The strangest Anzac Day ever

Marking the WWI anniversary in Kathmandu through earthquakes and lockdowns

Under a gunmetal grey sky, the four of us stood for the Last Post on an expansive empty lawn as the crows wheeled overhead. The Nepal Army general and British Gurkha colonel saluted smartly in their uniforms, whilst the Ambassador and I bowed our heads. The red poppies in all our lapels symbolised remembrance and acknowledgment of the ultimate sacrifice by all men and women in the armed forces during times of conflict.

It must have been the strangest Anzac Day commemoration ever. The grass, still soggy from yesterday’s rain, was dotted with crimson rose petals fallen from the luscious red wreathes. In turn we had laid them between the two flags, on the anniversary of the First World War Gallipoli landing by the ANZACs (Australia and New Zealand Army Corps), in remembrance of the dreadful battlefield losses that ensued on both sides and from so many nations. After the one minute silence in the deserted garden, the Reveille was trumpeted on an embassy iPhone.

Since services began on 25 April 1916, this year 2020 was the first Anzac Day ever that Australians and New Zealanders were not able to gather nationwide to mark the anniversary, due to the social isolation battle against COVID-19. Instead, digitally shared messages urged individual calls to action -- messages of solidarity displayed in home windows, the laying of virtual poppies at the online cenotaph, and alone standing at dawn in driveways, gates and front doors to mark the moment #standatdawn.

Australian Ambassador Peter Budd, Lt-Gen Sarad Kumar Giri, Chief of General Staff, Nepal Army, Col Richard Goodman MBE, Commander, British Gurkhas Nepal and Lisa Choegyal Honorary Consul of New Zealand at the Anzac Day service on 25 April 2020 during the lockdown in Kathmandu. Photo: JAMES HAZELL

Every year the Australian Embassy hosts our Anzac Day service in Kathmandu, echoing solemn sunrise ceremonies all over Australia and New Zealand, with many young people as well as old brought together to mark this most important joint national occasion. Normally the garden is thronged with several hundred Australians, New Zealanders, Nepalis and the international community, enlivened by Nepali and Gurkha buglers and bagpipers, and followed by a slap-up Aussie breakfast that is part of the attraction.

Last year as well as long term residents and tourists, several mountaineers joined us including Guy Cotter, Robert Mads Anderson and a couple of Sir Edmund Hillary’s grandchildren -- Russell Brice was absent, recovering from his fall from a rooftop restaurant. This year there are no expeditions and the mountains are closed to trekkers. Ambassador Pete and Emma boiled the kettle for coffee and offered us homemade Anzac biscuits in their empty house.

I’m not sure when the Australian-hosted Anzac Day tradition began in Nepal, but is must have been around 1990 when the embassy moved to its current compound in Bansbari. Elizabeth Hawley regularly attended as New Zealand Honorary Consul before me. With no compunction she admitted to having delivered the exact same Anzac address every year, claiming no one ever noticed.

Although diplomatic relations between Nepal and Australia have existed since 1960, it was ambassador Diane Johnstone, affectionately known as ‘Call-me-Di’, who set up in Kathmandu from a cosy rented house in Thapathali in 1986 with a guitar-playing husband. The succession of early incumbents in the representational role were marked by life-changing events during their tenure – separation, divorce, engagement and marriage – including one emotional liaison with a Bollywood superstar that ended in tears. Over the decades, the mission has achieved many milestones in humanitarian and development aid, technical assistance and trade support.

The popularity of Australian wine in Kathmandu dates back to one inspired ambassador who offered to import cases for his diplomatic friends -- and before the days of wine being available in the open market, he had many friends. Eventually both governments noticed when the embassy wine order exceeded that of much larger missions in London and Paris, dryly pointing out that every official Australian in Nepal must have been consuming about three dozen bottles a day. Aussie producers had the last laugh however, with their brands still established today as Nepal’s wine of choice amongst the chatterati.

We wanted to do something special to commemorate the 100-year anniversary of Gallipoli on 25 April 2015. Thousands were gathering in Turkey, including the Prince of Wales and a ministerial delegation from Nepal. The UK had observed the outbreak of World War I with a dramatic moat-ful of 888,246 ceramic poppies around the Tower of London, representing all British and Commonwealth fatalities.

Hoping to achieve a similarly grand gesture, the Gurkha commander conspired with us to ship 120,000 poppies from the British Legion in London, the idea being to carpet the grounds of the Australian ambassador’s home with a sea of scarlet. Each paper poppy raises at least a pound each but, thanks to British Gurkha generosity and skilled negotiations, boxes of poppies were delivered to the Australians with the Kiwi consulate paying only a nominal amount. At the last minute, however, the ambassador’s wife vetoed the idea on the grounds that it would be hard to tidy up afterwards and make a mess of her garden.

The surfeit of poppies, plenty for future events, was soon erased from minds on that unforgettable 25 April five years ago. I had just returned home to Budanilkantha, kicked off my shoes and settled on the terrace with my laptop and the dogs when at 11:56 am the earthquake struck. Terracotta tiles rained off the roof, my car careened violently beneath the magnolia tree, and in the distance far below a pall of dust rose eerily above the assaulted city.

No doubt, we all remember exactly where we were and how we felt at that fateful moment on Anzac Day 2015, when our lives were rocked forever.

Lisa Choegyal