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Open and shut

Nepal | A government-imposed lockdown has not stopped Nepal's tiny Christian minority from exporting hope and truth

Issue: "Who will be the next pope?," April 16, 2005

Nepal is coming unglued and Heather Swensen can't wait to get back there.

The soon-to-be 23-year-old mission worker made a dramatic exit from the Himalayan fortress state after the government imposed martial law in February. Maoist rebels, who have been fighting the constitutional monarchy since 1996 in hopes of replacing it with a communist republic, have disrupted Nepal's economy in a conflict that has killed 11,000.

Government curfews and a sealed border have continued since Feb. 1, when King Gyandendra dismissed parliament and inaugurated martial law. The rebels responded by inciting worker strikes and violently enforcing a nationwide slowdown, or bandh. That left the Maoist insurgents and the Royal Nepalese Army attacking civilians from both sides. And that left Miss Swensen-who works in a highly contested area teaching English and health care, helping to install water projects, and assisting the country's tiny evangelical population-in grave danger.

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Friends said it was too unsafe to plan an orderly escape. Maoist-laid bombs were turning up along main thoroughfares and on school grounds, while government authorities shut schools, most newspapers, and border exits. She would have to be taken to the border by ambulance.

Forced onto small back roads through the Maoist-infested jungle, her getaway vehicle encountered roadblocks and craters left by bombs. Halted repeatedly at rebel-manned checkpoints, Miss Swensen lay in the back on a cot, disguised as an ailing patient wrapped in a shawl. She made it safely into India only to discover that the main bridge she had crossed was bombed soon after her departure.

Later she learned that one week after her Feb. 15 escape, rebels blew up an ambulance in the area, suspecting it was harboring evacuees. Maoist forces on Feb. 22 stopped the emergency vehicle at a roadblock on the Mahendra highway near Kohalpur village, 12 miles from Nepalgunj. According to eyewitnesses who spoke to Human Rights Watch, the ambulance was returning from the hospital in the town of Dang with a released patient and a relative when about 10 Maoist fighters stopped the ambulance midafternoon, demanding to know why the ambulance was defying the bandh.

As the ambulance driver and a co-worker argued that under the rules of war they had a right to use the road, a Maoist fighter threw a grenade into the ambulance. The blast ignited an oxygen tank on board, blowing the roof off the ambulance and killing those inside.

Miss Swensen isn't sure if it was the same ambulance that carried her to safety. "I was amazed that one ambulance came and got me-the only one in the region," she said. "Now it seems like an even bigger miracle."

But great escapes do little to alter the political landscape. King Gyandendra is determined to prevail in a three-way power struggle that pits him against parliamentary leaders he regards as ineffective at dealing with the rebels, on the one hand, and Maoist forces operating under the Communist Party of Nepal, on the other.

Last week the rebels successfully renewed a general strike order, blockading main highways and effectively shutting down the country. Schools, hospitals, and many businesses found it impossible to remain open. Bomb attacks blamed on the rebels killed at least two people, including a schoolboy. A similar blockade last August on Kathmandu cut food and fuel supplies to the 1.5 million people living in and around the city.

Rebel mischief does not beget sympathy for the king. Most Nepalese believe he is manipulating the crisis to consolidate power, and they view the army as corrupt and abusive. Few support his measures to combat the latest terrorism: border restrictions, a clampdown on media, and curfews.

Both the United States and Great Britain have poured foreign aid into the country. They also increased military aid in the aftermath of 9/11, when President George W. Bush designated the Maoist insurgency a terrorist group. Neither Mr. Bush nor British Prime Minister Tony Blair is willing to risk a budding insurgency parked between India and China. But even allies grow weary of King Gyandendra's tactics. Shortly after he dissolved parliament in February, Britain and India cut military aid to Nepal. Mr. Bush threatens to follow suit if democracy is not restored. When U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice traveled to India last month, Nepal topped her agenda. At the time, Pakistan's outgoing ambassador to Nepal, Zamir Akram, hinted that Pakistan was ready to step in with military aid where Western nations left off-a prescription for a widened regional conflict.

Under such taut circumstances, Miss Swensen says the confrontation does have one beneficiary: the church. "Neither Maoists nor the government like churches. Whenever Maoists stop fighting the government they target churches, and the same is true for the government," she said. "As long as the two are fighting then nobody is targeting churches."

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