It was a dimly-lit room. Books and clothes were scattered on the floor. A cane moorah (a low seat) lay on its side. A wooden box in the corner was open, its contents strewn around it. Dogs barked into the night. Then came brisk, heavy footsteps. A woman let out a shrill cry.

This was a dramatic recreation of the bedroom of an 18-year-old Dalit woman who was allegedly raped and killed by armed soldiers on February 12, 2004, in a village in central Nepal. This installation by a group of artists was part of a five-day long exhibition at Kathmandu’s Nepal Art Council. It featured audio-visual installations related to at least 120 victims of the country’s decade-long civil war – a conflict between Maoists and the Nepalese government that ended in a peace deal in 2006.

The exhibition called Memory, Truth and Justice: From the Survivors of the People’s War – organised by Voices of Women Media – ended on Saturday. But it will continue to reverberate as Nepal prepares to mark the 12th anniversary of the Comprehensive Peace Accord signed between Maoist rebels and the government on November 21, 2006, in Kathmandu.

In a room adjacent to the installation, three boards that could be mistaken for vehicle number plates hung on the wall. Each of them bore a number, a grim reminder of the human cost of the war. At least 17,886 people were killed in the conflict, 1,530 people disappeared and 8,191 people were maimed and disabled.

Both Maoist rebels and Nepal’s security forces stand accused of committing war crimes – including enforced disappearances, torture, extrajudicial killings and sexual violence – during the civil war. Ten years after it ended, in 2016, the government set up the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and the Commission of Investigation on Enforced Disappeared Persons to investigate war crimes, and recommend punishment for perpetrators.

The Maoists are now part of the government, and they and the Nepalese Army seem to be intent on weakening the commissions and delaying justice for the victims of the war. The government recently granted both commissions an extension of their tenures till February, the third extension so far. Similarly, an amendment of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission Act is pending with the Ministry of Law.

From the start, the commissions, whose commissioners are political appointees, have faced resource constraints. Based on a deeply flawed Act, the commissions have been designed to allow amnesty for grave human rights violations, according to rights activists and victims. The political class has been accused of working hand-in-glove with the Army to not allow any deeper probe into war crimes committed during the civil war, so that both sides can enjoy impunity.

A shirt belonging to Ajay Shahi, a businessman from Kirtipur, on the outskirts of Kathmandu. Shahi, who used to sell buffalo in the Nepalese capital, had bought this checkered shirt from his first earnings. He was arrested by the Army in July 2004. His family has not heard of him since then. (Photo credit: Memory, Truth and Justice Exhibition 2018).

Memories of the war

The exhibition, spread over three rooms, made it clear that the families of people who have gone missing or were killed in the war are seeking some kind of memorial to their loved ones.

Nepal’s Dang district appears to have been disproportionately scarred by the war. This mid-western district is downhill from the former Maoist heartland of Rolpa and Rukum. Bikkil Sthapit, the exhibition’s manager spoke about massacres of Dalits, workers and other innocent people at the hands of security forces in this district.

Sharmila Chaudhary from Dang district, who belongs to the indigenous Tharu community, is the mother of Jagir Ram Chaudhary, who was forcibly disappeared in 2002. Till today, before she eats her meals, she symbolically puts aside some food for her son in a steel plate and bowl in the hope that one day he will return to eat what she has served.

A grey suit that still looks new is also part of the exhibition. It belonged to Lep Bahadur Bista, a songwriter from Tulsipur in Dang district, who had worn it for a wedding in 2002. He was taken away by armed soldiers later that year and never returned. His wife Gyanu Bista has kept the suit in his memory.

Ashok Akela, who was serving a sentence in Kathmandu’s Central Jail in early 2003, would surreptitiously send handwritten letters to his family in Borlang village of Gorkha district, often hiding them inside packets of biscuits or fried noodles. He is among the people declared missing during the war. His sister, Sapana Suwarnakar, now cannot bear the sight of a biscuit or a packet of fried noodles, according to Sthapit. To many people, the things left behind by loved ones who have gone missing stir raw emotions. This was evident in the testimonies the organisers of the exhibition collected from across Nepal.

Ram Kali Tharu, a woman from Rajapur village in Nepal’s Bardiya district, holds a framed photo of her husband Guru Prasad Kathariya, who was arrested in his home by security forces in May 1998. He has been missing since then. (Photo credit: Memory, Truth and Justice Exhibition 2018).

Healing wounds

The most vulnerable people suffer the highest number of casualties in a war. The Maoist insurgency began in Nepal’s mid-western hills in 1996 and spread all over the country in about five years. The state’s counter-insurgency operations pushed tens of thousands rural poor into the Maoists’ arms. The rebels also drove tens of thousands of people out of their homes, and forcibly recruited youngsters.

But over the years, as Nepal transitioned from a feudal monarchy to a federal republic in an uneasy peace process, memorialisation of the war has not gained traction in the nation. Many families of the disappeared have told me they want to build memorials to their loved ones. Some have already done so.

Several countries that have suffered through war have memorials and museums documenting the horrors of the conflict. But Nepal’s brutal war, whose wounds are yet to be healed, has not inspired such a preservation of history. The Memory, Truth and Justice exhibition was a significant step in that direction. But much work remains to be done.

School children look at the photos of former women fighters of the Maoist army at the exhibition at the Nepal Art Council in Kathmandu. (Photo credit: Memory, Truth and Justice Exhibition 2018).