The wave that shook the world

A mighty wall of water came from nowhere, without warning, and swept all before it. In this special report, Raymond Whitaker follows the trail of destruction of the world's biggest natural disaster

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It was a cataclysm so great that it caused the Earth to wobble on its axis. Just before 8am Indonesian time last Sunday, hidden forces were released with the strength of thousands of nuclear bombs all exploding at once. A 600-mile section of the Indian Ocean's seabed heaved under the strain of clashing tectonic plates 12 miles below the planet's crust, sending giant shocks across south-east Asia as far as Kuala Lumpur, the capital of Malaysia, where buildings cracked and tottered.

It was a cataclysm so great that it caused the Earth to wobble on its axis. Just before 8am Indonesian time last Sunday, hidden forces were released with the strength of thousands of nuclear bombs all exploding at once. A 600-mile section of the Indian Ocean's seabed heaved under the strain of clashing tectonic plates 12 miles below the planet's crust, sending giant shocks across south-east Asia as far as Kuala Lumpur, the capital of Malaysia, where buildings cracked and tottered.

The earthquake has now been measured at 9.0 on the Richter scale, making it the world's worst in 40 years and the fifth most powerful since 1900. Scientists have calculated that it accelerated the planet's rotation by a fraction of a second and shifted some islands by several metres, both laterally and vertically. But on a quiet Sunday morning, with the world's most powerful nations still sleeping off the effects of Christmas Day, and even non-Christian nations slipping into an end-of-year torpor, there were few who realised the implications of nature's 9/11.

One place which did was the Pacific Tsunami Warning System centre in Hawaii. As the needles of its seismographs scratched frantically across strips of paper, recording the lurch of the Indian tectonic plate beneath the Burma plate, scientists there and at other US institutions realised that giant tidal waves would follow.

In the Pacific, which experiences an average of 10 tsunamis - a Japanese word meaning "harbour wave" - each year, there is a well-developed warning system. Tidal gauges sense the movement of water and allow ocean monitors to determine the size and direction of destructive waves. There was some discussion early in 2004 of developing a similar system in the Indian Ocean, but with tsunamis occurring only once every few centuries, the poor nations around its fringe decided they had other priorities.

Now, with huge pressure waves racing across the Indian Ocean faster than a jumbo jet, American scientists frantically tried to put out a warning. The US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration fired off emails to Indonesian officials, but doesn't know what happened to the information. The Hawaii centre was reduced to phoning US embassies in Asian capitals in an effort to get the word out. "We tried to do what we could," said its director, Charles McCreery. "We don't have contacts in our address book for that part of the world." But it was too late.

A computer simulation of the tsunami shows giant ripples - the first set coloured red, the second blue - rushing away east and west from the convulsion on the ocean floor. Almost immediately they wrap around the province of Aceh at the northern end of Sumatra, the largest island in the Indonesian archipelago.

The first victims of the disaster were probably inshore fishermen operating from Meulaboh, the town closest to the epicentre. Vessels far enough out to sea would have been able to ride out the ocean's turmoil; indeed, the closer they were to being directly above the fissure, the less they would have felt. Swimmers and sailors within sight of land, however, would have found themselves being sucked inescapably towards the horizon, meeting the terrible force speeding towards them.

Tsunamis are formed when the pressure waves from deep-sea earthquakes or landslides reach shallower water, where the friction of the seabed slows them and causes them to build up into the "walls of water" described by every survivor. Meulaboh had already been ruined by 15 minutes of shaking from the earthquake before the sea smashed in. Days later rescuers were still struggling to reach a town which appeared from the air to have simply been scoured from the map.

One of the first accounts came from the nearby town of Surang, where a man called Sukardi later said: "The sea was full of bodies. The waves were throwing me up in the air." Nazarudin, 40, a villager, was outside his house. "People were screaming 'Big waves, big waves,' then I was carried off. I managed to hold on to a tree, but my wife is gone." Rajali, 55, lost his wife and two children. "I cannot find dry ground to bury them," he would lament.

Banda Aceh, at Sumatra's tip, had little more warning. A local radio station received a phone call saying a tidal wave had killed nine people, and some were reported to have fled to higher ground, but in Aceh's capital the wealthy Husseini family were preparing for a wedding in one of the town's grander buildings. A video taken at the wedding suddenly swings from the women in their finery to the scene outside, where a roaring black torrent hundreds of yards wide and several storeys deep has come from nowhere, drowning neighbouring buildings up to their rooftops and surging almost as high as the balcony on which the cameraman is standing. It is clear that no one in the streets below will stand a chance.

The footage was shot within minutes of the earthquake. India's remote Andaman and Nicobar islands, land masses directly at the epicentre, had suffered almost instant devastation, but their fate was unknown to the outside world. The first news agency reports, which came out around 2am on Boxing Day in Britain, spoke only of a big earthquake in Indonesia's northernmost province, where many buildings had collapsed. At that moment the red and blue ripples on the computer simulation had joined together, and were about to hit Thailand's west coast. The local time was 9am.

Until the hippies of the 1960s discovered them, Thai islands like Phuket and Koh Lanta were home only to fishermen and subsistence farmers. But over four decades a diverse tourist industry has sprung up, servicing everyone from those seeking luxury hotels and yacht marinas to backpackers searching up and down the coast for the next "unspoiled" inlet - a quest explored in The Beach, which was filmed on Koh Phi Phi. As airports were built, the package tourists came in and destinations such as Khao Lak and Krabi became known around the world. Certain resorts were favoured by Germans, others by Swedes or Britons. Now the tsunami was going to choose among them for its victims.

The death toll among tourists was disproportionately high because they do what Third World villagers would never dream of, except to earn their living: they go into the sea for sport. "We watched the wave coming. It was horrible," said Jason Richards, a south Londoner on a diving holiday. "The suction of the current drew the water right back. People who were snorkelling in 6ft of water found themselves in the open air or stuck on sharp coral, then they were swept back into the sea by the wave. It was at least 20ft high. I don't think it would have been possible to survive if you had been in the sea. There was just tons and tons of water suddenly appearing out of nowhere.

"We were swept inland and got to high ground. People were being plucked up like toy soldiers. I saw a woman carrying her child, and the next time I saw her, her hands were empty. She was shouting, but there was no sound coming out. You couldn't hear her."

Dozens of scuba divers went missing, but Amy Harding, 24, an instructor who was giving a lesson off Ko Phi Phi, was swept ashore with her group and landed on a hotel roof. Becky Ralph, a 25-year-old art student, was underwater when the tsunami hit. "There seemed to be a shudder and then a giant whoosh," she said. "I was shot out of the water, back in again and then began to spin. It was like being in a washing machine. I just went round and round in fast spin, gulping water and fighting to stay alive. I was totally helpless, and thought I would drown.

"After a few seconds I stopped spinning and began to try to swim but it was impossible. I was just dragged along. The debris of what I think were two boats washed over me. Two people, a man and a woman, swept past. One was bleeding from his head and his eyes were closed. I tried to reach him, but he disappeared.

"My air tanks were off, and I struggled to reach the surface and to control my breathing. I remember my heart thumping, thumping against my suit. Suddenly, it all seemed to slow down, and I was able to swim to the shore. There was blood coming from one of my ears. I think my diving training and luck were all that saved me."

Lak Pongsanthia, 27, is a hotel worker at Karon Beach resort in Phuket. "Many people thought it was a terrorist attack," he said. "Their instinct was to hide, to get behind walls and into basements. It was the worst place to be - the waves were so strong they broke walls and, of course, they flooded anything below ground level.

"One of my colleagues saw tourists being swept back out to sea. He tried to get them on to his boat. They had broken bones, they were screaming for help.

"One Australian couple were on their honeymoon. I saw them on their balcony at breakfast and, after the waves, the husband was walking around asking if anyone had seen his wife. He didn't know where he was, didn't know his home address. We found his wife and they were taken to hospital. It was lucky for them, but others will not be so lucky. The bodies won't be delivered back by the sea for days, perhaps never."

In contrast to Sumatra, hit head-on by the tsunami, damage along Thailand's indented coastline was more capricious. Some resorts were demolished, while others a few miles away just experienced an unusually high tide.

But everywhere there was the same absence of a warning: Thailand's meteorological department issued an alert concerning possible dangerous currents at 9am, after the first waves had hit. A tsunami warning was posted on a website three hours later, but by that time at least 700 people had died in Thailand. And nobody thought to tell Thailand's neighbours.

Because tidal waves are so rare in the Indian Ocean, nobody understood the threat implied by the sudden receding of the sea. As the shockwaves ran south from Thailand to Malaysia, the five children of Zulkfli Mohd Noor rushed out to collect the fish left stranded on the seabed, only to be swept away when the water came roaring back. "I did not for one moment think the dead fishes were a sign that a tsunami was going to crash into us just seconds later," said the 42-year-old fisherman.

Directly in the path of the tsunami lay the island of Penang, Malaysia's only Chinese-majority state, which attracts holidaymakers because it is more relaxed and cosmopolitan than the rest of the country. By the time the waves reached the hotels and beaches of Batu Feringhee, Penang's tourist strip, it was nearly two hours after the quake, but still no one knew what was to come.

Mohamad Wan was swimming near his home on Penang. "I could only watch helplessly while I heard my son screaming for help," said his mother, Rosita. "Then he was under water, and I never saw him again."

By the time the waters receded in Penang, the eastward shockwave from the earthquake had largely spent its force. But on the computer simulation of these events another red line rushes 1,000 miles westwards across the Bay of Bengal, thickening and darkening as it approaches Sri Lanka.

Two hours after the rupture on the seabed, it begins to engulf the teardrop-shaped island, wrapping itself around almost its entire circumference, smashing into India's south-eastern coast and rounding the southern tip of India to swamp the coast of Kerala.

I will never forget the huge wave as tall as a palm tree coming right towards us," said Vindya Gunawardena, a resident of Colombo, the Sri Lankan capital. He and his parents were on their way to Kataragama, a town on the island's south coast.

The family's car was swept up in the torrent. "It went circling through the current and slowly filled with water," said Vindya. "It was hit by a couple of trees that shattered the glass, then it came to a stop, so I got out through the window. Everyone was expressionless as they searched for loved ones who were with them seconds ago."

The Gunawardena family escaped, but thousands of others around the Sri Lankan coast, and in the Indian states of Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh and Kerala were less fortunate. Some 1,700 people died in one incident alone, when the Queen of the South express train was swept off the track south of Colombo. The tsunami hit Sri Lanka's Sinhalese and Tamil communities alike, but along the isolated eastern and northern coasts where most of the Tamil minority live - and where until recently a savage separatist war was being fought - details of the destruction were hard to obtain, and aid slow to arrive.

Again initial reports of the disaster came quickest from the areas frequented by tourists, mainly the south and east of Sri Lanka. They included the former German chancellor Helmut Kohl, who said the devastation around his hotel reminded him of what he had seen as a boy during the Second World War. India, where there were few foreign witnesses, and where the government said it could cope on its own, received less attention.

Near Pondicherry, a former French enclave in southern India, a construction worker, Satya Kumari, said: "The waves just kept chasing us. It swept away all our huts. What did we do to deserve this?" Sandti, 40, whose fishing village south of Madras was destroyed, said the Indian government had provided nothing. "I don't have a sari to change into," she complained. "I have nothing to eat. We lost everything, our boat, our nets, all our gold."

This weekend there was a growing controversy in India about the failure to pass on warnings of the tsunami. An air force base in the Andaman and Nicobar islands sent an urgent message about what was being experienced there, but it did not reach the interior ministry's disaster management team in time. The unit did not learn about the deadly waves until half an hour after they hit the coast. It emerged that weather officials in the south mistakenly faxed the home of the former science and technology minister, who left office seven months ago.

"A country that hopes to run the call centres of the world could not call its own people," said Barun Mitra of Liberty Institute, a think tank in New Delhi. Since he spoke, Indian officials have accumulated further discredit by issuing false warnings, causing panic.

In the aftermath, there were other lessons to be learned. As last Sunday's tsunami swept on towards the Maldives, it appeared that the country faced obliteration. Every low island in the chain, strung over more than 1,000 miles from north to south across the Equator, was hit more or less simultaneously by the surge, but there was protection from the extensive coral reefs that surround the archipelago.

So far 75 people are known to have died in the Maldives, including British tourists, but it could have been much worse. Scientists are pointing out that where coral reefs and mangrove swamps were preserved, the loss of life was far smaller. Surin island, near Phuket, suffered less than other resorts because its reef was intact.

In Tamil Nadu, the Indian state worst affected by the disaster, the areas of Pichavaram and Muthupet, where mangroves remain, were much less badly affected than those of Alappuzha and Kollam, where there has been illegal exploitation of the trees.

There were stories of horror in the Maldives, such as that of Lisa Morgan, a 30-year-old legal secretary from Chatham in Kent. "It was like someone had pulled the plug on the world," she said. "Suddenly this wall of water ripped through the hut."

Ms Morgan and several other people clung to a tree for six hours. "We were trying to spur each other on, but we were all crying for our lives," she said. "There was contaminated water everywhere - dead rats and bodies were floating around me and sewage was mixed in the water, with sanitary products sticking to you. I was sick several times and absolutely terrified."

"I was near the dock," said another holidaymaker, "and we didn't notice the water going down before the wave came. Then we saw all the boats rise up against the dock barrier and the water washed right over it. We were up to our knees. We were very lucky."

It was now more than three hours since the quake, and thousands were already dead. But the waves it had produced retained the power to kill. They continued thousands of miles westwards across the globe until they encountered the barrier of Africa. In Somalia, where civil order has been destroyed by warring militias, there was no warning: hundreds of fishermen are thought to have died, as well as people in coastal towns battered by the tsunami. In neighbouring Kenya, by contrast, only one person is thought to have been lost.

Warned by news broadcasts of what was on the way, a Kenyan bureaucracy not normally known for its efficiency acted with praiseworthy swiftness. Boats offshore were warned to come in, and to spread the news to smaller craft without radio. Police were sent to clear the beaches of tourists, and coastal communities were evacuated. People on the east coast of Madagascar also got out in time, and although the tsunami caused extensive damage there and in Reunion, Mauritius and the Seychelles, where a bridge linking the capital, Mahe, with the main airport was destroyed, the death toll in Africa would have been small had it not been for the anarchy of Somalia.

As Britons woke to the news on Boxing Day, many realised that among the tens of thousands of anonymous victims around the Indian Ocean there could be friends and members of their own family.

The tsunami indiscriminately swept away tourists and local people, the humble and the eminent. Among the dead were Julian Ayer, the adopted son of the philosopher AJ Ayer, and Bhumi Jensen, grandson of King Bhumibol of Thailand. Sir Richard Attenborough's family have announced that his granddaughter Lucy has died, and that his daughter Jane and her mother-in-law, Jane Holland, are missing, presumed dead.

In the aftermath of the catastrophe, the communications technology which might have been used to warn of the approaching danger came into its own. A Swedish couple recognised their orphaned nephew from a photograph posted on the internet and flew to Thailand to claim him. Mobile phone networks allowed free text messages to people in the disaster area. A Rome teenager turned his website, previously dedicated to The Simpsons cartoon series, into a contact point for Italians caught up in the tsunami. It was just one of the weblogs and message boards which sprouted across the internet to put survivors in touch with each other, and to spread the news of who had escaped and who was lost.

Among heartrending postings on BBC message boards is this from Finland: "One-year-old Finnish boy is missing in Khao Lak, his parents Niina Sirparanta and Jari Vesalainen have survived and are desperately seeking any information about their son. Little Paavo has learned to walk and knows his first name. He was lost when the tsunami waves hit the beach."

Another reads: "There is a boy, found in Phuket, right now in Phuket International Hospital. He is white, 3-4 years old. His parents are missing. I have a picture of him. If anyone is looking for a boy of that age, please contact Dr Anuroj Tharasiriroj of Phuket International Hospital."

Jon Moon of Chertsey, Surrey, had earlier sought information on Trevor Syrad from Weybridge, Surrey, who had not been seen "since 26/12 in Phuket ... Family are frantic". A later posting reports: "Trevor Syrad has been found alive but obviously traumatised."

Peter from Newcastle seeks news of Heinz and the Moskito staff. Alison replies from Canada: "I'm sorry to tell you that Heinz and his two daughters did not survive, but Oiy and Dino are alive, as are all the rest of the Moskito staff. I was working there when it happened."

This dialogue, however, was carried on over the heads of most of the inhabitants of the stricken countries. International coverage of the aftermath initially focused on the tourist areas, because they contained Westerners with access to the technology to tell their stories. And while Western nations send chartered aircraft, teams of pathologists and mobile morgues to the disaster zone to recover every last one of their nationals if possible, alive or dead, and the media relays stories of the narrow escapes of footballers and entertainers who had gone to spend the Christmas season in the tropics, thousands of local people are being buried in mass graves. Their families, if any are left alive, may never find out for sure what happened to them.

As even Western relatives may discover, there comes a moment in disasters on this scale when the dignity of the dead has to give way to the needs of the living. Ruins have to be bulldozed without being searched for bodies, and identification of those that are discovered has to be abandoned. The plight of survivors in Indonesia, which suffered worst from the earthquake, is so bad that the authorities in Aceh have had to give up even counting the dead, rather than risk seeing the toll mount out of control as those left alive succumb to injuries, thirst or disease.

From Indonesia to Somalia, the tsunami seemed to pick out zones of conflict with almost perverse precision. Aceh, the focus of a vast international relief effort, is normally closed to foreigners because of a years-long insurgency waged by separatists, who have been ruthlessly suppressed by the Indonesian army. The disaster has brought the conflict to a halt, simply because so many of the participants are dead.

As for Burma, where the waves undoubtedly caused devastation, the military dictatorship has released no details of damage or casualties, and has refused to seek aid. In Sri Lanka a ceasefire in the battle between the government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE, or Tamil Tigers), which demanded independence for the north and east of the island, has held for several months. But the latest disaster has exposed the huge mistrust which remains in the wake of a conflict that lasted two decades, killed 64,000 people and displaced a million more.

Tamils accuse the Sinhalese-dominated government of discrimination in relief efforts, a suspicion reinforced by Colombo's failure to give any figures for the number killed in northern and eastern districts. The large Tamil community in Britain is attempting to send aid supplies directly to their home villages and towns, but the Sri Lankan government is insisting that it cannot be bypassed.

It is naive to assume that politics is suspended when disaster strikes. One devastated village in southern India was visited after dark by a convoy of 20 cars surrounded by policemen, honking their horns, blocking the road and bringing local politicians from the All-India Dravida People's party.

The politicians promised they could influence the Prime Minister into increasing the compensation payments for villagers, already set at 10,000 rupees (£120) for each house destroyed. But they stayed barely a minute, turned their convoy round and left as quickly and noisily as they came. "They just came for the show," said Desingou, 54, one of the villager elders who briefly met the convoy. "Let us see how much they can help us. We can't order them to help. We have nothing."

Nor is such opportunism confined to the world of the poor. Tabloid coverage of the tsunami in Britain has followed a pattern predictable from previous disasters, from the almost immediate complaints about the "slowness" of relief supplies to get through - as though a cash donation on one side of the world instantly materialises as food and water on the other side of the globe, regardless of the mountainous logistical problems in between - to the demands that Tony Blair should cancel his holiday and return to "give a lead" to the aid effort.

By Thursday the Daily Mail was sneering "How quickly the sunseekers forget", over a photograph of tourists returning to Patong beach in Thailand; yet the countries hit by the disaster have without exception begged Westerners not to cancel their holidays. The Government, which had earlier urged Britons to stay away, reversed its advice on Friday.

We are back to the divisions between rich and poor. One reason why the economic cost of the disaster seems so small in relation to the scale of the tragedy - $13bn to $15bn (£6.8bn to £7.8 bn), compared to over $20bn for 9/11 and last year's hurricane in the Caribbean - is that so few of the people or businesses in the disaster zone were insured, unlike the tourists or the holiday companies and airlines getting them there.

If there is a fundamental way of seeing the difference between those of us who travel to places like the Maldives or Phuket and the people who live there, it might be this: we are covered for every eventuality, yet disbelieving when the worst happens. They, by contrast, have no way of coping with the worst, yet are completely unsurprised when it happens.

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