Holika KC has a different lifestyle these days after officially retiring this year from the People’s Liberation Army, the Maoist insurgents who overthrew Nepal’s former government, leading to a decade-long civil war.
After the war ended in 2006, KC stayed for five years in the Maoists’ temporary camp at Dahaban in Rolpa, a district in Nepal’s Mid-Western region. But this year, the government closed the camps as part of the peace process, offering ex-combatants two options: voluntary retirement or a spot in the national army.
KC says that many female combatants wanted to join the army, but they felt bound to choose voluntary retirement for several reasons. Many had children to raise or were pregnant, while others said that they’d never achieve the same level of respect in the national army.
“I was a brigade commander in PLA,” says KC, who served as a brigade vice commander in the 5th Division of the People’s Liberation Army during the war. “And if I go into integration, I will be demoted to lower posts.”
So KC chose to retire and return to family life. She now stays in a rented room in Kathmandu, Nepal’s capital, with her husband and child. She also takes care of her mother, who has cancer.
“It is a new beginning for me, a civilian life,” KC says.
KC, the eldest daughter of a lower-middle-class family, says she had a pleasant childhood. Both her parents were teachers at a local school and were involved in Maoist politics.
When she passed her School Leaving Certificate exam in 1999 and was preparing for higher studies, the People’s War was at its peak in Nepal. She says that the Maoist insurgents promised the people in her village a better life if they put them in power.
Many youths in the area entered the guerrilla Maoist army, including KC, who joined when she was just 20. She adopted an alias, “Nabina,” as was popular for combatants to do in order to hide their identities from the police.
“I supported the Maoist cause and was ready to sacrifice my life for the very cause,” she says.
At first, life underground was pleasant.
“I used to sing, dance and play music during early days of my underground life,” she says.
But slowly, she gained combat skills. During a training, she learned how to use rudimentary guns and different arms such as submachine guns, rifles and howitzers.
“It took me one year to learn the rules of battle,” she says. “Then I started carrying [a] gun – and using it.”
Life eventually became harsh, she says. The combatants moved from place to place and sometimes lacked access to food. But she says that she moved forward with the troops through day and night, coldness and heat, hunger and thirst and many other difficulties.
“I was fighting for the much-needed revolution,” KC says with pride. “I was fighting for my fellow citizens.”
KC says that she also drew inspiration from discussions with her friends underground about how to attack their “enemies” – soldiers and police under the command of the royal government of the time. Their goal was to take over the state in order to make Nepal new and prosperous.
“These talks helped us to forget our hunger and fatigue,” KC says.
During attacks, many of her friends died. But KC says that she pressed on.
“In battle, you learn to convert your grief into strength,” KC says.
KC says she killed many members of police and the Royal Nepalese Army of the government the combatants were fighting to overthrow.
“I killed many people,” KC says.
KC says that the goal was to kill all government forces in order to make a new Nepal that would be freer for citizens oppressed under an exploitative state structure.
During the war, KC married co-combatant Bam Dev Adhikari, whose alias was Bikalpa, in 2000. But several months later, he died in an attack. KC married again in 2003 while she was still underground to Madhav Shrestha, alias Mohit, an artist of the Maoist’s Cultural Association, which organized folk dances, dramas and other entertainment activities in villages to promote the Maoist cause.
After the Maoists and former government signed a peace accord in 2006, KC started living in cantonment, temporary quarters for soldiers. She gave birth to a child four years ago in the camp while her husband was working as a farmer in the district.
She says that cantonment life was more difficult than fighting in the war, citing problems such as lack of adequate housing, bedding and drinking water. Pregnant women and mothers of newborns especially suffered.
“We spent a refugee-like life within our own country,” KC says.
Trading the role of combatant for caretaker this year, KC is now trying to adjust to civilian life. But she says this creates various socio-economic challenges for her and fellow female former combatants as they struggle to reintegrate themselves into society and find employment to support themselves and their families.
“Right now, I am thinking what I should do next,” she says.
Female former combatants say they are struggling socio-economically to readjust to civilian life after the camps where they were living closed this year. Although many women say they didn’t achieve the social changes that they were fighting for during the war, political leaders say the transformation of the country is a work in progress and encourage reconciliation and reintegration to get there. Ex-combatants say they aren’t content but are committed to peace as they raise families and pursue education and employment.
Nepal’s decade-long civil war ended in 2006, though the peace process is ongoing. Of the 19,602 combatants who participated in the war, 3,843 were women, says Prem Sanjel, undersecretary and assistant spokesman of the Ministry of Peace and Reconstruction, quoting U.N. figures. He says that 13,000 of the total verified combatants opted for voluntary retirement this year.
Like KC, 26-year-old Sunita Regmi, is also an ex-combatant who chose voluntary retirement this year. A former company commander in the 4th division, Regmi is currently raising her 2-year-old daughter in a small rented room in Bhaktapur, a district neighboring Kathmandu.
Playing with her daughter, she shows little evidence of the struggle she faced during the war with her round, charming face, perfect body and teeth and long, shiny hair. It is only on closer inspection that one notices her artificial left leg, replacing the one she lost during the war.
“I have sacrificed much for my country and people,” says Regmi, whose alias was “Yojana” during the war.
Regmi, who is originally from Gorkha, a district 140 kilometers away from Kathmandu, joined the People’s Liberation Army when she was just 14. By the eighth grade, Maoist politics had already captivated her.
She joined the front that burned school textbooks under the belief that the bourgeois education system was not practical. Trading books and other school supplies for arms, Regmi says that she joined the guerrilla movement, leaving her home in 1999.
“All the young people in my village did the same,” she says.
Like KC, Regmi also took part in a training to learn how to use “sutali,” which are locally made, small, explosive bombs, as well as spears and light weapons. She eventually became active in combat.
While attacking a Royal Nepalese Army barracks in 2004, she lost her left leg. Covered in her own blood, she says she was in the middle of the forest alone and could not seek medical treatment at a hospital because she was on the police’s most wanted list.
“I was ready to give my life for the sake of my country,” she says with pride. “But I survived.”
Her friends were able to take her to the hospital and deceive the staff so she could obtain care. But she had to carry out her treatment secretly, so she lost contact with the party, her combatant friends and her husband.
One day, she found out from friends that her husband had been killed.
“I knew from the beginning that our lives were uncertain, and we knew we could die at any moment,” she says, her eyes filling with tears. “But now I realize this [unbearable pain].”
She returned back to the cantonment after the peace process started. But, like KC, she is now struggling to readjust to civilian life. As ex-combatants have been labeled as violent and aggressive, Regmi says she has not disclosed her participation in the war to her new community members because she fears they will not accept her.
Moreover, the ex-combatants say that they are confused about how to handle returning to social life after spending many years fighting to reform the nation. KC says that they could not even reform the village let alone the nation. She says they wanted education and employment for all and the elimination of discriminatory social practices based on gender such as dowry.
“I have spent the most productive periods of my life for the sake of Maoist ideology,” she says. “But nothing happened as we wished.”
But Balawati Sharma, a Unified Community Party of Nepal (Maoist) leader and former Constituent Assembly member, says that there have been many changes in society after the war.
“We, female combatants, played [a] very important role compared to that of men,” she says.
Sharma says that the list of advancements include: the establishment of a republican system of government replacing the 240-year-old monarchy, the emergence of the women’s rights movement, and the reformation of men’s drinking and gambling habits.
“It takes time to transform completely,” Sharma says.
Sharma says that women have continued to prove their strength and dynamism after the war – raising families, taking care of the home and exploring different professions, such as politics.
“This is the best example to prove that women can adjust themselves in any kind of situation,” Sharma says.
To help, the Ministry of Peace and Reconstruction offered financial support to those who elected for voluntary retirement this year. Ex-combatants received 500,000 rupees ($5,600) to 800,000 rupees ($9,000), depending on their designation.
Both KC and Regmi were allocated 600,000 rupees ($6,700),of which they have received half. But they say it’s not a solution.
“We gave our life for the cause,” KC says. “What will we do with the compensation money? We have to restart our lives.”
Sanjel says that the government has opened an account to provide money to the ex-combatants in two installments in order to help them to manage it. The next Constituent Assembly will decide when the second payment will be.
Sanjel says that the government will soon form the Truth and Reconciliation Commission with the objective of creating harmonious relations in society. Families who were the victims of the ex-combatants during the war may feel animosity toward them as they reintegrate into society.
Ved Prasad Dhakal, a documentation officer at the Informal Sector Service Centre, a local human rights organization, says that it is working in 10 different conflict-affected districts to foster harmonious relations between those who had opposing politics during the 10-year conflict. He says the organization has established 50 reconciliation centers in various villages in order to resolve issues among the people.
KC says that adjusting to life in the village will be challenging, but she has reconciled with it and is confident that it will soon become habit. Regmi says that people’s conceptions about ex-combatants will change with time.
Though many other ex-combatants have repented in the media for their involvement, Regmi did not. She says she learned many things in life through the sufferings she had to face while being underground and by seeing the poverty while traveling to various districts.
“I got an opportunity to know about my country,” she says.
For KC, carrying guns enabled her to reject the cultural and societal belief that women should remain in the home. KC says that she worked honestly to construct a new Nepal.
Yet now, she has become an ordinary citizen. She says that society has not changed but that women remain patient in order to support the peace process.
“I spent many years carrying gun, and my family life is a complete mess,” KC says. “So, I will now spend time to look after my family properly.”
Regmi, who became a combatant after destroying her textbooks, now lives in a room that is brimming with books. She is currently studying in grade 12, attending class in the morning and looking after her daughter in the afternoon.
“Though I have much experience of the war, [the] lack of a college degree [puts] you backward in life,” she says she realized. “Education plays [a] very important role in our life.”
Regmi, who worked for a weekly newspaper while in cantonment, says she aims to work as a journalist after her daughter grows up.
“[The] pen is much powerful than the guns,” Regmi says.
(Global Press Institute)