The Riots in Kathmandu

Travel Journal Overview: Something was up in Kathmandu. People were quite, little was said. I had friends coming, and needed to get out an explore. Not to mention arrange my Tibetan permit. I didn’t get very far …

Medical Teams moving into acton, Kathmandu, Nepal (click to enlarge)
Medical Teams moving into acton, Kathmandu, Nepal (click to enlarge)

It was pancakes in real butter for breakfast. Kathmandu also looked after it’s tourists too. It was also over breakfast that I noticed Monique really did have quite the enchanting smile. Mix that with deep dark brown eyes and I could see why Madu served her pancakes first. Both Monique and Stephi were volunteers here in local monasteries. It meant I was on my own to find out about Kathmandu in a day for my impending visitors the next day.

I retraced my steps from the previous nights trail. Sangi had mentioned that Kathmandu had seemed really quite when she came over in the morning. I asked about the strike and they said there had been protests about the fuel price increase for weeks now. Again I wondered why the hell Chubby or Narayan had never told me about this.

Kathmandu was indeed empty. I wandered into Thamel and saw nothing but metal shutters and empty streets. A tourist girl walked by chatting to someone on her phone, the streets were so quite I could here the conversation clearly.

“No nothing, its all closed… I don’t know… I know….Yes…. No, I will try Z street for breakfast… no, no work… OK later.”

I almost stopped her and asked why everything was quiet, but I realized I was a little lost. I had to back trace. The least I could do for Maeve and Alec was to know how to get to the hotel.

Thamel had a large Carlsbad sign over a bakery, and it seemed that’s where I kept ending up as I tried to make sense of the empty streets. Bookshops, trekking stores, cafés and more or the same made each street look the same as the other. Most with metal shutters pulled down.

Walking into a riot, Kathmandu, Nepal
Walking into a riot, Kathmandu, Nepal

I ventured further out down a long quiet street. A few locals walked by, some stood at the side of the road chatting and a few sat on the side of the road. I looked at one lady and saw she was in tears.

The air was cold and street up ahead was foggy. The stets were in a state of disrepair. Bricks lay strewn around the road, and buildings looked to be crumbling away.

I looked up into the foggy street ahead. The pollution was bad, my eyes were stinging. In fact as I looked around at some others on the side of the road they were having the same problem. My mind started to snap into reality just as 4 medics arrived, red crosses emblazon across their chests.

Something was going on. i took my camera out and started photographing the medics as they tended to a mans face with tissues. It wasn’t fog, nor pollution, it was tear gas. I could smell it now as I reached the end of the street. My nose ached a little as the sulphuric like oder grew stronger. Unlike regular sulfur this smell seemed to seep into ones pores. My throat filled with the metallic, nasal taste of tear gas. I felt my eyes sting with a strange burning sensation not unlike having pepper or chili in your eyes.

I continued down the road and came to the junction. To my left the road went up a small incline where there was a mass of people all staring and pointing ahead. I turned to my right. The first thing that came to my head was that I was in the wrong place at the wrong time. About 200 feet past a large crowd of semi masked Nepalese were two rows of black clad riot police.

Riot Police at the ready in Nepal
Riot Police at the ready in Nepal

Clear plastic shields in place the first row was kneeling down, the second row looking to be holding weapons. The crowd surged forward. I noticed some smiles. Was it a smile of nervousness, or was something else going on?

Students vs Riot Police, Kathmandu, Nepal (click to enlarge)
Students vs Riot Police, Kathmandu, Nepal (click to enlarge)

Photographs. That’s what was going through my head. Now was an opportunity to add to my collection of Round the World photographs, the riots in Kathmandu. And I was in the middle of them.

I moved with the crowd as it pushed forward. They were mainly young student types. I few older people looked on from the windows of nearby houses. All shop fronts were sealed off with metal shutters. Some people had wrapped scarves around there faces, whether to protect from the gas or to hide from identification I do not know.

Raising my camera above their heads I zoomed in on the police line. I knew at any moment the police could fire off rubber bullets, more gas, or worse still open fire. But there were at least 5 rows of people scattered out before me, and an exit down the street I came in from.

The pictures were blurred. The clouds above were heavy, little sunlight and the foggy tear gas made the lighting hard to judge. This combined with the pushing crowd and the fact that my hands were not to steady meant I had to get closer for a better shot.

Moving along the far concrete wall I eased forward. I was out from the main crowd. I was sure the police could see a foreigner was there. With adjusted settings I started photographing again. Better results and as I was just zooming in on a police man pointing to the crowd a great cheer from behind distracted me.

Police throwing bricks back
Police throwing bricks back

20 or so students rushed forward, grabbing at debris on the ground as they ran. 50 feet out from the barricade off armed riot police the majority stopped and began hurling the derbies high in the air. The riot shields went up and the clacking of brink on heavy plastic echoed around the street. A few gutsy students went further forward and began hurling bricks closer to the squad of silent police.

Then just as we knew it would happen a loud thud rang out from behind the police line. Then another. The crowd ran back as did I. Rubber bullets I was sure. The sound of heavy plastic and body armor clattered behind me. They were charging forward.

Another thud. This time I saw the munition land. It was a Grey canister that was shooting white gas from one end. As if others had noticed it too some in the crowd turned around with me to glance back. The Police had moved up 50 feet and then set down their wall of shields again. The second row of police then began to hurl the debris once used against them back towards the crowd. Chunks of brick, bottle and wood sticks rained down sporadically. The crowd seemed to measure the distance well, and were just out of range of the barrage. Realizing this a few of the crowd leaders led them in a victorious cheer.

Another tear gas canister thudded into the air and as if expecting worse we all jerked reflexively in unison. The grey canister landed and bounced along near the front line of the crowd, its white poise instantly hissing out. A front line man of the rioters ran forward and quickly scooped up the cannister and sent it back in the direction of the police. It didn’t reach them by a long shot, but it seem to settle the police back into a guarded stance once again.

Tear gas clears the streets in Kathmandu, Nepal
Tear gas clears the streets in Kathmandu, Nepal

It was this slow methodical method of moving forward the riot police used for the next 4 attempts at pushing the mob back up the road. During this time I was mingling well into the crowd. Strangely my nerves were relaxed within the crowd. Through scarf covered heads, blackened and dirt smeared faces I was greeted with smiles. Some it seemed appreciated me being there. Maybe so the photographs would depict their struggle to the outside world. Or maybe just being from the outside world offered me protection.

My guessing was that the riot was about the fuel price increase that had delayed my bus the day before. These were ordinary people protesting against this and not an anger anarchic mob out for blood. A few people asked if I was a journalist or tourist. I wanted to say the former in hope of getting some good close p’s, as if the title afforded me that. Gut instinct told me to say the latter, which I did. I received nods of neutrality.

The police were becoming more frequent in their pushes forward. I had missed the turn off for the street I had arrived by as the

Escaping down an allyway in Kathmandu
Escaping down an allyway in Kathmandu

crowd had moved back quite a bit. We were now on a steep incline along the road. It gave a full few of the police line as it charged forward. We all stood in agitated silence after a few youths would discharge a barrage of debris at the uniformed assault force. We knew what was coming.

Thud. Thud. Two rounds of tear gas shot into the air. The clattering of plastic followed as the police took charge and rushed forward by 20 feet. We turned tail and ran back. Always expecting the police to continue the charge I tried to make for a side street. Again the police charged. They were making a strong move forward. Perhaps a final attempt to break up the mob.

We were at the near the top of the incline on the road thus making the angle to acute to see further along the road. I wondered if we were being baited into a trap. Without knowing the area or seeing further down the road we could be between two charges of police. A rain of bricks began to fall around us as the riot police below fired their makeshift missiles in our direction. A small group of the mob darted down a narrow street to the left. I joined them in the hope it would lead back into the main Thamel area where I could circle back around if need be.

It was a bad move. Just as I entered the narrow lane a barrage of tear gas canisters rained down along the street outside. The white gas quickly filled the air as more debris fell along side it. Two people from the group I had followed rushed up beside me as if trying to make a break for it back in the main road. I looked back and saw why. It was a dead end. We were trapped.

The riot police charge forward in Kathmandu
The riot police charge forward in Kathmandu

I floundered for a second with some others. Should we move further into the lane in hope for a route out, or run back out into the main road that was now a mass of swirling white toxic smoke. A drift of wind blew a plume our way. Stronger than before I felt my eyes burn and throat seize up as more than one of us tried to block the gas from reaching our eyes. It answered the question though and we headed further down the lane way. Scarves, handkerchiefs and hands all wipes at faces as people tried to remove the gases toxins. I had swallowed a mouthful of the gas and was finding it hard to breath. My ears were in tears and my vision impaired. I could make out the blur of houses with little gates outside strong steel shutters that lined the lane. Everything was shut up tightly, a sign that riots were common place. It was true though, the lane was a cul-de-sac. We were trapped like cornered animals. All frantically looking around impassible walls and closed doors for an escape route.

With no choice but to wait I used my own scarf to press against my face. Waiting and hoping for the

Running from the riot police charge (click to enlarge)
Running from the riot police charge (click to enlarge)

tear gases effects to wear off. At one stage I looked up and saw th blurry images of the others surrounding the dead end. Some were smiling nervously, others calmly wiping their faces.

“Are you a journalist?”

Wiping my eyes again I looked up to see a round face smiling at me. The man was resting against the wall, wiping away a smear of black soot from his forehead. I shook my head.

His smile widened. “Ah, a tourist. Not such a good place Kathmandu for you now.”

I laughed, trying to brush off the comment. “I have seen worse. What’s this about anyway?”

The Police charge forward again (click to enlarge)
The Police charge forward again (click to enlarge)

A frown appeared on the young man’s forehead, “It is the fuel increase. To high. They increase the cost of city bus. The students cannot afford it. To go for education even is too much. The governments needs to help more. Where have you seen worse?”

Standing up straight I thought about taking pictures of us all cornered down here. But thought better of it until I could put this man’s suspicions at east. “Africa,” I lied, “Many riots there over bad governments.”

“Really?” he replied looking down the lane way. “Well this is Nepal, things have to be changing.”

The clatter of plastic shields had stopped, and the gas was subsiding. I looked around our little refuge. If the riot police came down the lane way we would be screwed. Even three armored men could make mince meat of us in such a small enclosure. I would have had to play the trapped tourist card, but was equally unsure that in the frenzy of a beat down I would be noticed nor cared about.

Taking my chances with a few others we ran up to the tip of the lane way again. Rocks, chunks of brick and what looked like iron bars

Bricks equal ammo durning the riots
Bricks equal ammo durning the riots

were falling randomly in the direction of the mob. A man made a dash for it. A brick landed by his feet shattering into a puff of dust as he skidded alongside an abandoned car. A heavy iron bar clanked against a shop window and clattered noisily down the steel shutters.

From my vantage point I could just about make out that the riot police were a mere 30 feet away to our right. The mob was a safe distance up the hill to the left. I also saw that there were several buildings that had been in a state of repair nearby, hence the near unlimited supply brick ammunition. There was only one option. Staying put was asking for trouble should the police charge up any further.

There was no sense in timing anything. The bricks fell randomly. Only now they seemed bigger and more destructive them ever. Above me I heard them smashing down on rooftops, then sliding noisily down before plummeting over the side and crashing onto the street below. It would mean I would have no cover running beside the buildings. But then again I had no choice.

Taking a clear look at the line of black riot police to my right I emerged from the lane way and heavily stooped ran to my left. My mind ventured off to childhood war movies. News footage. A brick clattered onto a roof above me, I was two feet in front of it by the

Restocking the ammo
Restocking the ammo

time it smashed into the ground behind. In an almost slow motion surreal moment time slowed as I scampered over roadside debris. Was this what it was like in a combat zone? Never knowing when you could be hit out in the open like this. I visualized a solid red brick crashing down on the back of my head. Would I stay conscious? Or be knocked cold. I remembered there was a medical team nearby. My mind was focusing on the noise from behind and above. Listening for any clue of an incoming chunk of brick.

A surge of student ahead of me pushed back with a counterattack and drew the random fire away from me. A half demolished wall to my left offered protection along with the company of a half dozen students. We were relatively safe as another lane turned off by this construction site. The site also offered up the rioters their own source of unlimited brick ammunition. Almost with military effectiveness one man stood behind the semi demolished red bricked wall and through full sized bricks to a colleague standing on the main road. The bricks were then dumped into separate piles where groups of people picked them up and smashed them down to resize them into smaller more manageable projectiles.

The riot police were at the bottom of the hill now. It seemed they were making up their minds whether to charge forward again or continue to absorb the flying mortar attack. A group of students were huddled around a burning tire in the center of the road. It was a meeting of strategy. A messenger would occasionally be beckoned over, given instructions and then pass over the information to the brick throwers on the front line.

A sudden cheer went up. At first I found it hard to see what had happened. Then looking down at the riot police I saw them falling

Students celebrate as the police fall back
Students celebrate as the police fall back

back. Had they had enough of the infinite brick assault. Or were they more likely to be regrouping. The crowd moved forward. The leaders around the fire breaking away and shouting new orders to the mob.

The police continued to fall back. Walking backwards slowly, shields still pointing towards the lessening barrage of projectiles. First 10 feet at a time, stopping for a minute between retreats. Then, once out of projectile range, they turned and walked back up the road.

Cheers of victory filled the streets. I wondered for second if the police were not backing off because of some serious heavy muscle coming in. A tank perhaps. But no. As I looked around I saw something even more perplexing. The smiles and waves were exchanged between the rioters and a few police. As if it had been the a friendly little practice game between members of the same team.

A old man pushing a bicycle emerged from between the dispersing row of riot police. I watched as he walked emotionless up the hill, unscathed, unfazed and seemingly unimpressed by the whole event.

Medical teams effected by the tear gas
Medical teams effected by the tear gas

Some related links on this website that  you might like: (including a lot more photographs from Nepal)

Stories: Talika the twelve year old miner from Nepal

Stories: NGO’s in Nepal & Developing Countries

Resources: How to Guide – Nepal to Tibet Overland

Resources: How to hire a guide in Nepal

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