A Voice For the Voiceless
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Tassos Coulaloglou and the Collective Campaign for Peace (COCAP)
Here I am at my goodbye party in Baglung. After a snack and tea, Chandi Sharma, the focal point coordinator of CYC, said a short speech and put a garland of flowers around my neck. Each member of CYC then came up to say farewell individually: first they took a pinch of red paste (used by hindus for religious purposes) and made a mark on my forehead, then offered a handful of flowers before saying Namaste or goodbye.
This will be one of my last blog entries and one that I’ve not been looking forward to writing. It means that my time in Nepal is over, my fellowship near completion.
There are so many people that I need to thank for making this one of the most fulfilling, difficult, and valuable summers of my life. First, I would like to say thank you to everyone who supported me, financially and morally. My father, Costas, and sister, Markella, who initially had their doubts about my safety, but as always, they were there to help (Michele and Chris too!). Peter Hesp, a family friend and one of my main benefactors, thank you for your advice and support. You and your foundation sponsored a large part of my fellowship, helping me to reach my goals this summer. And thank you to all those who made their contribution: Joe Mele, who I hope one day will become a politician and friend to our Nepali brothers; Chris Shian, who despite our distance has always been a great friend; Mr. and Mrs. de Vries for your (hopefully not too coerced) support; Robert Jacobs, a great marine and friend, thank you for your support and service. Rita, thank you for first steering me to the application and all your support thereafter.
A special thank you to The Advocacy Project for the amazing opportunity and support throughout. Through all the questions, concerns and requests, you were always patient and helpful. Iain, I hope we were able to accomplish some of those sustainable results and have something to build on for the future.
Thank you to everyone in Nepal. While things didn’t always run as smoothly as hoped, COCAP Kathmandu, I wish you all luck and hope that you give all the support possible to the focal points (especially the facilitators) for their successful operation. But without doubt, your work during the people’s movement is truly inspiring.
Thank you to the other peace fellows, Nicole, Mark and Jeff. I had an epic summer and learned a great deal from you all and respect your dedication to the work and the cause. Devin and Ted, while we didn’t work together directly, thanks for the room, the hospitality and the laughs. And thanks for teaching me so much about Dalits and your incredible work with the newsletter.
Finally, thank you to everyone in Baglung. Yogendra, you are truly a man of character and I’m proud to call you my friend. You taught me a great deal this summer and I have to congratulate you on your hard work and dedication to the radio program. Know that with each program, you are helping to build a better Nepal. I wish you and your family all the love and success in the world. I know we will meet again soon. And to everyone else in Baglung, I miss you and hope to visit again in the near future.
Namaskar and dhanyabad!
Here I am with Chandi after everyone was done with their goodbyes. Thanks to Yogendra for taking the photos!
Gooooooooood morning, Bagluuuuuung!!
It was music to my ears (literally because I could only understand the music). Our first radio program was aired this morning and it's a great feeling to have something concrete to show for my time working in Baglung. Sure, I’ve submitted proposals and finished smaller projects, but this, I hope, will have an immediate impact in the community.
So far, all the resources to make the program happen have been gathered locally, which is great news in terms of sustainability. I’ve added a copy of the press release that Yogendra and I put together for the occasion.
BAGLUNG, NEPAL, AUGUST 12, 2007: The Collective Campaign for Peace (COCAP) Western Region Focal Point has begun producing and airing its own radio program every Sunday entitled ‘Constituent Assembly and Human Rights’ in order to raise awareness about the upcoming elections.
In collaboration with Baglung FM, COCAP member organizations, and other institutions working in the field of human rights, a 30 minute program will air every Sunday at 7:30 a.m. The program reaches more than 100,000 people in nine districts, including Baglung, Myagdi, Parbat and Mustang. The goal is to educate disadvantaged groups (DAGs) such as remote villagers, Dalits, females and Janajatis (ethnic caste groups) about the upcoming Constituent Assembly (CA) elections.
Under the banner of social inclusion, the program will stimulate discussion and awareness among DAGs regarding their civic duties in a democracy as well as the responsibility of the government and its representatives to serve the people. This civic awareness campaign will feature interviews with DAG leaders and commoners throughout the region.
Furthermore, the program will help to familiarize citizens about the CA candidates and to follow up on issues related to caste, DAG and gender problems. The expectation is that this program will allow citizens to elect candidates that solve their problems.
This will empower DAGs to establish their position, status and roles in the new constitution. We hope that the program will also create an open environment for victimized people to receive compensation and justice regarding human rights and transitional justice.
Special thanks to Baglung FM for agreeing to conduct the program until the culmination of the CA election.
Here is another photo of Yogendra recording the program at his desk in CYC, the focal point office. The computer is his own and the microphone and mixer are on loan from the Magar Association of Nepal, Baglung branch.
Dalit leaders in Baglung give speeches next to a bonfire on Friday night. Their demands were simple: proportional representation in the Constituent Assembly and electoral system.Similar events were held around the country.
Two nights ago, Dalit leaders and activists marched through the streets of Baglung carrying torches and shouting slogans. It was a powerful sight and one that was repeated across the country, as Dalit organizations throughout Nepal were calling for proportional representation in the Constituent Assembly as well as a proportional electoral system. It is a frequent demand by minority groups, and given the particular socio-cultural context of Dalits (and other groups) in Nepal, a valid and necessary one.
For those of us unfamiliar with the Hindu religion, it is the oldest of the major religions and grips the lives of more than a billion people, almost exclusively in India and Nepal. In the west, religion is practiced on Sunday, forgotten for 6 days, and magically revived the next week at church. For Hindus, gods are personal, active in everyday life, home temples are common and most everyone has their favorite deity to whom they pray for luck, love and wealth.
Within the broader society, Hinduism divides people into castes, of which there are four. At the top are Brahmins, the priest caste representing centuries of elite; then the Chhetri (Kshatriya in India), the soldiers, who share top positions in government and jobs with the slightly elevated Brahmin. The next two are the Vaisyas or tradesmen and farmer, and then the Sudras, which do menial work or are craftspeople.
So you must be asking yourself, “Ok, then where are the Dalits?”
Below these four divisions come the Dalits or “untouchables”. They are, in fact, so low that they are outside of the caste system and are tasked with the most demeaning jobs. In some villages, more prevalent in India but also in Nepal, upper classes will not even walk in the shadow of a Dalit and much more commonly will not accept rice or water from an untouchable.
Born into their plight, Dalits, like the castes above them, are not able to transcend their position, at least not in this lifetime. If you’re karma is right, perhaps the next. But in this life, you’re born into a slot in society out of which you cannot move.
The caste system was officially abolished by the government in 1963, but in rural areas (where 80 percent of Nepalis live) it continues unfazed.
Downtrodden for centuries, the least Dalits can ask for is proportional representation in the new Nepal. They, like other disadvantaged groups, deserve nothing less.
For more information on Dalits and the amazing work that AP Fellows are doing to bring attention to the difficulty of Dalits in Nepal, direct your attention to the blogs of my two colleagues, Devin and Ted. They are working at the Jagaran Media Center in Kathmandu. You can access their blogs by clicking their names to the right.
08/07/07Posted By: tassos
Yogendra (left) in a meeting with the man in charge of the elections in Baglung District, the District Elections Officer.
Yesterday afternoon we met with the District Elections Officer (DEO). Our purpose was twofold. First to determine if there were plans for a Constituent Assembly civic/election awareness program; and secondly to start pushing the agenda a bit, especially if local NGOs were involved.
Unfortunately, the role of civil society would be almost non-existent, meaning that Nepalis would have to rely on their government to perform such a crucial task.
I quickly found out that the Election Commission’s (EC) plan was dissimilar to ours in a few major ways. Yes, there would be two volunteers (yet to be chosen public school teachers), a man and a woman, selected at the Village Development Committee (VDCs are similar to our municipalities) level. But their training, lasting only two days, would be limited to voter awareness: the election date, how to fill out a ballot box, how to stand in line, where is the polling station.
The questions that should seem vital -- if a healthy, functioning democracy is the end -- are left unanswered: why are you voting, what are you voting for, what is a democracy, what is your role in a democracy, what are your choices in government.
When I asked if it would be possible for local NGOs to conduct their own supplemental training for the VDC volunteers, he rejected the idea.
I pressed him on why.
“Because it’s up to Kathmandu. They have said 2 days training,” he replied.
“So is this political or is it about money?” I asked.
Earlier in our conversation he made a comment that some issues, if they were taught, like federalism, would overlap into the realm of political campaigning. This was hard to accept as a legitimate reason not to inform the VDC volunteers about choices of government. I wondered if politics again was the culprit.
After about 10 minutes of skirting the issue, it became clear that the issue was money. Each volunteer gets a Daily Standard Allowance (DSA) and this was limited to two days.
“Could the NGOs pay the expenses of the additional training?”
He couldn’t say.
The time to leave Nepal is rapidly approaching for me and I hope that some way is found to train the VDC volunteers. I was telling Yogendra, it will take some creative solutions and a team effort from the community. Perhaps, for food it will take rice donations from restaurants and for lodging maybe a hotel or school can offer some support. Finding people to train is not a problem.
Given that there are three weeks before the training begins and another two or three before they hit the field, there is some time to find those solutions. Something must be done in the meantime.
Only a couple days ago, I arrived back to my room in Baglung and saw a UN vehicle parked nearby. My first encounter with the UN Mission in Nepal (UNMIN) was the arms inspectors more than a month ago, and I assumed that one of the Joint Monitoring Teams was in town.
But I soon discovered that instead of arms monitors, these UNMIN personnel were election advisors. Over dinner the last few nights, I sat down with the two of them and we discussed the tentative plan laid out by the Nepali Election Commission (EC).
When I began talking with the two UN advisors, I immediate was aware how similar the EC’s plans for election awareness were with the proposal Yogendra and I completed, as well as a couple other AP Fellows. The VDC proposal we were enthusiastic about only a few weeks ago, (I talk about it in a previous blog) was nixed after we learned from a number of major international donors that there were no funds available for pre-election activities. So at our COCAP meeting in Kathmandu recently we brainstormed a low cost, volunteer based, grassroots program.
Imagine my surprise when I find out that the government’s tentative plans are very similar to ours. It involves volunteers (they want primary school teachers) at the local VDC level and seeks to employ the help of NGOs in the regions. How can it be that only a few months before the elections to form a Constituent Assembly and create a New Nepal with a new constitution, they only begin the process now?
Yesterday I attended the first meeting by NGOs in Baglung district to form an election monitoring oversight committee, presumably to coordinate in the future with the District Elections Officer (DEO). This seems feasible. But creating awareness, teaching people about civic education and their role in a democracy? That’s no easy task.
While there seems to be time enough to plan elections monitoring, creating awareness with very few resources and such an ignorant population (the UN advisers were told 85 percent are unaware of the elections) should have began months ago. Today I’m going with Yogendra to sit down with the DEO and determine what are his plans and how does COCAP fit in. Perhaps we’ll be able to integrate our ideas and plug our resources (namely local knowledge and some people power) into the EC’s plan. Most importantly, let’s get started!
I leave you with a couple photos of Baglung at dusk….
The last rays of sunshine paint the snowy peak of Dhaulagiri…
While to the west, they kiss a blushing sky.
On this last trip back to Kathmandu for meetings, I took a less direct route and traveled first into the mountain region north of some of Nepal’s most famous peaks, the Annapurna range. I hopped on a 25 minute flight from Pokhara, landing in Jomsom. Nepal is split horizontally into three distinct geographical bands. The terai on the porous border with India is flat, tropical (HOT!), and tense.
North of the terai, where Baglung is located and where I’ve spent most of my time, are the verdant, impressively undulating hills. This region is more remote, underdeveloped and where most landslides occur (while I was away, more than 25 people were killed when a mudslide nearly wiped out an entire village in Baglung district).
A group of workers constructed a small bridge over a part of the trail destroyed by a fresh landslide in the hills region. About an hour later, I just missed being another casualty. After a full day of trekking, I was looking forward to the bed awaiting me in the village within sight. Suddenly, I heard stones falling and turned to see rocks bigger than my head plummeting from 30 meters above onto the trail. After sprinting like my life depended on it (I thought it did at the time!!), I realized that if I had been 10 seconds slower in passing that spot, you wouldn’t be reading this post. My second birthday is July 21, 2007.
Finally, one more step up, both geographically and topographically, is the mountains region. This is where 10 of the 14 tallest mountains are located. The region is sparsely populated, with little vegetation, a cooler climate, and while the hills and terai are predominantly Hindu, the northern belt of Nepal is mostly Buddhist.
While not the highest of the Annapurna range, Machhupuchhare Himal is legendary for its pyramidal shape.
What is common to all the regions is the ethnic, linguistic and cultural diversity. I was amazed to reach Jomsom and find how different it was. Upon disembarking from the plane, you can feel the thinness of the cool mountain air.
Next you notice how barren the landscape is. From the myriad shades of green in the hills, once you reach Jomsom you feel more in the desert than mountains.
Geographically speaking when you go north of the Annapurna range you sit on the border of the Tibetan plateau.
Called mani stones, these rocks have carvings of the Buddhist mantra, om mani padme hum.
Culturally, the people are very distinct from their southern countrymen. Buddhist in ritual with a sprinkling of polytheistic animism, the religion of this region is an interesting mix of Hinduism, Buddhism and the ancient indigenous Bon religion. The people also look the part, with more Tibetan features and dress.
These colorful ladies are preparing offerings and greetings to the third highest lama in Tibetan Buddhism. I was lucky enough to be there to witness his blessing of the new temple erected in the holy town of Muktinath (and get a personal blessing).
The lama himself, on white horse and under the umbrella.
Nepali, as it is almost everywhere, is only spoken with outsiders, people who do not understand the local dialect of the region. So everyone speaks at least two languages, their home dialect and Nepali. And if you are educated (usually men who attend private school), then English as well. In the particular region where I visited, the local language was a western Tibetan dialect.
What remains unclear to me is what unites all these various ethnic groups of Nepal. Is it just the language? I doubt it.
I’m sure at one point it was the king, but I think the only way the king unites people these days is their hatred of the man. From reading the blogs of the other peace fellows, you also feel how tense it can be between different minorities and groups. They are, of course, in the terai, which has more of these groups butting up against each other (it’s also much HOTTER, which never helps to alleviate tensions).
What seems clear is that after two months of living in Nepal, I’m still trying to figure out what it means to be Nepali. I’m not expecting to figure it out in the short time I have left here, but this ancient kingdom with its rich and vibrant history and culture must allow everyone a stake in the future of the country.
To say the elections in November are crucial is obvious. But more importantly, and perhaps more potentially problematic, will be how to give everyone a voice after the votes are counted and it becomes clear how many seats (and power) each group has. Then the task will be to have them understand that the minority in a democracy plays as significant role as the majority.
Future leaders? Let’s hope so. Women’s issues need serious attention. For a peek at just one of the issues, check out Nicole’s blog on uterine prolapse.
I’m back in Kathmandu for a meeting with the four other Peace Fellows as well as some other COCAP personnel from the regions. We’ll be discussing our progress on the collective proposals and addressing some concerns we, the Peace Fellows, have regarding the structure and efficacy of the COCAP model outside Kathmandu. Being here has also given me a chance to share some photos that I’ve wanted to upload for a while now but couldn’t in Baglung. These pictures below were taken over a month ago when Yogendra and I took a stroll through Baglung to meet some of the locals.
We started through the “busy” streets of Baglung, where people were out and about enjoying an early evening without electricity.
But first we needed some ambulatory sustenance, so we grabbed a few bananas from the corner shop.
While passing a small alley I saw some blooming flowers with the hills as a backdrop. Soon after snapping a few shots, a group of women started shouting, inviting Yogendra and me to join their group. From the hammer and sickle sign, I had an inkling that they’d be some communist group.
I sat down and asked what they were discussing. Interesting enough, it was a woman’s faction within the National Communist Party of Baglung. While the Maoists are staunch anti-royalists, I was surprised to find out that most supported the monarchy and were calling for a constitutional monarchy and not a republic. They explained to me that the king was a symbol of Nepal and that throwing away the monarchy would be a mistake. When I asked what the monarchy had done for the Nepali people in the past I received few answers. Oddly enough, most said the king was a “bad man”. I left confused.
Yogendra and I then walked away from the center of town to see the beautiful surroundings of Baglung. Obviously, we weren’t alone in finding a quiet place for contemplation.
But soon we were back on the streets and ran into a Maoist leader in Baglung. In fact, the gentleman that Yogendra is speaking with is leader of the Young Communist League (YCL) in Baglung district. The YCL is the youth wing of the Maoists and have become the de facto security apparatus of the party, now that the regular Maoist forces are in cantonments. The YCL didn’t exist before the Maoist fighters were placed in these barracks, which are now overseen by the United Nations Mission in Nepal. The YCL have been blamed for numerous kidnappings and extrajudicial actions since the Maoists joined the political process. Incidentally, the YCL leader’s brother was kidnapped and disappeared by the Nepali Army during the civil war. The two who are listening intently are also YCL comrades.
Grumpy old men -- Nepali style.
There is a reason the little girl on the right is the only one not smiling. If her sister finds too many lice, she’ll end up looking like the other two on the left.
Some ladies brightening up Baglung.
And finally back to Yogendra’s room for some chiya (tea). Of course Yogendra, my focal point facilitator and dai (big bro) is on the right. His eight year old son, Yaman, is in his lap. In back is his ten year old, Yamuna and just on the right is his three year old daughter Manjita. On the left is Bikash, who works for CYC, the COCAP focal point office of the western region.
07/16/07Posted By: teresa
After about three hours of hiking pretty much straight up the hill (and remember hills for Nepalis are between one to four thousand meters), I was exhausted. Yogendra, on the other hand, barely looked like he’d broken a sweat, which is probably why we took such a direct route to the top. It was time for lunch (Nepalis always eat the same thing for lunch and dinner, dal bhat, which is rice with lentils and veggies, maybe some meat). We came to a small group of huts on the hill and asked a few villagers if they had lunch. We were always greeted with smiles but almost everyone had finished their meal, which seems reasonable. When you get up at 5:30 am to start working in the fields, lunch is between 9 and 10. We came at 11.
We finally found a nice old woman who was willing to cook us another round of dal bhat.
We had a chance to rest, but also to talk with the locals about the November elections and the general political situation in Nepal. I soon came to realize how isolated this village was, even though I could see Baglung down in the raised valley below. We were only three hours away from the telephones, internet, newspapers and markets of Baglung, but it might as well have been years away. A lack of roads and communication infrastructure means that places only a few kilometers from the district capital of Baglung are as isolated as remote villages like Nishi (see blog below).
"No one from the political parties comes to talk to us. We have no idea what they stand for in the Constituent Assembly or how they can help change Nepal," said Prem Bahadur Thapa.
Mr. Thapa is a village leader and head of the household where I was lucky enough to have lunch.
Yogendra translates for me as we discuss politics and the CA with local villagers. Prem Bahadur Thapa is seated on the left.
So a new proposal started to gel from my hike with Yogendra around the hills of Baglung. We started to discuss the idea of bringing local leaders from communities to Baglung for training. We started phoning our other members in different districts and asking for their input. Only a couple days ago we went to visit another member in the neighboring district of Myagdi to discuss the new proposal and they all seemed enthusiastic and excited, if only we could get the resources to pay for it.
After a few more meetings with members here in Baglung, Yogendra and I have been putting the finishing touches on the budget section and should be finished with the proposal soon. We'll send it along to Kathmandu where I hope they will shop it around to international NGOs and donor organizations.
The proposal is called the Constituent Assembly Rural Empowerment and Awareness Project (CAREAP). The idea is to have local community leaders
conduct small street level or neighborhood group discussions to educate people in rural areas about the CA and explain to them what rights and powers they have in a democracy. Most of the people living in these rural areas are ethnic minorities, Dalits (untouchables), or lower caste groups. They are labeled as disadvantaged groups or DAGs.
Often when NGOs conduct awareness programs they do so locally but it is centralized at the Village Development Committee (VDC) level. VDCs are small geographical units, similar to a municipality in the US. But villagers in rural areas are interested more in harvesting and planting their rice (i.e. feeding their families) than learning about constitutions, elections, and a government that has done little for them in their lifetime.
By having local leaders conduct small scale trainings on the street level, it is our hope that DAGs will be more receptive to the message, feel more a part of the CA process, and become empowered both politically and socially. Also, the local VDC leaders will be comprised of one woman and one man to ensure inclusiveness. But first, the two VDC leaders will come to the district capitals (there are seven districts in COCAP's Western Region) for a seven day training program to learn about various topics related to the CA, democracy, and the New Nepal (Naya
With 59 VDCs in Baglung district alone, it will be a major undertaking.
Of course, timing is of the essence. We need to find a donor and quickly. With all the members excited about the proposal and willing to do the organizing, training, and implementation, this could be a huge help to strengthen the COCAP network and empower disadvantaged groups in Nepal.
There's a group of hawks constantly cruising the Baglung valley, and from my vantage point on the top floor of my hotel I can always find one. For the last couple weeks I have tried fruitlessly to snap a good shot but either the light isn't right or the picture's out of focus.
Today, a lone hawk was circling overhead while I was doing my laundry on the hotel porch.It was probably 50 meters away and turning so the sunlight hit perfectly for a good shot. But I knew it was pointless. As soon as I ran inside to get my camera, the hawk would be gone, like so many times before. I continued to do the wash.
After about 10 minutes, I saw the hawk's shadow run past my feet. I looked up quickly and he was closer than before. So I dropped the shirt I was washing and dashed for the camera. As I left the room, I ripped the camera from its case, turned it on and scanned the sky for my prey.
Of course, the hawk was gone. He got me again.
With my camera ready to go, I figured I'd do a little searching before giving up. I looked around, but didn't see him on my side of the building. So I walked around to the north side of the wrap around fourth floor porch.
As I turned the corner and looked up at the sky, I stopped short and my jaw dropped.
I had been waiting for this moment for the last two weeks. Every day I would go outside looking for them but to no avail. And today, thanks to my photographic futility in capturing the many hawks of Baglung, I saw something that I had been waiting weeks to see: the Himalayas.
It had been a daily ritual. Every morning I would wake up and check if the clouds had cleared where I knew they were supposed to be. After lunch and returning from work, I would always search the horizon before entering my room.
I'm not sure how long they were visible before I saw them, but about 15
minutes after I took this picture, they were covered in clouds again.
My first glimpse of the Himalayas is the Dhaulagiri peak (8167 m). Notice my friend the hawk enjoying the view as well.
It had rained all night and it didn't stop until about 6 am when we were supposed to have left. Instead we waited until 7 and the second jeep to take us the final 6 hours to Baglung. I was happy we'd be leaving (the jeeps don't run if it's rained too much) but I must say that relief was soon replaced with fear. When our driver started the engine, I looked over and saw him praying. This would not be the last time he called for a divine intervention.
As we waited for our jeep to leave in the morning, this little monkey (bandar in Nepali) kept us company.
At a particularly dangerous spot where another 4X4 had tumbled off the road along a steep curve in the mountain, he got out of the jeep to see if it was passable. When he was convinced (or hopeful) we'd make it, he got back in and again started praying. Let's just say we had a few gods covered that day. But it wasn't the most dangerous leg of the journey. Luckily that part was yesterday. One thing I noticed though was how incredibly young our driver looked. So I asked last night one of his buddies, who was along for the ride, how old his friend was.
Omkar, who translated the question to the kid, just started laughing and didn't translate his reply right away. After some time he said, while still laughing, "He's 17 and it was his first time taking passengers."
What could I do but shake my head and smile.
I think that is why Nepal becomes such a spiritual place for people. Beyond the incredible Himalayas and mix of religions and ethnicities, you are always close to death (and the gods). It could be a tire exploding on a mountain road, a slip off a ledge on a trek, a mudslide, or one of the crazy bus rides between cities, but you realize that so much is determined by fate, coincidence or luck, which is usually translated for people as God.
This was the second time our 4X4 broke down and for good. Luckily it wasn't on a steep or dangerous part of the trip. After a couple hours of sitting around, another jeep came to bring us home.
But I'm writing this and that means I'm safe - for now. I think I've come to understand Nepal better in the last few days. Rather than look at my sickness as something that hindered my trip, I think it has actually opened my eyes to a few things that I perhaps would not have fully grasped (like how great mules are that carry mineral water).
Baglung now seems like the developed world, with its electricity, cars, computers and internet. I guess this feeling will last until I go to Kathmandu, when Baglung will become like Nishi. Until then I'll enjoy the luxuries of Baglung and contemplate further how best to make the Constituent Assembly a relevant and important part of people's lives in the remote areas of the western hills region.
I bid farewell to Nishi in the background and get a friendly goodbye from the water buffalo.
After speaking with Yogendra last night, he explains to me what the day’s program will be. The general theme of the talks regard the restructuring of the state via the new constitution to be drafted after the CA is formed.
First will be Lalbahadur again discussing the political positions of the various political parties. Next, Mankumari Budha, a member of the Nepal Magar Association gave a discussion on women’s rights. Tajendra spoke about the separation of powers and the federal state, while Yogendra finished with voting rights and the electoral system.
Interspersed between the hour discussions, the villagers were divided up into two groups the day before to take care of some of the logistical issues. One group dealt with the food, cleaning of the school hall, and reporting on the lectures. The other group was about keeping things lively. They were in charge of telling jokes, singing songs, and dancing. I’m definitely upset I missed that all.
Needless to say, my day involved a lot of hiking (with no food) followed by a lovely 4X4 ride to get as close to Balgung as possible before sun down. Along the way, I did come to a startling realization while I searched – unsuccessfully - for bottled water along the way. Everything in these villages needs to be carried by human or by mule (I touched on this briefly in a previous entry).
Why wasn’t there soda or even bottled water in Nishi? Well, who’s going to bring it? Or pay for it?
How about gas for cooking? The woman at the guest house coughs like an 80 year old smoker for life. It's probably because this non-smoker in her late 20s to early 30s spends half her day in a kitchen filled with smoke.
Every now and again, you see the damnedest things along the way. This is about 6 hours away from a "road".
And just as inconspicuous as the consumer goods was any sign of police or government services. These people are truly on their own: they live on less than 2 dollars a day and therefore categorized as some of the poorest people on earth.
Taking a shower...Nepali style.
And if you are looking for a hospital or doctor, the closest you’ll get is the local witch doctor (who I missed “healing” somebody in the village by 5 minutes). I was also introduced along the path to a Nepali ambulance. This is a small wooden seat that has a rope cloth attached. This is so that people can carry sick people on their back more easily.
Another indication of how remote we were was how dirty the villages were. Every time I tried to find a garbage bin to throw an empty drink into, Yogendra would take it from me and just toss it onto the ground. This unimaginably beautiful country is littered with trash. What would we do with our refuse if there were no garbage trucks coming like clockwork twice a week? Often they just burn it.
But can we expect a government to have services in such remote locations? I’m not sure the rulers of Nepal have even asked themselves that question, let alone tried for hundreds of years. I can’t imagine having another (failed) system of government in Nepal where power is centered in Kathmandu. As I mentioned before, there are hundreds of NGOs in Baglung district. Perhaps with a decentralized federal state providing resources to the localities, Nepalis can turn some of those NGOs into governmental organizations that actually serve the people.
Well, I knew it would happen sooner or later. Nepal has caught up to my digestive system and I’m in trouble. Last night for dinner, we all gathered in the kitchen, smoke completely filling the room, the family’s kids sleeping near the stove. I took a seat next to the others on the floor, but I could barely eat anything. I tried to get to bed early but I was running to the bathroom pretty often, which was outside and it was raining. Not fun.
Luckily we were able to sleep in. This means we were woken up with tea (ciya) at 6:30 am. Normally it would have been at the crack of dawn, so about 5:15. I was hurting and I wasn't alone. Omkar, a social worker and part owner of a radio station in Baglung was also sick. We got up slowly and after searching for a place to take a shower (as we washed up, the locals were doing dishes and collecting water), we took our breakfast. Omkar and I ate last. In doing so, we arrived to the program an hour late. It was 11 am when we entered the stone and mud schoolhouse. To my surprise, the only people there were the ones I came with yesterday.
Just hanging out in the schoolhouse and waiting for the villagers.
Yogendra talking to some participants before the start of the day's program.
As I tell Yogendra every time things are late (everyone had a big laugh about it when he made me say it out loud to participants) we were right on time…Nepali time. But once we began, a sizable crowd (eventually around 35 people) attended and Yogendra opened things with an introduction and overview of the day. He went over some basic themes and did a great job from what I could tell. He was very enthusiastic, involved everyone in the conversation and kept people laughing. I was impressed with my dai.
Once we did get started, Yogendra introduced the program for the day.
After the intro, Tajendra Thapa, chairperson of the Nepalese Indigenous Federation of Nepal, talked about ethnic politics and inclusiveness regarding the upcoming Constituent Assembly. Tajendra is a very gregarious guy, who if he’s not telling a story is singing a Nepali song, so I always knew where he was in our hike yesterday.
Next was Lalbahadur Thapa, chairperson of the All Nepal National Free Student Union. He discussed issues concerning the constitution and went into the specifics behind the Constituent Assembly (CA). Each citizen will cast two votes: one for party (proportional representation) and one for a candidate (first past the post). These elected officials will then draft a constitution for which new election will be held and a new system of government formed.
One group of people not late to the start of events was the kids, who took a great interest in what happened inside the schoolhouse.
Yogendra finished up the day’s program by explaining the concept of inclusive democracy. He talked about the different ways Nepal’s many ethnic groups should be involved in the constitutional process, their rights as citizens in a democracy, and their continued involvement after the CA in the actual governing of state.
Tomorrow is another half day program starting in the morning. Unfortunately I won’t be there to see it. I’m off early with Omkar to start the 2 day journey back to Baglung as we’re both not getting any better. Omkar says he thinks he has typhoid (I got my typhoid shot, right?). I haven’t eaten anything all day and I’m dreaming of any drink that is bottled and doesn’t taste like boiled smoke water from the fire in the kitchen.
If a donkey doesn't carry it, then it's a human and often it's women doing the most back breaking work. Imagine if everything you brought home had to be carried on foot for a whole day first.
If yesterday was a test of nerves, today it was endurance; eleven hours of hiking with expensive sandals that destroyed my feet (I ended up buying a much better pair for $1.25 about eight hours in). It was another scorcher as well, but every time I’d get worn down I’d stop and look around. The countryside in the hills is breathtaking and rejuvenating. Whether it was the ups and downs through the hills, the astounding array of greens from rice patties to pine trees, or the women in their red, green, magenta or pink dress, there was always something to catch your eye.
All along the way, we followed the river which supplies the farmlands and terraced rice paddies. With monsoon season coming, it's the time of year for planting rice.
Or you could merely focus on the foot and mule traffic: Nepalis (many times kids or elderly women) carrying ridiculously heavy loads on steep hill paths.
Those are our umbrellas in the background to shade us from the heat.
We also passed through dozens of small hamlets tucked into the side of hills or spread along the river in the valleys below.
When we did finally reach Nishi it was a bit anti-climactic. Everyone put down their bags in front of a tiny shop, something we normally did during our rest breaks. I turned to Yogendra and asked how much longer we had until Nishi.
“Last stop on our final destination,” he replied.
Exhausted and in pain, the phrasing confused me.
“So are we here or is this our last stop before Nishi?”
“No, we’re here,” he said with a huge grin.
Why weren’t they running to a bed, I wondered. So I took a seat next to them. Soon the crowd started to gather as they had in all the villages when news spread that foreigners were afoot. They were mostly children, and luckily I have no language barrier with kids, so I started to make friends right away.
I passed out candies and the smiles started to appear instantly. But I was having difficulty reciprocating that warm and fuzzy feeling. My stomach was upset about something and I suspected the river fish we had at lunch. Some of the guys went to wash up before entering the guesthouse/restaurant/convenience store/barn we were staying in. I joined and got a better picture of our Nishi.
Here are the kids smiling and enjoying the candies.
The people around Nishi are ethnic Magars, a Tibeto-Burmese people that represent a little less than 10 percent of the Nepali population. They predominately live in the western and central hills region and like so many of the Nepal’s ethnic groups, they have their own language, traditions, and culture. All of my fellow traveling companions, except Yogendra, are also Magars, which you can tell by their last names (it designates your caste). When you hear about the famous Gurkha soldiers of the British Army, you are mostly talking about the ethnic Magars.
The village of Nishi is situated in a rather large valley among the hills. The actual houses occupy a small portion of the land, with terraced rice paddies taking up most of the space. Once back, we entered our new home. It is a two stories stone house washed in red clay with three windows facing the street on the second floor. The main door leads you down a dark hallway and once through, you find a staircase leading up to the living quarters and kitchen.
Up the stairs you come to a small anteroom with two benches and table. To the right is the kitchen. This consists of a small clay covered rock hearth for cooking. No gas stove here, only wood which means the house almost constantly smells of smoke. When we first passed, you could barely see to the back of the room as the lady of the house was cooking up a smoke storm. Back through another small corridor toward the front of the house and you enter into the guest quarters. There are 4 wooden cots with a thin mat on top. The whole second floor also has covered in red clay, which makes you wonder what exactly constitutes dirty in this context?
Here is the kitchen, with red clay "stove". Here is the family getting dinner prepared. The camera's flash lit up the room but really there was only the light from the kerosene lamp.
I put down my bag and pulled out my journal. With no electricity in the village, I only had about 30 minutes left of light. I’m looking forward to the program tomorrow that starts at 10 am. It will be interesting to see how many villagers will show up. The literacy rate in the village is 19.5 percent. I can’t imagine they pay too much attention to politics. Kathmandu seems about as far away as Washington, DC from here. I can see why so many interest groups and political parties are calling for a federal constitution with a decentralized central government. How can you expect to run the country from what really is a world away in Kathmandu? I wonder what the villagers think.
Here Yogendra is getting out of bed. Omkar is in the background not feeling so well.
07/02/07Posted By: tassos
I went on a four day excursion to a remote village in the northwestern part of Baglung district last week. I was waiting to post the blog entries until I arrived in Kathmandu so I could use a lot more photos than usual (faster internet and electricity that actually stays on). I was there to observe a program created by members of the Baglung NGO community who are working to build awareness about the Constituent Assembly on November 22nd. It is a vitally important step toward a democratic and peaceful Nepal. It was exciting to see how enthusiastic and driven they all were to educate the people in this remote region to the process of restructuring the Nepali political system for a more equitable and inclusive Naya Nepal (New Nepal).
I’m sitting in my cot after a long day that started at 5:30 AM. It’s the halfway point in my journey to Nishi, a remote village that is one day’s jeep ride and another full day of hiking away from Baglung. I’m tagging along with Yogendra and four other activists who will give a series of lectures and discussions regarding the upcoming Constituent Assembly in November. While I won’t comprehend much, I hope to better understand how most of Nepalis live: in rural, underdeveloped areas. And in the hills region, add ISOLATED to that list. This has become abundantly clear just from this first leg of the trip.
From the very start I knew it would be memorable. In a jeep that should normally fit 10, we squeezed (understatement!) 16. In the second row bench seat, four grown men sat like sardines in a can; you could barely close the door. I sat directly behind the driver with Yogendra’s pointy shoulders wedged into me. For an instant, I wondered where the seat belts were. Thankfully, I didn’t verbalize that thought. I would have been laughed out the jeep (that happened later when they thought I was serious in suggesting we should all be wearing helmets inside the jeep).
At our first stop about 2 hours in, I was ecstatic to get a break from the ride. While I waited for our chowmein to be served, I snapped this shot of a woman getting her nose pierced. You have to love the pair of pliers.
Even with the heat (90 plus) and the duration (we left at 6 am, arrived at 5 pm) I was still excited about the trip. But I would soon find out that the roads were, well, not roads. They were more like dirt and rock paths barely wide enough for vehicles. All the ruts, craters, channels, mud, rocks and boulders meant we were bouncing around like a pair of shoes in a dryer for 11 hours. It also meant our pace was equal to a good jog. I know this because when we left Baglung, we had the pleasure of joining what seemed like half the Nepalese army on their morning run (not a lot of smiling going on).
Here are my fellow traveling companions taking a rest along the way to Burtibang, the half way point in our journey to Nisi. Tajendra Thapa, chairperson of the Nepalese Indigenous Federation of Nepal is telling a story to pass the time. Sitting in front is Mankumari Budha, a member of the Nepal Magar Association. Behind her in white is Omkar Thapa, social worker and investor in FM Baglung. To his right is Lalbahadur Thapa, chairperson of the All Nepal National Free Student Union. And finally there is Yogendra Chhantyal, my dai and COCAP Western Region Focal Point Facilitator.
For the first hour, it had been relatively funny. Everyone was laughing, enjoying the bumper car ride. A little later I turned to Yogendra. Sarcastically and with a smile on my face, I said to him, “So it’s like this the whole way, right?”
He had a slightly confused look usually reserved for stupid questions. “Yes,” he said.
I was getting nervous.
In the second hour, I was trying to figure out what I’d gotten myself into. Getting thrown around while crammed into a four by four was losing its appeal. By the fourth hour, I was so bruised and battered, there was no turning back. By the sixth hour, it was so dangerous through the hills that I gave up all hope of survival and started thinking things were funny again. And of course, there was always the scenery.
These kids have the right idea on a hot day. I’m taking the picture from our jeep while we’re driving through the river.
It’s hard to describe the indescribable. I took a million pictures, but photos do little justice to the vastness of it all. They can capture only a fragment of the natural beauty of this region of Nepal.
Needless to say, I made it alive to the village of Burtibang where we’re spending the night and still have a full day of hiking ahead of us tomorrow. I hope to learn more about my fellow travelers and the program in store for the Nishi villagers. Now I’ve got run to the river before nightfall. Time for a Nepali bath...
But not all parts of the river were able to be crossed. So at the village of Kharbang we left our first 4X4 and crossed a foot bridge to change jeeps. Here was a local villager trying to stay cool in the shade.
ICC week officially kicked off yesterday with a gathering of human rights organizations in central Kathmandu. COCAP has taken a leading role in the campaign and is doing much of the ground work. After everyone met in the center of the city’s busiest traffic circle, COCAP volunteers acted out a few skits to raise awareness about the ICC. Then everyone went into traffic and stickered cars, buses, and motor bikes. A petition was later brought to the prime minister's office, calling for the immediate ratification of the Rome Statute to the ICC.
Here some of their volunteers act out a skit that touches on some of the problems still plaguing the country. The guy holding the gun represents the security forces (on both sides) who still operate in the country with relative impunity.
After the skits, a banner was unfurled at the edge of the roundabout and volunteers passed out flyers to raise awareness about the ICC.
They also entered into traffic to place stickers on buses, taxis, bikes and cars.
Needless to say the police truck didn’t get a sticker. Notice the white t-shirts that read, “Ratify the International Criminal Court!”
I arrived yesterday in Kathmandu to cover a week long International Criminal Court (ICC) event organized by 43 human rights organizations, with COCAP playing a major role. The goal is to pressure the Nepali interim government to ratify the Rome Statute of the ICC and add Nepal to the list of over 100 countries who are members of the court (but no America of course). They chose this week because it was on July 1, 2002, that the Rome Statute came into force.
I came to the COCAP offices at noon, two hours before the start of a press conference to promote ICC week. I found no press release so we went to work to put something together and had it just in time for the start.
I'm really excited about the program. Some of the highlights will include street plays, sticker and T-shirt distribution, and campus awareness programs to increase visibility for the campaign. Petitions will also be given to the political leaders of the ruling 8-party coalition and there will be a radio program on Friday to spread the word and invite people to attend a demonstration organized with the collaboration of Amnesty International. The march will end the week and if the volunteers' enthusiasm is any indication, they'll have made their voices heard. Right now I can FEEL them practicing their different chants in the meeting room downstairs. Wow, is it loud!
Being in Kathmandu will also give me a chance to confer with the COCAP higher ups about a proposal I’m working on. It’s a communications and institutional development proposal that I hope will put at least one computer with internet in every member office (some do not even have a phone line). Perhaps more importantly, it calls for information and communication technology (ICT) training to develop and strengthen the COCAP network and the member organizations themselves.
I talked about it briefly in a previous blog entry, but I've gotten a bit more ambitious and I hope to expand the proposal to include the whole Nepal COCAP network (keep your fingers crossed, which incidentally, does not carry over culturally in Nepal). I will also have access to faster internet and reliable electricity, so I hope to post more and much better quality (sorry about that!) photos.
It should be a busy week in Kathmandu before I return to Baglung.
The Advocacy Forum (AF) held a conference in Baglung on Tuesday to mark the United Nations International Day in Support of Victims of Torture. It brought together lawyers, victims, judges and police to highlight the lack of progress made in either bringing past perpetrators of torture to justice or implementing new measures to stop it in the future.
I sat down with the AF's director in Baglung, Ram Sharma. He moved from Kathmandu a year ago to open a branch office of AF in Baglung. He explained how little has been done to resolve the issue of torture and I was shocked to find out how prevalent it was, one year after the cessation of the civil war.
"We've [AF] documented over 1,300 new cases of torture since the People's Movement of April 2006," he said. This includes the police, Nepali Army and Maoists.
But most of the AF's work is about working with the police: documenting cases; meeting detainees in prison; and making sure they are taken care of and represented in court.
"They must have a medical checkup before entering detention and after leaving. This must be produced to the court in order to make sure there was no torture."
Police, judges, torture victims, and lawyers gather for the Advocacy Forum's event to discuss the continued use of torture in Nepal and the government's inaction in addressing the problem. The program coincided with the UN International Day in Support of Victims of Torture
But often this doesn't happen or the medicals are cursory with the police in the room. The beatings as well as intimidation and forced confessions are common and continue. As Ram tells me, while the numbers have fallen from 47 percent of detainees tortured when he opened the office a year ago, 35 percent of those arrested are still tortured today in Baglung District.
He explains that the problem is twofold at the level of the police. First there is a lack of understanding what torture is. During the program, the Senior Superintendent of Police (head of police for all Baglung district), while expressing his desire to stop torture, defined it as any beating that took place, even among civilians fighting. He even claimed that a witch's curse was torture.
Second, police brutality and torture is endemic because police lack the training to conduct proper, scientifically based investigations and rely almost exclusively on physical intimidation to extract confessions.
The AF also accuses the government of having done little to implement a plan to combat the pervasive use of torture.
"There are many problems that allow it [torture] to continue. First are the weak laws that give police too much freedom. Second is the impunity. No one is held accountable and often even the weak laws are not enforced. Third, the penalties when torture happens are small and the government pays, not the torturer."
The maximum a victim of torture can receive from the court is 100,000 rupees or about 1,500 USD.
He mentions another important impediment to solving the torture problem in Nepal. The National Human Rights Commission (NHRC), formerly an NGO but under the interim constitution has become government sponsored, investigates and offers recommendations for action, but has no ability to enforce their decisions. As the AF points out in their recent report, the NHRC must be given the power to compel the government to action.
The AF is also calling for the immediate ratification of the UN's Optional Convention Against Torture (OPCAT) to allow for independent monitors to investigate torture and force the government to implement more stringent laws against the practice.
Torture is a law and order issue and the same problems apply to the Maoists, who still commit their share of torture and human rights violations. Ratifying the treaty, strengthening existing laws, implementing them with proper training for police and holding perpetrators accountable with more than a slap on the wrist are priorities for the AF. They need to be the government's as well.
After only the first day he called me his bhai. This means younger brother in Nepali. When I cut my finger the other day, he was quick to see if I was ok.
"What hurts bhai, hurts dai (older bro)," he said with a smile.
If you hadn't guessed already, Yogendra, the COCAP focal point coordinator in Baglung and who features prominently in many posts, is my dai. He's quite an interesting character. He's only a year older, but married and has three great kids. Regardless of age, that already makes him my dai.
Me and my dai (big brother). During the second People’s Movement last year, Yogendra was injured while protesting for democracy in Nepal. He is one of only 1000 Nepalis to have the distinction of “Wounded in the Revolution”. His reward for such an honor: a 33 percent transportation discount.
On only the second day, when I was asking him about his work, I caught a glimpse of his mettle. We were talking about his previous work with a rural development organization and how he would be harassed during the civil war by both sides, Maoists and government. But he didn't give specifics, so I prodded.
I expected a story about getting threatened verbally (which happened) or perhaps slapped around. But what I got was a story of his abduction that lasted 11 days.
On route to a remote village near his home, Yogendra and a colleague were stopped by Maoist forces. The soldiers knew who Yogendra was, but they suspected his colleague of being a government spy. Therefore, Yogendra was a collaborator.
They were taken to the village and given shelter with a local family who were ordered to only give them food twice daily (the family snuck them scraps of food during the day because as anyone knows, Nepalis MUST eat at least 4 or 5 times a day).
"Everyday, Sita [his colleague] would cry. We were afraid we'd be killed like so many others who had disappeared," he said.
"So did you cry?" I asked.
"No, I'm a man. Men can't cry. We must be strong," he replied.
What was I going to do? Argue with him?
On the 11th day, a local Maoist came to their hut. Yogendra convinced him to take them to the Maoist commander. After a series of talks they were released on condition that they never return to the village.
That's an easy condition to agree to. But, of course, Yogendra would be back. He had a job to do.
One week later he met with the district level Maoist leader and after a few weeks received a letter of recommendation. This would allow him to travel safely to the village and complete his work. Two months later he returned, finished his work, and thanked the villagers who helped him.
"But you must understand, while I was safe from the Maoists, if the government forces had found those letters, I would have been shot," Yogendra explained.
So he kept them in his underwear. Another colleague of his would fold the paper, wrap it in plastic and hide it in his mouth. He obviously didn't do the talking.
"It was very dangerous to work during the civil war," he said with a giant smile.
Yes, dai, dangerous indeed.
After being in Baglung for almost a week now, I'm struck by the huge number of Nepalese NGOs working in the district. Yogendra told me the other day that there are over 600 and walking in Baglung you notice many of their offices. When he first told me this number I was taken aback. With somewhere around 350,000 people in the district, that comes out to roughly one NGO per 580 people. Why would there be a need for so many organizations?
Finally it dawned on me the other day during the meeting with the UN and community leaders: there really is not local government. The state is invisible aside from the police and army barracks in town. Essentially, the government does nothing for the people. The Nepali people have grown accustomed to the decades of mismanagement and corruption and they know they must rely on themselves.
And there is no shortage of human resources to build a stronger civil society. While the board members of these organizations are usually of the older generation, I see mostly young people trying to bring about change in Nepal, be it in the COCAP office in Kathmandu or here in Baglung at CYC. And rightly so because most of Nepalis live in remote rural villages, requiring a one day jeep ride followed by a one day hike. High on enthusiasm, what they lack is the training and financial resources to fully utilize their human capital.
Salaries are low, if paid at all, infrastructure is basic and their communication technology is limited to the phone, maybe fax. Imagine doing your job without the internet? How many days do you go without checking your email at work? These organizations are part of human rights or peace networks, which makes communication, coordination and collaboration that much more important.
If I do one thing this summer, I hope to get a communications and institutional development proposal approved for funding by a donor organization. Yogendra and I are currently working on it.
Yesterday, I attended a meeting in Baglung held by the UN arms monitors for the western region of Nepal. It was essentially a meet and greet, an opportunity for the UN to explain what exactly they will be doing in the area and make clear their limited mandate. The current Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) signed between the Maoists and the seven political parties in Nepal asked the UN to supervise the activities and arms of the two sides.
For the Maoists, this means that their forces are confined to certain cantonments and their weapons are under UN lock and key every night. Essentially, these cantonments serve as barracks from which observers can monitor the activities of the Maoist units. The Nepalese Army (changed from Royal Nepalese Army after the people's revolution last year) have also been monitored in their bases. Both sides must register their troop movements and many times are accompanied by UN observers when on exercise (this applies more to the Nepalese Army).
There will be three different departments within the UN mission: a static team to oversee the cantonment sights; a mobile unit to check military deployments of both sides; and Joint Monitoring Units to investigate noncompliance to the arms monitoring agreement.
UN arms monitors leaving the meeting with community leaders in Baglung.
In my opinion the most interesting aspect of the mission is the JMUs. There are two three-man teams, comprising one Maoist, army, and UN military official. Beyond their investigative role, the JMUs will attempt to diffuse potential conflicts that arise in the region, be they military or otherwise. Furthermore, as they roam their areas they will assess the humanitarian needs of the various villages they visit and report back to UN headquarters in Kathmandu who will find potential donors from member countries.
When the meeting finished, I was chatting with one of the UN monitors, a Finish officer who was one of the first to arrive in Nepal and was second in command of the arms monitoring program. I asked if it was standard UN operating procedure for military personnel to engage in humanitarian assessments. He said it was not.
"We're not talking about major aid projects. The Nepalese soldiers, on both sides, know the people and if they see a need, they will report it back. These will be small things: a school room or water pump, not a bridge or a road."
I've found that Nepalis are avid spitters. I thought it was maybe because of the pollution in Kathmandu, but this proved false. Everywhere you go, village or city, people are spit crazy -- from bus windows, out of shops, in bathrooms, and especially the street. And I'm not talking a little spittle or the got-some-nasty-taste-in-my-mouth spit. This is the deep guttural, borderline puking spit.
To make matters worse, many men chew tobacco or what looks like tobacco. This is a dangerous variety because this spit technique is proceeded by no noise, lacking the forewarning of the previous kind. One second someone is standing talking or riding their bike, then next a stream of brown saliva comes flying in your direction.
Saw this cute little girl while I was stuck during road construction along the way to Baglung. Thought this would ease the pain of the blog.
Perilous indeed, because apparently it's completely ok to spit in close proximity to others. Person walking past you in the street? No problem, go ahead and spit as they're passing. Or perhaps you're driving a taxi and the passenger is directly behind you. It's absolutely fine to spit up a storm.
And don't go thinking it's just a guy thing either. Women do it as well and with no less gusto. For example, yesterday in my bus ride here, for 9 hours the older woman behind me was hocking up loogies that would put any man to shame. So ladies, when in Nepal, feel no compunction and let her rip.
Some good news and some bad news today. The good news is that I moved out of my fleabag hotel and into the Peace Palace Hotel Baglung. Relative to the other, it is as nice as it sounds (and cheaper after negotiations). All the rooms face outside, motel style and I'm on the top floor with barred and screened windows on two sides of the room (lots of light and air).
I have a huge balcony with an amazing panoramic view of the city and the mountains (although they are mostly covered in clouds on a rainy day like today). As I type, there is a brown bodied, yellow billed bird making some interesting calls just out my window on the balcony wall. There is only one other room on this floor and we're not connected, so I won't have the same problem as the last place (communal bathroom next to my door).
My new roommate!
And so far, my only roommate has been a friendly enough lizard who I have no problems with. Right now, there is a conference with human rights activists from Kathmandu giving some talks on transitional justice. A group of internally displaced people as well as victims' families of the civil war are attending to talk about their experiences as well as local leaders and politicians.
Yogendra said that it would be in English, but I guess we had a bit of a miscommunication. He was trying to translate, but it was too difficult to keep up. The meeting room was absolutely full with people outside trying to listen in, so I decided to give up my seat for someone who could actually understand and who could get more out of the talk than me.
The conference on transitional justice in Baglung included testimony from victims of the civil war and IDPs.
Now the bad news… Unfortunately, Baglung only has dialup internet and I'm not even sure it is 56K (remember that?). Trying to even check your email is like pulling teeth and I'm not sure how I'll be able to upload photos. This is a major concern because so much of what I'll be doing requires contact with the outside world via the internet.
I'll be able to manage, but as was evident from today, there are other obstacles beyond the slow internet. While I was typing an email to AP about my status, the electricity went out in the village. This is the third time in less than 24 hours.
The first was at 6:30 last night during the ceremony at CYC and that lasted roughly 3 hours. The electricity went out later in the night and again this morning at 10. Its 13:15 and it's still not back. Needless to say, I'm running on battery power.
Today the buses ran and I've finally arrived in Baglung. It was a long trip – around 9 hours in a microbus. Luckily I had the front seat and was next to an untalkative but helpful high school kid on his way to see relatives in Baglung. After passing Pokara I knew I was close and with every passing kilometer the landscape was more and more beautiful.
The first six or seven hours was between Kathmandu and Pokara. It was amazing, especially the activity around the road – overturned buses, naked kids jumping from boulders into the water, and water buffalo plowing rice paddies, just to name a few.
One of the many fine establishments seen from my hotel room window. Another included a butcher who began the chopping at 5AM, specializing in chicken by the sound of it.
But the road runs for the most part along the river, so you are mostly looking up at the "hills" (not a compaint!). Only in Nepal can you call one to four thousand meter mountains, hills. Once past Pokara you begin the ascent.
Vegetation from peak to valley, you only begin to notice the many terraces for farming once you climb high enough to see what looks like steps leading up the mountain face.
Since I didn't get a chance to roam around the Baglung area yet, I've yet to see how much the farmers here have done the same.
I quickly found the Chartare Youth Club (CYC) on the main street in Baglung. This organization is where the focal point office is located and where I'll be basing myself. I grabbed my stuff from the top of the bus and walked into the CYC to find three smiling faces to help me along.
The focal point coordinator, Yogendra came a few minutes later and I met my newest friend. Yogendra is roughly my height, dark skinned with the look of a Tibetan and rail thin. He has a big smile, and although we've had some communication difficulties, we are hitting it off.
Unfortunately, I learned though that there was no internet at the CYC or even at Yogendra's office, which is in another building. So it looks like I'll be camping out at one of Baglung's happening "cyber cafés". I'm not expecting much more than dial-up. After some more details about my proposed work and what he will be doing in the next couple weeks, it was six o'clock and the traffic in the office picked up as there was a gathering of the senior staff of CYC.
Just one of the many beautiful views in Baglung. It only gets better without the clouds.
After the amazing send off that COCAP gave us in Kathmandu, I was thinking it would be an official welcoming party. Yogendra told me I would be saying a few words, but luckily I wasn't the center of attention. A very important group took that honor.
Around 16 young adults were taking an oath of commitment (that included no alcohol or tobacco) as part of their final day of training for the microfinance project made famous by Muhammad Yunus, which won him the Nobel Peace Prize. They will soon be full time CYC staff members and you could see the nervousness on their face as they answered questions for the group.
After the ceremony I went to my hotel to crash. Unfortunately, the stars were aligned against me getting a sound nights sleep. I had a family of cockroaches to contend with as well as some bed bugs who seemed to love the fresh meat. Well, here's to hoping there is somewhere else I can sleep without the company.
While I was lying in bed, trying to fall asleep, my mind raced in anticipation of the day ahead. I was finally going to Baglung to see my new home for the next couple months.
Talk of a banda (strike) was circulating the day before but by that evening, COCAP director Vijay gave us the all clear. As I finally fell asleep at 2am I could hear the pounding of the rain outside my window. I woke up only a few hours later, one hour before my alarm was to go off, but bright eyed and rearing to go.
I finished my packing, hailed a cab outside my apartment, and was 30 minutes early to the COCAP offices to meet Anil, a volunteer who was accompanying me to the bus stop and who had picked me up from the airport days before.
When the taxi driver dropped me off outside the gates of the offices, there was a four inch deep pond blocking my entrance to the building. With a heavy backpack, my computer bag in front and another bag in my hand, I decided I'd wait outside the gates for Anil. A friendly neighbor insisted on ringing the bell and eventually Anil made his way to the window.
"Hello," he said.
"Namaste (hello)," I answered. "Maybe we go now to the bus."
"No bus today, Banda," was his reply.
I couldn't believe it. He must have the wrong information. That was old news. He obviously didn't hear that the strike was averted by last minute discussions with the government.
"No, no. No banda today. Vijay said yesterday no banda," I insisted in my most broken English.
But of course, I was the one with old information. In the time it took to cancel one strike the night before, a new one had sprung up in its wake. I was even lucky to find a taxi driver this morning.
On the way back home, I had to haggle with three cabbies before I finally convinced one to bring me for only two and half times the normal fare. The others wanted four times. I was learning how quickly things change in nepal, especially bandas.
Only a few days before, AP Peace Fellows Jeff and Mark were told an indefinite strike in a district between Kathmandu and their focal point offices in the west meant the roads were closed. But good news came on Sunday. The government and the Maoist were discussing the matter. The 5 day strike was over.
Unfortunately, this is how life works here in Nepal. Strikes are frequent, unannounced and almost instantaneous. According to a recent newspaper editorial, bandas cost Nepalis millions of dollars a year in lost wages and revenue. So is it worth it? Do the political gains outweigh the monetary costs? For the average Nepali, who doesn't make much to begin with, does having a voice or affecting politics mean more than money? Especially after the political elite have failed them for so long?
The picture is nothing special. It could have been taken in any village in Nepal: a young woman sitting on the dirt floor of her house cradling a new born baby. In the background, her eldest son holds her three year old, who looks on curiously. But the photo was taken more than one and half years ago during Nepal’s civil war.
Only two hours after delivering her baby, the exhausted mother, alone with her newborn and three year old, heard gunfire near her hut. As if giving birth doesn’t come with enough risks (Nepal has the third highest infant mortality rate in the world) she was caught in the crossfire between Maoist and government forces. And as in all conflicts, bullets do not differentiate between soldier and civilian.
She had to make an agonizing decision; not only was it too dangerous to run for safety out the front door, but she could only bring one child. She acted quickly. Kicking a whole in the back of her mud and brick hut, she grabbed her three year old and scurried to safety.
She searched for help and found a Maoist gunman and pleaded with her to save the baby. The soldier agreed and crawled to her home. She found the baby on the floor and, thankfully, unharmed. After what must have seemed like an eternity, the mother was reunited with her newborn.
This was just one photo of thousands that Collective Campaign for Peace (COCAP) Program Manager Vijay Guindel (pictured below)has taken and that he showed us at the office. While this story ended well, most did not. With a right mix of intensity and humor, Vijay elaborated on the civil war, the finer points of Nepalese (caste) politics, and the peace process.
Vijay giving a few pointers at the COCAP offices in Kathmandu.
As a human rights activist and monitor, Vijay has traveled across the country, documenting cases of abuse and giving voice to those innocents who normally go unheard. I wish him the best of luck when he leaves at the end of the month to take a position with the UN. COCAP will be losing a valuable resource and a good soul.
Arrived to Kathmandu from Delhi and thankfully it's nowhere near as hot as India (over 110 degree Fahrenheit). I'm at the Collective Campaign for Peace headquarters where there is a steady stream of active volunteers to greet and make friends with.
They are all very friendly and from the look of it, very involved in COCAP. Have a meeting tomorrow to find out more about my assignment in Baglung and what is expected from us Peace Fellows. So far, Kathmandu is a mystery, but I'll hopefully start figuring it out soon.
I was sitting having lunch with a couple friends in Vilnius when the usual question popped up.
“So what will you be doing in Nepal?”
It’s usually the first question that people ask when I tell them I’m going to work as an AP Peace Fellow for the summer.
“Well, I’ll be advocating on behalf of member organizations of the Collective Campaign for Peace (COCAP) in Baglung.”
This usually draws rather blank stares. It did for my buddies in Vilnius. Truth is, I’m really not sure exactly what I’ll be doing or for whom. This is the first time The Advocacy Project is sending out fellows to the COCAP focal point offices around Nepal.
Other than a (dubious) Wikipedia article and some general info from the COCAP website, I know next to nothing about my village Baglung. Furthermore, since we are a person short after a fellow dropped out, I’ll probably be shuttling back and forth between Kathmandu and Baglung to offer my services at the Kathmandu COCAP office.
I wouldn’t really say I’m nervous, perhaps anxious, but that’s to be expected from a new experience in a foreign land. Monsoonal rains, sinewy mountain roads, and snakes (I have an Indiana Jones-like phobia of snakes) should make for an exciting time.
But the overwhelming feeling is eager anticipation. It’s such an important time for Nepal. A year ago, there was an absolute monarch ruling the country by decree.
Mass protest, international pressure and a thirst for change has led to today’s prospect for peace, democracy and (hopefully!) elections. The country is at a critical juncture. So what will I be doing in Nepal? Stay tuned…more to come!
Tassos Coulaloglou is a Peace Fellow with AP's partner organization, the Collective Campaign for Peace (COCAP). Born and raised in New Jersey, Tassos attended the University of Wisconsin (UW) and received his BS in political science in 2001. In his final year at UW, Tassos spent one year studying abroad at Utrecht University in Holland.
After graduating, Tassos moved to Lithuania to become a freelance journalist. While there he also taught high-school history and English as a second language. In 2004, he returned to the States to work as a team leader with the League of Conservation's Envirovictory political campaign in Milwaukee. He returned to Eastern Europe the following year and resumed writing before beginning graduate school.
Tassos is now receiving his master's degree in international relations and diplomacy offered jointly by Leiden University and the Clingendael in Holland.
He will be working as an AP Peace Fellow in Kathmandu and Baglung, where he will use his campaign experience and journalism background to help COCAP members organize for the upcoming summer campaign, as well as build awareness regarding the current progress of peace and democracy in Nepal. His outreach and advocacy efforts will be conducted not only via his weekly AP blog, but through articles, communiqués, and regular reporting to COCAP members, AP and the press.
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