands who have disappeared in the past 20 years amid an insurgency against Indian rule in Kashmir.

Ms Bano believes that security forces picked up her son. The Indian army has always denied such charges.

For Ms Bano the crackdown in August was just a grim reminder of the continuing turmoil in the Muslim dominated valley, home to eight million people.

In the immediate aftermath of the decision, the valley was strangled by a communications blockade. Thousands of political leaders, businesspeople and activists were detained. Protests were outlawed. Security forces were accused of carrying out beatings and torture. India consistently called the allegations “baseless and unsubstantiated”.

Mr Kawa took Ms Bano’s advice seriously.

He had lost his job as a marketing executive at an automobile firm. So he hunkered down and began writing poetry.

Image copyright
Abid bhat

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Ishfaq Kawa’s lockdown songs picked up more than a million views on YouTube

He dug into his savings and borrowed from friends, and with the money he bought equipment and turned his room into a makeshift recording studio. He wanted to turn his poems into songs.

One of Mr Kawa’s songs went:

Someday you will look for me all over/You will weep for a visit from the sympathiser/ But keep your heart turned to me/I will come back as a dream

“I tried to capture the pain of separation. It could be an expression of a mother’s longing for her son, or of lovers or friends who were separated due to the lockdown,” said Mr Kawa.

He recorded another song called Nund Bani (Beloved), a painful dirge of a mother longing for her disappeared son. The video of the song was viewed more than 1.5 million times and drew over 8,000 comments on YouTube.

Many like Mr Kawa have resumed their work quietly during the lockdown, now exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic in the state. Jammu and Kashmir has reported more than 7,500 infections and over 400 deaths from the disease so far.

A few months before the stripping of Kashmir’s autonomy Suhail Naqshbandi, a Srinagar-based cartoonist, quit his job after the newspaper he worked for began to refuse publishing his work.

As the lockdown was imposed, Mr Naqshbandi couldn’t draw. He had to deal with the anxieties of his seven-year-old son who kept asking questions about not being able to go to school or play with his friends. He resumed work only months later.

One of his recent artworks shows a cluster of houses in Srinagar on fire. A plume of smoke rises with the words of India’s first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru that Delhi will uphold the right to self-determination of the people of Kashmir. His work was widely shared on social media.

Image copyright
Abid bhat

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Journalist Peerzada Ashiq was called in for questioning by the police for one of his reports

Another shows a Kashmiri man, gagged and tied to a tree in a garden with a “Stay Home Stay Safe” notice, turning his head to look at an Indian photographer who is taking pictures of tourists in traditional Kashmiri dresses.

“It helps me externalise the pain of being a Kashmiri, of being a victim of oppression,” said Mr Naqshbandi. “I know I could land in jail if I express freely. But then if I don’t express myself, it will affect me more.”

Most artists and journalists say their freedoms have been curtailed since last August.

In April the police filed a complaint against and called in Peerzada Ashiq, a journalist belonging to the influential The Hindu newspaper, for reporting that the government had allowed two families to exhume the bodies of their militant sons from a graveyard after “police denied them permission”.

In February, Outlook magazine journalist Naseer Ganai was questioned by police for reporting on a statement by an outlawed separatist group.

When a young journalist wrote about the alleged assaults on civilians by government forces during combing operations, a police officer called her in.

“At this time, being a mature person,” the officer told her, “you should be writing positive stories about Kashmir.”

One recent morning in July, a relative of the journalist was roughed up at a police checkpoint. The journalist posted about the incident on Twitter.

Soon, a police officer called the journalist, asking her to report there within an hour.

At the police station, the cops asked to file a complaint, which the journalist denied. “It was pointless to file a complaint. Our colleagues have been targeted for years. So many of them have filed complaints but has the government acted?”

The officer then dictated a tweet and asked the journalist to post the “clarification” on Twitter which she did. When the journalist left the police station, the officer told her that he would be following her work in the papers.

Image copyright
Abid Bhat

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Mr Naqshbandi has begun drawing again during the lockdown

“The episode took a huge mental toll and I had to visit a psychiatrist,” the journalist, who prefers to remain unnamed, said.

Rights group Amnesty International has documented at least 10 instances where journalists were pulled up for their reports.

“Harassment and intimidation of journalists through draconian laws threatens the efforts to address the Covid-19 pandemic and creates an atmosphere of fear and reprisal in Kashmir,” Amnesty says. Dr Sheikh Showkat, who teaches law at the Central University of Kashmir, says there is an “illusion of normalcy, but there is an undeclared censorship in place”.

Kashmiris are no strangers to lockdowns. According to a recent report by Kashmir Chambers of Commerce and Industry, the valley has shut down for more than 3,000 days since 1989 when an armed insurgency against Indian rule erupted in the region.

But the lockdown since last August has been more crippling than those in the past.

The ban on high speed mobile internet has grounded businesses. Students have struggled during online classes due to poor connectivity. Technology lawyer Mishi Choudhary says “365 days of no to slow Internet in ‘Digital India’ is an unjustified government interference with basic rights of a population”. Some 80% of the jobs in the once-thriving tourism industry have been lost in the past year, a report by The Forum for Human Rights in Jammu and Kashmir said.

“The mood [in Kashmir] can’t be described as one of hope or optimism,” Dr Aijaz Ashraf Wani, who teaches political science at the University of Kashmir, says.

“It will increase distrust which has become the immediate cause of youth picking up the gun to fight Indian rule. I am not sure how this is going to be addressed or if there is actually any concern about this in Delhi.”

Jehangir Ali is an independent journalist based in Srinagar

5th August 2020

In_pictures John Hume funeral in pictures

In_pictures John Hume funeral in pictures


  • in_pictures John Hume's coffin lies before the alter in St Eugene's Cathedral in Londonderry ahead of his funeralStephen Latimer

    John Hume’s coffin lay before the altar in St Eugene’s Cathedral in Londonderry ahead of his funeral service on Wednesday.

  • in_pictures A portrait of John Hume surrounded by candles lit by members of his family and colleaguesStephen Latimer

    Family, friends and colleagues lit candles alongside a portrait of the former SDLP leader and Nobel Peace Prize winner.

  • in_pictures John Hume's family,Stephen Latimer

    John Hume’s wife Pat, pictured here on the left with her children, had urged mourners wishing to line the streets for the funeral to respect social distancing guidelines.

  • in_pictures Around 100 mourners attended the funeral service at St Eugene's Cathedral.PA Media

    Due to Covid-19 restrictions on gatherings, only about 120 people – mostly close family and friends – were inside the cathedral, although many more followed the service online.

  • in_pictures The President of Ireland Michael D. Higgins arrives at the CathedralPA Media

    Politicians from both sides of the Irish border, including Irish President Michael D. Higgins, attended the funeral service.

  • in_pictures Taoiseach (Irish prime minister) Micheál Martin was among the mourners.PA Media

    Taoiseach (Irish prime minister) Micheál Martin was among the political dignitaries who paid their respects.

  • in_pictures The Bishop of Derry, Donal McKeown welcomes First Minister Arlene Foster and former SDLP MLA Tommy Gallagher to the cathedralPA Media

    The Bishop of Derry, Donal McKeown welcomed First Minister Arlene Foster and former SDLP MLA Tommy Gallagher to the cathedral.

  • in_pictures Deputy First Minister Michelle O'Neill arriving for the service.PA Media

    Northern Ireland’s Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill was also at the service.

  • in_pictures Local people watched from outside the gates of the cathedral.Reuters

    Local people watched from outside the gates of the cathedral.

  • in_pictures Derry musician Phil CoulterReuters

    Derry musician Phil Coulter performed his own song, The Town I Love So Well, as the funeral procession left the cathedral.

  • in_pictures President Higgins talking to current SDLP leader Colum EastwoodPA Media

    President Higgins spoke to the current SDLP leader, Colum Eastwood, inside the cathedral.

  • in_pictures Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney speaking to NI Secretary of State Brandon Lewis.Stephen Latimer

    Irish Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney sat near Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis inside the cathedral.

  • in_pictures Mr Hume's son, John Hume Junior, paid a heart-warming tribute to his father.PA Media

    Mr Hume’s son, John Hume Junior, paid a heart-warming tribute to his father.

  • in_pictures The Bishop of Derry, Most Reverend Donal McKeown addressing the congregation.PA Media

    The Bishop of Derry, Donal McKeown, read messages from global dignitaries, including Bill Clinton and the Dalai Lama.

  • in_pictures A mourner holds the order of service for the funeral Mass.PA Media

    A mourner holding the order of service booklet ahead of the funeral Mass.

  • in_pictures The casket of the former SDLP leader is carried by his son, John Hume Junior, and other family members.PA Media

    The casket of the former SDLP leader was carried from the cathedral by his son, John Hume Junior, and other family members.

  • in_pictures Pat Hume and her daughter Mo leaving the cathedral together.Niall Carson

    Pat Hume was supported by her daughter Mo as the service ended.

  • in_pictures Mourners and politicians clapped as the funeral cortege left the cathedral.Niall Carson

    Mourners and politicians clapped as the funeral cortege left the cathedral.

  • in_pictures Members of the public lined the streets and clapped as John Hume's funeral cortege passed through the city.Niall Carson

    Members of the public lined the streets and clapped as John Hume’s funeral cortege passed through the city.

4th August 2020

In_pictures Twelfth of July parades across NI in pictures

In_pictures Twelfth of July parades across NI in pictures


Orange Order members and bandsmen march in parades across Northern Ireland.

in_pictures Members of the Belfast County Colour party in Belfast city centreImage copyright

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Members of the Belfast County colour party in Belfast city centre

The traditional Twelfth of July parades could not take place this year due to Covid-19 and the Orange Order asked people to celebrate the event in their own homes and gardens.

Members of the Belfast County colour party took part in a memorial service at the City Hall Cenotaph in Belfast on Monday.

in_pictures County Grand Orange Lodge at the Cenotaph.Image copyright
Graham Baalham-Curry LRPS

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A bugler plays at Belfast’s Cenotaph

County Grand Orange Lodge of Belfast Officers laid a wreath at the Cenotaph.

in_pictures Twelfth of July celebrations in Portadown today as 6 local bands paraded through streets and estates in a socially distanced mannerImage copyright

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Twelfth of July celebrations in Portadown

In Portadown six local bands paraded through streets in a socially distanced manner.

The Twelfth of July parades celebrate the Battle of the Boyne, when William of Orange defeated the Catholic King James II in 1690.

in_pictures Tractors taking part in 12th july parade

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Orangemen took to the roads to celebrate the 12th

Orangemen in Clogher Valley took to their tractors to parade around local Orange halls. Around 60 tractors took part.

in_pictures Crowds in Belfast's donegall road watch 12th paradeImage copyright

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Crowds gathered on the Donegall Road

But there were concerns at larger crowds in some parts of Belfast.

in_pictures victor wray laying wreath in londonderry

A total of 248 parades from individual bands were scheduled to take place.

In Londonderry, Victor Wray of City of Londonderry Grand Orange Lodge laid a wreath in the Fountain estate prior to the parade.

in_pictures The First Ulster Flute Band parade around the Sandy Row area of BelfastImage copyright

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Some bands set aside their traditional uniforms

A number of parades took place across Belfast including around the Sandy Row area of the city.

All pictures subject to copyright.

3rd August 2020

In_pictures Rahm wins Memorial to take world number one spot from McIlroy

In_pictures Rahm wins Memorial to take world number one spot from McIlroy


in_pictures Jon Rahm celebrates his Memorial Tournament win with his caddie
Rahm has won a tournament on the PGA Tour in each of the past four seasons
-9 J Rahm (Spa); -6 R Palmer (US); -5 M Fitzpatrick (Eng); -4 M Wallace (Eng), J Day (Aus)
Selected: -2 T Finau (US); +4 S Garcia (Spa), R McIlroy (NI), D Willett (Eng); +6 T Woods (US)
Full leaderboard

Jon Rahm wiped away a tear of joy after replacing Rory McIlroy as world number one by winning the Memorial Tournament.

A three-over-par 75 was enough to win on nine under, three clear of American Ryan Palmer (74), with Matt Fitzpatrick (68) third on five under, with fellow Englishman Matt Wallace (72) one back.

Rahm is the second Spaniard, after Seve Ballesteros, to top the rankings.

“I’ve accomplished a lifelong goal and any time I can join Spanish history with Seve is incredible,” said Rahm.

“But it’s hard to process right now because golf feels secondary. I lost two family members in the [coronavirus] quarantine.

“There are so many things going through my mind right now that have nothing to do with golf.”

This was the sixth PGA Tour event since professional golf resumed in the United States after an enforced three-month shutdown and had been been earmarked as the first to allow fans in to watch.

However, last week the PGA Tour said the remaining nine events of this season would take place behind closed doors as cases of coronavirus continue to soar in the country.

Rahm overcomes wobble and penalty to win

Rahm, 25, started the final round at Muirfield Village in Ohio with a four-shot lead over Palmer and Tony Finau.

That lead was eight by the eighth hole. “And then it got a little twisted,” said Rahm.

He bogeyed the 10th and then slammed his driver into the ground in anger after hitting his tee shot on the par-five 11th into water. He would double bogey the hole and see his lead cut to five.

It was four when Palmer birdied the short 12th and three after Rahm bogeyed the 14th.

He also looked in trouble on the par-three 16th after his errant tee shot flew into the greenside rough, but he hit a beautifully delicate chip that rolled right into the centre of the cup for a birdie.

“It was an unbelievable shot,” said Rahm. “It was the best short-game shot I’ve ever hit.”

However, in addressing the ball before his chip, television pictures showed that he inadvertently moved his ball a fraction. PGA Tour rules officials studied the footage while Rahm played his final two holes.

He only learned of his potential infringement when being interviewed immediately after his round and before he had signed his scorecard.

“I did not see or feel anything,” he said. “If it did move I did not see anything. It’s not going to take anything away from that shot.

“For that to go in, that was exactly what I needed.”

He was eventually penalised two shots but that only changed the size of his victory.

English pair finish well as McIlroy and Woods fade

Fitzpatrick’s 68 was the lowest round of a day when the average score was closer to 76, and moved him 15 places up the leaderboard.

“It was just a grind,” he said after an excellent round which featured one bogey and five birdies and was interrupted by a 50-minute delay as a storm blew across the course.

“Pars were a good score,” he added.

Wallace had three birdies in his final five holes, including one at the last to card a level-par 72 and take joint fourth with Australian Jason Day.

Northern Ireland’s McIlroy had an early birdie but a triple-bogey eight on the par-five fifth hole derailed his round as his reign as world number one finished with a six-over 78 and four over total.

Tiger Woods said he would take “a lot of positives” away from his first tournament in five months despite finishing with a four-over 76 and six over par total.

The record five-times winner of this Jack Nicklaus-hosted event holed birdie putts of 18 and 22 feet on the 16th and 17th holes but he also had five bogeys and a double bogey.

Nicklaus and wife recover from coronavirus

Record 18-time major winner Nicklaus said during the round that he and his wife Barbara both tested positive for coronavirus in March.

The American said his wife had no symptoms, while he dealt with a sore throat and cough for more than a month.

“It didn’t last very long, and we were very, very fortunate, very lucky,” said Nicklaus, who noted that he and his wife, both 80, are at an “at-risk age” for more serious Covid-19 symptoms.

“Our hearts go out to the people who did lose their lives and their families. We were just a couple of the lucky ones,” he added.

3rd August 2020

In_pictures Idris Khattak: ‘My father was taken and I don’t know why’

In_pictures Idris Khattak: ‘My father was taken and I don’t know why’


in_pictures Idris Khattak and his daughters before his disappearanceImage copyright

Image caption

Talia (right) is worried about what condition her father is being kept in

Talia’s parents separated when she was a little girl, and her father became her only caregiver – from cooking breakfast to making “cool hairstyles” for her for school.

“He was a really nice dad,” says Talia, who is 20. “I think my whole life, my worst fear has been losing Papa.”

But last November her worst fear came true. Idris Khattak, a well known human rights campaigner, was taken in broad daylight from his car in northern Pakistan, and for seven months Talia had no idea who had taken her father or why.

And then, a breakthrough. In a rare admission of a forced disappearance, Pakistan’s military confirmed it had Idris, 56, in custody, and that he was facing charges under the secrets act.

Now the thought of where he might be, and in what condition, keeps Talia up at night. That, and her guilt for the train ride she was on the day he disappeared.

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Idris Khattak is a well known human rights campaigner who worked with Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch

Talia was due to take the train from the capital Islamabad, where she studies, to Karachi to attend a conference. Her father had reservations about letting his young daughter travel alone, which is considered unsafe in Pakistan, but she convinced him. He said he would call every hour to check on her. Mid-journey he told her he had a bad feeling and offered to pick her up if she got off at the next station.

“I feel so guilty now, I think about it every day. If I had said yes and I had gone with Papa that day then I would have been with him in the car,” she says.

The last time she spoke to him he sounded rushed and out of breath, and told her he wouldn’t have his phone for the next few days. Then he stopped responding to messages or calling. It was completely out of character, and worried Talia.

A few days later, she was headed back to Islamabad when she got a message from a friend: “I’m so sorry your father was abducted.”

In attempt to protect her, Talia’s family had not told her the news. But the headlines and her father’s picture splashed on news websites confirmed her fears.

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Talia has been speaking out, calling for an investigation into her father’s disappearance

Idris was taken by men in civilian clothing from his car at the Swabi interchange in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, the province where the family has its home. His driver, who was also taken, was released after two days. The driver gave a statement to police saying unknown men put bags over their heads and drove them away in a separate car.

Two days later, unknown men went into Idris’s house and took his laptop and hard drives. Talia says most of their family pictures were on there. Then for months, they heard nothing. Talia and her sister Shumaisa worried about his health and if he was being given his daily diabetes medicine.

Idris Khattak’s brother filed a police report, and tried to petition the Peshawar High Court to force police to investigate. Amnesty international, where Idris Khattak was a former researcher, said he was “forcibly disappeared” – a term used for state-backed abductions.

But after six months and no information on his whereabouts, Talia posted a video appeal on social media asking for people to petition the government to provide answers.

It is still unusual in conservative Pakistan for young women to be the ones on public platforms demanding justice. And her family had reservations.

“I always think, what would Papa do? And I know he wouldn’t stay quiet. He would speak up if it was any of us,” says Talia.

“There are so many cases just like my dad. My father is not the first and he won’t be the last. It makes me mad and it worries me that there’s not a lot we can do about it.”

Image copyright

Image caption

Talia (right) and her elder sister Shumaisa when they were younger

Enforced disappearances have a long history in Pakistan, gaining prominence during the leadership of General Pervez Musharraf which began in the late 1990s. Historically, those who went missing were insurgents or separatists from restive regions like Balochistan or more recently Sindhi nationalists.

But in recent years the security forces are accused of using the practice more widely, including against activists, bloggers and journalists who have been critical of the government.

Idris Khattak’s family claim they have no idea why he was taken, as he was not a particularly vocal critic of the government or military in recent years. He is affiliated with the National Party – one of the largest political parties in Balochistan.

The independent Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) estimates that at least 2,100 political dissenters and rights activists are currently missing in the country, although the actual number may be much higher.

Harris Khalique from HRCP says the practice is particularly painful for families unaware of their loved ones’ whereabouts, sometimes for years. Or until a body or grave turns up. But more fundamentally, it goes against the individual rights enshrined in Pakistan’s constitution.

“If the state indulges in extra-legal actions what legitimacy does the state have to go after those non-state actors who have similar practices?” says Mr Khalique.

In 2011 a Commission of Inquiry of Enforced Disappearances was formed but successive governments, including the current one, have failed to deliver on the promises of criminalising state-sponsored abductions – mainly because of what experts say is the close relationship between the government and military in Pakistan.

“Despite repeated promises to criminalise enforced disappearances, it continues to be used as a tool to muzzle dissent or criticism,” says Amnesty.

The BBC approached the government for comment but received no response.

Idris Khattak’s family and human rights activists mounted a campaign to put international pressure on the authorities, reaching out to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) and the UK’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO).

And then in June, in a rare occurrence, the family were told that the military’s intelligence agency had him in custody and were charging him under an archaic 1923 secrets act.

The family later found out he is to face a military trial conducted in secret. They have no idea what the charges are against him and they are likely never to be told.

They have still not been able to meet him or speak to him. And for Talia, who used to speak to her father every night about her day, it hasn’t got any easier.

She is in touch with her mother, who now lives in Switzerland, but says that despite everyone’s support it’s the loneliest she’s ever been.

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Media captionTaha Siddiqui: “Four guys came out… they had AK-47s”

Pakistan reporter Taha Siddiqui flees armed abductors

3rd August 2020

In_pictures ‘I was found as a baby wrapped in my mum’s coat – but who am I?’

In_pictures ‘I was found as a baby wrapped in my mum’s coat – but who am I?’


in_pictures Tony May on the Victoria EmbankmentImage copyright
Phil Coomes

Tony May was only a few weeks old when he was abandoned by the River Thames in London, in the middle of World War Two. He had no idea who his parents were for more than 70 years. Then a DNA detective dug up the truth about his past.

A few days before Christmas, in 1942, a baby boy was brought in to a police station near the Houses of Parliament in London.

He had been found wrapped in a bright blue woman’s coat on Victoria Embankment, a road lined with trees and occasional benches that runs along the north bank of the Thames. The boy was judged to be one month old and, after no-one came forward to claim him, he was allotted a birthday. He also needed a name. It was common at the time to refer to the place a child was found – and so he became Victor Banks.

“I always wondered who they were, you know? And why I would have been abandoned, I think that’s the main thing.”

Tony May is sitting in an old easy chair in his flat in St Albans, just to the north of London. There are jazz CDs piled on a side table, and photos of trumpet players on the wall.

“I used to run a club on the jazz circuit,” he tells me. “We’d get musicians who had played at Ronnie Scott’s.”

Image copyright
Tony May

Tony is in his 70s. Though he moves carefully around his flat his voice is full of energy. He gestures now to one of the pictures crammed on to his mantelpiece.

“My mum and dad, Arthur and Ivy, didn’t have any brothers or sisters so they had friends who we called aunt and uncle. They were lovely to me.”

The couple adopted Victor Banks when he was a toddler in 1944, changing his name to Tony May. They went on to adopt a little girl called Eleanor who became Tony’s sister. Tony remembers being told he was adopted when he was about seven.

“It was no big deal really. But I remember my sister went around telling everyone we were adopted and I was so embarrassed.”

Image copyright
Tony May

Image caption

Tony and his sister, Eleanor

When he was growing up, Tony was particularly close to his father.

“My dad was very bright but although he was very interested in sport he was no good at it at all. When he realised I was good at it, he used to give me and my friend Mick cricket catching practice every night. He’d come home from the bank – I can see him now with his hat and umbrella – and he’d come down the garden to help us. And he’d take me to see major sporting events at White City stadium in London.

“I became a very good cricketer and schoolboy athlete because he believed in me. And when you’re adopted you need people to believe in you.”

Tony’s adoption was rarely mentioned by his parents.

“I remember once my dad knocked on my bedroom door when I was a teenager and asked what music I was listening to,” Tony says.

“It was John Coltrane on tenor sax playing ballads. He said: ‘Do you think you play such mournful music, because you’re adopted?’ I said: ‘No Dad, this is world-class music played all over the world.’ He said: ‘Oh, OK then.’ That was that, there was no dialogue about it.”

Tony only discovered he had been found as a baby on his wedding day, at the age of 23.

Image copyright
Tony May

“My dad sidled over to me after the service,” he says.

“He told me that when I got back from my honeymoon he’d have an envelope for me with my exam passes and adoption order. He said: ‘There’s a word on it that you might not know, the word foundling. Just letting you know.’ I didn’t twig for ages what it meant. It was much later that I realised I’d been abandoned.”

Tony went into banking, like his father, and then into recruitment. He also had two children.

Looking back, he wonders whether not knowing where he came from did affect him, despite what he told his father about the music he’d been listening to that day.

“I worried a lot about things going wrong, which meant I worked extra hard at getting things right. It did mean when the auditors came around at work I knew I’d get a clean sheet.

“Though I laugh and joke and muck about, I’m not tactile. I’m fairly reserved, I would say, about showing emotion. But I can cry my eyes out watching a rugby match.”

It wasn’t until his adoptive parents had died that Tony felt ready to investigate where he came from. His first port of call was the London Record Office, where he was amazed to find out he wasn’t allowed to look at his own adoption file. The rules at that time stipulated that a social worker had to go in and make notes in pencil on his behalf.

The file revealed that after being found on Victoria Embankment on 19 December 1942 he was taken to the old Canon Row police station near Westminster Bridge – but there was no mention of who had found him or at what time of day. After being examined at a hospital in Chelsea, he was evacuated to Easneye Nursery in Ware, Hertfordshire, away from the risk of bombing.

Image copyright
Tony May

Image caption

Ivy May

Little Victor first met Arthur and Ivy May at Easneye. Before they were allowed to adopt him they fostered him for a year and Tony is visibly moved as he reads out a welfare report from that time.

“Date on which visit made: 5 November 1943. Is the child well cared for? The answer is: ‘She devotes her whole time and attention to the baby and he is responding well to individual care and is becoming interested in people and things.’ Are the applicants satisfied with the child? ‘They are very pleased with him and delighted to have a baby of their own.'”

“That’s lovely, that,” Tony says, tapping the table for emphasis.

Letters in Tony’s file reveal the Mays wrote to the authorities to see if they could find out any more about his history. The reply was definitive – exhaustive inquiries had been carried out to trace the parents, but all efforts had been unsuccessful.

Having reached this dead end, Tony then took his story to the media in the hope it might jog someone’s memory. He appeared on radio, TV and in newspapers in the mid-1990s. Some nurses who had worked at the Easneye nursery during the war came forward, but Tony was no closer to finding out about the circumstances of his birth.

“I had given up. I thought, ‘No man can do more than I have done, so that’s it,'” he says.

Then, four years ago, Tony joined a Facebook group for foundlings. They swapped stories about their lives and their theories about why they might have been left.

Tony thought he could be the result of a liaison between a British woman and an American GI. It’s estimated that about 22,000 children were born in this way between 1942 and 1945.

“I was found in London and I know this is an area where it was happening,” he says.

He mentioned his theory in the Facebook group, and it was a move that would change his life.

The post was spotted by Julia Bell, a genetic genealogist who has used DNA to track down American servicemen who fathered children during World War Two.

Julia’s first successful case was working out who her own GI grandfather was.

Image caption

DNA detective Julia Bell was looking for a new challenge

“My mother was over the moon to find out. Her father had died in 2009 but she had five brothers and sisters living all over the US. They send her presents for her birthday.”

Julia was inspired by her experience to work on other GI cases, but she was now looking for a new challenge.

“I was finding the American servicemen cases very easy. They all knew who their mothers were, but not their fathers. I thought, ‘How about giving that gift of knowing where you come from to people who don’t know who either side was?'”

She had started looking at foundling cases when she came across Tony’s Facebook post, so she introduced herself and offered to help free of charge.

“I thought, why not?” Tony says.

“I’ve tried everything you know, if you like you might as well go for it. I didn’t think she’d be successful. How can you possibly be from so little information?”

And he was right that the case was a tough one, in fact it was the hardest that Julia had ever attempted to crack.

The first thing Julia did was search newspaper archives, where she found a small article from 20 December 1942 reporting Tony’s discovery.

It read: “A blue-eyed boy four weeks old, wrapped in a bright blue jacket, part of a woman’s costume, has been found abandoned on the Embankment.”

Julia wondered whether this could be a sign that Tony was left in a hurry, and that perhaps it hadn’t been planned.

She then turned to DNA, which she was convinced could help unravel Tony’s case. It was 2016, and there had been a massive increase in the number of people in the US and the UK using DNA testing kits to research their family history.

Her first step was to send off a saliva sample from Tony to one of several privately owned companies that offer DNA matching with other clients on their database.

The amount of DNA we share with other people is measured in centimorgans. The number ranges from single digits for distant cousins to 3,400 centimorgans for a parent and child.

The test revealed a woman called Deborah in Toronto, who appeared to be about a third cousin of Tony’s, judging from the amount of DNA they shared. But this promising link proved a dead end. Julia realised Deborah was most likely related to Tony on her father’s side, and Deborah said she didn’t know who her father was.

After Deborah, Tony’s closest relation was a fourth cousin called June, in Scotland. That meant she probably shared with Tony a pair of great-great-great-grandparents, who lived sometime in the 1800s.

“Now June had more of a complete tree, which she was willing to share with me,” Julia says.

To find out which ancestor pair Tony and June shared, Julia searched the databases of the DNA-matching companies and found someone who was a cousin of both Tony and June at a similar distance.

“It’s called triangulating,” Julia explains.

“I found an ancestor pair living in the 1860s that all three people shared. Then I created a chart with all the different possible lines of descent, with every marriage and every birth.

“I looked for people further down the lines who were living descendants and asked them to do a DNA test. Each time I found a closer match that would help me refocus and refocus, getting closer to my goal.”

By a closer match, Julia means a cousin closer to Tony in his family tree, sharing a larger amount of DNA.

The most common DNA test examines the pairs of chromosomes inherited from each parent (except the pair of sex chromosomes), but Julia also got Tony to do another test that looked at mitochondrial DNA, which is passed from mother to child via the egg cell.

It suggested a strong maternal link to Lanarkshire, in the central lowlands of Scotland.

In_pictures DNA testing

Every cell in your body contains DNA molecules, packaged in structures called chromosomes, which hold the instructions the body needs to develop, survive and reproduce.

The most common DNA test focuses on chromosomes from the cell nucleus, and particularly those inherited from both parents (22 “autosomal” chromosome pairs). The test matches you with anyone else on the database who shares a direct ancestor, reaching back about seven generations.

In men it is also possible to test the Y chromosome, which is passed from father to son and helps identify the paternal line.

The maternal line can be investigated by testing the DNA in mitochondria – subunits of a cell responsible for generating the cell’s energy. This DNA is passed from mother to child in the egg cell.

It was slow and painstaking work but towards the end of 2018 Julia identified a couple she thought could be Tony’s maternal grandparents, who had lived in Kirkcaldy, north of Edinburgh. They had a son still living in Scotland called Bill who was in his 90s and was reluctant to do a test. However Bill’s daughter, Kathleen, agreed to help once she heard Tony’s story. The results showed Kathleen was almost certainly his first cousin.

“So I’m thinking it’s most likely that Tony’s mother was Bill’s sister,” Julia says.

“Bill had a sister called Mary who died in 1988. Mary had had two children – a son, Peter, who had died in 2006, but also a daughter called Sheena, who was still living.”

After thinking about it long and hard, Sheena agreed to meet Julia.

“Well this was back in January 2019,” Sheena says, sitting across from me in her conservatory in Kettering, Northamptonshire.

“My cousin Kathleen had explained to me about Julia and this person who was looking for his parents. I thought whoever this Tony is deserves to know who his family is, but I didn’t click at all what it had to do with me.

“She came here and told me, ‘I’m 80% sure that your mum is Tony’s mother.’ Well you could have knocked me over with a feather, I knew nothing about it!

“I thought, ‘How could my mum have done it?’ And then I thought, ‘What must she have been through to feel she had to do something like that?’ If only she’d been able to talk to us.”

Image copyright
Sheena Haig

Image caption

Mary with Sheena’s father

Sheena agreed to take the test and it confirmed Sheena was indeed Tony’s half-sister. Julia went to Tony’s house to tell him the news.

“When she came I had a friend with me, who was writing it all down. It was a hell of a lot to absorb,” Tony says.

“It was strange, I felt much less happy than I thought I would do. It didn’t have as huge an effect as I thought it would. But then I heard Sheena was willing to meet me, that was a big bonus.”

Sheena and her husband, George Haig, only live an hour’s drive away from Tony and they agreed to meet him and Julia at a hotel.

“I just thought it was unbelievable. That I’m hugging the daughter of the woman who abandoned me and that she had been prepared to meet me,” Tony says.

“Sheena gave me an album full of old photographs of the family. It was just lovely. She’s a great girl.”

Image caption

Sheena, Tony, and the family photos

Sheena immediately noticed something familiar about Tony.

“He walked in and I thought: ‘That’s my mum walking towards me.’ He was so much like her it was scary. I just couldn’t take my eyes off him.”

Over time, Sheena, 65, has helped Tony build a picture of their mother.

Mary married Sheena’s father in 1946 and had two children. They moved to Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe, when Sheena was two. However, they came back to the UK after her father was injured in a car accident. He never left hospital and Mary raised Peter and Sheena alone.

Image copyright
Sheena Haig

Image caption

Sheena as a young woman, and Mary

“She had a hard life but she was a loving person. She’d do anything for anybody,” Sheena says.

“I’ve missed her more this year than I’ve done in a long time.”

Meanwhile, Julia was still at work trying to find Tony’s biological father. She discovered Mary had been married once before, which was a complete surprise to Sheena.

“Julia told us mum had married a man from Kirkcaldy called James on 1 August 1942, but she applied for a divorce in 1946,” she says.

As Tony was born in late November or early December, Julia knew Mary would have been about five months pregnant at the time of the wedding. Although the DNA hadn’t indicated a strong Scottish lineage on Tony’s paternal side, Julia decided to follow up the lead.

She found out that James had gone on to remarry after his divorce from Mary and had had a daughter called Anita. When Anita was approached and told about Tony’s story, her response took everyone by surprise.

“Her first words to us were along the lines of: ‘Thank goodness he’s fine,'” Julia says.

Anita says discovering the existence of Tony has laid to rest a family mystery that had troubled her for most of her life.

“I’d heard a whisper of a story but I was never sure it was true,” she says.

“I was anything between eight and 10. I heard raised voices and I was listening at the door. I just heard, ‘Oh, it’s awful you know that a baby was left.’ That would have been my mother speaking and my father was saying things like, ‘You weren’t there. It was dreadful, she was in a terrible state and she was going to jump off a bridge and I had to calm her down.'”

Image copyright
Sheena Haig

Image caption

The young Mary Hunter

It’s not clear if James knew Mary was pregnant when they got married, but Anita says her father insisted the baby wasn’t his. Her understanding was that this led to some sort of argument between James and Mary in London. At the time, James was in the military and serving on the south coast. Perhaps Mary came down with the baby from Kirkcaldy to meet him?

“I suppose that’s how the abandonment happened,” Anita says.

“My father removed Madie [Mary] from the baby to calm her down and perhaps – I think I remember hearing my mum saying something like ‘Did you never go back to see if it was still there?’ And I remember him saying ‘Of course I did, but obviously the baby wasn’t there.'”

This is a second-hand account, told decades later, but it does suggest that both Mary and James were involved in leaving Tony on Victoria Embankment. An action that their children think profoundly affected both of them for the rest of their lives.

Mary had always told her daughter, Sheena, that her brother, Peter, had been a twin, but that the other baby had been stillborn. Sheena’s cousin recently revealed she’d once asked their gran about the stillborn baby.

“My gran had been there at Peter’s birth and apparently she said that was a load of rubbish, there was only one baby. So we now think that was my mum trying to make sense of it,” Sheena says.

Image copyright
Sheena Haig

Image caption

Mary with Sheena as a young girl

Anita said her father, James, was delighted when she had three girls and seemed uncomfortable around baby boys.

“He was a very supportive and helpful person. It just seems such an out-of-character thing for him and I think it weighed heavily on him,” she says.

“In fact, in his late 70s he tried to take his own life and was treated for severe depression. I think the incident in 1942 with the baby [is something] he’d carried all those years and felt guilt and shame for. I think it contributed to his suicide attempt.”

Both Sheena and Anita wish their parents could have known that Tony had been found and adopted.

Anita took a DNA test that confirmed what her father had always said, he was not Tony’s father. So Julia’s hunt continued, looking at DNA databases and creating numerous family trees using birth, marriage and death records. She narrowed down her search to two family lines based in Yorkshire and Hertfordshire. This meant he was unlikely to be a GI as Tony had first supposed.

Image copyright
Tony May

Image caption

Eric Wisbey emigrated to Australia

Then, just a few months after finding Tony’s mother, Julia hit the jackpot with his father. She discovered a 1906 marriage that seemed to bring those two lines together. The marriage resulted in a son called Eric.

“I found this man called Eric Wisbey who looked to me to be the dad. I approached some living relatives who told me he had gone to Australia,” Julia says.

“Eric had died in 2004 and he had a son called Ken who had died in 2011. But Ken had a daughter called Leesa and she agreed to do a DNA test.”

Leesa lives in Wodonga, on the border of New South Wales and Victoria.

“I Googled Julia Bell’s name to make sure that it wasn’t a hoax,” she says over Skype.

“You never know nowadays. And then I thought, ‘Well, it’s not going to hurt me.’ So I agreed and she sent the test over.”

The results came back a month later and confirmed Leesa was Tony’s half-niece. This meant Julia was correct and Eric Wisbey was Tony’s father.

In_pictures How Julia did it

Starting in 2016, Julia Bell identified cousins of Tony on his mother’s side, and used them to reconstruct part of his family tree, which led her to Mary, Tony’s mother, and to Sheena, his living half-sister, whom Julia met in January 2019.

In her search for Tony’s father, Julia established that Mary’s first husband, James, had been present when Tony was abandoned, but was not his father.

Her attention then focused on two families in Yorkshire and Hertfordshire and a man called Eric Wisbey. When Eric’s granddaughter, Leesa, did a DNA test in spring 2019, the result showed she was Tony’s half-niece, and the case was closed.

Tony was amazed to discover he had family on the other side of the world.

“I have got a father that went out to Australia and now I’ve spoken to my father’s granddaughter out there over the internet. These are huge bonuses,” he says.

Leesa was able to tell Tony a little about his father.

“Eric was sort of a reserved fella, sometimes he’d take my brother, dad and I fishing,” she says. He was a painter and decorator who moved around the state of Victoria. After his wife, Leesa’s grandmother, died, he married one of her friends.

But how did Eric Wisbey, from the south of England, come to meet Mary Hunter from Scotland?

Leesa pulled out her grandfather’s war records, which revealed he was in the Army Pay Corps in World War Two. In 1942 he was stationed in Edinburgh, 11 miles across the Firth of Forth from Mary’s hometown of Kirkcaldy.

At the time Mary was 22 and living with her parents, while Eric was 35 and married with a young son back in Brighton. So how did this unlikely couple get together? Mary’s brother, Bill – who has since died aged 93 – was asked if he could remember anything from that time.

“He remembered an older guy coming to stay at the house because he had to share a room with him,” Sheena says.

“He was 15 years or so older than my mum and he said he thinks she’d had an affair with him. But he doesn’t remember her being pregnant or a baby being born.”

Sheena and George have speculated that Eric was billeted with the Hunter family, and was perhaps involved in paying the munition workers in the town. But did Eric ever find out that Mary was pregnant? Leesa reveals a tantalising clue.

“I had rung my mum to tell her about what was going on with Julia and then mum spoke to John, who was my dad’s friend. And John said Dad had told him he thought he had a half-brother or had an inkling. I don’t know how Dad got that information. I wish he was still alive so we could ask him about it.”

Eric Wisbey left Scotland in 1943 after he moved from the Pays Corps to the Intelligence Corps. By 1944 he was stationed in India.

“He didn’t really like speaking about the war and we never asked him about it. We found his records in a drawer,” Leesa says.

Sheena thinks her mother was left in an impossible position.

“Whether he knew about it or not, Eric was married and quite a lot older than my mum. Then he went off to Australia. I think he got off scot free,” she says.

“I feel angry and bitter that my mum felt she had to hide it all. What she must have gone through for the rest of her life, to my mind, is absolutely heart-breaking.”

For Tony, the discoveries have helped him better understand why he was left on the Embankment. But he says he has never blamed his mother for leaving him.

Image copyright
Phil Coomes

“I wish I could tell her ‘I’m sorry you had to do it,'” he says.

“I was sure she wouldn’t have abandoned me without a damn good reason.”

Dr Marilyn Crawshaw from the University of York has worked for decades with people who were adopted or conceived with donor sperm. She warns people to think carefully before embarking on a journey like Tony’s.

“I very definitely believe a child has a right to know where they come from,” she says.

“But I always say to people don’t go rushing into it, stop and think first. Talk to your mates about it. Are you prepared for all the different things you might find out?

“Some bits might feel immensely satisfying, but you may also find a birth parent who refuses to have contact with you. You have no idea what is happening in the lives of the people you are approaching. You really are stepping into the unknown.”

Tony says there are some things he will always wonder about, such as whether he was born in Scotland or London, but he is “happy to know what I now know”.

His relationship with his half-sister has gone from strength to strength. Sheena and her husband, George, have met Tony’s sister, Eleanor, while Tony has gone to watch his half-niece, Jessica, sing at a concert in London.

Tony is now looking forward to introducing Sheena and her family to his children and grandchildren.

“When Julia first told me she had a result I think I was a bit stunned,” Tony says.

“But now I’ve met my half-sister, I’ve corresponded with my half-niece in Australia. I’m looking forward to introducing my son and daughter to Sheena’s family. It’s given me a new lease of life.”

Follow Claire Bates on Twitter

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Image copyright
Tyler Hurwitz

After losing everything in the horror of Hurricane Katrina, artist Matjames Metson was broke, traumatised and “braced for the end” when he received an unexpected phone call. It was from the daughter he hadn’t seen since she was a baby, and it gave him a reason to live.

‘I left her as a baby – 16 years later she saved my life’

3rd August 2020

In_pictures Nile dam row: Egypt fumes as Ethiopia celebrates

In_pictures Nile dam row: Egypt fumes as Ethiopia celebrates


in_pictures A family eating on a bridge over the Nile River in Cairo EgyptImage copyright
Getty Images

Image caption

The Nile is seen as Egypt’s lifeblood – without its waters the country fears for its survival

As Ethiopia celebrated rains which began filling a controversial dam on a tributary of the River Nile, Egypt was fuming.

The North African nation had long been opposed to any development on the Nile upstream that could reduce the amount of water it receives from the river and has regarded the Ethiopian project as an existential threat.

The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (Gerd), which has been in construction since 2011, is now holding back water – and contains 4.9 billion cubic metres (bcm) of the Blue Nile’s water after this season’s rains.

This is despite Egypt’s insistence that no filling should take place without a legally binding agreement about how the process will be managed.

In another four to six years the reservoir, which sits behind what will be Africa’s largest hydroelectric plant when it comes into operation, is expected to reach 74bcm.

In_pictures Satellite pictures from earlier in July showed the dam filling up:



A large reservoir is beginning to form behind the dam

12 July 2020

in_pictures Satellite image showing the River Nile from above in northwestern Ethiopia, 12 July

26 June 2020

in_pictures Satellite image showing the River Nile from above in northwestern Ethiopia, 26 June

  • It will be the largest hydro-electric plant in Africa
  • Ethiopia sees it as crucial for its economic development
  • It is intended to to provide power to 65 million Ethiopians, who lack a regular supply

Egypt and Ethiopia, along with Sudan through which the Blue Nile also flows, have been negotiating for the best part of a decade, but all the while the dam has been built.

They signed a declaration of principles in 2015 which spoke about the “spirit of co-operation”, but Egypt feels that has been missing.

In the past year, it has invested time and political capital by lobbying at the highest international level and seeking help from the US and the UN, but to no avail.

Image copyright
US president’s office

Image caption

The US tried, but failed, to get Egypt and Ethiopia to sign up to an agreement

Egypt appears to have lost that battle.

It has failed to force Ethiopia to abide by the 1997 UN Watercourses Convention requiring upstream countries to consult the downstream states before embarking on projects of this magnitude.

At this point it is hard to imagine what else Egypt could possibly do today other than acquiesce and do as much damage limitation as possible. However, a military option has never been explicitly ruled out.

The Egyptian leadership has repeatedly said it remains committed to resolution through negotiation. But it usually adds the caveat that “all options remain on the table” – a phrase that often alludes to possible conflict.

The government has repeatedly described the issue of the Gerd project as a matter of life and death. This will be especially true if there is a substantial reduction of the amount of the water that reaches Egypt as a result of the dam.

In_pictures Explore the Nile with 360 video

Alastair Leithead and his team travelled in 2018 from the Blue Nile’s source to the sea – through Ethiopia and Sudan into Egypt.

But now, with the filling a reality the Egyptian government has tried to put a brave face on things.

Officially, it said that Egypt remained committed to the current diplomatic process which is being handled by the African Union, and repeated its old mantra that it will not accept unilateral action from Ethiopia.

In_pictures Water poverty

It has also insisted that any future agreement must endorse what it sees as its established Nile rights to 55bcm of water from the river.

On average 49bcm of water flows through the Blue Nile tributary a year and Ethiopia has consistently refused to concede to giving Egypt a commitment to a specific amount that it will allow to flow through the dam. It sees Egypt’s demands as a legacy of agreements that were made without its involvement.

Egypt’s official response betrayed powerlessness rather than resolve.

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Media captionRos Atkins on…why can’t Egypt and Ethiopia agree on the Nile dam?

The stakes have never been higher for the country.

Describing the Gerd as an existential threat is not hyperbole. Egypt is an arid country and is seen as very water-poor.

The World Bank classifies water scarcity as when there is less than 1,000 cubic metres of fresh water per person a year. In Egypt, the figure is 550 cubic metre per person annually, according to the government.

Just take a look at the map, where 90% of its 100 million population are squeezed into the narrow Nile valley, 6% of the country’s total area, beset by vast deserts on both sides.

In_pictures ‘Outmanoeuvred’

The Nile provides Egyptians with their primary source of water, for both drinking and agriculture.

Its current annual share of the Nile waters, the now endangered 55bcm, already falls far short of its needs.

This explains that while on an official level Egypt has so far exercised verbal restraint, the media and commentators have not held back.

Image copyright
Getty Images

Image caption

Egypt says the waters of the Nile are vital for its agricultural sector

To them, Ethiopia had used the drawn out negotiations to blindside the Egyptians while creating facts on the ground to exercise total control over the river.

A triumphalist tweet celebrating the first year’s filling of the Gerd by Ethiopia Foreign Minister Gedu Andargachew – which read in part “the river became a lake… the Nile is ours” – particularly inflamed passions.

It confirmed what Egyptians had long feared and some replied with all sorts of threats.

An Egyptian columnist begrudgingly acknowledged that Ethiopia had outmanoeuvred his country, but it is not over yet, Imad-al-Din Husayn wrote in the daily Shorouq newspaper, in an effort to reassure his readers.

“The Ethiopians refuse to believe that without the Nile we would die, literally. They have many rivers and receive around 950bcm of rain water annually. We receive a paltry 55bcm, half of what we actually need, which is also half of what their livestock consumes annually,” he added in exasperation and summing up the imbalance that many Egyptians feel.

In_pictures Diplomatic wrangle

On its part Egypt has launched several water management schemes, which include the recycling of waste water in agriculture, desalination plants, and an ambitious program to change traditional forms of irrigation to the more water saving method of drip-irrigation.

But the argument about Egypt’s water poverty is perhaps its strongest card in the diplomatic wrangle, if it can be used to galvanise international support.

Apart from a short advert made in several languages, the Egyptian administration has so far failed to launch a concerted information campaign to win over global backing.

In_pictures More about the mega dam:

Both in sub-Saharan Africa and even in the US, the Ethiopians appear to have fared much better.

The current chairperson of the African Union is South African President Cyril Ramaphosa. Many Egyptians believe that South Africa is biased in favour of Ethiopia, which does not augur well for the talks.

If these fail to produce a satisfactory result, Egypt believes it can take the issue back to the UN Security Council for a resolution that ties the hands of Ethiopia.

But it is far from certain that it can secure the support of all the five permanent members.

Recent reports have suggested that both China and Russia will oppose such a move, because they do not want to set a precedent as they both have their own river disputes with downstream neighbours.

Failure to bridge the gap between Egypt and Ethiopia could spell disaster for both.

Turmoil in Egypt as a result of drought and potential mass displacement could have far reaching consequences across the whole of North Africa and Europe. And an armed conflict between two of Africa’s largest and greatest nations should be a scary prospect not just for the Africans, but for the whole world.

3rd August 2020

In_pictures Killing Eve: How author Luke Jennings created Villanelle

In_pictures Killing Eve: How author Luke Jennings created Villanelle


in_pictures Jodie Comer as VillanelleImage copyright
Parisa Taghizadeh/BBCAmerica

“She came to me fully formed and it was clear, adventures needed to be made for her.”

Luke Jennings is the person who created the captivating, but equally terrifying, Villanelle.

Her adventures on paper turned into the hugely popular television show Killing Eve.

It’s become one of the BBC iPlayer’s most streamed shows of all time, and series three has been a huge hit on iPlayer during lockdown. But we don’t often hear from the man who thought up Villanelle’s world.

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Luke Jennings

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Luke Jennings, the author who created Villanelle, surrounded by items and pictures from all his novels

It was back in 2013 when he was approached to write some short novels and the assassin was brought to life.

Luke says Villanelle’s name, her Russian background and her questionable occupation just came to him and “she didn’t enormously change” from there.

“I’d often thought of the idea of never having to worry about money,” he explains.

“You could live the life you wanted but in return you have to every so often, just go and kill someone.

“She is the person who says ‘Yes’ to that deal. You know, it suits her, it really works for her.”

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Robert Viglasky/BBCAmerica

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She’s smart, funny, stylish, what’s not to like?

In_pictures A very likeable psychopath

Villanelle is a cold-blooded murderer but for the character to work she needed to have some redeeming qualities.

“I always wanted to see how far I could push it, and how appalling I could make the character and have people still root for her,” Luke says.

She’s clearly a psychopath but she is also intelligent, speaks many different languages and you wouldn’t bet against her in a fight.

Then, there is her jaw-dropping wardrobe, her playfulness – she’s funny. You could easily imagine having a fun night out with her.

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Laura Radford/BBCAmerica/Sid Gentle

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Designer suits for even a casual tube journey and minor altercation

But Luke thinks we are most drawn to how she lives her life – she is completely carefree.

“There’s no part of her life that she isn’t in charge of,” he says.

“Here is somebody who is notionally answerable to her boss, but does what she likes and lives exactly the life that she wants.

“And just at the end of doing some really gruesome killing, she just sort of walks away happily into the sunlight and moves on.”

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Laura Radford/BBCAmerica/Sid Gentle

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A scene from Killing Eve? Or a glossy magazine shoot?

In_pictures Style icon

Whether it is designer gowns, power suits, expensive blouses or even fancy dress, Villanelle has a knack of pulling off every outfit she puts on.

There are countless articles on why she is such a style icon and how you can recreate her various looks for half the price.

And while Luke wasn’t in charge of the clothes we see on screen, he says it was an integral part of the character he wrote.

It helps us understand how much she loves having “nice things” and how killing people is a small inconvenience on the way to buying everything she wants.

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Parisa Taghizadeh/BBCAmerica

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Can you even imagine what Villanelle would wear to the Met Gala?

“She likes her clothes and this is what this series caught very accurately,” Luke says.

“I was always very specific about the clothes and the fact she dresses for herself.

“It’s not to attract other people, it’s not to attract attention or men, she just buys things just because she can.”

This is also seen in what she eats – there is no restraint or suggestion of any sort of diet, she is always seen tucking into cakes, ice-creams, that massive bowl of pasta.

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Gareth Gatrell/BBCAmerica

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Among other things, Villanelle is definitely a foodie

In_pictures The perfect assassin

Villanelle has killed a huge number of people and for the most part walked away without anyone noticing.

So how do you write these seemingly perfect murders for your character?

Luke approaches it as a problem to solve, so he asks himself these questions: How does she get in there? How does she do it? What weapon? How does she leave no trail and not get seen?

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Des Willie/BBCA

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Casually off to kill her next victim

“You just have to solve every aspect, one by one,” he explains.

“That’s part of the the fun of writing the character. It’s slightly different in the TV series but I made all those kills actually work in the books.

“People read books slowly and think about it, so you have to work out every step of the way.”

In_pictures Eve

In order to counteract the madness of Villanelle, Luke says it was crucial there was someone to balance her out. So in came Eve.

“It was clear she needed an antagonist to represent the rest of us,” he explains.

“To represent the world and ordinary life.

“Where Villanelle represents everything extreme, everything that is unbalanced, Eve is the rest of us – she burns the toast, she stumbles along doing the best she can.”

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Robert Viglasky/BBCAmerica

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Eve is key to bringing some balance to Villanelle’s character

Eve also sees the likeable qualities that we as the audience do.

But more importantly, she makes Villanelle feel something, which makes the character more human.

In_pictures Phoebe Waller-Bridge

When Luke Jennings’ book was taken up by a production company, a relatively unknown Phoebe Waller-Bridge was one of the names considered for writing the script.

“I sort of ambushed her when she came out of a performance of Fleabag in the Soho theatre,” Luke admits.

“She’d read the book and she was keen and wanted to do it.

“We just went off to a cafe for the rest of the afternoon and talked. It was great, we got on really well.”

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Steve Granitz

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Phoebe Waller-Bridge with Sandra Oh and Jodie Comer at this year’s Golden Globe Awards

Inevitably, Phoebe helped shape the character we now see on screen.

Over the course of 18 months, they regularly chatted about all of the characters, whilst working on different projects.

“Phoebe would ring me up at odd times with very vague questions like, ‘What does Eve want to know?” he laughs.

“I would attempt to answer it and we would talk about all these different scenarios, send each other music clips.”

They would also chat between themselves about the casting too. And, they both agreed on one thing.

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This pink dress has become an iconic piece of TV fashion and this was the scene Jodie acted for her audition

In_pictures Jodie Comer

She has won a Bafta and an Emmy for her role as Villanelle – it’s hard to imagine anyone else playing her now.

But there was an audition process and Luke saw four different actresses’ screen tests. They all had to perform the psych test scene when Villanelle wears the pink dress in the first series.

“What you see now, that French-Russian accent, the manic presence and the off-the-wall delivery, that was all Jodie,” explains Luke.

“She wasn’t being directed, she had worked that out by herself just for this audition.

“There were three others, all of whom were great in their own way, but afterwards Phoebe and I were talking and we both said ‘It has to be Jodie’ – and it was.”

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3rd August 2020

In_pictures World’s rarest great ape pictured with babies

In_pictures World’s rarest great ape pictured with babies


in_pictures Cross River gorillasImage copyright

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Only 300 Cross River gorillas are known to live in the wild

Photos have been released for the first time in years showing a group of rare gorillas in the mountains of southern Nigeria, conservationists say.

Only 300 Cross River gorillas are known to live in the wild, making them the most endangered sub-species.

But the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) says this sighting raises hopes that the animals at risk of extinction are actually reproducing.

A number of infant gorillas are visible in the shots taken earlier this year.

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WCS Nigeria

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The inquisitive primates were pictured earlier this year

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WCS Nigeria

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Conservationists say they are encouraged by the number of infant gorillas spotted

WCS in Nigeria, an international non-governmental organisation, said the pictures were captured by camera traps in the Mbe mountains.

In_pictures ‘Wary of humans’

Cross River gorillas are the world’s rarest great ape, the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) says.

They are naturally wary of humans and have subtle distinctions from other species – such as smaller heads, longer arms and lighter-coloured hair.

The primates were known to live in some mountainous areas in Nigeria and neighbouring Cameroon but are rarely seen.

The WCS says it is working closely with a community organisation, the Conservation Association of the Mbe Mountains, as well as authorities in Nigeria’s Cross River state to protect the primates.

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WCS Nigeria

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This silverback was among the gorillas pictured in the Mbe mountains

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