Thirteen years on, the wife and children of a retired school teacher from Lamjung have been looking for answers as to what happened to him after he was accosted by security personnel, blindfolded, and thrown into a police van
JAN 05 – At 67, most people look back on their lives with some sort of clarity of what happened in the past decades that have gone by and who they are today. The distinct lines that run across Laxmi Bhandari’s face, however, are no indication of such clarity.
On a recent chilly morning in her children’s house in Kathmandu, Laxmi, who was seated on a chair across me asks, “So what would you call me, nani? Saduwa or a biduwa?” As I fumbled for words she continues, “I don’t know what I am supposed to call myself.” (Saduwa is a woman whose husband is still alive and biduwa, a widow.)
Had he been alive, Laxmi expressed belief that she would have definitely known of her husband’s whereabouts. After all, she says, he could see, could speak. He would have tried to reach out to his family. Even if he were dead, people would have found his body by now. After mulling on it, Laxmi came back to the question that has been haunting her for the last 13 years: “Cha ki, chaina ki? (Is he alive? Is he dead?”)
Tej Bahadur Bhandari, a retired school teacher, went missing on December 31, 2001. Four days before that, a group of around 60 security personnel had come to Laxmi’s house at Simpani Village in Lamjung district, and enquired about the whereabouts of her children. They issued death threats and told her to send her husband to the Chief District Officer (CDO) the next day.
When Tej Bahadur met the CDO the following day, the latter accused him of being a Maoist–the Maoists were then fighting against the state. The 55-year-old refuted the charge. He was allowed to return home on the condition that he would come back to report two days later. On the given date, Laxmi’s husband left home at around 10 am to go to the CDO’s office in Besishahar. By the time he reached the bus station at Manangay Chautara, several policemen in plainclothes and uniform were already there waiting for him. People saw him being beaten, blindfolded, tied up and shoved into a police van in broad daylight. A day later, the Besishahar Police told Laxmi that her husband had been arrested for interrogation and would be released in the next two to three days.
Thirteen years later, the whereabouts of Tej Bahadur remain unknown. Over the years, Laxmi has heard many versions about what happened to her husband. In February 2002, the Lamjung CDO replied to the National Human Rights Commission’s enquiry on Tej Bahadur that the missing man had told the security forces that he would show them ammunition hidden by the Maoists in Simpani forest. But on the way, Tej Bahadur reportedly tried to escape and was killed in “an accident”.
In June 2008, two years after the end of the Maoist insurgency, the CDO and the Deputy Superintendent of Police changed their statement. This time, Tej Bahadur had reportedly tried to break the security barrier of state forces as they patrolled Simpani. Following this, the Maoists fired at the security forces who shot back in retaliation, and Tej Bahadur was killed in the crossfire. Yet, in 2009 the government gave the Bhandaris Rs 100,000 as interim relief granted to families of the victims of enforced disappearance.
In 2010, after the family exhausted all domestic options to get justice, Trial, a Geneva-based organisation which fights impunity, filed a case at the UN Human Rights Committee representing Ram Bhandari, Laxmi’s oldest son. Last month, the Committee gave its verdict holding the government accountable for Tej Bahadur’s disappearance. It has further asked the government to furnish a reply within 180 days.
The government is yet to respond. If years of foot dragging on resolving conflict-era cases of human rights violations are any indication, it could be a while before it does. Rights activists, however, have hailed the UN intervention. Ram, who is also the general secretary of Conflict Victims Common Platform, an organisation which advocates for victim-centric transitional justice, wrote in The Kathmandu Post: “UNHRC decision is a landmark for those that have been working on the issue of disappearance.”
Meanwhile, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission along with the Commission on Enforced Disappearances which were supposed to start work from December 10 are yet to be formed. Even though the Truth and Reconciliation Act was passed in April, 2014, Nepal still lacks a law against enforced disappearance.
Despite some humble and some monumental progresses made with regards to transitional justice, the discourse still remains ‘legalese’. “We are yet to mainstream the discourse on the socio-economic costs of the conflict. We only speak of the dead and the disappeared, not the toll it took on the lives of the living, their family members. The psychological problems they faced or continue to face, employment for the young and health care for the old are some issues that need to be addressed immediately,” says Ram.
Laxmi, for instance, said that her family consisting of two daughters and sons did not celebrate the Dashain for seven years after her husband disappeared. She still cannot sleep well and neither can she bear to be alone in the same room with her oldest son. It makes her want to cry. They are united in their grief but cannot speak of their sorrow with one another. Regardless, she is proud of her son who is relentlessly fighting her battle. That he is still seeking justice for her husband, his father.
All she wants now is a sense of closure. To be able to perform the final rites of her husband if he is indeed dead. If not, she would like to find the man who took her husband away, “hold him by his arms and not let him go” until he shows her the place where he took her husband. “I would ask him to kill me too,” she says.