Simon Denyer

Reuters journalist, 1992-2010

Fear rules in Nepal’s Maoist heartland

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 This article appeared in “Foreign Correspondent” with permission of Reuters.

KASALA, Nepal, March 21, 2005 – A boy in green combat fatigues emerges at the trailhead. The child, scarcely taller than the rustic rifle he is carrying, stops to take a rest. Around his head, a scarf from the movie Titanic.

He looks little more than 10 years old.

Half a dozen boys follow, all with guns. Then comes a stream of girls, perhaps a little older, most carrying rifles, one with a guitar sporting a Union Jack sticker on its side.

This is the village militia of Nepal’s Maoist revolutionary force.

“They are not fighters,” insists a nervous Maoist cadre, Comrade “Adiga”, parrying the unspoken charge that the revolution might employ child soldiers. “They take care of the village, simple policing, and just keep watch.”

This is the heart of Maoist-controlled Nepal, the Himalayan foothills where the rebels draw recruits to fight a nine-year insurgency that has cost 11,000 lives and brought the country to the brink of a humanitarian catastrophe.

Last month King Gyanendra sacked the government and seized power in Kathmandu, pledging to crush the Maoist rebellion. Here, though, among the ripening wheat fields, remote mountain terraces and forests, the king and his army seem a world away.

“Let’s enter the first phase of the strategic offensive and raise the process of revolutionary transformation to a new height,” proclaims a banner over the dusty mountain trail near the village of Kasala in the western district of Rolpa. 

A red hammer and sickle flutters in the breeze.

At a rocky trail-side rest-stop, a young man smartly dressed in a black shirt and jeans, Chinese Goldstar sneakers on his feet, a black Nike baseball cap on his head, pauses for a chat.

Six years ago, he sat with four friends in the isolated mountain village of Gumchal, bemoaning the lack of development, electricity, opportunity. The police burst in, accused them of being Maoists and beat them with rifle butts.

The next day he ran away to join the “People’s Liberation Army”.

“The army calls us terrorists, but we are fighting for the country and people,” he said, giving his party name, Comrade Sunil.

“The government has no interest in the problems of ethnic minorities and the poor. If the government was sincere in providing health, education and transport, we would have no need to shed our blood.”

Sunil is on his way home to see his family, on a week’s leave after a successful attack to burn down government offices in nearby Agarkhanchi district.

Four girls walk past in the opposite direction, on their way to rejoin the rebel army after their week’s leave. Their hair freshly cut in bobs, some with fresh nail polish, the only give-away a pistol which one conceals beneath her T-shirt.

“We are fighting the reactionary army,” says one, smiling and friendly. “But we cannot say more, we are not allowed to give interviews to anyone who meets us on the trail.”

POVERTY FUELS REVOLUTION

Rolpa is one of the poorest districts in one of the world’s poorest countries.  Thatched clay houses sit amid green and yellow wheat fields on the steep mountain terraces, the scenic beauty concealing an ugly reality.

The average income here is less than $100 a year, easily less than half the national average. There is just one government-built road, a bone-jarring dirt track which snakes along the sides of the steep ravines to the district capital, Liwang.

Healthcare and education are poor or non-existent. Development money almost never reaches the remote mountain villages where the minority ethnic Magar group make their homes.

It is easy to see why many young men and women here heed the call of the revolution.

Fifteen years of chaotic and corrupt multiparty democracy ended when Gyanendra siezed power on Feb. 1. Sunil has little affection for the parties, still less for the monarch, who he describes as “selfish”.

The king’s power grab, he says, has left the Maoists in a head-on fight with the king, a fight they think they can win, on the path to a communist republic.

“All the politicians did was build high-rises in Kathmandu,” he said. “That is why we think the multiparty system has no future.”

His calmness and sincerity shine through as he chats for more than an hour about his vision for the country’s future, as a small crowd gathers. For a while, the wheat fields go untended.

In just nine years the rebels have gone from a small band of unarmed militants to a force that runs much of Nepal’s countryside. But today the movement stands at something of a crossroads.

Militarily, they are almost impossible to dislodge from their remote rural strongholds. But they lack the firepower to challenge Nepal’s army directly or take a district capital for more than a few hours.

They have another problem too, and that is to sustain the revolutionary fervour that has brought them this far. For the passion of the cadres cannot obscure an ugly side to the revolution.

They may claim to be fighting for the poor, but it is fear not fervour that rules these mountainsides.  

The rebels demand at least one person per household work for the party. Many end up in the Maoist army.

“You cannot refuse them,” said a teacher in one village. “Anyone who is 14 could be asked to go.”

Younger children are not spared. Many are taken from school for a few months to join the militia ranks and indoctrinated in the party’s ideology, said a local aid worker. Some work as porters and messengers.

After falling behind their classmates, many do not want to return to the education system.

“Parents are in a panic,” said a local healthworker. “They want to send their children away before they are taken by the Maoists.”

Rebel soldiers, unpaid by the movement, demand food, shelter and taxes from people who have scarcely enough to survive. Several days a month, villagers are forced to leave their fields and attend unpopular indoctrination sessions.

“Maybe only 30 or 40 percent of people here support them,” said a local aid worker. “The rest only support them out of compulsion.”

BATTLE FOR HEARTS AND MINDS

The Maoists are trying to win the hearts and minds of the people they claim to represent, building what they are calling “Martyrs’ Road,” a 90 km (55 mile) dirt road winding through pine and rhododendrum forests.

Near the small village of Triveni at the head of the road, a steady stream of women and girls plod up from the riverbed, each balancing a heavy stone on her head.

Above them, teams of workmen chip away at a rockface with pick-axes.

“The government calls us terrorists but we want to prove we are capable of mobilising hundreds of thousands of people in a cause that benefits them,” said a leading regional official, Comrade Surya, his name the Nepali word for sun.

Surya said the rebels were making history by being the first insurgent movement to undertake large-scale development while still fighting a war.  Two bodyguards stood close by, red cloth stuffed in their rifle barrels to keep out the dust.

But is this really a “historic” case of revolutionary development, or simply a sinister example of forced labour on a massive scale?

None of the people working on this road are paid or even fed. Some are Maoist cadres who have “volunteered” their labour. Many are locals who are simply expected to contribute to the cause.

An army helicopter buzzes far overhead, scanning this “enemy” road, a calculated insult to the fading power of Nepal’s state. Shortly after construction began last November, there was a lone raid. Since then the army has left the Maoist labour teams alone.

The rebel authorities in Rolpa have asked every family to contribute one person’s labour for 10 days to help build the road. So far, 60,000 people have taken part, Surya said. Some have to walk several days to get here.

At the end of a hard day’s work, dozens sit by the roadside to watch a three-hour video about the “People’s War”. Before they finally return to their villages, they will also be treated to a cultural programme and political discussions.

It could take three years to reach the road’s final destination at Thawang, a small village the rebels consider their symbolic capital.

Some, like local woman Sita, say they are happy to contribute to a road that could bring the development they crave. Many, though, are scared the army could one day mount a major attack, and some have fled.

Others are unhappy to be treated as forced labour, or to be taken from their field for regular indoctrination.

“People are scared,” said the keeper of a barely stocked local shop. “People are forced to work. They cannot say no. They cannot oppose the Maoists.”

There is a suffocating atmosphere in the small village of Triveni and nearby Nuwagaon, around the uncompromising rebels whose rule is law. As the day drew on, a child shouted noisily.

“Keep quiet,” his mother scolded. “Otherwise the Maoists will come and take you away.”

Alcohol, gambling and prostitution are outlawed in Maoist-controlled Nepal, crime rare. “People’s courts” dispense swift judgements.

Maoist officials say criminals are not locked up, but sentenced to work on community projects or are assigned as house help.

Human rights groups say those who dare to criticise rebel rule often end up dead. Maoist officials reject the charge.

“We only execute people who inform on us to the police and army and get our people killed,” said Comrade Current, a local area chief. “If they get 30 or 40 of us killed, then what is wrong with executing two or three of them?”

FOOTNOTE:

On April 24, 2006 Nepal’s King Gyanendra bowed to weeks of street protests, reinstated the country’s dissolved parliament and handed over power to a multi-party government. Seven months later, the government and the Maoists signed a peace accord under which the rebels gathered in camps under U.N. supervision and kept their weapons under lock and key. Of 31,000 fighters in the camps, the U.N. later found that nearly 3,000 were children under the age of 18. In December 2007, the mainstream political parties and the Maoists agreed to abolish the 239-year-old monarchy and turn Nepal into a republic.

Written by simondenyer

October 14, 2008 at 7:03 am

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