On this trail up Sulichaur towards Thawang in eastern Rolpa, no one meets your eye. No one poses the jovial queries you hear on paths all over Nepal. They don't want to know who you are, where you are going, where you are coming from.
This is the birthplace and heartland of the Maobadi movement and its "People's War". Seven months into the emergency and the deployment of the army, and the residents of Rolpa are dulled by wariness. Travelling in eastern Rolpa this week, the humanscape is reflected in two extremes. One is 66-year-old Kumbha Singh Pun who spent 28 years working in India. "I could have settled there, but I came back here in 1993 because this is the land of my birth. It was so peaceful here, but now there is only conflict and destruction. This is not the Rolpa I came back to die in."
The other is a short, stocky teenage militant, behind whose pleasant demeanour lies a hardened Maobadi fighter. He has seen fighting in all the recent theatres-Dang, Satbaria, Lisne, Gam and the most recent debacle in Khara. He has seen comrades fall to the bullet, and has obviously himself killed, many times over. Why do you fight, we ask him. "For the people and the country." What if you die? "I will be remembered in history."
We are walking high up near the flanks of Jaljala mountain in eastern Rolpa, a massif that is part of Maoist lore. The terrain is steep on all sides, but you chance upon a clearing. There are young men and some young women, most of about high-school age, some playing volleyball. Suddenly, you notice a weapon, and then another, and another. There is no turning back, and as you enter the circle all eyes are on you, surprised and suspicious. Boys in their early teens walk around with 303s on their shoulders. Some lug SLRs, or sit by their weapons and backpacks. It's snack time, and these young fighters are determinedly spooning up some kind of energy-giving powdered formula mixed with cold water.
We've walked into a full company of the People's Liberation Army at rest. A long and worrisome period of questioning follows. They seem unconvinced by our answers and pass us on to a platoon commander, a scowling man of perhaps 25-old for this group-who interrogates us and says that we will have to walk with them further into the jungle, while they contact higher-ups to decide what to do with us. We cannot go, we say, we have a deadline to meet in Kathmandu, but this is ignored, and it increasingly begins to look like he will take us over the pass whether we like it or not, in the rain and the fading light.
It is fortuitous that Comrade Bijaya arrives just as we are about to give in. He is smiling and communicative and evidently the political commissar of the place. "You understand why we have to be suspicious of you. The security forces are active, we have just lost six of our workers, and you come here unannounced, without permission." Finally, convinced of our journalistic credentials, and having apparently consulted a leader further up in the hierarchy, he agrees to be interviewed. We speak to him by candle-light.
Thirty-something Comrade Bijaya introduces himself as a member of the Rolpa District Committee of the CPN (Maoist). A disciple of Baburam Bhattarai, he started his political career, like his mentor, with the All-India Nepali Students' Federation. He teaches political theory to the cadre, and speaks with an ideological fervour that must be what makes young men and women rush to battle in the name of the Prachanda Path.
Comrade Bijaya starts off listing the Maoists' successful battles against the government-attacks on police posts and the subsequent engagements with the army. "We learnt how to fight as we went along, and Holleri was a turning point. Step-by-step we have polished our skills and proved our claim that we can take on the military. We started with household implements and sticks, moved on to SBMLs and 303s, and then to SLRs, LPMGs, GPMGs and 2 -inch mortars." ("SBML", by the way, is the euphemistic acronym the Maobadi have coined for single-barrel muzzle-loaders.) The weapons and ammunition in this particular company indicates an inefficient array, but the Red Army's relentless quest for armoury may slowly change that. "According to Mao's dictates, we first built weapons and are now at the snatching stage. We aren't buying them yet, but when we need to, we will."
Isolated in these mountains, the fighters tune into Radio Nepal's news service to learn how their war is going elsewhere. They appear to have the run of this territory, but seem distanced from the insurgency in other parts of the country. Still, Comrade Bijaya is confident sitting in his mountain eyrie. He knows his guerrillas can easily melt away into the folds and valleys of eastern Rolpa. "Our network lets us know when there is movement of the security forces. The government's informants, on the other hand, are local anti-socials hiding in the sadarmukam [district headquarters]."
Bijaya will talk about his fighters' motivation levels and the atrocities of the state, but won't acknowledge questions about the forced conscription of very young people that is so obviously a reality here. He also challenges strategies of the PLA that many in the national press take as givens. "We do not use human shields-the Janamukti Sena is perfectly capable of fighting on its own. And why should we cut heads? I would not like to be identified while alive, but once dead, it doesn't matter."
In sharp contrast to his discussions about local realities and fighting strategy, Comrade Bijaya descends into romanticism and rhetoric when asked about the larger goals of the Nepali Maoists. "Our fight is for the oppressed all over the world. We are no longr fighting the Nepali government. It is the imperialists we are engaged with."
How can Maoism succeed here when it has failed everywhere else? "We learn from the mistakes made elsewhere. The primary mistake in the past was the inability to get the middle class to ride along. We will rectify that." Comrade Bijaya also says that under a Maoist dispensation there will be room for all the political parties that exist today, and that the high command is preparing a political document to incorporate this new strategy to take other forces with them. The Maoist plan, he told us, is to proceed simultaneously on the military and political front.