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The Squatters of United Nations Park

In May 2012, about 1,500 of Nepal’s poorest watched as government workers bulldozed their settlement with riot police standing by to crack any dissenting heads.
Κείμενο Emilia Terzon

In May 2012, about 1,500 of Nepal’s poorest watched as government workers bulldozed their settlement with riot police standing by to crack any dissenting heads. Their makeshift homes – located in the middle of Kathmandu’s 60 hectare United Nations Park – were flattened in a mere few hours. Named in 1996 to honour the UN’s fiftieth birthday; the park was earmarked for lawns, kiosks, and other pretty things. From the authorities point of view, squatters living in the unfinished green space were holding up these plans. Put another way, a decade of civil war and revolution had put a dampener on Nepalese horticulture.


But while the park was back on the government’s agenda in May, little has changed since the dozers moved on. The squatters are still there, their improvised homes are just a little less solid. Around 240 families – 1000 people, one-third children – are still living in the UN Park. Some are stoic and refusing to yield; others simply have no choice. “We have to stay here. We don’t have anywhere else,” says Anita, a 25-year-old labourer from Nepal’s eastern Morang district.

Like most present on that shitty day, Anita had been living in the UN Park long-term – about six years. When the bulldozers came, she lost her two-roomed dwelling and almost everything in it. Today, she speaks to me from inside a muddy shelter held together by pieces of string. “I am just so angry,” she says. Dubbed “landless people” by local politicians and media; essentially these disadvantaged Nepalese are a community of squatters. Before the eviction, the UN Park was less a shanty town than an approximation of a suburb. The luckier ones had entire houses; two, three, or even four roomed abodes built out of bricks and reinforced concrete. Many had electricity and possessions accumulated over the years.

Today, near piles of rubble burying TVs and battery generators, are the leftover people. Like Anita, 45-year-old Januka has been living in the park for six years. She spoke to me from inside her three walled, 8 square meter residence built from corrugated iron, wooden poles, and blue plastic sheeting. “Police come often and threaten me to go,” she says, stirring a pot of rice and spinach. Januka’s a determined woman who cares for five others including a newborn baby. She tells me her family is traumatised. Her request is straightforward: the government needs to give her replacement land.


Yet this is easier said than done. Nepal is a country on the precipice. Half live on $1.25 a day. Land is a precious commodity, especially land in the center of its capital city. Many, like the squatters, migrate to the city from impoverished rural areas; places torn apart by war with no jobs or prospects. It’s this last technicality that’s politicized debate about the UN Park settlers.

Many in Nepal’s political elite claim the squatters are lying about their vulnerable situation to hold onto some of the city’s most valuable land. When I speak to Dipendra Kshetry, vice chairman of Nepal’s National Planning Commission, he echoes this position. “Do you really think that, with all those concrete buildings and houses, that all those settlers are genuinely landless and downtrodden people,” asks Dipendra. He says most have land out of town – a point angrily denied by the squatters I meet.

Post eviction, authorities offered each displaced family 15,000 Nepalese Rupee – about US$160 – to get off the public land permanently. So far only 70 have accepted the offer. Indra Tamang, chief of the Nepal Settlement Protection Society, says the government needs to do more than throw “blood money” at the problem. Indra, a well-dressed and serene man, looks out of place in the slum perched on a crappy blue plastic camping chair. He says the government wants to wipe its hands clean of responsibility by offering petty cash; rather than addressing the issues of homelessness and land inequity rampant in the valley.


One of the people responsible for addressing these problems is the city’s town development minister, Keshav Sthapit, coincidentally elected in April. This is a man that, just days before the bulldozing, said he wants Kathmandu to be “very sexy” by 2017. Sexy, clean, cultural, and – presumably – squatter free at any price. After May, Sthapit tried to resettle the displaced squatters in Kathmandu’s various other settlements. (Yes, the UN Park is just a piss in this landlocked country’s ocean.) His first plan of attack was erecting 58 huts in the nearby Sandarighat settlement. This didn’t go down so flash with its existing settlers, who barricaded their encampment and said they didn’t have enough land and fresh water as it was.

By late July the Sandarighat plan was abandoned. “Trust me. It’ll be much better,” said Keshav of Plan B, smiling in front of TV cameras gathered in the UN Park. But that Plan B – another settlement – soon after morphed into Plan C. Plans comes thick and fast in Nepal, and now nobody really knows what the agenda is at all. Even Dipendra, a government official himself, admits to me that there’s “no way out right now”. He says something else pretty fucking scary: “by now the focus of the government is somewhere else.”

And so the squatters wait; slowly building up some kind of existence from the literal remnants of their former lives.

Like the others I speak to, my last family has been living in the UN Park for six years. Tula, a 47-year-old father from the nearby Dolakha district, is a broken man. He hasn’t been able to work since fracturing his leg in a road accident 15 years ago. Today, his wife is the breadwinner while he stays home with four kids. They lost a three-roomed home in the bulldozing. “I wouldn’t keep my family here if I had even a small piece of land somewhere,” he says, eyes half closed, gesturing around his shanty tent.

As we sit in Tula’s new home, one of his daughters, Renu, gets chatty. At 18-years-old, she’s spent a third of her life as a UN Park squatter. She will graduate at the end of the semester – quite an achievement in a country where half don’t make it to high school – and wants to be a nurse. “There was no schools in Dolakha,” she says. “We have suffered very much.”

When the government bulldozers came, Renu and her little sisters lost all their books, stationery, and clothes. As we finish talking that morning, she disappears behind a thick plastic sheet. Five minutes later she emerges, dressed in a crisp white school uniform donated by someone more fortunate. An orchid plucked from mud; she leaves the park to resume her life in Nepal.