The Ghosts of Nepal’s ‘Disappeared’

Recent Features

Features | Society | South Asia

The Ghosts of Nepal’s ‘Disappeared’

A decade-long civil war claimed thousands of lives. More than four years after it ended, though, official silence means some families can’t move on.

What little Anita Chaudhary knows about how her husband went missing comes from anecdotes from other villagers. One woman in the community told Chaudhary she saw her husband, Rajkumar, distressed and in tears being led by government troops to their barracks. A man, who claimed he shared a prison cell with Rajkumar but survived the ordeal, said they had comforted each other after enduring violent interrogation sessions.

These vignettes of the day almost a decade ago when her husband travelled to the nearest town—to purchase food and clothing, Chaudhary says—and never returned, are etched into her memory. But the picture remains painfully incomplete, and the group that eyewitness accounts suggest is responsible, the state Nepal Army, has refused to disclose information that could give her answers.

In the decade of fighting between government troops and Maoist forces in Nepal from 1996 to 2006, thousands of suspected civilian partisans were targeted by each side. Now, more than four years after the signing of a peace agreement, some 1400 individuals (perhaps considerably more) remain unaccounted for. In almost all cases, ‘the missing’ or ‘the disappeared’, as local civic groups and government officials commonly describe them, are assumed—but not officially pronounced—dead.

The conflict’s guerrilla-style fighting was fiercest in isolated rural communities like those scattered in Bardiya district. The area is part of The Terai, the southern agricultural belt of Nepal hugging the north-eastern border of India. In poor, low-caste or ethnic minority communities here, like that of Pahali Tharu’s, Maoists and government forces would regularly patrol—the insurgents looking to frazzle their better armed adversaries in quick skirmishes, and government troops hoping to establish a foothold in communities to assert their authority. ‘The army asked if we provided food to the Maoists. Then the Maoists would come and ask if we provided information to the government troops,’ Tharu recalls.

Her son, along with the sons of the two women she sits with as she tells her story, went out one night to catch rats in nearby fields for dinner. (Rodents are a common part of the diet in parts of Bardiya, and their sons were usually responsible for doing the hunting, she says). They were intercepted by plainclothes soldiers, according to another young man, who would later tell these mothers that he had been held in the same barracks as their children.  

Eight years later, Tharu remembers a broadcast she heard on a local government-run radio station in the weeks after her son’s disappearance: three male insurgents were killed in a skirmish with the Nepal Army, the broadcast said. Researchers of the civil war believe the state army sometimes fabricated these reports to account for the deaths of those it executed in custody, in case the circumstances of their disappearance were ever investigated. But no such official scrutiny has ever materialized.

Rights groups and associations representing families of the missing have petitioned for official action. However, their calls have found little resonance. Still shaping their role (and image) in Nepal’s new political landscape, the state army and Maoists see few reasons to address these extrajudicial killings carried out by their fighters, although on paper they committed to allow investigations into 'serious violations of human rights' during the war.  

After 10 years of bitter fighting that led to at least 13,000 combat casualties and traumatized rural communities, the Maoists and Nepal army signed a treaty stipulating the creation of a new and more democratic Constitution, integration of both armies into one defence force as well as probes into human rights abuses and war crimes. The Maoists, known officially as The Unified Communist Party of Nepal, had pledged to end the severe social and economic inequality perpetuated under the rule of the royal family and insular political clans. They succeeded in forcing the abolition of the monarchy, but otherwise have yet to force major reforms to make their rhetoric of a fairer society real. An undercurrent of deep mutual distrust and ideological differences, compounded by constant power manoeuvring, has kept the postwar transition from making much progress.

The Nepalese government initially granted 100,000 rupees (currently valued at around $1,400) as interim compensation to victims’ families, the majority of whom have indeed received payment.

The government’s draft bill on disappearances includes provisions for criminal prosecutions but, by having teeth, this legislation has made parliamentarians nervous.The bill has languished, as parliamentarians are unwilling to advance a vote on it given the prevailing political discord. ‘The issue is becoming ever more remote’ and lost what little traction it may have had previously, says Kirsten Young, head of the office of the International Center for Transitional Justice in Nepal.

As interested parties wait for a response from the government, which is recently re-forming after six months under a caretaker regime without legislative powers, victims’ families remain in a state of precarious uncertainty.  More than 70 percent of those abducted by the state army and Maoists were married men. In these rural parts, a husband typically holds a family’s access to income, key legal rights and legitimacy in the community; and a lone mother can easily become scorned. 

So, for Anita Chaudhary, her misery has been manifold. Her neighbours have referred to her as a ‘witch’, believing she possessed malignant forces that were responsible for her husband’s death. ‘Other people in the community avoid speaking to me. I’m alone.’ The International Committee for the Red Cross has tried to address the stigmatization experienced by victims’ wives. The group has provided counselling to families of the disappeared and tried to sensitize others in their communities to the emotional turmoil that victims’ families face.

Customs specific to the ethnic groups living in Bardiya can be especially unforgiving to victims’ wives. ‘Many of the wives hold out hope that their husband might appear, so they continue to wear makeup and colourful clothes’ as married women do, says Bhava Poudyal, a Red Cross counsellor. ‘But this is deemed inappropriate by others in the community who assume the man is dead and that, therefore, the wife should behave (and appear) like a widow.’ Traditionally, a widow is supposed to wear only white clothing and muted colors, remove matrimonial ornaments and avoid public gatherings, a practice that can outright ostracize an already isolated woman.

Addressing another significant gap, the Red Cross is also quietly pursuing information to help families locate bodily remains. The group collects allegations from family members and then approaches those who may have been involved in the disappearance, holding confidential (non-legally binding) conversations to try to solicit recollections that might lead to the discovery of victims’ remains. ‘We cannot expect or request anyone to say, “Yeah, I shot that guy behind a tree in 1998,”’ says, Jamila Hammami, of the Red Cross. ‘But speaking in the passive tense, they might tell us that this person was killed here and their body was buried there.’

For widows, this information is especially important. Without official confirmation of her husband’s death, a wife is unable to assume control of family property until 12 years after her suspected dead husband was last sighted. It’s also essential to secure a home for the deceased in the afterlife.

In Hinduism, which is observed in its most traditional form in these rural hamlets, a deceased person is unable to reincarnate untilhis or her body is given a proper death ritual; otherwise, the spirit of the deceased remains damned, tormenting their living family members for failing to deliver them to the next life. In Bardiya, the disappeared still lurk, and their families are twice stricken. 

Brendan Brady is a Southeast Asia-based writer. His work has appeared in The Los Angeles Times, Time and The Economist, among other publications.