Unfolding a forgotten story of a Bhutanese refugee.

Looking back to the yesteryears on WORLD REFUGEE DAY-2009

July 20,1992:
(Dalim, Samdrupjongkhar, Bhutan)
That day, early morning before dawn, my father packed everything in a big bag. He set all the cattle free. Kindled some candles at the courtyard of my house and reluctantly shut the doors, windows and the ventilators. Soon, all the villagers started congregating at my house.I was then, a little kid and so didn’t know what was going on there. I asked him what we all were trying to do that day. To my puzzling query, he just replied, ‘we are going to your maternal grandfather’s house’. I was happy that I would meet with my old octogenarian grandpa….eat some dainty foods and play with my Cousins there.

sampdrupjongkhar town,Bhutan(photos:www.bhutantour.bt)

sampdrupjongkhar town,Bhutan(photos:www.bhutantour.bt)

At around 4:30 AM of the same morning everybody carried their bags and set out.I looked at my mother, she looked nervous and her eyes were full of tears. She was patting me at my back as though some awful was going to happen soon. I was perplexed to see all the villagers going to my Grandpa’s house, I quietly followed the crowed. I could see some scars of hopelessness and dismay in the faces of some women and elderly folks. We walked through the big forest for nearly seven hours, crossing rivers, gorges,hills and reached a new place which my father called it India. In a small Indian town lying close to the Bhutan/India border, we took refuge for the night at a big abandon house, probably belonging to some businessmen of that region. It was there that I first got an opportunity to see a motor vehicle. My village was far from the urban hubbub. There were no roads and transport facilities there.So, seeing a vehicle by the villager like me would be a rare prize. We had to walk a distance of some 40km should we need to make a telephone call somewhere. We just had a small dispensary in the name of health facilities so when ever we needed medical assistance for some serious cases, my father today say that they had to carry the patient on their back and walk a day long distance to see the Hospital. Hearing such tales these days I ask my father as to why there was no development in our village. He smiles and answers, ‘ it is far from the capital city so government hardly pays attention for its development. But, its  hard to believe in what he has said because I read in Newspapers that those green fields of ours have  been now full of concrete buildings. The developmental works speeded up following the eviction of the Nepalis and that is  exactly after the Northern settlers occupied the southern plains. Though my village was isolated from the rest parts of the country, still I can’t forget it. It was splendid and charming.Blessed with all sorts of natural beauty, our village was full of varieties of birds. We were amazed to listen to their chirping before dawn, howling of the fox, songs of cuckoo, etc. Indeed, who could forget the piece of land where he/she shed blood and sweat for centuries,turned a wild jungle into a cultivable land and lived a independently perfect life free from all sorts of fear and apprehension!

July 25, 1992
(Jarip,Assam, India)
Back in India, on 25th of July 1992, all the ignorant villagers of Southern Bhutan boarded five buses for Nepal(what my father told me later when I asked). Our buses moved began a long journey of nearly 40 hours from Eastern part of India to Nepal. It was our first experience of traveling by bus. So, obviously the trip was troublesome. A lot of problems arouse on the way. The Indian authority too made us stop frequently for the necessary inspection and checking.

Map of Assam State of India

Map of Assam State of India

Two days after, we finally reached Kakarvitta ,the eastern gateway to Nepal on 27th of July at night (around 9 Pm). We had breathed a sigh of relief. But, the Nepali authority didn’t give us permission to enter Nepal outright. We had to wait there for next 36 hours until the official procedure would be completed. Tired and Exhausted, all these ill-fated Lotshampas of Nepali origin lay hopelessly flat on the dusty floor of the town. Some were vomiting, some caught by dysentery and diarrhea,some running to the nearby shops for water and foods,some seniors citizens and the elderly people were in critical condition. The scene indeed was very pathetic. After a long and impatient wait of nearly 36 hours, we were granted permission to enter Nepal. I had just heard in Radio about Nepal before, when I was in Bhutan.My grandpa used to say Nepal is a country of all our God and Goddesses. But, I didn’t feel like that when I first stepped into this country. Instead the dirty roads full of trash everywhere. The towns and cities were full of smoke and dust. But at least people were kind and generous.

July 29,1992:
(Beldangi-2, Jhapa,Nepal)

After nearly an hour trip from Kakarvitta, we reached a strange place some four Miles north of Damak, a small town lying on Mahendra Highway. We all got off the bus. I looked around. There was a big Jungle nearby. A few plastic roofed huts were set up in one side of the Jungle. Seeing all these, my mom burst into tear perhaps comparing the situation there with that of my village back in Bhutan. She might have recalled the beautiful village, livestocks, farms and so on. My father quickly consoled her saying that it was not our permanent house. We would be given a nice house with every thing as what we had in Bhutan, But, as I was innocent about what was going on, I was happy to be there in a new place, new friends and entirely new atmosphere.

Beldangi 2 jhapa Nepal(photos:flickrs)

Beldangi 2 jhapa Nepal(photos:flickrs)

We were lodged in a temporary huts for a period of some fifteen days in the beginning. But later, some officials of UNHCR alloted us a small plot of land for setting up the makeshifts in the middle of others. They also provided us with bamboos, plastic for roofing and other necessary items. In around two weeks, our new ‘Home’ was ready and we shifted there. Days and nights my grandma and mom used to cry and talk about the land in Bhutan, but later perhaps, they consoled themselves that we were destined to live such lives as refugee, they came to normal eventually and adapted the new lifestyle over months.
Life as a refugee in the camp is always full of sorrow and misery. We have to stretch our hands shamelessly to fill our bellies everyday. Our lives would be in uncertainity and some queer questions always hover around the heads;if these organisations stop giving us food, what happens?….
In the early days, there were tall tree around, the huts were not constructed in systematic way. So, when there was storm, we were frightened but had nothing left with us except uttering the name of God;Ram! Ram!! Ram!!!. But, over years, the authority chopped down the trees, constructed graveled roads inside the camp and made the settlement a bit systematic. But still the huts were clustered and congested making our living a suffocated ones.
I joined school after a few months of our registration as refugee in the camp. We didn’t have school building as such. It was in the jungle nearby that we were taught by our teachers. We didn’t have books, bags, pen, dress. I used to go to the school wearing my dad’s short half pant and a vest. Not only me almost all our friends used to wear such clothes in the school. We had our classroom in an open field of the jungle. Whenever it would start raining, the school would be called off. During summer season, it rains a lot in Eastern Nepal, so we stayed back home for almost two months. But, slowly schools were constructed, books and other stationery were issued to us, more and more teachers joined the schools and different agencies started extending us their helping hands. Yet, the classrooms were too small to accomodate 60 to 70 students in a class. The student teacher ration was almost 70:1, so teaching learning activities was so ineffective.

Childrens in Bhutanese Refugee Camp(photos:flickrs)

Childrens in Bhutanese Refugee Camp(photos:flickrs)

After the school would be over, I used to go around with my friends. Some times, we used to work for other people outside the camps like cleaning their houses, uprooting the weeds in their fields and so on and thereby we used to earn a few bucks. We also collected left out food stuffs at the ration go down and sell them to the refugees out of a few quarters and then go to the cinema. We didn’t have nutritious food- all we were given was rice, Dal, vegetable oil and so on. Many of my friends became the victims of malnutrition. Quite a few died in the camp. But, thanks God, nothing happened to me though I too didn’t have anything to eat except our traditional food.
Ours was the largest camp among all the seven refugee camps in Nepal. So, it was a big camp with respect to its area and the density of population. All sorts of people were there;some good, some so-so while a few bad. It was very difficult for the parents to keep their kids and children aloof these bad people. Many sorts of bad activities used to happen in the camps. Some times one gang of some guys would fight with others, kill them and traumatized others. Some young refugees would rob a series of huts at gunpoint. Some one would be raped, assaulted attacked. Some times back, once my grandma had been to the jungle for collecting the twigs for cooking food, meanwhile some refugee guys approached her and snatched her jeweleries. Helpless, my grandma had returned home crying and cursing. In the recent days, following the deployment of security posts in the camps, these activities were almost null or very rare.

The elderely folks in Beldangi 2(photo:flickrs)

The elderely folks in Beldangi 2(photo:flickrs)

From time to time, several such non-political organizations formed by the refugees in the exile, used to call general meetings to discuss about how we would be repatriated to Bhutan. All the Bhutanese used to actively take part in such programs and help these organizations from their own level for the success of such program. Many times during these years we tried to return home, but to no avail. All the efforts of the Bhutanese would go futile. But still Bhutanese have hope some where in one corner of their heart that one day or the other we all would be repatriated respectfully and unconditionally.

Bhutanese Refugee children playing(photos:flickrs)

Bhutanese Refugee children playing(photos:flickrs)

I spent almost 17 years in refugee camp. I lived a destitute life for whole of my teenage period. I didn’t have hope in my life that I would live a life as I am doing now. Refugees found a new hope when USA, Australia, Canada among others proposed to resettle us in their lands some three years back. All, leaving a few thousands aside, supported it. Eventually, the government of Nepal gave a green signal to this humanitarian move and with the help of UNHCR, IOM and other national and international agencies we are being resettled in these nations. We are not so satisfied as it would have been better if we would have been repatriated. But, still we are happy that our long-stuck tag REFUGEE will finally be wiped away from our mind and mentality.

(By Prakass)

(Note:The photos posted here do not relate with the story in particular)

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