In 2004, writer Tom Vater visited the war stricken kingdom of Nepal and met a Maoist cell high up in the Annapurna’s for four days of talks. Two years on and Nepal’s belligerent king has shut down democracy alltogether and driven communist rebels and pro-democracy advocates into the same corner, while his police forces in the country’s capital, Kathmandu, are shooting protesters on site.
Ungkor walks up the hill towards the Elephant Guest House. The young man is wearing trekking boots, tight jeans and a flimsy cotton shirt covered by a traditional Gurung scarf. Casually slung across his shoulder, an SLR machine gun with a full clip reminds everyone in the village of Landruk that Maoist rebels are patrolling the Jomsom Trek, the most popular tourist trekking route in the Himalayas.
Ungkor turns briefly and stares back at Annapurna South, one of the world’s most beautiful and highest peaks.
“We started with nothing. We fought with knives and old guns. Now we have more weapons and more men and women than you can imagine. We are fighting for the poor people of Nepal. We kill foreign troops with Nepali faces. 95% of Nepali people support us.”
He puts the gun down and shows me the bag of bullets he carries. “I was a truck driver before. When we attack the army or police I get to drive the getaway bus.”
The 25 year old has been a Maoist rebel for four years. He won’t say how many people he has killed, but, like his rebel companions, Ungkor is comfortable with the array of small arms the rebels carry. He also likes talking to tourists.
“My parents taught me that tourism is good for Nepal. The Maoists respect tourists from all countries. We would never harm a tourist.”
The village Landruk, a small Gurung community with a handful of guesthouses, clinging to a steeply terraced hillside on the way to the Annapurna Base Camp, has been a popular stop-over for thousands of trekkers for the past two decades. These days, guesthouses serve not only Nepali food but Muesli, Coke and beer. Everything is carried up the valley by porters. The local economy is dependent on the foreign visitors. Now, towards the end of a bad season, most guesthouses are deserted.
Muki is from Chitwan. During the season he works as a masseur for tourists in the Annapurna area, “ I have not had a customer for a week. The Maoists are here in the village and sometimes they take money from foreigners. Some tourists are scared. The army comes up here shoots at villagers, kills Maoists and locals and then leaves the village to deal with the consequences. Ordinary Nepali people are the victims of this conflict. We are caught in the middle.”
Indeed, just two weeks ago, a large army contingent, supported by helicopters, raided Gandrukh village, a stone’s throw across the valley.
The mother of a local monk, 73-year old Nanta Kumari, recounts the experience, “The army came with helicopters and started shooting into the village.”
The old woman shows us large caliber bullets she collected from the monastery’s forecourt. “I stood in a hail of bullets. There are bullet holes in houses, the monastery, my front door. They missed me by centimeters. I thank God that I am still alive.”
Cho Kumari Gurung, 42, the wife of a monk, confirms the story. “I thought it was my last day. Five bullets struck very close to me. Later the army came and said the wind had swept the bullets into the village. I am very scared.”
According to villagers, two Maoists were executed by the army during the raid.
Sita Bika, a mother of three children, explains, “The army comes up here and stops all local people. Anyone suspected is shot. The soldiers arrested one boy with a grenade. They took him out of the village and shot him in the back. The entire village heard the execution.”
Ungkor confirms this, “They shot one of our men. They tied the hands of another and then pushed him into a deep gorge. We recovered the bodies later and buried them with Maoist honors.”
None of the locals are scared of the rebels, though everyone complains about the financial strain the Maoists put on the local community.
Sita Bika confirms, “The Maoists come and ask for food and places to sleep in every house. They have no money. We have to give them what we have. We have no choice. The Maoists say they fight for poor people. They are usually polite. But they scare the tourists away.”
The army is more of an existential worry in the region.
”The soldiers are very rude, they beat us and threaten us. Local women have been attacked. Now I am too scared to leave the house to collect wood in the forest. Life in the valley is not safe anymore”
Renu Sharma of the long-running, Kathmandu-based Women’s Foundation confirms this, “Clearly the army is out of control. We get frequent reports of rapes and killings of women from all over the country. Just recently a 15-year old woman returned to her parent’s home after she had learned that her husband had joined the rebels. The soldiers came to the family home and shot the girl seven times. This is symptomatic of the government’s current policy. All suspects and their next of kin are shot.”
Sadly, this shoot-to-kill policy is supported by Western governments, who are pouring money into the king’s coffers to strengthen the army’s hand. According to local human rights campaigners, almost 7000 of the 10000 casualties of the eight-year conflict were caused by the armed forces.
Renu Sharma adds, “ When a Maoist rapes a girl, his fellow fighters execute him. When the army rapes a girl, it usually is not even reported. There are no investigations into human rights abuses.”
So far, tourism has largely escaped direct contact with the increasingly vicious cycle of violence ordinary Nepalis have to live with.
David Bird, a surgeon from Melbourne, and his wife Christine, used to work for a mission hospital in Nepal four years ago and returned in 2004 for a trekking holiday in the Annapurna region with their three children.
At the time, David was not worried about the rebels, “We are happy to bring our kids here. We are certainly not worried about our personal safety. Though we don’t like paying the donations the rebels have recently been asking of tourists.”
Indeed, the rebels have been handing out ‘tax receipts’ after pressing 1000 Rs (15$) from trekkers. The receipts carry the rebels’ website address, aimed to educate people about the Maoist intentions in Nepal, which are far from clear.
Christine Bird remembered the roots of the conflict, “The problem here is corruption, from the King downwards. The West has been pouring money into Nepal for decades. Bu the money does not reach the people. The introduction of democracy changed nothing and the politicians and business leaders at the top cream off everything – there is no trickle down effect. For example, trekking agencies based in the capital hardly benefit the local economy. They march through the valleys with their tents and kitchens and the locals get nothing. As long as people are so poor, the Maoists will always find new recruits.”
With an autocratic king refusing to let go of absolute power, an ineffective government on the street and the US government promising more military aid to fight the ‘Maoist terrorists’, negotiations are a long way off.
Rebel with a cause Ungkor is not worried, “Army executions just strengthen our hand. We never engage with the army near population centers. We try to avoid civilian casualties. I will never give up. I owe the people of Nepal our revolution. We are fighting foreign soldiers with Nepali faces here, men who fight for money from America. We fight for nothing more than a plate of food and a place to sleep. We will win.”
But the revolution remains a vague pipe dream. While the poorly equipped rebels want negotiations, they are inflexible in their demands for the removal of the King, a political change unlikely to happen any time soon.
And human rights abuses are by no means the sole monopoly of the Royal Nepali Army.
Ungkor is both judge and executioner for locals that don’t play by the Maoist rules, “Some locals pretend they are rebels and rob the locals.”
He grins and adds, “We give them one warning. If they do it again, we go into their houses and shoot them.”
The tourists keep trickling in for now, but, according to many locals, an accident involving foreigners caught between the lines or in the way of ill-disciplined soldiers is only a question of time.
The owner of the Hotel Shanti in Gandruk looks wearily into the future, “The Maoists and the government must talk to each other to resolve the conflict. We do not want foreign troops involved in Nepal. We are scared of the increasing militarisation. If just one tourist has a problem, the entire community loses its income. We are living on the brink of catastrophe.“