Nepali Times
"We shall return"


This is their last week here. The US Peace Corps is packing up to leave Nepal after nearly 42 years of service.

Only a handful of senior managers are busy emptying their offices. The library, artistically designed by the volunteers, is now a cold empty room. On the top floor, a large number of Nepali personnel are attending the employment-counselling program for job prospects in other organisations. Several have worked here for nearly three decades certain that the most dedicated American social organisation in Nepal would never close down.

Training officer Sherry Russell looks sadly at Maharajganj from the Rana mansion behind the Ministry of Foreign Affairs where the US Peace Corps moved two years ago. "I'm going to miss all this," she says with a sigh.

The organisation does not want to lose the building and is now planning to lease it out to other organisations so that the newly decorated office with its well designed furniture and beautifully painted walls will not go to waste.
"This is not the end of our era but just a suspension, we'll definitely come back once there's peace in the country," Peace Corp's country director David O'Connor says, more to reassure himself. "The suspension of the program was very difficult to experience but now all of us understand why this was necessary". The organisation was concerned not just about the Americans but also the safety of their Nepali staff, who might get into trouble if they continued working with an American program. Most of them have to work with communities in remote villages where the Maoists have declared war on 'American imperialism'.

Some NGO partners of the Peace Corps received threats from Maoists and American volunteers were beginning to feel the pressure although they knew the rebels had not hurt foreign nationals. Until a month ago, about 84 American volunteers ranging from teenagers to 80-year-olds were working in Nepal. After the blast at the American Centre in Kathmandu on 10 September, the US Embassy in Kathmandu told family members of the diplomatic staff they could leave if they wanted to and said the Peace Corps was being suspended for six months. Although the advisory on family members was lifted last week, the Peace Corps pullout stands.

After the suspension of the program, the volunteers went to Bangkok for a conference to relocate in other developing nations around the world. Unable to cope with the thought of leaving Nepal for good, each of them wrote their wishes on a large Nepali lokta paper and dispatched it back to Nepal. Their office took the hundreds of wishes to Kathmandu's most significant monasteries and temples. The paper of wishes remained unopened.

During the Bangkok conference all they wished for was peace in Nepal and the return of the US Peace Corps to the kingdom. Senior lamas at Swayambhu and Bouda blessed the letters. Hindu rituals were organised at Pasupatinath and at the Peace Corps office where priests blessed the letters before casting them into the holy Bagmati.

"The Volunteers had a very strong bond with Nepal. Many of them had close affinity with Nepali culture and traditions. They were all living with Nepali families," recalls Russell. Leaving their host families was the most difficult part. Some of the volunteers had been in Nepal barely two months and more than 15 of them returned to Nepal to meet the families again and bid them a final farewell. Some volunteers are so attached to Nepal they decided not to leave the country and are looking for jobs here.

The US Peace Corps closes its chapter in Nepal on 19 November. After this, there will be no trace left of the institution that served Nepal for nearly half a century. Unlike most foreign organisations, the Peace Corps were representative of volunteers living a simple life without posh office rooms or lavish residences. Most of them were based in remote villages and poor urban areas to help communities improve their status in health, education, sanitation, forest conservation and more.

O'Connor, himself a Peace Corps volunteer in Ilam from 1967-69, looks lost. "I don't know where I'll be sent, but one thing I know for sure is that I am going to miss Nepal very much."

(See also: Nepali Pan, End of an era, #216 and Peace Corps Pull out, #214)

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)