Teachers in fear

Observations on education

It was on a muggy monsoon morning in the Morang district of eastern Nepal when Somnath Niraula, 52, received the phone call that teachers across the country have come to dread. "Send the children home, round up all your teachers, and come to the woods to the north of the school," a man ordered. Niraula recalls: "He didn't say why, but I was too scared for my life even to ask."

Nepal's Maoist rebels then abducted Niraula and 13 of his colleagues from Shree Panchayat Higher Secondary School, taking them to a secret location in the woods for a day of training on Marxist philosophy and ordering them to start donating a day's salary each month to support the "people's war".

"They didn't have guns and no one threatened us, but we have seen three people in our village killed by the Maoists in the past year, so we know what happens if we refuse," Niraula said.

The kidnapping and "re-education" of teachers is now a feature of a war between the government and the Maoists that has claimed more than 12,000 lives since 1996. It first came to international attention in 2002 when Muktinath Adhikari, a headteacher in Lamjung district in western Nepal, was dragged from the classroom, tied to a tree and shot dead in front of his pupils. In the past year more than 5,000 teachers have been abducted from across Nepal by the rebels, who refuse to allow schools to teach the national anthem or anything glorifying Nepal's royal family. At least 70 teachers are believed to have been killed.

Matters have grown worse since King Gyanendra seized power in an army-backed coup last February and tried to intensify an already brutal military campaign in the Maoist-held territories. Even though the rebels made a peace pact with Nepal's political parties in November, the king and his cabinet refuse to reciprocate the ceasefire, or restore democracy.

The stalemate has left educators in the front line. "Rebels target teachers because, in the villages, they are the sole representatives of a state that is otherwise on the retreat from rebel-held territories," says Dipen Neupane, a journalist and human-rights activist. And the attacks don't just come from one side, for teachers are also increasingly being kidnapped by soldiers - on suspicion of being in league with the Maoists. "The army tortures teachers because they think we are secretly supporting the Maoists' war," said Bhanu Bhakta Pathak, 65.

At a school in Keravari in the east, two teachers have reported that they were abducted and tortured both by the Maoists and by members of the army within the span of two weeks.

Life in the crossfire requires precautions of which the children are inevitably aware. "When the army comes we quickly hang the portrait of the king," said Rudhra Ghimire, a teacher in Keravari. "And when they leave we hide it again for fear of the Maoists."

As we sat talking in the schoolyard, classes broke for the day and the children streamed out into the playground, running and racing each other. Upon spotting us, however, the din died instantly. They seemed to freeze in their tracks, and then slink away quietly.

"See how the children watch us?" asked Ghimire. "They think you have come to take me away. This is the kind of fear we live in, every day."