U.S. authorities probe facts of author Mortenson's Pakistan story

McClatchy NewspapersApril 24, 2011 

LAHORE, Pakistan — In Pakistan, the country where the American writer and philanthropist Greg Mortenson made his name, many angry people had long known that important parts of his story did not stack up.

Mortenson, author of “Three Cups of Tea,” a best-selling account of how he found his life’s mission after being rescued from a mountain by Pakistani villagers, is under suspicion for fabricating parts of his inspirational story and accused of financial impropriety after a recent U.S. television exposé on CBS News’s 60 MInutes.

Mortenson’s charity is now under investigation by U.S. authorities following the allegations made on 60 Minutes last Sunday. He has defended his work, admitting to only “some omissions and compressions.” He issued a statement denouncing the 60 Minutes report as distorted, inaccurate and misleading. Email queries to his spokesmen for this story got no response.

But Pakistanis who encountered him and know the areas he’s written about say that the two most striking tales in the book are fabrications. He now faces the possibility of lawsuits from Pakistanis who believe they were unfairly maligned in Three Cups of Tea to make it a more compelling read.

He was never kidnapped by the Taliban, as recounted in the book, say the tribesmen in Pakistan’s lawless Waziristan region who actually hosted him. And, say locals, he never got lost coming down off an expedition to climb Pakistan’s highest peak, K2, the central part of the story.

Badam Gul, the man in Three Cups of Tea who befriended Mortenson in a hotel in the northwest city of Peshawar and took him to his native Waziristan in 1996, said that the American had been an honored guest in his home, in the Laddah area of South Waziristan near the Afghan border, and was not held hostage by “Taliban.”

“We even made Greg Mortenson the chief guest at a football tournament we held for the children and put a special ceremonial turban on him,” said Gul, 55, who collects specimens of insects for research purposes. “We are not rich people, but we did our best to make his stay comfortable. We got vegetables and meat and bread for him to eat.”

One day, when the American wanted to take a bath, he took his host to a stream and washed his host’s mud-caked feet with his own hands.

Mortenson told his Mahsud tribal hosts that he was a doctor, a urologist, which meant that there were a queue of locals wanting to consult him, especially women, said Gul.

In his book Mortenson says he’s a trained trauma nurse.

“He would be writing prescriptions for people. He would diagnose people with serious conditions, like cancer and heart disease, there and then on the spot, with no tests from a laboratory or anything. People became very anxious with the news,” Gul said.

In the book, Mortenson describes a terrifying ordeal while in Waziristan, when the Taliban took him captive for eight days, but then released him — why they let him go is left somewhat unclear.

However, according to Gul and another tribesman he met there, Mansur Khan Mahsud, Taliban did not enter Waziristan until 2002, when they fled across the border from Afghanistan after the U.S.-led invasion of the country in late 2001.

When the tribe that hosted him learned years later that Mortenson had claimed in his memoir that he had been kidnapped by the “Taliban” during his trip to Waziristan, they were both amazed and angered.

Mahsud is one of the men featured in a photograph of Mortenson’s supposed Taliban “abductors” used in his second book, Stones into Schools.

“The way that he’s portrayed the Mahsuds, as hash-smoking bandits is wrong. He’s defamed me, my family, my tribe. We are respected people in my area. He’s turned us into kidnappers,” said Mahsud, a highly educated research director for a think tank in Islamabad that specializes in the tribal area.

“I am looking into how to sue him,” said Mahsud, adding that he was in contact with a lawyer in the U.S.

Also considering suing Mortenson is Mohammad Ali Changazi, a mountain- trekking tour operator in Skardu, northern Pakistan, where the American built his first schools. Changazi’s “scheming and dishonesty” is described at length in Three Cups of Tea.

Changazi, speaking by satellite phone from a base camp at Mount Everest, where he was part of an expedition, said that he had largely carried out some of the charitable works in Skardu that Mortenson had claimed sole credit for.

“From his book, I lost all respect. It is a bunch of lies,” said Changazi. “I lost a lot of money as a result of the way he wrote about me. My business was finished.”

At the start of Three Cups of Tea, Mortenson describes how he got lost and separated from his companions coming down off K2 in 1993. He says he staggered into the first village he came across, Korphe, where the people took him in and saved him. In return, he vowed to build a school in Korphe.

But the head of a non-governmental organization, with years of experience in the Skardu area, said that the route he took down K2 meant that he would have to cross two other villages before he got to Korphe.

In fact, the NGO leader, who did not want to be named because of the sensitivity of the issue, said that Mortenson returned a year later to the area with the idea of building a school in a village called Askole. When the people of Askole turned his offer down, the village elder from nearby Korphe came across a dejected Mortenson and told him that he could build the school there instead.

After his inspiring memoir was published in 2006, Mortenson raised tens of millions of dollars, mostly in the U.S., for building schools in Pakistan and Afghanistan, two countries under grave threat from Islamic extremists. His book became required reading in the U.S. military ahead of deployments to Afghanistan.

“He’s done a little bit of work here but the amount of money he’s generated in the name of this area shows he’s got no integrity,” said the NGO leader. “From page one of the book, it’s all about self-glorification.”

Locals in Skardu believe that the description given in the book of the scenic mountain area, in northeast Pakistan, as a place on the verge of being overrun by the hardline Wahhabi Islam and Talibanization, has hurt tourism, which is the main industry there.

Skardu is one of Pakistan’s most peaceful areas. Its population comes from the anti-Taliban Shiite sect of Islam, and its gentle traditions have kept the gun culture and extremist religion at bay.

Fazil Ali, the regional manager for Skardu of a non-governmental organization, the Marafie Foundation, said that the book was “a good read” with a genuine portrayal of the warm hospitality of the area.

However, Ali added: “In our area there is no Talibanization. The credit for that goes to our culture and everyone who does good work here,” said Ali. “It is not down to one American opening 20 schools.”

(Shah is a McClatchy special correspondent.)


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