By Ram Karki.
Shortly after the failure of peaceful demonstrations all over Southern Bhutan during September-October 1990, those participating in the demonstrations were forced to flee Bhutan resulting in mass migration of Bhutanese to various Indian towns and villages bordering Bhutan.
In a camp nearby Birpara around 100 most vulnerable women, children and elderly Bhutanese, who managed to reach there from Singhi and Pinkhuwa villages of Sarbhang, were suffering from various ailments due to rape, torture and forceful eviction and also due to hunger. Children were malnourished and sick.
At such circumstances a decision was made to transport them to Nepal to prevent their inevitable death in India. One fine morning on 1 February 1991, a minibus based in Birpara was reserved by People’s Forum for Human Rights (PFHR) and 91 most vulnerable evicted Bhutanese citizens were boarded for Nepal under the leadership of Mr. Gauri Shankhar Niroula, Mr. Ram Karki (myself) and Mr. Bhim Khapangey.
Journey became too difficult as most of those in bus were elders, rape victims, minor, pregnant women, lactating mothers and torture victims from a very remote Bhutanese villages of Pingkhwa and Singhi. Male members and those stronger were traveling standing as the bus was small for everybody to get a seat.
After numerous occasion of vomiting, shouting, nausea the bus reached Panitanki our last destination from where we started walking to cross Mechi bridge for Nepal. We reached around 3PM on that day we crossed Indian side of the bridge and step our foot in Kakarvitta, Nepal.
At Kakarvitta the custom and immigration prevented our entry inside Nepal as they were surprised to see our procession with old gunny bags, belongings, children, women etc. We were asked to stay at a ground till the Nepalese authorities at the higher level were asked and permit us to proceed further.
We managed to buy some kilograms of Chiura (bitten rice) and sugar from a shop in Panitanki and distributed among the tired and hungry people. Children were crying, sick lying down on the shed eagerly waiting for somebody to come and allow them to proceed towards the unknown destination in Nepal.
Finally, at around 7PM local people together with Bhutan People’s Party (BPP) leader Mr. D. P. Kafley (based in Birtamode) sought help from Jhapa CDO who permitted us to move into Nepal. Local people at Kakarvitta allowed us to take shelter at a hilltop Dharmashala until we have alternatives to live. At Dharmashala we stayed for 10 days with the assistance from local people – begging hands everyday from shop to shop for survival.
On 10 February 1991 we finally managed to find a cowshed at western bank of the Kankai Mai River near Kankai Mandir – some 50 km west of Kakarvitta. The cowshed which was used to house the cows donated by the religious people was empty then and was purchased by paying NRs 300. We moved from Dharmshala in Kakarvitta to a cowshed 10 February 1991.
Nepal was then at a transitional phase from panchayat rule and a general election was to take place in May 1991, thus we were in a very sensitive stage. We appointed Mrs. Indrawoti Rai from among the ladies to look after the women welfare and security and Mr. Khatiwada, a former Karbari from Pinkhwa to look after the mess.
Myself, Gauri and Bhim used to go in different directions with male youths to beg for food and vegetables from the local villages. In the evening we used to be together with some varieties of food materials which we used to cook in a big pot outside and distributes to everybody in lines.
Local leaders from Surunga and nearby areas used to visit us almost everyday and they used to encourage us to stay united together in spite of all sorts of difficulties. One Mr. Kamal Mainaly, Local UML leader has helped us a lot for persuading the local people to support us.
We used to sleep together both male and female on paral (hays) scattered on the muddy floor of the cowshed in two rows with head joining each other. Some used to talk whole night and some cry with pain and sickness and children cries/coughed due to illness, cold throughout the night.
Our daily routine was to leave the shed early morning along with younger people towards various directions to beg/collect food items from nearby villages whole day. In the evening we mostly returns with sackful of food-grains, chalks, pencils, notebooks, etc. In the evening we used to make sure that the mess is orderly managed and enough food is distributed to everybody. Everybody stays in line with their plate and the cooked food is served in orderly manner.
One fine morning during April 1991 a jeep full of 3200 kg rice arrived in our courtyard. I was present there and it was Madan Krishna Shrestha and Hari Bhansa Acharya who wanted to donate that rice to us. They made some jokes and we all laughed a lot. Some days later Mr. Rishikesh Shah, Nepal’s then Human Rights activist came to us and donated Nrs 6000 to me to buy food items for our people. Many religious groups in the temples donated us rice, dals, blankets etc. that made our survival easy.
We used to take our healthy people to work in fields in nearby Surunga and each of us used to get Nrs 10 per day or equivalent rice, which we used to collect and feed the people. Females worked to plant the rice in the nearby villager’s fields and the males used to plough fields. At the end of the day we used to collect some food grains for the camp.
Mr. Subodh Pyakurel, then a businessman in Biratnagar made some water pumps, local schools used to provide us blackboard, notebooks, chalks and pens. We used to organise open air school on the ground at nearby forest. Later Mr. Rup Narayan Dahal and Mr. Setu Nepal joined our team of management and we divided our work among ourselves.
One day we were on the way to Dhulabari to collect some food we saw from our bus some 4-5 cars with Bhutan Government Number Plates outside the then Shikhar Hotel in Birtamode Chowk. Soon we made up our mind to find out those people in the cars and reached the spot. After sometime one man came and guided us till inside Hotel Shikhar to meet those car owners. I asked my companions Mr. Gauri, Mr. Bhim, Mr. R N Bista, Mr. R N Sharma to stay back downstairs and I approached those 5 people from Bhutan who were sitting in a dine table there. I asked their identity and they asked mine and became a heated argument resulting me to ask other friends to come inside. But when they entered inside Mr. R N Bista greeted one of them with a very warn namaskar. Finally we introduced each other and knew that they were high level Bhutanese officials Mr. R B Basnet, Bhim Subba, Rakesh Chhetri, D P Basnet and Mandhoj Tamang. Mr. Bista knew Mandhoj Tamang and we started talking in friendly manner and we invited them to visit our camp in Maidhar.
They visited us after 3 days in the camp and promised us that they will help us once they reach Kathmandu.
Then head of Jhapa Red Cross Mr. Bhakta Khawas visited us during May 1991 and promised his help in near future. He sought details of those in the camp and later distributed utensils. He advised us to make a list of all the Bhutanese refugees living in Nepal and then he could seek help from Kathmandu. Thus we visited various places looking for shattered Bhutanese and that resulted a list of around 250 Bhutanese which we submitted to him.
Our camp was completely shielded and prevented from coming out of the camp on the day of General election in Nepal on 12 May 1991.
During June and July numerous visits took place in the camp from Kathmandu. UNHCR Country Representative Mrs. Terry Lekhi was the most high level UN official visited us sometime during June 1991. Officials from Lutheran, Red Cross, Caritas and many other also started visiting our camp and relief started trickling.
With this development in the camp those Bhutanese living in other places in India and Nepal started coming in a very large numbers in trucks. Mr. Tarabir Subedi, Narayan Timsina, Ganesh Subedi and many other refugee leaders came escorting those trucks loads of evicted Bhutanese.
By August 1991 our camp was almost full with the arrival of around 8,000 people. Many makeshifts camps were installed and there was an acute need to organise the camp management effectively thus Dr. Bhumpa Rai was asked to head the management and we continued our assistance. By the end of 1991 UNHCR fully started its operation and thus begun establishing numerous other camps and relocating in much organised manner.
During the whole initial process of Organizing Bhutanese Refugee camp in Nepal as a 20 years old youth it was a big challenge. Starting with just 91 people in one cowshed with muddy floor, sleeping together with no basic privacy was not an easy task. Those already settled in the nearby villages used to visit our cowshed trying to persuade the inmates to follow their path and settle in the local villages in place of leading miserable life in the cowshed. In spite of our repeated request we could not stop few families from leaving the camp to settle in the local village nearby.
Putting our own life under risk we managed to unite those families giving them hope of better life in future. Our effort during that time has made it possible for the existence of Bhutanese Refugee Camps in Nepal and ultimately the third country resettlement. Had we not worked hard then in uniting and organizing ourselves all of us could have spread all over India and Nepal and would never come in one place.