NAUBISE, Nepal (Reuters) - Five years ago on a warm August night loud thuds on the door altered Tirtha Kumari Bhujel’s life forever.
“They came in, looked under the bed, in the courtyard, and then they found him,” Bhujel said, recalling the storming of her home by armed men that fateful night. “They blindfolded him, tied his hands and dragged him into a van.”
Ever since, the 51-year-old mother has not seen her son, who was among hundreds of civilians who went missing during a decade of Maoist civil war.
Human rights activists say both Nepal’s army and Maoist rebels captured people on suspicion of being enemy informants or sympathisers, and many were tortured or killed.
The hopes of families of those missing have been rekindled after the Maoists emerged the largest party in last month’s election and looked set to take power.
Exactly how many people remain missing is difficult to tell but, depending on who you ask, the figure varies from 600 to 6,000.
“We know about 1,100 missing people,” said Sonu Pokharel, the general secretary of a group that calls itself the organisation of families of those made to disappear by the state.
“This figure is on the basis of people who came to us. Our estimate is that the real number is over five times more.”
Added to that are people kidnapped by Maoists who, the Red Cross says, did not account for about 100 of their prisoners. During the war, senior Maoist cadres admitted that informers were executed.
A truth and reconciliation commission was agreed upon after the war ended, but it is yet to be constituted. A specially formed Peace and Reconstruction Ministry has just announced compensation for the estimated 13,000 killed.
Human rights groups say the political momentum for the issue of the missing has been somewhat lost, but a lasting peace will never be realised if rights violations are not redressed.
“Just taking action against the Nepali army will reek of a witch-hunt,” Human Rights Watch said in a report last month. “Maoists must also ensure the prosecution of its own cadre who committed human-rights abuses.”
Activist Pokharel, who says his 23-year-old brother was taken away by the army five years ago, has urged the new Maoist government to find out the fate of all the missing within a year.
“At least tell us if our people are dead,” he said, sitting in the group’s office, its walls plastered with hundreds of photos of the missing. “The wives don’t know if they are widows. There are mothers who are hoping and waiting.”
Bhujel blames the army for her son’s disappearance at the age of 25. Just a week before he was taken, she says army men came to their house in the dead of night, dragged his cousin out of bed, shot him in the courtyard and left his body in the paddy fields.
The soldiers said he was a Maoist.
“They shouted ‘he is fleeing, he is fleeing, catch him’. But in reality he was not escaping, he was begging them not to shoot,” Bhujel said.
Other women sit alongside her, waiting their turn to tell their horror stories - of how their sons and husbands were dragged away, sometimes in the dead of night, in what they said were army vans.
“Within a 5-km (three mile) radius 18 people were taken away — all in 2003,” said Ruku Acharya, a short, emaciated 49-year-old housewife whose husband was among them.
Most are still hoping for their relatives to return.
In most cases in and around this idyllic village surrounded by green hills, the missing would be tracked to an army barracks in Kathmandu. Other suspects, who were later released from those barracks, also said they had seen many of those missing.
But slowly, the news stopped coming. Trips to police stations, army offices and politicians yielded no result.
“Police and army said they did not hold our men,” Acharya said.
Last December, half-burnt logs indicating a site where human remains were probably cremated, partially buried pieces of clothes and plastic bags were found on a forested slope in an army-protected national park 15 km (10 miles) north of Kathmandu.
Human rights activists allege that the Nepali army secretly cremated 49 detainees at the site after killing them in custody in 2003, a charge denied by the army.
“People might have been killed somewhere else and buried or cremated here, or they might have been brought and killed here,” Gauri Pradhan, spokesman of Nepal’s human rights commission, told Reuters after the site was discovered.
The army says rights violations were committed on both sides, and it says it has addressed most of the bonafide cases raised by “legitimate rights groups” such as Amnesty International.
“Once the Truth and Reconciliation Commission starts its work we will cooperate,” Brigadier General Ramindra Chhetri, the army spokesman, said.
Bhujel believes her son is still in some army camp.
“The war is over. Why can’t the Maoists go in and check?”
That is a question many others are asking too. The Maoists say finding their missing comrades will be a priority and deny they are soft-pedalling on the issue because they were equally guilty of human rights violations.
“We are most worried about our own comrades and sympathisers, so we will do everything to find out what happened to them,” Maoist politburo member Dinanath Sharma said.
Pokharel’s group is impatient.
“We don’t know anything, we just want our people back,” said Pokharel, his voice quivering with anger and frustration.
“If the Maoists don’t do anything then this peace is going to be short-lived - that we promise.”
Editing by Simon Denyer and Megan Goldin