The empty chairs
Nepal went through a protracted internal armed conflict from 1996-2006 after the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) launched a rebellion to liberate the country from feudalism and monarchy.
However, serious human rights violations and abuses were committed by both sides: the state security forces as well as the guerrillas. Over 17,000 people were killed on both sides, and more than 1,300 people are still listed as missing. The families do not know whether they are dead or alive, or who was responsible for their disappearance.
The Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) put an end to the conflict on 21 November 2006, with both sides agreeing to hold perpetrators accountable, and provide truth and justice to victims, including a commitment to investigate the whereabouts of those who were disappeared.
However, 14 years after the ceasefire, these promises remain unfulfilled. This photographic project focuses on the families of the victims of the conflict to mark the International Day of the Disappeared on 30 August.
My image making process involves a ‘family reunion’ in which people who lost family members are alongside projections of old family photographs which include missing family members. The passage of time, of existing and not existing, is layered within a single image.
Rekha looks out her window while I was trying to capture her portrait, her nephew holds a backdrop from behind. This is the only picture of her husband that Rekha has. As Maoist commanders wanted by the government, their wedding was held secretly with only a few comrades attending. Four months after the wedding, her husband was arrested by security and never came back.
Rekha brought up her husband’s nephews and niece. She remains single, believing that her husband will eventually come home some day.
Nijala sits in front a picture of her father, taken during a festival. Her father was captured twice by the security forces, and later disappeared for being a Maoist. She was just one year old. Her mother Rubi, thinking she would be next, went underground. After the 2006 peace deal, Rubi married again and gave birth to a boy.
Bimala Dhakal poses for a portrait alongside the projected photo of her husband Rajendra Prasad Dhakal who was a human rights activist in Gorkha, and was disappeared in 1999 during a trip to Tanahu. She looked for her husband everywhere, and was herself arrested and tortured by the army. She never found him. Bimala rarely talks about her husband in front of her children, only when something reminds her of him.
Bibek poses for a portrait alongside a photo of his father Rajendra Prasad Dhakal projected to the wall behind him. He was only nine months old when his father was disappeared in 1999. "Sometimes, when I smile or sing out loud, my mother tells me that I look just like my father," Bibek says.
Maina Karki and her son sit in front a picture of her late husband, who was a sociology teacher in a government school. He was detained twice by Maoist guerrillas for refusing to give them a donation, and killed the second time. The police report said he has been shot four times.
Narayan Devi Shrestha
Narayan Devi Shrestha poses for a portrait in front her husband’s picture in which he is in a Maoist party meeting. Her husband, brother and brother-in-law were all arrested and disappeared together. He was a district member of Lalitpur in Kathmandu, and eye witnesses said they had seen him pressed to the ground with a gun pointing at his head.
Nagma poses for a portrait in front of a picture of her father. Nagma's mother passed away while giving birth to her sister Swastika. Their father was abducted by the army when Swastika was three, and she had to support her little sister and her grandmother who was ill. Nagma now works for the Children of the Disappeared while studying for her bachelor degree.
Swastika stands in the garden of their home in Lalitpur. Swastika’s mother died while giving birth to her. Three years later, her father, Nanda Gopal, who was an artisan, was abducted by the army. After her father disappeared, Swastika was raised by her sister Nagma.
Srijana sits in front of a picture of herself with her husband, Sanjay, who was a supporter of the Nepali Congress party. In 2001, Maoist guerrillas came into their home and shot her husband in the room. He died on the way to hospital. Theirs was an inter-caste marriage, and the couple had to escape to Pokhara to get married.
Gita poses for a portrait in front of a picture of her sister Reena. Gita and two of her brothers joined the Maoist milita when she was 14. One of her brothers died in combat, and her sister Reena, a student at that time, was raped and killed by the army in her own backyard.
“What I feel is that we need to speak up for tomorrow,” says Gita. Since 2007, Gita has been working for people who were victimised during the war and on issues of women empowerment in Voices of Women in Media.
Devi Sunar and her adopted daughter Maina in front of the picture of Devi’s late daughter Maina who was only 14 when she was tortured and killed by the army as revenge for her mother’s criticism of their involvement in the murder of her niece, Reena Rasaili. Accused of being a Maoist supporter, Reena was shot dead in her own backyard.
“Maina’s body has been in the hospital morgue for 17 years, and I will cremate her when she gets justice,” says Devi, who has founded the Maina Child Development Committee.
Suman Adhikari sits in front of a family picture in which his brother and father Muktinath Adhikari are celebrating Tihar. Suman’s father was a teacher and human rights activist in Lamjung. He was accused of continuing to teach Sanskrit and for refusing to give donations to the Maoists cause. In 2002, a dozen Maoist guerrillas took him away from a class he was teaching, tied him to a tree, stabbed him in the chest, and shot him.
Former Maoist leader Baburam Bhattarai has publically acknowledged that the murder was a “mistake”. No one has been punished or the crime.
Guligo Jia, 30 is a Chinese photographer and documentary filmmaker based in Beijing, and was stranded in Nepal from February-July 2020. [email protected]