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Nepal: 13 years after civil war ends, victims await justice

KATHMANDU, Nepal 

Prakash Chaudhary, 32, vividly remembers the day when his teenage sister was killed 18 years ago in a blast outside their home in Nepal’s southwestern district of Dang.  

On May 11, 2001, at the peak of Maoist insurgency, the explosion hit the 5th grader and her cousin when they were playing at their courtyard. Chaudhry’s cousin survived in the attack, but his 14-year-old sister died on the spot.

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“At the time, we were gripped by fear. The Maoist combatants frequented our home to stay overnight. The police also came to enquire about them,” recalled Chaudhry, who is a coordinator of a conflict victim group, in Dang.

He himself was incarcerated for three months in 2001 and was allegedly tortured by security forces. Four years later, his 15-year-old brother was among three people allegedly killed by the army.

Eighteen years on, these memories serve as a painful reminder of the price common people like Chaudhary paid in the 10-year-long Nepalese Civil War, which ended after a peace deal between the government and Maoist insurgents in 2006.

The war left over 17,000 people dead. About 1,530 people went missing and more than 8,000 were injured or suffered physical disability.

The former rebels have led or become part of the government in Kathmandu on several occasions.

Despite the peace deal and promise to investigate war crimes — extrajudicial killings, torture and sexual violence during the war — not a single perpetrator has been punished.

– Growing frustration

Bal Krishna Dhungel, a senior Maoist leader, who was convicted for a murder during the war in Okhaldhunga district and sentenced to 12 years and 5 months in jail, was released in May last year after serving a 18-month jail sentence. He was released following a presidential amnesty.

Similarly, Agni Sapkota, a former Maoist minister, faces charges of a murder in his home district of Kavrepalanchok in central Nepal.

However, a splinter Maoist party, exploiting the growing frustration among former Maoists, has resorted to violence. It has vowed to fight for the cause of their “people’s war”. Their campaign has led to the death of eight of their cadres over the last three months.

As victims of the war demand justice, photo exhibitions by nonprofit organizations have showcased stories and portraits of survivors. An exhibition — which depicted the war’s impacts on masses and tales of survival and brutality — ended in Kathmandu last week.

Sabin Shrestha — the executive director of Forum for Women, Law and Development (FWLD), an advocacy group which organized the exhibition — said the transitional justice process had failed to address the grievances of people affected by the violence.

“There seems to be a huge gap between victims at the grassroots level and their leaders in Kathmandu. The war ended but its trauma remains intact,” he said.

The government in 2015 set up two commissions — the Commission of Investigations on Enforced Disappearance Persons and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission — to probe into human rights violations committed during the war.

Despite receiving over 60,000 complaints of human rights violations from victims’ families and survivors, the commissions have so far failed to prosecute anyone.

– Calls for justice

Rights groups including Human Rights Watch (HRW), based in New York, have criticized Nepal for failing to meet international standards in regard to transitional justice.

“The commissions will fail again unless Nepal ensures that the law provides for proper justice for serious violations during the conflict,” said Meenakshi Gangult, HRW’s South Asian director.

“For 12 years and counting, Nepal’s rulers have tried to railroad conflict victims into accepting transitional justice process designed largely to protect those responsible for abuse,” she said in a statement in April.

Some survivors, such as 56-year-old Tulasa Pathak, have lost hope that they will ever get justice.

Trouble for her began soon after her 60-year-old husband was made to disappear by security forces after his arrest in 2004 in Kohalpur, a small town in the country’s southwest.

“My husband was a Maoist supporter. We were working on our field one day when police came looking for him. They arrested him three times. I haven’t heard from him or about him since his last arrest,” Pathak said.

She said there was no point in narrating her ordeals again since it will not bring her husband back.

“For me everything is dark. We searched for him everywhere, but there’s no trace of him,” she said.

But, rights activist Shrestha, the executive director of FWLD, said advocacy was needed to heal the wounds of war.

“Many survivors cannot afford medicine because they don’t have a steady income. The local governments must address these issues to minimize the survivors’ plight,” he said.

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