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Nepal: return to Bhojpur

30-08-2004 Feature

In the isolated regions of Nepal, where access is difficult, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) tries to keep in touch with the local population and to cope with the needs arising from the conflict. In terms of logistics, these activities sometimes result in unexpected situations, as can be seen from the following account by ICRC delegate Xénia Gamulin.

It was my second mission to Bhojpur in the mountainous region of east Nepal. The village of Bhojpur, the administrative centre of Bhojpur District, is perched on a ridge at an altitude of some 1,500 metres. The zone is held by the government forces, but there had recently been an attack on the village. Following that incident I rushed to the area with my interpreter colleague.

The purpose of our mission was to understand what had happened, find out whether the local people needed assistance, and also collect information on any violations of international humanitarian law. On our first mission to Bhojpur several months previously we had not noticed any particular tension; the district was considered to be quiet at the time and little affected by the conflict.

There are no roads suitable for motor vehicles in the region of Bhojpur. There is a small mountain airport an hour and a half's walk from Bhojpur village, with flights to Kathmandu and Biratnagar. It is a journey of at least two days on foot to the nearest road.

 In the village  

 
 
Xénia, ICRC delegate in Biratnagar, Nepal.©ICRC 
 

On our arrival in Bhojpur we found that the telephone exchange had been destroyed in the attack. The inhabitants of the village were thus isolated from the rest of the world. The change of atmosphere since our last visit was dramatic. The tension was palpable. The local people were frightened and first refused to speak to us. But they gradually came to trust us and we managed to talk to several of them to try to understand what had happened and had marked them to such an extent.

In the few days we spent in the village we observed that the inhabitants took cover in their shacks in the evening for fear of another attack and waited there until dawn. We heard volleys of machine-gun fire on two evenings but were unable to detect where it was coming from. It was a fairly chilling experience.

One day as we were walking down the main street we heard two major explosions, which seemed to have occurred higher up above the village. The people froze. And there was then a deathly silence while they scanned the mountain trying desperately to find where the explosions had come from. It turned out in the end that they had just been caused by abandoned explosives, which had gone off as they were being neutralized. The wildest rumours about an imminent attack began to go around the village nevertheless. But there has been no such attack as yet.

 Our mission in the area  

The first stage of our work consisted of meeting the members of the local branch of the Nepal Red Cross Society in order to obtain an impartial account of the attack. On the basis of that information we then set out to look for eyewitnesses of th e events and spoke to them privately. We were anxious to prevent as far as possible any distortion of the facts and we also wanted to be able to compare the information obtained so as to assess its reliability.

We thus interviewed several witnesses individually wherever possible. We also spoke to representatives of the government, the military authorities and the police, as well as several villagers.

No civilians had been injured in the attack, but we visited the village dispensary nevertheless to assess its capacity for treating any victims should there be another attack with more serious consequences. We also provided the dispensary with essential medical supplies.

We then visited the various places of detention to ensure that conditions were in conformity with the principles of international humanitarian law, which protects prisoners and prohibits the infliction of any form of ill-treatment.

We also distributed and collected several Red Cross messages in these places of detention. These messages enable prisoners to keep in touch with their families and to send them news of a strictly personal nature. They are then often passed on to the local branch of the Red Cross, which takes care of forwarding them to the addressees, even in the remotest villages, since the ICRC itself is unable to distribute all of these messages in view of Nepal's difficult topography.

 The return journey  

When we had finished our work a few days later, we set out at dawn to go back down to the airport ... only to discover that there was no plane! The flight had been cancelled for no particular reason. So we spent the first day out walking in the surrounding area. On our return to the airport in the late afternoon we met two British travellers who were hoping to fly to Kathma ndu the following day. One of them had come to the region to trace his father, a former Gurkha from the British army, whom he had never known.

My interpreter colleague and I had spent the night in a sort of henhouse inhabited by pigeons, rats and spiders. It transpired the next day that one of the British travellers was diabetic and had almost run out of medicine. So we decided to arrange for him to be evacuated by helicopter, using our satellite telephone, since of course there was no other phone available. We were secretly hoping to board the helicopter ourselves but failed to obtain the necessary authorization. But at least it kept us busy for part of the day!

I then decided to go and have a wash at the spring. And since everything is done in public in those parts I washed as best I could, hiding under a poncho... to the great amusement of three scruffy urchins and accompanied by two women from the village, who were also washing fully dressed.

Next morning there was still no plane, whereas there are five flights a week to Biratnagar, in theory, and as many again to Kathmandu. So we decided to set off on foot to get to the nearest road... a distance of 51 kilometres in mountainous terrain. I have to admit that I was feeling pretty down at that particular point. So was my interpreter colleague, I might add. And then we had a stroke of luck! Just as we were leaving the airport we saw a helicopter fly over our heads and land in Bhojpur. It was a cargo aircraft used to deliver rice for a fortnight each year, since the district is not self-sufficient.

The airport employee radioed the helicopter, and the pilot agreed to take us. With great relief we raced back to Bhojpur and jumped aboard. And only 15 minutes later he dropped us at the road.

I immediately phoned the delegation to let them know where we were, and a car was sent to pick us up. We had to wait a while, bu t we finally made it to Biratnagar after a three-hour drive.