Times, they are a-changin’
by SUBEL BHANDARI
Shiva Raut, 17, is party chief of Area 11, the place from where Maoist "territory" starts in inner Achham. At first glance, nobody would suspect him. Sporting a trendy haircut dyed brown, dressed in shorts and a sunset yellow T-shirt that reads Baleno, Raut wants to know everything about Kathmandu.
He spots my Maglite torch and asks if I want to gift it to him. Then he looks longingly at my watch. He asks my American photographer friend if he would like to take him around the world. He even offers to be our porter. All Raut wants is to see the world and earn enough to live comfortably.
Two months ago I was in Rolpa where the Maoist insurgency began in 1996. There you know what to expect but here in Achham, a district in the far-western development region, you don't. You don't look for stories here either, they look for you. When you stop for rest, whole village gathers around to share their plight. They told us of police brutality, fear and hatred for the Maoists and their activities, and poverty. We listened not knowing how to respond, lamely injecting, "That's bad but let's hope for the best."
Achham is a two-day bus journey but the highway is dangerous and has too many security checks. One weekly flight from Nepalgunj to Sanfe Bagar connects Achham to the rest of Nepal. Our pilot, Captain Bijay Lama (actor/singer), was complaining about how Royal Nepal Airlines officials sign him up for so many flights to far-flung villages that he doesn't have enough time for international flights.
At Sanfe Bagar airport, we heard that a 22-year-old woman had died 15 minutes earlier. Her body was still there. There are no hospitals or doctors in the entire district of Achham and few health posts or health assistants, neither in both Sanfe Bagar and the district headquarters, Mangalsen. The woman had been flown in from a village three days away from Nepalgunj but since there was only one flight a week, she had died waiting.
Sanfe Bagar Airport after Maoists attacked in 2001.
We had a week-long trek ahead of us. The roads in Achham are rough and rocky. As isolated as Achham might seem, the people here know their news.
They religiously listen to the BBC Nepali News Service at 8.45 PM. Min Raj Timilsina, a shopkeeper, says, "We don't have Internet, email or magazines but we try to keep ourselves updated. All Radio Nepal does is praise the present government," he adds. Radio Nepal hosts a Nepali pop and rock music program and we listened to The Shadows, Lochan Rijal, Madzone, Sugam Pokharel and Abhaya and the Steam Injuns along the way. The youth here like them but the older generation don't. "You can't call that music," says one old man.
School children returning home while APF patrols.
In 2001, the Maoists attacked Achham and held Mangalsen and Sanfe Bagar for a few hours. When they left, the Armed Police Force raided the villages. "All of us were beaten up so badly that we locked our houses and left. Three villagers were killed," remembers Lal Bahadur Saud, a young shopkeeper of Jayagadh village. We came across a Nepal Human Rights Commission probe team investigating the death of Mohan Bhool, a villager. Security forces guard the area. They feel that the Maoists have a trick card up their sleeves now that the rebels have declared a three-month unilateral ceasefire.
Welcome gate at Maoist-declared Area 12.
Time does not heal for Achammis. They feel bitter and betrayed. Some high-level Nepali politicians had visited Achham but since then, relegated it to the far-western status, almost out of reach. "Fifteen governments in more than a decade, what have they done?" asks electrician Hiranya Prasad Khanal, 27, who plans to go to Kathmandu for work. "There is no respect for citizens here. When we go to Mangalsen to pay our taxes or get citizenship, we are frisked 10 times, questioned and treated as suspects. Villagers have been marched to the barracks for nothing."
When the police aren't harassing them, the Maoists are. The rebels force them to participate in Maoist meetings and campaigns. Even on the day that they declared a ceasefire, the villagers were seen returning from one such campaign at midnight. Villagers require Maoist permits to travel north or east to Jaigadh. Every new face is a suspect in inner Achham. Visitors are interrogated and suspicious people are handed over to the Maoists. "Not because we support them but to be safe," says Tanka Singh of Mujagadh.
Abandoned health post in Achham.
The Maoists use villagers as messengers and porters. There are no part-timers or whole-timers here. Area in-charge Comrade Sangharsha points to an elderly man carrying a jerry can of kerosene and a bag of sugar saying, "The villagers love us. Look how they help." Later, the old man says, "We must do as they say or risk being blacklisted."
Banners hung at various places read 'Let's keep children out of war' and 'Children are conflict-free zones'. But on Krishna Ashtami, the Maoists hosted a cultural show with 700 students as audience at Saraswati High School. They've used children as young as 10 years old and made Maoist education compulsory in schools here.
Like all Nepalis, Achhamis want to live in peace. Many have stopped dreaming, many are waiting for a miracle. "It's possible in a country where things change overnight," they jest. Despite everything, they still believe in true democracy. "No democracy, no development. Kathmandu doesn't care about us, why hope?" some ask. We have no answer. All we can do is write this so maybe, tomorrow you can help make a difference.