Tag Archives: war reporting

“Way to Massacre Place” – We know the Where. Please fill in the Who, What, Why

The Narayanhiti Palace, now a museum and a former residence of Nepali kings. ©Donatella Lorch

The Narayanhiti Palace, now a museum and a former residence of Nepali kings. ©Donatella Lorch

The sign is nondescript and small. For my nine-year-old son, it is the first tantalizing hint of what lies ahead. “Way to Massacre Place,” it declares, an arrow pointing right, followed a few meters beyond by “Location of Royal Palace Massacre,” in case somehow visitors manage to deviate from the one-way path guarded by an armed soldier. Personally, I was already having an Alice-down-the-rabbit-hole moment. This was my second visit – a palace massacre recidivist – scribbling notes on a wrinkled sheet of paper, as all visitors have to surrender their bags, their cameras and their phones before entering.

In Nepal, an absolute monarchy not that long ago, the 2001 royal massacre is the stuff of legends. A large crowd of Nepalis queue regularly in front of the elegant metal gate of the Narayanhiti Palace, now a museum, but until 2001 the primary residence of Nepal’s kings. It does not seem to have the same magnetism for foreign tourists, even though it is walking distance from Thamel, the humming hub for all things touristy.

On June 1, 2001 (according to the official version), King Birendra Bir Bikram Shah Dev, 55, considered to be an incarnation of Lord Vishnu, was gunned down during a family dinner party here by his 30-year-old son, Crown Prince Dipendra. In swift succession, Dipendra, dressed in camouflage and armed with an M-16 and a collection of various deadly automatic weapons, killed nine family members, including his mother, brother and sister. He then turned the gun on himself. He lived long enough after he shot himself to be declared king–but as he lay dying the 240-year-old monarchy was dying as well. In 2008, Birendra’s brother and Dipendra’s successor, abdicated, and Nepal became the newest democracy on the South Asian block. But in many ways, the massacre and its aftermath, coupled with an ever-growing plethora of conspiracy theories, remains an emblem of the ethnic and political complexities, traditions, superstitions, conflicts and distrust that pervades today’s Nepali society.

King Birendra (left), Queen Aishwarya and Crown Prince Dipendra (middle)

King Birendra (left), Queen Aishwarya and Crown Prince Dipendra (middle)

To get to the massacre signs, you first walk through a collection of meeting rooms and bedrooms frozen in a 1970s décor, part ski chalet, part genteelly-rundown villa. Stuffed dusty tigers, lions, stag heads, paintings of former kings, elephant feet used as footstools, antelope-hoof candleholders, a gigantic Gharial crocodile nailed to a wall. The portrait hallway has the Nepali King and Queen posing with various international visitors, such as Marshal Josip Broz Tito, Zia ul Haq, Nicolae Ceausescu, Francois Mitterand , and some of lesser fame such as the president of the Swiss Federation. The bookshelves in other rooms mix biographies of the Dalai Lama with classics such as Lord Jim and Kitty Kelley’s The Royals. White mothballs decorate the carpets and chairs and, whether it’s to ward off the densely humid monsoon weather or to mummify time, every room greets me with the pervasive smell of naphthalene.

On the ill-fated evening of the massacre, Eton-educated Dipendra was hosting his extended family. Dipendra (known widely as ‘Dippy’) had issues, according to published reports. He drank hard, loved hashish, liked to torture animals and watch them die, and didn’t get along with his mother Queen Aishwarya, who disapproved of the woman he wanted to marry. His bedroom closet was stocked with a vast array of weaponry and ammunition. Survivors described him as single-mindedly going after his victims one by one and even leaving the room to switch weapons. He shot his mother and brother in the garden before killing himself. You can see re-enactments on YouTube.

The Western world had the Empiricists, the Rationalists, the Scholastics, the Logical Positivists, the Imperialists. In the U.S. we added the Survivalists who believe that black United Nations helicopters will invade America. Post-massacre Nepal gave an orchestra seat to the Bollywoodists.

The initial palace reaction was a public relations disaster, a critical weakness that only enhanced the belief that they were disconnected from life outside their gate. The official statement said a gun had accidentally misfired, killing the king. Dipendra, then in a coma, was named king, and held that position for three days. Subsequently, the building where the shooting took place was razed and the victims cremated, without any autopsies. Later, an official inquiry, headed by the chief justice and one other Nepali, produced a 200-page report that identified Dipendra as the gunman but left many unanswered questions.

Nepal was isolated from the outside world until the 1950s. Citizens, like this woman, knew no government other than an absolute monarchy and a king who was considered a god. ©Donatella Lorch

Nepal was isolated from the outside world until the 1950s. Citizens, like this woman, knew no government other than an absolute monarchy and a king who was considered a god. ©Donatella Lorch

While the masses outside the gates may have believed in the divinity of their king, they didn’t believe the palace’s story. Thirteen years on, interest has not waned. This week, yet another book was published further promoting the mystery with the underlying theory that if you can’t prove it and no one will admit to it, it must be right.

When things go wrong in Nepal, India is usually high on the list of culprits. Some of the paranoia is founded in fact. India is the huge neighbor next door and they have a history of bullying their tiny neighbors. Many Nepalis believe that it was not Dipendra who did the killing but rather India’s intelligence agency, the Research and Analysis Wing or RAW (for good measure the CIA is also included in some conspiracies), whose agents have, I am often told, totally infiltrated the country. RAW allegedly paid off King Birendra’s brother, Gyanendra, who later became king (an unpopular one), to organize the killing. Many of my Nepali friends say the unquestionable proof is that Gyanendra was not present at the massacre and his son survived the shooting. Another conspiracy centers on the popular Bollywood make-up artist Oscar-winning act. A cook, who was present that night but has since disappeared, claims several men in camouflage wearing Dipendra masks entered the gathering and opened fire. These mask wearers are the ones who allegedly also killed Dipendra. This links with the story-line that Dipendra had not one but two bullets in the head. (and remember — there was no autopsy. Hmmm!)

Today, Nepal is struggling with political disarray, corruption and a booming population that wants its government to supply the basics of water, fuel and electricity. Many opinion makers hark back to the halcyon days of the monarchy as the pillar of Nepali identity and sovereignty, especially when India-phobia resurfaces. Yet, many handily forget that in a democracy, sovereignty is vested in the people, not in the divine right of kings. Democracy in Nepal has an enormously difficult legacy to overcome. The monarchy was in its last throws, a spent force, with poor leadership, a dysfunctional family that was disconnected from its desperately poor subjects and the growing Maoist uprising across the country. Yet all these conspiracies could help also a royal comeback.

Nepal has come a long way from denying Dipendra’s role to posting signs to guide tourists to the royal massacre site. They now highlight the bullet holes in the concrete wall where Dipendra shot his brother. Nepali crowds flock to the palace, a once Forbidden City, where they can witness the lives of people they believed were gods. A high point is the map that details the locations where everyone was killed. Even so, the official four-page brochure handed out at the gate provides only two short sentences on the royal massacre.

The most difficult legacy of the palace massacre may be that most Nepalis are left just with a myth, anecdotes, various story lines and the looming blue Genie of the RAW. Mothballs preserve the only history they can still see.

Vietnam – in my mind, in my soul and now a place I’ve been

The Mekong Delta © Donatella Lorch

The Mekong Delta
© Donatella Lorch

From 10,000 feet, the Mekong Delta stretches glass flat, large brown snaking rivers interconnecting with shrinking and swelling zigzagging tributaries. The land is dark green, leaking into an aquamarine South China Sea. The clouds, miniature white fluffs, are not even big enough to cast shadows on the earth. My mind is wandering. One moment I look hard for physical signs of a war almost 40 years gone. Then the utter flatness below fills me with sadness too. The Mekong Delta is on the path of our rising oceans and scientists predict it will disappear in a few decades. But as my plane touches down, in the heart of Ho Chi Minh City, I am mostly anticipating.

Ho Chi Minh City/Saigon at sunset. ©Donatella Lorch

Ho Chi Minh City/Saigon at sunset. ©Donatella Lorch

This is my first trip to Vietnam. When I was 15, Vietnam was the only place I wanted to visit. It was the summer of 1977 and my father’s work had brought us to Medellin in Colombia. I came face to face with the war in a bedroom closet of our rented house where I had gone to forage and explore on a hot lazy afternoon. In a dark corner was a pile of dusty Life magazines. I sat down next to them, the closet door letting in just enough light to read, and for the next few hours, and for many weeks after that, I leafed through pictures of dust, heat, blood, tanks and helicopters, faces contorted in pain and desperation or just impenetrable. 1966, 1967, 1968. Tet, Hue, Khe Sanh, the Perfume River, Ben Tre, Dien Bien Phu. Dates and names that grabbed and held.

The Perfume River in Hue. Yard by yard it was one of the Marine's most costly battles in Vietnam. ©Donatella Lorch

The Perfume River in Hue. Yard by yard it was one of the Marine’s most costly battles in Vietnam. ©Donatella Lorch

It is not that the Vietnam War was an unknown quantity. As a family, we listened religiously to the news on WQXR. I remember exactly where I was sitting when I watched on TV as American helicopters were pushed off aircraft carriers into the South China Sea. My parents talked about the war at dinner and in our weekend commutes to the Catskills. Wars, or rather the images of war, had in one way or another always been part of my childhood. On long car rides, my mother would weave me her stories of joining the Italian resistance during World War II in Rome and of being arrested and imprisoned by the Germans. On rainy summer days, my cousin Carlo and I pored over his magazines of World War II Pacific battles. My older sister had decapitated all the family dolls but it never occurred to me to ask for new ones. I played with Carlo’s GI Joes.

But that summer in 1977, Vietnam became personal. I didn’t want to be a passive observer. So without knowing what it entailed, or how I was supposed to get to the finish line, I decided that I wanted to be a war correspondent. Hopelessly naïve? Yes. Innocent? For sure. Clueless? Definitely. I spent hours and days learning every detail of those pictures. Back in New York, I made my mother escort me to Columbia Univeristy’s Butler Library so I could use her ID card and take out military books on Vietnam’s battles. At 16, my mother gave me my most memorable Christmas gift: Michael Herr’s Dispatches. I have since read it over a dozen times. It has travelled with me to four continents. The spine is cracked, the pages marked so I can grab a quick high from his explosive, taunting, cutting, visceral and utterly visual prose. If I wanted to get high, I didn’t need drugs. I had Dispatches.

On the outskirts of Kabul, 1989 with the Afghan Mujaheddin. ©Donatella Lorch

On the outskirts of Kabul, 1989 with the Afghan Mujaheddin. ©Donatella Lorch

It took me until May 2014 to make it to Vietnam. By then war was something I had already done. The romance was long gone. I had coped–not always successfully–with all the intangibles that came with it. My sister says I became a journalist because I didn’t know what else to do. My Italian cousin, also a journalist, warned me that what made front page in the morning wrapped the fish at night. Not sure whether I could ever figure out how to be a journalist, I had studied Chinese, worked as a tour guide in mainland China, danced for a Taiwanese rock band, tried (unsuccessfully) to get a PhD in Indic Studies and then in 1987 went to Afghanistan where I spent two years traveling and writing about the Mujaheddin.

Interviewing demobilized Somali militia near Hergeisa, Somaliland © Donatella Lorch

Interviewing demobilized Somali militia near Hergeisa, Somaliland © Donatella Lorch

Twenty five years: big wars, small wars, a genocide, inner city crime, inheriting three children when I married a widower, adding on another one. Having three teenagers at home. Living in Kenya and now in Nepal. Sometimes I felt I’d been put in a blender that overheated and stalled before the final smooth product was ready. I still felt the need to see the Vietnam I had housed in my head for all those years.

I don’t know what I expected Vietnam to give me. On the surface, the war is long gone. Three million Vietnamese (two million civilians) and over 58,000 Americans dead. Today, the majority of Vietnamese are young—born after the war ended, they are too young to know the past intimately. For some of them, it is now just a backdrop.

Wedding photo shoot on an old U.S. bunker. Highway 1 heading to Hue ©Donatella Lorch

Wedding photo shoot on an old U.S. bunker. Highway 1 heading to Hue ©Donatella Lorch

On Highway 1 between Danang and Hue, I saw a young Vietnamese couple pose for a wedding photo shoot on a decaying American bunker. The battle fields in Hue are unfindable. The Continental Hotel, in Saigon, is such a posh hotel that I felt an imposter as I walked through the lobby. China Beach is in the process of becoming a shoulder-to- shoulder high-end collection of resorts. Beautiful roads, strict traffic rules, 24-hour electricity, clean sidewalks, tree-lined avenues (puts Nepal to shame)–a communist country where the triumphs of capitalism are visible everywhere. A Lamborghini store is scheduled to open soon in Ho Chi Minh City.

Endless sand on China Beach ©Donatella Lorch

Endless sand on China Beach ©Donatella Lorch

Vietnam is a beautiful land wrapped in delectable food with a coffee shop on every corner. I became a war tourist of sorts. I dripped sweat all day and thought of soldiers humping through the jungle with 50lbs packs, flak jackets and leeches.

Dropping down into a camouflaged Viet Cong tunnel, Cu Chi, Vietnam ©Donatella Lorch

Dropping down into a camouflaged Viet Cong tunnel, Cu Chi, Vietnam ©Donatella Lorch

Alongside my 9-year-old son, I was mesmerized by the Cu Chi tunnel network. I wiped away tears at the War Remnants Museum and insisted on walking and re-walking Le Loi and Tu Do Avenues.

And every Huey and Chinook helicopter I saw (and there are many parked on the grounds of Ho Chi Minh City museums), reminded me of my long standing love-affair with these hulking beasts. I first met them in Dispatches – “Savior- Destroyers” Herr called them.

Love those Hueys.  On the rooftop of "Reunification Palace" -- the former South Vietnamese presidential palace. ©Donatella Lorch

Love those Hueys. On the rooftop of “Reunification Palace” — the former South Vietnamese presidential palace. ©Donatella Lorch

It was an arranged marriage on paper and later I fell for them hard in Somalia, Rwanda, Afghanistan, flying night missions in Black Hawks, scrunched in the gunners seat in Gunships and in Hueys, door open, feet dangling, music blaring, flying Nap of the Earth along Rwanda’s rivers. Grit- whipping terror, sweaty dank canvas, every part of my body on edge.

The first North Vietnamese soldiers to storm the presidential Palace, Saigon, April 1975

The first North Vietnamese soldiers to storm the presidential Palace, Saigon, April 1975

Some local history is scrubbed so clean that I only realized later that my Ho Chi Minh City hotel, selected because it was near the local office of my husband’s company, was just one block from the site of the former US Embassy. I was 13 years old in April 1975 when the last American helicopter lifted off into a slate sky in a final desperate evacuation.

Everyone has their own war story, their own angle of vision, and none of my wars have been like Vietnam. Long ago, I’d agonized that I had missed it, that I was born too late. But that doesn’t matter anymore. War is memory and it must never be forgotten.

 

 

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.