Healing Hands

A visit to a Médecins Sans Frontières hospital, where thousands of war-wounded are being given a new lease of life
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Sitting at a desk, Bashir* ponders a basic puzzle of the human body. Trying to put together the face, the 12-year-old looks up eagerly at his teacher, Talha Al Ali, for reassurance. ‘You see how he puts the lips above the nose?’ says Talha quietly, after he helps Bashir complete the puzzle. ‘Sometimes he draws himself as a monster, or a face without ears. But I’m working with him, and I tell him, “no, you’re a hero”, and he likes that,’ says Talha.

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There are many children like Bashir at the NGO hospital Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) in Amman, Jordan. Bashir has been at the hospital for five months now, and away from his home for two years, after a bomb exploded on his neighbour’s house in Daraa, Syria. The fire spread to his room while he and his brother were sleeping. They both managed to escape alive, but suffered third-degree burns. Bashir’s face is deeply scarred and disfigured, and he has lost the majority of both his ears. 
His is not an isolated case. Stories like these are common here, scattered around the hospital, the shadows of horror from war-torn countries.

The hospital was set up in 2006 in response to the high number of casualties from the Iraq War, and specialises in reconstructive surgery. Originally only intended for Iraqis, now 60 per cent of the patients are Syrian – after over 600,000 refugees poured into Jordan over the border since the Syrian war began in 2011 – with the remainder coming from Yemen and Gaza. Often the innocent victims of conflict, they are brought here by MSF and provided a caretaker. Sometimes staying for over a year, they are given food, shelter and counselling, while the necessary surgery and physiotherapy is carried out.

‘A lot of the children here have disfigured faces,’ says Hani Dweik, communications officer for MSF Amman, as we walk through the hospital hallways. There are patients of all ages here, huddling in small groups, some with missing limbs. ‘We do a lot of plastic surgery, trying to repair the face, to make it look like it used to. It will never be 100 per cent, of course.

‘It’s especially hard for the women here… a lot of them are psychologically damaged,’ says Hani. ‘They lose self-confidence, they lose hope, so the idea that there might be a chance that they can have back what they lost, or some of what they lost, just makes a huge difference.’

At the physiotherapy ward, patients are working on the movement of their arms post-surgery with their therapists. In a corner, a well-built young man with a full brown beard is making his way, slowly but determinedly with a Zimmer frame, towards parallel walking bars. It’s clear that he is in pain. His left leg has been replaced with a prosthetic one, and his right leg has been heavily operated on, metal braces still clamped on to the side of his thigh.

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Before the Syrian war, Moayad Sroar, 29, had been studying law at Damascus University and was in his final year. ‘It was in December, 2014,’ he says to me as he takes a break from his daily physio. ‘We were engaging with the Syrian troops, 
I was covering my friends; actually we were retreating. I was standing next to a wall and suddenly it exploded, and I found myself on the ground. Both my legs were injured. There was a field hospital nearby and they bandaged me, and I was taken to the border, where I lost consciousness.

‘I remember everything,’ he says. 
My friends wrapped me in a blanket before taking me to hospital. There was no pain, it was warm, but when it got cold, the pain started. You expect everything. 
You expect to die.

‘When I woke up, I saw the amputation, I knew it was a bad injury, and I expected both my legs to be gone, but I saw one leg, so it was a good feeling actually.’

After being shuttled around various units in the country for seven months, Moayad was referred to the MSF hospital in Amman, where he was given a prosthetic leg and reconstructive surgery. ‘He had been operated on several times before he got here,’ says Dr Hanna Janho, 32, from Jordan. ‘But when he came to our hospital he had bone defect, about 15cm in the right femur with infection.

‘So I opened the injury, and cleaned the dead tissue; we took a biopsy to see the kind of bacteria, and at the same time we did some bone osteotomy [cutting of the bone] and transported a segment to fill the gap.’

It’s this specialist work that MSF staff like Dr Janho are providing – alongside the care, security and counselling given by other team members – that is really making a difference to the lives of those who have suffered so greatly from the tragedies of war.

‘A guy like Moayad, who lost a leg, with the other leg almost gone, you give them hope that one day he can have a normal life; that he can walk again,’ Hani says.

‘He would have been in a wheelchair for the rest of his life, so this is a glimpse of hope that these people can go on with their lives.’


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Since its inauguration, the hospital has admitted over 3,700 patients and conducted over 8,238 surgeries, all financed by MSF donors. From the outside looking in, the scenes in the hospital could seem bleak, but in fact the atmosphere here is positive, the staff are bubbly heroes in white cloaks, and the patients are full of hope.
One of the most poignant examples of this is the story of Raheem*, a nine-year-old Syrian boy who lost both his legs, 
one hand, and sight in one eye after a bomb exploded near where he was playing with his friends in Daraa, Syria.

‘I remember the first time I saw him, I couldn’t help but cry,’ says Hani. ‘I saw him outside, in a wheelchair. He was watching the other kids, and they were running and playing, and you could see this look of anger, resentment, sadness…’.

Withdrawn, aggressive and depressed, when he first arrived Raheem was severely affected. But with prosthetics and the emotional support from teacher Talha, Raheem’s belief and empowerment began to shine through. ‘After his prosthetic operations had been completed, I came to see him. He was walking along the parallel bar, and he said to Talha, “I want 
to go out, I want to keep walking’,’ remembers Hani. ‘So we went outside. 
It was so emotional. He’s a strong boy, and you could see that there was some pain, but he still wanted to walk, he wasn’t giving up, he wanted to keep going.’

It’s stories like these that define this hospital and what it was set up for; to bring smiles back to the faces of those that have seen the darkest of hours. For Bashir, Moayad, Raheem, and the thousands more who have been treated and cared for here, MSF has given them an enormous shot at a second chance.

Moayad says those days are waiting for him in Syria, and that his dream is to return as soon as possible.

‘My family are there, my friends are there, all of them are there. When I start to walk, I will go back home. I hope that will be soon, I’m dying to go to Syria.’

*Names have been changed.


Clouds of hope

British-Iraqi street artist Marwan Shakarchi gave up a comfortable life to dedicate himself to his passion. Now, the Dubai-based creator is using clouds to help displaced Iraqis.

clouds of hope

Marwan Shakarchi is cruising on his skateboard behind Dubai’s Tashkeel art studios. Surrounded by a bunch of kids pulling off tricks, he seems at home in this open space. 
In the distance, past the golden minarets of the mosque, the sun is going down behind the sand dunes as the call for prayer echoes around the Nad Al Sheba neighbourhood.

Behind the buzzing stream of skaters, on the backboard of the skate bowl, is a colourful mural, radiating lush oranges, reds and violets. Marwan painted it in 2014 with two Dubai-based artists. Among El Seed’s beautiful Arabic calligraphy strokes, and Ruben Sanchez’s quirky interpretation of cubism are dozens of Marwan’s colourful clouds – the artist’s signature motif.

The British-Iraqi, who goes by his artistic name Myne and Yours, gave up a whole lot to pursue his passion here in Dubai. ‘Before, I had everything; I had a good job, I had security, I had a nice car… and I was miserable,’ he says. While working as a marketing manager in London, Marwan was pursuing his artistic dreams in his free time, effectively working two full-time jobs.

‘I studied economics in university, but I quickly realised that wasn’t what I wanted to do. I started phasing out, and was spending more time making music and drawing.’

This passion for art grew as Marwan began working. He taught himself to use Adobe Illustrator to create the clean lines that define his style. He was soon being asked to paint at events such as Upfest, Europe’s largest street art festival, with his work also being showcased at exhibitions around London.

But it was when he was invited to exhibit his work in Dubai, in 2012, and later introduced to Tashkeel, that he began to consider risking it all for a space at the art studio. A year later, impressed by the artist’s unique style and industrious work ethic, Tashkeel offered Marwan a spot.

‘I fell in love with the place,’ says Marwan. 
‘I don’t think this exists anywhere else – I haven’t found it in the UK – this creative hub, this energy, these like-minded people that you can feed off, the support system that Tashkeel gives you.’

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Marwan has left his clouds all over the world, painting iconic and dramatic murals in cities from Lisbon to New York, but it is in Dubai, and particularly Tashkeel, that the 31-year-old has been given the time and space to dedicate himself to his art. As well as collaborating with brands such as Nike and Red Bull, and creating eye-catching street art, Marwan is also commissioned to paint canvases for collectors, and recently has produced a series with the Amar Foundation, a charity that supports struggling communities in Iraq. When Marwan came across the London-based organisation, he felt compelled to get involved.

‘I wanted to use my work for the greater good. Everything that we’ve seen [in the Middle East] over the past few years has been terrifying, and to watch people go through that is overwhelming, in the sense that you can’t continue with your own daily life.

‘It’s all well and good to speak like this, but to not do anything about it is another thing. I guess I could go there, and I could be hands-on, but I haven’t got to that stage yet. I don’t know if I ever will. But what I can do is take a small step in the right direction.’
Marwan started searching for charities who work from the ground up, and came across Amar. ‘Unique among other charities, it focuses on training Iraqis in medical, educational and psychotherapy skills, so as to keep a sustainable system in place that is run for and by the community,’ he says. He decided to create an image that represented his feelings towards the Arab world, and donate the sales from 20 of the 50 limited-edition prints to the Amar Foundation. Thus, the We Bleed As One series was born.

‘It’s the idea that if someone else is bleeding, we’re all bleeding together. The clouds represent us, as a civilisation, and they are all bleeding from beneath. But there is this angelic, beautiful Middle Eastern lady looking down on them saying, ‘‘It’s going to be OK. We’ll do this, but we’ll do this together’’.’

In a little over a year, the situation in Iraq has become increasingly desperate for millions. From January 2014 to August 2015, the number of internally displaced Iraqis has risen from 85,000 to over three million. The vast majority of these are women and children, fleeing from the terror of Daesh.

Each print of Marwan’s series, of which just 16 are left, is priced at $250 (Dh900).

‘Buying one of Marwan’s limited-edition prints can help us to provide more than 2,000 vaccinations to children throughout Iraq,’ says Mysa Kafil-Hussain, fundraising coordinator at Amar. ‘It could also support a social worker in Northern Iraq for five weeks. These workers are visiting women who have escaped Daesh, and are a vital part of the psychological support system we are currently raising money for.’

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Some of those who escaped Daesh have endured horrific trauma at the hands of the militant group. Fifteen-year-old Zeynab, 
for example, lost everything when it attacked her home, killing her mother and leaving Zeynab so badly injured that doctors were forced to amputate both her legs. And Zeynab’s story is just one among those of millions who have fled their homes. 
That’s why Amar’s work, which helps to support these victims both medically and psychologically, is so important.
 For Marwan, this priceless endeavour that is paving the way for a brighter Iraq is vital not only for Iraqis, but for us as humans, and this links to the print’s title We Bleed As One.

‘I believe that we are all connected, and what affects one person affects us all,’ Marwan says. ‘The print we released touches on this idea, and reminds us that we are all one, and that there is hope.’

One of the projects that Amar Foundation is running, which links to this philosophy, aims to create more religious tolerance and cultural understanding within some of the sectarian areas of Iraq. ‘We’ve been getting schoolchildren together from different sects and religions; Yazidis and Christians, Sunnis and Shias, and having them dress up in each other’s clothes,’ says Jessica Scoot, head of corporate engagement at Amar.

‘This then extended to getting leaders of these groups together, to see past their divisions and encourage them to see themselves as one,” says Jessica.

The We Bleed As One prints, which have already raised $1,000 of a targeted $5,000, are an important part of the donations that make projects like these possible.

And although the impact may be minor, Marwan is hoping it will have a knock-on effect.

‘It’s a very small thing to give $1,000, but that small thing can have a ripple effect that can make a huge difference,’ he says.

‘I don’t want this to be a one-off. I want to do as much as we can together.’

Wonder women of Gaza

MSF WONDER WOMENGaza. What are the first thoughts that spring to mind when you hear the name? After 70 years of conflict, the word seems synonymous with fighting and bloodshed. It’s perhaps fair to presume, therefore, that two words you didn’t think of were ‘wonder women’.

But for Romanian photographer Ovidiu Tataru, Gaza is full of them. So much so, that his latest exhibition portrays women from the region draped in superhero cloaks. For him, these women possess the qualities of heroines.

“I was, and still am, amazed by these women,” says Ovidiu, a Romanian photographer based in Paris, who spent nine months in Gaza working for Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) as a human resources administrator during and after the 2014 war (Operation Protective Edge). He quickly became inspired by the Gazan women’s unshakeable resilience and so decided to capture their strength through the lens.

For Ovidiu, this was one of the reasons it was so important to show a different side of Gaza. In contrast to the suffering and tremendous sadness that we often see in the news, Ovidiu felt compelled to highlight the women’s strength and determination. “Aside from frequent wars, the challenges that women face in Gaza start with basic needs… cooking, doing the laundry, studying or working,” says Ovidiu. “The lack of electricity is a real issue. During the period I was there, electricity ran for only a few hours a day. The water from the tap is almost undrinkable.”

“It is a deliberate effort to capture why these women are heroes. Photographers have to find ways that elude the stereotypes… we have to stop searching for the shocking scoop when documenting harsh contexts,” he says. “The project has meaning because ordinary life in Gaza is heroic. I wanted to give a voice to all the women in Gaza, genuine heroes living in a very difficult context. I also wanted to get rid of stereotypical images of Gazan reality, such as destroyed buildings, poor people… and to take photos of women laughing.”



The Wonder Women of Gaza exhibition, which was first presented in Paris this year, came to Dubai’s Al Serkal Avenue in Al Quoz in November in collaboration with MSF, which works with many of the women featured in Ovidiu’s project. Nema Bukhousa, 34, an MSF nurse whose portrait is included in the exhibition, was present to talk to guests about her thoughts on the project and life in Gaza. She says, “When Ovidiu suggested the project we were motivated and positive about taking part. We know that by staying positive, it shows strength. We have a strong belief in God and this gives us hope. Ovidiu saw our resilience through the war… He saw that despite the situation, women were happy to be able to work and to be helping, and he wanted to capture that resilience.”

However, as we often see from the media, the reality in Gaza is a harsh one. In last year’s war, Nema lost her brother when their home was bombed, and she now lives with 17 others, mostly family members, in a small three-bedroom house. She and her eldest brother are the only breadwinners. “It was really important for me to convey this message of resilience through my visit here to Dubai, and to talk to different people about our situation,” says Nema as we talk in the MSF office in Dubai. “Going back, I don’t know if there will be war or peace. I’m not able to look ahead, because there is little hope on the horizon,” she says. “Every three years there is a war and so we live day by day. I’m here visiting Dubai, a peaceful land, and when I go back, all I hope for is peace. That is all the women there want– to live in peace, and to rebuild their lives.”


Ovidiu’s exhibition showcases 17 portraits of women in Gaza along with insightful quotes from the women themselves, which give a glimpse of their daily lives and personalities. All the portraits are taken in front of the same grey stone wall, and for Ovidiu this was an important juxtaposition: the women’s expressions of positivity and resilience against the harsh realities of the blockade and segregation.

“The wall has a functional role and carries a message. It decontextualises and individualises. I didn’t want to show the same image of Gaza as seen until now,” explains Ovidiu. “But the wall also represents the prison where these people live. It is the reason why Gaza is what it is today. The wall penetrates brutally in all aspects of Gazan life.”


Gaza, which has been very much cut off from the rest of the world since the 2007 blockade imposed by the Israelis and Egypt, is still trying to rebuild itself after the devastation of the 2014 war, where in just 49 days well over 2,000 Gazans, the majority of whom were innocent civilians, were killed and much of the country’s housing and infrastructure was destroyed. Due to the blockade, construction materials for rebuilding are not getting in. Since the 2014 war, 100,000 people have been left homeless and, according to the World Bank, Gaza has the highest unemployment rate in the world.

“Life is very hard for women in Gaza,” says Mohamed Bali, executive director of MSF UAE. “They have a lack of electricity, a lack of water, but they still have to get their kids ready for school, they still have to prepare food. So sometimes they have to get up at three in the morning because that’s when the electricity is back, and do whatever they have to do. Activities that people take for granted in other countries are a different story inside Gaza.”

Ovidiu has enjoyed a positive response to his exhibition. It touches people on a human level, believes MSF’s Bali, who was instrumental in bringing Nema to Dubai from the war-torn region – by no means an easy feat due to border-crossing issues through the occupied territories.

Now Ovidiu hopes to take the Wonderwomen of Gaza exhibition to Berlin and Romania in order to raise awareness about the situation across Europe. He says, “I hope that changing the way we see Gaza can change the way things are happening there, but maybe I am a dreamer. Since I finished the project I have been haunted by the fear that these ladies will die in the next war. But I hope the project will bring positive change in the lives of the women… Despite all odds, there is hope for a better life.”

To view the full exhibition online visit http://www.doctorswithoutborders.org/article/wonderwomen-gaza



With ongoing controversy and competition surrounding the oil and gas industry in the Middle East, the U.S has recently begun to look to its own backyard for energy production through hydraulic fracturing or ‘fracking’.

At first glance, this ‘oil revolution’ seems to be a brilliantly positive one. In a recent report, it was revealed that the U.S has become the world’s biggest producers of oil this year, even overtaking Saudi Arabia and Russia according to the International Energy Agency.

The America Corp. Bank said in a recent report that the U.S had surpassed all other countries in their daily output of crude oil, exceeding 11 million barrels a day in the first quarter of 2014.

Much of this production can be attributed to the extraction of energy from shale rock spurs through fracking, which on the surface (no pun intended) seems to be a revolutionary success.

As a result of the ‘shale boom’, the economy is growing, employment is on the rise and the U.S has gained independence from offshore production. Not only that, but the fact is (as spokespersons from the industry continue to reiterate) that the effect on climate change seems to be preferable: In comparison to coal, natural gas has half the carbon emissions and zero mercury.

However despite all these positive results, there has been a lot of controversy surrounding fracking. Environmental engineers and climate change experts who have been investigating the effects of fracking on the environment have been campaigning fiercely against the process.

When investigated, it can be seen that health and environmental issues have indeed been occurring in states where fracking is prevalent. Residential zones in both Denver and Colorado have fallen victim to both contaminated water and polluted air.

According to Canadian research, as much as 12% of new wells leak, allowing chemicals used in the fracking process to contaminate aquifers that supply drinking water to homes in the area.

Research conducted in the Garfield County by the Colorado School of Public Health found hydrocarbons in the air of residential zones near fracking sites. Statistics have also shown that people living within half a mile of drilling wells have higher cancer rates.

What is most worrying about this fact is that fracking companies do not have to disclose the chemicals they use in the process. This exemption from regulation was pushed through congress by former Vice President Dick Chaney, who had considerable interest in the industry being the ex CEO of Halliburton – one of the world’s largest oil field services companies.

It seems with all the excitement of the ‘shale boom’ that has brought so many short-term benefits, the consequences of the fracking process may have been swept under the carpet.

It is too early to say how great the effects of fracking will be on residential zones and the environment in the future.

However for environmental engineers to be able to investigate the real risks of fracking, oil companies must be held accountable for the chemicals they are pumping into residential zones. An honest and transparent communication must exist between the oil and gas companies and those that their work affects.

There is hope for us yet: Cycle safety campaigners can celebrate a small victory, but there is still a long way to go


On July 7, 2011, Hope Fennell was cycling back home from school, passing through busy rush hour traffic on Kings Heath High Street in Birmingham.  As Hope reached a puffin crossing with her bicycle, she attempted to cross while the traffic was stationary.

At the same time, Darren Foster was driving down Kings Heath High Street in an 18-tonne lorry. As Hope crossed the road, Foster pulled away at a green light and didn’t brake until he saw panicked pedestrians waving their arms manically and shouting for him to stop.

Foster stopped the lorry and got out of the cab to see Hope crushed under the front wheels. The teenage girl was trapped under the truck for 20 minutes before she was freed and pronounced dead by paramedics at the scene. Hope was just 13-years-old.

Like many HGV drivers who have killed cyclists, Darren Foster could not see any danger in his mirrors or out of his windows before he pulled away and crushed Hope. This is mainly due to the poorly and outdated design of delivery trucks, which seat drivers high up in cabs that have severely restricted visual access of other road users.

The HGV has become a feared and ruthless killer in city centres across the UK. This industrial killer is responsible for 50% of cyclist deaths in London alone, and in effect is deterring those who wish to cycle, from ever getting on their bikes.

Since Hope’s death, her mother, Nazan Fennell, has been campaigning tirelessly alongside her MEP and the group Stop Killing Cyclists, for tougher HGV regulations that ensure lorries and trucks have safer equipment to prevent more unnecessary deaths.

When I spoke to Nazan, she expressed how difficult it was to talk about her daughter’s death: “Grief hits one suddenly some days. I’m literally speechless.”

However Nazan maintains a strong resolution to spread awareness and improve lorry safety in the UK.

One of the main aims of Nazan’s campaign has been to change European laws to make it mandatory for companies designing lorries to install the correct safety equipment.

The proposal involves securing all HGVs with full protection around the wheels and sides of the trucks as well as lower, rounder cabs to give drivers better visual access of other road users. Most importantly, the newly designed trucks will be fitted with CCTV safety mirrors to eliminate the deadly blind spot that has been the cause of so many cyclist deaths.

On April 15, 2014, after months of campaigning from cycle safety activists, the ‘safer lorry design’ proposal was voted on at a European Parliament plenary session. Encouragingly, the proposal was passed overwhelmingly with 570 MEPs voting in favour of new rules for safer lorry designs, and just 88 voting against.

Nazan’s MEP, Liberal Democrat Phil Bennion, who urged the European Parliament to approve the proposal, said the vote was a “victory for campaigners like Nazan who have worked so hard to bring about these life-saving changes to lorry design.”

However, although promising news for Nazan and cycle safety campaigners, this vote is just the first check point in a long marathon of bureaucracy that stands in the way of immediate changes.

Before any law can be passed, all 28 EU member states’ governments must approve the new design features for safer HGVs. But despite the shocking number of people killed each year by HGVs, London Mayor Boris Johnson, who is keen to improve cycle safety, says he is worried the UK government may oppose the changes.

I spoke to the award winning environmentalist and co founder of Stop Killing Cyclists, Donnachadh McCarthy, who shares these concerns.

“The government is philosophically against regulation. I’m currently in correspondence with the minister for cycling [Robert Goodwill] and he doesn’t seem to favour the idea.”

Donnachadh says the European Union vote is positive but that the effects won’t really be felt until 2030. Even if all 28 governments approve the new design regulations, they will not become compulsory for manufacturers until seven years after the new EU directive takes effect.

However, Donnachadh explains, that on top of the seven years waiting for the legislation to become active, it will take another 10-15 years for the new lorries to become the norm in city centres.

 “It is unacceptable to leave us and our children in danger, with people being killed by HGVs year in year out until 2030.

“So what needs to happen is the government need to bring in immediate regulation for HGVs to have the proper safety equipment.”

When analysing the statistics on cycle deaths caused by HGVS, it seems incredible that immediate regulations have not already been implemented.

According to The Times, Lorry drivers are involved in more than 4,000 cyclist and pedestrian deaths in Europe each year – accounting for a fifth of all fatal crashes despite making up just 5 per cent of traffic.

Last year 14 cyclists were killed on London roads. Nine of these fatalities were caused by HGVs, which only make up for 4 per cent of traffic  

A study by Transport for London (TfL), showed cyclists involved in collisions with HGVs are 78 times more likely to be killed than those hit by a car.

In light of these grim facts, there has been some progress with regard to HGV regulation, thanks to the determination of people like Nazan and campaign groups such as Stop Killing Cyclists. In January 2014, the Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, announced that lorries without safety equipment to protect cyclists and pedestrians would be banned from London by the end of the year.

The proposed ban will require each vehicle in London over 3.5 tonnes to be fitted with sideguards to protect cyclists from being dragged under the wheels. It will also require them to be fitted with mirrors giving the driver a better view of cyclists around their vehicles.

However, according to Donnachadh, although these regulations are a step in the right direction, they are not strict enough.

“We are calling for full protection around the wheels and the side of the trucks, full elimination of the blind spot through CCTV mirrors and finally auditory warnings to the driver when cyclists are coming up on their left hand side.”

Donnachadh says that the bulk of the equipment would cost manufacturers between £500 – £1,000.

“Considering a truck costs £60,000 – £70,000 or more, it’s unacceptable that corporations are profiting from a lack of modern equipment.

“I speak to men and women everyday who would like to cycle but they won’t because they are terrified of being crushed by an HGV.”

It is clear therefore, that with new laws regarding safer lorry designs seemingly a distant reality, and regulations on lorry safety equipment only being implemented in London, the HGV will continue to be a threat to cyclists across the UK.

Nazan won’t give up; in the memory of her 13-year-old daughter she continues to campaign for a ban on HGVs without the proper safety equipment in city centres.

The cycling commissioner for London, Andrew Gilligan, says changes won’t come overnight; but with campaigners like Nazan and Donnachadh on his back, one thing’s for sure: he won’t get an easy ride.  



London roads: Is enough being done to keep cyclists safe?


It was just after midday, when Richard Muriza, a father of two in his 60s, who dedicated his life to helping others, was cycling home from the CoolTan Arts charity in Brixton, where he volunteered.

When he came to a busy junction on Camberwell Road, in South London, he found himself riding alongside a huge tipper truck that towered above him. As the truck turned left, oblivious to the cyclist’s position, Mr Muriza was dragged under its monstrous wheels, leaving his mangled bike smashed on the side of the road.

As horrified onlookers watched the scene unfold, they waited powerlessly for help to arrive on the scene. But when the paramedics got there, they saw that Mr Muriza was trapped, crushed under the back wheels, and there was little they could do.

One witness of the horrifying accident, who preferred not to be named, told the Daily Mail: “I came past and saw people panicking around the side of the lorry. He (Mr Muriza) was trapped under the wheels at the back of the truck. People were screaming, but there was nothing they could do.”

On November 18 last year, Mr Muriza became the sixth cyclist to be killed on London roads in just 13 days and the fifth to be crushed by either a lorry, bus or coach. Over 100 cyclists in England were killed in 2013 alone and in reaction, cycle safety activists have been campaigning tirelessly for improvements to safety standards on London roads.

On November 19 around one thousand cyclists camped outside Traffic for London (TfL) headquarters in protests to the alarming spate of cyclist deaths. Pressure began to mount on Boris Johnson, TfL and the city boroughs to act.

In a new scheme to make London more cycle friendly, the Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, recently announced a £100m investment in three London boroughs to create ‘mini Hollands’. The idea involves creating better facilities and conditions for cyclists in Enfield Town, Waltham Forest and Kingston Upon Thames.

At a People’s Question Time in Kingston last week, the Mayor said: “Of course one cycle death is too many. We’ve got huge sums of money going into cycling, not just here in Kingston, but about £913m across London.

“It doesn’t mean there is any excuse for complacency, we are going to go on investing in our roads to make cycling safer.”

This is not the first step that the Mayor has taken to improve cycling safety on London’s roads. In response to the spate of deaths in November, the Metropolitan Police launched Operation Safeway, aiming to improve road users’ safety by deploying police officers at 166 busy junctions around London.

Stop Killing Cyclists (SKC) is working to build a peaceful but more radical approach to road safety and believes Operation Safeway was a distraction.

This week, Will Nickell, a campaigner for SKC, said that Safeway targeted cyclists and contrary to helping them, put them under further pressure.

“Operation Safeway saw officers posted at junctions targeting cyclists, as they were considered easier to deal with.

“Cycling on pavements has been illegal since the 90s, but there has always been discretion for those who are cycling considerately, out of a fear of the condition of the roads.

“During Operation Safeway, officers were instructed to disregard that discretion and fine all pavement cyclists regardless.

“This had the effect of forcing cyclists to ride on dangerous stretches of road, acting in complete contradiction to what Operation Safeway was allegedly established to do – prevent further deaths and injuries.”

Superintendent Robert Revill, who led the operation, stated that Safeway was put in place to reduce the appalling number of deaths on London roads each year.

According to Revill, the idea behind Operation Safeway was education – “enforcing road traffic law and raising awareness of safety guidance.”

In reality what this meant was the issuing of Fixed Penalty Notices (FPNs) for cyclists and motorists who were perceived to be acting dangerously on or about the roads.

More than 13,800 FPNs were issued during the operation, which was in action between November and January 2014. Over 4,000 of these FPNs were given to cyclists for jumping red lights, cycling on footpaths and having incorrect lights.

Operation Safeway did not only focus on key junctions in the city centre; Kingston Upon Thames, which has just won £30m to improve its cycling facilities, has also been working to “educate road users”.

Kingston Police gave out 54 FPNs to cyclists using pavements during the operation. This week Chief Inspector Gary Taylor, of Kingston Police, reiterated that Safeway was about education.

“If someone is cycling up the pavement nearly knocking everyone over, that in my mind is anti social and people get the hump with that.

“The point of Safeway was education for everyone. If you notice now, a lot of HGVs have stickers on the back saying: if you’re on my left and I turn left, then I can’t see you.”

But do these stickers really class as education or a solution to the problem? If one of these stickers had been on the back of the tipper truck that crushed Richard Muriza, would he still be alive today?

Will Nickell says that Operation Safeway was a knee-jerk reaction to a serious problem that needs serious attention.

“There are fundamental issues with our road infrastructure, which lead to unnecessary conflict between road users who have different needs.

“The November deaths should have served as a profound wake-up call for our local authorities to act in a meaningful and sustainable fashion to protect their citizens, to provide wide scale, safe, segregated infrastructure. Sadly this hasn’t happened.”

On April 2, Stop Killing Cyclists held the event ‘London Boroughs Wall Of Death’ – highlighting the amount of money London Boroughs have invested in cycling and pedestrian safety over the last four years.

Through Freedom Of Information Requests, Will Nickell has discovered that 24 of the 32 London boroughs’ have not invested a penny on segregated cycle-lanes since the last London elections.

However at the People’s Question Time last week, the Mayor emphasised the vast amounts of money being injected into cycle schemes across London.

This does certainly seem to be good news for the three boroughs that have won these large sums of money. But it is interesting to note that Kingston is already statistically the safest borough in London. Cycle deaths or injuries are not a regular occurrence by any means and in fact there are many separate cycle paths already in place in the area. As the Mayor stated in Kingston last night: “This is the safest place to live, virtually in the whole of Europe.”

But what about cyclists who travel in other parts of London? Many are still afraid to use their bicycles as a means of transport because of notoriously dangerous junctions. There have been vehement calls for a redesign of the Bow roundabout, in East London, described as the ‘death trap’ by locals, after three fatalities and eight serious injuries in recent years.

At last week’s People’s Question Time in Kingston, Darren Johnson, member of the Green Party and London Assembly, emphasised the importance of infrastructural improvements across London.

“What I am concerned about is what is happening to other London boroughs. We need a full programme, not just little pots of money that the Mayor is talking about.

“I accept that you can’t do everything at once, but we do need a full programme for future years to ensure that it’s not just Kingston which is fantastic, but every outer London borough, to make genuinely attractive and safe cycling.”

According to Andrew Gilligan, the cycling commissioner for London, there is nothing closer to the Mayor’s heart than improving cycle safety. But he says that changes cannot and will not happen overnight.




Experience: Pamplona: A quiet city?


In the year of 2012 I moved to Pamplona in northern Spain to take up a teaching position in an academy. I had never heard of the city before, but had been told of its famous San Fermin festival, where thousands of tourists from around the world go to run with the bulls every year.

Wandering around the cosy cobbled streets of the old quarter during the winter in Pamplona, it was difficult to believe that this small city – which felt much more like a vibrant village, could be the host of one of Europe’s biggest cultural festivals.

The small independent bars are tucked into little coves and there is a quiet but pleasant atmosphere among the Spanish and Basque residents that potter from the chorizo stalls to the vegetable markets.

Pamplona probably doesn’t fit within most people’s stereotypical view of Spain; there are no flamenco dancers in the street or sun bleached beaches and the closest thing to an authentic plate of paella involves a 6-hour drive down to Valencia.

Its Basque roots give the city an antiquated feel of belonging to some distant, unfamiliar time. Nicknamed ‘Mordor’ by the locals, because of its relentless grey and rainy winters, Pamplona or Iruña (the Basque name for the city) is situated in a rounded valley in the middle of Navarre, surrounded by breathtaking pastoral mountains.

After a long and very wet winter I was delighted to watch the clouds slowly disperse, replaced by rich blue skies and the first blossoms of the cherry trees that are scattered across the city centre.

Spring came late but with a potency that was worth waiting for. Over the months of May and June I revelled in the outdoor drinking, dancing and Spanglish chatting that I had pictured in my mind before moving to Spain.

With the festival fast approaching, the city was transforming. New market stalls were setting up shop, the double wooden fences that mark the bull run were slowly being erected and every day it seemed that more and more excitable American and Australian accents could be heard around the pintxo (tapas) bars. The nervous anticipation of the festival could soon be felt in the streets; the days grew hotter and every morning more and more tourists poured into the city.

On the morning of July 6, I woke early, excited for first day of the festival. I dressed myself in all white, tied my red pañuelo (handkerchief) around my wrist and red faja (scarf) around my waist. Outside a quiet murmur of voices was building up into a nervous chatter as people streamed across the streets of the old quarter.

I met my friends at the Plaza del Consejo at 10.00. The sun was beating down on the dry fountain and over the city’s gothic walls in the distance, I could see the green mountains of Navarre under a flawless blue sky.

We made our way together, nervous with anticipation, to the Ayuntamiento (town hall) for the chupinazo – a firework released to signal the start of the nine-day festival.

As we snaked through the skinny maze like streets to arrive at the Plaza del Ayuntamiento, we began to hear a throbbing chant, growing in volume with every step we took.

We turned the corner of Calle Nueva to be met with an explosion of noise and a sea of red and white bodies. A profound stench of cheap sangria mixed with sweat rose up through my nostrils and hit me in the back of the throat.

I could no longer see my feet as we were instantly squashed within the crowd, swaying around like a piece of polystyrene in the middle a vast ocean. I held onto my friend and looked into his face as we bumped around between bodies of all shapes and sizes. He grinned wildly as a fountain of sangria came down over our heads, turning us bright red.

“What time is it?” He shouted in my ear.

With great difficulty I twisted my wrist and looked at my watch, which to my surprise was not yet broken.

“11.56!” I screamed back to him.

“Awesome! 4 minutes until chupinazo!” He yelled.

I was pressed up against a wall of bodies that surrounded me from every angle but I felt completely safe with these happy excitable strangers. The crowd was fervent with anticipation for the festival and it was infectious. My friend passed me the wineskin and I squeezed its contents down my throat like a gasping dog.

As the town hall clock struck 12, the chupinazo was launched. A wild cheer could be heard across the city as confetti sprinkled down from the Ayuntamiento and wine was splattered on every inch of the square.

I raised myself up with the help of my friend onto a ledge in the corner of the plaza and looked at the spectacle. Thousands of people were pressed together in the square and the streets surrounding the plaza were just as crammed. Gigantic blow-up balls were being tossed across the sea of heads and hands. Women were being hoisted on shoulders, their skin soaked red and their t-shirts ripped from their chest as exultant men cheered like warriors.

The festival had begun, and over the next nine days its ferocity would only heighten – with bulls charging through the streets, traditional gigantes (giants) on stilts cavorting in the squares, fireworks illuminating the sky and thousands of people dancing until the early morning. It was a bizarre and fantastic scene but as the festival drew to a close, I have to admit, I was relieved to watch the tourists slowly disperse and the streets return to their tranquil and sleepy state.