A personal encounter with Nepal’s Maoist rebels is a ‘show’ of force in more ways than one.
By Kevin Sites
Pics and captions by Dinesh Wagle
Even if you don’t have a gun, act like you have one! That’s what this guerilla girl was doing in a parade organized on the play ground of a primary school in Kailali last week. Because of the free environment created after the ceasefire, many of the Maoist armed guerilla have gone on leave to see their families and friends in their homes. I saw several groups of unarmed guerilla in civil uniform with their backpacks. They were returning home. The far west division commander told that armed guerilla were decentralized after the ceasefire. “But we can’t go very far from each other,” he said. “Maximum three hours of walking distance.”
CHAINPUR, Nepal- They are just flashes of green as we drive past them: members of the Royal Nepalese Army in their jungle camouflage, out for their morning run. “Those are the ones we are fighting,” says one of the men in our spotless gold Land Cruiser. The others laugh.
It’s 6:30 a.m. and my translator, Dinesh Wagle, and I are riding with an official in the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist), his assistant and a couple of cadres.
We have an appointment, a promise really, to see soldiers from the party’s People’s Liberation Army, a force estimated to be 20,000 strong, which has waged a 10-year war against the royal government of Nepal.
It’s a war in which there have been numerous human rights abuses on both sides, a war that has taken the lives of as many as 13,000 people.
But now there is a cease-fire, in the aftermath of the pro-democracy “people’s movement” in which nearly two dozen Nepalis were killed and hundreds wounded in clashes with the police while protesting the rule of King Gyanendra.
The Maoists have joined a seven-party alliance in the hopes, they say, of permanently curtailing the powers of the king and creating a multi-party democracy.
That has made this meeting a difficult one to arrange. The Maoists have been active partners in the alliance and want to flex their political muscle now, not their military might.
We negotiated with Sharad Singh-Bhandari, the party’s Western Region Secretary, for two days before we finally received a call in the evening saying to be ready at 6 a.m. the next morning.
We drive for an hour and a half, then stop in a small village where Singh-Bhandari meets his military counterpart, the 7th Division Commander, a man in a long-sleeved white T-shirt who goes by the party name of “Prajjwal.” Both Singh-Bhandari and Prajjwal are just 30 years old. (article continued after the box story)
Who says revolution will not be successful here? I saw this group on the main street of Dhangadi walking on a line. These are the members of Krishna Sen Cultural Group (Krishna Sen is a Maoist journalist who was killed by the state in jail) who were singing revolutionary songs while walking. They said that they will be presenting different songs and dances in programs organized by the party in different places. ‘Kasle bhanchha kranti yaha safal hudaina….’
Great in the Video: When they knew that I wasn’t just taking their pictures but shooting their movements in video, they, especially the girls, were more than curious to see that. “Ah.. I look great,” was a girl’s comment.
Talking About Maoist Guerilla
By Dinesh Wagle
At a time when Nepali media and daily press releases of Nepal Army were filled with reports and cases of Maoists extortions, I went to far west Nepal to see the and meet the real cause behind forceful donations. It took a gringo’s arrival for me to get an opportunity to see the armed Maoist guerillas in a village in Kailali district. That was my first face to face encounter with armed Maoists. I went there as a translator for Kevin Sites, an American war correspondent whose One Mand Band journalism has thrilled me. I was closely following his activities over the last seven months as he was roaming around the world writing for Yahoo’s original news efforts called Hot Zone. (By the way, gringo is the term, Kevin told me, that Mexicans use for white people. So, he said, he was a gringo for Nepalis as well.)
A few minutes before they started appearing dramatically on the play grounds of an improvised primary school in eastern Kailali, I was told that those armed Maoist guerillas were taking lunch somewhere in the village. And THAT lunch for thousands of army of Prachanda is forcing his organization Nepal Communist Party (Maoist) to extort money and accept ‘forced’ donations from general Nepali citizens as well as business communities around the country. The disturbing thing is that Maoists are not willing to accept that extortion or ‘forced donations’ are bad thing. Instead they firmly believe that if every other political party is operated by donations from business “why can’t we do the same.” While arguing like that, they tend to forget the fact that other political groups don’t have armed force like they have and people do fear the Maoist guerillas.
Need of the hour is that we have to find some way so that Maoists can feed their army and people and business don’t have to donate hefty sum of money to the party. There is no alternative to the government moving forward to help Maoists feed their army so that they don’t create havoc among general people. The idea of government helping Maoists feed their army may sound weird to some but we can clearly feel that the country is heading toward permanent peace. To achieve that peace, we have to accept that Maoist guerillas are part of the society who will occupy some positions in Nepal Army and other security agencies. Also, if they are not given food, CPN (Maoists) will be in trouble and might not be able to continue participating in the peace process. Even Prachanda can’t stop his party from running the extortion business without any alternatives for feeding those ‘men in green’.
When you ask the ‘men in green’ the standard question “why did you join the party” you will get the same answer as if they were brainwashed. “To liberate the proletariats of Nepal.” There is significant percentage of women participating in the Red Army and majority of them (both male and female) are young. It’s not necessary that they are all educated but they are determined to the cause of their party. The reason for participating in the war on behalf of the party varies from person to person but one thing is common: They know they might die any time.
Dinesh and I sit in a tiny shack by the side of the road, eating spicy noodles and sipping tea while the two go off to make contact with their commanders in the field. The noodle shop plays an upbeat and catchy revolutionary song on a boom box. There are lots of other young men milling around carrying backpacks.
“They’re Maoists,” one shopkeeper tells us. “They’ve come in from the field and are heading home for a while.”
After an hour, the two return and we get into the Land Cruiser again and drive another half-hour. We stop at another village where we’re swarmed by school children wearing light blue shirts. The sight of a tall Westerner with cameras slung over his shoulders intrigues them. I snap their pictures and show them the digital display on the back. They giggle uncontrollably.
We’re ushered into yet another roadside restaurant, where we sip more tea and wait. After another half-hour we get back into the vehicle, this time backtracking a bit until we meet a motorcycle rider. We follow him off the main road and onto a dirt path leading to the edge of the tree line at the base of the nearby foothills. We park in a large grassy opening on the grounds of a rural elementary school in the village of Chainpur.
Within minutes of our arrival, young men and women, many of them teenagers, begin pouring out of the woods from several different directions.
Some are in light green camouflage and strung with dark-blue magazine pouches. Others are in T-shirts and jeans with bandannas tied around their heads. They carry a mix of aging, bolt-action and top-loading Chinese assault rifles and the occasional squad-operated machine gun. But many don’t have any weapons at all.
Their commander, who calls himself Sagat, is 33. He wears thick glasses and a cap emblazoned with the communist red star. He says the soldiers are members of the Lokesh Memorial Brigade, which is normally about 4,000 to 5,000 soldiers, but is currently only a fourth that size. Many of them have rotated home for a few weeks off during the current cease-fire.
Fought in Tansen: This girl participated in Tansen clash where rebels tried to captures an army barrack. They said that she was injured after shrapnel from a grenade hit her leg. Transmission of a local FM radio station and a historical palace building were destroyed in the clash. She is married and her husband works somewhere in India. “But here is my family,” she said throwing a glance to her comrades. “So I don’t miss my family.”
“We haven’t been engaged in any military activities,” he says, “but we’ve been busy publicizing the policy of the party.”
He says the women fighters are as good as the men, and that so many have joined the Maoists because they see an opportunity to fight for their rights as women.
Within the group I see a girl who looks to be only in her early teens. She is tiny and looks innocent, but carries a compact machine gun over her shoulder.
She calls herself Janaki and says that she is 16 years old. She has been with the rebels for one year. When I ask her why she joined she gives a robotic response repeated by many of the other rebels.
“Because I couldn’t tolerate the oppression of my people any longer,” she says.
“Are you ever afraid?” I ask her.
“No, I’m not afraid,” she replies, in a soft voice.
But when I press her on the issue, she can no longer even find that soft voice. She just stares ahead, unsure, certainly uncomfortable with the attention we are focusing on her. She can find no other words.
Another rebel who says his name is Rajeev Thapa looks almost as young, but says he’s 19 years old. He wears a sleeveless blue T-shirt and is slight, but has the bearing of someone sure of himself and his weapon. He says he’s also been with the Maoists for a year, and that he joined to liberate the country.
“I heard too many stories about people being beaten, raped and killed by the army,” he says. “So I had to do something.”
At this point, it’s beginning to dawn on me that this entire group of rebels is here for no other purpose than as a show for myself and Dinesh, who is a journalist for Kantipur, Nepal’s largest newspaper.
I’ve encountered these situations before, covering both regular armies and insurgents, but each time it makes me uncomfortable.
I had asked for this meeting and there is a need, I know, to put a face on these rebels, to show them as something other than just a name to which acts, both bad and good, are attributed. And they are, after all, a key factor in the future outcome of Nepal’s nascent democratic movement.
But I had thought, perhaps naively, that we might see them in their natural environment in the bush, rather than this grassy schoolyard. I want to see them doing whatever rebels do during a cease-fire: cleaning their weapons, reading “Das Kapital,” playing football, flirting with the female comrades.
I am glad to see them with my own eyes, to know they are real. But to see them assembled solely for our cameras makes it somehow less authentic, despite the cold metal of their weapons, the very real smell of their campfires and the palpable intensity of their purpose.
They gather under a larger tree and begin a series of awkward drills, specifically so that I may see them in action. Commander Sagat looks at a cheat sheet written in pen on his hand, then barks orders to the rebels.
With each command, they hop to attention, then either stand, kneel or sit, pointing their weapons, or their hands, in the direction of an imaginary enemy.
Just an answer: “I am fighting for oppressed people.” This 16-year-old girl couldn’t answer most of our questions. What she said was that she joined the party to fight for the oppressed Nepali people. She didn’t respond to questions about her family.
As a precise drilling unit, they’re the equivalent of the Grateful Dead — not exactly tight. Their movements are hesitant and awkward, but determined.
Regardless, the 7th Division Commander, Prajjwal, says his forces have consistently defeated the Royal Nepalese Army and the Armed Police Force. He says, however, that his biggest concern has been American-trained Nepalese Ranger battalions that are better-equipped and more motivated than the others.
He says fours years ago, during a battle in the Rolpa region, his forces captured three U.S. Army advisers during fighting there, but released them because, he says, the People’s Liberation Army’s fight isn’t with America. His statement couldn’t be independently verified, although the U.S. government has sent military aid and advisers to the Royal Nepalese Army.
Many of the rebels we talked with say they’ve been in combat several times, including a 25-year-old woman who goes by the party name “Sapana,” which means Dream.
“I was in the first line in an attack to capture an FM radio station in Tansen,” she says. “It was guarded by an army barracks and one of the soldiers threw a grenade at me. I could see it coming and I moved back but pieces of shrapnel still hit my leg.”
Sapana says four or five other rebels were also injured, but they made it back to their lines and were able to get treatment. She pulls up her fatigues and shows me the scar on her shin.
Another rebel, 29-year-old Bishan Dhami, says he’s been with the Maoists four years and has seen combat nearly a dozen times.
I ask him if he’s tired of the war. His answer is an immediate “no.”
“Not until we defeat the monarchists, which we have labeled terrorists,” he says.
That’s a label associated with the Maoists as well. The U.S. State Department includes the Maoists on its “Country Reports on Terrorism” list, because, it says, of the rebels’ policies of attacks on civilians, land confiscation and extortion.
At the end of the “drilling,” the rebels make an exit as inconspicuous as their entrance, proceeding, weapons in hand, in single-file lines back into the woods.
They’ll wait there, say their commanders, until they’re needed — either as a show of force, or, if peace talks fail, to actually fight again.