| A vegetable seller in Kathmandu on Sunday. Consumers are paying three times more for vegetables since the blockade. (Reuters)
Kathmandu, Aug. 22: Most of them left school a year or two back. They now wear the army uniform and carry sten guns or even MI 16s. Some frisk people with metal detectors and stop and search vehicles, while others wait their turn at duty.
Meet Nepal’s first-ever fighting women soldiers.
Nagdunga is one of the two gateways to the Kathmandu valley, about 40 minutes’ drive from the capital on the national highway leading to India. The other gateway is at Sanga on the other highway leading to Tibet.
The girls — in the age group of 18 to 20 and apparently calm — go about their job at Nagdunga this morning, with men soldiers supervising the operation and scanning the surrounding mountains for any sign of hostility.
Mostly coming from poor rural families and recruited as naiks, most of them speak no language other than their own. In fact, they speak very little even among themselves. They had gone through training for six months. Only yesterday, they had been put on duty at Nagdunga — for the first time since their recruitment.
The calm faces, however, barely conceal their tension. They know it is dangerous territory, even more so at Dhadhing, half-a-km away, which is known to be a Maoist stronghold.
Nagdunga is one of the two points — the other being Sanga — where the Maoists have imposed their indefinite economic blockade of Kathmandu.
And this is the first time ever in Nepal’s history that women are doing duty as fighting soldiers.
The Royal Nepal Army had women even earlier, but mostly for non-combatant roles, explains a lieutenant at the security checkpoint at Nagdunga.
The Maoist insurrection has now prompted the government to recruit women as fighting soldiers. It’s easy to see why. The Maoists are known to have several hundred women in their underground outfit.
The highway is mostly empty, thanks to the blockade. Around noon, a soldier takes out his notebook and counts the number of vehicles that have passed the checkpoint with army escorts. “It’s 29 in all, including 12 passenger buses,” he says.
That is a tally that would have sounded completely unreal in normal times. Much more than Sanga on the highway to Tibet, this highway toward India is the lifeline of this landlocked country. In normal times, vehicles carrying supplies from India would wait for hours to pass through the checkpoint.
But then it is not normal times in Nepal. The girl soldiers know that only too well. They have donned the combatants’ mantle at a time when the country is rocked by Maoist violence almost every day.
Worse, they have to fight an invisible guerrilla army that strikes in the most unexpected of times and places. Last evening, the Maoists threatened to “intensify” the blockade around the Kathmandu valley and warned of possible clashes with the security forces.
In the remote, mountainous parts of the country, the Maoists practically run their parallel government. And their areas of battle are spreading to newer areas.
The latest to fall to the Maoists was the regional headquarters of the remote mid-western Karnail zone. Close to midnight on Saturday, the rebels overran the district administration office and several other government offices.
Next in line, sources here say, would be Panchthar and Ilam, two eastern districts close to the Indian border. The Maoists are said to have warned the people in the headquarters of the two districts to “vacate” the towns.
Not that they hold on to the fallen headquarters because the government rushes additional forces to retrieve them. The Maoists claim to have “liberated” the areas and run their underground government there.
But they remain invisible until the next offensive.
“For all we know, that chap we frisked could well be their cadre or supporter. It’s like looking for a needle in a haystack,” says an army officer.