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Nepal: Caught up in the "people's war"

Reporter Guna Raj Luitel interviews regional Maoist leader.

Guna Raj Luitel (right), news editor at Nepal's largest newspaper, interviews Comrade Binit, area secretary of the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) in the Bardia district of western Nepal.

According to local Nepalese, the trek to the village of Arughat, 100 km west of Kathmandu, should take no more than five hours from the closest town. But after nearly nine hours of climbing steep peaks, slipping along mud paths -- feet blistered and nearly out of drinking water -- I'm about ready to throw in the towel.

I have to make it to Arughat before the army imposes the 6 p.m. curfew. Otherwise, I fear I'll have to sleep outside -- in a war zone. Most of the fighting between the Royal Nepalese Army (RNA) and Maoist rebels takes place after dark. So, ignoring my blisters, I pick up my pace.

I'm traveling with Guna Raj Luitel, news editor at Kantipur Daily, Nepal's largest newspaper. He's one of the few Nepali journalists who continue to report critically on the war. As many as 14 reporters have been killed by the RNA and Maoists in recent years. Those who still venture into the Himalayan countryside to cover the conflict face regular harassment, intimidation and thuggery at the hands of both sides.

For Luitel, however, writing about the situation of civilians caught in the middle is the most effective way to help bring peace to the country. Whenever he can, he takes trips into the hills. This time, he agreed to let me join him.

For nearly 10 years, Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) rebels have been fighting to overthrow the country's constitutional monarchy and establish a people's republic. As many as 12,000 people have died in the conflict.

Weeks ago, Maoist rebels shot two off-duty soldiers in the town of Arughat. To avenge the killings, RNA soldiers beat as many as 200 villagers, claiming the villagers had supported the rebels. The RNA also slapped down a 24 hour curfew for the next 13 days, leaving people locked in their homes and crippling the local economy. Human rights groups reported the story, but clashes in the area, and the threats facing reporters, have kept Nepalese journalists away.

The beatings were just another incident in a series of human rights violations that have taken place in the midst of the country's escalating conflict. For nearly 10 years, Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) rebels have been fighting to overthrow the country's constitutional monarchy and establish a people's republic. As many as 12,000 people have died in the conflict.

The U.N. Working Group on Enforced and Involuntary Disappearances says that Nepal has reported 1,200 disappearances carried out by RNA security forces -- more than any other country. Local rights groups say the numbers may be much higher. Security forces are also responsible for widespread torture, illegal arrests, extra-judicial killings and sexual violence against women.

Meanwhile, the Maoists are carrying out a campaign that includes abductions, amputations, killings, child recruitment and extortion. They have displaced thousands of people from their homes.

Prompted by the worsening civil war, Nepal's King Gyanendra staged a coup on February 1, 2005, ousting a democratically elected parliament and seizing complete control of the country. Thousands of political opponents, rights workers and journalists were jailed. In a national television address, the king claimed the move was needed to root out corruption and quell the Maoist rebellion.

But in the face of international pressure, Gyanendra lifted the state of emergency in April, and most detainees were freed. Civil and political rights have yet to be restored, however, and in recent weeks, dozens of people, including as many as 100 reporters, have been arrested in crackdowns on pro-democracy protests.

Amnesty International and local rights groups say human rights abuses by both sides have escalated dramatically since the coup. And with democratic rights suspended and little international support, most people are left to their own devices.


Shangri La?

I stop to gulp down what's left in my water bottle, and Luitel looks back at me, raising an eyebrow. As he glances at his watch, I'm reminded that we don't have much time. The sun has started to plummet toward the horizon, and the forest that surrounds us suddenly feels much darker than it did just moments ago.

Young boy working in rice field.

More than 80 per cent of Nepalese live in the countryside and are increasingly caught in the midst of the fighting.

"Will we make it in time?" I ask.

"We'll be all right," he replies. "But we have to keep walking."

After 40 more minutes, we reach the edge of the village. It's after curfew. I'm relieved that there are no soldiers in sight.

At our small, modest hotel, I fall asleep quickly to the sound of a nearby rushing river. In my mind, I've arrived in the Shangri La of the guidebooks -- remote and untouched by the war.

Just shy of 10 p.m., I'm awakened by a burst of automatic gunfire immediately outside the hotel. I move down the hall to Luitel's room and take cover under a bed. Lying on the ground, I listen to distant cries echoing in the hills -- the rebels relaying secret battle codes to each other, according to Luitel.

"Don't turn on the light," Luitel whispers. "We don't want the army to see us. You'll sleep in here. The walls will protect you from any stray bullets."

I can hear soldiers' footsteps crunching along the pebbly road outside. Meanwhile, Luitel slides his bed in front of the open window.

"I need the fresh air to sleep," he says. "And besides, I'm used to the war."

The Wrath of the RNA

At sunrise, the hotel owner, Krishna Kumar Shresta, performs his morning puja at a small Hindu shrine on the roof of the hotel.

"Many nights soldiers bang on the door and demand that I come onto the road," he explains. "They accuse me of sheltering the Maoists. I tell them that it's not true, but they insist that I am, and they threaten to beat me. This hotel used to be busy, but people from surrounding areas are now too afraid to come here, so mostly the hotel is empty."

As Luitel and I prepare to step onto the street, the hotel owner's wife warns us the RNA is patrolling nearby. "Are you sure you want to go outside?" she says. "I don't want you to make things dangerous for us."

"Nothing will happen to you," insists Luitel. "We're trying to make things better by writing about the situation here."

As we walk through the town to the market, I wrestle with the questions raised by the woman. Is it better to be silent or to take calculated risks to expose abuses? Could there be fallout for those who speak out about the beatings, for the family hosting us at the hotel, even for Luitel himself?

"They beat me and my employee, and said awful things to my wife -- words I can't repeat in public. They ordered me to stand up and not to move so they could beat me more easily."

The hotel owner's brother, Surendra Shresta, runs a tailor shop in the market. It was in his shop that those two off-duty soldiers were killed several weeks ago. Although Shresta and others carried the wounded soldiers by stretcher to hospital, the RNA accused them of not doing enough to help the men. As a result, he suffered their wrath.

"They beat me and my employee, and said awful things to my wife -- words I can't repeat in public," he recalls. "They ordered me to stand up and not to move so they could beat me more easily. I wasn't even allowed to move my face. When they were about to beat me, I was scared, so I moved. But they held my face and told me to stand straight."

An older woman explains how soldiers came to her house and threatened her. They also accused her of feeding the rebels.

"They said, 'What were you doing when the soldiers were shot -- sitting there blindfolded?'"

"I said, 'I wasn't blindfolded, I was looking. But I can't tell who is a Maoist and who isn't. It's not written on people's foreheads whether they are Maoists or not.'"

For Luitel, the situation for people in Arughat is intolerable. "People here are scared and terrorized," he says. "Even small kids, when they see security people, they say, 'They're coming, they're coming.'

From the market, Luitel and I cross a bridge over the river and hike up a hill to the local RNA barracks. I'm surprised to find that the local RNA commander, Captain Rudra Dev Pandey, is just 21 years old. He wears a Converse All Stars T-shirt and jeans.

Luitel asks him if there is any truth to the villagers' stories.

"After the [killing of the two soldiers], we needed to ask the people some questions," says the commander. "There were some misunderstandings, but we have very positive relations with the people. You can ask them -- we didn't beat anyone."

The commander doesn't want to discuss the topic any further, so I ask him about the gunfire we heard last night.

"Training exercise," he replies, looking over my head.

Victims of War

A week later, I fly with Luitel to Nepal Ganj in the west of the country. People here have been deeply affected by the conflict, and Luitel has come to investigate recent abuses carried out by the Maoists and RNA security forces.

Our first stop is at Bheri Zonal Hospital, where the conflict's latest victims -- men and women of all ages, and young children -- lie on iron beds, their fractured and bloodied limbs in bandages and braces. Their loved ones sit next to them with dour expressions.

A frail-looking farmer in his 60s, Hari Lal Dhakal, sits up in his bed to tell Luitel how he ended up in the hospital.

"The Maoists asked me for money," he says, "But I'm a poor man, so I couldn't give them anything. They came to my house at night and smashed my leg with a boulder."

A middle-aged man, Khadga Bahadur Magar, recalls how RNA security forces shot him as he tried to flee their attack on a group of Maoist rebels.

"I ran 200 or 300 meters, and then my hand was hit by a bullet," he says. "I kept running, but then another bullet hit my leg. I couldn't move, so I raised my arms in the air, and soldiers came and made a stretcher and carried me away."

A local newspaper reported that the man was a Maoist rebel, although he denies the allegation to Luitel. It's not surprising that few are willing to come out in public in support of the rebels.

Guna Raj Luitel smiles holding a goat.

Luitel arrives in the Dhading district to interview villagers. He says the village reminds him of where he grew up in eastern Nepal. He picks up a goat and says, "What a beauty."

According to Luitel, in the early days of the Maoists' so-called people's war, many were eager to back the rebels' armed struggle. But the Maoists' relentless abuses against civilians have led people to turn away from their cause. As many as 200,000 people have been displaced throughout the country by the conflict. The government has largely ignored their needs, and the international community and agencies have also been slow to respond to the crisis.

From the hospital, we drive 20 minutes out of the city to a camp where 200 families have moved after being forced to flee their villages by the Maoists. All the houses here are made of mud, and there is no electricity or running water. Two dozen children gather around us. I notice nearly all have splotchy rashes on their faces, tangled hair and no shoes.

Guna Raj follows Muga Shahi, a middle-aged woman who is carrying a baby, to her mud house. She and her husband were repeatedly abducted by the Maoists, and all of their belongings were stolen, so they decided that they had no choice but to move to the camp.

"My husband worked as a police officer for 15 years," she tells us. "The Maoists assured us that if he resigned from his post, they would not give us any more trouble. But after my husband resigned and we focused on our farming, the Maoists kept coming and asking us for donations. They abducted us several times, always demanding more money. We were terrorized. I had just given birth six days earlier, and they stole all of our belongings -- our pots and pans and our cattle. They forced us to leave."

A former paramedic who fled his village and moved to the camp now volunteers to treat the displaced people. He keeps very busy. "People here are in very poor health, and I'm forced to treat them on my own," he says. "Many have eye infections, skin diseases, pneumonia, typhoid, diarrhea and other problems."

Meeting the Maoists

Luitel and I are both keen to meet the Maoist leaders to ask them why so many civilians are being targeted in the war.

But, as Luitel points out, it is easy for the Maoists to find someone. But when you want to find the Maoists, it's far more complicated. For a reporter like Luitel, it can also be dangerous.

The Maoists' supremo, Prachanda, whose real name is Pushpa Kamal Dahal, has lived in India for years. But Luitel is hopeful that we'll be able to meet lower-ranking leaders within the movement.

We set out on motorbike. Here in the western part of the country, the landscape is relatively flat, and rice fields stretch out on all sides.

Comrade Binit, area secretary for the Maoists, shakes my hand. He looks to me like an ordinary farmer, perhaps a little tougher -- but I have a hard time picturing him as a leader of one of the world's most violent insurrections.

We drive on for another half hour. Red hammer-and-sickle emblems on the sides of buildings suggest we've entered a Maoist-controlled zone. Equally telling are the bombs along the roadside that can be detonated at any time. The rebels have put these in place to keep the RNA away.

A district reporter from Luitel's newspaper leads us to an informant. After talking with us, the man leaves to ask a local Maoist leader if he'll agree to meet with us. When the informant returns an hour later, we follow him along a winding dirt road, deep into the villages.

We come to a modest farmhouse and wait in a rice field. The informant hollers to the Maoist leader, who begins to saunter toward us.

Comrade Binit, area secretary for the Maoists, shakes my hand. He looks to me like an ordinary farmer, perhaps a little tougher -- but I have a hard time picturing him as a leader of one of the world's most violent insurrections.

"We want to abolish the monarchy created in Nepal 250 years ago and establish a people's republic suitable for the 21st century," says the commander. "That is why we're carrying out the people's war."

I've read the party doctrine on the Maoists' Web site, and so far, Comrade Binit is sticking to the script.

Local Maoist leader.

Maoist leader, Comrade Binit, insists the rebels are protecting civilians in the midst of their so-called people's war, even as reported abuses by government forces and the Maoists soar.

Luitel fearlessly pursues his investigation -- he wants to know why both the Maoists and the RNA are targeting civilians.

"The people are facing tremendous pressure because of the war," Luitel starts. "What do you think about the people's situation, caught in the middle of the conflict?"

"I don't think people are caught in the middle," the commander replies. "People who want to preserve the feudal system in the name of the people spread misinformation. Our party takes this very seriously, and we have repeatedly expressed our commitment to protecting people. We've trained the people's liberation army to protect the people. We are respecting this. But during the people's war, some incidents can occur. But we try to improve ourselves. And we're committed to it."

And that's about all this veteran Maoist is willing to tell us.

Abuses? What Abuses?

Back in Kathmandu, the director of public relations for the RNA, Brigadier General Dipak Gurung, insists that the RNA security forces are also respecting the rule of law and protecting civilians. He explains that after several allegations of human rights abuses on the part of the RNA in 2001, the military created human rights cells within the organization and has cleaned up its act.

"We are committed to protecting the people, and we are definitely working on that," says Gurung. "Unless we protect our people, we cannot win their hearts and minds."

Nepal's foreign minister, Ramesh Nath Pandey, also insists the RNA has an improved human rights record. So I ask if reports by Amnesty International, the United Nations and local rights groups about escalating violations by security forces are unfounded.

"I'm sorry to say that you have been misinformed," states the minister. "The human rights abuses have decreased. And the security forces' implementation of human rights values has increased. That's what the report is. Not only from Nepal, but from international agencies."

"There is a campaign of misinformation," he adds. "Many other smaller countries face the same troubles. That is the tragedy of the double standard that has been followed by powerful countries."

Ian Martin is the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights representative in Nepal. He confirms reports of escalating violations by both sides in the conflict, but he maintains that his office is limited in terms of what it can do to help curb abuses.

"I hope we can bring about some mitigation in those abuses in the international pressure we represent. They know we will be reporting publicly on their human rights performance."

"We Need to Tell the Reality"

As I prepare to leave Nepal, I feel disheartened by the gulf that exists between what the Maoist leader and the RNA say about respecting civilians and by the countless stories of abuse that I've heard on my travels throughout the countryside. Martin's claim that the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights is virtually powerless to improve the situation only adds to my despair. I fear for the people of Nepal.

Pashupatinath Temple in Kathmandu, Nepal.

Kathmandu's Pashupatinath Temple is one of Nepal's most important Hindu sites. It's believed that to die and to be cremated there will release you from the cycle of repeated birth and death.

Luitel invites me to attend a performance by his favorite classical Nepali musician, Aavas. Many of his pieces are about the struggles faced by ordinary Nepalese in the midst of the conflict.

I'm mesmerized by the music, but take a moment to glance at Luitel. As we had moved through the country together, I was humbled by his passion and commitment -- by the lengths to which he goes to report on how civilians are bearing the brunt of the war.

I remember what he told me days earlier when I asked him what moved him to start reporting on the war in the first place.

"After this conflict started in our country, most of the articles I wrote were about killings, abductions and the difficulties facing the people," he said. "Sometimes I feel we are reproducing the same kind of newspaper every day. Again, I need to write the same kind of stories about the miseries of the people. We are just repeating the same thing every day, and every day the situation gets worse."

"So why do you keep doing it?" I asked.

"If we stop telling these stories, people will start thinking there is peace and harmony and development in the country. But that would just be keeping the dirt under the carpet. We need to tell the reality of the country. "


Aaron Goodman is a freelance journalist and documentary maker. He is currently completing two documentaries he made about the civil war in Nepal, and political "disappearances" in Sri Lanka for CBC Television and CBC Radio One.

REACTIONS

Vancouver, BC
Very engaging story. It seemed to capture both a general and intimate perspective of the situation, in which the character of Luitel was key in separating sensitive subject matter from the authors first hand compassion, resulting in an informative and emotionally accessible story. This is balanced journalism. Good job, Aaron. -Keep 'em coming!