Nepali Times
The politics of memory


My mother, Laxmi Bhandari, still remembers that day well. On 31 December, 2001 my father Tej Bahadur Bhandari, was taken away by state security from our home in Lamjung never to be seen again.

Nearly five years after the end of the war, there are thousands of families like ours across Nepal who wait for word about whether their loved ones are dead or alive. But the truth has become tangled in the politics of memory in Nepal's transition.

The major political parties and the state are distracted by their power struggle, and consider the war over and done with. Yet, for the relatives the war never ended. Each day is a painful reminder of the loss, and the silence of the state prolongs their hurt.

The question of amnesty and reconciliation has taken precedence over truth and justice. The political parties have succeeded in instrumentalising the victims' agenda and putting them to use politically. On both sides of the political divide, there is a tendency not to rock the boat and not rake up the past.

A key problem in effectively meeting the needs of relatives of the victims is Nepal's deep rooted culture of impunity, and the absence of political will to pursue the truth. The perpetrators of war crimes, although named in public, are at large. The courts have instructed the government to move forward on investigations into several conflict-related cases, but few steps have been taken. Reparation has been provided to some conflict victims, but no steps have been taken to hold anyone accountable for summary executions, torture in detention and forced disappearances.

Those involved in my father's case are known: CDO Shiva Nepal, DSP Pitamber Adhikari and Major Santosh Singh Thakuri. They continue to serve and face no consequences. Sustainable peace will not be possible without justice being delivered. Families of the victims have had their call for truth and justice undermined and ignored.

Hundreds of wives of the disappeared like my mother suffer not just the loss of the family's breadwinners but also the social stigma of widowhood. Without knowing the truth, they are deprived of many rights and rituals in the community. We should create a conducive environment for the wives and mothers of the disappeared to remember their loss and make their history known through public memory and writing.

Women relatives of the disappeared need special attention, only then will we be able to rebuild families, communities and the nation and contribute to a broader, more effective transformation. The mothers and wives of the victims are the most vulnerable, but they are also the most effective family members to take the healing process forward.

Publicly remembering the disappearance of a relative is also a symbolic resistance to the apathy of the state. Our pain resonates in the wider community, stoking public memory which can advocate and strengthen solidarity. Many families suffer from the loss of their main salary earner, leading to psychological trauma, economic hardship and poverty. Families in rural areas, especially women, lack effective tools to pursue justice and get financial support from the state. They have become victims themselves in searching for the truth.

The state, the political parties, human rights groups and donors need to re-think their peace strategy by putting victims first and address their needs in practice. Only then will the long wait for truth and justice for women like my mother be finally over and the nation have the chance to heal itself.

Ram Kumar Bhandari, whose father was disappeared in 2001, is a human rights activist and chair of the National Network of Families of Disappeared and Missing (NEFAD)

The Himals as witness
Stolen lives,
The long, long wait, RAM KUMAR BHANDARI in LAMJUNG
How can we forget?

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)