For International Day of the Disappeared Amnesty International has produced a video looking at the disappearance of five young men in Janakpur, Nepal. Known as the ‘Dhanusha 5′, the men were taken by security forces in 2003 at the height of the ten year civil war and never seen again. Their remains were recently exhumed by the National Human Rights Commission by the banks of a river. The police investigation into the killing has never progressed and no one has been arrested or prosecuted for this grave crime.
You can take action here.
Every year on 17 February human rights organisations, survivors and families of the disappeared in Nepal commemorate the anniversary of the killing of 15 year-old Maina Sunuwar by the Nepal Army. Despite the passing of seven years no one has faced trial in a civilian court for her killing. The Nepal Army continues to protect Major Niranjan Basnet, one of the accused, despite a court order for his arrest.
Maina’s killing has come to be emblematic of hundreds of similar cases of enforced disappearances and extra judicial killings that took place during the 10 year conflict. Thousands of family members are still waiting to learn the true fate of their loved ones and to get justice through the courts. Cases are prevented from being registered by the police, and where they are registered investigations do not take place. As such they never reach a court for trial. This is not only true of crimes committed by state security forces but also members of the Unified Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) who fought against government forces. Victims’ families are harassed by security forces and Maoists to drop cases.
The images above have been designed as bill boards to be displayed in prominent places in central Kathmandu from 17 February. They are sponsored by a number of local and international human rights organisations.
The text in Nepali reads;
The armed conflict is over
But her fight continues
Peace through Justice
18 Feb Update:
Here are the bill boards in situ…
Nice historical documentation project by the BAVC Producer’s Institute (San Francisco), film director Pamela Yates, and Human Rights Watch.The project is interactive – collecting data (images, video, written material) from those who experienced the Nicaraguan revolution, and sharing with the next generation. The aim is not only to capture the memories of those times but also to stimulate young people to continue the campaign for those who were disappeared.
If memory serves me right it was Sam Gregory (WITNESS) who flagged this on Twitter, so thanks Sam.
On the International Day of the Disappeared here are a few initiatives using visual media to highlight the issue and those living in the uncertainty of having lost a loved one in this way.
‘Missing Lives’ – book and photo exhibition giving voice to victims and paying tribute to families from the recent conflicts in the Western Balkans. An ICRC production with photos by British photographer Nick Danziger and text by Canadian writer Rory MacLean.
And, once again, ICRC, but this time from Peru – where in the 1980′s a conflict often compared with that of Nepal’s resulted in 15,000 disappearances. This video looks at an initiative by families to knit a 1 km scarf commemorating those who were disappeared.
‘Unsilenced‘ is a film by King Baco looking at the abduction of six paper industry workers in the Philippines by the military in 2000 and the campaign by the families for justice.
‘Surfacing’ is a project featured on REP before, but went thr0ugh a rather quiet time. Anyhow, it is back up and running. The projects brings local photographers (both amateur and professional) and families of the disappeared together to document and raise public awareness about the issue in the Philippines. They also have an FB page.
Filed under: Campaigning, Multi-media, Photography | Tagged: Asia, Bosnia, Croatia, disappearances, Eastern Europe, Europe, human rights, Kosovo, Nepal, Peru, Philippines, South Amesrica, South Asia | 2 Comments »
During the conflict in Nepal (1996-2006) many people were subjected to enforced disappearances by state security forces or abductions and unlawful killings by members of the Communist Party of Nepal – Maoist (CPN-M). When the peace process began both sides committed to addressing these past abuses. There was much expectation that those responsible for these crimes would be held to account. However, years on, not one person has been tried in a civilian court, nor has the promised Disappearance Commission of Inquiry been established. The powerful remain above the law and those who lost loved ones still do not know their relatives fate nor where their remains are buried?
Working with Purnimaya Lama, whose husband was abducted and killed by the Maosits, and a local photographer, Nayan Tara Gurung Kakshapati, and producer, Kari Collins, we set to produce a multi-media piece that clearly showed the painful limbo that so many relatives continue to live in.
It was important that Purnimaya was able to tell her story, in her own voice, not so much of what happened but more of how her life is now. For there are those who want to move on, who think dragging up the past and holding people to account for their actions endangers the peace process. But what about the peace for those who lost their loved ones?
Amnesty International’s aim is to use the piece to motivate and drive people to an on-line action aimed at the police, calling on them to stop blocking investigations. In addition, photos shot with Purnimaya are being used in several local media outlets around the International Day of the Disappeared (30 August), and some public events.
We encourage you to take action and spread the video across your networks.
As this is the first of what could be a series of pieces we would very much like to hear your comments and suggestions.
It doesn’t seem a year ago that Moving Walls 16 was with us (because it isn’t?). Anyway, whatever the timing of these things once again we are shown a variety of images, both old and new addressing issues close to the heart of OSI. This year two of the sets focus on Burma – a timely inclusion given the forthcoming elections there later this year (plus OSI’s on-going Burma Project).
The piece by Christian Holst – ‘In the Quiet Land: Life Under the military regime in Burma‘ – is a mixed bag. Personally, I would have liked more along the lines of the photo below – particularly after bumping into 40 odd Burmese 20-somethings kitted out with well cool hair cuts and well cut jeans at Bangkok airport a few weeks ago. A few less monks would not go a miss in order to give a more balanced picture of life in Burma and the shape of its future. I also got the impression that many of his images were ‘stolen’ moments rather than consented and substantial interactions?
Saiful Huq Omi’s photos of Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh – ‘The Disowned & Denied‘ – are all very well. Though by the end of the slide show I was asking myself whether the world needed yet another set of images of Rohingyas in Bangladesh? In my opinion Rajib Islam’s photos are better at providing a more personal insight into the life of the refugees. Having said that, more of Saiful’s photos appear in the rather good ‘Stateless’ project, giving a much more rounded feel to the set.
Also worth a mention for trying to tackle enforced disappearances differently (i.e. not having someone holding up a photo of the disappeared person) is Mari Bastashevshi’s ‘File 126 (Disappearing in the Caucasus)’. It doesn’t always work (empty chairs only go so far) but focussing on the loss of the individual was the rights way to go.
Well, isn’t it just typical! You have a good moan about the lack of decent visual media looking at disappearances in Nepal, only to find things coming out of the wood work all over the shop. Two weeks ago I discovered the ‘Through Our Eyes’ participatory video initiative, and now ‘Open Secrets’ comes to light.
There is only a trailer for now. As I understand it the producers of the film are looking for funding to finish it off. The trailer suggests that the families looking for their loved ones actually participated in the filming. If there is anyone out there who knows more please get in contact.
I was at the British Embassy in Kathmandu a couple of weeks back to attend a gathering on enforced disappearances. The event marked the 6th anniversary of the killing a 15-year-old girl, Maina Sunuwar, in 2004 by the Nepal Army. The main draw was the première of a short film entitled, ‘Awaiting Justice‘ (presented as ‘Nyay Kahile?’ in Nepali, which literally translates as ‘Justice When?’). The film documents a visit in December 2009 by nine top diplomats to Bardiya District where a high number of people were ‘disappeared’ during Nepal’s decade long conflict (1996-2006).
I was looking forward to seeing the film, but the title had already begun to raise questions in my mind. I tend not to be a pedant when it comes to language, but I have seen such passive terminology far too often when referring to rights holders in Nepal. ‘Waiting’ is a term that is unfortunately reflected in the way many of the individuals are represented, not least by the human rights movement.
Since the end of the conflict there has been a concerted push by human rights organisations, both national and international, as well as some embassies and the UN (particularly OHCHR – Nepal), for investigations and prosecutions into past abuses. This has mainly focussed on case documentation and political lobbying via legal argumentation. Despite this there are those of the opinion that survivors and the families of those ‘disappeared’ or unlawfully killed have been, up until recently, marginal voices in this campaign, with their priorities given less prominence in the face of the more powerful international ‘human rights project‘. Some would even say that the families agenda has been deliberately distorted to fit that of the international community. A cynical analysis would be that this agenda centres on furthering international human rights law through work in politically weak and conflict damaged countries, with an emphasis on ‘putting people in prison‘ rather than delivering to the wishes of those who suffered most (which tends to centre on material and emotional relief). Not that justice isn’t a good thing, it just raises the question of who all this effort is actually for? If in reality things are far more complex than the cynics may have you believe, this is not to say there is not an element of truth here. There are certainly legitimate questions to be asked about the independence of some CBOs in Nepal, and whether undue influence is exerted on them to be ‘on message’ with the bigger agencies controlling the agenda and funding. What interests me most though is how this plays out strategically and representationally?
Few resources and time appear to have gone into growing the public profile of the CBOs and winning arguments amongst the public to mobilise support. The ‘legal-first’ strategy that is pushed so hard by the various human rights agencies is making slow progress exactly because it is not duel tracked with a wider communication strategy that seeks to garner support beyond a narrow constituency of human rights activists and lawyers. Documentation of cases and legal arguments saturate the landscape, with a war of words occupying what small amount of media space is given over to these issues. Almost forgotten are the lives of those who live on. When we do hear from them it is usually to recount, once again, the painful episode that took their loved ones away from them (‘the case’).
The embassy film thus takes a now predictable format – a parade of ‘cases’, narrowly defining the individuals in the context of the abuse rather than as complex and dynamic people. This is particularly evident in the main segment of the film where the diplomats are petitioned by a group of people who lost relatives or were themselves tortured. The decision to include so much of the meeting is questionable as it fails to engage after a short time. Not that the testimonies are boring or unmoving. What they are is contextually adrift in a barren meeting hall, where embassy staff sit silently as if holding court before their 4×4 convoy returns them to Kathmandu. There is no attempt to break down the empathic gap between the audience and people featured. More surprisingly, there is almost no explanation about why the diplomats made the trip to Bardiya, possibly underlining the exclusive nature of the product (i.e. it is for those who know rather than to info those who don’t). I am also unable to tell you what the film is for or how it will be used.
This is not a criticism of the international community in Nepal, they do good work – and this initiative may turn out to be well placed. The criticism is this – firstly, if you are to spend time and money on visual media then a lot more thought is needed than appears to have gone into this production, that even at 10mins failed to engage me or generate empathy due to its narrow passive ‘victimisation’ of those it represents. The second criticism, and the more important as it goes beyond one short film, is why such representations persist (when there are obvious alternatives) and whether they expose a dynamic between the rights holders and those agencies who take a ‘for the community’ rather than a ‘with the community‘ strategy?
It is strange that despite the involvement of the self organised community based organisation – Conflict Victims Committee – there is no representation in the film of the substantial work they have done in campaigning for justice. In fact I have not come across one substantial piece of visual media that looks at these CBOs in Nepal (though that doesn’t mean such work isn’t out there).
Of course, it is unrealistic to expect embassies to be masters of visual communications, and the fact that they even thought about filming their initiative (which was mainly symbolic – the abuses are already well documented) is positive. But such agents need to realise that winning the legal arguments is only half the battle. Failure to generate a ground swell of public solidarity with those who fight for justice and reparations will at the very least hamper progress, at worst make you irrelevant.
A more thoughtful approach is taken in the 2009 International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) film, unfortunately with an equally passive sounding title, ‘The Wait Continues‘. The film narrows its focus on one incident where 17 workers from Jogimara were reported killed whilst working at an airport construction site in Kalikot.
The film is a more considered affair than ‘Awaiting Justice’, where the audience is firmly placed in the context of the 15 families who lost their sons. They are interviewed in their village and homes. We see them going about their daily lives. Yet it is what the family members recount that is most notable. Rather than presenting details of ‘the case’ (we learn only the basic facts of what happened) they tell us about their hopes and fears, their doubts and ways of coping. A particular poignant moment is when one man relates how his neighbour has moved away to escape the memories of his son. But asks, ‘What will he do with his son’s plate, and the glass he drunk from?’ immediately summoning a human universal of the memories evoked in us by objects used by the ones we love.
Towards the end of the film ICRC reps walk into the village. This is probably the most awkward moment throughout and draws attention to the fact the focus is on a community that has found it difficult to represent itself effectively (though it does note that others have). It is an all too familiar image – the human rights /UN worker who comes to the village to ‘extract’ research information, maybe never to return, leaving the interviewees disheartened and suspicious of their intentions. This cannot be a direct criticism of the film itself, which is well made, or ICRC for that matter, but does highlight the lack of visual media that presents the pro-active, self organisation of many families across the country to fight (rather than ‘wait’) for reparations, truth and justice. The ICRC documentary is complimented by a set of decent stills by K.Kayastha that begin to scratch a surface that could do with a bit more scratching.
The ‘legal-first’ singular track has produced a stack of reports. Much could have been done to wed these with a visual advocacy strategy – much in the way OSI has done in recent times. A couple of reports illustrate a lost opportunities. The ‘waiting‘ continues in two reports by the Nepalese human rights organisation Advocacy Forum (AF) and US based NGO, Human Rights Watch (HRW). AF is an excellent organisation, and I have worked with them in the past. However, a strategic shift in the representation of survivors and rights holders would be a positive step.
Two reports – ‘Waiting for Justice‘ and ‘Still Waiting for Justice‘ – present excellent documentation on over 60 cases of ‘unpunished crimes from Nepal’s Armed Conflict‘. In many instances AF has fought hard for these cases to be investigated by the police, despite obstruction. However, once more we enter the territory of passive victims, illustrated in the first report by the widely used (and rather tired in my opinion) photographic technique of representing ‘disappearances’ by having family members hold up photos of those that are missing (in the second report photos are abandoned except for the cover, which incidentally is one of mine – where at least we see the family members out on the streets protesting).
What surprises more is that HRW did not do more to improve the visual representation. Over the last couple of years to their credit they have done much to adopt more visual tools in their work, particularly on their website.
Other examples are the reports by OHCHR-Nepal on abuses in the Maharajgung army barracks and in Bardiya district. The Maharajgung report does not feature any photos at all. A glossy summary version of the Bardiya report (the original version having almost sunk without trace on it launch) contains eight un-captioned colour photos – with none of the photos being self explanatory enough to stand alone. This disappoints all the more because UN agencies, including OHCHR themselves with their work on prison conditions in Nepal, have grasped the value of visual media in providing context and building understanding in the wider population. I covered this here.
It is obvious from such laudable initiatives, such as A People’s War trilogy, that with some effort and thought a more diverse and nuanced representation can be produced. The thing the project did best was invest in a time scale that allowed the people pictured to become rounded individuals to the viewer. Through the follow-up book, and last in the trilogy, ‘People After War‘, we are able to travel along a narrative that leads the reader away from a black and white reading of events and people. The exhibition that travelled across the country drew huge crowds (allegedly 350,000), with some of their thoughts recorded in the second book in the trilogy, ‘Never Again‘. Six thousand copies of ‘A People War‘ were distributed to schools and libraries for free. So, why did one publisher decide it was necessary to have such a public debate on these issues, but not one human rights agency has come close to producing an initiative that stimulates such a public interaction?
Obviously, an argument can be made that all these representations differ due to the agents responsible for them, their objectives , expertise and the time available to produce them. This is a fair point – as it is fair to say that factually people are ‘waiting’ due to the state being the agent to deliver some of the things they want. But what ever your appraisal of these different approaches it is hard to deny that what is lacking is a substantial participatory communication approach that puts the power of representation in the hands of the families and survivors (at the very least this would enhance historic documentation). This may open up more space to discuss some of the issues of social exclusion that lead to the violations in the first place and remain un-resolved. A coherent communication strategy that looks to engage with a wider public audience in Nepal in order to increase pressure on political actors wouldn’t go a miss either.
These would not only go some way to addressing criticism that families lack control over how they are represented, and how their priorities are not accurately portrayed by the mainstream human rights community. It could also begin to break down societal barriers that currently block the establishment of a wider debate and recognition of the injustice that is being perpetuated. Whether participatory or not, a venture that focussed more on ‘campaigning‘ rather than ‘waiting‘ would be a good start.
Examples from other countries should inform those working in this sector in Nepal of what is possible. From a professional point of view the work of Paula Allen with the women of Calama in Chile stands out as a committed and long term approach. Marcelo Brodsky’s work ‘Buena Memoria‘ from Argentina provides an inclusive and personal documentation and memorial to those who were ‘disappeared’ from his school (watch the video for the event held to remember those who were killed). Omar D’s work on ‘disappearances’ in Algeria, ‘Devoir de memoire/A Biography of Disappearance, Algeria 1992-, commissioned and edited by Autograph ABP, is also worth noting. As is the discussed at an LSE conference on ‘disappearances’ in Algeria in 2008, raising the question;
‘How we can disseminate the truth about events that are officially denied or obfuscated by the legal system, how to lobby for the application of UN resolutions on forced disappearances and whether human rights organisations can overcome post-colonial and economic interests. Can imagery be more potent than text in bringing human rights issues into public knowledge? Can we talk of a politics of aesthetics in the context of subjects who have been stripped of their civil existence? How can the invisible be made visible?
To watch a video introduction to the LSE event click here.
Also worth checking out is the ‘Existence Denied‘ book produced by the International Coalition of Enforced Disappearances (ICAED) that pulls together a series of stills from around the world that illustrate the emotional impact of those whose loved ones have been disappeared, as well as the activism they themselves have initiated to find out what happened and bring perpetrators to book.
Agencies can also explore the value of participatory photography as a tool for communication within and across communities, for understanding and reconciliation, but also for historical documentation. Not that such methodology is without its faults, but as I discussed in this post it lends itself to just this situation. A good example is the TAFOS (social photographic workshops) project in Peru which took place in the context of political violence, extreme poverty and lack of political representation – a situation similar to Nepal’s.
Much of the value of the project is encapsulated in this quote, which I will leave you with;
… “TAFOS was a project of visual inclusion, with pictures that, in its character of a documentary mirror, made visible the invisible and took risks for a country still alive. Their pictures show us a country struggling for respect and recognition of basic rights for its people; a country in the process of consolidation and transformation that, however, still enjoys life; summing up, a country with a clear bet for life and change”.
Huarcaya, Roberto. Hacer visible lo invisible. In: País de Luz. Talleres de Fotografía Social, TAFOS. Perú: 1986-1998. Lima-Peru: Pastor y Müller, 2006. p. 44-47 (English Translation).
Filed under: Article, Campaigning, Film | Tagged: Africa, Algeria, Americas, Argentina, armed conflict, Asia, Chile, disappearances, Middle East&North Africa, Nepal, NGO, participatory photography, Peru, photographers, representation, South America, South Asia | Leave a Comment »
The UN has been present in Nepal for many years, with the recent addition of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) in 2005. There are a total of 22 UN agencies present in or doing some work on Nepal. There are several pieces of work that are worth a brief look.
The recent exhibition ‘Real People Real Needs‘ by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) on refugees (with particular focus on the Bhutanese refugees).
The exhibition was excellent, bringing together photos of refugees from across the Asia region (including the Swat Valley in Pakistan, Tibetans in Nepal, Afghanis in Pakistan, and Bhutanese in New York). It used the vast warehouse space well, with some images blown up to huge dimensions (10 by 15 foot), and included dance performances, audio testimony and good information displays. Much of the credit for the exhibiton goes to Photo.Circle, a Nepalese cooperative of photographers who put on the exhibiton at very short notice. Whether the exhibition had a good strategic base is questionable. After all, if UNHCR had wanted to inform the Nepalese public about the Bhutanese refugees it has left it a bit late as many are now relocating to other countries. Maybe a more timely information campaign could have mobilised public support and built more pressure for the return of the refugees to Bhutan? However, the event received a fair amount of media attention and around 7,000 people attended. The exhibition was then relocated to a small park in central Kathmandu to give the opportunity for more people to see it. UNHCR has been using video to inform the Bhutanese refugees about the countries they may relocate to, as well as working with journalists from those countries to inform the local populations about the Bhutanese refugees. This marries with other interesting visual media initiatives by UNHCR, like the TV soap opera they made in Japan, and they stand out as one of the better UN agencies in regard to the use of visual media.
Another piece of work is the Prison Condition exhibition and photo essay produced by OHCHR. The exhibition went on tour and was aimed at informing people about the living conditions in Nepalese prisons. Again, strategically questionable, after all how were the visitors to the exhibition meant to react? Were they to be mobilised to advocate for prison reform? The conditions people live in is far from great but given that the living conditions of many in Nepal is equally poor it is hard to see how a photo exhibition will generate much sympathy? Some would question why OHCHR was doing this piece of work in the first place, after all there are rather more pressing issues (such as torture in police custody) and some would suggest that they wanted to be publicly seen to be tackling less political issues. So, maybe there was a strategy at work after all? Anyway, the exhibiton certainly provided an insight that many would be unlikely to have otherwise. Check out the OHCHR-Nepal site for a downloadable brochure of the photos.
A rather bad example of the use of photos is the OHCHR-Nepal summary repot on ‘disappearances‘ in Bardiya. This glossy version of the original report is illustrated with a series of small images. However, they are captionless. When I asked a member of staff about this I was told this was for security reasons. I can’t say I buy this as it is perfectly possible to include captions and hide identities, but also how is someone’s security enhanced by you slapping a uncensored image of them in a report? Poor work guys.