Nepali Times
Maina’s story


A middle-aged man and his wife were weeping outside the District Police Office in Kathmandu three months ago. We tried to console them and got caught up in a tragic story of the suffering of the innocent that is becoming increasingly familiar across Nepal today.

Purna Bahadur Sunuwar and his wife Debi had just hit another dead end in the search of their 15-year-old daughter, Maina, who had been taken away by soldiers eight months ago. An army patrol from the Lamidanda barrack in Kabhre had arrested Maina from her home on 17 Feburary 2004 for being a suspected Maoist.

Purna Bahadur and Debi had gone to the army base the next day only to be told that their daughter was not there. Thus began an eight-month long ordeal for the parents as the search for their missing daughter brought them to Kathmandu. Debi refused to believe that her daughter was dead and devoutly followed all religious fasts, visiting temples in Kathmandu every day.

The Sunuwars are dalits but are fairly well-to-do in their village of Kharelthok in Kabhre. In Kathmandu, they had rented a small dark room for Rs 700 a month in Lagan which had a kerosene stove, two pots, two plates and a bed. When we met them, their rent was already four months overdue. Driven to desperation, Purna Bahadur picked plastic bags to sell so he could feed himself and his wife.

After a story about Maina's disappearance came out in Himal Khabarpatrika in April, human rights organisations and the military's legal department finally took notice. Even at that time, the Royal Nepali Army's legal officers told us: "We are investigating, we can't say anything at the moment." At the same time, the family and neighbours also told human rights groups they were being harassed by local soldiers.

In September, after Maina's trail in Kathmandu went cold, we accompanied her parents to Kabhre. The Sunuwars live relatively well by rural Nepali standards in a two-storey rato mato house. Rats scamper away as we open the door to an upstairs room where Maina used to sleep. There is a battered tin trunk and Maina's hand bag and slippers. Debi begins to sob as she sees them. Neighbours told us they had seen Maina being taken into the barracks on the day she disappeared.

We went to the Bhagbati Secondary School nearby where Maina used to study in Grade Nine. Her classmates ran towards us as her parents approached, thinking Maina had been located. They were crestfallen when told she was still missing.

Back in Kathmandu, we approached people we knew in the army and the administration to find out what had happened to Maina. But the more we investigated, the less hope there seemed to be that she was still alive. In the course of this investigation, we came across another 20-year-old woman from Kabhre who was detained with Maina. We can't reveal her name or her village for security reasons.

Here is a transcript of what she said: "After detaining me, they took me along because I knew where Maina lived. They made me wear combat fatigues, while they were in civilian dress. When they caught Maina, they took us in the car to the Lamidanda barrack. They handcuffed us on pine trunks and beat us continuously. I must have fainted and when I came to, I found all my clothes were torn and I was only wearing my panties. They kept me there for six days, beating me mercilessly. Then they handed me over to the police who sent me to jail." She admits she was a Maoist but says Maina wasn't. She shows us the welts and cuts on her thighs and hands.

Four months ago, Purna Bahadur and Debi still hadn't given up hope about finding their daughter and were getting ready to go on a hunger strike in Kathmandu. Just before Dasain, the Royal Nepali Army finally admitted officially that their daughter was dead.

See also: 'A climate of intense fear' (Nepali Times #217).

Maina's story was included in the Human Rights Watch report, Between a Rock and a Hard Place released last month. It was also broadcast in a documentary on the German-French ARTE TV on 20 October.

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)