Nepali Times Asian Paints
Achham’s agony


It has been nearly two years since the battle of Mangalsen that devastated this district headquarter. More than 107security forces and civilians were killed in that deadly night attack in February 2002.

The scars of that battle can be seen all along the valley, the historic Mangalsen Darbar still lies in ruins. But there are deeper psychological scars among the people here that haven't healed. And now, fears of renewed fighting and the Maoists' closure of schools across these 12 remote districts have spread more uncertainty. Embargoes, blockades and restrictions on travel have made the people of Nepal's poorest and most-neglected region suffer even more.

News of the Mudhbara incident in which four school children were killed last month in nearby Doti has spread and parents are afraid their children may get caught in the crossfire. "It is tragic, so many parents here have sent their children to India and this is repeated all across the midwest," says Ram Bahadur Buda from Nandegada village.

Nearly all the 342 schools in the districts has been shut due to Maoist threats to close schools in Bheri and Karnali Zones. Some 45,000 students in Achham alone are staying home, teachers have fled because the Maoists just raised the revolutionary tax to 15 percent of their meagre salaries. The village teachers while away their time in Mangalsen. "All the teachers do is sign the attendance register and sit in the sun," says Basudeb Timisilna, district education officer.

CDO Surya B Shrestha has come up with a solution to re-open schools, but there are no takers. "We are thinking of sending mobile army patrols so schools can open," he says. But locals fear that this will only provoke the Maoists, and there could be a repeat of the Mudhbara firefight on 17 October in which classrooms became a battleground.

The only schools that are open are in the district headquarters where there is a security presence. These are bursting at the seams because they have enrolled new students who have fled their villages. Public Campus, Sodsa Devi in Mangalsen, Mahendra in Bayalpata, Tripura in Shri Kot are overflowing with students. "I have no choice but to admit as many students as possible," says Prem Kunwar, principal of Tripura Sundari High School. "Where else would they go?"

At the entry point into Achham from Doti in Chaukhutte, Maoists check all visitors, questioning them to see if they are military spies. This is where the Maoists looted grain from businessmen just before Dasai, and since then they have imposed a blockade on food and other items passing through. The Maoist sentries say this is to stop rations from reaching security personnel up the valley and in the district headquarters. "It is our strategic move," says Shyam, who is a Maoist posted in Chaukhutte. "It will drive the army and police away."

As is usual in these matters, the security forces have just started flying in food and it is the local inhabitants who suffer. The price of basic foodstuffs is now beyond their reach, the people just don't have the money. Jit Bahadur Shahi of Rahaf VDC has seen enough, he is off to India to find work. "Helicopters fly food for the soldiers and government officials everyday, but we can't afford to buy food. I'm leaving," Shahi says. There are many more like Shahi along this trail.

Achham and other mid-western districts were food deficit areas even at the best of times, with farmers never able to grow enough to feed themselves for more than six months a year. They have always migrated to India seasonally from here, but this time the migrations are more permanent. The Maoist blockade and the army's restriction on food transport has lead to famine-like conditions. Blockades here in Achham have impacted food security north in Bajura and Mugu as well.

People have no choice but to walk for weeks to reach Chaukhutte in Doti. With almost all the men gone, women make the journey taking herds of mountain goats and sheep to carry home supplies. We run into Paru Bhandari along the trail who has left her children in Bajura and has come down to see if she can find some food. "There is a famine in our villages right now," she tells us. It has been three years since Nepal Food Corporation stopped supplying grain in the area to cover the deficit.

Chhat Bahadur Shahi has come from Mugu and he says shops along the trail don't even have matchboxes. He has walked 11 days to arrive in Chaukhutte with 13 other villagers to buy food and basic needs. It will take him another two weeks to walk back. He says: "Sometimes, by the time we reach home, we have nothing left from what we bought. Things have never been this bad."

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)