Saturday, August 28, 2010

The Disappeared in Nepal: Living in the Shadows

This piece appeared in The Kathmandu Post to mark the international day for the disappeared (Aug 30).

The missing

KATHMANDU, AUG 28 - A retired school teacher, Resham Bahadur Panta shouldn’t have to be doing this. From Gaikhur village in Gorkha, 70-year-old Panta should have been happily spending his twilight years, instead of looking for his son, Dipendra, who has been missing for the last seven years. Wearing a dhaka topi and daura suruwal, he sits in a corner, his knees drawn to his chest.

A student of Science at Amrit Science Campus, Dipendra was picked up by Nepal Army soldiers, according to eyewitnesses, from Kathmandu on Oct. 13, 2003. As soon as his father found out his son was arrested through the media, he left for Kathmandu where he learnt that his son had joined the student wing of the then-banned Maoists. “We had sent him to study,” Panta rues, “Not to be involved in political activities.”

According to Panta, eyewitnesses told him that army soldiers arrested his 25-year-old son and bundled him into a waiting van. Panta says his son was first taken to Bhairabnath Battalion in Maharajgunj and then shifted to Baireni Ranger Battalion in Dhading after that.

Dipendra seemed to be heading on the right track; before pursuing a Science degree, he wanted to study MBBS and become a doctor. Panta says his son was slightly frustrated when the family could not arrange for the Rs. 700,000 required to get admission to a MBBS course. At one point, according to Panta, his son even competed for the Second Lieutenant’s exam in the Nepal Army.

For years after his son disappeared, Panta traversed various army barracks such as Sundarijal, Bhairabnath and Baireni, but all he heard were rumours. Notwithstanding his quest to find his son, Panta finds it hard to believe that he may still be alive. Still, he hasn’t lost hope. “Every day I live in the hope that I will get some news about my son,” he says, “I hope he is safe; I hope nobody has killed him.” He wants the authorities to either bring his son alive or hand over his dead body for cremation, referring to the oft-repeated phrase “saas ki lash”.

Panta is one of those who have been left invisible by the larger number of casualties of the decade-long Maoist insurgency. It is true that nearly 13,000 people died. But in that same war, at least 1,000 people went missing. These numbers vary from institution to institution. According to the National Human Rights Commission, security forces are responsible for the disappearance of at least 970 persons, while 299 have gone missing at the hands of the Maoists. Similarly, INSEC has recorded that 828 people have been made to “disappear” after they were arrested by security forces and 105 by the Maoists.

According to the International Committee of Red Cross (ICRC), 1,385 people have disappeared between 1996 and 2006. The largest numbers of people have disappeared from Bardia, 212, a fact confirmed by the United Nations human rights body OHCHR, which released a report on the disappeared of Nepal in 2008. The report confirms that most of the disappeared were indigenous Tharus, “many of them civilians”.

In Kathmandu, the Bhairabnath Battalion gained notoriety for a large number of disappearances under its command. In a 2006 report, OHCHR listed the names of 49 individuals who were removed from the barracks during the last weeks of December 2003 and were never seen again. Eighteen months later, OHCHR noted that an officer from the battalion told one former detainee that he should not think about his friends any longer, implying their deaths. The relatives of the missing claim that many of the disappearances followed arrests by security forces.

For the family of the disappeared, the wait goes on. And they suffer silently. According to Bhava Poudyal, a clinical psychologist with the ICRC, the relatives of the disappeared are caught in an ambiguity of loss. He says the relatives find themselves in a situation where they can neither be sure of the person’s existence nor can they obtain the dead body whereby they can conduct the last rites. According to Poudyal, 90 percent of the missing are men and hence the bread-earner of the families. “The family loses its primary source of income,” he says, “Then the families spend more resources in search of the disappeared.” Indeed, Panta said he has stretched out his resources looking for his son. “I’ve already spent Rs. 200,000 on travel and hotel bills.”

Poudyal says that the wives of the disappeared suffer a double blow of loss. “There is the social stigma,” he says, “And they can be easy targets for sexual approaches.” According to him, in their husbands’ absence, they often complain that they are treated like slaves. Laure Schneeberger, ICRC’s deputy head of delegation in Nepal, says 35 percent of the relatives want an answer. “They want to know whether the person is dead or alive,” she says, “The demand for justice comes after that.” She points out that Nepal lacks the expertise and logistics for exhumation and forensics, a key area in the investigation of the missing (ICRC, according to her, is providing training in this regard).

After the groundbreaking June 1, 2007, decision by the Supreme Court, the Ministry of Peace and Reconstruction has tabled the much-anticipated Disappearance Bill in the Constituent Assembly. But with the entire peace process hanging in the balance following the prolonged political crisis, this issue seems to be the last politicos will ponder over. Moreover, the bill has been criticised by human rights groups for focusing largely on amnesty and reconciliation and not complying with international standards.

According to ICRC’s Schneeberger, the very definition of the missing in the bill is inadequate. “As long as you don’t deal with the issue of the missing,” she says, “You can’t deal with the future.”

Nepal's Disappreared, my piece at The Guardian.

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