JHYALTUNGDADA, Nepal -- Until four years ago, Jhyaltungdada was nothing more than a dense forest with sal and sissoo trees, with maybe a dozen houses spread across the hill, about a mile apart. Villagers hesitated to walk down to the river to fetch drinking water -- they claimed that mountain tigers and jackals roamed around after sunset.
Today a winding single-lane gravel road runs to the top of this remote hill in western Nepal, through the village, ending at a helipad. The villagers have electricity and access to water at their doorsteps -- all thanks to about 900 Maoist combatants who moved here after the rebels signed a peace agreement with the government in 2006. Months after their arrival, this small village was connected to a major highway, linking it to the capital city of Katmandu.
The armed revolution was launched in 1996 by a handful of rebels who studied and admired Chinese Communist leader Mao Zedong's works and wanted to implement them in this Himalayan country. Their goal was to abolish the country's monarchy and establish a regime run by the peasant class. With more than half the population living in poverty, the Maoists quickly developed a following by vowing to provide economic and political equality to large swaths of the country's marginalized communities. The insurgency took the country by storm for a decade, killing about 12,500 people and leading to the abolition of the country's 240-year-old monarchy in May 2008.
Four years ago, the Maoists signed a peace agreement with the government. Under the conditions of the deal, the rebels' arms and ammunition were placed in cantonments monitored by the United Nations, while the fighters, later known as the People's Liberation Army, were assigned to camps throughout the country like the one at Jhyaltungdada. Although the United Nations is technically supervising these places, the Maoists are confined to the camps only on paper. At Jhyaltungdada, the rebels roam around freely, some often traveling to Katmandu to meet senior Maoist leadership.
Both the United Nations and the interim government realized that it would be dangerous to keep the rebels en masse, unemployed and unpaid, in these camps. To remedy this problem, the peace agreement calls for the government to pay the former Maoist fighters a salary of about $67 a month and provide them with $1 per diem for food. But while they wait inside the walls that the government built for them, the former rebels are growing stronger and more ideologically committed, and they boast that they are mentally and physically prepared to once again pick up their guns and head to the hills.
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The Maoists here live in small huts mostly made of wood and cement -- the higher-ranking commanders have brick walls with black enamel painted along the edges. In a village that thrives on agriculture, these former rebels are the only people who do not have to work for their living. Just beyond the last sentry post, elderly villagers are busy stacking hay to feed the livestock, and women are prepping their farms to plant turmeric this fall. Inside the Fourth Division headquarters of the People's Liberation Army, the rebels train in martial arts, play volleyball, and spend afternoons at the only canteen in the village, where they eat noodles with dried buffalo meat and drink their beverage of choice, Red Bull.
"We love it because it is called Red Bull," said Basudev Ghimire, the division's vice commander, who sports a thick moustache and a large belly, as he guzzled an entire can in one gulp. "It's a color we associate with revolution, and it gives us a lot of energy."
Energy, along with impatience. As the Himalayan country pushes its deadline to come up with a new constitution into next year, nearly 20,000 combatants are restlessly waiting in seven major and 21 satellite cantonments spread throughout the country, hoping to be integrated into the national security forces, which they fought to a bloody stalemate four years ago. The fate of the new republic largely depends on how the government and the Maoists decide to handle their foot soldiers.