Madan Prasad Giri of Bhote Namgal village in Sindhupalchok was killed last year by Maoists to teach the villagers a lesson. Once a Maoist supporter, Giri had got disillusioned by the violence and shifted his allegiance to the Nepali Congress. And he had dared to publicly criticise the Maoists for killing villagers who did not agree with them.
Feeling threatened, Giri's widow, 22-year-old Goma, left Bhote Namgal for Kathmandu to find a job to support her two children, one born four months after his father's murder. In Kathmandu, she lives with her sister's family in a cramped rented room. Her brother-in-law has now also fled his ancestral home in Sindhupalchok after he was identified an "enemy of the revolution" by the Maoists. For the moment, Goma is supported by her sister's family, but she knows she cannot depend on her forever. She has already sent her three-year-old daughter back to Sindhupalchok to be cared for by her maternal grand-mother. "My seventh-grader will also migrate to Kathmandu as soon as her exams are over. There is too much pressure on the young to join the Maoist militia," says Goma.
There are thousands upon thousands with stories like Goma-people caught in the crossfire between the Maoists and the Police who have fled both for the security of Kathmandu. They are first compelled to migrate to the safety of district headquarters, the towns nearest their homes, and eventually to the capital. Towns like Nepalgunj, Ghorahi, Lamahi, Surkhet also host a transient population of displaced and bereaved families. Some district headquarters in Rukum, Rolpa, and other mid-western districts are already bursting at the seams.
Now, Kathmandu is also feeling a pressure of the new arrivals. And to meet the rush, landlords have been adding floors and rooms to their houses in a frenzy of building not seen in the last six years. The dry season is usually slack for the real estate and construction businesses in Kathmandu, but brick kilns this year did not experience the slowdown in sales they are used to. Locally manufactured bricks that normally sell for Rs 1,700 per thousand were going for as much as Rs 2,800 this winter. And it is getting increasingly difficult for displaced families with little savings and no income to rent rooms in the Valley.
Back in the villages, the impact of the insurgency on the economy of the affected areas and the lives of individuals is apparent. In the absence of young men, the entire burden of agriculture has been shifted onto women, children and the aged. Rolpa and Rukum used to earlier produce and export vegetable seeds worth Rs 20 million, it is now negligible. Professionals like lawyers and teachers find themselves running tea shops or even working as day labourers in district headquarters. Students are forced to drop out and look for jobs to support their families. And all those who move away, do so with very little-they find no takers for their property.
Everyone agrees that the People's War has resulted in a significant displacement of individuals and families, but nobody is actually keeping count. Kapil Shrestha, a member of the National Human Rights Commission, estimates that about 5,000 families from the ten worst affected districts have left their homes to find safety elsewhere. But he cautions that counting families who are displaced because they support the Maoists and fear being victimised by police is very difficult.
Traditionally, thousands of young men from the mid-western hill districts in the Maoist heartland used to migrate to India, "Kalapar" in local slang. Impoverished and neglected by Kathmandu for centuries, they could never grow enough food to feed their families so they earned extra cash to buy food by working as seasonal labourers in India. But since the fighting began five years ago, the exodus of youth into India has become even greater. And those who migrated earlier are wary of coming back home, families from the area told us.
In Rukum, Rolpa, Salyan, Jajarkot and Kalikot there are very few able-bodied young men left, and pressure is mounting on young women to join the Maoist militia, which is now one-fifth female.
"Traditionally, youth who went away to work would come home after the fallow season ended, but these days their stints in India are markedly longer. Some have not returned for more than a year," says Govinda Bikram Shah, a parliamentarian from Jajarkot. The Nepal Labour Force Survey 1998/99 also noticed this trend-it counted more than 500,000 people absent from their homesteads in the six districts worst affected by the insurgency.
As illiterate and semi-literate youths swarm to nearby towns or across the border for manual labour, young educated and skilled people are trying their luck in bigger places. "More and more of my constituents have moved away from their homes fearing clashes between the Maoists and the police. Some come to Kathmandu and expect me to help them find a job. Others ask me to use my influence to speed up procedure to issue passports so they can go to the Gulf," says parliamentarian Tirtha Gautam from Rukum, whose husband was killed by
Madan Bahadur Magar of Ghartigaun, Rolpa, was a high school student before he was arrested and tortured by the police, who suspected he was a Maoist sympathiser. One-and-a-half years ago he came to Kathmandu and now works as a porter or a construction worker, whatever is available. "Before my family moved to Kathmandu, we could sustain ourselves, at least as far as food went," he told us. In Kathmandu, his family's total wages are not enough for six people. He says there is hardly anyone left in his village in Rolpa.
"The government's hardline approach to the insurgency is responsible for accelerating the displacement. The harder the government comes down on the Maoists and their supporters, the faster the insurgents accelerate their defence," says MP Shah. According to him, Jajarkot district saw the most people displaced after the police launched its brutal Kilo-Sierra Two operation three years ago. In August 1999, Shah was compelled to provide food and shelter to about 150 of his constituents for two months when they refused to go home
for fear of being victimised by
He fears that another exodus will be triggered when the government finally implements the proposed Integrated Security and Development Plan (ISDP) and the Maoists go on the offensive again. If all goes according to plan, the ISDP will be taken to Rukum, Rolpa, Jajarkot, Salyan, Gorkha, Pyuthan and Kalikot districts. When that happens, it might well be people like Shah-MPs, political activists, their supporters and families-who find themselves on the run.
Ruling party parliamentarian Bharat Bahadur Basnet, elected from Sindhupalchok and president of the Nepali Congress District Committee says that 25 percent of party workers from his district are already displaced, and that the rest are agonising over what to do. All political parties agree that their party structure has been weakened due to the insurgency and that this will seriously affect their prospects in the upcoming local elections.