It has been two years but the villagers in Thulo Sirubari still speak in quivering voices while recalling the events of that April morning.
Six Maoists had spent the night at the homes of villagers. On a tipoff, an army patrol from Chautara headquarter, led by Capt Keshab Shahi and another unit from Panchkhal converged and surrounded Thulo Sirubari. By the time the soldiers went house-to-house, the six district-level Maoist leaders who had sheltered in the village had fled. The army rounded up seven villagers, beat them up as they were led away into the Rolpakha community forest.
Villagers heard the sound of gunfire twice between nine and 11. They gathered around and mustered the courage to go and investigate. The first to be found was Shivahari Gautam 's body, lying face down 100m below Mane Danda. He had been blindfolded and handcuffed with strips of cloth torn out from his own shirt. "I don't remember clearly but after seeing his body I fell down unconscious," recalls Tikaram Dahal.
Five hundred metres further on, the bodies of Jhalak Bahadur Dulal, Bhaktalal Dulal, Tikadutta Dulal, Ganesh Gautam and Tsiring Tamang were lay close to each other. There was a note next to them: 'Don't remove the bodies'. The corpses rotted there in the summer heat for four days and by the time they were buried they had been dismembered by animals and vultures. The seven o'clock news over Radio Nepal that week quoted a Defence Ministry statement: "Six armed Maoists were killed in an encounter in Thulo Sirubari and 50 socket bombs were recovered from them."
The villagers of Thulo Sirubari are still reluctant to talk about that day. Finally, they told us how Ganesh, Shivahari and Jhalak had been forced by the Maoists during the ceasefire period to officiate in the local 'people's government' because of their commitment to social welfare in the village. None of them or the others were hardcore Maoists.
The Thulo Sirubari incident has been repeated many times all over Nepal during the last nine years of war. The Maoist strategy has been to set up 'militia' wherever they go: to work as night sentries, messengers, raise 'donations', take care of wounded guerrillas and their families and to act as civilian representatives. During raids on military and police bases, it is the militia that is placed at the front as human shields. " Usually we use the militia to go ahead and probe the defences during an attack," says Harka Gurung, member of the district people's government in Sankhuwasabha.
The defending security forces expend their ammunition shooting at the militia and volunteers and that is the when the guerrillas move in to over-run the base. The militia and civilian village recruits are used also to evacuate the wounded, as happened in the Beni attack last march. Videos taken by the Maoists of the attack show hundreds of 'militia' in civilian clothes taking part.
It is also the militia that soldiers usually encounter during patrols and it is these reluctant Maoists that mostly end up getting killed.
A Maoist central committee meeting in July admitted that 10,000 of its leaders, cadre and supporters have been lost since the start of the 'people's war'. "It is mostly the juniors that have been killed," admitted a Maoist leader, "and this is natural." Military expert Indrajit Rai says most of the Maoists who have been killed are militia that have been kept as reserve in the villages.
Indeed, another conflict analyst Bishnu Raj Upreti says that in this kind of war, it is always the civilians who are in the frontlines followed by the militia, guerrillas and the leadership. That is why, except for special offensives, this is the order in which the casualties appear.
Although Mao Zedong said 'wage war with the minimum casualties', his followers in Nepal don't seem to be doing so and this puts the lives of the militia, many of them forcibly enlisted, at a higher risk. This year, Prachanda in a statement claimed his group has 100,000 militia but Rai thinks the number is closer to 30,000. They get basic training in explosives, grenades and intelligence gathering, according to erstwhile militia trainer, Mandab Raj Karki. But not all get practical training, and in most cases the instructions are theoretical. Many militia members have been killed by their own grenades because they were never trained properly, Karki says.
There aren't enough uniforms, weapons and grenades to go around, so most militia are unarmed and do their sentry duty in civvies. They can be men and women, from 15 to 60 years old. The Maoists say the militia is their way of militarising the countryside and it is the first step up the ladder of the 'people's liberation army'. But in many cases, the militia is kept back in the villages to fulfill the party's orders such as the 'One tole one militia', and more recently the 'One house one guerrilla, one house one bunker, one village one tunnel' campaign.
Many hundreds of thousands of villagers have fled their villages for fear of recruitment, and those who remain are forced to be militia members. Even though the Maoists don't seem to be too concerned about the large numbers of militia who have been killed, it is from the ranks of the militia that the movement draws its strength. It is the militia with which the Maoists fill the vacuum left by the absence of a government in the hinterland.
Back in Thulo Sirubari today, it is hard to find a villager who speaks in favour of the Maoists. That doesn't mean they support the army either. "Neither the Maoists nor the soldiers have come back since the day of the massacre," says Jhalak Bahadur's daughter-in-law, Usha, "just as well because if they did we wouldn't even give them water to drink."