Man Bahadur Bista of Kotbada of Kalikot never thought he would live to see the day when a plane would land on the ground where 35 civilian workers who build the airfield still lie buried.
On Saturday, when a Tara Air flight carrying 14 passengers landed at Suntharali airfield, Bista couldn’t hold back his tears. “We had lost hope that this cemetery would ever become an airfield, but today it really has.”
The construction of the airfield commenced in 1985 with an investment of Rs 100,000 but the massacre of the workers stopped all work. “During the war this was a battlefield, and remained a graveyard for those who were killed here,” said Bista, who himself was injured in an aerial attack by the Army in November 2001.
On 22 February, 2002, a week after the Maoist attack on Mangalsen of Achham, soldiers in hot pursuit of the attackers killed 35 civilian workers, mistaking them for Maoists. Seventeen of them were from the village of Jogimara of Dhading.
Many of the thousands who thronged the airfield on Saturday were witnesses of that massacre. The first flight brought tears of joy and sorrow to the people of Kalikot, who survived a brutal war to see the airfield become operational.
Work on the airfield was expedited only after Humla MP Jiwan Bahadur Shahi became the Minister of Tourism. “It is because of his commitment that the airport was completed,” said Raj Kumar Chettri of the Civil Aviation Authority of Nepal. Shahi visited the site thrice after becoming the minister and took personal interest in its completion.
Kalikot was one of the few districts in Nepal still to connected by road. But now the Karnali Highway has reached the town, the airfield will have to prove its worth.
“It is important that all the infrastructure is in place to ensure smooth operation of daily flights,” says Bhanu Pandey of Raku. “It will not be easy for the airfield to compete with the road.”
With the new airport now operational, locals want the state to honour those buried here. “We can’t really be happy until the blood and sweat sacrificed by those who worked on this airfield is remembered,” said health worker Govinda Giri who treated many of the injured during the massacre 17 years ago.
Filmmaker Mohan Mainali who made a documentary on the 17 Jogimara workers also says the state needs to respect the dead: “People need to know how the workers were killed and a memorial should be built for them.”
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