The refugees were housed in seven camps in Jhapa and Morang districts and spent the next two decades there until they were repatriated to third countries after Bhutan refused to take them back.
Bhutan evicted one-sixth of its population, and this is regarded as the largest expulsion in recent history of a people by any country in terms of the size of the original population.
Bhampa Rai's family formed part of that massive refugee population. However, unlike other refugees, he was not hounded out of Bhutan. He joined the exodus because he could not bear the pain inflicted upon his people by the Bhutanese government.
Rai was the royal family physician in Thimphu, and the Bhutan government asked him not to leave. But he refused to stay back, saying he was needed more by the refugees in the camps than by the royal family.
After spending a few months in West Bengal, Bhutanese refugees were chased away by India as well. They first lived in makeshift camps along the Mechi River where they battled with hunger, wildlife attacks and disease outbreaks. Rai did all he could to save ailing refugees, providing free treatment and medicines for them.
Later, when they were shifted to the seven camps supported by the UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), Rai set up a clinic in Damak and continued to provide free health care not just for Bhutanese refugees but also for poor Nepalis. He turned down all lucrative job offers, dedicating his life to the people his country had made stateless.
But Rai, now 68, is penniless and battling cancer. His wife Urmila Rai's kidneys have failed, and she needs dialysis twice a week. They are destitute and abandoned.
In 2004, Rai told this reporter he would not opt for third-country resettlement, and he has remained true to his word. His dying wish is to be able to return to Bhutan, but Thimphu has turned down repeated requests from the UN.
On Tuesday, members of civil society held a function in Kathmandu to raise money for the treatment of the Rai couple. He sent a message to the meeting that he was more concerned about repatriation of the remaining refugees rather than his own life.
Prakash Angdembe, a filmmaker, says the central character of his award-winning movie Desh Khojdai Jada (In Search of a Nation) was inspired by the life of Bhampa Rai.
"I have never met a more self-less and iron-willed person than him,” Angdembe said. “It is heart-breaking to see such a great soul in misery."
Rai never asked for anything for himself, but sent a letter to the Nepal government, requesting for free dialysis for his wife — a facility that poor Nepalis can get. However, she is not Nepali, and is not entitled to free treatment.
Prime Minister K P Oli is from the same town in Jhapa where the Rais served their compatriots and Nepalis for nearly three decades.
Says journalist Devendra Bhattarai who is also from Jhapa: "PM Oli knows who Bhampa Rai is and what he has done, I wonder why he is not coming forward to help the couple.”
Ironically, Prime Minister Oli has himself had a kidney transplant and needs constant medical attention.
Donors who want to contribute to the Rai couple can contact firstname.lastname@example.org
A LONG WAIT: Karma Tshomo and her mother, Wangmo Dorji, showing their refugee IDs in Beldangi II, weeks before their resettlement to Massachusetts, USA.
As the resettlement program ends in 2018, remaining refugees from Bhutan who spent 25 years in eastern Nepal are left with two options: repatriation to the country that exiled them, or assimilation in a country whose constitution denies them citizenship.
“Landless, citizenless, homeless, respectless, everything less,” said Kamala Pradam, a 47-year-old teacher in Beldangi II Camp, who is among the remaining refugees facing an uncertain future.
The Lhotsampa are Nepali-speaking descendants of farmers, many of whom had lived in Bhutan for centuries. Nearly 100,000 were forcibly evicted from southern Bhutan by the King Jigme Singye Wangchuk regime starting in 1991, then transported through India to eastern Nepal where they lived in UN-supervised refugee camps. Some 90,000 have been resettled in third countries in the past decade, and 8,540 remain in the camps.
The Lhotsampa accounted for one-sixth of Bhutan’s population before the evictions. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) ran the camps, and the resettlement was handled by the International Organisation for Migration (IOM).
Some of the remaining 8,540 refugees in the camps.
The UNHCR had three solutions for the refugees: third-country resettlement, repatriation to Bhutan and local assimilation in Nepal.
Since 2007, the third-country resettlement program has sent 90% of the refugees to the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Denmark, Norway, the UK and the Netherlands. Of the remaining 8,540 refugees in Beldangi and Sanischare camps, nearly 1,000 are still being processed for resettlement, which UNHCR is wrapping up by December 2018.
The program was especially appealing for younger refugees who wished to seek education and opportunities abroad. Unfortunately, it almost always meant family separation. For Karma Tshomo, it was from her father. He remains in Beldangi II, while she and her mother resettle in Massachusetts State in the US.
“She is only going for me,” Karma says before departing, nodding at her mother across the room. Their plan is to stay long enough only for Karma to attend college, and then later to return “home,” whether that be in Bhutan or Nepal.
Among the remaining refugees, there are those, mostly elderly and those with parents or siblings left behind, who still hope to return to Bhutan. Though UNHCR does not have an exact figure, those opting for repatriation is a small portion of the remaining refugees. Those affiliated with repatriation groups claim the number is around 2,000, but Camp Secretary Tikaram Rasaily, who also supports repatriation, says it is much lower.
“Until and unless this repatriation will happen, I’ll be here,” said DB Subba, a member of Bhutan’s Indigenous Peoples Forum within the camp, which fights for return to their motherland. He says only international pressure on Thimphu will make repatriation possible.
Rukmini Neupane, 83, is one of 1,500 census absentees. She wasn't in the camp when ID cards were issued and without it she cannot travel to the US to join her only son. “I don’t want to go to Bhutan, I want to go with my son," she said. "Maybe I will drink poison and die here, but I don’t want to go back to Bhutan.”
Between 1993 and 2003, the Bhutan and Nepal governments held numerous bilateral talks for repatriation of 108,000 refugees, all of which were futile.
“Unless they can agree to sit in a meeting, what options do we have?” asks Ram Babu Dhakal of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Kathmandu. The Druk regime insisted during the Joint Verification Process that a majority of refugees were Bhutanese, and had emigrated voluntarily.
“We are refugees, we will get discriminated everywhere, until and unless we are not citizens,” says Rebika Adhikari, a 25-year-old single mother from Beldangi II. She works as a teacher outside of the camp in Damak, earning less than her Nepali co-teachers.
Local assimilation into Nepal has happened over the last 25 years. Since they look the same as Nepalis and speak the language, refugees are able to find work outside the camp, though they are at the will of their employers. But to stay on in Nepal, the refugees would need guarantees like citizenship, work permits, ability to open bank accounts or own property.
The majority of the refugees don’t wish to return to Bhutan or remain in Nepal: they had problems with documents and now want to be reunited with their families abroad.
Rebika Adhikari’s family is in the US, and she is virtually alone in the camp because of late paperwork. She says: “I don’t have any reason to go back, and I don’t have any reason to stay here. I want to move forward, not back.”
Devi Charan and Khina Maya Acharya
Devi Cheran Acharya and Khina Maya Acharya have waited three years for a departure date for Canada.
The Acharyas have been packed and ready to go to Canada for three years now.
Devi Charan Acharya, 85, and his wife, Khina Maya, 83, completed the process for third-country resettlement, including preparing travel documents and getting vaccinations. But they are still waiting for their departure date.
The Acharyas’ long wait is an anomaly. The elderly couple have health issues: he is blind and diabetic, requiring insulin injections two times a day, she is hard of hearing. UNHCR says that disabled and vulnerable populations normally receive priority in resettlement, but the Acharyas are still waiting. Of their 11 children, five are resettled in the US, two in Canada and four remain in Bhutan, including one who is in prison for being a dissident.
“If the UN can send us to our son and daughter in Canada, at least they can look after us,” Khina Maya said. The couple initially tried to settle in the US, but were denied without explanation.
UNHCR said it doesn’t comment on individual cases, adding that the final decision remains with the resettlement country.
Ram Pardhan passing time with his wife outside of their hut in Beldangi III.
“From tomorrow, don’t come to work, and leave this country,” Ram Pradhan, 63, was told by his superiors in the Bhutan Army 27 years ago. Despite his official position and years of service, his own colleagues turned against him when the regime started evicting the Lhotsampa
“The army chased me from my village,” he said, remembering that his wife and small children ran all the way to the Indian border.
Today, Pradhan lives with his second wife in Beldangi III, all of his five children have been resettled in Nebraska State, US, but he has no interest in joining them there. He ultimately wants to return to Bhutan, otherwise he is happy to stay on in Nepal.
“We suffered in Bhutan and the government didn’t see our pain,” he says, “but no one saw our suffering. Not government, not people, not any officials.”