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In Nepal's Maoist hunt, villagers are hit hardest

By Scott BaldaufStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / May 8, 2002


The Nepalese Army arrived last Wednesday before dawn, about 4 a.m. They were dressed as Maoists, complete with the Velcro red stars attached to their camouflage caps, and they greeted villagers with a pumped fist, called lal salaam, or red salute.

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"They said, 'lal salaam, comrade,' but I knew they were Army, so I didn't respond, otherwise I knew I would be dead," says Guruprasad Chaulagai, a young farmer. Maoists wear their weapons openly, Mr. Chaulagai says, while these soldiers hid their weapons under their Maoist-style camouflage uniforms.

Chiring Thamang, a farmer from a neighboring village, wasn't as observant. He returned the lal salaam and was promptly arrested. An hour later, he was marched about 10 minutes away to a piney knoll for interrogation. At 9 a.m., the villagers heard shots ring out. The bodies of six captives were later found in the woods where they were killed.

From the foothills of the Himalayas to the peaks of Mt. Everest and Annapurna, a brutal Maoist rebellion is taking its greatest toll on civilians. Nearly 3,500 Nepalis have been killed in the past six years, half of those in the past four months alone. Yesterday, Nepalese Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba met with President Bush, seeking $20 million in noncombat military aid. But while the tales of bloodshed continue to trickle in, day after day, the current state of emergency has largely kept the stories of civilian atrocities out of the newspapers and away from the scrutiny of human-rights groups. With nearly 100 local journalists arrested thus far, and 30 still in jail without charge, few reporters and editors are able to delve into the stories behind the death counts and to monitor human-rights atrocities by either the Maoists or the government.

Spokesmen for the joint force of 70 soldiers and policemen say the six men killed last week were shot while trying to escape. The troops recovered a cache of weapons and crude pipe bombs from the suspects' homes. But villagers of Thulo Sirubari (which means "big pasture" in Nepalese) say Chiring Thamang and the others shot were just farmers, shopkeepers, and family men with no interest in either the Maoists or the government.

"We are in the crossfire and both sides are firing at us," says Chaulagai, who was also beaten with rifle butts on the morning of May 1 but later released. "I don't believe in either side. If I trust the Maoists, that's foolish, because they are all hiding somewhere else. If I trust the government, they hate us too. We are the victims, and we don't have a way out."

Countries such as Nepal may feel that they are doing the right thing by using brutal force to "root out terrorism," says Maja Daruwala, the director of the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative, a New Delhi-based monitoring group. But the world is full of countries that were once key US allies and later became embarrassing pariahs, such as Iraq and Nicaragua. "At any given day, the US can say, 'My God, we never said kill people.' "

She adds: "Extrajudicial killings have become too commonplace, and they are backed by assurances of impunity, an assured lack of scrutiny when the press is muzzled, and unjustified excuses that the criminal justice system is too weak to bring terrorists to justice."

One prominent Nepalese human-rights activist who once spoke openly to the press and now requests anonymity, says that police and military forces can operate with impunity because of the current state of emergency declared by the government this past November.

"The government leaders, the prime minister and his cabinet, say that for us to comment against the military action may demoralize the military," says the activist. But "because of the emergency provisions, we are not as free to report the facts. So the information one gets is one-sided, with the government saying Maoists were killed by the military," the activist continues. "Although they say they are killed in encounters, we have no independent way to confirm whether encounters took place, or if these were simply killings in custody."