27 March 2006 (INSN)
I live in Kathmandu but was I home in my village in Palpa in western Nepal during the Maoist attack on the district headquarters, Tansen, on 31 January 2006.
I arrived in the village, which is 15 km from Tansen, on 29 January 2006. On arrival I discovered that my parents, other relatives and the villagers were worried because of an increase in Maoist activities in the area during the previous week. Approximately 150 members of the PLA (People's Liberation Army) spent the previous day in our village. My family told me that 18 fighters stayed in our house. They arrived at 4 p.m. and asked for a secret room. My mother showed them a room in an outside shed but they insisted on staying inside the house and my parents didn't have an option but to host them. They entered the sitting room where there is television and sat down and watched a Nepali film. My mother thought that they would leave quickly and so she served them tea. However, after they had finished their drink they showed no signs of going. Finally, some of them left the house at around 2-3 a.m.. The remainder, who appeared to be more senior, slept inside my brother's room, which is the most comfortable room in the house. They left at around 8 o'clock in the morning. The senior fighters were male, of mixed ethnicity and aged between 20 and 25. The juniors, who were of a similar age, were of mixed gender and ethnicity. The group did not speak to my parents but rather they talked among themselves. My parents could not make out what they were saying as they spoke Nepali with an unfamiliar regional accent and being elderly their hearing is not so good.
On the night of 30 January 2006, I was in bed when the group returned at 2:30 a.m. and demanded accommodation. There were two women in the group and the remainder were male. All were aged between 18 and 22 years except for the commander who was probably about 25. He held a walkie-talkie and communicated with commanders who were staying in other houses in the village. He also gave orders to his comrades and told them not to go outside or to let any family member go outside without permission. I heard all of this from my room next door but I couldn't work out exactly what they were planning.
They woke up at 4:30 a.m. and asked for cooking pots, pans and dishes, which my brother gave them. They had brought rice, potatoes and beans and they cooked for themselves. They ate at 5:30 a.m. and went back to sleep. They woke up at 12 noon and started washing their belongings such as clothes and shoes. A sentry was posted behind our house and all the members of the group except the commander had to do an hour's sentry duty. I guessed that they had a strictly laid down schedule for eating, sleeping and doing jobs as other villagers reported that they had kept to a similar routine. Some of them were cleaning and preparing their weapons. Others questioned us about the location of the village and the distance and time it took to reach the district headquarters. We wondered why they were so curious about Tansen. It made us suspect that they are going to attack it. Before that we thought that they were going to attack Butwal as it is bigger than Tansen. Most of the fighters were from the mid-western and far-western regions of Nepal. They gave my brother money and asked him to buy provisions such as biscuits, ready-made noodles, beaten rice, cigarettes and tobacco. They also asked for small change as they all had large notes such as Nrs. 1000. I think they asked villagers to shop for them so as to make it appear that everything was outwardly normal in the village.
Some of them slept in a room opposite our kitchen. We did not feel like preparing food because of the rotten smell of their socks and shoes. I felt upset because I had not seen Maoists in my house before nor had I previously seen such large numbers in the village. It was hard for my parents to have them coming in and out of the house. We could not think about what to do and what not to do ? our minds seemed to be empty. We worried that the Royal Nepalese Army (RNA) would arrive and thought about what might happen if they did.
In the afternoon, at around 12:30 p.m., I decided to go to the bazaar for tea, and while I was there I discovered that there were altogether 3400 PLA in and around the village. They were staying in everyone's house. This made me very frightened as I thought that something was going to happen which could affect us. Those of us who are young were especially frightened that we would be forced to follow them in their 'people's war'. I had heard that in previous attacks in other parts of country they used local people as human shields. I was terrified that I would be taken and positioned in the front-line of their war. I could only imagine such situation in a film. I wandered here and there thinking about the worst and realizing that there was no escape.
At 3 p.m. I went with another villager to a place near the jungle and slept on the open ground for half an hour. We were terribly tired as we had not slept properly for two days. When I returned home I decided that I should talk to the Maoists. I had avoided conversation with them up until that point because I hoped they would leave soon and I didn't want to get into any trouble or be interrogated unnecessarily. But later I got the courage to talk to them as I was already mixed up with their activities. I was curious about their perceptions of the current political situation in our country and their future plans. I was also interested in their weapons. This was mainly because I have never before been so close to such weapons. I had read many stories about the Maoists' progress toward getting modern weapons and had seen photographs of guns like SMGs, LMGs, INSASs, AK47s, M16s and mortar and socket bombs, however, I had never before seen the Maoists with these weapons. I talked to a PLA member who said that his name was Ramesh. He told me that he was from Doti district in far western Nepal. He was 22 years old and has been involved in the Pili attack in Kalikot district after the king's takeover on Feb 1, 2005. He showed me their weapons, which included INSASs, LMGs, SLRs, and AK47s and explained their fire-power and what degree of destruction they could make. None of them were carrying the simple .303 guns that I had seen them with before.
I asked about their salaries and Ramesh said that they get Nrs 500 each month to buy things like toothpaste and soap. During wartime they get Nrs 500 per day and this was why they had a lot of money on them. I found their behaviour to be quite normal and they did not seem to be sad or happy or excited. I asked another young man if they were frightened of fighting. He replied that they did not have any fear because they were "fighting for liberation". He added, "RNA are working for the king and getting a monthly salary, so they may have fear but we do not have any fear of dying." Another one said that he was "pleased to have a chance to be involved in a war which liberates people". He had been involved in the Beni and Pili attacks. Another one told me about the tricks of fighting like how to escape if the RNA approaches or encircles them. He asked me my opinion about their revolution. I replied vaguely and said, "You are not alone now as the seven political parties are with you." I don't support their views but I didn't want to make them angry.
My father spent the day in the fields passing the time. He chose not to speak to them. My mother was very worried and frightened. Sometimes she asked them to save water and described the water problem in our village. Early in the morning she started harvesting oil seed instead of making tea and cooking rice as her usual routine was disrupted. My brother wandered here and there but we could not talk to each other. Later he told me that, like me, he was worried about the possible arrival and harassment by RNA and about accidental bombs blast in our house. He was busy some of the time providing the Maoists with the things they requested. They had prohibited people from leaving the village for two days but they allowed people to come into the village.
At around 4:30 p.m. in the afternoon I met a Maoist who is a very distant relative. This made me more comfortable because I knew him from our childhood. He was originally from a neighboring village and those days, although his location is uncertain, he visits his home quite often. He is not a PLA member but his job is to take part in revolutionary cultural functions and he dances, sings and acts. As he was from the area he had an organisational role to play that day and was giving local information to the PLA such as the best way to enter the district headquarters and the possible problems they might encounter during the attack. I went with him to the bazaar and drank tea. He used to smoke marijuana and on that day he did so secretly so that neither locals nor his comrades saw. He seemed to be his usual self but at times he looked excited. He didn't tell me about their plans but he did give an indirect hint. He told me not to leave the village nor should I try to travel to Kathmandu the next day. He said that something was "going to happen that evening". At that point I realised that they were definitely going to attack Tansen. He was very busy with talking to the PLA so I didn't get a chance to ask him any further questions.
The village shopkeepers were extremely busy that day. They almost exhausted their entire stock of biscuits, beaten rice, noodles, juice, eggs, glucose, other foodstuffs and gold-star trainers. The big shops sold nearly Nrs. 30,000 worth of goods. This was an absolute record, as they usually do not sell more than Nrs. 2,000 in a single day. The number of people moving around in village was very high, far higher than at big festivals like Dasain.
At 3 p.m. the Maoists in our house started cooking rice and they ate at 4 p.m. The commander allocated chores to his comrades. Some had to cook food, some had to wash the dishes and one had to do sentry duty. Then they rested for about an hour. At 5:15 p.m. they got up and put on their combat dress. I noticed that they were different from the Royal Nepalese Army's uniforms as they were greener and PLA was written on their shoulders. One of them told me that the material for their combat dress is bought in China and stiched up in Nepal. At 5:45 p.m. they were ready to move towards the bazaar, which is 500 meters away from our house. At 5:50 p.m. they left my house, walking in single file carrying their weapons. Ramesh and a few of the other men we had spoken to shook our hands and the two girls did Namaste to my brother. Some of the others didn't look at us and we didn't look directly at their faces either as we didn't want to be taken to their war. I just looked at their uniform and their weapons.
Five minutes after they left my brother, my cousin and I followed them at a distance as we wanted to estimate their numbers. They gathered in the centre of the village and each section commander called out the number in his or her section. Although most section commanders were male there were some female commanders and I watched as one called out the numbers in her section. When the commanders had finished counting the total was about 3,400. Most of the fighters were aged between 18 and 22 but a small number looked as if they might be older but none appeared to be over the age of 40. Approximately 30 per cent of the force was female. All of them were in uniform and each person was armed. Some fighters were carrying pressure cooker bombs and others carried huge numbers of socket bombs. They all carried backpacks. They seemed excited as they chatted and occasionally laughed together. Some made last-minute purchases of things like torch-lights and noodles and their commanders called out loudly for them to join their respective sections. I noticed that some of the fighters carried big pipes that tapered at one end which might have been rocket launchers but I wasn't sure. I watched the local organizers, who included two young women from a neighbouring village; buy the white cloth (katro), which is used as a shroud in funeral rituals to cover the bodies of the dead. I was interested to see that they bought it openly in front of their fighters. At about 6:30 p.m. the heavy weapons and the bombs were loaded into two jeeps and the fighters, supporters and organizers started moving in different groups towards the next village which is three km from our village and 11 km from Tansen. We were relieved when they left and thought that we had been saved from a big accident. We returned home where we wondered what was going on and talked about the likelihood that Tansen was being attacked. We ate, watched television and went to sleep.
At 2 a.m. I awoke to hear my cousin calling my name. He was outside the door and he was talking very quickly and excitedly. My brother let him in and he explained that at around 10:45 p.m. the Maoists attacked Tansen. The electricity was cut off and from midnight onwards an army helicopter hovered over the town. Inside our house, which is on the opposite side of the hill from the Tansen, we could not hear anything but once we went outside we could hear the bomb blasts and the sound of firing. We went to my cousin's house and watched. It was very frightening, as we had never heard the sounds of battle before. We thought that the district headquarter was being completely destroyed and that there was mass killing of civilians and the security forces. We had sheltered the Maoists and were terrified about possible retaliation by the security forces. The sky above Tansen was lit up, like it is when there is lightening in the rainy season, and sound of the bombing was terribly loud. We were cold and tired but we couldn't stop watching. Nobody slept that night.
The next morning after lunch I went to a nearby village to make phone calls to let family and friends know that we were alright. The Maoists had made a command post in their village and forced the shopkeepers to keep their shops open all night. There were 2,000 members of the PLA who were based there and they were the ones who led the fighting. From another village, approximately 25 km away, the Maoists took two tractor-loads of bamboos and dokos (carrying baskets) to carry the dead and injured bodies of their comrades. People from other nearby villages said that almost the same number of Maoists had been positioned in their area. Each command post had different duties. Maoists from one side destroyed the District Administration and Palpa Durbar (where approximately seven government offices were located). Maoists from another side destroyed Palpa jail and released all the prisoners (more than 100 in number). Maoists from a third post prevented the soldiers from leaving the camp. The Maoists didn't attack the camp nor did the soldiers come out of the camp.
Local people tried to analyse the situation. Some said that they saw four dead Maoists; others said they saw ten and some said even more. I was told that several Maoists were killed in front of Hotel Shreenagar, as soldiers who had just returned from a patrol, were hiding on the top floor. People in one village said that huge numbers of Maoists returned after fighting at 5:30 a.m. and went towards western Palpa. They had with them the captured Chief District Officer (CDO), Inspector of Police and other government personnel. At that time an army helicopter was flying overhead but it did not drop any bombs. The Maoists were carrying looted weapons and their injured as well as the dead bodies of their comrades in vehicles like jeeps and trucks. The CDO and other officers sat on the hood of the jeeps while others walked. A villager said that he had overheard a conversation among Maoists who said that they had used only half of their force in the battle.
On 2 February, I left the village. On the way to Tansen people were talking about the Maoists who were in a nearby village celebrating their victory with a great feast. I also heard that during the fighting the Maoists took over the district hospital and they brought injured fighters there for the hospital doctors to treat. They also made a temporary health camp by breaking into a private medical shop and taking all the medicines, which Maoist doctors used to treat the injured. I heard that more than 20,000 Maoists were involved in the attack, which included 8,000 PLA fighters. The rest of the force played support roles such as cutting bamboo to make stretchers, packing snacks, digging graves and some were in standby position giving fighting support to the fighters. Not all of them fought at the same time. The different groups took it in turns to fight and to rest. After a couple of hours of fighting, and after taking some casualties, a group would return to their command post to rest while another group fought.
I heard that government officials had received information that there might be an attack but it was not taken seriously. In response to one of these warnings I heard that a government employee stated that "the Maoists had been planning to attack Tansen since 2002 but they have not done so". According to a national newspaper at 7:30 p.m. the CDO made a phone call to his family in Bhaktapur and informed them about the probable attack. Some people said that as local Maoists were not used in the front-line they failed to identify some government personnel or the election candidates, whom they could have captured or killed. For example, they did not capture the mayoral candidate of Tansen municipality as he escaped by disguising himself as one of the CDO's kitchen boys. Although the CDO was aware that the attack was going to take place he did not hide but stayed in his quarters. If the Maoists were really interested in attacking the army camp they would have been successful, but they weren't. Local people wondered why didn't attack the camp. They also wondered why the night vision helicopter, which was flying over the fighting all night, only gave support to security forces but did not drop bombs. The next morning huge numbers of Maoists walked away undisturbed while an army helicopter hovered overhead. I learnt recently that they dropped bombs in some places as a villager was killed and a boy injured in a neighbouring village by a bomb randomly dropped from an RNA helicopter.
After I returned to Kathmandu I felt very disturbed and for a week my dreams were filled with the events of those four days. Nowadays I think about the village all the time and I worry about my family and my friends and relatives. I cannot stop thinking and talking about what happened and that is why I have written this account.