Kathmandu : Families of hundreds of people who went missing during the armed conflict in Nepal want the cases of their disappeared relatives to be resolved.
For the past six years, Ram Kumar Bhandari has been struggling to find out about his father, Tej Bahadur, who disappeared after government security forces arrested him in 2001 on suspicion of supporting the Maoist rebels.
The Maoists launched their decade-long armed rebellion against the government to end the monarchy in 1996. The armed conflict ended in November 2006 and a peace agreement was signed between the Maoists and the interim government formed by an alliance of seven national parties.
“I’m not giving up that easily and I will continue to fight the injustice done to my father,” Bhandari told IRIN.
His 56-year-old father was a teacher and a leftist supporter but had no relationship with the Maoists, said Bhandari.
In 2000-2002, Nepali government forces were given extra-judicial powers and allegedly arrested people without necessarily any evidence of involvement with the Maoists.
“The peace treaty will have no significance without resolving the situation of disappearances, which is today’s most crucial issue,” said Bhandari, who has formed the Committee of Missing in his village of Lamjung district, about 180km northwest of the capital, Kathmandu.
According to the committee, 28 people from Lamjung alone went missing during the conflict; government forces were responsible for the disappearance of 26 and Maoists for the others.
There are no accurate figures for the number of people who disappeared during the conflict. According to the Ministry of Home Affairs, the number is about 600, while the Maoist-supported Society of Families of the Disappeared recorded 1,200 cases. The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) has a registered list of 1,042 cases but believes the actual figure could be more than 3,000.
Most of the victims disappeared at the hands of government security force while the Maoist rebels were responsible for the disappearances of 105 people, say activists from the Informal Sector Service Centre (INSEC), a rights group.
Whatever the real figures are, the problem is becoming critical, say human rights and humanitarian groups, including the ICRC.
“The political momentum has weakened regarding the issue of the missing people,” ICRC’s protection coordinator Jean-Paul Corboz told IRIN.
“We’re trying to find ways to put the issue back into national perspective. If we don’t address the issue of missing Nepalese, we can never have lasting peace,” said Corboz.
Senior officials at the Ministry of Peace and Reconstruction told IRIN they were trying hard to resolve the issue given that their own party members had been victims of forced disappearances during King Gyanendra’s rule.
“Most of the cases of the disappearances were not recorded, whether by the security forces or the Maoists, so it is very difficult to make any official recognition of their status,” said a senior government official seeking anonymity.
Maoist leaders told IRIN they were pushing the government and parliament to resolve the issue. However, they denied any enforced disappearances were committed by their cadres.
“Forget about the civilians, even the government workers are not given any attention at all, and this is really sad,” said Iswori Prasad Dhakal, whose brother Rajendra was in the police force but was abducted by the Maoists while off duty. He disappeared and the Maoists always denied their involvement in his case, said Dhakal.
“Perhaps they have all died but we want to see their corpses. We want justice,” said Mukti Khanal, whose brother Hari Prasad, also a teacher, was arrested five years ago by the Nepal Army for supporting the Maoists and has not been seen since. The army told him his brother was killed trying to flee.
“This issue is so critical that it simply cannot be swept under the carpet,” said Corboz, adding that the families of the disappeared needed aid to overcome their financial hardship as well as mental suffering but nothing seemed available.
Rights groups are lobbying the government to form a high-level investigative commission on the disappeared to ensure that tough laws are introduced to curb impunity and to provide compensation to their families.