Fri 13th Aug 2004Beni
That night I woke up just after drifting off. I heard voices coming from the school. Sitting up, I saw some of the men from the village talking urgently and waving torches, but after a few minutes everybody dispersed. The school was being rebuilt and a lot of timber and slates were lying around. I assumed that someone had been seen looking suspicious round there. I went back to sleep.
The next morning, after I walk up to meet Ian, he asks me if I'd seen the Maoists last night - about a hundred of them, all armed. I can't see the road from my room, and as I'm explaining this we see three Maoists walking along the road towards us. They are young, maybe between 16 and 20, dressed in combat fatigues with the tell-tale red tips on the wings of their collars. Just one is armed, an AK47 slung across his shoulders.
"Welcome!" he calls cheerfully and they walk on, going west. All three looked tired, but cheerful. It's not unusual to see Maoists, but it's rare to see them in the village armed and in daylight.
When we arrived at the school it's clear something has happened. No one is working and men stand in groups, gathered around a couple of radios, their tools abandoned on the hard earth of the playground. BP, the contact who has arranged our stay, calls us over and explains that there has been a major attack on Beni, the district headquarters of neighbouring Myagdi district. According to the radio reports - all the news anyone currently has - as many as 5000 Maoist fighters had attacked the town around 10pm the night before. Intense fighting had continued throughout the night, only finishing at around 8 in the morning. The RNA (Royal Nepali Army) are claiming that 500 Maoists were killed in the attack. People are clearly shocked. Although Beni is in the next district, it's only 5 miles away from the village. This is Nepal however, and to get to Beni from here you have to climb and then descend a 3000m ridge - about a 3 to 4 hour walk. It was this ridge that had stopped us from hearing the fighting.
The 500 figure is almost certainly exaggerated, whilst the Army's other claim to have lost only 18 soldiers is equally certain to be an understatement. But the villagers are already realising that, for these claims to have been made there must be a high bodycount. Some of the villagers have friends or relations in Beni. A few have may have friends or relations in the Maoist People's Army. One family's son went to Beni yesterday on a shopping trip. His mother is distraught. There's no telephone, no email - the only sources of information are rumour or the radio.
Initially most of our news has been coming from Radio Nepal, a government mouthpiece that is grovelingly pro-monarchy, and which I have already begun to despise. A spokesperson from the government has praised the people of Beni for 'coming together to help defeat the terrorist threat'. Later a local radio station claims that around 100 security personnel are unaccounted for. Most are presumed kidnapped by the Maoists, and they include a senior police officer and the Chief District Officer - the head of Myagdi's administration.
Chandra, the shopkeeper, comes back from Baglung, where he's been buying supplies, and says that he has seen the Army firing into the forests from helicopters. The sound of rotors can be heard across the valley. No one can go into the forest to collect firewood or fodder for fear of being mistaken for Maoists and fired upon. Whenever a helicopter comes within a couple of kilometres of the village the woman next door screams at her children to get inside.
But even though the battleground is just 5 miles away, it might as well be 500. The Army is concentrating on bombing missions in Parbat, the district to the south of Baglung. We see no more Maoists, and no more soldiers, and the helicopters stay away. Everything starts to feel normal. But local Maoists tell BP that there will be more attacks, and they are reluctant to guarantee our safety, and so a few days later we say goodbye, and leave for Pokhara.
About a month after the battle I visit Beni as the last stop on a trek through the Annapurna region. It's a big, ugly, unremarkable bazaar town: unpaved streets lined with shops selling pretty much the same things at the same prices. Only when we get to the western edge of town does the extent of the destruction become clear. The entire district administration complex has been demolished. Rubble nearby marks where several houses were blown up to deny cover to the Maoists. The police station, which was in rebel hands for most of the battle, is fire-blackened and heavily guarded. Bullet holes scar the walls along the whole street. Soldiers and armed police peer at us through the slits of scarred concrete pillboxes.
Exactly what happened on March 20th and 21st remains confused. No one is clear how many people died in the attack or the subsequent Army operations. Casualty figures in this conflict have always been problematic. The Army and Police routinely exaggerate the numbers of Maoists killed. The bodies are usually cremated or buried near where they fell, so there is no way to confirm how many people died, or if they were Maoists at all. The security forces claim that they don't have the time or resources to transport bodies back to city areas where they can be given post mortems. For their part, the Maoists collect and take away as many of their dead that they can. Accompanying each guerilla unit are a number of unarmed Maoists who take bodies back through the jungle carried in a basket, or doko, on their backs. There are three apparent reasons for this: firstly, to hide their casualty numbers; secondly, to enable the dead fighter to receive a martyr's burial back in a Maoist controlled area; and thirdly, to prevent any possible identification of the bodies, which could lead to reprisals against the dead Maoist's family or village. It's rumoured that if a body can't be carried away from the scene of fighting, then the corpse will be beheaded - particularly in the cases of senior commanders - to prevent identification.
Three months on, the best guess of Nepal's press is that around 150 to 200 Maoists were killed, several under the age of fifteen. The security forces displayed 112 bodies of alleged Maoist fighters and claim that they lost 19 soldiers and 36 Police and APF personnel. (This figure may be too low). Between 30 to 40 civilians are estimated to have been killed - most apparently as a result of the Army's aerial bombardment of fleeing Maoist fighters the next day. All of the hostages taken by the Maoists were later released unharmed.
Both sides have claimed a victory. The security forces claim that they repulsed a major attack against the town whilst heavily outnumbered. They say that the Maoist's plan - to capture the town and hold it for three days before retreating - was foiled when they were unable to overrun the Army Base. The Maoists claim a victory too - they had control of the entire town apart from the Army Base for most of the night, and captured a large amount of arms and ammunition as well as dealing a highly embarrassing blow to the government.
In fact it seems more like a defeat for both sides. The security forces failed to notice a huge build up of rebel fighters in and around the town despite all their security measures. Many from the first wave of fighters had even booked themselves into local guesthouses in the town that afternoon. The Army only escaped a complete rout by remaining dug in at their Base and refusing to be drawn out. The Maoists in their turn suffered heavy losses for largely intangible gains. They claim (unofficially) to have have killed 1200 soldiers in Beni - a very unrealistic claim. In fact it's unlikely that that many soldiers were even in the town.
Meanwhile more civilians, always on the losing side, have died - including two local children killed whilst playing with unexploded bombs. Outside Nepal, the battle and its aftermath have gone almost completely unreported.