“They made us leave forcefully, with nothing. But it is our home! It doesn’t matter if twenty years pass, or fifty… it doesn’t make a difference!”
Dhanman fixes me with his eyes, his expression daring me to argue. Reluctantly I oblige:
“But it’s been twenty-five years – what if you can’t go back? The camps are closing. Where will you go?”
But Dhanman will not budge an inch. A handsome and well-spoken man in his sixties, he has been teaching at the Beldangi school since ’94 and talks with the rehearsed eloquence of someone who’s had to defend his position many times: Bhutan is my home, and no other will do.
Bhutan, the happiest country in the world. The mystical mountain kingdom of laughs and cuddles, whose biggest export are its refugees.
Bhutanese of Nepalese origin, also known as Lhotshampas, have been seeking asylum in Nepal since 1990, living in the shadow of those most photogenic and trendy of refugees, the Tibetans. After fleeing southern Bhutan they eventually returned to the land of their forefathers where UNHCR gave them refugee status in 1991 and settled them in seven refugee camps in eastern Nepal.
Now around 19,000 refugees still live in Beldangi Camp, where I have come to ask one simple question: “Where is your home?”
Except that for the people here, the question is anything but simple.
Nepalese have been settling in southern Bhutan for centuries. Nepali artisans came to Bhutan at the behest of the king to build monasteries and stupas and in the 17th century 50 Gorkha families were resettled in southern Bhutan to protect the southern border, with many more following after that. By the 1980s they were the majority ethnic group in Bhutan, which made Nglanongs, the ruling ethnic group, more than a little uncomfortable. What followed was the usual tragic, if predictable, orgy of bureaucratic marginalization, violent suppressions of peaceful protests, and the sweeping proclamation of thousands of Bhutanese as illegal immigrants. Some 100.000 of them were forcibly evicted or coerced into signing “voluntary” migration forms.*
While the Lhotshampas have retained their Nepalese language and customs, Bhutan is the only home they have ever known. But time has gnawed away at their convictions and these days Dhanman finds himself in the stubborn minority, digging in his heels while his neighbours and friends pack up their meagre belongings and leave to start a new life in a new country. Dhanman’s family has already been resettled.
“They left me alone,” he says, brandishing his bitter resentment in my face like a badge of honour.
“But it doesn’t matter. I pray to God every day that I can return to Bhutan.”
In the doorway Pratap is shifting his weight in discomfort, staring at his feet. He is my guide for the day and looking forward to his pending resettlement to the States. At twenty years of age, in jeans and with a face that is yet to leave puberty behind fashionable thick black frames, he looks like any other young urban Nepali.
“It is very difficult to live like this,” he admits, taking it all in as we walk through the settlement.
At first glance one might almost be tempted to call Beldangi nice. Situated a short drive out of Damak, it betrays none of the squalor and disease-ridden despair that one might associate with the word “refugee camp”. On the main street small shops sell the usual assortment of cookies and cigarettes, many of them doubling as Western Union counters as increasing numbers of resettled refugees send money to the friends and family who have stayed behind.
Little Lhotshampas shriek and squeal as they chase each other around the playground of the Children’s Play Centre while their mothers discuss the merging of two centres with Ravi Sharma, the Caritas worker in charge of the project who has graciously allowed me to accompany him on this day. The women are immaculately turned out in colourful kurtas, their beautiful slanted eyes and high cheekbones framed by long black hair.
Yet Beldangi retains the makeshift look of a temporary settlement even after twenty-five years. UNHCR provides building materials, but the houses are built by the refugees themselves – simple bamboo huts and basic outhouses strung along dusty dirt roads that will turn into rivers of mud with the coming monsoon. Small gardens are crammed in the available spaces, but the residents remain dependent on the Word Food Programme which provides them with rations of rice, oil and salt every fifteen days. Large silver UFOs are parked in some of the courtyards. Pratap explains that they are solar cookers provided by the UN and each shared by two families.
The refugees of Beldangi camp are not homeless in the practical sense of the word and the NGO workers I met during my visit, many of whom are Bhutanese refugees themselves, put much effort and care into the wellbeing of the Lhotshampas. But can a bamboo hut in a country that will not grant you citizenship really be considered a home?
Pratap was born in Beldangi and the camp is the only home he has ever known. But it is a home that offers little comfort, and while he still considers himself Bhutanese, he doesn’t want to be held back by a mythical homeland that he has never even seen. He has no citizenship and no future here. He and the other remaining refugees live in limbo, torn between the historical homeland of Bhutan that they may never see again and the promised homes of their future, in countries where their Nepalese traditions will be just one more obstacle on the way to assimilation.
He seems amused, and more than a little exasperated, at my insistence of talking to the young and the old, the ones eager to leave and the ones determined to stay. He does not have the luxury of contemplating the taste, the essence, the draw of “home” in the way that I have been doing since long before I voluntarily left my own at eighteen, always strung between homesickness and the call of the wild. (And as it turns out one can feel homesick for the life of travel, a feeling much more subtle and listless than that of pure, unadulterated Wanderlust.)
It is the luxury of the modern nomad, one who can exile herself to take on the world, knowing that she always has a home to return to.
For Pratap and his peers the spiritual home of Bhutan has long been overshadowed by the practicalities of life. What good is a home that doesn’t want you?
UNHCR’s resettlement programme started in late 2007 and now approximately 900 Bhutanese refugees are leave the camps every month, most of them moving to the USA, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. The resettlement scheme, while undoubtedly a success, has created a rift between the older generation still mourning their lost Eden and their more pragmatic children.
When Birkhabdr Subba’s family decided it was time to leave, he stayed behind in hopes that the talks with Bhutan might prove fruitions and he would be allowed to return. After all, he has already waited for over twenty years – what is a couple more? But by now he has lost faith as well. He has trouble walking and the roads in Beldangi are too uneven for his wheelchair to negotiate. Time, and age, have knocked the fight out of him, and he is ready to leave.
Pulmaya Tamang, on the other hand, is staying put. Not out of sentiment or a burning political conviction, but because she is simply too old. When I ask her age she looks surprised, as though the question has never occurred to her, and turns to her friend for help. After a quick discussion she settles for seventy-two, an oddly specific number. With a lively face crumpled into intricate webs of lines, she seems content to sit on the porch of the old people’s home and watch the world go by.
With the refugee population dwindling so rapidly the NGOs are set to leave in December of 2016 and the future of the remaining refugees remains unclear. The closing of the camps will have far-reaching consequences for the entire region, which has come to depend on the patronage of the NGOs and the cheap manual labour provided by the Lhotshampas.
Damak was little more than a village when the UN started setting up the camps and the NGOs set up their headquarters there. Refugees have proven to be good business and nowadays Damak is a thriving little town with nice residential neighbourhoods, well-stocked shops and a couple of posh hotels. After I part ways with Ravi at the Caritas office late in the afternoon I ride to my hotel in a spanking new battery-powered auto-rickshaw.
In the evening I sit at a corner table of a local dhaba for dinner and play the day’s conversations over in my head. I think of Dhanman’s passionate refusal to settle for anything less than a return to his homeland and Pratap’s dreams of finally becoming a citizen of a country. Maybe he will find a job, or maybe he will study. He’d rather not think about it yet – first, he has to get a passport.
I think of the little red booklet in my bag, its pages covered in colourful stamps and scraps of paper, that lets me travel the world freely as a EU citizen. And suddenly, after long months of being a stranger in strange lands, my alone feels so lonely and I find myself longing for home.
Despite all the tongue-twisting potential of the English language some of the most important words remain universal and honest in their monosyllabic simplicity. Life, Love, Death. Home. A place so many of us can’t wait to leave, only to start dreaming of our return. A place that, for some 50 million refugees, asylum-seekers and internally displaced people, is nothing more than a word in a dictionary, a taunting dream.
As for me, I am not sure which home I long for, geographically. There is Slovenia, the home I have come from, and the home I have made for myself in Berlin. And I have a couple of smaller, lesser homes that I have accumulated along the way – certain cities, islands, friends and books that can tie me over when the going gets rough and I need to drop anchor for a while.
It is not that I have no home – rather, I have too many.
Should we all be so lucky.
* You can find a good summary of the situation here.