August 4, 2005
From Kathmandu to Clarks Grove
An Odyssey from a Deadly Shangri-La to Safety
-- and Warnings for Today
By Doug McGill
The McGill Report
MN -- In 1983, Durga Pokhrel changed her place of residence from
a dungeon prison in the remote high mountains of
western Nepal to
the farmhouse of Earl and Beverly Thompson in Clarks Grove, Minnesota.
A democracy activist jailed on trumped-up charges of trying to kidnap
Nepal’s crown prince, Pokhrel had for years been in the crosshairs
of the country’s brutal secret police. She was unexpectedly released
from prison in April 1983, but she knew she had to flee the country or
face re-arrest, continued harassment or assassination by her political
A tourist couple from Minnesota she had met once in Nepal had told her “please
call if you ever need help.” So now, just freed from jail, where
she’d spent one year sleeping on bare bricks and straining drinking
water through a corner of her sari, she called. Earl and Beverly Thompson,
without a moment’s hesitation, bought her a ticket from Kathmandu
Within two days, Pokhrel was walking through April snow in her sandals.
“It was a heavenly feeling,” she says. “It was so quiet. I
always imagined the U.S. to be so fast, with music playing, every
place like New York City. Yet Clarks Grove was so peaceful. And the big sky.
I grew up in the high mountains where you only see a little sky.
Minnesota sky looks like the ocean.
“I slept for two days and nights, and the minute I woke up I felt, ‘Life!’ All
the time I heard that word in my mind. ‘Life!’ I
was still alive. In Nepal I was a kind of revolutionary, but
now I said ‘No,
I want to live.’ I felt how much I wanted to live, how
much I loved my life.”
Today, more than two decades later, Pokhrel is again living in Nepal,
this time married with three children and still pushing for change in
her country as a well-known journalist and writer, human rights campaigner,
and as former chairperson of Nepal’s National Commission for Women.
She traveled to the U.S. this summer to warn of Nepal’s worsening
crisis as the country’s ruling monarchy battles a rebel movement
that controls fully 80% of the country.
It’s getting worse in Nepal by the day, by the hour,” she
said. “It’s a human catastrophe. You cannot imagine what
is going on.”
A Rainbow Sari
Pokhrel always stops in Minnesota first on her U.S. trips, to meet with
her adopted American family in Clarks Grove. Last week I met up with
her at the home of Jolyn Thompson, the daughter of her benefactors Earl
and Beverly, in Rochester. Dressed in a rainbow-colored sari, Pokhrel
painted a dire picture of Nepal today and voiced a passionate plea for
“We look to America as a leading democratic country and we need help,” she
said. “We need to bring together Nepal’s revolutionary
Maoists, the King, and the political parties together at the
If American facilitates this, it is possible. Otherwise it is
not, and there will be civil war.”
Civil war is exactly what some experts say has been raging in Nepal for
nine years, especially in the impoverished countryside where the lack
of government services has given Nepal’s Maoist rebels a foothold.
In their early years, the Maoists won the support of villagers with campaigns
against gambling, alcoholism, and government corruption. But brutal suppression
of the revolutionaries by the Nepalese army in recent years has led to
equally brutal reprisals and attacks by the Maoists.
Today the Maoists are virtually an entrenched opposition army controlling
most of Nepal’s rural areas, where they stage frequent blockades
of food and medicines, assassinate political rivals, and have abducted
thousands of civilians for recruitment in forced labor and “re-education
A report released last month by Amnesty International documented the
conflict’s impact on Nepal’s children and families. The Maoists
have abducted tens of thousands of school children along with their teachers
for ‘political education’ sessions, the report said.
Typically the armed rebels storm a school and force everyone to trek
to a remote location for the sessions which may go on for days. However,
many children never return, with boys recruited as soldiers and girls
sometimes raped, murdered, and tossed aside. A large percentage of Nepal’s
200,000 refugees are children, the reports estimates, with up to 15,000
Nepalese children likely to be displaced from their homes in 2005.
The impact of the violence on Nepalese families and culture has been
profound. Families are now often female-headed as husbands are recruited
by the rebels, are killed in a conflict, or disappear, and the children
of fatherless families face intense social discrimination.
U.S. Arms Sales
Rural schools have been transformed into garrisons, with classes ended.
Private schools, opposed by the Maoists, have been bombed. Teachers are
a particular target, forced to pay 10-15% of their income in tax to the
rebels and tortured or killed if caught teaching non-revolutionary principles.
So far 160 teachers have been killed and 3,000 displaced, Amnesty estimates.
More than 12,000 people have been killed by the violence in the past
nine years, the report said. Many times that number have died from the
indirect effects of the violence including hunger and disease, especially
“Everyone at this point has emotional problems in Nepal,” Pokhrel
Yet as gruesome as the bill of indictment is against the Maoist rebels,
Pokhrel warns, labeling them as “terrorists” will only lead
to greater tragedy. That’s because such a labeling will further
open the sluice gate of arms sales by the United States and its allies
“If you brand the Maoists the same way as those who blew up the World
Trade Center, this is what invites people to more violence,” Pokhrel
says. “I am not defending them, but the Maoists are a political
group. You need to treat political people politically, and terrorists
in a terrorist way.”
The Maoists, she points out, began as a legitimate widespread people’s
movement and that members of the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) held
the third largest number of seats in Nepal’s parliament following
the democratic elections held in the country in 1990 and 1992.
The root cause of the conflict in Nepal, according to Pokhrel, is the
non-inclusive nature of the country’s governing system and constitution,
which explicitly excludes women from obtaining citizenship at birth and
which also discriminates against ethnic groups and castes.
“We don’t have a functioning real democracy in the country,” Pokhrel
said. “The system is very much feudal and only a very few
rich people control everything. The constitution limits the access
and indigenous people to citizenship, and untouchables are nowhere
in the picture.”
Roughly half of Nepal’s population has no legal status and thus
is unable to obtain health services, education, open a bank account,
apply for a passport, or receive government aid or services. The fact
that the Maoists readily accept women, including in their fighting forces,
is a major reason they’ve been able to consolidate power so widely,
The United States has for years been a leading supplier of weapons and
arms to Nepal, providing $8.4 million in weapons from 1994 to 2003, according
to the World Policy Institute. The weapons are transferred under a U.S.
Congressional justification that gives high priority to providing the
Nepal military with “capability to prevail against the Maoist insurgents.”
Since 9/11, the U.S. administration policy of pursuing a global war on
terror has notably increased American interest in militarily supporting
Nepal’s ruling monarchy. Foreign Military Financing (FMF), the
largest U.S. military aid program, increased its aid to Nepal from $597,000
in 2001 to $22 million in 2002 and since then has averaged about $4 million
in military aid per year.
Heading to Washington, D.C. last week to meet with U.S. Representative
Betty McCollum and other legislators, Durga Pokhrel had her message ready.
“Don’t send more arms, because if you do there will be more killing
and a real civil war. I love America as my own second home, but
if that happens the revolutionaries will say that Americans are the #1 enemy,
and it will be hard for Americans to be in Nepal. And that would
Too bad not only in Kathmandu, but also in Clarks Grove.
Copyright @ 2005 The McGill Report