As in all conflict areas, Nepal's insurgency has affected the most vulnerable section of the population the worst. Women and children, widows, orphans, and internally displaced families are trying to survive from day to day, the hardships of their ordinary lives now made extraordinary.
In faraway Kathmandu, there is big talk of big money. Millions of dollars to fight the war, more millions in development assistance. There is a lot of talk about governance and delivery. But here, on Ground Zero, the widows and orphans, bereaved and now destitute, need immediate relief. They cannot wait. Where are the NGOs, where are the donors, where is the government?
It does not take too long in Surkhet to realise that this once-vibrant hub of the mid-west has turned into a township at the edge of a war zone. There has been a dusk-to-dawn curfew everyday in the town and on its outskirts. Mysterious gunshots punctuate the night, and the next morning no one seems to know who shot whom. On the streets, there is the sound of curfew violators being chased and beaten up. The pall of fear is pervasive. The warm and generous people with their happy greetings are a thing of the past. People don't make eye-contact anymore, they avert their gaze.
The town is full of boys and girls who fled the conflict in the hills. In a lodge in Surkhet is 15-year-old Shyam*. His father had left home, and the boy stayed with his mother. But his mother told him to run away for fear that the Maoists would recruit him. There are similar boys in almost every hotel and teashop in Surkhet. Many have come recently, brought by worried parents who were being forced to send one offspring to join the rebels. Among the guests in the hotels are other transient young men, on their way to India or further afield-to try to find work and also to get away from the Maoists, or avoid being picked up by the security forces.
Then there are the war widows in Chinchu and other villages in Surkhet valley. They are refugees with nowhere to go, strangers in their own land. The traditional stigma of widowhood in Nepal has been compounded by the trauma of conflict. Many are trying to raise children without any means of support.
Maoists blew up the police post at Chinchu a year ago, and the village has since been a battleground for the Maoists and security officials. Locals told us that they continue to get threats from Maoists, as well as visits by security forces. For social activists working with gender empowerment, skills training and social mobilisation, threats and intimidation have become routine, but they have not stopped their work. They are doing what little they can with what little they have.
Sita's husband was killed by Maoists three months ago for being a Nepali Congress supporter. In a familiar story repeated across Nepal, he was dragged out of bed at night, taken to the centre of town, and executed. The 36-year-old widow now has to raise two children. Sita is still too shocked to speak, and it is her daughter who answers our queries. Her 17-year-old son has taken charge of his slain father's business now, and is trying to do the best he can to take care of his family.
There used to be a pharmacy in the bazar until a few months ago, when the security forces came and took away its owner, a UML supporter. No reasons were given. Nine days later, his family discovered his body in a shallow grave and cremated him. His widow, Kanchi, is young and uneducated, and has two children. She hasn't been told who killed her husband or why. Chinchu has lost its only pharmacy. Both Sita and Kanchi are relatively well-off, and will probably get by.
But most others have it much worse, and need support. Subadhra's 21-year-old Tharu husband was recently killed by the security forces while returning home from the forest at 7.30 PM. She has two infants, and the family has no land.
At Salma Village Development Committee, Laxmi is raising two children, aged 13 and 11. Her husband was an electrician and was killed by the security forces. Both children are bright students, but the emotional trauma is already showing in the performance of the younger girl in school. The family is considering sending only the girl to school because the boy has to help out with the work at home. The local SOS Children's Village that was recently attacked by Maoists has been approached for help.
There is a big exodus of young men aged 13-28 from the mid-western districts. They travel in groups of ten or less, helplessness and despair writ large on their faces. Many are unsure where they want to go, or what they will do. They just want to get out, away from the violence and the killings. Most do not have citizenship certificates. They crowd around the DDC office in Surkhet all day for the recommendations they need to
get their papers.
Amidst all this need, the INGOs and development agencies which had made the town their base for mid- and far-western operations have left, citing security concerns. But the local community groups are still here, and they are doing whatever they can with their limited resources.
At the CDO office, we tried to raise the issue of state support for war widows and quickly realised that officials haven't even begun to think about it. We raised Subadhra's case, and the CDO's reply was that her husband should have stayed indoors during the curfew. To him the possibility that the Tharu village may not have a radio set, or that the people may not have the time to listen to radio, or that, even if they heard the announcement, they might not have understood what was being said, was inconsequential.
It's obvious that Surkhet is only the tip of the iceberg. After all, this is at the edge of Maoland. In the interior, there must be many, many more in misery. It is time to channel support to local groups such as the People Help Organisation, a non-profit run run entirely by women and capable of providing targeted relief quickly. Unfortunately, local groups are not articulate enough to talk to donor bureaucrats in Kathmandu directly, so how will they get the resources they need? The PHO says it lobbied for cash from the UN's Peace Fund, but
The state has not thought out a strategic response to the problem yet, and we cannot afford to allow donors to tie their hands and wait for things to improve. Because under the surface of supposed law and order is a volcano that is about to erupt, and that social upheaval might be more difficult to manage than the violence we are seeing now. The donors have withdrawn their staff. Fine. But what stops them from working with local NGOs still active in the field?
(Rita Thapa founded the women's support group, Tewa.)
* All names of have been changed to protect the identity of interviewees.