Flat Earth

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The Independent Online
War stories

FOR A MOMENT, I thought history was repeating itself in the most ominous fashion. In 1991, fresh from the Gulf War, I found myself in Bangladesh after the worst cyclone this century had killed nearly 140,000 people. At Chittagong, an ocean-going freighter had been hurled on to the river bank like a plastic toy thrown by a child from its bath, and Cox's Bazar swarmed with helicopters, many flown by British and American pilots diverted on their way home from the Gulf, carrying relief supplies.

India had donated soap, much needed in the wake of disasters to prevent disease, but the flimsy boxes it came in were falling apart. As a result, I saw American helicopter crews fetching Mars bars from offshore troop ships and showering them over the town, then touching down at the airstrip to re-pack the soap in the empty cartons.

Seven years on, we recently appeared to be heading for a minor revival of the Gulf War, only for Kofi Annan to cancel the production just before the first night. And last week another cyclone struck Bangladesh in exactly the same place as before, but thanks to the evacuation of more than a million people, the number of deaths was below 100.

Farce it certainly wasn't, but this time history came back in much less tragic shape.

Going native

MY FRIEND at Lisbon's Expo98 remarks that the exhibits offer a wonderful display of national stereotypes.

In the French pavilion, hi-tech form all but swamps worthy content, while the US builds a shrine to technological gadgetry, with corporate sponsorship at every turn. The Swedish effort is simple, cheerful and bland - but among the few ready on time. Norway offers a hymn to the glory of cod.

Holland offers windmills, of course, though thankfully no tulips. The Brits? Self-deprecating humour (a nation of umbrellas) plus the hard sell (logos on everything). What would you expect?

Peace sign

WHEN Bosnia gets around to entering the Eurovision song contest or the Olympics, its coat of arms will look vaguely like a European Union emblem. So will its flag, its money and the passports Bosnian citizens carry.

The reason? The joint parliament of Muslims, Croats and Serbs has been unable to decide the design of any of these things, so they end up being imposed by Carlos Westendorp, the senior international official administering the peace. For the coat of arms, he chose neutral symbols, such as a yellow triangle, standing for the sun and peace, with five stars, which look like the EU's dozen, on a blue background, just like the one used by the EU. The flag is similar.

Perhaps the Bosnians will learn to revere these trappings in time. The new South African flag, intended as an interim design, proved so popular they decided to keep it, even though it was the creation of an advertising agency and was derided by one comic as "a Y-front beach towel".