The first thing that strikes a visitor in Pipey village in Jajarkot is the silence. There are no children playing on the trail leading up to the village, no dogs barking, no one weeding the terrace farms. The houses look empty.
Pipey is a Maoist stronghold and there used to be 200 families here before 1996. The sound of a plaintive cry from a nearby house is magnified by the silence. We find Bal Bahadur, a sick 60-year-old man on the floor bed. He has been bedridden for nearly a year, and his wife is taking care of him. The district hospital is a long and hard walk from the village. There are no health posts nearby. There is no where he can go. People here are used to misery.
The old man struggles to speak and tell us he hasn't seen anyone else besides regular army patrols. "Are you the government people coming to help me? Are you carrying any medicines?" And all we had were questions for which he had no answers.
In the next house 50-year-old Pahiley Nepali and his wife stare blankly at us. Since their daughter's death before the ceasefire, all they do is just stay home quietly, trying to forget what happened that day. "She was just 18," the mother says about her daughter, a Maoist activist who had come home after a long time to meet her parents. The army patrol arrived and spotted her. She changed her clothes and ran as fast as she could but in vain. The villagers and her two brothers found her body a few days later. She has sent her other three daughters and two sons to India and told them never to return home. "I don't care whether there is a war or a ceasefire. For our family, at least, our hopes are lost," she tells us in a low voice as we leave.
Pipey is two hours of hard walking from the Jajarkot district headquarters, in Khalanga bazar. We asked a family with only female members whether they receive any help from Maoists or the army. "We don't want their help. It only means trouble," says the eldest female member. "We can deal with poverty, we've always lived with it. But we can't deal with this brutality."
Things haven't changed much here since the ceasefire: there is extreme poverty, subsistence farming, no income, health services or education. Like everywhere else, villagers are afraid of both the army and the Maoists. When they travel to Khalanga, they face interrogations by the security forces who think they are Maoists, and when they return home, the Maoists grill them with questions suspecting them of sharing information with the Royal Nepali Army.
"Both the state and the Maoists are violating the code of conduct. Compared to other districts, people from Jajarkot are suffering more, but word of the hardships and misery of our people is not getting out," says Hom Shah, a businessman in Khalanga. The district headquarter does not have telephone lines, and the nearest airport is 2 hours walk away in Chaujhari. The only link to the outside world are the BBC Nepali Service and Radio Nepal.
Like the rest of the population, the local media here is under pressure from both the local administration and the Maoists. Just before the ceasefire, a local journalist, Dinesh, was detained for two months by the security forces for reporting the ground situation during the insurgency. Now, the local Maoists don't like him because he mispelt the local commander's name in an article.
The district headquarter is bursting at the seams with displaced families who don't want to return to nearby villages for fear of Maoist extortion and threats. Water shortage and food scarcity is acute. "If we don't get aid from government now, there will be a big disaster soon," warns Bhairab Sundar Shrestha, former VDC chairman. Life seems more difficult for people of Jajarkot since the ceasefire. At least during the war, they earned money working as porters for the Maoists. "Most people here have no jobs and there is little to eat," says social worker Kewal Kumar Bhandari.
In Nepal's remote midwest, the distrust between the state and the Maoists is widening. The most serious skirmish so far during the ceasefire happened near Khalanga earlier this month (see Gun and medicines) and given the proximity of the two armies such incidents will likely be repeated. The soldiers and the Maoists try to get away from each others' way but that is not always possible along frontline villages like Pipey. Says a dejected school teacher, Kumar Buda: "We feel crushed between two rocks. What kind of a peace is this?"
Guns and medicines
In the most serious breach of the ceasefire since it went into effect six months ago, a Royal Nepali Army patrol and the Maoists engaged in a three-hour battle at Dalli village in Jajarkot on 18 June. The villagers here were already very anxious because of the rise in tensions, and when the sound of gunfire reverberated across the valley, they thought the war had started again.
The Maoists accuse the army of trying to probe their defences in their 'model village' under the pretext of establishing a health camp. The army says the local people are in great need of medical attention which the Maoists have not been able to provide, and this is part of their nationwide campaign to bring relief.
There are conflicting accounts from the two sides about what exactly happened. The army says the Maoists opened fire on the patrol while negotiations were going on about establishing the medical camp near Dalli, and eight Maoists were killed in the exchange. The Maoists deny that anyone from their side was killed. Both sides agree on one thing: a civilian was killed in the crossfire.
Distrust between the Maoists and the army is now at an all-time high and peace activists fear another outbreak since the two sides are eyeball-to-eyeball. Unlike the Sri Lankan truce, there are no international monitors here keeping the two sides apart. The Maoists say the army can enter their 'base area' for medical treatment, but without guns and uniforms. The outer perimeter of police presence is this small post, a two hour walk from Khalanga.
Local social organisations and political leaders in Khalanga are now asking the Royal Nepali Army not to provoke the Maoists and work instead to mobilise community organisations to distribute medicines and food to the villagers in remote areas.
"During such a tense situation, humanitarian work should not be done in isolation but the responsibilty should be shared, so the ceasefire is not threatened," says Bhola Mahat, regional coordinator of the human rights group, INSEC. (Naresh Newar)