Nepal is a country famed for its trekking, astonishing scenery and as the birthplace of Buddha. This, however, is a story set deep in the shadows of the Himalayas and main tourist path in Nepal.
In April of 2006 a couple of friends and I had the great idea of travelling to the Maoist base areas in Nepal, at the height of the People’s War. The war had already lasted 10 years and by that stage King Gyanendra had alienated himself from the mainstream political parties, causing them to ally with the Maoists in a People’s Movement. It’s aim? To bring down the monarchy.
We crossed the border from India into the city of Nepalgunj, and were thrust straight into the midst of the People’s Movement.
It was day three of the general strike. We learned one thing immediately – when Nepalis do a general strike, they take it very seriously. The only vehicles on the roads were the occasional military vehicle, UN jeep or Red Cross ambulance. Anyone who attempted to drive a private vehicle would be pulled out and then watch it being set on fire.
The roads were blocked at every major intersection with piles of burning tires. And people took part in a protest march three times a day, morning, afternoon and evening, until the military curfew was called at sundown.
The main focus of people’s anger in Nepalgunj was against the concrete monument to King Gyanendra, at Gyanendra Chowk, and the statue of his late father King Tribhuvan. The protesters would try to get near them, but lines of Nepali police would stand protecting them, with the Royal Nepalese Army called in when things got particularly tense.
Much as we were enjoying Nepalgunj, we wanted to travel to the Maoist base areas in the mid-level hills, in Rolpa district. With no vehicles on the road, we were finally forced to procure bicycles from a shop back across the border in India (all the shops in Nepal were closed). After fitting them together ourselves, we set off along the Mahendra Highway.
I don’t know if it was more surreal for us cycling along the empty highway surrounded by thick jungle, seeing packs of monkeys following us at the roadside and cycling through military checkpoints, or for the Nepalese soldiers manning the checkpoints seeing three tourists cycling up in the middle of a warzone.
We stayed the nights in small villages, wherever we ended up at by dusk, with no means of communication except for the international sign language for a bed and a bowl of rice. Usually the villages would finally find someone who could speak English and we would listen to their litany of complaints against the monarchy. The children, watching the adults, would spontaneously get up and start marching around the village shouting “down with the monarchy!”
Finally we made it past Ghorai, the last major city controlled by the government and entered Maoist country. By this point the Maoists had set up base areas and controlled more than 80% of Nepal. Everywhere except for the urban centres, using the Maoist slogan of ‘surrounding the cities by the countryside’.
We ditched the bikes as we started to ascend the mid-level mountains of Nepal and the roads became too poor and too steep. Passing police outposts destroyed by the Maoists, we also started to see the endemic poverty of the region that had caused the war in the first place.
Eventually we reached Rolpa district and were greeted with some surprise, but a hastily arranged traditional welcome by the Maoist cadres in the first village we came to. While we clambered up the mountain side in our hiking boots, the Maoist regional party secretary was in flip flops, glued to his transistor radio to get news of the ongoing People’s Movement.
He took us to see local villagers and their houses. He wanted to show us the children of martyrs of the war, to the ‘Martyrs Road’ that they were building through the mountains – using just metal poles, pick axes, spades and the occasional bit of dynamite – and to the People’s Cooperative Bank they had set up. The only food around was dal bhat, rice, and the odd packet of instant noodles, eaten dry. We slept six to a room, but stayed up late talking about the war, the movement and the future, with the Maoists eager to express their viees to an outside world they said never listens.
We finally said our farewells and made our way back down the mountains to Ghorai. We went through the tense military checkpoint protecting Ghorai – which had been the scene of many unsuccessful assaults by the Maoists. We got to our hotel late at night, and walked the streets back to the hotel with an armed guard. We walked in total silence, as the curfew had already started.
The next day we heard the celebrations starting early in the morning. The king had reinstated parliament and called elections. The stage was set for a new government, a new constitution and the dissolution of the monarchy – the first time a monarchy had been dissolved since the Islamic Revolution in Iran in 1979.
People crowded the streets draped in flowers and covered in tilaka. This red paste applied to the forehead in traditional Nepali culture had been converted into a blood red sign of revolution. The streets were full of people supporting all the major parties, but hammers and sickles were everywhere.
When we made it back to Nepalgunj, the monument to King Gyanendra was standing in ruins, an effort made by the People’s Movement at the loss of five lives. The statue of King Tribhuvan had had its right arm lopped off.
More than ten years later, Nepal is still reeling from the effects of the war. Democratic governance has given it no stability or direction forward. Of course, a huge earthquake caused yet more devastation to this poverty-stricken country. Some people in the cities complain about the consequences of the war just as in the countryside some people complain that the Maoists sold them out when they entered the cities.
For us, the 21 days of the People’s Movement and trip to the Maoist base area was a time of being a part of living history.