Hope in stills

“You promised we’d live and die together but where are you now?” Chandrakala Uprety often asks her husband. She shouts at him, reasons with him. But there is no reply. His portrait simply stares back at her, as it has always done in the 10 years he has been missing.

In the early days of his disappearance, Chandrakala could barely look at his photos. They made for a heart-wrenching sight. But as time passed, the same portraits that once induced tears brought her peace. Now, she keeps herself surrounded   by them.

In the blue room we are talking in, there are four photos of her husband: as a young man in his teens, a married man with his wife, and an older man in his mid-30s. Someday, when life gets a little easier, Chandrakala plans to make a calendar with photos of her family. For now, these photos, two framed and placed on the headboard and two on a cement alcove covered in plastic, are all she can manage.

Disappearances, unlike death, do not provide a sense of closure. Years spent searching for the missing can be fruitless and yet, there is always a lingering hope that their loved ones will be found. Oftentimes, their conspicuous absence becomes the strongest mark of their lingering presence. The disappearance of Bhupendra Uprety, one of the 1,530 people forcefully disappeared by the Army and the Maoists during the decade-long insurgency, is no different for his family.

The end of the conflict and the subsequent signing of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) on November 21, 2006, brought a moment of hope for the families of the disappeared. The Agreement stated that both sides (the government and the then CPN-Maoist party) would make public the status of people in their custody and release them within 15 days. Furthermore, the names and addresses of those who had been killed and disappeared would be made public within 60 days.

On December 9, 2013, seven years after the signing of the CPA, Chandrakala wrote in an article commemorating the day she saw her husband for the last time, “Those 60 days have still not come in my life.”

The marriage

There is a hint of coy excitement in Chandrakala’s voice when she speaks of her marriage to Bhupendra. She calls the story her own kathakahani and even has a chino that commemorates the day of her wedding. This chino is a picture of a fair-skinned girl on a palanquin, clad in a red sari, sindoor in the parting of her hair. Everything else in the picture seems faded, except for the young Chandrakala, as if that memory is particularly strong.

Their marriage was an unplanned affair. Chandrakala’s mother-in-law had come to her village in Ramechhap to ask for the hand of her cousin for her son. Instead, it was Chandrakala who got married. “This was my fate,” she says. And so, on February 13, 1986, 12-year-old Chandrakala married 24-year-old Bhupendra Raj Uprety.

Bhupendra was a teacher at a school in Namdu VDC in Dolkha, and Chandrakala, in grade eight, became his student. He made Rs 8,000-10,000 a month and was soon to be headmaster. But his mother thought that he should go to Nepalganj and learn the ropes of doing business with her brothers. So in 1994, two years before the Maoist insurgency began, Bhupendra left his home in the hills for a city in the plains. Chandrakala and her children—two boys and a girl—followed soon after.

The disappearance

December 9, 2003, was a day like any other. Chandrakala was with husband at their hardware shop in Nepalganj until four in the evening, after which she left to pick up the kids from school. Two hours later, as Bhupendra was readying to head home on his motorcycle, the Nepal Army, then deployed at the Imamnagar Barracks, Rajha Headquarters, took him into custody. The Army confiscated his motorcycle and at first, said that they had to ask him some questions. Bhupendra was taken to Birendra Chowk. According to records at the Advocacy Forum, an NGO that works on conflict-era cases, he was kept there for an hour and then blindfolded, put onto a truck and transferred to the Rajha barracks near Nepalganj. A cousin who had seen the Army take Bhupendra to Birendra Chowk informed Chandrakala the next day.

Three days later, Chandrakala went to the barracks to meet her husband, but she wasn’t allowed to see him. A man named Sunil Chhetri, who had been arrested with Bhupendra but released 17 days later, told Chandrakala that they had been together in the jail for three days, after which the Army took him away.

Soon after Bhupendra disappeared, Chandrakala’s father came to take her back home to Ramechhap. The children’s exams were round the corner so there was no question of leaving. She could not look for her husband by leaving the place either. Meanwhile, her relatives had already begun to talk of her eloping with another man. This troubled Chandrakala deeply. It made no sense to her that she was expected to elope with another man the moment her husband went missing. But Chandrakala took heart, the rumours only strengthened her resolve. Looking back, she thinks that everyone needs people to taunt us when we are down, if only to push ourselves to prove them wrong.

Finding strength

Life as she knew it had changed for the worse. But meeting other women, a few months later, whose husbands had also disappeared or been killed helped. Chandrakala found solace in learning that she was not the only one in pain.

The hardware shop eventually closed down and she found herself unable to pay rent. She then underwent a training offered to conflict-affected women, learning to make chowmein after around five months of the disappearance.

Soon after, she borrowed money from her relatives and began making chowmein on her own. Throughout the mornings, she would make noodles and then walk around selling them, at times carrying as much as 15 kilos. Then, from six in the evenings, she took driving lessons. She harboured dreams of driving a microbus and then moving on to heavy vehicles. But this meant she could not tend to her children at all. That was when she came upon her current job as a depositor at a finance cooperative.

Still, it is her work as Chairperson of the Conflict Victims’ Society for Justice, Banke—an organisation of people who survived violence and relatives of those killed and disappeared at the hands of both the state and the then rebels—that sets Chandrakala apart.

Technically, the state has never admitted its role in her husband’s disappearance. But she has received Rs 300,000 in reparations along with other families of the disappeared, from the state, which she interprets as an admission of its role. Her notion of justice is clear: “Ki lass, ki sass”— she wants her husband’s body, dead or alive. And in case he has been killed, answers as to where, why, when and how it happened. “Victims need justice and perpetrators must be punished,” she says emphatically. But hypothetically speaking, if the state were to place in front of her the ones who took her husband away, she would not know what to do to them. “It all depends on what they tell me,” she says.

Apart from the emotional toll her husband’s disappearance has taken on her family (her 26-year-old son’s academic performance declined and he has stopped studying altogether), the financial repercussions are equally pressing. Chandrakala has not been able to utilise her property for her children’s education and health (her 21-year-old other son needed an operation for a brain tumour and now needs another surgery).

Chandrakala has some property in Dolakha, jointly under the name of her dead mother-in-law and her disappeared husband. But she, like many other women whose husbands disappeared, is unable to access what is rightfully hers.

“The Cabinet can easily decide to transfer the property, which is in the name of the people who disappeared during the war, to their wives,” she says.

Under current legal provisions, property registered under the husband’s name is automatically transferred to the wife only in case of the former’s death. In the meantime, Chandrakala thinks that the state should take care of the health and education of the children of the disappeared and ensure that they get jobs. “Until that happens, I see no peace that these leaders speak of,” she says.

Originally published in The Kathmandu Post, September 13.
Chandrakala Uprety

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