Shaken by Terror: Earthquakes and Memories of Civil War in Nepal
May 21, 2015
Rajeev Goyal was in the Kavre district of Nepal when the April 25 earthquake struck and has been involved in relief work since then. He and his team quickly mobilized and have distributed 2,000 waterproof tarps. When the second earthquake struck on May 12, he and his team were in the city of Kattike Deurali. They are all safe and intend to continue their relief efforts. Their goal is to give out 10,000 tarps to families hit hard the most in Kavre. Right now more than 40,000 families have lost their homes. More than 8,000 Nepalese have lost their lives.
The destruction of homes and deaths reminds Goyal of the terror of the Maoist War in Nepal. In 2001, the Peace Corps deployed him at Namje, a remote village in the eastern hills of Nepal, as a volunteer translator during the conflict. He chronicles his experiences in The Springs of Namje. The passage below recounts the harrowing environment he encountered when he arrived in Gaur, a town at the border of Nepal and India.
The moment the landing skids hit the ground, we were in a cloud of twirling dust. When the blades finally stopped whirring, it was so quiet that I imagined we were in some desolate location, but outside a thousand dark-skinned men, fresh after the kill, stood motionless, staring at us. Normally the site of a UN helicopter in a village would bring all the schoolchildren out, cheering and howling, but not on this day. We had landed at the site of unspeakable crimes in a Terai town, with the unfortunate name Gaur (pronounced like the English word gore), just a few kilometers from the Indian border.
“I hope you’re ready for this,” Lena Sundh whispered in my direction as her cloth shoe met the warm ground. As the country representative for the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), she had more than a vague sense of the horrors that lay ahead. The men parted and allowed her to pass as she made the slow walk toward the Gaur hospital. I zipped up my blue and white vest and scurried after Lena.
After five months at OHCHR, I had grown used to having no identity, of just being the lowly interpreter who mechanically transferred information back and forth, sometimes for hours in one sitting, without responding to it on any emotional or analytical level. But when the coroner led us past the main administrative building to a shaded alley behind the building, I nearly vomited. Twenty-seven dead bodies laid side by side, many with flies hovering around the eyelids. Each was marked with a white tag on the big toe. The coroner, a small, bald man with thick lenses in his wire-rimmed glasses, stood silently next to us. Some wore an unbelieving expression that I imagined they carried at the very moment of receiving the final blow that had killed them. Their bodies were twisted and contorted in unnatural positions, hands and feet facing the wrong directions. Perhaps most disturbing, some were children.
I expected Lena to be expressionless. After all she was the seasoned UN diplomat who had served in African war zones. Some in the office seemed to get a rush from the kidnappings and the political gaming inherent in the turbulent peace process in Nepal, but as I would learn on this mission, not Lena. She almost always appeared agonized by these things. As she hunched down to observe the body of one child more carefully, her blue eyes twitched as tears welled up in them. She exclaimed in a voice slightly out of control, “Oh, god.” For a moment it appeared she might fall over from the shock. Instinctively my fingers tightened around the small spiral pad in my pocket. “Stay close to me,” Lena said as we followed the coroner. From that moment, I barely slept for eight straight days. Seven of us were on the mission and until my colleague Mark Turin arrived three days later, I was the only translator. Information was what we were there for, and all of it, whether I liked it or not, had to flow through me.
“These are the medical reports,” the coroner said, almost whispering as he handed us a document with frantic writing on it that I couldn’t really make out.
“Have FIRs been filed?” Lena asked. First Information Reports were the first step in the process of registering a crime. “No,” he confessed. Lena nodded, knowing that in such situations the police usually froze in inaction, especially since in the border regions of Nepal it wasn’t clear who the authorities were. In fact most of what OHCHR did was criticize the inaction of the Nepali law enforcement agencies.
“What does this say?” she asked curtly. I tried scanning the document. It was the kind of translation I hated most—being handed inscrutable writings that contained information of the highest sensitivity and being asked to discern the subtle meaning on the spot. All too frequently in the office back in Chauni in Kathmandu a human rights officer would poke his or her head into our office with some important press release containing Maoist jargon and ask us to summarize it right there and then. The worst part of this was that stylistically the Maoists liked to put pages and pages of information into a single sentence. The style reflected their steady control and appealed to their teleological leanings. My heart racing, I translated every word I could, acknowledging the words I couldn’t make out. Lena asked follow-up questions of the coroner. There was a word repeated over and over that seemed important—pharata—and I confessed I had never heard it before. There were other words related to ruptured body parts that the Peace Corps training hadn’t taught me. It seemed from the document that many of the victims had perished from some kind of head blow that had sliced through their skulls. Some had signs of first- and second-degree burns, which seemed bizarre and caught Lena’s attention immediately. Several of the victims were women—one a seventeen-year-old girl. Lena abruptly said we had to leave, and we walked out of the hospital toward the UN jeep that was waiting for us.
Luc Pier, the tall security officer, was there with three jeeps stocked with food, maps, and water. Indefinite bunds, or strikes, all over the region meant that obtaining supplies could present challenges. Luc was a former architect who left his practice in Paris to become a member of the French special forces. Because of his tan skin, he was frequently mistaken for Nepali, but his thick French accent would throw people off instantly. One way in which the UN was radically different from the Peace Corps was in how international it was.
“You,” he said pointing at my chest. “I want you up front with me. Roads are blocked everywhere and you will talk us through this.” Each time we were stopped, I explained who we were, and the massive felled trees were pulled back to let us pass. Our first stop was the Gaur police station. Just as we approached the entrance, bearded Indian commandos in Sikh turbans and carrying Uzis were exiting the building. This seemed very odd, but as we would learn that week, Gaur was walking distance from India, and sometimes events like this pushed the border back and forth like a shifting ocean tide.
I had woken up that morning knowing it wasn’t going to be the usual routine of translating reports and press releases on the fifth floor of the office. The radio was reporting that Maoists and members of something called the Madesh Janadhikar Forum, known simply as “the Forum,” had clashed in the field next to a rice mill in Gaur. The details were murky but deaths had been reported and there were rumors of rapes as well. That morning I threw some clothes and toiletries in a duffle bag and went to the office prepared, knowing I was probably going to Gaur.
About the Author
Rajeev Goyal, a graduate of Brown University and the New York University School of Law, is a lawyer, activist, rural-development worker, and former Peace Corp volunteer. Since 2008, he has served as the national coordinator for the Push for Peace Corps Campaign. He leads environmental and sustainable agriculture initiatives in eastern Nepal through several NGOs.