India’s Nuclear Scientists Keep Dying Mysteriously
Indian nuclear scientists haven’t had an easy time of it over the past decade. Not only has the scientific community been plagued by “suicides,” unexplained deaths, and sabotage, but those incidents have gone mostly underreported in the country—diluting public interest and leaving the cases quickly cast off by police.
Last month, two high-ranking engineers—KK Josh and Abhish Shivam—on India’s first nuclear-powered submarine were found on railway tracks by workers. They were pulled from the line before a train could crush them, but were already dead. No marks were found on the bodies, so it was clear they hadn’t been hit by a moving train, and reports allege they were poisoned elsewhere before being placed on the tracks to make the deaths look either accidental or like a suicide. The media and the Ministry of Defence, however, described the incident as a routine accident and didn’t investigate any further.
This is the latest in a long list of suspicious deaths. When nuclear scientist Lokanathan Mahalingam’s body turned up in June of 2009, it was palmed off as a suicide and largely ignored by the Indian media. However, Pakistani outlets, perhaps unsurprisingly, given relations between the two countries, kept the story going, noting how quick authorities were to label the death a suicide considering no note was left.
Volunteer-Run Morgues Are a Terrible Idea
Australia’s Northern Territory is huge, sparsely populated, poor, and crawling with deadly animals. It’s not surprising, then, that it doesn’t attract many professional types. Types like, say, people who are good at managing morgues. As a result, the territory’s dead-body storage system is a mess. The morgues are staffed primarily by volunteers, and no agency is specifically in charge of them.
This is a problem, to put it mildly. An inquiry led last year by Northern Territory Ombudsman Carolyn Richards uncovered a host of horrible practices, like a body that got put in a courtroom when there wasn’t space for it elsewhere, and a corpse stored in a doctor’s kitchen for a week while he was away. Things haven’t gotten better since then, and in the past few months, the bodies of two Aborigines were placed in the wrong graves—an especially big deal because in that culture, being buried with your clan on tribal land is of the utmost importance. The bodies were reportedly exhumed and reburied, but the families never received an official apology.
Also still waiting on a “We’re sorry” from the well-meaning but undertrained—or incompetent—morgue workers is the family of Charlton James, who committed suicide in 2011. Charlton’s body was taken to a morgue in the town of Kalkaringi, but after a power failure, the refrigeration system went down and his corpse was left to rot in the Outback heat. By the time his mother went to view the body, it was so badly decomposed that she couldn’t recognize him.
Your Corpse Will Never Look This Good
Contemporary burial practices suck. They put a suit or dress on you, throw you in a box, and stick you in the ground, doomed to an eternity of looking boring. It wasn’t always like that, and art history scholar Dr. Paul Koudounaris’s photos of skeletons covered in bling prove it. You might remember some of his photos from 2011’s The Empire of Death: A Cultural History of Ossuaries and Charnel Houses. Now, Koudounaris has a follow-up book called Heavenly Bodies: Cult Treasures and Spectacular Saints from the Catacombs, which also features bedazzled dead people. But according to the author, that’s where the similarities end. “They are very different—almost diametric—projects,” he says. “Because it deals with identity, Heavenly Bodies is in effect much more intimate.”
Koudounaris started documenting skeletons in earnest less than five years ago while photographing East German charnel houses, aka vaults full of dead bodies. “These skeletons became my life,” he says. “I felt like it was some kind of divine dictate that I was supposed to tell this story.”
While there had been articles about the skeletons in academic journals (mostly in Germany, where many of the bones are located), as well as a few doctoral dissertations, nobody had ever treated them as works of art. “They approached them as historical objects or devotional objects, but that, I think, is missing the point,” Koudounaris says. “To a modern audience that’s going to appreciate them, it’s because they’re incredible works of art, and that’s the context I wanted to create for them.”
Has Krokodil, the Flesh-Eating Russian Street Drug, Made Its Way to the US and UK?
You remember when we first alerted you to the joys of krokodil, right? In case you’d forgotten, it’s a drug from Russia that is just like heroin, except that it eats your flesh alive(NSFW link) because it’s made of painkillers cut with things like gasoline and sulfur. In other words, it’s probably the worst drug in the world. Well, unfortunately, it seems to be spreading. It made headlines last week when reports came through that it was being used in Arizona. And in the UK, Dr. Allan Harris, a specialist in treating drug addicts and the homeless, has reported that “there are plenty of warning signs” that krokodil is being used in Gloucester, where his drug clinic is. In an article he wrote for the Independent, he also mentioned that he’d treated a man in his early 30s who he believed had injected krokodil.
I called Dr. Harris to discuss his findings. We tried to negotiate whether to call the drug “krokodil” (from the Russian) or to Anglicize it now that it had made its way over from the mainland and start referring to it as “crocodile.” (I’ve used the former here, but Dr. Harris was pretty adamant about using the latter.) More importantly, it was an illuminating insight into the UK’s depressing cutting-drugs-with-things-that-are-even-worse-for-you-than-drugs scene.
VICE: So is it just the one case of krokodil that you found?
Dr Alan Harris: Yeah, I mean, it’s a bit retrospective really because it was a few years ago now. At the time, I just thought it was the citric acid burns of a heroin user, but looking back the tissue destruction was far, far in excess [of what you’d expect from that]. When you get citric acid issues you usually get second-degree burns, but this actually took out a huge crater of all the forearm muscle. When you took out the dead tissue you could actually see the tendons moving at the base of this crater and the bones as well—so pretty much like these horrific pictures you see on the warning leaflets for krokodil. It actually got to a point where he couldn’t move his right hand any more because it weakened the muscle so much. He could roll a cigarette and that was about it.
So how did they treat it?
They put a free skin graft over the top, which all healed OK but it was horrendous. The muscles never grew back because they were completely gangrenous. Looking back, it didn’t fit at all with citric acid because that’s an irritant but no worse than a slight infection. This was actually very, very disproportionate. From one small injection he took out the area of about 12 by eight centimeters of tissue, and quite deep as well—skin down to bone.
People Are Now Crowdfunding Their Funerals Online
The new frontier for online fundraising arguably has the single steadiest revenue source in the world: Funerals.
It would cost about $10,000 to bury your dead ass right now. I’m talking to you, 18- to 35-year-olds. With VICE’s readership being what it is (it’s been a good year), someone reading this will drop dead pretty soon, statistically speaking. If you die penniless, your family could and should consider going the crowdfunding route on Giveforward
, or Graceful Goodbye
That $10,000 is just an average figure for a simple American funeral
. It assumes you’ll be embalmed, rested in a lined casket, placed in a room for people to visit, grieved over at a modest ceremony at a funeral home, driven to the cemetery in a hearse, lowered into the ground, buried, and have a few flowers placed next to your humble, flat headstone. Funeral directors get $6,600 of that, and the rest goes to the cemetery.
Are Chemical Weapons Actually Useful in a War?
Chemical warfare is actually pretty rare. When Syrian government forces allegedly attacked rebels in Ghouta with nerve agents last month, it was the first major recorded use of chemical warfare in a quarter of a century. The previous time was the bombing of Halabja, Iraq, by Saddam Hussein in 1988, which killed roughly 5,000 people. Before that, chemical weapons only really saw the light of day in the Iran-Iraq war, the Yemeni civil war, and both World Wars.
However, as little as they’ve been used in the grand scheme of things, their deployment in Syria wasn’t a huge surprise. The civil war-torn country is one of only seven nations in the world that still refuses to sign the Chemical Weapons Convention, which outlaws the production, stockpiling, and use of chemical weapons. And while everyone else was getting rid of their reserves, establishing their use as a “red line for the world,” Assad and his regime kept themselves busy loading up on precursor chemicals and building one of the largest chemical weapons arsenals in the world.
One of the main problems with chemical weapons is that in relative terms they’re incredibly easy to make. Mustard gas and chlorine could probably be whipped up by some of Walter White’s more attentive students, and even the ingredients for Sarin aren’t too difficult to obtain, although actually making the stuff is trickier. Pretty much any country with a laboratory and a competent chemist can get hold of all the toxic gases and nerve agents they want, though. So, considering the number of abjectly immoral, lawless, and evil people in the world, why aren’t they used more?
The answer is that, today, they’re not a particularly effective way of killing people. Chemical warfare came of age in the First World War, in many ways the ideal environment for it to thrive—soldiers back then were sitting ducks, massed together in low-lying trenches, static targets for weeks or months at a time. The technology of death was rapidly improving too; chlorine gas was quickly surpassed by phosgene and later mustard gas, each horrible in its own way. Chlorine reacted with water in the lungs to form hydrochloric acid, while mustard gas damaged membranes and inflicted terrible chemical burns across the skin. Advances in chemistry were matched by improvements in ballistics and flight, allowing chemical munitions to be accurately targeted and deployed for the first time. Chemical weapons had the potential to reshape the battlefield.
Notes from a Cairo Journalist Being Hounded by Spies and Thugs
Four journalists have been shot dead in Egypt this week. Dozens of others have been arrested, and I myself—a relatively young reporter—have received death threats. I am now being followed.
Since last Wednesday, I have seen my closest friends and colleagues beaten and repeatedly arrested as they have struggled to cover a story that the Egyptian government would prefer the world ignored. More than 600 supporters of ousted president Mohamed Morsi were killed on August 14, when the security services moved in to forcibly disperse a protest camp inside Rabaa el Adaweya Square. They came with bulldozers and guns.
The standoff lasted for ten hours; by 3 PM, bodies lined the floors of makeshift field hospitals andeven a mosque. Muslim Brotherhood supporters say this was a “massacre.” According to Human Rights Watch, it was “the most serious incident of mass unlawful killings in modern Egyptian history.” But most journalists could only watch from afar: police and army troops blocked off the site, firing tear gas, birdshot pellets, and live ammunition at anyone who tried to enter.
I spent hours trying to find a safe route in, but every side street was blocked. Instead of doing my job, I could only run from gunfire or crouch behind cars. By the end of the day, three journalists, including veteran Sky News cameraman Mike Dean, had been killed. Another photographer remains in the hospital, suffering internal bleeding and serious kidney damage.
The situation can only get worse. Politically, the country is now so dangerously polarized that coverage on either side of the divide invites attacks. On Sunday, I received a warning that I would be “shot in the back” as a result of my articles examining pro-Islamist protests. Most worryingly, it name-checked people close to me. I am now living out of a rucksack in a different part of town, and have repeatedly been followed by a man who appears to be from state security.
Is Egypt Doomed to a Civil War?
It’s been just over a year since Egyptians, having thrown off the rule of Hosni Mubarak, voted in the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohammed Morsi as their first-ever democratically elected president. At the time, it wasn’t seen as just a victory for politically minded Islamists, but also for the concept of democracy in the Muslim world. Founded in 1928 to agitate against British colonial rule, the Brotherhood had spent most of the intervening decades as a banned, secretive movement, its membership frequently rounded up by the country’s military rulers in mass arrests that often ended in torture and execution. As the expert on jihadist groups, Aaron Y Zelin, notes, the consequences of this conflict are still being felt: “After the military crackdown in 1954, we saw over the next two and a half decades different breakaway factions either attempt coups and assassinations or outright low-level insurgency campaigns. This led to the rise of what we know as jihadism today.”
After 80 years spent operating in the shadows, the Brotherhood’s electoral success seemed to disprove the claims of radical thinkers like Sayyid Qutb, who asserted that Islamism would never be allowed to govern democratically in the Middle East. (This claim is made often, despite the fact that in those few Arab countries that actually hold elections, Islamist parties consistently win the most votes.) Jihadist advocates of armed struggle had always claimed that the concept of democracy was a sham, and that as soon as an Islamist party achieved power, there would be a reoccurrence of the scenario seen in Algeria in 1991—when the newly elected Islamist government was overthrown by a military regime, plunging the country into a vicious civil war of almost unimaginable brutality.