The twin otter flight was scary, to say the least, and to our surprise, we found ourselves listening to the Ipod, because we reasoned that if the flight got bumpier we would at least have our music to hold onto. Landing on top of a hill with a very rugged runway was what landing in Rukum felt like. After the flight landed, we really were thankful to God for making it alive to work on our exciting endeavor.
We were in Rukum to work on our project, titled “New Peace Ambassadors,” funded by an American philanthropist, Kathryn Wasserman Davis, as one of the “100 Peace Projects.” The objective of our project was to provide 20 scholarships to students studying in grades eight through ten. We had also planned to do supplementary works like plays and discussions on the topic of war and peace.
On our first evening, we decided to walk to Khalanga, the district headquarters of Rukum, where we were scheduled to have our functions a few days later. After a 45- minute walk up and down the hill, we arrived at Tribhuvan Janata Higher Secondary School. Just the fact that the first word, “Tribhuvan,” had been deleted from the signboard made us cognizant that Rukum is a place where Maoists have had a stronghold.
Signs of war
But even among the subtle signs of Maoism and the breathtaking landscape, we found ourselves being gazed upon by the innocent eyes of children, women and men while walking down the street. A decade-long war had definitely changed things in Rukum. Rarely did Rukumelis see people holding cameras and notebooks, asking them how life in Rukum was. So when all of a sudden they saw our group, Rukumelis in Khalanga did not know how to react, especially when they did not know which political party we represented or for what reason we were there, intruding their spaces.
Over the next few days, we found ourselves walking to Khalanga full of energy and determination. Even the windy roads or the scorching heat did not make a difference to us. Seeing women carrying loads of fodder, wood or water made us realize how lucky we were to live in Kathmandu. Be it the first “ghatta” we saw or the steep downhill on the side of Sano Bheri, Rukum constantly amazed us with all that it had.
The children’s stories
But more than anything else, we were really amazed to meet all these children who had lived through a decade of killings, uncertainty and immense pain. For our project, we had to meet all these children who had been awarded the scholarship based on their academic merit and financial needs. Each one of the 20 kids that we met had a story for us.
While sitting in the classroom as a group, we decided to have an individual introduction so that we would be comfortable talking to each other. All of a sudden we not only heard names but also stories that made them all heroes in our eyes. There were students like Chudamani, who had his left leg shot by an Army plane when he was abducted by the Maoists to build a road. More than his words, it was his eyes that made us see all the pain he had within himself.
At the same time, there were students like Dinesh, who believed that Maoists had a justified reason for their revolution. His persuasion and oratory skills were so good that we thought, if provided with the right opportunity, these children could go places. It was actually intense yet very exciting when we got into a political argument with Dinesh. We wanted to know what constituent assembly meant for him, and to our surprise, he gave us a well-versed answer. To be honest, it was the sort of answer that we would not expect from even the students studying in Kathmandu.
Among all these stories, the one that really made us see the brutality and atrocity of a war was the one narrated by Bimala and Dharmaraj. Amid the clicking sounds of camera shots and the video tape recording, we asked, “Can you please tell us a little more about the incident”
With an expressionless face yet with concentrated eyes, Bimala recounted, “The army men came to my house at four in the morning. When my father opened the door they dragged him outside and started kicking him like an animal.”
“So why didn’t the other family members protest?” we asked.
With tears in her eyes, she said, “How could they? The army men were so vicious that they even manhandled my mother. I remember my mother holding onto the leg of the main army personnel, but he just kicked her and said such cruel words. Our fathers were shot near the river bank later the same day.”
Bimala and Dharmaraj will probably never forget the horror of that day, and their vivid recollection of the incident only showed us how deep their wound was. Their fathers were killed the same day in the same manner on the pretext of supporting the Maoists.
After listening to these horrific yet true stories of war, we wondered if we would ever be able to answer the questions posed to us by those poignant eyes.
Building a new future
Post-war, by god’s grace, Nepal is no longer dealing with bloodshed. Likewise, Rukum has changed a lot. Our endless conversations with many Rukumelis gave us an impression that they do not really want to think about war and are hopeful for a peaceful Nepal. Yet, war has penetrated so deep into their psychology that they find it unusual not hearing gunshots or news of someone’s death. Almost every child that we talked to had his or her father or mother killed in the war. And those who still have their fathers alive told us that they are working in India hoping to build a better future for their children.
This painful chaos notwithstanding, a common thread binds all the Rukumelis together. They believe that no matter what the future holds for them, education is something they want their children to acquire. They believe that education is the only path through which Rukum can prosper into a better place. Be it a pandit’s son or a gayeeney’s (singer’s) daughters, the zeal for education among these kids is incredible. They have realized that it’s going to be them who have to participate actively in the uplifting of people’s lives in Rukum, be it constructing infrastructures like roads or providing healthcare facilities. They are the future doctors, nurses, engineers scientists.
All that these children need now is an opportunity to prove themselves, an opportunity to utilize their immense optimism into an act of personal growth and development.
At the end of our visit, while giving our mailing addresses to these children, we realized that this small effort of ours had given them a great sense of help. Nothing much was said that day, but we could clearly see in their eyes how much they appreciated our help. We cannot possibly explain that feeling of joy, but it was incredible to see these children with a smile on their faces and with a glint of hope in their eyes.
Back to Kathmandu
While boarding our flight to Kathmandu, we finally confessed that we would miss Rukum a lot. All those experiences – from meeting the children, to walking the terrain and dancing to the tunes of dohori (folk songs), to feeling the breeze on top of a hill – were just unbelievable.
Rukum definitely taught us a lot about the stark reality pertaining to human survival in the face of horrifying conflict and violence. We saw the pain, but we also sensed determination among the people to forget the past and to work to build a better future. Pain still remains in the heart of Rukumelis, but we could also sense hope in their eyes and a longing toward a future that is free from fear and violence.
As Nepalese and as human beings, we too felt the pain, and thus after this experience, our bumpy twin otter flight was of a lesser concern than in the past.