Civilians caught in the crossfire
conflict in Nepal has cost more than 10,000 lives and shows
no sign of abating. The ICRC, in partnership with the Nepal
Red Cross Society, is striving to protect the civilian population
from the hostilities. Red Cross Red Crescent magazine accompanied
an ICRC field mission for a week. Here are some of its experiences.
The ICRC and Nepal Red Cross Society
team transports cement and pipes for water supply installations
in several remote villages near Jumla in north-western
©JóN BJÖRGVINSSON / ICRC
“I have been using this office temporarily since my
regular office was blown up by the rebels,” the chief
administrator of a district in western Nepal tells us calmly.
He receives us in a government guest house, fans whirring,
while behind him an employee is daubing a fresh coat of white
paint on the wall. We are in the Nepalese ‘terai’,
the jungle zone between the Himalayas and the Indian plains,
where temperatures reach 45 degrees Celsius in the shade.
After making a phone call, the official nods and informs us:
“Everything is in order for the prison visit this afternoon.”
The ICRC visits Bardia prison’s 40 inmates regularly.
One-third of the detainees are suspected of having links with
the armed opposition and the prison is one of the few in the
region that has been spared attacks by Maoist insurgents.
In the small patch of shade in the central courtyard, a group
of inmates is sitting cross-legged playing dice. Eric Plejel,
a sanitation engineer, and Olivier Bertin, the Nepalese-speaking
interpreter, chat with the director about the work in progress
to improve the quality of the water, which has a high arsenic
content.(1) Eric checks the flow from
the tap in the water tank and takes a sample for further analysis,
while a detainee in charge of the prison water supply explains
that the incidence of stomach pains and diarrhoea has dropped
significantly in the last fortnight. A few steps away, a detainee
is peeling cucumbers. On the west wall, graffiti in English
asserts: “Man is born free but everywhere he is in chains.”
Here, as in civilian prisons elsewhere in the country, ICRC
delegates monitor living conditions and treatment of prisoners
and collect and distribute Red Cross messages, which are eagerly
awaited by the detainees, who rarely get a chance to see their
loved ones. As the sun begins to set, Olivier gestures to
us to hurry up: “The curfew is at 19:00, and we still
have an hour’s drive to reach Nepalganj!”
A wedding is in full swing in the garden of our hotel in
Nepalganj. Sipping a restorative beer on the terrace, we watch
the celebration. Suddenly, an explosion rocks the area, followed
by a second blast, much bigger and even closer than the last.
The electricity cuts out and the music stops. Thirty seconds
later, the lights go on and the music starts up. “Another
unfortunate who hasn’t paid their dues to the Maoist
opposition!” comments a fellow guest. We find out the
following day that the bomb was intended for a Nepalese government
official living next to our hotel.
The next morning, we fly to Jumla, situated at 2,500 metres
above sea level in the north-west of the country. After banking
180 degrees, the plane lands on the tarmac in Jumla, high
above the valley. There are no cars in this small town of
2,000 inhabitants, where the mud lanes are lined with small
shops selling clothes and basic foodstuffs. As most of Jumla
district is under the control of the Maoist opposition, government
employees are de facto unable to fulfil their functions. The
health sector — already little developed in normal times
— has been hard hit by the conflict and the accompanying
restrictions on movement, hampering access to medical care,
vaccination and clean water. The curfew is set at 19:30 and
patrols are in place to remind those who don’t comply.
We have a meeting with the local branch of the Nepal Red Cross
Society (NRCS) to prepare the following day’s programme:
we are transporting cement and pipes for a project to rehabilitate
and maintain the drinking water system in Lamra, a village
three hours’ walk from Jumla.
At 05:00, the ICRC/NRCS team meets up at the warehouse to
get the materials ready. An hour later, to our relief, the
mules arrive. Without them, nothing is possible in this mountainous
terrain. Once the animals’ loads are secure, the caravan,
comprising 15 mules, six Nepalese employees and three ICRC
delegates, sets off. We reach Lamra without incident and are
greeted by representatives of the village water committee.
The men dig narrow ditches to lay the pipes in, while the
women work in the rice fields below. Thanks to these efforts,
the water fountain is once again a gathering point in Lamra.
Children fill jerrycans with drinking water, while others
soap themselves from head to toe. Reconnecting the water means
a gain of several hours a day for the villagers, who can devote
the time to farming. “Water is vital,” says Gogan
Bahatur, sanitation technician for the NRCS in Jumla. “At
present only the Red Cross is able to assist these villages,
which are beyond the reach of the government and non-governmental
Washing near a fountain in Lamra village
near Jumla. This fountain is one of the
water installations supported by the ICRC
and the NRCS.
©JóN BJÖRGVINSSON / ICRC
Two days later, we head for Pokhara, a tourist magnet in
the foothills of the Himalayas. In this region, the National
Society works alongside the ICRC on a daily basis, in particular
to deliver Red Cross messages to the families of detainees
and identify and transfer the wounded in need of rehabilitation
to the Green Pastures hospital in Pokhara, which specializes
in orthopaedic care.
In the neighbouring district of Syangya, we meet NRCS volunteers
taking part in a first-aid course. Twenty-five adolescents
— 17 girls and eight boys — from three different
communes have come together for five days in Biruwa secondary
school, where they are learning about the history and fundamental
principles of the Red Cross and Red Crescent. This is a prelude
to training in life-saving techniques, in particular carrying
out an initial assessment, immobilizing the victim, performing
artificial respiration and transporting the wounded. “The
most important thing is to know how to stop bleeding,”
stresses Ravin, NRCS first-aid instructor, “for there
is often a considerable lapse of time between the moment of
injury and the transfer of the patient to a medical centre.”
In the current climate, each new first-aider trained constitutes
a vital lifeline for his or her community, helping to save
lives during accidents, natural disasters or conflict-related
Jean-François Berger is ICRC editor of Red
Cross Red Crescent.
(1)Arsenic deposits occur naturally
in the plains south of the Himalayas.
An essential presence
The armed conflict in Nepal began nine years ago. In August
2003, the fragile ceasefire collapsed, and since a state of
emergency was declared in February 2005, clashes have resumed
with fresh intensity. In the context of the armed struggle,
pitting government forces against the Communist Party of Nepal-Maois,
disappearances and other violations of international humanitarian
law are commonplace.
Present in Nepal since 1998, the ICRC concentrates mainly
on protection activities. It has 135 staff members, of whom
39 are expatriates based in Kathmandu, Biratnagar and Nepalganj.
ICRC delegates maintain contacts with the parties to the conflict
throughout the country and raise any problems they encounter
with the parties’ representatives.
Although the organization does not as yet have access, in
accordance with its standard procedures, to people detained
by the Royal Nepalese Army, the ICRC visits and checks on
the living conditions of security detainees held by the civil
authorities. It also acts regularly as a neutral intermediary
when members of the government security forces are captured
and then freed by the Maoist opposition.