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Thursday, 16 January, 2003, 15:15 GMT
Eyewitness: Life under Nepal's Maoists
Clinic near Simikot
Maoist rebels forced this health clinic to close

The aging Twin Otter turboprop aircraft judders to a halt on a runway nearly 3,000 metres high in the Himalayas.

The flight into Humla airstrip takes you between snow-covered mountain peaks and over lush valleys.

But it's a flight into danger, into the heartland of Nepal's violent Maoist rebellion.

We made a lot of progress but this Maoist rebellion has set us back a hundred years

Jeevan Bahadur Shahi
local leader
At one point, the pilot gestures out the cockpit window.

He's pointing towards the scene of a battle between the Maoists and the security forces last year that left dozens dead and, perhaps more importantly, led to the closure of the district airport.

"No food going in there," says the pilot, as he glances over his shoulder at the sacks of rice in the plane behind him.

The United Nations and aid agencies say the far west of Nepal is facing serious food shortages this winter, largely because trails, roads and other supply routes are plagued by fighting and insecurity.

Not so in Humla. Not yet.

"We have a runway, so we have food," say district officials requesting anonymity.

"If that situation changes, we have some stocks but when they're done, who knows?"

'Progress set back'

Humla is on the edge of the arid Tibetan plateau, known to explorers as the "desert in the sky" because it doesn't get the annual monsoon rains that make other parts of Nepal so green and lush.

That means that people in Humla have to toil endlessly to grow enough food to get them through the harsh Himalayan winter.

Yet this is also a district that has fared relatively better than its neighbours, thanks in part to active local leaders like Jeevan Bahadur Shahi, former elected chief of the district development council.

"We made a lot of progress," says Shahi, "but this Maoist rebellion has set us back a hundred years.

"That's what I feel. They [the rebels] control most of Humla now and the government is powerless."

Officials say local rebels have destroyed bridges, government buildings and medical facilities in many parts of the district.

Rebel attack

At a clinic half a day's walk from Simikot, Humla's main town, health worker Babita Lama is walking carefully through broken glass.

Local women in Humla
Property in Humla passes along the female line
She peers through a gaping window at the wreckage within.

Lama built the clinic with help from foreign donors and the Nepal Trust charity.

It's been in ruins for more than eight months because local Maoist rebels attacked it and smashed most of the equipment.

"We were providing free medical care," she says, "the only clinic for days around here. Now people have no medical services and I'm sure it's meant some deaths.

"I don't understand why this happened."

Polyandry

"Long Live People's War", says a slogan smeared on the wall in black paint.

Most of the villages around the clinic are relatively well off.

Today we're alive, tomorrow we may be dead. At least this winter there'll be enough food.

Local weaver
The people are of Tibetan stock and property is passed along the female line.

Polyandry, women marrying more than one husband, is also widely practised.

Anthropologists say the system keeps the land from being endlessly subdivided among sons.

Yet even the traditional prosperity of this area is suffering because traders can't travel freely.

"The Maoists demand a tax, and there's always the danger of fighting breaking out along the trail," says one intinerant weaver in a tea house outside Simikot.

"What can we do about such things," he asks, his hands endlessly spinning wool into yarn as he sips his tea.

"Today we're alive, tomorrow we may be dead. At least this winter there'll be enough food."

Overhead, another Twin Otter bobs on its final approach to Simikot carrying more sacks of rice.

Soldiers and policemen guard the runway, knowing that their vigilance may be all that stands between starvation and plenty in Humla this winter.

Background to Nepal's Maoist war

Analysis

Eyewitness

Background:

BBC NEPALI SERVICE
See also:

16 Jan 03 | South Asia
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