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Last Updated: Monday, 15 November, 2004, 10:22 GMT
Harsh lessons of Nepal's insurgency

By Charles Haviland
BBC correspondent in Sandhikharka, western Nepal

School principal Sri Krishna Bhushal
School principal Sri Krishna Bhushal fears for pupils and society
In her home up a steep wooden staircase in Sandhikharka, a district capital in Nepal's mid-hills, 15-year-old Pratiba Acharya is extremely bored.

She is confined to her tiny bedroom, its walls lined with pop-star posters and her schoolbooks piled high on her desk.

It has been this way since Maoist rebels ordered the closure of all 17 private schools in the district, including hers, a month ago, saying private education was unfair.

"We'd heard that Maoists thought that only rich people study in boarding schools like mine, so they want to close them," says the shy 15-year-old in impeccable English.

Deeply worried

But, she adds, many poor people scrimp and save to send their children to the district's private schools.

Pratiba's family cannot afford to send her away to study, so like many of her classmates she is idle and deeply worried about her plans to study science.

If the Maoists want the development of the country, they should not have closed the boarding schools
Pratiba Acharya

She says that on the day she got news of the closure she was very sad, upset and nervous.

Nepal's Maoists, whose nine-year-old uprising avowedly seeks a fairer society, has hit schools badly.

Maoists have abducted and indoctrinated students and teachers and in some cases destroyed schools which they allege to be owned by their enemies or with whose policies they disagree.

In August the Maoists threatened violence against any of the private schools in Argakhanchi district that stayed open.

After frantic discussions between staff and guardians, all have closed, affecting more than 3,000 students.

This follows a similar Maoist move in neighbouring Pyuthan district three years ago.

Displaced students

To get across Sandhikharka, you ford the river via stepping stones made of sandbags.

It is idyllically situated, surrounded by pine forests. On the edge of the town is Pratiba's school, now shut to all but 17- and 18-year-olds who have been spared for now after lengthy discussions with the Maoists, often via intermediaries.

The school principal, Sri Krishna Bhushal, bleakly showed me the redundant facilities and said many of the displaced students were now being foisted on Nepali-language government schools.

"In some, there were 200 students in one class before the closure of private schools," he said. "Now you can imagine the numbers. It's hazardous for students' health."

Sri Krishna worries for his pupils and for wider society.

Despite its remote situation, linked to the rest of the country by one crumbling road along a ravine, this district has a high literacy rate and, says the principal, people used to come to Sandhikharka for its good schools.

He says the closures have affected the economy and that business in the town is down by 40%.

Big problems

Parents and guardians are responding in different ways. Some are sending their children to government schools, which means they have to adjust to lessons taught in Nepali - for many of them, not the mother tongue.

The closed private schools used the English language as a teaching medium.

Sandhikharka town
All 17 private schools in the district have been closed down

Small numbers of families have been able to send their children to schools outside the district, creating big problems when it comes to exams.

Others, like Pratiba, are idle, depending on the goodwill of some teachers who organise informal mass tuition.

Ganesh Chhetri is another despairing school principal. "I have been in this education field for 15 years in the district. Now it is totally closed, I have nothing to say. I am jobless," he says.

He points out that those involved in schooling also had talks with the Maoists a year ago, at which time the Maoists said the schools could stay open as long as they reduced their fees by 20%. The schools did so. But this year came the renewed threats.

Sri Krishna Bhushal resents the Maoists, who have also interfered in the state sector by trying to introduce new school curricula in villages.

Two of the main government schools are closely connected with mainstream parties, he complains. "In everything, right down to teacher appointments, we've faced political interference."

Nepal's children are being used as a political football.

Pratiba's message for the Maoists is simple.

"They should have given a chance to ordinary people to get a good education," she says, "I don't think they have done a good thing. I ask them to open the schools."

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