By Sudeshna Sarkar, Womens Feature Service
For four years, Devi Sunuwar ran to and from Nepal’s courts and human rights organisations to get justice for her 15-year-old daughter Maina, illegally arrested and tortured to death by the army in 2004. At that time, the country was going through one of the worst phases of communist insurgency that killed over 13,000 people and saw hundreds disappear.
In 2006, when the civil war ended and the Maoist guerrillas came to power promising democracy, equality and social justice, Devi, finally, dared to hope that Maina’s killers would be punished. She is gradually realising that nothing has really changed.
“I grieved when they killed my daughter,” Devi says, wiping tears, which come fast and furious. “But now, under a pro-democracy government, I am disappointed. So are thousands of other families whose sons and daughters disappeared during the ‘People’s War’, people who were tortured by the state, people who were killed. “In my case, the Supreme Court has ordered the State to arrest the culprits but they still remain at large and police say they are helpless.
“I was like a mad woman when they killed my daughter. I did not care if the army killed me too; We had no money and so, I walked barefoot from one government office to another for years trying to find out what had happened to her.
“When someone as dogged as I has still not received justice, how will the thousands of people living in the villages, who are too timid to speak out against the authorities, ever get justice?”
Now, Devi is pinning her hopes on a new tack. The story of Maina has been made into a film by Nepali director K.P. Pathak and both Devi and Pathak are hoping that the resurrection of the schoolgirl’s tale will stir public concern and shame the government into taking action against the people behind her brutal murder. “I and some other directors had taken part in the 19-day nationwide protests in 2006 to end King Gyanendra’s absolute rule and restore peace and democracy,” recalls Pathak. “After the royal regime fell, we saw elections in 2008 and felt the elected government would keep its promises.
“But we are stunned to realise that the culture of impunity and lawlessness that had reigned in Nepal in the past still prevails. Though there were thousands of cases of brutality during the civil war, Maina’s case was one of the most shocking. I decided to make a film on her murder to pressure the government into punishing the guilty. It was also to remind the ruling parties that this will happen once again if they forget that their corruption and greed in the past had created the insurgency.”
‘Maina’ sets a new trend in Nepal’s fledgling film industry that has so far been copying Bollywood, the Hindi film industry in India. It has no songs, dances, romantic scenes or fights, the usual staple of an average Nepali film.
The story begins in 2004 when Devi had gone to her mother’s house in Pokharichauri village in Kavre district to take the elderly woman to an eye camp. During the night, plainclothes soldiers stormed the hut looking for Devi’s nephew Surendra Rasali, whom they suspected of being a Maoist follower. As the 24-year-old was not at home, they dragged out his sister, Reena. Then, while the family was prevented from leaving the hut, the 18-year-old student was raped in a nearby cowshed and shot dead. On the same day, soldiers also killed a 17-year-old girl in the same village, Subhadra Chaulagain.
When the army learnt that Devi had witnessed at least one of the killings (because the girl was Devi’s niece and she was present at her mothers house at the time), soldiers were sent to her home in Kharelthok village to intimidate her into silence. Devi was not at home. So they took away Maina, who never came back.
“At first, the army denied that they had taken her,” Devi recalls. “I went to the district authorities and they asked me not to stir up trouble. I was offered money to forget that my school-going daughter was missing.”
That year, was one of the most difficult years Nepal had faced. The king had stepped out of his constitutional position, dismissed an elected government and appointed his own men. There was no parliament and the army, controlled by the king, had the power to do whatever they wanted. There were growing tales of midnight raids that resulted in disappearances, torture in custody and extra-judicial killings.
Devi, finally, met lawyer and human rights activist Mandira Sharma, whose Advocacy Forum organisation took up the issue of Maina’s disappearance.
After intense public and international pressure, the truth finally emerged: Maina had been taken to a centre in the district, which, ironically, was set up to provide training for UN peacekeeping operations. There, she was repeatedly given electric shocks while her head was held in a bucket of water till she went into a seizure.
As she lay writhing on the ground, no effort was made to save her. After her death, the body was secretly buried in the periphery of the centre.
In September 2005, after an army-backed coup by King Gyanendra, Devi’s dogged efforts for justice forced the all-powerful army to announce that it had court-martialled three officers and sentenced them to six months imprisonment. But Devi rebukes, “It is a mockery of justice. They killed my daughter and yet, all that they were guilty of was ‘failure to follow proper procedures when disposing of the body’.”
In the film, Devi is shown to become wild after being offered compensation for the murder. “Is that the law?” she says. “Then bring me the three men who killed her and give me a gun. I will shoot them and pay compensation to their families.”
Devi is seeking that the three army officers be tried in a civil court. She is also planning to file a case against police for failing to have arrested the officers despite the Supreme Court order. As her battle for justice continues, she is also trying to keep Maina’s memory alive in other ways. “I have founded an NGO, Maina Bal Griha,” she says. “It is meant for the protection of children orphaned during the insurgency.”
The home has four children since its funds are meagre, running on individual donations. “But it will grow,” promises Devi. “It is a memorial not just for Maina, Reena and Subhadra but for thousands of others.”