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A Short Walk Through Europe

September 15, 2015

by Barbara Nimri Aziz

It was hardly six weeks ago that Walid announced he’d finally saved enough at his part time construction job in Lebanon to pay the smuggler’s fee. After two years of wearily waiting for conditions to improve in his homeland, it was time to move on. When I met Walid in 2009, he was completing his degree in literature at Damascus University. He often spoke about visiting foreign lands, but it wasn’t as a refugee fleeing his proud land of Syria. It wasn’t with a single knapsack on his back. It was not before he heard news of whether his brother, a young military officer and trained lawyer in Palmyra had survived captivity during the ISIS assault on that city. It was not without completing his degree. Or knowing the fate of  Karim, his childhood friend, who in the earliest days of the uprising joined opposition forces. It was not without an embrace from his mother.

Two weeks passed. We spoke the night before he and four friends left for Turkey. On August 30, on his Facebook page, Walid posted “Walking with a friend in the dark is better than walking alone in light.-Hellen keller.”


Not long after that, daily messages arrived along with some grainy photos on my viber account.

This pic in serbian hungarian borders

Now I am in budabesit in hungary

We are wating for train to go to germany

My journy was good and safe untill now

need just ur prayers and ur encouragment

Now iam in hungary we are stuck and wait to go out without take our fingerprints in hungary

Here in the kelti station there was a gathering of syrian young to let us go by train

We buy food from around us

nowdays hungarian people give us water and sweets and plankts

I think I could pass the way I still just have little step to get to germany

Hello dear freind dr, I am happy now I am in Austeria they are a goodhearted people Today I will take train for germany; If God wanted.

Hello dear freind

I reached sweden today,  thanks God.

Why not yes you can?

[ A Short Walk Through Europe ]

Losing Our Young Syrians (From My Expanding Illegal Migrants File)

July 21, 2015

by Barbara Nimri Aziz

When a former Syrian student of mine, Walid, announced that he’d resolved to pay smugglers to get him to Europe, I thought of his classmates and so many youths I hear from, now scattered across the globe. I’d known them in Damascus where I’d been teaching workshops in media. I stayed until 2012 well after the conflict had begun so I witnessed these youths’ dilemmas at the earliest stage.

Faras, after completing his studies in theater, delayed plans to travel to Egypt because his mother needed him with her. To support himself meanwhile he was tutoring foreigners in Arabic. Initially Faras seemed unconcerned about the demonstrations erupting across the capital. One afternoon this abruptly changed when while innocently riding a bus, he was picked up by security agents. He spent 40 days in an underground jail, emerging as a fearless anti-government activist. Using contacts from prison, he joined clandestine planning meetings and street protests very much like young men did in the city of Homs. Where Faras is today, I don’t know.

Others-- Karim and Walid, Hazem and Samir, Homa and Rana [i]-- somehow keep in touch with each other and with me. Most are now outside Syria, alone. Rana who managed to continue doctoral studies in English literature in Syria is leaving soon. In 2009 she considered graduate work at an American university but because of U.S. policy towards her country, she shifted her focus eastward, to India and Thailand. Last week she wrote me that’s she’s received a scholarship for India. It’s good news. Rana knows the high level of English there and I’m happy she made that choice.

I’ve recently lost track of Karim who decided to join the opposition after the first protests erupted in the south of Syria. Joining a network of equally committed youths he offered his services in media to the Syrian Free Army. Initially foreign journalists ventured into FSA and other rebel camps and that’s where they picked up Karim. Although poorly paid, he seemed to thrive in that risky job. Within a year Karim was in Europe and the USA giving testimony at human rights meetings there. I think he really believed that these international bodies could change the direction of U.S. policy in favor of intervention; anyway there was no going back. It was on one of his human rights junkets in NY in 2013 that we last met; I was astonished at Karim’s facility with his laptop and phones as he tracked his network of informants and kept in touch with family in four countries simultaneously. He was to return as a guest of the U.S. State Department but never arrived. From his base in south Turkey he continued his forays into increasingly dangerous rebel areas of Syria, again on behalf of journalists for whom entering Syria had become too risky.

Karim always kept in touch with us so his silence over the past six months is worrying. Friends suspect he’s been captured by ISIS. If he’s not dead, he is in deep trouble, they fear.

Then there’s Samir, alone and despairing in Jordan. Although when I last met him he was upbeat, gratified that, passport in hand, he’d escaped his homeland by a circuitous route. No U.N. refugee camp for Samir, he was working at two jobs and saving for his marriage. His college sweetheart, to whom he was engaged before he fled, was still in Syria. (They kept in touch daily by WhatsApp.) Certain she’d arrive within weeks he invited me to the wedding. That was 18 months ago and she’s still not with him.

Hazem chose another course. Even with a degree in economics he hadn’t found work and was sharing an apartment with four students, friends from his hometown in south Syria. Inexplicably Hazem decided to join the army; with his degree he’d become an officer, he expected. Before he completed his training in 2012 the crisis had worsened, so during a week’s home leave he decided to slip across the border. With no passport or any papers at all, he’s having a hard time. At one point he asked: should I join the rebels? (I don’t know which group he was contemplating.) His friends report that he too is missing.

Homa is in Turkey unable to decide whether or not to return home; she’s Turkmen Syrian and in the early months of the conflict she supported Turkey’s opposition to Assad. She hasn’t found work there and didn’t get the sympathy from Turkish people that she’d expected. Her parents are urging her to return home although the apartment where they lived has been bombed.

There are five more I can add to this account--and a hundred more from Iraq—among millions. Not everyone’s dead; not everyone’s against their government. But all are hungry, and all have family ‘back home’ making very hard choices. Any good days they recall are far, far behind them.

[i] Names have been changed, but the details of their lives are as reported.

[ Losing Our Young Syrians (From My Expanding Illegal Migrants File) ]

Demolition Dilemmas--Kathmandu Dispatch 5

May 25, 2015

by Barbara Nimri Aziz

There is little doubt that they have to come down. But how will priorities be decided? Who will pay? Then how will the formidable task of securing Nepal’s homes, schools, hospitals and offices proceed? In Kathmandu valley and beyond, new medical and business complexes, government centers, police posts, universities halls and libraries, temples and monuments, and high rise dwellings –from the most prized heritage sites to model rural medical centers --are badly damaged and marked for demolition. Some structures are visibly disfigured and non-functional; some lie folded into heaps of rubble; some appear serviceable although they are not. Whatever their appearance, the task of demolition and clearing rubble is immense, its implementation hard to grasp despite the great urgency.

Although the most widespread damage is in rural areas across the 13 districts (of 75 nationwide) adjacent to Kathmandu, debris removal and reconstruction may be easier there. Rural dwellings are by and large constructed by farmers from local materials and are one and two stories only.

Across Kathmandu one occasionally passes cranes at work. The most colossal machines that ever treaded the lanes and tracks of the valley, they methodically attack 4-story villas that once stood confidently in purple, red or blue coats but now offer less protection than a 5 mm thick tarpaulin pinned in a clearing beyond a local temple or strapped to an unsteady tree.

Those lumbering orange giants claw at brick walls of traditional modest dwellings; they batter glass facades of grand modern offices like Kantipur Publications; they hover above half-buried villas jabbing at their roofs. Heaps of rubble spill into roadways as the professional crews and soldiers move on, leaving residents to await teams who’ll somehow remove these piles of detritus. (Forget about rebuilding for now.) Somehow, in the confusion and clutter that is Nepal today, from their tented ministry offices, bureaucrats fashion plans about how reconstruction will proceed. Proposals seem awfully tentative to this observer; neither do they convince most citizens that a viable scheme exists, although some really believe that demolitions will proceed responsibly.

Not waiting for the engineers to visit them and eager to resume some normality, private householders are one-by-one reoccupying their rooms and shopkeepers are buttressing their dwellings with 12 foot bamboo, wood or iron poles. (It’s temporary, they say.) Others (residents or the army, we’re not sure) set a few boulders and bricks on the pavement to warn vehicles and pedestrians that something uncertain hovers not far above them. Occasionally a road is blocked by a rope with a bold red warning hanging from it.

Engineers are out in force. (The Nepal Engineer’s Association -NEA- lists its phone number in city dailies.) Local ward officials have invited house owners to fill forms requesting an inspection. May 20th The Himalayan Times reports that since May 4th 2,500 of its engineers are engaged with 25 international counterparts to assess buildings inside and beyond Kathmandu Valley.

One NGO working with these respected, and incorruptible NEA engineers is US-based GFI found that only 20% of 1,500 houses inspected were uninhabitable and due for destruction while 40% are safe to live in and 40% in need of repair May 21, 2015. (In which localities the survey was done is unspecified). An earlier NEA preliminary investigation (May 9, The Himalayan Times) indicated that 70% of houses in Kathmandu Valley (with several million residents) were safe. May 18, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs declared it could not handle the multi-story demolitions due to inadequate equipment and was thus reaching out to others for help. Whatever the figures, it’s a daunting concern.

Meanwhile commentaries are offered in the press and anecdotally about conditions responsible for these many collapsed structures: buildings are constructed on soft land without proper foundations; illegal wells are bored under large dwellings destabilizing their foundations; shoddy, cost-cutting materials are used by cheating contractors. Much blame is reserved for landlords who build-to-rent and thus skirt the rules (supported by permits from corrupted officials). These rumors are now endorsed by newly published investigative research by Himal (May 24-30, 2015) the Nepali language weekly run by the notable journalistic team of Kunda and Kanak Dixit). This excellent report names names, prints photos of rows of crumbling apartment complexes together with doctored building permits.

Reconstruction is manageable, but only if more quakes and the approaching monsoon rains don’t further destabilize shaky neighborhoods, create more havoc and halt work in progress. Regardless, it will take years for life to return to normal which is uncertain at best, and for most citizens, perennially desperate. In their foreseeable future, they have no sign that-- although millions of them will move out of their tents and settle into new homes and offices-- a stable and just government will do its part. END


Before beginning her journalistic work in the Arab lands, anthropologist Barbara Nimri Aziz spent several decades conducting research in the Himalayan areas. Her books include “Tibetan Frontier Families”, “Soundings in Tibetan Civilization”, (both reprinted in 2011) and “Heir to a Silent Song: Two Rebel Women of Nepal” (2001) all available through Vajra Books, Kathmandu (  Her latest book is “Swimming up The Tigris: Real Life Encounters with Iraq”, U. Press Florida, 2007.




[ Demolition Dilemmas--Kathmandu Dispatch 5 ]

A Schoolboy Looks to Nepalís Army with New Pride

May 19, 2015

by Barbara Nimri Aziz

“I want to be in the army”, replied Sophil quietly, responding to his father’s urging to tell this visitor about his future goal. I had been introduced to the 9-year old child a week earlier as he sat in a place of honor inside his parent’s home, accepting gifts and congratulations following completion of ‘vratabandha’, the Nepali coming-of-age ceremony for boys. His father Bhagwan Shrestha and I have been working on a teacher training project and I was again at their home to discuss the school’s schedule and how we might address the needs of staff’s and students’ families most adversely affected by the earthquake.

Surprised by his son’s new ambition, and with no history of military service in their family, the father pressed the lad on why this career interested him.

“Because our army rescues the people,” explains the boy.

In time, Sophil’s aspiration may change; meanwhile it’s undeniable that his current ideal is an outcome of what he’s seen and heard during these tragedy-filled weeks when the largely unheralded heroes of the earthquake have indeed been members of Nepal’s armed forces and police. They are visible everywhere:-- clearing roads, dismantling damaged structures, rescuing families, ferrying the injured to helicopters, redirecting cars from danger zones, sifting through fragile piles of debris and supervising foreign rescue teams, clearing rubble brick-by-brick and providing security in neighborhoods and at sensitive government and holy sites. Unlike the million or more Nepalese who have temporarily fled their jobs, or given leave because of forced closures of retailers and factories, Nepal’s security forces are currently doing double duty.

“They are the first line of assistance across the nation”, a colleague asserts. “Army and police are posted everywhere, even in Nepal’s most remote regions, so they are the first to arrive at devastated areas, help the injured, and identify the needy.” (Nepal’s military hospitals are currently filled with earthquake-injured citizens, many flown there by helicopter.) Although not equipped with heavy equipment essential to cope with a disaster like this, these men and women seem to be efficient, focused and dedicated. I myself noted their prominence on media reports and saw them at sites I visited. So I began to inquire further about the military’s status, aware that, in contrast to public disappointment with the government’s response to the crisis, I’d heard no criticism concerning military and police actions.

So selfish, inept and disappointing are Nepal’s ministries and leadership that from the time of the quake to the present, they are the focus of universal dissatisfaction and disdain, a source of national shame. From the earliest days of the tragedy, private local and international donors felt obliged to divert their energies and supplies away from Nepal’s government. “It’s the only way to assure fairness and to avoid delays, graft, and mismanagement”, notes one agency staff. Because of mistrust of their government, citizens have mobilized to arrange relief for hard-hit areas, astonishing themselves by their generosity, swift response and co-operation.

One former military officer argues that had the government immediately turned over food and shelter distribution to the army from the outset of the crisis, the entire situation would be different:--help would move more quickly and fairly, foreign assistance would be more efficiently put to use, and victims would feel more confident. (A minor item in today’s [05.19.15] press –day 24 of the crisis- carries the first news of this, although authorization appears to be limited to 'relocation and rehabilitation'.) “So why didn’t this happen?” I ask.

“Ah, that would have been impossible; such a policy might steal the glory and credit away from our politicians. They can’t give up their power.” It seems that despite their history of ineptness, ministers want to be seen as leading the rescue of the nation; different parties that make up Nepal’s feuding coalition of ministers compete with each other to show constituents that they and not others have come to their aid. (The result is internal bickering, obstruction and paralysis.) But isn’t the military part of the government and the Prime Minister its commander? (This status is not clear to many but my research revealed that the army’s supreme commander is Ram Baran Yadav, Nepal’s president; he hasn’t been heard from throughout these weeks.)

The leadership would still get credit, I argue. “The prime minister (or president) might, but what about other politicians, with each of their parties jockeying for the limelight? They can’t let the prime minister prevail. They don’t trust him; also his party (Congress) would take credit for any favorable outcome and use it to their advantage at election time. (Although no election is in sight because of a 9-year stalemate over defining a new constitution). Any presidential action would, I’m told, also have political implications since although the post is theoretically neutral Yadav is known to be a Congress party man. 

Under the circumstances, and given the ongoing crisis of Nepal’s administration, could the military decide to assume control by force, at least temporarily to address this emergency. One professor I put this to replied that indeed, “some people are thinking about this alternative”. However there’s general agreement that this could not happen because of the traditional role played by the Nepalese army dating back to the establishment of a unified nation in the 18th century. Since then and up to the removal of the monarch in 2006, Nepal’s military has been independent of the administration. Thus far the Nepalese Army is known to be relatively protected from political manipulation, untainted by ongoing political scandals. “Our army leaders do not seek power. We are not like Pakistan or Egypt, or Turkey. Ours is a professional body with a standard that you see reflected in the reputation of our Gurkha regiments” who also serve across the world, one example of which is former General Army Chief of Staff Katawal, credited with preventing an assassination of the deposed king while peacefully facilitating his removal. That’s quite a record. 

[ A Schoolboy Looks to Nepalís Army with New Pride ]

In Search of Muna's House-Kathmandu Earthquake

May 13, 2015

by Barbara Nimri Aziz

There’s a patch of Nepal I’d never seen before--it’s called Buspark or Gongabu, (‘cock-field’). Since there’s no guidebook available—I find it inadvertently on my search for Muna’s mother. She’s the woman left alone and brokenhearted when her daughter, Muna, our Amrit student, and husband were crushed in their home 2 weeks ago. “Where is Umm Muna and how can we assist her?” asks an Iraqi friend-- my anonymous, irrepressible humanitarian.

Sukanya our school director is concerned too—“We might learn more when school resumes and her schoolmates return next week”. Despite saying this, Sukanya, expedient, ever dependable Sukanya, is not someone who willingly delays. She calls Rita, one of our primary class teachers, and within 10 minutes, the three of us set out together on foot. Muna’s family apartment was somewhere near the school-- just here, just here. “Just here” turns into my discovery of the now infamous Gongabu.

I’ll soon enter another world although it’s barely a quarter hour stroll from our Amrit school and the famous Mehpi —“empowered-place”-- hilltop. This local prominence is crowned by Mehpi temple and surrounded with a modest forest that draws morning worshippers and neighbors seeking clean air in the dawn hours before city smog envelops us, and ahead of local traffic snarling through Mehpi district.

A lane leading northward off the circle through which Rita leads us is new to me. Well before reaching Muna’s neighborhood, it is evident that I’m venturing into an unhappy corner of Kathmandu where life is hard on any day, and still precarious, if not dangerous, after the quake. We reach a point where vehicles are prohibited; even foot traffic is unadvisable. Anyone without a mission here ought to stay away. People seem uncustomarily scarce at this midday hour, and those who are here seem subdued.

An unconvincing and unauthoritative barrier of stones and wires are tangled around a thick bamboo pole lying across part of the road. Rita steps over them boldly. So Sukanya and I follow, leaving a cluster of men among onlookers we’ll pass along the next 200 meters staring at the devastation across the street. A crushed taxi is motionless by the curb and heaps of bricks flank the cleared path we now enter. Frankly I’m ready to turn back, but Rita has her assignment. Confidently she points out corner pillars—“there, up, up further, through that passage there—see, see those cracks at the base, see up the walls, this building, that one too.” Open windows expose limp curtains protecting nothing inside. No posting is needed to tell us all of them are vacant, and although these facades show little evidence of damage beyond those menacing cracks, all these four-story structures are either condemned (red code) or dangerous (orange). Don’t go further, says one bystander. But Rita presses on.

Two soldiers walking towards us turn a corner and proceed slowly into a deserted street, notepads and phones in hand. I prefer to interview them, but Rita again invites me to proceed; Sukanya and I timidly follow. A hundred feet more and we arrive at Muna’s. The gnarled brick and mud mass leans towards us at a 30-45 degree angle, held there against another structure that’s upright but no less precarious. I’m exerting my imagination to understand how even a rescue team would dare to search for bodies here.

Her remains were retrieved the day after, but it took six for rescuers to find her father, (and a cousin who perished here with them). This detail, Rita gathers from a man seated in front of his shop across the way (the only occupied space in his 4 story building). And Umm Mona? “She’s returned; she’d gone to their village in District 3, (far east Nepal, maybe Illam) after the quake. She’d not been normal following the death of her boy 18 months ago. Want her number?” So Rita records it; we’ll contact her later. (I’m not prepared to speak with Umm Muna this afternoon.)

I’m obliged to proceed further only by the resolve of Rita herself. (Sukanya also continues unprotesting, despite her 79 years and aching knees). Not far beyond Muna’s, the street opens up into an ugly, hazy panorama framed in noise, oil fumes, stink and dust. “This is Buspark”, signals Rita, arm outstretched to a wall of corrugated iron sheets. From a gap in the gate, a row of buses is emerging onto the congestion of Ring Road to make their way out of the capital. We step back, but there will be no retreating.

As we wait for a line of 10 or so buses to lumber past us, Sukanya reads the banners painted at the top of their windshields— Biratnagar, Rajbiraj, Janakpur (east Nepal), Hetauda, Birganj, Bharatpur, Pokara, Bhutwal (south and west)  --(I’ll check locations and spellings on a map back at Nirmal’s library.)

Ahhh: this is the long-distance bus depot linking the city with Nepal’s far flung corners. So I suppose it’s reasonable that what looms there beyond the traffic on the main artery before us is a migrant slum that’s Gongabu. Hardly an image to compete with those toppled UNESCO-protected grand temples. The Darbar Squares of the ancient Malla cities-- Bhaktapur and Patan and Hanumandoka centered in Kathmandu city-- together represent the rich ongoing Newar identity and culture. (Our Amrit alumni student 17-year old Ashesh accompanying me at Mehpin a day earlier gently remarked: “We have lost our pride”, adding “our heritage”—in case I didn’t understand).

These sites --Google will find them, but I don’t know about Gongabu; try it-- are much documented and appreciated for their art and thereby hold added value in the tourist economy. Already foreign scholars (Gerard Toffin, at C.N.R.S, Paris; Michael Hutt, S.O.A.S., London) and international agencies are writing and conferencing about the urgency and costs of restoration, with commitments already made, I’m told, by Germany and Japan.  

Sorry, I digress.

Back to Gongabu where our only guidebook is oral—teacher Rita.

There’s more to come and we three hesitatingly make our way across the main thoroughfare and down a path following the open sewer that is the Bagmati River (!). (I feel sticky all over; behind my mask, my mouth is dry and my breathing difficult; my fingers are swollen.) Here I witness a slum city of hundreds of 6-7 story structures, endlessly packed against each other with hardly a street to distinguish them. Some post names like Pari Guest House and Morang Lodge.

Now I understand where those millions of migrants stay. Either they lodge here temporarily (where many are robbed, beaten or killed for the cash (earnings they have returned with, insecured in their backpacks and suitcases) enroute home from years of toil in Malaysia and Gulf states. Or, this is where their families rent apartments; tenants here are rural migrants who’ve abandoned villages to live as consumers off the cash those brothers, husbands and sons send as remittances from distant jobs. Perhaps some of those lads flying with me on that Etihad Airways flight 13-14 days ago have relatives residing in Gangabu. That is to say, they had.

“They (these apartment slums) are all empty now”.  I pause and speak to a pharmacist leaning (masked like me) across his open counter: Where are they? “Their villages; they’ve gone home.”

It’s becoming clear—they left Kathmandu not only because of concern for their village homes. They are afraid to stay HERE, in these hastily build, illegally constructed, cramped and precarious code-defying structures. Whole blocks have collapsed, only sustained partly upright today by the buildings around them. And many perished here—the bodies of some unretrievable. So perhaps those laborers and families fled these death traps. Yes, I think so now.

Gongabu was already familiar to Kathmandu citizens as a migrant slum. It’s well known that these residential blocks were constructed illegally, that this area was known to have been a swamp with soft land (c.f. nearby Machhe Pokari-“fish pond”- is now a dryless place), unsuitable for dwellings, where wells were dug illegally and where utilities are impossibly inadequate. Thus, when other city residents heard about April 25th’s high death toll in Gongabu, they weren’t surprised. Tomorrow, who will dare to raze these structures--the government, the landlords? And who will stop these migrants from re-occupying? And where will these families go when they come back to the city?

Rita and her two sturdy companions return to the main road, skirting buses and trucks, scooters and cars for another wearisome half mile trek until we reach the junction at Machhe Pokari. A beautiful name, no? But I assure you what lays there is a bleak scene, with more scars from the quake.  



(Why is there so much dust only 15 hours after last night’s storm and the noisy rain that filled our house’s reservoirs and sent my host rushing to the roof to manage his personally designed water collection system?)

 I’ll meet Utpalla this evening; she’s Padma’s and Nirmal’s sister-in-law (living with her son, daughter and husband on the ground floor of this, their family house). Utpalla’s due to return from a more promising mission than mine-- to Dharmasatila town an hour from the capital. She and her Shree Shree Kuman (women’s) Committee members had collected funds to deliver truckloads of supplies to homeless villagers (all farmers; 300 of 310 houses collapsed; school is intact). I’ll learn that her 30 member committee teamed up with a Malaysian delegation that arrived in Nepal a few days back with 40 two-family tents and 350 sleeping bags, tarps, food, etc. (Sree Sree Kuman is one of the hundreds of private Nepali associations and ad hoc groups, who, despairing of the government, joined each other and friends across the country and world to carry out emergency relief like this.)

(No one has informed me of a similar government project. Although we can end with a promising note: i.e. the Nepali army and police forces seem to have been outstanding during these urgent, painful days. I’ve heard not a single word of criticism and I’m told they’ve shown themselves totally dedicated, capable, unbiased, and-- most significantly--immune from the party politics which has infected government relief obligations and angered so many citizens.)

Tuesday’s agenda: Musician and writer Nirveya kindly agreed to take me on his motorcycle to hard-hit Sanku village just 30 km from here. I know that Sanku residents have received supplies but I need to see conditions for myself. I need to get out of Kathmandu.


Bio note: Before beginning her journalistic work in the Arab lands, anthropologist Barbara Nimri Aziz spent several decades conducting research in Himalayan regions. Her books include “Tibetan Frontier Families”, “Soundings in Tibetan Civilization”, (both reprinted in 2011) and “Heir to a Silent Song: Two Rebel Women of Nepal” (2001) all available through Vajra Books, Kathmandu (  Her latest book is “Swimming Up The Tigris: Real Life Encounters With Iraq”, 2007, University Press of Florida.



[ In Search of Muna's House-Kathmandu Earthquake ]

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