Kathmandu orders mass eviction of ‘river squatters’

KATHMANDU — Bimala Bardewa stands by her fragile cement block home on the riverbank, directing her children as they prepare for school and ignoring the stench rising from the fetid water below.

Her 50-year-old husband Badri Pariyar, a lower-caste “Dalit”, cleans the traditional flute-like instrument that he plays at wedding parties to put food on the table for his family-of-five.

It is an ordinary morning for a couple among Kathmandu’s landless thousands who have made their homes on the banks of the Bagmati river for more than 20 years.

But just yards away Bimala can see bulldozers waiting impatiently for the order to flatten her shanty town, and she knows her family’s way of life is about to change forever.

Bimala and Badri are among more than 10,000 so-called “squatters” whose homes are about to be demolished after a Nepal court gave the go-ahead in December for one of the largest mass-evictions in the country’s modern history.

“I’m ready to die here but can’t move anywhere. We have lost everything we had,” says Bimala, 35.

“We are helpless. We can’t return to our village because we don’t own land there.”

Nepalis first began settling in large numbers by the capital’s river banks in the 1990s, attracted to Kathmandu by the prospect of jobs and fleeing poverty and a Maoist insurgency in the countryside.

The city’s spiralling property prices meant they could not afford housing and were forced to settle by the Bagmati.

Soon, small communities became sprawling townships until rows of shanties lining the river were given their own addresses, while politicians courted this new constituency in the hope of garnering support and donations.

Bimala’s family live like many squatters in Nepal’s impoverished capital, crammed under corrugated tin roofs in shacks that heat up like ovens and leak in the monsoon while providing scant protection from the biting wind in winter.

Most cook food on firewood collected from furniture factories and live a threadbare existence without running water or any proper sanitation.

Dogs and chickens pick at rotten rubbish on the river bank, slices of red meat hang drying on rope in sheds and the odour of home-made alcohol fails to conceal the stench of human excrement in the river.

Yet their community bustles with a rhythm and energy which would be alien in the capital’s more sterile upmarket suburbs.

It is not much of an existence, say the squatters, but the riverbank is their home.

The government has said it will use force if necessary to carry out the evictions and has thousands of police officers standing by.

“If the government forcefully evicts us then there will be a revolt. We have invested our blood and tears in this place,” Dhanswar Limbu, a Maoist party member and a leader of the squatters, told AFP.
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