Nepali Times
Rukum just wants to be left alone


Nothing matters anymore, not even the Maoist insurgency, and the people of Rukum are resigned to their fate. "Yes, there are Maoists all around but we have to make a living, right?" says a young farmer as he joins his father in ploughing the family farm.

Nearly 10 years after the 'people's war' began here in remote Rukum the people don't seem the least bit interested in being liberated. The conflict has brought so much misery and there is no end in sight. This has hardened the people, made them more resilient and they say they are prepared for anything the future has in store.

Rukum has suffered more than its fair share. Atrocities by the police against innocent civilians during the 1998 Operation Kilo Sierra Two are still fresh in people's minds. And in recent years support for the Maoists has faded with the forced recruitment of school children for their militia or to take part in abhiyans being the final straw.

On the trail to the village of Pipal, we caught up with 10 children between 13-18 years returning from a Maoist cultural program in Rolpa. The boys and girls had been walking for four days had little to eat and looked frail and weak. The rebels had come to their village and taken away 54 students from the school. "My mother must be crying but she had to let me go," expains Sushila Shah, one of the 18 girls who were taken.

The Maoists had also force-marched 4,000 children from Dang all the way to the same cultural program. They had to march for a week, many had fallen sick and weak with hunger and had to stay behind.

Further up the valley we run into villagers who were waiting for their children to return. "What do the Maoists know about the pain of a mother for her child?" asked a woman whose 14-year- old daughter, Babita, has been away for eight days.

While the Maoists are forcing children to join their abhiyan or dig trenches in their school playgrounds, the army has also been using some schools like the Tribhuban High School in Khalanga, turning two classrooms into barracks. "There are guns and terror all over Rukum," says UML district secretary Sher Bahadur KC, one of the few local politicians who have remained behind. After February First, the politicians now have to contend with threats not just from the Maoists but also the state apparatus. "We politicians who believe in democracy have nowhere to go," says NC leader Man Bahadur Nepali.

The impact of the rift in the Maoist leadership has percolated down to the remotest villages. During a Maoist public meeting in Magma VDC to announce newly elected district commissars only about 200 people turned up and many of those who stayed away were said to be Baburam loyalists.

"There used to be many more people at these meetings, now the Baburamwallas don't come," said a local teacher. A security source in Khalanga told us that there has also been a serious split in the district cadre after the rebels suffered heavy losses in the battle of Khara in March.

Many of Rukum's villagers couldn't care less who is in power in Kathmandu or whether the Maoists have split. All they want is for the conflict to end and they are too busy preparing the fields for the monsoon. Since life is so difficult, many are supplementing their income working as labourers in the GTZ-supported food for work program on the Khalanga-Musikot road.

"The project is the only reason we have food to eat," says one farmer, pausing over his pick. Every worker gets up to eight kg of rice everyday for working from 10 to five. The Maoists know how much the villagers rely on the food, so they haven't stopped the project.

While the government's presence has withered away, community groups have stepped into the gap working on health and education in remote areas with the tacit support of the rebels. The government's development budget of Rs120 million for Rukum this year hasn't been touched.

Ghetma is the only VDC of 42 in Rukum that hasn't suffered a single fatality or disappearance in the conflict so far. Located near the Rukum-Jajarkot border, the rebels could never strike roots here because of the strong presence of the UML. Says local journalist, Kamal Thapa, "It's much better and peaceful without the government."

Recently, the government tried to reestablish a police post in Ghetma. The people chased them away.

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)