By Sudeshna Sarkar in Kathmandu for ISN Security Watch
Tara Bahadur Thada, a farmer in Gothadi village in western Nepal, was working in a maize field on 29 May when he heard a series of loud bangs. Living in a country that was shaken by a 10-year communist insurgency, he knew what they meant - somewhere, bombs were going off.
Thada was apprehensive. The Maoist guerrillas, who had begun their "People's War" in 1996 with the aim of overthrowing Nepal's constitutional monarchy, signed a peace pact with the government last year, formally ending their revolt. On 1 April, they were inducted into the government and were now working to hold elections in November this year.
Though Palpa, Thada's home district, was devastated by a multi-pronged guerrilla attack in January 2006, such offensives had ended with the peace pact and the rebels had locked up their arms under UN supervision.
As he hurried home to find out what was happening, he saw that his house, where he had left five family members, including two young children, and four neighboring houses, had been reduced to rubble. People were frantically searching for survivors, heir work made difficult by the thick pall of smoke that hung over the area.
Along with nine bodies, security personnel also found a live bomb and defused it.
"More people have been killed and injured [by improvised explosive devices, IEDs] in 2006, the year the peace pact was signed, than in 2005 when the conflict was still on," says Hugues Laurenge, a consultant with the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF), which along with international and local organizations and other UN agencies has formed the Mine Action Group (MAG). The entity has been working in Nepal since 2004 to create awareness about recognizing the presence and dangers of explosive devices and how to minimize loss of limbs and lives.
"In 2006, most victim-activated explosions occurred in and around homes while during the conflict they occurred on roads. The Palpa incident shows there are explosive devices in houses," he told ISN Security Watch.
According to MAG, while 142 civilians were injured or killed when they unknowingly activated IEDs or landmines in 2005, the figure rose to 169 in 2006. This January to May this year, 67 casualties were reported.
"The data is compiled on the basis of incidents that are reported," Laurenge points out. "There could be more explosions in the remote villages which are not reported, either because of lack of communication facilities or fear. For 10 years, people lived with explosive devices in their vicinity, when to mention them would have automatically associated them with the Maoists or [caused them to] be considered collaborators.:
The Maoists say they fought the guerrilla war mostly with explosives manufactured at home. While they claim to have had about 3,500 firearms for their 31,000-strong People's Liberation Army (PLA), their arsenal mainly consisted of a dozen types of improvised explosives, ranging from pressure cooker bombs to their trade mark, the socket bomb, made from two pieces of pipe screwed together.
"During the conflict they would be eating and sleeping at local residents' houses," Laurenge says. "It was normal for them sometimes to leave part of their load in a house. Sometimes they came back to retrieve their possessions, sometimes, they didn't.'"
Explosives at large
Nand Kishor Pun, better known as "General Pasang," was one of the formidable deputy commanders of the PLA who created a guerrilla army from scratch. Besides recruiting and training the guerrillas, Pasang also planned and took part in many of their key offensives. Now, after the end of the civil war, he admits there is a problem of explosives at large.
"We distributed IEDs extensively through the districts to arm our village militias," Pasang told ISN Security Watch. "We had marked most of the sites where they were stored and after an arms pact with the government witnessed by the UN last November, kept them in designated sites under UN supervision. But many cadres were either martyred during the war or fled from Nepal. So their caches could still be lying in the safe houses."
The Maoists' most bitter enemy during the insurgency, the Nepal Army, also used IEDs and landmines.
"The army planted 12,500 mines in the five years that it was called in," says Brigadier General Lok Bahadur Thapa Magar, director of Engineers at the Nepal Army's Mine Action Coordinating Committee. "They were planted in 52 locations in 37 districts to protect security bases in remote areas. We used them for deterrence only, to compensate for our lack of troops and ammunition, and give soldiers confidence," he told ISN Security Watch.
Ironically, the freedom of movement that has come with the end of the war has caused the number of accidental blasts to increase.
"With peace, there is more movement," Laurenge explains. "There is more freedom of movement and people can now go to remote areas, near security installations. The internally displaced people who had left their villages are also coming back. People who have been exposed to explosive devices over the years are eager to get rid of them; sometimes, they have been known to throw bombs in the river or maybe the garbage or even fires. Almost 54 percent of the casualties from victim-activated explosions are children. This makes Nepal, along with Laos, the foremost countries with a high rate of child casualties."
According to a rough map drawn on the basis of explosions between 2005 and May this year, only 15 districts out of 75 have not reported blasts. Of these, most are in the mountainous north. The incidents and casualties are heaviest in the plains in the south, close to the Indian border. India shares a nearly 1,800-kilometer open border with Nepal and the Indian border states were the source of powder for the explosives smuggled in.
Realizing the threat posed by still-at-large explosives, in November 2006, when the Maoists and the then seven-party ruling alliance signed an arms pact, it was agreed that both the Nepal Army and Maoist army would provide maps and sketches showing minefields, IEDs and the exact location of such items. It was also agreed that all such explosives would be destroyed within 60 days.
However, that proved to be an unrealistic time frame. "We need three to five years for 100 percent mine clearance," says General Thapa Magar. "This is a humanitarian de-mining process, as opposed to military, where casualties are accepted. Here we are very concerned about the safety of the villagers in the periphery as well as de-miners," he told ISN Security Watch.
The general points out that the army was the first off the mark to start a mop-up operation. "We formed a Mine Action Coordination Centre and formulated a mine action plan. Since then, we have verified the mine sites, put additional markers to alert people and strengthened the fencing round them."
However, the army is handicapped by lack of funds, training and equipment. Currently, it has about 12 mine disposal teams, each team comprising eight to 12 men. Though the plan is to have 25 teams, there is not enough protective equipment to go around. Nepal's southern neighbor, India, was a major provider of protective gear as well as explosive accessories. However, it suspended lethal assistance in 2005, after King Gyanendra tried to assume total power. It has not resumed supplies yet.
Time is another factor. "Some of the mines were laid more than five years ago," General Magar says. "Since then, the topography has changed. There is thick vegetation in some places; in others, the mines have shifted due to soil erosion. We need physical as well as psychological training for de-miners."
While the army is cleaning up the explosives it planted during the insurgency, the UN Mission in Nepal (UNMIN) has been entrusted with monitoring the Maoist arms and explosives stored at seven designated sites and advising how to store them safely and eventually, destroy them.
The UNMIN Mine Action Unit completed its inventory of the stored explosives this month and will assist in destroying them when it receives orders from the Joint Monitoring Coordination Committee (JMCC) - a body comprising officials from the UN, the army and Maoists that is overseeing the arms management process.
"It is slow work because we have to follow the highest safety standards," says Kieran Dwyer, UNMIN spokesperson. "However, the mine story in Nepal has been a tremendous success. [...] To bring in thousands of IEDs and explosives from places all over the country to seven main locations and to have an agreement that they will be destroyed is an achievement for the parties," the spokesperson told ISN Security Watch.
According to Grant Milthorpe, senior adviser at the Mine Action Unit, the destruction of the IEDs will begin once the JMCC gives its nod. "We will look at the whole gamut of issues," he told ISN Security Watch. "Whether people will have to be evacuated, the impact on the environment. Everything will be very controlled and done in accordance with international mine action standards."
The new government formed in April is also taking an initiative. Under the newly constituted Peace and Reconstruction Ministry, the state is forming a national authority that will formulate policies and seek funding for the clean-up operation.
"A seven to nine member committee is in the pipeline," says ministry spokesman Ramesh Kumar Sharma. "We expect to table our proposal for the committee before the cabinet in about a fortnight. We are looking at donors to raise the money for the campaign as well as the Global Peace Fund [set up with donations recently]," he told ISN Security Watch.
However, it may be some time before the committee takes shape and starts functioning, given the infighting in the eight-party government, which recently resulted in parliament remaining adjourned for nearly six weeks.
General Magar says de-mining should be given priority. "It is a pre-requisite for holding the election," he says. "An election means free movement of people. So we need to clear areas of mines or at least tell people they are unsafe. The peace process is closely related to mine and IED clearance."
Once the laborious clean-up is complete, voices at home and abroad are urging the government to ensure that such a situation is not repeated by signing the Ottawa Treaty, the anti-personnel mine-ban treaty.
"Nepal is in a position to cement its commitment to peace in this regard," UNMIN chief Ian Martin said in a statement earlier this year. "The interim government could make a significant signal of its commitment to remove these threats forever by acceding to the Ottawa Treaty, as well as the new Optional Protocol five to the Certain Conventional Weapons Convention, which relates to addressing the humanitarian hazard of the explosive remnants of war.
"It could also take a major step toward caring for survivors of IED explosions by being an early signatory to the new Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, which opened for signature on 30 March this year."