Nepal under the radar

Still reeling from the massacre of its royal family, Nepal finds itself struggling to fend off a Maoist revolution -- while the West looks away.

Published December 20, 2001 10:25PM (EST)

Before the soldier came it was a pleasant evening in the Devkota household. After a traditional Nepali meal of rice, lentils and vegetables, we watched an Indian movie and chatted.

"Do you have the caste system in your country?" asked Dixon, 16. At first I was surprised at the question. The Devkotas are an educated, English-speaking Nepali family. An uncle was ambassador to Sri Lanka. But then I remembered the outdated textbooks of their children (Dixon, Nixon and Abhilok), with their ponderous lists of facts and figures about Europe that said nothing about real life. I was explaining Britain's meritocratic social setup when there was a rapping on the door. It was 8 p.m., an hour after the district of Tulsipur's strictly enforced curfew.

The curfew is part of the state of emergency declared by King Gyanendra on Nov. 26, three days after Maoist guerrillas broke a cease-fire and attacked army and police posts across Nepal.

We saw it was a soldier when Mrs. Devkota answered the door. She and her sister Neera went outside to talk with him. The soldier was upset and angry. There was a heated argument. The only words I understood were "emergency" and "Maobadi," the Nepali word for Maoist.

Inside, Abhilok, 14, sat wrapped in a blanket, rocking back and forth, watching TV and refusing even to look outside.

The argument stopped. The women came inside and we all watched the movie again. The good guy smashed a fish tank into the face of the bad guy; it was the kind of up-close-and-personal violence common in Hindi movies.

Outside a gunshot split the night air.

For a moment no one spoke. Then there was another hushed discussion in Nepali, and finally the situation was explained. Abhilok, still staring straight ahead at the TV, had fetched a chowki, a wooden board used in chapatti making, from a neighbor's house. Soldiers in the army base behind the Devkotas' house thought he was carrying a bomb. Although they could have shot Abhilok on sight as a suspected Maobadi, instead they gave him the benefit of the doubt and came around to check out the situation, firing the pistol in fear and anger.

The phone rang. It was the army officer, apologizing for his bad temper.

It's been a bad year for Nepal, indeed a bad decade. Things have not gone smoothly in the Himalayan kingdom since the country underwent the transition to multi-party democracy in 1990 after 30 years of autocratic rule by the monarchy. Ten governments in 10 years, frequent violent protests and rampant corruption have plagued Nepal, better known in the West as an unworldly Shangri-La for adventure tourists. Since 1996, Maoist guerrillas have fought an insurgency throughout the country; over 2,000 people have been killed.

Before the latest fighting, the Maobadi were a common sight in rural Nepal. Their policy of constant violence, kidnapping and intimidation had the police confined to the roads and major towns, leaving the Maobadi the effective government in 46 districts out of Nepal's 75.

On June 1, Nepal was shaken to the core by the massacre of its royal family in their palace in Kathmandu. Much-loved King Birendra was gunned down along with his family by his son, Crown Prince Dipendra, who then committed suicide. The official explanation is an argument over Dipendra's choice of bride, but few Nepalis believe this story, preferring a conspiracy theory involving Gyanendra, the present king. Pictures of the dead king are displayed in everywhere in Nepal. Gyanendra's image appears nowhere.

For a time, conspiracy theorists speculated that the Maobadi had something to do with the royal killings. Although apparently uninvolved, the Maobadi have tried to gain political capital from the tragedy. They infiltrated street protests, and their leader, Comrade Prachanda ("Comrade Awesome" in English), tapped into the popular sentiment by sending the palace a tribute to the slain king, head of the very same monarchy he had vowed to overthrow.

Nepal calmed down after the turbulent summer. A cease-fire was agreed to and the Maobadi and the government started talking. But by early November the talks had broken down and the Maobadi retreated into the heavily forested Himalayan foothills and prepared for war.

Previously the Maobadi had only attacked the police force. The government, fearing a civil war, refused to send in the army. But in the Nov. 23 attacks the Maobadi targeted Royal Nepalese Army posts and the government decided it was time for soldiers to deal with the guerrillas.

According to the papers, the war is going well for the army, with over 250 rebels killed since the uprising began. But exact figures are impossible to come by, as the government claims the Maobadi remove the bodies of their fallen comrades from the battlefield.

The insurgency has come at a bad time economically. Tourism, a major foreign-currency earner, is down 17 percent in the wake of the royal family massacre. Although the Maobadi are strong in many popular tourist destinations, they have not attacked foreigners, unlike Peru's Shining Path Maoists, and areas for tourism, trekking and mountaineering remain safe.

Gorahi, in the Dang district, about 220 miles west of the capital Kathmandu, was one of the towns attacked on that first night.

"This area is densely forested and hilly, making it ideal for the Maobadi's hit-and-run style of warfare," said Narayan Sharma, editor of the regional paper Naya Yogbudh. "Also the home minister is from Dang."

In an ambitious and carefully coordinated attack, the Maobadi broke into an armory, stole a truckload of weapons and ammunition, looted $120,000 from two banks and killed 14 soldiers, 23 policemen and four civilians. Now the small market town is quiet but tense. Pickup trucks full of soldiers are parked in the bazaar and an armored car patrols the streets. Strangers are eyed warily.

Jhak Bahadur was one of the few people in Gorahi willing to talk, and he only in private.

"We don't talk about politics in the bazaar these days. Spies from either side might overhear us."

He stopped me from writing down the names of Maoist leaders, saying there would be trouble for me if the army saw it. At the frequent checkpoints, soldiers take particular care with books and papers, looking for Maoist texts or military handbooks.

Bahadur served with the British army's elite Gurkha regiment for 15 years and has been asked to help the Nepalese army fight the rebels. He refused, afraid of reprisals: "Most of us ex-servicemen won't fight the Maobadi. As a private citizen, you're safe unless you're caught in the middle of a fight. But if we help, we'll become targets for the Maobadi for many years afterwards."

He said both sides in this civil war are badly equipped. "The army are short of ammunition and rations. They don't have enough rounds to do proper weapons training. They're not fully trained. The Maobadi have improvised bombs and guns, homemade weapons, but they train very hard. Villagers from remote areas have seen them doing a lot of exercises. And they're very determined."

Tulsipur, where the incident with the trigger-happy soldier took place, is the next town after Gorahi and comes at the end of the paved road. Communism is popular in this area, as it is throughout most of rural Nepal. On one wall a shopkeeper had posters of the Hindu gods, on the other pictures of Marx, Engels, Lenin and Stalin. He didn't see a contradiction: "Hinduism is religion, communism is politics."

The various communist parties of Nepal (they've split and re-split like amoebae) have always done well in elections and were even in power for a time in 1994.

From Tulsipur I took a bus northward to Salyan, one of the districts most affected by the insurgency. A blue head with long dreadlocks was painted on the bus door -- Lord Shiva, Hindu god of creation and destruction. Shiva's destructive side had clearly been hard at work on the bus. The tires were balding, holes peppered the rusting bodywork and the exhaust coughed up foul black smoke. The driver needed two assistants, one to hold the gearshift in place and one to frantically pump a mysterious fourth pedal when the going got tough.

The bus, designed to carry 40 passengers, took 60. Behind me, an old lady wrapped herself in a shawl and laid her head on her son's lap. Her eyes were childlike and frightened, her cheeks horribly sunken. She pulled the shawl over her head, trying to get away from it all. The son held her hand and stared forlornly into the middle distance. Only later, away from the dust, the pressing bodies and the bumping, did I realize that the old lady was dying.

She probably wasn't even old. The life expectancy in Nepal is 57, the per capita income $220 per year. Forty-two percent of Nepalis live in poverty and 60 percent are illiterate.

Transport in most of Nepal is bad. Looking back from a high pass, the road to Salyan appeared as a winding yellow incision in the green hills; up close it was a rutted track that did its best to overturn the bus. For three months during the monsoon it turns to mud and the bus service stops. Occasionally, the bus halted and people got off to take tracks that led to the remotest jungle villages. This is what J.B. Oli did when he passed this way.

It was hard to believe J.B., with his neatly pressed shirt and slacks, his smooth skin and clipped Indian accent, came from the Salyan district. He'd escaped the "hilly station" at 15, fed up with the two-hour walk each way to school. So he walked five hours to this road, caught a bus to Tulsipur and traveled for a couple of days to his brother's place in New Delhi. Working as a delivery boy and live-in servant, he put himself through school, learned English and got a job with a nongovernmental organization. After 11 years in Delhi he was a city boy ("I find all this up-and-down walking most unpleasant") but he still made the annual trip to the village to see his father.

A few hours into the walk from road to village he'd been surrounded by men in combat fatigues, members of the estimated 5,000- to 10,000-strong Maobadi army.

"They hadn't seen me before and wanted to know who I was, why I was there. They kept me for two or three hours. They were very calm and polite, they didn't lay a finger on me."

"I had to pay them a few hundred rupees [about $3]. Everyone does -- shopkeepers, farmers, landlords. They don't call it tax, they call it 'yogadan' -- a contribution. I don't mind. You have to pay tax to the government and in the hilly stations the Maobadi are the government."

Everyone had stories of paying their "contribution" in cash, food or medicines. But fewer knew of the Maoists doing anything other than political work. Bahadur, the Gurkha, said he had heard of Maobadi working in the fields at harvest time.

Newspaper editor Narayan Sharma said: "The Maoists spend their money on their army. They've made some small roads and electricity projects in remote regions, but it's a very, very small amount."

But now that the army has been mobilized against them, the Maoists have melted away into the forests, becoming a guerrilla force on the move. It's something they have long trained for, said J.B., whose village teacher had joined up.

"They don't take the drunkards and the loafers. They're very careful about who they select; they put them through a three-month training program. The recruits go through the hot, the cold; go without food, do long marches."

The army is on high alert in Salyan district. At the area's major checkpoint, soldiers ordered everyone except the dying crone to get off the bus and did a thorough inspection of every bag and case. They were calm and friendly, but wary. A truck was also being searched, each sack of grain skewered in the search for hidden weapons. I looked up at the hills behind and imagined little bands of guerrillas marching through the jungle with their looted weapons slung over their shoulders, or leading mule trains loaded down with ammunition and bank notes.

In Sitalpati, a one-tractor Salyan town, I met Uttam Hamal, a local radio reporter full of suggestions for people I could meet. Next morning Uttam's wife told me he had gone to another village. No one told me which one. No one would take me there. The police told me to stay in Sitalpati - "For your own protection." It must have been too close to Maobadi territory.

The curfew in Sitalpati was even earlier than in Tulsipur -- 6 p.m. The electricity was turned off at 7 p.m. and the town plunged into a medieval darkness. Every night there was shooting, and one night there was an explosion. Mohan Pandy, the police chief, made light of it: "It's just to scare the security personnel. I believe in fate. Life is like a film, we are just the actors and God is the director."

God had a nasty surprise in store for Mr. Pandy and his colleagues. The Maoists attacked the local telecom station, and two soldiers and 11 Maobadi were killed in a five-hour gun battle. The armored car rushing up from Tulsipur was ambushed, blocking the way for further reinforcements.

Nepal has no air force and the army has only a few outdated helicopters. Ground forces alone are not enough in the steep, isolated valleys where much of this war is fought. India has given Nepal two helicopters -- New Delhi has communist problems of its own in the border regions and fears a cross-border alliance of leftist groups. The government has announced it is spending $70 million on weapons over the next five years, an enormous burden for this very poor country.

"The money that is being spent on weapons could be spent on schools, hospitals and roads, things we really need," said Dinesh Khadka, a Kathmandu shopkeeper. Without more of these essential services, there is a real risk that more Nepalis will look to the Maobadi as their saviors.

The conflict is not likely to attract much attention in Washington, London or even Beijing. Although the Maobadi believe in worldwide revolution, they are about 30 years behind the times and pose little real threat to the rest of the world. Devoutly Hindu Nepal is an unlikely hideout for Islamic terrorists. So the stage is set for another intermittent conflict ignored by the West.

By Sean Kenny

Sean Kenny is a British freelance writer.

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