Tag Archives: Maoists

Peace Corps volunteer safety and security

The last thing that I wrote about safety and security got my Web site shut down by the Peace Corps Washington, DC, office.

Perhaps it’s just a coincident that my predictions (or rather, intelligence collected) about the security situation in the Rautahaut, Bara, and Parsa districts have come true, much to the frustration of the Peace Corps Kathmandu office. Not that it matters.

The fact is that we PCVs are ourselves responsible for our safety. How can someone expect someone else to take care of them?

So let me explain the situation.

Since December 19, 2003, when I wrote an post for this blog titled Bombs Over Birganj, there have been around 18 bombs detonated in the Birganj and Kalaiya areas, all by Maoists or Maoist affiliates.

There was also a large attack by ‘several hundred’ Maoists on the airport in Simra (the local airport for Birganj, about 12 km north).

The office where I work, the District Education Office, was bombed on February 18, 2004.

Fortunately, I was not at the office that day. I was in Kathmandu finishing my close-of-service medical checkup.

There had been two bandhas while I was in Kathmandu, so everything took a bit longer than it should have; however, this is the way of Nepal nowadays, and so one must just get used to the on-off tendencies of the country.

One day things are on, the next they’re off.

When I arrived at the Kathmandu airport on February 21, 2003, I checked in at the counter and went into the waiting area past security to wait for my flight.

As soon as I was inside, a friend who works for another airline told me that because of a ‘security problem,’ a previous flight had been unable to land in Simra. He didn’t provide, perhaps because he didn’t know, many details but assured me that my flight would be canceled. I waited.

Ten minutes after my flight was supposed to leave, an announcement over the loudspeaker said that all persons flying to Simra should return to the check-in desks. We were told that the flights to Simra were canceled, as said before, because of a now mysterious security problem.

I had just heard, while in Kathmandu that the DEO had been bombed, so I was a bit nervous. I called the Peace Corps duty officer and asked them to do a little research on the security problem in Simra and get back to me before I rescheduled my flight.

When the duty officer called me back, he told me that there had been a total of eight bombs planted along the runway in Simra. He didn’t know what type of bombs they were, just that the army was in the process of safely defusing/detonating them.

He then suggested that I wait until a few other planes had landed safely in Simra before taking a flight back. I agreed.

So one day later (and after two other planes landed safely), I boarded a plane bound for Simra. The flight was rough and I was wondering if it was the weather or the pilot’s preoccupation with possible land mines on the runway.

Once at the Simra airport, I was present when the Minister of Information (then Kamal Thapa) was arriving. The first person to exit the plane was a fatigued soldier carrying an M-16. And so was the second and then third person, until Kamal Thapa himself emerged.

Even I thought this was strange.

Back in Birganj, I stopped by an airline’s office to talk with a friend working there to see if I could get some answers about what had happened the day before at the Simra airport. They told me that five minutes after their plane had left Kathmandu for Simra, the bombs had been discovered.

The flight time between Kathmandu and Simra is about 15 minutes.

Early on the day I was flying to Simra, I ate some sekuwa near the airport, and then walked my way up to the terminals, which takes about than 10 minutes.

As I was walked to the airport, the army folks were off to the side of the road where usually stand RNA guards. Next to them were three kids, about 13 or 14 years old, standing on their heads with their shoes off. One of the army guys was beating the kids’ bare feet with a rod of some sort.

They waved me by without asking for my ticket or ID, which is the standard procedure. I stopped for a moment and asked what was happening. The army man in charge of beating feet told me that the kids were naughty. I asked why.

Because they don’t have jobs, he informed me, his frustration with the children palpable.

I thought about the kids, Maoists, and bombs at my airport.

About a week ago in Kalaiya, the army murdered two civilians in their homes, and then took their bodies to the jungle where they were buried.

Family and other folks found out about this and went into the jungle, found the buried bodies, dug them up, and marched in the main bazaar in Kalaiya, putting the bodies on display and rallying in front of the army barracks.

The people called a bandha and there was some confrontation with the police and the army, ending with the army lining up and firing blanks at the crowd, injuring 15 people.

This is how you win the people’s support, right?

Since December 2003, there have been two bombs at the army barracks and another at a police station in Kalaiya.

The number of reported cases by Nepali media of the police or army killing civilians in Nepal has been increasing every day. Stories of rape, murder, and extortion are beginning to appear with disappointing regularity in the newspapers.

Three kids were killed in Narayanghat on Maha Shivaratri. A while ago in Hetauda, a bus conductor was shot through the chest and killed by an army man who apologized on the spot, saying he had accidentally aimed the gun and pulled the trigger.

After seeing those army men beating those three kids, I think that the army cannot exist like it does without the Maoists, just as the Maoists couldn’t exist without the army being the way it is.

Somehow I forgot to mention this. Forgetting to mention something like this suggests something about how we all feel here in Nepal: safe.

Yet it is a safety borne out of complacency and a feeling of invincibility that most PCVs here feel. I think that the the thing we overlook is that the people who we are working with here just can’t leave the country if things get too bad.

Anyhow, when I got back from the training in Dharan, I was walking to my flat when I noticed a building about 200 meters from where I live looking quite a bit different.

I though, Oh, this must be getting demolished.

Later I asked a local what was happening with the building and he told me that it had been bombed a few nights ago.

Even tonight I walked by that building. Bricks are strewn about the road in front and the one side of the building is mostly exposed.

It was an empty, government building just sitting in a field—across from the the army barracks in Birganj. Why would the Maoists blow-up an old, abandoned government building that’s across the street from the army barracks?

I guess because they can.

Still learning

Things should be simpler. If people can travel to another hemisphere, learn a somewhat obscure second language, eat with their hands, and grow comfortable with the sounds of bombs and gunfire, then surely organizing and executing a basic teacher training with motivated teachers in a scenic location shouldn’t be a problem.

Piece of cake. Kid stuff. I had done it before, in Nepalgunj (not even a scenic location), and it was a success.

But things are not getting simpler in Nepal. The bombs are creeping closer, and people are growing uneasy with the developing situation. The police seem less restrained, and, as most people are slowly realizing in the Terai, the Maoists are wielding more power than most of us thought possible.

Swimming and drinking during an overnight evacuation drill at Hotel Vishuwa.

Swimming and drinking during an overnight evacuation drill at Hotel Vishuwa.

Less than a month, ago I was met some ICRC (Red Cross) folks in Birganj. We chatted a bit and started talking about security and the Maoists. Without thinking, I told them that there wasn’t much of a Maoist presence in Birganj.

Actually, he told me, There are many more Maoists here than you think.

And we left it at that.

Seven of us had been invited to go to the US Consulate in Kolkata for Thanksgiving, which we all eagerly accepted. About a week before Thanksgiving, we were to meet out east in Nepal though there was trouble.

The PST in Butwol had to be moved elsewhere because of the sudden realization that the security in the area might not have been at the levels necessary.

Peace Corps pulled volunteers out of two districts, Palpa and Rupandehi, and put everyone on alert not to leave their sites in case . . . in case of . . . something.

Luckily, we had approval to leave Nepal and travel to Kolkata for Thanksgiving. For that, we were thankful. But there was a condition on which travel permissions had been granted.

Peace Corps required us to acknowledge in writing that there was a chance, A small chance they told us, that we might not be allowed to return to Nepal if something happens.

None of us knew exactly what they meant by ‘something,’ and none of us asked. We left.

We stayed in touch with the office while in India, and we arrived back in Nepal as if everything was normal. Even though it was never said explicitly, we knew that the office had made our trip conditional because, in fact, there was a chance that the program could be suspended, and Peace Corps volunteers evacuated from Nepal.

It was obvious. We called to the office, talked to the receptionist about the weather, and strolled back into Nepal tossing our Thanksgiving football around.

I had made plans with another volunteer in Dharan to hold a training for the teachers of the government school where she’d been doing some extra circulatory stuff, like conversation English.

They had asked for help, and I had volunteered. I am a volunteer, after all. I wrote up a proposal for the Peace Corps office, and everything had been approved. I wrote the lesson plans for the training, and was all set after Thanksgiving. But it wasn’t that simple.

After being back in Nepal just a few days, the Maoists had announced a couple bandhas. One called for a education strike that would happen during the middle of my planned training.

Not a problem, I thought, just a single day.

I thought we’d be able to either move the training up, cut a day, or just add a day to the end. After spending a couple nights in Birtamod, I made my way to Dharan to meet with Jen, my counterpart for the training.

The training’s been cancelled, she said when I met her in Dharan.

At least in Dharan the single-day education bandha had turned into a two-day education bandha immediately followed by a third day everything bandha.

It wasn’t going to happen. Also, I had to hurry up and make my way back to Birganj before the third day of the strikes otherwise I might end up stranded somewhere in between while traveling.

I had to call a friend in another Terai town who was going to help with the training before he left his site for Dharan. When I finally talked to him, he told me that the night before there had been a bomb at a private school about 50 m from another volunteer’s house in his town.

They were walking home together at about 6:30 p.m. when it exploded.

I felt it in my stomach, he told me.

I left Dharan more with the intention of getting back to Birganj before admin did something rash. Yet I don’t believe they would. I remember during my PST, there was the occasional breakfast chat about waking up to gunfire or an explosion.

I’ve since held to my conviction that Peace Corps/Nepal will never pull out of Nepal. Just a couple days after getting back into Nepal, a PCV on his way up to visit the last volunteer remaining in Ilam told us about cycling around the Kathmandu Valley and watching the Royal Nepal Army fire RPGs from one distant hill to the other side.

Nothing to see here, folks. Move along.

Nothing to see here, folks. Move along.

We tell these stories and we laugh. We laugh at either the coincidence or irony or whatever it is (we can’t tell because we’ve had a couple beers) that a PCV ate dinner one night while watching the neighbor’s house burn down at the hands of Maoists or, remember that one time, about how teacher told a PCV that neighborhood Maoists had asked the teacher’s permission/opinion for kidnapping him. And that one time when the police shot Ryan’s host brother near the house.

We are not desensitized. We are not complacent. We are resolved. We stand fast.

After the bombing near my friends’ house, Peace Corps sent one of the senior staff to go and check out the situation.

The PCV living nearby went with the staff member, and after looking at the school and talking to a few people, he turned to the PCV and said, Well, saathi, they can put bombs in pumpkins, dead dogs, and under the ground. So be careful, hoina, and patted her on the shoulder, making everything OK again.

These are not the droids you’re looking for.

The training has been rescheduled for January, after our All-Vol in the middle of the month.

Honestly, I think we are safe enough to be here. Today. Tomorrow. And probably the day after.

After that, though, my Magic 8 Ball says, Future unclear. Check back later.

All the news fit to print

As I mentioned before, former fellow Birganj-wallah Rob departed Nepal. On his last day in country, he hired an elephant to take him from his hotel to the Peace Corps office to hand-in his final paperwork.

It’s lovely living in a place where the elephant is just as much of a zoo attraction as a mode of transportation.Here’s an article from The Himalayan Times about the recent developments with the pre-service training that was occurring in Butwol.

Maoist fiat forces Peace Corps out

Thirty American Peace Corps volunteers have been forced to leave the district following an ultimatum by an armed group of Maoists asking them to leave within six days.

The volunteers were running a temporary Peace Corps office at the Butwal Technical Institute (BIT), of the United Mission to Nepal, in Manigram VDC. It is said that the ultimatum was issued keeping in view Prachanda’s hostile attitude towards the Americans.

The volunteers left for Narayangadh with no intention of returning.

The owner of a house where nearly a dozen volunteers had put up said the Americans had come to Butwal two and a half months ago and planned to stay for around two years.

The volunteers, who could communicate in Nepali, were studying the language in Manigram VDC-2 and -4. They also used to provide financial and technical assistance to the Aama groups.

Earlier there were 36 volunteers but of late only 30 of them had been staying including some women.

They used to visit Butwal, Shankarnagar, Kariya regularly and were planning to visit Pokhara, Siraha and Bara.

Commenting on the incident, SP Dhak Bahadur Karki of District Police Office said, Though we had heard about the volunteers being asked to leave by the Maoists we have no idea whether they left due to the same reason. He said the police might be able to gather more information when a team would visit the area soon.

Accepting that the volunteers had left the VDC, the manager of BIT, Bishnu Hari Devkota, said, We did not ask them the reason for leaving and they did not tell us.

According to him some remaining Nepali staff were also planning to leave the place tomorrow.

© 2004 The Himalayan Times

At least it keeps things interesting. Still standing fast.

Burning candles, Tihar

I remember where I was last Tihar, a year ago. A year ago? A year ago I’d gone to Kathmandu to hang out at the Spice deraa, my old co-owned flat in Kathmandu, with some of the folks there.

Pardon me while I wax nostalgic, but a year ago I was living in a different house in Birganj and I had another flat in Kathmandu. Now I’m squatting with an Australian working with a Birganj NGO and Peace Corps kicked us out of our places in Kathmandu.

I’ve since become a fixture at the Hotel Ambassador and Kate’s kitchen.

Tihar candles on my balcony at the flat in Raniganj.

Tihar candles on my balcony at the flat in Raniganj.

This year I was staying in Birganj. All the other PCVs had left during the holiday, just as I had done a year ago, and I was half looking forward to settling back into a rut in Birganj after not having been here continually for very long.

Since returning from the US I’d only manage to spend around 10 days, maybe two weeks, continually in town before leaving. Since getting back from the States I’d been to Kathmandu (of course), Pokhara, Hile, Ilam, Karkarbhitta, and Rajbiraj. And then back to Kathmandu.

I had been feeling somewhat lost of late. Like not sure where I was going with work or whether or not I was actually welcome in Nepal. Just before Tihar the Maoists had sent a notice to the newspapers and government that it was making steps to change its policies.

No longer would they be targeting infrastructure or low-level personnel of the army and police. Instead, they’d be targeting US imperialists. Or those associated and funded by US imperialists. Or who knows what this means.

Even during training when we could hear the crackle of gunfire in the distance as we ate daal bhaat we knew that we were safe. Really.

And even when the police (or was it the Maoists?) came and kidnapped a trainee’s host-brother, tied him to the back of motorcycle and drove off into the Chitwan jungle, we felt safe.

Even when the Maoists (apparently, it might have as easily of been the police) came and burned down a trainee’s neighbor’s house by cover of darkness, we felt safe. But this is different. This could be personal.

Mira knits at her tea stand in Murli Gardens, Birganj.

Mira knits at her tea stand in Murli Gardens, Birganj.

Sadly, the only way to gauge to what extent of danger there is we must wait and see. It’s a gamble. It’s (pardon the metaphor) like playing Russian roulette. In Birganj I’ll be fine. I’ve got bigger considerations, like my new landlord.

He’s a weaselly man that I don’t trust farther than I can throw him. One morning the family came knocking on my door to ask if I’d left my phone off the hook. While I don’t usually use it at all, the miserly bastard decided to disconnect my phone and then lie to me to my face about it.

He said he had three phone lines in his house and mine was ‘disturbed.’ It was such an out-and-out lie that I couldn’t even call him on it. It wouldn’t have mattered.

And the same morning I’d received a phone call on the disturbed phone line (in his house), did I get a visit from my old landlord, an equally niggardly man.

He’d been sitting in my living room telling my friend how I owed him money for a phone bill I’d forgotten to pay before I left.

While true enough, it was a minor amount of money and our understanding that such outstanding bills would be considered paid in full as I’d given him my old bed and another previous PCV‘s bed, both worth far more than the phone bill.

I’d also agreed to leave him my gas cylinder as well as a fan, a bookshelf, a couple chairs, et cetera. And here he was, sitting in my living room, moaning about money and complaining about my tea.

For some reason, I wasn’t feeling terribly welcome in Birganj—or even Nepal.

When Tihar began, though, things took a turn for the better. My bastard of a landlord’s younger brother asked me over to his place for dinner. My first landlord, perhaps the only honest man in this town, also asked me over. And so did Mira, my local tea stand operator.

I decided to go to Mira’s and then finish off the evening at my neighbor’s (the nice one, the younger brother) in a hope create some ties with the better half of the family. In the manner of Tihar we’d lit some candles and decorated the front door with a malla.

At Mira’s we ate and talked, but we couldn’t stay long because we had to run back to my place. We had some puri sabji and ate some sweets, looked at photos, and were the first people that Mira’s younger sister, Asha, and friends played their dialo for.

Soon, though, we left in a hurry to get back to my place. As we were ascending the stairway the Indian family living below me quickly came out to ask if I’d take some photos for them of their children.

I complied and soon I was burning nearly an entire roll of film of kids touching this idol, that idol, in this room, in that room. The film wasn’t a problem, but I was late.

The family asked if I’d go to the roof with them and set off some firecrackers, also a Tihar tradition. I was beaten and said, Sure.

On the roof the father began lighting off some sparklers and what not.

Fireworks on the roof of the apartment with the downstairs neighbors.

Fireworks on the roof of the apartment with the downstairs neighbors.

Soon, though, he had a sparkler in each hand and was lighting roman candles that he’d propped up on the side of the house. I felt like I was in Baghdad. I ducked under a fountain sprayer sparks across the roof and bid my farewell, promising prints in the future.

When I finally got to my neighbor’s house the food was on the table and they were waiting for me. I was more than daunted when I saw the family was expecting me to eat an small mountain of daal bhaat. They were smiling and asking me to sit, eat.

So I did. I guess I should say I tried since there was no way I could eat all of the food without vomiting and even thought I might do that halfway through the plate.

Finally I apologized and said I couldn’t eat any more. We chatted for a while, but soon it was the family’s bedtime and I thanked them again and left.

As I walked around the balcony back to my place I noticed that the candles I’d put out had gone out. Even though it was still a bit windy I went ahead and lit the candles again. The bad man’s daughter came by and said I should position my candles closer together.

I told her I had about thirty left in my room and would do so the next night, the second night of Tihar. In my room I sat on my bed and listened to my stomach complain about the food to me. After a moment I decided to turn off the light and sleep off my stomach cramps.

A moment later I heard the stingy man’s wife and daughter talking outside of my window.

The candles have all gone out, the mother said.

The American inside, the girl replied, He says he has many more.

I hope I do. I hope I can make these days last longer.

Diary of a strike

After the end of the ceasefire between the Maoists and the government, the Maoists called for a three-day bandha across Nepal. All shops, offices, and schools are to close and all transportation is to halt during a bandha.

Bandhas in Birganj are typically not observed, and most shops remain open; however, most transportation pauses since traveling requires passing through areas more closely watched by the Maoists. But the bandha have a more human cost. Let us look closer.

  1. 17 Sep. 2003

    Day before three-day bandha

    1. 1600: Met Kate at Himanchal Cabin. She had a bhoj she had to attend so we had coffee and discussed what food we’d need to buy for the three-day bandha. Accidentally knocked over a kid carrying apples while riding to the bazaar, which was bedlam.
    2. 1800: Finished shopping. Bought a couple kilos of tomatoes, potatoes, onions, okra, and bananas. Also bought spaghetti, baked beans, eggs, and bread. The bazaar was crowded with people and I felt like it was Y2K all over again, except this time the shops really wouldn’t be open the next day.
  2. 19 Sep. 2003

    Day 1

    1. 08:00 Woke up late to phone call. Last night Kate and I stayed up late since we knew we had no where to go the next day. Usually we both get up around 7 o’clock. After my phone call, went back to sleep.
    2. 11:00 Kate and I sat in the kitchen silently for half an hour, trying to think of what to do with our day. Came up with the following ideas:
      • Clean
      • Plan up-coming three-day work week
      • Cook something
      • Write letters
      • Study Nepali
      • Have some more coffee
    3. 11:05 Made the coffee and drank it while trying to come up with some better ideas.
    4. 12:00 Jittery from the coffee. Kate and I chatted, relating our situation to being snowed inside a cabin in the mountains. Contemplated whether I would or would not eat Kate if an emergency arose. Decided I would not eat Kate.
    5. 13:30 Sat on the porch and thought about Thailand. Noticed the semi-blind shop keep had opened his store. Stroked my beard.
    6. 14:30 After zero customers, the semi-blind shop keeper clumsily closed his shop and tripped on the stairs down. Crazy from cabin fever, I laughed so hard the shop keeper looked in my direction. Wondered if he saw me. I mean, heard me. Whatever. Decided to go back inside and stare at the wall.
    7. 19:00 Cooked pasta with sauce for Kate and myself. Over dinner, we talked about steak. Depressed, we stopped and silently finished our pasta.
  3. 19 Sep. 2003

    Day 2

    1. 08:00 More coffee. Beard starting to itch. Started to regret not getting a shave at a barber before the bandha since I don’t have any razors.
    2. 11:00 Kate and I went a short walk around Ranighat. Found the nearby river, which is mostly used by locals and a garbage pit and toilet. Found a sketchy daal bhaat place overlooking the cesspool and made plans to come back for our evening meal. Yum.
    3. 14:00 The boss’ daughter from the NGO where Kate works came over. Played Uno. Kate went insane and began a full-on assault against me. I mean, three pick-up four cards in a row? Really. Reconsidered if I’d eat her.
    4. 14:10 Stopped playing Uno as I was about to strangle Kate. Maybe it’s the coffee. Remind myself to get decaf while in Thailand.
    5. 18:30 Went to the sketchy daal bhaat place.
    6. 23:00 Started raining very hard. Water began pouring into my room from the porch under my door. After half an hour of torrential rain, my room had around 2 ½ inches of standing water on my floor. Laughed. Tried to block the flow of water but to no avail. Moved things off the floor and went back to sleep, water gushing in from outside.
  4. 20 Sep. 2003

    Day 3

    1. 10:00 Finished pushing out the remaining water from my room. After using the squeegee, my floor looks reasonably clean. Drank coffee.
    2. 1200 Kate made breakfast/brunch/lunch: fried tomatoes with onions, baked beans, and fried eggs. Had another cup of coffee.
    3. 14:00 Taped some photos to the wall in my bedroom.
    4. 14:10 Photos fell off the wall. Decided not to put them back up.
    5. 15:00 Kate left to go to my old deraa to make a phone call to Australia. Finally, the place to myself.
    6. 15:50 Began making a list of questions to ask Kate when she gets back, including:
      • When was the last time you were stuck without anything to do for three days?
      • What did you do for those three days?
      • Do you think it’s strange to sit and do nothing for, let’s say, three hours?
    7. 16:30 Went to the roof to watch the sunset. And for Kate to get back. Translated the aforementioned questions in Nepali, in writing, for no apparent reason.
    8. 17:00 Kate returned, unable to make her phone call. She began cooking and I watched very attentively. Just before asking, I realized how insane my questions were. Went back to room and threw away the paper where I’d translated questions in Nepali to Piglatin. Swore off coffee.
    9. 23:30 Checked my email using Kate’s NGO‘s Internet connection at home, somewhat under false pretenses. Read The Onion and strangely didn’t find it funny. Need to shave my beard.
  5. 21 Sep. 2003

    Day after bandha

    1. 07:30 Got up. Had coffee. Wondered what to do with my day.
    2. 08:00 Had another cup of coffee. Is there rehab for cabin fever?