Nepal: a first mission in a conflict environment
Christoph von Toggenburg, a delegate on his first mission with the ICRC, returned from Nepal in February after a year working in a remote area of the country. He talks about his work there and how the civilian population is affected by the conflict between the Maoists and the Government.
What was situation like in the area you were in?
The ICRC office of Nepalganj is located in the western part of Nepal. It is an isolated, mountainous and wild area divided into eight districts. Most of the remote areas are controlled by the Maoists whereas the main towns are government controlled. The situation is extremely tense and violent and clashes between the Maoists and the Government are frequent.
How do Nepalese people cope?
At the end of the day, the Nepalese people in this area just want to get on with their daily lives – they don't care who is in power.
On the one hand, the Maoists impose travel restrictions so it is not always possible for them to travel to the main towns – they need special permission. The Maoists also impose blockades so the people don’t have access to essential and basic goods, sometimes for a very long time.
On the other hand, every so often the authorities set up checkpoints which may be challenging to get through making physical movement very difficult.
The direct impact is that people are under constant threat – the psychological impact is very strong. Food shortages however are not as bad as they might be. Usually, people are self sufficient, owning their own cattle and growing vegetables on their land. Furthermore, many young people cross the border to India and bring money back to their families – it has always been the case but it is even more frequent since the conflict started.
What specific activities were you engaged in?
In Nepal, delegates are engaged in the whole range of ICRC activities. Re-establishing contact between families takes up a lot of time especially with the Maoists. But the biggest workload is detention visits both on the Government side and the Maoist side.
It has been a long drawn-out process until the ICRC has found itself in a situation to carry out its detention visits in accordance with its mandate. A lot of work has been done and now we are in a better position. The ICRC is more and more recognised and trust is growing.
On the Maoist side, it is a long process that involves building up relationships to get them to trust us. We meet the leaders and negotiate to obtain free access for our detention visits and so on. In the end though, it's very rewarding to meet the detainees.
On the Government side, we regularly visit the military camps, the police stations and the jails. It's easier than visiting those held by the Maoists because of logistical reasons. On the Maoist side, detainees don't always stay in the same place – they are moved all the time.
We have now been able to resume our visits to military barracks as well, which we stopped for some time because we couldn't carry them out under ICRC working modalities.
What event marked you most?
As it was my first mission with the ICRC, I had never worked in a conflict situation before, let alone such an active conflict. I remember once we were driving down to the far west on a beautiful road through green rice fields. All of a sudden, there were two dead bodies lying in the middle of the street in a lak e of blood covered with thousands of flies. They had been shot during the night. However, because people were afraid the bodies had been booby trapped, nobody had recovered them. What I found most shocking was that there were these two people – or two dead bodies – and life just went on. People were cycling by, buffalos were passing by. It was a sad scene.
Another very moving moment was when the ICRC was able to bring a twelve-year-old boy out of great danger following death threats against him. We were able to bring him to a safe place in Kathmandu where he is receiving a good education. He's smart and he'll make the best out of this.
What are your general impressions of Nepal?
I was fascinated. We had to walk so much—you can almost call it humanitarian trekking!
We were always so close to the population. It was great to communicate with them and get a feeling of what their lives are like and what their needs are. Regarding the conflict, I found it sad. It's a conflict that comes in waves – it comes and goes but it is difficult to imagine a solution in the near future.