Dispatches: Report from the People's War I Nepal
Part 3: The Raid on Bethan
Revolutionary Worker #1016, August 1, 1999
On February 13, 1996, a new People's War was launched in Nepal, led by the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist), aimed at sweeping away imperialism, feudalism and bureaucrat capitalism. Thousands of men and women participated in coordinated armed raids and attacks throughout the country. And for over three years now, the revolution in Nepal has continued to spread, sink roots and accomplish a lot. All this is a truly inspiring and significant development in the world and for the international proletariat. But it has remained a hidden story for most people in the United States and around the world. And for those of us who have been following the people's war in Nepal, there has been precious, but far too little news of this important struggle.
Now, the Revolutionary Worker has an exclusive story. RW reporter, Li Onesto, recently returned from several months in Nepal, where she traveled throughout the country with the people's army, meeting and talking with party leaders, guerrillas, activists in mass organizations and villagers--those waging this genuine Maoist people's war and beginning to exercise new people's power. The RW would like to give a "lal Salaam" (red salute) to all the people in Nepal who made this trip possible.
This is the third article of a new series of dispatches from this exciting trip. (See RW #1014 and #1015 for Parts 1 and 2.)
Nepal is a country of remoteness. Most of the countryside is accessible by just one form of transportation--walking. The whole country has only about 8,000 miles of roads. And this includes some 3,000 miles of routes that are extremely inadequate for vehicle transportation--especially given the rough and mountainous nature of Nepal's terrain. There are no river navigation facilities and only one short 30-mile railway linking Janakpur, in the eastern Terai, with Jayanagar, just over the border in India. In the countryside, whenever I ask someone how far away we are from another village, they never answer me in distance. They always reply in hours or days--which means how long it takes to walk there.
There are only two main highways in Nepal. There is the Mahendra Highway, which runs the length of the country from the Indian border at Kakarbbhitta in the east to the Indian border at Mahendranagr in the west. And there is the Prithvi Highway which links Kathmandu with Pokhara, which sits to the west of the capital city. Buses crammed with people constantly crisscross these roadways. And buses are also the main way people travel on the limited number of roads which branch off into the countryside.
This extreme lack of infrastructure reflects once again the profound poverty of Nepal. And for the masses of people, this lack of good transportation is not simply a problem of "inconvenience." More importantly, it is a question of safety. The buses--which are almost all made in India--are very old and worn down. And when you add this to inadequate roads, steep terrain, and overcrowding, the result is frequent and awful bus accidents and many deaths. I had already seen several news items in the Kathmandu Post about bus crashes.
At the same time, the remote conditions of the country are very favorable for fighting guerrilla warfare. Lack of roads into the countryside makes it hard for the government to bring in large armed forces against the People's War.
We get on a bus in the Eastern Region half an hour before it's scheduled to leave and most of the passengers have already boarded--at least those who wanted a seat. The overhead bins are stuffed with all kinds of packages and the aisles are packed with sacks of grain and big containers of what looks like kerosene or some other kind of liquid fuel or oil. Luckily I am able to get a seat, otherwise I would have ended up sitting on a bag of millet or a tank of fuel. More people keep piling into the bus until the very last minute. There are all kinds of people on the bus, but many more men than women. Some people are neatly dressed and look as if they are returning from a visit to the city or are perhaps now transplanted city dwellers, coming back for a family visit. Many of the young men are wearing jeans and T-shirts, while others sport more traditional Nepali loose-fitting pants and tunics. The extreme poverty of one young boy, who seems to be by himself, is revealed by his tattered clothes.
By the time we pull out, bodies are crammed in tight. A woman nursing her baby, and clutching another small child, balances herself on the sacks of grain piled next to me in the aisle. Like the rest of the bus, we are pressed up against each other and she's almost sitting in my lap. The bus takes off pretty much on schedule and I see the road we'll be on until way past dark--very dusty and bumpy, winding up a steep mountain. There are very few and always short-lived straight-aways and a lot of hairpin turns. The bus lurches up the mountainside in fits and starts. And every 15 minutes or so, in order to make it up the steepest fragments of the road, a dozen passengers have to get out onto the path, to lighten its load. A crew of three young guides help to navigate the bus--sometimes walking alongside and banging the side of the bus to signal the driver that the bus is in danger of falling off the side of the mountain. At one point the bus breaks down completely and the scheduled three-hour bus ride to our destination turns out to take over six hours.
Some comrades are waiting for us when we finally arrive at our destination and we immediately head off along a rocky path. We are high up in the mountains and the sky is full of stars, but it's very dark. After about 45 minutes of walking in the dark, I can tell we are in a village, winding in and out of yards, stepping over piles of hay and encountering oxen, bedded down for the night. We reach the house where we'll be staying and our hosts immediately prepare us a meal. By the time we finish eating it's late but the comrades want to have a little discussion before going to sleep. They are excited we are here and can't wait until morning to talk.
We are in an area in the Eastern Region where some of the most advanced actions happened during the initiation. And the party's work here continues to be very strong. One comrade explains that this village is on the boundary of a large area of about 150,000 people which is developing towards becoming a base area. Within five to seven hours, he says, they can mobilize a mass meeting of 5,000 people. In such instances, the local police will not dare come in without reinforcements. And by the time they arrive, the meeting will be over and people will have already dispersed.
We stay in this village for several days, but because of security concerns, we're confined to the inside of the house during the day. Several people come to talk with me and I know arranging such visits is very difficult. Many people can only travel in the dark, and even then they are risking their lives. Communication is hard and many different factors have to be taken into account--the security of the whole area, of the family we are staying with, of the people who come to talk, and how long it is safe to stay in one place without calling attention to ourselves. We even have to be careful when making quick trips to the outside latrine. The People's War is strong here. But this also means government repression is intense. The house we are staying in has been raided many, many times by the police.
Compared to Kathmandu, life is very different for the 90 percent of the people in Nepal who live in the countryside. Daily life here is hard and routine. It starts very early, around 5:30 a.m. when the women get up to make tea for the household. The adults go to the fields or tend to other chores until around 10:00 a.m. when they come back for a meal, about the time the children go to school. After this people go back out to work for the whole afternoon and return as the sun is low on the horizon. The evening meal is usually late, around 8 o'clock, and by 9 everyone is getting ready to go to sleep.
The house we're staying in is a three-story clay structure, with dirt floors, simple wooden stairs and shuttered windows. There are many people living in these five rooms. There is the mother and father of the house and their children--several grown sons and daughters. And then there are the sons' families, each with several small children. The father's sisters also live in the house--one of them a widow, the other who left her husband because he was beating her.
I figure there's about 16 people living in this house, which means two or three people must sleep together on each bed. But I am given a bed of my own at night. And there are many other ways in which the family is hospitable and generous. They are poor, but willing to share everything they have--constantly asking us what we want to eat, even though it's hard for them to feed their family.
Cooking is done on the first floor of the house--in one corner a fire is built and mats are placed down for people to sit and eat. Usually the men will have their meal first, then the women and children. The "mother of the house" sits and serves people the whole time. In another corner of this first floor, the family chickens have their domain. Then on the second and third stories are the small sleeping rooms, about ten feet square with enough space for maybe two beds with a few feet in between. Everything is simple and poor, but very neat and clean.
The family we are staying with goes about their daily routine, but along their comings and goings they poke their heads into the room to see if we need anything--and to catch a bit of our discussions. Everyone is so eager to talk and listen and it strikes me how engaged everyone is in their support for the People's War. Even the little kids hang around the outskirts of the conversation to listen. The women are more shy, but eventually, all of them come by and introduce themselves.
After the initiation of the People's War, the police raided, arrested and tortured people in the Kavre district and killed a number of people. One of them, Tirtha Gautam, is known around the country for his bravery.
In the afternoon, the brother of this famous martyr comes to talk with me. He tells me that Tirtha was only 33 years old when he was killed. He was a leading comrade in the party and the people's army. He was a member of one of the party's Sub-Regional Bureaus in this Eastern Region, the Secretary of the Kavre-Ramechhap District Organizing Committee and the Military Commander of the district. He had either led or been associated with all the leading guerrilla actions in the Sub-Region since the time of preparation and initiation of the People's War. Born into a lower-middle class peasant family Tirtha Gautam had worked as a school teacher before becoming a full-time revolutionary in 1988. And at the time of his death, he had been a revolutionary communist for more than a decade. During the years of inner-party struggle against opportunism and revisionism, he had always sided with the revolutionary line.
Tirtha Gautam was killed while commanding an attack on a police outpost in Bethan--in one of the most backward hilly regions, some 60 miles east of Kathmandu. This was the first successful raid of a police post after the initiation of the People's War.
On January 3, 1997, in the dark of night, Tirtha led his squad of 29 guerrillas into battle. The story of this daring raid called to mind Mao's insight that in a revolutionary war it is people not weapons that are decisive. Equipped with homemade guns and bombs, the guerrillas surrounded the police post and ordered the cops to surrender. The police shut themselves up in the building and started firing, setting off a pitched battle that lasted for several hours. Comrade Gautam was shot in the head and died instantly. But this inspired his squad to mount their attack more vigorously and they succeeded in overpowering the enemy. Two policemen were killed and two others seriously injured and the guerrillas seized four rifles and hundreds of rounds of ammunition.
In addition to Tirtha Gautam, two other squad members, Comrade Dilmaya Yonjan, a young woman, and Comrade Fateh Bahadur Slami, also lost their lives. Shouting slogans like "Long live Marxism-Leninism-Maoism," and "Long live the People's War," the squad carried away their fallen comrades and returned to safety. The police mounted a vicious counterattack--search helicopters hovered over the remote mountain forests and the police carried out a brutal combing operation in the region searching for guerrillas. But this was in vain.
In the party's summation of the first year of People's War this raid on Bethan was hailed as the best example of daring military exploit and sacrifice. This was the single largest blow suffered by the reactionary state during the party's Second Plan of the People's War. The lives of three brave guerrillas was a big loss to the people. But this successful raid electrified the revolutionary aspirations of the masses and sent a chill down the spine of the reactionary government. It also signaled the development of the People's War to a higher stage. And for this reason, the party has recognized the historic significance of this action in the early phase of the People's War.
Later in the day the widow of Tirtha Gautam, 30-year-old Beli Gautam, comes to see me with her two young sons, 10-year-old Delip and 8-year-old Tanka. After they sit down and are introduced I express condolences to Beli and her family on behalf of the oppressed masses and comrades in the United States. And I tell her that it is brave comrades like her husband who represent the best of the people and the hopes for the future.
Beli Gautam has a hard time speaking and says she is having trouble with her throat. But I can also see that she is rather shy and quiet. When I ask her what she thinks about the revolution she says, "The People's War and the work of the party is good and it is going forward." Then Delip, the 10-year-old, speaks up, with a confidence and conviction beyond his young age. He sits up straight, looks right at us and says with force, "Our mother says we must follow the path of our father and when we get older, we will have to go fight." Beli tells me she also has two daughters, a 5-year-old and a 12-year-old, and that while the younger one is too little to understand much, the older one already wants to fight in the People's War.
The police have raided the house of this family many times, sometimes in the middle of the night--saying they are looking for guns and bombs. One time, right after Tirtha was killed, the police came and asked the family, "Now that we have killed Tirtha, what will you do?" Perhaps they were hoping the family would feel threatened and say that now they would not support the People's War. But instead young Tanka said to them, "You killed my father, now I will kill you." The police shot back in their reactionary, mocking way, "Oh, and how will you do this?" They handed him their rifle and said, "Do you know how to use it?" To their surprise, Tanka took the rifle and began to cock it, showing the police that in fact, he did know how to use it.
Delip tells me of another time when the police came to the house and started busting everything up. When they found a guitar, they asked "Who plays this?" and then destroyed it. He also recounts the time they threatened to arrest his grandfather. His grandmother stepped forward and defied the police, saying, "If you are so brave why don't you kill him now with your gun." And then a police officer stuck his stick into the grandmother's mouth to shut her up.
Before the family leaves, Tanka sings two songs for us, the first he wrote himself. His young voice is sweet, but earnest, and the song has a somewhat melancholy but spirited tune. It tells of how his father was killed in the raid on the Bethan police post and how, before he left on this mission, Tirtha swore he'd bring the ashes of the police post back to the party. The second song is sung to the tune of a Nepali folk song, but Tanka has inserted new lyrics. He sings about the police and the repression the people face and then declares that the people's answer to all this is, "Give us the gun of Gautam," referring to his martyred father.
After Tanka finishes singing, Delip says that when the police attacked the squad his father was so brave. Now when the people see a fire, they remember the heroic raid on the Bethan police post. When they hear a loud sound, like thunder, they remember the guerrilla's guns in Bethan. So every day, when the people see these kinds of signs, Delip says, they remember this incident and his father who so bravely sacrificed his life.
As they head for the door the two young boys turn around and give me a red salute, shooting their little fists up high into the air.
This article is posted in English and Spanish on Revolutionary Worker Online
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