Gunning for Nepal

18 minute read
Alex Perry

A distant clattering bounces off the snowy hills as 20 Maoist guerrillas approach a mountain pass deep in Nepal’s rebel territory. The sound is too faint to fix as gunfire, so the guerrillas press on up the goat track. Then come the explosions.

The rebels halt and, panting in the thin air, squint up at the forest ridge that now marks the edge of the newest battlefield in their war. “Mortars,” says a Maoist political officer. “Eighty-one millimeters,” replies a teenage girl who has led the four-hour ascent from the valley floor. “And a chopper.” Minutes later, a helicopter marked with the scarlet emblem of the Royal Nepalese Army (R.N.A.) skims the trees above the Maoists. They scatter, crouching as it flies off without spotting them. For now, the danger has passed, but the rebels later claim that the helicopter was on its way back from the village of Kharikot where it had killed scores of unarmed people as they celebrated the ninth anniversary of the Maoist rebellion. The R.N.A. insists the strike was legitimate, boasting that it surprised a group of 800 armed fighters, of whom 25 were killed.

As with everything in this war, it’s impossible to know where the truth lies. But the bloodshed is all too real. At an estimated 10 killings a day, Nepal’s is the deadliest conflict in Asia. At times—such as when 1,023 died in a single month in 2002—this beautiful mountain kingdom briefly becomes the single most dangerous place on earth. Massacres have become commonplace: a favored Maoist technique is the “wave” attack, in which up to 5,000 rebels head into battle with the objective of leaving no enemy alive.

The brutality is unspeakable. Amnesty Inter-national accuses the 10,000-strong rebel group of kidnapping, torture and murder—including a penchant for clubbing victims to death and dismembering truck drivers who try to breach its blockades. Meanwhile, the Brussels-based International Crisis Group says Nepal’s ruler, King Gyanendra, runs “a no-party state that has decimated democracy and kills people at will.” Human Rights Watch in New York claims that his security forces have made Nepal the world leader in “disappearances,” with at least 1,200 people allegedly missing after being detained in the past four years. Since 2001, the war has cost the lives of 10,000 people. And the killing is far from over. In an e-mailed response to questions from TIME, rebel leader Prachanda warns: “The great People’s War has entered its last stage, of strategic offensive.”

The situation has already reached a crisis point. On Feb. 1, King Gyanendra seized power, effectively ending Nepal’s 14-year experiment with democracy. Police and soldiers arrested hundreds of students, journalists and human-rights workers, and senior politicians were placed under house arrest. In an exclusive interview with TIME at his palace in Kathmandu, the King says: “This is not a coup at all … [The people] have given a clear message to the terrorists that they are unwelcome and that they will no longer tolerate their attacks, their extortion and their kidnapping.” He vows that the 85,000-member Nepalese army will do “whatever is required” to restore order: “Those who do not abide by the law will feel pain.”

So far, however, the principal effect of Gyanendra’s crackdown has been to gut Nepal’s civil society. The right to assemble has been revoked. The Nepalese media are no longer allowed to criticize the government or the army or to mention the Maoists. Even the right to use a mobile phone has been suspended. And the Hong Kong-based Asian Center for Human Rights claims that extrajudicial killings by Nepal’s security forces have risen “exponentially” to an average of eight a day. Meanwhile, the rebels continue to besiege the cities and to bomb markets, prisons and police stations.

What’s more, there are the makings of a backlash that could plunge the country into deeper disarray. On April 8, more than 500 people were arrested at opposition rallies around the country—including more than 100 in Kathmandu—in the largest protests since the King seized power. The war is also escalating. The R.N.A. claims it killed 148 Maoists while losing only three soldiers when thousands of rebels attacked an army base in Rukum district on April 7. Last week, it boasted it had killed another 64 Maoists in the same area. For their part, the Maoists are waging a deadly bombing campaign against government buildings nationwide, making a particular target of jails where their comrades are held.

Amid this turmoil, the economy is collapsing as tourist trips, exports and foreign aid are canceled. In February, the number of tourist arrivals was down 43% from a year earlier. In a country where the average person scrapes by on an income of $240 a year, many have fled to brothels in Bombay, sweatshops in Southeast Asia and servants’ quarters in the Gulf: trade unions say 7 million out of 27 million Nepalis now live abroad. Meanwhile, foreign observers express alarm at an influx of gunrunners, drug barons and terrorists who, as in other failing states, find a home amid chaos. “As bad as it is already,” says Human Rights Watch’s deputy director for Asia, Sam Zarifi, “it could get so much worse. Warlords. Poppies. The gun becoming entrenched as a way of life. It’s almost impossible to fathom what a poorer Nepal would be like, [but] I guess you move from disease to epidemic, and malnutrition to starvation. The best possible scenario is that one of the world’s poorest countries just gets poorer.”If the idea of a Hindu god-king at war with a Maoist revolutionary seems like a time warp, that’s because life in Nepal often is. When Gyanendra was born in 1947, the country was still a forbidden kingdom, closed to outsiders and ruled by feudal lords who toured their estates in Rolls-Royces. Nepal opened up to foreigners in 1951, but outside Kathmandu it remains a primitive land where many people live without electricity, telephones or roads. Even the cities feel out of step. Kathmandu’s main tourist drag is called “Freak Street,” a leading city newspaper is the Space Time Today, and the government uses a calendar by whose reckoning this is the year 2062. Politics is still a new experience—parties became legal only since 1990, and whole swaths of the country exist in an ungoverned vacuum. One Western diplomat says the war might seem “truly bizarre” and “historic,” but adds: “Remember, much of the country is still in the Middle Ages.”

Which explains why, to a boy growing up half a century ago in the dirt-poor eastern flatlands, the 19th century theories of Marx and Engels might have promised progression and modernity. Prachanda’s 76-year-old father Muktiram Dahal says his son—then named Pushpa Kamal Dahal—was a “kind-hearted boy” spurred by injustice: “He really cared for the poor people in the village. He used to share his food with them and tell us we shouldn’t exploit them.” Prachanda—a nom de guerre meaning the “Fierce One”—says he grew up in a “peasant family,” surrounded by deprivation. “From my childhood, I came to feel the meaning of poverty and inhuman exploitation.” By the time he graduated from high school, he was a communist.

Prachanda was part of a national movement. But while revolution swept the world from China to Cuba, it missed Nepal. Then, after Gyanendra’s brother King Birendra ceded power to an elected government in 1990, the Nepalis watched with further frustration as their new democracy was consumed by infighting, corruption and venal ambition. By last summer, the country had endured 14 governments in 14 years and the parties had split so many times that Prachanda’s Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) was one of 40 left-wing groups, including 10 Communist Parties of Nepal. Meanwhile, the only evidence that democracy brought prosperity were the rows of ministerial residences and chauffeur-driven cars that were bestowed on politicians. By February 1996, Prachanda had had enough. Adopting Mao Zedong’s 1938 maxim that “political power grows out of the barrel of a gun,” he took to the hills.

At first, Prachanda commanded only a few hundred men, who were armed with axes, hoes and World War II rifles. In the ensuing conflict, casualties were light and the Maoists themselves accounted for two-thirds of all deaths. The outside world paid scant attention to these ahistorical curios. All that changed on Nov. 23, 2001, when the Maoists launched 48 simultaneous attacks on the police and army, killing hundreds. In the months that followed, the Maoists staged a series of massive assaults. Inspired by Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge, they sought to wipe out all trace of previous authority by torturing and executing bureaucrats, teachers and doctors, assassinating public figures, and bombing schools, bridges, government offices and power stations. They skinned one Nepali Congress Party worker alive and decapitated their own fallen comrades rather than leave them identifiable.

The Maoists gradually extended their influence over rural Nepal, and they are now able to attack anywhere, even carrying out assassinations and bombings inside Kathmandu. While the Maoists portray themselves as saviors of the common folk, many people have fled from them in terror. According to the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, 350,000-400,000 Nepalis have left for the cities, with Kathmandu now home to 60,000 fugitives. Washington reacted by adding the Maoists to its list of terrorist groups in 2003, and it began to train and equip the Nepalese army with help from India and Britain.

But the Maoists have proved to be formidable foes, and the possibility of a rebel takeover looms ever larger. The rebels have pasted posters across their territory, asking for donations for the “final push.” And Prachanda warns: “We have already pushed the R.N.A. into a defensive position and confined them to the capital, district headquarters and their barracks. Our strategy for this last stage will be the fusion of some tactics of urban insurrection to the strategy of protracted People’s War.”Back in rebel territory, the guerrillas hurry up the mountain pass, and by dusk they’ve descended 2,000 m to the village of Gairigaon to join 400 fellow soldiers from the First Brigade, People’s Liberation Army (P.L.A.) Mid Division. Despite the carnage in Kharikot, spirits are high, almost giddy. This youthful exuberance isn’t surprising, given the age of many of the rebels. One female fighter wears a Britney Spears T shirt under an ammunition belt, another dons a Jurassic Park shirt, and several wrap themselves in towels decorated with images of Spider-Man or Winnie the Pooh. The men joke and play-fight, the women giggle and hug, and everyone plays volleyball and swaps the latest Bollywood tapes. The New York-based rights group Watchlist reported in January that 30% of P.L.A. recruits are under 18—and in Gairigaon, that feels like an underestimate. Indeed, First Brigade’s vice political commissar, Atal, says enlisting children is the norm: “According to Lenin, once they are 15, they can join up.”

As well as the human-rights issue, their youth raises doubts about the rebels’ effectiveness. While the Khmer Rouge proved that children could be imaginatively murderous, the young Maoist fighters lack training and experience. Atal confirms that almost none have seen combat. Few seem to have working knowledge of their weapons: some carry them slung backward over their shoulder, safety catch off and pointed at their comrades’ waists; others stuff the barrels with cloth and mud to keep out the damp. Ammunition is also a problem. Only a handful of fighters have a spare clip. The sheer variety of weapons—from American M-16s to Belgian guns captured from the R.N.A. to AK-47s bought from gun smugglers—makes it impossible for the rebel army to keep them all loaded. But the Maoists have one world-class weapon: the Himalayas. Their territory, a maze of giant ravines so remote that many maps of Nepal contain large tracts of blank space, is the perfect launching pad for guerrilla warfare.

From the safety of his mountain lair, Prachanda has been free to build his brave new world. His hierarchy is traditional Stalinist: he serves as Party chairman and commander-in-chief, while beneath him there’s a Party central committee, a politburo and an army command, district and subdistrict committees, and village heads. Prachanda’s regime has constructed several “model” villages that embody his vision of a Maoist Nepal. In the Maoist capital Thabang, a day’s hike from Gairigaon, hammer-and-sickle flags fly from the roofs and a mural in the main street depicts Prachanda alongside Marx, Engels, Lenin, Stalin and Mao.

Thabang’s chief, Raktim, says religion is discouraged and will eventually be “eliminated.” A new Marxist school curriculum will teach Party history to children from age 5. Raktim and his subordinates collect taxes, dragoon recruits for the P.L.A., veto or approve marriages, and bestow revolutionary names—Raktim means “Red”—to new comrades in order to emphasize their entry into the communist family. The rebels have press-ganged some 1,000 villagers to build a road east from Thabang, but that’s the extent of their development work. Pointing out a 100-sq-m patch of razed buildings in Thabang’s center, Raktim’s political officer Gulab explains: “If we build clinics or irrigation channels, the army just comes here and destroys it. We do the same to them.” But one thing remains firmly in place—a rudimentary judicial system of “people’s courts,” whose primary work is punishing traitors. “If his offense is serious, we give him hard labor,” says Raktim. “But if he doesn’t change, we shoot him. Or use a kukri [knife] if we don’t have the bullets.” Raktim says he has personally overseen “two or three” executions. Human-rights groups have documented hundreds of similar killings.

The suffering at the hands of the Maoists takes many forms. In another village in rebel country, a 33-year-old teacher who asks not to be identified says he has endured years of intimidation and indoctrination. “They take people to the hills for days, weeks, even months. They call it ‘camping.’ They tell you everyone must be proletariat, that we are too materialistic, too middle-class, that it doesn’t matter how people think, only how the Party thinks, that nothing can happen without their permission. They want our heads empty and our eyes sightless so that we follow them blindly. That’s why they like children.” He says the rebels barred him from holding university-entrance exams “because they don’t want people getting their own ideas.” Raktim admits that the Party takes mostly teenagers to its instruction camps, but insists the sessions are educational, not coercive. “We feel that if people understand us, they’ll support us.”

The programming often works. In the village of Pipal, Jhima Rana Magar, a girl guerrilla who looks 15, declares: “I am ready to give my life for the Prachanda Path,” referring to the chairman’s own Little Red Book. “If we follow the Prachanda Path, the people will get their rights.” Asked how she squares this with forcing impoverished villagers to feed and house them while doing nothing to improve their lives, she is adamant: “We are fighting for the people. So we eat in their houses. How can people say we are doing bad things?” Her certainty knows no bounds. “Not only will we be in Kathmandu in months,” she says, “we’ll spread all over the world.” Such confidence infuses the rebellion. Prachanda asserts: “We deeply believe that what we are starting in Nepal is part of a worldwide 21st century revolution.” But the teacher complains that the rebels assume rather than earn support: “People hate them. They’re vicious and they take and give nothing back. They think power and the gun are everything. Sadly, they have a point—what can we do if they’ve got the guns?”If Monarchs are born into isolation and dictators make their own, few leaders were ever more alone than the autocratic King Gyanendra. He knew solitude from an early age: his family abandoned him as a 3-year-old when they fled a previous round of unrest in 1950, leaving him—the second, expendable son—to mind the throne. If there was any benefit to this abandonment, it may be that it fostered in Gyanendra a formidable sense of independence. While other royals never strayed far from the palace, he became a businessman and participated little in public life. It was typical that on June 1, 2001, as the royal family met for dinner at Narayanhity Palace in Kathmandu, he was away on business in western Nepal.

That evening sealed his isolation. A little before midnight, Gyanendra’s nephew, Crown Prince Dipendra, took two machine guns and a revolver and shot dead his parents (King Birendra and Queen Aishwarya), a brother, a sister, and five other relatives before shooting himself. A palace inquiry revealed Dipendra was numb from whiskey and hashish; friends said he was angry that his mother had refused to let him marry his girlfriend. In an instant, Gyanendra had lost most of his family and went from businessman to King. Dipendra also killed off much of the royal family’s popularity. Gyanendra became the subject of bizarre, unfounded conspiracy theories, which Prachanda perpetuates, referring to him as “the infamous fratricidal and regicidal King Gyanendra.”

Gyanendra has remained steadfast in the face of controversy and crisis. Indeed, he seems to relish his power, remarking, “I feel it must be my destiny.” But if power suits Gyanendra, it also intensifies his isolation. An assassination target, he ventures no farther than his palace offices for weeks at a time. Still, he denies he is “confined” or out of touch, saying, “I am fully satisfied that I am hearing the voice of the people.” Among the few commoners he does see are his generals. A longtime friend of the King says the top brass “surrounded him and cut him off.” And as people “who tend to see things in black and white,” by last November they had persuaded him to seize power. Even then, the King didn’t leave home: he announced his takeover from a television studio he had built for the purpose inside the palace.

Gyanendra claims he will ultimately restore democracy to Nepal, and most observers believe he’s being sincere—”we’re taking the King at his word,” says one Western diplomat. Nepal’s army, however, seems less inclined toward self-restraint. Even before Feb. 1, the U.N. and others accused the R.N.A. of having one of the world’s worst human-rights records. Since then, soldiers have opened fire on a student protest in the tourist town of Pokhara on Feb. 2; they killed five Nepali Congress workers in Lamjung district a day later, according to party spokesman Minendra Rijal; and they regularly report mass killings of “terrorists.” Most disturbing are army reports of spontaneous “uprisings” against the Maoists. In Kapilbastu district in southern Nepal, for example, the army claimed that a “village defense committee” rose up and killed 30 Maoists on Feb. 17. The new ministers of law, labor and education even helicoptered in to congratulate the nation’s brave defenders. But a human-rights group that visited the area on March 2 and interviewed numerous eyewitnesses alleges that the village defense committee was in reality a mob organized by the army to target suspected Maoists. “This mob moved to 21 villages—killing people, torturing them, raping, looting and setting fire to the houses,” reported the human-rights group, which asks not to be named. “A dozen people have been killed, a girl raped, and 325 houses set on fire, leaving about 2,000 people homeless.”

Human Rights Watch’s Zarifi accuses the armed forces of being “far more effective at terrorizing their own citizens than fighting the Maoists.” He adds: “They effectively own the country.” Gyanendra insists the revolt in Kapilbastu was genuine. “The people are rising up,” he says. “I welcome these moves.” But it’s doubtful that the King fully controls Nepal’s army, which is poorly trained, spread across the Himalayas and linked only by patchy communications. A Western diplomat observes: “We think he’s still in charge, but it’s becoming a legitimate question.”

If anything is beyond question, it’s that many more lives will be lost in this seemingly intractable conflict. Gyanendra acknowledges that he has chosen “a path strewn with many, many thorns.” Prachanda agrees that “sacrifice is inevitable.” In Gairigaon, First Brigade’s vice political commissar Atal smiles at his teenage soldiers as he exhorts them to risk their lives for the revolution. Many of these young fighters have already lost family members in the war, says Atal: “It changed their thoughts. It gave them great thoughts. They’re ready to die.” No doubt, they will.

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