Saturday Features

Memento mori

  • An exhibition showcasing the stories of survivors of the 10-year civil conflict seeks to preserve history and push the state towards true reconciliation and justice
- Timothy Aryal

Oct 6, 2018-

Picture a dimly-lit room, its contents in disarray. Books are strewn about haphazardly, bedcovers are in shambles, shards of a broken vase lie on the floor. The ceiling has been pulled low, creating a claustrophobic space and a sense of being trapped. There are sounds of marching boots, an insistent pounding on a door and then, a wailing cry.

This was the state of Reena Rasaily’s room when she was summarily arrested from her bedroom by the Nepal Army during the 10-year Maoist insurgency. Rasaily was raped and killed by the Army. Her room has been faithfully recreated by the artist Martin Travers, as part of the ongoing exhibition Memory Truth & Justice—From the Survivors of the People’s War.

The exhibition, currently on display at the Nepal Art Council in Babarmahal, is singular in its presentation and subject matter. The show places the victims of the civil war and their experiences at the centre, eschewing political justification and moralistic wrangling. It is a deeply human and moving presentation, showcasing the toll a civil conflict takes on the people. The war claimed the lives of 17,886 people, while 1,530 have been disappeared, and 8,191 were either disfigured or disabled, according to official figures. The exhibition itself is a culmination of an eponymous project that documented the stories of victims and survivors of the insurgency, reaching out to a total of 120 victim families across the country and documenting their stories in audio-visual mediums. The exhibition includes over 50 videos and about as many audio recordings, all of them harrowing stories of unfathomable atrocities that both the state and the Maoist rebels perpetrated upon the innocent.

“There is a difference between getting beaten with your eyes wide open and getting beaten with your eyes bandaged,” Sabita Baniya (name changed), who was held hostage by the Army during the war, says on one such audio recording. Baniya’s voice is laced with relief at having survived such a torturous ordeal. Baniya tells of how she was arrested, taken to the army barracks and how she was treated there. “There were different kinds of armies. Some were brutal, who beat and tried to rape me. While some were more empathetic, they would console me when their seniors were out,” she recounts. There are dozens of such stories, with similar or even more intense cases of violence, on display.

A second room houses even more poignant reminders of the war, as household objects take on grave symbolic meaning for those whose family members were disappeared during the conflict. One placard reads, “My husband wore this pair of suit only once for a wedding ceremony of my sister. Army took him in June 2002. I have kept it safely till date. I often think that he will come back one day and wear his suit.” Beside the quote hangs a forlorn pair of pants and a coat, crumpled and worn only once, a devastating reminder of the man who had inhabited those clothes at one point. Yet another object is an everyday plate and spoon, with the quote, “I still put some food for my son in a separate plate before eating. My hope to see my missing son has not yet faded even though he’s been disappeared for 16 years.”

These objects are not just reminders of the past but also anchors for those who continue to seek justice, even though it has been over a decade since the war ended and the leaders of both sides have gone on to pursue lofty political ambitions. One quote from the wife of a platoon commander illustrates how her husband, an active participant in the war as a Maoist rebel, was forced to migrate to the Middle East as manual labourer after finding no work once the war ended. His is the story of countless other People’s Liberation Army cadres who had fought for justice, equality and an end to feudal exploitation.

“On the one hand, the war is slowly slipping away from national memory in the lack of proper documentation. There are few ways that school-going kids can learn about it,” says project manager Bikkil Sthapit. On the other hand, victims continue to suffer psychological turmoil as the state hasn’t yet taken any significant step towards settling the thousands of cases of violence that took place during the war. “Among the survivors that we spoke to, some even harboured plans to exact revenge on the state,” says Sthapit. “That would be counterproductive. One of the primary motives of this project is to stop that from happening and to push the state towards proper reconciliation and justice.”

Twelve years since the Comprehensive Peace Agreement was signed, transitional justice remains in limbo, with toothless commissions and a lack of political will to provide reparations, symbolic or otherwise. The dominant narrative concerning transitional justice remains perpetrator-centric, with legal provisions for punishment, even as victims’ demands for justice include dignity and redress for historical socio-political inequalities. By privileging victims alone, the Memory, Truth & Justice exhibition attempts to go where the state and political parties choose not to.

Ram Bhandari, founder of the National Network of the Families of the Disappeared and Missing, who was also involved in collecting memorabilia for the exhibition, says that the state has been turning a deaf ear to the voices of victims, even though the victims themselves are already on the path to reconciliation.

“We know who the perpetrators are but we have not sought revenge,” says Bhandari. “This alone means that victims are already on the path to reconciliation. The political parties and rights groups need to recognise this. Instead, they are hard at work prolonging the issue, dividing victims and inflaming tensions.”

An exhibition like this one is hard-earned and hard on the heart. It makes a protest against the sweeping tide of history that seeks to erase the past and make way for the future. It is an emotional exhibition, one that will bring a tear to the eye of any but the most hard-hearted of individuals, not because we pity but because we empathise and we learn. The exhibition is testament to what Arundhati Roy asks in The Cost of Living, “To respect strength, never power. Above all, to watch. To try and understand. To never look away. And never, never to forget.”

Memory, Truth & Justice—Stories from the Survivors of the People’s War is showing until Saturday, October 6.

Published: 06-10-2018 08:14

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