By the time we reached the powerhouse at Ghat Khola it was already 7PM. It was getting dark and there was a curfew at eight at our destination: the Bajura district headquarter at Martadi.
So we sent colleague Bhojraj Badu ahead to tell officials there we were on our way. But when he was halfway to Martadi, Bhojraj was accosted by a bunch of soldiers on patrol. They were drunk and abusive, when we caught up with him, the soldiers were asking Bhojraj to tell them about the Maoists they were sure we had met on the trail from the airfield at Sanfe that day.
When the soldiers saw us, they became even more aggressive towards poor Bhojraj. "When we ask you something, you are supposed to answer, don't you know we have the authority to do anything to you," they snarled, "we tell you to sit, you sit, we tell you to stand you stand. We can kill you, we can pulverise you,understand?" Other travellers on the trail to Martadi hurried past us nervously.
Bhojraj was terrified, and so were we. A few more minutes of terror and the commander of the group waved us on. By the time we reached the town, news of the intimidation we had been subjected to had already spread and residents were surprised we were not limping or bruised like most locals who have had similar run-ins with security patrols here. News of our ill-treatment at the hands of the patrol also reached the army major in Martadi. The next day, he sent the head of the patrol that abused Bhojraj to see us and apologise. But he was still drunk, and after delivering his perfunctory apology, emboldened by booze, he couldn't resist a parting shot: "We have orders to stop even the king. I only came to apologise because the major sent me here."
As visiting journalists, we had come face to face with the daily terror that the people of this remote and war-torn region face every day from the military and the militants. They are trapped in the middle, desperate and fed up with a conflict without end. The neglected and abandoned far-west of Nepal used to be known for its chronic food shortage, but now it is better known for terror. Terror from the state forces and terror from the rebels.
The simple and straightforward people of Bajura listen to news from the 21st century on their radios every evening and then confront the reality of a medieval war the next day, and the next and next. They shed tears silently because no one is there to hear their despair. They walk two days to come to Martadi to collect their 5kg ration of rotten rice, braving Maoist restrictions on travel and allegations of being government spies only to be accused of being Maoist sympathisers when they get here. Government officials taunt them at the godown: "You join Maoist marches and you still presume we will give you rice?"
It must be said once and for all, for the record, that there is no starvation in Bajura. There never was. This was an artificial food scarcity created by local administrators to keep the district dependant so they could exercise control over the citizens. Most of the grain sent here ended up in the home distilleries around Kolti where they were turned into raxi. Food is scarce at certain times of the year when the harvest runs out. This year, 400,000kg of grain was earmarked for Bajura, but only 90,000kg arrived. To be sure, outmigration has reduced Bajura's population by 30 percent compared to normal peacetime totals, but no one here has died of starvation.
One thing that would make a big difference would be the completion of the 62km road from Sanfe to Martadi, but construction on the World Bank-funded project has been suspended because of the Maoists. So Bajura's only link to the outside world is the little airfield in Kolti and the irregular flights that connect it to Nepalganj.
Walking along the Budiganga River, the terraces on either bank are deep green with swaying stalks of ripening paddy. Seeing these lush fields, it is hard to believe that there is ever a food scarcity here. Hira Thapa from the village of Shera works as a chowkidar in New Delhi, and is returning home for Dasain. "If there was peace, I wouldn't have to go to India to work, I could farm my fields. But life is uncertain. I may return and tomorrow they may chase me out of my house."
In the hinterland, the Maoist writ runs everywhere, especially since the recent massacre at Antichaur. The rebels have been busy setting up local units of their 'people's government' with elections, and boast that one independent won. Local commander, Raktim, says the independent candidate is a capitalist but has promised to "reform" himself. It is clear that whoever is elected will have to toe the party line. There is no other way.
And there is no sign of the 'old regime' anywhere in these hills. The permits from the 'new regime' are useful only to walk the trails. Citizenship papers and other documents are still needed from the 'old regime'. Nara Bahadur Raut of Krishnapur is at his wits end: "We don't know what is ok and what's not, which paper we can show whom and which ones we can't. My younger son has just returned from being force- marched, the older one has stopped going to school and then there are all these grandchildren. What is going to happen to them?"
Bajura's schools are either closed, or classes are disturbed because the teachers are taken away regularly for indoctrination and the students are forced to take part in mass meetings every time a new village 'people's government' is being installed. Earlier, the Maoists used to have to threaten villagers with dire consequences if they didn't do their bidding. They don't have to anymore. The people obey, not out of their own free will, but out of acquiescence. They know that if they want to live in their village, they have to conform to the Maoists.
Once in a while, the sound of gunfire from army patrols rents the air and the villagers cower in fear. They know that if the army comes there will be a skirmish, and they may be caught in the crossfire. They'd prefer it if the military and the district administration stayed away from their village so they will be left alone by the Maoists.
What an irony that it is the presence of the security forces that spreads insecurity among people in the 'people's war' in these remote villages of western Nepal.
Village-level political workers of erstwhile parliamentary parties are all in Martadi, or have fled. "Frankly speaking, we are restricted to Martadi. We can't go back to our villages," says Deb Bahadur Rokaya of the Nepali Congress. His colleague Lali Khati nods in agreement, adding that if a truce was announced they were willing to go back and begin from scratch.
At the moment, no one can contemplate political activism, and party workers are squeezed by both the Maoists and the military. "Human rights violations are a daily occurrence and both the government and the rebels are equally responsible," says Bhanubhakta Upadhya, a local activist. But it is difficult to monitor violations, since people are reluctant to talk or report incidents. "People are just too scared," explains another rights activist, Lal Bahadur Oili.
The worst rights abuse case was the massacre of 23 people in army action near Kolti last year. Although initial reports said the dead were Maoists, it later turned out that they were mostly innocent villagers forced marched to attend a Maoist rally.
The rebels, meanwhile, have forced all NGOs to register with them. Janak Bahadur Rokaya of the NGO Federation says: "What this means is they don't want us here, because we could never register with them as that would put us in trouble with the government."
Gagan Rawal of the Association of Commerce and Industries says the Maoists have taken over the valuable herbs trade from Bajura's mountain forests. Trade and business is down 60 percent. "We are just sitting around waiting for things to get better. There isn't much else we can do," he says.
Traditionally, Bajurelis have migrated seasonally to Nainital and Kala Pahad in India in the lean season. In the last four years, several hundred of them haven't returned and there are few able-bodied men left in the villages. (Kishore Nepal)