Walls limit our freedom, said poet Basu Sashi in another age. Those lines make more sense today than when it was penned: the higher and thicker our walls, the more insecure we become.
In the villages, where many young Nepalis die at the hands of the Maoists or security forces, the sense of insecurity is acute. Most deaths never get reported. Dead husbands and sons, daughters slaughtered become mere statistics. The list of disappeareds grows every day.
The few stories that do reach Kathmandu, are either untrue or distorted. A fortnight ago, national newspapers reported the case of 20-year-old Suresh Baral, a student in Pokhara, who was reportedly killed in the crossfire between the Maoists and security forces when the rebels started firing from across the lake in Raniban. Only later, it was revealed that there were no rebels at all, only a rumours of Maoists on motorbikes. Two innocent young people were shot when panic-stricken sentries sprayed surrounding residential buildings with gunfire.
It's time that we started asking for the truth, straight from the horse's mouth. It's time we let the villagers, farmers, students, bus passengers and local teachers speak. As a journalist, I was always trying to find a way where my role would be minimal, how we in the media could give a forum to the people.
We hit upon the idea of a roving
field-based television talk show.
We would broadcast the voice of the people with minimal editing.
Four months ago, when we started broadcasting 'Mat Abhimat' on Nepal Television every Tuesday night, it seemed like a bold step because, unlike conventional Kathmandu-centred talk programs with studio guests, we took our studio right to the people. We thought knew it would not be easy gathering people in places where speaking the truth on camera was suicidal. But we underestimated how brave people can be when they have suffered and have nothing to lose.
In four months we visited 24 districts, and we were overwhelmed by the extent of local participation. Numbers grew from 30 participants in Gorkha to 100 in Dadeldhura. People walked for days to be on the show and pour out their sorrows and shared their hopes. The format is open: everyone gets an opportunity to speak as long as possible. They are intelligent and speak with simplicity about violence, extortion, threats, corruption and hopes for peace. There is no manipulation or superficiality. Without fear they express their frustrations towards both the army and the Maoists. At times, it is us in the editing rooms who have to think twice about including statements that could get them into trouble.
As a journalist, this is satisfying work: we are pushed into the background and the medium takes over. It brings satisfaction and also tears of sorrow to hear the suffering of the Nepali people who have been made childless, widows and orphans.
Jaykishor Laba, a lawyer in Janakpur, has been living on the street for the past few months. He describes what his son, Sanjib Karna, looks like to anyone who will listen. His wife, Bimala Debi, runs towards every familiar face and weeps when it is not her son. Every time the phone rings, both hope it's their boy at the other end. They don't know where he is, or even if he is still alive.
In Parsa, the Maoists killed Phulkumari Debi's husband, a policeman, and she tells us on camera she doesn't want to live anymore. "What is left for me now? It doesn't make any difference whether I live or die." In Gorkha, a brother laments the loss of his sister but feels nothing for his other sibling who joined the rebels and died in an encounter. "He died for his political commitments but my sister had nothing to do with the Maoists, she wouldn\'t even hurt an ant," Rudra Pokhrel, principal of a local school, said on Mat Abhimat.
Jasoda Sharma in Baglung exists in a limbo. Her husband was disappeared and although the village regards her a widow, she still walks around with sindoor. "For how long do we have to live in misery like this?" asks Bhuyuman Ligal, 84, from Palpa. He says that he has seen too many young people die and disappear. The tears running down his wrinkled face say the rest.
Through Mat Abhimat, the unheard voices of Nepal's rural population from the most violence-ridden districts are now on record. Of course there are risks involved. Just two days before Dasai, in Saule Bazar at Doti, we arrived at an encounter and found three policemen bleeding to death on the ground. That sight left me and our crew sleepless for many nights. At Dipayal, a Maoist disguised as an army officer tried to force a police constable to pressurise us into giving him a ride in our car. And on our way back to Dhangadi, we found ourselves in the middle of a shootout.
The 21 talk shows we have broadcast so far made me realise that the people are still optimistic and aspire to a better future. The people of Nepal, away from the cities and big towns, are honest, hardworking and don't have big dreams. They want peace and understood very clearly what's at stake. We all stand to learn more by listening to what they have to say.
Mat Abhimat airs at 9PM every Tuesday on Nepal Television .