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  Remembering Maoist women fighters  


It is over three years now since the peace agreement, and former Maoist rebels decamped to cantonments across the country. It is estimated that a third of the armed members of the Maoist army were women, drawn to the discourse on women’s rights and equality. Over half of the former Maoist women ended up returning home, so what has happened to those who quietly melted back into civilian life rather than joining the cantonments? Has their experience changed their lives and their position as women for the better? The writer meets with two women, who she first met while filming during the conflict, to reflect back on their lives in the Maoist army during Nepal’s most turbulent period, and what has happened to them since. *

Her party name was Doma. Before that, she was Pemba’s daughter, Tenzing’s didi, and later Sonam’s wife. With her strong features and sharp centre parting, she resembles a young Frida Kahlo; a chunky turquoise necklace arranged over the smart fitted dress and stripy apron of the Sherpa angi. She has made an effort for us, even though she will spend the evening sat on an upturned bucket milking her 25 chauris (a type of yak) with her husband, Sonam. Her name is Dolkar.

Dolkar scoops her hand into a small purse hanging round her neck and pushes her fist into the yak’s drooling mouth. Salt.

“It makes the yak give milk,” she explains as she pulls on the teats and lines of milk begin to spurt.

Her chaurigot (yak shelter) sits in a forest clearing, high in the hilly region in Dolakha. She is up before dawn to milk the yaks, cuts grass all day, hauls the milk down the mountainside to the cheese factory and milks again in the evening. And in the winter, the family dismantles the shelter, packs up and moves through searing cold and snow storms to more fertile ground. Life in the chaurigoth is undeniably tough.

Inside the shelter, three small children sit on the edge of the fire, their tiny toes buried in warm ashes, eating dal bhat. Sonam mentions four pigeons he saw earlier in a tree down by the cheese factory; he might go later with a neighbor and hunt them.

“What kind of gun do you have?”

“Just an old rifle. Actually she taught me how to shoot,” he points at Dolkar, I didn’t know how until I met her.”

Dolkar also knows how to throw a grenade, plant a mine and build a bomb using bamboo, a pipe and gunpowder. “We have a saying,” she laughs. “If a hand can grind flour, it can also grind gunpowder.”

Dolkar left school in the middle of her exams eight years ago to join a Maoist troop who had come to her school. She was 14, maybe 15, she’s not sure, anyway she was in grade 8.

“Some comrades used to come and present songs and dance in the village and at our school. They didn’t ask me to join but I was curious. I joined them to understand how they worked and what they are in fact.”

Dolkar spent her teenage years in the heart of the conflict, witnessing its realities close up. Her village, tucked away in the hills of Dolakha was a regular target for both Maoists and army troops. “When the army came they demanded food and drink, and they accused us of being the ‘CID’ of the Maoists and when Maoists came they accused us of being ‘CID’ with the army because we had provided a goat and feast for them. But we couldn’t tell them (army) to “go quickly” or “don’t come here anymore”. We felt trapped on both sides.

“We walked all night and I learned the next day we were to ambush an agricultural project. That’s when I got scared and started crying. This would be my life.”
The school became a meeting point for Maoist area leaders and consequently a target for the army. Dolkar remembers a dramatic battle at the school before she left.

“A helicopter came and we could hear the sound of Dang dang! Dung dung! 27 Maoists were killed, there was a huge battle, it was exciting.”

An excited teenager, and she left. She was not alone, several students joined the Maoists. “We lost five from the school to the war. They are buried in that field there,” the headmaster of her old school points to a green field by a river behind the school.

What of her parents, their only daughter, not yet 16 leaving under such circumstances?

“My mum was crying and screaming and hitting me, saying ‘You are not to go, you will not go’. She took my angi and my flip-flops off me, thinking if she took my clothes and left me naked, I wouldn’t go with them.

“But I said ‘you can take the angi but I’m not coming home’. The comrades gave me clothes and we left. I learned later that the army came and took my father; they beat him for letting his daughter join the Maoists.”

“We walked all night and I learned the next day we were to ambush an agricultural project. That’s when I got scared and started crying. This would be my life.”

Dolkar got used to life with her platoon on the trail, the hardship and the frequent danger. “We had no food to eat and we spent all the time walking with an empty stomach. We learned to shoot guns and plant bombs. Many comrades asked me to work in cultural artist music front but I didn’t want to. I carried a gun and I used it.”

Like Dolkar, Samita was 15 when she joined the Maoists and left her Ramechaap village in 2000. It is eight years since I first met Samita, then a thin, wiry young woman in a threadbare Kurta Surwal, holding her baby daughter to her lap. She pushed her chin up defiantly and answered my question, her gaze direct. “I have killed, yes. I have killed many. I have no feelings about it; we work according to necessity for the struggle. Death is a surety in war and much blood has flown from the Maoists side also”.

Today, eight years later, she is almost unrecognizable, her face has filled out, her eyebrows plucked, shiny lipstick, jeans and T- shirt complete the transformation. She laughs delightedly when we remember our conversation back then “I love my history, I love my past life”.

Samita is mother to Asmita, a nine year-old girl. She is also an ex-Maoist commander and spent over two years engaging in guerrilla combat in the jungle.

Samita joined the Maoists after a recruitment ceremony in her village. Having seen her uncle shot at the hands of the police, and with a future of marriage, children and farm work in a poor village, Samita saw no reason not to join. “They talked about prioritizing the progress of women, that’s why I joined”. Bearing the weight of huge disapproval, she left.

It’s the number one reason for a woman joining the Maoists; women are very much oppressed in Nepali society.

“I saw freedom there, that’s why I joined. They told us we would be liberated, but that we would have to fight for our rights and liberation.

“Women and men are two wheels of the same chariot, we have to work together to achieve. And when you join your work is the same as the men, which I liked. I was the commander of the mess, and apart from that I would give induction to new women and go for special occupations.”

During her years underground, Samita killed, took part in several ‘special operations’ (ambushes), and was involved in the public punishments meted out by the Maoists in villages under their jurisdiction. “If society gets betterment from the punishment of one who has done wrong, then it is right to beat or kill him.”

Samita married underground, in a ceremony where garlands and guns were exchanged with wedding vows and then she fell pregnant and became very weak. The lack of nutrition and the hardship of life underground was taking its toll. And anyway, her husband had had a serious falling out with another commander. They decided to leave. At first, Samita went home to her parents in Ramechhap.

“The whole village knew about me. They couldn’t believe I had gone with the Maoists and what had happened to me there.”

Samita sought the anonymity of the city and has lived in Kathmandu ever since. She is now divorced and has returned to her studies, working part time as a receptionist to support herself and her daughter.

When Dolkar returned home after a year, she only meant to visit but ended up staying; her parents quickly married her and sent her to work running the yak shelter. “Mother didn’t cry, there were no tears, no shouting, we had food, we had momo, there was work to do on the farm and then I was married.

“So many years have past now, I have almost forgotten most of my time there.

“I don’t know what will happen next as Maoists have left the government and are on the other side. I don’t know what will happen. I only hear about them sometimes on the radio or when I go down to the village.

“I don’t know about my ex-comrades, maybe they have returned home and are working hard for their own stomachs like me.

“I had to get married and follow the tradition for women in this world. We have to work for our stomach and we have to work hard because we have children.

“Sometimes I meet my former comrades and we say hello and share our news and our memories of that time.”

When I ask Samita about the current situation now, she says, “I don’t get involved with what they (the Maoists) are doing. I just want to get on with my life and look after my daughter. Sometimes my old comrades call me and ask me to join an action or a protest, but I have turned my back on them. For now anyway.”

Samita’s room is filled with text and notebooks. Her mobile phone bleeps and buzzes as college friends text and call her. She is full of energy and enthusiasm for what she is doing for herself and her daughter, getting back the education she left behind in grade 7 and building a foundation for a better life with opportunities, a career.

Dolkar’s life is taken up with the day-to-day struggle for herself and her family. In fact nothing has changed for her and the role expected of her.

“Sometimes I look back and think that had I stayed, I would really be someone by now. I would have risen up through the party ranks and where would I be now? What would I be now? Who would I be now?”

And she turns back stroking the flank of the chauri and back to who she is; Dolkar Sherpa—mother, daughter, sister, wife. And ex-Maoist rebel with a head full of memories and handy with a shotgun.

*Some names have been changed

(Writer is a documentary filmmaker.)
Published on 2010-03-08 00:49:29
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Remembering Maoist Women Fighters
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