Updated: Jul 25, 2019
July 4, 2019
“America sucks,” Professor Jack Roseman said, smiling broadly, “it sucks, but I always remind everyone that it’s still by far the best place on earth. There’s no country where you can do all the things that you can do here, in America. We Americans are, generally speaking, the most generous people on earth. But, boy, don’t fuck with us, or we’ll send a missile your way.” It was July 2004 and Professor Roseman, my Carnegie Mellon University entrepreneurship professor and mentor, invited me to lunch at his favorite restaurant in Pittsburgh, Rico’s.
A few months earlier, a federal judge in Pittsburgh had handed down a light sentence – probation and community service – for a federal felony I purportedly committed. While I knew all along that I wasn’t guilty of the charges, I simply wasn’t in the frame of mind to muster a fight. Several setbacks within my family that, taken individually, were not inconsiderable matters, combined together to have a crushing impact on my ability to muster a strong defense against the false allegations of the United States government.
“This is not the trial of the century,” the judge admonished the Assistant U.S. Attorney, before reading her sentence after a half-hour delay. I had thrown the AUSA–and the judge- a curveball when, in my final remarks before receiving the sentence, I told the judge plainly that during the week-long trial I had been the only one in her courtroom who told the truth. This was not actually a statement in fact, but I was very nervous and forgot to add an important detail.
What I wanted to convey to Judge Joy Flowers Conti was that my defense witnesses and I told the truth, while the co-defendant in the trial, a corrupt but likable local elected official, and his defense witnesses, had either lied or omitted testimony that was exculpatory to me. Similarly, the Assistant U.S. Attorney and her federal investigators had knowingly omitted considerable exculpatory information, conducted themselves unfairly and thereby acted in direct contravention to the judge’s orders, as well as failed to interview a number of exculpatory witnesses. Judge Conti was perplexed by my statement and retired to her chambers for half an hour. "You shouldn't have said that, Michael," one of my attorneys told me.
"The federal government doesn’t fight fairly,” the former U.S. attorney for Massachusetts told me years later, while advising me on a strategy to win a subsequent immigration trial, “the government fights to win. Period.”
In his America sucks speech, Professor Jack Roseman wanted to convey the reasons for why I should now fight to continue living in the U.S. The wrongful conviction –which a chief federal judge later called “a travesty of justice” after reviewing the case in detail– left me disillusioned with the U.S. justice system and with America in general. I just wanted to get home and move on with my life. “You belong here,” Jack Roseman said before pausing and mustering me with his piercing, mischievous eyes. “This is your home, we are your family and you built your watch company here, you have to fight,” the 65-year-old professor said. Jack Roseman wasn’t the only person trying hard to convince me to present a strong case in immigration trial, an automatic procedure as a result of being a non-U.S. citizen convicted of a felony.
A few years later, my girlfriend at the time wanted to marry me in order to enable me to stay in America. The marriage had been the advice of several attorneys, including my life-long legal counsel and friend, Larry Lebowitz of Cohen & Grigsby in Pittsburgh. But while I loved the young woman, getting married just to be able to stay in America felt disingenuous. After the relationship failed, partly due to the added pressure that came with the question of marriage, the actor James Gandolfini offered to marry me.
“Kobold, don’t laugh, they just passed a new law in New York state that allows same-sex marriage, that’s our loophole,” Jim said matter-of-factly. “It’ll only be on paper,” Jim said. Shocked and bemused at Jim’s offer, I set about researching this then-novel legislation. We came as far as drafting a mock prenuptial agreement before Jim realized that if word of such a marriage were to get out, I would end up getting deported for defrauding the immigration services. “They’ll haul every last girlfriend you and I ever had into court, we can’t do that to them, they’ve already suffered enough,” Jim said sarcastically. A few weeks after Jim dismissed his harebrained idea, his older sister, Leta, offered to marry me, too. “I’ll marry you, Mike,” Leta said, sitting in a beach chair on the beach in Mantaloking, New Jersey. It was 4thof July weekend. As he did every summer, Jim rented a large home facing the ocean. “We’re your family,” Leta said, “you belong here.”
A few months later, on September 18, 2007, sitting in a Pittsburgh immigration courtroom, James Gandolfini testified before an immigration judge in Philadelphia that he trusted me so much, that I was the only non-relative, nanny or bodyguard allowed to take his son, Michael, out of the house. It was Jim's birthday and in order to attend my trial we rushed back from Los Angeles, where Jim and the cast of The Sopranos had attended the Emmy Award ceremony.
Connected via closed-circuit television, the judge in Philadelphia ruled that I would be able to remain in the U.S. for some time and that I would be granted “voluntary departure” status – the opposite of deportation. (Basically, anyone who enters a country and then leaves on their own volition is doing so under what is legally called “voluntary departure”.) It was a huge win and not long after I left the U.S. I was granted a new visa that enabled me to continue living in the U.S.
“Didn’t I tell you? America sucks, but it really is the greatest country on earth,” Jack Roseman said, brimming with excitement after I returned to the U.S. a few months later. “Now that you're back, I expect great things from you,” the cheerful mathematics PhD. told me, “this watch company of yours is just a phase to prepare you for something much bigger.” Days later, in New York City, Jim Gandolfini said something similar.
“Kobold, you get excited about watches, but I want you to look at the bigger picture. You have this ability to come in and change the status quo. People like me, we’re stuck doing our jobs. But you can pick up and transplant yourself wherever you want and get shit done because you're relentless. That’s a gift that not many people have. Now I need you to promise me something: don’t fuck up. If you can promise me that, I’ll help you with whatever goals you have.” This turned out be far more than an off-hand remark. For years, Jim supported all of my charitable endeavors. For example, after I introduced Jim to the Tanenbaum Center for Interreligious Understanding, one of my favorite organizations, Jim convinced HBO to throw its support behind the charity.
That year, I made two solemn promises, one to Professor Roseman and one to James Gandolfini: that I would never let them down. It was 2008, the year I first set foot on Nepal.
“Mike, you should join the ITN guys,” Ranulph Fiennes said, “they’re going to trek up to Base Camp a few weeks after I arrive.” Following my voluntary departure from the U.S., I lived at Ran’s farm in southwest England for some time. Ran intended to become the oldest Briton to stand on the top of Mount Everest and was scheduled to fly to Nepal in a few months. After some initial hesitation, I decided to join the explorer on this expedition.
To say that my initial impression of Nepal was underwhelming would be a big understatement. Dirt, dust, pollution, terrible food, taxis so small that my knees touched the dashboard, complete chaos on the roads. Once in the Himalayas, on the way to Mount Everest Base Camp to link up with Sir Ranulph Fiennes, things only got worse. A few days into our hike, I suffered from food poisoning and that night found myself sleeping on a dirty, uneven concrete floor of an overcrowded lodge. Only a thin sheet of plywood separated my makeshift accommodations and a latrine, which was in use throughout the night by trekkers who evidently ate the same unsanitary food as I.
At Base Camp, things got even worse. Tasteless food, an overfilled 50-gallon drum that served as a makeshift toilet, the thing air, the bitter cold at night, no showers. “I can’t wait to get the hell out of here,” I said to the ITN television crew I linked up with in Kathmandu. “Me neither, this place is a hell hole,” Rob Turner, the cameraman and producer said. Surrounded by people fixated on climbing Mount Everest, Rob, his colleague Phil Reay-Smith and I were the obvious outsiders who had no interest at all in climbing. We just couldn’t understand why otherwise sensible people would put themselves through such suffering just to stand on top of a mountain.
A month later, we were delighted to fly by MI-17 helicopter back to Kathmandu. “They have a Hyatt!” Rob exclaimed in disbelief and excitement. When we walked into the Hyatt Regency Kathmandu that evening, it felt like we were instantly transformed into an oasis. After taking the first shower in over a month, our small group met up for dinner. Happy to have survived the rigors of Everest Base Camp, we were excited to be back in civilization and longed to return to Europe. Nepal, we decided, was a nice enough place but, definitely not worth a second visit.
That evening, I had a fateful encounter that would forever change my opinion of Nepal. Gadi Hassin, the Hyatt’s Israeli general manager, and his future wife, Kristy Baker, ate dinner at the table next to ours. Sitting alone after Rob and Reay retired early, Gadi struck up a conversation. An instant friendship was born and over the course of the next few days, Gadi showed me the other side of Nepal – the mysterious, colorful, cheerful, exciting, wonderful Nepal. As I quickly learned, Gadi was legendary among the 300+ workers at the Hyatt for his radiant personality and deep commitment to transforming the ailing hotel into a highly successful landmark.
During this time, I befriended several of the Hyatt’s extremely well-trained and attentive employees. These friendships have endured until this day and I am proud to say that to date, I am the only guest at the Hyatt Regency Kathmandu that has been invited into the homes of many Hyatt employees, watched several of them get married, have babies, and see their babies grow into children. Many years later, when I began working on bringing the fire trucks to Nepal, I took up permanent residence in the Hyatt. I was granted a number of special privileges that none of the other long-stay guests enjoyed. “Mike, if you want to cook a meal, please wear this Hyatt apron, so that the other guests don’t think you’re a guest,” Chef Gopi told me. With full access to the back-of-house, as the non-customer-facing areas of the hotel are called in hospitality industry jargon, I was able to move about the hotel’s various event spaces and restaurants with far greater speed than regular guests.
These special privileges played a considerable role in my mission to help Nepal in the months of the blockade, during the years-long effort to bring the fire trucks to Nepal, and in my covert endeavor to gather as much information as possible about India’s meddling in Nepal’s internal affairs. Obtaining information about other guests is usually a big no-no, but with so many good friends at the Hyatt, I was able to find out anything about anyone either staying at the hotel or visiting for a meal or drinks. A service charge is automatically added to every bill, but I had always tipped generously, in addition to passing out a great deal of cash during key religious holidays.
“You are our second GM, sir,” Sunita Basnet, one of the hotel’s most efficient managers, told me repeatedly, “people still remember Mr. Gadi Hassin, but you are still here and you are mini-Gadi.” The fact that Gadi and I share a birthday made this connection much more formal in the highly superstitious world of Nepal. “Our last GM was terrible, Mike,” another Hyatt employee said, “and now we don’t even have a GM. So you have to be our GM, isn’t it so.” To have the loyalty and friendship of a great number of Hyatt employees was a very fortunate circumstance that I used in a sustained effort to gather as much information about the inner machinations of Nepal as possible.
The Hyatt regularly hosted VIPs, foreign dignitaries, and an endless procession of Nepalese political leaders. Whenever a person of interest visited who someone at the hotel thought I needed to know, an elaborate system started kicked into gear. First, I would be tipped off in advance. “Tonight, so and so is visiting,” or “there’s an important event in the ballroom,” I would be told. Usually, the most important events, those involving the prime minister or foreign dignitaries, would be heavily secured. This is where the back-of-house card came out…rather than going through the front entrance, where I would be stopped by the guards checking the guest list, I could enter through one of the several service entrances used by hotel staff. After some time, some of the guards and I became familiar enough that I could enter through the front entrance.
Once inside an event, one of the staff familiar with my activities would signal where a particular person of interest was seated or standing. It was through this system that I made initial contact with a number of people who would eventually become key sources of information, including top-level Nepal government officials. The Hyatt staff also supplied me with ample information to help me prepare for the tone of the conversation that would ensue once contact was made. “Madhesi sympathizer,” or “close friend of PM,” as well as “Indian embassy friend,” and “Maoist, bad Maoist, not good Maoist,” the staff told me.
Nepal is an unusual country in the sense that a white guy can basically get almost any information just by being dressed in a suit and saying he lives in the Hyatt. “Oh, you must come to my house and meet my family,” one official said within minutes of our first meeting. “My daughter wants to go to college in Germany, can you give her a visa,” another asked before saying “we should meet again soon, here is my card.” My favorite was the repeated assertion that I looked like a movie star. “You look like someone from Hollywood, so handsome,” a deputy prime minister said, before introducing me to his colleagues.
Likely due to the stress of the blockade and other goings-on in Nepal, I soon lost almost all the hair on my head. I also gained 20 pounds, owing to my frustration with what I felt was Russian interference with America’s presidential election. I had no proof of this, but I knew plenty of people in America’s foreign policy establishment and intelligence community to have a pretty good idea that Russian president Vladimir Putin had unleashed his FSB, in order to pay the U.S. back for meddling with Russia’s internal affairs in the time leading up to Boris Yeltsin becoming president. “It’s a nightmare, why isn’t anyone doing anything about this,” I asked a close personal friend familiar with some of the goings-on behind the scenes. “To Putin, the Cold War never ended,” my friend said. I drowned my frustration in 8-12 scoops of chestnut ice cream a day for months. I wish I had become a spy instead of a watchmaker, I thought. Maybe I could have worked as part of a cell to stop the Russians. America is the best place on earth, and now the Russians hacked it.
In terms of hacking countries, the Indian government has excelled at the game vis-à-vis its activities in Nepal. In order to undermine its small Himalayan neighbor in its efforts to develop into a prosperous nation, successive administrations in Delhi have maintained a rigid policy of quietly inflicting damage to Nepal’s sovereignty. “Their game is called ‘death by a thousand cuts’," a high-ranking Nepalese Army officer told me, “we are powerless. Who are we against India? If they want, they can overrun us in one day. They come in in the morning and by the afternoon Nepal is theirs.”
India knows this rapid takeover of Nepal, beloved by tens of millions of visitors around the world, would be as unpopular –if not more- as China’s annexation of Tibet and the illegal Russian annexation of the Crimean Peninsula. “India is a very sly bully, never gets caught,” a Nepalese minister told me. I knew that this minister and his family were highly corrupt after receiving a number of independent reports from sources. I was thus surprised when this man told me “we have learned to live with our two powerful neighbors. We take what each one can give. This is how we survive.”
It’s very easy to blame Nepal’s leaders for the corruption that plagues their country. However, according to insiders and historians in Nepal, the real reason behind the country’s endemic corruption is the Indian government’s more than 60-year-long policy of preventing Nepal from achieving meaningful development. Ever since its own independence in 1947, India has treated Nepal like a satellite state and sought to “teach” its tiny northern neighbor “lessons” in the words of one Indian diplomat with whom I spoke. One method India uses to impart lessons on Nepal is to enact economic blockades.
Until the 2015 blockade, the Indian government acknowledged that it was responsible for the three previous blockades. Dr. Jeffrey Sachs, the world-renowned American economist, during a visit to Kathmandu in December 2016, said “when there is a blockade of a landlocked country it can be devastating. Landlocked countries are very, very vulnerable.” In 1988, the year before India enacted its third blockade against Nepal, the small Himalayan nation was enjoying an impressive 9.7% growth rate in its gross domestic product (GDP). In 1989, that figure fell to 1.5%. The 15-month-long blockade crippled Nepal’s future aspirations.
A retired Nepalese professor told me over lunch “if India hadn’t done that to us, we would have become a very prosperous nation. Instead, they threw us back by decades in our development.” A former Swiss ambassador to Nepal agrees. “The Indians are the real reason Nepal is so poor. They foster an environment of corruption and political instability.” When I told this former ambassador that Nepal perhaps needed a benevolent dictator to stand up to India and at the same time curb corruption, the diplomat said “you’re right, but the international community will never play along. We need India’s help against the rise of China.” In September 2015, years after this conversation took place inside the Swiss embassy in Kathmandu, the international community watched idly as Nepal was subjected to yet another blockade, which began less than six months after the two massive earthquakes.
According to one Nepalese medical expert my colleagues and I spoke with, the 2015 blockade caused the deaths of an estimated 10,000 people. Most died due to hypothermia and the acute shortage of medical supplies. Some died due to the lack of fuel to power generators and motor vehicles. That medical expert supplied a summary of deaths that had occurred during the blockade, based on death certificates issued by various district offices in Nepal. “If you look carefully, the cause of death is often listed as something benign like died in sleep, but that’s because the Indians paid off the CDOs to obscure the fact people died of hypothermia.”
Following the worst natural disaster in Nepal's recorded history, something unusual occurred in the capital, Kathmandu. The country's usually fractious political leaders rallied together and agreed to pass a new constitution. This process, called promulgation, had repeatedly been delayed over the course of several years. So after the 2015 earthquakes occurred, foreign observers did not expect the promulgation to occur anytime soon.
The expediency of Nepal's politicians took Western diplomats by great surprise. However, no intelligence-gathering operation was more caught off-guard than the Indian embassy in Kathmandu, which is reputed to be the biggest Indian diplomatic outpost in the world. "There are some estimates that have the number of Indian assets in Nepal at 50,000," one senior Western diplomat confided in me over lunch at Nina's restaurant, one of the city's few outlets that serves descent cheeseburgers.
A stone's throw from the U.S. embassy, Nina's restaurant is frequented by all manner diplomats, journalists and Kathmanduites. The local gossip runs smoothly at Nina's and a group of American diplomats sitting at the next table overheard our conversation. I imagined them going back to their office after lunch and writing a report - sat next to Michael Kobold and ###### #### from ####### embassy. Overheard discussion about number of Nepalese on Indian embassy payroll.
For some time before arriving in Nepal, I had worked loosely with a number of U.S. intelligence agencies and enjoyed the confidence and trust of some of the Old Guard who had meanwhile retired, including Dr. Richard Fuisz. Long before being outed as a CIA handler by a mentally deranged intelligence asset, Richard and I had been good friends and I enjoyed his patronage of my watch company. Richard backed my 2009 and 2010 Everest expeditions and when I announced to Richard that I planned to become a filmmaker and documentarian, the former U.S. Army filmmaker presented me with two costly FujiFilm cameras. I also received a lot of excellent advice from Richard, including about ways in which to operate in a foreign country where everyone thinks you’re a spy.
In my profession as a watch manufacturer, I enjoyed a level access to foreign businessmen and officials that is usually reserved for insiders. On occasion, the Americans saw this is as a potential avenue to obtain information, and I was happy to oblige. My motto was simple: I'm a guest in your country, you ask me to do you a favor...request granted. This attitude towards doing what's good for America is deeply ingrained in me, thanks to a unique and fundamentally pro-American upbringing.
Our mother, ironically a complete hippie, raised my brother and me extremely pro-American and anti-Russian. Anti-anything, really, just pro-American. For almost every school vacation, we'd fly to America. By the time I was 13, I’d been to every state in the union, many of them repeatedly. Our mother's patriotism, for what was essentially an occupying force in Germany, had to do with the fact that our hometown of Frankfurt lay in the American zone. "Americans don't torture their prisoners," my mother and grandparents told us. "The Russians, even the French and the British, they weren't such nice occupiers. But the Americans handed out chocolate to the children and cigarettes to the adults," we learned with a degree of repetition. This, perhaps, also explains my lifelong predilection for eating chocolate.
America was the center of our family's universe. We'd rented or owned homes there since time immemorial, toured the country by motorhome, visited every theme park, every marine show and every air show along the way. When the U.S.S. Pittsburgh submarine visited the of Port of Ft. Lauderdale, we had dinner at Burt's Place, the actor Burt Reynold's restaurant. Why? Because it was right next to where the sub was berthed. "Our instrumentation is on that sub," my father said with an unusual amount pride of his precision instrumentation business.
In the Kobold family, American cops were heroes, German police either ex-Nazis or Neo Nazis. American Airlines, Pan Am, United, Delta and U.S. Airways were grail-level carriers regardless of class of service. Our native carrier Lufthansa? A "flying flea bag," in my mother's parlance - even in first class! In later years, we emigrated to the U.S. and for a time I attended boarding school in Rome, Georgia before spending a few years in Germany. The transition back to the Fatherland was not easy. We had grown too accustomed to the American way of life.
I am therefore completely pro-American and hence considered it a supreme honor to be able to assist certain intelligence agencies in gathering information. College friends of mine had been recruited by the NSA and this small connection was enough to instill in me a profound sense of confidence that the country was being watched over by folks with the emotional intelligence and intellect necessary to make sound judgement calls. That may seem naive, but as I will demonstrate, this sentiment will be of some importance later.
At Nina's restaurant in Kathmandu, the American crowd went back to work -only the ambassador, the deputy chief of mission and the head of USAID were permitted to have extended lunch hours, but on this day these senior officials were evidently either out of country or lunching someplace else. "Look, I can't tell you a lot of stuff, you know how this goes. But just be careful. The Indians run this country like a colony. You don't want to run afoul of them or any of their agents," the Western diplomat said. "The fact is; this is their blockade. They called it and they'll end it. The Madhesis are simply their pawns. They're paid to throw stones. We have our people on the ground in the Terai and the things we hear are not good."
A few weeks later I found myself in the American embassy's regional security office. I had briefed the Regional Security Officer and one of the Assistant Regional Security Officers on the fire truck expedition and informed them that we were expecting a number of former U.S. officials, including at least one ambassador and perhaps some members of Congress. At this time, it still very much looked like the fire truck expedition could proceed into Nepal.
A number of U.S. Navy SEAL friends of mine, who at the time were both retired and active duty, had agreed to join the expedition in a civilian capacity, basically to help shepherd the large group of VIPs we expected to join the expedition. If a fire truck falls down a 1,000-foot drop, you want people on hand who can deal with victim recovery and you want people with the leadership skills necessary to take charge and lead the other group members to safety. The SEALs are among the finest human beings I have ever met and I considered it the greatest honor that they were willing to support the expedition by volunteering their time.
At the U.S. embassy, the security officers basically wanted to know how the fire truck expedition worked. Who was involved, who would be in charge, what we planned to do once we reached Nepal. "If we have an ambassador in-country, we want to know, even if it's a retired ambassador," the A-RSO informed me courteously. "We will brief our local counterparts on VIP movements, so please keep us abreast as this develops." I spotted a huge map of Nepal on the wall inside the RSO's office. Pointing to the India-Nepal border, I asked if there was any information I could get "No, can't really tell you that stuff. But in local news reports, they keep mentioning that only Birgunj and Biratnagar are blocked." As a foreign national, I was already overstepping usual bounds just by being in the RSO's office. "Your best bet is to get the Nepalese Army to escort your convoy. Then you're golden," the young A-RSO told me.
I knew through an ex-Navy SEAL friend that the U.S. and India had secret defense and trade agreements in place. I also knew that the U.S. Department of State had found dealing with the Indians difficult. A former U.S. president's chief advisor told me "the Indians are pissed off because we caught one of their diplos abusing their household staff in New York. Ever since then, they've been making our lives difficult when we want to send people to India on official business. But we need India. China is our real enemy, they hate us. We need India to counter China."
"This place is filled with spies, Mike," the mountaineering legend Russell Brice told me over dinner one evening. Russ and I had grown to become good friends and I trusted Russ' judgement. The owner-operator of Himalayan Experience -or HimEx- the preeminent expedition operator in the Himalayas had agreed to be in charge of the fire truck expedition's logistics. "I dare say they all think you're one of them. And then you have Scott DeLisi at the helm of the Soarway Foundation, he's your friend. God, this is the sort stuff that spies do," Russ said with a big smile.
Until Russ pointed this out to me, I never thought anyone would mistake me as a spy. "Your fire trucks are a great cover," a British official told me at a party one evening. I brushed it off as a joke. Now, with Russ explaining what goes on in Kathmandu, I began wondering if perhaps everyone on the inside thought I was one of them. The fact is that the only reason I founded Soarway was to provide Ambassador DeLisi a paid gig in Nepal. Scott and Leija love the country and Scott was the most popular U.S. ambassador in a long time, both inside the embassy and among the general public. Rock star ambassador came to mind when I thought of an appropriate title for his position at Soarway.
Scott selected Soarway and not the other way around. I never hired Scott, I merely invited him to run his own operation...albeit with a strong focus on Nepal. It was my way of helping Nepal. Get rock star ambo to run charity in Nepal - everyone wins!But I began to appreciate that to an outsider especially one as paranoid and lacking in common sense as an Indian intel officer, this set-up could seem just a little too good to be true. As I later discovered, Americans, Germans, Belgians, working in that field are sometimes not much better in the common sense department.
The mere fact that the Indians might mistake me as a fellow spook gave me great concern. This was, after all, their back yard and according to a Scandinavian ambassador "people go missing here and they are never found again." One problem actual spies face if they don't work under diplomatic cover, is that they are disposable. I called a Navy SEAL buddy of mine on a secure line and asked him for advice. "You can play this one of two ways, you can do everything possible to deny, or you can play along with these guys and scare them. Then they'll leave you alone. They'll just watch what you do." Pretending to be an intelligence officer was even less palatable than trying to find ways to prove to the Indians that I was just a simple civilian hell-bent on delivering fire trucks to Nepal.
The simple fact is that I was never employed by any intelligence gathering outfit, American or otherwise. The "favors" I did for the U.S. were just that - favors. I certainly never considered myself a spy, and out of respect for my former classmates and other friends who are employed in that capacity, but especially out of respect for those who lost their lives in the line of duty, I would never claim to an intelligence officer. While I had been screened for a security clearance in order to assist in a project related to national security, I merely worked in an arms-length capacity. Besides, lots of government contractors get screened and they most certainly don't qualify as being spies.
Aside from the Indian embassy in Kathmandu, where Research & Analysis Wing officials were actively researching my background and questioned a number of Nepalese officials –some of whom in turn warned me– I was concerned of what the folks at the American embassy might think. “Alaina, I want you to know that whatever I might be doing in Nepal is not in an official capacity whatsoever, I’m here solely as a private citizen,” I told the then-U.S. ambassador in Nepal, Alaina Teplitz. “I have worked on and at times continue to work on matters related to national security, but this work is related to another country. I don’t want you think that I’m doing anything in your backyard that might cause you embarrassment later on,” I told the kind and highly personable ambassador. I had been advised by several mentors that it would be good to have this ‘clear-the-air’ conversation with the most senior U.S. official in Nepal, just in case someone at the embassy misread my activities in the country. “Thank you for letting me know, Mike, you have an interesting life,” Ambassador Teplitz said.
Meanwhile, things in Nepal were getting too complicated too soon. I had no desire to get caught up in geo-politics, and thus decided to lay low at the Hyatt with the goal to simply wait until the blockade was lifted. Several sources indicated that it would take two to three weeks for the blockade to end. The Indian's will never let it go on through the winter, I heard from more than a handful of well-placed individuals.
The weeks flew by and people back home were getting nervous. What's happening with the fire trucks, they asked. When I briefed Darryl-Ford Williams, the program director at PBS-affiliate WQED in Pittsburgh, the expedition's broadcast partner, on the latest news regarding the blockade, she said: "If you are there, you might as well film the effects of the blockade. Who knows, this might be something for Frontline."
Darryl and I had agreed on three one-hour-long segments about the expedition, possibly two if we didn't capture enough interesting material. This was important to our title sponsor, The Men’s Wearhouse, because they could run 1-minute-long ads on either end of each segment. Getting a piece about Nepal onto Frontline, PBS's revered current affairs format, would only instill more confidence in the film crew covering the expedition. I thus set out to document the effects of the blockade.
I soon found that telling the story of the blockade without conclusive evidence of India's involvement would only raise more questions and ultimately do a disservice to the Nepalese who were suffering through the ordeal of not having cooking gas, fuel and a dwindling supply of medicine. Proving beyond a reasonable doubt that India was directly involved was not easy because most of my sources refused to speak on camera. Open source material was not much help either. Simply showing empty streets, long lines at gas stations, people using fire wood to cook their meals and tea was powerful but lacked context. A voiceover wouldn't be good enough, I wanted people on camera who knew the behind-the-scenes stuff and were willing to talk about it.
The man with more insider information than anyone else was India's Ambassador Ranjit Rae. Together with his public diplomacy experts, Ambassador Rae issued a series of carefully crafted statements denying any involvement in the obstruction of supplies, even going to great lengths to scrub the word "blockade" from the news media's coverage. Ambassador Rae's message was simple: there is no blockade, instead there are only protestors on the Nepal side of the border who have grown disenfranchised with Nepal's central government in Kathmandu.
These protestors could be placated by the K.P. Oli government simply by giving into their demands for more inclusive "proportional" representation in Nepal's new parliament. Then, and only then, would Indian truck drivers resume making trips across the border.
The problem with this narrative was that it simply wasn't true and the Indian embassy official who one day out of the blue phoned me to request a meeting over coffee would confirm this in no uncertain terms.
"Are you recording this conversation," one of India's most senior intelligence officers in Nepal asked me as we sat down on the terrace of the Shangri-La hotel a few days after his unexpected call. "Not recording, don't worry. Tell me: What on earth are you guys doing with this blockade," I asked in a low voice. "We are teaching these bastards a lesson. They have to understand who's running the show. Do they not remember who gives Nepal the most aid? Who is always there when Nepal needs something? Who has an open border with Nepal? India. It's always India. And then they dare treat us with so little respect? Who do they think they are?" I sat there, unable to come up with an intelligent response.
"But the earthquake reconstruction eff..." - "It's their own fault. So they suffer through a long winter, what's what? Let them suffer. It's their country, they know how to deal with the cold," the Indian official replied. "Now let me ask you a question, Mr. Kobold. What are you doing here? Who are you working with?" I was jolted by the directness of his questions. "I am not working with anyone; I am here to bring fire trucks. I just want to get my fire trucks in and leave. I don't care about the blockade or anything else," I said. "So why are you going around filming all over Nepal?" Apparently, someone had briefed the official on my movements inside Nepal. "Well, since I can't bring the fire trucks into the country, I have to explain to the expedition's sponsors and members what the hold-up is." This was the truth, I feared that if the fire trucks didn't ship soon, the sponsors might pull out and the expedition would collapse.
After the meeting ended, I drove home to the Hyatt, hoping the intelligence officer would cable Delhi some variation of this guy is a nobody, let his fire trucks through and he'll be out of our back yard. But as it would turn out, that is not what happened. In fact, as I would discover years later, he did much the opposite.
Unlike homes in Europe and North America most residences across Southeast Asia don't feature central heating systems. Even upper class families rely on space heaters or their A/C system as rudimentary heating sources. The climate in Southeast Asia is a lot warmer than in the northern hemisphere, yet Nepal is one of the highest places on earth and in some areas sees winter temperatures plunge to below -30 degrees Celsius. Aside from sitting in the sun while wearing several layers of clothing, Kathmanduites use thick blankets and many cups of hot water or tea to keep themselves warm. Every home in Nepal has a gas heater to boil water and cook meals. The gas is supplied through canisters that are sold at dispensaries across the country.
Months went by and the blockade showed no sign of ending. As the blockade entered its fourth month, long lines of people formed outside these cooking gas dispensaries, as well as at fuel stations where petrol and diesel were strictly rationed. Shortly before the bitter cold Himalayan winter, India's blockade plunged Nepal into a far deeper national crisis than the two earthquakes. "It feels like we are living 100 years back, we have to use firewood to cook our meals," said Pasang Lhamu Sherpa Akita, the National Geographic Adventurer of the Year. "They are not treating us in a humane way, they've robbed us of our dignity."
Nepal receives 100% of its fuel and gas from India. The blockade abruptly disrupted this supply. By relying on a time-proven network of smugglers to ferry the gas and fuel across the border, black marketeers began providing these essential supplies at a multiple of the normal cost. In order to make an even greater profit, many stretched the fuel with low-cost additives, contributing to the spike in air pollution due to the countless camp fires across the Kathmandu Valley and Nepal as a whole. Worse, the low-grade fuel that India normally supplies to Nepal was now of even worse quality, resulting in engine seizures to be commonplace.
In order to obtain a small ration of cooking gas or fuel, typical households had to dispatch one member to stand in line for up to three days. Standing outside a gas dispensary in a small chowk behind the President's official residence, bookkeeper Sunil Shrestha told me: "How can I go to my job if I have to stand in line for half a day just to get a half bottle of cooking gas? We need this gas, it's winter. My wife is at home with our two small children."
"If the Indian government wants to take over Nepal, they can do it in other ways, what they are doing to us is just mean," said a Rana clan member. The Rana dynasty had ruled Nepal until the first half of the 20th Century and through present times maintained considerable influence.
Meanwhile, my colleagues and I had gotten a number of interview subjects to agree to appear in the segment I hoped would be aired on PBS Frontline. "You have to tell the other side of the story, that's critical," Darryl Ford-Williams of WQED in Pittsburgh told me. Sisan Baniya, the photographer-turned-cameraman-turned-video-blogger and I had an opportunity to visit the Terai together and separately. Sisan captured some great footage in Birgunj and other border towns and we spoke with locals who told us that people from India were paying people in Nepal to protest.
Around this time, I was introduced to the prime minister of Nepal, K.P. Oli. Nepal is famous for having the most friend people in the world and I found Prime Minister Oli to live up to his countrymen's reputation. I promised K.P. Oli not to divulge the nature of our private conversations until he was no longer prime minister, and since then Mr. Oli has won re-election with a two-third majority. Hence, I am only able to divulge that Prime Minister Oli entrusted me with the task of making India's secret blockade public knowledge. "These are not simple matters, Michael, you must find someone who has left his heart in Nepal to speak out on our behalf," Prime Minister Oli said. Later, we agreed that the fire truck expedition would be used as a public relations vehicle to expose India's illegal blockade. "I will fly by helicopter and join you at the border," Prime Minister Oli said. "In that case I insist that you drive a fire truck for a few kilometers, Prime Minister" I said, convinced that this was, indeed, a great idea. The prime minister driving a fire truck... Darryl Ford-Williams at 'QED is going to love this! I thought to myself.
Time was of the essence. Winter in the Himalayas had begun causing a number of people to die from exposure to the elements. What India was doing wasn't just immoral, it was also against international law guaranteeing landlocked countries free access to the sea. In my mind, I developed a multi-tiered strategy to oust India's illegal machinations. Concerned that the Indian embassy in Kathmandu would pick up my calls and messages via electronic surveillance, I decided to fly to America.
On the flight from Tokyo to Honolulu, I went through my telephone directory to make a list of VIPs and influencers whom I could recruit for Operation Save Nepal. By the time the flight landed, I had identified over 175 prominent members of society, including actors, recording artists, athletes and, above all, journalists, all of whom I either considered close friends or friends, not acquaintances.
America really is the best place in the world, I thought. Where else could one even think about making a plan like this work? Years later, the former foreign minister, prime minister and president of Bosnia-Herzogovina, Haris Silajdzic, told me the same thing. “The Europeans are too cynical in their world view. They don’t care,” the elder statesman said. “The Americans, they still have human decency, that is why I was always on American television talking about the siege of Sarajevo. Without America, we would have lost everything.”
Click on the link below for Part 8 - "The Escape"