Remembering the Cold Blood of Beni Battle

  

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Returning to the photograph of the mother and daughter that brought home the horror of war. Jamila Khatun and her three-year-old daughter, Sajita, we’re preparing to sleep in a room above their bangle shop on Beni’s market street. Her husband was not home. It was 20 March 2004, and at about 10 pm she heard the sound of many running footsteps outside. Soon after, there was a deafening explosion from the direction of the Army base, followed by gunfire, more big bangs, and people shouting commands and screaming.   The firing continued throughout the night. Their house shuddered and the window panes rattled with every explosion. Jamila had to muffle her daughter’s cries as they cowered under the bed. She did not have the courage to peep outside, and stayed awake all night, praying for their lives, and for daylight.

The next morning, hours after the firing had stopped, there was a sound of helicopters overhead. Jamila was still hiding in the room, her daughter fasts asleep when someone hammered on the door. Soldiers were asking the residents to come out of their houses. The Maoists had already fled. Jamila stepped outside, blinking in the sunlight, her eyes swollen and red. She still remembers vividly the scene that greeted her that morning: blood, bullets, and bodies. The District Administrative Office building had been reduced to rubble and was still smoldering. The streets were strewn with spent ammunition and unexploded bombs. The steps outside Jamila’s shop had fresh blood from a dead female guerrilla, and she got a bucket of water to scrub it clean. Her daughter was standing nearby watching her, when journalist Thomas Bell walked by.

“I thought he was a tourist,” Jamila recalls, and ironically that is exactly what Bell remembers thinking: “She must think I am some strange tourist.” Bell’s photograph of Jamila and her daughter, and blood flowing into the dusty street, is one of the iconic images of the conflict that lasted ten years and had claimed 17,000 lives by the time it ended in April 2006. The photograph was included in Kunda Dixit’s A People War book, and was part of a travelling photo exhibition that visited 45 of Nepal’s 75 districts from 2008 to 2009. When the exhibition arrived in Beni in 2008, Jamila and her daughter were there to see their own photographs for the first time.

Sajita is now 15 and in Grade 9 at a local government school. Her memories of that night and the day after are derived mostly from what she has heard from her mother and neighbors. But she does remember seeing blood and bodies and being scolded by an army soldier. She understood later from her mother that the soldier had snatched away an unexploded pipe bomb from her friend, shouting angrily at her. She is now thankful to that soldier who saved her life.

Not much has changed in the lives of the Khatuns since then. They now live in a small house in a landless squatter settlement near Beni. Jamila still sells bangles in the same shop where she had hidden during the Beni battle. The country has gone from war to peace, from monarchy to republic, and there is a new constitution, but none of this seems to have made a difference to the Khatun family or others like them in Beni.

“None of the leaders really cares about us,” she said. “We just have to fend for ourselves.”

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Cleaning Blood After The War In Beni

In 2004, the war was at its height and the Maoists had been attacking one district headquarters after another. The tactic was to lay siege to the town at night, destroy the district administration buildings and attack the army and police bases, to inflict maximum damage and injury. The attacking force conscripted villagers and often used them as human shields in order to compel the defenders to expend all their bullets. Even though the Maoists would suffer heavy casualties, the battles would expose the government’s vulnerability and be a propaganda victory.

An estimated 5,000 Maoists and villagers were involved in the Beni attack, most of them women. The clash lasted from 10:30 pm on 20 March 2004 until 6 am the following morning, after which the Maoists retreated with Army helicopters in hot pursuit. In all, 19 civilians, 17 police, and 14 soldiers were killed, but hundreds of Maoists were also slain, many buried by the rivers when helicopters strafed guerrilla columns as they marched back to the mountain passes of Rukum. 

The Battle of Beni also marked a turning point in the conflict, as the Army bolstered the defense of its garrisons in district towns, and the Maoists shifted to ambushing security convoys along the highways. This is the first part of the 20/10 Conflict Anniversary series examining what has become of the persons whose photographs were included in the book

Bad Blood in Beni

It is the morning after in Beni and a scene of utter devastation. The police station is a blackened wreck. The barbed wire had been clipped away and the perimeter wall blasted open at several points. Sandbags at the sentry posts are torn to shreds. Near the army base, a woman is washing the bloodstain from the steps outside her shop, while her daughter looks on.

The police and soldiers guarding the police base fought from 10:30 on the night of Saturday, 20 March, until six the next morning against thousands of Maoists, until their ammunition ran out. Those who survived either fled or were taken, prisoner. Down the road, the soldiers at the army base kept fighting till daylight and most of their casualties took place in the morning.

Next door, the CDO building has been reduced to rubble and is still smoldering. The street outside is littered with spent ammunition and unexploded bombs. People pick their way around in silence, their faces covered, glancing at the grotesquely disfigured Maoist corpses that lie strewn about.

The army camp is the only government building to survive partially intact, although it was nearly overrun at one point. Some 25 mortar rounds and a rocket landed here, fired from the mountains above. Whoever decided to put the district headquarters here at the confluence of the Kali Gandaki and Myagdi wasn’t thinking of security.

Lt Col Ragu Nepali’s office with its sandbagged windows is a wreck. He estimates there were at least 5,000 Maoists involved in the attack: frontline fighters, militia, and porters. “They came in waves, like the sea, one after another, one after another,” said Lt Col Nepali, looking exhausted after two nights without sleep. “There were more women than men. And many, many child soldiers, below 14. I saw them while I was shooting back.” There were six Maoist bodies inside the army base and Nepali points them out: “They are all young children, this one is a girl.

The rebel force had started infiltrating the town at about 8:30, just after the curfew. The attack itself started at 10:30 when the mortar and automatic rifle fire started from the hills above. Local people said that it came as a complete surprise and there had been no sign of preparation inside the town. A witness, who asked not to be named, describes watching the rebels operating in the street below his home. “Half-an-hour after it started, the place was full of Maoists,” he says. “They were carrying bombs that way, and carrying casualties back.”

Beni’s citizens shut themselves inside their homes, hiding under beds to the sounds of gunfire and explosions all night and into the next morning. While the fighting raged along the road leading to the CDO’s office, the police station and the barracks, the rest of the town was under complete Maoist control.

“The children were watching the Maoists running in the streets below,” said one eye witness. “They were a little afraid at first but after that they watched in fascination. The Maoists were taking time to eat chow and asking for drinking water from the houses. They didn’t do anything to the public.”

The Maoists were carrying pressure cookers as assault charges, on long bamboo poles to be placed against the walls of their targets. Casualties were carried back on stretchers and in dokos. Some Maoists took medical supplies from a local pharmacy to treat the wounded.


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“Until ten the next morning they were moving around freely,” said another eyewitness. “One Maoist was even carrying messages back and forth by bicycle. After the sun came up, they were walking here like they were coming home from a movie. Singing, joking, showing no fear.”

The witnesses said they saw up to 70 casualties, either dead or injured. The children were used at night, but by morning they had been replaced by adult fighters. “The children were like 14-15 years old,” said another resident.

At around 8:30 on Sunday morning, a witness in the Bazar saw 10-15 of the captured policemen being led away to the north with their hands tied behind their backs. Townspeople said a helicopter flew over Beni at around 2AM, but it couldn’t do much. The fighting was house-to-house and in the middle of the town, which is located at the bottom of a deep gorge. Attacking from the air, would have meant heavy civilian casualties. It was not till 9 o’clock on Sunday morning that the Maoists began to move off and the army’s helicopters returned to chase them away. But the first helicopter landed at the parade ground on the banks of Kali Gandaki only on Sunday afternoon.

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The Electricity Pole Due to Rifle
Shooting

The army says many rebels were killed by the helicopters that pursued them, and at one point the entire hill above Beni was in flames as the aerial strafing of fleeing Maoists continued. Helicopters were landing regularly by Monday, whipping up blinding dust storms on the parade ground. They were flying in fresh troops and picking up others for the cordon and search operations that seemed to be concentrated to the south of Beni.

Even on Monday, the people of Beni looked shell-shocked. Some were cautiously venturing outdoors, looking at the damage. Opposite the CDO’s office stood the house of Netra Bahadur Mahat, a Nepali Congress activist, which was used as a guest house. The Maoists had come and taken everyone out and set fire to the building. Two people who were hiding inside were burnt to death, their charred remains still inside the ruins of the house.

Not far away, next to the army camp is a school. Its furniture and doors were broken and the walls pockmarked with bullet holes. A few children had begun returning to investigate the damage to their classrooms. Behind one the Maoists had left a socket bomb and an assault charges the size of a football.

Among the weapons and clothes left behind by the Maoists were three photo albums retrieved from the pockets of dead Maoists. They showed mothers and fathers, pictured outside their village homes. Smiling young people stood in fields wearing Dashain garlands. There is a picture of a handsome young man, posing on a boat at Phewa Lake. Other pictures were of Maoists posing together, smiling and brandishing weapons. One photo showed a young woman holding a bunch of flowers and, on the facing page, a young man’s conventional studio shot, with ‘I love you’ written across it in English.

The last remaining bodies of security personnel were being ferried out by helicopter on Monday afternoon, but the bodies of the Maoists still lay rotting in the ditches and along the roads. Human rights observers and reporters had started arriving, and there were reports coming in from outlying villages that civilians were among those killed as helicopter gunships fired at retreating Maoists.

The operations were still going on and there was a lot of helicopter activity. At the parade ground, a group of grim-faced commandos was climbing aboard an Mi-17 bound for Baglung. A group of women wailed from the edge of the field as the bodies of dead police and soldiers were being loaded up for the flight to Pokhara.

Outside Pokhara airport on Monday police and army families were crouching in the shade, watching the bodies being unloaded from the helicopters. There was bomb damage to a bridge along the road and the trees felled across the way were still being cleared. In a village along the road, a funeral was being prepared.

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