The Decade of Division

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By Murray Waldren

IF any image defined the 90s with haunting clarity, it was that of the refugee. Particularly the children. Terrified, in shock, often emaciated, distraught, in mourning. We saw it at the start of the decade in Somalia, then when more than 600,000 Kurds fled Saddam Hussein's troops, and again in Bosnia-Herzegovina's 1 million plus refugees.

We saw it with horrific clarity in Rwanda when more than 2 million people escaped to Zaire. And we saw it this year in Kosovo and in our neighbouring East Timor. More than 900,000 people fled Kosovo in three months - it was one of the fastest shifts of people in history, beamed to our TV screens in harrowing collages of crowds streaming along railway tracks, of aged tractors over-laden with people and their pathetically bundled possessions, and of the rudimentary and overcrowded camps in which they sought sanctuary.

Yet today, when more than 2.5 million people remain displaced in the Balkans, will Australians recall the refugee as they review the 90s? Or is their plight just another flash card in a decade that saw huge shifts, not just in people but in wealth, in national borders, in enmities and alliances, in the very way we live our lives? Will our thoughts be of Dili or of soaring Internet shares? Of the thousands who died in natural disasters or of sporting triumphs?

The 90s was a decade of great division, at times resembling nothing so much as the 1090s for indiscriminate carnage and political zealotry. Yet if the veneer of a millennium's civilisation proved thin at times, there were also significant accomplishments, with reconciliation between Israel and its Middle East neighbours, between black and white in South Africa, and between Protestant and Catholic in Northern Ireland high among them.

It was also the decade when the computer became an overarching reality. For many, that reality struck only when Deep Blue, an IBM "supercomputer", defeated Russian world chess champion Garry Kasparov in May 97. There was something symbolically Brave New World-ish in a machine mastering man. By then, of course, change was the only constant.

Global communications had come into their own via the World Wide Web, a program scientist Tim Berners-Lee started to develop in 1989 with the modest aim of networking research physicists' computers. By the early 90s it was providing linked if chaotic access to millions of computers around the world. But it was only with the creation of "browser" programs like Mosaic in 1993 that the Internet's vast resources - the so-called "information highway" - became widely accessible to home users and smaller businesses.

Through the Internet, communication is now practically instantaneous anywhere in the world. E-mail, first used by American defence scientists in the 1960s, was by the mid-90s linking business and individuals immediately, in a paperless, tax-less, delay-less way. It was also proving a worry for governments because it allowed citizens to send and obtain unmonitored, alternative information to official lines. In the Bosnian war, for instance, propaganda on both sides was contradicted by eyewitness accounts reported on the net.

Many countries, notably China and Singapore, sought to control the web's influence on their citizens. But the only effective limitation seems to be excessive hardware and telephony costs in poor nations. Since 1995, websites have proliferated exponentially, and government and commercial attempts at regulation have seemed increasingly Canute-like. "Leaks" can spread worldwide within hours, dissidents and cybercritics are circumventing government attempts to block communication.

Computerisation, and the globalisation it serviced, came at some cost. As world markets became more accessible and hence more competitive, corporations were forced to boost productivity and reduce costs. This meant restructuring, which translated most often as "downsizing" the workforce. The notion of "full employment" became ever more illusory.

At the decade's end, governments and business are still seeking ways to fully exploit the Internet's opportunities. E-commerce is expanding, international banking has been revolutionised, the stockmarket, including the volatile money and futures markets, is a 24-hour, worldwide concern. Such instantaneous exchange has its risks: in 1995, financier Nick Leeson broke the internationally respected Barings Bank. The next year, Japanese copper trader Yasuo Hamanaka - known as Mr Five Per Cent because he controlled that much of the world market - was found to have lost $US2.6 billion in unauthorised transactions, twice as much as Leeson.

And even though blue chip "cyber conglomerates" like Amazon.com are yet to post a profit, shares in Internet-related businesses have skyrocketed, often for enterprises that are little more than an idea. Normal price-earnings ratio judgements apparently don't apply to them. The Poseidon crash springs to mind. Nevertheless, the Internet and its offshoots are poised to revolutionise home entertainment, particularly the music industry via MP3, publishing, and the way we do business in ways we are still to envisage. And international boundaries seem more vaporous than ever.

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THE great social and human failure of the 90s has been the increased partition of the affluent and the poor. The rich got richer, the poor grew more numerous. This stark division has grown more marked between nations, and within nations - even the most prosperous. In a decade in which the global economy grew substantially, the underclass increased at an appalling rate. Today, for every one person living in relative comfort, another four subsist in penury. And average life expectancy veers from just over 40 years in some African nations to 80-plus in the West.

In human terms, this is untenable. And was recognised as such by political, religious and economic leaders in the developed world. Yet despite communiqués and speeches stressing moral obligations, despite huge humanitarian operations to coordinate aid, by mid-1996 the World Bank was reporting that 1.3 billion people - nearly one-fifth of the world's inhabitants - were surviving on less than $1 a day. A subsequent actuarial report that the world's population, which hit 6 billion this year, would double again by 2095 was hardly encouraging, given the present strain on world resources, the burgeoning shortages of water and accelerating land degradation.

Nor was it edifying to learn in late 1996 that the 387-member cartel of "the super-rich" (think Bill Gates, the world's wealthiest man, the Sultan of Brunei, King Fahd of Saudi Arabia, etc) had more assets than the combined GDP of countries having 45 per cent of the world's citizenry.

By the late '90s, South Asia - primarily India, Pakistan, Indonesia, Malaysia and Myanmar - had become "the poorest, most illiterate and malnourished" region on Earth: two in every three of its children were underweight, twice the rate of sub-Saharan Africa (although child labour is still rife in India and common in Indonesia). With one-fifth the world's population, South Asia now contains 40 per cent of the world's poor. It is alarming then that the only significant development statistic in the region was arms investment. India, 142nd in per capita income, had the world's highest arms import bill and the fourth-largest army in the world. Pakistan had the eighth. Both countries also have nuclear weapons.

This year, the G7 group of industrialised nations showed pre-millennial generosity, in a way, in acknowledging the correlation between indebtedness and poverty - they resolved to rub out one-fifth of the funds owed them by 36 of the world's poorest nations. Given the G7 nations' affluence, it seemed a too little, too late gesture.

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AMID unremitting death and destruction, fashion diverted a large chunk of the developed world's attention, surfing a renascent wave of glamour magazines and high-gloss media packaging. The industry generated multi-millions of dollars, made designers, photographers and "fashion gurus" famous in their own right - and it all rode on the back of Supermodels (a term coined in the late 80s to revive ebbing interest in haute couture). Stylized coat-hangers whose haughty presence was cultivated by film stars, party-givers, paparazzi and media movers, Cindy, Naomi, Elle, Christy, Kate and the like stood chic by chic in elegant ennui, the last word in nowness. As Linda Evangelista famously noted: "I don't get out of bed for less than $10,000 a day."

Supermodels were the pyramid peak of an advertising and marketing conglomeration that sold "lifestyle" to the aspiring affluent. The budgets for some advertising campaigns, often for consumer goods constructed by sweatshop labour in underdeveloped countries, exceeded the health budgets of whole nations. The "look" though was everything, selling clothes and consumer items by association, and also selling hordes of young women on emulating the genetically freakish models. At some cost in exploitation.

Not everyone was seduced by designer glam. A large tract of urban youth in Europe, the Americas and Australia embraced the anti-chic image of grunge, until it too - with typical 90s chutzpah - was appropriated by high fashion celebrities.

Celebrity was everything in the 90s, and few were more celebrated - and hounded for it - than the Princess of Wales. After her marriage to Prince Charles disintegrated in 1992 amid accusations of adultery, suicide attempts and mental cruelty, she was ostracised by Buckingham Palace. Even though most Britons blamed Charles. Many, in fact, touted Diana as heading an alternative royal court. By the mid-90s she was using her prominence, and her love-hate relationship with the international paparazzi, to focus attention on specific causes. She continued her campaign for more humane treatment of AIDS patients, and sought a worldwide ban on landmines (of which, the US State Department estimated in 1997, there were 60 million buried around the world, claiming tens of thousands of innocent victims a year).

When Lady Di was killed in a Parisian road crash in September 1997, typically pursued by photographers, she became another statistic of the decade's fourth-largest killer (500,000 people in India alone in the 90s) - the car. Billions around the world watched her funeral. Her death was one of the biggest news stories of the decade - in itself a cause for conjecture - and it induced soul-searching in many quarters, not least among the media that had encouraged the decade's cult of celebrity through its open-chequebook approach to invasive photographs.

There was a certain symbolic irony soon after when Mother Teresa, Calcutta's saint of the slums, died at 87. She had famously been photographed with Diana not long before, an image some saw as enshrining the dichotomy of the era: two powerful icons, one famous because of a lifetime's compassion, the other compassionately influential through fame.

Even faster than the globalisation of trade was the globalisation (read homogenisation) of culture. What Abba was to the 80s, the Spice Girls were to the 90s - except more pervasive as cable television penetrated isolated villages in China and Africa. As ubiquitous were movies like Titanic and TV series like Friends or The Simpsons. A multinational mediocrity ruled - and it was one element (along with monetary imperialism) that helped spark this year's Seattle riots during the World Trade Organisation conference.

The bread and circuses culture of sport also went global: one of the largest audiences in history watched France win the 1998 soccer World Cup with a multi-racial team that did more to defy the right-wing racism of that nation's resurgent National Front than any political protest had done. But sport too became increasingly mercenary and homogenised in a made-for-TV way. Even the Olympian ideal turned into a running joke amid charges of corruption and bribery. Australia ended the decade as world champions in a range of sports, yet the achievements carried less universal pleasure than before in what had become a tainted commodity.

The was culture of another sort when the United States bemused the world by its readiness to wash dirty linen with maximum exposure. Three trials by TV kept viewers transfixed, and divulged more intimacies than most wanted to know. In 1991 a former colleague, Professor Anita Hill, accused Supreme Court nominee Clarence Black of sexual harassment at a Senate hearing. The Senate, 98 per cent male, supported Black. Sporting hero and sometime actor OJ Simpson, arrested after a bizarre slow-motion car chase cheered on by thousands of bystanders, was tried for the murder of his wife and her lover. His 1995 trial sparked debate on racial issues, spouse abuse and the US legal system, particularly when he was acquitted (although he was convicted in a civil trial in 1997 and ordered to pay $20 million reparation).

The most naked disclosures were made in and around President Clinton's impeachment trial in the Senate this year, when allegations based on inquiries by Special Prosecutor Kenneth Starr were investigated. The charges concerned Clinton's sexual opportunism, specifically his much-denied dalliance with White House intern Monica Lewinsky, alleged perjury in civil law suits, and attempts to subvert justice. He was eventually acquitted, but not before the most personal details were revealed. And the episode was not buried with an abject presidential apology.

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EMBARRASSMENTS aside, Bill Clinton was still among the decade's more significant figures. In 1990, George Bush and Mikhail Gorbachev headed the world's two superpowers. When Clinton was elected as the first baby-boomer president in 1992, the Soviet Union no longer existed. Gorbachev, who resigned just hours before it was disbanded on Christmas Day 1991, had been replaced by the Boris Yeltsin as head of the new Commonwealth of Independent States.

Bush and Gorbachev had overseen significant initiatives aimed at reducing world tension. In 1990, the Cold War officially ended with the signing of the Charter of Paris; in 1991 they signed the first Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, then soon after offered unilateral initiatives to eliminate tactical nuclear weapons. They also agreed to end military aid to Afghanistan in a bid to end that 12-year civil war. The differing charismas of Yeltsin and Clinton promised more advances, but both quickly became diverted as the CIS became fraught by internal ructions and the US moved into an international peacekeeping role.

The dramatic disintegration of the Soviet Union leant further momentum to what became a great redrawing of the European map: its constituent members became independent nations again after 75 years. Earlier in 1991, the Yugoslav republics of Croatia and Slovenia declared independence, precipitating a bloody civil war. In 1992, Czechoslovakia's 74-year federation dissolved into separate Czech and Slovak states, while Bosnia-Herzegovina also declared independence from Yugoslavia.

In 1991, the leaders of 12 European communities signed the Maastricht Treaty for economic and political union (despite British resistance, even though its strongly anti-Europe PM Margaret Thatcher had been forced from office the year before). It took a further eight years of bickering before an expanded European Union introduced a common currency. Britain abstained, under New Labor leader Tony Blair. In monetary terms, the formation of the Euro made the EU the most dominant economic bloc after the US. Blair, who ended 18 years of Conservative rule in 1997, became a prime supporter of Clinton's peacekeeping missions; the two were also influential in bringing this year's peace agreement in Belfast. Clinton was also a witness to, and a prime mover in the "shuttle diplomacy" that helped bring about, the Norwegian-brokered 1993 peace agreement between PLO leader Yasser Arafat and Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.

In post-communist, capitalist-inclined Russia, the gap between the haves and have nots widened substantially. Elections were held but the parliament was largely unworkable. Yeltsin in 1991 had rallied resistance to a coup against Gorbachev by defying tanks outside the Kremlin; two years later he used those same tanks to quell a communist takeover. Mafia gang-lords oversaw an increase in crime; corruption became overt, food shortages worsened. Eventually, Russia sought food aid from the West. The population at large sought solace in vodka, and the life expectancy for men fell more than 8 years in the first half of the decade.

By contrast, China held to its communist course politically, while embracing limited economic reforms. Dissenters were harshly dealt with. In 1997 China took possession of Hong Kong at the cessation of Britain's 100-year lease, pledging that the colony could develop its democratic system "in a manner suitable to ... reality". It maintained its demands for the return of Taiwan.

Probably the most distinguished figure on the 90s world stage -certainly among the most revered - was a man who started the decade as a prisoner and ended it as a world elder statesman. Nelson Mandela was freed in 1990 after 27 years in jail when South Africa, under FW De Klerk, lifted its 30-year ban on the African National Congress. He and De Klerk, not always harmoniously, negotiated the dismantling of apartheid, for which they were jointly awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. In 1994, after the ANC swept the first multiracial elections in 342 years of white rule, Mandela was sworn in as president. His first speech as national leader stressed reconciliation and fiscal responsibility as his aim, and despite sporadic violence and continuing poverty, he largely succeeded. The Truth Commission he set up in 1996 laboured to make apology rather than imprisonment the way to that reconciliation. In the late-90s, he assumed the role of Africa's de facto moral leader, travelling widely to forge trade and good-will links. By the time he retired this year, South Africa was considered a stable democracy in the world community.

******************* RECONCILIATION, in fact, was a feature of the 90s, with nations in a century-ending rush to apologise for historic wrongs. In 1992 alone, Spain sought rapprochement with Israel over its 500-year-old enforced exile of Jews; the Taiwanese government apologised for the 28,000 civilians killed in political protests in 1947; German and British military veterans met at El Alamein on the 50th anniversary of that battle; and 50 years after the "rape of Nanking", Emperor Akihito visited China (although Japan still resisted apologising for wartime atrocities to Allied prisoners).

In 1995, President Herzog noted at the former Belsen concentration camp that Germany excluded nobody from its memory of Nazi crimes, Switzerland's President Villiger expressed regret for his nation's wartime treatment of Jews, Japan's Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama apologised for his nation's "inexcusable" treatment of mainly Korean "comfort women". Then, on the 50th anniversary of the end of the Japanese war, after much diplomatic sidestepping, he used the actual Japanese word for apology to express remorse for his country's "aggression" and treatment of Allied prisoners.

In 1998, the Vatican apologised to Jews for Roman Catholic passivity during the Holocaust. The same year, New Zealand legislated to "close a century of injustices" against the Maori through compensation and land rights, apologies were made by Germany for its 1904 massacre of the Hereros of Namibia, and by German and Swiss banks to the Jews for profiting from looted Nazi gold. In Russia, Yeltsin repented the murder of the Tsar Nicholas, and oversaw the construction of a memorial to the millions persecuted by Stalin's reign of terror.

The Khmer Rouge acknowledged it was "very sorry" for its killing fields terrorism, President Clinton, who was to become particularly adept at apologies, expressed regret to Guatemala for America's support of a corrupt regime there during the 50s and 60s, and to Afro-Americans for slavery. France reiterated its apology for the murderous treatment of French Jews under the Vichy. The Canadian government ceded effective self-government to an Indian nation over its homeland territory by way of reparation for historic mistreatment. This year, the German government enacted a $2 billion fund drawn from major companies to compensate slave labourers from the Nazi era.

And in Australia? Well amid debate over euthanasia and the republic, the Government did hand back Maralinga to its Aboriginal tribal owners. Historic court rulings were also made in the Mabo and Wik cases. But we still failed to find an effective resolution to questions of land rights and equality. Immigration also became an issue with the rise of Pauline Hanson's One Nation party: her supporters considered what most saw as cultural evolution to be cultural erosion. As for an apology to aid reconciliation, the actual S-word seemed to choke in the official throat, despite the fact that tens of thousands of Australians signed Sorry Books. A significant number, however, backed Prime Minister John Howard who, despite expressing "regrets", refused to offer an apology for historic wrongs. The resolution of Aboriginal land rights claims and the psychic healing an apology might engender remain issues for the next century.

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ANOTHER key issue for Australia remains in defining our role in South-East Asia, financially, emotionally and defensively. In the early part of the decade, under Paul Keating's leadership, we were placing ourselves firmly in the regional umbrella. But then Asia's Tiger economies, which had engendered enviable prosperity throughout the decade, hit the wall in mid-1997. It was a classic boom-to-bust scenario, created by a combination of cronyism, over-investment by Japan, and the volatility of the high-tech share-market. International investors lost confidence in Asia and its business practices and withdrew funding. This sparked a regional political and financial crisis, particularly for Indonesia and to a lesser extent Malaysia. Indonesia's currency quickly became almost worthless, and the standard of living dropped dramatically. Civil unrest and student-led riots forced the nation's long-term leader, President Suharto, to resign in 1998. Volatility and uncertainty were introduced to regional politics. And dire predictions were sounded about the economic flow-on effects of the crisis, especially in regard to exports. In the event, Australia was not affected as badly as the pundits were predicting. But we did not fare as well politically, our strident support of increased democracy offending many regional powerbrokers.

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The 90s was also the El Nino decade, a meteorological phenomenon blamed for strange, often deadly changes in weather patterns. It presence was manifested as flood, drought and cyclones, frequently the worst on record - for all the tens of thousands slaughtered in wars like in Kuwait, Yugoslavia, Sri Lanka, Somalia and Bosnia, nature struck with even more fatal fury. And tens of thousands who survived the initial meteorological effects subsequently perished from starvation or illness. In 1991, for instance, 250,000 people were killed and 5 million made homeless when a cyclone drove the sea into Bangladesh. In 1993, the worst floods in US history cause $US12 billion damage. In 1996, 2000 people were killed when a tsunami hit Papua New Guinea, this year in Golkuk, Turkey, an earthquake claimed close to 20,000 lives. And just this week, tempest-driven floods called "the worst in the century have devastated Europe".

If it wasn't flood or cyclone, it was earthquakes, landslides, volcanic eruptions or fire. In 1991, retreating Iraqi troops fired Kuwait's oil wells: the flames took 8 months to extinguish and created long-lasting environmental damage. In 1994, NSW was ravaged by bushfires that burned for weeks and threatened cities and towns. Three years later, a noxious blanket of smog covered South-East Asia for six months when fires lit to clear land in Sumatra and Borneo raged out of control and torched tranches of forest.

In 1998 another land-clearing accident caused a conflagration that burned for three months in the Amazon, threatening the rain-forest reserve of the Yanomami Indians. The best efforts of international firefighters were continually thwarted, but hours after two shamans prayed, the rains came. Not as dramatic on a world scale but certainly a defining event locally was the 1997 landslide at Thredbo, which claimed 18 lives. Stuart Diver survived 65 freezing hours buried beneath a concrete slab next to the body of his wife Sally, and his televised rescue from the rubble enthralled the nation.

The quixotically ruthless world weather was blamed by some on a worsening environmental imbalance caused by pollution and resource mismanagement. In the 90s, environmentalism moved firmly into international consciousness - if with varying degrees of will behind the fighting words. In 1992, an Earth Summit on economic development and the environment, said to be the largest gathering of world leaders ever, signed landmark agreements on global warming, endangered species and environmental aid. Concern over the depleted ozone layer also prompted the industrialised nations to accelerate a timetable for banning ozone-harming chemicals. A year later, 37 countries agreed to halt dumping of all nuclear waste into the oceans. Nevertheless, by 1997 the UN was warning that 80 countries were short of water, and that within a few decades two-thirds of the world's population would suffer "severe water stress".

Environmental awareness was also negated by accidents. In 1990, Soviet rocket fuel leaked into the White Sea, killing 100,000 seals and one-third of that sea's marine life. In 1994, Exxon Corp was ordered to pay Alaskan fishermen and natives $5 billion in punitive damages for the Exxon Valdez oil spill. In 1997, five of Britain's largest companies were discovered to be illegally releasing thousands of tonnes of toxic gases into the atmosphere. That same year, Siberian rivers were found to be disgorging high levels of toxic waste into the North Sea.

Even more worrying were reports from the World Conservation Union in 1998, which indicated that one quarter of all mammal and amphibian species were facing extinction, along with 30 per cent of fish species and 20 per cent of reptiles. And one-third of the world's coral reefs was in critical condition from pollution. By the decade's end, international forums were regularly formulating codes of control; the problem was to get all signatories to adhere to them.

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ADVANCES in science and medicine have revolutionised the way we live and the way we survive in a manner unimaginable even 30 years ago. Cloning became a reality when Scottish scientists cloned Dolly the sheep from an adult ewe. And such is the rate of progress in the Human Genome Project, for example, and in genetic engineering that reputable authorities are confidently predicting "eternal" life - or more accurately non-death - will be achievable within 75 years. Despite this, epidemic diseases are still proving fatal. Some three million people have died annually throughout the 90s of tuberculosis, another three million each year of malaria - 60 million victims of preventable diseases in one decade.

AIDS, although declining in most industrialised societies, claimed close to 20 million victims in the 90s. In Africa, infection rates continue to rise with obscene alacrity. Hepatitis, cholera and measles, fuelled by poverty, overcrowded living conditions and squalid facilities, are also resurgent there. Cholera is still endemic in 80 countries, and the World Health Organisation says yellow fever is resurgent in Africa and the Americas. Then there was the 1994 pneumonic plague outbreak in India, which afflicted 1400, and the Ebola outbreak in Zaire in 1995, which killed 232. And outbreaks of "mutant micro-organisms" like the intestinal infection that wiped out Honduran infants. Scientists suspect that as human population expands into former wilderness lairs, exotic viral disease will become a growing scourge. And in a sad indictment of the wealth/poverty divide, more than 500,000 women die a year from pregnancy and childbirth, although it is 100 times more likely to do so in Africa than in the US.

In the west, where medicine and access to drugs has led to increased longevity, non-communicable disease such as coronary and other heart ailments, strokes, cancers and pulmonary afflictions claim 24 million people a year. And Alzheimer's disease is verging on the epidemic, affecting every stratum from former presidents to the homeless. On the positive side, smallpox has been declared eliminated worldwide. On the ironic side, Viagra has been hailed as the 90s miracle cure for impotency, although the world still waits for an effective male contraception pill.

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IF peace is the sign of civilisation, the 90s were a remarkably barbarous decade. Civil war, multinational armed intervention, tribal and racial killings and genocide blighted the planet. The roll call of conflicts in fact is too extensive - and too depressing - to detail in full. Many are so long-running that they slipped largely from international consciousness. The decade began with Sri Lanka embroiled in a vicious civil war, and ends with that still unresolved. In Algeria, Muslim fundamentalist rebels have killed more than 65,000 Algerians in the past six years. Sierra Leone, the poorest nation in the world, has had civil war since 1991; a tenth of its population, some 400,000 people, are now refugees. The nearly 30-year Northern Irish conflict continued until this year, with the preliminary steps towards peace almost derailed by the 1998 Omagh bombing.

Conflicts such as the Rwandan civil war in 1991, in which the genocide was extensive, horrified the world, but we were more acutely aware was more aware of those in which the US - and CNN cameras - was focused. And there were plenty, leaving aside the "invasions" of Panama and Haiti. The Gulf crisis, which began in 1990 when Iraq invaded Kuwait, prompted the US to mobilise a UN-authorised multinational response force that included Australian troops. In February 1991, after six weeks of intensive bombing, the Iraqis were routed in a four-day ground offensive. Allied losses were less than 200 (many killed by the misnamed "friendly fire"); Iraqi casualties were more than 100,000; much of the country's infrastructure had been razed. Twice more in the decade, if with diminishing international support, the US returned to subdue Hussein's belligerence.

Civil War in Somalia intensified in 1991, leaving 80 per cent of its six million inhabitants seriously undernourished. By mid-1992, 5000 a day were dying of starvation, and thousands were being killed in factional fighting. The UN sanctioned the US-led Operation Restore Hope, a humanitarian commitment to restore peace and ensure food aid was delivered.

Less quickly resolved were the bitter and brutal Balkan wars, which plagued the decade. A conflagration of religious, racial and historic hatreds, they began when Yugoslavia disintegrated in 1991, initially and briefly in Slovenia. Soon after, Croatia, Bosnia and Serbia became locked in a vicious cycle of murderous conflicts. UN multinational peacekeeping forces succeeded after many failures in restoring an uneasy peace in 1992 that held only until the next year when hostilities erupted again most viciously. These continued with shocking atrocities until the 1995 Dayton Peace Treaty was signed by the presidents of Croatia, Bosnia and Serbia under the mediation of Bill Clinton. Some 20,000 US troops were sent to the region as part of the extensive peace-keeping force. By then, 200,000 civilians had been killed, and 2 million people made homeless.

War broke out again there in March this year between Serb forces and the Kosovo Liberation Army, leading to the world's largest military campaign since the Gulf War, and the first NATO attack on a member nation in its 50-year history.

And even as the decade ends, Russian troops are attacking Chechenya in a conflict that began eight years ago. But massacres and violent death are unfortunately not confined to war. Terrorism claimed numerous victims - most notably in the Oklahoma bombing - while mass murders at a Dunblane school in Scotland in 1996, and in several schools in the US horrified us all. Australia did not escape the repellent effects of such criminal insanity. At Port Arthur, Martin Bryant's rapid-fire killing spree in 1996 left 35 dead.

This article was first published in The Australian newspaper, December 31, 1999.
Copyright (c) Murray Waldren.

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