The disappeared

  • Addressing the impact of disappearance means understanding how victim needs emerge from the social worlds they live in
- Ram Kumar Bhandari
The disappeared

Aug 28, 2014-

Khidiya Chaudhary (name changed) lives in a remote village in eastern Bardiya, on the edge of the Bardiya National Park. The Army arrested her two sons, the youngest only seventeen, in 2001. The soldiers came late at night and kicked open the door, shouting out the names of those they wanted. The boys have not been heard from since. Security forces came to Khidiya’s village, and many others nearby, following a Maoist attack on a local police post. Many young men were taken that night and they remain disappeared. Khidiya’s husband had died earlier and her only daughter married and moved away. Now she lives alone, increasingly infirm and barely able to support herself. The Nepali state not only took away those most important to her, but has also taken her dignity.

An ongoing violation

The decade-long Maoist insurgency and the state counter-insurgency was a time when terrible things happened to a lot of Nepalis, but since most of the victims have little voice, many of their stories have yet to be heard. The late-night knock on the door that changed Khidiya’s life was heard many times in those years in Bardiya, with more than 250 still disappeared from the district, almost all ‘arrested’ by the forces of the state. Disappearance is a particular type of human rights violation: it is an ongoing violation, one that is not over until the families of the disappeared know what happened to their loved ones. The families of the dead have suffered terribly, but have been able to mourn: for the families of the disappeared, the years that have passed since the end of the conflict have only deepened their bitterness. When the war ended, many expected their relatives to walk blinking into the sunlight from military barracks and prisons but instead, have been confronted with an ominous silence from the authorities.

What families want more than anything else is an answer. Khidiya firmly believes that her sons are alive, and that they are still suffering. She knows that they were taken to the then Royal Nepal Army barracks at Chisapani on the Banke-Bardiya border, and has either not heard or refuses to believe the stories of the few detainees who emerged alive from Chisapani. Local people believe that the forest around the Chisapani barracks contains dark secrets of this phase of the war: perhaps hundreds of bodies of those arrested by the state in Banke and Bardiya. Most families, however, will not accept that their loved ones are not coming back without evidence of death and a body through which ritual can be satisfied. This demands a process of exhumation and identification, but no one in government appears interested in searching for gravesites.

The ambiguity with which families of the disappeared live, has had multiple impacts on their family members, most commonly repeated thoughts and dreams about the disappeared, disturbed sleep and sudden feelings of anxiety. A small minority are disabled by mental illness ascribed to the disappearance. Women are stigmatised and discriminated against in their families and communities because they are considered neither wives nor widows. In traditional communities, many wives have either been forced to leave their husband’s home or live in conditions where they are treated more like servants than members of the family. Wives of the disappeared refuse to give up their sindhur and bangles, believing that these symbols of marriage maintain their connection with their disappeared husbands. As a result, these women without men are considered sexually available and subject to abuse in the community.

Social justice

Most of the disappeared come from poor and rural families, a majority from marginalised groups such as Janajatis and Madhesis. (Khidiya is Tharu, like 80 percent of those disappeared in Bardiya by an Army that had become a tool of landlords fighting the largely Tharu land rights movement.) Many families were struggling to survive before their men folk were taken and even many years later, find themselves in desperate poverty, unable to feed their families or educate their children. The government has provided Rs 300,000 to most families of the disappeared, but in many cases this has been swallowed up by debts run up since disappearance or by medical bills arising from the range of physical and mental complaints that the anxiety of disappearance has created. A number of families have yet to receive anything, while wives of the disappeared have seen little of the money with fathers-in-laws exercising their traditional role as head of households to deny such women any benefits.

What most strikes those who meet with ordinary families of the disappeared in rural areas is the divergence between the broad agenda they articulate, dominated by a desire for truth and for sustained economic support, and that of Kathmandu-based human rights agencies. All of the advocacy and publications from such agencies focus on accountability and the need for prosecutions. Whilst families, of course, seek such justice, in the short term, they want what some have called social justice—they want to be able to feed and educate their children and live with dignity. In districts, victims have complained that rights agencies want them to come to district headquarters for meetings to discuss the details of a potential Truth Commission, but every day that they are away from the village is a day’s work lost, particularly important for those dependent upon daily labour. For such families, campaigning for justice is itself dependent upon having a firm economic base; whilst rights agencies spend what are vast sums of money to rural victims on advocacy, they have no programmes to ensure the social and economic rights of such people.

Successive governments since the elections have overseen a transitional justice agenda that is dominated by the demand for prosecutions and simply ignored it. Politicians on all sides seem to have unsurprisingly decided that they will not initiate a process to prosecute themselves. The agenda of those advocating for such process, rights agencies, international donors and others, continues to be driven by a global rights approach for which accountability is the only thing that matters. This has resulted in advocacy that is disconnected from those on whose behalf it is made, that emerges from the conference rooms of New York, Geneva and Kathmandu rather than from the everyday needs of victims like Khidiya. This is exacerbated by the tendency of the leading rights agencies to believe that only they can lead the mobilisation of victims. As long as elites work on behalf of victims, rather than empower them to act themselves, talk of human rights will remain irrelevant.

Empower to articulate

For Khidiya and many other victims, disappearance is embedded in a social world that contains many other challenges. Addressing the impact of disappearance means understanding how victim needs are contingent and emerge from the social worlds in which they live. If donors and rights agencies are serious about aiding victims they need to work with those, like Khidiya, who have the greatest needs. To create an approach to legacies of violence that is rooted in the lives of those most affected requires that victims are empowered to articulate their needs on their own terms, so that their voices can be heard by policy makers. Nepal’s conflict emerged from a situation where ruling elites felt able to ignore the poor and marginalised; peace is now subject to the same approach and the transitional agenda, set by elites in the capital, ensures continued marginalisation.

This doesn’t mean that those advocating for transitional justice should abandon their efforts but that they should be widened, to demand not just justice as transitional ritual but support for victims of conflict: psychosocial support in communities, support for health and education, support for livelihood, memory and social affairs and most of all, support for victims’ organisations so that they can mobilise to create a sustainable victims’ movement that can articulate victims’ needs.

Bhandari, whose father was illegally arrested and disappeared by the state in 2001, is coordinator of the National Victims Alliance

Published: 29-08-2014 09:13

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