From war to election: Nepal's exhilarating ride
Monday, 28 April 2008

REUTERS, KATHMANDU - The elections have passed off peacefully, the U.N. spokesman in Nepal crowed: "bad news for foreign journalists".

He could not have got it more wrong. Covering Nepal's journey from hopeless civil war and royal dictatorship to democracy, peace and its first elections in nine years has been exhilarating. I have reported from Africa and Afghanistan but few places inspired such pessimism as Nepal.

Our weekly news planning calls had become an exercise in finding different ways to express that hopelessness. A feudal royal family almost obliterated by a terrible massacre. Politicians who squabbled and stole, and let their country descend ever deeper into poverty.

A ragtag Maoist army with an extremist ideology and a reputation for brutality. Each side hated the other passionately, and seemed to care more about power than the people.

It was hard to see a way out. And yet, in April this year, Nepal suddenly found an answer in democracy and an historic election process.

As I travelled round polling stations on election day, the mood of hope was overwhelming. In one village, I met women who had walked three hours each way in their best sarees to cast their ballots, shaded from the scorching sun under black umbrellas. A 92-year-old woman, bent double with age, limped to vote "for a peaceful future for my grandchildren".

CHILD SOLDIERS

My first trip into Nepal's countryside in 2005 had taken me to the Maoist heartland of Rolpa, a desperately poor province in the Himalayan foothills with just one, barely motorable road.

There, outside a tea shop beside a mountain trail, I met my first member of the Maoist People's Liberation Army. As the sun set and a crowd of curious farmers gathered, we spoke about his reasons for joining the war, the brutality of the police, the desperate poverty of his people.

His fervour impressed me, but then the darker side of the insurgency revealed itself: a line of child soldiers emerged at the trailhead, carrying rifles almost as tall as they were. A local health worker whispered of children effectively abducted for long indoctrination sessions or into the rebel militia.

And, casually, a Maoist rebel explained how informers had to be executed. King Gyanendra in faraway Kathmandu declared he had run out of patience and took absolute power for himself. At first, protest seemed futile.

In Asan Bazaar in the labyrinthine heart of the city, a few elderly men jumped out of a minibus close to me, scattered some pamphlets in the air denouncing the king, shouted a slogan or two -- and were arrested.

No one else seemed inclined to fight for democracy, when that meant backing a discredited political elite.

TURN OF THE TIDE

Yet somehow, the tide turned against the king. Nepal's intensely political people found autocracy was not to their taste, and protests gathered pace.

In January 2006, crowds played cat-and-mouse through the narrow streets of the old city, throwing rocks at the police, who responded with tear gas and baton charges, although neither side seemed really to have the heart to hurt the other.

In April, I was back in Kathmandu to see a city under siege. Protesters had died, and the mood was uglier. They had blocked the ring road with logs, bricks and burning tyres.

A rat hung from an electricity wire: "Gyanendra is dead, God is great," proclaimed a card hanging around its neck. A king, once revered as a god himself, had been brought this low. A few days later, Gyanendra stepped down and handed power back to parliament, the people of Kathmandu celebrated, and it all started to move incredibly quickly.

Two months after Gyanendra returned to the palace, the rebels joined an interim government, and a peace deal followed. It seemed almost too good to believe, and there was still plenty of work to be done. But less than two years later, the people finally got their say.

The April 10 vote was the first in nine years and would elect an assembly to draw up a new constitution. Nearly everyone had expected violence to mar the elections, but they were largely proved wrong. Rhoderick Chalmers, Nepal head of the Brussels-based International Crisis Group, summed up how many of us felt.

"It's absolutely wonderful," he told me. "I am so delighted to have been proved wrong in predicting so many difficulties." Sometimes people think good news is not news at all for disaster-hungry journalists. Happily, Nepal proved this isn't always the case.

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