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Witness History


History as told by the people who were there.

History as told by the people who were there.


United Kingdom




History as told by the people who were there.




BBC World Service Bush House Strand London WC2B 4PH


The birth of Karaoke

Daisuke Inoue was playing keyboards in a band in Kobe, Japan, when he invented the Karaoke machine in 1971. He had a customer who wanted to impress business clients by singing along to his favourite songs. Ashley Byrne spoke to Daisuke Inoue about his invention in 2015. (Photo: A group of women sing karaoke. Credit: Getty Images)


Japan's Bullet Train

On 1 October 1964, the fastest train the world had ever seen was launched in Japan. The first Shinkansen, or bullet train, ran between Tokyo and Osaka, and had a top speed of 210km per hour. Lucy Burns spoke to Isao Makibayashi, one of the train's first drivers. This is a rebroadcast (Photo: Shinkansen, or bullet train. Credit: Keystone/Getty Images)


When war came to Darfur

In the early 2000s, rebels in Sudan's Darfur region took up arms against the government. In response, the Khartoum regime launched a scorched earth campaign along ethnic lines. The Sudanese military allied to a local militia, the Janjaweed, laid waste to villages across the region, killing and raping as they went. Some 300,000 people are believed to have been killed in the conflict, more than 2 million displaced from their homes. We hear the story of Debay Manees, a young boy at the time,...


Surviving Norway's day of terror

On 22 July 2011 Norway suffered its worst terror attacks in recent history. A far-right extremist, Anders Breivik, launched a bomb attack on government offices in Oslo, and then, two hours later, attacked a summer camp for young political activists on the island of Utøya, 38 kms from the Norwegian capital. In total 77 people were killed that day - the majority on the island. Mike Lanchin has been speaking to one of the camp's leaders Lisa Husby, who was 19-years-old at the time . Lisa hid...


The Battle of Gondar

In 1941, Italian colonial rule in East Africa ended when Mussolini’s soldiers made a dramatic final stand in the northern Ethiopian town of Gondar. After a bloody battle, General Guglielmo Nasi surrendered to troops from the British empire and Ethiopian fighters loyal to Emperor Haile Selassie. Simon Watts listens to an account in the BBC archive from Rene Cutforth, who was then a British army officer and later became a distinguished BBC war correspondent. PHOTO: Italian soldiers...


Domestic violence in Brazil

Ground-breaking legislation came into effect in Brazil in 2006. For the first time the courts were ordered to recognise different forms of domestic violence. The 'Maria da Penha law' was named after a women's rights activist who was left paralysed by her abusive husband. Maria told Mike Lanchin her chilling story. This programme is a rebroadcast. Photo: Maria da Penha now.


England's summer of riots

In the summer of 2001 race riots gripped towns in the north of England. They began in Oldham in late May 2001, spreading to Burnley in June, and Bradford in July. All had their own specific local triggers, but all involved clashes between men of white and of South Asian background. A report into the violence found communities were living in complete segregation, brewing suspicion and hatred. Barnie Choudhury reported on the riots for the BBC. He speaks to Farhana Haider about how they...


When the Taliban took Kabul

Taliban fighters first took control of Afghanistan's capital city Kabul in late September 1996. They imposed their strict interpretation of Islam on Afghans, outlawing music and TV, banning the education of girls, and requiring men to grow beards. The Taliban ruled most of Afghanistan until 2001 when, following the 9/11 attacks against America, a US-led coalition drove them out of power. Photo: Taliban gunners outside Kabul in November 1996.(Credit: Emmanuel Dunand/AFP via Getty Images)


Jane Goodall and chimpanzees

In the 1960s a young Englishwoman made a discovery that changed our understanding of animal behaviour. Jane Goodall was living among wild chimpanzees in Tanzania when she observed them using sticks and grasses as tools to get food. Farhana Haider spoke to her about her life in 2014. This programme is a rebroadcast. (Photo: Jane Goodall with chimpanzeess. Credit: AFP)


Prisoner of the Cultural Revolution

As a schoolboy in communist China, Kim Gordon took part in huge rallies to praise Chairman Mao. But when Mao's so-called Cultural Revolution began to target intellectuals and foreigners, Kim's British parents came under suspicion despite being convinced communists. When they tried to leave the country they were arrested with Kim and locked up in a hotel room for two years. Monica Whitlock has been listening to Kim's story. Photo: Kim Gordon as a schoolboy in China. Courtesy of Kim Gordon.


The race for the jet engine

Using eyewitness recordings from the BBC archive we hear from the pioneers of the jet engine, Sir Frank Whittle and Hans von Ohain, about the struggle to develop a revolutionary new engine in the 1930s. An invention which would change the world. Photo: Sir Frank Whittle (1907-1996) is pictured here with the Whittle WV engine at the Science Museum in London c 1988 (Getty Images)


The bombing of the Rainbow Warrior

On 9 July 1985 the Greenpeace campaign ship was bombed by French secret agents in Auckland, New Zealand. One environmental campaigner was killed and the Rainbow Warrior was sunk. Claire Bowes heard from the ship's captain Pete Willcox who was on board when the attack took place. This programme is a rebroadcast (Photo: Captain Pete Willcox, courtesy of Greenpeace)


The first World Romani Congress

Roma people from all over Europe met in England for a conference in 1971. The Roma, who migrated from India over a thousand years ago, often used to be called gypsies. Many Roma led a travelling life, moving from place to place doing seasonal work. They suffered persecution and prejudice for centuries, and many died in the Holocaust during World War Two. But their common language and culture brought them together. Claire Bowes has been speaking to Grattan Puxon who organised the Congress....


The famine in North Korea

Communist North Korea suffered a devastating famine in the 1990s after the collapse of the Soviet Union which had been one of the country's main supporters. Hundreds of thousands of people died of starvation. Some estimates put the death toll at more than two million. Josephine Casserly has been hearing from Joseph Kim, who was a child in North Korea in the 1990s, about the struggles of his family. Joseph has written a book about his experience called Under the Same Sky. Photo: North Korean...


Britain's wartime gold

When Britain went to war with Germany in 1939 it had to find somewhere to keep its money. Because of the risk of invasion, a decision was made to send the country's gold reserves to Canada. Vincent Dowd reports on what became known as 'Operation Fish'. Photo: Gold ingots. Credit: Science photo library


Cuba's blindness epidemic

As Cuba faced a devastating economic crisis in the early 1990s, leading to severe food shortages and malnutritiion, some 50,000 Cubans were inexplicably struck down with sight loss. But health officials on the communist-led island as well as experts at WHO initially believed it was caused by a viral infection spreading through the population. Despite hostile relations between his country and Cuba, the American eye specialist Dr Alfredo Sadun was asked to go to the island in May 1993 to...


China's trailblazing foreign students

China has the largest number of overseas students in the world but when students first started venturing out of Communist China it was still a country feeling the aftereffects of the Cultural Revolution. Launched in 1966 by Communist leader Mao Zedong the Cultural Revolution plunged China into a decade of chaos. The education of millions of young people were disrupted and China was cut off from the rest for world. Farhana Haider has been speaking to Chinese American writer Zha Jianying, one...


The Chinese Communist Party

A small group of revolutionaries formed the Chinese Communist Party in July 1921. Led by Chairman Mao, they fought their way to power in the world's most populous nation and have stayed in control since the end of China's civil war in 1949. Zhu Zhende was a young recruit in the People's Liberation Army who marched in front of Chairman Mao at celebrations in Beijing when the communists took power. He spoke to Yashan Zhao about the optimism and excitement of that time, and about how the...


The Syrian playwright who challenged the regime

An experimental play staged in Damascus in 1971 undermined official Syrian propaganda. Simply by stating that the Arab nations had been defeated by Israel during the Six Day War its author, Sadallah Wannous, identified himself as an opposition figure. Zak Brophy spoke to his widow, Faizah Shawish, about the play and its place in Syrian theatre. Photo: Sadallah Wannous with his parents and daughter in 1988. With the permission of the Wannous family.


Zimbabwe's mass UFO sightings

It was one of the most reported UFO sightings in recent history. Local people in the quiet rural town of Ruwa in Zimbabwe reported a 'strange craft' and lights in the sky. Around 60 children said they'd seen a 'space ship' and 'aliens' in bush land near their school playground in September 1994. The children drew pictures of what they'd seen, and despite differences in quality, the details and proportions were very similar. A BBC TV crew were among the first on the scene, Rebecca Kesby looks...