IN-TRANSIT: Debimaya Thapa feeding her family at Beldangi Refugee Camp this week.
In the last eight years, the camps in eastern Nepal where up to 120,000 refugees from Bhutan were once housed in bamboo sheds for nearly two decades have gradually emptied as they are resettled in western countries.
Soon, the 100,000th refugee will be leaving for the United States. She is Debimaya Thapa, 53, who has been living with her eight-member family in Sector E1 Number 53 of Beldangi Refugee Camp of Jhapa district since 1990. She will be joining two of her grown daughters who have already been resettled in Ohio.
“I am excited to be leaving, I didn’t know I would be the 100,000th refugee,” Thapa told Nepali Times this week after a ceremony in Kathmandu. “But I am also a bit nervous about going to a new place.”
Beldangi is now only one of three of the seven camps that housed refugees since 1990. But even this camp is looking more and more deserted. Remaining refugees who refuse to leave or are waiting to go back to Bhutan still say third country resettlement is not a solution to what they consider ‘ethnic cleansing’ by the Thimphu government of its Nepali-speaking population.
Debimaya Thapa in Kathmandu recently being greeted by Prime Minister KP Oli for being the 100,000the refugee from Bhutan to be resettled in a third country.
“Those who were resettled now have a domicile, they are getting education or have jobs, but the Bhutan regime has not paid for this gross violation of human rights, resettlement has just postponed and shifted our quest for justice,” says Sanchahang Subba, secretary of the Beldangi Refugee Camp.
Twenty-five years after they had been forcibly evicted by the Bhutan regime, the Nepali-speaking Lhotsampa refugees started being resettled in third countries after Thimphu refused to take them back. More than 80 per cent have since gone to the United States and others to Australia, Canada, Denmark, The Netherlands, Norway and UK.
The camps have now been consolidated into Beldangi 1, Beldangi 2 and Sanischare in Morang where there are a total 17,900 refugees left — of which 1,700 say they do not want to be resettled. The resettlement program administered by the UNHCR is supposed to wind down by end-2016.
Hara Jang Subba, 68, is leading the struggle on behalf of refugees who want to return to Bhutan. But of the ten members of his own family, six have already gone to America. He says the Nepal government was complicit in abandoning them and washing its hands by agreeing to resettlement.
He says: “One day we hope Bhutan’s rulers will pay for
the injustice they have done to us.”
Among the 17,900 refugees from Bhutan still in the three camps in Nepal some (most of them elderly) say they do not want to be resettled.
Bagbir Rai, 71, has been living in a bamboo hut in Beldangi 2 for the last 25 years with 15 other relatives. Despite their refugee life, and yearning for their homes back in Bhutan, they celebrated many festivals together. Now, there are only five family members left, all the others have been resettled in the United States. Rai doesn’t want to go to America, he’d rather go back to his farm in Chirang of Bhutan from where he was evicted in 1990. He says: “My umbilical cord was buried in Bhutan, and that is where I want to live the rest of my days.”
Bir Bahadur Khadka, 65, has lived in Beldangi 2, Sector 3, Hut Number 4. His son and daughter are already in America. But Bir Bahadur and his wife don’t want to go anywhere else but back to their farm in Bhutan. He wants the Nepal government to negotiate with Bhutan so he and others like him can go back. “I am not moving anywhere, only to Bhutan,” he says.
Bishnu Lal Neupane, 62, has lived for the last 25 years in Beldangi 2 Sector B 1 and Hut Number 57. He has no intention of being resettled in Europe or America, he wants to go back to his ancestral land in Sarbhang in southern Bhutan. His wife Debi Maya has separated from him because she doesn’t agree with his decision. She and their two sons are waiting for resettlement. Says Neupane: “I have no intention of going to a strange land of unfamiliar language and culture at my age, I will go back to Bhutan even if it is to die.”
Dal Bahadur Karki
Dal Bahadur Karki (pic), 85,remembers his terrace farm in southern Bhutan like the back of his hand. When the army came to force him out in 1990, he was 61, and remembers setting his livestock free and leaving fields full of crops and store full of grain. He says with a faraway look: “I go back every night in my dreams, I can’t think of going anywhere else.”
Chandra Bahadur Chauhan
Chandra Bahadur Chauhan, 55, was 20 when he and his family were forced out of Chirang village in southern Bhutan. He has been living almost half his life in a thatch hut in Beldangi 2 Sector E 1 Hut Number 40. Even though he is not as old as the other refugees, he says he will either stay in the camp or go back to Bhutan, he doesn’t want to be moved again. He says: “I don’t want to go to a strange place where I have to learn a new language and new ways of living.”