Nishana, a 27-year-old platoon commander of the Maoist People’s Liberation Army (PLA), looked just like any other Nepali mother as she played with her three-year-old son in the open space in front of her family’s small hut in a cantonment in Dasharatapur of Surkhet District. Since the formal end of the decade-long conflict in 2006, all Maoist combatants are supposed to be housed in seven major (and 21 satellite) temporary UN-overseen camps spread throughout the country. And there some 20,000 individuals have languished ever since, as political machinations have ground on in Kathmandu as politicians wrangle over what to do with them. Even as frustration levels within the cantonments continue to rise, however, the debate remains one of the most explosive in Nepal’s ongoing peace process.
Either way, cantonment life would seem good in comparison to the ten years of warfare that preceded it. And this would certainly be just as true for the roughly 3000 to 4000 women combatants, as well. Nishana can be counted as one of the lucky female fighters, simply for having survived both the battles and the harsh jungle life of the insurgency period; for 10 years, death had been merely a part of life. The past two and a half years, then, have been a significant turnaround. For several months now, the sight of women combatants carrying babies has become a common one in every cantonment, to the extent that a Maoist ‘baby boom’ has been widely discussed. Although there is no exact data on the number of children in the cantonments, it is estimated that there are between 800 and 1000 mothers in the cantonments, each with at least one small child in tow.
Nishana, originally from Dailekh in western Nepal, says she joined the Maoists in 2001. “After four of my close relatives were killed by the state, I felt feelings of revenge,” she said recently. “I thought that either I would kill the enemies, or I would die.” In November of that year, she participated in a famous raid on Ghorahi, the headquarters of the mid-western Dang District. “I was in a second assault group, which raided the barracks of the Royal Nepalese Army,” she recalled. “At that time, I was carrying a .303 rifle. When I first heard sounds of firing, I felt as though bullets were hitting my body, though they weren’t really. During that first action I was quite scared, but slowly became accustomed.” After Ghorahi, she participated in most major military actions carried out by the PLA in western Nepal, including the largest, the raid on the RNA barracks in Beni, in which she fought on the front line as a member of the first assault group. Dozens of her comrades were killed during that attack, including her commander.
Although many of Nishana’s friends died in combat, many more were forced to deal with particular hardships as women. Safalta, with whom Nishana joined the PLA, died along with her unborn child in 2002 after participating in military training while pregnant. Nishana says that she too worked on the military front when she was pregnant several months before the conflict ended, right up through her ninth month. “We used to carry a bag weighing some 10 kg as well as a weapon, just like the men did,” she said. Such adversity inevitably created strong bonds between the women. “When I was pregnant, my friend would help me by carrying my bag,” she said, noting that women combatants would also help one another during their menstrual periods by assisting with loads.
In the end of 2002, Nishana married a fellow combatant, a common occurrence among Maoist cadres. Three years later, in January 2006, she delivered a son, four months before the widespread public demonstrations that eventually toppled the Nepali monarchy and brought the Maoists into the peace process. Her delivery took place at a villager’s house in Surkhet with the help of her party, but at that time her husband was far away. “As my husband was working in a different district, he didn’t know of his son’s birth for many days,” she said. “He couldn’t meet his son until eight months after he was born.” That, too, has changed significantly in recent years. Although her husband is now a company commander in a different cantonment, the family is able to be together almost every weekend.
The roughly 19,600 individuals who were verified as Maoist combatants by the United Nations Mission in Nepal (UNMIN) are currently awaiting a political resolution to their fate – either to be integrated into the state security institutions, or to be ‘rehabilitated’ back into society. Around 20 percent of these are said to be women, one of the highest levels of participation by women in conflict anywhere.
Of late, numbers have become particularly contentious when discussing Maoist combatants. Although the significant proportion of women in the Maoist ranks is not being questioned, the previous number – 19,600 – has recently been brought under significant suspicion, since damning evidence arose in early May that the Maoists had purposefully inflated their actual cadre number. In a videotape filmed in a Maoist cantonment in January 2008 (and subsequently circulated in the media), Maoist Chairman Pushpa Kamal Dahal clearly mentioned that his army had only 7000 to 8000 combatants. The video inevitably cast doubts over the Maoists’ intentions, not only among the other political parties but also in international circles. As a result, representatives of the former opposition Nepali Congress have requested that UNMIN undertake a re-verification exercise, though at the moment this appears unlikely.
The percentage of women within the Maoist ranks was not always so high, however. When the rebels began their insurgency – on 13 February 1996, by carrying out simultaneous attacks on police posts in the districts of Rolpa, Rukum and Sindhuli, and on a bank in Gorkha – only eight women participated in the fighting. (Thereafter, one was killed by police and one left the party, but today the other six continue to work actively for the party. Four of these are now elected members of the Constituent Assembly.) A relative lack of women’s representation extended off the battlefield, as well. In February 1996, there were only 50 to 60 women ‘whole-timers’ working for the party structure anywhere in the country.
Yet the focus on increasing the number of women in the organisation was present from the start. Onsari Gharti Magar, the first woman chapamaar (guerrilla) in the Maoist stronghold of mid-western Rolpa, said that during the early stages of the insurgency one of her main activities was recruiting women – a difficult job, she recalls. “In the beginning, the women didn’t even want to take off their lungi to wear trousers,” she said. “Many of them were from the Magar community, and could not speak Nepali very well. But through political and military training, they slowly changed, and some of them became even more committed than the men.”
As rebel military formations developed, women’s participation in the Maoist forces slowly increased. By the beginning of 2000, women’s militias had been formed in some villages of Rolpa; and later that year two additional women’s squads were formed in Bheri and Karnali, in western Nepal. The women quickly proved their fighting mettle. Indeed, many women combatants who joined the Maoist armed forces after 1999 spent the entire war period on the battlefield, and many went on to become commanders.
Among these are Lila Mahara (aka ‘Kalpana’) and Geeta Oli (aka ‘Bindu’), now vice-commanders of PLA brigades in the 6th Division. Bindu says she became a Maoist guerrilla when she was 19, after being detained by the police for seven months under what she says was a fake charge of murdering a local landlord. She says she was tortured by the police while in detention. “After I was released, I returned to my school to complete my SLC [School Leaving Certificate] exams. After I took the exams, I left my house in the Tarai without telling my parents,” she said to this writer in the Dasharatapur cantonment in March. “Then I and a few other comrades went to Dailekh, walking for more than 20 days. While walking I learned how to fire a rifle. After arriving in Dailekh I joined a women’s squad whose commander was Kalpana.” She explained the reason why she decided to work in the military front: “I joined the Maoist army on my own volition, because I wanted to fight against state atrocities.”
Kalpana, who joined the Maoists a year before Bindu did, has always played a leading role as a commander of the women’s contingents. Today she is something of a legend among the PLA’s women combatants, as the most experienced female chapamaar. After joining the Maoist forces in 1999, at the age of 17, she participated in nearly all of the major military actions, including the battle for the army barracks at Beni, where she led an assault group as a company commander. At Beni not only was she injured, but she also lost her husband, who was then a vice-commander of her brigade. “I’ve never had such a deep pain in my heart as when my husband died,” she said. “Several hours before the attack began, when we were in the last shelter nearest to Beni, he suddenly called and told me he was unsure as to whether he was going to be able to return safely. And he told me not to be sad, even if he didn’t survive.” She continued: “At that time, 13 months had passed since we had become married, but we had only spent two or three months together.”
Love and loss
Oftentimes, women guerrillas had to work even harder than their male counterparts to prove both their will and ability to fight like the men. They also frequently had to bear extra hardships, both physically and mentally, while working in the field. “Women are physically different from men, and have to face more difficulties than men. We had to carry a bag of the same weight as men and had to walk even during menstruation,” Kalpana said. “But since the beginning, I have worked as a commander leading both men and women. And I believe that I could have gotten to my current position in any brigade, as I can fight just like a man.”
In contrast to their male comrades, childbirth was one of the most common hardships that women Maoist combatants had to bear. Women cadres worked until the very end of their pregnancies, which made delivery very risky. Childbirth often took place in remote villages without adequate facilities; many women eventually took the risk of going to hospitals, sometimes even in Kathmandu, despite the high possibility of arrest. Even after giving birth, it was not easy for mothers to raise their infants while remaining in uniform. Many had to return to work immediately, either carrying their babies with them or leaving the newborns with relatives. Following is the account of Kranti, who participated in a major military action on Sandhikharka, the headquarters of south-central Arghakhanchi District, and later became a commissar of a PLA brigade:
I was nine months pregnant at the time of the Sandhikharka action. I was then a party in-charge of a neighbouring district, and had been given the responsibility to take volunteers from my district for the action. After the raid ended, we walked up to Rukum District, taking along with us the wounded. We walked through jungles without enough food, while the security forces were following us both from the air and on land. Soon after we reached Rukum, I had to walk all of the way back south to deliver. I walked all the way to a village near the Indian border, and went over to the Indian side for the medical check-up. I gave birth to a son at a post where our sick comrades used to stay. Twelve days later, I left and again walked to Rolpa, to attend a regional bureau meeting. When my son was 21 months old, I left him with an elder sister of one of my comrades. Though I could not forget my son for many days, I simply could not take him with me.
Although there was physical and mental support for new mothers, some of the most crucial of that support was often far away – or gone for good. Getting married to a comrade was an option taken up by many young Maoists during the insurgency. For this reason, however, losing a life partner was another hardship shouldered by a large number of cadres, both male and female. In turn, losing close family members often became the cause by which combatants became even more deeply involved in the insurgency. Two of the women combatants mentioned earlier, Kalpana and Bindu, lost their PLA-member husbands in battle. Following is a similar story from another female commander, Samjana.
We got married after knowing each other for three years. We fought many battles together in the same units. Seven months after our wedding, we both participated in a raid on the RNA barracks in Khara of Rukum District. Both of us were company commanders, and led our own assault groups at the frontlines. Several hours after the battle began I was shot in my head and lost consciousness. It was only after I was brought to a shelter the following day that I heard someone saying that my husband had became a shahid, a martyr. I could not control myself and began crying, and soon I lost consciousness again. Later, after resting, I visited my husband’s house to tell his parents the sad news. In front of them, I made a vow to take revenge for my husband’s death.
Here there also exists a fairly significant difference between the widows of women combatants and those in ordinary Nepali society. After losing spouses in battle, many of the former were subsequently able to remarry another comrade, after receiving permission from the party. In addition to openly condoning remarriage (unlike the society at large), the Maoists have also encouraged inter-caste marriage, which is increasing in Nepali society but is still far from common.
Today, the tensions of conflict may have receded, but the seclusion of life in the cantonments only reinforces the little that is happening with regards to the process of integrating the former fighters back into the larger Nepali society. The issue has become the single most complex obstacle facing the peace process, with the Maoists arguing for en masse integration of their combatants into the Nepal Army, while the military brass is backed by the other political parties in resisting such a move. The latter say that former combatants could potentially be integrated into the army on an individual basis – or nothing at all. Observers, meanwhile, say that behind the scenes many within the Maoist leadership have been willing to negotiate on this point, but that commanders in the cantonments remain adamant on what will and will not be acceptable to those on the ground.
So, in today’s tenuous peace, life in the cantonments drags on. When this writer met Kalpana in March, she was taking care of her 10-month-old son. After her first husband was killed in the Beni raid, she too remarried, to a brigade commander in her own division. Today, when she has to attend programmes or meetings, her assistant takes care of her son. Life is similar for another experienced female commander, Nabina, who also stays in a cantonment in Dahabang, in Rolpa. After joining the Maoist armed force in April 2000, she worked on the military front as a commander. Like Kalpana, Nabina lost her husband in a battle at the Sittalpati police post in Salyan District, only seven months after their marriage. In 2003, she married again, to a member of a Maoist cultural group, and bore a daughter after she moved into the cantonment.
Mothers at least have much with which to keep themselves busy in the cantonments. Or, rather, they do until their children become of school-going age, when many are sent outside, as there are no schools in the cantonments. But for others, daily life is monotonous. Platoon Commander Kalpana (a different Kalpana) spends nearly all of her time in the cantonment in Dahabang, except for when she leaves to take a bath in a nearby river. Along with one other comrade, Kalpana lives in a single room that she and other combatants built. Her days begin at four in the morning. After group exercises and attending roll call at seven, she busies herself with cleaning her room and washing her clothes. In her cantonment, all combatants are required to eat between ten and eleven in the morning, but after that her day is largely her own. She sometimes attends various programmes, such as political coaching and other trainings; otherwise she plays volleyball with her comrades, which she says has been something of a salvation over the tedium of life in the cantonment. After eating between five and six, she has more free time, which she spends by reading books and studying. Kalpana says that she voluntarily stands sentry on the cantonment’s perimeter in order to keep her spirits high, even at times when she is not supposed to be on duty.
In addition to the boredom, life in the cantonments is much more secluded than the former combatants are used to. “Life here is very peaceful,” Kalpana said, “but as we have little chance to communicate with ordinary villagers we feel isolated. During the war, we were always in touch with villagers – but no longer.” Nabina agrees: “We are very isolated from the people. We used to be able to feel the people’s sentiments, but not now.”
Yet both Kalpana and Nabina are resolute that they will continue to follow their party’s wishes, even if this means continuing to live in the cantonments. “If our staying in cantonments will solve all the political problems, we are ready to stay here as long as it is needed,” Kalpana said, but added: “After being involved in the revolution for such a long time, I don’t want to go back to my home, just to become an ordinary woman.” Nabina feels similarly conflicted. “Seeing the current political situation, I don’t think the problems will be easily solved,” she said. “Sometimes, I worry that a situation may arise in the future in which we have to return to battle.”