AFTER NEPAL CLASH, TEARS, TERROR AND MANY DEAD
by Chiranjibi Paudyal
American Reporter Correspondent
BENI, Nepal, April 5, 2004 -- The decomposing bodies of Maoists, soldiers and local people - some still not yet consigned to the graves hurriedly dug for them l;ast week - around the small town of Beni, are a constant reminder to villagers here of the fierce fighting between security forces and the Maoist guerrillas that erupted suddenly on the night of March 20 and continued into the next day.
The bodies are scattered all around this small town, an ethnic community located high in the Himalayas where the Kaligandaki and Myagdi rivers meet; Beni is the capital of Myagdi district, 185 miles west of Nepal's capital, Kathmandu.
Nepal's security forces claim over 500 Maoists were killed in the fighting, but rebel spokesmen say only about 40 of their comrades were killed in the 12-hour gun battle with security forces.
Many of the corpses scattered around the town were badly burned, but 112 bodies of Maoists were reportedly recovered. Some 30 civilians and 50 security forces were also killed in the fighting. Col. Dipak Gurung, a spokesman for the Royal Nepalese Army, said more than 500 rebels were killed in the fighting and over 200 injured.
The district headquarters was devastated, a police post was totally destroyed and both army barracks and district level government offices were badly damaged.
Local Red Cross officials are burning unclaimed bodies. The stink of the burning corpses reminded many of the 100-day genocide 10 years ago in Rwanda. The bodies of two persons burned to death remained inside one of the destroyed buildings. They were charred beyond recognition and looked like statues. Fior most, the tragic and painful scene is difficult to describe in words.
One local man came to this reporter weeping, and said that his uncle was also hurt in the March 20 fighting, and he was not seen since then. Later he was to discover that one of the bodies found in the town was that of his uncle.
The Maoist attacks brought tears, terror and death to the simple people of Beni, who like most Nepalese are single-mindedly non-violent and practitioners of the peace-seeking Buddhist faith. For their part, the security forces were demoralized during the clash because additional security forces and weapons could not be deployed to Beni for more than 12 hours.
"There is huge support to the government from the international community, but they did not support their own security forces for 12 hours," an angry local man said. Officials admit that there were mistakes and promised to look into why reinforcements came so late.
At least 33 government troops, including chief district officer Sagarmani Parajuli and the chief of the district police office, were captured and taken by Maoists on March 21, at around 9 a.m. "This is a total failure of the government," said an official of the district on condition of anonymity. The whereabouts of the two men are still unknown, and the government has apparently done nothing to win their release. The rebels have demanded the release of three of their senior leaders as a precondition for releasing some 33 government employees they captured on march 20. They had taken other bodies and thrown them into the rivers, officials claimed.
However, the local people tell a different story. "It was the most terrible incident in my life. I could not sleep the whole night. My children were weeping and I do not know how we lived through these days," said a local shopkeeper, Gopal Lalchan. Maoist snipers had fired at his roof.
Bullet holes pocked the walls of his house. Several electricity poles collapsed when they were weakened by a gunfire barrage.
"It was like the raining of bullets," said a teacher who witnessed the incident. Beni's market, or bazaar, is in the confluence of the rivers and surrounded by high hills. The rebels had poured bullets from the hills.
Waves of Maoists, one after another, came and fought the whole day, a local army commander told General Pyar Jung Thapa, the Royal Nepalese Army chief of staff. "One dies and another takes up the weapons, then another, then another. It was a terrific battle," one man injured in the battle was quoted as saying. Local people interviewed by The American Reporter recounted similar stories of the mayhem and carnage.
The Maoists said that they wanted to surrender, the local peole said. Security forces confirmed this, but said, "They used [the maneuver] to hurl socket bombs. We finished them," one soldier said.
Local people said that the rebels called down from the hills for the security forces that they wanted to surrender. Some were singing communist songs and others continued fighting despite the heavy losses to their side. Some rebels were carrying the dead bodies and some were looting the weapons from the security forces.
"They were more than 5,000 and they had brought teenage school children with them," Neapl's Home Minister, Kamal Thapa, said after inspecting the battlefield.
"We have information that they had intoxicated the small teen-age youths and excited them to involve in the horrendous act," he said. Women were also involved in the fighting.
"Can you imagine how people are living in such conditions?" a local man asked visiting journalists. "There is no water, no electricity and no place to live. The Maoists have broken the water taps and electricity poles. It will remain like this for days. The government will not look soon to this problem," said Narendra Thapa, local businessman.
As the journalists visited, security forces suspected that some rebels were still hiding in the houses of local people. They kept pointing guns at the rooftops of the houses afteerwards.
A forest near the village was set ablaze by heavy fire from security forces in helicopters. A hail of bullets was exchanged between the helicopters, security forces and the Maoists.
"It was like a battle," said Ganga Pulami, a retired army man. "We stayed here the night on way to our home to Takum and luckily saved ourselved by sticking it out under the bed the whole night and morning," he said.
The Maoists have been struggling since 1996 to establish a communist-style republic in the Himalayan Kingdom that would replace the British-style parliamentary system. Since then, more than 9,000 people have been killed and thousands more injured in these clashes.
"We told our grief to the officials. who came here after some days, but we know our problem will remain like this," said a local man, one of many people who were clearly terrified by the incident. Sarcastically a local man said, "To whom shall we tell my grief?" a reference to a grief-stricken man in a story by Russian author Leo Tolstoy.
"This is the most tragic incident in our life, and it has left deep psychological scars in our children," one man said, speaking of the village's frightened children. "There are tears in their eyes; the bright happy face is full of gloom."
This is a place where most people think life was meant to be enjoyed.
Chiranjibi Paudyal, a former USIA Visiting Fellow, has written for The American Reporter since 1999. He is the head of the Nepalese News Association.