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Last Updated: Monday, 25 July 2005, 15:08 GMT 16:08 UK
Nepal's controversial rebel road

By Charles Haviland
BBC News, Tila, Rolpa district, western Nepal

Road in Rolpa district
The rebels say the road shows they want to develop Nepal

Nepal's Maoist rebels have a long track record of destroying infrastructure such as bridges and roads.

They now say they are building things, too, and recently gave great publicity to a road built under their direction through a remote part of this district, never before reachable by motor vehicle.

But the road's critics, including many of its builders, say it has been built with forced labour.

To see the road, we walked for many hours from Rolpa's district capital, Liwang.

Immense skill

On our way there, on a damp and misty morning, we were joined by an eight-year-old village boy, Khem Bahadur Oli, heading for the road-opening ceremony in Tila.

We plan to extend our road network westwards... we're also planning to spread electricity provision and build new village markets.
Maoist road project coordinator Comrade Prashant

We asked what he was going to see. Quietly excited, he uttered the prolonged word - "Bus!"

Many locals, like Khem, had never seen a motor vehicle.

Soon the road was clearly visible. Then we were on it - a broad dirt track hacked out of the steep hillsides.

It has been built by villagers with immense skill and little mechanical help. In places it is supported from below by banks of stones packed tightly together.

Two-thirds of its 90km (55-mile) length have been completed in a few months. Starting in the plains, the plan is for it to reach the Maoists' remote unofficial "capital", Thawang.

It is controversial. The Maoists boast of over 70,000 road-builders. That is because households in villages all over the Maoists' heartland have been told to send one member each, to give up to 15 days unpaid labour.

Gruelling work

I had already talked about this to Subodh Pyakurel of the respected human rights organisation, Insec.

He said workers had to bring their own food, and included mothers with toddlers and elderly people.

"They have to bring their own tools," he said. "Even if some volunteer gets sick, they have to get the permission from the commander to go to the health post for treatment."

Maoist guards
Young rebels have been deployed to guard the road

In this Maoist-dominated territory, if the builders shared those criticisms, they did not feel able to express them openly.

An elderly builder, Makar Dhoj Shah, brought a team of people from his village to give two weeks' gruelling work.

As he pointed to their handiwork with pride, he said everyone had come willingly, adding that "compulsory volunteering" for such projects used to happen under previous regimes, too.

"We really do need this road," he said. "We grow lots of spices, apples and herbs in these hills - now we can transport them to the plains, and get goods from there."

There followed the surreal sight of a jeep coming up the road. Chanting children in school uniform approached, enlisted to shout revolutionary slogans for the road celebration.

Deceased Maoists

Standing guard nearby were clusters of teenage Maoist militia members, male and female, armed against any government attack. Maoist ceremonies have been attacked in the past, but usually from the air.

A captive audience of hundreds of villagers of all ages was treated to the type of political show the rebels specialise in. Maoist dignitaries spoke of "the sacrifices made in the People's War", saying they were proud of what they call the martyrs' road.

Behind them were photographs of deceased Maoist fighters; in front, Communist icons including Mao and Stalin, and a rare photo of the elusive Maoist leader, Prachanda.

Despite the Maoists' record of destructive activities, Comrade Prashant, coordinator of the road project, insisted in a BBC interview that they were now bringing development.

Road built by Maoist rebels in Nepal
The engineering of the road is impressive

"We plan to extend our road network westwards," he said. "We're also planning to spread electricity provision and build new village markets. But the road is the backbone of our plan."

What of the serious allegations of forced labour?

These were false accusations, he insisted. "We haven't forced anyone, only appealed to people to come. If people couldn't bring their own food we tried to help them through the party, and through contributions from the districts."

In Liwang, the only part of Rolpa under government control, we heard a different account.

Here, people calling themselves victims of the Maoists gather, swapping stories about being uprooted from their villages.

Some spoke of having been forced to help build the road against their will, saying they had been unpaid, unfed and exploited.

But in Tila, those serious allegations were ignored as villagers greeted a bus.

And the Maoists, aware that the road will improve their own communications and give them easier access to arms supplies, revelled in this contentious new piece of infrastructure.

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