Nepali Times
Empty heartland


Here in Rolpa's capital spring is setting in, on the high ridges the rhododendron buds are out early this year.

But there isn't much activity in the villages: many families locked up their houses and left for the safety of the tarai in the last 10 years of conflict, and even the senior comrades aren't around in the cradle of the Maoist revolution. The shops are shut, only four young boys were playing in the volleyball court which on a previous visit was packed.

The Royal Nepali Army carried out a search operation here in December, an offensive that prompted the Maoists to withdraw their unilateral ceasefire. Many villagers who fled that offensive still haven't returned. The Maoist warriors have also been deployed to the cities for an impending 'big strike'.

The 10th anniversary of the Maoist movement therefore passed quietly and without much fanfare in the district where it all started. Last year Comrade Bikash had told us he would see us back in Kathmandu in three years time. Bikash is nowhere to be seen but Comrade Inkaar, head of the 'village people's government' rides over in a white horse to tell a group of journalists that the 10th anniversary celebration has been postponed by a week to 18 February for unspecified reasons.

In Thawang itself the Maoists had called a strike to mark the municipal elections on 7 February and a dozen people, half of them under 14, chanted slogans against the monarchy and for a 'democratic republic'

Bonfires were visible in the surrounding hillsides like a scene from the Lord of the Rings. An old musket finally fired after many tries and that marked the conclusion of the celebrations. For the Maoists, Thawang has the importance of a pilgrimage site. This is where their revolution started and the village buildings are bedecked with a mural of Stalin, Lenin, Mao, Marx and Engels. European visitors said they felt like they were in a timewarp.

Across the valley in Rukum the heavily fortified town of Khalanga is in government control but barely. Barbed wire fences, landmines and sandbags guard the sentry points at the entry of the town. Here, among a population of 9,000, every new face is greeted with suspicion by security forces.

CDO Bal Bahadur Malla plays badminton behind walls under protection of armed police and soldiers. He tells us he loves his job of "serving the people". But walk three hours out of town and there is the first Maoist flag fluttering from a rooftop. Locals need written permission from the Maoists if they want to go to Khalanga.

Comrade Inkaar used to be a businessman before turning into a Maoist and remembers the army's December offesnive. "They came at 10AM and left the village at 3.30 PM. They destroyed two houses, including the regional agricultural building, set fire to clothes, destroyed kitchen utensils, food and medicine and vandalised shops," he recalls, "they tried to torch the welcome gate and bombed a public toilet. The army even destroyed a communal farm and vegetables."

But today Thawang's signature mural has been repainted, more slogans scrawled on building, flags fly from trees and on the welcome arch. Inkaar says development work has started, fruit trees are being planted and peanuts grown. Public toilets have been built and the Maoists are trying to convince the villagers, especially the older generation, to use them.

But he admits schools are suspended because of the war. "We are fighting, there are so many things that have to wait. All our energy is wasted in fighting the royal army, but we are doing what we can," he adds.

The latest Maoist slogan is to 'climb on the shoulder and hit the head'. But here in the Maoist heartland there is a state of confusion.

The 'old' has not yet been replaced by the 'new', and not everyone is convinced this revolution will end up making their lives better.

The former chairman of Thawang's erstwhile VDC is Regan Roka, and he thinks the old government was able to bring some development to the village. "Now they are trying something new," he adds, "they think they can make it work. But if it doesn't the Maoist movement here will have failed."

Martyrs' road

The showcase Maoist project is the construction of the 93-km Martyr's Road from Holeri in Dang to Thawang. Hundreds of villagers are digging into the slopes with their bare hands.

Using crude implements, the road is taking shape. But one wonders what will happen to the fragile slopes once the monsoon comes. The project started two years ago and is now half-complete. The first phase, from Nuagaon to Tila (12 km) was inaugurated last year amidst much fanfare. Each house in the area has to contribute the labour of one person for two weeks, at its own expense. The punishment for defiance is up to Rs 5,000.

At one time 500 to 900 might labour on the road, ranging from a 10-year-old girl to women of 70. They work eight hours a day from 7AM till 6PM. Some carry stones, some level the ground, some blast rocks. Workers use dynamites to break bigger rocks and heat smaller ones before breaking them, which can take hours.

Most workers are unhappy about the forced labour and the dangerous work, but have decided to make the best of a bad situation. The villagers are the real workers-the clothes of party workers are usually cleaner and smarter.

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)