Sunday, November 14, 2010

A refugee's journey to the Bhutan he has never known

Born and reared in refugee camps and soon to resettle in the West, 18-year-old Dipak Chetri embarks on a trip to the homeland he may never see again.

Benjamin Graham
Published in New America Media
November 14, 2010

DAMAK, Nepal— "I was born right here," Dipak Chetri says, standing over a bare spot on the mud floor a few feet from his bed.

"My mother was two months pregnant with me when she left Bhutan," he explains, his mother nodding in agreement as she prepares curd in the next room.

In 1992, Chetri's mother was among the 105,000 Bhutanese citizens who fled their homeland in southern Bhutan to escape government persecution, seeking refuge in eastern Nepal.

The United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) organized the displaced Bhutanese into seven camps, where they have been living ever since. Chetri, now 18, is the same age as the refugee crisis, and like his entire generation of Bhutanese in exile, he has never set foot in his homeland.

For nearly two decades, the exiled Bhutanese lived with little hope of finding a solution. That was until the United Nations initiated a third-country resettlement program in 2007.

Since then, nearly 40,000 Bhutanese have been permanently resettled in the West, with thousands more set to do the same in the next few years. Chetri's family is preparing to move to New York at the end of 2010, but before he leaves the camp for good, he has one last goal.

"People always tell me I am Bhutanese—the UNHCR, my teachers, my parents—but I have never been there," he says. This is why he’s decided to leave Nepal for the first time and make the risky 150-kilometer (93-mile) trip to see his homeland—just once.

Roots of the Crisis

Perched high in the Himalaya between China and India, Bhutan has kept itself isolated from the outside world for centuries in an attempt to preserve its traditional Buddhist culture.

During the 1970s and ’80s, the government began to view the growing population of southern Bhutanese, who are ethnically Nepali and religiously Hindu, as a demographic threat to the Buddhist majority. The regime enacted a series of discriminatory laws aimed at those in the south, employing threats, imprisonment and torture to coerce thousands to flee their homes.

"My father and uncle were involved with the democracy movements in southern Bhutan in the ’80s. That made them targets of the Royal Bhutan Army," Chetri (not his real name) explains as he stuffs a borrowed backpack with a change of clothes and a semi-functional cell phone.

"They hid in the jungle until they were able to get my mother and leave for Nepal," he says. Refugees caught back in Bhutan now would be imprisoned indefinitely.

With this in mind, Chetri's mother has tried to discourage her son from making the risky journey, but he won't listen.

Learning Bhutanese, Looking West

Each morning in the refugee camp, children line up in neat rows outside of school. Over the intercom, the head master begins reciting the Bhutanese national anthem, and the students join in.

"Wherever we go, we should not forget who we are," S.K. Suba says, assistant headmaster of the secondary school from which Chetri graduated. Lessons in Dzongkha, Bhutan’s national language, are mandatory, even though Nepali is the mother tongue of nearly all the refugees.

Ironically, part of the Bhutanese government’s discriminatory policy was to make Dzongkha mandatory in schools and local government, much to the dismay of the southern Bhutanese. Now the refugees have done the same in their own schools.

"We teach Bhutanese history and Bhutanese social studies as well,” Suba says. “When we get resettled to a new country, people will still know we are Bhutanese.”

But most of these students would rather spend their time learning English.

Since resettlement began, teachers and students alike have been leaving in droves. School attendance and test scores have plummeted, and few young people spend time looking back to Bhutan. They are excited about their futures in the West.

As this new generation is resettled and begins to learn English, Dutch or Norwegian, the question remains: What will Bhutan become to them?

Chetri hopes to find some answers at the Bhutanese border.

A Risky Trek

The bus ride from Nepal to India is easy, but the train ride across the northern tip of India to the Bhutanese border is stressful. Though some people speak Nepali, most are speaking Hindi, a language Chetri never learned. In an attempt to conceal his Bhutanese identity, he addresses them in English.

At a station near the Indian border town of Jaigaon, Chetri asks an auto-rickshaw driver, "Do you speak Nepali?" The driver shakes his head, no. "Bhutan border?" Chetri asks in English. The driver understands.

At the border, a large arched gate opens up to Bhutan. A small battalion of uniformed Bhutanese officers allows Indian nationals to pass into the country for trade purposes without an ID check, but everyone else needs a visa. Fortunately for Chetri, he looks Indian.

Walking briskly past the guards, Chetri's first steps into Bhutan stir unexpected feelings. "People are staring at me," he says with a tinge of paranoia, "They know I don't belong here." It takes a few moments to calm his nerves, but soon he is ready to take in his surroundings.

To Chetri's surprise, the town he has entered is bustling with commerce, not at all like the poor, underdeveloped Bhutan he learned about in school. "I always thought that the King of Bhutan was very cruel for kicking us out," Chetri explains. "Now I think that he's cruel to us, but the people in Bhutan seem happy—they are engaged and have jobs. He must be a good king for them.”

Chetri's plan is to stay for a couple of hours, so he pushes onward for a quick tour of the border town.

He finds the local Dzong, one of the traditional Bhutanese administrative buildings depicted in paintings on the walls of his former school, but decides not to go in.

"Entering it is too risky," Chetri says, "If they catch me, they will arrest me."

Outsider at Home

One hour is enough time. Crossing back to the Indian side of the border, Chetri breathes a sigh of relief.

"It felt good to step foot in Bhutan— today I feel Bhutanese," he reflects. "But Bhutan did not feel like home. No one should be that nervous in their homeland."

Chetri's parents and grandparents still hope to return to Bhutan as citizens some day, but in a few months, they will be transitioning to life in New York, the place of Chetri’s dreams.

"Bhutan is our heritage, but my future is in America," he says.

For Chetri, homeland, birthplace, and the future are all different places. At least now, when people ask him where he is from, he can decide how to answer on his own.

The road back to Bhutan...

Chetri has lived in his family's hut for his entire life, rarely leaving the area surrounding the seven Bhutanese refugee camps.

The bus ride out of camp is the only familiar part of the journey for Chetri.

The relative calmness of the refugee camps gives way to the bustle of India as Chetri takes his first steps out of Nepal. Culture shock sets in quickly, leaving him overwhelmed for the majority of his trip.

A border guard checks vehicles as they pass into Phuentsholing, Bhutan. Indians of Nepali origin pass into Bhutan daily for work and trade purposes, making it easy for Chetri to slip over the border unnoticed.

The border sign addresses "foreign nationals," but Dipak does not have foreign citizenship, nor does he have Bhutanese citizenship. At the moment, he is effectively stateless.

A summer home of the King's mother is the farthest point that Chetri reaches in Bhutan before returning to India.

And a few extra shots from the camps...

The paintings on the back of the classroom wall are of thunder dragons, the national symbol of Bhutan, and a Dzong, the symbolic administration buildings of Bhutan. The students have only experienced these traditional Bhutanese icons through their studies.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

A refugee camp divided

By Benjamin Graham
Published at
November 8, 2010

DAMAK, Nepal - Subash Archaya thought he had escaped persecution for good when he left southern Bhutan in the early 1990's. Harassed by the government and threatened by police, he joined the growing population of ethnically-Nepali Bhutanese citizens fleeing to refugee camps in eastern Nepal. After 18 years of living in exile, Archaya says the same types of threats that drove him to leave Bhutan have surfaced again, but this time they are from his fellow refugees.

"It started with texts," he explains, holding up a mobile phone in the dim light of his hut. "Plz donot try 2 share these 2 police," the screen reads.

Through several anonymous messages, Archaya is warned that his family will be in danger if they don't leave the refugee camp immediately. His wife, holding their 15 month old daughter, unfolds a crumpled piece of paper; a hand written note again threatening violence if they stay in the camp.

With no place to go, Archaya has relocated his family to a security village in Beldangi I camp; a refuge within a refugee camp where armed guards and a tangled fence of barbed wire provide 24-hour protection and isolation. Archaya hasn't left the tiny plot of land for several months.

Although the family doesn't know exactly who sent the threatening messages, they do know why. "I support the resettlement program," Archaya says, "But there are still some in the camps who oppose it."

For the majority of their time in exile, Bhutanese refugees hoped to return to Bhutan as citizens, a process known as repatriation. In 2007, the U.N. and the United States offered an alternative solution by initiating a third country resettlement program. While many Bhutanese welcomed the opportunity to start new lives abroad, there was a significant portion of the population who viewed resettlement as a victory for the Bhutanese government. In their opinion, people would stop fighting to return to Bhutan if they moved to western countries, a fatal blow to the repatriation movement.

By mid-2007 the camps were divided over the issue, and tensions boiled over into violence.

"I used to be Camp Secretary of Beldangi II camp," Archaya explains, "Because of my leadership position, a lot of people were looking to see if I would stay or if I would decide to resettle." When word spread that he wanted to resettle, threats began to appear.

Repatriation has been a top priority for the exiled Bhutanese since they first fled to Nepal, but every organized attempt to return home has been met with failure.

As early as 1996, a rally was staged in which hundreds of demonstrators gathered at the Nepali border town of Kakarbhitta in an attempt to enter India and then Bhutan, but several activists were arrested by Indian security officers and the rally dissipated.

More recently, in May of 2007, a 'Long March Home' was organized in which tens of thousands of exiled Bhutanese attempted to walk from the camps in Nepal, across India, and back to Bhutan. The marchers were again met by Indian security officers at the Nepali border, where several guards opened fire on the crowd of demonstrators, killing two.

These early attempts to return to Bhutan show the commitment that many refugees had to repatriation. For a long time, it was their only hope.

But resettlement changed everything. Although it created hope and excitement for many refugees, especially the young and educated, it also amplified the frustration of repatriation advocates. In an effort to counter the resettlement movement, many pro-repatriation groups evolved into underground political parties, some with militant tendencies like the Liberation Army of Bhutan (LAB), Druk Leapord, and the United Revolutionary Front of Bhutan (URFB).

It is groups like these that Archaya and his family fear, and it was these groups that initiated inter-camp violence, beginning in 2007. Early that year, two young refugees died in a clash with an underground political party. The same week, a refugee leader was beat-up and his hut destroyed because he supported resettlement.

In the days after, a news release from the Refugee Policy director at Human Rights Watch, Bill Frelick, warned that, "Nepali police need to protect the Bhutanese refugees and their right to peacefully express their views on resettlement or return."

Despite many more pleas for increased security in the camps, violence continued, culminating in 2009 with the deaths of two Camp Secretaries (the same position that Archaya held). KB Khadka was stabbed to death on his way home one evening in April, while Shanti Ram Nepal was shot four times by an unidentified gunman later the same year.

Yet as the number of Bhutanese resettling has increased, the cases of violence have tended to decrease. By mid-2010, nearly 80% of refugees either already moved abroad, or expressed interest in doing so.

As is often the case, families still in the camps will hear good news from their already-resettled relatives, persuading them to make the leap and file their own case for resettlement. Repatriation groups are losing the hearts and the minds of the remaining refugees. After 18 years of camp life, the pull to resettle is strong.

Dr. Bampa Rai is a Bhutanese refugee and a doctor by profession, but he is more renown as a leader of the repatriation movement. Since the early 90's, he has run a health clinic for refugees near the camps while also peacefully advocating for repatriation through legitimate organizations like the Bhutanese Refugee Repatriation Representatives Committee.

But even he admits that "The sun is setting on repatriation." Rai does not condone violence or intimidation, but he does believe that the cause of repatriation has been marginalized in favor of resettlement.

"The UNHCR has been advocating resettlement in every camp for years now," he explains, referring to the various information meetings, English classes, and cultural orientation programs sponsored by the U.N. that are aimed at recruiting and preparing refugees for resettlement.

"Don't get me wrong, I am grateful to the UNHCR, but for 18 years people were never given hope of repatriation by the UNHCR; not a single meeting," he says. Now he believes resettlement will completely deflate the cause for repatriation, and, he claims, it already has begun.

Indeed, many refugees argue that violence and intimidation have all but disappeared from the camps. Now it seems that most everyone is looking forward to moving to new homes in the West. While Archaya insists that the underground groups continue to operate today and threats still exist, he also looks forward to resettlement.

"I am Bhutanese, but my future is in the United States," he says, "So we spend our time waiting for resettlement; it is our only hope."

Subash Archaya was able to protect his family by relocating them to a security village, where barbed wire, a watchtower, and armed guards keep them separated from the general refugee population.

Many residents live in fear as they wait to resettle, but that is starting to change as pro-repatriation groups give way to to the excitement of resettlement.

An IOM bus refugees to and from the UNHCR office in the local town of Damak every day.