By Donna Stokes, World Ark managing editor
Photos by Geoff Oliver Bugbee
BARDIYA DISTRICT, NEPAL—Sobha Rani Tharu said her husband’s name so softly it was nearly lost in the hot, dry wind.
“My husband is Babu Ram Tharu,” she said in the pratikchya griha, or waiting place, her lavender scarf wheeling about her face. The women of the village built the circular memorial at the crossroads leading to Madaha village in honor of family and friends who went missing during the civil war that ended in 2006.
“[June 30, 2002] was the night he was taken,” Tharu said. “In the middle of the night, a lot of army men came; there were more in vehicles. They came and took him, and I later heard other men were also taken.”
That night, Tharu awoke to lights shining in their bedroom window and got up to see what was going on. Two of the soldiers came into the house and asked her husband his name.
“He told them, and they said ‘we have something we need to talk with you about; come with us, and we will bring you home later,’” Tharu said. “They then grabbed him and pulled him out of the house. I ran after him, but they would not let me near him.”
Tharu heard he was taken to an army camp. Another man who returned from the camp said her husband was there and was asking for a change of clothes. She packed a bag and took a bus to the camp. But the soldiers wouldn’t allow her to see him or even acknowledge to her that he was there. They put her on a bus back home, still carrying the bag of her husband’s clean clothes.
“That was the last I have heard of him—he went missing after that,” she said. “He was a farmer and a bricklayer and also president of our community forest user group. He was the only son in his family and the primary breadwinner for all of us.
“I tried to find out what happened to him. I went to the human rights office, but nothing has been found.”
“I hope that he will come back some day,” she said. “My life would be a lot easier if he came back.”
Tharu’s story was echoed by other women in a Heifer International self-help group that is part of a unique partnership with the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in Nepal.
“Because our focus is more on victims of the armed conflict, we don’t have the capacity to address communities at large in Nepal,” said Jerome Fontana, then deputy head of the ICRC in Kathmandu. “That would go beyond our means and our mandate here.”
Yet the families — especially the women left behind — face multiple challenges including ostracism, loneliness and extreme poverty from loss of primary breadwinners.
The ICRC began looking for partners to better serve the families of the missing and found Heifer International’s values- based model complementary to their work. Through the partnership, the families of the missing receive goats and training in their care so they can begin to replace the lost income and provide for their extended families. Yet the value of the partnership extends far beyond the economic help.
One of the most traumatic consequences to the families of the missing is dealing with the uncertainty, said Yubaraj Adhikari, who leads the ICRC psychosocial support program in Nepal.
“People in this circumstance suffer a lot, because every morning when they open their door they hope to find their loved one there waiting for them,” Adhikari said. “And in the evening when they go to bed and close the door, they think maybe he will come back tonight. The daily hope of seeing their family member return can lead to stress and emotional instability for the family.”
Older mothers report seeing their sons in nightmares, and others who believe in animist practices believe that the cry of a nearby bird might be a message or plea for help from their missing family member, Adhikari said.
The ICRC does its best to provide answers by working with authorities to find what happened to those who are missing, he said. “It’s very difficult progress to get answers in every case. We provide the comprehensive support to the families to cope with this kind of uncertainty.”
Tharu’s suffering continued in the months and years after Babu Ram Tharu vanished. They had no living children, and her in-laws made it clear she was a burden to them and that they wanted her to leave their house. The community also shunned her and called her names, treating her with suspicion after her husband was seized for suspected rebel involvement.
“At the beginning before this program started, usually these families felt extremely isolated, extremely lonely,” Fontana said. “They felt as if they have no one with whom they could share the suffering and like they had no means to cope with the situation.”
The strength of the joint approach with Heifer is in building community support and solidarity in their suffering, Fontana said. The Heifer self-help group model joins families of the missing with neighbors who do not have relatives who vanished. By integrating other vulnerable families, those in far-flung locations have a support system every day in addition to what they receive when they travel to meet in larger regional groups, said Mahendra Lohani, vice president of Heifer’s Asia and Europe programs.
Integrating families from both sides of the conflict as well as families of missing and those vulnerable for other reasons has a much larger project impact that is key to Heifer’s community-building role, Lohani said.
Fontana explained further. “These families then realize that they are not alone and that they can really help each other. Families say that after the program started they felt like they were a part of a new group. They felt supported and were also supporting other economically vulnerable women from the same community.”
Sarala Sharma Chaudhary is the president of the cooperative in Madaha village. Her brother Sushil Gyawali, the owner of an electronics store, was taken the night of Aug. 17, 2006. His wife was attacked and severely injured during his abduction. The family believes the rebel Maoists took him.
Chaudhary said her sister-in-law was so tormented, she moved away and has not been back to the village. Her mother has not been the same either, Chaudhary said. “She (her mother) switches to being almost normal but then grows quiet and cries all the time. The doctors say she now has an incurable mental disease.
“I feel this project gives me a place to express myself where people can understand what I’m feeling. I can’t open up in front of my family; it would just be intensifying their pain. “The women in the group are close. Not only because of the pain they share, but because they now work together and can talk to each other about any challenge,” Chaudhary said. “The pain inside doesn’t go away, but being a part of a group with people who feel a similar pain helps, as you know you are not alone in your sorrow.”
Nine months after the project started and training was complete, each member received two goats. Many families have benefited from selling goats; they also all passed on the gift of two goats to another group in the village.
Both Tharu and Chaudhary noted that even women who had family abducted by opposing parties of the conflict now help and support each other and share stories at the water pump.
“Working alone is hard; working with others is easy and fun,” Chaudhary said. She has five goats, four of them ready to sell. She has also passed on two goats to another group.
“Heifer is especially good in addressing the economic situation of vulnerable people in Nepal,” Fontana said. “Heifer’s work addressing such economic vulnerability fits well with our goals to address the vulnerability of those affected by the armed conflict.”
Tharu has two goats and is still unsettled after leaving her husband’s house, first living with her sister and now moving in with an aunt. She doesn’t know what is going to happen next. Even so, she is grateful that she was able to pass on the gift of goats to another woman in need.
“I’m very happy because I got to help someone else, even though I also have been facing a difficult situation,” Tharu said. She still meets with the woman who received her goats and gives her advice on how to care for them.
To other women with missing family members she offers words of wisdom and support. “I am also like you. People like us can get a lot done; let’s share and try to find solutions together.”