By Ram Kumar Bhandari
This column originally appeared in issue #671 of the Nepali Times, Kathmandu
My father, Tej Bahadur Bhandari, was on his way to the CDO office in Besisahar on 31 December 2001 when a group of armed security personnel arrested, blind-folded, and tortured him on the street in broad daylight. He was ever seen again.
Those responsible for my father’s disappearance remain in the service: Pitamber Adhikari is now an SSP, Major Santosh Singh Thakuri is in the army. They denied detaining my father, and 13 years later the state still doesn’t formally accept that it took him in.
Lamjung district was in the throes of conflict then, and the royal government had adopted TADO (Terrorism and Destructive Activities Ordinance) to crack down on the insurgents. After the Royal Nepal Army entered the war in November 2001, many innocent citizens were killed, tortured, and forcibly disappeared. School teachers, student activists, community leaders, educators, ordinary peasants, and unemployed youth were targeted by both the state and the Maoists.
My father was 56 then, and a retired teacher and social worker. He had been threatened by the security forces and CDO Shiva Prasad Nepal had called him in for questioning, and released him due to lack of evidence.
During conflict, it was not easy for citizens to access the Supreme Court but, even so, many families filed writs of habeas corpus which were mostly dismissed without proper investigation. After the signing of the Comprehensive Peace Accord (CPA), the Supreme Court passed a decision on disappearance cases on 1 June 2007, but none of the components of that decision have been implemented.
The Court ordered that the government enact a law to criminalise enforced disappearance in line with the International Convention for the Protection of all Persons from Enforced Disappearance, establish a high level commission of inquiry on disappearances in compliance with the international criteria on such commissions of inquiry, require investigations and prosecutions of persons responsible for disappearances, and provide for adequate compensation and relief to the victims and their families.
We, the surviving families of the disappeared, continue to live every day through the grief of not knowing the truth about our loved ones. And we still face security threats. The perpetrators of the abductions, torture, disappearances, and killings during the war are in positions of power and many have been promoted. There is a conspiracy of silence between the former warring sides not to rake up war time atrocities.
I speak out against human rights abuses, I name the perpetrators publicly, but the police, the army, bureaucrats, political leaders listen and take no action. There are veiled threats, but I have no fear. I am committed to challenging the crime in a court of law to demand truth and justice however long that takes. And I speak for thousands of other families whose fathers, brothers or sons were also disappeared.
We dream of justice and dignity, but first we want the truth. Our family life has been destroyed, many of us lost bread-winners, and our extended grief has no closure. What does ‘family’ mean, after all? Can the state and the politicians ever compensate for the loss of our family life?
The former enemies are now represented in the state. Can they clarify why the proposed Disappearance Commission itself disappeared? The alleged perpetrators of war crimes like Raju Basnet, Ajit Thapa, Kuber Singh Rana, Ramesh Swar, Pitamber Adhikari, Shiva Prasad Nepal, Dhruba Shah, Niranjan Basnet, Balkrishna Dhungel, and many others remain in powerful positions.
We have seen in the cases of Dekendra Thapa and Krishna Adhikari that the government and political leadership is incapable of remorse, of feeling our pain, or addressing our need for truth and justice. The state continues to deny forced disappearances even happened. We have been left dangling, where do we now go for answers?
Doesn’t our country have to respect the rights of its citizens? Doesn’t it have to respect the rule of law and international covenants that it is signatory to? My father and other disappeared citizens were supporting social transformation, speaking out against structural violence, and struggling to protect the local democratic space. Why was that a crime?
The state should start by publicly apologising for the brutal past of which it was a participant. Then we want it to tell us the truth, for once. After that we want justice for the crimes committed. My father would have been 68, I owe it to his memory to continue this struggle.