after a two-week special operation, the army has entered the Maoist base areas of Rukum, occupying the home village of the Maoist guerrilla chief, Nandakishore Pun (Pasang). Described as the first offensive of its type, the operation aims at minimising the influence of the Maoists and demolishing their strongholds.
The focus of the first phase of the operation is to dismantle the rebel-declared Magarant Autonomous Province through temporary military camps to launch offensives. Lt Col Yagya Bahadur Rajaure of the Western Division headquarters of the Royal Nepali Army told us: "The plan is to destroy their so-called bases, strongholds, model areas, refuges and training areas. We also intend to ensure security for the people and create a climate that allows rebels to surrender."
The rebels decided not to confront the army head on and have dissolved into the surrounding mountains from where they try to harass the army camps with occasional long-range mortar barrages. This has prompted the army to declare that the Maoists' claim of a base area is a myth and that their strength has been greatly reduced.
"It was only an illusion," says Maj Gen Rukmangat Katuwal, chief of the Western Division. "There is no rebel base or stronghold. We will prove it once we reach the villages." But Rukum's villagers, who have lived under Maoist control, know that the relative peace of the past four years is now going to be shattered. The army is only passing through and once they go, the Maoists will return and punish anyone they suspect of aiding the army. "This is temporary, once they leave it will be the same old story and we will suffer again," says a visibly worried villager in Rukumkot.
The army has been busy uncovering rebel arms caches, explosives and uncovering training areas deep in the forests. The army has also brought along its hearts and minds unit and is distributing relief and offering medical care to the villagers.
With a combination of surface and helicopter-borne activity, the government has mobilised the Armed Police Force and Nepal Police under the command of the army.
Asked about the duration of the operation, army officials guess it will go on till the monsoon, but added it will depend on how much resistance they face from the Maoists.
The Maoists' attitude suggests they have made a tactical retreat before they organise counter attacks. They have spread rumours of an imminent attack on the Rukum district headquarter in Musikot to force the army to halt its operation. The Maoists sent letters to businessmen and civil servants to leave Musikot if they value their lives. The threats had remarkable effect: shops closed and many have gone.
The scars are still raw in Argakhanchi
KISHORE NEPAL in SANDHIKHARKA
t the checkpoint outside this district headquarter of Argakhanchi, the security forces notice that our car has a tape player. They have a strange request: could we play a cassette they have just seized from the bag of a teenager?
It turns out not to be a revolutionary song, just a tape of dohori geet. "Sorry, sir, we don't have a player so we had to use yours," says one soldier politely and hands the tape back to the boy.
It is one o'clock in the afternoon when we reach Sandhikharka, where some of the government buildings destroyed during a massive Maoist attack on 8 September 2002 have still not been rebuilt. Fifty policemen and some 70 Maoists were killed in that night-long battle. Sandhikharka is still tense. There are reports of a fierce battle raging 10km to the west. By evening, we hear that 12 Maoists attending a cultural program have been killed, and that the senior-most Maoist leader in the area, Birendra Chhetri, escaped.
The people here take the news stoically. They wonder how many of those killed were real Maoists and how many were commandeered by the rebels to be the audience. The day before, the army did kill Comrade Sisir, a commander of No 3 area during a search operation in Dhakabang Village. Eight others were captured, but were reported to have been killed "when they tried to escape".
Sandhikharka is the district headquarter, but except for the security forces and the post office there is no sign of the government anywhere. The political parties have all been hounded out, or shut shop. Pitamber Sharma, district president of Nepali Congress, tells us his party has no base left. "The Maoists killed four of our leaders, the rest have fled to the cities or gone to India. If they had stayed, they would have been killed either by the Maoists or the army, both sides accusing them of being informers," he says.
The UML and the Janamorcha are still active in some villages, and both parties organised a peace campaign in the district. Prem Narayan Adhikari, a human rights activist, is worried about extra-judicial killings and disappearances. And, as elsewhere in Nepal, the problem of internally displaced people is reaching crisis proportions.
The town and its scenic surroundings look deceptively calm. "Things look all right here," Adhikari tells us, "but just walk out into the hills and you will get the real picture. There are only old people left in Argakhanchi."
Bijaya Lal Kayastha is in charge of the district police and confirms outmigration has become a serious problem. "There are many villages where there are no young people at all," he says.
With 70 percent literacy, Argakhanchi always placed a strong emphasis on education. But the insurgency has hit schools hard. Dipak Tandon, a local teacher, says schools were closed for 64 extra days last year besides regular holidays. Now, private schools are being forced to close. For the new academic year, the Maoists have forced everyone to adhere to their new academic calendar, replacing the government's list of holidays.
The Maoists' revolutionary education replaces national holidays with their own martyr's days, celebrates the anniversary of the start of the 'people's war' and the birthdays of Mao and Lenin. A new course in Marxism-Leninism has been added. "To tell you the truth, we follow the new calendar, we don't want to be killed," admits a teacher from an outlying village.
The telecom tower that was destroyed in the attack two years ago was rebuilt, but the Maoists destroyed it again after six months. There is no communication with the outside world. "We used to be a thriving business, now we are ruined," says hotelier Bhaweshwar Shrestha. His two jeeps used to run a profitable business plying the road between Sandhikharka to Delhi. Now, it is a one-way trip: everyone is leaving to Delhi and no one is coming back.
Argakhanchi is the home of two senior Maoists: Top Bahadur Rayamajhi and Pampha Bhusal, who are reported to have taken part in the September 2002 attack. The main motive seems to have been to loot the bank, as the Maoists took away Rs 70 million and several kgs of gold. Since then, 150 people have been killed fighting in the district, 30 so far this year.
Ramhari Bhusal, a trader at the main bazar tells us with moist eyes: "This used to a peaceful place, we were raising children, hoping they would have a better future than us. Now, we fear for the worst."
Grief in Ghandruk
SRADDHA BASNYAT in POKHARA
handruk's villagers relied on Dil Man Gurung for everything. His balanced judgement, his worldly-wise ways and as a respected elder, it was an honour he earned with years of service to his community. By all accounts, he was a simple man, even-tempered, fair and frank. And he had a vision of making this spectacularly beautiful village at the lap of the Annapurnas a tourism attraction locals could benefit from.
On Monday, 10 May, Dil Man was among five Ghandruk hotel owners abducted by the Maoists. The body of 65-year-old Dil Man Gurung and 31-year-old Iswor Gurung were found the next morning near the village. Ghandruk is still gripped by shock, grief and fear. Telephone lines are down, no one dares leave the village or return there because of a Maoist blockade.
"Ghandruk has lost its leader," laments Prakash Gurung, former assistant minister and Iswor's cousin. Prakash's father was the uncontested pradhan pancha for 17 years during the Panchayat era, untill Dil Man ran for the same post in 1985 and won. "It was no small feat to beat my father at that time. We held the majority for years and were sure we'd win again," recalls Prakash. "Dil Man Gurung worked hard and won the people's trust."
This was a leader that Ghandruk could identify with. He was born in 1939, and although he was fluent in both Nepali and English, he had no formal education. Following what had virtually become a Gurung tradition, in his early 20s Dil Man joined the British Gurkhas. Home on holiday, he married Mim Kumari Gurung and the two travelled together to Dil Man's various postings. His 15-year career took him to Hong Kong, Malaysia, the UK, Brunei and Singapore. It was time spent in tight-knit Gurung communities in barracks abroad that probably nurtured his vision to develop something similar in Ghandruk. So, after he retired, he came home to Nepal with his wife and three children.
Dil Man enjoyed retirement, raised his family and tilled his fields. After a short stint in politics, he focused all his energy on community development. He recognised Ghandruk's tourist potential and established the Snow Land Lodge. For 13 years after the 1990 Movement, Dil Man worked with the Annapurna Conservation Area Project (ACAP) and campaigned for Ghandruk to get drinking water, electricity, roads and bridges. His greatest ambition was to have a cable car service up to Ghandruk and a road till Phedi. He worked best outside the bureaucracy and refused to join the VDC.
Dil Man was a born leader, one who believed in working with the people. "He got along with everybody," recalls Chandra Man Gurung, his younger brother. "But he had no desire to hold office." Although Dil Man aligned himself with the RPP after 1990, he was unconcerned by recent party politics and infighting. But there was no doubt he felt democracy was the only way forward. "He believed one man or one party could not solve problems and that all individuals and parties must work together," says Prakash.
In the past few years, Prakash advised him not to return to Ghandruk. But he used to go back to check on his hotel and his friends. Dil Man was a contented man. Both his daughters and his son were married. His 55-year-old wife, although ailing, was still his loving companion.
Dil Man was not a hardliner about anything. He certainly wasn't an informant for the army, as rumours have it. "One thing my brother spoke out against was the army coming to Ghandruk," says his brother Chandra Man. "He believed the military presence would suck us into the fighting." In a tragic way, those words became a prophecy for his own death. Dil Man Gurung was the victim of a war he wanted no part of. Like thousands of other Nepalis who have been killed, and no one knows why.
People forced on long marches
Umid Bagchand in MAHENDRANAGAR
There are no official figures, but an estimated 30,000 people in the western region have been forced to join Maoist programs in the past year. The regional education directorate in Dipayal says the rebels took away 7,300 people from Doti alone. The majority were students, the rest teachers, all of whom were kept for an average of 15 days and forced to watch cultural programs, listen to speeches and learn 'revolutionary education' methods.
Bajura and Baitadi top the list of districts where Maoist rebels have taken people forcibly. More than 2,000 students in Accham were forced to join Maoist marches. Upon return, locals say they were made to listen to political speeches about the revolution and were released on condition that they pledged to help the Maoist party "whenever necessary".
Villagers are forced to join Maoist mass meetings like the one when the 'people's government' of Achham was declared three months ago. More than 7,000 people were present: teachers, students and villagers from surrounding areas. The involvement of locals seems to be as much to ensure protection from army attacks as to show that there is popular support. At a program attended by 4,000 people in Binayak recently, security forces launched an attack from helicopters.
Earlier this month, the rebels announced that every family in Kanchanpur's southern areas had to send at least one member and the rebel strength swelled by more than 2,000 young men and women.
But 4,000 others-women, children and elderly citizens-fled to Basahi on the Indian border. When they came back home a few days later, they formed a citizen security committee. When the Maoists came back, they killed seven of them. After the incident, some rebels tried to negotiate with the locals but clashes broke out again and another Maoist was killed. Now the rebels have issued death threats against 11 members of the citizen security committee. As we go to press, 55-year-old Durga Ranamagar has been kidnapped and Sher Bahadur Tamang seriously injured.
Recently, 250 students between grades four and nine were forced to follow the Maoists' march from villages in Darchula. Two weeks ago, the rebels arrived at Sanatan Dharma Higher Secondary School in Baitadi to find recruits. Most students managed to escape, but 24 were taken. Their parents petitioned human rights activists and after the media picked up the story, the Maoists returned the students after a few days. Terrified parents across the west aren't sending their children to school anymore. More than 15 schools in 20 villages in Baitadi have closed down.
Comrade Prabhakar heads the Maoists' Seti-Mahakali regional bureau, and told us the party had mustered 10,000 people for the 'people's marches' and their participation is entirely voluntarily. "When other political parties gather people in their programs, that is taken as a voluntary participation but when we do the same it is called abduction and kidnapping," he said. "Even the media does this and we feel very sad about it."
Asked about Prabhakar's argument, one angry parent in Darchula said her children were taken away at gunpoint. She asks: "If that is not kidnapping, tell me what is?"
Forced to go voluntarily
ore than 4,000 people-most of them school and college children-have been taken away for varying durations in midwestern and eastern Nepal in the past month. Human rights activists say abduction may be too strong a word, since most are released unharmed.
"Abduction connotes terror and unless we witness something of that sort, we can't just casually use the word," says Tarak Dhital from the child welfare group, CWIN. But Dhital does not dispute the fact that forced recruitment of children and adults in military training still continues. The Maoists are forcing large groups of people to attend their cultural programs, communist events and training in 'revolutionary education'.
About 30 teachers from Sindhuli returned home after they were taken by the Maoists to attend a lecture on teaching guidelines according to Maoist ideology.
A delegation of activists is now planning to visit Maoist areas to investigate what the students and teachers are forced to do. "As of now, we don't know their methods and to what extent they are forced," says Dhital. The Maoists maintain that the people attend their mass meetings out of their own free will, and have blamed the media for distorting facts.
Whether it is forced or voluntary, the people, especially children, are vulnerable and could be caught in the crossfire especially when the security forces use helicopters to strafe Maoist positions. And whether one calls it 'abduction' or something else, many have raised their voices against compulsory mass attendance. News reports from villages indicate that locals including children are constantly under pressure to attend Maoist activities. The presence of civilians affords some degree of protection to Maoist leaders attending these programs in case of a government attack.
Childrens' rights groups have repeatedly called on Maoists to observe the Geneva Convention and leave civilians out of the conflict. The Maoists have carried out high-profile release of captured security personnel, but continue to force villagers to march with them.
This practice has already ended in tragedy, including the death of four children at the Sharada High School in Mudbara on 13 October 2003 when teachers were forced to allow a Maoist cultural program in the school compound. When the army opened fire on the crowd, four school children were killed and a dozen others injured.
Following the Mudbara incident, activists met with local Maoist leaders not to use school children as shields. But the practice goes on. "In fact, the frequency of such activities have increased," says Subodh Pyakhurel from human rights organisation INSEC. "You can't force political education on anyone. We strongly condemn such acts, it is a crime." (Naresh Newar)