Vignettes from war

Two women on opposite sides of Nepal's Maoist insurgency draw on memories of conflict

Ila Sharma and Hishila Yami in conversation at Indian Embassy, January 2022. Photos: PRATIBHA TULADHAR

Last month, a small group of people sat in a hall at the Indian Embassy, listening to two women in conversation around a book by former minister Hisila Yami. What was interesting about this conversation was that it was happening between two women who had  been on opposite sides during Nepal’s Maoist conflict. Hisila Yami, was a former Maoist leader and Ila Sharma, a former election commissioner whose husband was killed by the Maoists.

When snail-mails arrived at my hostel in a hill-town in India in 1996, a friend wrote saying a Maoist insurgency had begun in Nepal. Then, while watching the news in the hall one evening, Ms Chakraborty said: You have a Naxalite movement in Nepal, it seems. I looked at her and then at the tv. Naxalite movement? My teenage mind had a difficult time stringing terms 'insurgency' and 'Naxalite'.

I had little knowledge of what was going on in Nepal. But every time I came home on vacation, meal time conversations spilled with news about the Maoists. My mornings at home began with parents focusing on the Kantipur daily spread before them, reading bits of news aloud -- much of it about people being killed across Nepal.

Soon after I returned to Kathmandu for good, I received an offer to work at the Indian Embassy’s Press and Information and Culture section. As someone who had just returned with an inflated ego pumped in by convent education, I thought I could take the world by storm. And so, I worked at the embassy as a translator, carefully transcribing news, a lot of which was on Army-Maoist clashes. The work took a toll on me and I quit to go back to studies -- I had become tired of recording death, not knowing then that there was going to be more.

As a broadcaster, I spent endless hours writing and reading news about bombings and ambushes. For a sheltered urbanite, who at that time was doing armchair journalism, the Maoists appeared to be at a great distance.

I would only meet Maoist cadres much later at the Gokarna Resort, when covering the Government-Maoist peace talks. (Future rounds would happen in Baluwatar, and reporters would all wait through chilly nights, shivering.) When sharing common space, the mystery and romanticism the 'insurgents' had become shrouded in, based on third-hand information, gradually faded away.

A conversation to mark Women’s Day: on the dias at Nepal Tourism Board are Shahana Pradan, Kalpana Dhamala and other women leaders. I am an trainee reporter, who ends up filing about how women representing different sides of politics were able to share a platform that day. I fiercely disagree with violence, but I still thought the insurgency had given something to some Nepali women -- a voice.

On a foggy December morning, I sat at the Shaktikhor Camp talking to Maoist deputy commander Uday Bahadur Chalaune. I wrote about how Maoist rebels were languishing in the camps, while their leaders who had shed so much blood on their way to power, reigned in newfound glory. During our conversation, Chalaune and the others reiterated their party stand, at times nodding their heads in that familiar way.

Eventually, Chalaune and his relatives would choose the golden handshake instead of integration. Was he disillusioned with the long wait? I have often wanted to meet him again and ask him.

In her one-roomed home in Bhaktapur, Sunita Regmi 'Yojana', a former Maoist warrior, offers me tea. She wears a prosthetic after losing a leg during an attack of an army barrack. During our conversation, she tells me she wants their daughter to grow up to have nothing to do with politics. It makes a good quote to end my story with. I have never met the family again, but have hoped that they have been able to educate the child as Yojana had hoped to.

Jelbang is sunny but cold. Everywhere you turn, you meet someone who lost a loved one to the war. In Thabang, a strange coldness seems to have settled over conversations with outsiders. Who do you trust? Something about the neatness of the place makes me want to stay longer, but it also feels too far away from home. Sadness looms in the air, and I think I probably made it up in my head.

Over the years, Kiran Chaudhary has become the closest subject to my heart. She awaits justice, years since her rape-in-custody by the APF during the war. She comes to Kathmandu once a year to see doctors who are still treating her violated body. Her time in Kathmandu is spent shuttling between hospital and the National Human Rights Commission.

Years on, I have never been able to come to terms with the violence that unfolded during the war. Attending the conversation at the Indian Embassy between women who are a privileged minority -- women like me, who went to schools in India and can read and write English text -- made me wonder what Nepal’s endless political wrangling has really done to propel women into politics.

Sharma, the father of whose children was among the first casualties of the war, said during the conversation that the way forward to a peaceful politics is to make use of the right to vote. In Nepal, a generation of us grew up without an election for the longest time, and I still don’t vote because I have come to believe that an annulled vote is also a vote.

During the conversation, Sharma asked Yami how she now feels about the war to which so many people on both sides were lost. Yami paused, sighed, expressed regret and then said history is evidence that revolution always demands sacrifices.

I have become stuck in her pause. Watching Ila Sharma and Hisila Yami was to watch a repeat of the reconciliation process. But it made me wonder: is reconciliation even a thing after what has passed?

Suburban Tales is a monthly column in Nepali Times based on real people (with some names changed) in Pratibha’s life.

Pratibha Tuladhar