August 4, 2005

From Kathmandu to Clarks Grove
An Odyssey from a Deadly Shangri-La to Safety
in Minnesota -- and Warnings for Today

By Doug McGill
The McGill Report

ROCHESTER, 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 foes. 

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 to Minneapolis.  

Within two days, Pokhrel was walking through April snow in her sandals. 

Minnesota Sky

“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 support. 

“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 negotiating table. 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.  

School Abductions

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 programs.” 

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 among children.  

“Everyone at this point has emotional problems in Nepal,” Pokhrel said.
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 to Nepal.  

“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.”  

Root Cause

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 of women 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, Pokhrel added.  
#1 Enemy

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 be too bad.” 

Too bad not only in Kathmandu, but also in Clarks Grove.

Copyright @ 2005 The McGill Report