Tag Archives: safety and security

Peace Corps/Nepal suspended

After two bombs exploded at the American Center in Kathmandu, throwing shrapnel here and there, Peace Corps decided to suspend its program in Nepal.

This is the first time that Peace Corps has suspended its program in Nepal, which had run continuously for 42 years. That’s thousands of PCVs having served in Nepal and returned home to tell others of their experiences.

But, more importantly, what does this mean for our well loved staff of Peace Corps/Nepal? Much uncertainty, I’m sure. Very sad news indeed.

Peace Corps Suspends Program in Nepal

Washington, DC, September 13, 2004 — Peace Corps Director Gaddi H. Vasquez today announced the suspension of the Peace Corps program in Nepal effective immediately.

The Peace Corps has had a successful 42-year program in Nepal, making great strides in the areas of small business development, education, environment, youth development and working on health and HIV/AIDS education and awareness. The safety and security of the volunteer is the number one priority of the Peace Corps and in light of the current conditions in Nepal, suspension of the program is a necessary action, said Peace Corps Director Vasquez.

Currently, Peace Corps volunteers are being consolidated.

The Peace Corps program in Nepal began in 1962. Since then, more than 4,000 Americans have served as Peace Corps volunteers in the East Asian country.

My group, Nepal 194, will become the last PCVs to COS in country. I hope that not too much times passes before another group of PCVs is able to have the Peace Corps experience in Nepal.

Looking back on my service, I realize how damn lucky I was. Everything finished according to plan. Fast forward to five months later, and PCVs are waiting around a five-star hotel in Kathmandu for boarding passes for flights to Thailand, where they will spend a week or so on their COS and debriefing, i.e., ending their service.

Well, maybe I wasn’t totally lucky. That is one adventure I never experienced.

Peace Corps volunteer safety and security

The last thing that I wrote about safety and security got my Web site shut down by the Peace Corps Washington, DC, office.

Perhaps it’s just a coincident that my predictions (or rather, intelligence collected) about the security situation in the Rautahaut, Bara, and Parsa districts have come true, much to the frustration of the Peace Corps Kathmandu office. Not that it matters.

The fact is that we PCVs are ourselves responsible for our safety. How can someone expect someone else to take care of them?

So let me explain the situation.

Since December 19, 2003, when I wrote an post for this blog titled Bombs Over Birganj, there have been around 18 bombs detonated in the Birganj and Kalaiya areas, all by Maoists or Maoist affiliates.

There was also a large attack by ‘several hundred’ Maoists on the airport in Simra (the local airport for Birganj, about 12 km north).

The office where I work, the District Education Office, was bombed on February 18, 2004.

Fortunately, I was not at the office that day. I was in Kathmandu finishing my close-of-service medical checkup.

There had been two bandhas while I was in Kathmandu, so everything took a bit longer than it should have; however, this is the way of Nepal nowadays, and so one must just get used to the on-off tendencies of the country.

One day things are on, the next they’re off.

When I arrived at the Kathmandu airport on February 21, 2003, I checked in at the counter and went into the waiting area past security to wait for my flight.

As soon as I was inside, a friend who works for another airline told me that because of a ‘security problem,’ a previous flight had been unable to land in Simra. He didn’t provide, perhaps because he didn’t know, many details but assured me that my flight would be canceled. I waited.

Ten minutes after my flight was supposed to leave, an announcement over the loudspeaker said that all persons flying to Simra should return to the check-in desks. We were told that the flights to Simra were canceled, as said before, because of a now mysterious security problem.

I had just heard, while in Kathmandu that the DEO had been bombed, so I was a bit nervous. I called the Peace Corps duty officer and asked them to do a little research on the security problem in Simra and get back to me before I rescheduled my flight.

When the duty officer called me back, he told me that there had been a total of eight bombs planted along the runway in Simra. He didn’t know what type of bombs they were, just that the army was in the process of safely defusing/detonating them.

He then suggested that I wait until a few other planes had landed safely in Simra before taking a flight back. I agreed.

So one day later (and after two other planes landed safely), I boarded a plane bound for Simra. The flight was rough and I was wondering if it was the weather or the pilot’s preoccupation with possible land mines on the runway.

Once at the Simra airport, I was present when the Minister of Information (then Kamal Thapa) was arriving. The first person to exit the plane was a fatigued soldier carrying an M-16. And so was the second and then third person, until Kamal Thapa himself emerged.

Even I thought this was strange.

Back in Birganj, I stopped by an airline’s office to talk with a friend working there to see if I could get some answers about what had happened the day before at the Simra airport. They told me that five minutes after their plane had left Kathmandu for Simra, the bombs had been discovered.

The flight time between Kathmandu and Simra is about 15 minutes.

Early on the day I was flying to Simra, I ate some sekuwa near the airport, and then walked my way up to the terminals, which takes about than 10 minutes.

As I was walked to the airport, the army folks were off to the side of the road where usually stand RNA guards. Next to them were three kids, about 13 or 14 years old, standing on their heads with their shoes off. One of the army guys was beating the kids’ bare feet with a rod of some sort.

They waved me by without asking for my ticket or ID, which is the standard procedure. I stopped for a moment and asked what was happening. The army man in charge of beating feet told me that the kids were naughty. I asked why.

Because they don’t have jobs, he informed me, his frustration with the children palpable.

I thought about the kids, Maoists, and bombs at my airport.

About a week ago in Kalaiya, the army murdered two civilians in their homes, and then took their bodies to the jungle where they were buried.

Family and other folks found out about this and went into the jungle, found the buried bodies, dug them up, and marched in the main bazaar in Kalaiya, putting the bodies on display and rallying in front of the army barracks.

The people called a bandha and there was some confrontation with the police and the army, ending with the army lining up and firing blanks at the crowd, injuring 15 people.

This is how you win the people’s support, right?

Since December 2003, there have been two bombs at the army barracks and another at a police station in Kalaiya.

The number of reported cases by Nepali media of the police or army killing civilians in Nepal has been increasing every day. Stories of rape, murder, and extortion are beginning to appear with disappointing regularity in the newspapers.

Three kids were killed in Narayanghat on Maha Shivaratri. A while ago in Hetauda, a bus conductor was shot through the chest and killed by an army man who apologized on the spot, saying he had accidentally aimed the gun and pulled the trigger.

After seeing those army men beating those three kids, I think that the army cannot exist like it does without the Maoists, just as the Maoists couldn’t exist without the army being the way it is.

Somehow I forgot to mention this. Forgetting to mention something like this suggests something about how we all feel here in Nepal: safe.

Yet it is a safety borne out of complacency and a feeling of invincibility that most PCVs here feel. I think that the the thing we overlook is that the people who we are working with here just can’t leave the country if things get too bad.

Anyhow, when I got back from the training in Dharan, I was walking to my flat when I noticed a building about 200 meters from where I live looking quite a bit different.

I though, Oh, this must be getting demolished.

Later I asked a local what was happening with the building and he told me that it had been bombed a few nights ago.

Even tonight I walked by that building. Bricks are strewn about the road in front and the one side of the building is mostly exposed.

It was an empty, government building just sitting in a field—across from the the army barracks in Birganj. Why would the Maoists blow-up an old, abandoned government building that’s across the street from the army barracks?

I guess because they can.

Blogging in the Peace Corps

It was the end of December, and I was coming back to Birganj from Rajbiraj. I had celebrated Christmas for a second time in Rajbiraj and was thinking that this would be the last time I would be there, the last time I would make the trip I had made perhaps ten times before.

Last year’s Christmas was, well, difficult. We had the Ghost-of-Boyfriend-Past haunting us as well as the unpleasant work of dealing with the house dog dying of rabies. The mood was somber and the days were foggy. Late night calls were made to Kathmandu and long silences stood for explanations. The dog died the morning I left.

The day after Christmas, the winter fog settled over the East-West Highway north of Rajbiraj.

The day after Christmas, the winter fog settled over the East-West Highway north of Rajbiraj.

This year, however, Rajbiraj was a little more joyous. This was, at least as PCVs, our last Christmas away from home. There were nearly a dozen of us in Rajbiraj this year, and we filled our friends’ deraa, sleeping two to a bed with two on the floor and maybe five or so on the floor of the kitchen.

We bought two chickens, ate them. Tony made his yeast wine that everyone tried, some enjoying more than others. And the night of Christmas, Kara organized a burning program on the roof of the house.

I think I understand a little better now how a lynch mob operates. Once the fire was burning strong, with relics of things best forgotten smoking in the wet, cold night, we ran out of things to burn.

Suddenly a chair was in the fire. I went down to Laurel’s room and found knick knacks to feed the fire. Soon books and clothing found their way in the fire. A moment of clarity is all that saved Kara’s entire catalog of underwear from the blaze.

The actual fire mentioned in this story, garments as indicated.

The actual fire mentioned in this story, garments as indicated.

I was planning on going back to Birganj the day after Christmas, but it turned out that a Maoist bandha has closed the district of Saptari.

Luckily, these things get communicated quickly among the buses going to and fro, and I was saved from spending a night in Simra or Patalayia or in one of the godforsaken towns along the East-West Highway outside of Parsa district, one of the poorer stretches of the East-West Highway, known for little else besides growing problems proportionate to the Maoist one.

But I made it back to Birganj without incident. I have always managed to enjoy using public transportation in Nepal. I think it is the best way to meet people, learn the language, and see this beautiful country.

The ride was uneventful, but I started to look at things a bit more teary-eyed since my days as a PCV were coming to an end. I can’t help but force myself to look at the scenery blurring past in the window and say, The last time, the last time.

Back in Birganj, I was about to leave for Kathmandu the day before New Year’s. According to the Peace Corps policy on vacation, I can’t take vacation during my final three months in country, which means that if I wanted to use those last nine days I had earned, I would have to use them before January 7, 2004.

The Peace Corps office in Maharajgunj, Kathmandu, about two months after opening.

The Peace Corps office in Maharajgunj, Kathmandu, about two months after opening.

So I decided to fly to Kathmandu and spend the New Year’s with friends. I was going to get things right this year. I had succeeded in my Thanksgiving (in Kolkata with the US Consulate) and in Rajbiraj (no breakups or dead puppies), and I was going to get New Year’s right this year.

My previous New Year’s Eve was spent at Luke and Rob’s place in Birganj. The sun hadn’t made an appearance in a week, and the cold, humid air was permeating everything. The fog was beautiful in its way, and I fell in love with the gray Birganj winter just as reluctantly as I had fallen in love with the hellish Birganj summer.

That day, we got pizzas from a Hotel Vishuwa and shared a bottle of wine and whiskey, toasting the New Year with each pour.

I remember at some point in the evening, having to wander through the midnight rain in search of a corkscrew to open the bottle of wine. It was raining and cold but beautiful. The streets were deserted with the feral dogs sleeping in warmer places, and I felt like I was alone, like the city was mine.

Back at Rob and Luke’s, we sat in a circle trying to play one of Luke’s board games, one called Naughty Monkeys, all thinking about what we should have been doing on New Year’s Eve. That was last year.

This year, it was the day before New Year’s Eve, and I was checking my email after visiting a school. I got an email from the Peace Corps’ office saying that I needed to call immediately.

When I called, I was forwarded to talk to to the ‘number two’ in the Peace Corps office, someone with a title like “Senior Training Coordinator.” I thought it was about her upcoming visit to Birganj.

It’s about your blog, she said and my stomach sank, We’re a little concerned about some of the things you’re writing.

I immediately remembered the story of a Peace Corps volunteer in Samoa who had been sent home because of what he had been writing in his personal Web site.

They said that Al-Qaeda could use it to track down Peace Corps volunteers in Samoa, he told me, I told them if Al-Qaeda wanted to find volunteers in Samoa, they could just come ask where the Peace Corps volunteers lived.

He had been shuttled out of the country 72 hours after being contacted.

The finance office In once-new Peace Corps office in Maharajgunj.

The finance office In once-new Peace Corps office in Maharajgunj.

I had three months left in Nepal. I wanted to finish my work and leave knowing that I hadn’t failed in any way. So I agreed, perhaps too quickly, that I would suspend publishing to my Web site until I finished my remaining three months of service.

After that, I could say whatever I wanted, granted it wasn’t libelous, which I’m not worried about since the Peace Corps office wasn’t concerned about the truthful things I was publishing.

Seems that people coming in the soon-to-arrive group of volunteers had been chatting and reading Web blogs of volunteers and were concerned about the security situation.

This phone call had occurred exactly two weeks after I had posted an entry titled Bombs Over Birganj about something like half a dozen bombs in the Birganj area (where I live) and a massive attack by the Maoists on my airport, which was, by most measures, a failed attack.

Two people had called the Peace Corps headquarters in Washington, DC, and said they weren’t coming based on this and other stuff they had read in chat rooms about the situation in Nepal. I was a thorn in the recruiting office’s side.

When I got to Kathmandu, I knew things were going to be different this year. We gathered at the Hotel Ambassador on New Year’s Eve, ordered pizzas, and brought wine bought from a store down the road.

Kathmandu was cold, but the staff at the hotel built us a bonfire in the hotel’s garden. We gathered around the warmth, told stories, met our Nepali friends who happened to be in town.

PCVs using the computers at the Peace Corps office in Maharajgunj.

PCVs using the computers at the Peace Corps office in Maharajgunj.

That’s what made this year different. I wasn’t a solitary bideshi walking through the dirty empty streets of Birganj in search of a corkscrew. I was just a guy with a kaleidoscope of friends enjoying the fleetingness of the moment.

Since Thanksgiving, my days have been filled with lasts. My last impromptu Thanksgiving with curries. My last Christmas with second-hand gifts. My last New Year’s Eve with more than a dozen friends.

Nothing about finishing my Peace Corps service frightens me, except that in leaving Peace Corps, I’m parting ways with some of best people who I have come to call friends.

A week later, during our COS conference in late January, I was rushing around in the computer room trying to get materials arranged and the curriculum printed for a teacher training in Dharan.

Kara was working at a computer, and I went by before I left, since I wouldn’t have time to go out that night and was leaving bright and early the next morning for Biratnagar (and from there, Dharan).

I said, See you later, but for a moment neither of us really knew when later would be.

There was a pause, looking at one another, really, for the first time in two years, uncertain of what would come next.

Still learning

Things should be simpler. If people can travel to another hemisphere, learn a somewhat obscure second language, eat with their hands, and grow comfortable with the sounds of bombs and gunfire, then surely organizing and executing a basic teacher training with motivated teachers in a scenic location shouldn’t be a problem.

Piece of cake. Kid stuff. I had done it before, in Nepalgunj (not even a scenic location), and it was a success.

But things are not getting simpler in Nepal. The bombs are creeping closer, and people are growing uneasy with the developing situation. The police seem less restrained, and, as most people are slowly realizing in the Terai, the Maoists are wielding more power than most of us thought possible.

Swimming and drinking during an overnight evacuation drill at Hotel Vishuwa.

Swimming and drinking during an overnight evacuation drill at Hotel Vishuwa.

Less than a month, ago I was met some ICRC (Red Cross) folks in Birganj. We chatted a bit and started talking about security and the Maoists. Without thinking, I told them that there wasn’t much of a Maoist presence in Birganj.

Actually, he told me, There are many more Maoists here than you think.

And we left it at that.

Seven of us had been invited to go to the US Consulate in Kolkata for Thanksgiving, which we all eagerly accepted. About a week before Thanksgiving, we were to meet out east in Nepal though there was trouble.

The PST in Butwol had to be moved elsewhere because of the sudden realization that the security in the area might not have been at the levels necessary.

Peace Corps pulled volunteers out of two districts, Palpa and Rupandehi, and put everyone on alert not to leave their sites in case . . . in case of . . . something.

Luckily, we had approval to leave Nepal and travel to Kolkata for Thanksgiving. For that, we were thankful. But there was a condition on which travel permissions had been granted.

Peace Corps required us to acknowledge in writing that there was a chance, A small chance they told us, that we might not be allowed to return to Nepal if something happens.

None of us knew exactly what they meant by ‘something,’ and none of us asked. We left.

We stayed in touch with the office while in India, and we arrived back in Nepal as if everything was normal. Even though it was never said explicitly, we knew that the office had made our trip conditional because, in fact, there was a chance that the program could be suspended, and Peace Corps volunteers evacuated from Nepal.

It was obvious. We called to the office, talked to the receptionist about the weather, and strolled back into Nepal tossing our Thanksgiving football around.

I had made plans with another volunteer in Dharan to hold a training for the teachers of the government school where she’d been doing some extra circulatory stuff, like conversation English.

They had asked for help, and I had volunteered. I am a volunteer, after all. I wrote up a proposal for the Peace Corps office, and everything had been approved. I wrote the lesson plans for the training, and was all set after Thanksgiving. But it wasn’t that simple.

After being back in Nepal just a few days, the Maoists had announced a couple bandhas. One called for a education strike that would happen during the middle of my planned training.

Not a problem, I thought, just a single day.

I thought we’d be able to either move the training up, cut a day, or just add a day to the end. After spending a couple nights in Birtamod, I made my way to Dharan to meet with Jen, my counterpart for the training.

The training’s been cancelled, she said when I met her in Dharan.

At least in Dharan the single-day education bandha had turned into a two-day education bandha immediately followed by a third day everything bandha.

It wasn’t going to happen. Also, I had to hurry up and make my way back to Birganj before the third day of the strikes otherwise I might end up stranded somewhere in between while traveling.

I had to call a friend in another Terai town who was going to help with the training before he left his site for Dharan. When I finally talked to him, he told me that the night before there had been a bomb at a private school about 50 m from another volunteer’s house in his town.

They were walking home together at about 6:30 p.m. when it exploded.

I felt it in my stomach, he told me.

I left Dharan more with the intention of getting back to Birganj before admin did something rash. Yet I don’t believe they would. I remember during my PST, there was the occasional breakfast chat about waking up to gunfire or an explosion.

I’ve since held to my conviction that Peace Corps/Nepal will never pull out of Nepal. Just a couple days after getting back into Nepal, a PCV on his way up to visit the last volunteer remaining in Ilam told us about cycling around the Kathmandu Valley and watching the Royal Nepal Army fire RPGs from one distant hill to the other side.

Nothing to see here, folks. Move along.

Nothing to see here, folks. Move along.

We tell these stories and we laugh. We laugh at either the coincidence or irony or whatever it is (we can’t tell because we’ve had a couple beers) that a PCV ate dinner one night while watching the neighbor’s house burn down at the hands of Maoists or, remember that one time, about how teacher told a PCV that neighborhood Maoists had asked the teacher’s permission/opinion for kidnapping him. And that one time when the police shot Ryan’s host brother near the house.

We are not desensitized. We are not complacent. We are resolved. We stand fast.

After the bombing near my friends’ house, Peace Corps sent one of the senior staff to go and check out the situation.

The PCV living nearby went with the staff member, and after looking at the school and talking to a few people, he turned to the PCV and said, Well, saathi, they can put bombs in pumpkins, dead dogs, and under the ground. So be careful, hoina, and patted her on the shoulder, making everything OK again.

These are not the droids you’re looking for.

The training has been rescheduled for January, after our All-Vol in the middle of the month.

Honestly, I think we are safe enough to be here. Today. Tomorrow. And probably the day after.

After that, though, my Magic 8 Ball says, Future unclear. Check back later.