In Jogimara, Dhading district, a stiff two-hour climb from the Prithbi Highway, there's an eerie sense of stillness in the air. In November 2001, 20 young men left from here to work on an airstrip under construction at Kotbada, 800 km away in Kalikot district. Seventeen of them never came back. To this day, their families have no idea what happened to them and there has been no official word on their fate.
Some families still nurture the hope that their loved ones might return one day, but most accept that they are probably dead and have reluctantly performed funeral rites in their absence. The impact of their disappearance has been devastating for the the 10 wives and 18 children who were left behind. Almost every house lost a breadwinner. The missing included nine under the age of 21.
The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in Nepal is urging the authorities to explain the fate and whereabouts of all those who went missing as a result of the armed conflict and to grant them an official 'missing' status. This would allow their families to access government support programs that could address their specific needs, including the provision of counselling and material support, legal assistance to resolve problems of inheritance and marriage, and access to judicial procedures in connection with the disappearances. This 'missing' status is also crucial in opening the way for families to begin the process of mourning and reconciliation.
To commemorate the International Day of the Disappeared, which is on 30 August, the ICRC and Nepal Red Cross Society are jointly organising an exhibition of black and white photos of the Jogimara families by Kishor Kayastha in Kathmandu from 30 August to 9 September .
Missing Persons in Nepal: The Right to Know
Indigo Gallery: 30 August - 6 September, 8AM-6PM
Darbar Squares: 7 September (Bhaktapur), 8 September
(Kathmandu), 9 September (Lalitpur), 8.30 AM-6.30 PM
ALL PICS: KISHOR KAYASTHA
Bel Bahadur Shrestha with a picture of his son Raj Kumar, who disappeared in 2002. Today, six years on, he has no tears left. "No father should have to perform his son's funeral," says Bel Bahadur. "It breaks my heart to think that I'll never see him again." After rumours of his son's death reached the community, Shrestha performed the funeral rites according to tradition. He has never received an official response from the authorities informing him about the fate of his son or recognising the fate of his family.
Sanu BK's 23-year-old wife Buddhi Maya BK is trying to live one day at a time. Sanu's daughter was only one years old when he left and is growing up fast. She has started asking Buddhi Maya about her father's whereabouts. "I don't know how to explain to her that her dad has been missing for over six years," says Buddhi helplessly. Sanu's brother, Tek Bahadur BK, vanished with him. The brothers' father, Gyan Bahadur, now lives with Buddhi. "Can memories of loved ones be erased?" he asks. "I will never forget my sons, but I've stopped showing my suffering to others. I weep quietly at night."
Man Bahadur Gurung is the grandfather of Gokarna and Tek Bahadur Gurung, who disappeared in February 2002. "A 105-year-old man is alive while his young grandsons are missing. They should have been performing my last rites, not the other way round."
The 17 who went missing in Jogimara left behind 10 wives. Beli Maya Chepang, former wife of Ram Bahadur Chepang, remarried after a few years (above). When Ram Bahadur disappeared, she was left with nothing. "I am so poor that I haven't even performed his funeral rites. It costs a lot in our community and I can't afford it," she says, adding that she remarried because she could not afford to bring up her children alone.
Raj Kumari Gurung (above) lost both her brothers-in-law, Gokarna Gurung and Tek Bahadur Gurung. Their mother, Moti Maya Gurung, is convinced her sons will come back one day. "They went to earn money. I still think they'll come back, but it's been so long. What can I do?"
Dhan Maya Thapa, the 40-year-old mother of Bhim Bahadur Thapa, has been living with the guilt of having made her son work at the airstrip. "We didn't have enough to eat so I made my young son go to work in Kalikot," she says with tears in her eyes. "Now look what happened to him."
Suka Maya Chepang, wife of 60-year-old Chitra Bahadur Chepang, with her young granddaughter in their corn field in Jogimara. Chitra Bahadur was oldest of the 17 who left for Kalikot. He left Jogimara because there was no work, the family's debts were piling up and they had no more cattle, goats or crops to sell. So shocked was Suka Maya when she heard about her husband's disappearance that she did not speak for months and her teenage son had to take care of her and four other siblings.
READ ALSOUnfriendly fire
When Raj Kumar Shrestha left home in November 2001, he also left behind two young sons and a pregnant wife. His wife had a stillbirth a few months after his death. Unable to bear the shock, his mother committed suicide. Today his sister-in-law, Kopila (above), takes care of both her own family and Raj Kumar's.
- by Mohan Mainali FROM ISSUE #106 (09 AUG 2002 - 15 AUG 2002)