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.
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."
Miss Swensen, one of very few Americans living full-time outside the capital, has learned to live with the cyclical nature of civil war, even to blend in. Long ago she dyed her long, sandy brown hair a raven black and began wearing brown contacts to mask her American-made blue eyes. She even pierced her nose when Nepalese friends persuaded her it was the final ingredient to assimilation. "A nose ring was one of those things on my list of things I would never do," she recently told an audience of high-school students. "But God is going to intervene with that kind of list, and so I have a nose ring," she said. She knew her Nepalese-language skills had become better, too, when a visiting American complimented her "improving" English.
Work in Nepal began just as rebel/government clashes intensified. In that time Miss Swensen has lived in villages with no Westerners or English-speaking people for several months at a time. Families who host her typically live in a three-room hut made of mud and manure. Wood, their only fuel source, requires a three-day hike usually undertaken with yaks to carry back firewood.
Under cover of internal strife, Christians in Nepal are making strides. The world's only Hindu kingdom, Nepal outlawed Christianity until 1993. No Christian was officially allowed to live in Nepal before 1960. Now there is freedom of religion, technically, but conversion to another religion and proselytizing remain illegal. And since nearly every Nepalese is regarded as Hindu by birth, becoming a Christian remains a treacherous choice. Official records indicate that Christians are less than 2 percent of the population.
Those stats are not stopping the Christian minority from laying plans to send out some of its first missionary teams. If Nepal's civil war has regional implications, so has its church growth. This month a team of a dozen or so will make their first trip to Tibet in search of ministry opportunities. Many Tibetans have lived as refugees in Nepal over the years of China's communist oppression in Tibet, and the cross-cultural exchanges are paving the way for evangelism opportunities. Nepalese Christians also hope to soon launch similar work in Pakistan.
"The Nepalese view is so incredibly strong that they can be missionaries to other places," said Miss Swensen. Persecution in their homeland has prepared them to work in areas that are even more oppressed, including Tibet's Buddhist enclave and Pakistan's restrictive Muslim environment.
The start of the country's own missions movement is the main reason Miss Swensen is eager to return to Nepal-and plans to this month. Another reason is she's fearless.
She traveled to Tibet and Pakistan earlier this year. In Lhasa, the capital of Tibet, she learned from international nongovernmental organizations that any cross-border community development work would have to win permission from Beijing. So she made a 54-hour train ride to Beijing, where she met with communist party officials, securing government forms and initial approval to pursue work in Tibet.
Later, in Pakistan, she traveled unaccompanied-but properly covered-in strict Muslim areas and was abducted, incredibly, three separate times in one 24-hour period. Each time she managed to go free: the first, when a Nepalese recognized her familiar "accent" and came to her aid; the second, on a side street where she escaped by hitting her assailant in the face; and the third, after a man grabbed her and shoved her into a van, she jumped out when the van halted at a train crossing.
"It's the extreme of experience," Miss Swensen said of life in Pakistan for women. "They did not know I was an American. I was simply in trouble because I was out on the street alone. This is what Pakistani women deal with every day."
Culture clash showed her that, despite the East-West barriers she has already surmounted, there are still more obstacles ahead. The first: returning to Nepal given the current clampdown. Nepal's border patrols remain wary of allowing foreigners in or out, and Miss Swensen has a record with authorities. Two years ago she was arrested for her activities, given a three-month jail sentence, thrown out of the country after serving two days, and allowed back in two months later.
"I could get stuck in India but that doesn't bother me," she said. "It bothers me not to know what is going on in Nepal. When God says go you don't question; you just go. I believe very firmly that I will go, to stay."