The economic and emotional toll of seeking answers continues for families of more than 1,000 missing during Nepal’s decade-long civil conflict which ended four years ago. While legal answers are proving elusive, widow-headed households are turning to NGOs for economic help.
Eight years ago when Belrani Tharu’s husband applied for a job with the army, local commanders believed he was an enemy spy and arrested him – at least, this is what she was told by a man who said he had been her husband’s prison cellmate.
Belrani, 35, lives in a small village in Bardia, a district in southern Nepal which in the mid-1990s turned from bucolic idyll into a conflict zone.
“We searched everywhere for him. I’ve been waiting for my husband; I believe one day he will come,” she said.
Suspected of being enemy collaborators, thousands of civilians were detained, interrogated and killed in Nepal’s 1996-2006 conflict between government troops and Maoist insurgents.
Four years after the signing of a peace treaty, the fate of at least 1,370 individuals remains unknown, according to the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC).
Rights groups assume most of the unaccounted for are dead. However, the status of the “missing” is officially unresolved until their bodily remains are produced or conclusive testimony concerning their death is provided.
Families and rights groups are demanding answers – and legal recourse – but pursuing accountability is fraught with difficulty.
Under Nepalese law, crimes such as kidnapping and murder during the civil war cannot be applied to state soldiers. Initial legislation to address disappearances granted amnesty to perpetrators.
Earlier in 2010, activists successfully lobbied for a bill with provisions for criminal prosecutions, but efforts to expedite it have been frustrated by the same political deadlock that has left Nepal with only a caretaker prime minister and no ruling party.
But even if new legislation is passed, questions will remain about enforcement.
“Unless there is political will, the legislation will mean nothing,” said Mandira Sharma, executive director of Advocacy Forum, a Kathmandu-based NGO providing pro-bono legal representation to families of missing persons in civilian courts.
In 2008, the Maoist-led government gave the equivalent of US$1,385 in temporary compensation to families with missing relatives. Though this is roughly three times per capita gross domestic product, it is still insufficient for the long-term problems widows face.
More than two-thirds of disappeared persons were married men.
Like Belrani, most wives of disappeared persons come from isolated, rural communities, where fighting was fiercest.
In these areas, tradition dictates that a woman should care for her family instead of earning income. As a result, it is difficult – even taboo – for a widowed woman to support herself and her children.
Since 2007 the ICRC has assisted 600 of the most economically vulnerable families of the disappeared through assets which include livestock and agricultural materials. Belrani received a cow through this programme, and she sells the milk to supplement her meagre income.
The ICRC is emphatic in branding the assistance “interim relief”. “Reparations would [wrongly] suggest the situation has been resolved, and of course it hasn’t,” said Jamila Hammami, with the ICRC in Kathmandu.
Hindu customs, which are often strictly enforced in these communities, prohibit widows from remarrying until they receive official confirmation of their husband’s death.
In the absence of such confirmation, by Nepalese law, a wife is unable to assume control of family property until 12 years after her suspected-to-be-dead-husband was last sighted.
Through confidential interviews with both the Nepal Army and Maoist fighters, the ICRC is attempting to obtain information for families about burial sites which could contain the remains of their abducted relatives.
[This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations]