Ninety-two-year-old Seti Magar’s eyes tear up whenever she sees a teenage girl in her village in Sunchhahari rural municipality of the Rolpa district in western Nepal. Why wouldn’t they? Over one and a half decades ago, her 18-year-old daughter was taken away from her home and killed by the Nepal Army. That incident broke her as she has never been the same since.
“She was only 18, yet they took her claiming she was a Maoist. They didn’t even bring her corpse back for me to perform her final rites,” says Magar.
It has been 15 years this week since the armed conflict between the Maoists and Nepal’s government ended formally with the Comprehensive Peace Accord. But, Magar’s tears have not stopped. Even though times are quite peaceful now, Magar is yet to have peace of mind and she wonders if her daughter will ever come back and surprise her.
As compensation, the government gave Magar Rs 1 million. But apart from that, no help came her way as she sat in her home in Jelbang, depressed and hopeless.
“They say times are peaceful now. But, to me, it isn’t. They killed my daughter and took away my peace of mind,” she says, stating both the government and the Maoists failed them and the people who died during the war.
Hundreds of others like Magar’s daughter died during the war. To remember them, memorials were built in different parts of Rolpa. But, there is not one in Jelbang and that pains Magar as she feels that her daughter died in vain.
“These top leaders might have won the war, but we lost our children in it. How do I console myself when all I think about is her,” says Magar.
This is just one story. There are hundreds of people from remote areas like Jelbang who lost their lives due to the insurgency. Most of those who lost their lives were young teenagers recruited by the Maoists to fight the war. It has been 15 years since the war was over, but the concerns of the families of these people who died in the war are yet to be dealt with by anyone. The government handed them compensation while the Maoists declared the deceased martyrs. But, apart from that, they have received no help as most of them are suffering from the mental trauma of having lost their kids so early.
The collective crisis
In 2002, Birsa BK,70, from Thulo Jelbang lost her toddler after getting caught in a crossfire between the Maoists and the army. The four-year-old child was with her parents who had gone to the nearby forest to get fodder for the cattle. BK and her husband survived, but a bullet hit her daughter killing her.
“They killed my daughter,” says BK with tears in her eyes. “It’s been 19 years and I still think about that. They (army and Maoists) took away my support and gave me Rs 1 million as compensation. But, what I needed the most was closure. That I will never get.”
There was hope that things would change post the signing of the Comprehensive Peace Accord in November 2006, but there has not been much change in the lives of people affected by the war. While the lives of people like Pushpa Kamal Dahal, Baburam Bhattarai and Mohan Baidya changed, the lives of people like BK and Magar have not as they still live in the trauma of what happened 20 years ago.
“These leaders were the only people who benefitted out of the sacrifices of people. It’s disgusting,” says BK.
A total of 73 deaths were reported in Jelbang where the state killed 63 while the Maoists killed 10 people. Almost all houses of the village has one person killed during the war. Even though the country is not at war, the village of Jelbang is still mourning the losses as the locals feel hard to accept what has happened all these years on.
Around 25 years ago, the Armed Police Force arrested Man Bahadur Roka, 70, from Jelbang. The APF accused Roka of being a Maoist and tortured him under captivity for over three weeks. During one of those torture sessions, Roka bruised his leg suffering an injury, due to which he has not been able to walk properly for the past two decades.
“The government back then considered Jelbang a Maoist village. When they did that, police and army both came and tortured us, both physically and mentally,” Roka recalls. “If they saw men, they would shoot us on sight. The rest, they took captive and tortured us. Many of us took refuge in the jungle to save ourselves.”
He says he has had to bear the effects of the war all his life. Along with that, most of this savings goes on medicines as he worries about how he will pay in the future.
What frustrates people like Roka is not the wounds but how leaders like Bhattarai and Dahal, who once took refuge in his village, have disregarded them since joining mainstream politics.
“Their lives changed significantly, but look at us. What has changed for us?” asks Roka, “They told us our village would change after the war. But, nothing has changed. We were poor then and we are poor now. They cheated us.”
Ram Maya Roka from Thabang in Rolpa lost her husband, Tara Prasad Roka, to the war. Frustrated by the current system, Tara Prasad had joined the Maoist force hoping he would be a part of the change that the country needed. But, he never returned home and Ram Maya became a widow.
Whenever this is brought up, Ram Maya starts to cry as the wounds are still fresh for her. Like others, she also received Rs 1 million from the state, but there is one thing that still plagues her. She, like Man Bahadur, is questioning why the war took place in the first place.
“The state has forgotten people who’ve died in the war and their families. They showed us a lot of hope during the start of the war. But, once it ended, they stopped caring about us even though we fed them and gave them refuge during the war. My husband died for them but now they act like they don’t even know us,” says Ram Maya.
Thabang in Rolpa was a Maoist stronghold where all of its senior leaders took refuge. It was here that Bhattarai, Dahal and Baidya drew up plans of attack against the army frequently. The locals also believed in their vision and joined them hoping things would change in their village.
But, things have not changed. The sacrifices made by the people of the village have gone in vain. The state considered them Maoists and the locals time and again had to face torture by the police and army. Things were so bad back then; the army even set fire to houses.
In 2001, when the army entered the village, most of the locals fled as they knew they would either be killed or captured. They took refuge in the jungle for months as they watched their homes and villages burned to ashes.
“We saw our village burn and we could do nothing. I don’t think anyone who is living will forget that day,” recalls local Dhap Lal Pun, informing 33 people from Thabang died during the war.
The adjacent Rukum district also suffered due to the war as a lot of people died there. One place, in particular, that had a high death toll is Mahat Gaun where the army and Maoists clashed on a regular basis. According to data, around 58 people from the village died. Neither the state nor the Maoists have acknowledged their deaths properly.
There is one incident that is still etched in the minds of the locals there. On September 22, 2002, the army attacked the village killing 17 people shooting them entering their homes. They did not just kill people who were associated with the Maoists, but everyone in their sights including toddlers and differently-abled.
Singh Bahadur Budha’s 13-year-old son was killed that day as the army shot him down while he was returning home from school. A year prior to the incident, Budha’s other son was also found dead in a jungle. These two incidents still haunt Budha and his wife who say that the war killed people who would look after them during their old age.
“Our children sacrificed themselves for the country. It hurts, but I hope their sacrifices don’t go in vain and our village develops like they (Dahal and Bhattarai) said it would,” says Budha.
Bina Kumari Budha also lost her child during the war. She says the army came to her house and fired shots that killed her six-year-old daughter who was in her lap.
“I got shot in the leg but my daughter got hit and died. My outer wounds have healed, but how do I heal from the trauma of losing my six-year-old daughter,” she asks.
Wait for development
She says the locals do not respect the Maoist leaders who they once adored as they did nothing despite getting top government positions.
“They gave us wounds by making us take part in the war but since then have done nothing to heal our wounds. It’s just sad,” says Bina Kumari, adding they come seeking votes every election but disappear other times.
The disappointment is evident on the faces of people from both Rolpa and Rukum who feel they were the ones who lost even despite their leaders winning the war. The country changed after that, but their villages remained the same.
It is not that there has not been any development. There has. But, it is quite limited. All these villages have received budgets and small development works have been done. Drinking water pipes and electricity has arrived in the village along with roads.
But, locals do not want to consider this as development. Local leader Jaya Prakash Budha Magar says locals think they have got drinking water, electricity and roads because these politicians need votes during the elections.
“We want development that uplifts the lives of people, not pseudo-development that is only done to shut people up,” says Jaya Prakash.
He says the locals have not received what they have lost during 10 years of war. All the war did was create leaders.
“People like Krishna Bahadur Mahara and Nanda Bahadur Pun became big leaders, but they haven’t done anything substantial to improve the lives of the people of Rolpa and Rukum,” says Jaya Prakash.
Another frustrating part is the budget that they do get is often misused. People close to these leaders pocket the fund given by the government to develop Rolpa and Rukum as peaceful places and promote tourism in the area. This is like adding salt to people’s wounds.
Jaya Prakash feels there are possibilities to improve tourism in the area, but people are not really interested to do so. Dhap Lal Pun, the president of Thawan Homestay, says there is so much Rolpa offers to tourists, but top-level leaders who came from the village do not do much to support the locals.
The main thing restricting tourism is the road. Whatever road that has been paved is thanks to locals and not the government, says Dhap Lal, despite maintaining during the monsoon, it is useless.
“The road is quite risky so we need help developing the road. Once we have that, we can promote this place for tourism with ease,” he says.