Caught in guerrilla crossfire

7th July 2000 at 01:00

DIRGHA Raj Shahi teaches in the remote village of Dailekh in the far west of Nepal. It is an area of steep mountain valleys, jungle and caves - ideal terrain in which to fight a guerrilla war.

Two months ago, he and 240 other protesters set off to walk to the capital, Kathmandu, in response to the government's failure to protect the people of west Nepal - an area of approximately 600 square kilometres where the Maoist rebels operate.

So far 1,500 people are believed to have been killed and 60,000 displaced by the "people's war" which is entering its fifth year. Teachers and schools are increasingly being caught in the crossfire between Maoists and police.

Shahi and his fellow protesters have set up camp on a traffic island in the middle of the city facing the government offices. Braving the heavy monsoon rains and supported largely by charitable donations, they are determined to sit there until the government convinces them that it can control a situation which is rapidly sliding out of control.

Shahi's village is controlled by Maoists who monitor what happens in the local school. With classes of up to 100 children who sit on the floor or on top of each other, with few books, and no toilets or running water, the school has suffered years of government neglect. Now, the Maoists punish teachers who are late or do not work hard, tying them up and then torturing them until they agree to improve.

The police post in the village has been abandoned after a shoot-out. When the police do visit - every month or two - they arrive in groups of 150. Maoist groups can be double that size.

"What are we to do?" asks Shahi. "If we oppose the police, they torture us. If we oppose the Maoists, we are tortured. If the Maoists are in control, all the teachers will say they support them because that is the only way they can survive. No one will stand up to the Maoists. They are too scared."

Elsewhere in the country, Maoists have entered schools, burned the Sanskrit textbooks, and destroyed examination papers. "They believe that people educated in the traditional Hindu system are not for the revolution," explains Kheshab Prasad Bhattarai, national president of the 80,000-strong Nepal Teachers Association.

Maoists have killed 18 members of his union in the past two years.

Only two weeks ago, a taching couple in Arghakhanchi were taken from their home and killed. In Ghorka, a teacher was dragged from his classroom and killed outside in the school compound, while other teachers have been beaten and had their legs smashed with stones.

"In these villages," explains Mr Bhattarai, "the teachers are the opinion-builders of society. They are political and social activists. Members of my union are democrats. They support the Congress (ruling) party because it is the most democratic. If the Maoists can silence their voices, no other voice will be raised against them."

Mr Bhattarai estimates that almost all the members of the Nepal Teachers Association have now left the affected districts of the mid and far west.

In all, he says, 700 teachers have left their jobs and their homes and are now "living like refugees".

Mr Bhattarai is angry that the government has failed to control the insurgency and told the prime minister so in a meeting last week. "What kind of democracy is it," he asks, "when it cannot protect the lives and the property of the people?" He is also sceptical of government claims that it will soon have the situation under control.

It is a view shared by Shahi in his traffic-island shelter. The chairman of his protest group, JB Bista, met the prime minister on June 23 and was assured that security would be restored. Bista is dismissive.

"We have heard all this before. We will not believe the radio or the newspapers. We have elected people in our villages to see what actually happens and we will stay here until we hear from them that something is actually happening."

But already the size of the group has halved. As the monsoon rains keep falling it will be more difficult to camp out.

The government has considered sending in the army to restore order to the western regions but, partly as a result of international pressure, has not done so.

It has also considered creating paramilitary task forces using police personnel and it says almost daily that it is anxious to hold talks with the Maoists. But so far there has been little real progress and, as the war drags on, teachers will continue to be caught in the crossfire - or they will flee.

Teachers are seen as a threat to the Maoist movement. Hundreds now live as refugees and many have been killed or tortured

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