Birkha Bahadur Gurung

Categories My Story

Chhalabchi is a remote village five hours walk from Goshi, the headquarters of Dagana district. In October 1990, when the rally demanding democracy in Bhutan was held in Goshi, the villagers in Chhalabchi remained unaware and unaffected, and continued with their day to day farming activities. We learnt about it only when my younger brother, who was studying in Class 3 in Goshi High School, fled from school with three other friends and reached the village. They had run from the school as soon as the members of Royal Bhutan Army (RBA) arrived in their school and started to arrest senior students from Class 8. Later on, several other people from Goshi, Emiray and Dorona were arrested by the army, including our assistant block headman Mr. Dal Bahadur Bista. Until early January 1991, the campaign of arrest by the army continued taking place. Living in a remote village, I was initially unaware of these mass arrests and I learnt about them much later. Since my village did not have road infrastructure it was inaccessible by motor vehicles, hence the army did not readily arrive in our village.

In February 1991 around fifty government officials, including Dzongda (chief district officer) Dasho Hari, Army Major Dasho Chachu and other RBA officers, came to Nimtala village and held a meeting in the office of block headman. At this juncture, I was working as Samajpati (village headman), working under Karbari (assistant block headman), who in turn works under Mandal, (block headman). During the meeting, the Dzongda asked about the incumbent block headman, Mr. Chandra Bahadur Bhattarai and the villagers expressed their ignorance of his whereabouts. The block headman had in fact gone missing from the village some time ago. The Dzongda asked if the villagers needed a new block headman, to which everyone replied in affirmative. Then the Dzongda asked whether the villagers preferred a Drukpa or Nepali speaking person as their block headman. To avoid persecution by offending the district authority, the villagers unanimously said that a Drukpa person was preferred as the block headman. Already the Dzongda and RBA officers had brought along with them a few retired army personnel from the Drukpa community as candidates for the role of a block headman.

After food I tried to sleep, but the pain due to the torture continued to trouble me. For a fortnight, I could not walk properly and I crawled every morning to go to the toilet and crawled back to the room. The episodes of torture continued in the detention room thereafter.

Out of the three candidates, Mr. Janjo Drukpa was eventually appointed as the block headman. Then Dzongda made an official declaration of Mr. Janjo becoming the block headman and asked the villagers to support and cooperate with him. A few weeks later the villagers, as ordered by the new block headman, started rebuilding the Basic Health Unit (BHU) by mobilizing the manpower and the building materials locally. The members of political party spearheading the democracy movement were alleged to have torched the BHU. Ironically, no medical staff and supplies were  provided to this BHU, even after its completion.

The life in our village was running as usual. In the late evening on 26 July 1991, Birkha Bahadur Rai, my assistant in the village, brought a letter for me from the block headman. The letter was written in Nepali by the Karbari (assistant block headman), Mr. Indra Bahadur Rai and signed in Dzongkha by block headman Janjo. In the letter the block headman asked all the DYT members, Karbaries and Samajpaties to attend the meeting in Dasho Chachu’s office in Goshi High School – which was then converted into army barrack-cum-detention-cumtorture-centre. The block headman had warned in the letter that if any addressee failed to attend the said meeting the army would come to fetch that particular person. The block headman further stated that if you wished you could come voluntarily for the meeting or you could be brought by the army. The assistant village headman, Indra, had been arrested by the army three day earlier, taken to detention at Goshi School and beaten. He was released the same day on the condition that he worked as an informant for the government providing necessary information from the village.

So on 27 July 1991 at 6am, I left for Goshi to attend the said meeting at Dasho Chachu’s office. As it was summer time and the rivers were swollen, I had to take a longer route, finally reaching Dasho Chachu’s office at 4pm, after almost ten hours of walking. Dasho Chachu’s office was housed in one of the rooms in the teachers’ quarter in Goshi High School. On reaching there, I told Dasho Chachu that I was working as Samajpati in Chhalabji village and that I had been asked by the block headman to see him and I showed him the letter sent by the block headman. Dasho Chachu completely ignored me and did not utter a word. Instead, he called Lebe Kota, a junior officer who was standing outside the office, and instructed him something in Dzongkha language, which I did not understand. Then Lebe Kota asked me in Nepali language to follow him and I started walking behind him. Lebe Kota took me to the nearby double storey school hostel building and asked the army constable to open one of the rooms in the ground floor. Another army constable came with a piece of rope and tied my hands. I was then taken into the room and asked to sit down. The army closed the room and left. The room was dark and I was sitting alone on the concrete floor.

An hour later, one army constable came and opened the door and asked me to go for food. I was taken to the nearby school hostel kitchen and given some food that was prepared for the army. I took a very small portion of food and could not eat further because many disturbing thoughts were criss-crossing my mind. I quickly washed my hands and I was brought back to the same room and locked up again. I sat on the floor and could hear the footsteps of guards walking outside my room. I could also hear the army personnel talking, singing and jumping on the first floor above my room. My mind began to fill with fears and anxiety. I felt like leaving the room and going away. But the room was locked. The army neither interrogated me nor confirmed my arrest. But with my hands being tied with a rope and being locked alone inside the room, I presumed that I was under arrest. Fortunately, the army, so far, did not misbehave or abuse me. For three days, I was provided with breakfast, lunch and dinner and I continued to be kept in solitary confinement with my hands always tied.

On the third day, on 30 July 1991 around 3pm, Lebe Kota came and unlocked my room. Greeting him, I said ‘Kuzuzangpo Lebe’. He replied, saying ‘Kuzuzangpo’. He then said that Dasho Chachu was calling for me and he asked me to go with him to his office. I thought that I would be taken to Dasho Chachu’s office and be released finally. We went to Dasho Chachu’s office. Around three army constables were standing outside Dasho Chachu’s office. On reaching the office, Lebe Kota asked me to stand in front of Dasho Chachu’s desk. I stood as ordered. Then Dasho Chachu asked my name. I said my name is Birkha Gurung. He then said, ‘Were you sent by the Mandal’? I said, ‘Yes.’ Then he said that some allegations against me had reached his office and he asked me to answer him without lying. I said, ‘Okay Dasho.’ Then Dasho Chachu said that I had donated Nu. 10,000.00 to the anti-national political party and that I had been supporting the party by providing food to the party members at my house. I told him that I had never donated to the party or supported them. I told him that I was working as Samajpati and that no party members had ever come to my village. Then Dashi Chachu said, ‘Why are you lying?’ He became angry and said, ‘I have full information of your support to the party.’ He then ordered me to bend down. I did as ordered. Then Dasho Chachu instructed Lebe Kota in Dzongkha and Lebe Kota immediately started hitting on my back with a big stick. I remember being beaten continuously eight times. When the stick finally struck my head, I fell unconscious. After a while, when I regained my consciousness, I found myself lying outside Dasho Chachu’s office room. As I began to moan in pain, Lebe Kota came and dragged me back to the office room. In the office room, Dasho Chachu was writing something on the paper. He then looked at me and said, ‘You are being beaten today because you are telling lies.’ I told him that whatever I said to him before was all true. Dasho Chachu, in a threatening manner, pointed to the wall where several items of torture equipment, like cane sticks, leather belts and leather whips were kept and he said, ‘Now you are going to listen to me, aren’t you?’ I said, ‘I will.’ He then put a paper in front of me, where something was written in Dzongkha (which I did not understand) and he asked me to sign it. In fact he caught hold of my thumb, pressed it onto the ink pad and then pressed it just below the written content in the paper. After forcing me to thumb sign the paper, he said that the allegations, whether good or bad, had reached his office and that as long as I kept on telling lies I would continue to suffer consequences. Then he asked Lebe Kota to take me away. Lebe Kota asked me to follow him and I was taken back to the same room and locked up again. I asked the other guard for some water to drink. One of the guards provided me with water. However, after this torture session, the attitude and behavior of the guards towards me changed completely. They started calling me ‘ngolop’ (antinational) and abusing me verbally. A few days later, I was taken outside and made to work in the kitchen garden after untying the rope from my hand. Otherwise, I was continuously kept in the solitary confinement with my hands tied.

On the seventh day, I was made to get up early in the morning. It was raining that day. I was taken to the toilet. I eased myself and washed my face. I was asked to hurry up. As I was being rushed towards the kitchen, I saw a Hilux in the ground, where army personnel were preparing to go somewhere. When I reached the kitchen, I was surprised to see my youngest brother-in-law Jit Bahadur Gurung and five other fellow villagers, including Kali Bahadur Gurung, Bhim Bahadur Thapa, Bhim Prasad Bhattarai, Chhatra Bahadur Tiwari and Jahar Singh Poudel. They were taking breakfast and I was also given breakfast to eat. Due to fear everyone remained quiet and continued eating the breakfast without looking at each other. A few army personnel were also taking breakfast in the same place. In my mind, I was thinking that all of us would be released together at the same time today. After we finished eating, an army officer ordered seven of us to get into the Hilux. We got into the Hilux and ten army personnel, including Lebe Kota, also got in. The army personnel were fully armed. The Hilux left Goshi. After travelling for some time, we came across a road blockade caused by a landslide. Both army personnel and seven detainees got out of the Hilux and removed the blockade and we continued with our journey. On reaching Sunkosh river, the army personnel parked the Hilux and went in batches, a little away from the Hilux, to take food. However, seven of us were not given any food that day. After one and half hours, our journey continued towards another district called Chirang. As we approached the district headquarters, Damphu, Lebe Kota started communicating through his walkie-talkie with someone. Around 4pm we reach Damphu. The Hilux stopped on the side of the road, below Damphu High School, where a number of army personnel were waiting for us. As soon as we came out of the Hilux, all seven of us were individually handcuffed by the army. Officer Chhimi was present at this location. The army personnel who came with us from Goshi went back, while the army personnel from Damphu made us walk towards Damphu High School, which had been converted into army barrack-cum-detention-cum-torture centre. On reaching the school we were made to stand on the school assembly ground, where the army searched our bodies individually and thoroughly. My personal items such as bag, citizenship identity card, torch light, silver ring, Nu. 70.00 and kera (belt to tie the Gho) were confiscated by the army. Similarly, the personal belongings of six other detainees were taken away. As we were standing there, Dasho Chhimi came and instructed one army officer something in Dzongkha. He started beating each of us three times with the freshly cut sticks. After that all seven of us were taken into an empty classroom and locked in. The room was very dark as the windows were covered with thick papers and painted black and we could not even see each other. We had to move our hands in the darkness to touch and find out who was sitting next to us. We could only whisper to communicate with each other. A couple of hours later some army men came in, moved our handcuffs to the front and gave us food. We took the food without washing our hands and wiped our hands on our Gho after finishing eating. After the food, the handcuffs were again moved to the back and we spent the night sitting and lying on the concrete floor. In the morning our handcuffs were moved to the front and we were taken to the toilet one by one. We were not allowed to talk or look around while going to and coming back from the toilet. If anyone took longer to ease himself, the army used to throw stones and hasten us to get up and get back to the room. When returning from the toilet we were allowed to bring a mug of water to our room. Around 11am we were given food and had to eat with handcuffs tied in the front. This situation continued for the next five days.

On the fifth day around 2pm, an army officer came to the room and called out the name of Kali Bahadur Gurung and he was taken away. Next Bhim Bahadur Bhattarai and Chhatra Bahadur Dahal were called and taken away. These three detainees did not return to the room again. At the fourth round, my name was called out and I was taken to Dasho Chhimi’s office, housed in the same school premises in one of the class rooms. Dasho Chhimi, in the presence of three other army personnel, started interrogating me, asking similar questions to those of Dasho Chachu in Goshi – alleging that I donated money and provided support to the political party. I told Dasho Chhimi that I have neither made any donation to the party nor supported them. Two army personnel caught hold of me and pushed me to the concrete floor. Then Dasho Chhimi started to threaten me to speak the truth or suffer more. I told him that what I was saying was the truth. While I was seated on the ground, one army man entered the room with the clamps (Chepwa) and other equipment in his hands. The clamps consisted of two wooden beams tied with a rope at one end and after clamping my legs between the beams the other end was tied with another piece of rope. Then two army personnel started pressing the beam on my legs by jumping on the two opposite ends of the beam. This continued for almost fifteen minutes, during which Dasho Chhimi continued shouting at me to speak the truth. After fifteen minutes, they took the clamps out and asked me to bend forward. Then, with a stick, one of the army men started to hit on my back. This process of questioning and beating continued for a long time. After some time I lost my consciousness. When I regained my consciousness, I felt an excruciating pain in my upper body and legs and found myself lying on the concrete floor in the room. I could not move due to pain. My hands were secured at the back with handcuffs. Still I tried to move a little to get the attention of any friend that might be in the room. Fortunately my brother-in-law, Jit Bahadur Gurung, happened to be in the room. He came closer to me and whispered to ask me if I was in pain. I said ‘Yes, I am in great pain.’ Then I asked him who else was in the room. He said one other friend was lying flat on the floor. Later we knew that person to be Chhatra Bahadur Dahal. Then I told my brother in law that I was feeling very thirsty and asked if there was any water in the room to drink. He said that there was no water there. Then I called out to the guards outside the room to give me some water to drink. The guard opened the door and entered our room. But instead of giving water, he scolded me and left the room, closing the door behind. After a couple of hours the door was opened again. The army men entered the room in order to provide food. I requested them to give me some drinking water. One of the army men forcefully refused to give me water. I continued requesting it. Finally, one of them provided me with some water. I drank the water and had food.

After food I tried to sleep, but the pain due to the torture continued to trouble me. For a fortnight, I could not walk properly and I crawled every morning to go to the toilet and crawled back to the room. The episodes of torture continued in the detention room thereafter. Sometimes the army personnel arrived both in the morning and evening to start beatings. Otherwise after an interval of two to three days the army continued beating us in the detention room. Army officers even used to come to our room and make the detainees bull fight against one another and they used to laugh and enjoy the fight. Sometimes detainees were made to play horse riding, where one was to act like a horse and the other to mount as jockey and go around the room. If the horse riding act was not done properly, the detainee concerned was made to stick his nose to the opening of a container filled with urine and stool. Such containers were supplied in each room to be used by inmates for urination and emptying the bowel.

During the eight months of stay at Damphu High School detention centre, detainees were subjected to different kinds of physical and mental abuses. Whenever Dasho Chhimi came around, he always made the army beat the detainees. An army officer also forced one of the detainees, named Tika Ram Baral from Chirang, to beat other detainees in their rooms. Tika Ram was a strong man and he was regularly asked to beat over 50 detainees with wooden sticks in one session. Due to continuously holding the stick and beating the inmates, his hands would start to bled. If he did not beat the detainees well, the army would beat him instead.Sometimes Tika Ram would be so tired of beating the inmates that he would fall flat after coming to his room and sleep for many hours.

As time rolled by, a number of other detainees were brought into the detention centre. Due to overcrowding at the detention centre, sometimes 18 inmates were forced to live in a small room. They kept on moving the detainees from one room to another. I was moved several times to different rooms and sometimes I was kept alone in one room. After the fifth month in the detention, the episodes of beating decreased to some extent. The detainees were takenout of rooms and made to clean the school premises. We continued to be kept in handcuffs.

One night, we suddenly heard sounds of people being herded into the school building and beaten severely. We could hear the people crying and wailing in pain. Later that night these people were brought into our room to stay for the night. As they came in, we learnt that they all were prominent, influential and well to do members of community from the nearby sub-division of Chirang. From them we learnt about the mass arrests and rapes taking place in the villages and the large number of people fleeing for safety. They said that after being severely beaten by the army they were given an ultimatum, either to leave the country or be ready to die. They told us that they had chosen to leave the country rather than die in the hands of the army. From them we learnt that that day was 16th of December and they were getting released the next day, 17th of December, as they agreed to leave the country immediately on release. The 17th of December is the national day of Bhutan, upon which day the King usually issues royal edicts, pardoning detainees.

More than hundred and fifty detainees were held in Damphu High School over the period of eight months. Towards the end of eight months I was moved to the first floor of the school building, along with some other detainees. From time to time, other detainees were released on the condition that they leave the country. Finally fifteen detainees, including myself, were left in the detention.

One early morning of 15 February 1992, all fifteen detainees were asked to assemble in the school ground and we were informed by an army officer that we would be moved to another prison in Chemgang by the police. Soon the police personnel reached the school in a DCM Toyota. We were then made to take food. After food we were asked to pick up our respective clothing and get into the DCM Toyota. I asked Dasho Sitharla to allow us to take our personal items confiscated by the army. He said that all the personal items would be taken care of by the police officer and taken to Chemgang.

As soon as we entered the vehicle, all detainees were handcuffed. One handcuff was used to lock each detainee to the next, thus making a human chain of fifteen detainees with several
handcuffs. There were around twenty five police personnel accompanying the detainees. At around 7am we left Damphu High School and reached Chemgang Prison at around 10pm. On reaching Chemgang we were handcuffed individually and were handed over to the police team in prison. We were then taken to the ground floor of a double storey building that housed the prisoners. Sometime later, we were given some porridge made of flour to eat. After food we were taken to a large room where we spent the night on a wooden floor, infested by a large number of fleas.

The following morning, when I got up and went for toilet, I met several other detainees who had been in detention for a long time. There were over 300 prisoners staying in this prison. Some of them helped me to find the toilet as well as other infrastructure in the prison. The prison building was fenced all around and police guards stayed outside the fence. Around 9am a police guard came and called the fifteen detainees who had arrived from Damphu. We were all made to assemble in the prison yard. Then one by one we were taken to a nearby workshop where a man started fixing chains onto our legs. The handcuffs were then removed from our hands. After the chains were fixed, all fifteen new arrivals were taken back to the prison yard by the guards and asked to jump and roll repeatedly on the yard covered by snow, while old detainees were made to watch our acts. The guards made the old prisoners sing Nepali songs and clap hands, and the new arrivals were asked to dance, while holding the middle point of the chains with one hand. We enacted whatever was asked of us by the guards. At around 11am we were given food consisting of rice and curry. The curry was made out of huge quantity of water, with a few pieces of radish and chilli and a chunk of salt. After the food, I went around and was introduced to the old prisoners, while guards were a little further away. At around 3pm, the new arrivals were called again and asked to sweep and clean the prison premises. While we were cleaning the premises, I saw older prisoners cutting hair for one another. As I was not allowed to cut my hair and nails while in Damphu, I asked one older prisoner named Ganesh from Samchi district to cut my hair. He cut my hair and trimmed my mustache and beard. The other prisoners from Yaba provided nail cutters and I cut my nails too. Around 5pm we were provided with food. Though the curry was said to be of beef, we hardly got to see the pieces of meat in it. Anyway the watery curry had the smell of meat, which, in itself, was treat after such a long time.

My life as a prisoner started in real earnest in Chemgang. The following morning we got up and started the day with a breakfast consisting of the porridge made out of flour, chilly and salt mixed in water. Although it was not properly cooked, we were compelled to take it. Soon after the breakfast we were taken to the riverside by police guards for the day’s work. With chains tied to our legs, we were asked to walk faster by the guards. Being winter time, it was snowing in Chemgang and walking bare footed on the snow was very painful. When we could not walk fast enough the guards used to beat us. As soon as we reached the riverside, we were made to break stones to specified sizes with heavy-duty hammers. Some other prisoners were asked to carry the sizeable stones to the roadside and load them into the trucks to be taken to the site where a new prison was being built. There were usually 50 to 60 police guards watching the prisoners at work. The guards constantly nagged and frequently beat us to make us work faster. Some among the prisoners were appointed as group leaders. They were told by guards to beat anyone who was not working fast enough. Around 11am we were asked to run fast back to the prison for lunch. With chains on our legs, most could not run fast and were beaten by the guards. We lined up in the kitchen for food. After food we washed our plates and had a break for an hour. Then again we were taken back to the riverside for work until 4pm. For twenty four consecutive days we were made to break the stones in the river. The police guards continued beating the prisoners at their whim.

After around a month from our arrival in Chemgang, the construction of the new prison house was started. According to the skills of the individual prisoner, different tasks were allocated to each one. As I was interested in carpentry, I was allowed to join the group of carpenters. The work proceeded at full swing and in October 1992 the first prison house was completed, along with kitchen, toilets and bathrooms. The new prison had the capacity to hold ninety-one inmates. We were then moved into this new prison. Soon the work on another prison was started.

Around this time, the prison commanding officer, Dasho BT, was replaced by Dasho Pasang. During Dasho BT’s tenure, prisoners were subjected to regular torture and the living conditions were very depressing. After Dasho Pasang arrived the quality of food improved to some extent and better bedding materials were provided to the prisoners. We did not know the reason behind this sudden improvement in the prison condition until the Team of International Committee of Red Cross (ICRC) arrived in Chemgang in early 1993. Two days prior to the arrival of ICRC, prisoners were taken to a nearby workshop at night and the chains and shackles were removed from our legs, one by one. We were also provided with canvas shoes, pants and jackets as well as toiletries. To our surprise the government also provided one visiting card to each detainee asking them to show the card to visitors coming to the prison. Some of the educated people among the detainees tore up the card in front of the officer, because the word ‘terrorist’ was printed on the card. Although the government wanted us to introduce ourselves as terrorist to the visitors, the educated ones among us foiled its ploy.

On 20 January 1993, the ICRC Team, consisting of one doctor and two other members, reached Chemgang prison. The Team visited the prison for three consecutive days. The ICRC Team registered each prisoner and provided them with an ICRC registration card. My registration card number was BTN 000134-01. They also asked about my family and I said that they should be in the village in Dagana. To this the ICRC said that there were many Bhutanese families already living in the UNHCR camps in Nepal and that they would check and find if my family had ended up there. They said that if my family was in the camp, then they would get letters and other information from them during their next visit to the prison. Some detainees, who had kept the visiting cards provided by the government, passed them to the ICRC team, explaining the motive behind it.

On 7th November 1993, the ICRC arrived again. This time, they brought a letter and photographs of my family, living in refugee camp in eastern Nepal. After over three years, I was getting to know about the whereabouts and condition of my family. For all these years I was kept incommunicado. During this visit, ICRC provided me with a piece of paper and a dot pen and asked me to write a letter to my family. I asked my friend to write a letter for me which was then taken by ICRC.

As usual, the construction of the new prison continued in Chemgang. I had health problems on several occasions during this time period. I had developed malaria while in detention in Damphu. But due to cold weather in Chemgang, I had relapses of malaria a number of times. I also had severe dysentery for 14 days in Chemgang. There was a health assistant in the prison who only provided simple medication to the sick. Somehow, I managed to survive these illnesses.

One month before our release, eight prison inmates originating from Dagana district, including myself, were taken to the police headquarters in Dadimakha in Thimphu. We were made to give statements to Dasho Chhimi. We were told that the statements would be forwarded to the court, where decision would be made as to whether to release the prisoner or not.

On the morning of 22 February 1994, the commanding officer of the prison came and called out the names of 18 prisoners and informed us that we would be released. He asked us to pack our clothes, wash our faces, take breakfast and get ready to go to Dadimakha, police headquarters in the capital city Thimphu. Some prison inmates had been released on a few previous occasions. With the release of our batch of 18 prisoners, there were still around 150 prisoners left behind in Chemgang. Around 8am we were put in a police van and taken to Dadimakha. On reaching Dadimakha at 9am, Dasho Kipchu and Dasho Chhimi asked us to file into the police ground. A police officer individually photographed all 18 inmates. Dasho Kipchu started lecturing the inmates, saying that we should be happy that the King had given us “Kasho” (Royal Edict) and released us. However, he said that those inmates whose family had left the country could not stay in Bhutan and that they should leave the country and reunite with their family in Jhapa Nepal. After this lecture of almost half an hour, another police officer came and started to take finger print impressions of all ten fingers, including the palms, on a paper where a photograph of the concerned individual was affixed. One of the inmates, Deo Dutta Sharma asked Dasho Kipchu the reason for getting the finger-cum-palm impression on the paper. To this Dasho Kipchu said that the document, with finger impression, would be retained by the government as a record and if anyone should be found to be involved in political dissident activities in the future, then such persons would be imprisoned for life.

Dasho Kipchu concluded his lecture with a stern warning of severe consequences, if anyone disobeyed the government laws. As my citizenship card, together with other items, had been confiscated by the army, I raised the matter with Dasho Kipchu, referring to what Dasho Sitharla had said when I was being transferred from Damphu to Chemgang. Dasho Kipchu then asked Dasho Chhimi if those items were with the police. When Dasho Chhimi answered in the negative, Dasho Kipchu got angry and asked me not to talk about those small matters and to be happy with the release.

Those of us whose families were living in the camp in Nepal registered our problem of not having any money for travel and food. To this Dasho Kipchu offered to send a police truck for those who were going to Phuntsholing. Nine of us boarded the police truck and left Thimphu at around 11am. On reaching Phuntsholing, the border town, at 10pm, we divided ourselves into groups and went looking for places to stay. One of our fellow inmates took us to his friend’s place and we spend the night there. Next day we met Deo Dutta Sharma who assured us he would mobilize some financial support from his best friend. Two days later Deo Dutta provided Indian Rupees 100.00 each to me and three other friends.

On 27 February 1994, four of us left for Nepal. When I reached Damak in Jhapa, Nepal, I went to Beldangi II refugee camp and stayed with my elder sister and brother-in-law. Next day, my sister and brother-in-law took me to Pathri camp, where my family was sheltered and I was finally reunited. Only after the reunion, I came to learn about the actual facts leading to the departure of my family from Bhutan. My father told me that he was called by the army and the district officers and forced to fill the voluntary migration form (VMF) in exchange for my release from the prison. He was sternly warned that if the VMF was not filled in that he too would be arrested and imprisoned. Due to fear of his arrest and with a hope of my release, my father filled the VMF in December 1991. After completing the VMF, my father was provided with the permit letter to leave Bhutan. But when the government did not release me even after six months from the signing the VMF, my father went to the district office on two occasions to return the permit and to tell the authority that he would stay put in the country. But the officer would not accept back the permit. Later the army started applying various pressure tactics on families who had been forced to fill in the VMF. They conducted meetings in the village in the block headman’s office and demanded that the families either leave the country immediately or send the female members from the family to serve in the army camp. Assistant village headmen were required to take the female members from different families to the army camp. That same evening around five families were made to send their female members to the army camp, triggering deep fear in the minds of the villagers. The assistant village headmen, namely Yadav Mongar and Indra Rai, chose to flee from the village that same night rather than take the female members from different households to the army camp. On witnessing such ominous developments, my father decided to flee to avoid the female members from my family, especially my mother and my wife, becoming victims of the army. After leaving Goshi, my father moved to Kalikhola a sub-divisional town bordering India. He tried to stay there for another one and half months. Even then, when the army started to harass him, he fled from there, finally ending up in the UNHCR refugee camp in eastern Nepal.

Gradually, I settled into the camp with my family. But due to the after effects of torture, I suffered from different health problems. I had to accept assistance from CVICT (Centre for Victim of Torture) for almost five years, in terms of medication and counseling. Gradually, I started to become involved in the camp activities, taking varied responsibilities. I also joined the BRAAVE project to learn sewing skills. Later, I developed an interest in Nepali literature and started attending classes on Nepali literature. Eventually, I became a Nepali language teacher and started teaching, first in the primary school and later in high school.

During one and a half decades of staying in the camp, several refugee organizations made different attempts for repatriation to Bhutan. When most of the attempts failed, the UNHCR finally came with the offer for third country resettlement. I discussed this offer with my family and submitted our intent of interest for resettlement on 19 March 2008. After a long wait, I finally left my camp in Pathri on 11 November 2011 and arrived in Adelaide in South Australia on 15 November 2011. Presently, I am continuing with my English studies as well as doing a part time job. I have bought a house and live with my mother, wife, son, daughter-in-law and grandson. My two daughters live close by with their respective families. Although I am suffering from various health problems due to the after effects of torture, I am happy to be alive after going through all those ordeals in Bhutanese prison. While being tortured during interrogation, the army used to threaten me saying that “you will face the same fate as Dharma Raj”, a block headman from Goshi, who was killed by the army during interrogation in detention in Damphu for his alleged support for the political party fighting for the establishment of democracy in Bhutan. When I look back, I feel happy to know that my suffering in the prison has contributed, in its own little way, to attaining a written constitution and democracy in Bhutan. I hope and pray that the people in Bhutan will never have to suffer repression again and live life in dignity and safety, the way I am doing now in Australia.

Birkha Gurung
South Australia

BHUTAN: Chhalabchi, Dorona, Dagapela, Dagana, Bhutan, House No: CC08, Thram No: 84
REFUGEE CAMP: Hut No. 25, Sector L2, Sanischare, Morang, Nepal

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