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Freedom By .303

Rhetoric runs high in the Maoist sentiment as does a quick trigger in their lands

Freedom By .303
Charles Haviland
Freedom By .303
Six months after King Gyanendra seized political power in Kathmandu, there is little sign that he has succeeded in quelling Maoist violence. Out west, the rebels are still trying to build their brave new world. To examine it, we trekked for a week into these lands where the Maoists first began their insurgency nine years ago.

Our first night was at Khungri, just inside Rolpa—a district which to Nepalis is synonymous with the guerrillas. The rebels had detained us at one of their bamboo gates straddling the dirt road, topped by red flags. "Sleep there," they told us, indicating the yard outside the mud-built house they had commandeered. Later, we retreated to a tiny room as the rains pelted down. There, an older girl, about 16, cooked for us. She would leave next morning with a .303 rifle. A younger girl, about eight, stared at us, a strange smile fixed to her face. She was someone's daughter, I wasn't sure whose. These things are never clear in Maoist encampments.

Comrade Ranabhumi (Battlefield) had a scowl and looked in pain. He had sustained a bullet in the knee in a major Maoist attack on the army, in Dang district in 2001. He talked incessantly of the rift in the Maoist leadership, now reportedly patched up. "Baburam (Bhattarai) is selfish—it's time he thought about the party," he said of the Maoists' nominal No. 2 who had challenged top leader Prachanda.

Two days later, after walking for hours to the village of Tila near Nuwagaon, we were in the midst of a Maoist celebration. From far and wide, they had summoned ordinary people to mark the opening of a road being built under Maoist direction, which was now bringing buses to astonished villagers.

The road is highly controversial. Households across a vast area are ordered to send a person each for two weeks' unpaid road-building work. There was, however, no space for such controversy in the festive atmosphere—a little like an English summer fair with a difference.

"I'm the PR person," smiled Comrade Anushka, a pony-tailed woman with a sweet face and wearing combat trousers. Senior Maoists, looking like favourite uncles, pinned rosettes to each other behind a table whose cloth depicted bunny rabbits. But the place bristled with guns in the hands of Maoist soldiers or teenage militia. Along the table sat portraits of Communist icons like Mao and Stalin.

"A walk of 1,000 miles begins with a single step," cried one avuncular comrade, Prashant. "ngos can hold conferences in five-star hotels, but that does nothing for the poor!" The Maoists, he promised, would help the impoverished and bring them jobs. "Development can't happen if people inherit Rs 15,000 debts from their forefathers." Inwardly, I agreed, but wondered how that squared with regular Maoist practices of making the country ungovernable.

Over the coming days, our minder was Comrade Deepak, an impassive but humorous 40-year-old who practised his broken English as we crossed majestic gorges, sweet-scented pine forests and brilliant paddy fields hacked from near-vertical hillsides—the sweat of generations of enterprising people who own almost nothing. He wore a back-to-front baseball cap; before going underground in 1995, he was a development worker. Now his job is to reply to letters to the party, convey orders from the upper ranks to the lower and carry cash around, heavily armed.

We saw signs of war—bullet-holes in water tanks; bunkers galore; destroyed huts once used as royal army positions. With pride, Deepak pointed upwards one afternoon, just inside Salyan district. "That's the telecom tower we blew up!" he boasted. Elsewhere, the Maoists had raised poles on flat land to stop government choppers from landing.

We also saw elements of what the Maoists call their new republic. There was another Maoist road further west, being overhauled after monsoon damage, and a fine-looking covered bridge—both impressive but ironic creations, given the rebel record of, at times, destroying bridges and bombing roads. More endearing was a brand new cooperative restaurant in one village, where we devoured dal and thick rotis. A percentage of its profits goes to party funds and it is owned, we were told, by families of "party workers and martyrs". "Doing this has made us work and earn our own living," said co-owner Dilkumari Dangi, saying the earnings would help educate her children.

Deepak joked that they would open a shoe factory, perhaps to produce copies of the hardy Chinese shoes most Maoists wear. They also carry ingenious home-made lamps, and special bags containing crude explosive devices, "socket-bombs", which they insist are for self-defence. The more senior have shortwave radios and are glued equally to Maoist radio, the bbc, and the official Radio Nepal.

It's a strange lifestyle. We passed groups of young Maoist soldiers roaming the countryside. Largely they were from the hill-dwelling ethnic minorities, traditionally low in Nepal's social hierarchy, unlike the high Hindu castes most Maoist leaders are from. Sharing lodging with one such group, we asked where they were headed. "There's no destination, we just go around," they said. One soldier had his brother with him. "They want me to join," he said. "We all have to die one day, but I don't want to die fighting."

Our main destination was a place where Maoists were training the first batch of teachers to introduce a new Communist curriculum into the few schools they already control. Advance word had been sent of our arrival, but we had to wait in a valley while Deepak scribbled a letter and gave it to a little girl. She had to take it up the hill to the secret training location. If we arrived unannounced, we might be shot, he said.

Once given the all-clear, it was like stumbling on a secret cult. At dusk, to a steady drum-beat, we were given a ceremonial greeting—clenched fists from trainers and trainees whose eyes sparkled with pride. Most seemed to be committed Maoists. They were learning to teach a heavily militaristic syllabus but also seemed to be living in a sort of utopia. They'd all be volunteer teachers, and must treat the students like friends, never beat them, and downplay caste differences.

By night, there were satirical drama sketches. "Elizabeth is my aunty, George Bush and Manmohan are my uncles!" shrieked someone dressed as Sher Bahadur Deuba in a cutting parody of the King and politicians. "Nepal was diminished in size because of foreign powers like India and China!" we were told in a polemical speech.

For our last days, we were given another minder, called 'Comrade Light' (he gave his name in English)—more Calvinist than Utopian. "We will live and die in this place. There are no benefits for us," said this grim, black-bearded, taciturn Maoist. He spoke of harsh winters, of land where no rice will grow. "I don't know where we're heading," he said. Curiously, he was full of praise for the local government army chief.

Given the heavy Maoist presence, most ordinary people were reticent. "I like their cultural programmes, but not their lectures," a teenager said, grinning. But one old man wanted us to publicise his plight, unfortunately all too typical. The Maoists had asked him to bring his son, a policeman, back from Kathmandu. They had demanded he give them money—what they call "tax". The man could deliver neither. The rebels had therefore locked him out of his house.

Once we reached Ghartigaun, within 10 hours' walk of the Rolpa district capital, Liwang, Comrade Light left us in the hands of a village businessman to guide us to our final night-stop. This was danger zone for Maoists. Their role looking after us was over. Comrade Light returned to his world of struggle.

(Charles Haviland is the BBC's correspondent for Nepal.)
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