Nepali Times
People in war



When I read in a Birganj newspaper that the 'A People War' photo exhibition tour was being put up at the Birganj Chamber of Commerce and Industry I wasn't really that interested.I had seen exhibitions here before, and they all lacked the

professional touch. I was also blas? because similar exhibitions of photographs of conflict in Kashmir and the Indian northeast I had found disappointingly selective.

Human rights groups highlighted atrocities committed by the state, and those put up by state functionaries displayed images of militant atrocities. Photo exhibitions, therefore, seemed to serve a propaganda purpose rather than to tell the stories of human tragedy.

But my reluctant visit to 'A People War' sprang a few surprises. First of all, I was struck by the long queue of people patiently lining up outside the venue. It took me ten minutes to get in, and there was total silence inside the hall which was filled to capacity.

Nepa~laya had done a good job in selecting the photographs from the book, A People War. Each told the story of how ten years of violent conflict in Nepal had brutalised society. The exhibition was carefully balanced, and left no scope for recrimination or revenge. The emphasis was on how conflict affects civilians the most, and it depicted images of sorrow but also resilience and the inner strength of people caught up in war.

Everyone was reading every caption and lingering over the pictures. As we inched along, I was instantly struck by a photograph that showed three dead goats and an elderly farmer, their bodies torn apart by a bomb dropped from a helicopter. The picture forced us to ponder and compare the value of human life and the lives of animals.

Further on, there was a photograph of a woman caressing the body of her policeman husband who lay among many dead scattered on a blood-soaked field. My inner self asked a silent but difficult question: was she unlucky to be there, or lucky to be able to say a final farewell? I took refuge in a presumptuous thought and silently comforted myself by supposing that they did not have children.

More corpses, this time of policemen in the back of a pickup at Pokhara airport. The bodies were dumped like municipality workers dispose of carcasses. The photo revealed the level of engagement during the conflict, how even usually ceremony-bound security forces didn't find time to arrange basic coffins for their departed colleagues.

The pictures of grief of those who lost relatives were unbearable to look at, and there were few dry eyes among the visitors. From Tulsi Basnet and her little son mourning her husband's death, to the faces of helpless children whose civilian parents were killed in a crossfire, to Anupa Rai, the female guerrilla holding her new-born baby, a child watching her mother wash her blood-stained shopfront in Beni, a woman standing amidst the remains of her charred home set on fire by vigilantes.

Then there were pictures of hope, of strength and the triumph of the human spirit. A boy clambers up a goalpost in Tansen, and beyond it is an army bunker and a landmined perimeter. A photo of a man trying to convince his young gun-wielding guerrilla nephew to come home to his parents, showed intimacy but also how the war tore families apart.

There were pictures of children happy to be home, children jumping up at school assembly. Irrespective of conditions in the war zone, their youthful exuberance gives us hope about the ability of children to bounce back.

Then there are the symbolic, swords-into-ploughshares type of photographs: a guerrilla strumming a guitar instead of holding an SLR. A combatant ploughing the field with a .303 slung over his shoulders.

Like many in Birganj who saw 'A People War', I was touched beyond words. This was one of the best-told stories of conflict I have ever seen. It visibly moved everyone who was there and strengthened the voice of the silent majority who are for peace and who have understood the futility of violence.

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)