Sprawled on the dirt outside her home, 56-year-old Hundi Rawat was weeping over the bodies of her four relatives and two neighbours. All were gunned down by an army patrol on the morning of 29 October 2002, when they were mistaken for Maoists. By chance, three journalists from Kathmandu happened to be passing by.
Most of the villagers were too shocked to speak. Hundi noticed the presence of the journalists and consoled the others: "Don't worry, stop crying, they will take our news to the outside world."
Mohan Mainali was one of the journalists, and still remembers being moved by how much hope those without hope still have on the power of the media. (See Mainali's story 'Our descendants are doomed', #122). Earlier, the reporters had interviewed 82-year-old Surya Bahadur Giri. The Maoists had just destroyed the Food Corporation godown and blown up the Bajura airport building. Giri sat the reporters down beside him, and said: "It's like the gods have come down from heaven, thank you for caring to come and share our sorrow. Please, journalist sahibs, write about our suffering and tell the world."
When there is nowhere else to turn, helpless Nepalis trapped by the conflict cling to reporters to pour out their sorrows. It seems there is some comfort in just being able to talk to someone. However, journalists are torn between chronicling facts, being involved and affected by the human tragedy all around them and the logistical nightmares involved in getting the stories out.
About 30 journalists from all over the western region met in Nepalganj last week to share the problems they face in reporting from conflict zones. Some were mundane problems, like not having access to fax and phone.
"There is only one phone in the whole district of Humla," says Jaya Bahadur Rokaya, correspondent of Kantipur in Simikot. "Even that phone is in the CDO's office. We can't fax anything without him reading it, and sometimes he censors it."
Reliance on the government telecommunication affects not just objectivity, but as Suraj Kunwar in Accham says, also a journalist's budget. "It costs up to Rs 80 to fax a page. You need to turn on the generator to get the fax machine to work and usually there is no petrol, and by the time my news lands in Kathmandu it is dated."
Fed up with censorship by the CDO, Bishnu Lal Buda invested six months of his personal earnings to buy his own fax machine. The trouble was, electricity was erratic so he couldn't use it when he needed to file a story.
For these and other journalists, journalism is a tightrope act-balancing conflicting pressures from the security forces and the Maoists. "We have to keep both sides happy for our own personal safety," says Dan Singh Aira of the Doteli Abaj newspaper published in Doti. Lila Shah reports for Himalaya Times from Dang. "They pressure us to report things that they like, but the trouble is if one side likes it the other side is sure not to," she says.
Radio journalist Pramita Jairu has a hard time preventing her equipment from arousing the suspicions of both the Maoists and the security forces. "They really give me a hard time about my microphone and recorder," she tells us.
Another radio reporter, Sumitra Chaudhary of the new Ghodaghodi FM in Kailali says security forces want to listen to all her interviews when she returns from assignment in outlying villages. "If I try to hide my identity as a journalist, it might be even worse because they may suspect I'm a Maoist," she says. "And it also getting very difficult to find people to speak on radio, they are sacred they may get into trouble."
Ganesh Chaudhary reports for Kantipur from Kailali and says both the Maoists and the security forces are increasingly sensitive about coverage. "They want us to play down negative news and play up material that makes them look good," he says.
Closer to the Maoist heartland in Piuthan, reporters Numraj Khanal and Iman Singh Bharati regularly face interrogation from security forces if they find out that they have been on a reporting trip into the villages. Luckily for them, though, the phones still work in Piuthan so there isn't any big problem filing stories.
Almost all reporters have complaints about the desk editors in Kathmandu who do not understand the circumstances in which they work, how even a small omission or mistake in a story can have serious repercussions on safety. Downplaying or overplaying a story both create complications for reporters in the field.
Most journalists interviewed for this article had to be goaded to talk about their problems. Almost without exception they told us that their problems paled in comparison to the hardships, misery and fear that the people of western Nepal are going through. Says Mohan Mainali: "We can't wait till conditions improve for journalists, Nepal's crisis is too serious and a solution is required too urgently. It is our job to get these stories out."