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Lal Salaam! Images of the People’s War in Nepal

A photographic record of the rural armed struggles and urban conflicts which have led to the overthrow of royalist rule and the establishment of the Federal Democratic Republic of Nepal

Introduction

On August 15th 2008 I watched as Prachanda, the leader of the People’s War, took the stage at the Presidential House in Katmandu and swore an oath to serve the people. Ten years of guerilla war, in which 13,000 people were killed, had been concluded by a negotiated settlement; following this, the Maoists were elected as the largest party in the nation's new constituent assembly.

Carrying a feudal system riddled with gender and class  inequality, injustice, and a futile hopelessness for the poor and their youth, this Himalayan country became a flashpoint for revolution.  The beginnings of democracy in 1990 with the dissolution of King Birendra’s absolute powers, gave way to party political bickering, fractures and corruption.  Little notice was paid to the rural poor outside the capital’s Katmandu valley; and by 1996 the neglected and impoverished districts in the west were ready to provide the cradle from which to launch the People’s War.

Comrade Prachanda, as he became known, has been a member of the Communist Party of Nepal since the 1970s throughout its various permutations.  The Communist Party of Nepal - Maoist (CPN-M) was formed in 1990; after that, Prachanda lived underground, in 1996 presenting a 40-point demand through the Party to the Government. The demand included the abolishment of the monarchy and the creation of a democratically elected Constituent Assembly.  When this was rejected he launched the People’s War, becoming the Chair of the CPN-M and later the Supreme Commander of its military wing, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). 

To see this near mythical man, who had been labeled as a terrorist and public enemy number one, take up office as first ever Prime Minister of the Federal Democratic Republic of Nepal- honoured now by an army that once sought his head on a platter- was an incredible experience.

* * * *

I started filming in Nepal, making an independent documentary on the stories of people affected by the war, together with Nepali photojournalist Bibi Funyal, and Lucia De Vries, a Katmandu-based journalist, in 2002.  I went back several times during the next few years, my latest trip being Summer 2008.

This photo-essay is dedicated to the people of Nepal, with hope that they will succeed in building a new and better society.

Tassia Kobylinska

 

 

Relics

 

The first action of the People’s War, on February 13th, 1996, was a co-ordinated attack on three police posts in Rukum, Rolpa and Sindhuli districts.  17 police personnel were killed and one Maoist guerrilla; the Maoists seized explosives and weapons to use in the struggle. 

Bombed police station, Dolakha District

Children play in the ruins

 

Handmade bombs, Rukum District


There followed over a decade of armed struggle with more than 13,000 lives lost,  200,000 displaced, and huge civil unrest and political upheaval.

 

 

Recruits to the future


Nepal is one of the worlds poorest countries and nowhere more so than in rural areas; there are huge gaps in wealth and opportunity between the urban wealthy and the rural poor.  Young people joined the Maoists through cultural and political education events, answering to a call for “land to the tiller” and an end to the monarchy and feudal land systems of ownership.  

 

 

 

 

 

The People's Liberation Army became a formidable force, growing to 40,000 fighters organised in 7 divisions and 21 brigades.

 

 

Lal Salaam!

 


The 'Red Salute' of the Maoist soldiers was picked up by locals and children in Maoist controlled areas: a raised fist to the temple and the calling “Lal Salaam!” greets visitors walking through the region.

 

A young Maoist gives the red salute

 

Guerilla Landscapes    

 

The mountainous landscape of Nepal provided ideal conditions for guerilla warfare, with the Maoist militia training and living underground.  The PLA was constantly on the move.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Although their support in the districts was widespread, villagers often complained at having to provide money and food from an already meager income.

 

 

Breaking the Mould

 

Many young women broke away from the traditional roles and expectations of a society which treats them as second class citizens, leaving villages and families behind to fight a war which spoke to them- promising an end to gender inequality and the crippling dowry system. 

 

 


 

A third of the PLA was made up of women; many went on to be commanders. “The most honest fighter is a woman,“ said a PLA Division Commander. “They have been so low and oppressed that they fight with great courage, ready to give their lives to the movement.”

 

 

A Police Checkpost

 

Policeman polishing bullets at a check post in Rukum District, the birthplace of the Maoist insurgency

The government response to the armed struggle was initially to place the police in control of repressing the Maoist insurgency - the Royal Nepal Army at first refused to get involved.  Police officers often come from poor and little-educated families. Many observers in the rural areas often commented on the ‘poor pitched against the poor’.

 

 

Pemba’s missing daughter



Pemba, from the Northern Dolahka district on the route to Everest, told me the story of his daughter, 16, who disappeared one afternoon:

“I had gone to jungle to cut wood, I stayed out there maybe two days and when I came back my wife was crying for my daughter who had disappeared from the house.  I went into the village and asked around for her and they told me a group of Maoists had come for her and pointed towards the direction they went.  I spent a week looking for her, I went from village to village but every time I got to the village they had left a few days before.  When I got back my wife had been beaten by Maoists, they told her she must let her daughter go and not try to bring her back.  It's been months and we have not had any word.”

Pemba Sherpa and his family

 

 

Sabita’s story

 

“I joined the Maoists when I was 16 or 17, I was already a member of a women’s organisation in my district and our village was politically very communist.  My uncle was killed by the police and when the Maoists came to give a education programme to our village I joined them.  I went underground and I was involved in many ambushes and killings. I met my husband while underground and we got married.” 

In the marriage ceremonies leaders are brought together to agree the marriage and guns are fired and exchanged with vows.  Sabita had a child while she was underground. “The child is allowed to stay with you for two years and then the party will place the child with a safe family so that you can go back to war.”


Sabita looks through photos of her time underground

 

State of Emergency

In 2002, after a series of attempted peace talks failed and the Maoists attacked an army barracks, the Royal Nepal Army was brought in and a state of emergency was declared. 

 

 

The King dissolved the elected government and installed his own handpicked cabinet.  He positioned himself as Supreme Commander of the Royal Nepal Army and employed a new phrase to describe the insurgency, guaranteed to garner international support: “the war on terror” had reached a critical level.

  

 

Victims of War

 


When the local hydro-power station in Melamchi was bombed by the Maoists, Police came looking for Tarala’s brother. He was chased to the edge of a cliff, beaten and pushed over the edge, and shot when he hit the bottom,  “he was not a Maoist, he was a student.”

Tarala and her husband point out where her brother was shot

His nephew, Rupe Chandra, 12, came across his body lying on the river bank at the bottom of the cliff.   “Sometimes I worry they will kill me too.”

 

 

Sanam and a young relative. Despite his wide smile Sanam, was in hiding after being declared a wanted terrorist on the 8 o’clock news.


One evening, Sanam’s father was watching television in his living room in Katmandu when his son’s face filled the screen.  It was the 8 o’clock news and Sanam, a college student, was suspected of involvement in the bombing of a government building.  He was one of several ‘terrorists’ the army were appealing for information about.  Sanam was taken into hiding in the countryside and later to Katmandu.  He can only guess that it was his involvement in the student union that made him a target.

 

Postal workers in Rukum district head quarters

Postmen, who walk up to ten days in the mountains to deliver letters, often met the government forces and Maoists on the way. “We are hassled by both, the police want to know if we have seen any Maoists and beat us for information, the Maoists check all incoming and outgoing letters and demand a revolutionary tax.  They tell us we shouldn’t be working for the government, but I say we still need rice and dhal for our children”

 

Children at the village school in Shyama


The Shyama village school was the site of a deadly battle between Maoists and the Army.  Maoist soldiers took shelter in the school which was attacked by the army, leaving 15 Maoists dead. They were buried just beyond the school grounds.  Children at the school were very aware of the war around them “We lost 5 martyrs to the People’s War” the headmaster told us. 

 

 


    

Journalists suspected of pro-Maoist reportage were among those jailed by the government; and hundreds more were ‘disappeared’.

 


The propaganda war

 


Posters appeared in towns and villages across Nepal depicting alleged Maoist atrocities 

   

 

This pro-government cartoon depicts Prachanda and Baburam Bhaterrai as corrupt hedonists, surrounded by pictures of dead and bloody bodies

 

 

Maoist slogans appear more frequently as their support base expands in rural Nepal

 

 

Pemba’s daughter returns

 


Pemba’s daughter came back a year to the day she left with the Maoists.  She had been trained and was moving with the troops when she fell ill.  The Maoists sent her to Katmandu where the Central Committee arranged hospital treatment for her, and then she was sent back home to rest.  She was married off immediately, gave birth to a son and now works in a Yak shelter high in the Himalayas. 

 

Pemba and family pose with their daughter and her new husband

 

 

The Royal coup

 

On 1st February 2005 the King of Nepal assumed total power, citing the need for ‘discipline’ in a ravaged country.  It was the beginning of his downfall. King Gyanendra has been deeply unpopular since the massacre of the entire Royal Family in 2001, carried out by Crown Prince Dipendra, saw him step into his brother’s shoes to take his place on the throne.  People harbour deep suspicions as to his and his son Paras’ involvement in the massacre.

 

1st February 2005: The King declares his absolute rule in a broadcast to the nation

 

 

Rebellion in the capital

 

Political parties and activists took to the streets in protest at this undemocratic action by a ‘criminal’ king, and they were soon followed by the people, worn down by years of oppressive governing of their country and hungry for political change including an end to the 240 year old monarchy.  The demonstrations were followed by a general strike.

Severe repression, including a curfew in Katmandu from 10pm to 9am (in which any protestors breaking the curfew were ordered by the King to be shot on sight) did not succeed in ending the protests.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ceasefire 


The Royalist forces could not hold onto power. A new cabinet was installed, which offered peace talks to the Maoists after promising a ceasefire and an end to labeling the Maoists as ‘terrorists’. A consensus on setting up an elected consituent assembly would be the task of the negotiations. On November 21st 2006, the historic peace accord was agreed by Prachanda and Prime Minister GP Koirala.  The People's War had ended, opening the way to a new political era.

 

Prachanda, his years of underground struggle ended, shakes on the peace accord with GP Koirala

 

 

The struggle continues- by other means

 

In the subsequent election, Prachanda's Maoist party emerged victorious, with a plurality of seats in the newly-formed constituent assembly. 


As Prachanda took his oath ‘in the name of the people’ rather than the tradional ‘in the name of God’; he was saluted by the Nepal Army, those he had fought so bitterly and who had put a price on his head.  Prachanda also bucked tradition by wearing a simple business suit and Nepali hat rather than the usual ceremonial costume. A signal, perhaps, to the thousands of familes who lost children, husbands, fathers and mothers during the decade-long war that this really was a change in regime.

 

August 15th 2008: Prachanda waiting to be sworn in as Prime Minister


Prachanda has pledged to prioritise the process to integrate the PLA with the Nepal Army.  Peace and development, to overcome the country's impoverishment - a new democratic republic is making its tentative first steps.

 

Mohan, a young citizen of the new Nepal, ready to go to school

 



All images are © Bibi Funyal & Tassia Kobylinska and may not be reproduced without permission. For permission to reproduce any of the photographs in this essay, contact this website.