August 1, 2002 was an ordinary, autumn day. At the hint of dawn, eleven Sarki men set out for the jungle to collect timber and firewood from fallen trees. On the way, they became tired and decided to sit under a cutch tree. Two more men joined them. As they chatted for a while, four army men suddenly appeared from the bushes. The soldiers asked them where they were headed as they tapped their chests with the barrels of their guns. “What are these?” They pointed to the axes, saws, sickles and wood knives. One of the army men called his major in the garrison some two kilometers uphill. Obeying orders, the soldiers goaded the men to the garrison and lined them up. The men were ordered to take off their shirts which were used to blindfold them.Their names were written down in a pocketbook. When it was Chhabilal’s turn to take off his shirt, he panicked, the experience felt surreal. Impulsively, he jumped off the cliff.
Soldiers opened fire at him but he managed to escape. He ran. Horrified and flustered, he crossed the same Babai River thrice. In the afternoon, a relative came to the the place where he was hiding, a plant nursery on the side of a dirt road. Shaking in fear, he informed her that the soldiers had massacred everyone, and he was the only one who had survived. Chhabilal stayed in Dang for a month, hiding at different places, before going to Chandigarh, India where some of his relatives worked at large steel factories.
He came back permanently to his family in 2006. During his time in India, his family remained in Dang in constant fear. Soldiers came looking for him. Once, a 90 year old man was beaten bloody when he got confused and couldn’t point the soldiers to Chhabilal’s house.
The hinterland of Kauwaghari where Chhabilal’s house is located is some 30 kilometers south-west of Tulsipur bazaar in Dang district. Some eighty to ninety Sarki families were submerged in a survival swamp where living conditions were dire and backbreaking work needed to be done in order to sustain livelihoods.The Sarkis appropriated dry and unregistered land, with each family getting less than half an acre on average. The lands were abandoned by Bahun landlords after the Lands Act implemented in 1964 put ceilings on the amount of land which a person could own. Prior to 1964, Sarkis were tenants. In 2002, only a few families made shoes and other leather items from cow and water buffalo hides. They exchanged bundles of firewood and Saal leaves, brooms of sabaigrass, and flowers of mountain ebony with grain and cash. They grazed others’ cattle and sharecropped others’ fields.
Drought was common in the area, and there was no rainfall in 2002. Paddy seedlings yellowed. Fields ruptured. Festivals were around the corner. Sarkis were dependent on the forest which they frequented for fodder and firewood. In the evening, some men decided to cross Kauwaghari Community Forest the next day and search for fallen trees inside a forest in Banke district. Bereft of any other options to sustain their livelihoods, on the morning of August 1, they went on a journey to bring some wood which they would exchange for some cash to celebrate upcoming festivals. They didn’t come back.
Dev Raj Sarki, father of Somraj who met his fate that day, was sitting under a tree with his friends when he heard the gunshots at 9-10 AM. He became anxious. After Chhabilal sent a message that twelve from the same village, Ram Prasad Sarki, Devi Ram Sarki, Mangal Sarki, Ramesh Sarki, Resham Sarki, Nib Bahadur Sarki, Jog Bahadur Sarki, Bhupal Sarki, Ramesh Sarki, Somraj Sarki, Ram Lal Sarki and Baburam Bishwokarma, were shot dead by the soldiers guarding Rajakot telephone relay station, the village was overcome with grief. In the evening, villagers remember Radio Nepal broadcasting the news that reported that twelve “terrorists” who had come to attack Rajakot Tower with “domestic weapons” were liquidated, with one person escaping. According to official accounts published in two newspapers, on August 3, security forces identified a shelter of “terrorists” in the jungle area of Rajakot and twelve of them were killed when the forces took action. It further reads, three escaped from the incident and the forces recovered guns, socket bombs, explosive materials and domestic weapons.
The next day, Nepali Congress supporter Dev Raj started making contacts through different political leaders to recover the dead bodies in order to properly cremate them. He said, “Home Minister Khum Bahadur Khadka assured that he would help us bring the bodies.” But the army would not let the families see the dead bodies.
“People bring dead bodies from thousands of kilometers from Gulf and America to their families, but we couldn’t bring our own from a distance that required a mere two hour walk,” Dinesh, the son of Nib Bahadur Sarki, one of those killed, said.
The bereaved families couldn’t get a chance to complete the funeral rituals that normally extends to thirteen days. Having replaced dead bodies by effigies of Halfa grass, they stopped rites on the third day. There were rumors of soldiers walking around the village and ordering to put off lamps during nights. “I was both angry and nervous,” Sita, wife of Ram Prasad said.
Besides Jog Bahadur, all those who lost their lives that day were married. Mangal, Bhupal and Ramesh were three brothers of the same family who were killed that day, as were Ramesh and Jog Bahadur. Most of the men’s children were of ages below five. Laxmi Sarki, wife of Ramesh, gave birth to her youngest child two and half months after her husband got killed. Resham’s widow committed suicide after two years, and Devi Ram’s widow died of natural causes the year after that.
A few weeks after the massacre, the widows and families of those killed were back to work–they could not waste their time grieving because they had livelihoods to sustain. Without work, they couldn’t feed their children. In 2009, Laxmi, Tara, widow of Ram Lal, Sabitra, widow of Nib Bahadur, and Sabitra, widow of Bhupal took out loans to go to Kuwait and work as housemaids. They decided to go via New Delhi as there were multiple hurdles to overcome for women who opted to reach Gulf countries through Kathmandu. In Kuwait, they were paid 40 dinars (about 15,000 Nepali rupees) per month for the laborious work of cooking and cleaning all day. Tara paid her hard earned 100, 000 rupees as a bribe to officials through a politician in order to provide her son with a job as a police cadet.
None of the men killed during the incident were cadres of the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist). Dev Raj, father of Somraj, was a Nepali Congress supporter. He was elected as a ward member during the Panchayat regime. Chhabilal was elected as a ward member from Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist Leninist) during local elections held in 1997. After the incident, Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) declared the twelve as party’s martyrs. Still underground, Maoists took family members of the deceased to cultural programs and mass meetings held in the hinterlands located some 50 to 60 kilometers away from the village. Maili, second daughter of Ram Prasad, filled with rage at the predicament faced by her father, became a full time Maoist cadre. Maili chose to identify herself as Comrade Kaushila. Maili left the party after one of her comrades was shot dead when travelling from Tulsipur to Ghorai. During last year’s local elections, Laxmi ran for a post as the Dalit woman ward member from Unified Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist). She lost to a Nepali Congress candidate.
INSEC’s summary about the death of Debiram Sarki.
After 2008, the government announced all the massacred men’s families as “war victims” and awarded them 1,000,000 rupees each on installment. With the cash, victim families paid debts, bought some plots of land and built houses. NGOs and human rights agencies flooded the village. In 2008, the Maoist government announced their plan to develop a model village in Kauwaghari. The erstwhile Sarki Tole got its new name—”Model Settlement.” The government formed a Model Settlement Development Committee to build roads, infrastructure for drinking water, sewage facilities, and a memorial. None from the victims’ families were included in the Committee and none of the objectives were fully accomplished. After a dispute broke out over the activities of the Committee, Arjun, son of Ram Lal, was imprisoned for eighteen months. The drinking water facility was built, but one week after it began functioning, somebody cut the pipes and they were never repaired. Residents complain about the “Model Settlement” project being riddled with corruption.
Most people who live in the village work as daily-wage laborers. At the most, they make about 700 rupees per day. Chhabilal, called Jiundo Shahid (living martyr) by his fellow villagers, works as a carpenter. Maya, widow of Somraj, works in a garment factory in Balaju, Kathmandu, and her son is preparing for the Korean language test in preparation for migration. None of the victims’ children have managed to complete high school. “I always wanted to study management and learn computer skills in order to work as a bank teller,” said Dinesh. Dinesh requested politicians and NGOs to fund his plus-two management course, but nobody agreed to financially support his education. He eventually became frustrated and went to Saudi Arabia in 2016 to work as a cleaner at a hospital. He earned 800 riyals or about 24, 000 rupees per month. Two years later, he quit his job and came back.
Many children started their primary level education at the Maoist founded Shahid Memorial School in Bijauri, which provided free education and free lodging to the children of families whose members were pronounced martyrs by the Party. But many children felt homesick and returned back to their villages.All children enrolled in the village schools have to pay fees. There are no discounts on medical checkups or on transportation.
For sixteen years after the Rajakot massacre, Bhim Bahadur has maintained his drinking schedule, thrice a day—morning, afternoon and evening. “I started drinking gin after I had difficulty sleeping.” Dev Bahadur, three of whose sons were killed in the massacre, died this Tihar from an alcohol-related illness.
Bhim Bahadur, father of Resham Karki. Photo Credit: Nirmal Acharya
During the civil war, poor Dalits were rampantly targeted by security forces in Dang on the accusation that they were all Maoists. One month after the incident in Rajakot, soldiers were patrolling a village a couple of kilometers west of Chhabilal’s house. At around 2:30 PM, they came to a spot where five Dalit men and a Newar man were slaughtering a water buffalo for a Teej feast. The soldiers didn’t bother to interrogate the men. They shot Top Bahadur Bishwokarma, Chop Bahadur Nepali, Manoj Nepali, Ram Kumar Nepali, Dharma Bahadur Nepali and Chudamani Shrestha, and and buried them in a pit. Among the six, Top Bahadur BK was a community forest guard who always carried his citizenship card in his pocket. That day, he did not get the opportunity to show his identity card to his killers. A gunshot pierced through the card. Two Dalits from the same village, Lok Jung Bishwokarma and Shyam Bishwokarma were asked to dig the pit. It was as though the soldiers were in a manic killing spree– happy to shoot anyone they came across on the slightest of suspicions. Three men, Bhakta Bahadur Nepali, Khimlal Sarki and Punaram Bishwokarma, died within a month from wounds inflicted by the soldiers on that day.
According to an individual level data on victims prepared by Madhav Joshi and Subodh Raj Pyakurel, 80 percent of total known victims during the insurgency belonged to lower-middle and lower economic classes. It is an indisputable fact that state violence was principally directed towards the poorest and those with the least social and political power. The state machinery perceived that the ragtag Maoists dwelled, walked and sheltered in settlements adjoining jungles and Sivalik hills in the south of Dang district. They created a wartime psychology that pinned locals clad in “poor outfits” as cadres and supporters of the party and poached on their settlements like it was open season.
The acts of violence that local communities were subjected to were rarely investigated and victims have not found justice.
The tenure of Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) and Commission for Investigation of Enforced Disappeared Persons (CIEDP) ends on February 10. These commissions were established in 2015 to investigate the incidents of human rights violations that occurred during the ten year conflict between the state and the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist). As the two year term ended in February 2017, the cabinet extended their tenures twice by one year each.This time, one of two things might happen: the extension of tenures of TRC and CIEDP through a cabinet decision, or their dissolution and replacement with new commissions.
The decision to establish a truth commission was reached in the Comprehensive Peace Accord (CPA) of 2006. TRC and CIEDP were established after years of consultation and drafting of mandates, but neither have shown any tangible progress in addressing transitional justice for four long years. Priscilla Hayner, author of Unspeakable Truths, argues from her research of forty truth commissions worldwide that a truth commission should start early at the point of transition and should have tenure of two to three years for the reason that late start and long tenure might end up with “risks [of] losing momentum, focus, political and public attention.” In Nepal’s context, where a decade has passed since the end of the war, it has become increasingly difficult to keep the memories of the horrors of war alive.
On top of the logistical shortcomings and legal ambiguities in the making and and working of TRC and CIEDP, the Constitution of Nepal 2015 sets itself as a theoretical barrier to transitional justice. The Constitution thwarts retrospective prosecution for everything except cases of enforced disappearance which is considered an “ongoing crime.” The identification and prosecution of security personnel who massacred the twelve Sarki men in Rajakot and told blatant lies about the incident is an iffy issue in relation to the mandate of the TRC. “Justice seems less probable in the near future, but we always have hope,” said an official at National Human Rights Commission (NHRC), a facilitating body in transitional justice.
Sixteen years after the incident at Rajakot, the victims’ families still feel the rupture in their lives acutely. They carry on and continue to try their best to sustain their livelihoods, but the wounds of impunity remain fresh.
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