Yukon News

Yukon teacher caught in Nepali conflict

Rosemarie Briggs Thursday May 25, 2006

There was one and a half weeks left on my Indian visa and I had to leave the country to renew it.

Nepal was boiling, as usual. But that’s pretty common.

Of course I felt some trepidation going there — for 10 years Maoist rebels have been kidnapping and killing people and declaring strikes.

Four years ago, King Gyanendra dissolved the constitution and seized absolute power.

But, as a tourist, you feel some immunity since everyone wants your money.

If Maoists find you in the mountains they charge you an outrageous fee, but they leave you unharmed.

As I rode to Kathmandu, Nepali hits blared from crackling bus speakers and dusty tassels swung from the top of the front windshield.

Just after nightfall we arrived in Kathmandu.

Since mid-March there had been frequent and ever-changing strike announcements.

Often it was the Maoists behind the strife, and sometimes the king.

Recently the Seven Party Alliance planned democracy demonstrations.

As a tourist, you are mostly concerned about being stranded because of the strikes.

The latest Maoist travel strike had ended, the king had temporarily cancelled his travel strike and communication blackout and the Seven Party Alliance was planning controlled demonstrations for only two days at the end of the week.

So everything looked good as far as getting my Indian visa.

Just before noon, I had completed the submission of section one of my Indian visa application.

Walking back to Thamal, a tourist enclave, I was calculating how many days the visa process would take when I noticed the silence.

Silence is a strange thing in Asia, but it was the quality of silence that struck me.

It was heavy and the air rippled with fear.

The street ahead of me was filled with hundreds of people standing quietly.

Ahead, about a block away, I could see a large gap and then more people looking our direction.

My stomach knotted and I turned and walked briskly. My plan was to make a detour — I moved down one street and then another, asking directions as I went.

Finally I began to relax and started to glance at shop displays.

Then bedlam erupted.

At the end of the block I saw military in riot gear and, almost simultaneously, heard the banging against metal storefronts.

Somehow I’d run into a faction scuffle.

In seconds, the street emptied and cheery store entrances transformed into impermeable sheets of metal.

I ducked into a sporting wear store and helped the owner shove displays inside before he slammed down the metal door.

We were safe. There were no introductions. We stood tensely, listening.

Violence can be surprisingly quiet.

Curiosity got the better of the shopkeeper and he pulled the metal door up about a foot.

We all peeked out and watched the fronts moving back and forth.

The students were protesting the monarchy’s high fees.

They were throwing bricks and stones.

Tear gas was discharged at the end of the block.

A couple of pedestrians squeezed into the store, their eyes streaming from tear gas.

Hours later, my eyes stung from the remnants of tear gas as I made my way back to the hotel.

For the next days I stayed in a monastery in an area of Kathmandu, known as Patan.

On April 6th, I heard yelling and loudspeakers and understood that the SPA had renewed its protest.

I was glad of the tall, stone walls of the monastery. During the day, an eerie silence hung in the air and no vehicles could be heard — curfew.

At night, furious shouting, slogans, nasty laughter and the stink of burning rubber filled the darkness.

Curfew lasted all day and was only lifted for periods in the morning and evening.

Many protests throughout Kathmandu and Nepal were totally peaceful, but the military was told to disband any groups.

They did this with batons, tear gas and gunfire.

Many pro-democracy protesters were injured, and they celebrated their dead as martyrs.

No traffic moved. My Nepal visa would expire soon and I needed to complete the Indian visa process.

I was stranded far from the Indian embassy and from Thamal, the tourist area close by.

After four days of conflict, I had no choice but to find a way to Thamal.

I hoped to find a vehicle on the major road.

The curfew was lifted in the evening, but this is when conflict increased.

It seemed more dangerous to leave the monastery outside of curfew.

So, relying on my white skin and backpack to label me “tourist,” I broke curfew.

Though police would attack locals breaking curfew, I hoped my tourist status would give me a chance to explain myself.

I left the monastery late in the morning by foot.

The eerie curfew silence was only broken by the sounds of dogs and birds.

Half burnt tires, glass and rubble littered the roads.

I walked down the middle of the red dirt streets and saw people peeking out of their houses. They seemed incredulous I was outside.

Every block, I encountered soldiers. They were shocked, but friendly.

At one major road, groups of military half smirked and informed the stupid tourist that it was curfew.

I babbled away about visa problems until, amused, but helpful, they stopped one of the rare vehicles and ordered it to take me to Thamal.

In the following days, police brutality increased and the pro-democracy movement strengthened its resolve.

Sometimes, protesters vandalized buildings and burnt vehicles, but every day newspapers were filled with bloody pictures of peaceful protesters shot or beaten.

The number of injured protesters grew into the hundreds.

Police ignored all international norms by firing at demonstrators’ heads.

It was impossible to complete Indian visa requirements for two days after reaching Thamal.

In Thamal, curfew was relaxed. We were permitted to walk the length of one street and there were minimal military personnel.

At the end of the street, the military told you to turn around.

One internet café was permitted to open and some restaurants could open.

On April 11th there was a tourist-organized pro-democracy rally in Thamal

That morning, military presence in Thamal was increased, the internet café was closed and we were not permitted to walk in the street.

This was no game.

We all felt anxious.

The day before, a Japanese tourist broke curfew and was badly beaten by police in Pokhara.

There was a tourist protest, and military presence and tension increased in Thamal.

My Nepali visa was to expire in a couple of days.

The Indian visa was almost ready, but the transportation strike was still on and curfew continued.

I met a girl who told me she had been stranded days just trying to get over the border. Any delay would result in an expired Nepali visa and, with tensions high, it was hard to know how bribing officials would work.

So, lucky westerner that I am, I flew to India.

It was fortunate that I did so because protests and police violence continued to mount.

After almost three weeks, King Gyanendra was forced from power.

Hundreds of demonstrators had been injured and at least 14 killed.

On April 25th, the SPA appointed 85-year-old Girija Prasad Koirala as Nepal’s prime minister.

But Koirala’s past is not without blemish.  On May 17th protests erupted against delays in curtailing all royal powers.

Thus far, the 12-point agreement between the SPA and Maoists has been tenuously upheld and all sides are working towards democracy.

Last Thursday, a national holiday was declared celebrating the cessation of all royal power.

But the new multi-party government has said that Maoists jeopardize the peace. 

Though Maoists declared a three-month ceasefire on Thursday, they have increased forced donations.

Twelve factories have closed due to Maoist extortion and intimidation, and many others threaten to fold.

However, Maoists and government members are still speaking, and Prachanda, head of the Maoists, is optimistic about peace talks.

Nepal waits.

Since 1996 there has been civil war and 13,000 people have died.

Today, many hope for lasting peace.

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