A Refugee's Journey to the Bhutan He Has Never Known

A Refugee's Journey to the Bhutan He Has Never Known

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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.

The refugee crisis, which began in the early 1990s, dragged on into the 21st century. Finally, in 2006, a deal between the United Nations and several Western countries brought hope in the form of a third-country resettlement program.
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 dangerous 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 Dangerous 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. People 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. "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.

Benjamin Graham is a freelance journalist based in New York City, but frequently reports on Nepal and Bhutan. His work can be viewed at http://benjamingraham1.blogspot.com/.