These are the faces of children who have never seen their homeland. Children of parents who were thrown out of Bhutan in 1991-92, transported across India to refugee camps in eastern Nepal. They were born in refugee camps and have never seen the country that they still regard as their motherland. Some of them are now 11 years old.
On 20 June, World Refugee Day, let us try to imagine what life is like for the 100,000 Bhutanis who can't return to the homes, fields and villages of their ancestors. Let us imagine what it is like never to have seen your homeland. Imagine what it is like to live in someone else's country, forced to depend on charity for survival. Imagine that citizenship is a luxury.
'Exile' is a word. 'Outsider' is a word. Both are just words. When you have to live those words every day you learn not to take small things for granted. Every smile on a school girl's face gives you hope. The alert eyes of a young girl watching her mother on the loom, the deft fingerwork of a grandfather weaving a bamboo mat and passing that skill to the next generation. Children peeping out of the bamboo window of their classroom. The abundant bamboo of verdant Bhutan is replicated in the camp setting, everything here is bamboo.
This is life behind the bamboo curtain in the refugee camps of Jhapa and Morang. The rest of the world may have given up on them, their own government in Thimphu may hope they will be forgotten. But the Bhutanis here haven't given up and they haven't forgotten. What is surprising to a visitor is the lack of overt frustration or visible signs of despair.
As a photographer, I toured the camps in search of sadness but found hope. I searched for photogenic misery but found bright eyes and easy smiles. I searched for fatalism but found a vibrant community that is forgiving towards its tormentors. I looked for loneliness but found friendship. In Beldangi, I came across a wedding, life carried on here. They still look back at Bhutan as the promised land they will one day return to. If they don't their children will, of this they are sure.
Unlike the rest of Nepal where the conflict has made people suspicious of strangers, here I was welcomed into homes and offered tea. We can learn a lot from our Bhutani brothers and sisters especially since many of us Nepalis are now refugees in our own land. What does it mean to lose that which is most precious to us-our homeland? How can we come to terms with our suffering and not be guided by anger and revenge?
Whoever did this to such gentle, generous and compassionate people are the ones we should pity.