Bardiya and Kathmandu – Lautan Kumari Chaudhary remembers the knock on her door. It was 3am on April 11, 2002, and people had come looking for her husband in Mangalpur, their village in Bardiya district’s Rajapur.
“We were sleeping. Somebody called, ‘Comrade! Open the door!’ I opened the door. Three people – two were in army uniform – entered,” says Lautan, who, like her husband, belongs to the historically persecuted indigenous Tharu ethnic group.
Located on a dense delta created by the River Karnali and extending to the border with India in the south, Rajapur is predominantly populated by ethnic Tharu people. Until a year ago, the region could only be accessed by boat, but the government has now built a bridge.
Landlessness has long been common among the Tharus and, before the war, many worked as bonded labourers for upper-caste landlords.
“The Maoist war changed the landlord-labour relations. Tharus began to assert as Maoists raised their issues. Many of the Zamindars [landlords] who exploited them fled the areas, selling their land,” explains local activist Bhagiram Chaudhary.
“They tied both hands of my husband and took him away,” Lautan remembers. “My [four-year-old] son woke up and started to cry.”
She never saw her husband again, and says he wasn’t a Maoist.
Two other men were also picked up from the neighbourhood that night. They, too, never returned.
At least 15 members of the Tharu community – including Bhagiram’s brother and sister-in-law – “disappeared” from the villages of Rajapur. Bhagiram says the Tharus were “systematically targeted”.
Nationwide, nearly 1,400 people were “disappeared” during the war. According to the UN, more than 250 cases of enforced disappearances were reported in Bardiya district alone – the highest number in a single district.
Nearly 85 percent of those who “disappeared” in Bardiya were Tharus. Lautan, like many other war widows, was forced to fend for herself and her son after her husband, until then the only breadwinner in their family, “disappeared”. She took up tailoring. Her son is now training to be a paramedic.
The security forces assured Lautan, then 19, that her husband would be returned after a “normal inquiry”, but 14 years on, she has found no trace of him.
“Nothing has been found,” she says, nervously scratching at the wooden base of her sewing machine. Lautan says she just wants closure.
“If my husband is alive they should bring him here. If he’s dead, they should show me where he is buried. They should show us his bones,” she says, wiping away her tears.
Ram Kumar Bhandari, whose father was “disappeared”, has travelled across the country, bringing together families of victims of atrocities committed by both sides in the war. He says 90 percent of “disappearances” were carried out by the police and army.
Last year, the government established the Commission of Investigation on Enforced Disappeared Persons and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), beginning a long-delayed process of providing transitional justice.
The two commissions have received more than 50,000 complaints, but the UN has refused to support the process, saying it lacks international standard.
But in April this year, when the two commissions finally began registering complaints from victims, Ram Kumar says some of those who had filed cases were threatened by the accused.
He believes the Maoists have “betrayed” the victims of war crimes by promoting security personnel suspected of involvement in enforced disappearances once they were in government.
That impression was further compounded when, in May 2016, the Maoists, led by Pushpa Kamal Dahal, who is popularly known as Prachanda, prevailed upon the then government to provide amnesty to alleged perpetrators. The move has been criticised by human rights organisations.
“If the existing law is not amended, if there is no significant pressure from all sides, including the international community, then I am personally not very hopeful that justice will be served to conflict victims,” explains Rameshwar Nepal, the national director of Amnesty International Nepal.
So far, the government has provided compensation of $500,000 Nepali rupees (around $4,705) to the affected families and scholarships to the children of the “disappeared”.
But today, relations between Tharus and people from the hills of Nepal, known as Pahadis, who have traditionally been better represented by the ruling elite, remain fraught.
In 2015, protests by Tharus who were dissatisfied with the country’s new constitution, in the district of Kailali, resulted in the deaths of eight police officers. In response, a Pahadi mob burned down dozens of Tharu houses, as security forces looked on. Thousands of Tharu men fled their villages, fearing retaliation.
Ram Kumar says taking on the powerful has not been easy, and that he has faced intimidation from the security forces and the Maoists.
“I openly challenged them. I am not afraid to die. We have died many times,” he says.
“I know the perpetrator of my father’s disappearance. Even the National Human Rights Commission named him. My father did not take up arms and was not an active member of the Maoists.”
Tara Bahadur Karki, a spokesperson for Nepal’s army, says: “The army has provided all the material it has concerning disappearances to the TRC through the defence ministry. The army has helped fully to support the TRC and the investigation of the disappeared from its side and will continue to do so.”