Nepal's war wounds
By Roland Sidler
seven years, armed conflict has ravaged Nepal, one of the
poorest countries on earth. The conflict has pitted governmental
forces against Maoist rebels and, as happens all too often,
civilians are paying the highest price.
Bahadur Bishwokarma, a 38-year-old mountain farmer has only
one desire: to go home to his village, Khara, as soon as he
possibly can. But he is going to have to be patient for a
while longer, for the doctors say he will not be able to function
independently again for another three or four months. With
his wife and 15-month-old son, Bihm occupies a small room
in the Shanti Sewa Griha leprosy centre on the outskirts of
Kathmandu. Although he is not suffering from leprosy, the
gaily painted refuge set up by Marianne Grosspietsch from
Germany took him in and provided him with free medical care
Bihm comes from the countryside, a small farmer living off
the land and the produce of his domestic animals.
Four months ago,
Bihm set off for his field to finish ploughing a plot on a
sunny slope before sowing the maize and planting the rice
that constitute his staple diet. "There were a dozen
of us villagers working in the same area when the sound of
gunfire rang out. Some ran towards their houses, others threw
themselves to the ground. I can't recall how long it went
on for, but the bullet pierced my leg at the knee and I can
still feel the pain," says Bihm, looking to his wife
for approval before adding: "I stayed where I was, paralysed
by fear, until someone came to rescue me."
SIDLER / ICRC
Bihm Bahadur with an ICRC delegate at Shanti
Shewa Griha leper hospital, Kathmandu, May 2003.
between the Maoist insurgents and the governmental forces
has claimed more victims among civilians than among combatants,
and Bihm knows that he is lucky to be alive. Several able-bodied
men carried him to the nearest clinic, several hours' walk
from the village, where he received rudimentary treatment.
"The wound stopped bleeding, but a nasty infection flared
up as soon as he got home," confides his wife.
For several weeks, Bihm lay prostrate for most of the day,
unable to stand. He became a burden on his wife and relatives,
he who had always provided for his family's needs. The pride
of the mountain dweller had been deeply shaken and little
by little despondency overcame any hope of an improvement.
The conflict between Nepalese forces and the Maoist opposition
broke out in 1996. It spread rapidly from the west to encompass
almost the whole country. Having carried out ad hoc activities
in Nepal since 1998, the ICRC opened a delegation in Kathmandu
in 2001. Besides visiting more than 2,900 people detained
by the governmental authorities as a result of the insurrection,
the ICRC is working to protect and assist civilians affected
by the conflict, to promote respect for international humanitarian
law among arms bearers and civil society and to strengthen
the capacities of the Nepalese Red Cross.
In recent months, the ICRC has contributed to training activities
for Nepalese Red Cross staff and helped set up first-aid programmes
in the insurgency-affected districts. It is also operating,
jointly with the National Society, a Red Cross message network
for families dispersed by the conflict, including detainees
and displaced persons.
Following the ceasefire in January 2003 and the first peace
talks at the end of April between representatives of the Maoist
movement and the government, the ICRC reassessed its objectives
on the basis of these developments. As lead agency, the ICRC
coordinates the Movement's activities in Nepal.
The International Federation and several National Societies
(Belgium, Denmark, Japan, Norway, Sweden and Switzerland)
are working with the Nepalese Red Cross in a number of different
fields, such as the prevention of eye infections, improving
access to drinking water, water purification and emergency-preparedness
training of volunteers. With the support of the ICRC and the
International Federation, the Nepalese Red Cross has launched
a campaign in the field, with the media's help, to combat
misuse of the emblem. A draft law affording better legal protection
to the emblem is in preparation.
turn of events
It was then that chance intervened: ICRC delegates Christine
Luethi and Christophe Abbou happened to be on the road to
Bihm's village one day. The two Red Cross workers were in
this far-flung corner to distribute messages to the families
of detainees visited in government prisons.
At the end of a long day of walking in the foothills of
the world's highest peaks, Luethi and Abbou stopped in the
village of Khara in search of shelter for the night. It was
there they were told of Bihm's predicament. As soon as they
saw him they realized the seriousness of his condition and
organized and paid for a makeshift stretcher to be made and
the wounded man to be carried down to the valley by porters.
Thanks to their satellite phone, the two delegates were able
to forewarn the Red Cross emergency services. A little while
later, Nepalese Red Cross volunteers and an ambulance arrived.
Following a short stop to change his dressings and give him
something to eat, Bihm was put aboard an aircraft bound for
Kathmandu. At the capital's airport, another Nepalese Red
Cross ambulance awaited to transport him to hospital, where
he underwent emergency surgery.
The operation went well, despite the complications arising
from a wound left too long untreated. But in the future Bihm
will need a brace in order to recover partial mobility in
his left knee joint. Only with the help of such a device can
he hope to achieve enough independence to resume the farmer's
life where he had left off. Bihm will still need several weeks
of rehabilitation and physiotherapy before he can turn his
back on the noises of the capital and rediscover the serenity
of his birthplace. Meanwhile, the management of the Shanti
Sewa Griha leprosy centre, the ICRC and the Nepalese Red Cross
are doing their best to rally round Bihm and his family.
SIDLER / ICRC
Volunteers of the Nepalese Red Cross Society
during a first-aid training session in Pokhara.
Roland Sidler is ICRC audio-visual press office in Geneva
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