Forbidden to remember the Kotbada massacre

Gyan, Buddhisara B.K., parents of two laboureres killed in Kotbada airport, Kalikot.

It was 8 December 2002, and my documentary जोगीमाराका ज्युँदाहरु (The Living of Jogimara) was being screened at the Kathmandu International Mountain Film Festival (KIMFF 2002).

The hall at the Russian Cultural Centre in Kathmandu was packed, and the audience had overflowed into the aisles. As director, I should have been sitting on the front row. But I had another job that day: to stand next to the projectionist and at exactly 10 minutes 47 seconds, mute the film for 20 seconds.

As directed by the military censors, this was to prevent the audience from hearing the narration: ‘A few days after the Mangalsen attack, the army arrived at the airfield and opened fire. Thirty-five people were shot dead. Among them were two children, labourers from other parts of Nepal, including 17 young men from Jogimara.’

As a film-maker I had never been trained to mute the sound track during a public screening. My eyes were glued not on the screen but on the digital time counter on the VHS player.

A year earlier, the Maoists had broken off peace talks and conducted simultaneous raids on army bases across the country. The government declared an emergency, and for the first time mobilised the Royal Nepal Army against the Maoists. Till then it was the police that was fighting the rebels.

Today, we know from many countries that crackdowns on the free press in elected democracies can be more draconian than in authoritarian regimes. Twenty years ago, I faced proof of it in that dark auditorium. 

I was then with the Centre for Investigative Journalism Nepal (CIJ). Freed from day-to-day journalism, the job allowed me to look at the conflict in perspective, put the daily death tolls into context, and examine the human side of the war, and its impact on ordinary people.

I was following the Kotbada massacre in Kalikot. News reports were sketchy and contradictory. State media said ‘many terrorists’ had been killed at the under-construction airfield. Another news item buried in the inside pages said that among the ‘terrorists’ were 17 men from Jogimara in Dhading district. An RSS report quoted MPs Prem Bahadur Singh from Kalikot and Rajendra Pandey from Dhading as informing the house that the dead were labourers constructing the airfield.

My journalist antennae perked up. I heard from reporter Bhupraj Khadka that a family in Jogimara had conducted a funeral of one of the dead even though it had not received his body from the Army.

As a film-maker, I felt this could be a way to portray the cruelty and senselessness of war. But there was an insurgency going on, and filming would be difficult and costly. I approached renowned documentary maker Dhruba Basnet, who had made the film रक्ताम्मे गराहरू (Blood-soaked Terraces) and we had worked together in many parts of Nepal.

Rajendra Dahal, editor at Himal Khabarpatrika, offered to publish the story. In Jogimara, I met 15 of the 17 families who had lost their men in a massacre 500km at the other end of Nepal in Kotbada. The story came out in Himal, and Nepali Times translated it in the issue #106 of 9-15 August 2002 (screenshots, below). This was a rare exposé of a conflict-era crime.

We started working on the video footage, and were convinced it would be an important documentation of the tragedy. We had to do it on a shoe-string budget, and the film finally premiered at KIMFF 2002.

There was pin-drop silence during the screening. From time to time, I could hear sobbing in the dark. But I had to concentrate on the approaching 10:47 on the VHS digital clock. At exactly 47 seconds, projectionist Sudarshan Karki muted the sound. 

The audience had been quiet till then, but I heard murmurs: “They’re censoring.” I had to have a ready answer in the remaining 32 minutes of the film, because the viewers were sure to have questions afterwards.

King Gyanendra had just sacked elected Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba two months prior, and had appointed Lokendra Bahadur Chand as prime minister. The emergency had been lifted, but now the palace and army were in charge.

The Royal Nepal Army had got the district administration and Police Inspector Sukhdev Neupane of Kamal Pokhari station to stop the screening. Neupane called to say his bosses wanted to see the film. I replied that it was shot in a new format, and it would take time to convert. He said the police had state-of-the-art equipment in its tv studio and that wouldn’t be a problem.

The police were not just trying to stop my film, but were putting pressure on KIMFF organisers Basanta Thapa and Kanak Mani Dixit to cancel the entire festival. They finally agreed on a compromise: show the film, but mute the parts the military found objectionable.

When the screening started, I noticed soldiers in camouflage fatigues enter the hall. They had walkie talkies. When the film ended, there was stunned silence, then applause. The lights went up. I strode to the stage to answer audience questions, and the inevitable one: “Why was the film muted in the middle?”

I had prepared my answer, but I saw the soldiers glaring at me from offstage. “The system was working, but it went off for a while,” I said, but could not muster the courage for the rest of my prepared answer: “But don’t ask me whether it was the sound system that was broken, or the country’s system.”

I stepped off the stage, telling myself that when confronted with a formidable enemy, it is foolish to wage frontal warfare. It is better to outflank the adversary and go into insurgency mode. The censors had forced me to become a guerrilla film-maker.

The 38-minute documentary went on to be a hit, with two additional screenings during the festival. Many wept openly. Basanta Thapa wrote later in Himal: “By trying to censor the film, have we been deprived even of the right to cry for our own country?”

After KIMFF 2002, the Ministry of Communications imposed a censorship rule on all film festival screenings. Since then, there have been many governments that have come and gone in Nepal. But the state has not been able to resist its temptation from time to time to curb the freedom of expression. 

Mohan Mainali is an author and documentary film-maker.