Nepalis are taught from birth that theirs is a unique land; the world’s only Hindu kingdom, home to the highest mountains and so on. Such thoughts are a comfort in troubled times like the present. They inform nationalism here when there’s little left to be nationalistic about, given economic decline, Maoist rebellion and political entropy. But now there’s a first, a new front-ranking for Nepal, and it’s not a nice one. According to Amnesty International, this country is top of the league table for people who have—in the parlance of human rights types—"disappeared". Between 700 and 900 Nepali citizens have vanished without a trace in the past few years of the country’s civil war between security forces and Maoist rebels. In a long overdue move to trace their whereabouts, newspapers published lists of the missing to mark World Human Rights Day earlier this month. Local lawyers and activists have been tireless in going to court to demand the security forces hand over those in their custody, often to no avail. And appealing to the Maoist rebels to "give us the body", the literal meaning of habeas corpus, might result in an all-too-literal reply.
I went visiting families of the "disappeared" myself a while ago. Bhim Bahadur Basnet, who farms a hectare of riverine land in western Nepal, told me about the anguish of losing his son, Keshab, 19 months ago and having no contact since then. Keshab was accused of being Maoist by the police and arrested but somewhere along the line, he "disappeared". Despite witnesses to his arrest, the police have told the courts that they’ve never heard of him. Bhim’s Hindu faith has kept him going this far, praying daily for his son’s return, but the old man told me with tears in his eyes, "all this praying to God, I wonder if God hasn’t disappeared from this place as well".