Picturing war

First published by Nepali Times.

War is hard to capture. The heart of war is a schizophrenic place where extremes of love and hate, heaven and hell, touch and ignite each other.

Few photographers can capture this. But when they do the image is never forgotten and sometimes even change the course of history. A little Vietnamese girl, naked, fleeing a napalm attack, the soldier in the Spanish civil war caught at the moment of his death, Saddam’s teetering statue or prisoners being tortured at Abu Gharib, these images lie buried in our minds and hearts and have become part of humanity’s common consciousness.

When Nepal’s conflict began in 1996, it was one without images. There were daily reports of increasing body counts but no photos. We did not know what a baltin bomb looked like. Today, with digital photography, Nepali photojournalists have amassed a lot of visuals. My own collection is bulging with photos cut out of newspapers.

A picture of Baburam Bhattarai, Hisila Yami, Ram Bahadur Thapa and Pushpa Kamal Dahal beaming as they watch something ‘in an undisclosed location’. I look carefully at their faces: they look so content and united. So well fed. I draw my conclusions but it doesn’t tell me much about what war feels like out there.

A destroyed health post in Banke. ‘The locals are now deprived of basic medical treatment,’ reads the caption. I imagine children dying of diarrhoeal dehydration, anemic women without iron tablets, untreated broken bones, infecting wounds, women dying at childbirth.

More images of destroyed buildings. Government offices in Charikot, schools in Gurkha, police posts and airports all over the country. I imagine a country bombed back into history, decades of development undone.

Lots of pictures of dead bodies. A pile of policemen bodies in Bhakunde Besi. The first layer of corpses is vertical. The faces seem identical: a wave of thick black hair, well-defined eyebrows, long noses. The second layer consists of policemen with feet pointing at the camera, almost touching the face of a fellow-policeman below. A policeman wearing blood stained gloves pulls the legs of a body towards him. Around the pile are remains of what look like a basket, spades and rocks. Two policemen sit on a low wall, one of them has crossed his legs in a comfortable position.

Pictures of ‘Maoist’ dead in Khara, scattered across the terrain. Lovely faces, perfectly shaped feet, strong legs-these boys could have been lovers, surgeons, sportsmen, mountaineers.

Then there is one particular picture I can’t look at for long. The one of Lamjung teacher Muktinath, Adhikari, crucified against a tree. I know exactly what the Maoists did to this man but don’t want to remember. It’s enough to watch, for a minute, the image of a dead man on his knees, handcuffed from the back, shirt spilling out of his trousers. It’s enough to watch his face, the eyes closed in intense sorrow, mouth slightly open as if still wanting to speak: “Don’t do things you might later regret.” Four years later, I can almost hear Muktinath say: “Don’t hurt, don’t destroy, don’t take life.”

Tucked away at the bottom of my folder are pictures of mourning relatives. I can almost touch the war here. An army personel is killed in Rolpa. In Kathmandu relatives cry after hearing the news. The wife is lying on the floor, a man (her brother-in-law?) holds her face with both hands. The man himself is visibly distressed, crying and speaking at the same time. A woman (his sister?) presses the palm of her hand against his face, in comfort. Another man wipes tears from his cheeks and holds the first man by his shoulder. There are many hands reaching out in grief and chaos: a tableau vivant depicting the human ability to create and destroy.

A picture that really brings the war home to me is one that hits me like a nail, splits open my head and fills me with revulsion, sadness, compassion. It is Suresh Sainju’s picture of three children after the death of their father, a policeman.

The eldest son sits in the middle, sisters on his left and right cling to him. The sister on the left tilts her head back a little, her mouth is open. The sister on the right embraces the brother with her left hand and cries into his shoulder. But it is the brother’s face that touches me the most. His eyes upon his sisters trying to take it all in his face frozen with thoughts that can’t be spoken. The responsibility on those young shoulders, the only male in the family. Rituals, cremations, documents, his sisters’ education, money.

Can anyone look at this photo and continue the destruction?

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