“Nawaranga” is a guesthouse with a beautiful face and a broken heart. Purna Man Shrestha smiles and invites you to look around the small art gallery and book exchange. He has owned this backpackers favorite in Dhulikhel (Nepal) for the past 41 years. It’s the bohemian base to explore the alleyways of Dhulikhel’s old town or the nearby giant statue of Buddha. But look closely, and you can see the sadness around Purna’s eyes.
His only son, Sagun, a 27-year-old karate fan, used to run a restaurant nearby until the evening of December 30, 2004. Nepal was nearing the end of its 10-year long civil war as the Maoist tried to overthrow the country’s Royal Family.
American Congress, in post 9/11 mood, agreed to spend $12m training the Nepalese army and supplying rifles. As far as ordinary people were concerned, army and police were all powerful. According to his father, officers would run up huge bills at Sagun’s restaurant and leave without paying.
One time Sagun decided they would pay for their alcohol because he was struggling to pay his own debts. “He said something about the bill and they took him,” says Purna, who pieced together the details from apologetic soldiers. “I searched for him in so many places and I was told he was taken to the local army base”, the father goes on. “Some soldiers came to me afterwards and told me it was better to be quiet, otherwise there would be trouble.”
Purna was told his son was held for two months, then taken away in an unmarked white van. Sagun has not been seen since, and joins the 1,400 people who were disappeared by both sides during the war.
At the time, Purna was a political candidate for Janamorcha, a Communist popular front that opposed the Monarchy. Still, Purna believes the abduction was probably more about a drunken abuse of power than it was about politics.
“At that time, many innocent people were killed,” says Purna. He was told the names of two army officers but whenever he approached the base, he was told they were not available.
His case has been covered in the Nepali press, and a British guest enlisted the help of his Member of Parliament, Lembit Opik, in making representations to the Nepali Government.
But there is still no news. And every time a Nepali man comes to the door, Purna’s heart lifts, as he thinks for a moment it might be his son.
The Communist dominated Parliament has reached a deal to hold a Truth and Reconciliation Commission into the civil war. The United Nations says the amnesty clause could help war criminals escape justice and undermine the peace process. Purna says: “If somebody killed my son, they need punishment. If there’s no punishment, I don’t know how many times it will happen again in this country. But if he survived, I need to know how and what condition he is in.”
The disappearance came only around five months after Purna’s daughter took her own life. Purna and his wife now run the six-bedroom guesthouse with help from the seven grandchildren left behind.
He received some money from the Government and a human rights organization but that was not enough, considering he has to provide for the whole family himself. This is a difficult task, when the trend is towards expensive boutique hotels, charging $90 dollars a night to organized tour parties, a far cry from Nepal’s backpacker days.
Purna manages to maintain a welcoming front despite his inner pain. His guest book is full of tributes praising both him and “Nawaranga” – they describe ‘a beautiful energy’ and a ‘magical atmosphere’.
“We are still surviving and smiling,” says Purna, surrounded by newspaper cuttings about his son’s case. “It’s like a beautiful mountain over a volcano: Outside it’s peaceful.”
Text and all pictures: Stephen Bailey
The Nepalese Civil War was an armed conflict between government forces and Maoist fighters, which lasted from 1996 until 2006. The Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) started the war on 13 February 1996 with the aim of overthrowing the Nepalese monarchy and establishing a ‘People’s Republic’. The war ended with the Comprehensive Peace Accord signed on 21 November 2006.
>>> Human Rights Watch Report on Nepal