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Civilians caught in the crossfire

The 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 Nepal.

“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.

Caravan of hope

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 organizations.”


Washing near a fountain in Lamra village
near Jumla. This fountain is one of the
water installations supported by the ICRC
and the NRCS.

First aid

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 attacks.

Jean-François Berger
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.


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