The Ghosts of Nepal’s ‘Disappeared’  (Page 3 of 3)

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.

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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.

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