By Dinesh Wagle in Duragaun (Ramechhap)
Wagle Street Journal
Toyanath Poudel inspects the lock put up by the Maoists on his house All pics by Wagle
As the Nepalese government and the Maoist rebels are observing mutual ceasefire and holding peace parleys aiming to end a decade long bloody war in the country, thousands of general Nepali citizens have started returning to their villages to claim their homes and lands that are locked and captured by the rebels for years. Last week, I was in my home village Duragaun (where I was born and raised for about a decade) for the first time in the last seven years and witnessed a rare scene: Maoists were organizing an “unlocking ceremony” in a house of a displaced citizen.
Toyanath Poudel, 68, couldn’t stop his tears flowing over the cheeks as he entered inside his rugged home draped under the web of spiders in Duragaun village that was locked by the Maoist rebels for months. He first tried to open the lock with the key that he had when he left the house some 14 months ago for treatment in Kathmandu. That key didn’t work as the rebels had broken into the house as he left the village and locked the door with their key. After watching Toyanath unsuccessfully trying to unlock the door, a smiling Maoist District Committee Member and a local from the same village Ramchandra Sunuwar took out a key from his left pocket of the shirt. He handed that key to Shanti Bahadur Raut, the ward chairman of the Maoist Peoples’ Government’s in the village and directed him to unlock the door. “Okay, you come back,” Sunuwar directed Toyanath Poudel. “Your key is not working. Let [Raut] open the door.” After the Maoist ward chairman opened the door in the presence of his neighbors and about a dozen other villagers, Toyanath finally got a chance to go inside the house that was apparently looted.
Poudel tries to find out the ‘correct’ key.
Toyanath Poudel tries to open the lock as visiting American freelance photojournalist Jonathan captures the scene.
Local Maoist leader Ramkrishna Sunuwar throws a sarcastic smile after watching Poudel unsuccessfully trying to unlock the door.
Okay, nice try, here is the key that will open the lock: Maoist leader Ramkrishna takes out the key from his pocket.
Poudel watches as local Maoist official Shanti Bahadur Raut opens the lock.
Maoists locked the house and captured the land immediately after the resident of Duragaun-7, Ramechhap departed to Kathmandu. Poudel’s three sons out of total four are in Nepali Army and families having their members in the government army are selectively targeted by the rebels. Maoists had given Poudel’s land to a villager to till on a condition: Tiller could take two thirds of the crops produced in the land while the rest would go to the party to operate the Peoples’ War.
Duragaun is a typical Nepali village with no road link, electricity and telephone and is clearly isolated from the city life. It takes a day of driving (about 7 hours in a distance of about 250 kilometers as the road is narrow and in a few places bumpy) and another day of trekking uphill and downhill (about 8 hours) to reach the village. No violent clash has ever taken place in the village between government soldiers and the rebels but the effects of war could be felt immensely. One can find many innocent villagers who have been either beaten by the patrolling soldiers or by the local wild Maoist cadres. A dozen families have been displaced and seven have been killed as members of the Maoist army in a village with about five hundred households.
After the peace process got momentum with the Seven Party Alliance came to power, the government has been releasing all the Maoist from jail where as Maoists have promised to let the Internally Displaced People (IDP) to return back to villages. But there are some problems on the Maoist side. Maoists are having problems in taking the central level decisions quickly to the cadres at grassroots level. And local leadership of the Maoist party (who are kind of ruling the villages) isn’t clear about their role and responsibility after the peace is reestablished in the villages. They are more worried about their future and suffering from what-will-happen-to- me-if –I-can’t-rule-like-this-again kind of syndrome. These two things are creating hindrances to IDPs to go back and claim their legal ownership of houses and lands captured by the Maoists.
For instance, Toyanath Poudel had to first go to Manthali, the district headquarter, and visit the contact office of the Maoist party. He finally got a letter on a plain piece of paper from a Maoist leader called Bigul who instructed the ‘secretary comrade’ in the village to look into [Poudel and other two IDPs’] matter, ‘fix up the issue and move ahead’ accordingly. The letter, without party’s stamp on it, was too ambiguous and also not effective enough for Toyanath to get his home and land back. He came to village with the letter and spent at least three days looking for the Maoist leaders in the village to hand over the letter.
After the door is opened, Poudel stands outside and peeks into his house.
Poudel enters inside his house and inspects
Poudel finds an empty box inside near the fireplace
Toyanath Poudel couldn’t stop tears flowing over his cheek as he entered his house
Neighbors and other locals gather in front of Poudel’s house. (above and below)
One among the other two mentioned in the letter has been alleged by the Maoist as being spy. “We will not return his home and land immediately,” said Uddhav Poudel who, eyewitness say, miraculously escaped from Army custody (and subsequent firing) three years ago when soldiers were patrolling in the village. “He spied for the army and endangered many Maoist cadres who were taking shelter in a nearby village. In the middle of the night those Maoists had to move out of the home they were staying in because of his act.” [Uddhav managed to escape from the village and went to a Gulf country. He returned Nepal last year and now actively involved in Maoist activities. He used to teach in Tripureshwor Secondary School, Duragaun at that time.]
“But,” Uddhav said, “I wouldn’t have let Toyanath’s house to be looted if I were in the Peoples’ Government.”
Poudel’s locked house
Poudel’s relative (left), local Maoist peoples’ government ward chairman Raut and
Maoist district committee member Ramkrishna Sunuwar in the ‘unlocking ceremony’.
A local teacher said that it was a matter of surprise that Maoists were creating obstacles for IDPs to return village at a time when the government is releasing all Maoist prisoners who were charged with serious cases like murder. “Those Maoist cadres who have been habituated to do whatever they liked to do and eat free lunch in the name of the party are feeling insecure about the peace process,” he said. This teacher didn’t want to be identified because of the sensitive nature of the equation that he had to accept if he wished to live in the village. [Maoists have called for a meeting in the village to decide about the land and homes of other IDPs this Thursday (June 29).]
When Toyanath Poudel entered inside house, he found an abandoned box, half open, near the fireplace. He opened that in the dim light coming in from the main gate of the building that it seemed was about to crumble. After inspecting the empty box for about a minute, he wiped his tears and went on inspecting the first floor. Then he reached the conclusion, the house is not the same.
He got out, took out a piece of paper from his waistcoat and tried to hand that over to Ramchandra Sunuwar, the DCM of the Maoist party. “You keep that yourself for now,” Sunuwar replied defensively. “I don’t take that.”
“Why don’t you take it?” asked Poudel as he was inspecting the paper that listed things that were in the house when he left for Kathmandu. “There is nothing inside. Not even those copper buckets to spades.”
A few minutes ago Maoists had explained that the crop they got from Poudel’s land was used in the Peoples’ War. Now a local wanted to how those buckets and spades were used in the war. “If they were used in the war,” he demanded. “Give us the details.” And another man said, “Also tell us where are the clothes like Saris (a dress worn primarily by Hindu women) went from this house? Did your guerillas wear Sari to fight the war?”
After some of those who were present in the ‘unlocking ceremony’ said that the belongings of the house were looted by the local Maoist cadres who had personal enmity with Poudel, Sunuwar assured them of compensation if that was proved. “This years crop will be divided between you and the tiller,” Sunuwar gave the verdict. “From next year, it’s up to you to decide if you want to cultivate the land yourself or contact it to others.”
Toyanath Poudel, while quietly listening to the verdict, kept watching his house but not focusing at any particular point.