It was a year that started with the president of the United States accusing his critics of fomenting war: class war, that is. That was in January when he unveiled a 10-year, US$600 billion tax-cutting programme thought to favour the rich. At the end of the year, he claimed credit for averting a trade war between the US and China. In between, however, he sent his country and its partners - 'the coalition of the willing' - into a real war in the Middle East. After ordering troops into Iraq on March 20, the president claimed victory on May 1. The peace has proved more treacherous, even if the eventual capture of Saddam Hussein sounds a hopeful note. Conflict came in many guises in 2003. A war against drugs was declared in Thailand. It started in February, and by the end of April 2,245 suspects were dead. Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra said that thousands of 'bad people' had been arrested during the 10-month campaign; Thaksin, like President George W. Bush - who referred to 600 individuals held in a special camp in Guantanamo Bay in Cuba as the 'bad guys' - appears to have the divine foresight of leaders who require no formal legal process to apportion guilt. War in Africa flared up, threatened to boil over then settled into a barely contained simmer. As usual, the statistics were staggering and mostly ignored: it is the continent of true shock and awe. In the Democratic Republic of Congo, where an estimated three million people have died and the armies of six African countries have fought in the past five years, an interim government was formed in June, and leaders of the main rebel groups became vice-presidents in July. In Liberia, 14 years of civil war apparently ended in August when former president Charles Taylor went into exile, and in October a new leader, Gyude Bryant, was sworn in. Guests were obliged to sit on such rickety chairs that the ceremony was punctuated by the sound of crashing dignitaries as seats collapsed beneath them. The major battle in Africa, however, was revealed to be against Aids. That acronym and another - Sars - dominated the medical world. They were often compared. In terms of mysterious arrival, initial denial ('There is no cause for worry on the part of the public,' said Dr Yeoh Eng-kiong, Secretary for Health, Welfare and Food at a press conference in Hong Kong on March 13), professional ignorance and public hysteria, the comparison was valid. In terms of casualties it was not. Aids has killed 28 million people in 20 years. Sars killed fewer than 800 people. In Hong Kong, where 299 people died, there were curious knock-on effects. The government instituted the hygienic slogan 'Say Hi and Wave Goodbye', and the public took this to heart: it gladly waved goodbye to Secretary for Security Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee and Financial Secretary Antony Leung Kam-chung. The public was advised to take more exercise: half a million residents proved their willingness to do this on July 1, in a protest against Article 23. New premier Wen Jiabao, on a visit to mark the sixth anniversary of the handover, demonstrated his people's touch by visiting Amoy Gardens, epicentre of the Sars crisis; he was favourably compared with Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa who, throughout a year of exceptional unpopularity, was designated the epicentre of the SAR's crisis. Tourist numbers dwindled to figures of such alarming size that the central government in Beijing decided to help Hong Kong by lifting travel restrictions on some mainland visitors. When historians look back at the year 2003, that single, low-key, swiftly enacted decision will be seen as the pivotal moment of change in the territory's post-colonial era. One mainland visitor was made particularly welcome: astronaut Yang Liwei, a man who spent 21 hours circling the earth, admiring the view from his rocket, Shenzhou V. It was harder to do much sight-seeing in Hong Kong, however, because his visit, in early October, coincided with the territory's worst-ever pollution. Although his achievement came 42 years after Russian Yuri Gagarin's historical first flight, the genuine and unpredictable allure of space, heightened by carefully massaged patriotism, ignited people's imaginations. That space travel could be fatal had already been proved in January when the US space shuttle Columbia disintegrated 16 minutes before landing. All all seven astronauts on board were killed, including - and much was made of this in that pre-war corridor of time while Saddam's weapons of mass destruction were being sought - an Israeli called Ilan Ramon who had flown into Iraq in 1981 and bombed an unfinished nuclear reactor. All forms of transport could be dangerous, as Antony Leung, who had cause to regret the purchase of a Lexus car can testify (though not, it was finally decided last week, in court). In February, at least 130 people died when a depressed South Korean, Kim Dae-han, threw a milk carton full of inflammable liquid into a commuter train in the southern city of Daegu. At least 70 Chinese sailors perished when their submarine went down in the Yellow Sea in May because of a 'mechanical malfunction'. Also in May, 62 Spanish soldiers were killed in a plane crash in Turkey; they were on their way home from peace-keeping duties in Afghanistan (a country that continued to remain unpeaceful). In Hong Kong, 21 people died when a bus plunged off an elevated section of the Tuen Mun Highway in July. Ten people were killed when New York's Staten Island ferry crashed into a pier in October. Tragedy could be piercing in small, freakish ways: in June, a five-year-old British girl called Isobel Callaghan was dragged to her death, in front of her parents, by a balloon that broke loose during a sudden storm at a fair in Germany. Her body was found 60 kilometres away. In the year that marked the centenary of aviation, Concorde, the world's first supersonic aircraft, ceased to operate. It was revealed that Charles Lindbergh, the first man to fly solo across the Atlantic, had feet of clay: DNA testing proved that he was the father of three children by a Munich hat-maker 24 years his junior called Brigitte Hesshaimer. A Canadian inquiry into the crash of a 1998 Swissair flight in which 229 people died found that the wiring of in-flight movies caused the fire that triggered the disaster; 60 similar incidents have been reported in the past five years. In January, a Taiwanese airliner made history by landing on Chinese soil, in Shanghai. It had travelled via Hong Kong but, for the first time, passengers were not required to change aircraft, marking the end of a 50-year ban. The old order changed, at least partially. In March, President Jiang Zemin was replaced by President Hu Jintao but remained in control of the army. There were some strange appointments: Libya became the head of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights, and actor Arnold Schwarzenegger became the governor of California. Yugoslavia ceased to exist: it is now officially known as Serbia and Montenegro, the two remaining republics of a federation that lasted 74 years. The Czech Republic lost its president when Vaclav Havel stepped down in January. He was the only post-Communist leader still in office since 1989. Others who had been leaders of their countries for even longer left their positions, willingly (Dr Mahathir Mohamad, Malaysia's prime minister for 22 years) and reluctantly (Daniel arap Moi of Kenya, who lost his presidency in an election after 24 years in power). Some political positions were briefly held: Mahmoud Abbas, Yasser Arafat's deputy, became Palestinian prime minister in March but resigned in September. An attempted military coup in a shopping mall in the Philippines in August came to nothing. Dictators were called to eternal account: Idi Amin, former president of Uganda and self-appointed CBE ('Conqueror of the British Empire'), died. So did General Leopoldo Galtieri of Argentina, who had ordered the 1982 invasion of the Falkland Islands. Sir Denis Thatcher, husband of Margaret, the prime minister who sent troops and a navy to reclaim those islands for Britain, also died; his obituaries recalled how he liked to refer to the British Broadcasting Corporation as the Bolshevik Broadcasting Corporation. Although the British government is now Labour and theoretically slightly closer to the BBC's supposed left-wing bias, the corporation found itself enmeshed in a dispute about its coverage of the Iraq conflict and whether Tony Blair's government had 'sexed up' an arms dossier to justify war. A British civil servant and weapons expert called Dr David Kelly walked into the woods near his home on a rainy July evening, took more than 20 painkillers, slit his left wrist and bled to death. His was not the only high-profile suicide. Robert Long, the man who co-ordinated the rescue of nine miners who were trapped underground in Pennsylvania last year, shot himself after a dispute over the amount of money Disney paid for the rights to the story; only one of the nine men he helped to save attended his funeral. Leslie Cheung jumped from a hotel balcony on April 1, a day when Hong Kong had already been the victim of a schoolboy website prank about Sars, and people therefore presumed, initially, that the news of Cheung's death was another hoax. A computer-science student called Brandon Vedas at Phoenix University, Arizona, committed suicide online in front of a webcam audience in February. His last typed message was: 'I told u I was hardcore.' Amid the percussive horror of car bombs - in Casablanca, in Istanbul, in Riyadh, in Moscow, in Bogota, in Baghdad - the rumble of disaster both natural and unnatural around the world seemed muted, but ever-present. There were serious forest fires in Australia at the beginning of the year, then across Europe throughout the summer and on the west coast of the United States in early autumn. The United Nations estimated that natural disasters, caused by extreme weather, cost more than US$60 billion in 2003. At least 15,000 people are thought to have died in Europe's heatwave, and 650,000 homes were flooded in China. There were severe power failures in both north America and Europe. A faint note of human endeavour - individual and collective - could be heard. The first phase of the giant Three Gorges Dam opened in June. A landlocked country, Switzerland, won sailing's most prestigious trophy, the America's Cup. Lance Armstrong claimed the Tour de France for the fifth time, seven years after he almost died of testicular cancer. Two British men, Andy McEwen and Ed Jocelyn, retraced Mao Zedong's Long March and found, to their surprise, and the displeasure of some Chinese historians, that it was a shorter-than-expected march -approximately 6,500km instead of 12,500km (although it took them 384 days and Mao did it in 370 days, so some face was saved). The second annual mobile phone-throwing championships took place in Finland; the winner came just a phone-length short of beating the world record of 66.72 metres set last year by a frustrated phone user named Petri Valta (using a Nokia 5110). Dolly the sheep, the first mammal to be cloned from an adult cell, died of progressive lung disease aged six (the average age of a sheep is 12). Robert Atkins died after slipping on a pavement in New York, but his eponymous diet lives on: it was a summer best-seller second only to the fifth J.K. Rowling opus, Harry Potter And The Order Of The Phoenix, itself a hefty offering at 766 pages. The Western world became heavier and more concerned about its own obesity, but poorer countries are also following in the lumbering footsteps of their richer cousins. Mexico announced a 158 per cent increase in obesity over the past decade, putting it above Britain (Europe's fattest nation) and almost on a par with the US in the obesity league table. Mexico also opened the world's first holiday resort for fat tourists this summer: the XXL Club, near Cancun, which has extra-large beds and reinforced sun-loungers, and was founded by a man called Jurriaan Klink. Slimming down, meanwhile, McDonald's announced the closure of 175 outlets in 10 countries. At the other end of the foodie scale, Bernard Loiseau, one of France's top chefs, shot himself after being downgraded from 19 to 17 points (out of 20) in the GaultMillau restaurant guide. A German cannibal named Armin Miewes went on trial for eating a man he met through the internet and who apparently volunteered for it. The descendants of the Reverend Thomas Baker, a Methodist missionary from East Sussex in England who went to and was eaten in Fiji in 1867, were offered a formal apology by the descendants of the tribe that consumed him. It was revealed, in a book called Flyboys by James Bradley, that former US president George Bush (who took America into the first Gulf war), narrowly escaped being eaten by Japanese soldiers when he was shot down over the island of Chichi Jima in 1944; he was the only one of nine pilots to avoid capture, and four of the other eight were cannibalised. As the year turns, it is perhaps worth pondering how differently things might have turned out had the 41st and 43rd presidents of the United States of America not carried the name of Bush. Of such quirks is history made.