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Did North Korea Kidnap an American Hiker?

In the Northern reaches of China’s Yunnan province, just before the rolling hills and deep, river-carved ravines of the Yungui Plateau give way to cascading sheets of limestone and spectacular karst, two mountains—Jade Dragon and Haba Snow—jut three and a half vertical miles into the sky. Separated only by the Jinsha River, a 100-foot-wide whitewater tributary of the Yangtze, these scabrous peaks form one of the world’s deepest river canyons: Tiger Leaping Gorge.

Etched into the steep terrain above the wild rapids, the 16-mile High Trail climbs more than 3,700 feet through the canyon’s thick mountain brush and sheer cliffs. The trail, which usually takes two days to complete, is considered a must for trekkers searching for remote panoramic vistas in China, with Tibet looming to the west and Myanmar, Laos, and Vietnam to the south. The route is littered with commercial guesthouses, where tens of thousands of tourists—almost exclusively from China or South Korea—can buy a hot meal and sleep in a real bed.

On August 11, 2004, He Shuchang, a local guide, had been trekking for hours with his two clients, a married couple from Hong Kong, when he spotted a pale Westerner marching up the mountain path in the twilight. The stranger wore a blue T-shirt and gray shorts, with a fanny pack tied to his waist and a floppy brimmed rain hat covering his prematurely balding head. He Shuchang was used to seeing the occasional Westerner. Still, when the man emerged over the rise, then politely asked in flawless Mandarin if he could join the group, He Shuchang was stunned. What was this stranger doing here?

{%{"quote":"What most Americans don’t know is that North Korea has been systematically kidnapping foreigners for the past 60 years."}%}

The man introduced himself as David Sneddon, an American college student who was taking summer language classes in Beijing. He seemed charming and curious, peppering the Hong Kong couple with questions about themselves and alternating between Mandarin and English. The couple seemed to enjoy him, so He Shuchang let him stay. They hiked together for several hours, eventually reaching the far end of the gorge, where they all spent the night at Tina’s Guesthouse. The next morning, David continued alone up the route away from the High Trail, vanishing as suddenly as he had appeared.

In Logan, Utah, David’s parents, Roy and Kathleen, were thinking about their son. They had last seen him three and a half months earlier, when David, 24, stopped by their home to pack his clothes and say goodbye. He had just completed his junior year at Brigham Young University and told them that his summer plan was to go to Beijing to study Mandarin, renting an apartment with fellow BYU student George Bailey. He would then spend a couple of weeks hiking around western China.

Some parents might be leery of such a plan, but not Roy and Kathleen, both devout Mormons. Their 11 children had completed lengthy missions around the world; David served in South Korea. David was not as academically gifted as his siblings but he was a hard worker, and his parents admired his yearning for a life of adventure and travel. Besides, he planned to return in the fall to finish his bachelor’s degree in Asian languages and apply to law school.

{%{"image":"","size":"medium","caption":"David Sneddon in China. He was an accomplished language student who knew English, Chinese, and Korean.","align":"left"}%}

From Beijing, David e-mailed his parents two or three times a week. When classes ended in early August, he wrote with details of his plan to travel until the 26th, the day he was scheduled to fly to Seoul, where his older brother, Michael, ran a corporate translation business. “I’m in Lijiang now, in western Yunnan province,” he wrote on August 11. “I will take a bus to hike Tiger Leaping Gorge in about half an hour. I am having a great time here but nonetheless am excited to come home.”

A week went by without another e-mail. Roy and Kathleen began to worry, but told themselves that their son was probably in a remote area without Internet access. They felt comforted knowing that David would soon meet up with his brother.

On August 26, Kathleen was visiting grandchildren in Provo, Utah, when her cell phone rang. It was Michael, calling from Seoul.

“David isn’t here,” he said. “He didn’t make it.”

That call would mark the beginning of the Sneddons’ agonizing quest, now nearly ten years old, to find their missing son. The search has taken family members to Yunnan province and back three times to look for clues, but with little assistance from Chinese or American officials, David’s disappearance has remained an infuriating and elusive case to solve. It wasn’t until April 2011 that the Sneddons finally received an explanation that seemed plausible, when a former high-level U.S. official called with a startling theory: “I believe David may have been kidnapped by the North Koreans.”

At night, satellite photos of the Korean Peninsula show South Korea crackling with activity and light. By contrast, its neighbor and longtime adversary, North Korea, remains virtually dark.

{%{"image":"","size":"medium","caption":"Kim Jong Un and Dennis Rodman watch North Korean and U.S. players in an exhibition basketball game at an arena in Pyongyang, North Korea, February 28, 2013.","align":"right"}%}

Surprisingly little is known about the so-called Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. Even today information trickles across its borders only in small doses. It is considered the most repressive and corrupt nation on the planet, ruled by the Kim family, a gangster dynasty whose patriarch, Kim Il Sung, took power at the end of World War II. He was succeeded by his son Kim Jong Il and, more recently, his grandson Kim Jong Un—all three of them maintaining power by brainwashing citizens with relentless propaganda and enslaving detractors in brutal prison camps. Americans have come to know North Korea as a reliable source of headlines that are both bizarre (“Dennis Rodman Claims Kim Jong Un Didn’t Actually Have Uncle Executed and Fed to Dogs”) and frightening (“North Korea Vows to Use New Form of Nuclear Test”).

What most Americans don’t know is that North Korea has been systematically kidnapping foreigners for the past 60 years. Since the Korean War Armistice in 1953, North Korea is suspected to have abducted 3,824 South Koreans (in addition to more than 100,000 taken during the war) and as many as 100 Japanese and 200 Chinese. According to the U.S. Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, there have been at least 25 additional abductees from countries including France, Italy, Jordan, Lebanon, the Netherlands, Romania, and Thailand.

The regime’s motives are not always clear, but over the years a few patterns have emerged. In 1976, after Kim Jong Il began efforts to strengthen his intelligence operations, the nation started targeting linguists who could teach foreign languages to North Korean spies selected to carry out operations abroad. In 1987, for example, North Korean agent Kim Hyon Hui, who spent three years taking Japanese lessons from an abductee, boarded Korean Air Flight 858 with a fake Japanese passport and planted a bomb that killed 115 people.

{%{"image":"","size":"small","caption":"Ex-North Korean agent Kim Hyon Hui arrives in Japan.","align":"left"}%}

{%{"image":"","size":"medium","caption":" ","align":"right"}%}

More recently, North Korea has kidnapped people in China to deter dissidents from trying to escape—as well as dissuade others from assisting them. That’s where Yunnan province comes in. Despite its heavenly mountain setting, the region has long been a thoroughfare for an Asian Underground Railroad, a network of safe houses and secret routes that shuttles North Korean refugees through China and into Southeast Asia. Aided mostly by Christian activists from the West—many of whom speak Korean—refugees must escape North Korea and then elude Chinese authorities, who have a zero-tolerance policy when it comes to harboring them. North Korean security agents also operate along the route, searching for fugitives with the tacit permission of the Chinese government.

While the subject of North Korean abductions is not widely publicized in America, in Japan it is considered a top international human-rights issue. The government and various nonprofit groups spend more time and effort gathering intelligence on the phenomenon than in any other country in the world. In 2002, North Korea’s “supreme leader” Kim Jong Il even admitted to the kidnapping of 13 Japanese citizens in the late seventies and early eighties. The regime returned five but claimed that the other eight had died while in detention. (Several of the death certificates provided by North Korea turned out to be phony, and DNA testing of the supposed remains was inconclusive.)

In many of the Japanese abduction cases, highly trained North Korean agents snatched the victims inside Japan without leaving a trace. In fact, many of the victims’ parents spent decades with no inkling that North Korea was involved. Another common trait: nearly all of the abductions occurred in the summer months leading up to August 15, North Korea’s Liberation Day. Additionally, a good number of these victims fell prey inside Korean-run cafés and restaurants. In 1977, North Korean agents lured Japanese citizen Yataka Kume into one such restaurant and abducted him. Three years later, Tadaaki Hara was kidnapped from a Korean noodle shop in Osaka. In 2000, Reverend Kim Dong Shik, a permanent U.S. resident from the Chicago area, was in China helping North Korean refugees when he was reportedly abducted from a Korean café. He was later executed.

And in 2004, David Sneddon was last seen leaving a Korean restaurant in Shangri-La, a small tourist city not far from Tiger Leaping Gorge. It was August 14, the day before Liberation Day.

I first met Roy and Kathleen Sneddon at their house outside Logan. Logan is home to Utah State University, where the two met as undergrads nearly 60 years ago. Hand-built by Roy and David in 2001, their bright blue house stands out in an otherwise drab neighborhood overlooking the Wasatch Mountains. Roy and Kathleen, both 78, are short and trim with graying hair.

In the weeks that followed David’s disappearance, information trickled in from the U.S. embassy. The Chinese had conducted an initial investigation and came up empty. David was not in any hospital, mental ward, or jail. No body had surfaced. His passport had not been used, and the $700 in his bank account remained untouched. Local police had ruled out murder and violent crime, which were practically nonexistent in the region. With seemingly little evidence to go on, Chinese officials concluded that David had simply fallen into the Jinsha River and died.

{%{"image":"","size":"medium","caption":"Tiger Leaping Gorge. A handful of hikers have drowned in the gorge, but all of their bodies were recovered.","align":"right"}%}

Back in Utah, Roy and Kathleen were skeptical. David was an experienced hiker and an Eagle Scout who spent his childhood backpacking in Wyoming’s Wind River Range. It was hard to believe that their son had slipped on such a heavily trafficked trail and fallen into the river. But if David had fallen and drowned, it seemed even less likely that his body hadn’t turned up. While mudslides and falling rocks during the rainy season have claimed a handful of hikers in Tiger Leaping Gorge over the past two decades, in every instance the body was recovered.

Roy and his two sons, Michael and James, decided to go to Yunnan and retrace David’s path for themselves. On September 13, 2004, the men reached the small village of Qiaotou just outside the trailhead at the gorge. Accompanied by a translator and a hiking guide, the Sneddon family started down the trail. Right away they saw missing-person posters with David’s photo. They also saw police officers wandering aimlessly with bloodhounds, ostensibly searching for David despite a month passing since his disappearance. “It was ridiculous,” says Michael, who decided the effort was all for show. “We just laughed and said thanks.”

{%{"image":"","size":"medium","caption":"Roy, Michael, and James Sneddon in Tiger Leaping Gorge.","align":"left"}%}

The three Sneddon men carried on, marveling at the scenery and feeling guilty that they were almost enjoying themselves. The group had been hiking less than two hours when they ran into a trekker headed the other way. His name was He Shuchang.

He Shuchang knew the Sneddons’ guide and described his encounter with a Westerner a month earlier, hiking with him to Tina’s Guesthouse at the far end of the gorge. When He Shuchang recognized a photo of David, Roy couldn’t believe his luck. He didn’t want to get his hopes up, but it seemed to be clear evidence that David had made it through the gorge.

When Roy and his sons arrived at Tina’s the next afternoon, however, the police were already there. A worker told them that the owner was out shopping and that no one could remember whether David had stayed there. Chinese law requires hotels and guesthouses to keep a written log of foreign visitors, complete with names and passport numbers. When Michael asked to see the log, the man at the check-in desk told him that every month for the past year was available but August had been confiscated by the police. That was the case at every lodge they visited along the trail. “It was highly suspicious,” says Michael, “and it certainly felt like a cover-up.”

From Tina’s the road splits in two. One route loops back to the trailhead and then south to Lijiang. The other heads north to the city of Shangri-La, so named by the Chinese in 2001 to promote tourism. David’s final e-mail mentioned that he was excited to be “really, really close to Tibet.” Following a hunch, the Sneddons took the road to Shangri-La.

In the city, the Sneddons spent a fruitless afternoon asking shop owners about David. Discouraged and somewhat daunted by the size of the city, the three men gathered together at their guesthouse that evening and prayed. Afterward they agreed to give Shangri-La one more day.

The next morning, James stumbled upon the Yak Bar, a cozy, one-room Korean restaurant with wooden floors and pink walls adorned with Korean flags, located 100 yards from a police station and a massive jail. Given David’s love of all things Korean, the Sneddons went to check it out and met one of the owners, a round-faced woman in her mid-twenties named Zhang Xiao Fen. Looking into her dark brown eyes, Roy could tell that Zhang understood exactly what was going on. When Roy showed Zhang a photo of David, her eyes lit up and she smiled. “She definitely remembered David fondly,” Roy says. “It was tremendously exciting.”

{%{"image":"","size":"medium","caption":"Zhang Xiao Fen, one of the owners of Yak Bar, tells Roy that David had been at the bar the day before he disappeared.","align":"right"}%}

She accurately described his clothing and recalled that he spoke Mandarin and Korean. He had come into the restaurant three times over two days and had eaten cheaply, like a student on a tight budget. Zhang told the Sneddons that David stopped by for the last time around noon on August 14 to say goodbye; she assumed he was leaving Shangri-La. That would have made sense, given David’s original plan. To make his scheduled flight to Seoul, he would have had to get to Lijiang that evening and hop on an early-morning bus on the 15th.

In all, the Sneddons found 12 people in the gorge and in Shangri-La who remembered David and could identify his picture. All signs pointed to David making it out of the gorge and disappearing in Shangri-La, not doubling back and tumbling into the Jinsha River. “At this point,” Roy says, “we were 100 percent certain that what the Chinese government told us was not true and that David did not fall into the gorge.”

When the Sneddons returned to Utah, they set up a website, Finding David Sneddon, and wrote a 74-page report detailing their trip, which they sent to the U.S. State Department. Surely the government would recognize their discoveries and act.

The first response came by e-mail. Gavin Sundwall, a diplomat stationed at the embassy in Beijing, wrote that a special-investigation unit had looked into the Sneddons’ report and had not “produced any tangible leads.” It took another eight months of relentless correspondence to convince the Chinese to launch their own follow-up investigation and to interview the people who claimed to have seen David.

The results were crushing. All 12 sources changed their stories. He Shuchang now said he couldn’t be certain that the man he met on the trail was David. At the Yak Bar, Zhang told police that the photos of David looked like a customer she met in August but she wasn’t sure. The same routine played out over and over. David’s parents wondered if the witnesses were intimidated into recanting. In the end, the Americans and the Chinese deemed the evidence “inconclusive,” determining again that David most likely died in Tiger Leaping Gorge.

{%{"image":"","size":"medium","caption":"Women are shown pictures of David in Shangri-La.","align":"left"}%}

Last fall I spent a few days hiking the High Trail through Leaping Tiger Gorge and visiting Shangri-La, hoping to track down some of the same people the Sneddons had talked with on their first visit. Getting information wasn’t any easier. Many of the shops and guesthouses had changed names and owners. But the Yak Bar was still there, though it had undergone several renovations. A woman sitting outside the kitchen told me, through my interpreter, that she opened the business in 2002. When I asked about an American who went missing in 2004, she didn’t reply. When I asked using the name “Sneddon,” her eyes grew wide and she shook her head. “I have no memory,” she said. She asked to us to leave.

In 2011, seven years after David’s disappearance, Nicholas Craft, a Mormon attorney who served his mission in South Korea after David and had read about him on the Sneddons’ website, was interviewing for a job at the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea with its executive director, Chuck Downs, a longtime deputy director of the Pentagon’s East Asia office. At the end of his interview, Craft was getting up to leave when he asked, “Have you ever heard of David Sneddon? I always thought that North Korea might have been involved in his disappearance.”

Downs was an expert on North Korean abductions. He edited a book on the topic and had testified before Congress. But he had never heard of David. He leaned forward in his chair. “Sit back down,” he told Craft, “and tell me everything you know.”

As he listened to the saga of David’s disappearance and his parents’ investigation, Downs was amazed at how many of the details fit so well with the familiar patterns of North Korean abductions. For starters, the lack of any evidence pointed to trained professionals. And Downs knew that, as a talented linguist, David would have been a prized catch. Not only did he speak Korean, but he also spoke English without any trace of a regional American accent—a coveted asset in training agents. By midsummer 2004, North Korea had lost one of its few remaining American English teachers, Charles Jenkins, who was released on July 9, one month before David disappeared.

Downs also remembered that the summer of 2004 was particularly tense for U.S.–North Korea relations. That year, on July 21, the House of Representatives had passed the North Korean Human Rights Act, which condemned the dictatorship’s human-rights record, promoted assistance to refugees, and established a presidential envoy at the State Department to address those issues. “The U.S. is well advised to stop its rash acts,” the regime warned in response, “and to ponder over the grave consequences to be entailed by its extremely hostile moves to isolate” North Korea.

North Korea was again outraged a week later when Vietnam allowed a record 468 North Korean refugees to enter South Korea. In the largest mass defection since the end of the Korean War, these North Koreans had all crossed China through Yunnan province to reach Vietnam. As a result, North Korea withdrew its ambassador from Vietnam and canceled scheduled talks with South Korea.

{%{"image":"","size":"large","caption":"David Sneddon in China. David was an experienced hiker and Eagle Scout who spent lots of time hiking Wyoming in his childhood, so his parents were skeptical when officials said he'd died crossing a gorge."}%}

And there was one more event, Downs recalled, one that seemed too eerie to be mere coincidence. A few months before Sneddon disappeared, Chinese authorities arrested a high-profile North Korean defector named Kang Byong Sop near the Yunnan-Laos border. Kang, a chemical engineer, was supposedly carrying documents revealing that North Korea was testing chemical weapons on prisoners. In Downs’s mind, Kang’s arrest was clear evidence of cooperation between Chinese and North Korean agents.

Finally, Sneddon was last seen at a Korean restaurant in Shangri-La, which fit North Korea’s pattern of using cafés as part of a global network that uses state-run businesses as espionage centers. These secret hubs, located in 30 to 40 countries but concentrated in China, employ roughly 30,000 workers who send more than $100 million in cash per year to the regime and provide cover for spies. Perhaps the two women operating the Yak Bar in the wild west of China were part of the network or had helped supply information about suspicious visitors in exchange for local protection. Surely, at the very least they knew the value of informing on an American, traveling alone, who spoke Korean and Mandarin.

{%{"quote":"“It’s hard to wrap your mind around the idea that a nation-state might have picked up your kid from a foreign country,” says Kathleen. “But after the conference, we thought it might be a 75 percent chance.”"}%}

Downs understood that the evidence was all circumstantial, but he knew how North Korea operated. After Craft’s interview, Downs began investigating the case. He’s now convinced that David was abducted. “I believe that David is in North Korea as strongly as you can believe anything,” he told me last summer. “I don’t see any other explanation. I just do not doubt it.”

In April 2011, Downs picked up the phone and called Kathleen Sneddon to share his theory. Kathleen was guarded but allowed Downs to run through the evidence. His plan was not to convince her but to get her and Roy on a plane to Washington, D.C., where he was hosting a conference for Korean and Japanese families of abductees. “Come speak with them,” Downs told her, “and see if you feel you have something in common.”

There is little information about what life is like in North Korea for kidnapped foreigners, but most of what we do know has come from the Japanese who managed to escape or were released. Many are reluctant to speak for fear that the North Korean regime will retaliate against family and friends, but a few have shared their stories. One of the best known cases involves Kaoru Hasuike and his then girlfriend, Yukiko Okudo.

In 1978, the pair wandered away from a crowd of beachgoers in Kashiwazaki City, Japan, onto a quiet stretch of sand where they held hands and watched the sun set. As the waves crashed against the shore, several men approached, and one asked for a cigarette lighter. Before either could answer, one of the men punched Hasuike in the face while another tied his arms together, forced a gag into his mouth, and shoved him into a large sack along with Okudo. The men loaded their captives into an inflatable speedboat and roared off into the night. The next time the couple saw land was two days later, when they arrived in North Korea.

Hasuike was separated from Okudo and taken to a so-called guesthouse in a valley where he was surrounded by barbed-wire fence and armed guards. During 24 years of captivity, Hasuike’s captors forced him to read the teachings of Kim Il Sung and kept him hidden from other abductees, routinely moving him from one house to another. He was put to work as a translator, and he felt torn rewriting Japanese newspaper articles in Korean. After two years, he was reunited with Okudo and allowed to marry. The couple had a son and daughter and decided to lie to their children, telling them they were Korean so that others would not discriminate against them. Hasuike said it was “the longest and most bitter period of my life.”

Hasuike was released in 2002. When he reunited with his family in Japan, he told his brother Toru that he was “a citizen of North Korea” sent to Japan to “normalize” relations between the two countries—a clear indicator of relentless brainwashing. Over time, however, Hasuike adjusted to life outside North Korea and began teaching at a university. Toru saw the effects of the indoctrination begin to fade and concluded that Hasuike had not been permanently altered but was “wearing body armor to protect himself from North Korea.”

There are no officially recognized cases of abducted Americans, but the experience of U.S. Army sergeant Charles Jenkins probably offers the best glimpse of how American—possibly even David—might be treated.

{%{"image":"","size":"medium","caption":"Charles Jenkins (second from right) is escorted by U.S. Army officials upon arrival at Camp Zama, outskirts of Tokyo, on November 27, 2004.","align":"right"}%}

In 1965, Jenkins, then 24, with a distinct North Carolina drawl, was stationed at an outpost along the edge of the demilitarized zone between North and South Korea. On a cold January evening, after guzzling nearly a dozen beers, he set off as though going on his nightly patrol duty. Terrified of being sent to Vietnam, Jenkins told his supervisor that he was going to check out a strange noise and crossed into North Korea. His plan, poorly thought out, was to get captured in hopes of being sent to the Soviet Union, North Korea’s Cold War ally, and then eventually shipped back to the United States. “I did not understand,” Jenkins later said, that “once someone goes there, they almost never, ever get out.”

Jenkins was blindfolded and taken to a small house outside Pyongyang, where North Korean soldiers interrogated him for ten days. Afterward, Jenkins was taken to another house and forced to live in a tiny bedroom with three other American soldiers who had defected: Larry Abshier, Jerry Parrish, and James Dresnok. A six-foot wall surrounded the house, and outside a guard kept watch from a crow’s nest on top of a telephone pole. Jenkins wrote in his memoir, “I suffered from enough cold, hunger, beatings, and mental torture to frequently make me wish I was dead.”

Jenkins eventually began teaching English to North Korean soldiers. For many years, his lectures were recorded for others. He was forced to appear in anti-American propaganda films and television shows. All captive foreigners endured daily reeducation and indoctrination classes. Prisoners also engaged in a mind-control exercise that required them to admit their faults and pledge their allegiance to the supreme leader.

Arranged marriages were also part of prisoner life. Late at night on June 30, 1980, Jenkins heard a knock on his door. When he opened it, he saw a 21-year-old woman in a white blouse, a white skirt, and white high heels. “I had never seen anybody so beautiful,” Jenkins said of meeting Hitomi Soga, a Japanese abductee who would become his wife. “In those grubby old surroundings, it was like she was from a dream or an entirely different planet.” The two bonded over their hatred for North Korea and eventually had two daughters. In 2002, Soga was one of the five Japanese prisoners allowed to return home after Kim Jong Il admitted to their abductions. Back in Japan, Soga’s stories of her American husband and her children still in North Korea were taken up by the media, and in 2004 North Korea released Jenkins and their two daughters. Today the couple lives a quiet life in a remote village in Japan.

Through the years, Roy and Kathleen Sneddon ran through every conceivable explanation for David’s disappearance, but nothing ever gave them a sense of finality. They ruled out drowning after finding evidence that he hiked safely across the gorge. Murder? Chinese authorities and locals swore that violent crime was virtually nonexistent in the region. Suicide? Nothing pointed to depression. In fact, David was excited about his senior year at BYU and had already paid for student housing with his own savings.

In May 2011, when the Sneddons returned home from meeting with Downs and the families of abduction victims, they finally had an explanation that seemed plausible—even if it also sounded patently absurd. “It’s hard to wrap your mind around the idea that a nation-state might have picked up your kid from a foreign country,” says Kathleen. “But after the conference, we thought it might be a 75 percent chance. The North Korea thing was just a puzzle piece that seemed to fit.”

More pieces soon followed. In winter 2011, an organizer of unofficial meetings between the U.S. and North Korea asked a North Korean diplomat about David. “What was remarkable to me, having dealt with North Korean officials for years and expecting a reaction of outrage,” said the organizer, who is speaking out for the first time on the condition of anonymity, “was the total lack of surprise at the intimation that something of this kind might have occurred at the behest of authorities. He asked me to spell [David’s] name, and the fact that he was willing to note the name indicated to me that he was not excluding the possibility that this might have happened.”

{%{"image":"","size":"medium","caption":"Roy Sneddon with He Shuchang (middle) and guide Sean (right). Roy and Sean ran into He Shuchang while hiking, and couldn't believe their luck when he recognized a photo of David.","align":"left"}%}

The following year, in May 2012, the Tokyo nonprofit National Association for the Rescue of Japanese Kidnapped by North Korea dropped a bombshell. One of the organization’s most reliable sources, a North Korean defector who had provided flawless intelligence to NARKN for years, had obtained Chinese security documents indicating that in August 2004, a 23- or 24-year-old American studying at a Chinese university was arrested in Yunnan province on charges of helping illegal residents. According to the documents, authorities had released the American in September, and he’d ended up in the hands of five North Korean secret agents who were in the area searching for defectors. NARKN was certain it had to be David.

“We have much confidence in our source and have no reason to doubt this information,” says NARKN vice chairman Yoichi Shimada, speaking publicly for the first time during an interview last fall. Shimada believes that corrupt officers sold information about David’s release to North Korean agents.

The following month, the Sneddon family received yet another lead from a man in South Korea with close ties to the North Korean defector community. (His identity cannot be revealed for his safety.) The man told the Sneddons that an American in his early thirties who matched David’s description had been spotted teaching English outside Pyongyang, the North Korean capital. This information has not been corroborated, and if David is indeed in North Korea, Downs says, “he would be in a highly controlled environment, and most North Koreans would not ever know he was there,” making verification difficult.

While NARKN’s information appears genuine, some skeptics question the organization’s credibility and accuse it of using David’s case to raise the profile of its own political agenda. If an American abduction could be confirmed, the issue would undoubtedly receive a huge publicity boost. The Sneddons, however, don’t seem to care about NARKN’s motives. “They may be using us,” says Kathleen, “but we’re also using them. It doesn’t mean they’re lying.”

Last May, I sat next to David’s brother, Michael, in the third row of an auditorium at the Japanese Embassy in Washington, D.C., for a symposium on North Korean abductions. Michael flew in from Germany, where he now lives with his family. Waiting for the event to begin, Michael tapped his finger on his knee and trained his eyes on the two people in the room who might help find David: Keiji Furuya, Japan’s cabinet minister in charge of the abduction issue, and U.S. ambassador Robert King, special envoy for North Korean human-rights issues.

At intermission I approached Furuya, who told me that he and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe believe that NARKN’s information is entirely credible. “It is most probable that David Sneddon is still residing in North Korea,” he said. “But I do not think that the United States is working fast enough to collect evidence.” And since David is an American, he lamented, Japan can’t get involved.

Ambassador King stated in his symposium remarks that the United States’ “commitment to this issue could not be stronger.” But in reality, officials want nothing to do with David’s case. Since David’s disappearance, Roy and Kathleen have written 55 letters to various members of the State Department, including Hillary Clinton during her time as the department’s secretary. Most went unanswered, but the replies that did come were infuriating. Under the Privacy Act, the U.S. government will not release any information about David without David’s written consent. To Roy and Kathleen, it is the mother of all catch-22’s.

{%{"image":"","size":"medium","caption":"A Missing poster for David Sneddon, posted on a power pole on Leaping Tiger Gorge trail.","align":"right"}%}

In November 2012, a friend of the Sneddon family filed a Freedom of Information Act request with the State Department for all records related to David. Though the request turned up 14 documents, the government refused to release 13, citing concern for privacy and the “interest of national defense or foreign relations.” The one document they did release simply stated that China had not found any trace of David.

For the Sneddons, these concerns are infuriating. Why would the United States be reluctant to search for one of its own citizens? But to anyone familiar with the delicacy of high-level diplomatic relations, the government’s position on the issue is understandable. Asking too many accusatory questions about David could potentially threaten America’s vital relations with China. If David was in fact detained in China, it would mean that China broke its treaty obligation to inform the U.S. within four days. Pressing the issue with North Korea, meanwhile, would jeopardize possible nuclear negotiations. “It’s simply more convenient for the United States if David is dead,” Michael Sneddon says.

As of now, nearly a decade after David vanished, the Sneddons are still asking the same questions, still hoping for that one additional shred of evidence to compel the powers that be to intervene.

David’s parents’ home in Logan remains a shrine to their missing son. Nearly every surface, from the living-room walls to the refrigerator, is dotted with pictures of David: in his crib as a baby, playing ice hockey, traveling in China.

“I don’t want to forget him,” Kathleen says. “How would I feel if he came through the door and said, ‘Mom, you don’t have any pictures of me’? I’d want to scream, ‘No! I kept you in my heart and my mind and my prayers, and you were always there.’ I can’t take the chance that he’d think we forgot him. People say we’re crazy, but that’s their business.”

Kathleen envisions David as a 34-year-old man, married with children. If he is teaching English in North Korea, she imagines that he is enjoying himself and making the best of his new life behind the iron veil.

The day before David left for China, Kathleen talked with her son deep into the night. The following morning, she was so busy helping him finish packing that his departure seems like a blur. She knows she waved goodbye as she stood on the front porch watching David pull out of the driveway, but she can’t remember giving him a hug or saying “I love you.” “I just have to trust that I did.”  

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Is Consumerism The Climate's Enemy?

Recently, the National Climate Assessment revealed myriad ways climate change is already altering our daily lives. And more recently, a NASA study revealed that a significant chunk of the Antarctic is in "irreversible retreat" and that the resulting sea-level rise during this century will force the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change to revise upward its already daunting prediction of one to three feet. What do we do? Once we pick our jaws off the floor, most of us have little choice but to continue on with our day. Oh, and of course drive less, buy organic, and eschew plastic bags. If that hardly seems like it's enough, you're right. It's not.


In his new book, The Big Pivot: Radically Practical Strategies for a Hotter, Scarcer, and More Open World, Andrew Winston—author of the 2009 bestseller Green to Gold, and an expert on green business strategy—argues that environmental changes are forcing companies that make our cars, our food, our plastic bags, and everything else we choose to buy or not buy, to sink or swim. Consumers play a major role in their fates.

We talked to Winston about what consumers really care about, how environmentalism is like the gay rights movement, and whether it's okay for clothier Patagonia to cash in on its good intensions. 

OUTSIDE: You write in your book about how our increasingly connected world is forcing businesses to be "radically" transparent about the types of ingredients and manufacturing processes they use. Yet, when I go shopping I see a lot of overworked, harried people who seem to want to fill their carts and get on with their day.
WINSTON: We've had 44 years of Earth Day, and the percentage of people who really changed what they buy, how they live, in a way that is really deeply based on the environment is very low. That said, studies show things are changing. One study found that 40 percent of consumers will buy better, lower-footprint products when given the choice.

For years people did not buy energy-efficient light bulbs because they cost more upfront. But, over the years, as Walmart, Home Depot, and others started really pushing compact florescent bulbs, people started buying them. Now they're selling LED blubs. They also cost more upfront, but over time people started to understand the larger picture: that if they use this more expensive bulb over a number of years it's actually not more expensive (thanks to energy savings).

Still, we have not seen a giant movement in American consumers. I think, to be kind, it's because we are busy and we can't know everything about every purchase we make. For some categories we pay attention, personal care products and food—things we put on our bodies and in our bodies. There is more attention paid to those products than, say, asking where the wood in our bookcase came from.

So, what are the roles for consumers, versus government and business, in righting the ship?
To deal with something as serious as climate change and to address resource scarcity, all three (consumers, government, and business) need to shift the way we live. Consider a region dealing with drought: everyone has to act and sometimes you hear about people reporting on their neighbors who wash their cars (in violation of water restrictions). You have to have a sense of the common good.

Unfortunately, I think we're in the midst of a pretty big pendulum swing away from common good, thanks to political partisanship and Libertarian every-man-for-himself ideology. I get that, but as much as you want to say every man is an island, it's just not true. You have to think about how you affect other people. I don’t think that's so radical. 

These pivot points in society happen seemingly fast. Look at the gay rights movement. That happened seemingly very quickly in this country, but it was actually after decades of work. There is always a lead-up for many years and then some things (like discriminating based on sexual preference) become socially unacceptable. For another example, look at what happened with Clippers owner Don Sterling (and his remarks about African Americans). I think there is going to be a time when it's unacceptable to be a profligate user of natural resources or to be unaware of your impact or to habitually waste a lot of food. There will be increasing peer pressure not to do those things.

But I don’t rely on consumers to lead the charge. I think business and government need to work together to change the way we make energy, how we make products. That said, it would be a heck of a lot easier to get business and government to change if people made more noise and showed a clear preference in the things that they bought. Retailers care, but not as much as they would if consumers were walking in and clearly picking the greener stuff.

Patagonia, through its Worn Wear program and Eileen Fisher, through its Green Eileen stores, are buying clothes back from consumers and then reselling them. That really starts to subvert the retail paradigm. But in the end, consumers who sell their clothes back to those retailers get store credit… with which they have no choice but to buy more stuff. So at the end of the day, can retailers—even if they're super green standouts like Eileen Fisher and Patagonia—actually not be about consumerism?
It's a profound question. I think a company can grow and sell more stuff if it is taking (market) share—if it is selling more at the expense of other companies that are making less sustainable stuff.

So if the Patagonias of the world are selling something that lasts longer, that is made of recycled content, can be recycled, and so on, you want them to grow. Yet the total pie of resource use has to be in control.

Another way to look at this is through the work of Bill McDonough and Michael Braungart and the Cradle to Cradle movement. If things can be made in such a way that they can be cycled, almost endlessly, while using renewable energy, then consumption is less and less the problem. If a company, by its existence, makes things better, then you want more of them. It's a [positive] abundance thing, rather than saying, 'Oh, population is a problem, every new person and every new product is a problem.' But obviously we're still a long, long way from that.

It is a fair question to ask can public companies lead this charge? By their nature they need to keep shoveling growth and that is a problem. The math does not work to grow forever. But I think a (private) company like Patagonia, they are a $600 million company. They could still grow a lot and be selling more and more stuff, because theirs' are better products that last longer (than their competition). That is not different than the way businesses have always worked. The best ones survive and the worst don't.

We're going to be 9 billion people (by 2050), we're going to need things—but clearly they need to be made differently. The power that we use to make them needs to be renewable. We need fundamental changes. 

In the book I use the example of Kingfisher, a European home-improvement store, which has a goal of being net positive—they want to help people build homes that generate more energy than they use. Let's say you built a home and all the materials were recycled and/or local, and then home made more energy than it needed so that over time I actually netted out the energy it took to make. Don't you want more of those homes?

Climate is a big problem. Resources are a big problem. There isn’t an easy answer. People should take a hard look at their consumption habits, absolutely, but we still need things. No one is going to do well by telling everyone to just sit in a dark cave. But if, through our choices, things get better, then consumption isn't necessarily the problem.

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A Trail of Murder and Revenge in Papua New Guinea

States of grace can be elusive, but Christy King had found hers, if only for a moment. It was 3 P.M. on Monday, September 9, 2013, and King was basking in the glow of a well-ordered campsite. The 39-year-old Australian had just finished her first day leading seven Australian men, one New Zealander, and 19 local porters on a planned six-day trek in Papua New Guinea, from the highlands down to the coast, along the Black Cat Track, an arduous, precipitous, and overgrown 42-mile trail first opened by Aussie gold miners in the 1920s and later the site of one of Australia’s most harrowing battles in World War II.

They’d started walking at six that morning, through an epic landscape that began as steep hills covered in high grasses. The clients ranged in age from their early forties to 67, but King was surprised by their high level of fitness. By 2 P.M. they’d made the first campsite, at Banis-Donki, a clearing set amid thick jungle with the trail entering and exiting at either end. In a cold drizzle, the porters went to work, setting up an orange tent for each trekker. For themselves they strung a silver-colored tarp from the trees.

{%{"quote":"They slashed and cut and cut and slashed—the legs of almost every porter, slicing their calves and Achilles tendons, chopping so fiercely that bones shattered."}%}

The clients quickly disappeared into their tents to change into warm, dry clothes. The porters started a fire and put water on to boil. Porter Kerry Rarovu, hungover, just wanted to crash. King had known him for years, and as she horsed around with him and other porters under the tarps, she stood where he was trying to set up his bed. “Get off!” he barked, jokingly. “I need to sleep!” Matthew Gibob, another porter, flopped down next to Rarovu.

The rain stopped, and Rod Clarke and a few other clients emerged. It was often rainy up here in the high hills, and nobody minded—that was part of the adventure. Smoke from the cooking fires swirled around the campsite as rice bubbled in pans of water. Nick Bennett was still in his tent. Zoltan Maklary was in his, listening to his iPod. A few of the boys, as the porters called themselves, were collecting firewood in the forest.

Everything was perfect. And then the men with machetes burst out from the trees.

They entered the clearing from the far end of the track, fast, with a level of aggression that shocked King. Three men, each wearing homemade balaclavas with small eyeholes, sprouting strange little ears, like Halloween masks. One carried a World War II–era .303 rifle, the two others three-foot-long machetes, known as bush knives in PNG. One of the machete carriers also had a sawed-off shotgun. The men were short, small.

“Sleep! Sleep! Sleep!” they yelled, pidgin English for “lie down.”

Clarke and the others hit the ground. King went to her knees.

Rarovu woke up just as the men swept in and started slashing the tarp and its guy lines. He opened his eyes, lifted his arm. The first blow came down, cleaving his hand in two along its length, between the middle fingers. The next blow split his skull open. And the next and the next. Eight times. The thumping sound was unforgettable.

Bennett, in his tent, heard shouting. He thought something fun might be happening outside; maybe the boys had found a cuscus, a species of possum. He grabbed his camera and was about to exit the tent when he felt a crushing blow, heard an explosive noise in his brain. He thought he’d been shot, but he’d been hit by a rifle barrel. Blood poured from the wound.

Maklary shifted in his tent and started to take out his earphones when a blade came crashing down into his arm.

“Want the boss man!” the attackers screamed, striking the Australians with the flat sides of their machetes.

The men cowered on the ground.

King stood. “I am. What do you want?”

“Money, money, money, money,” they shouted.

King’s tent was at the end of the row and she got up, pointed to it, said the money’s in there—she was carrying half the porters’ wages and all the money they’d need for paying villagers along the route, about $5,000. The attackers separated her from the others, made her get the money out of her tent. She thought they would just grab the cash and run. But as the man with the .303 stood watching while she gathered it, the other two ran back and forth in a frenzied state, rifling through the tents, slashing any porter who moved.

“Sleep! Sleep! No look!”

They hacked Gibob, lying next to Rarovu. They shoved Peter Stevens’s pointed walking stick into his calf. They yelled for Bennett’s camera and the money in his pockets, and then they brought a machete down, hard, into a tree next to him to emphasize the command. They slashed and cut and cut and slashed—the legs of almost every porter, slicing their calves and Achilles tendons, chopping so fiercely that bones shattered. The trekkers were lying down, listening to the thumps, the screams, but King was seeing much of it, thinking, planning. What was she going to do?


“Have they gone?” someone finally said.

The survivors raised their heads. Stood. Twenty, maybe 30 minutes had passed. The camp was destroyed, tents, sleeping bags, backpacks, clothes strewn everywhere. Bennett watched Matthew Gibob take his last breath and die. Dick Reuben, another porter, was in shock, his eyes rolled back, as Bennett dressed him, put socks on his bloody feet. A few of the porters, who’d been out collecting firewood when the attackers came, were gone, disappeared into the bush. Porter Joe Gawe had ducked his head just enough as a machete nicked his face, then raised his arm as the next blow came, slicing his forearm. All the others were cut in the legs, unable to stand—except for two: a nine-year-old son of a porter, and a porter who held the boy when the attack was under way.

“It was horrific,” King told me two months later. “Like a war zone. I’m a nurse and used to seeing flesh and death and the shitty things that can happen to human beings. But Rarovu was butchered. His head was massively split open, and there were limbs and bodies and blood everywhere.”

“Christy, Christy, help us,” the porters cried. “We’re dying.”

King went into autopilot. She located the first-aid kits, threw around bandages, and found one of the trekkers’ Australian cell phones. It had a signal—they were still in range. She couldn’t get a local number but reached her father-in-law in Australia, told him they’d been attacked, told him to call her husband, who lived in PNG. She found a PNG phone, called a friend who worked for Morobe Joint Mining Ventures, the operator of a giant gold mine near the start of the trek, called everyone who could help, said to send villagers up the trail.

{%{"image":"","size":"large","caption":"Christy King, just hours before the attack."}%} 

She ran the numbers. Thought about her responsibility to the clients, who were bleeding, traumatized. Dark was coming, and in the highlands that meant a long, cold night. She decided. They’d bandage everyone up as best as they could, make the porters as comfortable as possible, and walk out the way they’d come, a roughly six-hour trip. “It was hard to leave them, but we couldn’t do anything more, and we needed to get help,” she said.

The only problem: that was the direction the attackers had gone, too. “It was eerie and scary,” King said. “We’d walk for ten or fifteen minutes and smell their marijuana, stop, keep to a tight group.” They had headlamps but were too afraid to turn them on, so King led them stumbling through the darkness.

“Adrenaline kept us going,” said Bennett.

After several hours, they encountered a mass of villagers on the trail, and by 10:30 P.M. they were in the Morobe Mine’s clinic.

But the porters were still up there, on the killing ground.

The attack got little attention in the United States, but Papua New Guinea—an independent nation covering roughly 173,000 square miles on the eastern half of the island of New Guinea—is a former Australian colony that gained independence in 1975, and within 48 hours the trekkers were home, their ordeal exploding across TV, radio, newspapers, and the Internet. Accounts invariably showed photos of Bennett with his head wrapped in gauze, reported that Stevens had been speared, and called the attackers robbers or bandits. The more thorough stories included a line or two quoting locals who said a dispute between tribes may have played a part—a theory that Mark Hitchcock, one of the owners of PNG Trekking, the company that sponsored the trip, disputed. The motive, he told reporters, was clearly robbery. “This is an isolated … incident that shocked us all,” Hitchcock was widely quoted as saying. It was, he said, “totally out of character for the track.”

As the days passed, police on the ground and in helicopters combed the hills and jungles for the perpetrators. Then, a week later, came another story: relatives of a porter who’d died had attacked someone who was suspected of harboring one of the killers. 

{%{"image":"","align":"left","size":"medium","caption":"PNG police searching for the killers. The attack got a great deal of media attention in Papua New Guinea."}%}

At first I watched this all unfold from afar in the U.S. Having spent the past three years working on a book about the 1961 disappearance of Michael Rockefeller in New Guinea, I’d traveled for several months in remote areas of the island’s western half, Indonesian Papua, where I’d lived with a tribe on the southwest coast. Although tribal customs vary widely across the island, the idea of reciprocal violence—of balancing the world through constant warfare and the taking of what Westerners would call revenge and tribal people call payback—is nearly universal. Reports of horrific violence in PNG were becoming increasingly common, including attacks against people perceived as sorcerers—itself a form of reciprocation, this time against the spirits—who were causing trouble in corporeal form.

It wasn’t just happening in remote areas but in the country’s largest cities, too, like Port Moresby, Lae, and Mount Hagen, as men from warrior cultures became unmoored from the sacred customs governing and controlling that violence, then found themselves poor and jobless in cities and further removed from village and tribal embrace. Although the media spotlight shined on the Australian trekkers and their ordeal, one thing was clear: while Bennett had been hit in the head, Maklary slashed in the arm, and Stevens impaled in the leg with his walking stick, none of the clients had been badly hurt. Emotionally traumatized, yes, robbed, yes, but nobody had lost so much as a finger or required more than a few stitches. This in a crime characterized by brutal chopping. If they’d been struck at all, it had been done with the flat side of the machetes’ blades. A certain care had been taken.

The porters, who ranged in age from twenties to forties, were another matter. Two had been killed right on the spot, a third was so cut up he died within days, and six others had been brutalized with a specificity suggesting that what happened was a lot more complicated than robbery.

I was shocked by the incident but also curious about it, as a window into Papua New Guinea and what can happen when well-heeled Western tourists venture into the remotest corners of the world—complex places with deep cultural practices, emotions, and antipathies that Westerners little understand or are completely oblivious to. I wanted to know more.

Christy King was briefly quoted in initial reports, but then the woman widely hailed as the incident’s hero went silent. My e-mails to some of the Australians weren’t answered, until Rod Clarke finally wrote to say the trekkers were unable to speak further, because they were negotiating an exclusive media deal in Australia, a country with a long history of checkbook journalism. Finally, one day, I managed to get Pam Christie, the co-owner of PNG Trekking, on the phone, but she, too, refused to comment. None of this helps tourism in Papua New Guinea, she said, and it was time to move on. When I asked her to put me in touch with some of the porters or King, she said, “Absolutely not.” If I wanted more, I should call the PNG Tourism and Promotion Authority, which had been “fully briefed.”

I hired a friend in Australia, who managed to track down King’s parents, who passed on her telephone number, and when my researcher told King what I wanted to do—come to PNG to try and understand what had really happened—she said I could contact her. This loosened the tongues of the trekkers themselves, especially later, when their media deal fell through.

Two weeks after that I was in PNG, slowly assembling the picture.

Twenty-four hours before the attack, Nick Bennett was bumping along in the bed of a Toyota pickup in the highlands of PNG. He and the seven other Australians had just flown from Port Moresby, the country’s steaming capital, into Bulolo, an airport consisting of two converted shipping containers, and now they were going up, up, up into higher terrain.

It was wild and rugged, beautiful, the kind of place that makes your chest swell, makes you laugh out loud, makes you feel lucky. The road was dirt, rutted, potholed, passing through dense green jungle one minute, cutting along the edge of steep hillsides another. Sometimes the truck forded fast-moving streams, and the sky was huge and full of clouds that were gray, green, and white and were pierced with rays of sunshine, a sun that felt warm in the fresh, cool air of the 4,000-foot mountains. Sometimes they passed Papuans trudging along the road. Small, black-skinned men in shorts and T-shirts, carrying machetes, women in flowered meri blouses—the colorful muumuus introduced by Protestant missionaries 100 years ago—with net bags full of sticks or sweet potatoes hanging behind head slings.

{%{"image":"","align":"right","size":"medium","caption":"Nick Bennett. Bennett was trekking the Black Cat with King's group after months recovering from a heart attack."}%}

Bennett felt thrilled. He was 55, originally from New Zealand, had served in the New Zealand police’s diplomatic protection corps and then moved to Australia, where he’d worked as a tour guide and trainer and had competed in the epic Sydney to Hobart sailing race. He loved adventure, exotic cultures, deep experiences—and then he’d been felled by a heart attack. Bennett fought back. He started doing yoga, began a 20-week fitness program that included long hikes and hill climbs, and now he was here at last, strong, healthy, triumphing over age, rocking along in the middle of nowhere. In terms of landscape and cultural strangeness, it doesn’t get much more intense, beautiful, weird—different—than PNG, and his journey was only starting.

Hikes like the one he’d signed up for are big business. The Kokoda Track, a much more famous trail than the Black Cat, is traversed by some 4,000 tourists a year and is “the single most important experience for Australians visiting PNG,” according to a 2012 economic analysis of Australian tourism. The hike runs from Port Moresby to Kokoda through the Owen Stanley Range, and it’s a well-oiled machine. Trekkers pay companies like PNG Trekking Adventures, which then contracts out for guides, porters, supplies, and logistics. A locally run trail organization collects a fee from every trekker and manages the route. It’s all so smoothly run, the guides and porters and villages they pass through so enmeshed in a well-developed business relationship, that there’s little crime on the track itself.

Looking to expand, the PNG Tourism and Promotion Board and PNG Trekking had begun opening up the Black Cat in 2004. Kokoda was already near capacity, and the Black Cat offered even more history and relics and raw challenge. Though shorter, it was far more technical, overgrown, and it passed through remote territories belonging to tribes like the Bong, Iwal, and Biangai. Developing it as a commercial trek promised a huge opportunity for everyone. But by the time of Bennett’s arrival, only a few commercial groups had actually done the trip.

Late that afternoon, Bennett and the others pulled into the village of Wau and a last oasis of sorts—the home of Danielle and Tim Vincent, longtime PNG residents and former colonial Australians who owned Wau Adventures, which they’d created to handle logistics for the start of the trek. Outside the Vincents’ fenced compound was jungle, dirt roads, the smell of smoke and dampness and dust, and all those inscrutable Papuans. Inside their house it was burnished wood floors and plush white overstuffed furniture and glass cabinets. Over wine and a big dinner, the eight men, all middle-aged and most former military, got to know each other and the woman who was to guide them and would have responsibility for their comfort and safety.

Their trip leader was blond and tan, and the men were startled by her beauty and poise. “I thought maybe she’d have her husband with her,” said Clarke, “and that if she was leading the group, it really must be safe.”

Christy King isn't a woman who needs any help from a man. A hard-charging Australian expat, she’s an intensive-care nurse and an endurance athlete. She’s lean and muscled, with bulging calves the size of knotted softballs. She exudes competence.

Married into a former Australian colonial family that operates the largest chain of pharmacies in PNG, as well as an expanding set of grocery stores, she is a member of the white Australian expat elite that still plays a powerful role in PNG’s economy and politics. Lae, PNG’s second-largest city and its largest port, is positioned just an hour across the Huon Gulf by boat from Salamaua, the village at the base of the Black Cat. Lae has been home to members of the King family for 50 years, and Christy and her husband, Daniel, had been living there for the past decade, starting a family that now includes two school-age kids. Christy spoke Tok Pisin, the pidgin English language spoken all over PNG, and the family knew everyone, from government officials to the locals in Salamaua, where the Kings maintained a rustic beach house.

King doesn’t sit still. She runs daily, starting at 5 A.M., on Lae’s ruined streets, trailed by guards in a vehicle. In 2011, she ran the Black Cat’s 42 miles (a journey that takes most trekkers six days) in 31 hours. She did that to prepare for a race on Kokoda—60 miles—which she finished in 30 hours. She was supremely fit, knew the terrain, the people, the local language, all the political players. 

{%{"quote":"The expat's message to me was clear: in a culture where payback was standard, the understanding was that anyone who turned themselves in would be safe."}%}

Just a few miles from the Vincents’ house, as the trekkers and King were celebrating the adventure to come, so too were Rarovu, Reuben, and 17 other boys in a village called Kaisinik. For uneducated men from villages without power, plumbing, and often even roads that access them, in a country with few opportunities, carrying loads for trekking parties was a plum job, paying $50 a day plus tips and whatever goodies tourists left behind, from hiking shoes to digital cameras. Even more important, proximity to affluent, educated tourists was an education in itself, exposing villagers to a wider world and whatever opportunities they might be able to leverage from that. Every village profited when the trekkers passed through. “We pay for everything,” King says. “Every bucket of water. Piece of fruit. Firewood.”

In the hierarchy of native porters and guides, Rarovu was a star, an example of what a smart, motivated, and ambitious Papuan villager could do. He was reliable, showed up on time in a society where Western notions of time don’t exist. Trekking agencies wanted to use him, tourists wanted him on their treks, and he’d risen to the status of head guide, earning an extra $10 to $20 a day, picking up Western ways easily. “Kerry had very good English,” says King, “and great relationships with all the expats.”

He had hiked on Kokoda, and he led all the treks on the Black Cat. Traveling en route, he stayed in the same hotels as the Westerners, ate dinner with them, felt comfortable doing so. An expat in Lae had given him a mountain bike, and before long he was doing wheelies and tricks and racing it in local expat events. His stature in his home village rose, as did his affluence, slight though it was. He built a wooden plank house in his village, opened a store in its front rooms, was becoming a big man providing for his two children and extended family. “We saw Kerry as our leader,” says his cousin, Hubert Koromeng. King had used Rarovu for all her challenging runs.

{%{"image":"","align":"right","size":"medium","caption":"Kerry Rarovu in 2011. Rarovu was a star porter, in high demand by trekking agencies and tourists."}%}

But he’d also gotten a little cocky and apparently had started drinking too much. So for this, her first time as trek leader, King chose another man, Dick Reuben, as head guide. Reuben wasn’t as experienced as Rarovu, but he was quieter, more thoughtful, a handsome, well-spoken man whom King instinctively trusted and liked. Also, he was from Salamaua, the beach village where her family had their house.

Once Reuben got the job, his first task was to begin hiking inland, up toward the trailhead, and King had told him to make sure he collected porters along the way from the major villages, so that the wealth of the operation would be spread evenly along the route. No village—and, more important, no tribe—should be left out.

Reuben had selected a handful of boys from his own village and recruited more on the way, and they hiked barefoot under heavy loads, 40 miles through steep mountains in two days. By Monday evening there were 19, including Rarovu, at the village of Kaisinik, in the house of Ninga Yawa, the chairman of the Black Cat Track Association. As King and the Australians celebrated a few miles away in Wau, the porters celebrated in Yawa’s palm-mat house without electricity or plumbing, chewing betel nut, smoking and partying late into the night. In a few days they’d all have $300 in their pockets, and if this trek went well, more tourists would be coming, a stream of money and opportunity for a people who had nothing. 

I spent three days with Yawa, who took me into the highlands, to the start of the track, and put me up in Kaisinik. Far away from PNG’s cities and expat community, this was a separate world, a place where tribal and cultural identities and differences were powerful and stark and on everyone’s minds.

In PNG, especially in the highlands, tribal violence is always close by, and Yawa was a Biangai. He was relatively well-off: he drove a four-wheel-drive Toyota pickup, and his family had been village leaders for generations. As we bumped into Kaisinik—a grassy median nestled between steep hills, the fast-moving Bulolo River running past—he said that his house had once been five bedrooms, was made of plank, and was raised on iron pylons. Not anymore. Now it and all the other houses in Kaisinik were simple palm-mat affairs, the kitchens an open fire under a palm roof. In 2009, the neighboring Watuts, with whom the Biangais have been engaged in a land dispute for decades, raided the village with spears and bows and burned it to the ground, killing five. In a rare move, Yawa had convinced his neighbors not to retaliate; instead, they were fighting the Watuts in court. But things were still so tense that five men slept on the porch of the little hut I was given to sleep in. “Your safety is our responsibility,” Yawa said.


The next morning he took me up to the trailhead, where the porters and the trekkers had met for the first time in a cool drizzle. Despite the rain and low clouds, the place was sublime, a mostly treeless world of green grass carpeting steep, undulating hills, the ridges in the distance covered in thick pines, a high rainforest they’d reach in a few hours. It appeared to be uninhabited country, not a village in sight, but up there, in there, lived people, whole communities unconnected to the outside world. It was the chance to see those people, interact with them—and their porters and guides who themselves were from those places—that had drawn Bennett and Clarke and the others as much as the challenges of the hike and its history.

Bennett had hiked Kokoda a few years before. “The boys would sing, and it was a joy just walking in the jungle and getting to know the culture,” he’d told me. This time his porter was a shy, quiet young man named Andrew. “It was his first trek,” Bennett said, “and had it continued, I would have gotten to know him very well.”

As the other porters met their clients—one head guide, one for each of the eight trekkers and King, plus nine more to carry the food and tarps and cooking equipment—King was surprised to notice that Rarovu smelled of alcohol. And although King had told Reuben to hire porters from villages spread evenly along the trail, 11 of the 19 were from Reuben’s own village. Which meant that, at the end of the trek, three or four thousand dollars would be flooding Salamaua, with much less going to the others. Only one porter was from Kamiatum, two from Mubo, one from Goudagasule, and two from Skin Diwai. Rarovu and Gibob were from Biawen, just up the road from Kaisinik.

But it was too late to change the makeup of the porters. And King trusted Reuben’s decisions: he knew tribal politics better than she. For his part, Reuben believed then—and believes now—that the distribution of his hiring was fair and appropriate.

Around 7 A.M. the trek began, 27 men and King, the porters in baseball caps and bare feet under heavy backpacks, the Australians wearing brimmed bush hats and carrying hiking poles. Each porter walked behind his client, Rarovu and King at the rear. The trail led from the road down a steep hill and then began climbing into the grassland, a narrow, slippery track. By nine they reached the carcass of a World War II B-17 that lay broken in two but was mostly intact after crashing into the hillside 70 years before. Everyone posed for photos, grinning, looking excited even in the drizzly weather, Reuben and Rarovu kneeling, proudly holding up their most important tool in the bush—a long machete.

They set out again, soon reaching the ridgetops and entering a thick, wet stand of woods. It was foggy, cloudy; the trees dripped. The Australians were going deeper, in every way, into the folds and complexities of a very complex place that few whites, even longtime PNG residents like the Kings, fully understood. To the Australians it was all just wilderness. That night they would camp at Banis-Donki, and from there they’d head to the thatch huts of remote villages.

But the Papuans, I was learning from Yawa and the men who sat around his fire at night, saw it all differently. Salamaua was in a region of Bong-speaking coastal people scattered in distinct small villages; Reuben’s was called Lagui. As the track rose inland, it entered territory that looked the same but wasn’t—the home of the Iwal people, centered in the villages of Mubo and Bitoi. And then, toward the head of the track, it entered Yawa and Rarovu’s territory, the lands of the Biangai.

The Bong, Iwal, and Biangai all knew where their respective territories began and ended, knew who owned what, knew who was from where just by looking at them. And they all spoke different languages. PNG had been like that for 40,000 years, a patchwork of hundreds of language groups and tribes whose relationship with their neighbors over the next ridge or across the next river often had been either nonexistent or violent, though on the Black Cat Track everyone had always gotten along.

On the Black Cat, additionally, there was a difference between the two ends of the route and the middle. Lagui, along the coast, was an hour by boat from Lae and had been in contact with the outside world for 150 years. Though undeveloped, it had cell service, tourists coming and going, a small but constant stream of income. The same was true of Wau and Kaisinik and Biawen at the highland end, which were reachable by road and set amid coffee plantations and a large and growing gold mine.

But villages in the middle were wilder, poorer, had no cell service, and were connected to the world only on arduous footpaths. The villages along the track itself, like Mubo, at least saw the occasional trekker. Villages like Bitoi, across the ridge from Mubo, saw no outsiders at all.

{%{"quote":"“These legs have done so many things,” said a porter named Jeremiah Jack. “They walk up and down, and so they chopped them so they won't walk again.”"}%}

The Iwal in the middle wanted a system in which porters would work only inside their own tribal boundaries, with trekkers changing porters along the way, thereby ensuring that each region and tribe got work. But the trekkers and trekking companies didn’t like that arrangement. Trekkers wanted to get to know one porter for the duration of the hike. The companies didn’t want to have to deal with the complex logistics of switching porters around. And since most of the track went through Iwal country, the Bong and Biangai at either end would see far less work and revenue.

King was aware of these issues, as was everyone who lived in the area. A year before, she and her husband and Reuben had hiked up to Mubo, carrying a load of donated medical supplies for its clinic. The place had given her a bad feeling. But she thought they’d be OK, and she’d specifically asked Reuben to pick boys from every village.

King and the Australians didn’t know it, but in the village of Kamiatum, Reuben had encountered a group of men who questioned him. “They asked me if I was going to take porters from each village, and I said that’s what I was doing,” Reuben would tell me later. “I asked the boys where they were from, and they said Bitoi.” When King and the trekkers arrived at Banis-Donki to set up camp, the attack had already been planned, set in motion by that encounter. It was the only campsite that was remote, not in a village, away from prying eyes. And the attackers were there, waiting, hidden in the bush.

One evening at Yawa’s house, a large group of Biangai elders began arriving to discuss their land suit against the Watuts. One by one they trickled in, until more than 20 were sitting around an open-air fire, drinking tea and coffee, chewing betel and smoking. The fire crackled and the sound of the Bulolo’s rushing water filled the night as they recounted a much more detailed version of what happened after the attack.

The Australian clients stumbled down the mountain and were quickly flown home. But even as they were being sewn up that night, Wele Koyu, a former Kaisinik village counselor and veteran porter, gathered four policemen and 24 local boys and began hiking up the track after midnight, along with the Morobe Mines logistics officer Daniel Hargreaves. Arriving at the attack site at 4:30 A.M., they tended to the injured porters and cleared a landing zone.

“It was cold, there was blood everywhere, and the porters were crying,” Koyu said. In two helicopter flights that morning, the injured were taken to Lae’s Angau hospital. They got there at the same time that a massive bus accident flooded the hospital with more dead and injured. There they languished, without blood, antibiotics, or painkillers.

In a country not known for its police efficiency, the Kings and their friends called PNG’s prime minister, Peter O’Neill. “From the minute it started, expats took control,” an expat who had closely watched the case had already told me. They pressured O’Neill, pressured the police, made sure helicopters were up and operating, oversaw the hospitalization and treatment of the porters, talked to the police after every arrest. Immediately, a helicopter and a mobile reaction force—a well-trained and heavily armed unit of the federal police created to combat tribal violence—began combing the area around the track. After the injured porters had spent four days in the public hospital, the expats moved all of them to the private Lae International Hospital, even as a third porter, Lionel Aigilo, died from his injuries. The expat liaison began paying off one of the suspects’ brothers, “To keep channels open,” he told me.

{%{"image":"","align":"left","size":"medium","caption":"Ninga Yawa's house in Kaisinik."}%} 

The expat’s message to me was clear: in a culture where payback was standard, where suspects under police custody often “died” before making it to court, the understanding was that anyone who turned themselves in would be safe.

Which, in light of what happened next, was a pretty good offer. In the minds of the Papuans, there was no question about what had occurred: Kerry Rarovu had been assassinated. The big man who got all the work had been struck first, targeted and hacked into oblivion. Matthew Gibob, also from the Wau area, had been next. Just as obvious was where the attackers came from. Everybody believed they were Iwal people from the villages of Bitoi, Mubo, and Wapali, long jealous of the work given to the people from either end of the track—even though, since they wore masks, their faces hadn’t been visible.

“The next day, the boys from Kaisinik went out searching for the culprits,” Koyu said, leaning in close, “in two groups, and we searched day and night.” In the Western world, people often live anonymously, away from family, unattached electrons floating free from all bonds. In places like PNG, everyone is bound to something, and there’s nowhere to hide. In the villages, everyone knows everything: who you are, who your parents and cousins and aunts and uncles are, where you’re from by your language or looks. And in Papuan cultures, reciprocal violence is everything, and always has been. On Saturday, four days after the attack, the brother of Gibob, the second porter to die, caught wind of a family suspected of harboring one of the attackers in Bitoi.

“Matthew’s brother and relations” killed three, Koyu said. “They went in and cut them and chopped them and killed them with the bush knife.” As Koyu told the story, the men around us all nodded in approval. The act created no moral or ethical dilemma for them. Here, such violence was more than expected. It was necessary, and it was how the world was balanced.

There was nowhere to go, nowhere to hide, and the boys from Biawen and Kaisinik and Lagui were scouring the ridgetops, the valleys, the villages, ready to burn and cut anyone who had anything to do with the attacks. Jail was safer than trying to escape. On Sunday, the day after Koyu and a gang arrived in Wapali with a police patrol, three men surrendered in exchange for being whisked away in a helicopter. “Otherwise the boys would have butchered them, chopped them to pieces,” Koyu said.

King and the eight clients all insisted they’d seen only three attackers. But as the next month unfolded, ten men were arrested, every one turning himself in to police, including some of the uninjured porters themselves, who were connected to the three main culprits by their cellphone records.

The attack, it turned out, was an inside job. Though the exact sequence of events may never be known, and none of the alleged attackers has faced a trial yet, the basic outline seems clear. Three brothers from around Bitoi, one of them nicknamed Rambo, were career criminals who’d done jail time for robbery and murder. They escaped and, up in the hills around Bitoi and Mubo, heard of the coming trek, knew of the envy and resentment of their fellow Iwal, and knew of the cash the party would be carrying. Robbery and payback coincided, mated.

In the morning, Yawa drove me back down to Lae and I flew to the coastal city of Madang, where I found the wounded head porter Dick Reuben sitting in a hospital bed. Crowds milled around the grounds outside, filled the halls. In PNG hospitals, patients are responsible for much of their own care, so he was being tended 24 hours a day by a man named Labi, from Reuben’s village, Lagui.

Two months had passed since the attack, but Reuben’s wounds remained hard to look at. His left leg had healed, a Frankenstein-like scar running across the cut Achilles tendon, but he still had little movement in his foot. His right leg was another matter: a gaping pink gash, three inches long and an inch wide, remained in the meat of his calf, where the machete had sliced deep. It was a strange scene. After a week of reporting, I knew something Reuben didn’t—even as he languished, the police suspected Labi, his caretaker, of complicity in the attack. (At press time, however, Labi had not been arrested or charged with anything.) 

{%{"image":"","size":"medium","align":"right","caption":"Dick Reuben recovering in Lae."}%}

I spent a few hours with Reuben, watched as the doctor checked his wound. Raw and open as it remained, it was clean, healing, and at some point soon he’d be allowed to go home. To what, exactly, was unclear. He could walk slowly, haltingly, but he’d never again carry a 40-pound pack up or down mountain trails, and he had no idea how he’d support his four children, the youngest newly born. I bought him a couple of bags of groceries and some cellphone credit, and flew back to Lae, where I boarded a local boat packed with 16 Papuans and one bandicoot and traveled across the Huon Gulf to his village.

Lagui is beautiful, a narrow isthmus of white sand between sparkling blue water. Quiet, with no roads, no cars, no engines, only the sound of wind in the coconut palms and children’s voices. The houses are palm thatch, lit at night by kerosene lanterns and candles. It is a lovely place, bursting with pink and purple bougainvillea, the perfect ending to an arduous hike through the mountains, from clouds and chill to brightness and balmy heat. But for the foreseeable future, there won’t be any trekkers coming, no tents pitched on its beach.

“Not until our demands are met,” said Nick Aigilo, whose brother Lionel was killed in the attack. I was sitting with Aigilo on the bamboo floor of his house, an open fire smoldering on a bed of mud. With us was a porter named Jeremiah Jack, who’d been sliced in both legs. He was quiet and shy, thin, with a wisp of a mustache, his English poor. He thought he was “about 22.” Now he was a cripple who could barely walk. “These legs have done so many things,” he said. “They walk up and down, and so they chopped them so they won’t walk again. It wasn’t just robbery.”

The Black Cat Track is closed, and no one—not Koyu up in Kaisinik or anyone in Lagui—thinks it will open anytime soon. The region remains tense. “The Iwal must pay,” Aigilo said. “What we call bel kol: money and pigs, traditional things, and until then the boys don’t want to see any Iwal around. We’ll crucify them.” For all the people inland along the track, it remains the only route to the outside world—either through Kaisinik and Biawen in the highlands, or through Lagui to the coast and to Lae. Already, they say in Lagui, two people from interior villages have died because they couldn’t get to the medical clinic on the coast.

I walked through the quiet village with Gilan Sakiang, the local elder. Lionel’s grave looks over the sea, covered in masses of colorful plastic flowers. His mother accosted me, weeping. “Why?” she said in English. “Why have you come to remind me of Lionel?”

PNG Trekking paid for funeral services for the dead but won’t pay anything further to the maimed porters, maintaining that PNG’s worker’s compensation law should take care of them.

“We sit here and look at the white men’s houses,” said Sakiang, “but we get much more from tourists on the Black Cat. Now we have nothing.”

The trekkers themselves are shaken but moving on. They have created a fund to help pay for their porters’ medical expenses, but the idea—to hike the track again with a TV crew—fell apart. Things were just too unsettled, too hot.

Which is a common sentiment, often expressed by people who think of themselves as travelers, not just tourists, people eager to get out of their hotels and really plunge into the world. I had said much the same thing myself many times. But I wondered, as I headed back across the Huon Gulf to Lae in a boat packed with people from tiny villages perched on the edge of the sea and the jungle, whether we ever really saw beyond the facade. It was easy to hang out with complicated people from remote places but much harder to know them.

Bennett was feeling optimistic. “The world is a violent and wild place, but that’s the adventure,” he’d told me. “And lightning never strikes twice, right?”

Christy King wasn't so sure when I spoke with her in Lae. The original TV deal the Aussie clients had been trying to negotiate would have required her to accompany them on a hike of the whole track. It collapsed when she refused to take part.

“I would never do it again,” she said, smoking a cigarette behind the high walls of her house, an old habit she’d temporarily resumed after the attack, the only outward sign of its toll. “It’s too dangerous.” King added that, during the incident, she was “worried that the clients might try to do something—they were all big, tough guys, but none tried to be a hero, and they just obeyed and stayed down, so we were lucky. But the Black Cat, unlike Kokoda, is so remote, you can’t do it without carrying large amounts of cash to pay the porters and for everything along the way.”

King loves PNG and always will. But it’s time for her kids to be able to walk to school and play in the streets, she says. For them to have a normal childhood. Though her husband will remain in Lae, tending the family business, she and the kids are moving to Cairns, Australia. Who knows if she’ll ever walk the Black Cat again?

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Public-Land Protests and Their Big-Energy Puppet Masters

What is it about a well-armed, ragtag militia confronting—and threatening—government officials (and ready to use the women-folk as "human shields") that gets everyone so fired up?

On Saturday, we'll get to witness more of these shenanigans, or something like it, this time at Recapture Canyon in southeast Utah. That's where Phil Lyman, the commissioner of San Juan County, is organizing a rally of ATV riders who are spitting mad that the Bureau of Land Management has restricted use of motorized all-terrain vehicles (citing damage to the landscape and vandalism of archeological sites).

The protestors plan to throttle into the 11-mile-long canyon, which is clearly posted with "no motorized vehicle" signs. No word yet on whether they will also be flexing their second amendment rights. The BLM, FBI, and San Juan County Sheriff's office have said they will "stand down," but BLM-Utah stated that they would "seek all appropriate criminal and civil penalties." The canyon contains ancient Anasazi ruins and other notable archaeological features. It was closed to motorized use in 2007 after ATV users built an illegal 7-mile-long trail in the canyon.

Whatever kind of showdown ensues, in the end it may not be the gun-toting anti-federalists that present the largest threat to the best use of public lands in the West. Often these groups are small factions of conservatives either wittingly or unwittingly doing the dirty work of some much bigger, more powerful players. Based on a recent Center for American Progress (CAP) report, oil and gas companies may be pulling the strings behind these localized, and more sensationalized, confrontations—a la the recent Cliven Bundy debacle in Nevada.

Staging protests, stirring anti-government sentiment, and pushing for access into protected wildland serve the larger interests of the extractive-resource industry by challenging the control that the Federal government has on public lands—whether that happens in Recapture Canyon or in a lobbyist's watering hole on K Street.

The CAP report details shows how oil and gas companies are leveraging three groups in particular—Safari Club International (SFI), Congressional Sportsmen's Foundation (CSF), and the National Rifle Association (NRA)—to attain "an increasingly active and vocal role in advancing energy industry priorities, even when those positions are in apparent conflict with the interests of hunters and anglers who are their rank-and-file members."

{%{"quote":"Whatever kind of showdown ensues, in the end it may not be the gun-toting anti-federalists that present the largest threat to the best use of public lands in the West. "}%}

The oil and gas industry's lobbying efforts went into high gear at the start of Obama's first term and have totaled nearly $900 million since 2008, compared to around $400 million from 2002 to 2007, according to Center for Responsible Politics. The CAP report asserts that sportsmen's clubs are among the industry's targets because financial support buys access to political operatives, and even members of Congress, who have ties to the sportsmen and gun rights community. That, in turn, allows the industry to push, through these clubs, for oil and gas interests in public land and wildlife policy—even when those positions are not in line with sportsmen's general stance, which (on paper, at least) focuses on conservation and open lands access.

A hunting and fishing industry representative says report explains a lot. "The NRA and the Safari Club are taking positions that are not in the best interests of sportsmen," says the individual, who asked to remain anonymous. "People were wondering why and thought it was because they were taking dollars from fossil fuel industry, but there was never a smoking gun. This report provides that."

The report calls out three specific areas where the energy industry is seeking influence: the government's upcoming final decision (due next year) on whether to list the greater sage grouse and lesser prairie chicken—which would likely limit oil and gas exploration permits; decisions on roadless areas which could hamper or open opportunities to backcountry energy development; and issues relating to closing public access to roads or hunting grounds. 

Since 2010, according to the report, 28 energy companies have contributed to the NRA and the CSF. Shell Oil has given at least $100,000 to CSF and its various lobbying efforts, while ExxonMobil, the American Natural Gas Alliance and the American Petroleum Institute have each given at least $50,000, according to the report. Nearly a third of the NRA's corporate support comes from the energy industry. While Safari Club International does not disclose donors, oil and gas firms were among the major donors to the group's political action committee.

Perhaps the pressure that energy developers are putting on Washington to keep public lands management friendly to their interests is working, because public lands advocates I spoke with for this story say the Obama Administration has done nothing to balance extractive pressures on BLM lands with conservation efforts. "There's a reason the BLM is often called the 'Bureau of Livestock & Mining'. The folks in DC are going to need to step up and show better leadership," says Ken Rait, director of the Western Lands Initiative at The Pew Charitable Trusts (which were founded by an oil family, as it happens). 

Public Land Standoffs Vs. Public Land Payoffs

The energy industry wants loser regulation over oil and gas development on public lands, while the anti-federalist individuals who plan to defy ATV restrictions in Recapture Canyon this weekend seem more concerned with access to what they consider their own (and no one else's) backyards. Still, another standoff could serve to stoke the image of a BLM that lacks authority over the public wildlands, which advances the interests of both groups.

Outside of the Beltway, and inside the sagebrush, it seems as though other acts of civil disobedience will occur around public land issues in the coming weeks and months. The Salt Lake Tribune reports that suction dredge miners plan to "occupy" the Idaho's Salmon River and mine it without permits in defiance of Environmental Protection Agency's rules. It's clear that there is a faction of Westerns, and perhaps their ranks are growing, that believe they are living under a tyrannical government that is trying to chip away at our freedoms.

I have a different point of view, and the specter of violence at these rallies is abhorrent. That said, at least the anti-federalists hold up signs and speak plainly (if not always coherently) about their beliefs. That is more palatable than energy companies and well-heeled individuals paying off groups that are supposed to represent the interests of sportsmen and conservationists but instead act as conduits between oil and gas companies and members of Congress.

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Landays: Cries of the Pashtun Women

A place one can never return to grows in the mind. In mine, wind scours a scree field; a long-haired man peers down between the crenellations of a mud watchtower; a woman dozes on a wooden bed in an enclosed courtyard. The steep V of a mountain pass marks a half-remembered, half-imagined map. This is the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan, where there are few roads and many bandits known as badmash. Much of the land is tribal, and the laws of the nations to the west and east don’t apply. Between 2001 and 2004, I reported from the area with too much familiarity. Even though it was stunningly risky and illegal, I kept emerging unscathed, so I grew cocky. I thought I knew the place, because I found solace in its forlorn landscape and cherished the dark humor of the people I met. I believed I belonged. This was my first mistake.

I arrived on October 7, 2001, the day the United States began its war in Afghanistan. F-16’s roared westward overhead to launch air strikes against the Taliban. The tribesmen could hear but not see the fighter jets, so they fired their rifles into the sky. On my second visit, when an American photographer and I were staying in the tribal areas with a family we’d befriended, members of the local Taliban came and demanded, “Give us the Christians.” My hosts refused. We spent a sleepless night listening for fighters climbing the high earthen walls surrounding the home, then left at dawn. On my third visit, I traveled to South Waziristan, on the Pakistan side of the border, during a lull in fighting against a powerful mujahideen leader named Nek Mohammad, who was later assassinated in a U.S. drone strike. I lay in the backseat of a taxi, pretending to be the sick wife of one of Mohammad’s fighters. In 2004, I traveled for several days with a friend and seasoned Afghan Newsweek reporter, Sami Yousafzai, to meet a well-known Pakistani journalist named Hayatullah Khan. As we drove the border’s steep mountain roads, Khan gave me his wife’s burka and flip-flops and put his two-year-old daughter on my lap so we would blend in. Khan was later assassinated for his investigative reporting, and his wife has since died in a mysterious bomb blast.

On that trip, I saw monkeys in pine trees. I saw women gathering wood who claimed to never have seen a car before. I saw the side of a mountain strewn with white rocks. Until several months earlier, they’d spelled out LONG LIVE MULLAH OMAR—the legendary leader of the Taliban regime. At the trip’s end, at the very moment I thought I’d made it to the relative safety of Bannu, we were detained by Pakistan’s military intelligence, blindfolded, cuffed, and bundled into the back of a car. The windows were papered over. There was a gun to my head. I was let go on an airstrip in the middle of nowhere pretty quickly, but Yousafzai was detained in prison for six weeks to serve as an example: You don’t travel with an American.

Until that point I saw myself as different, special, destined to work on this border. The contacts I had and the fact that I was a woman convinced me that I could navigate a landscape others couldn’t. I’d made my peace with risk, but until that point I hadn’t realized that I wouldn’t be the one to pay for my mistakes. The imprisonment of my friend changed that.

{%{"quote":"“Zama mashoom halek day,” I said—“I am having a boy.” The women all clapped and murmured. My host pulled her dress up around her breasts so that her bare stomach was exposed. “I’m not pregnant,” she cackled. “I’m sick!” She stopped laughing."}%}

After Yousafzai was released, I accepted that I could never return. If I did, I’d further jeopardize others—translators, drivers, friends. It was a painful decision made more so over time. At first, I didn’t realize how deeply the place had impacted me. It wasn’t about missing the rush; I didn’t long for the metallic taste of cortisol in the mouth, the aftermath of an adrenaline jag from one dangerous drive or another. I missed the stories. And the best came from women. I’d spent most of my time in villages lazing around on wooden beds called charpais, listening to people talk. The men discussed who had a new weapon, the going price for a cartridge. The women told remarkable stories—of the village’s blood feud, the heroin addict who’d come in search of safe haven. Men here may eat first, but women hold the power of story.

Women make up roughly half of the 42 million Pashtun people in the borderland. The kind of hardship they know is rare. Some are bought and sold, others killed for perceived slights against family honor. But this doesn’t render them passive. Most of the Pashtun women I know possess a rebellious and caustic humor beneath their cerulean burkas, which have become symbols of submission. This finds expression in an ancient form of folk poetry called landay. Two lines and 22 syllables long, they can be rather startling to the uninitiated. War, drones, sex, a husband’s manhood—these poems are short and dangerous, like the poisonous snake for which they’re named.

To ask a woman to sing a landay is to ask what has happened to her. If she agrees, in those two lines she’ll sing you the story of her life and of the places she comes from—places that, for me as for most of us, are impossible to go to. The lure of such danger may no longer drive me as it once did, but the fascination with borders, with traveling to the edge of a place, still has a pull. Before Thanksgiving 2012, I decided to return to the Afghan side of the border to collect landays. It was safer than the other side and as close as I’m likely ever to get to the region that haunts me like no other.


Along with Seamus Murphy, a photographer who has worked in Afghanistan for more than 20 years, I’d begin in Kabul, then venture as close to the remote Pashtun villages as it was reasonable to go. We’d give ourselves a month to gather enough landays to fill an issue of Poetry magazine. Seamus and I met more than a decade ago, when he saved me a seat on a bus bound for northern Iraq at the beginning of the war. We’ve been close friends ever since. He’s an excellent guy to have on your side—kind, funny, virtually indestructible. We’ve kept a fierce pace while working together in Somalia, Nigeria, and Afghanistan, but this trip was different.

At four months pregnant, I was moving slower than usual. I threw up some mornings. It felt like an ant colony occupied my calves. Due to the exigencies of morning sickness, I was living on crackers, which are in short supply in Afghanistan. So I hauled several pounds of energy bars along with gifts: lipstick, scarves, and books of my own poems. (These proved unpopular.) In Kabul we met our translator, whom I’ll call Z. A tenacious young woman who has been her family’s breadwinner since her father died when she was a child, Z. belongs to a new generation of urbane Afghan women who’ve flourished with the influx of foreigners since 2001.

She met us in the Afghan home where we stayed with two friends: an American named Jean Kissell, who lives and works between Afghanistan, the Emirates, and Vermont, and her colleague, Mohammad Nasib. When the Taliban fell, Nasib, an Afghan-American who’d been living in Washington, D.C., and working with the United Nations, decided to do something about the rampant problem of drug addiction in Afghanistan. With the help of Kissell, he founded the Welfare Association and Development Network of Afghanistan, which, among other things, operates rehabilitation centers for addicts. WADAN’s ties to rural people run deep, so Nasib and Kissell know how to do unusual work, like collecting poetry in hard-to-reach places.

Refugee camps in Kabul seemed the right place to begin. There, farmers who’d recently fled tribal villages were trying to eke out an existence until it was safe to go home. We started at Charahi Qambar, a camp of 6,000 on the outskirts of Kabul. The previous winter, nearly two dozen people had frozen to death there. Traffic was worse than ever as we approached the camp. Toyota Corollas jockeyed for inches at roundabouts and waited for hours as convoys of U.S. military vehicles crawled east toward the Pakistani border, beginning the withdrawal from Afghanistan.

The road to the camp was lined with boys hawking pomegranates. The fruit was rock hard, its flesh brown and green. Behind the market stalls, a tent city rose abruptly. We pulled in front of two tents that served as a clinic and a school. With WADAN’s help, we’d set up a meeting with the camp’s elders—there’s no way to talk with a group of Afghan women at home without speaking first to their husbands. Our hosts, a cluster of about a dozen men, did not look welcoming. Some appeared incredulous, others bored or stoned. They eyed us sharply, and one ushered us into the circle of broken chairs that served as their conference room. It can be rude to wander into a refugee camp. People are often forced to live private lives in public due to lack of space and shelter, so the illusion of modesty and propriety is important. Hoping for the best, we introduced ourselves and asked how the camp was faring.

“Nothing has changed since last year,” said one elder. Glassy eyes shone from a gray face. Since the tragedy of the previous winter, when the refugees had frozen, there’d been a spate of disappointing press visits. “People come to visit and do nothing,” the man said. “We’re still cold and we’re starving.” The aid program at camp seemed to work like this: Kids who went to school received bags of rice and wheat to take home. If the kids didn’t show up at school, the family didn’t eat. After a few minutes of general discussion, I asked about the poems we’d come in search of. I hoped the men might find it refreshing that we were interested in culture rather than the familiar woes.

{%{"quote":"To ask a woman to sing a landay is to ask what has happened to her."}%}

“We don’t know anything about poems,” the man snapped. “We’re uneducated people.” Many of the men began to wander away. But one, sturdy and middle-aged, with a smile in his eyes, pulled me aside. He led me into a warren of tarps and earthen alleyways. Heaps of garbage and human waste were piled among the narrow paths. I hopped over puddles of gray sewage in a pair of old sneakers while Z. proved perfectly nimble in high heels. Without saying anything, the elder deposited us in front of a blanket stitched with dust that served as the door to his home. Inside the makeshift shelter, his wife was dressing to go to a neighbor’s wedding. She was tall, with strong white teeth and gold wire earrings.

“I’m pregnant, too!” she cried, looking at me. She grabbed my puffy gray coat, then rubbed her hands over her protruding belly. Two twentysomething women in heavy velvet dresses appeared from two different blanketed doorways: her daughters-in-law. Then a half-dozen other women appeared out of nowhere.

“Zama mashoom halek day,” I said—“I am having a boy.” The women all clapped and murmured. My host pulled her dress up around her breasts so that her bare stomach was exposed. “I’m not pregnant,” she cackled. “I’m sick!” She stopped laughing. Her abdomen was swollen with a mysterious ailment. “Can you tell me what is wrong with me?” she asked.

She barked at a daughter-in-law, who disappeared behind a woolen blanket and reemerged with a white box of pills, which she handed to me. This was the medicine the clinic at the camp had given her: birth control. “What is this?” my host asked. “How do I take it?”

The directions were in English, so I read them aloud as Z. translated. “It’s birth control, “ I said. “This will keep you from having a baby.”

“I’m too old anyway,” she shrugged. “And something is wrong with me.” Still, she was grateful for my help and invited me along to the afternoon’s wedding. She grabbed my arm and pushed me under the blanket and back into the neighborhood’s alleyways. Soon we came to a compound made of dribbled mud: the bride’s home. Inside, the air was warm and heady with sun, sweat, hay, and the press of dozens of bodies. Weddings are segregated by sex, so there were no men. The women were chanting—growling, almost. One, with gold front teeth, was beating a hand drum. The dirge sounded more funereal than celebratory. I understood one word—Sangin—the name of an opium hub in the restive province of Helmand, from which these women had fled some months earlier. Z. translated for me: They were singing of war. One morning before dawn, as a NATO bombing raid raked fire over their village, these women had gathered up their children and fled. An old woman with a white braid said that a helicopter gunship had mistaken a dozen farmers for fighters and shot them all. Her husband was among them. Shrapnel had shredded her three-year-old grandson’s eye. Others, I was told, drowned when the swarm of terrified people surged onto a bridge too narrow to hold them all.

To the drum, they sang:

What should I do, oh God?

My homeland of Sangin is besieged by NATO helicopters.


It wasn’t easy to pry landays out of the women. After the wedding in Charahi Qambar, I tried to meet with the lead wedding singer, the woman with the gold teeth.

“This is impossible,” my host, the woman with the swollen belly, told me. “She must come from another camp, and she can only travel for weddings. If you go there and her husband finds out that she sang for you, he will kill her.”

She proposed an alternative. “There’s an older singer, a widow named Basbibi,” she told me. Perhaps, if I returned to the camp another time, Basbibi would sing. A few days later I returned. Once I was seated in my host’s home, she opened my bag and took my iPhone. She thought it was a voice recorder. I wasn’t to record any of the women, she said. I turned off the phone. Basbibi entered and tugged the burka from her head. She wore a white braid down her back and placed her three-year-old grandson on her lap. He had one scarred eye. She tried to give a fake name at first, but I recognized her from the wedding as the older of the two singers, whose husband had been killed by the NATO forces.

“There are too many sorrows to sing of,” she said. She’d lost her husband; her grandson was half-blind. Life in the camp was no better. Her brother had recently been arrested for killing another man in a fight over water. He’d been taken away to the infamous Pul-e-Charkhi prison, used by the Russians during the Soviet occupation that lasted from 1979 to 1989. She crouched and sang,

In Pul-e-Charkhi, I’ve nothing of my own

Except my heart’s heart lives within its walls of stone.


Each night I counted the poems I’d collected as if hoarding treasure. It was slow-going. Usually, when reporting, there is a midway moment when I realize I’ve got the story. That moment wasn’t arriving. There was something about the bubble of the capital that made us feel disconnected. Then there’s the fact that eight out of ten Afghan women don’t live in cities. We weren’t getting close enough to the mountains where these poems were born. We had to travel nearer to the border. But my calculus was different now. The choices I made had bearing on the person temporarily making his home inside me.

Seamus had already given our unseen friend a name: Puddin’ Jelly, after a poorly translated menu item at our favorite restaurant in Kabul. When we were sleeping on floors, he wordlessly handed over his mattress so that Puddin’ would have extra padding. He always gave me the last Snickers. After a bumpy ride, he’d turn to me and ask, “How’s Puddin’?”

His thoughtfulness reassured me, and we decided to head east to Jalalabad, the capital of Nangarhar province. One of the country’s largest cities, Jalalabad dates back to the seventh century. Before Islam arrived, it was a sacred Buddhist region. The road from Kabul east to Jalalabad is less than 100 miles of switchbacks and tunnels blasted out of the rock by the Russians. Now the road was undergoing urgent construction to facilitate the Western pullout from Afghanistan. Winter was a bad time to drive it. This wasn’t simply a matter of militant roadblocks. It was a question of car accidents. Seamus and I decided to fly and bought empty seats on a flight that the Japanese government had chartered for its aid workers.

{%{"quote":"I felt no surge of relief, no sense of accomplishment. There was nothing finished about these poems, and I’d soon leave the women who sang them behind."}%}

This, too, comes with risk. Many flights to Jalalabad are greeted by Taliban gunfire. Our pilot dove steep and straight toward the airport, a military base, in order to avoid the threat of bullets. As we taxied, I spied two American soldiers in shorts going for a jog. Behind them, in a hangar, were two diminutive snub-nosed aircraft with propellers: space-age versions of remote-control planes kids built from kits. It took a moment before I realized they were drones.

In town we slept on the floor of an office owned by friends of Kissell and Nasib. (The hotels in Jalalabad are expensive and loaded with Taliban spies.) To keep a low profile, our hosts requested that I wear a burka outside at all times. I loathed the constriction, but there was a perk to stifling beneath that blue fabric: it earned me the right to study the market crowded with tailors and peddlers, the outdoor pool hall with snooker tables tucked under a tarp meant for refugees.

On our third day, we discovered a trove of landays in the person of Sharifa Ahmadzai, a fiftyish businesswoman who owns rug factories throughout the country, whom we met through a local professor. She couldn’t travel to her home village anymore, because the Taliban wanted her dead. For people who represent the modern world, it’s no longer safe to go home to villages now dominated by militants. Still, Ahmadzai loved the ancient poems. She recited one she’d heard by phone from a kinswoman in her village, the mother of a Taliban fighter named Nabi who’d recently been killed by a drone strike:

My Nabi was shot down by a drone

May God destroy your sons, America, you murdered my own.


We didn’t go into the borderlands, but we managed to reach them another way: a local women’s affairs office arranged for seven teachers from faraway villages to collect landays from girls. At week’s end, we hosted a small lunch for the teachers, paying bus fare for them and a family escort. They filed into the office with scraps of paper scrawled with landays they’d gathered from teenage schoolgirls. Listening to them and carefully recording the treasures they’d brought was a bit like a game of telephone. I taped them one by one, hoping I was getting the words right.

The next day, it was time to return to Kabul, so we tried to finagle cheap seats on a charter plane. There wasn’t one. We had to go by road. The night before we left, Seamus stayed up late watching a pirated copy of Homeland on his laptop. Through the office wall, I could hear Carrie’s hysterics. The next morning, around 5 A.M., the sound of a blast woke us. “Shit!” I uttered, sitting up fast and clutching my swollen belly. “Bismillah!” Z. said at the same time. About three miles away, a suicide bomber had blown himself up. Seconds after, another. The bombers had struck the airport.

A few hours later, Seamus, Z., and I climbed into an SUV owned by our host to run the winding gauntlet from Jalalabad to Kabul. Our driver was a mustached man in a leather coat who spoke no English. There was only one working seat belt, and I grabbed for it. “Sorry, I need the seat belt,” I said. Z. glowered beside me. She didn’t much care about the belt, but she had to sit in the middle, which was neither comfortable nor culturally appropriate, since she had to squeeze in leg to leg next to Seamus. I pretended not to notice. On both sides of the road, the jagged river valley rose over sheer rock faces. The walls looked too steep to harbor armed militants, but they did. The black mouths of the tunnels that the Soviets blasted in the eighties gaped at us. Entering them has always stopped my breath. This time my jaw was clenched too tightly for nausea. After a few minutes we emerged from the tunnels, and the landscape cut into sharp valleys that we drove through at top speed. Our driver exhaled deeply and picked up his phone to call our host once again and report that we had made it beyond the hairiest part of the drive. I pulled Diet Cokes from the plastic bag at my feet and handed them to Z. and Seamus.

I felt no surge of relief, no sense of accomplishment. There was nothing finished about these poems, and I’d soon leave the women who sang them behind. When the military convoys rolled out of Afghanistan on roads the Russians had built, what would happen to brash young women like Z.? The only world she knew was one where she was free to do as she pleased. When the international community was no longer paying attention, what jealous member of her family might rise up against her, claiming religion as his cause?

I thought of this landay, which one of the schoolteachers brought us:

When sisters sit together, they’re always praising their brothers

When brothers sit together, they’re selling their sisters to others.

I wondered, too, what the next year would yield in my life—whether I’d have the courage and capacity to return, or if, by necessity, I would leave this place behind.


Eliza Griswold’s I Am the Beggar of the World: Landays from Contemporary Afghanistan is out now from Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

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