Living in the shadow of Nepal’s Rara National Park
Al Jazeera revisits a remote village in Mugu district only to find that it remains abandoned by the state.
Mugu, Nepal – “Tell me about the last decade,” I asked Gagan Bahadur Rokaya.
“Where do I start?” he said.
We were walking towards his village, Murma, through the thick jungle of Rara National Park, in Nepal’s Mugu district.
Many in Nepal believe this district is on the map only because of Rara, a crystalline lake, resplendent against the backdrop of the snowy Himalayas.
The rest of Mugu may as well be a black hole.
Life in the shadows of Nepal national parks
This national park in Nepal has displaced hundreds of villagers who used to live in the area. Now, their livelihood is being put at risk, too.
Posted by Al Jazeera English on Monday, 23 April 2018
The other story that came out of Mugu was one of food scarcity. In 2009, a massive drought in the region caused a near famine and affected thousands of people.
I had flown in on a World Food Programme helicopter to see how farmers were coping in the aftermath of the 2009 drought. That’s when I met Gagan Bahadur. His village of Murma is a cluster of whitewashed houses huddled together on the side of a mountain, an hour’s walk from Rara lake.
Roads hadn’t reached Mugu yet then, and Murma felt a million years away from the modern churning in Nepal’s capital Kathmandu.
“What about Rup Bahadur?” I asked. “Did he go to India?”
Rup Bahadur, Gagan Bahadur’s second-born, was a lean 14-year-old in 2009. Gagan Bahadur and his wife Vaishali Rokaya had nine children to feed – aged between 16 years and six months. The youngest were twins and constantly crying for milk, others clung to Vaishali all day. There was next to nothing in their house. Food was running dangerously low. Rup Bahadur and his two brothers, aged 16 and 12, were thinking of going to India to find work.
Watch: Al Jazeera’s report from the area in 2009
“Rup Bahadur … ” Gagan Bahadur paused for a while. “He never went to India. And he lost an eye to a bear attack.”
Of bears and bees
To reach Murma, you have to walk up the steep hill. Melting snow had made the village paths muddy and slippery. We climbed up a narrow stair, carved out of a single tree trunk. Gagan Bahadur called out for Rup Bahadur – the message relayed from one rooftop to the other.
Children started appearing, their faces burned by the harsh sun and caked with dirt and snot. Men and women made themselves comfortable on the mud roofs of other houses, their hands constantly working on a cloud of sheep’s wool running down a spindle, yarn emerging at the other end.
Rup Bahadur finally appeared. He is now a father of two. Instead of a left eye, he has a slight depression and a scar that has left a jagged mark across his eyebrow, making him look grim and almost angry at times.
“On April 29th of 2015, four days after Kathmandu was jolted by an earthquake, a bear attacked me,” he told me.
On that fateful day, Rup Bahadur had gone to herd goats with two of his friends. Almost all the paths in Murma lead through steep hills to the 106km square national park, a protected forest that is home to red pandas, leopard cats, grey wolves, wild boars and Himalayan black bears.
At the bottom of the hill is a river that serves as the boundary between the national park and the village. The villagers neither have access to river water nor to resources across it. They have to stick to their side of the valley, in the buffer zone. But wild animals don’t have such restrictions, and Rup Bahadur came face to face with a mother bear and her cubs.
“I don’t remember much. I screamed when I was attacked. Then I don’t remember anything,” he said.
Nepal has 12 national parks, a haven for some of the world’s rarest birds and beasts. Since national parks were established in the 1970s, endangered species, including the Royal Bengal Tiger and the Asian One Horn Rhino, have flourished in these parks. The parks have been a great attraction for tourists and nature lovers, but for the people living around them, life changed in unpredictable ways.
Two villages with more than 250 families were evicted and resettled several hundred kilometres away when the Rara National Park was established in 1976. The displaced will sometimes trek across the mountains to what used to be their village, now a wilderness, to worship their ancestral gods. Across the country, wild animals from national parks have claimed more than 150 lives in the past two decades. Many more people have been injured and maimed.
Rup Bahadur’s friends rushed him to the local health post at the bottom of their village. A wound of that nature could not be dealt with there, so he was carried on a stretcher across the jungle, to the national park headquarters.
Nepal Army personnel guard the park there, and soldiers took him to Mugu’s district headquarters of Gamgadhi. The local hospital there didn’t have a doctor on call, doctors tending to find excuses to leave their post at the remote, 15-bed hospital. A panicked Gagan Bahadur found the next local bus going to the city of Nepalgunj, 174km away.
“The doctors [in Nepalganj] said that had we brought him over within a few hours, we could have saved his eye. But it took me three days to get there,” says Gagan Bahadur. “Apparently, the nerves had died by then. They cut out the eye and threw it away,” he said, impassively.
Since 2009, the biggest change in Mugu has been the road. Earlier, it used to take nearly 10 days to walk to the nearest hospital in Nepalgunj. Now, buses and jeeps bump along the Karnali highway, a steep cliff road with blind curves and enormous potholes. Police don’t allow vehicles on the highway after dark. Even now, the trip is over two days in a private jeep.
Rup Bahadur is amazed that he survived. “I don’t know how long the journey took, whether I ate or not. But because of the medical attention … or maybe I should just say that fate allowed me to see my parents, my village and my people again. That made me very happy.”
The bear attack was a financial blow too. Gagan Bahadur had to borrow $2,500, at a whopping 36 percent interest, for Rup Bahadur’s treatment. National parks can give up to $1,000 for people injured by animals. But the loss of only an eye meant Rup Bahadur qualified for half that amount.
“I despise the national park,” says Rup Bahadur. “If it had not been there, I would not have been reduced to this.” He doesn’t mean only his face.
“Fire, water and the state – you should avoid them all.” An old man wearing coke bottle glasses in the village came out with this mysterious pronouncement.
He explained that the state could harm an individual the same way fire burns or water drowns. For people in the area, the national park has been a cruel metaphor for the state.
Wild boars destroy their crops just when it is ready for harvest. The villagers have tried their hand at beekeeping, but the hives became a magnet for the bears. They tried animal husbandry, but they found themselves losing money. Whenever their animals strayed down to the river, they had to pay a fine of $5 for each cow and $1 for each goat to the national park. The animals have nowhere to graze. To find fodder, the villagers have to walk several hours over the cliffs.
“Our entire society hates the park,” says Rup Bahadur.
The mother of all sorrows
Gagan Bahadur’s wife Vaishali Rokaya cries often. In the nine years since I first met her, she seemed to have aged a century. What hadn’t changed was her way of narrating the ordeal. The words flow, lyrical, like poetry, born out of the brutal experience that life in Murma is.
“What can I tell you? I cry thinking of the suffering of my sons. Hardship fell. What can I say? My 21-year-old son lost an eye. What should I say about that?” Vaishali wipes her eyes. “My 13-year-old son just died one day. What should I say about that?”
In 2009, Krishna was small, always following his mother around. The boy was sickly, but nobody knew what was wrong with him. He was thin, but so are most children in Mugu, half of them malnourished. Gagan Bahadur thought he had “half a mind”, but Vaishali disagreed. It was his body that was not whole.
Krishna was never taken to Nepalgunj or Kathmandu for treatment. Gagan Bahadur says he took Krishna to the district hospital, but whatever treatment was prescribed, it did not work. “There was a foreign lady who sent medicines from Kathmandu, but they did not work either.”
The family is unclear on what went wrong with Krishna, who the foreigner was, and what the medicines did. Gagan Bahadur is not even sure when Krishna died. “It’s been five to seven years,” he said.
All of Vaishali’s children were born at home, and there are no records of their birth. Less than 40 percent of women have access to a hospital for births in Mugu. All the ages of the children here are approximations. They don’t even have a photo of Krishna to remember him by.
Preying on the weak
The Rokaya family rested their hopes on educating the youngest of their children – Dipesh, one of the twins. Gagan Bahadur smiles sheepishly when you ask about the other twin, Kamana, a girl. Only 37 percent of girls in Mugu are literate, compared with 60 percent of boys. Patriarchy runs deep here, and most girls are married off before they turn 18. Just three percent of Mugu girls finish high school.
While Kamana attended the local government school, Gagan Bahadur had dreams of sending Dipesh to the city. Early last year, a villager and distant relative, Geeta Budha, who worked in an orphanage in the city, was in Murma to recruit children. Gagan Bahadur saw his hopes taking shape. Other parents in the village were also on board, even when it meant that the children had to pose as orphans.
“We can’t dream of educating our children in Kathmandu on our own. There is a family whose son studied in an orphanage and now works in Kathmandu. He has his own house,” said a neighbour, sitting on the roof. “We want our children to have that option.”
Budha, the orphanage agent, told Gagan Bahadur that the arrangement would cost him $400 as a deposit. “She said that would guarantee 10 years of schooling,” says Gagan Bahadur.
In May last year, Gagan Bahadur took his son to the tourist town of Pokhara with $600; $400 for the deposit and $200 for travel. Seven children from Murma had been recruited.
But little did they know they had fallen for a scam. The organisation was an illegal operation that extracted money from unsuspecting foreigners. Children from vulnerable homes in remote areas of Nepal were taken to cities like Kathmandu, Pokhara and Chitwan, and used as bait to attract volunteers and funding opportunities.
According to UNICEF, as many as 85 percent of children in these ‘orphanages’ have at least one living parent.
In Dipesh’s ‘orphanage’, young foreign volunteers came to play with the children and teach them drama. The children had a set of dos and don’ts. “We had to say that we were fed well and had meat once a week,” says Dipesh.
“Did they have meat once a week?”
“No,” said Dipesh. “Only sometimes.”
If anyone asked, they had to say they had no parents. “We had to say our father was Shankar [the orphanage owner] and mother Bandana [Shankar’s wife].”
I decided to investigate further.
Gagan Bahadur had taken his son to Sunaul, not Pokhara, as he thought. Dipesh was placed in Helpless, Poor, Children Protection Center – Our Home, registered as a branch of another orphanage. Gagan Bahadur wasn’t given a receipt for the money he paid and doesn’t remember the name of the orphanage his child went to.
On December 24, 2017, seven months after Dipesh just about learned to say his name and address in English; the orphanage was forced to close. A few children ran away at night from one of the branches. Police found out that they had been physically abused. Investigators from Nepal’s Child Welfare Board found 89 children in two orphanages. According to Rabi Gautam from the Board, almost all the children were from Mugu, and most of them had parents.
Shankar Pyasi was charged with human trafficking. Bandana and Geeta Budha were also arrested. They are out on bail now.
Gagan Bahadur, meanwhile, had to spend another $200 to collect his child. “Our money went in vain,” he says. “Even in such a short time, he learned English. If he had stayed for two years or more, he might have done well.”
Dipesh now goes to the local school with Kamana where classes are often cancelled. The school has few facilities, and Dipesh says he misses learning a lot. “Take him,” said Vaishali, dragging him by the hand towards me. “Maybe you can educate him.” I politely declined.
“So, has anything changed for the better?” I asked those sitting on the roof, their faces now fogged with smoke from the chimneys. The temperature drops drastically as soon as the sun sets in Murma. People were racing against time to gather up barley that had been drying on the roofs.
“There is no change – except for one or two greenhouses,” says Rup Bahadur. There are a few poly-tunnel greenhouses where the locals grow vegetables. The motorable road is still a three to four-hour walk from Murma. Moreover, the villagers have nothing to sell, the vegetables they grow are barely enough to feed them.
“We had no food to eat when you came; we still don’t have any. How will we eat?” asks a despondent Vaishali. “We work in our fields, grow barley, beans and potatoes. The wild animals ate our crops then; they eat them now. What has changed?”
Everybody says the state doesn’t care about them. “Nothing changed in 10 years,” says Rup Bahadur. “If you come back in another 10 years, you will find us in the same state.”