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Rising From Violence

Nepal, November 26, 2007

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  <span class="field-credit">
    Thatcher Cook for Mercy Corps  </span>
    Photo: Thatcher Cook for Mercy Corps
  <span class="field-credit">
    Thatcher Cook for Mercy Corps  </span>
    Photo: Thatcher Cook for Mercy Corps
  <span class="field-credit">
    Thatcher Cook for Mercy Corps  </span>
    Photo: Thatcher Cook for Mercy Corps

The attackers came in the blaze of daylight on August 25, carrying a dead body inside the first of a procession of cars. They parked their Jeeps and motorcycles along the side of the blacktop highway, descended from their vehicles and rushed 50 feet into the makeshift village. They lit torches as they neared the simple bamboo-and-thatch huts.

Most of the village's men were away, working as day laborers during the busy harvest season. The women and children were no match for the dozens of young and middle-aged men now in their midst. The strangers set fire to their homes.

Those who didn't run away were pushed, beaten and kicked. There was a mad scramble to find and gather children to flee. The flames were intense, consuming everything each household contained. The smoke choked escape routes and stung searching eyes.

Santoshi Chaudhary, 20, had two children — one two years old, the other only a month old — to carry from the unfolding horror.

"It was a very scary situation," she said, cradling her youngest. "We ran into the sugar cane fields to hide. When we came back — after we thought they were gone — there was nothing left."

In this place, the temporary home of freed bonded laborers, there had not been that much to begin with.

Freed, but evicted

The village of Geti, near the town of Bijaura in western Nepal, is home to about 275 people from the Tharu ethnic group. They're all former bonded laborers whose families worked on the plantations of a government minister for many years. They were liberated from forced servitude four years ago — a full year after the Nepalese government mandated their release.

"We were freed by our master, a very powerful and wealthy man, but he demanded that we immediately leave his farm," Chaudhary explained. "We had no land where we could live."

The families stayed together and, after a few stops in large camps occupied by other displaced former bonded laborers, came to this place: a swath of government-owned land surrounding a small local health clinic. They crafted crude but sturdy houses out of natural materials like bamboo, mud and grass and planted staple crops in small patches between the clinic and the blacktop highway.

For nearly four years, the families in Geti led a difficult but manageable existence. There was no school around for the children to attend, but the men found work on nearby farms. During harvest season, they could make as much as 100 Nepalese rupees a day — the equivalent of US $1.40. It seemed like a lot of money to families that had never been paid for their work.

A local organization, Backward Society Education (BASE), even came to install seven hand pumps for the village — one pump to supply clean, fresh water for every six families.

But then, in the late summer swelter of August, everything suddenly changed.

Rebuilding from nothing

The strangers burned everything. They injured 11 people, including women and elderly men. The attackers, who represented higher-caste residents of the area, including former landlords of bonded laborers, claimed that their actions were retribution for the death of one of their own in a car accident on the highway that runs near Geti village.

They even brought the body as proof — but proof of what?

In the immediate aftermath, there were no answers. No one in the village was remotely responsible for the accident, but nonetheless they were homeless once again.

Local youth were determined to make amends for that injustice. Within a week of the attack, more than a hundred youth from the Youth Initiative for Peace and Reconciliation (YIPR) program arrived at Geti village to help the families rebuild. They weren't prompted by either Mercy Corps or its partner, BASE — they showed up completely of their own accord to help.

The youth, particularly those from the Gyanodaya village youth council, helped the displaced villagers gather materials — soil, straw, stone, and wood — to reconstruct their houses. By September 2, they had worked side by side to finish 14 houses.

On September 6, not even two weeks after the village had been completely burned down, all 46 houses had been rebuilt.

What took place on August 25 shows that there is still a long road to acceptance in western Nepal. What happened in the days after that, however, demonstrates that there is reason to hope.

"The youth came when we needed help most," Chaudhary said, "and for that we'll always remember them."