2016 is the 20th anniversary of the start of the Maoist conflict and this month marks the 10th year after it ended.
Also, on 25 April we will mark the first anniversary of the earthquake. In this issue of Nepali Times we take a look at how war-torn families, communities and indeed an entire nation that were finally finding closure after a decade, were pitilessly shaken up by an earthquake.
66-year-old Maiya Ranjitkar has been waiting for ten years for her youngest son Jiwan to come back home. Sitting at the door of her earthquake damaged house in Rayale village of Kavre district, she stares at the road leading to Panauti on which she last saw her 18-year-old son walking away.
A tenth grader, Jiwan was living away from his family in a rented room in Panauti preparing for his SLC exams. The last time he came home, Maiya had asked Jiwan to stay back but he left, saying he had something important to do.
“I told him not to go, but he paid no heed to my words.” remembers Maiya, “We didn’t even know he had joined the Maoists.” A few days later, she received word that Jiwan had been detained by the Army, and soon after news came that ‘Comrade Mausam’ was dead, his body was never found.
The Maoist party gave the family Rs 200,000 compensation, but even after ten years the family is still waiting. “I don’t think he’ll ever come back but we want to know what happened,” says Maiya, tearing up.
The youngest of five siblings, the vivacious tenth-grader was just stepping into adulthood when the course of his life changed like many others at the time. Maiya doesn’t know why her son decided to join the Maoists, whether he was forced or it was of his own accord.
She just knows the son the family had pinned their hopes on for a better future will not return. “We had sent our son so he could receive education, who knew this was going to happen,” asks Maiya, who remembers his face, his gestures, little moments in their lives every time she moves around the house.
But the house which holds memories of Jiwan is no longer the same. The earthquake last April damaged it-there are several cracks on the wall and the top floor of the house is uninhabitable. The Ranjitkar family moved to a temporary shelter after the quake but had to move back to the house when Maiya’s husband Bhagat Bahadur, a mason lost the eyesight in one of his eyes when a small stone entered his eye while building a house six months ago.
When they moved back, Maiya took to patching up the cracks with clay and red mud. But she no longer does that. The Gwarko to Panauti road being constructed goes right through the house, and the family has been asked to evacuate their home. “First my son and then my house, I don’t know why God is trying me?,” she says, looking at her cracked fingers and dirty nails that are testimonies of the hard life she lives.
62-year-old Purna Maya Tamang of Rayale village in Kavre moves around a temporary shelter tending her chicken. She looks forlornly towards the space where her double storey mud and brick house once stood. It was the home her husband Singhabir brought her to for the first time after they got married 42 years ago. Now both the house, and her husband are gone.
Singhabir was one of the more educated people in the village, he had a government job and had voiced dissatisfaction with Maoist threats and intimidation of villagers.
At midnight 14 years ago Maoist guerrillas abducted Singhabir saying they would bring him back in a few days. They threatened the family not to look for him. Two weeks later, news came from another village that a body had been found in a nearby forest.
“The villagers went to look and it was my husband,” recalls Purna Maya, holding Singhabir’s photograph, “there were cuts all over his body, we had to stitch him up for the cremation.”
Then, fourteen years later, tragedy struck again when her house came down in the earthquake. Far from rebuilding, there is no one to even clear the rubble.
“I remember him every day, especially since our house was destroyed,” says Purna Maya. She has a widow’s cheque from the government, her daughter-in-law sends some money from Kathmandu, but there is no sign of the Rs 200,000 the government promised for reconstruction. Her son has been jobless since the earthquake, so there is no money to rebuild.
As for the war, she hasn’t forgotten what happened that night and still fears the Maoist will come for her son and grandchildren.
Both Maiya and Purna Maya say they expect nothing from the government, neither for the loved ones they lost nor for the damages in the earthquake. “They have forgotten everything. They have forgotten the war and now they are forgetting the earthquake,” says Maiya.
No one would have ever heard of Thokarpa if it hadn’t been the scene of an aerial bombardment by the Army in March 2006 that killed four Maoist guerrillas and a civilian gathered at a local school for a victory celebration. Images of the dead strewn amidst the ruins of the classrooms made the front pages of Kathmandu papers.
The Bagh Bhairav Higher Secondary School in Thokarpa was rebuilt after the war ended, but ten years later, it was destroyed again in the earthquake of 25 April 2015. Kamal Neupane was five and had just enrolled in Grade I, and doesn’t remember the helicopter raid. But he grew up amidst the bombed out rubble of his school. Today, he is in Grade 10 and gets a feeling of déjà vu seeing his school in ruins again.
“I grew up with vivid memories of my school destroyed first by bombs and then by the earthquake,” says Neupane, who is giving his SLC exams this week. “I have seen it all before.”
The 7.8 magnitude earthquake struck central Nepal on 25 April, destroying 4,000 schools in 14 districts. It is estimated that 75,000 children would have died if it hadn’t been a Saturday. Most of the schools in Sindhupalchok have not been rebuilt, and classes are still held in temporary tin huts. Broken bricks, wooden beams and crushed furniture litter school grounds everywhere.
The conflict had just entered its tenth year in March 2006 when Maoist guerrillas ambushed an Army truck in Kavre, killing 13 soldiers. Army helicopter gunships were trying to trace the attackers and came upon a large gathering of Maoists in Thokarpa who were celebrating that victory.
After an Islander reconnaissance place spotted the gathering, it radioed base, and four attack helicopters soon arrived to bomb and strafe the school. Four of the guerrillas were killed as well as an elderly villager herding goats. Six of the school’s classrooms were destroyed and the office building was riddled with bullets.
Chhatra Neupane used to run a grocery in Thokarpa back then. Sitting on a stool outside his shop, he was watching Maoist fighters decorating the stage. They had brought in people from surrounding villages and Maoist commanders Barshaman Pun (who later became Finance Minister) and Agni Sapkota (currently Minister of Forest and Soil Conservation in the governing coalition) were expected to address them.
Shortly after Pun turned up, an army plane was spotted high above circling the village. A Maoist sentry shouted: “Eagle in the sky.”
Neupane, who now teaches English at the school, did not know that was the Maoist code for an imminent aerial attack. Soon, four helicopter gunships crested the ridge, and began firing and dropping bombs.
Neupane swooped up his four-year-old daughter who was playing outside and took her into his shop. He did not feel safe there either, and ran out into the open. “Bullets were coming down like hailstones,” he recalls. “I just ran and ran, without looking up or behind me. I hoped that the army would not hit a man carrying a little child.”
He survived, but the school was a smouldering ruin. There were bodies of dead Maoists, the wounded were screaming, and dead livestock were everywhere.
The Maoists took revenge against this aerial raid one month later by attacking the Army Base in the Sindhupalchok capital of Chautara (see below), across the Bhote Kosi from Thokarpa. Fortunately, that was one of the last battles of the war, and a month later the ceasefire of 24 April 2006 brought the conflict to a close.
The school spent Rs 1.1 million, some of it a grant from the newly-established Peace Ministry, to rebuild classrooms, and the repairs were completed in 2010. Five years later, the school was destroyed yet again. And one year after the earthquake, the re-rebuilding hasn’t even started.
“The earthquake struck us just when we were struggling to overcome the scars of the war,” says Principal Bishnu Neupane. “After the earthquake, we drew up a six-year plan to develop our school as the best in this district, but we need at least Rs 70 million for that. I don’t know how we can manage so much money.”
When Maoist guerrillas attacked a Royal Nepal Army unit guarding a telecom tower adjacent to Sindhupalchok District Hospital in Chautara in April 2006, health assistant Hemanta Shrestha nearly lost his family. A bomb had exploded just outside his house, damaging it.
Almost exactly ten years later, when a 7.8 magnitude earthquake struck central Nepal on 25 April, his wife and children managed to run outside just before their house collapsed.
“I have been lucky twice,” Shrestha says, “my family survived not just one but two deadly calamities within one decade.”
In April 2006, Kathmandu was the epicentre of a pro-democracy movement against the autocratic monarchy of King Gyanendra. It had been under curfew for weeks, and the demonstrations were getting bigger.
Some 70 km to the northeast, Maoist fighters were preparing to attack the Army unit to avenge the military’s attack on Thokarpa of Sindhupalchok a month previously in which four guerrillas were killed.
On the night of 23 April, Shrestha had gone out to meet hospitalin-charge Nanda Lal Sikarmi. Just then, he heard a deafening explosion followed by more blasts and intense gunfire. He and Sikarmi hid under the bed from where he tried to call his wife. The mobile phone did not work.
It was dawn by the time the fighting stopped, and Shrestha rushed home to find his wife and two small children still hiding under the bed. A bomb had blown up a portion of their house. “If that bomb had fallen closer, my wife and children would not have survived,” he says.
The Chautara attack turned out to be the last big battle in the decade-long Maoist war. Gyanendra reinstated parliament the next night, paving the way for the parliamentary parties to sign a peace deal with the Maoists.
The government took eight long years to rebuild the Sindhupalchok District Hospital, and the modern new structure had just been inaugurated one year previously when the earthquake struck.
Shrestha was in Kathmandu on 25 April, and his family was still in the same house that had been repaired after the bomb damage ten years earlier. The house collapsed, but his wife and children escaped once again.
The family now lives in a rented house, but Chautara Hospital where he still works will take years to reconstruct.
For the past year, the hospital operated out of tents in the nearby Tundikhel. There is a prefab birthing centre, and the emergency room is a tarpaulin shelter. “We spent the last monsoon in tents,” says hospital in-charge, Sagar Raj Rajbhandari, “we will be spending many more monsoons in tents.”
Like many others, Rajbhandari is frustrated with the slow pace of reconstruction, and despite being a government doctor, is vocal in his criticism of the Ministry of Health. He says: “The ministry is virtually paralysed, it takes months to take just one decision.”
The hospital had sought Rs 500,000 to build a stronger temporary structure, but the ministry neither denied the budget nor allocated it. “I have given up hope,” says the dejected doctor, “I am now seeking help from the district administration and non-government organisations, not from Kathmandu.”
The new hospital looks intact, but it has deep structural cracks. On closer inspection, the concrete beams look like they have been built with substandard material. The Department of Urban Development and Building Construction (DUDBC) has not decided yet whether to repair the building, or demolish it to build again. Maniram Gelal of the DUDBC says: “We are still assessing the damage.”
The Maoists had used the nearby post office to attack the Army base. Surya Ghale, a peon at the post office, remembers spending a terrifying night. When he went to see the office the next day, the building was smouldering, and his boss’ chair was up on a tree.
Like the hospital, the post office was also rebuilt a few years ago but was badly damaged by the earthquake. It has a red sticker, and the post office has operated out of a garage for a year. “We did not have a building, so we upgraded the garage and set up our office here,” explains post office chief, Prakash Chapagain. “We want to rebuild the post office, but the Reconstruction Authority does not seem to be in a hurry.”
Few Nepalis outside this district that was ravaged first by war and then an earthquake have heard of the village of Thulo Sirubari. Located along a ridge, the scenic settlement offers a view of the district capital of Chautara and beyond that, a grand panorama of Langtang and Jugal Himal.
Visitors approach the village of 5,000 people through a community forest, and it was here that in 2002 six villagers were tied to a tree and executed on suspicion of having helped the Maoists. 14 years later, the people still think the forest is haunted. The eucalyptus tree with its white bark stands out prominently in a forest of pine, like a memorial to those killed there.
The Maoists had spent the night at the homes of villagers, and the Army found out about it. A patrol led by Capt Keshab Shahi from Chautara and another from Panchkhal surrounded Thulo Sirubari and went house-to-house. But by then the Maoists had fled, and the soldiers took away the villagers who had hosted them.
Soon after, gunshots were heard from the forest above, and villagers later found the bodies of six of their blindfolded neighbours, killed execution style. The soldiers had left a note warning that the bodies shouldn’t be removed, so the corpses rotted and were eaten by wild animals.
A decade later, Thulo Sirubari hadn’t even really begun to recover from the violence when the earthquake struck on 25 April. Only 74 of the 2,100 houses in the VDC are still standing. One year later, the homes are still only heaps of rubble. There is hardly any reconstruction going on.
Former VDC Chairman, Tanka Gautam, was so fed up with the brutality by both sides in the conflict that he abandoned politics after the April 2006 ceasefire. But when the earthquake struck last year, villagers looked up to him to take the lead in rescue and reconstruction.
“I had to play a role in organising earthquake relief distribution because there had been no local elections in the VDC,” Gautam told us.
There were 78 fatalities in Thulo Sirubari – relatively low compared to the extensive destruction of homes. If it wasn’t for volunteer groups like the Society of Ex-Budhanilkantha Students (SEBS) and humanitarian organisations like Oxfam and Save the Children to help out with the damaged school buildings, Thulo Sirubari would have had to fend for itself.
“There has been no help from the government. The two time cash installment of Rs 15,000 and Rs 10,000 were the only thing we got. We feel there is no Nepal government here for us,” said Resham Gardwaj, 45, who has been living in temporary shelter for a year.
Gardwaj lost his 35-year-old daughter-in-law on 25 April when the 7.8 magnitude earthquake hit. His 12-year-old granddaughter was in the house with her mother but survived. Three other family members were out on the paddy field and were saved.
Says pediatric dentist Sneedha Mainali of SEBS after a recent relief distribution camp at the village: “I’ve been to more than five quake-affected districts and it is heart-breaking to see people affected by the war and earthquake who still have beautiful smiles and a generosity of spirit.”