Updated: Aug 2, 2019
“Michael has a very generous present for you, general,” U.S. Ambassador Alaina Teplitz said to General Rajendra Chettri, the chief of the Nepalese Army, “these fire trucks and the expedition are going to make some big headlines when they arrive.” Ambassador Teplitz had received extensive briefings on the fire truck expedition, both from her staff and from me. The highly personable first-time ambassador had taken the hearts and minds of the Nepalese by storm through her poise and humbleness. To have Ambassador Teplitz talk up the project to the highest-ranking general of Nepal’s armed forces, was an important signal. “I know, Ambassador, Mike and I met already. I am looking forward to the fire trucks arriving. We need them here,” the kind general said with a smile.
The taciturn support of the State Department played a big role in convincing potential sponsors and supporters of the project’s feasibility. Ambassador Teplitz had agreed to appear on camera and state that the fire truck expedition is an example of the strong people-to-people relationship between America and Nepal, and emblematic of the generosity of the American people.
While the fire truck expedition was always an entirely private undertaking, a number of friends in the State Department had vowed their support of the project. “If you need any support in India, our guys at Embassy Delhi and the Consulate in Calcutta will assist you,” one senior State Department official told me. A former U.S. Navy SEAL and friend in Pittsburgh told me “a friend of mine is Rich Verma. He was just made ambassador in Delhi. If we need Rich’s support, I can easily make a call.” U.S. Ambassador Scott DeLisi had agreed to serve as the expedition’s co-leader alongside renowned mountaineer and expedition outfitter Russel Brice.
Early on, Russell Brice, who agreed to be in charge of all logistics, identified as one of the expedition’s biggest hurdles the red tape involved in getting the vehicles cleared through the Port of Calcutta and onto Birgunj, the dry-port on the Nepal side of the border. Various shipping agents in Nepal informed us of the many delays they often experienced in getting India’s customs agents to clear their shipments. Thus, to have the possibility of getting a gentle nudge from U.S. officials at the Consulate General in Calcutta was helpful in the planning of our endeavor.
While a United Nations law enshrines the obligation of all nations with access to the sea to grant free passage of goods to landlocked countries, India was infamous for making it unnecessarily difficult to process shipments destined for Nepal. “Technically, they’re supposed to wave everything through. That’s what it says in the agreement they signed. But these guys don’t play by the rules. We sometimes have to pay so much in demurrage fees that it has an effect on the cost of the goods,” a Nepalese customs broker informed my co-producer and me during a meeting in the Hyatt Regency Kathmandu. Demurrage fees are assessed if a shipment spends more than a certain number of days sitting in port, while its relevant paperwork is processed.
Long before the blockade, Indian customs officials were known to slow down the processing of cargo in transit to Nepal whenever the Indian government wanted to exert pressure on their Nepalese counterparts. The practice continues even today, despite an outcry over its secret blockade of 2015/16. “India just bullies us in every which way,” a senior advisor to Prime Minister K.P. Oli told me over dinner. I soon realized that the work I had done to support Prime Minister Oli and his ambassador Washington, Dr. Arjun Karki, to expose India’s blockade would likely cause the shipment of fire trucks to be subjected to an even more extensive examination – and subsequent delay – once it reached Calcutta. What my colleagues and I could not anticipate is that India’s ambassador would personally involve himself to undermine the viability of the expedition.
“Yes, we are aware of these things going on,” the senior Kantipur TV producer said, “but I first have to meet my boss to ask for permission before we attack any politicians or other officials.” Sitting in a Himalayan Java coffee shop opposite Nepal’s parliament building in September 2018, senior producer of Kantipur Television's investigative news show, an outfit feared among politicians for its high ratings and biting exposes, listened intently as I laid out in detail a story that is only possible in Nepal. Over the course of two years, my team and I carefully gathered evidence pointing to a widespread arson-related insurance scam. This racket involved the owners of the factories and other commercial buildings that were set on fire, as well as top officials of several fire and police departments across Nepal, top municipal and federal public safety officials, and even senior managers of insurance companies.
My colleagues and I had worked with such veracity to gather this information, that there was no doubt in my mind that my story pitch would delighted the Kantipur TV producer. To be handed such a well-researched and vetted story was akin to winning the lottery, particularly as it was never reported previously. The objective of the meeting was to invite a Nepali TV outlet to expose the main perpetrators of this fraud, as my colleagues and I feared a backlash from some members of the public, if a team led by a westerner were first to publicize these very damaging findings.
After listening to my story pitch for 30 minutes, throughout which the producer gave an impression of being keenly interested, he leaned forward and said he’d need his boss to sign off first. When I asked the producer who his boss was, he answered “our show’s top producer, and he has to ask Mr. Sirohiya.” I had heard many stories about Kantipur’s modus operandi – any attacks by one of its news formats would first have to receive the blessings of Kantipur chairman Kailash Sirohiya – and the producer’s response was in keeping with this practice. A third person witnessed this exchange. Yet three months later, in an email to me, Sirohiya wrote:I do not—and cannot—intervene in the editorial operations. The Post stands by its story and offers you the opportunity to present your version of the story or respond to the allegations presented in the story. This was an outright lie, because Kailash Sirohiya routinely intervened in the editorial operations of his media outlets in order to authorize or halt smear campaign against lucrative targets who could become victims of the shake-down Sirohiya popularized among several other Nepali media outlets.
“I know its arson and police knows it also, but what to do, Mike, this is Nepal. You know this country like Nepali, you know how things work,” Kishor Kumar Bhattarai said, shrugging his shoulders in defeat. The former fire chief of the Kathmandu Fire Brigade had just been promoted sideways to a desk job inside a shabby barracks hidden in the Kathmandu municipal compound opposite the Army parade ground. Sitting in a pizza restaurant overlooking the Boudhanath stupa, Chief Kishor, one of my co-producers and I discussed the current state of our ongoing investigation of a recent fire inside a multi-storied mixed-use building bordering Thamel, Kathmandu’s bustling tourist district.
The fire started in an expedition equipment storage room and quickly spread to other areas, including a second storage room containing oxygen cylinders and cooking gas canisters commonly used on climbing expeditions. As the fire’s intensity increased exponentially, the gas canisters and oxygen bottles started to explode, causing an inferno that rocked the neighborhood and could be heard over 2 kilometers away. The intensity of the explosions –some neighbors counted over 50– caused a double thick brick wall to collapse, leaving a wide open cavity through which additional oxygen cylinders shot like rocket. Later, fire officials recovered one cylinder that landed 200 meters away.
In Nepal, fires are very often caused by arsonists intent on pocketing inflated insurance premiums. A common strategy is to fill a particular building with old stock after removing anything of value, setting it alight and calling the fire department after some time. The fire department, in turn, responds with such a great delay, that by the time the first firefighters arrive at the scene of the blaze, the fire is so out of control that there’s not much the poorly trained firemen can do besides controlling the fire to prevent it from spreading to other buildings. When the fire dies down, the fire marshal can only determine complete destruction. There is no investigation, no paperwork, no report filed. Instead, the owner of the structure notifies his insurance company, a necessary formality to collect a hefty payout, which is then shared among several people involved in the scam: the emergency management officials at both the municipal and federal levels, the fire chief, police chief, and, of course, the insurance company officials.
After becoming aware of this scam, my colleagues and I decided to produce a documentary film that exposes the practice. I asked my network of taxi drivers hotel staff, restaurant waiters and other informants to notify me whenever a fire happened in the Kathmandu Valley. Before long, I received calls and text messages on almost a weekly basis, sometimes even several times a week, of fires that had just begun or were already out of control. In most of these cases, my team and I rushed to the scene, sometimes driving aggressively on the opposite side of the road in order to get ahead of Kathmandu’s notorious traffic congestion and arrive at the scene of the fire in order to document the response of the fire department.
On one occasion, a motorcycle-mounted traffic policemen chased the green Range Rover halfway across Kathmandu. When we arrived at the scene of the fire, the police officer realized why we had driven in such an unorthodox fashion through rush hour traffic. He was as surprised as the rest of us when the first fire engine arrived fifteen minutes after us. Impressed by our project, the friendly officer promised to help and became an informant for other fires. Over the next 18 months, this motorcycle cop proved himself as a useful friend who serendipitously showed up in the most unexpected moments, always eager to help.
Over time, my colleagues and I documented more than a dozen fires across the Kathmandu Valley. The fire near Thamel, however, while already extinguished by the time we arrived, was the most interesting one of all. Familiar with the street and the surrounding area, my colleagues and I canvassed the neighborhood and interviewed dozens of eyewitnesses. We conducted these interviews over the course of a week, filming until the evening and returning the next morning. On the first day, neighbors stated that the fire department took 45 minutes to an hour to arrive. On the next day, the timeframe was vastly reduced to between 20 and 30 minutes. This surprised us and so we returned a third time, only to learn all the neighbors we had interviewed on the previous two days now stating that the fire department arrived in 15 minutes. All except one residents stated this response time. However, a next-door neighbor chastised his friends on camera and adamantly stated that the first fire engine arrived after 45 minutes. On the fourth day the timeframe had been cut down to ten minutes. The fifth day saw the same people who had previously admitted that the fire trucks took 45 to 60 minutes to arrive now claiming that they arrived within five minutes. Finally, we were told that the fire department arrived right away, with one resident stating that the response time was only two minutes.
The fire had broken out in the heart of the tourist area, in close proximity to several hotels, so there was a distinct chance that someone might have gotten injured or killed as a result of the dozens of gas and oxygen containers exploding. Therefore, we felt it important to make this investigation the centerpiece of our documentary, called Start Digging. On the seventh day, we found the local community leader and, noting the dozens of cameras in the area, asked him if there was any closed circuit television footage of the fire. The community leader denied the existence of any CCTV footage. Yet only ten minutes later, a group of young neighbors whom we had not previously encountered, told us that they had seen CCTV footage of the fire, the explosions and the firemen.
Our team returned to the community leader and asked him again about the footage, the existence of which he denied once more. Meanwhile, the next-door neighbor who previously defended his estimation of a 45-minute response time so vigorously showed up. “I think I made a mistake, I must have been sleepy. The fire department arrived within five to ten minutes,” he said, looking down at his feet in shame. “How can this be, you were so certain earlier that it took 45 minutes,” I asked. “Look, I don’t want to cause any trouble. You’re a foreigner and I don’t want to make my country look bad. So I have to say five minutes.” When I asked him if he had been pressured to make this statement to us, the man looked down again and didn’t speak. Our translator spoke a few sentences in Nepali to the man and encouraged him to be truthful. Finally, he looked up and said “yes, I was told to say this. You know how things are here, it’s very complicated. Please, don’t make Nepal look bad.”
We retreated and canvassed the area again, this time focusing on banks, hotels, restaurants and other businesses with CCTV cameras. To our surprise, the camera systems in several places produced no results for the timeframe of the fire. “We had a blackout around that time, the whole neighborhood. I remember it because I had the nightshift and was awake when the power went out. After that the explosions started. This was an incredible break in our investigation. Months earlier, the Nepali Times newspaper carried a feature about how the frequent power cuts that plagued Nepal had ended because the main person in charge of the electricity authority had been found to be manipulating the electricity grid in exchange for bribes. With power cuts a thing of the recent past, to have a cut in the power grid of the neighborhood in which the fire occurred was highly suspicious. A few hours later, we were in possession of CCTV footage showing the arrival of the fire engines. This footage was captured by cameras belonging to businesses with backup power, which therefore were unaffected by the power cut.
The next day, we visited the police station opposite the fire department. Located only one kilometer away from the fire, which broke out before dawn, the station was so close that the response time should have been two minutes. We tested this theory both in regular traffic and in the middle of the night. After explaining this to the local police chief, we were granted access to the video control room. There, we discovered footage of the moment the first fire engine departed its bay – a full forty minutes after the first call came in. “We heard the explosions, they were very loud,” one of the policemen told us.
Across the street at the fire department, we interviewed several firemen, including one who agreed to appear on camera. They all said that they, too, heard the explosions and that they responded right away, reaching the scene only a few minutes after the first call. The new fire chief of Kathmandu, a drunkard who had previously shown up to fires clad in civilian clothes and clearly intoxicated, confirmed this timeline via a translator.
Back at the scene of the fire, the cleanup efforts had successfully removed all evidence within 12 hours. However, we did find the community leader and again asked him about the CCTV footage. When we showed him the footage from the police department, and after our translator spoke to him firmly, the man reluctantly agreed to show us the CCTV footage of which he previously denied any knowledge. This footage shows the intense explosions rocking the building, as well as the fire department’s arrival. After carefully approaching the building, the firemen ran away when a new explosion caused a bright flash inside the building. Residents could be seen jumping from the second floor, with several getting injured in the process. Even more alarming, the CCTV system’s internal clock had evidently been manipulated to show a much earlier arrival time of the fire crews.
After investigating many other fires, we found a troubling pattern. In all instances, the fire departments arrived with at least a half an hour delay, sometimes even taking three times as long. “Fortunes have been made with this scam,” a Kantipur journalist told my co-producers and me. “We know exactly who made the most money with factory fires,” the person said, tellingly. What is so revealing about this statement is that Kailash Sirohiya and his journalists all know of the scam, but have never reported on it. Kailash Sirohia is infamous in Nepal for extorting protection payments from victims whose secrets he knows, and so the only logical conclusion is that he, too, profits off the many unexplained structure fires.
This has far-reaching implications for innocent folks who are directly affected by the fires. In the case of the inferno next to Thamel, many neighbors lost everything in the fire and were not insured. Thus, while a group of highly corrupt individuals made fortunes from the insurance scam, innocent regular folk were left standing amid the ashes of their former properties.
“I received over 200 emails after your statement that you cancelled the expedition. Why did you do that? You are such a naughty boy. I have never met a German like you before. I think I am going to have a DNA test done to determine what your biological makeup is, because you are not German. Indian, maybe, or South African or Kenyan, but not German. This morning I read your new attack on the Kathmandu Post and Anup Kaphle. Didn’t I advise you, as a friend, not to attack the Kathmandu Post? You can’t win, you will never win, they’re too big. And no matter what you do, nobody there is going to lose their job over their smear campaign against you. I am serious, please, I want to advise you not to attack them again,” the high-ranking Nepalese official said by telephone, alternately in a playful, teasing manner, and sternly.
A few days earlier I had announced the fire truck expedition's cancellation. This was a prank on the Kathmandu Post and the kick-off of the Roast the Post campaign. As soon as the Kathmandu Post published a story about the announcement, I retracted the statement and vowed to bring the fire trucks to Nepal.
Almost months later, the Roast the Post campaign was getting into full swing. The Kathmandu Post’s editor in chief, Anup Kaphle, had shown his nerves by reacting swiftly to a number of allegations the campaign leveled against him and his boss, Kantipur chairman Kailash Sirohiya. A great many friends in Europe, America, Nepal and in other Asian countries had meanwhile written notes of support indicating that they found the campaign both informative and entertaining. Former Navy SEALs also sent messages of support, with one writing “don’t let them off the ropes, Michael, take them all down, brother.”
This was exactly the goal my colleagues and I had in mind when we planned the campaign months earlier. Yet to a number of Government of Nepal officials, the campaign represented another source of national embarrassment – if their country’s biggest news organization could be proven to be corrupt to its core, what might the obvious implications be for Nepal in general, they argued. Still, some officials signaled their support and offered to speak to us off-the-record about some of their own experiences. We decided to press on with the campaign until the fire truck expedition would arrive in Nepal. “We’ll do the handover ceremony opposite the Kantipur building,” one official wrote, jokingly.
With the campaign gaining momentum, a number of high-ranking officials who had previously been scared off as a result of the Kathmandu Post’s singularly one-sided reporting, vowed to support the expedition again. “If you bring the fire trucks, you will be like a tiger in the jungle,” I had been told. While amusing, this comparison was hardly a motivating factor. Instead, my team and I drew inspiration from countless messages sent by Nepal’s youth, who were sick of the corruption and India’s machinations in Nepal. To them, the fire truck expedition had become symbolic, just like it had taken on symbolic meaning to my team and me.
For Part 13 of The Nepal Controversies, please click on the link below: