4-10 December 2015 #785

Back after 10 years

“When I returned to Nepal last month, the place was once more in political and economic turmoil.”
Seulki Lee
The most vivid reminder of the passage of time was how much the children had grown. Back in 2005, when I arrived in Besisahar of Lamjung to volunteer in an orphanage the children at the shelter were at my waist level. Now they were as tall as me.

Nine of the 16 children I took care of for five months ten years ago are still living in the shelter run by the local community here. They were either victims of the conflict, or had been abandoned by their families and had ended up on the streets. They were not technically orphans, many had mothers who were widowed by war.   

Ten years ago, Lamjung was a ghost town. There were dozens of checkpoints along the highway and it took the whole day to travel to Kathmandu. There were few mobile phones. The conflict had caused great human suffering and an economic crisis.

BEFORE AND AFTER: Bichod when he was five in 2005 (left) and now.

Masinu ten years ago, and today at 15. Both were abandoned by parents during the conflict.

Seven of the children I had looked after had left. Eight-year-old boy Laxmi died after a bout of diarrhea in 2007. Surendra and Rosan, sons of a soldier killed in action had gone back to their relatives. The sons of a Maoist guerrilla killed during the war, Raju and Sujan, went to live with their grandmother. The two biggest boys, Kiran and Kesh Ram, left Lamjung for college and work.

Kesh Ram and Prithvi Jung in 2005.

I was a 22-year-old student when I first came to Nepal 10 years ago, on a semester break from Chonnam National University in Gwangju, South Korea. I was looking for a plausible excuse to get away, and do something meaningful with my life. 

I had heard of Nepal mainly from mountaineering lore, and fantasised about it. While hiking in Korea, I had met university seniors who were professional mountain climbers. The evening ritual in the tent was to listen to their adventures in Nepal over cups of soju.

On 1 February 2005, King Gyanendra staged a military coup to defeat the Maoists once and for all. I got the news as I was about to board the plane at Incheon on my way to Kathmandu and Lamjung. We learnt that the military had cut phone and internet, political leaders, journalists and democracy activists were being arrested.

Along with five other volunteers, we were warned not to go to a troubled country. But for me it was all the more reason to go. The organisation sending us were inspired by democratic achievement and ‘The Miracle of the Han River’ also wanted us to go ahead with the trip.

But like many other volunteer experience clichés, Nepal helped me to open my third eye. I learnt more about contemporary history and politics than all my text books and newspapers could teach me. The five months in Nepal launched me in my current profession of journalism.

I returned to my hometown of Gwangju and my university, which were at the epicenter of the famous democracy uprising on 18 May, 1980 and then went on to work in Malaysia and Indonesia. But such is the pull of Nepal and its people that I have returned to Nepal and to Lamjung.

When I returned to Nepal last month, Nepal was once more in political and economic turmoil. I went back to the children’s shelter in Besisahar to learn that two 5-year-old and 3-year-old boys had been rescued from the streets that week to join 21 others in the home.

“Life in Nepal is very difficult,” Huma Gurung told me, word-for-word exactly what she had told me ten years ago. Back then it was because of insurgency, now it was the Indian blockade.

Read also:

Boomtime in Lamjung, Seulki Lee

Delayed by blockade, Lokmani Rai

Lamjung’s ghost town, Yubaraj Shrestha

Children of war, Kunda Dixit

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