World’s teenage students tackle 21st-century challenges at robotics contest
Nearly all the 180-odd teams, from countries across the world, had had months to prepare their robots
Updated 17 October 2022
GENEVA: For their first trip to a celebrated robotics contest for high school students from scores of countries, a team of Ukrainian teens had a problem.
With shipments of goods to Ukraine uncertain, and Ukrainian customs officers careful about incoming merchandise, the group only received a base kit of gadgetry on the day they were set to leave for the event in Geneva.
That set off a mad scramble to assemble their robot for the latest edition of the “First Global” contest, a three-day affair that opened on Friday, in-person for the first time since the pandemic. Nearly all the 180-odd teams, from countries across the world, had had months to prepare their robots.
“We couldn’t back down because we were really determined to compete here and to give our country a good result — because it really needs it right now,” said Danylo Gladkyi, a member of Ukraine’s team. He and his teammates are too young to be eligible for Ukraine’s national call-up of all men over 18 to take part in the war effort.
Gladkyi said an international package delivery company wasn’t delivering into Ukraine, and reliance on a smaller private company to ship the kit from Poland into Ukraine got tangled up with customs officials. That logjam got cleared last Sunday, forcing the team to dash to get their robot ready with adaptations they had planned — only days before the contest began.
The event, launched in 2017 with backing from American innovator Dean Kamen, encourages young people from all corners of the globe to put their technical smarts and mechanical knowhow to challenges that represent symbolic solutions to global problems.
This year’s theme is carbon capture, a nascent technology in which excess heat-trapping CO2 in the atmosphere is sucked out of the skies and sequestered, often underground, to help fight global warming.
Teams use game controllers like those attached to consoles in millions of households worldwide to direct their self-designed robots to zip around pits, or “fields,” to scoop up hollow plastic balls with holes in them that symbolically represent carbon.
Each round starts by emptying a clear rectangular box filled with the balls into the field, prompting a whirring, hissing scramble to pick them up.
The initial goal is to fill a tower topped by a funnel in the center of the field with as many balls as possible. Teams can do that in one of two ways: Either by directing the robots to feed the balls into corner pockets, where team members can pluck them out and toss them by hand into the funnel or by having the robots catapult the balls up into the funnels themselves.
By meshing competition with common interest, the “First Global” initiative aims to offer a tonic to a troubled world, where kids look past politics to help solve problems that face everybody.
Past winners of such robotics competitions include “Team Hope” — refugees and stateless others — and a team of Afghan girls.
UN food chief: Billions needed to stave of unrest, mass migration and starvation
David Beasley says an estimated 350 million people in 49 countries desperately need food
Urges China, Gulf nations, billionaires and other countries “to step up big time”
Updated 14 sec ago
UNITED NATIONS: Without billions of dollars more to feed millions of hungry people, the world will see mass migration, destabilized countries, and starving children and adults in the next 12 to 18 months, the head of the UN World Food Program warned Friday.
David Beasley praised increased funding from the United States and Germany last year, and urged China, Gulf nations, billionaires and other countries “to step up big time.”
In an interview before he hands the reins of the world’s largest humanitarian organization to US ambassador Cindy McCain next week, the former South Carolina governor said he’s “extremely worried” that WFP won’t raise about $23 billion it needs this year to help an estimated 350 million people in 49 countries who desperately need food.
“Right at this stage, I’ll be surprised if we get 40 percent of it, quite frankly,” he said.
WFP was in a similar crisis last year, he said, but fortunately he was able to convince the United States to increase its funding from about $3.5 billion to $7.4 billion and Germany to raise its contribution from $350 million a few years ago to $1.7 billion, but he doesn’t think they’ll do it again this year.
Other countries need to step up now, he said, starting with China, the world’s second-largest economy which gave WFP just $11 million last year.
With $400 trillion worth of wealth on the planet, there’s no reason for any child to die of starvation.
David Beasley, WFP chief
Beasley applauded China for its success in substantially reducing hunger and poverty at home, but said it gave less than one cent per person last year compared to the United States, the world’s leading economy, which gave about $22 per person.
China needs “to engage in the multilateral world” and be willing to provide help that is critical, he said. “They have a moral obligation to do so.”
Beasley said they’ve done “an incredible job of feeding their people,” and “now we need their help in other parts of the world” on how they did it, particularly in poorer countries including in Africa.
With high oil prices Gulf countries can also do more, especially Muslim nations that have relations with countries in east Africa, the Sahara and elsewhere in the Middle East, he said, expressing hope they will increase contributions.
Beasley said the wealthiest billionaires made unprecedented profits during the COVID-19 pandemic, and “it’s not too much to ask some of the multibillionaires to step up and help us in the short-term crisis,” even though charity isn’t a long-term solution to the food crisis.
In the long-term, he said what he’d really like to see is billionaires using their experience and success to engage “in the world’s greatest need – and that is food on the planet to feed 8 billion people.”
“The world has to understand that the next 12 to 18 months is critical, and if we back off the funding, you will have mass migration, and you will have destabilization nations and that will all be on top of starvation among children and people around the world,” he warned.
Beasley said WFP was just forced to cut rations by 50 percent to 4 million people in Afghanistan, and “these are people who are knocking on famine’s door now.”
“We don’t have enough money just to reach the most vulnerable people now,” he said. “So we are in a crisis over the cliff stage right now, where we literally could have hell on earth if we’re not very careful.”
Beasley said he’s been telling leaders in the West and Europe that while they’re focusing everything on Ukraine and Russia, “you better well not forget about what’s south and southeast of you because I can assure you it is coming your way if you don’t pay attention and get on top of it.”
With $400 trillion worth of wealth on the planet, he said, there’s no reason for any child to die of starvation.
The WFP executive director said leaders have to prioritize the humanitarian needs that are going to have the greatest impact on stability in societies around the world.
He singled out several priority places — Africa’s Sahel region as well as the east including Somalia, northern Kenya, South Sudan and Ethiopia; Syria which is having an impact on Jordan and Lebanon; and Central and South America where the number of people migrating to the United States is now five times what it was a year-and-a-half ago.
Ukraine marks grim Bucha anniversary, calls for justice
Updated 01 April 2023
BUCHA, Ukraine: Ukrainians marked the anniversary of the liberation of Bucha Friday with calls for remembrance and justice after a brutal Russian occupation that left hundreds of civilians dead in the streets and in mass graves, establishing the town near Kyiv as an epicenter of the war’s atrocities.
“We will not let it be forgotten,” President Volodymyr Zelensky said at a ceremony in Bucha, vowing to punish those who committed outrages there that are still raw. “Human dignity will not let it be forgotten. On the streets of Bucha, the world has seen Russian evil. Evil unmasked.”
Bucha’s name has come to evoke savagery by Moscow’s military since its full-scale invasion of Ukraine began in February 2022. Ukrainian troops who retook the town found the bodies of men, women and children on the streets, in yards and homes, and in mass graves. Some showed signs of torture.
Elsewhere in Ukraine, fighting continued Friday: Russia used its long-range arsenal to bombard several areas, killing at least two civilians and damaging homes.
And the Kremlin-allied president of neighboring Belarus raised the stakes when he said Russian strategic nuclear weapons might be deployed in his country, along with part of Moscow’s tactical nuclear arsenal. Moscow said earlier this week that it planned to place in Belarus tactical nuclear weapons, which are comparatively short-range and low-yield. Strategic nuclear weapons, such as missile-borne warheads, would bring a greater threat.
At the official commemoration in Bucha, Zelensky was joined by Moldova’s president and the prime ministers of Croatia, Slovakia and Slovenia.
Russian troops occupied Bucha weeks after they invaded Ukraine and stayed for about a month. When Ukrainian forces retook the town, they encountered horrific scenes. Over weeks and months, hundreds of bodies were uncovered, including of children.
Russian soldiers, on intercepted phone conversations, called it “zachistka” — cleansing, according to an investigation by The Associated Press and the PBS series “Frontline.”
Such organized cruelty, which Russian troops also employed in other conflicts such as Chechnya, was later repeated in Russia-occupied territories across Ukraine.
Zelensky handed out medals to soldiers, police officers, doctors, teachers and emergency workers in Bucha, as well as to the families of two soldiers killed during the defense of the Kyiv region.
“Ukrainian people, you have stopped the biggest anti-human force of our times,” he said. “You have stopped the force which has no respect and wants to destroy everything that gives meaning to human life.”
Ukrainian authorities documented more than 1,400 civilian deaths, including 37 children, in the Bucha district, and more than 175 people were found in mass graves and alleged torture chambers, Zelensky said. Ukraine and other countries, including the US, have demanded that Russia answer for war crimes.
Among the civilians killed was 69-year-old Valerii Kyzylov, whose wife survived but for whom the horrors inflicted on Bucha, her home town, are still raw.
“I remember everything like it was yesterday,” she said, twisting a handkerchief in her hands as she stood at a candle-lit vigil on Friday evening. “A year has passed but I still see it before my eyes.”
She cried as she recounted the horror she endured a year ago. Of Russian troops shooting her husband dead and leaving the body lying in the street for days. Of the Russian soldiers taking over her house, where she was forced to live in the basement. They would bring other civilians to the basement, she said, some with bags over their heads, and they would decide there whom to execute and whom to allow to live.
“I lived with my husband for 47 years. We have two children. We had such a nice family,” she said, weeping. “This pain is so great. He was so beautiful. He was killed for nothing.”
Prosecutor General Andriy Kostin alleged Friday that many of the dead civilians were tortured. Almost 100 Russian soldiers are suspected of war crimes, he said on his Telegram channel, and indictments have been issued for 35 of them.
A Ukrainian court has sentenced two Russian servicemen to 12 years in prison for illegally depriving civilians of liberty, and for looting.
“I am convinced that all these crimes are not a coincidence. This is part of Russia’s planned strategy aimed at destroying Ukraine as a state and Ukrainians as a nation,” Kostin said.
In Geneva, the UN human rights chief said his office has verified the deaths of more than 8,400 civilians in Ukraine since Russia’s invasion — a count believed to be far short of the true toll. Volker Türk told the UN Human Rights Council that “severe violations of human rights and international humanitarian law have become shockingly routine” during Russia’s invasion.
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Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, along with announcing the possibility of the deployment of Russian strategic nuclear weapons in his country, called for a cease-fire in Ukraine. A truce, he said in his state-of-the-nation address in Minsk, must be announced without any preconditions, and all movement of troops and weapons must be halted.
“It’s necessary to stop now, before an escalation begins,” Lukashenko said, adding that an anticipated Ukrainian counteroffensive using Western-supplied weapons would bring “an irreversible escalation of the conflict.”
But Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov responded that Russia has to keep fighting, again claiming that Ukraine has rejected any talks under pressure from its Western allies.
Peskov also dismissed remarks by Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán that the European Union was mulling the deployment of peacekeeping troops to Ukraine, calling that “extremely dangerous.”
Russia has maintained its bombardment of Ukraine, with the war already in its second year. Along with the two civilians killed Friday, 14 others were wounded as Russia launched missiles, shells, exploding drones and gliding bombs, the Ukraine presidential office said.
Two Russian missiles hit the eastern city of Kramatorsk, damaging eight residential buildings, the office said. Nine missiles struck Kharkiv, damaging residential buildings, roads, gas stations and a prison, while Russian forces shelled the southern city and region of Kherson. A barrage at Zaporizhzhia and its outskirts caused major fires.
In the battered front-line town of Avdiivka in eastern Ukraine, a baby and adult were killed in Russian shelling, according to the presidential office. Before the Russian invasion, about 25,000 people lived in Avdiivka. About 2,000 civilians remain.
Ukrainian soldiers in Kharkiv have a clear vision of danger and glory alike
Local commander appreciates weapons donations, says troops lack technical skills and expertise to operate them
Loss of homes and livelihoods proved too much to bear for those who remained during Russian control
Updated 01 April 2023
KHARKIV: In Kostyantynivka, an industrial city in Donetsk, eastern Ukraine, just 20 kilometers southwest of the Bakhmut front line, local and foreign recruits train under the watchful eye of Oleksandr, commander of the Aidar Battalion, an assault unit of the Ukrainian Ground Forces.
Oleksandr, a handsome man in his 30s, has been a soldier since 2014, joining up shortly after his girlfriend’s father was taken captive by Russian-backed forces that same year. Since then, his prowess as a leader on the battlefield has seen him promoted to the rank of commander.
“I know how the enemy operates by now; their strategy is to create confusion and chaos. We run ours by critical thinking, by going over our mistakes and learning from them to do better in the next battle,” he told Arab News at the unit’s local barracks.
“We have been successful in most if not all of our battles, but we need more. We need more weapons, we need more drones, we need more support. We have been trying to produce our own weapons but it is not enough.”
Bakhmut has been the site of some of the bloodiest fighting since Russia launched what it called a “special military operation” on Feb. 24, 2022.
The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights has verified a total of 8,317 civilian deaths during the invasion of Ukraine as of March 19. Furthermore, 13,892 people were reported to have been injured. However, the numbers could be higher.
According to recent estimates, the conflict has wounded or killed 180,000 Russian soldiers and 100,000 Ukrainian troops. Other Western sources estimate the war has caused 150,000 casualties on each side.
Russian armed forces and the Wagner Group — a private military contractor which has recruited from Russia’s jails — sent a massive land force to capture the region, stretching Ukrainian ammunition to the limit.
“We see the Russian soldiers trying to emulate our strategy,” said Oleksandr. “The Wagner soldiers consist of former convicts and drug addicts. They are running low on recruit numbers and have been relying on prisons to fill in their ranks.”
In their attempt to punch through Ukrainian lines, Russian forces have been using a technique known as the “fox den” strategy, in which a grenade is attached to a drone and dropped into Ukrainian trenches from above.
Nevertheless, Russian losses on this stretch of the battlefield have been high, with an attrition rate more severe than that of the Ukrainian defenders. “We do not underestimate our enemy, but they keep making the same mistakes. I have a feeling they do not learn,” said Oleksandr.
“Russian walkie talkies have fallen into our possession. What we heard shows they’re stubborn. Their generals don’t care how — the command is to get the job done no matter what, no matter the cannon fodder.”
NATO’s member states have been supplying Ukraine with modern battle tanks and other high-tech weaponry, supplementing the old Soviet-era technology that has long been the mainstay of Ukraine’s war effort.
Oleksandr says he appreciates the weapons donations, but says his troops still lack the technical skills and expertise to operate, maintain and repair the new gear. “Regardless, we will never surrender,” he said.
The Aidar Battalion came to prominence in recent months thanks to its social media activity, clocking up some 4.5 million subscribers on its TikTok account.
Known as the “dancing soldiers,” short videos of its personnel performing traditional dances in full battle dress have become a source of inspiration and a morale boost for the wider Ukrainian armed forces and the public at large.
“You need to find a way to have fun, or else you won’t survive,” said Oleksandr. “I also make videos for my daughter, so she can see what her father is doing.”
Further to the northwest, in the Kharkiv region, the Kharkiv Territorial Defense Battalion is dug in along the barren landscape, with deep trenches and sandbags piled high to protect its personnel from enemy fire.
Most of the region was retaken from Russian forces in September 2022 during a massive Ukrainian counteroffensive, in what was viewed at the time as a significant turning point in the war. However, this momentum has since been lost, resulting in a bitter stalemate.
The months of fighting across this wide front left unfathomable carnage in its wake, with homes and businesses reduced to rubble and farmland churned up and left fallow.
“The Russians destroyed everything,” Yuriy, a local man in his 40s, told Arab News at his now-disused farm in Kharkiv. “We let our animals free from our barn to give them the chance to survive. Some I believe are still alive near the river.”
Many local families have chosen to leave the area for the comparative safety of western Ukraine and neighboring countries. For those who remained during the months of Russian control, the loss of homes and livelihoods proved too much to bear.
“The building housed my parents, myself and my brother,” said Yuriy, pointing to his family’s damaged farmhouse.
“My father died of a heart attack. The conditions the Russians put us under didn’t aid his ailment. He couldn’t withstand it. He passed away. My mother and brother have relocated. I still return here from time to time.
“I don’t know where to start to rebuild. I think this will be the last time I am here.”
Despite their stalled progress, the Ukrainian armed forces stationed here remain in high spirits, but ever vigilant, their weapons trained on the horizon for signs of enemy activity.
“We are here to protect the border,” one soldier, who went by the nom de guerre “The Director,” told Arab News from his underground bunker.
“The shelling is the hardest to get used to, but we are here to protect our motherland. The shift keeps rotating and we are always on the lookout. There is no way back from here. We have enough food and warm clothes but we need more weapons. The Russians are not welcome here and we will not stop till we defeat them.”
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Several of the men serving in The Director’s battalion had little or no combat experience prior to their deployment, working as lawyers, teachers and civil servants, yet all have quickly adapted to their new realities. Few have seen their families in months.
“I took my children and wife to safety, but this is my town,” Ihor Reznik, commander of the Kharkiv Territorial Brigade, told Arab News. “We made it through hard battles. Now there is random shelling and we try to respond adequately. We need drones for survey and we need proper armored vehicles.”
Reznik’s daughter Anna, aged 25, serves in the Kharkiv Territorial Defense Battalion’s 127th Brigade. Before the war, she studied mathematics and computer science at a university in France.
Although she was close to graduation, she chose to quit her studies in order to join her father’s brigade, where she now serves as a military photographer for its press department.
“It’s always been a hobby, but now it is my way of serving in this war,” she told Arab News. “At the beginning, my parents were against it, but came to understand it was my decision. I need to document what is happening.”
And although she has frequently found herself in life-threatening situations while working in the field, she believes her commitment to the cause of documenting the conflict helps her to remain calm while under fire.
“When one has not been faced with such situations, one doesn’t know how to react. But I remain calm,” she said. “The camera is my weapon. No matter how difficult it gets, I never regret my decision. I know I am in the right place at the right time.”
The incidents, on regional passenger rail lines, took place about 30 kilometres apart, north of the Swiss capital Bern
Three people were injured in the first, including the driver, and 12 were injured in the second
Updated 31 March 2023
LUSCHERZ, Switzerland: Fifteen people were injured, including at least one seriously hurt, in two separate train derailments that happened in quick succession Friday in stormy wind in northwestern Switzerland, police said.
The incidents, on regional passenger rail lines, took place about 30 kilometers apart, north of the Swiss capital Bern.
Three people were injured in the first, including the driver, and 12 were injured in the second, with wind speeds of 136 kilometers per hour recorded nearby.
The first incident happened at the lakeside village of Luscherz at around 4:30 p.m. (1430 GMT), police said. The train had 16 people on board.
“While a strong wind was blowing... the front carriage of the train overturned on the right of the track, slipped down a small embankment for a few meters and finally came to a halt,” Bern cantonal police said in a statement.
“Three people, including the driver in the overturned carriage, were injured, treated by four ambulance teams and taken to hospital.”
The front carriage of the two-carriage train could be seen lying on its right side off the single-line track, on the grass verge between a path that runs alongside the railway line and a plowed field.
Workers in orange workwear and hard hats were at the scene, with a ladder placed alongside the carriage so they could reach the upturned left side. Firefighters helped to get people out.
The rear carriage rolled on for a few meters before coming to a stop.
A power mast was damaged, putting the line out of action.
“An investigation has been opened to determine the circumstances and causes of the accident,” police said.
The second derailment took place around 20 minutes later in the village of Buren zum Hof.
Bern police spokeswoman Magdalena Rast told SRF public television that nine adults and three children were injured, with the police tweeting earlier that there was “at least one seriously injured person.”
The RBS regional rail operator said some services had been suspended “as a result of the storm.”
A spokeswoman said the accident could have been due to the high winds but “it’s not clear.”
Switzerland is renowned for its extensive and punctual rail network, with frequent services between cities, towns and even villages.
Rail enthusiasts come from all over the world to ride on some of the most picturesque routes, or those with exceptionally steep climbs.
Recent figures from the Swiss Federal Statistical Office show that in 2021 eight people lost their lives in Swiss rail accidents and 47 were seriously injured. Most of those hurt were on the tracks.
There were 88 separate accidents, of which 53 resulted in serious injury.
“Overall, the number of victims of rail accidents has fallen significantly in recent decades, despite an increase in transport services,” the office said.
At least 9 killed in Pakistan Ramadan donation stampede
Fida Janwari, a senior police officer, said the stampede happened when needy women with children flocked to a factory distributing alms
The bodies of six women and three children were brought to the Abbasi Shaheed state hospital
Updated 31 March 2023
KARACHI: At least nine people were killed in a crowd crush in Pakistan’s southern city of Karachi Friday as a Ramadan alms donation sparked a stampede in the inflation-hit nation, officials said.
Pakistan has been wracked by economic turmoil for months, with the rupee crumbling and staple food prices shooting up nearly 50 percent as the country battles a balance of payments crisis which has forced it into bail-out talks with the International Monetary Fund (IMF).
Fida Janwari, a senior police officer in western Karachi’s Baldia Town neighborhood, said the stampede happened when needy women with children flocked to a factory distributing alms.
“Panic struck and people started running,” he told AFP.
The bodies of six women and three children were brought to the Abbasi Shaheed state hospital, spokesman Muhammad Farraukh said.
An official for the Rescue NGO told AFP an additional two bodies were sent to another hospital in the city.
Asma Ahmed, 30, said her grandmother and niece were among the dead.
“We come every year to the factory for the Zakat,” she said, using the Islamic term for alms.
“They started beating the women with clubs and pushing them,” Ahmed added. “There was chaos everywhere.”
“Why did they call us if they couldn’t manage it?” she asked.
Janwari said three factory employees were arrested after failing to inform police of the donation event in order to organize crowd control.
Last week, on the first day of Ramadan — when Muslims traditionally make donations to the poor — one person was killed and eight others injured in a stampede for flour in northwestern Pakistan.
Pakistan’s finances have been hobbled by decades of financial mismanagement and political chaos. The situation has been exacerbated by the global energy crisis caused by the war in Ukraine, and crippling monsoon floods last year which submerged a third of the country.
The South Asian nation — home to 220 million — is deep in debt and must enact tough tax reforms and push up utility prices if it hopes to unlock another tranche of a $6.5 billion IMF bail-out and avoid defaulting.