Citizen Jane Report #2

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The Sari Soldiers doesn’t take sides; there are plenty of atrocities to go around, and it’s hard to say who really profited from ten years of violent conflict.

 
 
 
 
 
I’ve always thought of Nepal as a sort of Shangri-La type of place where people followed the peaceful way of life recommended by their countryman the Buddha and enjoyed unprecedented views of the Himalayas. Silly me.
 
What had totally escaped my notice was the Nepali Civil War between Maoist insurgents and the royalist forces, which lasted 10 years (1996-2006) and resulted in the deaths of over 12,000 people. I can thank Julie Bridgham’s documentary The Sari Soldiers (http://sarisoldiers.com/ and http://www.wmm.com/filmcatalog/pages/c727.shtml) for cluing me in to the reality of this terrible period as well as providing a more nuanced view of the country (including the prevalence of the caste system and entrenched discrimination against women). What is particularly interesting about Bridgham’s film, winner of the Nestor Almendros Award at the 2008 Human Rights Watch International Film Festival, is that it depicts the changing circumstances of Nepal through the lives of six women.
 
Devi is a Dalit, or untouchable, who spoke out publicly after she saw her niece tortured and killed by members of the Royal Nepali Army. In retaliation the army seized her 15-year-old daughter and refused to provide any information about the girl’s whereabouts for years. During the civil war Nepal held the unfortunate distinction of having the highest number of reported “disappearances” in the world. In the course of seeking justice Devi came into contact with Mandira Sharma, a human rights lawyer from a remote region in Nepal, who was later awarded the Global Rights Defender Award from Human Rights Watch for her work defending the rights of civilians during the Civil War.
 
Kranti is a commander in the Maoist army, an organization that is 40 percent female according to the Maoists. Kranti attributes this extraordinary fact to widespread discrimination against women in traditional Nepali society. For whatever reason, the Maoists were so successful in recruiting women that the Royal Nepali Army began training women soldiers in response. As a representative of those women we meet Rajani, a member of the first female officer training class. Finally, we meet the student activist Ram Kumari, a leader in the movement to restore democracy, and Krishna, a monarchist from a rural village who leads a rebellion against the Maoists.
 
The Sari Soldiers doesn’t take sides; there are plenty of atrocities to go around, and it’s hard to say who really profited from ten years of violent conflict. In a talkback following the film, Bridgham, a Sundance Institute Documentary Fellow who has lived in Nepal for extended periods, was able to provide more perspective on the situation in Nepal. One point she made was that the violence during the Civil War was so extreme in part because the country had no coping mechanism for conflict, which had not previously been a part of its history. Another was that most people in Nepal only knew a small part of the story. For instance, when she showed the completed film to the six women featured in it, Rajani was shocked to hear Devi’s story. The Sari Soldiers is currently being shown in the different regions of Nepal (often in villages that do not have electricity and where people may never have seen a film before) with facilitators to lead discussions about the Civil War and the current situation in Nepal. | Sarah Boslaugh
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