Nepal’s unpunished war crimes

Image from a series by Chinese photographer Guligo Jia’s exhibition of ‘reunions’ of people with family members they lost in the war projected in the wall behind them. Here, Suman Adhikari is photographed with an old photograph of his father Muktinath Adhikari, himself and his brother. Photo: GULIGO JIA

My father Muktinath Adhikari was a science and math teacher at the Panini Sanskrit Secondary School in Duradanda in Lamjung district. I had just got into Grade 8 when my mother became ill.

We had to take her to hospital in Kathmandu, carrying her in a doko. My father was so dedicated to his school that he did not come with us. It was not because he did not love her.

Both my brothers were studying with me in Kathmandu at the time. One was in college and the other was preparing for his SLC exam. I had gone home to Lamjung for winter holidays with one of them. 

My mother had to go through two operations, and I pushed back my return to Kathmandu till 18 January 2002. My sister had also come home for the Maghe Sankranti festival. We were all home on 17 January when my grandfather and his brother came hurriedly to tell us that our father had been taken away by the Maoists.

They said he was being taken for “interrogation”.

He had been teaching his Grade 10 science class when a gun-wielding militia entered the room, tied a rope around his leg and led him off.

We did not know what to do. On the one hand, we reasoned, our father had not done anything wrong, had not harmed anyone, so they would let him go. But we had also heard about Maoist executions and feared the worst.

He had told his colleagues as was led away: “You see the situation. Whatever happens to me, manage the school well, do not damage the future of the students.”

We had no news till evening. I followed my brother to look for our Dad. When we reached near the school, someone told us the news was not good, and there was no point looking for him. I had an inkling that something terrible had happened and that no one was telling us, and I returned home. 

My brother came back at 7PM, and told us that our father had been killed. They had taken him from the school, past our house, tied his neck to a tree with his muffler, and killed him. 

My family tried to shield my other brother from the news because he was preparing for his school exam. They did not allow him to even listen to the radio, but he found out anyway from my uncle who had gone to Kathmandu to fetch him. 

When he got home, the whole family went to the site of the crime. My mother, sister and I could not bear to look. I tried to force myself to at least catch a glimpse, but I could not. 

The photograph of my father’s lifeless body still tied to a tree was on the cover of Himal magazine (pictured right) that week. The editor took a big risk by printing that photograph in the midst of war. Later, the picture was picked up by many other newspapers and spread through social media.

Even after 20 years, I get the chills if I see that cover photograph. I cannot describe what my family went through. Our father was the sole source of support for the family. Despite his meagre earnings as a school teacher, he used to help others in the village who were in need. But when it was his family that needed support, no one stepped forward to help.

In fact, they tormented us by their silence. No one spoke out. They were too afraid that they would also be killed by the Maoists. 

Before the murder, my aunt had told my father that many other teachers had fled the village because of threats from the Maoists and he should not put himself in danger. My father had replied: “I have never stolen one paisa from anyone, I have never wished anyone any harm, if I leave the school what will become of the future of my students?”

It later emerged that the Maoists had asked all teachers to donate 25% of their salary to the revolution. My father stood by his principle that donations should be voluntary, and besides he had to also take care of his family with his salary. He had told the Maoists he would consult the others and give his response, but they did not wait for his answer.

We could not even remove the body, or observe funeral rites because of the fear of Maoists. My brothers conducted some rituals at home and returned to Kathmandu.

I could not leave my mother alone during such a tragic period, and besides she was not well. I had to discontinue my education, but that was nothing compared to the trauma our family had to go through. 

We mustered the courage to lodge an FIR at the Lamjung District Police Office. There are two Commissions to provide justice to the families of the victims of conflict like us, we even went to the National Human Rights Commission.

But even after two decades, there has been no justice. The perpetrators were never caught. If this is the condition of such a high profile war crime, imagine what it is like for others who are not as well known. How will the conflict victims in remote parts of the country ever hope for truth and justice?

The Commission on Enforced Disappearances and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission are more interested in letting war criminals off the hook than in providing justice. The commissioners are selected on the basis of party wheeling-dealing, and it looks like their sole intention is to protect the perpetrators. 

And we hear that they want a blanket amnesty for all war crimes by both sides in the conflict. International norms say that whether a perpetrator of a crime is to be pardoned or not is solely at the discretion of the victim. 

Still, they address political rallies and blatantly boast that they killed 5,000 people and those who were responsible for conflict-era crimes are walking openly in broad daylight. My father, who had no connection at all to the Maoist insurgency, was killed by them. 

We lost our father. Nothing will bring him back. If his murderers are not caught there is a danger there will be another conflict like this, and there will be other orphans like us. That is why we are still fighting for justice. 

I just hope no one in Nepal in future has to bear the kind of physical and mental torture that we did as a family. 

Twenty years later, my father appears to me in my dreams sometimes. I am so happy to see him alive. But then I wake up, and weep. I wish my dream would never end. 

Translated from the Nepali original in