Foreign Reportage


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The Forgotten Ones

BhutanON a sandbank in the middle of the river, Bubbha Lapha squats under a tartan umbrella to shelter from a baking sun. The 70-year-old lifts a small rock hammer with her right hand and brings it down to smash a pebble into fragments. Bubbha repeats the action then gathers the pieces of broken stone and throws them onto a pile the size of a small cairn. It’s close to midday and Bubbha and her friends, Shati and Kanti, have been working since around 6am. “Clack…clack…clack….”. Like convicts in a chain gang the trio raise their hammers then smash them down to break stones. Over and over again.
“Clack…clack…clack…” Metal on stone, the chipping noise drifts away from the
women, almost drowned out by the rush of the River Ratwa that runs past in
rivulets either side.


Bubbha says something in Nepalese to Kanti, 40, and Shati, 65, who smile and
giggle like a couple of teenage schoolgirls. For a lifetime these three women
have laughed, cried and survived in each other’s company. It’s been a
precarious existence, not least as forgotten victims of one of the world’s
most intractable refugee situations. Bubbha, Shati and Kanti are among 106,000
Bhutanese refugees who have languished in the forests of eastern Nepal for
more than 17 years after being “ethnically-cleansed” from the remote kingdom
of Bhutan in the early 1990s. Ignored by the world and completely reliant on
international aid for food and shelter, the refugees have waited and waited,
and slowly lost hope.


Until now that is, and a compassionate offer from the United States to
resettle 60,000 of the Bhutanese, as well as provisional interest from nations
such as Australia, Canada and Norway, to accept a smaller number of refugees.
But while help has finally arrived from the international community, albeit
belatedly after almost two decades, fresh hope has caused uproar in the camps
and instigated fighting among the Bhutanese. While many wish resettlement for
a new life, others insist that repatriation to Bhutan should be the only
option considered, fearful that anything less will endanger the future of
80,000 of their people still in southern Bhutan and legitimise the regime's
past ethnic cleansing.


After being left to rot by the world, many frustrated young men have turned to
the Communist Party of Bhutan (Marxist-Leninist-Maoist), which is urging
refugees to fight for their right to return and to ultimately overthrow the
Bhutanese monarchy.


In May, violence erupted when thousands of Bhutanese tried to cross into the
Indian state of West Bengal and march back to Bhutan. One refugee was killed
and more than 20 were injured when Indian police fired on them as they tried
to enter India. There was also chaos inside the camps, and people who advocate
third country settlement were attacked. Two people died when armed Nepalese
police were called to restore order and opened fire.


The schism has already seen blood spilled, and with the resettlement process
to the US about to begin in earnest, the crisis is at boiling point amid fears
of a Maoist insurgency in the camps and the beginnings of a wider armed


“Clack…clack…clack…” Bubbha, Shati and Kanti look weary. For 17 years, they
have struggled, but now life may become even tougher. Bubbha raises her arm
again and wipes sweat from her brow. “This is no way to live,” the old woman


THE tiny kingdom of Bhutan, sandwiched between India, China and
Chinese-controlled Tibet, is one of the most isolated and least developed
nations in the world. Known locally as Druk Yal, or land of the thunder
dragon, the country is landlocked in the Himalayan mountains, a diverse
landscape of subtropical plains in the south, stretching up to peaks in the
north reaching heights of 7000 metres. Mahayan Buddhism is the state religion
and foreign influences and tourism are heavily regulated to preserve the
country’s traditional culture and identity. The government answers to King
Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck, the world's youngest head of state and the
fifth Dragon King of Bhutan who wields absolute power.


The population of Bhutan is 750,000, including the 135,000 refugees in Nepal
and India, and consists of three main ethnic groups, religious and linguistic
groups, the Ngalongs, Sarchops and the Nepalese-speaking Llotshampas in the


After war with British-India in 1864, Bhutan lost about one third of its
fertile territory in the south, so for economic reasons migration was
encouraged from Nepal to the country’s southern foothills. A steady increase
in settlements of the Nepalese resulted in a separate administration for the
south, leaving the population cut-off from the mainstream of Bhutanese


But during the 1980s, the Dzongkha-speaking Ngalongs who rule Bhutan began to
fear the growing influence of the Nepali-speaking Hindus in the south, so the
government tightened citizenship laws and combined new legislation with
arrests, torture and threats, to force more than 100,000 ethnic-Nepali
Bhutanese citizens from their land. It was a dark period and Bhutan, strongly
criticised then for human rights abuses by Amnesty International and Human
Rights Watch, rigorously used militia forces in similar fashion to what is
perpetrated today in Sudan by the Janjaweed.


Fast forward to the present, and seventeen rounds of negotiations between the
governments of Bhutan, which refuses to take the refugees back, and Nepal,
which refuses to integrate them, have come to nothing. India, the largest
power in the region, has close ties with Bhutan so has refused to support
repatriation, while other major political actors such as the USA have declined
to interfere in India’s backyard. So, the despair of prolonged statelessness
has continued.


“We (Bubbha, Shanti and Kani) escaped to Nepal together from our village of
Dahding in Bhutan in 1992, after some of the women were raped by soldiers. We
left in the middle of the night and walked for three days. We ended up in the
camps…and we‘ve been here ever since,” Bubbha says.


A RECENT report by Human Rights Watch documented the deteriorating conditions
inside the seven camps holding the 106,000 refugees. The people’s frustration
is beginning to manifest in ugly forms with domestic violence on the increase,
women turning to prostitution to feed their children, and increased political
agitation with potential for an armed uprising. HRW’s report also gave a rare
glimpse into the continuing abuses of human rights in Bhutan, where
Nepalese-speaking citizens cannot get a government job, buy or sell land, or
open a business without a police-issued card attesting that the bearer is not


For the thousands of young refugees who were born in the camps their
“homeland” Bhutan is merely a pipe dream, and a place they know only through
folklore passed down by elders like Bubbha. The Bhutanese are housed close to
the dusty, frontier town of Damak in eastern Nepal, about 500 miles from the
capital Kathmandu. It’s a subtropical land of lime green, paddy fields and
bamboo and the countryside is dotted with coconut trees, buffaloes cooling off
in pools of water and colourful Hindu temples with swastikas adorning their


The camps are clean and well-organised with the refugees living in narrow rows
of huts made from bamboo. There are schools for the children but people are
forbidden from working anywhere in Nepal, so there is a real sense of despair
among the older refugee population who have spent the best part of 20 years
sitting doing nothing. As refugees in Nepal, Bubbha, Shanti and Kanti are
working illegally breaking stones, and if caught they face losing their weekly
ration of rice and lentils. There is a black market for goods but most people
here have little to do.


In Beldang 1 camp, 55-year-old Kalibahadur Darjee invites us into his hut. He
has bloodshot eyes and looks drawn and ill. “I lived in Nauli village in the
Samdung Khar district of Bhutan but left in 1993. The army came and attacked
the men and raped the women so we had no choice,” he says. Darjee used to be a
tailor and on a table sits a sewing machine he uses to repair peoples’ shirts
and trousers. Most people have only one set of clothes as only food is
provided by the UN refugee agency UNHCR and the Lutheran World Federation who
run the camps. Rations, paid for by international donors, are distributed
every 12 days. Each person receives 5.6kg of rice, 0.56kgs of lentils and
0.28kgs of chickpeas. Pumpkin, cabbage and banana are available once a week
but people are limited to only one choice.


A few huts up from Darjee we meet with Bhagirath Sapkdta who came from the
same village as his neighbour. The thin 70-year-old wears a topi and sits on a
stool. He introduces his wife, Tulasa, who has two red tikas on her forehead
and wears a gold ring through her nose. They live here with five members of
their family and complain that food rations are not enough.


Do they want to return to Bhutan or move to a new life in the USA? They give
the same reply as Darjee, that they want to return to their homeland. In fact,
for the next few hours touring the camps, every refugee we meet dismisses the
notion of a move to America. Every single person says they want to return to
Bhutan. At a secondary school in Beldang 2 camp, I put the same question to a
classroom of 30 teenagers, most of whom were born in the camps, none of whom
could have any first-hand knowledge of Bhutan. “Who would like to move to
America?” Silence. Not one hand goes up and eyes dart nervously from side to
side. When I ask who would like repatriation, arms shoot up en masse and heads
turn quickly to look around. The children all seem reluctant to be the first
to bring their arms down. Outside, I ask camp secretary Dev Raj Pradhana why
no-one wants to move to the US. “Many people do, but are too scared to say,”
he replies.

"IF you speak of resettlement, your head will be in a bag and your body will
be at the side of the river," was the message hand-delivered to Manoyath
Khanal. He sits in a dimly-lit room surrounded by his wife, parents and two
young children. Khanal appears a frightened man. He left hospital the day
before and complains of blinding headaches and severe pain in his ribs. The
left side of his face is slightly swollen and he hunches over. The family are
in hiding in a safe house in Damak, after fleeing Beldangi refugee camp 3 two
weeks ago. As camp secretary of Beldangi 3, a position Khanal was elected to
by the Bhutanese refugees, he publicly backed resettlement to a third country
as an option for all refugees. His opinion nearly cost him his life. On August
12th, a mob came to his home, beat him to an inch of his life, then destroyed
the family hut.


“We are desperate for a solution and 80% of the refugees favour resettlement.
We are not against repatriation but we think that all options should be
considered, not just one viewpoint. People should have the right to choose and
not be bullied. But the radicals, the Maoists, attack anyone who supports
moving to the US. When they beat me they called me the ‘Broker of America’,”
Khanal says.


The previous day we’d been shown what remained of Khanal’s home by his brother
and supporters inside Beldangi 3 who witnessed the attack. “One man tried to
smash Khanal’s head with a large wooden plank with nails in it, but luckily
someone held him back. They would have killed him if the police had not
arrived,” said one elderly man who declined to give his name.


Khanal blames the violence on “radicals” from the Communist Party of Bhutan
and the “Bhutan Tigers”. He says these extremist groups have been active in
the camps since 2003, supported ideologically by Nepal’s Maoists who waged an
armed struggle for a decade until they joined a peace process last year. The
surrounding district is a hotbed of communist activity and Khanal’s claim is
later backed by UNHCR and Lutheran World Federation staff who work inside the
camps. “One of the Maoists regularly boasts and shows a photograph of himself
holding an AK47,” Khanal adds.


The next morning we meet with him again, this time at a meeting of the Durable
Solution Support Group at a secret location in Damak. They’re a group of
refugees who advocate resettlement but have been forced from the camps because
of their views. There are 16 men in the room. They live on charity because as
refugees they cannot work and as they have left the camps they have no access
to rations. It is a desperate situation.  “Our children have no food. We are
refugees twice now,” Khanal says. 


He hands me a list with the names of six men. Five are in police custody
charged with his attack. He points to the name at the top, Subash Acharya, a
man he claims to be linked with the Maoists and responsible for the violence.
The sixth name is Tek Nath Rizal, a legendary figure in Bhutan. Rizal is the
exiled Bhutanese leader now based in Kathmandu. He was an advisor to the King
of Bhutan before falling out of favour and being imprisoned at the start of
the troubles. Rizal gained an almost mythical status while in prison and
became the de facto spokesman for the Bhutanese movement when he was released
a decade later in 1999. “Acharya organises the violence in the camps, but
Rizal is behind everything,” Kanal claims.


AFTER leaving the meeting we drive to Damak police station and ask to speak
with Acharya. Inspector Govinda Raj Kafle agrees to our request and Acharya is
brought from the cells to his office. I put Kanal’s allegations to him but
Acharya, a former refugee camp secretary himself, denies having anything to do
with recent violence, or to having links with radical groups intent on an
armed insurgency. “I was out of the camp the day Khanal was attacked and
afterwards I made a call for peace,” he says. On the issue of resettlement,
Acharya says he favours repatriation and that “all the refugees” wish to
return to Bhutan. This contrasts with Kanal’s claim that 80% of the people
wish to relocate to the US. “The people in favour of moving to a third country
claim we are Maoists, but we are not. If they want to go they should go. But
what will their lives be like? We ask that the international community
pressurise the Bhutanese government in allowing us to return. Only then should
other options be considered,” he says. Finally, I ask about his relationship
with Rizal. “I know him very well. I was his personal assistant for one year,”
he says.


WE’D met Rizal in Kathmandu a couple of days before we flew east to visit the
refugees. A slim, thoughtful man and the founding father of the Bhutanese
movement, he said little during the interview and allowed his colleague,
Thinly Penjure, to speak on his behalf. Rizal, born in southern Bhutan, was an
advisor to the King until he fled to Nepal in 1989 after the regime began its
systematic persecution of his people resulting in the forced mass exodus of
100,000 Bhutanese. As a royal advisory councillor, Rizal had submitted a
petition to the King apprising him of the sufferings of the southern Bhutanese
and had appealed to him to consider amending the 1985 Citizenship Act of
Bhutan which discriminated against his people. But after nine months in Nepal
he was abducted and taken back to Bhutan where he was sentenced to life
imprisonment for “subversive and treasonable acts”. Rizal, who became an
Amnesty International prisoner of conscience, was released in 1999 after
pressure from the international community and now lives in Kathmandu.
“I was tortured in prison and my mother had boiling water thrown on her face
and was told to leave her village. My brother-in-law was killed. In jail, I
knew of  a monk who was murdered and at least four other prisoners who were
tortured to death,” Rizal said.


He is chairman of the Bhutanese Movement Steering Committee and says he
represents not only the refugees, but also the movement for democracy in
Bhutan. Until recently, Rizal advocated repatriation as the only solution,
despite the slim chance of this happening anytime soon. Last year, when six of
the seven camp secretaries organized a press conference to welcome the US
offer, Rizal promptly dismissed them from one of the numerous committees he
chairs. But his stance seems to have softened and he stresses he is not
opposed to resettlement. “People should be allowed back to their own soil then
given the option of resettlement. If we opt for resettlement first what will
happen to the 100,000 of our people still in Bhutan? Many refugees have family
in Bhutan and friends and relatives in jail,” he said, dismissing the
pro-settlement groups and referring to them as “so-called leaders”. I ask for
a response to allegations that he is behind the violence but he strongly
denies this. He adds that claims of a Maoist insurgency are a smear by the
Bhutanese government who want his people labelled as terrorists.  I point out
that the allegation came from his own people. “We have always followed
peaceful means. We would not support violence…but other groups might take up
arms,” he says. Do you completely and utterly renounce violence as an option?
“We cannot rule out violence,” Rizal replies.


IT is impossible to tell how many Bhutanese refugees want to move to the US,
or how many want to return to Bhutan. But what is clear is that people have
died in recent months and that the crisis is likely to erupt into violence
again when the resettlement process begins shortly. Abraham Abraham, the UN’s
High Commissioner in Kathmandu, says there are serious concerns about
militants and radical Maoist groups operating in the camps who are determined
to “wage an armed struggle”. “Idleness has led to extremism,” he says. At
present the UN is in the process of building permanent police posts in the
camps for the first time. The plan is to have new barracks in place in the
seven camps by the end of October, each with around 30 armed officers. “When
this is all in place the UN will begin the resettlement process,” Abraham


“SOME people want to go to Bhutan, some want to go to the US, but everyone is
fed up...I'd like to go America,” Bubbha says quietly, when we are alone.
“Clack…clack…clack.” The women raise their arms to smash stones. They are not
interested in politics, they just want to have a normal life.
“Clack…clack…clack.” The sound is a like clock endlessly ticking away the days
of a life sentence for the innocent.

Copyright, Billy Briggs, 2007

Reporters without borders