War Without Ends

Nepalese soldiers patrol Kathmandu after an explosion ripped through the town
Nepalese soldiers patrol Kathmandu after a bomb-packed rickshaw exploded on the second day of a general strike called by pro-Maoist students, Feb. 26, 2004. A second blast ripped apart a bus on March 3 (Photo: Devendra M. Singh/AFP-Getty Images).

The village of Solta sits serene on the banks of the Karnali River, nestled amid the jagged mountains of the Kailali district of western Nepal. The river flows peacefully past the village on its way to India, its force exhausted by its long descent from China and the Tibetan Himalayas. The region has a continuous supply of water and a mild, even warm, winter climate—more like the hot plains of India than the Himalayas—that is conducive to year-round farming. You won’t see it on the evening news, but a devestating war is being fought against this serene backdrop. 

An estimated 8,000 people have died since Maoist rebels launched a “people’s war” to oust the country’s royal dynasty in 1996. According to the Informal Sector Service Center, a Nepali human-rights group, an average of 17 more die each day. Rebels conscript children. Incidents of gang rape and torture have been reported by combattants from both sides. Repeated attempts to reach a peaceful solution have failed.

An hour from Solta, a dusty band of migrant workers rests in the shade of a banyan tree, eating, smoking, and comforting their screaming children. They say they are walking to India; in reality they are running from Nepal. These 42 weather-beaten Nepalis, like millions of other men, old women, and small children who find themselves in the same situation, are the real victims of this long civil war.

They had walked for six days from a small village in the northwest called Narakot. They hoped to catch a bus the next day and continue to the town of Mahendranagar on the Indian border. From there, they would start walking again, looking for work as unskilled laborers in India. The youngest member of the group was four months old, the oldest 75. Some planned to work in India for three months, some six months, some longer. But many would likely stay.

Poor Nepalis have been traveling to India to work for centuries. But these 42 mountain villagers, like the other 80 percent of the country’s population living in rural areas, have found themselves caught in a crossfire. An immigration officer at the Mahendranagar border crossing, just one of many, estimates that he sees 500 Nepalese leave for work in India every day. He says he recently saw more than 3,000 Nepalis cross in a single day. A few years ago, he says, a busy day might have seen perhaps 100 Nepalis leaving for India. Official numbers are unavailable because the two countries maintain an open border policy.

Why are Nepalis leaving in such large numbers? Villagers across the country describe similar scenarios: Maoist rebels, either on the run from the army or bent on expanding their territory, enter a village. Sometimes they come in small groups of five or six. Other times, hundreds of heavily armed rebels will arrive at a village. On their way through, they ask villagers for food, shelter, money, a son, or a daughter. The villagers, subsistence farmers and craftsmen, are in no position to refuse.

When the Maoists leave, the security forces arrive on their trail. When they don’t find armed revolutionaries, the army often singles out villagers who gave the Maoists support, accusing them of being Maoists themselves. Sometimes they are harassed, other times jailed. If the villagers are very unlucky, the security forces will arrive while the Maoists are encamped and the village will turn into a battleground.

A large red and white “martyrs’ gate,” one of many similar monuments across the country, stands at the border of Solta. Here, the gate commemorates a husband and wife from the village who had taken up arms for the Maoist cause two years ago and were killed in a nearby battle. A hammer and sickle crown the structure, ringed by the words, “The spilling of blood will only make us stronger!”

In the early years of the “people’s war,” the western districts of Rolpa and Rukum served as the Maoists’ main base. The movement has since spread, and today Maoists guerrillas operate, in some degree, in all of Nepal’s 75 districts. The west, however, remains their stronghold. Here there are few job opportunities, and many villages remain without electricity. The province of Rukum has no roads. These are the places the Maoists call home.

The Maoist
A group of several dozen Maoists had been in Solta a week before I arrived. When I asked how I could find them, one villager suggested hiking up into the hills. “You don’t find them, they find you,” he explained.

In the event, one found me having breakfast the next morning in the village. He introduced himself proudly as Comrade Rawal, the second in command at a nearby training camp. Though he could have been no more than 5 feet, 6 inches tall, he had a taut frame and an intense demeanor.

Unarmed, dressed in clean pants and a plaid shirt, he looked as though he could be a teacher or a farmer. The Maoists’ anonymity complicates the security forces’ jobs. As one teacher, explaining the security forces’ difficulties, put it, “Who is a Maoist? Is it you? Is it me? Is it that farmer tilling his fields, or the shopkeeper down the road? Who is a Maoist? If they are not pointing a gun in your face, how can you tell?”

Rawal and I spoke for more than an hour. He was polite and articulate. With his 10th-grade education, he may well have been one of the most educated men in the district. Now 22, he joined the movement at 18. The second of five brothers and sisters, he says he joined because he was tired of seeing his parents toil for nothing. When the Maoists came through his town, speaking of “getting respect for the poor,” “dividing land evenly,” and “creating a society with no rich or poor,” Rawal joined them. His family was proud of him, he explained, because he was an important man in a movement fighting for the rights of the poor. I hesitated to mention that the poor were suffering most from this war.

Rawal was in town, among other reasons, to buy shoes. He said he would return to the training camp, a two-day walk from Solta, after our conversation. The camp, he explained, houses some 600 armed and indoctrinated guerrillas—“hardcore” fighters, as the military describes them. These fighters, Rawal said, eat 2,200 pounds of food a day. They must get their food somewhere, and the pressure inevitably falls on local villages. The camp buys some food with money from looted banks or local and tourist “donations,” but Rawal is frank about expropriating the rest from villagers.

Rawal was hard-pressed to cite a country whose political model the Maoists admired, and could not explain what kind of policies the group would implement were they to come to power. But as he left, he insisted that I write down his parting words. “To the rich of the world, the corrupt,” he said, “we poor are gathering, we are fighting, and we are powerful.”

If Rawal is more comfortable with slogans and threats than with proper political platforms, it may be because the rebels lack a coherent ideology. The rebels call themselves Maoists, wave Soviet flags, speak of a “new democracy” ... and say they would implement a free-market economy were they to assume power. The two top leaders, Pushpa Kamal Dahal, alias Prachanda, and Baburam Bhattarai are underground, last seen in India. Their only solid political foundation is their disdain for monarchy, even constitutional monarchy. At best, the platform is contradictory; at worst, a confusing reason to die. 

The “People’s War” 
The Maoist movement existed in ebb and flow between 1996 and 2001. Even before the Maoists launched their “people’s war” in 1996, peasants, organized by the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist), began protesting high rents. In early 1995, police launched a series of operations to “win the hearts and minds” of Nepali villagers and to root out the Maoists. Many backfired amid allegations of human-rights abuses.

Throughout the late 1990s, the Royal Nepalese Army (RNA) stood by as the rebels battled with the police. Perhaps the Maoists, in their early days, did not feel confident enough to attack the army and draw them into the fray. The government, likewise, did not allow the army to intervene.

Theories abound as to why the army stayed out of the conflict. One involves the political parties’ suspicion of the royal armies. From 1960 through 1990, political parties were outlawed in Nepal, and King Birendra acted accordingly. The RNA, on the king’s orders, harassed and arrested political party leaders. Some argue that the parties, when reinstated, had not forgotten their treatment during those times and therefore hesitated to unleash the same military forces that had suppressed them for three decades. Under the constitutional monarchy, the RNA could be dispatched only by the National Security Council, of which the prime minister, a party man, was a member.

The Maoists have a different theory. They claim the army stayed out of the conflict because they and King Birendra enjoyed an “undeclared working unity...on some matters.” The extent of this accord will never be known, since on June 1, 2001, Crown Prince Dipendra, apparently under the influence of drugs and alcohol, murdered his father and nine other family members in a massacre still clouded in controversy and enigma.

The slaughter shook Nepal. Just 10 years prior, the monarch’s popularity was at its nadir. Yet in more recent years, the king’s agreement to relinquish absolute power and his conduct over the next decade as a constitutional monarch had resuscitated his image with the people. After his death, the streets of Kathmandu were thronged with mourners.

Three days after the shooting, and under dubious circumstances, Prince Gyanendra, Birendra’s younger brother, became king. On Nov. 23, after a four-month cease-fire capped by failed peace talks, Maoists attacked the army for the first time and made off with weapons and ammunition. Perhaps they sensed the government was weak and in disorder. Perhaps, if they did have “undeclared working unity” with King Birendra as they later claimed, they felt they had lost their partner in the palace. In any case, the raid shook confidence in the government at home and abroad. Three days later, Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba, with the support of the political parties, declared a state of emergency.

In May 2002, Deuba, at the behest of the security forces and the new king, moved to extend the state of emergency. The move met with such vehement opposition in parliament that Deuba felt compelled to prorogue the parliament and to call for new elections in six months. This sparked further outcry. On Oct. 4, 2002, King Gyanendra intervened and fired Deuba. His own appointee, Lokendra Bahadur Chand would hold office only until the end of May 2003, when the king would replace him with Surya Bahadur Thapa. The king further postponed the November 2002 elections indefinitely. King Gyanendra now rules with no parliament, a suspended constitution, no publicly elected officials, a weak army, and an armed rebellion to fight.

The Colonel
Col. Deepak Gurung, chief information officer of the Royal Nepalese Army, is a jolly, round man. He smiles often, whether he’s offering tea or explaining the difficulties of fighting a guerilla war in Nepal. Immediately likeable, the colonel speaks seriously, yet knows how to put his audience at ease: admirable qualities in a spokesman.

“Nepal is a combination of the mountains of Afghanistan and the jungles of Vietnam,” Col. Gurung explains. The army, he continues, is not fighting one enemy, it’s fighting two: the Maoists and the countryside. Nepal is an ideal chessboard for guerilla warfare. Labyrinthine hills rise into the highest mountain range on Earth; dense bush and jungles thrive in areas too steep or unfertile for cultivation. Maoists can strike and disappear back into familiar territory with ease.

Gurung points to the Annapurna region as an example of the difficulties his army faces. It is no secret that Maoists camp in the hills around the villages of Ulleri, Gorepani, and Ghandrung. Villagers know it, the army knows it, and tourists—at this point still safe and out of the crossfire but subject to the Maoist “tax” when traveling through the area—know it. But it’s one thing to know Maoists are there and quite another to dislodge them.

The village of Ulleri clings to the side of a cliff nearly 1,000 feet above a river valley. Any platoon making its way up to the village and into the hills would have to follow one, well-worn footpath and would almost certainly be spotted long before it reached the village. Nearly every village has at least one scout to send word up the road if the military is on its way. As Gurung put it, “We know they are there, but by the time we get there, it’s too late. They’re gone.”

At times, though, the army is able to catch the Maoists by surprise, raiding their bases in the hills. One such strike along the Ulleri-Ghandrung trail, a popular tourist trek, resulted in the death of two Maoists and the flight of hundreds of other rebels out of the area. The army stayed a few days, then moved on. Only two weeks later, hundreds of Maoists returned to Ulleri to buy food and supplies. 

Maoist sympathizers in the cities frequently call for nationwide strikes, called “Nepal Bandhs,” that bring the country to a standstill. Kathmandu, a city notorious for its traffic, can become a ghost town. Analysts reckon that a one-day bandh costs the economy nearly $8.6 million. This in a country where the average annual per capita income hovers around 15,000 Nepalese rupees, or $200 dollars. Those who do not support the Maoists still observe the strike out of fear of reprisal. As reporter Bhuwan Bhatta put it, “If I work, who will be responsible for my security?”

It does not take many to wreak such chaos. Numbers are vague, but official army estimates peg the number of Maoist “hardcore guerillas” at somewhere between 2,000-3,000, though other estimates range as high as 10,000. The army’s approximation relies primarily on the number of weapons Maoists have seized from security forces in raids, and does not include weapons that are being smuggled into the country from flashpoints like Kashmir. When added to the informal militias, variously estimated as being anywhere from 10,000 to 30,000-strong, as well as perhaps 60,000 “sympathizers,” the rebels pose a formidable challenge to the military.

At this point, Nepali security forces number around 70,000, a number widely considered to be insufficient to suppress the rebels. Gurung merely chuckles when asked how many troops he needs. “It is purely theoretical how many troops we need,” he says. “At this point, we can only contain and degrade.”

Then he pauses for a moment, and suddenly the smile drops from his face. “There is,” he says slowly, “no military solution.”