Monthly Archives: April 2014

Arguments at Everest Base Camp as Nepal’s climbing world in turmoil

With only days left in the narrow starting window for the Everest climbing season in Nepal, a small group of Sherpas at Base Camp have been intimidating other Sherpas and trying to force them to leave the camp, expedition leaders, company owners and climbing clients report. It is unclear what this group wants to achieve but their techniques, threatening violence and “repercussions”, are described as mirroring techniques used by Maoist cadres during Nepal’s ten-year civil war.

This added upheaval comes as several more expedition companies, including International Mountain Guides, have announced that, after consulting with their Sherpa teams, they are pulling out for the season, even as discussions with the Nepal government and Sherpas continue regarding demands for higher death and disability benefits as well as insurance.

The climbing world here in Nepal is in turmoil. It has been almost a week since an ice avalanche broke off the mountain, killing 16 sherpa high-altitude climbers on the Khumbu Icefall, the highest number of deaths in a single day on Everest. Buddhist funeral rituals and cremations have taken place in isolated mountain villages and in Kathmandu. Grief is still raw among the tightly knit Sherpa community, the group that takes the greatest risks on the mountain, as it struggles to come to terms with the death of loved ones. The unfolding anger and tension at Base Camp shed light on a critical turning-point for the local climbing industry, which has been for decades the main income earner for extended families across the desperately poor Solu Khumbu region. International climbers will not get refunds as their fees have already gone to the costs of preparing the expeditions, buying food and equipment, and hiring sherpas. The decision on sherpa salaries will be made individually by the companies employing them. But stakeholders are already raising the question of what will happen next year?

At Everest Base Camp, many are asking whether the mountain is even climbable this season. By this time last year, international climbers were already staying at Camp 2 to acclimate. The sherpas known as “icefall doctors”, who set the ropes up the Khumbu Icefall, could in theory reset it on top of the old route that was hit by the ice avalanche. There is enough time to make it work, but they have said that the route remains unstable and dangerous. Setting a different route along the more central one used in the 1990s would require more time and equipment, neither of which they have. The extensive melting of the Khumbu Icefall, due to climate change, has made this central route more fragile and dangerous. The companies that have pulled out are, for the most part, old-time experts on the mountain who provided the core sherpa workforce that in previous seasons worked together to provide ropes, climbs and rescues. The weather is also a wild card.

Everest will be summited this year, but in a big blow to Nepal’s mountaineering image, it may solely be scaled from China. Guy Cotter, CEO of Adventure Consultancies, like many other high-end companies, says he will definitely return to Nepal next year. Everest business funds his company’s other climbs and his staff spend six months a year organizing the season. But he foresees that the fees will increase and the client numbers decrease, and so fewer sherpas will be hired and international clients will be more tempted to cross the border to China.

The image of Nepal, “birthplace of the Buddha and home to the world’s highest mountain”, may be damaged as well. The iconic trek to Everest ‘s peak on the Nepal side is one of the most spectacular in the world. By contrast, the trek on the China side is through an arid austere part of Tibet. But in China, the climb is government-organized and bureaucratically much simpler and faster than in Nepal. If climbers head to China, the sherpas lose critical money-earning potential that has helped communities put their children in schools and start small businesses, a step beyond their traditional potato and barley fields. Though the government of Nepal‘s direct income from Everest tourism is only about $4 million a year, the actual benefit to the Sherpa community is closer to $12 million. The goal of many of these high-altitude Sherpa climbers is to make sure their children can get an education and find other careers away from the slopes of Mt. Everest.

If the threats at base camp escalate, then the Sherpas’ quasi-mythical reputation – a positive stereotype of hard-working, trusted mountaineers that has been used by almost every climbing company and written about extensively in climbers blogs – will have to battle, like the rest of Nepal, with the dark underbelly of a country still grappling with the consequences of a decade of civil war.

 

What 2071 means to me or how I am learning the art of living in Nepal

Bodhnath Stupa, a UNESCO World Heritage site is an island of calm in the chaos of Kathmandu. ©Donatella Lorch

Boudhanath Stupa, a UNESCO World Heritage site is an island of calm in the chaos of Kathmandu. ©Donatella Lorch

It’s New Years this week in Nepal. Welcome to the year 2071. It has taken me almost a year to move the Gregorian calendar aside and understand strange names of months that now begin in what my previous life considered mid-month. Luckily my cell phone has helped me cope with the transition: ”Dear customer,” it told me on April 14th, “Applicable monthly charges will be deducted tomorrow on the 1st of Baisakh.”

I’ve had to do a lot of mental gearshifts. I used to think that having a New Year’s Eve celebration was normal but in Nepal there are seven New Years, each with their own celebration. Nepali culture is based on festivals: your god, my god, their god — any occasion is good.

During Laxmi Puja, a festiva; that celebrates Laxmi, the Goddess of Wealth, Nepalese light up they city with butter lamps and worship her in the temples. ©Donatella Lorch

During Laxmi Puja, a festival that celebrates Laxmi, the Goddess of Wealth, Nepalese light up the city with butter lamps and worship her in the temples. ©Donatella Lorch

My dog, Biko, gets worshipped on Kukur Puja, and receives a garland, a Tikka and sweet rice cakes. © Donatella Lorch

My dog, Biko, gets worshipped on Kukur Puja, and receives a garland, a Tikka and sweet rice cakes. © Donatella Lorch

For a monotheist like myself who is only a church goer on three days a year (Christmas, Easter and a spare extra for good measure), who has also lived extensively in Islamic countries and who grew up in Manhattan where Jewish holidays were greeted by my father with a sigh of relief as alternate side of the street parking was suspended, I had never lived before with 330 million Hindu gods as well as Buddhist deities, demons and demonesses shared by both faiths. Early on, I started outlining in my diary Super God family trees as the top three male and female deities have multiple incarnations with their own offspring. There are official God festivals that can last more than a week. There are holy days for cows, dogs, crows and even airplanes.

Festival celebrants parade through Bakhtapur Durbar Square. © Donatella Lorch

Festival celebrants parade through Bakhtapur Durbar Square. © Donatella Lorch

Even if I wanted to, it is impossible to ignore these festivals and to continue life as it used to be in early 2013. Temples and Buddhist stupas are absolutely everywhere from sprawling ancient Hindu compounds to a stubby lingam that has split a paved road in two, a rock and a bell on the side of a road to the scores of huge ancient and holy pipal trees wrapped with string by worshippers. There are grass covered and white washed stupas dating back centuries whose gentle and humble elegance graces the chaotic polluted city of Kathmandu. Valley hillsides are dotted with gold painted rooftops that end in the airborne curling eves of Buddhist monasteries and nunneries.

The main prayer hall at Kopan Monastery, one of Nepal's biggest Buddhist monasteries. © Donatella Lorch

The main prayer hall at Kopan Monastery, one of Nepal’s biggest Buddhist monasteries. © Donatella Lorch

There is an inclusiveness and a temperance to Nepal’s two main religions that is inspiring and beautiful. Tantric Buddhism is often the bridge between the two and whenever I visit a Hindu temple which often has a Buddhist stupa or icon on the premises, I always feel gratitude to have found a place where religions coexist.

Yet all these festivals, colorful, cacophonous, crowded, and often surreal from my western perspective, easily run week into week and can be a serious drag on economic growth in Nepal. There is no sense of urgency here but rather an overwhelming sense of fatalistic Karma. Whatever will be will be. National holiday or not, businesses and shops close without notice, people don’t show up for work, teachers as well as students can easily skip school. Government offices work on skeleton staffs and restaurants can close down for days on the big holidays of Dasain and Tihar. You don’t really notice this as a tourist (the tourism industry functions on a slightly more energized schedule) but living here sometimes becomes a frustrating effort at getting work done. It is also a sad statement about Nepal’s regional future. Labor productivity is a measure of economic growth and Nepal has one of the lowest labor productivity levels in the world. It has 22 percent unemployment. An inefficient, badly equipped education system means only 11 percent of students complete their secondary education creating a vast unskilled labor force where 25 percent of young Nepalese mostly men aged 20 to 39 have migrated to foreign countries as manual laborers. Government economic policies coupled with corruption hamper more than help the economy. The cost of doing business here is 23 percent more expensive than in China and 15 percent more than in India, its two huge and rather overbearing neighbors.

A solitary Shiva shrine sits amid wheat fields on the southern edge of the capital, Kathmandu. © Donatella Lorch

A solitary Shiva shrine sits amid wheat fields on the southern edge of the capital, Kathmandu. © Donatella Lorch

 

There is a phrase used often here, more of a philosophical statement about life in general that is accompanied by a resigned shoulder shrug. “Khe Garne?” loosely translates as “What can one do?” No answer is expected. I catch myself increasingly using that line. Have I surrendered? I wear a red string wrapped around my wrist blessed by a Buddhist monk. I’ll clank the bell at Shiva temples and when I run past mini Hindu shrines along village paths in Kathmandu’s outskirts, I think about how a touch of the forehead can express such powerful devotion.

A Buddhist monk blesses me at Boudhanath Stupa in  Kathmandu. © Donatella Lorch

A Buddhist monk blesses me at Boudhanath Stupa in Kathmandu. © Donatella Lorch

I do believe that the Middle Way offers a beautiful path but I haven’t yet mastered mindfulness and compassion. And I have the greatest admiration for the owner of “The Secret Bakery”, one of Patan’s best bakeries. He is open through festivals, strikes and national holidays. Now that is a businessman with Chutzpah! Happy 2071.

 

Will Kathmandu be buried in garbage?

 

The nepal government is dredging the holy Bagmati River in Kathmandu unearthing decades of plastic bags. © Donatella Lorch

The Nepal government is dredging the holy Bagmati River in Kathmandu unearthing decades of trashed plastic bags. © Donatella Lorch

Although Kathmandu’s world heritage sites are well known, few may be aware of a new archeological dig that stretches for several kilometers along the Bagmati River. Deep trenches have been dug out, creating 20ft-high hills made of dirt held together with striations of blue, pink and black polypropylene that tell the 30-year local history of the plastic bag, Nepal’s most ubiquitous landmark.

A mountain of garbage, mostly plastic bags dredged from the fetid (and holy) Bagmati River. © Donatella Lorch

A mountain of garbage, mostly plastic bags dredged from the fetid (and holy) Bagmati River. © Donatella Lorch

In the Kathmandu Valley, garbage is the gift that keeps on giving. It is everywhere, stuffed in plastic bags and dropped in drainage ditches or piled high in empty lots, on the roadside or on the edges of the city’s rivers. It is thrown out of bus windows, off roof tops into neighbor’s yards.

Garbage is dumped everywhere including in the open sewers running through this upscale neighborhood. © Donatella Lorch

Garbage is dumped everywhere including in the open sewers running through this upscale neighborhood. © Donatella Lorch

As long as their house and yard is swept clean, the vast majority of valley-livers don’t seem to care. When it gets too high, the garbage is burned in open areas, the toxic fumes blanketing nearby houses. The plastic bags clog the rivers and choke drainage pipes, creating flooding and spreading fetid, disease-carrying refuse. The health impacts are felt at all levels.

Young boys scavenge for copper wires in the mountain of refuse dredged from the Bagmati River. © Donatella Lorch

Young boys scavenge for copper wires in the mountain of refuse dredged from the Bagmati River. © Donatella Lorch

Rapid unplanned urbanization has brought traffic jams and choking pollution, but politicians in Nepal’s new government have, with few exceptions, shown little political commitment to solving the problem of garbage. In 2011, the government passed the Solid Waste Management Act that set rules, regulations and fines for transgressors but enforcement is weak and detailed responsibilities are unclear.

Living amid the piles of garbage on the shore of the Bagmati River in Kathmandu. © Donatella Lorch

Living amid the piles of garbage on the shore of the Bagmati River in Kathmandu. © Donatella Lorch

It is a Sisyphean task. The Valley needs clean water but the sole operating waste water treatment plant is handicapped by more than 12 hours of load-shedding a day and needs to be overhauled. Sewage flows untreated into the rivers. There are no proper slaughter houses in any municipalities and no rules for disposing of the city’s dead cows and dogs. They end up in shallow graves near river banks, leaching into the water supply. Hospitals are responsible for disposing their own hazardous waste such as needles, tissues, organs and other body parts, but the government has not provided a dumping site. Some hospitals burn in the open, and others use incinerators that releases dioxin and furan, two highly carcinogenic pollutants. An exception is the government-run Bir Hospital that has even built a bio-gas plant on its premises.

 

Open dumping is ubiquitous. Nepalis dump their garbage on roadsides, along river banks and when the pile grows they light the plastic bags covering neighborhood is carcinogenic dioxin. ©Donatella Lorch

Open dumping is ubiquitous. Nepalis dump their garbage on roadsides, along river banks and when the pile grows they burn the plastic bags cloaking neighborhoods in carcinogenic dioxin. ©Donatella Lorch

Sumitra Amatiya, executive director of the Ministry of Urban Development’s solid waste management technical support center, says sanitation in the Valley is in a state of crisis management. Serving Kathmandu and Lalitpur, the valley’s only working landfill, Sisdole, 24 km from the capital, is almost full and during the monsoons is frequently cut off from the city by floods and landslides. The government has bought the land for another site but needs billions of rupees and at least four years to make it operational, according to Dr. Amatya. As a gap measure, they are expanding Sisdole. The Asian Development Bank, which last year published the most researched and detailed Solid Waste Management report on Nepal to date, will begin work later this year on Kathmandu’s waste-water treatment plant. The government has begun dredging the highly-polluted Bagmati, with the aim of laying down sewage pipes as well as planting green areas. It is unearthing tons of dumped plastic and earth but narrowing the river-bed, which experts says can cause severe flooding during the monsoons, spreading disease through its water.

Decades of plastic bags dumped everywhere in Kathmandu block drainage pipes, create flooding and spread disease. © Donatella Lorch

Decades of plastic bags dumped everywhere in Kathmandu block drainage pipes, create flooding and spread disease. © Donatella Lorch

While many Nepalese care, city life has eroded the social dynamic of communities that galvanize neighbors to act together. Many try to make a difference. But they are not enough. One ongoing high-visibility clean-up campaign, lead by Leela Mani Poudyal, the chief secretary of the government of Nepal, has been bringing hundreds of people together to clean the fetid Bagmati every Saturday morning for the past 45 weeks, but a one time cleaning, though highly commendable, is not a permanent solution and it will not make the river waste-free. In addition, small non-governmental organizations, many of them focusing on women, teach composting and garbage segregation.

Politicians are quick to point to a new landfill as the solution. But only 40 to 50 percent of the Valley’s garbage goes to Sisdole, and most of it enters the dump unsegregated. The rest ends up on the streets and rivers. Changing the Nepali mindset is the only way forward, Dr. Amatya believes. Composting is key as 60 percent of Kathmandu garbage is organic. There is the need for a government-supported country-wide public awareness and education campaign about the 3Rs – Recycle, Reuse, Reduce in schools, in the media, door to door. Nepalese need to understand the environmental damage of one-time-use plastic bags. As Bhushan Tuladhar, regional technical advisor (South Asia) of U.N. Habitat , put it: “We have to dump the attitude.” Only a social movement can keep Kathmandu from being buried in garbage.

You cannot kill their memory — Rwanda 20 years on

I am not good at remembering dates. My husband teases me that I have trouble recalling our own wedding anniversary. Yet since 1994, April 7th is the date I can never forget. Twenty years ago this weekend, the world is remembering and hopefully reminding itself how little it did back then to stem a meticulously planned and executed genocide in which as many as a million Rwandans were killed. Much has happened to me in the past 20 years. I have lived on three continents, changed jobs multiple times, covered wars, married, had a son, inherited three step children, lost friends in war zones yet Rwanda is still there, stubbornly unwilling to be forgotten and always a haunting presence in my life.

A smell, a soft breeze, a shadow dancing on a wall is often all I need. I remember the utter stillness of Nyarubuye and the way the dust smoked up around my shoes. The bodies in the school and church complex lay like sprawled puppets and the stench made me gag. Pink flowers lined the road and the tall eucalyptus trees swayed in a soft wind. I counted the dead and wrote in my notebook the color of their clothing. Some looked as if they had been running, others curled up to block blows still others seemed to me as if they were sleeping. They had been hacked and shot and bludgeoned.

It was the end of May 1994, I was working then as the New York Times East Africa Bureau Chief, based out of Nairobi, Kenya, and a small group of us were the first reporters to document this massacre in Nyarubuye, an isolated Rwandan community on the Tanzanian border. We had been taken there by the Rwandan Patriotic Army, the only means of moving around the Rwandan countryside while the civil war raged. It was almost two months since the mass killings had started, hundreds of thousand Rwandans methodically killed, yet the international community was still unwilling to use the word “genocide.” For us who covered Rwanda and witnessed killings, walked through massacres and battled our editors for more space to tell the story, the anger and frustration against the lack of international concern filled many with bitterness. Many of us, including myself battled depression (no journalist I knew who wanted to keep their job would admit to an editor that they were struggling), changed jobs, left Africa but we have never forgotten.

The genocide began within hours that the plane carrying the Rwandan president was shot down coming in for a landing in the capital Kigali. Once the Rwandan rebel army captured the Kigali airport, it was possible for journalists to visit the crash site. The president's country estate bordered the airport and part of the wreckage ended up near his swimming pool. The Rwandan Patriotic Front soliders hated having their pictures taken. The only way to do it was to pose with them. © Donatella Lorch

The genocide began within hours that the plane carrying the Rwandan president was shot down coming in for a landing in the capital Kigali. Once the Rwandan rebel army captured the Kigali airport, it was possible for journalists to visit the crash site. The president’s country estate bordered the airport and part of the wreckage ended up near his swimming pool. The Rwandan Patriotic Front soliders hated having their pictures taken. The only way to do it was to pose with them. © Donatella Lorch

There are of course the countless dead, the nameless ones, the crumpled corpses that lined the steep road into Kigali when I first drove into Rwanda’s capital that first week of April. There were the doors kept ajar by bare protruding legs, a signal to me that the dreaded Interahamwe had gone house to house in that neighborhood. It was the three women spotted from a rooftop docilely kneeling and not even lifting their heads to look as a man with a machete systematically hacked their heads one by one. There were the dawn mortar attacks shattering windows at the Milles Collines Hotel where we stayed packed together in rooms with hundreds of displaced Rwandans.

It is not that the press was blameless. The Africa-based press corps had missed the signals. We had vast stretches of territory to cover. I had been mostly reporting from Somalia since 1992 as American and UN troops struggled unsuccessfully to bring a semblance of peace to the war-torn country. My knowledge of Rwanda was learned gradually on the ground, counting corpses washed ashore on Lake Victoria, meeting the hundreds of thousands of Hutu refugees in Tanzania and Goma, Zaire and investigating the massacre sites inside the country.

Let’s not forget the survivors. My heroes: Zozo (Wellars Bizimuremyi), the head desk clerk at the Milles Collines, who always smiled while managing to stop the military and the Interahamwe who would sporadically enter the hotel and try to drag out Rwandans. While hiding in their home, Zozo’s wife and children were killed. Evariste was my driver for a year after the genocide and he lead me through his personal story of loss. His entire family was killed at the church at Ntarama, now the site of the “live” Genocide museum outside Kigali. In Kigali, he hid in a Hutu neighbor’s rafters living off of grass and raw potatoes until he managed to escape to the United Nations controlled stadium.

There is General Romeo Dallaire, head of the UN peacekeeping operation, whom I met at the Mille Collines the first week as he came with a lone armored personnel carrier (the other one had a flat tire) to help evacuate the journalists. (I later re-entered Rwanda with the rebel troops). We were a captive audience, and he refused to provide an armed escort until he gave a press conference describing what was happening in the city and how UN headquarters had tied his hands. Only one international organization, the International Committee of the Red Cross, stayed on in Kigali and was critical at providing and facilitating medical care and food transport. The ICRC head was Phillipe Gaillard and I am convinced he did not sleep for the first 100 days, chain smoking his way from negotiation to negotiation and ignoring death threats. Funny how sometimes it is the tiny details you remember. In a city without running water, food and pounded by artillery, Phillipe wore a jacket and tie every day for months as part of his effort, he’d say smiling, to pretend there was sanity somewhere. And far away in Buffalo, N.Y. Alison Des Forges of Human Rights Watch, a Rwanda expert, let me wake her many times in the middle of the night to learn Rwandan history and politics.

In 2009, I returned to Rwanda. There were moments when I still smelled it, or thought I caught a glimpse of a corpse. But it was beautiful too. That year, Alison died in the air crash of a Continental commuter flight coming into Buffalo. Gen. Dallaire had gone public in 2000 about his fight with PTSD. After giving hundreds of interviews during the Genocide, Phillipe Gaillard left the public eye for eight years before resurfacing with the message that we must never forget. Both Zozo and Evariste married Genocide survivors and have large families.

Memory is smell, suffering, silence, courage, pain, love and beauty. It should not be just something we grasp on April 7th this year. Memory is everywhere. Everyday.