Nepali Times
Sisters on a long march


The warm, wet monsoon mists move up the valley. High above the din of the frothing Dudh Kosi the sun is rising from behind Sagarmatha. Through a gap in the clouds, sunlight illuminates the mountains in a golden glow. The pine forests glitter with last night's rain.

The few trekkers still in Khumbu this season soak in the beauty from the balcony of their lodge. On the trail below, Sarita and Laxmi Rai have no time to admire the view. They adjust straps on their dokos on their backs before heaving 45 kg loads on their backs for the long steep climb up to Namche Bazar.

Seventeen-year-old Sarita and her cousin Laxmi, 15, are still wearing their school uniforms. But their flimsy shirts and slippers are not enough to ward off the rain and cold on th

We cross the Imja Khola Bridge and the girls pause before beginning the ascent. Trekkers are also resting on a rock, the girls give them bright smiles, greeting them with cheerful "namaste". And then they are off again plodding and panting uphill. For the tourists this is a vacation, for Sarita and Laxmi this is work to provide for their families back down the valley.

Sarita and Laxmi were students in grades ten and nine at a local government high school in Jubing till last year. When there were rumours that the Maoists were recruiting students for militia training, most better off families sent their children off to Phaplu, Kathmandu or Pokhara. But Sarita and Laxmi's families couldn't afford to send them anywhere, and because of the drop in trekking along the Jiri trail, couldn't take care of them either.

"Instead of just staying at home, we thought it would be better to earn some money as porters," says Sarita. Laxmi says she hasn't seen her family for six months. She misses her mother very much.

Maoist posters stuck on the trailside boulders and walls of houses exhort every family to send one person to join the 'people's war'. The threat has emptied the villages, and there are hardly any young people left east and south of Phaplu. Some young boys and girls who stayed behind have been force marched for Maoist indoctrination and training.

Even government officials and the security forces are restricted to Salleri and the airfield in Phaplu. Members of local bodies have received death threats and have all resigned. There is a large contingent of armed police near Lukla guarding the airfield, but the sight of the heavily armed men in uniform, ironically, bring feelings of insecurity.

Manbir Gurung used to be an English teacher at the school in Jubing and taught Sarita and Laxmi. Today, he runs a small teashop in Namche. He had to quit his job because of Maoist threats and fled his village before the security forces arrived. "We people living in the countryside are trapped between the army and the Maoists," says Gurung. "There is a lot of terror."

The sun is now blazing down from the deep blue sky, and Sarita and Laxmi have almost reached Namche. Tomorrow is Saturday, the weekly market. They have to sell the rice and get back to Jiri in time to haul another load for next Saturday. I ask them if they like their job, and regret the question as soon as the words come out.
"We don't like it. This is not our work, the loads are heavy," says Sarita. She is worried about the future. They want to go home and complete their studies.

Journalists are supposed to know things, so Sarita asks a bit hesitatingly: "How long will this war last?" I didn't have an answer. That evening on the BBC Nepali Service the prime minister says he has ruled out a ceasefire with the Maoists for the time being.

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)