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Nepal: the long, lonely wait of Sunamati

29-02-2008 Feature

One night, armed men came to Sunamati's house in mid-western Nepal and left with her husband. Since then, six years have passed without news of him. The mother of three ekes out a living and hopes, one day, for news.

   

  ©ICRC/A. Montanari/np-e-00201    
 
  Sunamati, whose husband disappeared six years ago, with an ICRC interpreter.    
     

 Sunamati comes from the flat, rural district of Bardiya, in mid-western Nepal. She has high cheekbones and strong-looking hands, and when asked her age, she gives her husband’s – forty – before adding that she is one and a half years younger.  

    

 Her husband’s year of birth is one of the few things she still knows for sure about him, since he disappeared from her life on 17 April, 2002. Night had fallen when a couple of dozen armed men came to their village. They surrounded the house and asked her father-in-law where his sons were. “They have eaten and gone to sleep,” he replied.  

    

 Sunamati had just finished preparing for bed and went to wake her husband, saying “Get up, people have come.” He went outside, where the armed men asked his name. “Are you the headmaster of the school?” they asked. He said he was not, and they ordered him to get dressed, since they were taking him away. He protested that he hadn’t done anything wrong, but they refused to explain.  

    

 Spending the night at the side of the road  

    

 She remembers exactly what he was wearing when they led him away: a brown T-shirt with red stripes, grey pants, and a cap. He put his ID papers in his shirt pocket, proof that he was a teacher at the Baidi village school. The entire family walked with him to the road. “If you take him, please take me too,” Sunamati begged. They responded, “We’ll only keep him three or four days, investigate him and send him back. There’s no need for you to come or worry.” After they left, she sat down at the side of the road, where she waited all night long.  

    

 The next morning Sunamati walked to the closest military barracks and asked about him. The men on duty said it was pointless to come so soon after his arrest and that in any case he wasn’t there. She continued on to other barracks, to the Maoists and to the police; wherever she went, the people she spoke to always claimed to know nothing about her husband.  

    

 A few days later she made the rounds again, asking simply to see his face, but was told nothing. She stopped going after she was threatened by a soldier. “I never heard another thing about him,” she says quietly.  

    

 Today she lives with her three children and father-in-law, who is too old to work. She says her husband’s younger brother does not give them anything. They have no resources, no property, and in order to survive they farm other peoples’ land for a portion of what they produce. The children don’t go to school.  

    

 Faint glimmer of hope  

    

 “With a husband it would have been easy to educate and feed them,” she sighs. “If you want clothes you have to do without food, and if you want food you can’t buy clothes.”  

    

 She can’t help nurturing a faint glimmer of hope that her husband is alive, though she admits it is unlikely. When asked if she would consider re-marrying she shakes her head vehemently, then adds that it’s not easy to find a husband when one has small children. She has decided to try to raise her family alone, fill their stomachs, and be content.  

    

 Her husband was less than two years away from receiving his pension when he disappeared. “If he’s alive the authorities should make it clear,” she says. “If not, they should say so and give me some sort of compensation. Why can’t I receive his pension?”  

    

 Humanitarian organizations, including the ICRC, have provided her with blankets and other essential household items. But she says she has spent most of her savings traveling and searching for answers, with very little to show in return.