Out here in the remote hills of mid-Western Nepal, it is difficult to imagine we are in the middle of a war zone. This is an idyllic land: the clear, cool Madi River flowing past ripening fields of wheat; cabbage plots watered by sprinklers; goats and cattle being herded to pasture; village women carrying gagris of water from the spring; children returning from school. It could be anywhere in Nepal. But this is Madichaur in Ward No 1 of the Junkot Village Development Committee, and it is under complete control of the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist).
It wasn't always this peaceful here. Till two years ago, the villagers were getting caught in the crossfire between the guerrillas and the police, and the valleys reverberated with the sound of gunfire and explosions. The Maoists had started systematically attacking the remote police posts, killing enough of them for the police to withdraw to their fortified district headquarters in Libang, three hours' walk away. Today, there is peace. But it is a peace of acquiescence. No one actively in disagreement with the Maoists can survive here.
So the women cook and clean, collect water. The elderly stay at home taking care of the grandchildren. There is a marked absence of young men. They used to traditionally migrate to "Kalapar" (India) from here for seasonal work-there was never enough food to get by on what the arid fields produced. But since the fighting started five years ago, there has been an even bigger exodus of young men. Afraid of being victimised by the police or recruited by the Maoists, most able-bodied men have stayed away. Along the village trails, the children go to school clutching copy-books under their arms past the tiny bazaar with its pasal, a tailor shop and branch offices of the district agricultural office and the government veterinarian.
"Since the police chowki pulled out a year-and-half ago, life has been peaceful," says Mansaram Pun, the pasal-owner. "We used to be caught between the Maoists and police. We were constantly in fear of our lives and police harassment. We couldn't go anywhere." Today, Mansaram and his wife are left alone as long as they pay their "tax" of Rs 100 a month to the Maoists, feed them, put them up, attend Maoist gatherings and work occasionally on small bridge-building and road-repair brigades.
"Everyone in the village extends support in cash or kind. You can't be different. There's fear. They have the guns," says Mansaram. The Madhichaur police post is abandoned, its wooden beams used to dry clothes. No longer threatened by government security forces, members of the Maoist militia are relaxed. Civilians in sarongs, young women with .303s slung over their shoulders watch a volleyball game between Maoist cadre and village youth in the local school grounds. Members of the militia swagger around in camouflage uniforms and captured police boots and belts, they smile, shake hands with villagers and talk.
"We were never underground from the people," says 27-year-old Comrade Bidrohi as he raises his fist to a passing group of schoolgirls in the widely acknowledged communist greeting, lal salaam. "We are underground only from reactionary forces." His comrades are high school drop-outs, semi-literate farmers, disillusioned Nepali Congress and left parties supporters. They patrol the rugged terrain that surrounds the village. If there is any suspicious movement of police, they are ones who lay ambushes along the village trails. It is also their job to interrogate strangers, and collect levies from villagers, businesses, teachers, and government officials.
"When we're not on duty, we often lay down our guns to help on community farms, with construction projects and give the peasants a helping hand when they need it," says Comrade Sujhav, as he prepares bamboo stakes with his khukuri to repair the roof of a villager's house. It is hard to believe that this soft-spoken farmer leads an 11-member squad that has been trained to kill with his khukuri in the name of the People's War.