22 October, 2004

Blackout

BLACKOUT
Fear hangs like a low-grade fever over the villages. Soon darkness will follow.
October 21, 2004, Nation Weekly magazine

BY SUSHMA JOSHI IN HETAUDA
Kathmandu, I am told, is the most dangerous place in Nepal at the moment. Anywhere else is much better, as long as you don’t get caught in crossfire. And indeed as we drive from Bharatpur to Hetauda, past sunny fields of rice and cows ambling lazily past rivulets of water, the conflict seems far from this idyllic land. Except for a few stray Army units, the road is free of any signs of militarization. A red flag stuck on a bicycle on the side of the road did not belong to any revolutionary, but to a worker from the Road Department whose gear, on closer inspection, also included a yellow helmet.

“Where is the conflict?” my friend said. We had come expecting to find war but found only bucolic peace. “Just wait till you get off the highway,” somebody said. Well-seasoned fellow travelers entertained us with stories of almost-abductions they had faced in their travels and warned us that the greatest danger was the patchy nature of the command network of both the Army and the Maoists. Raw troops of both varieties are the biggest dangers—well-trained ideologues of either strain are not. Travel in Rolpa and Rukum is hassle-free because both parties control certain defined areas; as long as you inform the relevant authorities you are coming, there is little chance for unforeseen encounters. Places like Kavre, on the other hand, have raw Maoist cadres with little education wandering around, and even the United Nations has stopped its programs in that area due to the risk.

The first sign of conflict is the curfew, which in Hetauda starts at 9 p.m. Uneasily aware of the big trucks filled with unified command who had come to guard the agricultural minister, we hurry through dinner. An old friend of mine tells me she likes the town and finds it easy to live in, despite the bombings.

Stories of Army troops caught in ambushes and ministers who barely escaped with their lives from big sieges soon surface. “This is where the Lever factory was bombed, that’s the police station that was bombed,” a local journalist tells us matter-of-factly as he gives us a tour. In one village, graffiti prominently felicitates the “Prachanda Path.” The graffiti demands punishment for the Bhiman incident, in which 17 individuals were shot in cold blood by security forces while they were asleep. Fifteen of the 17 were Maoists; two were civilians. In the villages, dozens of stories of extrajudicial arrests by the Army and of arbitrary justice and policies of the Maoists soon surface.

Most striking is the sense of fear that hangs like a low-grade fever over the villages. Voices are lowered as people talk about their fears of both parties. The sense of being caught in a stateless void is palpable. All state agencies have stopped functioning outside district headquarters. The police no longer go into villages to investigate common crimes: The community where a woman had recently hung herself was told to photograph the body and bring it to the district headquarters. Domestic and civil disputes are resolved at the local level because people are afraid of the arbitrary nature of state justice.

In remote areas the Maoists have demanded food, imposed a draft that asks for an individual between age eight and 80 from each house and abducted people to carry food and explosives. In one village, more than 50 men have been abducted for labor purposes. All eventually returned. The Maoists have started to influence local community groups of all sorts, from Ama Samuhas to forestry management and youth groups. A person felling a tree now has to pay a Rs. 300 tax. Every bag of marijuana is taxed Rs. 200. We meet the wife of a man who was hacked with axes by the Maoists, and we met people raped and tortured by the security forces. The citizens’ bitterness and disillusionment with the Maoists is equaled only by their loathing for state agencies and the security forces.

Predictably, NGO culture flourishes even under these drastic conditions. English words like “facilitator,” “focus groups,” “motivators” and “programs” are common currency, and so is the thorough demand for civic and economic accountability, which people ask for from the field workers they perceive to be dollar-guzzlers.

The Maoists have recently started to tell people in Makwanpur not to pay their electric bills. Anybody who goes to the city to pay their bills will have their arms and legs broken, the Maoists promise. The man from the electricity office is too afraid to go to the villages, so there is no longer any system to negotiate this basic service. People who approached the NEA and asked them if they could leave their payment cards in the district headquarters have been told that this is not possible. In one community I visited, 800 households will soon be cut off from their electrical supply if they do not go and pay the Rs. 40,000 that is pending. If the NEA cuts off their electrical supply, their mill will stop working, and they will not be able to grind their flour.

The Maoists have no system to provide alternative electrical service, and the NEA is unwilling to consider different methods of payment. People in this situation will have to live in darkness due to the arbitrary policies of both parties. How do people cope in such situations? In one village a couple of women took me aside and told me the Maoists had not threatened them. “Really?” I asked. They came closer and whispered: “We go and pay it in the city, and they don’t know about it.” Will the Maoists not notice that certain villages are still fully lit, and, if so, what will they do in retaliation? Will the whole country have to go dark before the “people’s war” is successful, or is this just a localized decision from an area commander who has a particular grudge against that reactionary service known as electricity?

History teaches us that civil wars can often spiral into atrocities that border on the unbelievable. Let’s hope plunging Nepal into darkness will not be the Maoists’ contribution to their country.

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