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.

17 October, 2004

Between a Rock and a Hard Place

BETWEEN A ROCK AND A HARD PLACE
SUSHMA JOSHI Sunday October 17, 2004
Source : NATION WEEKLY MAGAZINE, Archived at South Asian Media Net
Devi Sunwar, 36, cries as she tells her story. Her daughter Maina was 15. “She would have gone to class 9,” she sobs. After witnessing an extra-judicial execution of a relative Reena Rasaili on February 17, 2004, Devi, who had also been sexually harassed by the police, went back to her village. The police arrived at her home at 6 a.m. the next day to search for her. They could not find her, so they took her daughter with them. After the disappearance of the girl, the parents launched a search, going to the army and police barracks and putting in an application with the National Human Rights Commission. The body was found yesterday. Devi worries about going to the police barracks by herself to get the body. “Can somebody come with me?” she asks the lawyers from Advocacy Forum who are present and who are providing legal aid to her.

The paradox of a woman who has been sexually harassed, whose daughter has been killed by the police and who is forced to go back to the same institution to get justice reflects the extraordinary state of the human rights situation in Nepal today. “Between a Rock and a Hard Place,” Human Rights Watch report on Nepal, looks at the way civilians inside Nepal are caught in-between the conflict and are equally at risk from both the security forces and the Maoists. The 102-page public report, which was released in the Radisson Hotel on Thursday, documents cases of extra-judicial executions, disappearances, illegal detentions and arbitrary arrests. It also makes recommendations to the three conflicting parties—the government of Nepal, the leadership of the CPN-Maoist and the King.

The civilians of Nepal are not the only ones caught in-between the conflict. Peter Bouckaert of Human Rights Watch admits the international community finds itself in the same difficult place. While the international community does not want to isolate Nepal and leave it to deal with a Maoist rebellion, it is also increasingly reluctant to support a militarized government that acts with impunity. “The international community cannot walk away from Nepal,” Bouckaert says. “But increasingly governments around the world are finding it difficult to support it politically and economically.”

Bouchaert pointed out that the new U.S. ambassador could do a lot to ameliorate the Nepali people’s suspicions that the U.S. blindly supports the current regime by raising issues of human rights. The U.S. has, for the first time, signed the human rights memorandum. Unfortunately, the recent interview the ambassador gave in the Kathmandu Post made no reference of human rights abuses from the Army side.

Bouckaert says his organization will follow up with governments in Europe and America and pressure them to carefully consider their government’s allocation of military funds to Nepal. In the U.S., the Leahy Amendment requires the U.S. government to review the performance of the military before they can receive funding. For the first time, one unit of the Royal Nepal Army has apparently been refused funding through this amendment, although details about which unit are still to be released.

Bouckaert, who is a researcher in the conflict section in Human Right Watch, has worked in conflict areas all over the world, including Rwanda and Bosnia. “Nepal,” he says, “remains one of the most difficult countries to work in human rights today.” A mountain village in Nepal can be as far as a four days walk off the main road, cutting off effective communication and accessibility and making it difficult for organizations to track down violations. Both Maoists and the Army take advantage of this inaccessibility and continue to perpetuate abuses with impunity. In most parts of the world, e.g. in Chechnya, a village is no farther than a three hours drive away. “Chechens dream of launching a rebellion in a country like this,” he says.

No country in the world that has undergone a civil conflict has escaped prosecutions for war crimes after the conflict is over, observes Bouckaert. The impunity in Nepal, the HRWatch team found, operated on an open level. “We execute them,” soldiers in checkpoints responded when asked what they did when they came in contact with Maoists. “There are a lot of abusive armies in the world. Not all of them are being funded by Western countries,” says Bouckaert. “The Security forces have to realize they have a price to pay. Nepali Army and security forces can be sure there will be prosecutions. We are looking for names of people who should be prosecuted tomorrow.”

The government of Nepal has signed a commitment paper allowing the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) to visit detention centers and to allow habeas corpus cases. But so far the government has not followed up on its commitments. Organizations like Human Rights Watch are now building increased pressure and are working to build capacity that would make the government more sensitive to norms of human rights. Nepal’s army, which transformed from a largely ceremonial guard to a fighting force, needs to strengthen its investigative capacity and its accountability.

“In Nepal, if you’re a civilian and you kill somebody, you will go to jail for a long time. If you’re a soldier and you kill fifty, you will get a promotion,” Bouchaert remarks. Bouchaert, who met with an Army official in the morning, observed that the general he met seemed to find the conduct of the troops indefensible. Heavy international pressure is needed to make sure officers at all levels act with accountability and are aware their actions will have consequences, he says. International pressure was one of the reasons for the court martial of the security officer involved in the Rammechap massacre.

Although organizations like Human Rights Watch monitor and document human rights in Nepal, their work seems to have made little impact on the current government’s policies. The conflict continues unabated, and human rights violations are on the rise. Families of detained people sit in Shanti Park near Ratna Park, telling their stories about their family members who vanished without a trace, taken by soldiers in plain-clothes.

As these atrocities become more visible and part of the mainstream, it becomes increasingly difficult for people working in conflict resolution and negotiations to bring their cases forward. Peace, says Bouchaert, is not the only issue to be raised. If peace issues are raised and human rights shoved to the background, the warring parties will often take the opportunity to brutalize the civilian population.

Devi Sunwar and her husband, tears streaming down their faces, tell their stories to whoever will listen. As busy professionals attending the meeting stream out, Devi Sunwar says, “At least they have said they will give compensation.” The few hundred rupees that the Army gives to the families of victims is small solace to parents whose child has been murdered; yet it is an admission of guilt from an institution that should be serving, not killing, the people.

“I saw people being murdered. I will not keep silent, whatever happens,” Devi says. It is that kind of personal commitment to justice from civil society, perhaps, that will finally end this conflict.

10 October, 2004

That Big Bhoot

That Big Bhoot
America, in spite of its limitations, welcomes people into its fold with its original myth—everybody is a pioneer in a new continent. My own story with America is a mythic one.

BY SUSHMA JOSHI
Another of our children has been taken by the bhoot of America,” my mother complains every time she hears about a young cousin who makes off to that continent. “What is there? Kay cha tya?” she asks. “I couldn't live there with all those ugly buildings.”

Skyscrapers and fast cars, chain stores and mega-malls. These are the outward manifestations of a culture that fascinates and draws hundreds of thousands of students from all parts of the world to America every year. But contrary to popular understanding, people go not just for the amount of money they can earn, or the pile of things they can buy. If money were everything, then all those foreign students would have ended up in Saudi Arabia, or Japan. But they end up in rural Alaska and in the inner city neighborhoods of New York not because money is easy to come by, most often it isn't, but because America promises something radically different—a new beginning, a place where one can remake oneself based not on one's gender, caste or ethnicity, but on one's ability to work and accomplish in a seeming meritocracy. I say “seeming” because even America has its hierarchies, its closed doors, its glass ceilings. But America, in spite of its limitations, welcomes people into its fold with its original myth—everybody is a pioneer in a new continent, breaking new ground, surviving on their own merit and labor. This is an exhilarating concept, especially to those who come from places in the world where their roles and opportunities are already restricted by birth- by gender, by caste, ethnicity, race, religion or other defining factor.

My own story with America is a mythic one. At thirteen, during a fit of adolescent rage with my mother, who had threatened to marry me off so she wouldn't have to deal with a hormonal teenager, I sat down and wrote to Emmanuel College, a small liberal arts college in Boston. The catalogue I found in a pile that my brother had collected to go abroad. What was surprising was not the long letter I sent off requesting the college admissions board to admit me at age thirteen—the surprising part was the courteous and professional reply that I received, signed by the director of admissions, telling me that I was slightly too young to apply but they would take me into consideration as soon as I finished my high school education. That letter was the first sign of a culture where even thirteen-year-olds undergoing hormonal temper tantrums had rights—gasp!—to a response. That, to me, was the first indication of democracy in action, the first signs of (extra-terrestrial?) beings who believed in treating underage girls in Nepal with the same respect they gave to anybody else.

Liberal education
America's democratic culture is one reason why people are drawn to study there. The other is its liberal education system. A liberal education draws on the old European ideal of the Enlightenment, one where boundaries between different disciplines are dissolved and people seek knowledge from all fields while being equally adept in all. A liberal education makes a person equally comfortable conversing about philosophy and the sciences, and the linkages between the two, or talking about a painting or new technology. I was fortunate enough to attend an institution where this ideal was actively encouraged. Of my college friends, many ended up doing cutting edge work in fields very different from what they studied—philosophy majors became computer programmers, computer programmers went on to make films and videos, math majors did PhDs in literature. And indeed, many of the most innovative thinking and research, the most entrepreneurial ideas have come from individuals who have received a liberal education.

In Nepal, people interested in arts and culture are relegated to low-quality institutions with Third Division students. An original idea is often considered silly, irrelevant, condescending to the teacher, or worse—wrong—as those of us who have experienced the Nepali educational system know so well. Trying to learn two fields of knowledge, or two skills, is a sure sign that that person is willful, non-committed or “all over the place.” Making linkages between different skill-sets, or different fields of knowledge, is not encouraged. Leonardo Da Vinci would be considered a madman, or a liar, in Nepal.

I am convinced that the elevation of the sciences to a godly realm in Nepal, at the expense of creativity and original thought, is at the heart of the political gridlock we are in today. How can people imagine new worlds if their faculties to create new possibilities were never encouraged? That free reign to dream—whether it is an American dream or some other dream—has always been the defining feature of the American educational system. That is the bhoot that continues to draw people in the thousands to that far-off continent.