Nepali Times
Death at mid-day


I was in the immigration office at Kakarbitta on Monday when the shooting started. The Nepali officials who were examining our passports parted the curtains and peered outside. "Ke bhayo?"
they asked each other. I went into the street.

Outside people were asking the same question: "What was that?" Almost immediately there was a loud explosion from behind the police station. The army later said it was a socket bomb going off.

The people of this sleepy little town seemed unsure whether to take cover or stand and stare, but there was nothing to see. For a moment even the police seemed at a loss for what to do.

A few armed policemen with rifles ran down the road (picture) and into the trees behind the station. There was a burst of automatic fire much louder than the original shots. Some more policemen commandeered a man with a rickshaw, rushing him out of sight but everything was quiet now. There was a low, speculative murmur in the street and a cigarette seller packed up her wares and got ready to move off.

When the police came back into sight they were in a ragged group around the rickshaw, with the rickshaw-wallah toiling on the pedals. Lying across it was a bloody and unconscious member of the armed police. Shouting and waving they went down the road trying to stop a public jeep.

Another car sped away with a casualty in the back seat, slumped over the shoulder of a colleague. Gossip spread instantly through the onlookers, who said three armed policemen had been hurt and the Maoists had escaped. One policeman later died while the others were in critical condition. Two civilians were also injured, but there have been no reports of rebel casualties.

Ten minutes after the attack a large silent crowd had gathered in the street, gazing in the direction of the shooting. They stood holding hands or with their arms around friend's shoulders. Some people wore strange nervous grins, apparently still filled with the brief adrenaline of the event.

I was struck by the humdrum squalor of death where violence erupts suddenly at mid-day and disappears just as quickly, leaving three broken bodies in the streets. Already Kakarbitta was returning to normality.

While the attack was taking place, 200 yards away my travelling companions were in the immigration office arranging their Nepali visas. The commotion did not distract the officials from extracting a Rs 500 bribe to process the request.

We drove on, leaving the rickshaw-wallah rinsing the blood from his vehicle by the concrete arch that welcomes visitors to Nepal. The cigarette seller had unpacked her doko again.

The attack had probably been timed to disrupt a visit by the king to eastern Nepal, and hundreds of soldiers and police slouched by the side of the road as we went, providing security for the visit.

The army base at Itahari was surrounded by barbed wire and high netting to keep out grenades. Two helicopters, one of them carrying the king, rose from the compound and wheeled around. They beat away across the emerald paddy fields and palm trees of Jhapa's beautiful plains.

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)