05 December, 2004

Internally Displaced

INTERNALLY DISPLACED
A major attack in the district headquarters often precipitates a sudden exodus, but the trickle of people leaving a way of life has become commonplace
BY SUSHMA JOSHI in Kohalpur, Banke
The tears are still fresh for Bachu Rokaya. She fled Mugu three months ago after her husband was killed by the Maoists. He was held in detention for four months and then killed. They tied his feet and hands and threw him into the Karnali, says a fellow villager who also fled down to Nepalgunj. Villagers suspect the man was taken because he was a state employee working for the government’s post office system and was also active in his community.

Bachu says: “I have nobody here, nobody.” Although there are nine other families from Shera VDC, her parents’ home, Bachu has to survive by herself in these temporary shelters. With two sons and four daughters to take care of and no source of income, her desperation is all too real.

Gayarudra Buda has a different story. The 39-year-old is also a single parent, although his burden is a different one: He takes care of his two-year-old daughter himself. His wife Bidara Buda, 26, was grinding flour in her village when the Maoists who had laid an ambush by the irrigation canal detonated it too early. The security forces for whom the ambush was meant escaped unscathed. About 60 security personnel came charging down the jungle firing their guns. Bidara was gunned down in the crossfire. The Army took the body to the barracks and told the husband that he would be given compensation. This hasn’t happened yet. Gayarudra Buda, who is now in Nepaljung, shakes his head when asked about compensation. He has yet to follow it up with the state agencies.

Gayarudra clutches his two-year-old daughter Nanda Buda who cries unceasingly as he talks. There is no milk in the camp. The baby has been eating roti and rice along with the adults. The children are showing signs of malnutrition.

Chandu Buda’s sense of loss is palpable as he talks about how he left the village. Also of Sera VDC, Mugu, he says: “We left with only the clothes on our backs. We took nothing. We had to let all the cattle—goats and cows—loose in the jungle to graze. We had to leave the fields full of crops.”

The camp residents are known as IDPs in development jargon—the internally displaced people—and refer to the hundreds of people who are forced to move from their homes to become refugees inside their own country.

The camp residents say that life in Mugu’s district headquarters is expensive. A kilogram of rice costs Rs. 32, forcing displaced people to move to areas where food is cheaper.

The numbers of internally displaced people have been rising steadily in the last 10 years. A major attack in the district headquarters, as the recent one in Gamgadi, often precipitates a sudden exodus, but the trickle of people leaving a way of life has become commonplace. The profitable salt trade between Tibet and the Midwest has become less so, now that Indian salt is cheaply available. But more damaging to this local economy is the Maoist tax that has been recently imposed. The tax makes it unprofitable to transport any goods, including potatoes and sheep. This is leading to a slow but steady decline in local trade.

There are currently 115 people in the makeshift camp here on the side of the road. They are displaced from various mid-western districts—including Humla, Jumla, Kalikot, Mugu and Jajarkot. The central district officer allocated 30 kathas, about one hectare, of government land for them to pitch camp on temporarily. The Red Cross has provided plastic for shelter; BASE and SAFE (both NGOs) have provided about 15 quintals of rice and three quintals of dal, Rs. 500 worth of spices and 10 kilograms of oil.

SAFE also distributed children’s clothes and put in a water pump. The Rara Club, a local organization made up of former Mugu residents now living in the Nepalgunj area, has donated firewood. Bigger INGOs working in conflict zones, including those who provide educational support, have not yet arrived on the scene.

For Bhairav Bahadur Shahi, 50, who left Humla one night without informing even his children, the reason behind his departure was very clear. “They always wanted me to attend their programs,” says the man as he squats on the dusty ground. “You can’t travel from one village to another without travel papers, and we have to give the reason why we want to go where we do. I finally had to leave.” He thinks his children are living in Simikot, but he is not sure.

The lack of freedom to travel made Sriba Chanda lose his right leg. Sriba, 11, was felling a tree when it fell on top of him. The Maoists told his father to patch it up in the village and that there was no need to go to the hospital. Then the snow fell, and blockades took place. By the time Sriba made it to the hospital, his leg had to be amputated. The boy, who has four siblings and no mother, hobbles around the camp in his crutches donated by the United Mission to Nepal. Although he used to go to school while in the village, he has now stopped.

The lack of freedom, say recent observers who have traveled in Humla, is one reason why people are choosing to abandon their villages and their way of life. Even though the collective pilot farms set up by the Maoists in the region have brought some opportunities of equality for women and lower caste groups, this is not enough to stop the mass migration. Many of the ethnic Bhotay villages in Mugu are abandoned, leading to the extinction of a way of life, observers say.

The heap of rice is slowly disappearing as family after family comes to collect it in their plastic buckets. The food is a meager replacement for a subsistence way of life that is now inexorably over.

Chandu Buda looks over the fields of stubble and says: “We used to have fields of apples that we didn’t know what to do with. Now we have nothing."

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