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Long Lost Connections (Feature Story)

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Kathmandu, June 3, 2016: Issues surrounding investigation of the disappeared persons have been front and center for quite a while now. It has been analyzed and discussed from various angles and points of view. However while political, security and judicial concerns have been bought up, family members of the victims feel that one important aspect has been dismissed: Their personal and emotional trauma. Priyanka Gurung reports:

Shanta Bhatta braces herself to tell her story yet again. Her husband, Shyam Bhatta, was taken from their home in Purano Naikap by a group of men affiliated with the Maoist party on the morning of July 2, 2001. Since then she has pretty much spent each day of the past 15 years waiting for him to miraculously show up.

So as the debate around the nine-point agreement between the ruling CPN-UML and UCPN (Maoist) rage on and issues concerning justice for the victims and their family is bought under the spotlight, Shanta Bhatta claims she predicted these phone calls asking for interviews to come her way. Apparently, she has been dutifully accepting them all because she feels that victims like her husband who were abducted during the insurgency aren’t on most Nepalis mind on most days.

“The country has moved on with time and most have the luxury to see the insurgency period as a mere chapter in our political history but that’s not the case for me. The missing people who suffered at the hands of the state and rebels issue become a trending topic every now and then. It is because of the media coverage that people are talking about it right now.  But for us, this has been the single biggest concern for more than a decade. I wonder if people realize that,” says Bhatta.

She has heard words like justice, politics, and protocol being thrown around and over the years she has been working hard to understand the system and work her way through it. She has filed appeals where necessary. She has been visiting counsels and keeping in touch with organizations assisting families like hers. She is incredibly up to date with the developing on the matter and motivated to do more to get that one elusive thing: An answer. Information on her husband’s whereabouts is all she is looking for.

Even after 15 years, Bhatta still believes her husband is alive and well. She still wears her sindhoor and tika and refuses to consider the alternative without a proof. The emotional trauma experienced by families of the missing is what she wants other people and legislatures to understand.

“We were sending our kids to school on that morning of July 2 when a group of men came and asked my husband to go with them. We were shopkeepers. We didn’t get involved in politics. We didn’t suspect any trouble. I remember my husband telling me not to be concerned because the rebels couldn’t possibly gain anything from him. He said he would probably be back for lunch,” says Bhatta. Despite raking her brain for 15 years, she just can’t figure out why he was abducted.

Almost every victim’s family have their own set of unanswered questions and above everything else, this is the common ground that keeps bringing them together to raise their voices against what seems to be the state’s complete lack of apathy on the matter.
“Many of my friends and relatives talk about how getting answers about the disappearance of my husband will give me some peace, and perhaps bring closure, but after more than a decade of silence on part of the government, it’s become a matter of ensuring rights and memories of those who still can’t be found,” says Ruby Shrestha.

Her husband belonged to the rebel side. He was a young and active member in the Maoist party when, according to sources, he was taken by some people while walking the streets of Mangalbazar back in 2003. Shrestha still isn’t clear on the details. All she knows is that he was on the way to meet her and their then toddler daughter. Soon, Shrestha too was taken into hiding and moved around the country for protection.

“I still wonder what he would’ve said if we had talked before his disappearance. Would he have given me words of encouragement or confessed his fear? I remember begging the party members to somehow arrange a phone call with him but clearly that wasn’t possible. Just like that, my husband didn’t exist anymore,” says Shrestha.

It’s a thought that depressed her for a long time. She even had to seek some treatment and though, today she has overcome the grief, she hasn’t let go. Apparently, Shrestha’s daughter had recently asked if “Rajendra”, her husband, had ever held her when she was a kid. She wanted to know if her father loved her too. Shrestha considers this to be the biggest tragedy in her life. As it turns out, she also can’t make up her mind about carrying out her husband’s last rights. “What if he is still alive?” she asks. “There still is no evidence of his death.”

Like Bhatta, Shrestha wonders why such tremendous personal impact on people’s life isn’t acknowledged by the authorities. “The need to know exactly what happened to our missing loved ones is urgent. It affects our day to day life on a regular basis. It is unfair that political goals and agendas come into play. At the end of the day, what we want the most are answers. Tell us exactly what happened,” says Shrestha.

Indeed, acknowledgement and disclosure are the two top priorities that Ram Kumar Bhandari, General Secretary of Conflict Victims Common Platform, has been leading with their crusade. Having lost his own innocent father during the insurgency, Bhandari knows all too well about the emotional stress of being a family member of the victim. But aside from personal pangs of still not knowing the fate of his father, Bhandari has been diligently working the official network to influence how this issue can be approached from the state level.

“Before the commissions were formed, there were high expectations that they would address all the elements of conflict-era violations. However, they started poorly and now we can see that their promise to address the needs and suffering of the victims has been almost a bit of an illusion. We can see that such mechanisms have failed to address issues of security and trust. They are also not addressing the root causes of the conflict,” shares Bhandari. So there may be a separate institutional body looking after the issue, but the system with which they are working appears thoroughly flawed.

And this is after 13 plus years after the disappearances began. Yet again the victims unfortunately find themselves tangled in the ugly web of bureaucracy and power. Though this time around, the issue couldn’t be more personal. The likes of Bhatta and Shrestha continue to run around trying to seek the right place to put forth the appropriate appeals and network with the right people, all in hope of an answer. The events that lead to their misfortunes may be concerns of national politics but the impact it has left on their homes can’t be disregarded either.

By Priyanka Gurung