24-30 May 2013 #657

No peace after war

A former Maoist guerrilla and a health worker write compelling accounts of what they lived through during the conflict
Kunda Dixit

Navin Jirel

Navin Jirel was just 12 when his mother died. Dad was a civil servant, and away often, so his brother and sister were sent off to an orphanage. Navin had to go and live with his uncle in Sindhupalchok. He didn’t like it there and tried to get back to school in Jiri where his friends were, but he didn’t get admitted.

Navin Jirel welcomes Pushpa Kamal Dahal at Kamidanda in Kavre during the conflict.
He met a neighbour who was a Maoist and was treated with the kind of affection and respect he never got from relatives. Out of despair and frustration, he decided to join the Maoists, but they said he was too young. He persevered and within a year had taken military training and served as a battlefield messenger in the attack on Salleri in November 2002.

They had given him a pistol and in the heat of battle he remembers getting so carried away he fired off a round into the air. He was reprimanded for shooting from behind the lines. “I wasn’t afraid at all, it was all every exciting and fun,” Navin recalls.

The boy was such a dedicated whole-timer that the comrades promoted him over older fighters. At first they resented it, but seeing what a born warrior he was, they admiringly called him ‘Phuchhe Commander’.

“Finally I got friendship and a sense of belonging and I found it enjoyable,” Navin recalls.

After that, Navin took part in the attacks on Bhakunde Besi, Sindhuli, Bandipur, and Siraha. By age 18 he was such an effective guerrilla that he was in a select commando force.

“I was addicted to war,” Navin now recalls, “during the ceasefire periods, I used to miss the sound of gunfire and wanted desperately to get back into action.”

Radha Poudel

THOSE WERE THE DAYS: Radha Poudel (centre, left) with village elders in a remote part of Jumla in 2002.
As a young girl in Chitwan, whenever Radha Poudel complained about not having new shoes or pencils, she remembers her father telling her that children in Jumla didn’t even have enough to eat. When she grew up, Radha became an anaesthesiologist at Bharatpur Hospital and applied for a more senior position. There were only two openings: a relatively easy job in Rupendehi, or the hardships of Jumla. Without hesitation, she chose to go to Jumla.

Her father, who had worked in Jumla previously, tried to make her change her mind. It is dangerous, he said, there is a war going on and life is hard in the remote mountains. But Radha reminded her father that it was he who had inspired her to go to Jumla and do something for the people there.

When she got to Jumla in 2001, Radha could not sleep at night seeing how mothers died at child-birth and children toiled as porters. It was a fluke she wasn’t born there, she thought, and she was troubled by the low esteem with which the rest of Nepal looked at Jumlis. They didn’t know that the highest rice-grown in the world is in Jumla, the people struggle against overwhelming odds just to survive.

Radha got a job with a safe motherhood project supported by DFID and immediately set out to the remoter parts of the district to care for women even though it was a war zone. The security forces and the Maoists both looked at Radha with suspicion and thought she was an enemy spy.

There were rumours that the district capital would be attacked any day by the Maoists and people would sleep with all their clothes on so they could make a quick getaway. In the morning the people of Jumla would congratulate each other just for surviving another night without being killed.

Now, Navin Jirel and Radha Poudel have both written about their conflict experiences. Their books were launched simultaneously on Thursday by nepa-laya publishers.

Jirel’s book, Bhisan Dinharu (Ferocious Days), is divided into three auto-biographical sections: childhood, battles, and life in the cantonment. Although the book is about the violence and brutality of conflict, it is also about lost innocence, about how war becomes an end in itself, and how the momentum of the revolution sweeps everyone along in its path.

Navin speaks matter-of-factly about killing and nearly getting killed, the exhilaration at the end of a battle, the sweet taste of victory, and the sorrow of losing close friends. There are excruciating details of how in the attack on Siraha, Navin finds he is one of the few still alive in his unit after a falling electricity pylon electrocutes his remaining comrades.

Thirsty, he gropes in the darkness and finds a bowl with liquid and drinks it only to find it was urine. He gets shot, and is rushed to a hospital across the border in Darbhanga.

Indian Police is on the lookout for wounded Nepali Maoists and he makes a harrowing three-day journey on foot back to the Nepal border, changing the bandages on his shoulder and injecting himself with painkillers and antibiotics along the way. Even after that he takes part in the battle of Chautara and Thukarpa where he is nearly killed all over again.

Ironically, Navin’s worst memories are not of the war or of being wounded, but of the listless four years in the cantonment with ebbing morale and searing doubts about what it was all for. Students came to the cantonments to write theses on the Maoist guerrillas and after giving lots of interviews Navin thought he should write his own book instead of telling a selective story second-hand.

He will now be involved in social work in Jiri, and set up on a museum there. He says: “There is still lots to do for the upliftment of my people.”

After the battle of Jumla, Radha started writing down everything she remembered about the 13 terrifying hours during the fierce Maoist attack on Jumla on the night of 14 November 2002. The CDO, DSP, and dozens of army and police were killed, and no one knows how many Maoists died. Radha first just hid under her quilt, thinking it would protect her.

Bullets whizzed all around, hitting the ceiling and walls. The army’s helicopters hovered overhead, dropping mortar bombs, while the Maoists and the army exchanged fierce gunfire in the street below. She peeped out of the window to see captured policemen being beheaded like goats.

She went to hide in her landlady’s room, but a neighbouring house caught fire and they were trapped between the smoke and the gunfire outside. Radha thought this was the end, but somehow survived the night and lived to write her book, Khalanga ma Hamala (Attack on Khalanga).

Radha stayed on in Jumla and got the Women Peacemaker Award last year for her selfless work in rural Nepal during the conflict. She says the end of the war hasn’t meant the country is at peace.

“We are still in conflict, it’s just that guns are not being used, as long as people are dying of hunger the war is still going on. The underlying reasons for the conflict are still there.”

Radha’s first manuscript was lost and she wrote the book all over again from memory. It is important to document what happened, she thinks, so that future generations of Nepalis understand and value genuine peace.

Radha says she will plough the royalty from Khalanga ma Hamala to her group, Action Works Nepal, which helps people in Jumla, Kalikot, and Achham stand on their own feet.