Obama Offering Japan Security, Economic Assurances

(TOKYO) — Facing fresh questions about his commitment to Asia, President Barack Obama will seek to convince Japan’s leaders Thursday that he can deliver on his security and economic pledges, even as the crisis in Ukraine demands U.S. attention and resources elsewhere.

The ominous standoff between Ukraine and Russia is threatening to overshadow Obama’s four-country Asia swing that began Wednesday. He may decide during the trip whether to levy new economic sanctions on Moscow, a step that would signal the failure of an international agreement aimed at defusing the crisis.

But at least publicly, Obama will try to keep the focus on his Asia agenda, which includes reaffirming his commitment to a defense treaty with Japan, making progress on a stalled trans-Pacific trade agreement and finalizing a deal to modestly increase the American military footprint in the Philippines.

He began his day with a call on Emperor Akihito at the Imperial Palace, a lush park-like complex surrounded by modern skyscrapers where he was greeted by a military honor guard and children holding U.S. and Japanese flags. After taking in the scene, the president, emperor and empress walked along a maze of red carpet into the palace for a private meeting, with U.S. Ambassador Caroline Kennedy and other aides trailing behind.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said he and Obama had a long talk at a private dinner Wednesday evening and looked forward to a fruitful meeting Thursday “so that we can jointly send a message to the rest of the world that the Japan-U.S. alliance is unshakeable and strong.”

Obama opened the first state visit by an American president to Japan in nearly 20 years with the dinner at Tokyo’s famed sushi restaurant Sukiyabashi Jiro. The restaurant is run by 88-year-old Jiro Ono, whose meticulous technique was detailed in the 2011 documentary “Jiro Dreams of Sushi.”

Abe told reporters Obama praised the meal as “the best sushi he had had in his life.”

Later Thursday, Obama planned a news conference with Abe and then a return to the Imperial Palace for a state dinner. He also plans to visit the Meiji Shrine, which honors the emperor whose reign saw Japan emerge from over two centuries of isolation to become a world power.

Obama’s stops in Japan, South Korea, Malaysia and the Philippines serve as something of a do-over after he canceled a visit to Asia last fall because of the U.S. government shutdown. The cancellation provided fresh fodder for those in the region who worry that the White House’s much-hyped pivot to Asia is continually taking a backseat to other foreign and domestic priorities.

“I think the president will want to make clear that this commitment will be unaffected by developments in Ukraine and other global events,” said Jeffrey Bader, Obama’s former Asia director. “Countries want to hear that the U.S. presence is in fact steady and strong as China rises.”

While China is not on Obama’s eight-day itinerary, leaders in Beijing will be closely watching the president’s tour. Obama’s advisers insist the trip — and the White House’s broader Asia policy — is not designed counter to China’s growing power, and they say the president is not asking Asian nations to choose between allegiance to Washington or Beijing.

Still, Obama faces a particularly tricky balance in Tokyo, which is locked in a tense territorial dispute with China over islands Japan oversees in the East China Sea. The U.S. has a defense treaty requiring it to come to Japan’s defense if it is attacked, and Obama is expected to reaffirm his commitment to that agreement. Ahead of his arrival, he told a Japanese newspaper that the treaty does apply to the island disputes and he opposes “unilateral attempts to undermine Japan’s administration of these islands.”

“Disputes need to be resolved through dialogue and diplomacy, not intimidation and coercion,” Obama said in a written response to questions from Japan’s Yomiuri newspaper.

A Chinese government spokesman responded that China has “indisputable sovereignty” over the islands and that “the so-called Japan-U.S. alliance” should not harm China’s territorial rights.

“The U.S. should respect facts, take a responsible attitude, remain committed to not taking sides on territory and sovereignty issues, speak and act cautiously and earnestly play a constructive role in regional peace and stability,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang said.

On the economic front, Obama is unlikely to have much new to show for efforts to deepen trade ties with Asia. Negotiations on the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a twelve-nation free trade pact, are stalled, particularly discussions between the U.S. and Japan over tariffs on agriculture and automobiles.

And Obama’s effort to fast-track passage of the eventual agreement back home is being blocked by congressional Democrats, creating a political dilemma for the White House in a midterm election year.

“It is a bit odd for the president to push for TPP in Japan when he has not gotten fast-track negotiating authority from Congress,” says Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., an opponent of the trade pact.

The trade agreement’s opponents argue that it would send U.S. jobs overseas to countries with cheaper labor costs. Supporters contend the deal would expand export markets for American companies in one of the world’s fastest growing regions, while also serving as a counter to China’s rising economic power.


Associated Press writer Darlene Superville and Mari Yamaguchi in Tokyo, and Zhao Liang in Beijing contributed to this report.


Exclusive: Meet the Pro-Russian Separatists of Eastern Ukraine

Alexander Mozhaev, a pro-Russian separatist whose photograph has appeared in numerous publications in recent days and who says he is not employed by the Russian state, stands with fellow separatists in the town of Slavyansk on April 20.
Alexander Mozhaev, a pro-Russian separatist whose photograph has appeared in numerous publications in recent days and who says he is not employed by the Russian state, stands with fellow separatists in the town of Slavyansk on April 20. Maxim Dondyuk

Ukraine has alleged that Russian forces are operating in the east of the country. But one man, whose bearded face appears in photographs seen around the world, tells TIME that he and his comrades do not work for the Russian government

Spend a few days riding around the separatist badlands of eastern Ukraine, and you’d have a good chance of running into Alexander Mozhaev, the fighter suspected of being a Russian government operative. He’s hard to miss, and not just because photographs of him – or claiming to be of him – have been made available by the Ukrainian government in recent days. His beard, which juts out of his face like a spade, has made him something of a mascot for the local separatists.

Perhaps aptly, Mozhaev’s nickname among them is Babay, the Russian word for bogeyman, which is exactly what the Ukrainian government has tried to make him. Over the past week, authorities in Kiev have released photographs that purport to prove that Mozhaev is an agent of the Russian military intelligence service known as GRU, and they have shared that information with senior western diplomats and some reporters. This claim has been at the center of their narrative that Russian special forces, controlled by the Kremlin, have taken over towns in the Donbass, the industrial heartland of eastern Ukraine.

But Mozhaev, a mild-mannered fighter with a chest like a barrel, says he only wishes that were true, and so do many of the people in the separatist-controlled towns that dot this region. If Russian forces had indeed taken over eastern Ukraine, as they did in Crimea last month, the streets of the separatist stronghold of Slavyansk would probably not be nearly as lawless as they have become in recent days. On the ground, the conflict in this town of 120,000 feels far more erratic and dangerous than the Russian occupation of Crimea, where a sense of order largely prevailed, in part because of the presence of disciplined and professional Russian troops. The ranks of the so-called “green men” who are running Slavyansk, in contrast to those troops, appear to be made up mostly of war veterans, itinerant pro-Russian nationalists and ethnic Cossacks from across the former Soviet Union. Fitting neatly into all these categories is Mozhaev, a Russian citizen, whose fellow fighters are now armed not only with assault rifles and rocket propelled grenades, but also tanks and armored vehicles that they have seized from the Ukrainian army.

Mozhaev and his comrades took control of Slavyansk about a week ago. But over the last few days there has been no evident sign that they are receiving material support from Russia. Their foot soldiers have been so short on fuel that they have asked journalists to bring them gasoline in exchange for granting interviews, saying they don’t have enough fuel to go on patrols.

Their leader, Vyacheslav Ponomaryov, a soap manufacturer who took the title of “people’s mayor” after seizing power, has pleaded for assistance from Russian President Vladimir Putin, but has apparently been ignored. “We need guns, you understand? We’re running out of everything but spirit,” he told TIME. His militia force, he admits, is made up partly of volunteers who have come from Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan and other parts of the former Soviet Union. But Kiev’s cries of a separatist insurgency fueled with money, weapons and troops from the Russian government look out of sync with the reality in Slavyansk.

No one embodies that disconnect quite like Mozhaev. In trying to link him to Russia’s GRU special forces, the government in Kiev has offered two blurry photos as evidence. One of them, allegedly taken during the Russian invasion of Georgia in 2008, shows a bearded man wearing the GRU insignia – a black bat with its wings spanning the globe – on the shoulder of his uniform. The second photo, taken this year in eastern Ukraine, shows Mozhaev dressed in camouflage among his fellow separatists. Kiev says the two photos are of the same man. Mozhaev finds that slightly flattering but altogether false.

Mozhaev talks with TIME's Berlin Correspondent, Simon Shuster, in the town of Kramatorsk on April 21.
Mozhaev talks with TIME’s Berlin Correspondent, Simon Shuster, in the town of Kramatorsk on April 21. Maxim Dondyuk

When TIME tracked him down on Monday night, Mozhaev and his men had just finished taking over the local headquarters of the Security Service of Ukraine, or SBU, in the town of Kramatorsk, a short drive from their base of operations in Slavyansk. Having met no resistance at the SBU that evening, he and his men were riding around Kramatorsk in a dark green van, which looked like a windowless, Soviet version of an old VW Camper. The vehicle, whose fender had been stenciled with the words “People’s Militia of the Donbass,” disgorged at least ten heavily armed passengers in mismatching camouflage uniforms.

This was the rapid reaction force of the local separatist militia. Mozhaev is a member of that force. TIME showed him the picture supposedly placing him in Georgia during the 2008 war. With a smile, he said: “I’ve never even been to Georgia, not even for a holiday.” His men then gathered around to laugh at the photos of Mozhaev and the man in Georgia, slapping Mozhaev on the back as he learned that he was not only famous, but a famous Russian special forces agent. “That guy looks more like Osama bin Laden than our Babay,” one of the gunmen remarked.

In reality, Mozhaev, 36, fits the description of many of the separatist fighters in the area around Slavyansk, a zone of about 100 km in diameter that all branches of the Ukrainian state, from the police to the tax authorities, have effectively abandoned to the separatists. According to his passport, which he showed to TIME, Mozhaev hails from the town of Belorechensk in the southern Russian region of Krasnodar, the traditional stomping ground of the Cossacks, the warrior clan into which he was born.

Though he would have liked to have served in the Russian special forces, he says his service was in the regular Russian army, and it ended in the mid-1990s, when he attained the rank of staff sergeant. His reasons for coming to Ukraine in March had a bit to do with Russian nationalism, but more to do with adventurism, and even more to do with his apparently being a fugitive from Russian law. Earlier this year, Mozhaev said, just as a revolution was forcing Ukraine’s old regime from power, he was charged in Krasnodar with a violent crime – which he described as “threatening to kill someone with a knife.” When he failed to come up with the bribe money for the corrupt officials who he says fabricated the charges, Mozhaev was put on a national wanted list in Russia and went on the run, according to his account, which could not be verified.

By coincidence, he says, he was forced to flee arrest on March 7, in the middle of Russia’s invasion of Crimea. He chose Crimea as his destination. As TIME reported last month, thousands of state-sponsored Russian Cossacks were then streaming into Crimea to aid the Russian troops with that invasion. For most of March, Mozhaev says, he was there along with some of the men from his Cossack battalion, the Wolves’ Hundred, helping in the siege of a Ukrainian military base near the city of Bakhchysarai and guarding a local TV tower. In late March, after Russia annexed the Crimean Peninsula, “we were sitting around down there and wondering what to do next,” he says. “So we decided to go conquer some more historically Russian lands.” Eventually he wound up in Slavyansk, where Ponomaryov was glad to welcome him into his separatist militia.

As of Monday, Ponomaryov said his forces number around 2,500. That number is impossible to verify. Many of his armed supporters wear civilian clothes and do not appear to be part of any military or organized paramilitary group. Well-armed fighters such as Mozhaev make up a small minority of Ponomaryov’s force, perhaps a few hundred men at most, with a fair share of Cossacks among them. Known as “green men” for the camouflage uniforms they wear, these militia members are not as well drilled and equipped as the Russian troops who occupied Crimea last month. If there is a Russian military presence currently in Slavyansk, it has remained or is now out of public view.

From the beginning, the head of Ponomaryov’s militia force has been a wiry man who goes by the nickname Romashka, which means Daisy in Russian. Romashka claims to have served in a branch of the Russian military in Chechnya, attaining the rank of captain. Some years ago, he says, he married a Ukrainian woman, took Ukrainian citizenship and moved to eastern Ukraine.

These days, Romashka drives around Slavyansk in a police cruiser, having removed the license plates and affixed a separatist flag to the hood. When asked about his ties to the Russian security services, Romashka smiles and says, “Well, let’s leave that between the lines.” But the statements coming out of Kiev about a Russian military operation in eastern Ukraine have left him a bit perplexed. “My buddies watch TV and then call me to say we have some kind of military conflict going on, with tanks, shooting, the works, like in Chechnya,” he says in an interview at the separatist headquarters in the center of Slavyansk. “In reality, it’s not like that. They’ve made up a war.”

In recent days, Kiev has intensified its efforts to prove that Russian special forces are operating in eastern Ukraine. Its evidence, according to the New York Times, is built around a series of photographs, including the one of Mozhaev, which the Ukrainian authorities have passed on to the U.S. State Department and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. It is not clear to what extent those pictures have influenced Western decision-making on the crisis in Ukraine, but Jen Psaki, a spokeswoman for the State Department, has said that the U.S. and its allies “don’t have a shadow of a doubt about the connection” between what she called “the Russians” and the armed militants in eastern Ukraine. But if that connection exists, it is not as explicit as it was in Crimea.

For his part, Mozhaev hopes that help is indeed on its way from Moscow. “Russians don’t leave Russians in the lurch,” he says. “So before the American menace comes to my homeland, I came here to stop it, and to get back some Russian land in the process.” The criminal charges against him, however, will keep him from returning to his homeland any time soon. In May or June, his wife back in Krasnodar is due to give birth to his first son – “a full-blooded Cossack,” he says. But he’s resigned himself to missing that family occasion. “When we take Kiev, I’ll go back, and then we’ll celebrate.”

United Nations

Cell Phones Could Help Millions in Developing Countries To Read

About 774 million people cannot read or write worldwide, and illiteracy can often be traced to the lack of books. Now, cell phones are cheaply and conveniently putting electronic books in the hands of users across developing countries.

A UNESCO study released Wednesday says that hundreds of thousands of people in developing countries are using their mobile phones to read, suggesting that mobile technology could help tackle illiteracy and boost access to educational and reading material.

The report found a “revolution” in reading habits in developing countries, where books can be scarce but cellphones are not. The UN estimates that some 6 billion people have cell phones—more than the number of people with access to toilets—and technology that compresses data can help mobile phone users with even basic phones cheaply access books and stories.

The report—which touts itself as the first ever study of mobile readers in developing countries—was jointly conducted with Nokia and the nonprofit Worldreader, which works to distribute digital book content around the world. More than 4,000 Worldreader users in Ethiopia, Ghana, India, Kenya, Nigeria, Pakistan and Zimbabwe were surveyed on their reading habits.

Overall, 62 percent of respondents said they are reading more as a result of mobile reading. More than 10% of respondents said their primary reason for reading on their phone was because it was more affordable than reading in print and another 9% said it was because they don’t otherwise have access to books or stories.

The report heralded mobile reading as a potential way to empower women in countries where they may face cultural or social impediments to accessing books. While the majority of mobile readers are male, according to the survey, female respondents read nearly six times as much as men.

“How do we bring text to the unreached?” the report asks. “The answer – at least in the immediate term – is mobile devices, and more precisely mobile phones.”


Devastation Persists in Tacloban Six Months After Typhoon

A photographer captured stirring, otherworldly images of wreckage and resilience amid the ongoing recovery from the destruction of Typhoon Haiyan

Nearly six months after supertyphoon Haiyan laid waste to central-eastern Philippines, survivors continue to live in the shadow of the record-breaking storm’s impact.

As always, the Catholic-majority population has been turning to religion for comfort, and many celebrated the resurrection narrative of Easter holiday as a symbol of their own new lease on life. For many, however, it’s a restart from scratch that hasn’t yet progressed very far.

Despite a massive effort by the government and both national and international NGOs, safe housing remains a grave concern. Haiyan left more than 4.37 million Filipinos homeless, and more than 100,000 of them still live in tent shelters. Authorities aim to ready transitional housing by June for those still displaced. Even then, evacuees will have to weather future storms in these temporary structures until 2015, when the government hopes to finish more permanent abodes.

Around the city of Tacloban, the epicenter of Haiyan’s devastation, many locals eke out a meager existence while processing their grief, with bodies still found in the surrounding area. An April 17, discovery of seven more corpses pushed the total death toll to 6,300.

For farmers, the struggle to regain their livelihoods has been especially taxing. Over a third of Haiyan’s $2 billion destruction was wreaked on the agriculture sector, including crops, fisheries, livestock and infrastructure. The government has released $117 million for agricultural recovery, including coconut seedlings. However, this effort has barely dented the 33 million lost coconut trees from Leyte Island, which used to support 40% of its farmers.

Judging by the Filipino resilience, though, the emotional healing may thankfully be quicker than the six to eight years it takes for coconut seedlings to mature.



Chelsea Manning: Not the Only Military Name Change

With a stroke of his pen, President Harry Truman finished changing the name of the Department of War to the Department of Defense in 1949. Truman Library

The Pentagon has long replaced names it doesn't like

A Kansas judge on Wednesday allowed Bradley Manning to change the imprisoned Army private’s name to Chelsea Manning. “It’s a far better, richer, and more honest reflection of who I am and always have been—a woman named Chelsea,” Manning said in a statement on ChelseaManning.org.

The name change shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone who has spent time in or around the U.S. military. The Department of Defense has been known to erase one name in favor of another when it has suited its purposes—and it didn’t need a judge’s approval to do it.

The Army said Leavenworth County District Judge David King‘s ruling is “only a name change” and won’t change Manning’s status. Manning is serving a 35-year sentence at the Army’s all-male Leavenworth Disciplinary Barracks in Kansas, for leaking 700,000 classified documents to Wikileaks before his arrest in Iraq in 2010.

War always generates an often-foul ground-pounders’ patois, but it’s the top-down rebranding that’s of interest following the Manning case.

For starters, the Department of Defense was known as the Department of War until 1947, when the newly-created (and named) Air Force, along with the Army, gathered under the same roof for the first time with the Navy (the new outfit was known as the National Military Establishment until 1949).

War has always had, not to put to fine a point on it, a specific and violent meaning. With the end of World War II—and the beginning of the Cold War—the U.S. government found itself needing a standing Army for the first time in its history. Replacing War with Defense made the change more palatable.

The Pentagon tends to embrace words that make war seem antiseptic: exploding bullets, bombs and missiles have become kinetic, which is the Pentagon’s preferred way of saying bloody. “When you fire a kinetic weapon, it blows something up—you can see the effect,” Mark Lewellyn of the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory, explained to Congress last year. “With some of the non-kinetic weapons you don’t really know what effect you’ve had until either the weapon from the other side doesn’t show up or it misbehaves.” Non-kinetic weapons include forms of electronic warfare that disable while not destroying (at least in a physical sense).

Along the same lines, over the past generation, civilian casualties have become collateral damage. When the Obama Administration was weighing military action against Syria last year for its alleged use of chemical weapons, a congressman voiced concern that “the possibility of civilian casualties could be very great” to Army General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. “Well,” Dempsey responded, “the targeting requirements actually, as given to me by the president, require us to achieve a collateral damage estimate of low.” Doesn’t hurt quite as much, rhetorically, when stated like that.

In 2010, the Pentagon opted to replace the term Psychological Operations with Military Information Support Operations, which went over like lead leaflets for the psyop troops charged with airdropping them on Afghans and Iraqis far below. But psyops—with its connotations of deception and other black arts—was deemed so tainted that U.S. commanders were leery of working with its proponents.

“Although PSYOP activities rely on truthful information, credibly conveyed, the term ‘PSYOP’ tends to connote propaganda, manipulation, brainwashing and deceit,” Defense Secretary Robert Gates wrote in 2010, according to the National Journal. “As a result, a wide range of military-information related activities and capabilities have become tarnished by the term.”

One of the late comedian George Carlin’s wryest bits was the evolution of World War I’s shell shock to World War II’s battle fatigue. The nervous malady wrought by combat became operational exhaustion in Korea, and post-traumatic stress disorder in Vietnam.

“The pain,” Carlin said of the changing nomenclature, “is completely buried under jargon.”


Mount Everest Avalanche Witness: ‘It Looked Like a Big Snake Coming Down The Mountain’

Nepal Everest Avalanche
A Buddhist monk lights the funeral pyre of Nepalese mountaineer Ang Kaji Sherpa, killed in an avalanche on Mount Everest, during his funeral ceremony in Katmandu, Nepal, Monday, April 21, 2014. Buddhist monks cremated the remains of Sherpa guides who were buried in the deadliest avalanche ever recorded on Mount Everest, a disaster that has prompted calls for a climbing boycott by Nepal's ethnic Sherpa community. The avalanche killed at least 13 Sherpas. Three other Sherpas remain missing and are presumed dead. Niranjan Shrestha / ASSOCIATED PRESS

TIME talked with Joby Ogwyn, an American climber who was at base camp at Mount Everest when the deadliest avalanche in the mountain's recorded history hit, killing at least 13 Nepalese Sherpas this month, sparking resentment over working conditions on expeditions

Joby Ogwyn was planning to jump off the summit of Mount Everest. Instead he went to funerals for his Sherpas.

There are some 50,000 Sherpas in the world, according to some estimates, mountain-dwelling people best known for the livelihood the Nepalese Sherpas have made helping tourists scale Mount Everest. At at least 13 of them were killed this month in the deadliest avalanche in the mountain’s recorded history—proportionally, that would be like a loss of about 100,000 Americans in a single day. Dozens of Nepalese Sherpas staged a walkout at the Mount Everest base camp on Wednesday, in honor of the fallen and in reaction to a tragedy that has sparked resentment over their working conditions. The mountain is closed, and long-planned expeditions are being canceled, some by teams who lost their guides in the avalanche and want to respect their memories by standing down this season, even if the mountain reopens.

One of those teams is Ogwyn’s. The American climber was set to do the first wing-suit jump off the summit of Everest, to be broadcast live by the Discovery Channel later this month. In the wake of the avalanche, the grand adventure that was hatched two years ago has been scrapped. Discovery is eating many of those costs and will instead be airing a special documentary on May 4 about the aftermath of the avalanche, which it inadvertently had camera teams in place to capture.

TIME spoke to Ogwyn from his hotel in Kathmandu about what it was like to be on the ground when the mountain came tumbling down, what he remembers of the guides that their team lost, and why he has no regrets.

“It looked like a big snake coming down the mountain through the ice fall,” Ogwyn recalls of when he first saw the avalanche. “And I saw all my guides with the other Sherpa on ladders, going up a big vertical section of ice. And the avalanche just came down right on top of them. I knew it was bad, but obviously I didn’t realize how bad it would be.”

Here’s his interview with TIME, lightly edited and condensed.

When did you arrive in Nepal and what was the trip to base camp like?

I arrived on April 4, and I was here for a couple days. Then my team took a small airplane ride to the city of Luqa and 9,000 feet. We proceeded to trek in, and it took about seven days to arrive at base camp. On the third day we were there, we had our puja ceremony, which is the blessing of all the members of the team. And it was really the most beautiful puja ceremony I’ve ever been to, and I’ve been to a lot. Each expedition has their own. They have a lama that comes. It’s a celebration, but it’s really a prayer for safe passage up the mountain. We had a really great day there and bonded with all our friends, our Sherpa, our staff from base camp.

And then what happened?

The very next day, our guides were going to take some equipment to the first camp. We had planned on going the following day. That morning that they went up, I was awake very early in my tent. It was about 6:45 a.m. if I remember right, and I heard the avalanche.

There’s a lot of little avalanches that happen when you’re at base camp. You’re on a glacier and everything is creaking and cracking, so you get used to hearing those types of things. And usually you don’t look outside your tent unless you really hear that it’s a big avalanche. Because they’re quite powerful and, in some ways, quite beautiful. But the one that I heard [even though it didn't sound big], I could hear that it was coming from the ice fall. And I knew my guides and a lot of other guides were up there. I zipped the tent fly back and looked out.

I couldn’t see it at first. It had happened a little further back on the mountain, where the piece had broken off. And then I saw it. It looked like a big snake coming down the mountain through the ice fall. And I saw all my guides with the other Sherpa on ladders, going up a big vertical section of ice. And the avalanche just came down right on top of them. I knew it was bad, but obviously I didn’t realize how bad it would be.

How could you tell, when you heard the avalanche, how big it was?

The way that it works on the really big mountains in the Himalayas, it’s not like an avalanche you would have in Colorado, where it looks like a little slab that breaks off and it’s soft snow. This is all ice. The mountains are so big and so high, they’re on these glaciers. And at some moment, a piece of it breaks off. When it hits, it falls for so long, tumbling down the mountain, it brings so much energy and speed and power, that when that piece breaks, it just turns it into pieces of shrapnel that are made out of ice. And whatever it hits, it destroys.

This one, it seemed to me, came from a piece of ice that was not hanging quite as high. It wasn’t as loud or as fast-moving as I had seen many others. There were people that had gotten away from it, people who saw it and outran it. And the people behind them, once it got to them, it had more speed and pushed them back into the ice fall. … I knew that some people had probably died, been killed by the upper, bigger part of it. But I was hoping that the guides that I saw get covered up just got a dusting. Unfortunately, that was not the case.

So what did you do in those moments after you looked out of your tent and saw the avalanche covering your guides?

I put my clothes on very quickly, got out of my tent. In other camps I started to hear people talking and yelling at each other. Our radios lit up. I walked into the our communications tent where our camp manager was and we just started to try to make contact on the radio with our guides. We made contact with some guides up there who weren’t on our team and were asking about our team members. You could hear in the background on the radio, guys were scrambling around, yelling back and forth. The Sherpa who had survived were working very hard to find the Sherpa that were covered up and were trying to dig them out, digging them out as fast as they could. Some they were finding very quickly were dead. Some they found still alive, or just covered up, and they managed to pull them out. But from what they were telling us, it was a brutal scene.

So very quickly, I would say within 12 minutes, all the Western teams had come together with their lead guides and were preparing for going up and assisting. We were getting helicopters mobilized, which was the part of the process that took the longest. It probably took an hour or two hours, which is still incredibly fast in this area because it’s just very remote. I was impressed with how fast people came together.

And what did you personally do in terms of recovery efforts? Was there much you could do at that point?

We knew that of our guides who were up there, three of them were missing and three were alive. And we also knew a lot of other people up there. So my climbing partner Garrett Madison and I, we geared up and we started walking into the ice fall. We walked up not quite halfway and our goal was to make sure that we tried to find our three guides and that we received our other three guides coming down. And every other Sherpa, we wanted to bring them food and water and medical equipment. One cameraman came up there and the two of us stayed in position there. It took us all day, until every single Sherpa was off the mountain.

My climbing partner went up the ice fall. He climbed all the way up to the actual avalanche zone, found our guides and unfortunately the three of them that we were working with, that we were going to go to the summit with, were all dead. He spent hours in this hot zone with several other guides basically chipping our guides out of the ice so we could do the body recovery for their families, which is very important in this part of the world, to retrieve the bodies of these guides. They were our guides, our Sherpa, our lead Sherpa. And this ice is really like concrete. It took a long time to get them out. And it just, really, was one of the more heroic things I’ve ever seen. What I did was trying to spot for those guys in case anything was coming down.

Eventually we got everybody off the mountain that we could. There were three guides who were missing who would be very difficult or impossible to find. But we did manage to get our three guides out and get their bodies in the helicopter back to Kathmandu so they could be cremated. We just had the funerals for them yesterday. It was a pretty massive crowd of people and it was just a very, very sad day. We definitely did everything we could to help our friends. I just wish that we could have done more.

When you think about it now, do you have any regrets about trying to have this adventure?

No, I don’t have any regerets at all. What happened was just an unfortunate one-in-a-billion accident, truly an act of God. It just was so random, out of nowhere. You have to remember that people have been climbing on Everest for over 50 years, and nothing like this has ever happened, especially in the last decades. The safety precautions and the way trips are organized has gotten really good. But unfortunately the mountain is what it is. It’s just a massive piece of nature. People do die on it every year. What’s really shocking about this particular instance is that it happened on the first day of climbing, essentially, right at the very beginning, and that is why it was all Sherpa.

My intention was to climb up the very first day, taking all the equipment we could carry and establishing that first camp. The only thing that kept me from being with these guides and being killed ourselves is that one of the producers wanted to do some shots with our equipment and from a scheduling point of view, we thought, we’ll get this out of the way and come up the next day. Literally, when they asked me, and I thought about it for an hour before saying, okay, let’s do it. The fact that I had to think about it for an hour really is scary to me now, because I almost said, Nah, I’m going to go up with my guides the first time. That one little choice saved my life.

Obviously you’re feeling some grief, but do you also feel very lucky?

Absolutely. I am destroyed for my guides, there’s no doubt about that. And I might have lost my team, but other Sherpa lost brothers and friends and cousins. It was just a catastrophe. Am I sad about my project? Of course. You know, I’m not the only person who put a massive amount of time and resources into it, and we had great weather and good conditions for the most part on the mountain. I’m quite convinced that if this hadn’t happened, we could have made everything work. But that’s really the least of my concerns right now. … Nobody is feeling sorry for themselves here.

Court: Amsterdam Mayor Can Ban Red Light District Pot Shops

Mayor Eberhard van der Laan reportedly plans to close 26 of the 76 existing weed shops in the Red Light District, where he has already shut down almost half of the neighborhood's brothels, because he believes they promote more crime

The mayor of Amsterdam has received court approval to ban weed shops in the city. Mayor Eberhard van der Laan believes the shops and brothels promote criminal activity, the Associated Press reports. The mayor has reportedly closed almost half of the brothels in the notoriously debaucherous Red Light District, though prostitution remains legal in the Netherlands. The “coffee shops” that sell marijuana openly may be next. The ruling published on Wednesday says that the mayor “has the freedom to carry out policies he considers desirable to protect public order.” In several cities in the Netherlands, foreigners have been banned from purchasing marijuana as a part of a national law that requires residential status in order to buy weed. Eberhard van der Laan has not imposed that particular law on Amsterdam, because of the potential impact on tourism. However, the mayor reportedly plans to close 26 of the 76 existing pot peddling coffee shops. [AP]

Middle East

Palestinian Unity Deal Met With Skepticism

From left: Fatah movement Leader Azzam Al-Ahmad and Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh speak during a press conference following the meeting to end Palestinian divisions between Fatah and Hamas movement in Gaza City on April 23, 2014.
From left: Fatah movement Leader Azzam Al-Ahmad and Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh speak during a press conference following the meeting to end Palestinian divisions between Fatah and Hamas movement in Gaza City on April 23, 2014. Mustafa Hassona—Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

Rival Palestinian factions Fatah and Hamas have been here before. They've buried the hatchet with "historic pacts" that fizzled twice since 2011. There's skepticism—but also a glimmer of hope—that this time could be different

There’s no shortage of reasons to be skeptical of the reconciliation agreement signed Wednesday between Hamas and Fatah, the rival Palestinian political factions that split the Gaza Strip and the West Bank between them seven years ago—ending any practical semblance of Palestinian national unity. Twice since 2011, the parties have grandly announced similar “historic pacts” that would supposedly end the rift, and neither has amounted to much: The militant Islamists of Hamas still govern Gaza, the moderate nationalists of Fatah hold sway in the West Bank.

“No, it’s not real,” says Abdullah Zeud, 28, who owns a computer store in Ramallah, on the West Bank. “It’s just like every meeting these guys have held in the past which ends up with them fighting and not agreeing on anything. They continue to hold their meetings, bring the Palestinian peoples’ hopes up and then it all ends up with them disagreeing over everything”

“It is becoming a joke,” says Im Issa, 52, a Ramallah housewife. “Why is this happening now? Is it because they have found themselves going nowhere with the negotiations and want to try and put pressure on Israel?”

It could be. The timing of the announcement, six days before the April 29 deadline for U.S.-sponsored peace talks, suggests Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, who heads Fatah, may have chosen to push back against pressure from Israel and the United States, which Palestinians see as insisting on new concessions. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was angered by the latest announcement, declaring, as he did after the previous pacts, that Abbas “must choose. Does he want reconciliation with Hamas, or peace with Israel?

By appearing to choose Hamas, Abbas wins points with the Palestinian public (which strongly opposes the factional rift), while perhaps also driving a wedge between the Americans and Netanyahu. “Is he hoping this will raise alarm bells in Washington, and they’ll got back to the Israelis and say, ‘We’ve got to offer him something,’?” asks Mouin Rabbani, a senior fellow at the Institute for Palestine Studies. “Yes, the timing is suspicious.”

But Rabbani also sees evidence that the new pact may well be more credible than those that came before. Both factions, he notes, have lately been weakened—Fatah by the trajectory of the peace talks, Hamas by a cascade of political bad news. First Hamas lost its headquarters in Syria, triggering a sharp drop in financial support from Iran. Even worse was the military’s July 2013 overthrow of the Muslim Brotherhood government in Egypt, which largely sealed off Gaza’s last remaining open border; the new Egyptian regime declared Hamas a terrorist group.

There’s also the photos of the signing ceremony, which took place in Gaza City. The earlier pacts were inked in Cairo and Doha, and championed by Hamas’ chairman, Khaled Meshaal, who travels the Middle East as a kind of roving ambassador. Both pacts were opposed by Hamas leaders trapped in Gaza—the very Hamas officials beaming with their arms in the air on the dais Monday.

“The opposition in the past was from the Gaza-based leadership,” Rabbani says, “and this time those are the ones who are signing.”

Significantly, the pact is structured to avoid forcing together the rival parties. It calls for installing a technocratic government in five weeks’ time, which will prepare elections in six months. Meanwhile, Fatah will continue to govern the West Bank through the Palestinian Authority, and Hamas will rule Gaza. In theory, at least, it could work. And some even believe it will.

“From the things I’ve been hearing on the news today, it really sounds as though the two parties are really serious this time,” says Mohammad Ali, 35, a construction worker in the West Bank city of El Bireh. “I think that the two parties have realized that they don’t have any more options, the negotiations have not achieved anything, and they need to unite with one another in order to confront Israel as one people united with common goals and objectives.”

But as Rabbani points out, and as the last two pacts announced with no less fanfare made clear: “Signing is one thing, and implementation is another.”

-with reporting by Rami Nazzal in Ramallah


Russia Vows To Defend Itself if ‘Interests’ Attacked in Ukraine

A pro-Russian masked gunman patrols a street in the center of Slovyansk, eastern Ukraine, April 23, 2014. Sergei Grits—AP

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said an attack on Russian "interests" would be seen as an attack on Russia. Meanwhile, U.S. troops began to arrive in Eastern Europe, a move meant to serve as a sign of solidarity with NATO allies

Moscow warned that an attack on Russian “interests” could prompt a Kremlin-backed military response, less than a day after Ukraine announced it would resume “anti-terrorist” organizations against pro-Russia militia in its eastern cities.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said in an interview with the Kremlin’s satellite news network Russia Today that any attack on Russian interests amidst the tumult in eastern Ukraine would be considered an attack against Russia, comparing Russia’s stance to its military incursion in the breakaway Georgian region of South Ossetia.

“If we are attacked, we would certainly respond,” Lavrov said. “If our interests, our legitimate interests, the interests of Russians have been attacked directly, like they were in South Ossetia for example, I do not see any other way but to respond in accordance with international law.”

Acting Ukrainian President Alexander Turchinov directed security forces to resume military operations in the restive east of the country Tuesday, following an “Easter truce” with pro-Russian separatists who have occupied government buildings in various cities there.

Lavrov blamed the U.S. government for directing events in Ukraine, pointing to U.S. Vice President Joe Biden’s visit to Kiev. “There is no reason not to believe that the Americans are running the show,” Lavrov said.

As Moscow hinted at possible military action in Ukraine, the first U.S. paratroopers landed in Poland, CNN reports, as part of what the Pentagon said would be a persistent force in the region as a counterbalance to the emerging crisis in Ukraine.

The U.S. troops will conduct group exercises with Polish forces, and forthcoming troop arrivals in Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia are similarly intended to serve as a sign of solidarity with NATO allies.

Lavrov criticized U.S. involvement in the conflict. “Ukraine is just one manifestation of the American unwillingness to yield in the geopolitical fight. Americans are not ready to admit that they cannot run the show in each and every part of the globe from Washington alone,” he said.


Dutch Scramble Jets After Russian Bombers Approach

(AMSTERDAM) — The Dutch defense department says several NATO member countries scrambled jets Wednesday afternoon after a pair of Russian bomber planes approached their airspace over the North Sea.

The Dutch ministry identified the planes as two Russian TU-95 Bears, and said it had launched two F-16s from Volkel air force base to intercept them. The Russian jets were escorted by aircraft from the Netherlands, Britain and Denmark until they departed.

Maj. Wilko Ter Horst said “that’s why we scrambled, that’s why the Danish scrambled and the English scrambled, to ensure they fly out of our air space.”

The ministry statement said such incidents have occurred before, citing one from March 21 and another on Sept. 10 last year.

Your browser, Internet Explorer 8 or below, is out of date. It has known security flaws and may not display all features of this and other websites.

Learn how to update your browser