Engaged Anthropology Grant: Krista Billingsley

In 2015 Dr. Krista Billingsley was the recipient of a Dissertation Fieldwork Grant to aid research on, “Transitional Justice in Nepal: Endemic Violence and Marginalized Perspectives”. In 2020 Dr. Billingsley was able to build upon her Dissertation Fieldwork Grant when she received an Engaged Anthropology Grant to aid engaged activities on, “Memorialization and Victim-Led Truth-Telling after Nepal’s Armed Conflict”.

In this photograph, Ram Kumar Bhandari is filming Anup Thapa. His father, Shyam Bahadur Thapa, was disappeared in 1998 during Nepal’s armed conflict.

During my Wenner-Gren Foundation-funded fieldwork in 2016 on transitional justice (i.e. mechanisms implemented to redress conflict-era human rights violations that occurred 1996-2006) in Nepal, a key desire expressed by conflict victims was the creation of public memorialization projects to commemorate the lives of their lost loved ones and facilitate greater public knowledge about their victimization during the armed conflict. Nepal’s truth commissions, which included a commission solely focused on disappearances, were taking statements during my fieldwork in 2016. Yet, victims, particularly families of the disappeared in Bardiya District, overwhelmingly called for greater inclusion in post-conflict truth-telling processes. Through this virtual engaged project, I discussed my research findings and ideas for a victim-centric film project with the leaders of conflict victims’ organizations in Nepal via Zoom. Those leaders then met in Bardiya to share my research findings with families of the disappeared and co-develop a victim-led memory project. More people were forcibly disappeared from Bardiya than any other district during Nepal’s armed conflict, and victims there were more likely to be excluded from transitional justice processes implemented by the national government. This project engaged the children of people who were forcibly disappeared during Nepal’s armed conflict to develop a public memory project to (1) respond to my findings and facilitate their participation in the co-creation of anthropological theory, (2) tell their stories through film, (3) memorialize their loved ones lost due to armed conflict, and (4) determine how their stories are disseminated.

This photograph shows families of the disappeared meeting in Bardiya District in February 2021. During this meeting, victims discussed my dissertation research findings from 2016, co-designed our 2021 Wenner-Gren-funded engaged truth-telling project, memorialized their loved ones, and organized for justice.

In February 2021, Ram Kumar Bhandari met with and filmed children of the disappeared (now adults) in Bardiya District. Ram Kumar Bhandari, whose father was disappeared two decades ago by the Nepal Army, advocates for victim-centric processes of transitional justice globally. He holds a Ph.D. in International Law from the NOVA School of Law in Lisbon; works with conflict victims internationally; and helped organize the International Network of Victims and Survivors of Serious Human Rights Abuses, the National Network of Families of the Disappeared (NEFAD), the Committee for Social Justice, the National Victims’ Alliance, Conflict Victims’ Common Platform, and the Hateymalo Widows’ Groups. Ram was eager to serve as the primary research assistant for this project. Ram and I met via Zoom throughout the project (January-July 2021) to discuss logistics and findings. He stated the project was a connecting experience for him as he was able to engage with the next generation of families of the disappeared, to learn more about their experiences as children and adults living without their loved ones, and to connect them to other victims throughout Nepal.

Although several of the interviewees did not personally remember the armed conflict, they argued that people should know what happened to their family and better understand the lasting effects of having a parent forcibly disappeared. When offered suggestions on how to disseminate their film (e.g. send to local community members via text messages, curate for museum exhibits in Nepal and the U.S., post on YouTube, disseminate to academics and human rights advocates), every interviewee said yes to every form of dissemination mentioned without hesitation. While confidentiality is often a concern of researchers working with conflict victims, many victims in Nepal have continually requested that their stories be shared and the names of their loved ones remembered. They were hopeful this engagement could continue to help them connect with a larger network of conflict victims in Nepal. Their understandings of justice were varied and included truth-seeking mechanisms, public acknowledgement that their family members were unjustly disappeared, judicial procedures, and educational and financial support for families of the disappeared. The effects of armed conflict are long-lasting. Donor interest in and United Nations support of Nepal’s transitional justice processes waned long ago. Yet, the experience of losing a parent to enforced disappearance continues to impact families’ security (e.g. physical, financial, emotional), community relations, emotional experiences of everyday life and festivals (holidays), finances, and access to education and employment for generations. Children of the disappeared, although they are now adults, expressed grief over how their disappeared parents are portrayed as deserving of their fate and made clear their desire for their parents’ remains to be returned to their family.

This project is aligned with previous anthropologists’ call for transformative justice that challenges power relations, so victims can shape structures from which they were previously excluded. Many people from the Tharu community, who were disproportionately affected by state violence and enforced disappearances, primarily speak the Tharu language and are illiterate due to their continued exclusion from formal education. A digital media project is therefore especially useful, because it establishes a public memory project that is more accessible than a written report or workshop conducted in Nepali or English. As requested by participants, their films will be distributed this fall via YouTube and text messages. To continue this project and carry out participants wishes, I will edit the films (to display individually and as one shorter film) and organize photographs from my research in Nepal conducted 2013-2021 for museum exhibitions in Nepal and the United States. This project served to connect children of the disappeared to long-standing networks of conflict victims in Nepal and offered families the opportunity to disseminate their stories to a broad audience. Conflict victims rarely have control over their own representation, the co-creation of theory, or knowledge dissemination. Thus, this project foregrounded the voices of victims and created knowledge on their own terms through a virtual memory project where they represented themselves.