The Disappeared: No Peace for Victims of Nepal's War

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Attendees at a memorial in Kathmandu for the International Day of the Disappeared look at photographs of people who disappeared during Nepal's ten-year long Maoist insurgency on August 30, 2010

While visiting home during a holiday in 2002, Rajendra Tharu awoke in his parent's house to find himself surrounded by childhood classmates. But they had not come to welcome him back. Since finishing school, Tharu had joined the police; the others, from the same farming village in Bardiya, had become supporters of the Maoist revolutionaries fighting against the government. As far as they were concerned, Tharu's job made him complicit in the state's hard-handed counterinsurgency. "They ran after him and I then ran after them," recounts Rajendra's mother, now 42. "They caught up with my son in a field and tied his hands. I told them to stop but it didn't matter at that point." The young man was marched away, disappearing before his mother's eyes.

Today, Nepal's government officials classify Tharu and the many hundreds of others taken in similar encounters during the country's civil war as "missing persons," or "the disappeared." These euphemisms demurely describe those who, between 1996 and 2006, were abducted — and likely tortured and murdered. In the decade of fighting between government troops and communist insurgents, thousands of suspected civilian partisans were targeted by each side. Now, more than four years after a peace accord was reached, at least 1400 remain unaccounted for. The missing are largely assumed to be dead by the general population, but little has been done officially to acknowledge their fate.

Nepal's peace process initially promised substantial reform in this Himalayan nation. The Maoists, known officially as The Unified Communist Party of Nepal, pledged to end the severe social and economic inequality that was all but enshrined under the rule of the palace and insular political establishment. After ten years of bitter fighting that led to at least 13,000 combat casualties and forced the abolition of the monarchy, the Maoists and Nepal Army signed a peace agreement stipulating the creation of a new and more democratic constitution, integration of both armies into one defense force as well probes into human rights abuses and crimes during the war. But an enduring undercurrent of deep mutual distrust and ideological differences, compounded by petty squabbling, has kept the postwar transition from making much progress.

Rights groups and the families of the abducted have agitated for official action to investigate the cases. But, as both the state army and Maoists are still shaping their role — and image — in the new political landscape, neither is eager to own up to any role they may have had in extrajudicial killings. "Neither side feels it has any vested interest in finding answers and carrying out prosecutions," says Tejshree Thapa, a researcher on South Asia for Human Rights Watch. Some say larger alliances may be at stake: observers whisper that behind closed doors India has discouraged Nepal's politicians from erecting any substantial legal apparatus in response to the disappearances for fear it would set a regional precedent looming over its own violent crackdown on protestors and separatists in restive Kashmir. Squeezed between India and another giant, China, the tiny nation is prone to being influenced by outside forces.

The Nepalese government initially granted 100,000 rupees (approximately $1,400) as interim compensation to missing persons' families. The majority have received their payment, but attempts to assign legal accountability for the crimes has proven entirely illusive. The government's draft bill on disappearances, which includes provisions for criminal prosecutions, has languished in a fractious parliament that's unwilling to advance a vote on it.

Observers say the failure of the young government to address extrajudicial killings during the war has encouraged ongoing violence in the countryside. "Both the Maoists and Nepal Army are... withholding as much information as possible and shielding the accused in their ranks," says Damakant Jayshi, a Nepalese columnist based in Kathmandu. "This has only worsened the culture of impunity in the country." According to a July report published by the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), armed groups — some politically motivated, others simply bandits — "have taken advantage of the law and order vacuum." From January 2008 to June 2010, OHCHR documented "credible allegations" of 57 deaths resulting from unlawful force by police and armed non-state groups, part of a continuation of the deadly cat-and-mouse fighting that state security personnel and Maoist insurgents waged in rural communities during the civil war.

The resistance to creating legal accountability for the disappearances also undermines the development of the country's democratic institutions, says Mandira Sharma, a lawyer who directs the legal aid non-profit group Advocacy Forum. "With this level of impunity, I don't see how we can lead the peace process to [a successful] end, as the parties had promised," she says.

Case in point is the recent passing of the 17th anniversary of Maina Sunuwar's death. In 2004, the 15-year-old girl was taken from her home in a village in central Nepal by plainclothes soldiers. An internal army inquiry would later discover that the soldiers had water-boarded Sunuwar, whose parents were believed to have ties to the Maoists, and then applied electric shocks to her wet hands and feet. Left tied and blindfolded while her interrogators broke for lunch, the teenager choked on her own vomit and died. The ranking commander ordered that her body be buried in an unmarked grave outside the base, and colluded with local police to fabricate a cover-up. In an act that initially promised a rare case of accountability, the supreme court ordered a criminal trial for the soldiers responsible, including Major Niranjan Basnet, whom the U.N., in cooperation, sent back from an international peacekeeping mission in Chad. But the Ministry of Defense, loyal to army, immediately intervened and has since refused to allow civilian courts to take on the case.

While the death of Sunuwar garnered public attention when it came to light, most disappearances have been left to the silence of history. The International Committee of the Red Cross has thoroughly documented reported disappearances and is still sorting through additional claims, creating a roster to ensure victims don't become anonymous in the public record.

The Red Cross should not expect their effort to be met by greater cooperation from the parties responsible, says Kunda Dixit, a columnist and co-owner of one of the country's largest publishing houses. "Both sides are intent on laundering their past," Dixit says. He says that public concern over the cases has also waned considerably. "We're talking about around 2000 very poor, isolated families scattered throughout the countryside," Dixit says, referring to the relatives of those who are believed dead. "So they fall between the cracks." They, too, disappear.