|SHELL SHOCKED: Naresh and Dammar are still traumatised by the bomb in their school, but they are determined to pass SLC and go to college.|
Till last week they were happy and confident high school students. On Friday, 31 March when the exam started at 7AM at Saraswati High School, Jhupresal in district headquarters Dailekh, they were writing answers to their "easiest subject", Social Science. Naresh was in Room 8 and Dammar in Room 1. The first bell was only minutes away, but instead of the bell, there was the deafening sound of an explosion right outside Room 8.
Naresh, Dammar and 58 other classmates are from Sri Jaya Janata Secondary School in Jurebanjh about five hours walk away from the district capital. Both are among the top five in their class.
"It was the most frightening moment of my life," recalls Naresh with fear in his eyes, "I was just three meters away and I thought we were finished. I fainted and can't remember anything until I was outside the room struggling to get on my feet."
The classroom was filled with dust, and there was a strong smell of explosives. Examination papers, ID cards, pens and sandals were scattered all over. Nobody knows when the bomb was planted or why.
As soon as the bomb went off, the security forces were the first to run for cover. In Room 7, they actually locked the door from inside so the students couldn't go out. When the students later broke down the door and ran the panicked policemen even fired a few rounds into the air. "It was just random firing," Naresh remembers, "but that scared us even more because if there were Maoists and if they had fired back, we would be caught in crossfire."
State security even threatened journalists not to file any news or pictures of the incident and grilled reporters for an hour. Many of the terrorised students fled, and some returned later to take out a rally through the market. Even though they were chanting anti-Maoist slogans the security forces slapped around a few of the students saying "it's your brothers and sisters who bombed the school".
Few students sat down to finish the exam later although they couldn't concentrate, while others refused even though the district education officer tried his best to convince them. The test has been rescheduled for 7 April.
Altogether 12 students and an invigilator were injured in the explosion. Tanka Khadka went back to his house in the village and suffers from post-traumatic stress. "He is very weak and is not talking sense, I don't think he will be giving any exams," Naresh says of his classmate. Hira Oli and Goma BC are still in the hospital after five days. Binod Rokaya and Devkumari from Chupra were wounded by shrapnel in their arms and will need help to write their answers when the exams resume.
The Maoists have denied they were responsible for the blast, but Comrade Prakanda, Bheri-Karnali in-charge, said his group would investigate. Interestingly, another press release by the Maoist in-charge of Dailekh apologised for the bomb which it said was 'not a part of the party's plan' and that the incident would be 'investigated thoroughly'.
All this buck-passing has infuriated the students. Dammar says, "We certainly won't have good things to say about the Maoists now would we? They shouldn't have done what they did, it was a stupid thing to do."
Naresh says: "Their war is against the state, why drag us into it? It's an act of cowardice." Both Naresh and Dammar have already been forced twice to attend Maoist mass meetings in the past year to listen to speeches and look at drills. None of the students have joined the Maoists even though one of their teachers went over recently.
The children are also critical of the shameful behaviour of security personnel after the bomb went off. They don't have much faith in the security forces and are uneasy every time they see soldiers while walking to their new exam centre.
Naresh hopes to be a journalist and Dammar a teacher when they grow up. After their SLC, both plan to move to Surkhet for further studies. "That is if we pass our examination this time," Naresh says with a nervous chuckle.