Nepali Times
Point of no return


FAR FROM HOME: Sabitri Remi (fourth from left) fled her home in a village in Dailekh after her husband was tortured and killed by the Maoists in December 2003. She and her children now share a one-bedroom apartment and wait for the day they can return home safely.
Dirgha Raj Poudel was forced to flee his home in Okhaldhunga eight years ago. He has been living in Jadibuti in Kathmandu since then. He says he still can't return to his village because of threats, but life in Kathmandu is becoming unaffordable.

There are still at least 70,000 Nepalis who are internally displaced by the conflict who still live in limbo. Most of those who fled the war and managed to build a new life for themselves are reluctant to go back to their villages, but those like Poudel who are keen to return need protection and support.

"Property is only of secondary importance, security the main concern," says Poudel, complaining that the allowance from the government for returnees is not enough.

The government's package for returnees includes travel expenses to homes, a food allowance of Rs60 per person per day for four months, Rs 20,000 for the construction of a new house or Rs7,000 to repair their old house, and Rs 2,400 to cover school fees for children under the age of 16.

Bhojraj Timilsina, president of the Maoists' Victims Association, says that the government should-if it really wants to settle this issue-bring the offenders to justice first. "It will be very difficult to live together with those who drove us away with violence, where the innocent will continue to be afraid," he says.

It is now two years since the government announced its resettlement package to help people displaced by the war to return home, but many are still too scared to go back as the Maoists continue to occupy their land.

Apart from providing travel expenses for their return, the government has no scheme to help returnees regain control of stolen land or re-establish their old livelihood. Government records show 27,000 IDPs (internally displaced people) have been offered the chance to return home-which some have accepted-but little has happened beyond that.

"There is no streamlined system to deal with IDPs in terms of their return, integration and resettlement," says Philippe Clerc, country director of the Norwegian Refugee Council, "only the return has been addressed in a partial manner, which is not going to resolve the issue soon."

Bimala Regmi, field officer at the Council says the government must introduce programs of social reconciliation as early as possible to help in the integration of the IDPs. "The returnees are finding it difficult to adjust to society for various reasons," she says. "The government must introduce social reconciliation programs immediately to heal the emotional wounds first."

Regmi says some returnees have left their villages a second time, usually for political or financial reasons. Some in Maoist strongholds were forced out a second time by continual threats. With no protection, they felt they had no alternative to leave once more.

The government is focused on merely returning people to their places of origin, and many returnees have been unable to acquire documents from their VDCs for verification, compensation and other rights. "There is a lack of a mechanism to monitor, evaluate and document cases of forced displacement," says Clerc.

The government has verified 41,000 IDPs so far, but NGOs and international agencies estimate the real number at between 50,000 and 70,000. In the absence of any systematic IDP registration system, verification has been difficult, and it is equally hard to determine how many have actually returned home, as most were scattered in the major towns and cities or migrated to India.

Furthermore, as only people displaced for political reasons are counted as IDPs, the figures do not take into account those forced out by lack of food and jobs.

The main donors to the Nepal Peace Trust Fund have approved a government proposal to distribute a $5.6 million relief and rehabilitation package for 50,000 IDPs who were ready to return to their homes. But only half the amount has been spent so far.

While returning home may be the preferred solution for many, it is not the solution for all. "Return, reintegration and resettlement to an appropriate location should be carried out together," says Clerc. "And the IDPs directive should be passed and implemented as early as possible. The more we delay, the more complicated it will get."

The Norwegian Refugee Council is organising a concert at Khula Manch to create awareness about Nepal's IDPs.

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)