The Whole Family : A Photo Project from Nepal

As the crisis loomed all over the world after corona virus hit, people started to panic. The socioeconomic life of people abruptly came to a halt. People were stuck inside four walls. Long days of lockdown began. Those close to family members had family support but those far from their family became emotionally vulnerable. People who had migrated started seeking ways to get back home by any means necessary.

Massive re-migration started. Emotionally shattered stories swept media platforms. There were workers walking all the way from Solukhumbu to Kailali district to get home. There were news about migrant workers walking back home from the alleyways of various Indian cities, after decades. Long lost family members came back to their villages in search of their ancestral land and to be re-connected to their family. This was their last hope. Everyone wanted to be home during these days of despair. But amidst this re-migration there were hundreds of people whose family members never returned. Those who were forcefully disappeared during the decade long conflict in Nepal (1996-2006) never came back. Their family members remained waiting hopeful that this pandemic might bring them back.

 Background

Nepal witnessed a 10 years long People’s War which claimed the lives of 17,000 people. The human toll of the armed conflict in Nepal between 1996 and 2006 was profound; over 17,000 people were killed, more than 1530 disappeared and an estimated 20,000 tortured. Hundreds were raped and no Nepali spared from being affected by events. Since the end of the conflict, limited support has been provided to survivors and their families of the disappeared, much less account for the numerous human rights abuses.

The Comprehensive Peace Accord (CPA) was signed on 21 November 2006 between the Government of Nepal and the then Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist). It brought “peace” in the nation and achieved many political goals; from federalism to a new constitution. However, 14 years have passed now and there have already been 11 Prime Ministers but none of the governments have been serious enough to find those who are missing. Both the commissions that were formed to investigate on the conflict are outdated. The discourse around transitional justice in Nepal has approached memory, truth and justice in legalistic terms where the experiences of acute loss of individuals are often lost. Missing are the personal accounts of survivors and families of victims.

Local memory is crucial in acknowledging survivors and victim’s experiences in states where access to formal processes is poor. While nothing can be done to bring back those killed, documenting testimonies asserts the dignity of survivors and families of victim; it compels remembrance and prevents denial by providing first hand documentation. It is also a way of beginning to document an accurate account of the conflict and the experiences of those personally affected.

 About the photo project

‘The Whole Family’ is a photo project that portrays the emotional longing of the family members of the missing. It is an artistic intervention in support of them as they continually ask the authorities about the whereabouts of the enforced disappeared people during the 10 years long People’s War in Nepal.

It is a reenactment to create a complete family photo that portrays the vacuum created by the loss of the family member. This photo project focuses on the emotional loss and shows the current socio-economic situation of the remaining family members.

THE WHOLE FAMILY

“Beloved brother, father sent you to the city to study because you were a good student. He always hoped that you’d earn for the house and look after us. Whereas I chose to stay home assisting our father in the agricultural work. We don’t know where the army took you. We don’t know where they’ve still kept you. Father, who hoped you’d come back one day, also passed away. His hopes also vanished together with him.

The rest of us still hope that you’ll come back one day, probably on one of the days of the festival in our village. There’s a rumor in the village that you along with other disappeared probably won’t come back. In these days of the pandemic, where the radio and TV keep showing the family members returning home after years, we long for your return too.”

Dharma Raj Mali, Brother of disappeared Baburaja Mali

Baburaja Mali was reported missing from Patan on 18 December, 2004.

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“My beloved brother,

After our father passed away, the entire responsibility of our house was on your shoulders. You never let me miss our father. You were so joyful all the time and I don’t remember you scolding at me even once. You were planning to rebuild our old house and that is when they took you away.

A week before Dashain, the army came and searched our house. On the day of Phulpati, we heard that you were arrested. Since that day, Mom cries every time she sees your photo. That is why we’ve stored all your photos inside a cupboard.

Brother, I have built the house you dreamt of building. Mom and I look forward to seeing you again. I think you will soon come back and get back to social work and things will be like it used to.”

Rama Mali, Sister of disappeared Rajendra Mali.

Rajendra Mali was reported missing from Patan on 22 October, 2003.

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“I heard you used to carve god’s statues. The tools that you used to carve the gods and the half-done bronze statue of Buddha are still in the house. Nowadays, if I walk pass any idol shops, I think of you Baba.

I was only 3 years old when you were captured by the army. So, I don’t remember you. We, me and my sister, grew up looking at your photo. Since you haven’t returned in so many years, it seems like everything Grandma has told us about you is just a fairytale.

Baba, in the meantime, Grandma, who knocked all the doors of army barracks and police custodies searching for you, passed away. However, we have not given up hope that you will return from somewhere during Navadurga’s jatra as our grandmother hoped.”

Swastika Mali, youngest daughter of the disappeared Nanda Gopal Mali.

Nanda Gopal Mali was arrested and disappeared by the state security forces from Tahachal in Kathmandu in June 2004.

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“The villagers still remember you as a very friendly and supportive boy. Brother, you were also my first friend. I remember you wanted to change society at a very young age. Perhaps the state could not tolerate your level of consciousness. It has been 17 years since the army made you disappear. I saw your name listed along with 49 other people who were killed in the Bhairabhnath barracks. I am not ready to admit that you were killed until I see your body.

Mother keeps telling us that you often come to her dream. That is why there is a little hope that you will return from somewhere.”

Aamosh Shrestha, brother of the disappeared Pipal Shrestha.

Pipal Shrestha was abducted by the state security forces from Kalimati, Kathmandu on 27 December, 2003.

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“You wanted to see me become a doctor. You would buy me school bags and shoes. The memories of playing and traveling with you as a child are still fresh.

Brother, we lost all social support after you were captured by the army. Our mother tried as much as she could to find you. She passed away with the hope that you would return one day. Within a few years of mother’s death, our father passed away too. The younger brother and I are left at home. Both of us have gone through some tough times. The younger brother works as a daily-wage laborer. I teach young children in a Montessori. Sometimes I role play with them pretending we are doctors and nurses. These moments, I miss you so much.

Before your birthdays, mother would take your astrological chart to show it to the astrologer. For years, the astrologer predicted that you will return. These days, whenever I visit them, they still tell me that you will return. Where ever you are, please come home soon!”

Bidhya Shahi, sister of the disappeared Ajay Shahi.

Ajay Shahi was disappeared from Tusal, Kathmandu by the then Royal Nepal Army on 19 July, 2004.

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“Dad, I had a feeling that you went missing when I was a kid. All my friends used to have their father around, but not mine. I also learned more about you while attending various programs on finding the disappeared people with mother. But Grandpa didn’t even let me feel that my father was not around. He became a guardian to me until he passed away. After he was gone, I understood the meaning of my father’s disappearance and the emptiness that came with it.

Mother never let me feel your absence. She raised me singlehandedly. After the death of grandpa, she has been running the nursery alone. I wonder how comfortable and happy Mom would be if you were here today, father.

There is now an epidemic of corona in the world. It feels like you will come back from somewhere in these times of desolation.”

Ritika Thapa, daughter of the disappeared Rajendra Thapa.

Rajendra Thapa was arrested and disappeared from his house in Imadol by the Nepal Army who came to his house in plain clothes on 18 December, 2003.

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“There are witnesses who saw Nepal Army personnel beating you up in Kushulechaur area in Kathmandu. When you realized that you were about to get arrested, you shouted, “I am Bhim Giri. The army is about to arrest me. Please inform my family and make sure the media know about it.” There are people who’ve heard you saying this. Those people who’ve seen you inside Bhairabhnath barracks are still alive. But this state is hell bent on denying knowing what happened to you.

Now I live and farm in Dhapakhel. Sometimes I think that if you were here, you would have been supportive in this work that you too were fond of. The absence of my husband is always there, but I always dream that you will come back.”

Tika Bastola ‘Rekha’, wife of the disappeared Bhim Giri

Bhim Giri was abducted by the then army in plain clothes from Kushulechaur in Kathmandu on December 3, 2003.

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“Just a few days before you were arrested, DSP Bikram Singh Thapa’s police team came to our house threatening us and searched for you.After a few days, we heard on the news that you, Dil Bahadur Rai and Kabi Gautam were arrested. After 6 months, Kabi Gautam got released but you still haven’t returned. Kabi had told us every detail about what happened since the moment of your arrest to the room you were staying in.

We inquired everywhere looking for you. I complained to political leaders, police officers, human rights organizations, legal practitioners’ organizations, and journalists. I met all the people I needed to meet. There was no place left to ask for help. News came from nowhere. No one wanted to speak. In the meantime, a proposal came from somewhere, “If your son is alive, surrendering him can set him free.” I refused straightaway. Son, you didn’t ask for permission to get involved in politics. You stood firm in your beliefs. You have been interested in politics since childhood.

All I can say about you is that if you were around, you would have been an important character for this nation and you would still be active in politics today.”

Ek Raj Bhandari, father of the disappeared Bipin Bhandari.

Bipin Bhandari was arrested along with his friend Dil Bahadur Rai from Kalimati on June 17, 2006 and went missing.

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“Everyone seems to return to their house during these uncertain times of pandemic. When I read the stories of those who reached home from far away, I also hoped that my father would return home from somewhere during this crisis. But he has been arrested by the state and made disappeared.

My father was a lawyer. He was also the president of the Gorkha District Bar Association at the time of the disappearance. Although he was working in the field of law, the law to search him is silent till today. We are still hopeful about finding him.”

Bibek Dhakal, son of the disappeared Rajendra Dhakal.

Rajendra Dhakal was arrested and disappeared by a police team led by Inspector Kush Bikram Rana while he was bathing in the river while going to Tanahu district for work on 8 January, 1999.

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Bikkil Sthapit Written by:

Bikkil Sthapit is a rights activist and a photographer. Lately, his works revolve around the issues of the enforced disappeared people during People's War. He's also a founder of an oral history initiative - SunaMeroKatha.com

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