Interview with Devi Sunuwar
Almost two years after the 2006 Peace Movement that forced the king to step down, Nepal continues to be plagued by a gross deficit in human rights protection. With few exceptions, civilian victims of the 10-year insurgency have yet to see justice served on rapists, extortionists, kidnappers and murderers who perpetrated their crimes under the guise of government forces and/or Maoist insurgents. According to Amnesty International -- although there is ample blame to spread around -- it was the arbitrary arrests, torture, forced disappearance and extra-judicial killings of individuals perpetrated by the military police and the Royal Army that were most egregious.
But the point is this: Impunity still reigns in Nepal, and it is the women and children who suffer most. Outrages against women of all descriptions continue without much fear of repercussion. In case of human rights violations, the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) is authorized to request governmental action, but the interim government continues to deny NHRC access to intervene in many cases and, in general, NHRC’s recommendations are allowed to languish in the judicial system. Thus, victims of human rights violations are twice punished because of the enormous hurdles they face should they seek legal recourse:
1. Nepal doesn’t offer any protection to victims or witnesses if their perpetrators threaten them with future bodily harm.
2. Consulting legal aid is, geographically, practically impossible to victims living in remote areas, which makes up a major part of Nepal’s population.
3. The Torture Compensation Act requires the victims to file claims within 35 days of the crime-- severely reducing adequate opportunity for people with limited means to get justice.
4. There is no provision in place for the victim’s rehabilitation needs.
5. Perpetrators who are actually brought to justice are the exception not the rule, a fact that discourages victims from risking their lives by pursuing legal action.
The disappearance, torture and murder of 15-year-old Maina Sunuwar exemplify the human rights violations and the culture of impunity that reigns in Nepal. In December 2007, I met and talked to Maina’s mother, Devi Sunuwar, in her tiny room in Kathmandu. It was 6:00 in the morning: She consented to the interview on the condition that I would get her to work on time at the small factory in which she works—a considerable distance from her rented room.
DUNHAM: You haven’t lived in Kathmandu that long. Why did you leave your village?
DEVI SUNUWAR: I came to Kathmandu in 2004 -- not because I wanted to -- but because after the Royal Army abducted my daughter, I was afraid what the army would do to me if I stayed there. Also, I needed to come to the city in order to find people who could help me find my daughter.
DUNHAM: 2004 was at the height of the insurgency. Were there Maoists in the area?
DEVI SUNUWAR: No, not really. Not in my village. My village, Kharelthok, is in Kavre, which is the district just east of Kathmandu. There was an army barracks and a police station near to my house, so there was no real Maoist presence. The Maoists did have influence nearby, but not in Kharelthok. And there wasn’t anybody from my village who had joined the Maoists.
DUNHAM: Were you affiliated with any political party?
DEVI SUNUWAR: Yes, I had joined the UML [United Marxist-Leninist party]. I was a member of the Village Development Committee. We used to hear about the fighting and the war in the news, but my village had no firsthand experience with the conflict.
DUNHAM: Your family were farmers, until you came to Kathmandu?
DEVI SUNUWAR: Yes.
DUNHAM: So how did all the trouble begin?
DEVI SUNUWAR: I had gone to my parent’s house in Chauripokhari, with my brother-in law, Karna Bahadur Rasaili. It was the night of February 12, 2004. I was sleeping with his young daughter—my niece—Reena Rasaili. Around midnight, around 500 soldiers surrounded the village. They woke us up. Banged on the door. When we wouldn’t let them in, they broke down the door and searched our house. They were looking for Maoists. It is true that there were two members of my family, Deepak and Gita, who were involved with the Maoists, but my niece, Reena, was not involved in the party. She was just a student -- grade seven. They only other thing she did besides household work was helping at the Rural Energy Development Center: She helped teach the elderly in a literacy program. She was innocent. The army dragged Reena and my brother-in-law out of the house. They grabbed Reena by her hands; right out of the bed where we were sleeping, took her outside and beat both her and my brother-in-law again and again. Then they raped Reena—did everything to fill their desires. The rest of us were not allowed to leave the house while they were doing all this. We were caged. But I could see what was going on through a window and I could see her screaming with pain.
In the meantime, two other girls from the village had been raped and killed: Ashmita Chaulagain and Tashi Lama. Then, one of the soldiers in front of our house asked an officer coming up the path, “What should I do with this one, sir?” The officer answered, “Swinkaide.” [Swinkaide is can mean both “finish her” and “fuck her”.]
Soldiers approached the house searching for rope. I jumped back in bed, pretending I was asleep. One of the soldiers came into my room and put his hand around my neck and breast and said, “You and me should go outside or maybe go behind the house.” I pushed him away and said, “If you need something from me you can call me out, I will tell you. My name is Devi, sir. But sir, you can’t do this to me in bed.” Then he went out of the room and left the house with a piece of rope.
The rest of army returned to our house from the village. It was already early morning, about five am. They tied Reena’s hands and dragged her 100-150 meters from the house and tied her up to a tree. Then they opened fire on her. They shot her in the right eye and in the chest. I had run up to the second floor and saw her getting shot from the window. She screamed very loudly and then she was dead.
DUNHAM: What happened after they killed Reena?
DEVI SUNUWAR: The army left. Her corpse remained tied against the tree for six days until the human rights people and journalists could examine and photograph the body. Her trousers had been pulled down below her knees. Her panties had been ripped off. There were nail marks all over her breasts where the soldiers had scratched her and one of her nipples had been bitten off.
DUNHAM: But that just the beginning of your problems, wasn’t it? What happened to your 15-year-old daughter, Maina, on February 17?
DEVI SUNUWAR: I wasn’t with Maina that day. I was still at my parents’ house, taking care of my brother-in-law and his family -- they were all still very much in shock over Reena’s murder.
My daughter and my husband and my two sons were back at our home in Kharelthok. I didn’t know that anything was going on in Kharelthok until I saw my husband walking up to my parents’ house. I took one look at him, knew something had happened, and fainted.
When I came to, he told me what had happened.
The army—about ten soldiers-- had come to our house looking for me. When they were convinced that I really wasn’t there, they grabbed Maina and took her away with them. The soldiers ordered my husband to find me and take me to their barracks the next day [the Birendra Peace Operations Training Center in Panchkhal.]
I returned to Kharelthok with my husband immediately. My sons were crying when we reach home around 5:00PM. The villagers offered to go with me to the army barracks. They were as shocked as I was at the arrest of Maina. We were a tiny farming village: None of us thought that this kind of violence could happen to us. And Maina was a good student –in class nine at Bhagawati Secondary School.
So the next morning six or seven of us took the bus to the Panchkhal barracks. I asked the authorities to tell me where my daughter was. Instead of answering me, I was scolded: “This is not a detention center. This is a United Nations regional training center. Training centers do not detain people. We didn’t take your daughter. We’ll inquire of some other barrack has her.”
So after that, we went to the nearby village of Panchkhal and called media persons in Banepa to report what had happened. The next day the Banepa paper published a story about Maina. Next I canvassed the village of Panchkhal to find out if any locals had seen my daughter. They told me that, on the 17th, they had seen ten policemen bring two girls in an army vehicle driven by Captain Niranjan. After that, I returned to the Panchkhal barracks many times, believing that my daughter was hidden there. The men in charge started to misbehave with us so we stop going.
Instead, we went to the Chief District Officer’s office in Dhulikhel. The CDO was very powerful, head of security for the entire district. During our first three visits he claimed he knew nothing at that, in any case, he couldn’t talk about army affairs to civilians. But we kept returning and, eventually, the CDO said, “Stop searching for your daughter; she was raped and killed by the army. Go home, work hard and take care of yourself and your sons. I will give you security and I will call your area police station to make sure that no one harms you.” But when I went back to Banepa, a policeman from my village warned me that the Deputy Superintendent of Police had already sent women police to arrest me and that they might arrive at any moment.
So my husband and I fled to Kathmandu. That’s how we ended up here. Our relatives were too afraid to keep us in their homes because the army was looking for us so we spent many nights sleeping on the floor of a temple, without food. During the daytime, we went to many human rights organizations for help and to every Kathmandu army barracks asking about our daughter. We also went to all the jails. Before I came to Kathmandu, I didn’t know anything about the city. Now I know every street like the back of my hand. Finally, we brought our sons here and rented a small room—smaller than this one, where all of slept on cardboard.
Then, after several months, the army published an article stating that my daughter had been killed in firefight with Maoists in Hokse. But the ICRC [International Committee of the Red Cross] conducted its own investigation and found out that no fighting had occurred in Hokse. That was just the first of the lies. When ICRC initially went to Hokse, the army swore that they have never arrested Maina. But on a later visit, the army told ICRC that Maina Sunuwar had, in fact, been arrested, but she had tried to escape, jumping out of a vehicle, so she was shot dead on the spot. ICRC found out that that was also a lie.
Finally there was a breakthrough, when I met Louise Arbour [the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights] and General Pyarjung [General Pyarjung Thapa, Chief of the Royal Nepalese Army.]
One week later, the army published an article admitting that Maina had been killed in a barrack during a fighting incident in Doromba.
Six months later, the army court-martialed and convicted Major Bobby Khatri, Lieutenant Amit Pun and Captain Niranjan, for the murder of Maina Sunuwar.
DUNHAM: What were their punishments?
DEVI SUNUWAR: They were imprisoned for six months.
DUNHAM: Months? Six months for murder?
DEVI SUNUWAR: They have already been released. Also, Major Bobby Khatri was to pay 50,000 rupees and other two were to pay 25,000 rupees each as compensation to my family. We didn’t accept the money. When a woman from an advocacy forum asked me if I had received the money, I said, “Madam, we did not pursue the case for money. The army has admitted to their misconduct. But can three persons who killed an innocent girl, be set free after six months in prison and paying 100,000 rupees? If that is the case I am ready to kill these army men myself and pay 100,000 rupees and be put in prison for six months.”
For a long time afterward, I tried, in vain to file a civil suit. After ten months we were able to file a case in the Supreme Court and, three months later, the court demanded that the army re-arrest the three convicts and present them to the court. The case is pending now.
We unearthed the skeleton of my daughter in Chaitra 8. We went there with human rights people, press and journalist to unearth the remains. Soldiers did the actual digging. The grave was about 30 meters from the barracks, within the army security fence. The body has been examined by foreign specialists and is now out of country for further examinations. My husband and I expect further reports within three months.
EXCERPT FROM THE COURT OF ENQUIRY REPORT, as reported by Advocacy Forum of Nepal:
Once the army at the Birendra Peace Operations Training Center in Panchklhal had detained Maina, two captains ordered soldiers to repeatedly submerged Maina’s head in a drum of water for one-minute intervals. When Maina would not answer their questions, the soldiers applied electric shocks to her wet feet and hands four to five times. Soon after, Maina started to vomit and foam at the mouth. She died before medical assistance could arrive. Those complicit in her torture and death attempted to cover up the crime by shooting her in the back of the head and then by burying her in the grounds of the Training Center.
Maina’s story – a tragedy involving indiscriminate violence against a civilian coupled with the absolute absence of any form of justice – encapsulates the human rights situation that has plagued Nepal before and after the People’s Movement . Since its inception from 2001 to 2007, Advocacy Forum alone has documented 449 cases of extrajudicial killing, 554 cases of disappearance, and 3,584 cases of torture.
DUNHAM: Devi, is there anything else you would like to share with my readers?
DEVI SUNUWAR: I have not yet received justice. Hopefully, the guilty parties will be punished as soon as possible. I have struggled a lot. But I have not struggled just for one person; I am committed to making people aware of the larger problem. We women should learn that we should not tolerate future mistreatment. It has to stop.