‘Loose Ends’ provides closure one project at a time

When a person dies, it often falls to their children, loved ones, lawyers or even friends to sort through the things they’ve left behind. Sometimes, those things are unfinished projects or hobbies, that’s where the group Loose Ends comes in. Nina Vishneva has the story, narrated by Anna Rice.

African beats entice China and US investors

Africa’s entertainment industry is another stage where global competition between China and the U.S. is playing out. African artists see it as an opportunity. Kate Bartlett has the details from Johannesburg. Camera and video editing by Zaheer Cassim.

Mary J. Blige, Cher, Ozzy Osbourne, others picked for Rock Hall of Fame

new york — Mary J. Blige,Cher, Foreigner, A Tribe Called Quest, Kool & The Gang and Ozzy Osbourne have been inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, a class that also includes folk-rockers Dave Matthews Band and singer-guitarist Peter Frampton.

Alexis Korner, John Mayall and Big Mama Thornton earned the Musical Influence Award, while the late Jimmy Buffett, MC5, Dionne Warwick and Norman Whitfield will get the Musical Excellence Award. Pioneering music executive Suzanne de Passe won the Ahmet Ertegun Award.

“Rock ‘n’ roll is an ever-evolving amalgam of sounds that impacts culture and moves generations,” John Sykes, chairman of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame Foundation, said in a statement. “This diverse group of inductees each broke down musical barriers and influenced countless artists that followed in their footsteps.”

The induction ceremony will be held October 19 at the Rocket Mortgage Fieldhouse in the city of Cleveland in the U.S. state of Ohio. It will stream live on Disney+ with an airing on ABC at a later date and available on Hulu the next day.

The music acts nominated this year but didn’t make the cut included Mariah Carey, Lenny Kravitz, the late Sinead O’Connor, soul-pop singer Sade, Britpoppers Oasis, hip-hop duo Eric B. & Rakim, and alt-rockers Jane’s Addiction.

There had been a starry push to get Foreigner — with the hits “Urgent” and Hot Blooded” — into the hall, with Mark Ronson, Jack Black, Slash, Dave Grohl and Paul McCartney all publicly backing the move. Ronson’s stepfather is Mick Jones, Foreigner’s founding member, songwriter and lead guitarist.

Osbourne, who led many parents in the 1980s to clutch their pearls with his devil imagery and sludgy music, goes in as a solo artist, having already been inducted into the hall with metal masters Black Sabbath.

Four of the eight nominees — Cher, Foreigner, Frampton and Kool & the Gang — were on the ballot for the first time.

Cher — the only artist to have a Number 1 song in each of the past six decades — and Blige, with eight multi-platinum albums and nine Grammy Awards, will help boost the number of women in the hall, which critics say is too low.

Artists must have released their first commercial recording at least 25 years before they’re eligible for induction.

Nominees were voted on by more than 1,000 artists, historians and music industry professionals. Fans voted online or in person at the museum, with the top five artists picked by the public making up a “fans’ ballot” that was tallied with the other professional ballots.

Last year, Missy Elliott, Willie Nelson, Sheryl Crow, Chaka Khan, “Soul Train” creator Don Cornelius, Kate Bush, and the late George Michael were some of the artists who got into the hall.

Ukraine’s salt mines become explorable in Minecraft game 

A Ukrainian version of the Minecraft game features Canadian actress Katheryn Winnick, U.S. astronaut Scott Kelly, and other celebrities from around the globe. The new game, called Minesalt, is based on Ukraine’s famous Soledar salt mines. Anna Kosstutschenko reports. Camera: Pavel Suhodolskiy.

‘Civil War’ continues box-office campaign at No. 1  

New York — “Civil War,” Alex Garland’s ominous American dystopia, remained the top film in theaters in its second week of release, according to studio estimates Sunday.

The A24 election-year gamble, the indie studio’s biggest budgeted film yet, took in $11.1 million in ticket sales at 3,929 theaters over the weekend. The $50 million film, set in a near-future U.S. in which Texas and California have joined in rebellion against a fascist president, has grossed $44.9 million in two weeks.

Its provocative premise — and A24’s marketing, which included images of U.S. cities ravaged by war — helped keep “Civil War” top of mind for moviegoers.

But it was a painfully slow weekend in theaters — the kind sure to add to concern over what’s thus far been a down year for Hollywood at the box office.

Going into the weekend, Universal Pictures’ “Abigail,” a critically acclaimed R-rated horror film about the daughter of Dracula, had been expected to lead ticket sales. It came in second with $10.2 million in 3,384 theaters.

That was still a fair result for a film that cost a modest $28 million to make. “Abigail,” which remakes the 1936 monster film “Dracula’s Daughter,” is about a 12-year-old girl taken by kidnappers who soon realize they’ve made a poor choice of hostage. It’s directed by the duo Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett whose production company goes by the name Radio Silence.

More concerning was the overall tepid response for a handful of new wide releases — and the likelihood that there will be more similar weekends throughout 2024. Last year’s actors and writers’ strikes, which had a prolonged effect on the movie pipeline, exacerbated holes in Hollywood’s release schedule.

Horror films, in recent years among the most reliable cash cows in theaters, also haven’t thus far been doing the automatic business they previously did. According to David A. Gross, who runs the consulting firm Franchise Entertainment Research, horror releases accounted for $2 billion in worldwide sales in 2023.

Guy Ritchie’s “The Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare” debuted with $9 million in 2,845 theaters. In the based-on-a-true-story Lionsgate release, which reportedly cost $60 million to produce, Henry Cavill leads a World War II mission off the coast of West Africa.

Though Ritchie has been behind numerous box-office hits, including the live-action “Aladdin” and a pair of Sherlock Holmes films, his recent movies have struggled to find big audiences. The Lionsgate spy comedy “Operation Fortune: Ruse de Guerre” grossed $48 million against a $50 million budget, while MGM’s “The Covenant,” also released last year, made $21 million while costing $55 million to make.

A bright sign for “The Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare” — audiences liked it. The film earned an A-minus CinemaScore.

The anime “Spy x Family Code: White,” from Sony’s Crunchyroll, also struggled to stand out with audiences. Though the adaptation of the Tatsuya Endo manga TV series “Spy x Family” has already been a hit with international moviegoers, it debuted below expectations with $4.9 million in 2,009 U.S. theaters.

The mightiest film globally, though, continues to be “Godzilla x Kong: The New Empire.” The Warner Bros. monster movie has for the past month led worldwide ticket sales. It added another $9.5 million domestically and $21.6 million internationally to bring its four-week global total to $485.2 million.

Estimated ticket sales for Friday through Sunday at U.S. and Canadian theaters, according to Comscore. Final domestic figures will be released Monday.

 

  1. “Civil War,” $11.1 million.

  2. “Abigail,” $10.2 million.

  3. “Godzilla x Kong: The New Empire,” $9.5 million.

  4. “The Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare,” $9 million.

  5. “Spy x Family Code: White,” $4.9 million.

  6. “Kung Fu Panda 4,” $4.6 million.

  7. “Ghostbusters: Frozen Empire,” $4.4 million.

  8. “Dune: Part Two,” $2.9 million.

  9. “Monkey Man,” $2.2 million.

  10. “The First Omen,” $1.7 million.

Israelis grapple with how to celebrate Passover while many remain captive

JERUSALEM — Every year, Alon Gat’s mother led the family’s Passover celebration of the liberation of the ancient Israelites from Egypt thousands of years ago. But this year, Gat is struggling with how to reconcile a holiday commemorating freedom after his mother was slain and other family members abducted when Hamas attacked Israel.

Gat’s sister, Carmel, and wife, Yarden Roman-Gat, were taken hostage in the October 7 attack. His wife was freed in November, but his sister remains captive.

“We can’t celebrate our freedom because we don’t have this freedom. Our brothers and sisters and mothers and fathers are still in captivity and we need to release them,” Gat said.

On Monday, Jews around the world will begin celebrating the weeklong Passover holiday, recounting the biblical story of their exodus from Egypt after hundreds of years of slavery. But for many Israelis, it’s hard to fathom a celebration of freedom when friends and family are not free.

The Hamas attack killed some 1,200 people, while about 250 others were taken hostage. About half were released in a weeklong cease-fire in November, while the rest remain in Gaza, more than 30 of them believed to be dead.

For many Jews, Passover is a time to reunite with family and recount the exodus from Egypt at a meal known as the Seder. Observant Jews avoid grains, known as chametz, a reminder of the unleavened bread the Israelites ate when they fled Egypt quickly with no time for dough to rise.

But this year many families are torn about how — or even if — to celebrate.

When Hamas attacked Kibbutz Be’eri, Gat, his wife, 3-year-old daughter, parents and sister hid for hours in their rocket-proof safe room. But fighters entered the house and killed or abducted everyone inside, except for his father who hid in the bathroom. His mother was dragged into the street and shot.

Gat, his arms and legs bound, was shoved into a car with his wife and daughter. During a brief stop, they managed to flee. Knowing he could run faster, Roman-Gat handed him their daughter. Gat escaped with her, hiding in a ditch for nearly nine hours. His wife was recaptured and held in Gaza for 54 days.

Passover this year will be more profound as freedom has taken on a new meaning, Roman-Gat told The Associated Press.

“To feel wind upon your face with your eyes closed. To shower. To go to the toilet without permission, and with the total privacy and privilege to take as long as I please with no one urging me, waiting for me at the other side to make sure I’m still theirs,” she said in a text message.

Still, Passover will be overshadowed by deep sorrow and worry for her sister-in-law and the other hostages, she said. The family will mark the holiday with a low-key dinner in a restaurant, without celebration.

As hard as it is in times of pain, Jews have always sought to observe holidays during persecution, such as in concentration camps during the Holocaust, said Rabbi Martin Lockshin, professor emeritus at Canada’s York University, who lives in Jerusalem.

“They couldn’t celebrate freedom but they could celebrate the hope of freedom,” he said.

The crisis affects more than the hostage families. The war, in which 260 soldiers have been killed, casts a shadow over a normally joyous holiday. The government has also scaled back festivities for Independence Day in May in light of the mood and fearing public protests.

Likewise, the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, capped by the three-day Eid al-Fitr feast, was a sad, low-key affair for Palestinians. Over 80% of Gaza’s 2.3 million people have been displaced by the fighting, and Hamas health officials say nearly 34,000 people have been killed in the Israeli offensive.

The scenes of suffering, devastation and hunger in Gaza have received little attention in Israel, where much of the public and national media remain heavily focused on the aftermath of the October 7 attack and ongoing war.

After several months of fits and starts, negotiations on a deal to release the remaining hostages appears at a standstill — making it unlikely they will be home for Passover.

The hostages’ pain has reverberated around the world, with some in the Jewish diaspora asking rabbis for prayers specifically for the hostages and Israel to be said at this year’s Seder. Others have created a new Haggadah, the book read during the Seder, to reflect the current reality.

Noam Zion, the author of the new Haggadah, has donated 6,000 copies to families impacted by the war.

“The Seder is supposed to help us to relive past slavery and liberation from Egypt and to learn its lessons, but in 2024 it must also ask contemporary questions about the confusing and traumatic present and most important, generate hope for the future,” said Zion, emeritus member of the faculty of Jewish studies at the Hartman Institute in Jerusalem.

The revised Haggadah includes excerpts from hostage families urging people not to hate despite their pain. It offers a guide for navigating the mixed feelings during the holiday, while posing existential questions about the Jews and the state of Israel.

Some families say it’s too painful to celebrate at all.

The girlfriend of Nirit Lavie Alon’s son was abducted from the Nova music festival. Two months later the family was informed by Israel’s military that Inbar Haiman, a 27-year-old graffiti artist, was dead, her body still in Gaza.

“It’s impossible to celebrate a freedom holiday,” said Alon. Instead of being with family this year, she’s going to spend a few days in the desert. There will be no closure until all of the hostages are back, including the remains of those who were killed, she said.

Ahead of Passover, some families are still holding out hope their relatives will be freed in time.

Shlomi Berger’s 19-year-old daughter, Agam, was abducted two days after the start of her army service along the border with Gaza.

Videos of her bloodied face emerged shortly after the Hamas attack, one showing an armed man pushing her into a truck, another showing her inside the vehicle with other hostages. The only proof of life he’s had since was a call from a released hostage, wishing him happy birthday from Agam, who she’d been with in the tunnels, he said.

Still, he refuses to give up hope.

“The Passover story says we come from slaves to free people, so this is a parallel story,” Berger said. “This is the only thing I believe that will happen. That Agam will get out from darkness to light. She and all of the other hostages.”

US beach aims to disrupt Black students’ spring bash after ’23 chaos

TYBEE ISLAND, Georgia — Thousands of Black college students expected this weekend for an annual spring bash at the largest public beach in the U.S. state of Georgia will be greeted by dozens of extra police officers and barricades closing off neighborhood streets. While the beach will remain open, officials are blocking access to nearby parking.

Tybee Island east of Savannah has grappled with the April beach party known as Orange Crush since students at Savannah State University, a historically Black school, started it more than 30 years ago. Residents regularly groused about loud music, trash littering the sand and revelers urinating in yards.

Those complaints boiled over into fear and outrage a year ago when weekend crowds of up to 48,000 people daily overwhelmed the 4.8-kilometer island. That left a small police force scrambling to handle a flood of emergency calls reporting gunfire, drug overdoses, traffic jams and fistfights.

Mayor Brian West, elected last fall by Tybee Island’s 3,100 residents, said roadblocks and added police aren’t just for limiting crowds. He hopes the crackdown will drive Orange Crush away for good.

“This has to stop. We can’t have this crowd anymore,” West said. “My goal is to end it.”

Critics say local officials are overreacting and appear to be singling out Black visitors to a Southern beach that only white people could use until 1963. They note Tybee Island attracts vast crowds for the Fourth of July and other summer weekends when visitors are largely white, as are 92% of the island’s residents.

“Our weekends are packed with people all season, but when Orange Crush comes, they shut down the parking, bring extra police and act like they have to take charge,” said Julia Pearce, one of the island’s few Black residents and leader of a group called the Tybee MLK Human Rights Organization. She added: “They believe Black folks to be criminals.”

During the week, workers placed metal barricades to block off parking meters and residential streets along the main road parallel to the beach. Two large parking lots near a popular pier are being closed. And Tybee Island’s roughly two dozen police officers will be augmented by about 100 sheriff’s deputies, Georgia state troopers and other officers.

Security plans were influenced by tactics used last month to reduce crowds and violence at spring break in Miami Beach, which was observed by Tybee Island’s police chief.

Officials insist they’re acting to avoid a repeat of last year’s Orange Crush party, which they say became a public safety crisis with crowds at least double their typical size.

“To me, it has nothing to do with race,” said West, who believes city officials previously haven’t taken a stronger stand against Orange Crush because they feared being called racist. “We can’t let that be a reason to let our citizens be unsafe and so we’re not.”

Tybee Island police reported 26 total arrests during Orange Crush last year. Charges included one armed robbery with a firearm, four counts of fighting in public and five DUIs. Two officers reported being pelted with bottles, and two women told police they were beaten and robbed of a purse.

On a gridlocked highway about a mile off the island, someone fired a gun into a car and injured one person. Officials blamed the shooting on road rage.

Orange Crush’s supporters and detractors alike say it’s not college students causing the worst problems.

Joshua Miller, a 22-year-old Savannah State University senior who plans to attend this weekend, said he wouldn’t be surprised if the crackdown was at least partly motivated by race.

“I don’t know what they have in store,” Miller said. “I’m not going down there with any ill intent. I’m just going out there to have fun.”

Savannah Mayor Van Johnson was one of the Black students from Savannah State who helped launch Orange Crush in 1988. The university dropped involvement in the 1990s, and Johnson said that over time the celebration “got off the rails.” But he also told reporters he’s concerned about “over-representation of police” at the beach party.

At Nickie’s 1971 Bar & Grill near the beach, general manager Sean Ensign said many neighboring shops and eateries will close for Orange Crush though his will stay open, selling to-go food orders like last year. But with nearby parking spaces closed, Ensign said his profits might take a hit, “possibly a few thousand dollars.”

It’s not the first time Tybee Island has targeted the Black beach party. In 2017, the city council banned alcohol and amplified music on the beach only during Orange Crush weekend. A discrimination complaint to the U.S. Justice Department resulted in city officials signing a non-binding agreement to impose uniform rules for large events.

West says Orange Crush is different because it’s promoted on social media by people who haven’t obtained permits. A new state law lets local governments recoup public safety expenses from organizers of unpermitted events.

In February, Britain Wigfall was denied an permit for space on the island for food trucks during Orange Crush. The mayor said Wigfall has continued to promote events on the island.

Wigfall, 30, said he’s promoting a concert this weekend in Savannah, but nothing on Tybee Island involving Orange Crush.

“I don’t control it,” Wigfall said. “Nobody controls the date that people go down there.”

Roller derby is a safe space with sharp elbows

Roller derby is a fast-paced, hard-hitting sport played on roller skates and dominated by women. VOA’s Genia Dulot takes us out to the skating rink with competitors from the Angel City Derby league in Los Angeles.

Allman Brothers Band co-founder and legendary guitarist Dickey Betts dies at 80

Gun supervisor gets 18 months in prison for fatal movie set shooting by Alec Baldwin

santa fe, new mexico — A movie weapons supervisor was sentenced to 18 months in prison in the fatal shooting of a cinematographer by Alec Baldwin on the set of the Western film “Rust,” during a hearing Monday in which tearful family members and friends gave testimonials that included calls for justice and a punishment that would instill greater accountability for safety on film sets.

Movie armorer Hannah Gutierrez-Reed was convicted in March by a jury on a charge of involuntary manslaughter in the death of cinematographer Halyna Hutchins and has been held for more than a month at a county jail on the outskirts of Santa Fe.

Prosecutors blamed Gutierrez-Reed for unwittingly bringing live ammunition onto the set of “Rust” where it was expressly prohibited and for failing to follow basic gun safety protocols.

Gutierrez-Reed was unsuccessful in her plea for a lesser sentencing, telling the judge she was not the monster that people have made her out to be and that she had tried to do her best on the set despite not having “proper time, resources and staffing.”

Baldwin, the lead actor and co-producer for “Rust,” was pointing a gun at Hutchins during a rehearsal on a movie set outside Santa Fe in October 2021 when the revolver went off, killing Hutchins and wounding director Joel Souza.

Baldwin has pleaded not guilty to a charge of involuntary manslaughter. He is scheduled for trial in July at a courthouse in Santa Fe.

The sentence against Gutierrez-Reed was delivered by New Mexico Judge Mary Marlowe Summer, who is overseeing proceedings against Baldwin. The judge said anything less than the maximum sentence would not be appropriate given that Gutierrez-Reed’s recklessness amounted to a serious violent offense.

“You were the armorer, the one that stood between a safe weapon and a weapon that could kill someone,” the judge told Gutierrez-Reed. “You alone turned a safe weapon into a lethal weapon. But for you, Ms. Hutchins would be alive, a husband would have his partner and a little boy would have his mother.”

 

Gutierrez-Reed teared up as Hutchins’ agent, Craig Mizrahi, spoke about the cinematographer’s creativity and described her as a rising star in Hollywood. He said it was a chain of events that led to Hutchins’ death and that had the armorer been doing her job, that chain would have been broken.

Los Angeles-based attorney Gloria Allred read a statement by Hutchins’ mother, Olga Solovey, who said her life had been split in two and that time didn’t heal, rather it only prolonged her pain and suffering. A video of a tearful Solovey, who lives in Ukraine, also was played for the court.

“It’s the hardest thing to lose a child. There’s no words to describe,” Solovey said in her native language.

Defense attorneys for Gutierrez-Reed requested leniency in sentencing — including a possible conditional discharge that would avoid further jail time and leave an adjudication of guilt off her record if certain conditions are met.

Gutierrez-Reed was acquitted at trial of allegations she tampered with evidence in the “Rust” investigation. She also has pleaded not guilty to a separate felony charge that she allegedly carried a gun into a bar in Santa Fe where firearms are prohibited.

Defense attorneys have highlighted Gutierrez-Reed’s relatively young age “and the devastating effect a felony will have on her life going forward.”

They said the 26-year-old will forever be affected negatively by intense publicity associated with her prosecution in parallel with an A-list actor, and has suffered from anxiety, fear and depression as a result.

Special prosecutor Kari Morrissey urged the judge to impose the maximum prison sentence and designate Gutierrez-Reed as a “serious violent offender” to limit her eligibility for a sentence reduction later, describing the defendant’s behavior on the set of “Rust” as exceptionally reckless.

Defense attorneys argued Monday that Gutierrez-Reed was remorseful and had breakdowns over Hutchins’ death. They also pointed to systemic problems that led to the shooting.

“Rust” assistant director and safety coordinator Dave Halls last year pleaded no contest to negligent handling of a firearm and completed a sentence of six months unsupervised probation. “Rust” props master Sarah Zachry, who shared some responsibilities over firearms on the set of “Rust,” signed an agreement with prosecutors to avoid prosecution in return with her cooperation.

At birthplace of Olympics, performers at flame-lighting ceremony feel a pull of ancient past

ANCIENT OLYMPIA, Greece — No one knows what music in ancient Greece sounded like or how dancers once moved.

Every two years, a new interpretation of the ancient performance gets a global audience. It takes place in southern Greece at a site many still consider sacred: the birthplace of the Olympic Games.

Forty-eight performers, chosen in part for their resemblance to youths in antiquity as seen in statues and other surviving artwork, will take part Tuesday in the flame-lighting ceremony for the Paris Olympics. 

Details of the 30-minute performance are fine-tuned — and kept secret — right up until a public rehearsal Monday.

The Associated Press got rare access to rehearsals that took place during weekends, mostly at an Olympic indoor cycling track in Athens. 

As riders whiz around them on the banked cycling oval, the all-volunteer Olympic performers snatch poses from ancient vases. Sequences are repeated and re-repeated under the direction of the hyper-focused head choreographer Artemis Ignatiou.

“In ancient times there was no Olympic flame ceremony,” Ignatiou said during a recent practice session.

“My inspiration comes from temple pediments, from images on vases, because there is nothing that has been preserved — no movement, no dance — from antiquity,” she said. “So basically, what we are doing is joining up those images. Everything in between comes from us.”

Ceremonies take place at Olympia every two years for the Winter and Summer Games, with the sun’s rays focused on the inside of a parabolic mirror to produce the Olympic flame and start the torch relay to the host city.

Women dressed as priestesses are at the heart of the ceremony, first held for the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. Leading the group is an actress who performs the role of high priestess and makes a dramatic appeal to Apollo, the ancient god of the sun, for assistance moments before the torch is lit.

Over the decades, new ingredients have been progressively added: music, choreography, new colors for the costumes, male performers known as “kouroi” and subtle style inclusions to give a nod to the culture of the Olympic host nation.

Adding complexity also has introduced controversy, inevitably amplified by social media. Criticism this year has centered on the dresses and tunics to be worn by the performers, styled to resemble ancient Greek columns. Faultfinders have called it a rude departure from the ceremony’s customary elegance.

Organizers hope the attire will create a more positive impression when witnessed at the ruins of ancient Olympia.

Counting out the sequences, Ignatiou controls the music with taps on her cell phone while keeping track of the male dancers at the velodrome working on a stop motion-like routine and women who glide past them like a slowly uncoiling spring.

Ignatiou has been involved with the ceremony for 36 years, as priestess, high priestess, assistant and then head choreographer since 2008. She takes in the criticism with composure.

She’s still moved to tears when describing the flame lighting, but defers to her dancers to describe their experience of the five-month participation at practices.

Most in their early twenties, the performers are selected from dance and drama academies with an eye on maintaining an athletic look and classic Greek aesthetic, the women with hair pulled back in neat double-braids.

Christiana Katsimpraki, a 23-year-old drama school student who is taking part at Olympia for the first time, said she wants to repay the kindness shown to her by older performers.

“Before I go to bed, when I close my eyes, I go through the whole choreography — a run through — to make sure I have all the steps memorized and that they’re in the right order,” she said. “It’s so that the next time I can come to the rehearsal, it all goes correctly and no one gets tired.”

The ceremony is performed to sparse music, and final routine modifications are made at Olympia, in part to cope with the pockmarked and uneven ground at the site.

Dancers describe the fun they have in messaging groups, the good-natured pranks played on newcomers and fun they have on the four-hour bus ride to the ancient site in southern Greece — but also the significance of the moment and the pull of the past.

“I’m in awe that we’re going there and that I’m going to be part of this whole team,” 23-year-old performer Kallia Vouidaski said. “I’m going to have this entire experience that I watched when I was little on TV. I would say, ’Oh! How cool would it be if I could do this at some point.’ And I did it.”

The flame-lighting ceremony will start at 0830 GMT Tuesday. A separate flame-handover ceremony to the Paris 2024 organizing committee will be held in Athens on April 26. 

Cameroon opens museum honoring oldest sub-Saharan kingdom

Foumban, Cameroon — To enter the Museum of the Bamoun Kings in western Cameroon, you have to pass under the fangs of a gigantic two-headed snake — the highlight of an imposing coat of arms of one of the oldest kingdoms in sub-Saharan Africa.

Thousands of Cameroonians gathered in the royal palace square in Foumban on Saturday to celebrate the opening of the Museum of the Bamoun Kings.

Sultan King Mouhammad Nabil Mforifoum Mbombo Njoya welcomed 2,000 guests to the opening of the museum located in Foumban — the historic capital of the Bamoun Kings.

The royal family, descendants of a monarchy that dates back six centuries, attended the event dressed in traditional ceremonial attire with colorful boubous and matching fezzes.

Griot narrators in multicolored boubous played drums and long traditional flutes while palace riflemen fired shots to punctuate the arrival of distinguished guests which included ministers and diplomats.

Then, princes and princesses from the Bamoun chieftaincies performed the ritual Ndjah dance in yellow robes and animal masks.

For Cameroon, such a museum dedicated to the history of a kingdom is “unique in its scope”, Armand Kpoumie Nchare, author of a book about the Bamoun kingdom, told AFP.

“This is one of the rare kingdoms to have managed to exist and remain authentic, despite the presence of missionaries, merchants and colonial administrators,” he said.

The Bamoun kingdom, founded in 1384, is one of the oldest in sub-Saharan Africa.

To honor the Bamoun, the museum was built in the shape of the kingdom’s coat of arms.

A spider, which is over 5,000 square meters (54,000 square feet), sits atop the building while the entrances represent the two-headed serpent.

“This is a festival for the Bamoun people. We’ve come from all over to experience this unique moment,” 50-year-old spectator Ben Oumar said.

“It’s a proud feeling to attend this event. We’ve been waiting for it for a long time,” civil servant Mahamet Jules Pepore said.

The museum contains 12,500 pieces including weapons, pipes and musical instruments — only a few of which were previously displayed in the royal palace.

“It reflects the rich, multi-century creativity of these people, both in terms of craftsmanship and art — Bamoun drawings — as well as the technological innovations of the peasants at various periods: Mills, wine presses etc.,” Nchare said.

Also on display are items from the life of the most famous Bamoun King, Ibrahim Njoya, who reigned from 1889 to 1933 and created Bamoune Script, a writing system that contains over 500 syllabic signs.

The museum exhibits his manuscripts and a corn-grinding machine he invented.

“We pay tribute to a king who was simultaneously a guardian and a pioneer… a way for us to be proud of our past in order to build the future” and “show that Africa is not an importer of thoughts,” Njoya’s great-grandson, the 30-year-old Sultan King Mouhammad said.

To commemorate his grandfather’s work, former Sultan King Ibrahim Mbombo Njoya launched the construction of the museum in 2013 after realizing the palace rooms were too cramped.

The opening of the museum comes months after the Nguon of the Bamoun people, a set of rituals celebrated in a popular annual festival, joined UNESCO’s List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.

 

Coachella heavy on indie rock nostalgia, Taylor Swift buzz

Indio, USA — Coachella day two was heavy on alt-rock throwbacks including a highly anticipated No Doubt reunion, but it was Taylor Swift — who wasn’t on the lineup and didn’t perform — creating buzz on Saturday.

Her mere presence at the mammoth festival in the California desert set the internet alight, after she made a much-speculated appearance… as a fan, canoodling and dancing with beau Travis Kelce as Bleachers performed a rollicking set.

The rock band Bleachers is fronted by Jack Antonoff, Swift’s friend and longtime producer.

Kelce’s blocking skills came in handy as the 6’5″ (1.96 meters) NFL tight end did well to obscure his wildly famous girlfriend from view, as the couple enjoyed the show from just offstage.

Still, an AFP journalist saw the lovebirds twirling and singing along during the performance of Antonoff, who’s co-written and produced several of Swift’s albums.

Fan videos quickly started circulating online. Swift’s cameo comes less than a week before her forthcoming album, “The Tortured Poets Department,” drops on April 19.

Shortly after the Bleachers set Swift and Kelce were caught by fan cameras as they stood in the VIP section for a blazing performance from Ice Spice, the Bronx rapper who collaborated on a remix of Swift’s “Karma.”

The crowd went berserk when Ice Spice shouted out her megastar pal — but the rapper performed “Karma” on her own with a backing track, giving Swift the chance to watch a rendition of her own song from the vantage point of the crowd.

The 34-year-old billionaire is currently on break from her blockbuster Eras tour.

Some fans had speculated Swift might join friend and fellow Antonoff associate Lana Del Rey, who headlined Friday’s opening night.

There’s always next weekend, which is essentially a repeat of the first three days of the festival but usually includes a few shakeups.

Tyler, the Creator was the top-billed act Saturday, bursting onto the stage in flames from inside a camper van that was parked in a set mimicking a desert mountain scene.

The eccentric performer — who sported both Palestinian and Congolese flag pins — invited a number of special guests including Kali Uchis, Childish Gambino and A$AP Rocky.

Doja Cat is on deck to headline Sunday.

Alt-rock roots and Paris Hilton

Coachella started as a rock festival but in recent years it’s leaned increasingly into pop, rap and the Latino megastars who rule the streaming charts.

But Saturday’s lineup offered a portrait of nostalgia: No Doubt — the group fronted by Gwen Stefani — played together for the first time in 15 years.

Stefani, 54, bounded across the stage boasting the vocals of her youth, leading the crowd in singalongs of the group’s classics including “Just A Girl” and “Don’t Speak.”

English rockers Blur also took the stage, while stoner reggae rock group Sublime — the 1990s act beloved for hits including “Santeria” — drew throngs of fans to the main stage for a sunset performance featuring the late frontman Brad Nowell’s son Jakob leading the way.

Vampire Weekend made a last-minute return to the desert, having last performed there more than a decade ago.

The veteran indie rockers whose hits including “Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa” were brought in just last week, and frontman Ezra Koenig, who sported a striped Pogues sweatshirt, told cheering fans he’d been leaning back sipping ranch water — a cocktail of seltzer, tequila and lime — in Texas when he got a text asking if they’d come on board.

The group just released their fifth album, “Only God Was Above Us,” and played a mix of fan favorites and new work, including a 15-minute honky tonk mash-up.

They also randomly brought Paris Hilton onstage to play a quick round of cornhole — a popular North American bean bag-based lawn game — as part of a giveaway of chocolate for front-row fans.

“I haven’t played this game since ‘The Simple Life,'” the cowboy-hat wearing socialite and reality TV icon quipped, a referencing to the cult mid-2000s series she starred in with Nicole Richie.

“Make some noise for ‘The Simple Life!'” yelled Koenig to laughs and applause.

 

Instagram blurring nudity in messages to protect teens, fight sexual extortion

LONDON — Instagram says it’s deploying new tools to protect young people and combat sexual extortion, including a feature that will automatically blur nudity in direct messages.

The social media platform said in a blog post Thursday that it’s testing out the features as part of its campaign to fight sexual scams and other forms of “image abuse,” and to make it tougher for criminals to contact teens.

Sexual extortion, or sextortion, involves persuading a person to send explicit photos online and then threatening to make the images public unless the victim pays money or engages in sexual favors. Recent high-profile cases include two Nigerian brothers who pleaded guilty to sexually extorting teen boys and young men in Michigan, including one who took his own life, and a Virginia sheriff’s deputy who sexually extorted and kidnapped a 15-year-old girl.

Instagram and other social media companies have faced growing criticism for not doing enough to protect young people. Mark Zuckerberg, the CEO of Instagram’s owner Meta Platforms, apologized to the parents of victims of such abuse during a Senate hearing earlier this year.

Meta, which is based in Menlo Park, California, also owns Facebook and WhatsApp but the nudity blur feature won’t be added to messages sent on those platforms.

Instagram said scammers often use direct messages to ask for “intimate images.” To counter this, it will soon start testing out a nudity-protection feature for direct messages that blurs any images with nudity “and encourages people to think twice before sending nude images.”

“The feature is designed not only to protect people from seeing unwanted nudity in their DMs, but also to protect them from scammers who may send nude images to trick people into sending their own images in return,” Instagram said.

The feature will be turned on by default globally for teens under 18. Adult users will get a notification encouraging them to activate it.

Images with nudity will be blurred with a warning, giving users the option to view it. They’ll also get an option to block the sender and report the chat.

For people sending direct messages with nudity, they will get a message reminding them to be cautious when sending “sensitive photos.” They’ll also be informed that they can unsend the photos if they change their mind, but that there’s a chance others may have already seen them.

As with many of Meta’s tools and policies around child safety, critics saw the move as a positive step, but one that does not go far enough.

“I think the tools announced can protect senders, and that is welcome. But what about recipients?” said Arturo Béjar, former engineering director at the social media giant who is known for his expertise in curbing online harassment. He said 1 in 8 teens receives an unwanted advance on Instagram every seven days, citing internal research he compiled while at Meta that he presented in November testimony before Congress. “What tools do they get? What can they do if they get an unwanted nude?”

Béjar said “things won’t meaningfully change” until there is a way for a teen to say they’ve received an unwanted advance, and there is transparency about it.

Instagram said it’s working on technology to help identify accounts that could be potentially be engaging in sexual extortion scams, “based on a range of signals that could indicate sextortion behavior.”

To stop criminals from connecting with young people, it’s also taking measures including not showing the “message” button on a teen’s profile to potential sextortion accounts, even if they already follow each other, and testing new ways to hide teens from these accounts.

In January, the FBI warned of a “huge increase” in sextortion cases targeting children — including financial sextortion, where someone threatens to release compromising images unless the victim pays. The targeted victims are primarily boys between the ages of 14 to 17, but the FBI said any child can become a victim. In the six-month period from October 2022 to March 2023, the FBI saw a more than 20% increase in reporting of financially motivated sextortion cases involving minor victims compared to the same period in the previous year.

As many cities sour on hosting Olympics, Salt Lake City’s enthusiasm endures

SALT LAKE CITY — The International Olympic Committee was effusive Wednesday in its support for a decadeslong effort to bring back the Winter Games to Utah’s capital city in 2034.

Unlike so many other past hosts that have decided bringing back the Games isn’t worth the time, money or hassle, Salt Lake City remains one of the few places where Olympic fever still burns strong. Olympic officials praised the city for preserving facilities and public enthusiasm as they kicked off their final visit ahead of a formal announcement expected this July.

Reminders of the 2002 Winter Games are nestled throughout the city, from a towering cauldron overlooking the valley to an Olympic emblem stamped on manhole covers downtown. Leaving the airport, a can’t-miss arch amid snow-capped mountains shows visitors they’re entering an Olympic city.

Those remnants are part of a long-term strategy Utah leaders launched on the heels of their first Olympics to remind residents that the Games are part of the fabric of their city, and that being a host city is a point of pride.

Olympic officials said they were greeted with such excitement Wednesday that it felt like the 2002 Winter Games never ended.

In the decades since Salt Lake City first opened its nearby slopes to the world’s top winter athletes, the pool of potential hosts has shrunk dramatically. The sporting spectacular is a notorious money pit, and climate change has curtailed the number of sites capable of hosting.

Even though Salt Lake City got caught in a bribery scandal that nearly derailed the 2002 Winter Olympics, it has worked its way back into the good graces of an Olympic committee increasingly reliant on passionate communities as its options dwindle. The city is now a prime candidate if officials eventually form a permanent rotation of host cities, Olympic Games Executive Director Christophe Dubi told reporters.

“We are in an environment here where we look for opportunities more than concerns,” Dubi said. “For the next 10 years, we’re not so much looking at what is challenging, but what are the opportunities to work together.”

The committee was left with only two bid cities for 2022 — Beijing, China, and Almaty, Kazakhstan — after financial, political and public concerns led several European contenders to drop out.

“The International Olympic Committee needs Salt Lake City a lot more than Salt Lake City needs the International Olympic Committee, or the Olympics,” said Jules Boykoff, a sports and politics professor at Pacific University.

For Utah Gov. Spencer Cox, securing the bid is central to his goal of cementing the state as North America’s winter sports capital.

Cox has continued a long-running push by state leaders to beckon professional sports leagues and welcome international events like last year’s NBA All-Star Game that could help burnish its image as a sports and tourism mecca, while chipping away at a lingering stigma that Utah is a bizarre, hyper-religious place.

About half of the state’s 3.4 million residents and the majority of state leaders belong to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, widely known as the Mormon church.

Dave Lunt, a historian at Southern Utah University who teaches about the Olympics, said the Games give members of that faith, and other residents, a chance to clear up misconceptions and share their values with the world.

“Latter-day Saints really just want to be liked. No disrespect or anything, that’s my community, but there’s this history of, we want to show that we fit in, we’re good Americans,” he said. “We’re happy to host the party at our house.”

The 2002 Games, widely regarded as one of the most successful Olympics, brought government funding for a light-rail system and world-class athletic facilities. The city grew rapidly in its wake.

Utah bid leaders declined to release a budget estimate, saying they should be able to provide one next month. But they assured the committee that they could keep costs down by using most of the same venues they’ve spent millions to maintain since 2002. They also touted bipartisan support for hosting in the Democratic capital city of a predominantly Republican state.

With few options remaining for the Olympic committee, Salt Lake City has leverage to dictate terms, Boykoff said. Those can include funds, deadlines and even which sports are included.

And with NBC’s multibillion-dollar broadcasting contract with the Olympic committee set to expire in 2032 — two years before Utah would host — the committee has a vested interest in selecting a U.S. city in a better time zone for live broadcasts to entice U.S.-based broadcasting giants.

Unlike many cities, Salt Lake City residents did not get to vote on whether they wanted another Games, even as leaders say their polling shows more than 80% approval statewide.

Olympic historians say the hype can distract residents from downsides for other hosts, such as gentrification, corruption, rising taxes or empty promises of environmental improvements.

So far, no opposition has formed in Utah.

“If we consider the Olympics a cultural institution,” Lunt said, “maybe it’s worth paying some money if the people of Utah decide that’s important to us, collectively.”

US newsman who created no-frills PBS newscast dies

new york — Robert MacNeil, who created the even-handed, no-frills PBS newscast “The MacNeil-Lehrer NewsHour” in the 1970s and co-anchored the show with his late partner, Jim Lehrer, for two decades, died on Friday. He was 93. 

MacNeil died of natural causes at New York-Presbyterian Hospital, according to his daughter, Alison MacNeil. 

MacNeil first gained prominence for his coverage of the Senate Watergate hearings for the public broadcasting service and began his half-hour “Robert MacNeil Report” on PBS in 1975 with his friend Lehrer as Washington correspondent. 

The broadcast became the “MacNeil-Lehrer Report” and then, in 1983, was expanded to an hour and renamed the “MacNeil-Lehrer NewsHour.” The nation’s first one-hour evening news broadcast, and recipient of several Emmy and Peabody awards, it remains on the air today with Geoff Bennett and Amna Nawaz as anchors. 

It was MacNeil’s and Lehrer’s disenchantment with the style and content of rival news programs on ABC, CBS and NBC that led to the program’s creation. 

“We don’t need to SELL the news,” MacNeil told the Chicago Tribune in 1983. “The networks hype the news to make it seem vital, important. What’s missing [in 22 minutes] is context, sometimes balance, and a consideration of questions that are raised by certain events.” 

MacNeil left anchoring duties at “NewsHour” after two decades in 1995 to write full time. Lehrer took over the newscast alone, and he remained there until 2009. Lehrer died in 2020. 

When MacNeil visited the show in October 2005 to commemorate its 30th anniversary, he reminisced about how their newscast started in the days before cable television. 

“It was a way to do something that seemed to be needed journalistically and yet was different from what the commercial network news (programs) were doing,” he said. 

Wrote memoirs, novels

MacNeil wrote several books, including two memoirs “The Right Place at the Right Time” and the best seller “Wordstruck,” and the novels “Burden of Desire” and “The Voyage.” 

“Writing is much more personal. It is not collaborative in the way that television must be,” MacNeil told The Associated Press in 1995. “But when you’re sitting down writing a novel, it’s just you: Here’s what I think, here’s what I want to do. And it’s me.” 

MacNeil also created the Emmy-winning 1986 series “The Story of English,” with the MacNeil-Lehrer production company, and was co-author of the companion book of the same name. 

Another book on language that he co-wrote, “Do You Speak American?,” was adapted into a PBS documentary in 2005. 

Explored post 9/11 challenges

In 2007, he served as host of “America at a Crossroads,” a six-night PBS package exploring challenges confronting the United States in a post-9/11 world. 

Six years before the 9/11 attacks, discussing sensationalism and frivolity in the news business, he had said: “If something really serious did happen to the nation — a stock market crash like 1929, … the equivalent of a Pearl Harbor — wouldn’t the news get very serious again? Wouldn’t people run from `Hard Copy’ and titillation?” 

“Of course you would. You’d have to know what was going on.” 

That was the case — for a while. 

Born in Montreal in 1931, MacNeil was raised in Halifax, Nova Scotia, and graduated from Carleton University in Ottawa in 1955 before moving to London where he began his journalism career with Reuters. He switched to TV news in 1960, taking a job with NBC in London as a foreign correspondent. 

In 1963, MacNeil was transferred to NBC’s Washington bureau, where he reported on Civil Rights and the White House. He covered the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in Dallas and spent most of 1964 following the presidential campaign between Kennedy’s successor, Lyndon Johnson, and Republican Barry Goldwater. 

In 1965, MacNeil became the New York anchor of the first half-hour weekend network news broadcast, “The Scherer-MacNeil Report” on NBC. While in New York, he also anchored local newscasts and several NBC news documentaries, including “The Big Ear” and “The Right to Bear Arms.” 

MacNeil returned to London in 1967 as a reporter for the British Broadcasting Corp.’s “Panorama” series. While with the BBC, be covered such U.S. stories as the clash between anti-war demonstrators and the Chicago police at the 1968 Democratic Convention, and the funerals of the Reverand Martin Luther King Jr., Senator Robert Kennedy and President Dwight Eisenhower. 

In 1971, MacNeil left the BBC to become a senior correspondent for PBS, where he teamed up with Lehrer to co-anchor public television’s Emmy-winning coverage of the Senate Watergate hearings in 1973. 

Argentinian’s tiny invention changed pizza delivery forever

Sometimes it’s the little ideas that can make the biggest difference. And that definitely goes for delivery pizza. From Buenos Aires, Gonzalo Bañez Villar has the story of a little idea that had a big impact, in this report narrated by Veronica Villafañe.

Clouds gather over Japan’s ambitious Osaka World Expo

Osaka, Japan — One of the largest wooden structures ever built is taking shape in Osaka but hopes that Expo 2025 will unite the world are being dogged by cost blowouts and a lack of public enthusiasm.

The imposing circular centerpiece will be crowned by a 20-meter-high sloping canopy, designed by top architect Sou Fujimoto, known as the “Grand Roof.”

It has a circumference of a staggering 2 kilometers and 161 countries and territories will show off their trade opportunities and cultural attractions at pavilions within the vast latticed ring.

A crane hoisted a block of beams into place this week as organizers said construction was largely on schedule, one year before visitors will be welcomed.

Expo 2025 global PR director Sachiko Yoshimura maintained that global participants would be “united” by the event even though there are conflicts in Ukraine, Gaza and elsewhere.

Russia will not be among the participants at Expo 2025, which will run from April 13 to October 13.

“Of course, there are so many crises around the world, but we want everybody to actually get together and think about the future and sustainability,” Yoshimura said.

It has also met a lukewarm response in Japan, where promotion is ramping up and the red-and-blue Expo 2025 mascot “Myaku-Myaku” — billed by the official website as “a mysterious creature born from the unification of cells and water” — is ever-present.

A recent Kyodo News survey found that 82% of Japanese companies, sponsors and others involved said “fostering domestic momentum” would be a challenge.

Ballooning budget

The construction budget has ballooned 27% from 2020 estimates to $1.5 billion due to inflation and Japan’s chronic worker shortage.

Some say the costs are also hard to justify when 6,300 people are still in evacuation centers and hotels after an earthquake on New Year’s Day devastated parts of central Japan.

Fujimoto’s “Grand Roof” alone has a price tag of 35 billion yen and has been slammed by opposition leader Kenta Izumi as “the world’s most expensive parasol.”

The “Grand Roof” and other structures are temporary, with no clear plan for them other than organizers saying they will be reused or recycled.

The site on an artificial island in Osaka Bay will be cleared after the Expo, with plans to build a resort there containing Japan’s first casino.

Jun Takashina, deputy secretary general of the Japan Association for Osaka 2025, acknowledged budget and regulatory “struggles” among foreign participants but said organizers would help make sure the displays are ready in time.

Among the most hotly anticipated attractions are flying electric cars, which take off vertically, showcasing the event’s technological and environmental aspirations.

But the vehicles — subject to reams of regulations — will be a “kind of experiment,” Yoshimura said.

More than 1.2 million tickets have already been sold, and organizers hope to attract 28.2 million visitors, including 3.5 million from abroad.

That would be 4 million more than the last World Fair in Dubai but pales in comparison to the 64 million people who attended the 1970 Expo in Osaka, a record until it was overtaken by Shanghai in 2010.

Future like science fiction

The first world fair to celebrate culture and industrial progress was held in London in 1851, with the Eiffel Tower built for the 1889 Paris World Fair.

Osaka academic Shinya Hashizume, a specialist in architecture history and town planning, said he was amazed as a 10-year-old when he saw a “future that looked like science fiction” at the 1970 Expo.

The first film in IMAX format was shown at that event and visitors could admire rocks brought back from the moon.

“Those six months were extraordinary for Osaka. Simply put, the whole town was having a party,” he said.

The advent of mass tourism and hyper-connected societies may have since lessened the attraction, but some Osaka residents still think it’s a good idea.

Kosuke Ito, a 36-year-old doctor, said it would “strengthen the economy.”

However, Yuka Nakamura, 26, said she might be put off by adult entry fees ranging from $25 to $50 a day.

Cambodia’s relocation of people from UNESCO site raises concerns

RUN TA EK, Cambodia — It’s been more than a year since Yem Srey Pin moved with her family from the village where she was born on Cambodia’s Angkor UNESCO World Heritage site to Run Ta Ek, a dusty new settlement about 25 kilometers away.

Hers is one of about 5,000 families relocated from the sprawling archaeological site, one of Southeast Asia’s top tourist draws, by Cambodian authorities in an ongoing program that Amnesty International has condemned as a “gross violation of international human rights law.” Another 5,000 families are still due to be moved.

The allegations have drawn strong expressions of concern from UNESCO and a spirited rebuttal from Cambodian authorities, who say they’re doing nothing more than protecting the heritage land from illegal squatters.

Yem Srey Pin’s single-room home is a far cry better than the makeshift tent she lived in with her husband and five children when they first arrived, which did little to protect from the monsoon rains and blew down in the winds.

And their 600-square-meter property is significantly bigger than the 90-square-meter plot they occupied illegally in the village of Khvean on the Angkor site.

But the 35-year-old is also in debt from building the new house. Her husband finds less construction work nearby and his wages are lower, and there are no wild fruits or vegetables she can forage, nor rice paddies where she can collect crabs to sell at her mother’s stand.

“After more than a year here I haven’t been able to save any money and I haven’t earned anything,” she said. 

The Angkor site is one of the largest archaeological sites in the world, spread across some 400 square kilometers in northwestern Cambodia. It contains the ruins of Khmer Empire capitals from the 9th to 15th centuries, including the temple of Angkor Wat.

When it was inscribed as a World Heritage Site in 1992, it was named a “living heritage site” whose local population observed ancestral traditions and cultural practices that have disappeared elsewhere.

Still, UNESCO at the time noted that Angkor was under “dual pressures” from some 100,000 inhabitants in 112 historic settlements who “constantly try to expand their dwelling areas,” and from encroachment from the nearby town of Siem Reap.

Cambodia’s answer was a plan to entice the 10,000 families illegally squatting in the area to resettle at Run Ta Ek and another site, as well as to encourage some from the 112 historic settlements to relocate as their families grow in size.

“The number of people were on the rise, including those coming illegally,” said Long Kosal, spokesperson for the Cambodian agency known as APSARA that’s responsible for managing the Angkor site. “What we did was that we provided an option.”

Cambodia began moving people to Run Ta Ek in 2022, giving those who volunteered to leave their homes in the Angkor area plots of land, a two-month supply of canned food and rice, a tarp and 30 sheets of corrugated metal to use to build a home. Benefits also included a Poor Card, essentially a state welfare program giving them around 310,000 riel (about $75) monthly for 10 years.

In a November report, Amnesty questioned how voluntary the relocations actually were, saying many people they interviewed were threatened or coerced into moving and that the relocations were more “forced evictions in disguise.”

The rights group cited a speech from former Prime Minister Hun Sen in which he said people “must either leave the Angkor site soon and receive some form of compensation or be evicted at a later time and receive nothing.”

Amnesty also noted Hun Sen’s track record, saying that under his long-time rule Cambodian authorities had been responsible for several forced evictions elsewhere that it alleged “constituted gross violations of human rights.” It said Run Ta Ek — with dirt roads, insufficient drainage, poor sanitation and other issues — did not fulfil international obligations under human rights treaties to provide people adequate housing.

That has now changed: Homes with outhouses have been built, roads paved, and sewers installed. Primitive hand pumps made of blue PVC piping provide water, and electricity has been run in.

There’s a school, a health center, a temple; bus routes were added, and a market area was built but is not yet operating, Long Kosal said.

But Amnesty maintains there are major concerns.

Among other things, families have had to take on heavy debt to build even basic houses, and there is little work to be found, said Montse Ferrer, the head of Amnesty’s research team investigating the Angkor Wat resettlements.

“They had a clear source of income at the time — tourism — but also other sources of income linked to the location at Angkor,” she said. “They are now at least 30 minutes away from the site and can no longer access these sources.”

Following Amnesty’s scathing report, UNESCO moved up the timeline for Cambodia’s submission of its own report on the state of conservation at the Angkor site, specifically asking for the allegations to be addressed.

In that report, submitted to UNESCO in March, Cambodia said it had not violated any international laws with the relocations, saying it was only moving people involved in the “illegal occupation of heritage land” and that in Run Ta Ek many were now property owners for the first time in their lives.

UNESCO said it would not comment on the situation until it has been able to analyze Cambodia’s response.

It referred The Associated Press to previous comments from Lazare Eloundou Assomo, director of the UNESCO World Heritage Center, who stressed the agency had “always categorically rejected the use of forced evictions as a tool for management of World Heritage listed sites.”

Yem Srey Pin said even though Run Ta Ek has slowly improved since she arrived in February 2023, and her new home will be paid off fairly soon, she’d rather return to her village if it were possible.

But with almost all of the village’s 400 families moving out, Yem Srey Pin says there’s nothing left for her there.

“I can’t live in my old village alone,” she said.

Muslims worldwide celebrate Eid al-Fitr in the shadow of Gaza’s misery 

Istanbul — Muslims around the world celebrated the Eid al-Fitr holiday Wednesday, marking the end of the holy month of Ramadan. But events were overshadowed by the worsening crisis in Gaza and Israel’s expected military offensive in Rafah city after six months of war.

“We should not forget our brothers and sisters in Palestine,” imam Abdulrahman Musa said in Kenya’s capital, Nairobi. “They have been subjected to unjustified aggression and a lot of violence (as) the world is watching in silence.”

In a holiday message, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan sent support to Gaza, which he called a “bleeding wound on the conscience of humanity.”

In Istanbul, thousands of worshipers gathered at the Aya Sofya Mosque for prayers, some carrying Palestinian flags and chanting slogans in support of people in Gaza, where the United Nations and partners warn that more than a million people are at threat of imminent famine and little aid is allowed in.

Elsewhere, people were grateful for the plenty they had after a month of fasting and reflection. Before the Eid al-Fitr holiday, markets around the world teemed with shoppers. Residents poured out of cities to return to villages to celebrate with loved ones.

In Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim nation, nearly three-quarters of the population were traveling for the annual homecoming known locally as “mudik.”

“This is a right moment to reconnect, like recharging energy that has been drained almost a year away from home,” said civil servant Ridho Alfian, who lives in the Jakarta area and was traveling to Lampung province at the southern tip of Sumatra island.

For Arini Dewi, Eid al-Fitr is a day of victory from economic difficulties during Ramadan. “I’m happy in celebrating Eid holiday despite the surge of food prices,” said the mother of two.

Jakarta’s Istiqlal Grand Mosque, the largest in Southeast Asia, was flooded with devotees offering morning prayers.

Preachers in their sermons called on people to pray for Muslims in Gaza who were suffering after six months of war.

“This is the time for Muslims and non-Muslims to show humanitarian solidarity, because the conflict in Gaza is not a religious war, but a humanitarian problem,” said Jimly Asshiddiqie, who chairs the advisory board of the Indonesian Mosque Council.

In Berlin, worshipers reflected the world, coming from Benin, Ghana, Syria, Afghanistan and Turkey.

“It’s a day where we feel grateful for everything we have here, and think and give to those who are poor, facing war and have to go hungry,” said Azhra Ahmad, a 45-year-old mother of five.

In Pakistan, authorities deployed more than 100,000 police and paramilitary forces to maintain security at mosques and marketplaces.

In Malaysia, ethnic Malay Muslims performed morning prayers at mosques nationwide just weeks after socks printed with the word “Allah” at a convenience store chain sparked a furor. Many found it offensive to associate the word with feet or for it to be used inappropriately.

Malaysia’s Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim called for unity and reconciliation in his message on the eve of Eid, saying no groups should be sidelined based on religion or any other reason.

“We must be firm, resolute and unwavering in our commitment to foster values and build a dignified nation,” he said. “However, let us not take this as a license or opportunity to insult, undermine, or damage the cultural practices and way of life of others.”

Vatican’s top diplomat visits Vietnam, looks to normalize relations

HANOI, Vietnam — The Vatican’s top diplomat began a six-day visit to Vietnam on Tuesday as a part of efforts to normalize relations with the communist nation. 

Richard Gallagher, the Holy See’s foreign minister, met his Vietnamese counterpart Bui Thanh Son and expressed the Vatican’s “gratitude” for the progress that has been made to improve ties. The visit took place after Archbishop Marek Zalewski became the first Vatican representative to live and open an office in the Southeast Asian country. 

“The visit is of great importance,” said Son. 

Gallagher will also meet Prime Minister Pham Minh Chinh and visit a children’s hospital in the capital, Hanoi, state-run Vietnam News Agency reported. He will hold Mass in Hanoi, Hue in central Vietnam, and the financial hub of Ho Chi Minh City in the south. 

Gallagher is the Vatican’s No. 2 and his visit to Hanoi was an “important moment” that showed that the relationship was continuing while the sides wait for an upgrade to full diplomatic relations, said Giorgio Bernardelli, the head of AsiaNews, a Catholic Missionary news agency. 

Relations between the Vatican and Vietnam were severed in 1975, after the Communist Party established its rule over the entire country following the end of the Vietnam War. Relations have been strained ever since, although the sides have had regular talks since at least the late 1990s. 

The agreement to appoint the Vatican’s permanent representative in Vietnam was signed in July 2023, during former President Vo Van Thuong’s visit to the Holy See. Thuong also extended an invitation to Pope Francis to visit Vietnam. But Thuong has since resigned, becoming the latest victim of an intense anti-corruption campaign. 

Bernardelli said that the pope’s potential visit was likely to be discussed, adding that it also depended on the political situation in Hanoi following the president’s resignation 

He said that an improvement in ties with Vietnam could also have implications for the Holy See’s ties with communist-ruled China. The relationship with Vietnam had always been a “point of reference, but with important differences,” since unlike China, Vietnam has been keen to improve relations with the Vatican and the West. 

Beijing severed diplomatic ties with the Vatican in 1951, after the communists rose to power and expelled foreign priests. 

Catholicism is officially the most practiced religion in Vietnam, with 5.9 million or 44.6% of the 13.2 million people who identified as religious in a 2019 census saying they were Catholic. That works out to more than 6% of the country’s population.