Chandrakumari Basnet, 55, has never met India's award-winning author Mahasweta Devi. But this woman from Jhapa in eastern Nepal could easily be the inspiration for the author's best-selling novel 'Hazaar Churashir Ma', the story of a mother whose son goes missing during an armed uprising against the State, and midnight arrests and disappearances become a way of life.
In 2003, three of Basnet's sons went missing from the capital, Kathmandu, where they were studying in different colleges. Birendra, 23, "disappeared" during the monsoon. Then in the winter of the same year, Pushpa Raj, 27, disappeared and three days later, Dhirendra vanished.
"We first heard it on the radio," says a gaunt, weeping Basnet. "The news bulletin said Birendra was arrested from his college campus. We rushed to Kathmandu to look for him but everywhere we went, the police, the army, everyone told us they had never heard of him. It was as if he had disappeared off the face of the earth.
"For three years, I have not stopped crying. I have not slept. I have not celebrated any of our festivals. My heart won't rest until I know what has happened to my sons." So the uneducated peasant woman, who had never set foot outside her village before, is now shuttling between courts, frequenting the offices of international rights organizations in Nepal and taking part in protest marches.
With her husband Bhim Bahadur, Basnet is today a member of Rajya Dwara Bepatta Pariye Samaj (RDBPS) - the Association of People Made to Disappear by the State. RDBPS was set up in 2002, a year after Nepal's government decided to call in the army after police forces failed to quench the escalating Maoist insurgency.
The Maoists - who want to abolish monarchy in Nepal, the world's only Hindu kingdom, and install a secular republic - began their armed revolt against the government in 1996. As the guerrillas' underground People's Liberation Army started gaining in numbers as well as arms, the worried government called a state of emergency in 2001 to combat the rebels, unleashing a spate of illegal arrests, torture in detention and disappearances. By 2004, according to the UN Working Group for Enforced Disappearances, this tiny Himalayan kingdom had topped the world list for the highest number of enforced disappearances.
A large number of those who disappeared are students who either belonged to the students' wing of the banned Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) or were suspected of being associated with the Maoists. An organized search for the missing began in 2002 after police arrested four students - all in their early 20s - from Kathmandu: Bipin Bhandari, Dil Bahadur Rai, Ramhari Rupakheti and Kavi Gautam.
Rai's relatives and Bipin's father Ekraj Bhandari, a lawyer in the Supreme Court, filed habeas corpus petitions in the court, asking security forces to produce the detained young men in court. Bhandari, a member of the Nepal Bar Association, an independent group of lawyers active in fighting rights violations, took the initiative to set up a cell within itself that dedicated itself to taking up the cases of illegal detainees at a time when lawyers were threatened by security forces and many judges were refusing to admit appeals.
However, in 2004, Bhandari, perceived as a Maoist sympathizer, was forced to go underground. Then his wife Shanta stepped in to continue the fight for her son's release. "During my visits to the court, I met Krishna and Uday Rai, the parents of Nabin Rai, 26, who was arrested the same year as Bipin and, like him, disappeared," Shanta Bhandari says.
"We also kept meeting Moti Maya Poudel, 71 (then 68), who would come all the way from Pokhara city to file petitions for her son Purna, 24, also arrested the same year. We would huddle together for strength and support. Then we thought we should form an association of similar families so that we would no longer be alone. United, we would have strength to fight the system and the threats from security forces."
Today, RDBPS has 812 families, drawn from all over Nepal by the common bonds of grief and anger. Besides grieving mothers, angry wives and daughters are also marching to courts and human rights organizations.
Durga K C, 30, looks frail and diminutive but under the deceptively fragile appearance is a will of steel. Durga's husband Krishna, a senior Maoist student leader, was arrested three years ago and kept hidden in various army barracks. "For 27 months, I did not know if he was alive or dead," she says. "Even inside the cell, he was kept blindfolded 24 hours with his hands tied behind his back. When I moved court and the judges asked the army to produce him, they kept on denying holding him prisoner."
But she fought on and in November last year, Krishna was finally produced in court when the judges ordered his release.
For most political prisoners in Nepal, though, freedom does not come easily. Security forces surrounded the court and re-arrested Krishna from its premises hours after his release, right before the eyes of Durga and their two young children. She still hasn't lost hope. Now she is fighting another protracted court battle to get him released.
At the same time, she and others like her are travelling to remote districts and herding mothers, wives and daughters to the capital to demand the release of their missing kin. Recently, over 70 militant mothers, wives and other relatives marched to the office of the National Human Rights Commission in Kathmandu and barred the gate for five hours, refusing to let the officials in.
"We are tired of empty official assurances," says white-haired Moti Maya Poudel, 71. "In 2004, we sat on a hunger-strike in Kathmandu for 10 days, demanding the government disclose the whereabouts of our sons and daughters. We broke the fast after human rights activists told us they would pressure the government. One year later, our children are still missing."
Sharmila Tripathi, 33, is one of the most articulate members of the association and a natural leader. She is fighting for news of her husband Gyanendra Tripathi, a Maoist student leader, missing since his arrest in October 2003.
"We are not asking the government for any favor," she says. "The government has branded some people as Maoists terrorists. We say, fine, if our husbands, sons and fathers are found guilty of acts of terrorism, punish them according to the law of the land. But you have to try them fairly, you have to allow us to see them. That's our fundamental right."