Wednesday, May 8, 2002
Return to Year Zero
BY ALEX PERRY KATHMANDU
Even with knives as sharp as razors, it takes time to skin a man. After 35 minutes, flesh was hanging from Ram Mani Jnawali's shoulders and cuts crisscrossed his legs, ribs, arms, hands, ears and chin. His legs were shattered at the shins, broken stumps marking where the bones had been smashed across the steps of his house. But he was still breathing. And yet his teenage tormentors kept questioning him. "Why don't you leave the Congress party?" screamed one interrogator. "How much do you earn? Where are your daughters?" But the 54-year-old, whose only offense was that he belonged to the ruling Nepali Congress Party, was beyond speech. Eventually his torturers-a crowd of 60 girls and boys in Maoist uniforms and rebel-red bandannas-grew tired. Selecting a sharpened khukuri (a small machete), one of them stepped forward and sliced halfway through Jnawali's neck in a single blow. And that's how his wife and son found him, cut to pieces, head partly severed, when they dared to venture out into the yard the next morning. No one knew whether he had died of shock or bled to death, but the pool of blood around his body suggested the end had been slow.
Despite his grief, Bharat Mani Jnawali understands why his elder brother's March 13 death faded from the headlines after a day. "This is a very common method," he says. "It happens to hundreds. They cut different parts of the body off and then only at the end, they chop your head. Shooting would be easier, of course, but this is more intense. It's for the fear." And it's working. When the corpse arrived in Kathmandu for cremation, Congress leaders came to pay their respects. To Jnawali, who had seen his brother's wounds, the sight of him covered in flowers and bound in white was too much. As the ministers drew near, he brushed aside the orange and purple blooms and ripped open his brother's burial cloth to show the butchered body. "I said, 'Look at him. Look at what they did to him. Look at how your party suffers.' But none of them could look. They were too afraid."
Terror, Nepal's 10,000 Maoist guerrillas have decided, is the key to power. When they first launched their revolt six years ago, the rebels took care to elicit public support with popular campaigns against corrupt officials, alcoholism, drug use and chauvinism. Dismissed by the outside world as poorly armed curios from another time, their message that the elected government had succeeded only in lining its own pockets since the end of absolute monarchy in 1990 resonated in the Himalayan hills. But lately, the "people's rebels" have embarked on an altogether bloodier course, inspired-according to a former rebel commander-by the tactics of Cambodia's Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge. In November, the Maoists broke off three months of peace talks with Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba by launching 48 simultaneous attacks on army, police and government installations across the kingdom. This kicked off a whirlwind of atrocities that has cost nearly 2,000 lives. Strikes by thousands of Maoists on isolated security force bases left no survivors. Battlefield beheadings-of army and police, and fallen comrades whose identity they wanted to protect-became commonplace. And when 5,000 rebels attacked two police bases in the midwestern district of Dang on April 11, they press-ganged children and old people from nearby villages to serve as human shields. The tactic failed: the police and army fired back indiscriminately, even using a helicopter gunship equipped with American-supplied night-vision goggles. Ninety-two policemen and about 100 Maoists died in this, the deadliest battle of the war.
But the horrors on the front line find an equal in the nightmare now unfolding inside the Maoist heartland. Since November, the Maoists have instituted a systematic "purification" campaign: to reduce their territory to chaos and rubble and eliminate all opposition. As well as crippling and killing government supporters, they have turned their terror on anyone who might represent stability or an alternative authority. Postmen, health workers, moneylenders, landowners, teachers, all have become targets for public floggings or executions. The guerrillas have executed about 200 people in the past six months and tortured thousands more. Bands of rebels are also descending on villages and dragooning a child from each family into joining their ranks or, in the case of young girls, into becoming sex slaves for the soldiers. State infrastructure-power substations, telephone exchanges, village administration offices, bridges, clinics, dams, irrigation and drinking-water projects-and the homes of the "people's enemies" are being leveled. Their aim, the Maoists admit, is to achieve Year Zero, a reference to the Khmer Rouge genocide that was to clear the way for a socialist utopia. "At first, we just wanted to destroy all the government institutions in the village," Junge Kuna village leader Ghopal Phandari, 23, told me deep in rebel territory in Dang. "But then we decided to block any access to the villages by blowing up bridges-one time we hit 48 in one day. Inside our land, we also attack the water projects or cut the drinking water or hit the electricity supplies because it is symbolic. We have to make these sacrifices to protect the people."
Teacher Mim Bahadur Khada, 28, tells me from his hospital bed in the provincial capital Nepalgunj how 20 Maoists surrounded his house in Surket to the northwest, tied his hands behind his back and demanded $170, his annual salary. They also said he should tear up the curriculum and start teaching "practical" education classes, such as giving instructions on how to sow potato seeds or repair a corn thresher. When Khada refused, they kicked him, shattered his legs with a stick packed in a rubber pipe and whipped him with a bicycle chain before leaving him for dead. "They told me they wanted to destroy all trace of the government and anything outside the party," says Khada. "They told me they wanted to break everything down and then rebuild from chaos with their own Maoist cadres." Adds a Western diplomat in Kathmandu: "It's classic Year Zero. Kill or drive away anybody who could possibly be considered an enemy, break down all state and social fabric and replace it with fear.In the end the party is the only thing left." The former rebel commander-now hiding out in the capital after deserting in disgust over the new tactics-says the Maoists' strategy is an experiment conducted with the support of left-wing rebel groups across Asia. Three years ago, he says, communist guerrillas from India, Bangladesh and the Philippines met Nepalese counterparts in Kathmandu and resolved to turn the kingdom into a laboratory for various revolutionary game plans.
When village leader Phandari describes the Maoist system of execution, he speaks with the ease of a man freed from the burden of conscience. First, he says, a villager will lodge a complaint about a person to the People's Militia, a group of seven to 12 cadres that patrols the village. "We do not execute them immediately," he says. "The militia gives notice to the person that they must reform. We can give three ultimatums. But if they do not change, then we execute them. Sometimes, we use torture-it depends on the interests of the people." The village authorities make a report, which is passed up to the district party leadership to rule on the punishment and who should administer it, he says. "We use the kukri, the bullet, or beat them to death with a wooden stick. It's the party leaders who decide."
In the nearby village of Pancha Kule, a Maoist leader known as Commander Hikbat blithely dismisses concerns that innocents are being killed. "Sometimes what you plan, your intentions, don't always work out in the field," he says. "One time, we went to attack the police in the village of Panchakatia and found they were hiding in a house owned by some local people. We warned the police to surrender but they did not. So we had to burn the house down and four innocent people were killed. We take responsibility for that. It just happens that way sometimes." Phandari, however, has no doubts about the two people he has seen executed and the 15 he has watched tortured. "They were all spies," he insists, "enemies of the people."
Shreeram Shankar Yadav, 68, was supposedly one such enemy. A former Nepali Congress Party chairman in his village of Hasarapur on the border with India, he refused to pay rebel "taxes" or surrender his tractor to the guerrillas. In December, he went further, helping his son and nephew capture two Maoists and take them to a police station. On Jan. 8, the rebels took revenge. "About 250 of them surrounded the house," recalls his brother, Bisseswar Yadav. "They came into the house and tied all the adults' hands. They demanded to know where the guns were and, when we didn't tell them, they began to kick us and beat us with iron rods and sticks. While some of them began looting the house, two men put a wooden box under my brother's legs. As two men held him down, two others beat his legs, up and down with rods and sticks until they broke them over the edge. Then they cut him all over with khukuris. All the time they shouted, 'Why do you spy? Why did you take our comrades to the police?' Then they asked everyone to be silent and demanded my brother chant their song, that Mao is the best." After about an hour, says Yadav, two men laid his brother on the ground, each gripping an iron rod. "They put one through his stomach and another through his shoulder." The guerrillas then firebombed the house. Yadav says the Maoists also beat him, his wife, his sons and his 13-year-old grandson, Rajman. "They hit me on the head with a wooden stick," says Rajman. "One of them asked, 'Why are we beating the small one? Maybe we should get some medicine for his head.' But the woman said: 'No. Let it bleed.'"
While nobody expects the Maoists to march into Kathmandu and seize power, the prognosis is grim. Preoccupied with factional fights within the Nepali Congress Party and in command of a poorly equipped army of just 45,000, Prime Minister Deuba has little chance of regaining much land in Maoist hands. All through rebel territory, police checkpoints, if they exist at all, go unmanned. Deuba came to power just under a year ago as a peacemaker, promising talks with the Maoists. But when the guerrillas broke off their truce in November, he declared a state of emergency and ordered the army into battle. Deuba-whose ancestral country home was torched by the Maoists last month-took the collapse of the cease-fire as a personal affront. "I was betrayed," he says. "I was too lenient. They gave me no option but to crush them."
Faced with growing opposition within his own party, Deuba gave the army carte blanche to wipe out the Maoists. I spoke to several young girls held prisoner in Nepalgunj jail accused of belonging to the guerrillas' political wing. All told the same story of the police keeping them blindfolded for weeks, sometimes months, beating the soles of their feet with plastic piping, then rubbing chili powder into the wounds. Nor are the security forces above murder. On March 18, a group of 20 policemen arrested five men, including Kanchha Dangol-a carpenter-in Tokha outside Kathmandu. Four days later Dangol's body surfaced at a nearby hospital: he had been beaten, slashed, then shot in the chest and head. The official explanation: Dangol was killed in an "encounter" with the security forces. Deuba appears untroubled by such stories. "We will listen carefully to the complaints and, if there are any mistakes, we will improve," he says. "But maintaining human rights while trying to control terror is not an easy job. The army is not superhuman and is not able to distinguish perfectly who is and who is not a terrorist. Sometimes there will be mistakes."
Caught between the Maoists and the security forces, tens of thousands of Nepalese have left their villages and migrated to the cities or to India. Inside Maoist controlled areas-currently about a third of the country-farmers are selling or slaughtering their herds and leaving their homes. Many are living in hiding, moving from house to house out of fear of assassination. Thousands of others, too poor to travel, are forced to stay on and run the gauntlet of oppression from both sides. One doctor in western Nepal, who asked to remain anonymous, says he has seen about 150 patients tortured by the Maoists since November. Ten more had been killed. As for victims of the army and police, he says they're too scared to seek treatment in the cities, where the security forces are based. "The people are trapped between the army and the Maoists," he says. "The Maoists come to them at night and demand food and shelter. If they refuse, the guerrillas kill them. But in the morning, the army comes and kills anyone who has helped the Maoists." In February, the army accused teacher Jeet Bahadur Khatri Chhetri of aiding the Maoists, beat him so badly he could not walk for a week, then forced him to sign a declaration supporting the government. Last month, a neighbor in the village of Pancha Kule was tortured by the Maoists and denounced Khatri Chhetri as the man who persuaded him to turn against them. "So now I am waiting for them to come for me too," says Khatri Chhetri. "They've already said they will."
A short drive away in one village that I visited, a 50-year-old man approached me in tears. He and his son had been beaten a few days before, he said, pointing to the house about 50 meters from his own where the Maoists lived. They were sure to torture them again, he said, adding that the rebels were also demanding that a neighbor give up his 13-year-old daughter to them. Incoherent and distraught, the man pleaded with me to take him and his son away to the city. When a Maoist leader came to investigate, we decided to leave rather than draw suspicion to him. As I climbed into my car, the man held onto my arm, eyes wide with fear, and hissed in my ear, "Terror. Terror," before running back to his house.