The Ghosts of Nepal’s ‘Disappeared’


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.

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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.  

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