Blood Spilled in Kathmandu
Tears were dripping from the young man's eyes as he pulled his shirt open and pounded on his chest, walking step-by-step closer to the line of armed police. "You killed them," he said, "You shot them and if you've killed my friends, please kill me too." The police glanced back and forth at one another, unsure of what to do or say. “Don't you understand?" he croaked through a voice strangled by tears, "We don't just want democracy for us. What we're doing, we're doing for Nepal – we're doing this for you."
Twenty minutes later the calm broke when a volley of rocks and bottles began to rain down on police and protesters alike. Suddenly the air was again full of tear gas and I wiped feverishly at my eyes, trying to shoot frame after frame as figures darted in and out of the bitter fog. Protesters charged at the police screaming, "King Gyanendra is a thief, he stole our country," and I found myself in a human pile, attempting to protect my cameras and body while being stampeded by the retreating security forces. When the air cleared, I found myself cut off from my friends.
The myth of Shangri-La evaporated in front of me several days before as I held the hand of a weeping little girl, hiding under her bed, after she had been grazed by a stray bullet in another part of town. Then, while I'd seen intestines spilling from the abdomen of a man who'd been shot point-blank by a rubber bullet and watched as medical personnel pulled buckshot from the back of another, I knew that nobody had been killed. Now, as I peered through my viewfinder, hoping that a stray rock wouldn't strike me unawares, I had no idea that the government was using live ammunition.
After the echoes from the rifle's cracks receded, and the pop-pop of a 9mm being fired came to an end, Paula and I made a dash down the brick-strewn street and joined our friends Tomas van Houtryve, on assignment for The New York Times, and Magnum photographer Jonas Beindiksen, who had raced up from a story in India, huddled in an alley between the clashing groups. Tomas held up a shell saying, "I think that this is what they killed him with," pointing to the same rooftop I'd just seen a rifle leveled at. We dashed past a pigeon with a broken wing, shattered by a brick, and scrambled onto the roof.
Ordinarily, I'm accustomed to shooting alone. On this day, however, I was beyond glad to have the company of other photographers. As the street battle carried on into the afternoon we stuck together, looking out for one another's lives amid the chaos. The fighting took place in a relatively limited space – police and demonstrators intermittently pushing each other back with tear gas or broken bottles, respectively. Trying to maintain safe cover to photograph from was nearly impossible. One moment, the bricks would be flying from above, the next they would suddenly come from below. At one point the police misfired a canister of tear gas, which bounced off an aluminum awning and landed in the corner where I'd taken shelter. Blind, I darted into the street, stumbling in the vague direction I thought would be safest, hoping that my bulletproof vest and plastic climbing helmet would cushion the inevitable impact of a brick. It never came, aside from a blow to my right hand, which, while painful, didn't prevent me from shooting.
Towards evening I knew it was no longer safe to stay on the protesters' side of the line. Together, we four photographers ducked out of the conflict and made our way by a series of alleys to an intersection where police and army forces were gathered above the riot. Not surprisingly, the men in camouflage weren't overly willing to allow us to photograph from their side. I grabbed a few frames of police silhouetted against burning tires before being told to get out. By now night had fallen completely.
Four days later King Gyanendra offered his condolences for those killed in the "people's movement" and announced that parliament would be reinstated. On Friday, April 28, 2006, Nepal's House of Representatives met for the first time in four years.
See Brian's recent coverage from Nepal at: http://www.worldpicturenews.com/web/ShowLightbox.aspx?lightbox=briansokolnepalfallofmonarchy
© Brian Sokol
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