It's not that the Maoists are everywhere, it's just the government is nowhere to be seen.
Except for the district headquarters of these three roadless mid-western districts, there are no police posts, no post offices-no presence at all of the Nepali state. And everywhere there is evidence of one country and two systems: people pay two taxes, there are two kinds of courts, two permits for everything, two armies, two governments.
To be sure, the ceasefire has eased the lives of most people somewhat. Many from the outlying villages can now travel relatively unhindered to the main bazar towns to collect subsidised rice. Some farmers have returned to their home villages to plant paddy.
There are instances of cooperation: the CDO in Jumla walks down to Tatopani to talk to local Maoists to ease restrictions on villagers. The Maoists recently requested a government health team to conduct a vasectomy camp in their village.
"It is better. We don't have to worry anymore about the possibility of getting killed while gathering fodder, or fetching water," says one villager in Dolpa. "We're just afraid the war may start again." It is an indication of the fear still stalking the land that he doesn't want to be named or photographed. The Maoists and security forces are still eyeball to eyeball, and things could flare up any moment. Indeed, there have been several brief firefights this week in Dang and Jajarkot.
There have also been instances of resistance: some refugee families in Kalikot who were prevented from going back to their villages pelted Maoists with stones at a recent rally. Paru Thapa in Jumla summarises it all: "We obeyed the Ranas and during the Panchayat we did what we were told. Democracy came and we followed. Tomorrow there may be another system and we will have to listen to them too. We can never say we won't obey."
Kotbara village is four hours from Manma, and is still the frontline in the Maoist war. More than a year after the massacre there of 35 people in an army raid, the villagers still appear shell-shocked (See Nepali Times, #106). Of the dead, 17 were young men from a single village in Dhading and seven others-all construction workers at Kotbara airfield. Eleven locals were also killed.
Kotbara residents are still afraid to talk, and it is still not easy to piece together what happened here in the morning of 24 Feburary 2002. It was three days after the Mangalsen and Sanfebagar attacks where the Maoists killed 137 soldiers and policemen. The army launched a helicopter-borne counter-offensive northwards.
A woman Maoist fired her rifle at a helicopter as it approached Kotbara. The soldiers arrived soon after. They shot dead a villager who was walking to his house and wounded a health assistant. The army's intelligence about Maoist presence in Kotbara was accurate, but the militia were hiding at the other end of the town. The wounded health worker warned the Maoists that the army had come, and they escaped into the forests.
One eye-witness said some workers were sitting outside the house playing bag chal, all were reportedly lined up and shot. Among the dead was the sub-contractor, Kumar Thapa whose brother, by coincidence, was in the army's attack unit. A local woman took him to the bodies, and he recognised his brother among the dead. He paid villagers Rs 300 to bury him along the retaining wall of the runway that his own workers had built. "I think it was because he saw his brother that the rest of us were saved," said Man Bahadur Bista, a local colleague of the dead workers.
Other workers were buried along the perimeter of the airport, and local Maoists prevent us from taking pictures of the village and the airport. The villagers told us the army came back the next day, exhumed the bodies, put some guns next to them and took pictures. They then ordered the bodies to be reburied. Afterwards, the Maoists came and ordered the bodies to be exhumed again. One Maoist militiaman later admits to us that his group took the bodies out, draped them in red flags and also took pictures.
The villager who told us this shook her head, and said: "Men who never carried weapons were made to do so after they died. Men who were never in politics were covered in flags after death. Neither the army or the Maoists thought it was necessary to treat the bodies with dignity, tell the relatives of the dead what happened, or take care of their widows and orphans."
The airfield at Kotbara was nearly finished when the incident took place, but no one has dared to go back to complete the job. A technical team was there last month, but hasn't made a report yet.
The army is digging the road linking Kalikot to Dailekh, and once it is completed, it will make things easier here in these blood-soaked hills that everyone has forsaken. That is, if the peace holds.
Two funerals for Danraj
This is the story of Danraj Khatri, whose saga is testimony to the suffering, dislocation and misery of the hundreds of thousands of Nepalis caught up in a senseless conflict.
Before the emergency last year, the Maoists forced Danraj to be the ward chairman of the 'people's government' in Garjyangkot, a three-hour walk from Jumla. When the emergency was declared in Novmber 2001, Danraj escaped to the district headquarters in Jumla and turned himself in. The army promptly locked him up for being a Maoist.
"I was beaten repeatedly, and would have died if it wasn't for the help from my cellmates," Danraj recalls. Even though he survived 41 days of torture, rumours spread in the town outside that the army had killed Danraj Khatri by pushing him out of a flying helicopter. Danraj's father performed the last rites for his son in Garjyangkot, and later the army forced him to write a letter home to say he was alive.
After being freed, Danraj went back to his village only to be accused by the Maoists of being an informant. A group of them surrounded his house one night, took him outside and shot him with a revolver. The bullet only grazed his face, and he managed to escape three pipe bomb explosions. The Maoists then went on a rampage, beating up and badly injuring 11 villagers.
Danraj vomited blood and it took all night to drag himself to Jumla. His father, convinced once more that his son was dead, made preparations for a second funeral for his son.
With the ceasefire, Danraj's adventures have been less dramatic. But every day, there are reminders of those days of fear and dread. Later in Jumla, Danraj ran into Prem Buda, the Maoist who shot and tried to kill him last year. "I was angry when I saw him, but then I found out he too was on the run from the Maoists." Buda is now with the police and has been posted in Rolpa.
Last month, thinking it safe, Danraj went back to his home in Gajryangkot to be with his wife. But the Maoists came and told him he couldn't come there if he lived in Jumla. "I looked at my house one last time, said goodbye to my wife, and returned to Jumla, weeping."
(Mohan Mainali in Jumla)