KATHMANDU: I met with such a brutal attack while working for this forest, there is no question of leaving in the middle,” shares Nanda Devi Kunwar, the Chairperson of Madhu Malati Nanda Community Forest.
This 40-year-old, whose hands (both) almost become dysfunctional after an attack by forest encroaches some five months ago, resides at Malakheti VDC, Kailali-2 with three children, husband and mother-in-law.
The thumb of her left hand is dysfunctional though quite an improvement has been seen in her right hand. Kunwar is still under treatment at present.
Every day she has to visit a hospital at Attariya, Kailali and “some Rs 1,000 per day is spent for treatment”. Luckily, the HAMS Hospital at Buddhanagar is “offering free treatment” as the expense is “quite a lot”.
The only income of her family is farming. “We have four katthas of land. So, we used to cultivate others land on adhiya basis (giving half to the landlord and keeping half crop for self after cultivation)”.
But after the disaster, she was “forced to sell the oxen for my treatment when all others were beginning to cultivate their land”. Because of her condition, her family did not cultivate anyone’s land this year and “I don’t know how my family is going to eat this year as we have no other source of income”.
After the incident, her family members urged her to leave working for forest. The neighbours and consumers who would accompany her to the forest “try to avoid me these days”. Even the forest ranger requested her to leave this work.
But her heart doesn’t say so. “Since my childhood I have had a love for the forest, trees and animals. No one taught me to do so, it was a natural instinct,” claims Kunwar who won’t give up “until the forest is handed over to the community”.
It was around 8:30 am on April 21, and everyone was busy fencing Madhu Malati Community Forest. Kunwar was sitting and digging a hole in the ground when she saw a man called Hari Bhat coming towards her carrying a khunda (knife-like large cutting weapon) “that was sparkling”.
Uninformed about the disaster approaching her, Kunwar was smiling at him.
“But he attacked me with the khunda. He was targeting my throat and I blocked it with my right hand.” She was able to stave off the attack but “I heard the weapon striking the bones of my right forearm. Later I knew two bones of my forearm had been cut.”
Showing the cut marks in her right forearm, she says, “This arm had folded back.” But the enemy was not satisfied and he attacked her again which she blocked with her left hand. “This time thumb was wounded and it also folded back.” And she blocked the third attack with her left forearm.
“After three murderous attacks, he might have thought that I was dead and he left me,” Kunwar recalls of the dreadful incident, yet with a smile on her face.
Those who had accompanied her to the forest were “quite far from me. On seeing the attack, all of them fled and I was lying there all alone”. But Bhat was “again coming towards me”. At that moment she felt, “If he knows I am alive, he will definitely kill me this time”. Wounded and blood flowing from the cuts, but “the desire to be alive” urged her to escape from there.
“I ran some 10 metres down from there,” says Kunwar who met an old man to her relief. “But seeing me wounded, he fainted on the spot.” A few moments later her “nephew came and took me to the hospital on a motorbike and I was saved,” she says with a sigh of relief.
The 18-hectare community forest at Kailali was the target of encroaches and Kunwar was determined to protect it from them. After she took the chairmanship of the community forest group in December 2011, she started to remove goats and oxen that grazed inside the forest area. “There was a set of encroaches who would cut down the forest, grow crops and build a house there for a year and sell that land the next year. They would then encroach on some other forest area and do the same,” she says, and protecting their community forest from them “had been really a challenge for earlier chairpersons. They had received a lot of threats from them to resign”.
And Bhat was like a chieftain of those encroaches. Undeterred by threats and together with the consumers, Kunwar had earlier fenced the forest area. The encroaches “who resided on the border of the forest with their family moved the fencing 10 metres inside the
As such, three of them were arrested by the District Forest Office (DFO), Kailali. Meanwhile the family and others came to Kunwar urging her to help them set those arrested free.
“I did not want to create enmity as my only intention was to protect the environment,” says Kunwar. The encroaches were ultimately released because of her efforts. The one condition made by the DFO was “to move the fencing to the original position and Bhat and his team had agreed to this”.
And it was on the next day of their release that Bhat had attacked Kunwar.
Plea for support
It is not that she is not scared by the incident. “Even today I am afraid. I would not be frightened had my hands been strong enough. But the attacker is still not under police custody. It is heard that he is somewhere in India. Had he been imprisoned, those working in the conservation sector would feel secure,” says Kunwar.
She recently bagged the WWF Special Conservation award and another award from the Ministry of Environment. After the incident, the community forest that was earlier called ‘Madhu Malati Community Forest’ now has her name ‘Madhu Malati Nanda Community Forest’ in it. But she is not happy “as the government is not supporting me. The person who attacked me is said to be close to Sher Bahadur Deuba from the Nepali Congress and he is being protected by the party,” she expresses her dissatisfaction further questioning, “The forests are not for us. They are for future generation. I have been working to secure it for them. But why is the government not giving me relief or punishing the criminal?