Nepal’s Aphrodisiac War
Credit: Prakash Mathema / AFP / Getty Images
After another exhilarating and exhausting 16-mile trek, I arrived in Chame, the town where the men of Nar were being held. The next morning I met with the lead detective in the arrests, Inspector Bharat Bahadur Biswakarma. He was handsome in the clean-cut way of a soldier, with a jutting jaw and an intense gaze. Bharat wove a detailed account of the murders, showing me gruesome photographs of the two corpses found in the crevasse and letting me read the confessions he had extracted from the accused. He had some sympathy for them. "The Nar men only wanted to teach them a lesson, but as they beat them, it got to be more and more brutal," he said. The maximum punishment for murder in Nepal, premeditated or not, is 20 years in jail and the confiscation of property. When I asked him if he was shocked by the savagery of the murders, he quietly replied, "It was the worst crime that anyone here can remember."

Then I met the killers themselves. The former district education office is a two-story stone house that has been enclosed by a series of concentric barbed-wire fences wrapped around sharpened birch poles, giving the place the grim air of a gulag, but living conditions inside seemed to be comfortable. The men of Nar were sitting cross-legged in a lake of sunlight, playing board games and weaving harness straps for ponies they might never see again. They took turns playing badminton. Guards in camo fatigues stood in bored clumps, their .303-caliber bolt-action rifles, antiques dumped by the British after World War II, leaning next to them.

The portly jailer pulled a few chairs into the sunshine, and I sat opposite two of the accused murderers. The first was Karma Tashi, 26, whose full confession I had read in Bharat's office. He met me with a sullen, defiant face and denied everything: He wasn't there; he didn't know what happened. "I didn't do what it said in that statement. I don't know where the police came up with that."

The other prisoner who agreed to talk to me presented a more interesting case. Karma Wangdi Lama was only 17 and looked even younger, with a fresh, unformed face. "I was one of the men who climbed to the top," he said softly. In a quavering voice, staring nervously at the ground, he confessed his guilt. "I knew I was wrong, so I didn't run away. I waited for the police to come. I wish I had never done this thing. Before, I wanted to be a teacher. Now I think everything is over for me forever."

On my last day in Chame, word came by fax that 17 of the prisoners were to be released without bail on parole, to return for trial a month later. Among those released was a 21-year-old college student named Krishna Lama. He joined me for breakfast the morning after his release, but he wasn't celebrating.

"Yarsagumba brings a curse," he said. "Our entire village has had to suffer. Even my father had to face that fate." Krishna's father was murdered three years ago when he tried to drive away interloping yarsagumba pickers from Gurkha and southern Nepal. He, too, was beaten to death with sticks. Until last June, Krishna was attending college in Kathmandu, studying computer science with the money his father had saved from selling yarsagumba. He had just come home on a holiday to see his widowed mother when fate knocked at his door.

"I had to go," Krishna said. "A man from every house had to be a part of the group, and my father was gone." Krishna's story, that he was one of the last to arrive on the scene of the crime and didn't even witness the killings, is corroborated by the police, who obviously have sympathy for him. Yet under Nepalese law, as in most countries, his role in the conspiracy makes him culpable. He shrugged with a grim smile and said, "I am cursed. It happens to me time and again. I have no hope."