In February 1996, the first shots of Nepal’s civil war rang out across the Himalayas.
Ten years later, more than 12,000 people have lost their lives as Maoists rebels seek to overthrow Nepal’s ruling monarchy and establish a communist republic.
The State meanwhile has responded with growing force leaving a civilian population trapped in the middle.
Nepal – a land shrouded in mystery, a feudal state trapped in a medieval time warp. Peopled by landless peasants governed by caste and religion and trapped in poverty.
A people ready for revolution.
“As comrade Marx says, the proletariat has nothing to lose. Chains if we are defeated, but the world in front of us if we are victorious.”
In the mountains of East Nepal, B-Company, 16th Battalion of the Maoist Army, starts its daily training.
Like most things in Nepal their weapons are outdated - but over the years these fighters have established a reputation as fanatical warriors and with it, a reputation for brutality.
Women in particular are attracted to an ideal that promises freedom from the constraints of both caste and gender - and here, like in the rest of the Maoist Army, women make up more than a third of rebel ranks.
Only 19 years old, Comrade Bihani is already a three-year veteran of the war.
“We have sworn allegiance to the revolution. We are fighting for our rights and emancipation and we will continue to struggle for them.
If we are scared or if we give up the struggle, we will never win our rights. That’s why we are prepared to die.”
To the outsider, Maoist ideology may well appear anachronistic in the 21st Century but Nepal remains a country lost in the traditions of a once glorious past.
For centuries the country was dominated by a royal elite who, comfortably ensconced in their Kathmandu palaces, ruled over a feudal system.
Outside Kathmandu in the towns and villages that make up the backbone of this country, landless peasants were bonded to provide labour for absentee landlords.
Even with the belated introduction of multi-party democracy in 1990, corruption, bad governance and underdevelopment continued unabated, and six years later the Maoists launched their insurgency.
For years the conflict was largely confined to remote rural areas, until 2001 when the newly crowned King Gyanendra let loose the Royal Nepalese Army or RNA, on the insurgents.
Overnight the death toll rose dramatically. Human rights abuses escalated to unprecedented levels and in 2003 and 2004 Nepal recorded the highest number of politically motivated disappearances anywhere in the world.
Human rights lawyer Mandira Sharma, deals with these abuses on a daily basis.
“Courts are not functioning properly, court orders are not observed torture is being used very systematically and routinely, extra judicial killings are going on and there is no investigations at all on those kinds of cases.
Victims of disappearances have faced similar problems – there is no remedy for the victims. So we have been going through the worst time in terms of human rights.
Torture has become a commonly used tactic, and these drawings based on the testimony of torture victims, leave little to the imagination.
This man is one such torture victim. Recently released from arbitrary detention he still lives in fear, afraid to show his face or talk to the camera.
For more than a year he was shuttled from police station to army barracks without ever being told why he was under arrest.
Throughout his detention the army consistently denied that he was in their custody - leaving his family unsure of where he was - not knowing if he was dead or alive.
Mandira Sharma: “The army is systematically torturing people, they have been very systematically killing civilians and also using forced disappearances of people and they have complete impunity.”
The United Nations Special Rapporteur on torture, Manfred Novak, has also leveled accusations of systematic torture at the Army.
Army spokesman, Brigadier-General Deepak Gurung denies the charge.
“He used the word systematic which is totally wrong. It’s not true, it’s not systematic. Maybe individual cases might be there of torture, but if anyone makes a mistake and we come to know about it we carry out our investigations and we court martial.”
Tracking down the truth in this conflict is difficult and dangerous. There is little or no press freedom and the government seeks a monopoly of information on a civil war that nobody wants.
Kunda Dixit: “99.999 percent of Nepali people don’t want this war. They don’t want to have anything to do with it and yet they are the victims. People realize it is just a power struggle between revolutionaries who are outdated in their ideology and a monarchy that wants to take the country back three decades. And in that power struggle, they are just caught in the middle.”
Rukum district in the mid-west of the country is typical of much of Nepal. Like many areas the country’s topography and lack of development means no roads and access only by air.
Passengers alighting here step straight into the heart of the conflict.
Musikot is the capital city of Rukum and serves as a perfect illustration of the military stalemate that this conflict has become.
District capitals like this have become garrison towns, guarded by hundreds of policemen and soldiers and heavily defended.
And with such a concentration of force, towns like Musikot remain beyond the military reach of the Maoists.
The last time they attacked a garrison town in Rukum, the aftermath was heavy defeat and loss of life.
In these heavily fortified hilltop bases the government army is almost invincible. But the rest of the district is no mans land and under the effective control of the Maoists, and apart from the occasional patrol, a no-go zone for the RNA.
But whatever popular support the rebels once enjoyed here in the birthplace of their revolution, has now been largely lost to violent and coercive tactics.
Bal Bahadur Malla, is Rukum’s Chief District Officer and the most senior government representative in a district torn apart by the conflict.
“The situation is grave here concerning Maoist activities. In generals, all parts of the district is severely affected by Maoist activities. Maoists are terrorists in my opinion because they have initiated from the very beginning anti-social activities. That’s why they are terrorists.”
Man Kumari Bista agrees. She sought shelter here among the heavy police and army presence, after Maoists drove her and her son out of their village.
Right across the country, hundreds of thousands of people have been displaced by war and economic necessity. Having lost what little they own, these people survive through the mutual support of their fellow displaced.
Branded a class enemy by the Maoists, Man Kumari Bista at least managed to escape with her life.
Her husband was not so lucky.
“They killed him at 8 in the morning when he was down by the river. Even though there was a police station nearby.
There is so much pain in our lives.
They burned all our houses – three houses and a cow.
There is too much pain.
I don’t know what to do or how long I can live like this”
For many of the inhabitants of Musikot, these pressures can become too much to bear. The body of this man is being stretchered to the morgue after he killed himself.
Jeevan Khadka is a human rights worker who, despite the dangers records abuses as and when they happen.
“There have been widespread violations of human rights here in Rukum. The Maoists have abducted, detained and tortured people for not supporting them. The state meanwhile has also detained and tortured innocent civilians, leaving an increasing number of civilians caught in the middle.
One such civilian is Narjit Basnet - a friend of Jeevan’s, a teacher and yet another victim of the conflict.
Teachers like Basnet, are often the only government employees in remote rural areas and as such, are viewed with a great deal of suspicion by the Maoists.
Basnet says the Maoists targeted him because his brother was the village chairman and a government supporter and the scars of his ordeal are never far from his mind.
“Suddenly four men appeared - two in front, two behind. They grabbed me by the neck, threw me down into the river and cut my leg. Then they cut my hand off – I was pleading with them not to kill me. Then they cut me on the head, my leg and the fingers of my other hand. I curled up into a ball and they left me for dead.
These school children are in danger too. Maoists frequently abduct pupils and force them to attend re-education meetings.
In Maoist held territory meanwhile, B-Company of the Maoist 16th battalion continue their training exercises.
The Maoists have used the Himalayan terrain to their perfect advantage and this has enabled them to control the vast majority of the country even though they are outnumbered more than 5 to 1.
Commander: “This is just an exercise. We are practicing how to overrun an enemy bunker from all four sides.
Bihani: “Yes. This is exactly the strategy we use when we attack the enemy.
The rebels never stay more than a few days in any one place and fighters give up all semblance of a normal life when they join the Maoists.
For Bihani, the party comes first. Love, family and friends all come second to the wishes of the party.
No I don’t think I am wasting my life. I just don’t allow my personal feelings to stand in the way. That is why I am prepared to give everything I have for the liberation of the people.
Twelve hours walk from the nearest motorable road, the small town of Chisapani is a typically under-developed Nepali town – and under the effective control of the Maoists.
Fear of the Maoists drove the last Government representatives away from here long ago.
This building used to be a government office but now serves as a clothes workshop staffed by members of the untouchable, or Dalit, caste – spurned for centuries as the lowest of the low.
“Our situation is much better than before – we used to be discriminated against because we are Dalits. And we are hoping for even more improvement in the future.
Others sympathise with the Maoists because they have fallen victims of the State.
Ganesh Pokharel last saw his son as he set off with a friend to find work in the valley.
The next thing he heard of him was when the Army announced on the radio that he had been killed because he was a Maoist.
A charge that his distraught father vehemently denies.
“I heard that he and his friend were beaten with iron rods. They were beaten until they were unconscious, but it was only his friend who regained consciousness.”
Kapil Raj is the English teacher at a school that has paid a heavy price in the conflict. In the last three years two teachers have been killed – one by the Maoists and one by the army.
During the same period, four students have been killed by the Army on suspicion of supporting the Maoists.
Common people are trapped between two stones. If the government side comes here we must accept. If the Maoist group comes here we have to accept.
And our request is please let us freedom.”
With no apparent end in sight to the stalemate on the battlefield, the best hope for the people of Nepal lies with a negotiated settlement to the conflict.
And unless the conflict is ended soon there are growing fears that Nepal’s pressing humanitarian needs will only worsen.
Kunda Dixit: “Nepal has always been on the brink of a humanitarian crisis even before this war started. Look at our maternal mortality rate, the number of children who die. We’ve always had a huge humanitarian crisis – the insurgency has just made matters worse. And I think now if the world wants to help, the help is really needed to tackle the first problem which is to end the insurgency and then maybe look at the larger background humanitarian crisis that was always there in Nepal.”
But with hardliners on both sides of the conflict dug in and adamant that the war can still be won militarily, the prospects for peace look as slim as ever.
This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions
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