According to the National Human Rights Commission, 2,240 people have been ‘disappeared’ in Nepal. Of them, 43 had been held at Bhairabnath Battalion, an infamous barracks in Kathmandu that has been compared to Abu Ghraib. Many Nepalese believe the disappeared were killed in custody and cremated in mass graves. Many of the relatives of those missing have given up hope. But there are few who are still fighting for justice, hoping that their loved ones will return. Fifty-nine-year-old Tika Kandel is one of them. His son, Amrit Kandel, disappeared in 2003.
My 26-year-old son, Amrit Kandel, was arrested by the Nepalese army on 10 October 2003. He shared a room with his elder brother, Ram Hari Kandel, and helped him to run his glassware shop in Kathmandu.
I didn’t know that my son had become a member of the student wing of Communist party of Nepal (Maoist), the party that was fighting state security forces in a civil war that was to last for a decade. At the time he was studying for an arts degree at Saraswati campus in Kathmandu. I first learned of his arrest when I read it in a newspaper. It said that a van full of soldiers stopped him on his way to work and took him away.
I had spoken to him over the phone in the summer of 2003 and asked him to return to our village in Benighat, a three-hour drive from Kathmandu, where I support my family of 14 through subsistence farming. But he wanted to continue his political activities with the Maoists. As the insurgency intensified, the state declared emergency. Given the army’s animosity to anyone affiliated with the insurgents, I feared he might have been killed.
A few months after his arrest, I went to Kathmandu to find him. We went to Bhairabnath Battalion barracks, which was notorious for mistreating political prisoners. I called a distant relative of ours, Thakur Sharma Kandel, who was a politician close to the then prime minister, Surya Bahadur Thapa, for help. After some inquiries, he told me that my son had not been killed. But he was unable to find out this whereabouts.
Every day I hoped for the news of my son – I hoped that he was safe. I hoped he would be spared even though the news was full of killings of ‘terrorists’. There were rumours too. A distant relative who was a soldier at Malekhu barracks, near our village, told me that he had seen Amrit. Others said this was unlikely.
In October 2003, I lodged a complaint of my son’s disappearance with the national human rights commission. I also went to the International Committee of the Red Cross. Going from one government office to another, I met many parents whose sons and daughters had been disappeared. We decided that we should fight collectively and launched an organisation called Society of Disappeared Persons’s Families. We launched programmes to pressure the government into revealing the whereabouts of the disappeared. We submitted a memorandum to the prime minister.
We staged street protests. The security forces intervened on one peaceful procession and several members of our organisation were arrested. They were released after a few days. Things became worst following the royal takeover in February 2005. In a televised address, King Gyanendra announced he had assumed executive power, dismissed parliament, declared a state of emergency and suspended civil rights. But the king was not able to rule with an iron fist for long. After a few months, pro-democracy protests began to gain momentum.
In November 2005 a historic agreement was signed between agitating political parties and the Maoists. The 12-point agreement, as it became known, paved a way for peaceful nationwide pro-democracy protests. The king was forced to abdicate and relinquish his executive powers in April 2006 after 19 consecutive days of protest, where 30 demonstrators were killed and hundreds more were injured. When the news of the restoration of democracy spread, jubilant people thronged the streets around the country. The celebrations went on for several days.
I, too, was happy. I hoped that the new government would disclose the whereabouts of my son. The government of Nepal and the Maoists reached a comprehensive peace agreement in November 2006, which formally ended the insurgency. The government also agreed to form a Truth and Reconciliation Commission. But even when the former insurgents led a coalition government, following elections in April 2008, the state has been lackadaisical in its investigations of the disappeared.
Sensing that the Maoist government too was hesitating on the issue, our organisation decided to restart the campaign for information about our missing relatives. In November 2008 we submitted a memorandum to the prime minister and home minister. We also met Ram Bahadur Thapa, defence minister for the Maoist party. Like other politicians, he promised to help. He said that it would take a few months to pass a bill to form the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
To this day, the state’s assurance hasn’t been fulfilled. I have spent 300,000 Nepalese rupees ($3,800) searching for my son. I still shuttle between my village and Kathmandu. Even though, at times, I feel my attempt to find my son is futile, I haven’t given up thope.
• Tika Kandel was speaking to Deepak Adhikari in Nepal.
For more information about the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) work in Nepal, go to the Reuters site. You can also read Deepak Adhikari’s account of Bhutanese refugees in Nepal.