A decade after the end of the conflict in Nepal, the perpetrators of war crimes want to bury the truth while the families of victims are still trying to dig it out.
Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal was the commander of the Maoist militia and faces dozens of charges of wartime excesses. His coalition partner Sher Bahadur Deuba of the Nepali Congress used to be prime minister for most of the war years and is also charged with human rights violations.
Dahal and Deuba now both agree that raking up the past will endanger the peace process. Which is why neither is serious about empowering transitional justice bodies set up last year. They have ensured that the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) and the Commission for the Investigation of Enforced Disappeared Persons (CIEDP) have weak mandates.
If it wasn’t for a Supreme Court verdict, there would probably have been a law by now granting blanket amnesty and pardons for perpetrators of war crimes. The CIEDP drafted a law last year to to criminalise enforced disappearances, but the government ignored it. Without a strong law, even if the real truth about what happened to the disappeared comes out no action can be taken against perpetrators.
“The truth is the first thing that we want, but we also want the guilty punished,” says Bhagi Ram Chaudhary of the National Network of Families of Disappeared and Missing Nepal. Chaudhary is from Bardiya which saw 258 of the 1,334 listed as disappeared by an International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) report.
His brother Chaite Lal and his wife Sita Janaki Chaudhary were disappeared by the army during the Deuba government in 2001. “We want the truth about our disappeared family persons so we can perform their final rites, we want the truth also because without it we cannot see justice,” he says. CIEDP spokesperson Bishnu Pathak says his agency cannot do much with the limited mandate, time and resources. But the families of the disappeared say money is not the issue, it is the lack of political will.
Says Chaudhary: “The Commisison is not free and impartial. It is merely a political tool to protect Dahal, Deuba and their partners in crime.”
For years after her son was disappeared by the army, Ramkrishni Chaudhary used to look out every time a vehicle approached her mud house. She had held on to the hope that her son was alive, and would come home some day. Not anymore.
She is now hard of hearing, but that is not why she has stopped looking out at cars on the road. She has lost hope that her son, Bhaban Chaudhary, is still alive.
“He would not have kept me waiting for so long, he was a responsible boy and always cared for his family,” she says, eyes brimming with tears.
In September 2002, seven young men from Motipur village, including Bhaban, were on their way to India in search of jobs. They were stopped by an Army patrol near the border.
Ramkrishni Chaudhary thought her son had already crossed over to India. Four days later, she heard from villagers that Bhaban and his friends were detained at the Chisapani Army base.
Bhaban was 25 then, a quiet and hard-working man and not a Maoist. He just wanted to escape the violence and support his pregnant wife, aging parents and younger siblings. After his disappearance, his wife gave birth to a daughter who is now 14, and has never seen her father. Bhaban’s younger brother dropped out of school to support the family.
Chaudhary and the mothers of six others who disappeared, searched for their sons and finally learnt that they were kept in the Chisapani base. But the army denied they were there.
One of the men detained along with Bhaban was released because his relatives were in the Army, and that is how Chaudhary knows that her son was in the Chisapani Base. He said they had been tortured, sometimes with sacks of rice piled on top of them on which soldiers sat.
In 2004, under pressure from the National Human Rights Commission, the Army finally admitted that three of the six detainees were “killed in an encounter”. But it refused to say anything about the other three, including Bhaban.
Through the years that followed, Chaudhary kept up her struggle to find her son. Borrowing money from villagers, she travelled to Chisapani many times to ask the Army to either release her son or show her the spot where he might be buried.
Once, she even took Bhaban’s clothes to Chisapani, and asked the soldiers at the gate to give them to him. The soldiers replied that they would set fire to his clothes because he was not with them. Those clothes, a few photographs and her son’s citizenship certificate are the only reminders left of her son.
Journalist Rameshwar Bohara’s photograph of a distraught Ramkrishni Chaudhary holding up her son’s citizenship card became one of the representative images of the plight of the families of the disappeared in the war. It was one of the pictures included in the A People War trilogy of photobooks on the conflict.
“Until I took this photo, no one knew that so many Tharu youths had been disappeared by the army in Bardiya,” says Bohara. “So this photo exposed the extent of enforced disappearances in this district, and prompted the National Human Rights Commission to look into the matter.”
Early this year, Chaudhary finally registered a case at the Commission for the Investigation of Enforced Disappeared Persons (CIEDP), one of the two transitional justice bodies set up nearly a decade after the end of the war. She wants the Commission to find out why Bhaban was detained, where and how he was tortured and what happened to him at the end.
“I am old, ill and I don’t have much time,” she says. “I want to know before I die where my son is. If he was killed, what happened to his body?”
But there is not much hope that the short-staffed CIEDP with limited mandate and resources will be able to find out the truth. With more than 200 people disappeared, Bardiya had the most reported disappearances during the conflict. Most of them, like Bhaban, were young men from the Tharu community detained by the Army for interrogation and never heard from again.
The notorious Chisapani Barrack and posts set up to guard the Bardiya National Park were used in the Army’s counter insurgency operations for detention, torture and executions. Bhaban’s father, Amrit Lal Chaudhary, worked as a Kamaiya - bonded farmer - but was lucky to be freed even before the slave tradition was abolished in 2000. Bhaban and his brothers, therefore, did not have to work as Kamaiyas.
Bhaban’s younger brother, Thaggu, says his brother’s disappearance cost the family dearly. “He worked so I could go to school, but with him gone I had to leave my studies,” he says. Thaggu goes to India once in a while to earn money but mostly supports his parents in the farm.
The government has given a compemsation of Rs 400,000 to Bhaban’s family. But Ramkrishni Chaudhary has not been able to spend this money because it is deposited in a joint account with Bhaban’s daughter, and can only be taken out when she turns 16 in two years. “The money is for my granddaughter’s future,” Ramkrishni Chaudhary says. “As for me, I just want to know what happened to my Bhaban.”
A decade after the 2006 Comprehensive Peace Accord, the government, last year, finally set up the promised commission to investigate enforced disappearances during the war. But only four months remain of the two-year tenure of the Commission for the Investigation of Enforced Disappeared Persons (CIEDP) with investigations still in their preliminary stages.
The CIEDP has collected 2,870 complaints from families of the disappeared, mostly from Bardiya (284), Dang (124) and Banke (121). The CIEDP is verifying these complaints before beginning the actual investigations.
The CIEDP has limited time, resources and legal instruments to find the truth about the disappeared persons and recommend legal actions against perpetrators. There is also a lack of political will from the state, which is composed of the warring parties who would like to sweep their excesses under the carpet.
The Commission’s tenure can be extended for one more year, but without resources and a stronger mandate it will not be able to carry out meaningful investigations.
“Top leaders often say their priority is to conclude the peace process, but none of them have given importance to finding the truth about the disappeared,” says Bishnu Pathak of the CIEDP. “I do not understand how they want to conclude the peace process without addressing the issue of enforced disappearances.”
Pathak says the CIEDP is short-staffed, and is functioning on a shoe-string budget. For this fiscal year, the CIEDP had sought Rs 500 million, but the government gave it only Rs 130 million. “The budget we have is only sufficient for salaries, administrative purposes and some program costs,” he says. “We need experts on human rights, humanitarian laws, conflict and forensic science, but we do not have money to hire them.”
Most importantly, the CIEDP lacks strong laws to recommend actions against army officers and Maoist leaders directly involved. Last year, it drafted a law that criminalises enforced disappearances, but the government has not forwarded it to Parliament yet. With CPN (Maoist-Centre) Chair Pushpa Kamal Dahal and NC President Sher Bahadur Deuba (both of whom face more war crime charges than any other leader) at the helm of the government, the law drafted by the CIEDP is unlikely to be passed. And without it the truth will always be buried; perpetrators will walk free.
A year after the Maoist war ended with a peace accord in 2006, the number of missing persons listed by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) was only 850. However, this number nearly doubled over the next few years, with more people mustering the courage to report disappearances of relatives.
However, in the last few years, the number of missing persons has either slightly dipped or remained constant every time the ICRC updates it. Last year, it stood at 1,350. But this August it decreased to 1,334.
The number of missing persons is decreasing not because disappeared persons are returning alive or their bodies are being discovered, but because people have given up trying to find them.
Bhojali Chaudhari of Dang waited for her daughter, Dhan Kumari Chaudhari, who had been disappeared by the Army to return for years. But she gave up hope, and finally performed last rites for her lost daughter last year, which has been captured in ‘The doll’s funeral’, a documentary made by ICRC.
Dhan Kumari’s name is no longer in the ICRC list this year. Like Chaudhary, some families are tired of waiting, and just want to move on by performing final rites of their disappeared loved ones. But there are others who are tired and have not given up yet.