Now that 2021 is ending, do you recall 2001? Or for that matter 2016? Or even the more recent 2020?
To begin with, 2001 was when suicide attackers seized passenger jets and crashed them into landmark buildings in New York and Washington. Then the US launched its ‘war on terror’ in Afghanistan to punish the perpetrators. The world, still reeling from the shock of these events, found itself riveted by the madness of all that had happened within the span of a few weeks and at the brink of chaos and uncertainty.
In April 2016, a year-long worldwide media investigation into a trove of 11.5 million documents, leaked from a Panama-based law firm with offices in 35 countries, exposed a tangle of offshore financial dealings by the world’s elite. What followed was uproar, questions, more investigations, denials, justifications and resignations. But the saga didn't end there, nor did the murky financial dealings, hundreds of which were again brought to light in subsequent editions of the Panama Papers.
Fast forward to 2020, it was the year of the pandemic. The year began and ended with Covid-19 unleashing itself on the world, rampaging from country to country and leaving deaths and destruction in its wake.
These unrelated and random chapters from the pages of history are part of the prelude to the story of 2021; the year that carried forward the legacy of yesteryears and, for the most part, was defined by endings, closures, replays and sequels on the world stage.
Here’s a look at some of the defining moments of the outgoing year.
Afghanistan's dilemma: end of a war, but beginning of a collapse?
August 30, 2021 marked the departure of the last American troops from Afghanistan and a definitive end to a war that spanned two decades — a US-led pursuit that began in 2001 to punish the culprits of 9/11 attacks. It was a day before the scheduled end to the American mission in the war-ravaged country and a fortnight after the Taliban had taken over Kabul, installing themselves in the presidential palace in the capital.
Their journey to the stately residence had been a breathtaking 11-day blitz through the country as Afghan forces surrendered and provincial capitals fell one after another.
Hours before their arrival, the palace’s previous resident, former president Ashraf Ghani, had fled the country.
What ensued was chaos that many had been dreading.
Thousands rushed to the borders and the Kabul airport, haunted by memories of the stringent Taliban rule during their first stint in power from 1996 to 2001.
Afghan citizens were desperate to escape the country — and the Taliban rule, rushing the tarmac at the airport and pushing onto planes. Many managed to flee. Even more were left behind. And the remaining died, falling victim to the chaos, a suicide attack, and stampedes.
While these horrifying scenes and stories from Afghanistan astounded the world, the country’s new rulers announced the creation of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan on August 19.
They also gave assurances such as the protection of women's rights, ensuring of media freedom and that there will be no reprisals, seemingly distancing themselves from their previous stint in power.
Shortly after on September 7, the Taliban announced an all-male interim government, with the promise to make it more inclusive in the future.
It has been months since. Women in Afghanistan have been restricted from working professionally except in a few fields. There have been reports of crackdowns and violence against journalists and the Taliban’s caretaker setup is yet to see women’s participation.
The country has seen few protests and demonstrations, but there have been fewer signs of change.
Meanwhile, the Taliban seek financial support and global recognition — both of which the West has tied to the fulfillment of promises the Taliban made in August — as Afghanistan finds itself at the brink of an economic collapse and a looming humanitarian crisis.
In August, just days after the Taliban seized Kabul, the US had frozen around $10 billion of the Afghan government’s reserves and the International Monetary Fund and World Bank had followed suit, stopping aid to Afghanistan.
This abrupt withdrawal of foreign aid has sent the country’s aid-reliant and fragile economy into freefall, leaving millions facing hunger and making once well-off middle class families destitute.
Long queues outside banks running low on cash is now a common sight in the country.
The UN has warned that the economic cost of a banking system collapse — and consequent social impact — “would be colossal”, and that more than half of Afghanistan’s 38 million people face hunger this winter. It has also pushed for urgent action to prop up Afghanistan’s banks.
There have been calls for aid, assistance and engagement from some others as well.
But any concrete measures to improve the situation in Afghanistan are yet to be seen.
Until then, the world watches Afghanistan in anticipation and with uncertainty as the country stands on the brink of a collapse after enduring a forever war. And Afghanistan looks to the world with diminishing hope for help.
Indian farmers’ historic win
The chilly winds of 2021 winter brought joy to Indian farmers and a rare retreat by Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
Farmers from the country’s northern heartland states had been camping on the roads in protest since September last year after the Modi government introduced a legislation aimed at deregulating the agriculture sector and subsequently allowing farmers to sell produce to buyers beyond government-regulated wholesale markets, where growers are assured of a minimum price.
Fearing that the overhaul would cut the prices they get for their crops, farmers had staged nationwide protests that drew in support from activists and celebrities from outside India.
On January 26 this year, after months of demonstrations and nine rounds of failed talks with the government, they headed to Delhi, taking out a protest rally on India’s Republic Day. Travelling on foot and tractors, the protesters diverted from the agreed routes for the rally and breached barricades put up by authorities to enter the capital’s historic Red Fort.
A consequent clash with the police, which resulted in the death of at least one protester and injured several law enforcement personnel, was the first round of violence these protesters from the rural areas of India saw in the outgoing year — months before the last major episode in October.
On October 3, four farmers were killed when a car owned by Junior Home Minister Ajay Mishra ran over the protesters in the Uttar Pradesh town of Lakhimpur Kheri, where they had gathered for a demonstration. Three party workers of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, a driver and a journalist were also killed in the escalation.
Data compiled by Samyukt Kisan Morcha (United Farmers Front) — a coalition of farmers’ unions that led the campaign against the Modi administration’s new farm legislations — shows that nearly 700 farmers died in the stir as they battled cold, rains, heat, smog and violence. At least nine among them died by suicide.
The farmers' ordeal was to end not before November, when elections in Uttar Pradesh, India's most populous state, and two other northern states having large rural populations were just months away.
On November 19, Prime Minister Modi backed down and repealed the controversial farm laws.
“Today I have come to tell you, the whole country, that we have decided to withdraw all three agricultural laws,” Modi said in an address to the nation. “In the parliament session starting later this month, we will complete the constitutional process to repeal these three agricultural laws.”
However, it was not until December that the farmers began packing their belongings and dismantling tent cities after the government said it would form a commission on fixing minimum prices for crops and promised to stop prosecuting farmers for burning crop stubble that is blamed for polluting Delhi's air every winter.
It also agreed to pay compensation to the families of the more than 700 farmers who died during the demonstrations and withdraw criminal cases registered against protesters during the campaign.
This was a historic win for Indian farmers, who were heading home after more than a year.
An attack on Capitol Hill and a president’s second impeachment
The beginning of 2021 saw one of the most jarring scenes to have ever unfolded on the US political landscape. A violent mob storming the Capitol Hill — the seat of the US government — on January 6 was, in fact, a perpetuation of the US presidential elections held the previous year and former president Donald Trump’s obstinate denial of the poll results.
Democrat Joe Biden was declared the winner in the contest; the Republican Trump alleged election theft.
At the outset of 2021 on January 5, Trump was seen addressing thousands of his supporters near the White House, telling them to march on the Capitol to express their anger at the voting process.
The very next day, his supporters forced their way past metal security barricades, broke windows and scaled walls to fight their way into the Capitol.
As the violent mob encroached the building, the nation's elected representatives crouched under desks and donned gas masks, while police futilely tried to barricade the building.
Five people died — one from gunshot wounds and three from medical emergencies — and 52 people were arrested in the incident.
The rare episode led to another historic development — Trump became the only US president to have been impeached twice.
He was impeached for the second time on January 14, more than a year after his first impeachment, as the US House of Representatives held him responsible for the January 6 mob attack on the Capitol Hill.
However, the US Senate acquitted the former president of the charge after a month-long trial.
Days later, Biden took oath as the 46th US president at a ceremony on January 20 in front of a heavily fortified US Capitol.
In his inaugural speech, Biden said: “Here we stand, just days after a riotous mob thought they could use violence to silence the will of the people, to stop the work on our democracy, to drive us from this sacred ground. It did not happen; it will never happen. Not today, not tomorrow, not ever.”
Pandora Papers — biggest-ever leak of offshore secrets
This year, the world saw a repeat of the Panama Papers — an expose by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) that had elicited strong reactions across the world and dominated headlines in 2016.
In October, the global network of journalists released the Pandora Papers — an investigation involving more than 600 journalists from 150 media outlets in 117 countries.
The investigation is based on a leak of confidential records of 14 offshore service providers that give professional services to wealthy individuals and corporations seeking to incorporate shell companies, trusts, foundations and other entities in low- or no-tax jurisdictions. The entities enable owners to conceal their identities from the public and sometimes from regulators. Often, the providers help them open bank accounts in countries with light financial regulations.
The records include an unprecedented amount of information on so-called beneficial owners of entities registered in the British Virgin Islands, Seychelles, Hong Kong, Belize, Panama and other secrecy jurisdictions. Those exposed in the leak include the rich, the famous and the infamous and more than 330 politicians from over 90 countries and territories. They include Jordan’s King Abdullah II and former UK prime minister Tony Blair. Moreover, associates of Prime Minister Imran Khan and Russian President Vladimir Putin have also been identified in the investigation.
Like the Panama Papers, the ICIJ’s latest expose also led to dismissals, denials and explanations and renewed calls for financial transparency.
On the naming of Putin’s associates, the Kremlin spokesperson dubbed the records “a set of largely unsubstantiated claims”.
Jordan rejected as “distorted” reports that King Abdullah II created a network of offshore companies and tax havens to amass a $100 million property empire stretching from California to London.
Meanwhile, India's finance ministry said it would investigate cases linked to the Pandora Papers and take appropriate action.
Covid-19: more deaths, more infections, more curbs and Omicron
As far as Covid-19 is concerned, 2021 was little different from the preceding year. There were more deaths, new waves of infections, more restrictions and the discovery of yet another highly transmissible variant. Moreover, the WHO’s global vaccine-sharing scheme delivered the first tranche of vaccines to Ghana in February and the US approved two pills for treating the infection for at-home use in December.
At the outset of 2021, a new wave of Covid-19 infections fuelled by the Delta variant was striking countries worldwide.
The variant particularly wreaked havoc in India, where it was first identified, and led to a massive second wave of the pandemic. Hospitals ran out of beds and crematoriums buckled as bodies of Covid-19 victims piled up. Photos of a multitude of burning pyres at mass cremations filled the world with dread as new waves of infections prompted travel and precautionary restrictions.
Now, as the world prepares to usher in a new year, infections, deaths and hospital admissions in Europe are surpassing previous highs in many countries.
According to a Reuters tally, around half of the new infections reported globally are now being recorded in Europe.
And while governments have moved to impose restrictions to combat this latest swell in infections, some countries have seen protests, which at times also turned violent.
There seems to be little possibility of the pandemic ending any time soon following the discovery of a highly transmissible Omicron variant of the coronavirus in South Africa in late November. The identification of the new strain led to another round of travel restrictions, which many countries had eased in the recent past, as nations scrambled to prevent its spread.
According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), the variant had been detected in 89 countries by mid-December and while much remains unknown about it, the strain appears more transmissible than the Delta variant.
Covid-19, it seems, will likely continue to inflict deaths and destruction in the coming year, with the number of global fatalities and infections already having surpassed the five million and 270m mark, respectively — a significant increase from over 75m infections and more than 1.6m deaths recorded by the end of 2020.
The space race
Even as the Covid-19 pandemic restricted travel across the world in 2021, it boomed in space.
British billionaire Richard Branson had the “experience of a lifetime” when he soared more than 50 miles above the New Mexico desert aboard his Virgin Galactic rocket plane and safely returned in the vehicle’s first fully crewed test flight to space on July 11.
Just over a week later, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos blasted into space his rocket company’s first flight with people on board. He was accompanied by a hand-picked group: his brother, an 18-year-old from the Netherlands and an 82-year-old aviation pioneer from Texas — the youngest and oldest to ever fly in space.
Then in September, Elon Musk’s SpaceX sent a billionaire e-commerce executive and three less-wealthy private citizens to space in a rocket ship. The quartet was the first all-civilian crew ever to circle the Earth from space.
As competition in space tourism heated up, one of the first companies to offer space travel to fee-paying customers, the US-based Space Adventures, and Russia sent Japanese online retail tycoon Yusaku Maezawa to the International Space Station in December.
It was in 2001 that multi-millionaire businessman Dennis Tito became the first space tourist from Earth, setting a precedent. Two decades on, some of the world’s billionaires seemed keen to carry forward his legacy and usher in a new era of space tourism.
How Syed Ali Shah Geelani’s death laid bare Indian atrocities in occupied Kashmir
The death of Syed Ali Shah Geelani, uncompromising campaigner against Indian rule in occupied Kashmir, on the first day of September this year proved to be more than just the loss of a veteran separatist leader. It highlighted atrocities and injustices by Indian authorities that have been plaguing Indian-occupied Kashmir for decades.
Geelani, 92, had been ill for several months and died while he was under house arrest.
Soon after his death, Indian authorities imposed a security clampdown in the valley.
Troops put up barbed wire rolls and barricades on roads leading to Geelani's house in the main city of Srinagar after the family announced the death. Hundreds of security forces were immediately deployed and internet services were cut.
Announcements were made from loudspeakers of the main mosque near Geelani's residence asking people to march towards the house. But scores of armoured vehicles and trucks patrolled main roads in the area and police appealed for people not to go out on the street.
Geelani was later laid to rest in a pre-dawn quiet funeral for a resistance leader who could once summon thousands of people into the streets to protest.
His family alleged that police had forcibly taken his body away just hours after he died and barred them from attending the funeral.
A video widely shared on social media purportedly showed Ali Geelani’s relatives, mostly women, frantically trying to prevent armed police from forcing their way into the room where his body, wrapped in a Pakistan flag, was kept. It showed women wailing and screaming as police took the body and locked his family and relatives inside the room.
Authorities’ refusal for a public funeral heightened tensions in the valley and led to clashes between angry citizens and police.
Meanwhile, Indian security forces maintained an armed guard around Geelani’s grave and police registered a case against family members of the late resistance leader under a harsh anti-terror law for allegedly raising anti-India slogans and wrapping his body in the Pakistan flag.
For their part, Indian security forces said Geelani's sons had initially agreed to a quick funeral but changed their minds “probably under pressure from Pakistan” and “started resorting to anti-national activities”. They added that “after persuasion”, Geelani's relatives brought the body to the graveyard “and performed last rites with due respect”.
Bejamin Netanyahu unseated, Angela Merkel bows out
In 2021, curtains fell on the tenures of two of the longest-serving heads of states among peers — Germany’s Angela Merkel and Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu.
Of them, Merkel ended her near-record tenure spanning over 16 years at age 67 to praise from abroad and enduring popularity at home. She passed the baton as the first German chancellor to step down entirely by choice — with a whole generation of voters never knowing another person at the top — as she chose not to run in this year’s elections in September.
Her successor, Olaf Scholz, replaced her on December 8 as he was sworn in as the new German chancellor after his party, the Social Democrats, came first in the national elections , garnering 25.7 per cent of the vote, and Merkel’s CDU-CSU conservative bloc slumped to its worst ever result of getting 24.1pc votes.
During her tenure, Merkel came to be viewed as an indispensable crisis manager and defender of Western values in turbulent times.
She served alongside four US presidents, four French presidents, five British prime ministers and eight Italian premiers. Her chancellorship was marked by four major challenges: the global financial crisis, Europe’s debt crisis, the 2015-16 influx of refugees to Europe and the coronavirus pandemic.
In comparison to the end of the Merkel era, Natanyahu's lacked grace.
The 71-year-old former prime minister faced trial on fraud, bribery and breach of trust charges that he denies, while he clung to power throughout a period of political turmoil that had seen four inconclusive elections in under two years.
His 12-year-term eventually ended after the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, unseated him on June 13 after the opposition formed a coalition to put up a united front against Netayahu. He was succeeded by Naftali Bennett, a former ally turned rival of his, after a 60-59 vote in the Knesset.
But even as he was unseated, Netanyahu made clear he had no intention of exiting the political stage. “If it is destined for us to be in the opposition, we will do it with our backs straight until we topple this dangerous government and return to lead the country,” he said.
11 days of violence, deaths and despair in Gaza
In May, Palestine saw the worst 11 days of violence this year as Israel pounded the Gaza Strip with airstrikes and artillery in one of its major offensives on the territory. Meanwhile, Gaza's rulers Hamas lobbed rockets into the Jewish state.
This bout of violence was one of the culminating points of a decades-long conflict, which goes back to the occupation of Palestinian territories by Israel in 1967 — and beyond.
It began as Al Aqsa mosque, the third holiest site in Islam, became a focal point of violence at the height of the holy month of Ramazan. There had been clashes between Israeli forces and Palestinians at the mosque in early May, one of which took place on the 10th day of the month.
Tensions were particularly high that day as Israel was marking Jerusalem Day, its annual celebration of the capture of East Jerusalem and the walled Old City, which is home to Muslim, Jewish and Christian holy places, in a 1967 war. In fact, tensions had been mounting in Jerusalem and the occupied West Bank since the beginning of Ramazan, with nightly clashes in East Jerusalem's Sheikh Jarrah — a neighbourhood where numerous Palestinian families face eviction in a long-running legal case.
Hundreds of Palestinians were wounded as Israeli police fired rubber bullets, stun grenades and tear gas at the rock-hurling youth from the other side in the compound of Al Aqsa. In the evening, Hamas launched volleys of rockets towards Israel.
The exchange set off a days-long episode of violence, airstrikes, devastation, hunger, despair and misery in Gaza. Several structures and buildings — including one housing the offices of US news agency The Associated Press and Qatar-based Al Jazeera television — were flattened and scores of lives lost. Then there were riots and demonstrations — and more blood and more deaths. Israel blocked any measures for the provision of aid to Gaza and meanwhile, the rest of the world watched the situation escalate.
When the UN Security Council issued a statement calling for a halt to the violence and for the protection of civilians thrice in a week's time, the US blocked it each time.
Eventually, May 21 brought transient relief for the residents of Gaza. A ceasefire between Israel and Hamas came into force after Israeli airstrikes and artillery fire killed around 250 Palestinians, including 66 children, and wounded more than 1,900 others during the 11-day offensive. Rocket and other fire from Gaza claimed 12 lives in Israel, including one child and an Arab-Israeli teenager. Some 350 people in Israel were wounded.
Nearly and a month after the ceasefire, the sky above Palestine lit up as Israeli aircraft carried out a series of airstrikes at sites in the Gaza Strip. Violence and misery in the territory were not to end in 2021.
Olympics in a pandemic
Belated and beleaguered, the virus-delayed Tokyo Summer Olympics opened on July 23, 2021 in Japan with a dazzling display of fireworks in an empty stadium.
Held in the middle of a resurging pandemic, rejected by many Japanese and plagued by months of administrative problems, these Games presented logistical and medical obstacles like no other, offered up serious conversations about mental health and, when it came to sport, delivered both triumphs and a few surprising shortfalls.
The contests mostly played out in empty venues with only athletes, team officials and media present.
From the outset, expectations were middling at best, apocalyptic at worst. Even Thomas Bach, president of the International Olympic Committee, said he’d worried that these could become the Olympic Games without a soul.
“But,” he said, “what we have seen here is totally different.
“For the first time since the pandemic began, the entire world came together,” he said at the Games’ closing ceremony, which was also held in an empty stadium on August 8.
Victory celebrations were muted, with lonely laps of honour. Winners accepted their prizes from trays, putting the medals around their own necks.
The US finished top of the tally with 39 gold medals, one more than rival China at 38. Japan won the third highest number of gold medals at 27.
Read: Olympics and beyond
When nature unleashed its fury
A fierce blizzard in Spain welcomed 2021 and a devastating and deadly swarm of tornadoes that hit six US states is bidding it farewell. In between, there were floods, heatwaves, storms and wildfires.
The outgoing year gave a glimpse of what it could be like living on this planet following a years-long build-up of a climate crisis.
During the January blizzard, four people were killed in Spain and capital Madrid experienced its heaviest snowfall since 1971.
Next month, a deep freeze in the US state of Texas led to hundreds of deaths as the temperature fell below -13 degrees Celsius.
Over 150 people were killed as Cyclone Seroja hit Indonesia and East Timor in April. The cyclone triggered flash floods, caused landslides, uprooted trees and left thousands of people homeless.
Canada’s western province of British Columbia and parts of the US experienced an intense heatwave in June that claimed hundreds of lives.
In July, parts of Germany and Belgium saw destruction in the wake of heavy flooding, which killed scores.
August brought a spate of wildfires in southern Europe, with Greece being the most affected nation by the natural disaster.
The same month, America’s East Coast saw record-breaking rains and numerous deaths in the aftermath of Hurricane Ida.
And lastly, a spell of tornadoes ripped through six US states in December, killing more than 70 people in Kentucky and leaving a trail of destroyed homes and businesses along a path that stretched more than 200 miles.
Compiled by Mariam Ahmed
Header image by Mushba Said