After its well-publicised sweep into the Maoist heartland in June, the Royal Nepali Army has returned to its barracks. This was the first major incursion of its kind into what the Maoists consider their base area.
The soldiers didn't see much action, and Rukum's CDO, Chet Prasad Upreti, said this proved there is no Maoist stronghold in his district. Major MB Mahara in Musikot agrees: "The Maoists did not even try to stop us. Whatever they may say, they don't have any control."
The locals know better. Three weeks after the army ended its operation, the rebels are back in Rukumkot. "We knew the army was coming," Deepak, a Maoist district committee member, tells us. "We hid in the jungle for a couple of days while the soldiers searched the houses. When they left, we came back."
The army's operation was bigger than anything seen in these hills before. It was well-equipped and had air support. It would have been difficult for the Maoists to stop them, so the guerrillas simply decided they wouldn't battle on the army's terms.
The only thing that really seems to have changed in these rugged mountains is the local's view of the army. The security forces have a poor reputation in Rukum. Many villagers remember the atrocities committed by police during the 1998 Kilo Sierra 2 operation, which led to a big increase in local support for the Maoists. The same locals now say the army has "improved". One farmer said: "The soldiers asked us questions, but did not harm us this time. Instead, they gave us medicine."
In a village between Musikot and Rukumkot, we come across a farmer who remembered a police operation three years ago. "When we heard they were coming, so we all ran away in the middle of the night", he recalls. "Of those who stayed behind, nine were arrested and later killed. Three were cousins of mine, and they were not Maoists. Fortunately, this time things were different."
But the locals are worried that the Maoists will accuse them of giving information to the soldiers. So far, it looks like there haven't been any repercussions. The Maoists know they run the show in Rukum. Rebels greet each other by raising the lal salam, petty criminals are punished by the 'people's courts', and the Maoists decide whether a development organisation can work in their area or not.
The Maoists are confident enough to give educated people surprising freedom in voicing criticism. In the presence of Maoist cadres, kangresi Purna Bahadur Shah tells us the rebels are right that change is needed in Rukum. "But they are wrong in their approach. It used to be peaceful here, we had a choice. Now we have to obey their orders," Purna Bahadur says.
The main grouse of villagers is that they are forced to feed Maoists or take part in indoctrination. A 15-year-old boy recently returned from a two week 'mission' in Rolpa. "They took one person from every household. I had to work on the farms of Maoist martyrs, attend a sports tournament and listen to a political program. It was difficult because my family also needed my help at home," he says.
Rukum's DDC chairman, Rajendra Bahadur Shah in Musikot, admits he is forced to donate rice, corn and money to the rebels in his home village where his family still lives. The only government presence outside the district headquarters are health workers, teachers and postmen. All pay a five percent tax on their government salaries to the 'janasarkar'. The schools will soon have to follow the Maoist curriculum, and teacher Lila Pun says next month he has to attend a twelve-week training program that some of his colleagues have already attended.
In Bafikot, the Maoists have redistributed land that previously belonged to former MP Dhruba Bikram Shah to six Dalit families. "I am grateful to the Maoists," says a 16-year-old Dalit boy. "Before they came, I was not allowed to do pujas, I could not drink the same water as high caste people and I had to sit in the back of the class. No more."
Still, he doesn't like what they did to his friend who was forcibly recruited for the attack on Beni in March and had to carry food, help cook, sleep in the jungle during the day and walk all night. Thousands of Maoists and porters assembled in Dhorpatan in preparation for the attack. Half were women. After the battle, he had to carry a wounded Maoist for two days without food or sleep, while army helicopters chased them. "I was very tired, hungry and very scared," the boy recalls. "The smell of rotting bodies was awful. I still have nightmares."
No one we spoke to in Rukum confirmed minors have been recruited into the Maoist militia, and all say no children were used in the Beni attack, although some of the porters were as young as 14. However, students sometimes have to wear Maoist uniforms to make them get used to the idea that one day they will become soldiers in the 'janasena'.
The boy tells us: "They say they fight for the people, but I don't want to be a member of their janasena. I am a student, and want to become a teacher. I want peace, and a chance to pass SLC this year."