Climbing Through Nepal's Civil War
November 2005: I huddled in the darkness of my tent high on the Southwest Ridge of Ama Dablam (22,494 feet), a fairy-tale peak just south of Mount Everest. With temperatures dropping, I was grateful that Kami Chirring, a world-class climbing sherpa I’d met lower on the mountain, had agreed to join me. The following afternoon Kami and I took our final steps onto Ama Dablam’s immaculate summit cone. Our majestic 360-degree panorama of 7,000- and 8,000-meter peaks was crowned by snow plumes racing off of Everest’s black pyramid. The peaceful beauty of that summit view will forever be frozen in my mind’s eye. My euphoria soon gave way, though, to thoughts of the more than 12,500 people who, since 1996, have died in Nepal’s bloody civil war — a war that could swing so many ways. The fate of the Nepali people hangs in the balance between volatile political and ideological forces. Somewhere between the Maoists’ guerrilla-style insurgency and the failure of Nepal’s King Gyanendra successfully to establish a legitimate democracy, thousands have died in a bloody conflict that is defining a new Nepal. As I descended Ama’s windswept summit, I feared that the countryside below might become Asia’s next killing fields. April 2005. In the back of a dimly lit restaurant tucked away in Kathmandu’s quiet Lazimpat district, I pulled up a chair next to Pete Athans and joined my Cholatse team for the first time. Athans had trepidation written all over his face — a stark contrast to his otherwise calm demeanor. A veteran of more than 25 Himalayan expeditions, he was visibly rattled: I knew it had to do with the Maoists. Athans wasted no time presenting the unsettling news. “Two days ago, a caravan of Russian climbers was hit with a grenade on the road to Jiri,” he exhaled. We were scheduled to travel the same road early the next morning to assist cataract surgeons in two separate eye camps in eastern Nepal’s mountainous outback, and then attempt Cholatse, a challenging 21,128-foot peak near Everest. “One of the guys is in the hospital — apparently, his leg is mangled,” he added. “Doctors removed more than 20 pieces of shrapnel, but they left more than a hundred — a harsh souvenir of their sabotaged expedition.” The Russian climbers had been riding in the last vehicle of a large convoy just 30 miles from the Tibetan border, en route to Everest, when they were jumped by three Maoist guerillas who mistook them for a Royal Nepalese Army (RNA) military transport. This marked the first time, to my knowledge, that climbers had been caught in the 10-year crossfire between Maoist rebels and the RNA.
A pro-democracy demonstrator being beaten by a policeman in Kathmandu on April 16, 2006. Police, on that day, used shotguns and tear gas to drive back thousands of protesters marching against King Gyanendra's absolute rule.Photo by Thomas Van Houtryve
It would be one thing if the Maoists were a student group preaching the doctrine of Karl Marx, peacefully moving the masses toward “revolution,” but they are far from this ideal. The Maoist-influenced Communist Party of Nepal (CPN) is an outspoken member of the Revolutionary Internationalist Movement, a radical, global organization whose guiding ideologies are Marxism, Leninism, and Maoism. Angry at being treated as second-class citizens by the new government, Nepal’s Maoist leaders, in the early 1990s, became self-proclaimed champions of the rural poor and gained quick momentum in pockets of the country’s rugged outback. Led by Pushpan Kamal Dahal, or “Comrade Prachanda,” the Maoists began to use force as early as February 1996, when they sacked six government stations for weapons in western Nepal. In the last decade, the Maoists have become a military organization whose army boasts 15,000 guerrillas, earning a reputation so radical and dangerous that they have been compared with Peru’s Shining Path and Sri Lanka’s Tamil Tigers. As a result of the conflict, upwards of one million people have been displaced, and nearly 13,000 people have been killed — including the Royal Family.
Pro-democracy protesters form a massive crowd at Kathmandu’s Kalanki Chowk on April 25, 2006 — the morning after King Gyanendra announced he was giving up power and restoring the parliament.Photo by Thomas Van Houtryve
In June 2001, during what appeared to be a drunken or drug-induced shooting spree, the Crown Prince Dipendra massacred 10 Royal Family members, including his own father, King Birendra, then shot himself in the head. King Birendra’s brother, Gyanendra Bir Bikram Shah Dev, succeeded the throne, but the royal massacre/suicide remains a controversial subject. Dipendra was right handed, yet his final bullet’s point of entry was on his left temple. This and other shady issues have led some to conclude that Gyanendra — not Dipendra — killed the Royal Family. In October 2002, Gyanendra seized control of the parliament, dismissing his cabinet for “incompetence,” citing their failure to disband the Maoists. This ballooned into a dysfunctional and hostile triangle between the Maoists, Nepal’s seven key political parties, and the Royal Monarch. A year later, the King declared Nepal to be in a “state of emergency.” On September 14, 2004, four days after two bombs exploded outside the American Center compound in Kathmandu (the building sustained significant damage, but no one was killed), the U.S. State Department issued an official warning to all American tourists visiting Nepal that “the random, indiscriminate, and unpredictable nature of these attacks creates the risk of U.S. citizens in Nepal being caught in the wrong place at the wrong time.” Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) had been continually reporting widespread harassment and extortion by the Maoists (an October 21, 2003, statement released by the Maoists threatened violence against NGOs funded by “American imperialism”), and, after the State Department warning, the Peace Corps suspended its operations in the country. Of Nepal’s 75 districts all but one had suffered violence related to the Maoists. News circulated on the Internet of armed rebel attacks, vehicle burnings, landmine explosions, and of Maoist roadblocks that had, at times, completely sealed off the Kathmandu Valley. Even with all these warnings and potential hazards, visiting Nepal — a country comprised mainly of peaceful Hindus and Buddhists — still seemed a reasonable risk to most climbers and expeditions. Matters escalated in February 2005, when King Gyanendra declared “absolute” power over his people, the parliament, the military, and the press in an attempt to usurp the Maoists. This single event ushered in a deeper wave of civil unrest, inciting violent protests in Kathmandu, which in turn led to more curfews and the RNA’s street-side presence. As well, two and-three day “lock-downs” throughout the Kathmandu Valley provided RNA officials with the opportunity to arrest dissenting political party members, suspected Maoists, and journalists directly from their homes. In the months leading up to my first arrival in Nepal, in April 2005, the lock-downs, curfews, press censorship — even cell-phone controls — ignited far greater fear than loyalty among Nepal’s citizens, who saw Gyanendra as increasingly corrupt and democracy as a failed experiment.
A battalion of Maoist rebel soliders from the People’s Liberation Army do their morning drills in a schoolyard near the village of Gairigaon.Photo by Thomas Van Houtryve
We didn’t encounter rebel forces or grenades on the road to Jiri, although we were keenly aware of this possibility during the three roadside checkpoints. After five days of eye-clinic work in Jiri, we began the four-day trek east through the humid lowlands of the Solu Khumbu toward Phaplu, the location of our second cataract camp. We trekked through valleys, over passes, and through tiny villages deep in Maoist territory. Our posse of “climbers-without-borders” accepted that we were being watched from trees, and in my mind-riot paranoia I envisioned trigger-happy Maoist rebels peering at us though riflescopes. When we arrived in the small village of Kenja, palpable tension hung over desolate streets. Unlike the friendly kids whom I’d met in Jiri, the only two children I saw frowned back through the glass of my 200mm lens, certain our intentions were malevolent. Painted graffiti on the walls of a once-vibrant teahouse presented the unsettling slogan “Long live the people’s war.” “When the gun goes into the hands of somebody who doesn’t understand the value of life, it could be like having a monkey with a sword,” explained Pema Sherpa, our expedition’s translator, as we hiked past the Phaplu airport, a key stronghold for the RNA at the edge of town. Coils of barbed wire and camo-clad RNA troops guarded the airport. Curfews were still enforced, and I later learned that 29 people had been killed here two years prior in a battle between RNA and Maoists forces over the airstrip. Eight of the world’s 14 8,000-meter peaks — Annapurna, Cho Oyu, Dhaulagiri, Everest, Kangchenjunga, Lhotse, Makalu, and Manaslu — are in Nepal, and an estimated nine percent of the country’s GDP comes from tourism, an industry that has suffered a huge drop-off as Nepal struggles for political stability. My conversations with local Nepalese only confirmed my apprehension. Mingma Sherpa, a retired climber in his early 40s who works in western Nepal’s Annapurna region, near the city of Pohkara, spoke of how Maoists now largely control this area, which is second only to the Khumbu in tourist visitation. To enter the region, climbers, trekkers, and expedition sirdars are encouraged to “donate” 5,000 rupees per person (approximately $150 U.S.) to the Maoists. A “receipt,” which must be carried at all times, is then issued. In theory, visitors will not be double taxed.
A peaceful sun sets on Ama Dablam (22,494 feet) as prayer flags flap in the wind.Photo by Jordan Campbell
“Normally very busy, but not now because of Maoist,” explained Dawa Sherpa, an expedition cook who works on Everest and Cho Oyu in the spring, and Ama Dablam in the fall. During the winters, he briefly returns to his family in Kathmandu, and then works for trekking groups. Dawa said that business is down 70 percent in the Annapurna Sanctuary alone, circling back to the “donations” demanded by the Maoists. I did the math: If a guide service has to pay $150 extra per client — say, in a commercial group of 12 — the trip costs would jump by nearly $2,000. This brass tax, coupled with the risks of operating inside Maoist-controlled areas, has definitely impacted visitation. “Everyone is scared to come there,” Dawa explained with a furrowed brow. He must support a wife and three small girls, and this situation has pushed him to the verge of bankruptcy. A moment later Dawa smiled warmly, poured me another Sherpa tea, and said, “We need the white monkeys to keep climbing here.” At a Namche Bazaar hotel, a well-educated Nepali conservationist, Sonam, waved me over to chat about “the situation” in Nepal. Only two days ago I had stood on Ama Dablam’s frozen summit, and now I was crashing hard from the oxygen-rich altitude. Sonam offered me a glass of high-octane local Chang — perfect to sedate me, ideal to open him up. Sonam, like many at the time, saw Gyanendra as a symbol of hope. “I felt he was a good leader and could steer this country,” he explained. For more than 45 minutes, we drank Chang and I watched Sonam run through an array of emotions, from a proud and passionate Nepali to a guarded statesman. “Five, maybe 10 years ago, people had hope, but today we have no leaders and we have no faith,” he explained. I leaned in close, breaking a personal space boundary. My eyes searched his for the answer I had been seeking for two expeditions. Finally, I asked him the million-dollar question: “Who is running this country?” Sonam slowly set down his glass and leaned in even closer, his eyes wide as moons. He took a deep breath and whispered, “Fear is ruling here.”
A Maoist receipt — don’t go climbing without one.Photo by Jordan Campbell
I arrived home from Ama Dablam on Thanksgiving Day 2005 and followed Nepal’s unfolding situation closely through the media and through conversations with friends I’d made in Nepal. The political atmosphere remained status quo until the final days of January 2006, when the Maoists ended their three-month cease-fire, sparking a series of unprecedented events. Throughout February and March, residents of the Kathmandu Valley took to the streets, protesting Gyanendra’s seizure of absolute control. RNA forces used helicopters, tear gas, and batons against protestors — more than 25 people were killed and 5,000 wounded. On Friday, April 21, 2006, the Associated Press and Kantipur Television reported that more than 150,000 pro-democracy protestors had filed into the capital city, defying curfews and the RNA’s government-issued orders to shoot protestors on-sight. Under increasing internal pressure and blunt warnings from foreign diplomats — including U.S. Ambassador James Moriarty, who warned Gyanendra that his regime was nearing collapse — the King made his only remaining move: In an historic declaration, Gyanendra relinquished his power and called on Nepal’s seven-party alliance (the CPN included) to name quickly a prime minister. “Executive power shall, on this day, be returned to the people,” he explained in a televised speech. By April 25, Gyanendra had reinstated a house of representatives; this seven-party alliance appointed 84-year-old Girija Prasad Koriala as prime minister. In the same spirit of the 1989 Tiananmen Square student protests in Beijing, the historical Kathmandu demonstrations of early 2006 appear to have ended direct palace rule and reassigned the power to the people. The Maoists have declared another cease-fire, and business has returned to normal in Kathmandu. And while I would return to Nepal in a heartbeat to climb these sacred mountains, I remain cautiously optimistic about the country’s political future. Jordan Campbell, the son of a former Foreign Service Officer, was stationed in Brazil and Venezuela throughout the late 1960s. He lives in Basalt, Colorado.