There is an eerie quiet in the Maoist stronghold of Rukum in midwestern Nepal. The Maoist militia have disappeared, and rumours have it that they have moved out to the eastern tarai. Once in a while, an army helicopter hovers overhead, but otherwise there is no sign of the government. In Rukum's remote mountains, the villagers are enjoying the peace as long as it lasts.
While the district headquarter at Khalanga and former battle zones like Khara show a strong army presence, most villages are under the sway of the Maoists. The rebels are so confident the security forces cannot invade their strongholds, that they have left the villages under control of their 'village peoples' government'. They say the entire district, except Khalanga, is now under the 'New Regime' and the party is turning its attention to rural development.
"We now plan to develop the villages," says Surendra Budathoki, ward chief of Purtimkanda VDC under the village peoples' government. "We have already begun to construct roads, bridges and public latrines. We're also producing electricity at different places." This is in accordance with a public directive issued by Shiva Lal Pun, leader of the village peoples' government, which threatens "severe punishment" if his orders are not obeyed. Locals have to make toilets in their homes or face the possibility of being taken to the Maoist labour camp, even though they have tried to explain that their more immediate priority is safe drinking water.
In Khola Gau, the rebels have commandeered about 300 ropanis of Dharma Bahadur Shah's land. A dozen or so convicts charged with murder and facing the Maoist brand of justice are forced to work the fields, while Shah himself has fled to Nepalganj.
It is now mandatory for people to take permission from the Maoist authorities for weddings, divorces and even to travel to the district headquarters. After they tied the knot two months ago, 15-year-olds Nayan Bahadur Bohara and Buddhi Kumari Mahatara were forcibly separated and sent to their respective homes by the rebels because they were underage. The couple was also forced to pay Rs 3,000 each.
"We are strictly against child marriage and polygamy," another village leader told us. But the Maoist laws change from one village to the next because they are randomly implemented without any basis. "Our laws change according to the times. It is not necessary that the law of a village should be the same as another," explains the leader. Lower ranking Maoist rebels run the day to day activities in Rukum. They say the militia and district level leaders have gone to 'special areas' and won't divulge any other details. Reports from other sources believes the leaders are gathering in the tarai.
Areas of Rukum under Maoist control are officially dry. But there is moonshine available and some villagers will secretly take a swig or two when they are sure no one is looking. The Maoists also require those who want to leave to get permission first. A Maoist 'visa' is neccesary for travel to Khalanga. People visiting relatives for the holidays recently needed special Maoist permits for going from Purtimkanda VDC to Chhibang through Simli. All travellers face intense interrogations by both Maoist sentries as well as security forces anywhere they go.
The government and representatives of the national political parties are conspicuous in their absence. Another remarkable sight is that in village after village, there are only older people and children. There are no young men and women, no teenagers. A whole generation has gone missing in the villages of the midwest: they have moved to the cities or left the country for safety and in search of work.
Most stayed away even during Dasai out of fear of extortion and harassment. The shortage of able-bodied men and women has meant that farm production has dwindled, and there are looming food shortages. Teacher Birendra Mahatara says, "The children are forced to take on adult chores and now have little time for school." So, the schools have shut and it is the elderly who are left to fend for themselves and take care of their grandchildren.
The locals have discovered that people's rule is not what they had been promised. They mutter about how their real needs have gone unattended while the rebels are comfortable because they have no real opposition. "Of course, we are scared that they may take action against us if we complain," whispers one local. "We just do what they tell us to do." They are weary of the compulsory activities that the Maoists force on villagers, and some admit secretly that they are sick of obeying orders and being threatened. But they are too scared to say these things openly for fear of reprisal.
The villagers also remember the police and the atrocities when they were in control here, and say that in some ways their lives are better now. "At least it is peaceful, but you never know when it will begin all over again," says teacher Bhim Bahadur Oli of Chhibang. Everyone is worried about the collpase of the ceasefire two months ago and fear an outbreak of fierce fighting similar to what took place in Bhawang in neighbouring Rolpa last month. Their overwhelming desire is for peace, so their loved ones can return home, and they can get on with their lives.
Bal Bir Budathoki's son and daughter joined the rebels. He says, "There is no alternative to peace, we must be allowed to live in peace." Asked about his children, he presents a carefully neutral fa?ade. "I just want them to be safe," he tells us.
There is an undercurrent of alert fear among the villagers of Rukum. They wait for what they fear most: the crack of a rifle or the deep boom of a socket bomb from the valley below, heralding the start of another bloody battle in this never-ending war.