It takes eight hours to traverse the 70 km stretch from Hile to Myanglung.
Across the green hills of eastern Nepal, with its scented forests and grand vistas, travelers are lulled into dreaming that peace has returned to this land. But the numerous checkpoints along the way, the charred hulks of burnt vans and tree trunks by the side of the road prove that even here the conflict is never very far away.
For the first six years of the conflict, eastern Nepal was largely unaffected. But the violence creeped in stealthily like a dangerous unseen epidemic. By 2003, the hinterlands of Khotang, Terathum, Sankhuwa Sabha, Bhojpur, Taplejung and Panchthar were reeling under Maoist tactics of murders, bombings and blockades. The chief architect of the Maoist expansion in the Arun Valley has been Basu Sakya, whose intention was to make Sankhuwa Sabha "the Rolpa of the east".
Today, seeing the fear in the people's faces, blocked highways, blockades, district headquarters where not even porters are allowed to travel - it is clear that he has succeeded. Aatrai, the centre of Kirat culture in the east now feels like Rukumkot. We saw the same depopulation as in western Nepal with villagers fleeing forced Maoist recruitment. In Ukre village there are no able-bodied men left.
"Parts of Terathum especially Aathrai and Jiri-Khimti are now pretty badly affected," admits Kedar Dhungana, a local politician in Myanglung Bajar.
This used to be the bustling market town of the Limbuwan region and today, 40 percent of the population is still Limbu. The town (pic, above) hasn't fully recovered from the devastating fire that razed it three years ago and the conflict has now made it even more desolate. "There is a deep sense of gloom," says a local lodge-owner, "we are sick of these blockades. You think we are secure here in the district headquarters? We can't even move beyond the bus park. Why isn't the king restoring peace to this country?"
Security is tight. There are frequent patrols and locals know the soldiers are on the warpath when the phone lines get temporarily cut. The Maoists don't dare enter the town and avoid provoking a firefight. "You meet them often on the trails and in the surrounding areas but they don't enter Myanglung," says a local shopkeeper.
That is why he is surprised by the mysterious appearance of slogans on the walls of houses in the bajar: 'Hatyara Prachanda Murdabad,' or 'Prachande Deshdrohi ho' and 'Dr Baburam Bhattarai riha gar'. Every morning, the fresh graffiti painted with enamel has been appearing in the town. Townspeople told us they doubt the Maoists wrote them, especially because the night curfew is so strict.
A government official shrugged his shoulder and said: "Maybe they came after four in the morning and painted the slogans." Whoever painted it, these slogans have suddenly appeared all over Nepal and are being displayed prominently on NTV.
We ask locals if things have changed for the better after 1 February. They hesitate and look at the tv camera but tell us later it hasn't really. Most political parties and their local representatives had been chased out by the Maoists in the past three years. "The NC has been nearly decimated and since February First, the UML has been trying to put together its network," Dhungana explains. The low-intensity violence has continued even in the past two months. But with the strict blockade and the heightened security, the people sense that war is now at their doorsteps.
The Maoists seem to be aware that they don't have public support. We saw a directive issused in December by District Secretary Bishnu Dahal instructing his cadre not to indulge in extortion and torture. But the Maoists are still harassing teachers. "They force us to join training programs and we still have to pay them a tax from our salary," Saran Kangdamwa, high school teacher told us.
Security patrols travel out of Myanglung and there have been extensive search operations in Jiri-Khimti Bajar, five km to the west, since 1 March. Shopkeepers said they were happy to see the soldiers but they were questioned rudely. "We wanted to help them but since they manhandled people in the bajar many just kept quiet," said one trader. One man wasn't afraid to identify himself. "My name is Bal Bahadur Damai, I am from Piple, I have rented a small room here in the bajar and pay Rs 500 as rent. That day, they came and forcibly opened the door that hit me hard on my shoulder, since then I can't work."
Maoist public relations has grown better in inverse proportion. Maoist Yokta Bahadur Limbu who calls himself 'Manab' stopped us on the trail to ask for IDs. "If you people are real journalists try to find out what is happening here and who the real terrorists are," he says as he let us pass.
But the rebels aren't much better. Following their tactics from the west, they recently destroyed the suspension bridge over the Tamur at Khakule inconveniencing thousands of villagers. Of the VDC buildings in Terathum, all except five have been bombed out.