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Bombed, rebuilt, destroyed again


Sindhupalchok, April 7, 2016: No one would have ever heard of Thokarpa if it hadn’t been the scene of an aerial bombardment by the Army in March 2006 that killed four Maoist guerrillas and a civilian gathered at a local school for a victory celebration. Images of the dead strewn amidst the ruins of the classrooms made the front pages of Kathmandu papers.

The Bagh Bhairav Higher Secondary School in Thokarpa was rebuilt after the war ended, but ten years later, it was destroyed again in the earthquake of 25 April 2016. Kamal Neupane was five and had just enrolled in Grade I, and doesn’t remember the helicopter raid. But he grew up amidst the bombed out rubble of his school. Today, he is in Grade 10 and gets a feeling of déjà vu seeing his school in ruins again.

“I grew up with vivid memories of my school destroyed first by bombs and then by the earthquake,” says Neupane, who is giving his SLC exams this week. “I have seen it all before.” The 7.8 magnitude earthquake struck central Nepal on 25 April, destroying 4,000 schools in 14 districts. It is estimated that 75,000 children would have died if it hadn’t been a Saturday. Most of the schools in Sindhupalchok have not been rebuilt, and classes are still held in temporary tin huts. Broken bricks, wooden beams and crushed furniture litter school grounds everywhere.

The conflict had just entered its tenth year in March 2006 when Maoist guerrillas ambushed an Army truck in Kavre, killing 13 soldiers. Army helicopter gunships were trying to trace the attackers and came upon a large gathering of Maoists in Thokarpa who were celebrating that victory.

After an Islander reconnaissance place spotted the gathering, it radioed base, and four attack helicopters soon arrived to bomb and strafe the school. Four of the guerrillas were killed as well as an elderly villager herding goats. Six of the school’s classrooms were destroyed and the office building was riddled with bullets.

Chhatra Neupane used to run a grocery in Thokarpa back then. Sitting on a stool outside his shop, he was watching Maoist fighters decorating the stage.

They had brought in people from surrounding villages and Maoist commanders Barshaman Pun (who later became Finance Minister) and Agni Sapkota (currently Minister of Forest and Soil Conservation in the governing coalition) were expected to address them.

Shortly after Pun turned up, an army plane was spotted high above circling the village. A Maoist sentry shouted: “Eagle in the sky.”

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Neupane, who now teaches English at the school, did not know that was the Maoist code for an imminent aerial attack. Soon, four helicopter gunships crested the ridge, and began firing and dropping bombs.

Neupane swooped up his four-year-old daughter who was playing outside and took her into his shop. He did not feel safe there either, and ran out into the open. “Bullets were coming down like hailstones,” he recalls. “I just ran and ran, without looking up or behind me. I hoped that the army would not hit a man carrying a little child.”

He survived, but the school was a smouldering ruin. There were bodies of dead Maoists, the wounded were screaming, and dead livestock were everywhere. The Maoists took revenge against this aerial raid one month later by attacking the Army Base in the Sindhupalchok capital of Chautara (see below), across the Bhote Kosi from Thokarpa. Fortunately, that was one of the last battles of the war, and a month later the ceasefire of 24 April 2006 brought the conflict to a close.

The school spent Rs 1.1 million, some of it a grant from the newly-established Peace Ministry, to rebuild classrooms, and the repairs were completed in 2010. Five years later, the school was destroyed yet again. And one year after the earthquake, the re-rebuilding hasn’t even started.

“The earthquake struck us just when we were struggling to overcome the scars of the war,” says Principal Bishnu Neupane. “After the earthquake, we drew up a six-year plan to develop our school as the best in this district, but we need at least Rs 70 million for that. I don’t know how we can manage so much money.”