“You fought valiantly, comrade,
Sacrificing yourself for the country.
Your blood, now, paints the spring red.”
Hot Blooded Vengeance, Junmaya Nepali
For most of my childhood, an old photograph had hung on the walls of my grandparents’ living room in Kathmandu. The photograph was of our great grandfather – at least that’s what we kids were told. It was only after it was taken down that I found out that the man in it had actually been Joseph Stalin. My grandfather, a staunch communist in those days, had idolised Stalin because he believed that communism was the path to a just society.
The discovery that it had been Stalin staring down at us all these years coincided neatly with my own political awakening. For most of the early days of the war in Nepal, and living in Kathmandu, I had been shielded from it all. There’d been only whispers back then: two police officers killed in an ambush, seven villagers shot dead under suspicion of being Maoists. But after 2001 and the declaration of emergency, the conflict exploded into everyone’s consciousness – including mine – with more frequent, unavoidable news of attacks, higher death tolls, and curtailing of civil rights.
The war had begun on 13th February 1996, when a police post in a small town of Holleri, Rolpa in western Nepal was attacked, weapons and explosives seized, and attackers leaving shouting slogans. That was the start of a decade-long conflict that pitted the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) against the State.
A stronghold of the communists, Rolpa and its neighbouring district Rukum soon came to be the epicenter of the civil war. Those ten years witnessed some of the most brutal crackdowns by State forces in these districts. And the harder the state pushed, the more successful the Maoist-led People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and its affiliated organizations were in recruiting people.
Of course, there were many among these recruits who had been forced to join the PLA. But others wholeheartedly supported the cause, aligned with the belief that “a system that hinges on the barrel of a gun can only be smashed by the gun itself”. As Mausam Roka, a former PLA fighter and journalist recalls, “Soldiers often shook hands before heading into battle, and they would tell each other that they would meet in the next life if they were martyred. I still wonder what kind of ideology made people face death with such open arms.”
For many, the decision to join either side was triggered by a sense of revenge. Nim Bahadur Pun, for instance, joined the police because the Maoists had murdered his father. While Ganesh Khadka took up as a soldier in the PLA because he wanted to avenge his father’s death at the hands of the police. This cycle of revenge was very common during the war.
Junmaya Nepali, a member of a Maoist-affiliated Dalit organization from Rolpa recalls wandering through the forest with her children for almost a month, eluding the army. She describes how there were times when all they had to eat was a kernel of corn, which she would split in two and give to her children.
After ten years, around 17,000 deaths, more than 1,350 disappearances, thousands disabled and millions displaced, the war finally ended in 2006. The Maoists entered mainstream politics and two years later, with the ousting of the centuries-old monarchy, Nepal became a Federal Republic. The communist party has been in power four times since then and the country has gone through some historic political changes.
Travelling through Rolpa and Rukum recently, I met people who fought on both sides, heard stories of atrocities committed on either end. But what does all this mean today when those sides have come together? The people who bore the brunt of war are forced to look on as the historic treaty that promised justice and reconciliation for all violations of human rights committed during the conflict has been reduced to just another paper dream. And many who fought on the frontlines and believed in the beautiful image of a just, egalitarian society that the party leaders painted for them have given up.
Comrade Lal, once a loyal party member, today repents: “If the war that was so close to being won can be demolished like this, what use is a revolution?”