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Nepal Newsletter

March 30, 2002
Mark and Deirdre Zimmerman 30 March 2002
United Mission to Nepal
Box 126
Kathmandu, Nepal

I lift up my eyes to the hills - from where will my help come?
My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth.
Psalm 121:1,2

Dear Friends,

Evening falls quietly on the hills. A hint of mist hangs in the thick forest of pine and tall Himalayan holly, the ridge trees silhouetted against a graying sky. A lonely bird chirps from across the ravine. Far below someone calls out to someone else - the voice wafts up, lingers for a moment in the cool air, then fades.

At about 10 o'clock a knock came at the door. Karna and his wife had eaten, settled the fire, and gone to bed. "I thought it was just one of my neighbors. Who else would it have been at this hour? So I went down and opened the door."

The man at the door reached in and grabbed Karna by the arm. He pulled him into the dark courtyard, where about 12 masked men in uniforms surrounded him. Two of the men had drawn their pistols. Maoists.

"Look, if you are going to kill me - go ahead and do it quickly." He pointed to his chest. "Shoot me now."

"Shut up."

Before he knew it, a cloth was tied around his face and his hands bound behind him. He was half-led, half-hoisted to a place where he felt himself forced down onto a large rock. His fear and uncertainty were soon shattered by an intense pain in his right leg. Then he passed out and didn't wake up until he was in the hospital.

In 1969 the United Mission to Nepal opened Amp Pipal Hospital in the Gorkha District. Though located high on a remote hillside, the staff there served over 30,000 patients each year. A long line of missionaries from many countries handed the work down from one to the next. They worked beside locals, many of them farmers who had received their training in compassioned-based health care right there. Amp Pipal gained a measure of international recognition through the books of its first surgeon, Dr. Tom Hale. I came to the hospital in 1987, and it was while working and living with that marvelous group of people that my faith in Jesus Christ took hold.

Gorkha District is also one of the birthplaces of Nepal's Maoist movement. Barburam Bhattarai studied at the UMN school located an hour down the hill from the hospital. In 1970 he scored first in the country on his high school leaving exam, and later did his PhD in England. He was a quiet man with a deep interest in political change. In 1996 Dr. Bhattarai and his associates, led by a man who called himself Chairman Prachanda, declared a People's War against the government of Nepal.

The movement spread first through western districts and then into all of the hills, and last into the southern Terai. Maoists initially targeted police posts, but since last November they have taken on the Nepalese Army. Over three thousand people have died. On one level it is a war between the "have's" and the "have-not's." As Nepal's population grows in number and education, more of its people realize that there is more to life than working on a farm. The Democracy movement of 1990 didn't produce the goods that they had hoped for. They have seen the riches still held by those in power and concentrated in the cities. Maoist leaders recruit from a large segment of society that is seeking change - by whatever vehicle, and at whatever cost.

Last September, the UMN decided to close Amp Pipal Hospital. A number of reasons were given, but foremost was the inability to recruit doctors. The proximity of armed Maoist and government troops created an uncertain situation. As the missionaries were leaving, the local hospital staff unexpectedly said that they wanted to try to run the hospital themselves. Dr. Bharat Thapa, a local boy who went away to train in medicine, became the Medical Director.

That night Karna's wife called their neighbors, and they rushed the unconscious man across the hillside to Amp Pipal Hospital. The masked visitors had smashed his shins with pieces of firewood. Both his tibia were in countless fragments, and one kneecap was shattered beyond repair. Dr. Bharat admitted him to a hospital bed and transfused two units of blood. A day and a half later, when his condition stabilized, his friends carried Karna down the hill to Turture, then by bus into Kathmandu.

I walked into the 6-bed room of our Orhopedics Ward and the nurse motioned me towards the man in the bed by the window. The way he beamed at me from across the room, I wondered if he knew me from somewhere before. I introduced myself, telling him that I had heard of his hardship. He had a soft voice and he smiled as he told me the story that he'd recounted before.

"Who knows why it happened? I had nothing against them. I was a teacher at the school, but I'd left my job a year ago. I got forced out because I was on the wrong side it seemed. Don't you want to sit down, doctor? Son, bring that stool across for the doctor sahib."

His son and a friend were standing on the other side of the bed. As they brought the stool, Karna reached down and pulled up his bed sheets. Each leg had 4 or 5 metal struts extending from below the knee to above the ankle, external fixators to keep his fractures stable. The shins and kneecaps were bandaged. Our orthopedic surgeons hope he will walk, but it won't be for at least 6 months.

Karna's situation, or worse, is repeated again and again across the hills of Nepal. Rural people are caught between the Maoists - who recruit soldiers and raise funds under threat of violence - and the Royal Nepal Army - who cordon, search, and punish with matching relentlessness. The Maoists have spread fear by targeting community leaders, including teachers. In villages of the most affected districts, many of the young men have left, coming into Kathmandu or to safer towns along the southern border.

Each day here in Kathmandu the newspaper headlines announce something like "8 Rebels Killed in Operations", and tell of army action in several outlying districts. But events like the massacre of 140 police and army in remote Accham District attest to the undiminished savagery of the insurgency. Life in our big city seems to proceed normally, but fear presses in more closely as time goes by. The Maoists have now announced a 5-day countrywide shutdown for late April.

Deirdre has cut back on her nutrition work lately, though she is still doing occasional trainings. She has taken on the role of being foreign medical student coordinator for the UMN, a part-time job that she hopes to continue after the baby comes in May. God willing, the delivery will be in Patan Hospital, where Deirdre has an "in" with the Medical Director.

Thank you for our prayers for my work, too. I enjoy the challenging combination of administering a friendly, growing hospital and practicing a brand of medicine that is as rewarding as can be found anywhere. The month of May will see the departures of our Irish and Japanese internists. I am concerned about being called into double hospital duty just as I am learning how to pin diapers - but the Lord has seen us through some thin stretches in the past, too. In July Hom Neupane, a Nepali Christian internist, will return from his training in America - a reason to rejoice.

On the plot beside our Nepali church, 12 holes were dug into the ground, and over these criss-crossed taut lines of string. Following an early morning dedication service, several of us from the church walked around offering up a prayer as we threw a handful of gravel into each foundation hole. Expansion of the "Everlasting Shalom Church" will allow we 70 compacted parishioners a bit of breathing room each Saturday, and more space to welcome new members. The gentle Light is relentless too.

On Good Friday four friends come with us for a picnic on a hill south of Patan. As we climb the winding dirt path, the valley opens below: a wonderful quilt of greens and yellows and browns of a hundred shapes and sizes, sewn together by meandering paths and terraced edges. Dots of red and pink garment lie drying on a slope. A tiny woman walks through her field. Clusters of houses in seeming haphazard array march into the distance until they merge with the brown, smudged sprawl of Kathmandu city. There the white Bhimsen Tower and Swayambu Temple protrude, as if from a debris-strewn lake. The valley is encircled by forested mountains, last sentries of the impossibly towering hills that crowd all horizons and are home to the people of Nepal.

Please pray for this land.

Mark and Deirdre

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