Hand-in-hand, wives of those disappeared in the war help each other cope with life
PICS: TRISHNA RANA
LOOKING FORWARD: Pashupati Basnyat (right) and Sarita Apagain (left) lead a meeting of NEFAD (National Network of Families of Disappeared and Missing Nepal) - Morang in Biratnagar last week.
On a pleasant Saturday afternoon in Biratnagar, Pashupati Basnyat presides over a meeting of the National Network of Families of Disappeared and Missing Nepal (NEFAD)
. She is composed and confident, but her outer calm belies deep physical scars and the anguish of having to live without knowing her husband’s whereabouts for 13 years.
On 30 November 2001, Pashupati, her husband Himal Kaji Karki of Okhaldhunga, and six others were picked up by the police from Katari of Udayapur district. Himal was in the Maoist party, but she had no connection with the rebels and used to teach science at a local government school.
Thirty-five days in custody later, Pashupati along with two detainees were separated from the group and transferred to Mirchaiya of Siraha district. The remaining five were never heard from or seen again. After being hauled from one cell to another over a period of 12 months, Pashupati was eventually released, but was told to report to the district police office in Okhaldhunga every Saturday. The security forces denied they had her husband.
“I am still hopeful, but at the same time the way they tortured us while in custody makes me doubtful about my husband’s fate,” admits Pashupati, now 35.
In 2007, Pashupati moved with her daughter to Morang and says her education and experience as a teacher made applying for compensation easier. She says: “It took a lot of time to get even the smallest things done, but I eventually succeeded because I never hesitated to speak up and demand for my rights.”
Not all women know how to do the paperwork and for some it takes years to build up the courage to even get out of their homes. When Lila Devi Tamang of Govindpur, Morang went to collect her first installment of relief package worth Rs 100,000 at the CDO in Biratnagar, she says she had no clue what she was doing.
"I had visited the VDC office once in my life to register our marriage and had never stepped inside any other government building. My husband used to handle all the paperwork when he was around," she recalls.
On 19 October 2003, Lila’s husband, 30-year-old Tanka Tamang, was arrested by the security forces because of his involvement in the Maoist party. When she went to the police station in Rangeli to find his whereabouts, they told her they didn’t know. She has not seen the father of her three children since that day.
Today, Lila is the vice-president of NEFAD at the national level, president of the inter-party women’s alliance from the Maoist party, and has been a member of the Local Peace Committee for the past four years.
“When I used to stay indoors, my pain and suffering became magnified,” she explains. “It was only after I started meeting other victim families at the CDO office and we began sharing our common experiences that I felt more comfortable and confident. These friends became my source of strength.”
Lila and Pashupati both took part in the Hateymalo Program organised by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) with the aim of helping victims connect with each other and develop deeper friendships within their community. The two women say Hateymalo has boosted their self-confidence and aided in their healing process.
“Earlier, I didn’t know other families of the disappeared. I used to be emotionally fragile and would break out in tears midway through my story. But the more I interacted with others who have experienced similar pain, the more I realised that I am not alone,” says Pashupati.
ICRC partnered with WOREC (Women’s Rehabilitation Centre) in eastern Nepal and ran Hateymalo in Jhapa, Morang, and Sunsari. More than 1,300 people were disappeared during the decade long war, out of which 90 per cent were men, most of them married, and between 18-35. In the aftermath of forced disappearances, the sole burden of taking care of the household and raising children fell on the shoulders of young wives and mothers, so it left them with very little time to mourn or cope with their loss.
Ajay Yadav, ICRC’s field officer in Biratnagar, says that because of this suppression of pain, victims suffer psychological disorders that have gone mostly undetected. Hateymalo focused on identifying victims with mental health problems and offered counseling sessions. “Sometimes all the mothers or wives wanted was to have someone who would listen to them patiently,” explains Yadav.
Wives of the disappeared have also had to grapple with being social pariahs. From being blamed for their husband’s fate, to being pressurised to carry out last rites, to outright exclusion from religious and social functions, the women have been treated very unkindly by families and neighbours.
Says Pashupati: “People used hurtful language to describe us and often told us that we deserved the suffering because our husbands were Maoists or in the security forces.”
Women who dare to step outside their homes in search of justice put themselves at even greater risk: having their movements scrutinised, their characters questioned, and being accused of associating with other men. “When I went from office to office in search of my husband, I felt very uncomfortable about what my in-laws and neighbours would say and think about me,” admits Lila.
Thanks to Hateymalo, victim families now have greater social visibility in their neighbourhoods. Efforts to introduce victim families to others in the village including local leaders, administrators, and neighbours during the trainings have made the community more sensitive to their needs and problems say Lila and Pashupati.
“Our loved ones didn’t give up their lives in vain. It is important for all Nepalis to understand that it is due to their sacrifice that there is peace and democracy in the country today,” explains Pashupati.
Mothers in particular are making use of their improved social standing tby taking the lead in community activities like tree planting, building retaining walls on river banks, and cleanliness drives.The victims’ desire to make meaningful and long lasting contributions to their hometowns led them to build public waiting areas in Morang and Sunsari and a war memorial in Jhapa (read below) out of their own resources.
However, Lila and Pashupati say the progress that they and other women like them have made in their personal lives in the past two years will be futile if the government does not follow up by setting up a strong and independent commission to investigate disappearances and make the truth about their loved ones public.
“First and foremost, we need to know the whereabouts of our husbands and why they were targeted. Until that happens. our healing will never be complete,” explains Lila Tamang. “Then we need free education and healthcare for our children and easier paperwork for single women like us.”
Commissions of convenience, Trishna Rana
On the sidelines of justice, Trishna Rana
Married to the military, Trishna Rana
Remembering the missing
IN LOVING MEMORY: Tanka Devi Kafle, president of NEFAD-Jhapa, wants to set up a park around this monument, which was built by families of the disappeared, near Mai Khola in Surunga this year.
I had been living with my husband Shanti Ram Bhattarai in Kathmandu for five years when he was arrested from Jorpati on 21 November 2003. We had moved to the capital from our village in Baigundhura in Jhapa district to work at a garment factory. My husband was a member of the Maoist-affiliated trade union.
At the time of his disappearance, I was nine months pregnant with a small daughter in tow. Since I was unable to work while nursing a newborn, I moved home to Jhapa soon afterwards. It’s easier to take care of a family when both parents are earning, but the moment you lose a bread winner, things automatically become difficult.
I met other victim families at programs organised by the Maoist party. For the longest time, we believed that the party would provide us justice and help us uncover the truth behind our husband’s disappearances. When the Maoists finally came to power in 2008 and the leaders didn't do anything on our behalf, we lost faith in them.
Initially, I was scared to speak out and would always worry about what people would say. But over the course of working with the Hateymalo program, I realised that if we victims do not raise our voice, no one else will take up our cause.
As a volunteer with Hateymalo, I visited many victim families and was met with anger because of my husband’s affiliation with the Maoists. But once we shared our stories with one another, it became clear that our hardships and our pain are the same and that we must work together.
We have built this shrine in memory of those who sacrificed their lives for the country. If we get more money, we could turn the area into a nice park and charge a small fee for its upkeep.
It is important to have war memorials because after we're gone, no one will remember or search for our loved ones. Generations from now can visit this spot and learn about the country's history. If the government wants to build monuments, it should involve victim families and also support and expand projects that we have already started.
Tanka Devi Kafle is the president of NEFAD’s Jhapa chapter.