Nepali Times
Road to nowhere


Saturday afternoon we had to manoeuvre our car around at least two-dozen piles of boulders or fallen trees on the main highway linking Nawalparasi and Rupandehi. Buses and large trucks that made the same detours tilted dangerously to one side as they drove on the soft shoulder.

The highway had reopened just hours earlier after hundreds of Maoists swooped down on security forces along a one-km stretch of the road Thursday, killing 16 plus one young woman riding her bike with friends.

We drove to Butwal but couldn't go any further. A pile of boulders blocked the highway to Dang, leaving just enough room for bicycles, motorcycles and rickshaws to pass.

Sunday morning we tried to leave again, this time driving towards Palpa. About five kms along the winding road flanked by steep green hills we were again blocked by a metre-thick tree that had been felled across the highway.

A saw cut showed where locals had tried to remove a chunk of the tree to reopen the road-but they were warned off by Maoists. "It's the army's job," the rebels told them.

The Maoists appeared to be trying to isolate Butwal, which is located strategically at the junction of north-south and east-west highways.

"They are targeting the highways because they're the lifelines to the town and the areas beyond," explained Siddhicharan Bhattarai, chairman of the Rupandehi branch of the NGO Federation of Nepal. But so far the tactic has hit the sick hardest because ambulance services to the villages has stopped.

"With the sudden strikes and roadblocks on the highway these days, you never know how long you will be stuck," said Bhattarai.

The outlook was much rosier at district headquarters 35 km south in Bhairawa. "Most of the supplies here come through India so Butwal doesn't really suffer, that road is always open," CDO Gangadutta Awasthi told us, adding, "it is the people in Dang and beyond who suffer."

The Maoists aren't trying to isolate Butwal, he said. "Their strategy is simply to attack the army. "

Back in Butwal a group of local journalists suggest that the Maoists are targeting the town inthe same way that they have attacked Nepalganj. Just then we hear a boom. Another bomb? "Probably," they say, shrugging.

Two days later we bypass the roadblocks to Dang by detouring through a dry riverbed. In the village of Saurali 14 kms from Butwal we ask a local family whose daughter was killed when a roadblock exploded the day before if they have thought of leaving for a safer place.

"Where would we go?" they ask. Butwal is suggested. "But it's no safer than here," says one man to a chorus of agreement from his neighbours.

Whether that's true or not, it's a widespread opinion. "A few days ago most people in Butwal vacated their houses because they heard the Maoists were going to attack but it was all rumours," said Awasthi. "They use rumours to scare people."

'Pressed' into service

Two vehicles marked 'Press' but carrying injured soldiers, set off the landmine planted along the Mahendra Highway in Nawalparasi that killed Asmita Chapagain as she cycled home from shopping with friends, according to eyewitnesses and journalists who arrived first on the scene.
Soldiers have been hopping rides on media vehicles for a long time, one industry insider told us. "Newspaper delivery vans are not allowed to pass through areas controlled by security forces until they agree to carry soldiers," he added.
In general, the government has a policy that if it commandeers private vehicles it will pay the additional 20 percent insurance charge or 100 percent if the vehicle is not insured.

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)