Photograph by Farooq Naeem, AFP/Getty Images
Published June 28, 2013
Late last Saturday night, gunmen dressed in paramilitary uniforms entered Base Camp at Nanga Parbat, Pakistan's second highest peak, and murdered ten foreign mountaineers and a Pakistani cook. A spokesman for an Islamist militant group later claimed credit for the killings. It was the first time climbers had been targeted in that manner in Pakistan. The victims included three Ukrainians, three Chinese, two Slovaks, a Nepali, a Pakistani, and a Lithuanian named Ernest Marksaitis.
Sher Khan, a Pakistani climber, returned to Base Camp at Nanga Parbat at about two o'clock on Saturday afternoon, June 22. He'd been suffering from the effects of high altitude at Camp 1 and wanted to rest. Besides the other mountaineers at Base Camp, many of whom were also sick, there were about a dozen members of the staff, mostly local people. After a cup of light soup, he climbed into his sleeping bag, still not feeling well.
In this interview, he tells National Geographic what happened on the mountain that night.
What was the first sign of trouble?
I woke up suddenly around 9:30 [in the evening]. I heard noises around my tent. What's going on, I thought. Is somebody fighting or what? I opened my tent flap a little and saw a person carrying a Russian Kalashnikov about 20 meters away. He was wearing a local camouflage uniform.
Then right in front of my tent I saw someone with a terrorist. His name was Ernest, a climber from Lithuania. And he was saying, "I am not American. I am not American."
From another direction I heard, "Go out. Go out. Go, go." They were trying to pull the Chinese out from their tents. "Taliban! Al Qaeda! Surrender!" They were trying to tell the foreigners to surrender.
Then I saw two people coming toward my tent with a huge Kalashnikov and some knives in their hands. I was trying to hide. The muzzle of the gun came inside my tent and one person said, "Go! Go!" I said, "Look, I'm Pakistani. I'm from Hunza. I am Ismaili. Please."
I tried to recall the Kalima prayer. They said, "Come out!" They were speaking Urdu [spoken in Pakistan] mostly. Then sometimes Pashto [spoken in Afghanistan]. A few words in Shina, the local language. I tried to get out of the tent and they suddenly said, stop! "Do you have money?" I said, yes, I have a little. They said, okay get out the money. So I tried to get back into the tent to get the money, but they kicked my head with their boots and pulled me out of the tent.
They said, "We don't need you to collect the money. Just go." They pointed this gun to my head and took me to this line of other people and tied me with a rope. What I saw then was eight or nine people tied with a rope. There [were] some Pakistani people also. Some Ukrainian people. This poor Ernest was also tied. And one Nepali was also tied. And of course, it was my turn for them to tie me. They put me next to a Ukrainian guy on the far right side.
They took a little time to bring out more people. They went to each and every tent: "Taliban, al Qaeda. Surrender." They were looking for foreign tourists. They pointed a gun at me and a camp cook and said, "We know you can speak English. Ask them who has money in their tents." They threatened the climbers. "If we find money in your tent that you are hiding, we are going to shoot you." Everybody was scared. We all said, yes, we have money. The foreigners said, yes, we have Euros. Yes, we have dollars. And one by one they took climbers to their different tents and collected the money.
Then they asked for satellite phones. "Who has Thuraya phones?" The climbers said, "Yes, we have Thuraya phones, we have walkie-talkies." Again they took them to the tents and collected the Thuraya phones. But this time they destroyed all the phones and walkie-talkies. Some they shot with Kalashnikovs. Some they destroyed with stones. Whatever electronics they found, like laptops, solar panels, they destroyed them with stones and with their feet.
All this time I was begging them, please, we are Muslim, Ismaili from Hunza. We are Pakistanis. Why are you doing this?
Then suddenly one person came to me and said, okay, if you are a Muslim, tell me this, this, and this about morning prayer. But we Ismaili say a different prayer. So I was helpless and kept quiet. Then another person said to the first one, "Don't you know that these Ismaili people from Hunza don't offer the same prayer?" So this ugly man went away from my face.
Then somebody said, "Okay, let's separate these three people from Hunza from the rope." So they released us, but told us, "Don't try to look up. Stay on your knees."
Then one person told the rest of the row, the Ukrainian people, the poor Nepali and the Pakistani guy, Chinese people, to turn their faces in the other direction. So that they could shoot them, you know. But I was thinking, maybe they are not going to shoot them. Maybe they are robbers. They've got the money and everything. Maybe they are going to just go away.
But unfortunately, when they started to move them in opposite directions, I was just stunned. I couldn't see what was going on. I was on my knees, bent down, holding my body.
Then suddenly I heard the sound of shooting. I looked a little up and what I saw was this poor Ukrainian guy, who had been tied with me, I saw him sitting down. Then after that moment, the shooting started in bursts. Three times. Brrrr. Brrrr. Brrrr. Three times like that. Then the leader, this stupid ugly man, said, "Now stop firing. Don't fire anybody." Then that son of a bitch came in between the dead bodies and he personally shot them one by one. Dun. Dun. Dun. Every body he shot down. And then afterward we heard slogans, like Allahu Akbar. Salam Zindabad. Osama bin Laden Zindabad. And one stupid person said, "Today these people are revenge for Osama bin Laden."
Then they were about 50 feet away and gathered for a while. Then they dispersed from that point downward.
Suddenly it was totally quiet. It was a very silent moment. We waited for a little while more, and we rushed to the kitchen where our cook found a knife and our hands were finally freed. I tried to find a radio in my tent. I found two walkie-talkies and tried to contact my teammates at Camp 2. I said, please, Camp 2, this is an emergency, can you hear me? But everybody must have been sleeping. I went to each and every tent looking for a Thuraya.
Then my Hunza friends said, look, if they come again, they're going to kill us. We need to go somewhere safe. So we tried to go toward Camp 1, but we didn't have the right clothes or shoes because they had pulled us from our sleeping bags. But we were really in terror. So the three of us climbed about 300 meters up the mountain to where we could look down on Base Camp. It was about one o'clock and we found a kind of cave. We tried to hug each other to get a little heat. We stayed there all night. We kept trying to contact Camp 2, but I heard nothing until 7:30 in the morning. I kept my radio on. Suddenly I heard one of my friends, Karim. I told him what had happened, that people had died. I was crying.
Karim contacted Nazir Sabir, a famous climber, who said that the army was already on the move. They were on the way with helicopters. So don't move until they land at Base Camp, he said.
After the gunmen left Base Camp, did anyone check to see if the climbers were all dead?
At that moment, it was very hard to stay in that place. To get closer to the bodies. It was a really hard moment. But some people, including myself, heard a strange noise from the body of one person. As if he was still alive. Others were completely quiet. One person, he was doing something like snoring. We heard that sound for a little while before we left that camp. But when I asked some local people, staff, who were tied in a tent nearby, they said, you know, we were hearing that snoring sound until maybe two o'clock in the morning. It could be that he was alive. I don't know.
It sounds just horrible.
You know, to this day, I can't sleep. It was a week ago. Afterward the army took me and some of my friends for interrogation. They asked a lot of questions. What kind of people were they? What kind of accent did they have? I answered a lot of questions. Now I can't sleep. But if I do, I wake up suddenly with any noises. It's also difficult for me to go into a room. Because I feel like it's a tent and somebody is going to come get me at gunpoint. It's very difficult.
Aleksandra Dzik, a young climber from Poland, was also on the mountain that night. But she, like 30 or so other mountaineers, was higher on the peak at Camp 2 when the killings occurred. As leader of the International Nanga Parbat Expedition 2013, Dzik was helping her team of 20 prepare for an ascent of the peak when she heard the news. Ernest was a member of her team.
In this interview, she tells National Geographic what she saw and heard on the mountain.
How did you learn of the attack?
It was about six in the morning and we heard about it from Karim Hayat, a Pakistani climber who had a tent near us at Camp 2. He'd gotten a call from his climbing partner, Sher Khan, who was at Base Camp. Khan said the Taliban had tied him up and carried him out of his tent and stood him up right next to the people who were shot. But in the end they didn't shoot him. He was in shock. When he managed to untie his hands, he called Karim and warned him not to come down from Camp 2.
Of course, when we heard what had happened, we tried to get in touch with Ernest, the only member of our team who was still at Base Camp. Ernest had decided to rest for a few days, because he was sick. He had stomach problems. But he didn't reply. We were hoping maybe he had lost his radio and escaped. Unfortunately, it wasn't true. Other expeditions were also calling their members at Base Camp, but only getting silence.
We decided to go back down to Base Camp. By the time we arrived, the army was already there and the bodies had been taken away.
It must have been a shock.
We couldn't believe it. We are climbers. Every one of us has lost friends in the mountains. But it was always by the power of nature. It's a game we all play. We accept the risk.
But here the deaths at Base Camp were caused by people. It was just terrible.
Someone said to us, I will show you the place where they were all put together, taken from their tents, and shot dead. There was blood on the grass. It was the most terrible moment. There was also white down, because they had been wearing down suits. And there were shells from the gun.
Before the attack, a Slovakian climber at Camp 2 had the first signs of HACE (high altitude cerebral edema). So his climbing partner, another Slovakian, and his team leader, a Ukrainian, decided to accompany him back down to Base Camp. They thought that would be the safest place for a sick person, but in fact they all went to the one place that was the most dangerous, and they were killed there.
That night we were quite afraid. We put several tents together with three or four people in each small tent to be close together.
The next day we were evacuated by army helicopters to an army base. Then an army aircraft took us to Islamabad, where our agencies and embassies got us a hotel.
Do you feel safe now in Pakistan?
You know, what can we do? We are quite scared. More anxious than before. When we go out in the city, we are more careful how we dress, how we look.
Before when we came to Pakistan, we got used to the terrorism in this country, where people unfortunately are killed every day. But we always felt that it didn't concern us, that it was the problem of the Pakistanis and we were guests in their country. We believed that we were untouchable.
Now we do not feel safe on the streets, but we try to behave normally anyway. Because it's the only thing we can do against terrorism. To live normally. Not to give terrorists what they want—to make us hide.
Correction: an earlier version of this interview misstated the reason the Slovakian climber returned to base camp. The climber was showing signs of HACE (high altitude cerebral edema), not stomach problems.
As a Muslim, I condemn this. This is an extremist illogical and radical school of thought that spreads in my country, Pakistan. This is not true Islam.
It is so unfortunate to die in such a horrible manner. No climber should try to climb Nanga Parbat again. Climbers know the risk while climbing a mountain .but death from bullet can not be their goal
Really @Enuff Warz? Do you even read the news? The Pakistan Taliban has taken responsibility already, Jandullah or some shady operation. First you go after cricketers (remember the attack on the Sri Lanka team?)and now mountaineers. If you were so serious about it, why dont you send your army and wipe out the terrorists? You know where they are. Wasnt Osama inside Pakistan in Abbotabad, right under the army's noses?
I am in a state of shock as I was thinking that I will go there this summer during my visit to Pakistan. Very tragic!
I have been to these places as a trekker back in 80s. This place was never like this. It is very strange to see such an incident because during summer time the army presence in this area is high as they also conduct their training and drills. They also do logistics for the nearby conflict zones where they remain through out the year in Astor. It is unbelievable that no one registered such movement. Back in 80s one could not reach to the base camps without going through some security forces check points. The Jeep drivers in the area also work for army sometime and provide the logistic support. Only highly skilled and trained trekkers and mountaineers can reach there from other routes. So these miscreants does not seem to be ordinary people. Hence one cannot rule out conspiracy theories, which are ripe at the moment especially in Pakistani media. Climbers who were targeted were not Westerners and the area is close to international conflict zones.
Daniel you may be right about getting people killed everyday in shootings but every incident like this is terrible and shall be condemned. One shall see the larger picture while making comments.
This seems like a cock-up hocus pocus false flag operation by some intelligence agency. There is no other incident where militant have ever yelled "Taliban, Al-Qaeda. Surrender." It's already being called "Pakistan's 9/11" to justify the military's continued operations in Pakistan's northern areas. If anyone has been to the area, it is literally teeming with security forces and intel operators. There is no way 15 terrorists can trek there on foot for more than 24 hours and get out safely when the army was alerted merely 8 hours later. Of course, there is the ritualistic "phone call" from a militant spokesman to claim responsibility (in fact two different groups have called to take credit). Hope people can smell the rat before going on to bash "taliban" for another long war.
Well I hope the survivors realize the absolute hubris with which they have conducted themselves all this time. Victims never deserve the crimes committed against them, but time and time again everyone wonders what hikers and climbers in geopolitically dangerous areas are thinking. Now we know; they literally thought they were better than everyone else, that they were (in their own words) "untouchable".
It's absurd and insulting to those who don't vacation there but rather have to live there and be subjected to terrorism. Now the climbers have to act like everything is okay while constantly keeping an eye out for danger- just like the local residents have had to do for years.
Mount McKinley, people. I've heard few incidents of terrorism there ;)
I heard they were offering a Hindu prayer and had raised a Nepalese flag before the shooting. If this is true, could it be that they drew attention to themselves with these actions? Does not warrant killings, obviously, but when in a land where extremists are known to reside, it would be foolish to do such things. Then again, this might all be hearsay... any word on that?
Pointless and sad.
Then again, who in their right mind would visit that part of the world if they didn't absolutely have to?
@Bilal Ahmed @Bilal Ahmed rubbish. you obviously haven't followed the story's progression, or the other attacks on Shias in the region. you're foolish to try and make this nonsensical claim. it is feasible for terrorists to hide and travel in these remote areas, they've done it before, and did it again. and why would they not say something like "taliban, al-qaeda, surrender' ? after all, besides being barbaric murderers, they are indeed incredibly stupid people believing in even stupider ideas than you.
Engaging in a dangerous sport is always a calculated risk that you must prepare for beforehand and be on guard while you're doing. If you push your luck too far, while tragically pointless, you have no one to blame but yourself. I scuba dive. I don't dive deeper than 110 ft. or cave dive, I'd rather live a long life than push the limit.
Looking for adventure in a part of the world where barbaric, cretinous Islamic extremism is rife and terrorism a daily occurance is just pointlessly pushing the limit. It's tragic that these people were murdered by Islamic terrorists, but it's not like their murder is the same as that of the 2000 people going about their daily routine in the Twin Towers on 9/11. The climbers unfortunately chose to stick their heads into the jaws of a lion, the people in NYC had no such choice that day.
If anything, these tragic deaths will serve a purpose: dissuading other adventure seekers from traveling to areas where the locals could very well murder them. Maybe many lives will be saved by climbers choosing to go to Peru, Nepal, the USA, Europe, etc. rather than Iran, Pakistan or Afghanistan.
@Daniel FarrellWow. Not sure you are the sharpest tool in the box.
You don't seem to have registered that English is not a first language here and there something lost in translation. 'Felt very safe' rather than untouchable....no-one thinks that.
And I don't understand the Mount McKinley comment, what does that mean ? Are you trying to turn this into a competition ?
Unpredictable acts of violence can happen anywhere, e,g, Schools and shopping malls in the US.For some balance, I've been to Nanga Parbat base camp, the Rupal side and it's an extraordinary place, 4500 metres straight up, the biggest cliff face in the world. And the people were fantastic.
@Daniel Farrell That has to be one of the sickest comments I have seen on a mainstream site. Incredible.
@John C. That's a bit like saying why climb to the top of a big scary mountain unless you absolutely had to.
@John C. I totally agree. Furthermore, I don't see how this poster has been insensitive. You have many choices of where to adventure trek other than the wilds of Yemen, Somalia or Iran.
Just because there had been no previous violence towards "innocent" (I would have said "naive") mountaineers in the past doesn't mean there never would be. Now the lesson has been learned by the unfortunate few who felt "untouchable" -- the Taliban can't be expected to respect this concept in the least -- and now maybe many mountaineers will wisely choose to avoid the Pakistan option when it comes to climbing mountains. It's just common sense, not insensitivity.
@Mark Wakeling There are risks everywhere (US school or shopping mall ?) and it has been relatively safe in the Nanga Parbat/Karakoram region up until now.
Hardly the same as going for a walk in Tora Bora
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