PILI-The terraces of paddy, millet and corn had been dug up with empty graves. We counted 51 of them. We asked Janam Malla who destroyed his crops by digging up the fields. 'They dug these while the army base was being attacked on 7 August,' Malla replied. 'Maybe not as many were killed as they expected or maybe they took bodies elsewhere.' Here in Naibada, the villagers counted 21 Maoists buried and another six that were abandoned unburied.
The two of us could travel along the Karanli Highway to Pili from Manma only six days after the attack.Previously the army had stopped us thrice saying we couldn't go because there were mines and it was a war zone. But after hearing that colleagues from Jumla had reached the site human rights activist Kali Bahadur Malla and I decided to go. Manma was awash with rumours and none of them could be confirmed.
We set off at 6.30 AM passing workers who were digging sections of the highway. We reached Bihani Khola by 9AM and there were people crowded around the teashop. Jir Bahadur Shahi saw us and complained about reporters in Nepalganj, Manma and Surkhet saying villagers had assisted the Maoists. 'The soldiers who escaped were hungry and naked, we gave them food, clothes, shoes,' he said, 'and they accuse us of helping Maoists. Why don't those reporters come here and see for themselves?'
One elderly man told us about road labourers 20-year-old Nandalal Chaulagain and 22-year-old Sarpe Kami who were going to Manma to fetch rice but were beaten up by soldiers on the way. We pressed on ahead and by 11AM reached Simlagaun Khola where the army had accused the Maoists of executing 12 soldiers. There was a bad smell-it was a corpse that had been rotting there for six days and shopkeeper 62-year-old Gaga Bahadur Shahi said a boy who had come to the water mill that morning couldn't stand the smell and vomited. 'The army came and said it wasn't one of theirs, no one has claimed the body, and we will not bury it because we don't want to be accused of anything,' he told us. He had heard the sound of the fighting but didn't know anything about the executed soldiers. 'There is just that abandoned one that is rotting,' he said.
We took a picture of the corpse on a paddy terrace 30 m away and kept walking along the mountain flank towards Pili. Half-an-hour later we ran into 150 soldiers descending to the trail. Another group of soldiers was approaching from Pili. A soldier with a walkie-talkie signaled us to stop. Both of us had our IDs around our necks and he asked us which one of us was Kali Bahadur Malla. I pointed behind me. He told us we cold go. Obviously they already had word we were coming. The soldiers were moving the way we had come from, perhaps they were finally going to dispose of the body.
Along the trail there were torn pieces of uniforms, abandoned boots, caps and cartridges of bullets. The base camp itself was still strewn with pots and pans, uniforms and sand bags. Armed police were busy digging trenches and bunkers. We showed our IDs and entered the camp. Below us was the gorge, above us a cliff. Except for the western side, there were cliffs all around. The Maoists had attacked the post even before it had been properly set up.
We went to see Nanda Malla, a shopkeeper, who was looking miserable. The army had tied him and beat him up for two days. On the day of the attack he had gone with his father-in-law to Pantadi and was returning with seven or eight other villagers and having tea at Simlagad. Suddenly there was a big uproar and a lot of gunshots, everyone went into the shop and bolted the door. Nanda's wife, Gauri Malla recalls: 'The fighting lasted all night, we were hungry and thirsty and afraid. The gunfire stopped at five but we came out only at nine, and when we opened the door we saw the camp on fire.' The Maoists were all over the surrounding mountains shouting slogans and waving flags. The army reached the camp only on 9 August at 11AM and suspected Nanda and Gauri of having told the Maoists about the soldiers.
The army beat him up but the couple had also been on the receiving end of the Maoists. They had been abducted for three days by the Maoists in December because they were suspected of being army spies. They were finally released by depositing Rs 20,000 and their jewelry.
The helipad is 300 m away from the camp, and there were two ammunition boxes in the bushes. At 5.15 PM on 7 August, camp commander Raju Debkota had landed by helicopter which had also brought ammunition, food and other materials. The army had plans for a foundation stone laying ceremony and official opening of the camp. But within two minutes of the helicopter taking off, the attack started. Some 20-30 soldiers who were carrying the unloaded material were captured. Others (incuding Debkota) successfully escaped. The Maoists killed a local firewood and vegetable supplier, Shakti Malla, accusing him of being a spy. Some 13-14 children who had gathered at the helipad to watch the helicopter ran away as soon as the firing started and reached their homes safely. The villagers suspect the Maoists had wanted to capture the helicopter too but it had taken off by the time they got there. At the Kalika Primary School near the helipad there were still bloodstains and the doors of the school had been blown out. The Maoists had buried two of their dead in the school playground. Principle Hansa Bahadur Shahi still goes to school every day but there are no students.
As we walked to the village, the children ran and hid in the cowsheds. The women still had shock and fear on their faces. Villagers we knew drew us aside and wanted to tell us what happened on that fearful night. At about 8PM on 7 August, helicopters with nightvision hovered overhead and fired, damaging Jana Malla's house and setting it on fire. A cowshed was also damaged after being hit by the helicopter. Villagers were complaining all their crops were damaged by Maoists trampling all over them.
Most said the army had treated them well after arriving in Pili, promising to help build latrines, set up a health post. Many villagers had benefited also because they could sell milk, vegetables and firewood. But after the battle, many feel they can't live here anymore because they fear being caught in the crossfire.
We were hungry, and grabbed some biscuits as we headed back to Manma at 3PM. On the way we passed the soldiers again walking along the side of a cliff. One of them said, 'It's ok, they're journalists.' He asked us, 'How far is Manma?'
'It'll take us two hours,' I told him, 'but you look tired, it'll take you three.'