|Durga Khanal with her child at the hut of Beldangi-2, Bhutnese refugee camp|
“I sometimes wonder how it would feel to get to see my parents’ faces even if it comes at the price of getting killed,” says Hast Bahadur Rai, 44, a refugee from Bhutan. Rai had to flee the country with his wife and children. But his parents did not, as they were living in a village that was unaffected by the conflict in southern Bhutan. “Someday, I hope I’ll be able to see their faces. I pray for it. I dream about it,” says Rai.
He tries to continue but words fail him. His friends and relatives, all refuges who themselves left their loved ones behind, share the same sentiments: It is evident from their eyes and expressions.
One cannot imagine the horrors these people went through. Only their blank and hollow expressions tell their stories.
Gathered in front of a hut that looks like it will fall apart at the slight gust of wind, these refugees struggle to restore some semblance of normalcy in their lives by trying to enjoy one another’s company.
But suppressed fears and memories resurface, and when hope comes in bouts and is fleeting, there is not much they can do to remain positive and strong and keep on pretending that everything is simply just fine.
Rai currently lives in a small decrepit hut in Beldangi-2, a refugee camp in Jhapa, the easternmost district of Nepal, with ten family members. Two of his daughters have left for the States, and some relatives and neighbors have migrated to Canada, the USA and Australia while many others are in the process of planning for third-country resettlement.
|Hast Bahadur Rai with his wife, son and daughter-in-law|
In 2007, the government of Nepal accepted the option of third-country resettlement for these refugees. The proposal was hotly contested but some families nevertheless opted for resettlement in the US, Australia, and New Zealand, believing it was better than living as refugees for the rest of their lives.
In the refugee camps, however, people are still divided on the issue. Some have serious objections to it and claim that third-country resettlement is not a solution, as it deprives them of their rights to return to their homeland, Bhutan.
“Either I’ll go back to my homeland or I’ll die here in Nepal as a refugee,” says Punyamata Adhikari, 40, who is a teacher at the Beldangi refugee camp. She is a tad bitter about the concept of third-country settlement and feels that those who opted for it gave up their identities.
At times, even Rai is disheartened by the fact that all his family members and friends are scattered all over the world. He wonders if they will ever be able to be together in this lifetime.
He is also not very optimistic about ever getting to return to his homeland, as numerous rounds of talks between the governments of Nepal and Bhutan on the Bhutanese refugees’ rights to return have yielded no results.
Rai lived in Sarpang in Bhutan and came to Nepal in 1991. His family entered the country from Mai Khola in Jhapa. Rai recalls leaving Bhutan suddenly, with zero preparation whatsoever.
Back in 1991, some left without packing, with only whatever they were wearing when they fled home. Some were in the middle of their meals when they had to make a run for it. Their livestock were left behind, tied to their sheds.
“Some mothers made the mistake of grabbing pillows instead of their babies. They left in such a hurry and a state of panic that they didn’t realize it wasn’t their children they were carrying until it was time to breastfeed,” says Adhikari, adding that one can’t even imagine the circumstances under which they had to leave.
“Our homes were burnt almost as soon as we had taken a few steps out of the door. We were lucky to have left when we did even if it was in haste,” she says, and the thought makes her shudder even after all these years.
The situations in Bhutan had worsened steadily over the years. Many women were raped. Many people were killed without reasons, and an even more number of people were jailed without plausible explanations. Many were forced to sign ‘voluntary migration’ forms. The widespread arrests, detention, rape, and torture instilled a deep sense of fear in people.
“The Bhutanese government threatened us to leave time and again. They taunted us, saying we should go back to where we belonged. Many government officials used to tease us and say that Girija Prasad Koirala (the then Prime Minister of Nepal) had built luxurious marble houses for us,” says Rai, recalling those days in Bhutan when insecurity and danger lurked no matter where they went.
By 1991, thousands had started to flee for Nepal via India. The risk and uncertainty were too much for them to bear. Some 100,000 left Bhutan within a year, and almost all left as abruptly as Rai and Adhikari did.
“After a point, the villages became lifeless. It seemed as if there were not even birds and animals around. I was filled with dread at the thought of being alone and eventually dying alone. Also, if something happened to me, what would become of my family if no one was around,” says Om Nath Dhungana, 69, who left carrying nothing but his disabled daughter.
Dhungana also recalls the grave and pitiful situation of the fleeing people at the Indian borders. Long queues of cars and buses added to the chaos. Dhungana and his daughter took a bus from the border to Jhapa in Nepal.
“Even the ride was full of terrible moments. A pregnant woman lost her baby during the trip,” he says.
|Yashoda Khanal, 18, facilitates refugee kids in articulating their hobbies at the camp site.|
In 1988, however, the government introduced another new law. It required that each citizen produce his 1958 land tax receipt. Following this, the people were reclassified as ‘illegal immigrants’ despite having produced land tax receipts from 1958.
Over time, the Nepali language was removed from school curriculum and it was mandatory for the entire population to wear the national dress of the north. The southern Bhutanese resisted the policy, as there was still a strong attachment to their Nepali cultural heritage. Demonstrations ensued, and the government began to crack down on what they deemed were ‘anti-nationals’ from southern Bhutan.
The conflict began and has been going on ever since. According to Adhikari, what initially began as a conflict between the government and the Nepali community was later interpreted as a clash between the Bhutanese and Nepali communities.
“In reality, the movement was a class struggle. It was portrayed as a conflict between two communities. The Bhutanese government tried to suppress the Nepali community by taking help from the Indian Army. Many of us chose to come to Nepal since we couldn’t fight against the oppression,” says Adhikari.
With no permanent identity and home, the refugees are at a quandary in Nepal. The fact that they have no place to call home makes their future seem bleaker. Opting for third-country settlement does not seem like a feasible solution to most, as they feel they will never be granted the same rights as others.
“Our own country won’t let us come back and nor can we ever truly belong somewhere else,” says Dhungana, marveling at the irony that no matter where they go they will always be outsiders.
The refugees are also worried about their children who are born in the refugee camps.
“I have two children. I’m worried about their future. Every mother wants her children to have a bright future. But with no land to call home, I don’t think my children will ever be secure,” says Adhikari.
Even though opting for migration is a somewhat desperate choice for these refugees, according to Adhikari, many do it for their children.
Bishnua Maya Khanal, mother of 18 years old Yashoda Khanal, says she has given third-country settlement serious consideration because of her daughter.
“I’ve lost all hope of ever returning to Bhutan, and since I’ve lived more than half my life already, I’m thinking of getting settled in America just for Yashoda’s sake. At least, she’ll have a chance at a decent future,” says the traumatized mother with tears in her eyes, as Saraswati Pradhan and Durga Khanal, themselves mothers of young children, nod their consent.
There are many others like them who have lost all hope of being able to return to Bhutan and are opting for third-country settlement so that their children are spared the uncertainty and get a sense of belongingness.
But migration is complicated for people like Durga Khanal. She was born in India and married a refugee at Beldangi. Her husband died six months ago, leaving behind two children. She complains that it has not even been processed. Her in-laws have already left for the States.
“I’ve never been to Bhutan and I doubt I’ll be allowed to go there. But without a Bhutanese passport, we can’t leave. I don’t know what to do,” says Durga.
In such pitiful conditions, it is surprising how these refugees still manage to live their lives at the refugee camps and do whatever it takes to make the best out of what they have got. Perhaps it is the hope that someday they will be able to return to Bhutan that keeps them going.
But life at the refugee camps isn’t easy, either. According to the refugees, life is full of hurdles and hardships. They face discrimination and are somewhat ostracized almost everywhere. The never-ending wait to return to their homeland seems to have taken its toll on every single one of them who at times seems very hopeful, and the very next minute loses all hope.
“We’ve waited for 20 years. It feels like a lifetime. I don’t think we’ll ever get to go back. Not even if there’s a different ruling King,” says Khagendra Ghimire, 38. His chief complaint is that good jobs are hard to find when you don’t have citizenship. When and if they find jobs, it is usually low paying.
The younger generation, it seems, is more frustrated and lacks confidence that youths generally exude.
“Refugees shouldn’t have dreams and aspirations. We should suppress our wants and desires for a good future. It’s meaningless to wish and hope,” says Yashoda.
Even in such a sad scenario, many refugees are still hopeful of being able to return to their homeland. They feel only then will all their troubles end. With this hope, many have appealed to international communities to urge the Bhutanese government to let them return.
“If the international communities put pressures on the Bhutanese Government, then surely we’ll be allowed back in our country,” says Ghimire.
Meanwhile, some 80,000 Bhutanese refugees of Nepali origin have already left from Nepal for Australia, the USA and Canada. Approximately, those 13,000 still left at the camp in Beldangi are in the process of leaving but are still uncertain about it. The thought of relocating to an unknown place sends shudders up their spines. But because since it is all they have got, they hold on to it with the faith that it will be for the better.
“Bhutan is our homeland, and in Nepal, we are at least familiar with the culture and system. Going to America or Canada is like stepping into the unknown. I feel it’ll be difficult for us to adjust there,” says Gopi Krishna Kafle, 55.
Despite the odds being stacked against them, many are still trying to remain optimistic about being able to return to Bhutan one day while some have given up all hope and just wish for some stability in their lives.
“I’m desperate to be united with my parents back in Bhutan. But I also want my family to lead a normal life. If resettlement is the only option, then I guess I have to take that up for the sake of my family,” says Rai, and it is almost as if he has come to realize that cherished hopes and dreams cannot always be fulfilled.
Meanwhile, more angst-ridden days come and go on in the Bhutanese refugee camps in Beldangi, Nepal.