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Witness History
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Witness History

Author: BBC World Service

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History as told by the people who were there.

2285 Episodes
In 1971, a female architect called Chu Ming Silveira created Brazil's iconic egg-shaped telephone booth, Orelhão. More than 50,000 of the booths were installed across Brazil and the design was so successful that other countries decided to use it.Chu Ming was born in China and moved over to Brazil with her family in 1949, following the end of the Chinese Civil War.At a time when not many architects were women in the country, she was tasked with creating a design for a cheap, light-weight and visually attractive public phone booth.Chu Ming died in 1997, aged 58. In 2017, Google decided to celebrate her life by creating a doodle. Her son, Alan Chu, has been sharing his memories of Chu Ming with Matt Pintus. (Photo: Chu Ming using an Orelhão phone booth. Credit: Chu Ming Silveira’s Collection -
Kielland disaster

Kielland disaster


In 1980, 123 men were killed when the Alexander L. Kielland platform capsized in the North Sea oil fields.It was Norway's biggest industrial disaster and led to a range of safety improvements for those working in the country’s oil and gas sector. Lars Bevanger speaks to survivor Harry Vike, who spent 10 hours in a lifeboat waiting to be rescued, and his wife Grete, who was waiting for a call to find out if he was alive or dead.(Photo: The broken leg of the Alexander Kielland oil drilling platform, 1980. Credit: Alamy)
In 1984, a 21-year-old Irish shopworker refused to serve a customer buying two South African grapefruits. Mary Manning was suspended from the Dunnes store in Dublin, and ten of her colleagues walked out alongside her in protest.It was the start of a strike that lasted almost three years, and ended when Ireland became the first western country to impose a complete ban of South African imports.Why did Mary do it? In 1984, she and her colleagues were part of the Irish workers’ union, IDATU, which had told its members not to sell items from South Africa. At the time the 11 strikers knew little about apartheid – South Africa’s system of racial segregation - but they soon learnt. Their protest would lead to them addressing the United Nations, winning praise from Bishop Desmond Tutu, and meeting with Nelson Mandela.Mary tells Jane Wilkinson about what drove the strikers to continue despite little initial support.(Photo: Strikers outside Dunnes store in Dublin in 1985. Credit: Derek Speirs)
In 2014, Boko Haram militants drove into Gwoza in north-east Nigeria and began an assault that would leave hundreds of people dead.Ruoyah, who was just 14, hid in her house for eight hours under continuous fire. She says when she finally opened the door to leave her house she says: "There were corpses everywhere, we even saw the corpse of our neighbour in our front door." Ruoyah managed to escape to Cameroon, but her sister was kidnapped by Boko Haram militants. She was taken into the Sambisa forest where she was forced to marry a militant and starved.A few months later, Boko Haram's leader unilaterally declared that Gwoza was a caliphate. Ruoyah now lives in an internally displaced persons camp, she speaks to Anoushka Mutanda-Dougherty.Archive credit: Channels Television.(Photo: Credit: )
In April 1999 Nato bombed the Serbian state TV station in Belgrade, killing 16 people. It was part of a military campaign to force Serbia to withdraw from Kosovo. Mike Lanchin has been speaking to one of the survivors, Dragan Šuković, a TV technician, who was working at the station that night.This programme was first broadcast in 2015. (Photo: The Radio Television of Serbia building. Credit: Getty Images)
In 2008, Iraqi journalist Muntadhar al-Zaidi hurled his shoes at the President of the United States in protest at America's occupation of Iraq.George W Bush had been giving a joint press conference in Baghdad with Iraqi prime minister Nouri al-Maliki at the time. He was in his final months as president as Barack Obama was due to take over.As he threw the first shoe, Muntadhar yelled: “Here is your goodbye kiss, you dog." He tells Vicky Farncombe how he prepared for the moment and what happened to him next.(Photo: President Bush ducks after Muntadhar al-Zaidi threw a shoe. Credit: Reuters)
Saving lives on D-Day

Saving lives on D-Day


Charles Norman Shay was a field medic in the United States Army when he landed on the Normandy beach codenamed Omaha on D-Day.On June 6, 1944, the US 1st Infantry Division faced a bombardment of machine gun fire from the German soldiers on surrounding cliffs. More than 1,700 men died on Omaha alone. Aged just 19, Charles risked his own life to save his comrades from drowning, for which he was awarded the US silver star for gallantry. Although he had served his country, as a native American, he was deprived the right to vote until 1954. Aged 99, he tells Josephine McDermott his remarkable account.(Photo: Charles Norman Shay in October 1944 in Germany. Credit: Charles Norman Shay)
In 1944, a young Irishwoman called Maureen Flavin drew up a weather report that helped change the course of World War Two. Maureen was working at a post office in Blacksod on the far west coast of Ireland. Her duties included recording rainfall, wind speeds, temperature and air pressure.On 3 June, she sent one of her hourly reports to Dublin, unaware that the figures were being passed on to the Allied headquarters in England. It was the first indication of bad weather heading towards the coast of France - and it was a huge blow.Hundreds of thousands of British, American and Canadian servicemen had already gathered for the most ambitious operation of the war, the assault of the Normandy beaches on 5 June.But after reading Maureen’s report, chief meteorologist Group Captain James Stagg advised a delay of 24 hours. US General, Dwight Eisenhower, gave the order, and D-Day was finally launched on 6 June, 1944. A date that went down in history.Maureen's son Edward Sweeney tells Jane Wilkinson about the family's pride in their mother.(Photo: Maureen Sweeney. Credit: Sweeney family photo)
In 1984, Russian engineer Alexey Pajitnov invented the popular computer game Tetris. But it was not until American businessman Henk Rogers joined him that the game became an all-time favourite in video game consoles across the world. Chloe Hadjimatheou spoke to both of them about how the idea of the game originated and the challenges of exporting it from the Soviet Union. This programme was first broadcast in 2011.(Photo: Tetris 99. Credit: Getty Images)
In 2008, panda-mania hit Taiwan when China gifted the country two giant pandas.This practice known as ‘panda diplomacy’ is thought to date back as far as the 7th Century.Tuan Tuan and Yuan Yuan flew into Taiwan and became instant celebrities.Eve Chen, curator of the Giant Panda House at Taipei Zoo says: “They were extremely cute and adorable. You could call them like the handsome and the beauty, like the Barbie and Ken in a panda.”Eve tells Gill Kearsley about their arrival and what it meant to Taiwan. (Photo: Tuan Tuan and Yuan Yuan in China. Credit: Visual China Group via Getty Images.)
Forty years ago, a Hollywood director, some tech revolutionaries and a group of London skinheads created a commercial that would rock the advertising world.Based on George Orwell’s dystopic novel ‘1984’, and launched in the same year, the ad was like nothing that had been seen before.But its road to being shown was rocky, and the beleaguered advert almost never made it air.Mike Murray was Apple marketing manager at the time, he speaks to Molly Pipe.(Photo: Steve Jobs in a room of computers in 1984. Credit: Michael L Abramson/Getty Images)
The Flint water crisis

The Flint water crisis


Flint was once one of the richest cities in the United States. But in the 1980s, it was badly affected by the downturn in car manufacturing and by 2014 it was nearly bankrupt. To save money, the city switched its water supply away from Lake Huron to its own Flint River, but state officials failed to treat the river water properly. As a result lead, a powerful neurotoxin, was released into the drinking water.Despite mounting evidence, officials denied anything was wrong and it took them a year and a half to switch water supply back to Lake Huron. But many residents of Flint –a majority African-American city with high rates of poverty– have been left fearful about the long term impacts on their children.Rob Walker speaks to lifelong Flint resident Jeneyah McDonald who had two young children at the time. He also hears from Dr Mona Hanna-Attisha – a paediatrician and professor of public health– who helped bring the scandal to national attention after showing that lead had found its way into the bloodstreams of the city’s children.(Photo: Bottled water donations to help with the Flint Michigan water crisis in 2016. Credit: Dennis Pajot via Getty Images)
A warning for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander listeners - this programme contains the names and voices of people who have died.In 1971, Neville Bonner became the first Aboriginal person to become a member of the Australian Parliament.In 1979, he was named Australian of the Year in recognition of his work fighting for the rights of indigenous Australians - Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.His great niece Joanna Lindgren shares her memories of 'Uncle Neville' with Vicky Farncombe."He was gentle, he was a terrific listener. It didn't matter that you were 13 years old, you never felt that he was not interested in what you had to say," she says.(Photo: Old Parliament House, in Canberra. Credit: Getty Images)
Ninety years ago, the first surviving quintuplets were born in a small village in northern Canada.The Dionnes grew up in a specially-adapted nursery where millions of people could visit them. But, years later they struggled to adapt to life back with their parents which led to a fight for compensation. This programme was produced and presented by Simon Watts in 2012 using BBC archive.(Photo: The quintuplets on their fourth birthday. Credit: Bettmann via Getty Images)
In 1964, João Goulart, the president of Brazil, was overthrown in a military coup. In the repression which followed, hundreds of people were disappeared or killed, and many more detained and tortured. Carlos Lamarca was a captain who deserted the army and joined in the armed struggle against the military regime. He was shot dead in 1971. His friend and fellow fighter, João Salgado Lopes, tells Vicky Farncombe about their time together hiding in the Caatinga, the Brazilian outback. (Photo: Wanted poster of Carlos Lamarca. Credit: Memories of the Dictatorship)
In 1984, Nike signed rookie basketball player Michael Jordan and created a shoe in his name – the Air Jordan.The unprecedented deal would change sports marketing forever.Former executive Sonny Vaccaro was the man who persuaded his bosses to put all their marketing budget on one untried player.He became convinced of Michael’s talent after seeing him make the winning shot in a college game.He tells Vicky Farncombe about the challenges of persuading Michael – an Adidas fan – to sign, and how the Air Jordan's controversial black and red colour scheme upset the National Basketball Association (NBA).(Photo: Air Jordans. Credit: Getty)
In 2001, more than 700 pairs of Imelda Marcos’s shoes were put on display at the Marikina Shoe Museum in the Philippines. The wife of the dictator President Ferdinand Marcos, became famous for buying shoes, while millions of Filipinos were living in poverty. It’s thought she had in around 3,000 pairs.Ella Rule has been through the archive to tell the story of Imelda and her shoes.(Photo: Imelda Marcos' shoe collection. Credit: Christophe LOVINY/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images)
How the Dassler brothers created two global sportswear firms.In 1948, Adi and Rudi Dassler who lived in a small German town fell out. They went on to set up Adidas and Puma. Adi Dassler played a crucial role in West Germany's victory in the 1954 World Cup with his game-changing footwear. In 2022, Reena Stanton-Sharma spoke to Adi's daughter Sigi Dassler, who remembers her dad’s obsession with sports shoes and talks about her fondness for rappers Run-DMC, who paid tribute to her dad’s shoes in their 1986 song My Adidas.
In 1962, a new brand of footwear launched that would become one of Brazil’s most successful and best-known exports: Havaianas. As the country’s footwear industry started to expand, one company wanted to make something that was comfortable, inexpensive, and ideal for South America's long hot summers. Havaianas soon became the favourite of the working class because of their affordability. Fast forward almost forty years and they featured on catwalks in Paris and Oscar goody bags in Hollywood, a surprisingly journey from their modest beginnings as the choice of farmers, builders, and tyre fitters.Johnny I’Anson has been speaking to former employee and author Sergio Sanchez about the birth of a humble flip-flop, and how they became a global success story selling 250 million pairs a year.(Photo: Rows of brightly coloured Havaianas flip-flops. Credit: Miguel Schincariol/AFP via Getty Images)
Bata was a Czech company which pioneered assembly line shoemaking and sold affordable footwear around the world. The factory near London was opened in 1933 and it became key to its expansion. In 2018, Dina Newman spoke to one of its senior engineers, Mick Pinion, about the company's remarkable history, including how it sold millions of shoes in Africa and Asia.(Photo: mobile shoe shop selling Bata shoes. Credit: Getty Images)
Comments (46)

Alex K.

Gifted? Oh BBC please, gift is a noun. The word you are seeking is "gave".

Jun 3rd

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Sarah Kitty

I just heard about Nicaraguan deaf sign language not Barbie the doll

Jul 20th

Adrian Lord

what a great idea for old statues.

Jun 29th

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racial abuse vrs fear of being murdered.

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Feb 12th
Reply (1)

Alex K.

A couple of Fraser's senators were about to crack and grant supply to the Whitlam Government, but Fraser lied to Kerr and told him that his backbench was "rock solid". It was a disgraceful episode in Australia's history. Whitlam's government achieved so much. By contrast, "Achievements of the Fraser Government" would, if written, be one of the shortest books in history. Fraser never overcame the shadow that hung over his prime ministership. I still remember him crying on camera on election night 1983, when the Labor Party was returned to power.

Dec 13th
Reply (1)

Alfonso Guerrero

t-#bns xComédia ?-

Mar 28th

Denise Nichols

u lost me pm first seg. I l have to go back when I have more patience. to start from first do this isn't a good review. sorry

Mar 14th


Amazing episde, thank you so much!

Dec 4th


hmmm the church now a tool to propagate anti-christianity doctrines... anti-christ

Oct 23rd

Brandy C.

I lived with a family in Tanzania and one day while exploring with the children we came upon a Polish cemetery. I was told how kind all the Polish people were. I didn't understand how Polish people had come to live in the small town I was staying in. Now I know. Thanks!

Oct 20th

Billy Armstrong

Great great great

Aug 19th
Reply (2)

Billy Armstrong

yeah am from Newcastle England so love this podcast by BBC thanks bbc

Aug 18th

Tajidin Abd

funny how history repeats itself just this past week. The fall of Kabul

Aug 17th

Lori C.

The Info shared in these shorts is great but wow... the hosts can be so frustrating to listen to ... this one gasps frequently as talking .... another slurps... thank goodness there are hundreds of episodes so I haven't had to listen to those back to back to back often. I sure wish slurping and gaspy speaking etc would stop. do they not listen back to what they record? editors?? guess not ....

Jul 5th

Ingrid Linbohm

A story of a woman who hated her country and betrayed it.

Jun 28th

Pele Googled

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Mar 14th

Stephen Gabriel

Sadly he isn't the only dictator in Europe. He has his partner in crime Putin. Full support to the people of Belarus, they deserve better and to be safe from the people they elect to run their country.

Sep 14th

Nay E.

16th street church bombing and Brown v board episode were hard to listen to....blacks should’ve fought to not have their towns burned down and not try to be integrated with white people... it still didn’t do us any good til this day.

Jun 9th