The Digital Journalist
Blood Spilled in Kathmandu

by Brian Sokol

May 2006

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."

Nepali police shelter behind shields as bricks rain down on them while tires ignited by anti-monarchy protesters burn in the background during a riot in the Kalanki neighborhood of Kathmandu, Nepal, on April 9, 2006.

(Brian Sokol/WpN)
I wasn't sure what would happen next; either more people were about to die or perhaps the senseless loss of life would put an end to the day's bloodshed. Neither of these things happened. An officer from the Armed Police Force stepped forward to meet the line of grieving protesters, who had put down the rocks and broken bricks that served as arms in the face of government shotguns, pistols, rifles and tear gas guns. For a moment the violence receded like a tide of anger rolling back out into a calm sea. The commander couldn't meet the wet, red eyes of the young man and stood there shamed, staring at his shoes, his gun hanging limply by his side.

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.

A demonstrator wounded by point-blank shotgun fire undergoes emergency medical treatment minutes after being shot by government security forces during a riot in the Gongabu neighborhood of Kathmandu, Nepal, on April 11, 2006.

(Brian Sokol/WpN)
An hour before, three dead bodies had been carted away by ambulances. Getty Images staff photographer Paula Bronstein and I were together on the government side of the line when a policeman walked out into the street and took aim with an automatic rifle, pointing it the rooftops across the street where demonstrators were hurling screams and stones at the King's security forces. For days, the government had been using rubber bullets and tear gas to contain the riots sweeping the streets of Kathmandu, capital of the Himalayan kingdom of Nepal, as Nepalis of all walks of life demanded that their monarch reinstate the democratic process he had ended with a coup 14 months before.

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.

Nepalese anti-monarchy protesters throw bricks at police during a fatal protest in the Kalanki neighborhood of Kathmandu, Nepal, on April 20, 2006. Government security forces killed three pro-democracy protesters in Kalanki as domestic and international pressure mounted on Nepal's King Gyanendra to give in to demands.

(Brian Sokol/WpN)
An enormous pile of blood lay congealing next to an abandoned sandal and a potted plant. My hands were shaking as I looked over the edge, down into the street below. A line of security forces came to stand beneath me, and I snapped off a few frames of this hideous and saddening scene. When I looked up turning to go, I was struck by the contrast between the human ugliness immediately around me, and the grandeur of the Himalayas filling the horizon. Tomas was calling behind me, "Don't stay there too long, it's obviously a bad spot." For whatever reason, I held my camera up to my eye and took a single photo of the encircling peaks, thinking to myself that the beauty of the mountains would outlast this struggle, all this sickening bloodshed. It was only 2:30 in the afternoon.

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.

A Nepalese policeman (right) points his riot baton at injured anti-monarchy demonstrators, blood draining from a severe wound in one's head (center, right) as they lie in an alley after having been beaten by government security forces (background) at Ason, near King Gyanendra's palace in Kathmandu, April 22, 2006.

(Brian Sokol/WpN)
The road back to our hotel was blocked by flaming barricades, and neither army trucks nor ambulances were willing to shuttle us back home. The government's shoot-on-sight curfew, which we had somehow skirted earlier in the day to get here, was still in effect, and mobs of anti-monarchy protestors were stoning vehicles that dared move on the dark streets. By luck, and by sticking together, we managed to evade the guns and rocks of the clashing sides, arriving safely in the gated haven of our hotel an hour or so later. While I sat sipping tea and transmitting images across the world by wireless Internet, black smoke still rose from the alley where three young men had been killed that same day, losing their lives in a bid for democracy.

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:

© Brian Sokol

Kathmandu-based photographer and writer Brian Sokol has divided his time between Nepal and North America since 1997. A fluent Nepali speaker, his work has been published in TIME, The New York Times, The Washington Post, The BBC, MSNBC and Le Monde. He is a contributor to the book "Himalaya," to be published this fall by the National Geographic Society. He is a recipient of the 2006 Days Japan International Photojournalism Award. In April 2006 he joined World Picture News and is available for assignment. Visit his Web site at

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