The Disillusioned Soldier

The Maoist liberation war was meant to change Nepal, but for many former fighters realities do not match their dream.

By Subina Shrestha

Nepal’s decade long conflict now feels like a distant memory. Up until 2006, every day brought news of the death of civilians, Maoists, policemen and soldiers. Although Kathmandu was hardly affected, the mood there was tense. The endless queues at checkpoints reminded people of the war raging in the countryside.

“What do the Maoists look like?” my grandmother used to ask. For those in the city, the rebels could have been space aliens.

The Maoist revolution was largely motivated by long-standing and extreme abuse and exploitation of poor rural people by a small, landowning elite. An upper-middle-class friend of mine, whom I used to tease for being a “feudalist”, admitted to me that he knew people who had raped Tharu (indigenous) women and thought little of it. But although he empathised with those who joined the revolution, he could not bear the thought that his privileges might come to an end if the revolution was successful.

That fear was shared many well-off city folks. The debates in Kathmandu bars and sitting-rooms were far away from the young people who joined the Maoists in the hope of making a change.

Many of the rebels joined up in their mid-teens. The war caused a great deal of suffering and they suffered too. Whether or not one sympathises with their aims and methods there is no doubt that many of them were brave, idealistic young people. Almost all those who fought have horrific tales to tell. Like others who were caught up in violence in other ways, many of them still suffer from nightmares.

After the peace process began in 2006, members of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) were kept in special “cantonments”. Now, it seems like everyone – including the Maoist leadership – has forgotten them.

It was in January 2010 that we met Chandra Bhakta Shrestha. Chandra had joined the Maoist army in 2004 as a 15-year-old boy. He joined to avenge his sister’s death: she was a PLA fighter who was ambushed, allegedly raped and killed by the then Royal Nepal Army. When we met him, Chandra was in the process of being reluctantly “rehabilitated”, because United Nations monitors had identified him as a child soldier. He wanted to stay with his comrades.

Chandra seemed too gentle to be a revolutionary. At first glance, he looks like he could not even hurt a fly, let alone fight a war. Friends who saw the footage said the same thing. We followed Chandra for over one year and met his family and villagers.

One only had to go to Chandra’s home to understand Chandra and the ten years of Nepal’s war. His parents are nice people -hard working, simple people – trying to make a living despite the harshness of life. His father, Kul Bahadur Shrestha, almost wept when he recalled an incident when their landlord wanted to evict them from their house over a small sum of money they had borrowed.

All his children joined the Maoist Party, even while he still kept his own conservative political allegiance. He was tortured and water boarded by the Royal Nepal Army. After his daughter was killed he changed sides and now, although his children have grown sceptical of the Maoist Party, he still believes in it. “I am still hopeful. At least this country was shaken once. The ground trembled,” he said.

For Chandra the demobilisation led to humiliation, but for a while he still had faith. He never believed that the party would give up on him. A year on, the idealism has given way to a sense of betrayal. Every time he tried to associate himself with the party, he found that the party had no place for him. Now, Chandra has no place for the party.

The rest of the 19,000 PLA fighters are now in the process of being integrated into the Nepal Army or demobilised. Some 6,500 former Maoist fighters will join the national army while the rest will get a golden handshake. The rumbling discussions have started in the city again.

Some claim the financial packages are too generous. The rebel fighters who helped make Nepal into a republic are still being used as pawns by the nation’s leaders. Most will go back home to their families, probably relieved to see the end of it all. Many will share the same disillusionment as Chandra. Others will still keep the faith, like Chandra’s father Kul Bahadur has done. But one needs to remember history in order to avoid making the same mistakes. This film is a reminder of the people who fought for the Maoists and why they did it.