Nine years ago to this day, on 17 August 2003, the fog-ridden saddle of Doramba village was rent by the sound of semi-automatic gunfire. A platoon of the Royal Nepal Army had moved some unarmed Maoist activists up the trail to a point called Dandakateri and, with only an old shepherd as inadvertent witness, had shot the victims at point blank range. 18 died on the spot, almost all of them shot frontally on the head, their bodies subsequently flung down the hill flank.
Local elder Baburam Tamang, hit on the elbow, was the only one to survive the immediate carnage. Through the night, the terrified locals heard him crying for help, until he fell silent and died of blood loss. Maoist combatants arrived three days later, conducted a burial ceremony, planted a flag, and disappeared.
At first, the RNA used the old ruse of claiming “encounter”, though everything pointed to a slaughter. The National Human Rights Commission did not wilt under the gaze of the royalist military, however, and Commissioner Sushil Pyakurel put together a panel for on-the-spot investigation. Supreme Court judge Krishna Jung Rayamajhi led the team, made up of forensic expert Dr Harihar Osti, ex-Attorney General Prem Bahadur Bista, lawyer Hari Phuyal, and this writer.
Field post mortem
We arrived by helicopter on 27 August, landing below the cloud-line and walking up to Doramba, to find the locals in the grip of fear. This northwestern finger of Ramechhap District
was under Maoist control, and the rebels were angry. The morning after, the team went up to the glade at Dandakateri, fresh with graves dug a week earlier. We exhumed the bodies, in the process coining the term shabotkhanan for our report.
Lacking the full facilities for a field examination, Dr Osti worked the trenches. As the moist earth was removed, a Maoist flag would come into view, then a shroud of white cloth,
after that the face of the victim. The bullet entry was invariably at close range from the front, with the back of the skull missing because of the exit. A peculiar, intense odor wafted up from each pit, a sensation that has not left me after all these years.
Dr Osti personified commitment to his craft of forensic medicine, working in each and every pit, heaving up and examining the bodies in the most difficult of circumstances. I sat on the edge, filming, photographing, and relaying examination details from Dr Wasti to Mr. Phuyal who was taking notes. The locals recognised the victims as the features emerged, individuals they had known till recently.
Back at the village, in the early evening, a lad came up and secretively handed me an undeveloped roll of film. Processed back in Kathmandu by the NHRC, the pictures showed the bodies as dumped by the army platoon as well as the subsequent Maoist burial. The well-known photograph of the body of Baburam Tamang (see picture) is from that roll.
“Common Article Three”
Our investigations demolished the Army’s claim of “encounter”, and held the military responsible for extra-judicial killings that went against all applicable Nepali laws and international humanitarian law, including the Common Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions. The NHRC Doramba report set a benchmark for national human rights intervention, confirming with evidence and argument, the excess committed by the state.
Sadly, justice has not been done. The commanding major was given a mild sentence by an Army tribunal on a diversionary charge, while the other soldiers who participated in the massacre have gone scot-free. The police did not pick up the case for civilian investigation. Neither has there been demand for chain-of-command responsibility, whether at the Ramechhap Manthali barracks, the Army head quarters at Bhadrakali, or the Narayanhiti Palace. Further, was this part of a plan to scuttle the peace talks which were on at the time at Hapure of Dang District?
For their part, the Maoists reacted to the Doramba killings with signature cruelty. To begin with, two of those killed by the Army were a father-and-son whose house had been forcibly taken over for a Maoist meeting. After the massacre, the rebels murdered three locals, branding them spies. The killing of Relimai Tamang, a health worker, is said to have been particularly brutal.
The conflict-era victims of the state and of the Maoists await justice, even as the political parties have converted the campaign for “transisional justice” into a farce. In the cases of Doramba, Bhairabnath Batallion, Maina Sunar and numerous others, the state-side perpetrators have been given, at best, a slap across the wrist. Meanwhile, the Maoist perpetrators strut about as district- and national-level leaders, including those involved in the killing of Muktinath Adhikary, Guru Prasad Luintel and Arjun Bahadur Lama. Those who ordered the Maadi bus blast eight years ago remain untouched in Chitwan District.
Conspiracy of silence
The Nepal Army and the Maoists are bound together in an unspoken conspiracy to ensure that justice is derailed, and there is no dearth of those who piously repeat the “forgive and forget” refrain as if the victim families mean nothing. PM Baburam Bhattarai is brazen enough to seek presidential pardon for murder convict Bal Krishna Dhungel and cancellation of charges against numerous others.
One would hope that the new COAS Gaurav SJB Rana is able to train his troops so that a competent Army, if ever called, does not rely on the scorched earth policy that Doramba represented. As for the Maoist perpetrators, as different from the Army’s perpetrators, they plan to rule over us as politicians for the next few decades.
The lessons of Doramba apply to both sides of our erstwhile conflict. Those who have been involved in extra-judicial killings, torture, disappearances or the hiring of child soldiers, have no business presenting themselves as responsible citizens of the land. Your lot is to face the wheel of justice, even if it takes some time for it to turn.