It has been nearly three weeks: nothing moves west of Nepalganj. By blocking the main East-West Highway west of Kohalpur with barricades and bombs, the Maoists have brought western Nepal to a standstill.
Hundreds of thousands of people have been affected. Many people are crossing into India to travel to other parts of Nepal like they used to do 15 years ago. Nepal is a war zone.
There are three army bases, one Armed Police Force camp and a Unified Command base on the 60 km stretch between Kohalpur to Chisapani in Bardiya, yet the security forces have not ventured out to clear the road. On the same day that the army claimed a huge success in nearby Pandaun, soldiers at a base here were not moving a few km down to open up the highway that had been blocked for two weeks.
Major Yagya Bahadur Rajaure explained why: "It's a trap, they block the road and ambush forces that go to clear it. We can't go there, the local people must clear the road themselves." Between 16-23 November, 13 soldiers and police mobilised to clear blocked highways in Banke and Bardiya were killed by landmines and in ambushes. Desperate bus passengers risked their lives clearing a landmined stretch of highway near the Babai Bridge last week. Angered, Maoists opened fire on the packed bus, wounding three passengers.
At Pushpanagar a 14-year-old school boy tells us how the obstructions are made. "Last night 12 of them came on bicycles and forced us to stack the boulders, pack it with mud and plant the bombs inside," he said, warning us not to go near it. It took the villagers, including school children, all night to pile the mud on the road to make a 1 m high barrier.
Schools haven't properly opened since Tihar and parents keep children at home afraid they may pick up a bomb or step on one along the roadside. Twelve-year-old Sudip Poudel wonders what is happening, "We never hurt anyone, why are we being punished?"
Elsewhere, the Maoists have booby-trapped culverts and bridges with landmines. Sacks containing explosives are strewn along the highway with wires running along the road's edge. There are dozens of similar obstructions on the highway between Kohalpur and Chisapani and even other feeder roads have been blocked. Bus companies in Nepalganj are on the verge of bankruptcy, losing Rs 1 million a day. "At this rate we'll become beggars and the banks will take the buses back," says Binod Shahi of a bus syndicate.
Some of the mined portions of highway are right in front of people's homes. "Our houses and fields are covered with bombs, where will we live?" asks an elderly farmer in Deudhakala. On one bridge at Gyang Khola, locals took the risk of clearing a narrow section of a booby-trapped barrier. While we watched, villagers stepped gingerly across only a few metres from wired bombs.
Human rights activist Bhola Mahat points out the irony: "This is a violation of the rules of war, why are the Maoists punishing the people to take revenge on the army?"