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Nepal's war wounds

By Roland Sidler

For 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.

Bihm 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 and food.

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."

ROLAND SIDLER / ICRC

Bihm Bahadur with an ICRC delegate at Shanti Shewa Griha leper hospital, Kathmandu, May 2003.

The confrontation 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.

Movement response

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.

A fortunate 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.

ROLAND SIDLER / ICRC

Volunteers of the Nepalese Red Cross Society during a first-aid training session in Pokhara.

 


Roland Sidler
Roland Sidler is ICRC audio-visual press office in Geneva



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