In Nepal's Maoist hunt, villagers are hit hardest

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.

"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."

In Thulo Sirubari, the trouble started back in October, while Maoists were observing a cease-fire and seemed to be moving toward reentering mainstream politics. Maoist newspapers printed lists of towns where Maoist "people's governments" had been established to bring Marxist style rule and services to the poor farmers.

Thulo Sirubari was one of those towns, and the six men shot by the Army (Chiring Thamang, Shiva Hari Gautam, Ganesh Gautam, Jhalak Dulal, Tika Dutta Dulal, and Bhaktalal Dulaland) were listed in Maoist newspapers as members of the village people's government. Even today, Maoist slogans, painted in red and blue, cover the walls of the stone buildings along the dirt road that runs through the village.

The villagers were so afraid of being identified as family members of the dead men – either by local informants or by Army spies – that they left their bodies unburied for a day.

According to some villagers, the Army and police returned to the village after the shooting and forced village elders to sign a document that verified that the six people were Maoists and that they were killed in an encounter. One villager, who refuses to give his name, says he signed the form.

"They made a document saying they were killed in an encounter, and they asked me to sign it," says the middle-aged farmer. "I didn't have any alternative. They said: 'We have a list, and we kill those people who are on the list."

A seventh villager – Kashari Gautam, a housewife whose husband works for Bank of Nepal – is reportedly still being held in custody at the district headquarters.

In Shiva Hari's home, his father Muktinath Gautam has shaved his head and taken to wearing a white loin cloth, which observant Brahman Hindus wear as a sign of mourning. He beats his chest and calls out to his son: "Where are you my babu, where are you my son?" He turns to some visitors and asks them, "I am 65 years old. Who will feed me when I get old?"

Shiva Hari's wife, Kamala, is also wearing a white cloth, and she clutches her son, one of her three young children. She is mourning not only for her husband, but also for her father, Tika Dutta Dulal, a former legislator from the National Democratic Party who was killed.

When the Army took Shiva Hari, Kamala followed them, pleading for his release. "They chased me away, saying 'Run away, or else you'll get the blood of your own husband on your clothes.' "

"Shiva Hari was not involved in any of that kind of activity, so why was he killed?" She denies that the Army took any weapons from her home.

"Terrorists are [in Nepal]," says Muktinath, Shiva Hari's father, "but the Army can't kill them, so they kill us."

Government officials admit that the Army and police killed Shiva Hari, Chiring, and the others, but they say they have firm evidence that the six were Maoists.

The village of Thulo Sirubari is about 90 kilometers northeast of Kathmandu, administered by Kobiraj Khanal, the chief district officer of Sindupalchok. In a phone interview, Mr. Khanal verifies many of the details of the killing of the six villagers, but he says that the killing was justified.

"Every father and mother says their children are not involved, but these were real Maoists," says Kobiraj Khanal, the chief government official of Sindupalchok district, which includes this village. "The Army recovered 50 kilos of locally improvised pipe bombs from their homes. They were in civilian clothes, but they were harmful to society."

Like the villagers, Mr. Khanal says the police arrested the six villagers after they gave the pumped fist of a red salute. But the villagers made an escape attempt after the Army had taken them up into the woods for questioning.

"These people wanted to escape and the Army shot them," says Khanal. "They didn't have any alternative."

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