Nepali Times
Relief and respite in Kailali


The fields are golden, much of the rice has already been harvested. Here in the far-western plains of Nepal it is difficult to believe we are in the most conflict-affected districts in the country.

A 20-minute bicycle ride south of the highway, a school, closed for Dasain, has been appropriated for a meeting of the sort that would have been impossible before the ceasefire. Maoists have invited representatives from the parties, along with teachers and businessmen to talk about the country's future.

The meeting is on the comrades' own terms. Their red banner is displayed and a minute's silence is held for a local Maoist leader recently killed in hostilities. But Maoist speakers apologise for what they call their "mistakes" and some of the guests feel it is worthwhile.

"In the past, workers from our party and others were victims of Maoist violence," says local Nepali Congress leader Ghanashyam Joshi.

"Relations between us were bad. But the ceasefire has brought a change. They're increasing their contacts with us and there's no violence against us any more. They aren't restricting our movements."

The Maoists' chief for this and neighbouring Bardiya district is present- a fresh-faced young man styling himself Comrade Atom. He tells me this is a ceasefire aimed at helping ordinary people and at working with the parties 'against feudalism'. He said the door to talks with the authorities was not closed but strongly criticised them.

"This ceasefire is one-sided," he said. "The royal regime's aggression has made things very difficult for us. The army is still killing and kidnapping people. In the past we would retaliate but as we're not retaliating now they are doing it all the more-killing dozens, arresting people, stopping us from moving around."

Asked of recent accounts of schoolchildren abducted in Surkhet, the comrade would not be drawn. "We have not been informed about this. I can't say anything more."

Kailali is, however, breathing more easily. In Tikapur's Great Garden, a huge ornamental park incongruously laid out on the banks of the Karnali, Tharu dancers rehearse their routines for a new music video. To the west, boys spend their day bathing in the sprawling Ghodaghodi Lake, enjoying themselves as much as the buffaloes wallowing in the mud.

At a heavily fortified highway barracks, a couple of soldiers climb on to the Dhangadhi-bound bus, give a cursory glance at the passengers and wave the vehicle on. There are no searches, no disembarking.

There are, of course, signs of past violence everywhere. At Chaumala stands a bombed-out police post, the Banbheda barrack was the scene of the horrific unsolved killings of APF family members in July.

Dhangadhi is a city of bicycle-rickshaws. Barely a car plies the streets, perhaps because the rich have fled to Kathmandu. Its mayor was shot dead and it has suffered more insecurity than possibly any other large town in Nepal. Last February, 2,000 Maoists stormed its prison, freeing over 150 prisoners including 70 Maoists. Seven guards were killed.

"Before the ceasefire you heard blasts everyday. It was a kind of routine," says local restaurateur Saroj Bikram Shah, "but since September people are happy. We don't have any problems at all."

The Far Western regional police chief, DIG Ramesh Kumar Shrestha, has just finished a round of badminton. He acknowledges things have relaxed. He does not use the terminology "so-called ceasefire" that officials in Kathmandu use.

"The situation is improving remarkably, not only because of the ceasefire but because of our effectiveness as well," he says, "people are enjoying the ceasefire. But our security status is the same: the Maoists have declared it for the people, not for the security agencies."

He says the security forces are effectively reciprocating the truce by not going on offensive operations, but alleges that in remote parts of this region the Maoists are still kidnapping and torturing people. He says they are still extorting money from businessmen in Dhangadhi, and expresses doubts about their overall intentions, saying they may be using the ceasefire to stock up on weapons and ammunition.

Whatever the politics of the ceasefire, it is giving the people a respite. Late at night, in one far-flung village, Tharu villagers put on a Dasain show, comedians alternating with dancers gyrating to Bollywood hits. It is being revived for the first time in six years. The revelry lasts till three in the morning, laughter echoing through the moonlit night.

All pictures by Charles Haviland

Saroj, the restaurateur in Dhangadi.

The police station in Chamaul that was blown up a few years ago.

DIG Ramesh Kumar Shrestha

Tara Prasad Pathak at the gate of the Dhangadhi central jail
which was breached earlier this year.

A local Maoist leader addresses a meeting with
poliical parties in a classroom outside Tikapur.

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)