Through Maoist country

Print edition : August 31, 2002

An exclusive, first-person account of a journey to Nepal's mid-west - the heartland of the Maoist insurgency.

'PIRAM' is the password this Wednesday night as the barbed wire is rolled out across the gate at 7 p.m., enclosing the hollow of Libang, the district headquarters of Rolpa, in a multi-layered security siege of checkposts and curfews. Perched sentinel-like on a hill is the camp of the Gorkha Bahadur gan (battalion) of the Royal Nepal Army (RNA). Libang lives in fear; its barricaded residents fear that the Maoists will overrun the city if the Army withdraws.

Rolpa is the heartland of the 'People's War' launched by the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoists) in 1996 to establish a democratic republic. A day's hard trek up and down the soft hills around Libang, and across swing bridges, brings you to territory controlled by the CPN(M). "Strangers who come, we arrest. And if it's an Army-police patrol, we melt away into the fields and jungle and wait it out," said a confident 'People's Army' guerilla in 'red' Tebang. Nine months of Army deployment and a state of Emergency have resulted in mobile Army encampments, but when these are withdrawn, the Maoists return to reassert control. The barely 35,000-strong RNA fighting force cannot be everywhere and eventually has to pull out. Formidable logistics in the hills make combing operations more symbolic than effective. Helicopters with night vision equipment are on order.

An Army-police patrol team sets off from Libang, the headquarters town of Rolpa district. This town lives in fear.-USHA TITIKCHHU

As we climbed to Tebang, leaving way below us the market of Sulichaur, where the road stops, photojournalist Usha Titikchhu and I were accosted by three armed men and a woman. They emerged from a clump of trees, pointing a magnum rifle and two locally made shotguns, and identified themselves as members of the 'people's militia'. Who were we? Did we have permission? In the distance, at Satobato the tin roof of the Army camp glinted in the sunshine. An 'independent' gulmi (company) of 137 soldiers there had a commanding view of the Maoist hills. "They see us, we see them", said a 'people's militia' recruit, pointing to the camp. These inaccessible midwestern hills, the power base of the CPN(M), are ideal terrain for guerilla warfare. Said a young Army officer posted in Libang: "We raid their homes, but can't find them. It may be that they're staying at their gote (shed) in the upper reaches for grazing, or (maybe) another gote near their fields below, or they've gone to India for work. We can't arrest everyone. Take this man, he's unarmed; a peasant by day, he could be a Maoist by night. What can we do?"

Such restraint is not borne out by reports of Army high- handedness and brutality. Mobile Army encampments and patrols leave, as in Tebang, a trail of arbitrary arrests, random killings, torture, arson and terror. Maoist retribution, says Gopal Tamoli of Tarun Dal (the student wing of the Nepali Congress), is equally brutal. At Akalgaroha village in Banke district, blasted houses, signs of targeted, execution-style killings of 'informers', and generalised terror are testimony to this. It is a war in which both sides give no quarter, taking few or no prisoners.

Since February 1996 the 'People's War' has spread from Rolpa to two-thirds of Nepal's 75 districts, establishing 'people's governments' in 22 districts and threatening to encircle Kathmandu. After four months of stalemated talks, the Maoists launched a series of attacks, taking on the Army for the first time. A state of emergency was imposed and the Maoists were dubbed terrorists. The United States put Nepal on its international terrorism map. The international community, including India and China, backs the military option. Within Nepal's Kathmandu-centric politics, multi-party democracy is imploding since the June dissolution of Parliament was peremptorily sanctioned by the new King. The Nepali Congress Party, which led the 1990 movement for democracy in Nepal, has virtually split. Power is gravitating back rapidly to the Palace and the Army. King Gyanendra's recent visits to India and China were not the visits of a constitutional monarch, but of a king negotiating the destiny of Nepal.

CPN(M) Chairman 'Comrade' Prachanda, in his renewed offer of talks on July 18, specifically alluded to the threat of extreme anarchy with the ganging up "of domestic feudal forces and international reactionary forces". He echoed former Prime Minister G.P. Koirala's line of a conspiracy behind the dissolution of Parliament and indicated a willingness to participate in elections provided there were provisions for an interim government or mutually agreed upon election procedures. Shyam Srestha, the Editor of Mulyankan, regards this as a significant show of political flexibility and a scaling down of the demand for a constituent assembly to renegotiate the power structure, abolish the monarchy and make the Nepali people sovereign citizens.

At Fortress Libang, behind barbed wires, policemen take time off to play carrom. Army and police watchtowers encircle the town and movement is severely restricted.-USHA TITIKCHHU

Militarily, there is a stalemate. Army deployment has yet to make an appreciable shift in the tactical advantage that the Maoists gained following dramatic attacks on Army and police camps. A visiting Maj.-Gen. Ashok Mehta (retd), who has close links with Indian Gurkhas in Nepal, said the seized training videos of the Maoists and their military tactics were impressive, especially as the military commander, 'Comrade' Badal, has reportedly had no professional training. However, certain Maoist reverses in June at Khara in Rukum district, where the Army battalion reportedly had prior warning of an attack, suggest that Army intelligence is advancing on the learning curve of infiltrating the 'enemy'. In Libang and other fortified district headquarter towns the number of 'surrendered' Maoists and 'escapees'- internally displaced people (IDPs) - is increasing, and they are seen as being vulnerable to use by the Army as guides, porters for arms and ammunitions, and informers. In Tebang, the area committee member, 'Comrade' Dileep, spoke of five families in Libang which had escaped Maoist justice and whose members accompanied Army-police patrols in uniform.

FIVE years ago, the influence of the Maoists was everywhere in Libang, a market town that is now virtually a fortress. The chief district office is a hollow shell and its staff of six has no work as the parallel 'people's government' has taken control of land records, revenue and the courts. Today, Army and police watchtowers encircle Fortress Libang and movement is severely restricted.

In the open maidan, two trucks were busy unloading sacks of rice, branded fruit drinks in tetrapacks, shampoo and so on. A district-level official waves a sheaf of papers - permits signed by the Chief District Officer (CDO) who is also the head of the Security Committee - sanctioning supplies. There is a blockade in place in Rolpa. It is aimed at the Maoists but hurts ordinary village residents who are faced with severe food shortages and no easy access to life-saving drugs. Village residents walk a day and a half to reach the market and return with 10 kg of rice. CDO Birendra Nath Sharma explains that rice is merely supplementary to the staple diet of maize and barley. However, this is the scarcity period that lasts six months and the peasants are dependent on the market. Moreover, with the uncertainty about the rain and the standing crop of maize drying up, what is a difficult situation could become alarming.

A Maoist suspect, Buji Maya, in the Libang jail. At one point of time a third of all Maoists were believed to be women.-USHA TITIKCHHU

Medicine stocks are running dangerously low as no sanction for purchases has been granted for a month and a half. In Sulichaur, medical shops have run out of anti-diarrhoeal drugs, saline solution, tetracycline and so on. Village pharmacies, as in Maddichaur village, are closed. Items on the banned/restricted list include battery cells, pressure cookers, instant foods and Nepal-made 'Gold Star' shoes. It is the favoured shoe of the Maoists and has disappeared from village stores. In Libang you can buy a pair and no more, as long as stocks last. Shopkeeper Man Shyam Pun at Maddichaur told us that before the regime of restrictions was put in place after the Khara incident, an armed Maoist bought 15 pairs of Gold Star shoes from him. "You mean before the Emergency?" I asked. "No, just two-three months ago," he replied. The state of Emergency, as we discovered, was not a watershed in these 'control' areas. Incidentally, Indian rupees is the currency of exchange, whether it is to transact official banking business or to buy an umbrella. It is a reflection of the dependence on the remittance economy here. Also on the restricted list is colour film, lest you be tempted to take scenic shots and give away the location of the defences of Libang.

There are no restrictions on black and white film, though. It is in demand for use in citizens' identity cards and passports. The chief district office had to expand its staff from six to 21 to cope with the demand for ID cards and passports. In the last eight months alone 8,990 ID cards have been issued, compared with 2,260 last year. As many as 1,336 passports have been issued in the same period. Young boys like Karna, 21, of Jamkot are queueing up to go to Malaysia, Saudi Arabia or India. Karna had been picked up for interrogation when the Army set up a camp in adjoining Kotgam in April 2002. He had apparently played in a volleyball match organised by the ANNISU (Revolutionary), a mass student organisation of the Maoists, and Maoist leaders later dined in his house. Jamkot and Maddichaur are known control areas with 'people's governments' or Gajjasas.

The 'Martyrs' Gate' in Tebang.-USHA TITIKCHHU

Bimla Garti and her infant are in the Libang jail, with about 28 inmates, for much the same offence as Karna's. In the jail courtyard, the striking murals of Communist icons Marx, Lenin and Mao had been whitewashed over since we last saw them in 1998. But the inmates had not changed. Buji Mala, now 21, is still bewildered about the reasons for her arrest. She was in the upper regions grazing animals and might have given shelter or food to the Maoists.

At the Army camp checkpost we waited for the battalion commander, Col. Sudheer Sharma, to see us. Also waiting was a group of 20 men aged between 18 and 40 years. "They're internally displaced people," a Major told us. Evidently, some kind of temporary recruitment was going on. The names of sensitive villages were taken. One of them held back; he was not wearing shoes and would not have been able to move fast. They let him go. The others walked into the camp. The next day we heard of a pre-dawn Army raid on Dhabang village. Apparently, these 'volunteers' were the guides and even carried equipment and explosives. They were not paid. According to Army sources, they had intelligence information about a group of Maoists - 'people's militia' - meeting in a house in Dhabang. Travelling in the dark on hill tracks, the Army patrol surrounded the house. Of the 11 who were inside, two, a man and a woman, were shot dead even as the others fled. "We ask them to surrender but they flee, so we shoot them," said the Major. He dismissed allegations of the Army taking prisoners. Anecdotal accounts speak of people being picked up and interrogated and then killed while fleeing. "No, it's not true, look at the many who have surrendered. You can meet them in Libang," he said.

Maoists inside the Roka Bahadur School. Since 1996 the 'People's War' has spread from Rolpa to two-thirds of Nepal, an area covering 75 districts. People's goverments' were established in 22 of them.-USHA TITIKCHHU

In Libang, a commercial-cum-civic complex was being constructed in the town's public space and a group of IDPs owing allegiance to the conservative Rashtriya Prajatantra Party was hard at work, digging. One of them, Tek Bahadur Biko, was evidently a man of some means because the young woman by his side was his 11th wife. The family had moved from Gam village to the safety of the police post of Sulichaur. After the November attack by Maoists in Dang, when the police pulled out to Libang, so did Biko. After Maoists attacked Gam, the Army took Biko to the village to dig up the bodies of 40 Maoists to try and identify them. "I went to perform the last rites," he said.

Working alongside Biko was Amber Singh Buda. He had been in a group of 45 IDPs who had trekked four days to Tebang and back when the Army set up camp there. "We carried explosives and other equipment for which we were paid for three days at the rate of (Nepali) rupees 90 a day," said Buda. The going rate for civilian porterage is rupees 250. The government has not paid any money as compensation to the IDPs but people like Biko and Buda are required to be guides, informers and porters by their military benefactors. While the Maoists are accused of using human shields, was the Army also crossing the line using 'forced' porterage?

A young Maoist recruit.-USHA TITIKCHHU

Libang was full of escapees associated with Nepal's many political parties which stood bail for them. They were an important source of information about life in Maoist-controlled areas. Tham Bahadur Sunar (of the United Marxist-Leninist, or UML) spoke of the practice of contributory labour in his natal village, Irribang, where the Maoists had built a bridge. He had contributed six days' labour. In Gartigaon, his village by adoption, he was taxed rupees 1,200 a year because he was a Sunar. After the Dang action, when the Army set up a camp in Gartigaon, it took utensils from his house. Meanwhile, higher up in Ramkot, at a mass meeting of the 'people's militia', his nephew, who was on sentry duty, overheard the political commissars name his uncle for elimination. So when the Army pulled out, he also left. Ten days later, the Maoists came calling and warned his wife to leave.

Kheema K.C., 19, from Maddichaur and Sun Kumari Buda, 20, from Wama are 'surrendered' Maoists. Alongside the class struggle, the Maoists have taken on board the women's question, and issues relating to ethnic nationalities and Dalits. Indeed, in the Maoist heartland, Hisala Yami, the then leader of the All Nepal Women's Organisation (Revolutionary), had told this correspondent in 1998 that a third of the Maoists were women. In Maddichaur, Kheema was among three other young women who joined the Maoists. Some 12 students of classes 7 and 8 of Shree Bal Uday Middle School had also joined the Maoists.

However, Kheema's story is one of forcible induction. She had gone with some friends to a mass meeting. While the others returned home, she was asked to do contributory labour in lieu of the tax that her three brothers, soldiering in India, had not paid the Maoists. Her work comprised household chores, collective cultivation and fetching water for mass meetings. She attended mass meetings but indoctrination exposure seems to have been minimal. Kheema returned to her village and apparently was not under any pressure to rejoin the Maoists. Eventually the family paid rupees 1,200 as tax. Later Kheema was again asked to do contributory labour because her brother's sister-in-law stayed in her house before surrendering.

Maoist leaders Baburam Bhattarai (left) and 'Comrade' Prachanda, in a file photograph.-USHA TITIKCHHU

Sun Kumari Buda's story differs only in that there was no forcible induction. She went to a mass meeting at Kotgam and stayed with the Maoists for nine months. For six days the police interrogated her and she now reports to them regularly. Both live in Libang's 'Pakistan Tole'.

Evening curfew and the mandatory blackout drive everyone off the streets and into dimly lit houses. There has been no electricity ever since the Maoists blasted the hydro-electric facility at Jhimkri. Telephones do not work because the Maoists blasted the repeater (telecommunications) tower. Army sources claimed that the Maoists used drugs and alcohol before an action. Dead Maoists were found to have pocketfuls of condoms.

AT the entrance to Maddichaur is the remains of the Victory Memorial Gate blasted by the Army when it set up an encampment in Kotgam. Still visible through the coat of whitewash is the commemoration to Raju Chappamar. In the 'people's militia' structure, the first unit is chappamar, then platoon and company. A year after the 'People's War' was declared, the police chowk in Maddichaur was attacked, and six or seven policemen were killed. By 2000 there was a Gajjasa. The Army set up a camp at nearby Kotgam in April 2002. Rajesh Oli, a young student, narrated the killing of a young woman who was suspected to belong to the 'people's militia'. He said: "A group in civilian half pant-style clothing, like the Maoists, came patrolling and surrounded the house of (23-year-old) Man Mali Biko. A contingent of 24 uniformed Army men followed. She was shot. Amrit Garti, an elderly person who happened to be outside, was also shot dead." "Was she a member of the 'people's militia'?" There were no answers. Her father and brother have since moved.

In the Maoist heartland, an uneasy coexistence with security forces.-USHA TITIKCHHU

On the question of how many people were arrested, Rajesh said he and four other students were taken to the Army camp and handcuffed. One of them, Shyam Bahadur, was beaten for two weeks. The soldiers wanted to know what work they did for the Maoists. Two schoolteachers were also picked up and now report regularly to the authorities. School headmaster Barman Buda moved to Libang after he was accused of being an informer. The Army pulled out in May.

As we stopped for lunch at the Maddichaur end of the bridge linking it to Libang, three men were waiting for us. The eldest, 'Comrade' Ashish, took out a notebook folded in a plastic bag and wrote down our names. The questions came quickly: "Did we have permission?'' ''Were we planning to go on to Jamkot and maybe meet someone there?" Inexperienced about authentic and non- authentic Maoists, we let the opportunity slip. 'Comrade' Ashish was an old-time party activist, an area committee functionary.

There, out in the open, with likely informers coming and going across the bridge, three hours from Libang, the Maoists sat down for a chat. Apparently, the Emergency had not driven underground the Maoist political activists, especially those belonging to the Gajjasas. 'Comrade' Ashish refused to be photographed full face. However, a young recruit who had been with the militia for six months, his Gold Star shoes worn out from action, posed obligingly. "There are thousands in the 'people's militia' who look like me," he said. I asked whether there was any rethinking in view of the U.S. and India materially backing the RNA in its fight against the Maoists. "I won't deny, we are taking heavy losses. But this is a people's war, no outside force can win."

Three herdsmen with 10 goats were about to cross the bridge and onto Libang to sell them. Had they paid the tax - rupees 25 a goat, the Maoists asked. Yes, they said, and crossed to the other side. Later, on the road, they told us that they had lied. Krishna Bahadur Pun, the local school teacher, too, had not paid the required 12 days' salary as tax. No, he had not been threatened. The shopkeeper of the general store, Man Bahadur Shyam, paid rupees 150 a month. The Maoists gave receipts, but after a couple of times he tore them up. What if the police found them, he explained. Maoists would come openly, carrying arms, and eat in the village. Did the people believe that the Maoists used drugs and alcohol to embolden themselves before an attack? "Can't be," said the students.

TEBANG is on the Maoist map, at the base of the forested ridge of Lisne Lek, where the Army claims it encircled a Maoist training camp and killed hundreds of Maoists in May. Lack of helicopter support enabled a group to escape and it attacked a security camp in Gam in the northeast. Tebang had a long history of revolutionary left-wing politics, as did much of Rolpa. Police excesses during Operation Romeo and its successor Kilo Sera II generated many recruits and the process of regenerating the 'people's militia' is going on.

It is a steep two-and-a-half-hour climb from the Sulli river to a watering spot, where we rested. Four men appeared, three of them carrying rifles and shoulder pouches, which I later saw had socket bombs and a transistor. They had watched us for some time. Did we have permission? The militia leader brandishing a magnum rifle and in a stylised version of fatigues agreed to arrange a meeting with the area committee leader. On top of the ridge was the Martyrs' Gate.

Tebang was declared a 'people's government' in 2000. A congregation hall with wooden totemic guards and a bronze bell lay in disrepair. Inside was the board of a discredited official body and other stuff that had been thrown away. The Maoists closed it three years ago and stopped the tradition of local melas. 'Comrade' Dileep, the area committee member, said the mela attracted outsiders. He denied that it was an anti-religious move and claimed that there had been instances of people congregating for a mela being fired upon by the Army. In the village, described as Hindu, people were free to worship their gods at home.

In the apron ground of Rok Bahadur School, maize is growing as part of a pilot project in collective farming, 'Comrade' Dileep said. On the school ground there are ashes from the cooking fires of the Army when they camped there on their last patrol on July 4. Members of INSEC, a human rights organisation, told us that the Maoists often blew up schools because the Army had used them. In Tebang they reclaimed the school.

On March 25 an Army patrol from the Satobato company blasted 11 houses and looted several others, said our village hosts. They came again on May 2, this time in battalion strength, walking and on helicopter, and set up camp for five days. Eight people were killed, according to 'Comrade' Dileep. Kirti Bista, 23, was shot dead when he was repairing a gote. Durga Mohre, 20, was grazing his goats when the Army shot him. "They point a bayonet at you and charge you with being a Maobadi, and then feel your heart. If it beats faster than usual, they shoot you," 'Comrade' Dileep said. Were they Maoists, we asked. "No, just ordinary peasants," he said.

The Maoists claimed that the Armymen picked up two young girls, Pooma Bista and Pokchi Thapa, who were out tending cattle, and took them to the camp. They also took the wife of the village ward member, who happened to be in the field, and the aunt of human rights activist Ghanshyam Acharya. All four were made to work at the Army camp. Meanwhile, the Army raided the adjoining villages and blew up 62 houses, they claimed. On the fifth day, there was a confrontation between the RNA and the 130-strong Jan Sena at Lisne Lek. Two men, Mukti Bika and Dil Man Thapa, were killed and the Army blasted a martyrs' pillar. 'Comrade' Dileep said that just before leaving the camp the Armymen killed the four women. "We found them naked and shot. The ward member's wife had every finger of her hand cut off," he said. He dismissed as propaganda the Army's claim that it had attacked a training camp and killed 400 Maoists.

What did the 15-member area committee think about 'Comrade' Prachanda's latest offer of talks, which scales down the demand for a republic and for a new constitution? "The political leadership decides these things, our goals remain as before - the achievement of livelihood needs such as food, clothing, shelter, health, security and roads," said 'Comrade' Dileep and the others.

On the government's charges that the Maoists used human shields and took drugs and liquor before an attack, Dileep insisted that "these are huge lies". "We are fighting a 'people's war' and are extremely conscious that our image must be above reproach," he said.

ON July 9, about 300 Maoists attacked Akalgaroha, a Tharu-Yadav village about 7 km from the highway to Nepalgunj, killing two persons and injuring five. They blew up two houses. Eyewitnesses said that they saw hundreds of torches in the field coming towards the village. People were warned not to flee and to stay indoors. They went from house to house and pulled out the men and the boys. "I was taken out and tied with my brother Sohan Lal Yadav, and pushed along to the open space where the panchayat meets," said Santosh Yadav, 19. "We were 35, squatting in two rows. They would shine torches in our face and pick us out." Santosh did not see his brother Sohan Lal being hacked and killed, nor his brother Inder Yadav, 16, have his left foot chopped off. Moti Tamoli, a former UML party candidate, was caught on the Tharu side of the village and killed. Dhani Ram was shot but managed to escape.

Akalgaroha has been the site of Maoist mobilisation, especially among a section of the Tharus, one of Nepal's most oppressed communities. Kamal Choudhury (Tharu), the Maoist contact, has gone underground. His brother, Ganga Ram, showed us that they had separate kitchens as he wanted to keep out of it all. A few weeks earlier, six or seven Maoists attacked N.C. activist Gopal Tomali, suspecting him of being an informer. The local people set out after the Maoists and captured two outsiders, Renu Tharu and Saresh Tharu, and handed them over to the police. The Maoists took their revenge and attacked the village, which is on the highway to Nepalgunj.

The military option seems to be the line that the Palace-Army and the 'caretaker' Sher Bahadur Deuba government are bent on pursuing, emboldened by the international support and the lures of a war economy. Prachanda's offer of talks has produced the Deuba government's routine reaction - disarm and then talk. New Delhi getting tough with Maoist supporters in India in the wake of the King's visit has made the Palace combine more inflexible. On July 11, at 4-30 p.m. in the Bengali Market cultural complex in Delhi, Special Branch operatives picked up Partha Chettri (alias Surrinder Karki), Aditi, Maheshwar Dahal and Moti Prasad on a tip-off from the Nepal Embassy that they were supporters of the Maoists. (Writer-activists Gautam Navlakha and Anand Swaroop Varma were also arrested but released a few hours later.) The four, three of whom are journalists, were accused of being members of the recently proscribed Akhil Bharatiya Nepal Ekta Samaj. Declared by the Foreigners Regional Registration Office as 'undesirable aliens', they were handed over to the Banke district Superintendent of Police G.B. Pal at 11-30 p.m. the same day. Since then they have joined the long list of missing persons. More than 34 journalists are on that list. Editor Krishna Sen died in custody in June.

The main left-wing Opposition, the UML, has opted for the status quo and insists that the proposed November elections will be free and fair, will deliver it a victory and save the gains of the 1990 democracy movement. It is hard to share their confidence, especially in the Maoist heartland, where the state exists only as the Army and the police. The People's War was launched to make the Nepali people sovereign. Escalating violence, deprivation and the erosion of democracy loom ahead.

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