View Seamus Murphy's remarkable photographs from Symmes' trip in our photo gallery.
August 10, 2001: In the immediate wake of the June 1 massacre of Nepal's Royal Family, the world's only Hindu kingdom seemed paralyzed, trapped between an aggressive guerrilla insurgency in the countryside and a spent political system in the capital. Monsoon season arrived amid premonitions of a deepening crisis, as the Maoist insurgents rapidly escalated their attacks and drove government troops from ever larger swaths of countryside.
In July, a break in the clouds finally appeared with the much-awaited ouster of Girija Prasad Koirala, the unpopular prime minister, who was shadowed by corruption allegations. His replacement, Sher Bahadur Deuba, quickly exchanged peace overtures with the guerrillas: The Maoists offered a temporary cease-fire, and Deuba responded with three prison releases, liberating 33 captured guerrillasÂ—all the government held, he claimed-by August 10. There was newly optimistic talk of a negotiated solution to the country's crisis, and the Maoists submitted a list of talking points.
History is the surest guide to Nepal's future, and over time history regresses toward the mean. In Nepal, 11 years of democracy have seen more than a dozen short-lived coalition governments, while party schisms and factionalism are the norm. There is little reason to believe that the Maoist leadersÂ—uncompromising ideologues with a string of victories behind themÂ—will be satisfied by a merely cosmetic change of politicians in Kathmandu. Their negotiating demands were almost identical to those rejected by the previous government, and Maoist leaders told me in May that government offers of negotiations were a trick, merely an attempt to disarm the movement before crushing it. Isolated in their mountain camps, these leaders have developed a paranoid worldview in which compromise is seen as treason, and only a battlefield victory for the communist movement can express the "true will" of the Nepali people.
Unfortunately, Nepalese politics gives plenty of support to conspiracy theories, as the whirl of accusations following the Royal Family massacre showed. The current cease-fire is unlikely to last, and in the long run, Nepal will probably return to a very mean average: more fighting, more corruption, and more despair. For now, travelers to Nepal should go ahead with their plans to visit this lovely country but keep an eye on the news and consult the latest U.S. State Department postings on which areas of the countryside are not safe.
This spring, Outside contributing editor Patrick Symmes became one of the first American journalists to meet with the Communist Party of Nepal. Read about his incredible visit to the Rolpa District.
In an exclusive account, longtime Kathmandu photojournalist Thomas Laird offers a haunting look at the days following the massacre of Nepal's royal family and his own thoughts for what this storm-wracked kingdom has in store.