The writing on the wall at Annapurna Conservation Area Project (ACAP) office appears to be handwritten in blood. 'Maoists and the royal army, end your oppression!' It is a feeling echoed by many in this once-idyllic trekking town. Six months ago, the people of Ghandruk were forced to witness four of their own killed in cold blood, their bodies tossed like waste near the abandoned and bombed-out building that used to be the ACAP headquarters.
"They should have killed us old people instead," say the tearful parents of Ishwor Gurung, who, along with hotelier Dil Man Gurung, was tortured for five hours at night and then gunned down by Maoist militants who accused them of working as government spies. Ishwor's cries for help: "Mother help me!" still haunt his mother who, like all the other helpless villagers, heard him but could do nothing to stop the rebels from torturing and executing her son.
Ishwor and Dilman were both innocent civilians who had never been associated with the army in any way. Ishwor was a 32-year-old businessman running a communication office where he allowed anyone, including the Maoists and the army, to use his phone line. Dil Man was a 65-year-old hotelier whose Snow Land Hotel was a favourite with trekkers. He was a wise and generous man.
The Maoists executed the two in revenge for the December 2003 killings of Ramchandra Adhikari and Gokarna Pandit, who were tortured and killed and their bodies thrown like animal carcasses near the ACAP office. The Maoists did to Ishwor and Dil Man Gurung exactly what the army did to Adhikari and Pandit, and threw their bodies in the exact same spot. "Ishwor and Dil Man would have been alive today if the Maoists were arrested and punished according to the law instead of being tortured and killed," says Krishna Prasad Poudel, principal of Meshram Barah Secondary School.
Their brutal death has created such terror that villagers don't talk to strangers anymore. Trekking lodges have their doors bolted and open then only to foreign trekkers. It took us almost five hours to convince Dharma Gurung that we were journalists and not Maoists. Recently, a group of youngsters extorted Rs 5,000 from Dharma, claiming to be Maoists. Later, he found out they were UML workers. The Maoists had assured him that they would find the looters and return his money, but that hasn't happened. "I still have nightmares of the army coming here," says Dharma, who is more afraid of the army than the Maoists. The locals blame the government for the death of tourism and spread of terror in their village. "We'll sue the government for its oppression. We are filing a case at the Supreme Court," says Krishna Prasad Upadhyaya, principal of Himalaya Secondary School.
"We constantly live in fear that we'll all be killed at any time," says a local hotelier, a retired soldier, who says that it is better for villagers to just stay deaf and blind to everything that happens around them.
The situation in Ghandruk took a turn for the worse last autumn when an army helicopter fired randomly in 15 places looking for Maoists. They could not trace a single rebel, and instead shot a young boy working in a farm.
Since then, a large number of families have abandoned their homes. Most of the young men and women have already left Ghandruk. Only the poor and old and those who have no relatives outside have remained. Most of Ghandruk's once-bustling 65 hotels remain empty in this ghost town.