Tuesday, 7 April 2009

Dark Days inside Bhairabnath Barrack

More than a thousand people were imprisoned, tortured, or killed right in the middle of the capital
Kunda Dixit
नेपाली टाईम्स

Every day, tens of thousands of commuters, civil servants, diplomats travel up and down Maharajganj. The Foreign Ministry and Teaching Hospital are across the street.
Yet, just over the wall inside Mohan Shumshere's former palace at Laxmi Nibas, which
served as the headquarters of the Bhairabnath Battalion, more then of thousands of prisoners were detained, tortured, and exterminated between 2003-2005.
This was a concentration camp in the heart of the city. Bhairabnath showed how easily human rights groups, activists, and even international humanitarian organisations could be kept in the dark about the military's dirty secret.
Two years after their release, former inmates of Bhairabnath have defied threats to tell the tale. Lawyer and journalist Jitman Basnet, 32, is one of them. He was picked up on 4 February 2004 and released in 18 October 2005. Basnet endured 258 days of torture and detention with blindfold and hands tied behind his back. His hair-raising story as told in the book 'Andhyara 258 Din Haru' (258 Days of Darkness) is a vivid account of what thousands went through at Bhairabnath and one of very few testimonies of those disappeared during the conflict.
Many at Bhairabnath were civilians in the wrong place at the wrong time, others were caught when friends broke under torture and gave random names. (\'Prison diary\', #290). Basnet was himself a victim of Maoist torture in his native Solu, but was taken in for his journalism work.
There were Maoists inside, too: Krishna KC, who has also written a book on Bhairabnath, Himal Sharma, and many others. The army had penetrated the Maoists' Kathmandu task force and used information from torture for further arrests. But torture was notoriously unreliable and thousands of innocent people across Nepal were made to suffer and die.
With the mind of a lawyer and the observational skills of a journalist, Basnet tells us in stark and simple words what he and fellow prisoners went through. His story needs no literary embellishments, his independence gives the book authenticity that other accounts of Bhairabnath detainees lack.
His book reads like classic Solzhenitsyn: 'The strange thing about torture is that after relentless beatings night and day, you don't feel the pain anymore. You go into a kind of trance.' Or: 'They told me to take my shirt off, but I couldn't because it was stuck to the wounds from the previous night's beatings.so the soldier just ripped it off.'
Basnet writes about being able to see the red neon sign of Himalayan Bank from across the road through a gap in his blindfold and hearing traffic noise. Amidst all the cruelty he is baffled to see his torturers lovingly fondle a puppy, or hearing bells ringing at the barrack temple. 'How can people like these be religious,' he asks himself.
There were an estimated ten camps inside Bhairabnath, each housing up to 90 inmates, and two camps were for women. Basnet was kept in the Squash Court and later the Commando Chok, and before every ICRC inspection the prisoners would be moved to tents inside wide bunkers.
Basnet tried to find out as much as he could about his torturers and meticulously lists their names in his book. Some have gone on UN peacekeeping duties, some are still in the army and others are retired.
"Many of them took a great deal of pleasure in inflicting pain on us," recalled Basnet who still has scars of his beatings. Two years later, he still gets nightmares.
It was because of Basnet's testimony that the truth about 49 of the inmates of Bhairabnath having been executed and cremated at the Shivapuri National Park has come out. After his release, Basnet's lobbying with human rights organisations forced the army to own up and release dozens of other inmates.
But for many it was too late. After his release Basnet visited families of those who he had watched die so they could have closure. The book lists names of every other detainee that Basnet met during his nine months inside.
"Parents who hear that their sons have died grieve once," Basnet told us, his eyes glistening, "but those whose sons have disappeared grieve a thousand times."
Surviving inmates of Bhairabnath and the families of those who died or are still missing want justice. And they say the Maoists in government and ministers sympathetic to the army don't want unpleasant truths from the past to come out.
"Those who tortured us are walking around openly and threatening us, while we have to hide and still be scared," says Basnet, who has sued King Gyanendra as supreme commander of the army. He gets death threats, but says: "They can kill me, but they can't kill my book."
Passing Bhairabnath as the slanting sun illuminated its gates, Basnet looks away. "What a beautiful palace and they turned it into a burial ground.I can't bear to remember what went on behind those walls."