from Kathmandu--November 27, 2007
I’ve just returned from a five-day research trip through critical areas of conflict in southern Nepal. Accompanying me were my assistants, Govinda Rijal, Deepak Bhujel, and human rights activist Kapil Shrestha.
ending at the
border of India
Street shops burned
Our first stop was Krishnanagar, mere footsteps from the Indian border, and a flashpoint of violence where unidentified gunmen shot dead Mohit Khan, an influential Muslim. Mohit Khan was a landowner of 400 hectares and a politician with strong links to the Prime Minister and the palace.
At 7:45 am on September 16, Mohit had left his farm on motorcycle heading for Krishnanagar. Along the way, assailants stopped him in the middle of the road. “He lifted his hands in the greeting of ‘Namaste’ and was mortally wounded just below his left armpit,” according to Mohit’s brother-in-law.
In the years leading up to Mohit’s assassination, the Maoists had attempted to wrench control of Krishnanagar and the surrounding district with dubious results. In 2002, an 110,000 rupee “donation” was demanded by the Maoists of the local schools. The locals refused. This, according to the Muslims I interviewed, was the beginning of a spontaneous uprising in Madesh against the Maoists of which Mohit Khan emerged as its "vigilante" leader. His group was responsible for the death of at least 12 Maoists.
After his murder and the ensuing riots, Kathmandu media reported that Mohit Khan's murder had sent his supporters on a rampage--that they began indiscriminate looting, arson and attacks, which, in turn, stoked equally violent retaliation. Many victims were burned beyond recognition and discovered only later, where they had been abandoned in deep ravines. The media implied that Mohit had connections with criminal elements and that they may have been behind his killing.
My Muslim sources, however, gave a different version of the carnage. They insisted that Mohit was being intentionally smeared by the bias press, that Maoists had not only killed Mohit, but were also the instigators of the resultant rioting in Krishnanagar.
Second from right Mohit Khan's
“How could the attacks start just 20 minutes after Khan was murdered?” one Muslim asked me. “There was not enough time to bring the news from the countryside. It was well planned by the Maoists all along. And why was Mohit riding alone in the countryside if he was connected to organized crime? Those kinds of guys always have bodyguards.”
Different versions of the same story, all told with equally convincing passion: This is what one experiences when one goes to Madesh and talks to the Madeshi people—something the current government is loathe to do. The place has turned into a sugar cane and rice paddy version of the Wild Wild West. There is no law. There is no protection. And the politicos in Kathmandu aren’t brave enough to visit the area in person.
In the case of the murder of Mohit Khan and the burning of Krishnanagar, the one thing that everyone in the Kapilvastu district seems to agree on—and with palpable fury—is that the interim government and the so-called “security forces” stationed in Madesh, made absolutely no move to intervene, or beef up its numbers, or supply relief to the survivors, once the smoke in the town had cleared.
The second morning of my trip I interviewed a family originally from the hill region whose roadside teashop had been burned and destroyed during the riots—one of many incinerated down the dusty lanes of Krishnanagar.
"A large group of Madeshis surrounded the shop and overpowered us. And then they torched the place by pushing two buses into our hut and setting them on fire. We couldn’t save our TV, refrigerator, cash—all of our important deeds and documents-- or any of our other belongings— nothing, we could save nothing except our lives. We ran out the back of the shop and fled for cover in the fields. There was no police anywhere. Eight or nine hours after our place was destroyed, when the police finally arrived, instead of acting to prevent further damage, they just stood there and did nothing while other places were being burned and robbed. Nothing!
“The arsonists were local people-- Madeshis. They threatened us with pistols and bombs. Those thugs fled to the other side of the Indian border and are still living there, but they are still threatening us hill people—they say that they will kill us if we try to come get them in India.
“The only compensation we have received is 10,000 rupees from the central government which paid for our utensils required for the restaurant so that we can start earning a living again. International donor agencies like the UN came and distributed clothes, blankets and even food in the nearby displacement camp in Chandarauta, but they never came here.”
The angry implication in “they never came here” is that those who left their homes and regrouped in displacement camps were rewarded by NGO donations, while property owners who, in spite of serious misgivings, had moved back to their homes, received nothing from the NGOs. There is little love for human rights groups in the Terai either. With few exceptions, those advocates who visited after the disaster were many days too late to be of significant use: “They are cowards only interested in making an appearance so that they can get their paychecks back in Kathmandu.”
While we were filming inside one teashop a crowd had converged in a tight knot around the entrance—maybe eighty or so men. Basically, we were pinned inside the shop. The mood got ugly outside. One elderly man shouted at Kapil Shrestha, “You’ve made your money for the day, now go way.” Others yelled, “Turn off the cameras. Go. Now.” Govinda, who was closer to the exit, motioned for me to slip out from the other direction. He told our driver to move the car further down the street. Deepak and I got to the car first. Kapil and Govinda tried to calm the men down a bit, which partially worked. But after everyone piled in, we knew it could have swung the opposite way at any second. As we pulled away, I tried to get a shot of the policemen who, all along, had been on the other side of the lane, watching, and doing absolutely nothing.
More than 500 houses and at least two mosques were torched, displacing thousands. According to some analysts, the Kapilvastu violence is the most serious sectarian flare-up in Nepal’s history. Most agree that it could have been contained had the police chosen to step in. They did not, nor did Nepal’s widely despised Home Minister, Krishna Prashad Sitaula, take action.
Mohit Khan’s house is now vacant. His sons are in Lukhnow, India. The people who were killed in the riot in front of the police have received no compensation from the government in Kathmandu.
Next we visited Pathardaiya, a village populated by people who had migrated from the hills years ago and whose town had had been burned to the ground by Madeshis. 63 houses were lost to the conflagration. Interestingly, in searching for the village, which was far off the beaten path, we got lost; we procured the help of a Muslim elder in a nearby village who then accompanied us to Pathardaiya. And the hill people seemed to respect him in spite of the recent violence. It was he who persuaded the leader of Pathardaiya to talk to us:
“Two days after the Muslim leader’s murders in Krishnanagar, we heard that the hilly people around the town were being beaten and chased from their homes. So we had a feeling that we might be affected too. We were worried. But on the day of the incident, we saw many people heading across the flat lands toward our village. We ran to the nearby jungle. The mob came in, took whatever valuables were there, and set all of our houses on fire. We couldn’t do anything but watch our property being destroyed. We were luckier than some. Some of the villagers weren’t able to get away fast enough and they were beaten and the women were raped.”
Another villager, a mother with her young child, came forward and said, “That day we were hiding behind a group of trees and bushes and my daughter was with me. She saw what they did to some of our neighbors and cried out but I put my hands over her mouth to save us, and the other people with us, from being detected by the mob. Even now, two-and-a-half months later, my daughter cries at night. She’s afraid of everybody and she keeps asking me, ‘Why did those people do that to us?’ And I have no answer.”
Our next stop was Chandaruta Shankarpura, a displacement camp set up soon after the Krishnanagar atrocities. This is the fifth time, since 1985, that these hill people have been displaced. Their most recent home was Devipur, a small village along the Indian border. They told me that they had had enough and that they would never return to Devipur.
Sugar mill on the way to the camp.
A group of people, talking simultaneous said: “Indian criminal activities were significantly reduced for four or five years because of Maoist presence in our area. But, when Mohit Khan’s vigilante group, who had been trained and armed by the Nepal Army, was formed to fight the Maoists, the Maoists power here was reduced and the Indian thugs came back again and robbed, harassed and raped our women. There were 10 border security police guards stationed in our area, but the Indian thugs would capture them so that they could ransack our place with impunity, time and again. We have had enough of that. There is no security in this region.”
An old woman was next to speak: “ My husband was killed five years ago by an Indian gang. He was dropped to the ground and killed by those guys’ shotguns. They took everything that belonged to me—cash and valuables. But I had no place to go so I stayed there working on the landlord’s farm. But this last time, it was just unbearable, not only for me but for my entire village. That is why we are here living in tents.”
When asked how she managed to support herself, the old woman said, “I will do anything—washing clothes for the rich people, cleaning utensils for the rich people, working in the fields for the rich people—or anything that my body will allow me to do. But I will never go back to my old village, Devipur.”
Another woman, who was making dahl soup nearby said: “If the government won’t give us work, they should put us in a big room and give us poison. We will take the poison happily. Poison is better than returning to Devipur.”
Our next stop was a visit to Arunkhola, a small town situated next to the river of the same name. This is in Nawalparasi District. A dirt tract leads way from the town and, high above on a prominence, perches the Fourth Division Headquarters of the Maoists Peoples Liberation Army. It is also the site of one of the cantonments set up for Maoists cadre, as agreed by the 2006 comprehensive peace agreement. A UN station abuts the cantonment. To my knowledge, I am the first person to have been allowed to film in the Maoist camp.
UN headquarters at end of Maoist camp.
The views are magnificent at Fourth Division and, with the exception of camouflaged armed soldiers, one could easily be convinced that this was one of those many pastoral settings photographed for tour books of Nepal. Women and children ambled freely and rather languidly in the late afternoon sunfall. Young men and women, out of uniform, played volleyball with the same explosions of laughter and exertion that one might encounter anywhere in a small town in USA.
But security was everywhere. In fact, I must say that the only time I felt safe, during the entire trip through the Terai, was when I was ensconced in the presence of Maoist cadres.
We filmed a military exercise of young cadre. Very young cadre. Lineless fresh faces belied their stern expressions. Except for the ambient sound of villagers going home for dinner, all was quite on the high saddle.
Later, we ducked inside Division Headquarters, which was a small two-room house. Along the walls were hung pictures of Maoist martyrs and pie graphs colored in to illustrate the percentage of ethnic minorities who made up the soldiers in the cantonment. 5067 people in the camp; 4014 men and 1053 women. Of ethnic groups, Dalits led the camp with nearly 27%; Brahmans, Chettri and Magar were the next largest groups, followed by Tharu (8%); Newar cadres were among the smallest—a reflection perhaps of the Maoists’ minimal popularity within the Kathmandu Valley. Muslims weighed in at 1.36% and other minorities included Rai, Limbu, Tamang, Thakuri and Gurung.
According to one of the leaders, the age range was 20 – 45, although this has been heatedly disputed by many analysts who maintain that underage boys are often enlisted.
I was allowed to interview Comrade Tara, Fourth Division Headquarters Secretary and Brigade Commander, as well as the Deputy Brigade Commander. We mostly talked about the living conditions of the camp, the long-term problems of the camp, lack of government support and UN involvement.
Comrade Tara was disappointed with government support. Although the comprehensive peace agreement of 2006 promised to help finance the Maoist cantonments (60 rupees daily allowance per soldier for food and lodging with a monthly stipend of 3000 rupees monthly), the government is now four months behind in handing over the promised money.
Additional problems within the camp included inadequate infrastructure, inadequate roadway leading to the cantonment, and treating wounds accrued during the war.
DUNHAM: There have been numerous newspaper articles about fires breaking out in some of the cantonment and other problems with water, etc. Now winter is coming on. Are you going to be warm enough? Just give me an idea of what your basic concerns are, right now, in terms of the everyday issues that crop up here.
COMRADE: The water, both underground and above are contaminated with limestone. If we drink this water, we get abdominal pains, skin conditions, and throat-related problems. But more important is our war-wounded soldiers: medication and rehabilitation, skill development, occupational rehabilitation, and psychosocial counseling and rehabilitation. The agreed upon procedure for medical treatment is that we send our wounded cadres to the camp health post here. If they cannot be suitably treated, we send them to the Jonal Hospital in Butwal. If that doesn’t work, they are moved to Bir Hospital in Kathmandu. If that doesn’t work, they are referred to Delhi. It’s the government’s responsibility to handle this. But in practice, we have six or seven cadres who require immediate medical attention outside of Nepal, and the government is not responding. There is one particular case of abdominal rupture but he has still not been allowed to get to Delhi where he can be properly treated.
DUNHAM: You mentioned there are psychosocial problems among the cadre. What are the psychological problems cadres have faced when they were brought into the cantonments?
COMRAD: The psychological problems occur because they have fought for political solutions that still have not been resolved. If the political problems are solved, the psychosocial problems will be solved.
Fire on road to indicate the beginning of a bande.
To really get an idea of how lawless the southern part of Nepal has become, one should hop in a car and break through one of the very frequent bandes—strikes in which people are not allowed to travel the highways. We drove through the barricades in the Bara District, around 9:00 pm, Thanksgiving night. There was no one on the Mahendra Highway except for our vehicle. (That same night, Jimmy Carter was in Kathmandu talking to Maoists leaders.) We drove like hell— from Pathalaiya to Rajbiraj—550 kilometers under a near-full moon. We zipped past burned-out buses, past stones thrown in heaps in the middle of the road and, most formidable, fallen sal trees angled strategically 100 meters apart from one another. The idea of the barricades is that if you have to stop your truck or car, men will come out from the surrounding jungle, beat you senseless and burn your ride. Luckily, we didn’t have to stop. Jackals slinking and foxes darting across the empty stretch of moonlit highway were our only companions.
Our final destination was Rajbiraj, where Kapil Shrestha had organized a roundtable discussion of 25 local leaders. Rajbiraj has the dubious distinction of being known as the “abduction capital of Nepal.” Invitees to our meeting included economists, teachers, journalists, politicians, physicists, human rights activists and lawyers. The topic was “Why is southern Nepal in such a mess?” It was a four-hour meeting with everyone having their moment in front of the camera. According to my notes, here are the words and phrases that kept cropping up in the locals’ analysis:
Exclusion from having a political voice
Insincere government in Kathmandu
Indifferent government in Kathmandu
Subversive intentions from the Indian government
Exclusion from equality
Fear of insurgents
Fear of Indians
Fear of Maoists
Fear of criminal gangs
No confidence in any of the seven parties in government
Humiliation from the people in the north.
Humiliation from the people in the north.
Humiliation from the people in the north.
Dunham, Govinda Rijal, Deepak Bhujel, Kapil Shrestha behind human rights banner
attached to vehicle at the end of the trip.