There is hope in these dusty camps in eastern Nepal among the 100,000 refugees from Bhutan that they may finally be going home after more than a decade. But it is an optimism that stems out of desperation and hopelessness, having lost all. The only thing left is that distant possibility of return.
The 10th round of Nepal-Bhutan talks in December that agreed to set up a Joint Verification Team on refugee repatriation was greeted here with cautious jubilation. Now, the team members from Nepal and Bhutan have arrived in Damak, set up office, rented accommodation, and are getting down to work on Monday to begin reviewing the status of refugees at Khudunabari, one of the seven camps where refugees are housed.
The work should be simple: most refugees were intimidated or forcibly evicted between 1991-92, packed into trucks and taken across India to be dumped in eastern Nepal. They left behind homesteads where their ancestors had settled generations ago. Nearly one in every seven Bhutanese citizens is living in exile in Nepal, making this one of the most extensive (and least reported) refugee crises in the world.
"It was a terrible time. We were forced to abandon our home and four acres of fields in Bhutan, we were brought here on the back of a Tata truck in the middle of the rains, we had little money, children were sick and dying. I fell sick and nearly died," recalls Lachhi Maya, who came in the first wave in 1991. We found out later that two of Lachhi Maya's children have died since leaving Bhutan, a three-month-old son and an eight-year-old daughter. Today, with five other children and a husband, she runs a tiny shop in a long row of identical thatch huts that make up the Beldangi I camp.
The population of the refugee camps has swelled by 17,000 since 1993. Not because of new refugees pouring in, but because of the children born in the camps. This is now going to be a factor in the Nepal-Bhutan verification process to decide who is a refugee and who is not. In Damak, officials from the two sides are evasive and tight-lipped. They are not divulging any details of the screening process. Lachhi Maya's family have their Bhutanese identity cards and other documents ready, and they are waiting to be called. She says: "Bhutan is our home. But two of my children were born here, they have never been to their country. I wonder if we will ever get back."
Nepal and Bhutan have agreed that the unit of verification should be the nuclear family, including unmarried people up to the age of 25, and elderly relatives or dependants. For security and logistical reasons, the joint team will bring the refugees from Khudunabari to Damak for identification from Monday. The leader of the Nepali team, Usha Nepal, is settling down for the long haul and refuses to answer detailed questions. "We don't want to jeopardise the process even before it begins," she tells us. "There's still a lot of logistics to work out."
The leader of the Bhutanese team, Sonam Tenzing, is also noncommital: "Our presence in Damak means we're here to do business." What is worrying some refugees is that even if the joint team begins interviews, at the most it can only manage ten heads of families on each working day. That would take at least five years to complete the process. Added to that is the fact that the forms to be filled out during the questioning are in English (as agreed to in the terms of reference for the Joint Verification Team), which could mean plenty of delays, and misunderstandings, while interviewing the predominantly Nepali-speaking refugees.
"Even if we go back, where will we live?"
"This is a huge undertaking," admits an undaunted Usha Nepal. "Also, this is the first time both teams have been involved in something like this. Once we start, we'll see what kind of problems come up and try to solve them," she says. While both sides have agreed to conduct the refugee identification and verification process on a bilateral basis, on Bhutan's insistence, the role of a third party or mediator hasn't been totally ruled out.
"Somewhere in the margins, we've kept that option open, but no one's been identified, yet," an official said.
Bhutanese refugee rights groups are keen to include the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) as a third party to ensure a fair identification process, and the refugees themselves are looking to the Bhutan Refugees Representative Repatriation Committee (BRRRC) as their champion. This two-year-old Jhapa-based committee, elected by refugees in the camps, is trying hard to maintain its apolitical image, and keeping above the fray of the fractious refugee organisations.
Like the Bhutan and Nepal teams, BRRRC is keeping a low profile. "We don't want to jeopardise the verification process," says a BRRRC member in Jhapa. Refugees we interviewed had pinned their hopes on the committee. Said one 30-something Bhutanese: "When it comes to the crunch, I'm counting on BRRRC to help me." Like many others, he was forced to sign papers that they were migrating to Nepal voluntarily, and this could complicate the verification process. When he was home minister, Sher Bahadur Deuba agreed in 1993 with his Bhutanese counterpart Dago Tsering to a controversial categorisation process. Deuba agreed to four categories of refugees:
l forcefully evicted bonafide Bhutanese
l Bhutanese who emigrated voluntarily
l Bhutanese who have committed criminal acts
Indrawati Rai, secretary of the Refugee Women's Forum in Beldangi I, is also concerned about how the categorisation process will affect orphans, dependants and other adults without families. "Many of them don't have papers, who is going to speak on their behalf?" asks the once-shy housewife who is now a firebrand activist in the camps.
But by far the most sensitive issue is the one of resettlement of northerners in the southern parts of Bhutan from where the refugees were evicted. Refugee families have heard reports filtering out of Bhutan that their homes and farms are now occupied by thousands of farmers resettled by the government. "I have heard that my home in Chirang Basti has been taken over," one refugee, who did not want to be named, told us. "Even if we go back, where will we live?"
One Nepali verification team member preferred anonymity admitted to us that there is vagueness in the definition of dependants and orphans. The member is convinced some of these issues can only be resolved through third-party mediation. Says a refugee activist, "These points have been raised with UNHCR and the Nepali government's Refugee Coordination Unit. But as long as there's proof, we'll try to force the issue."
Under the present circum-stances the Nepali team would have the role of a bystander. "We're basically present to see that the interviews are conducted fairly, that the interviewees do not feel intimidated or threatened at any point, or misunderstand questions on the form. In the end, the authenticity of documents may have to be vouched for by the Bhutanese side," says a Nepali member.
Both sides have now agreed that citizenship papers and other documents would not be the only basis for verification-many refugees had to leave in a hurry and many have simply never brought them along. They will make decisions based on extensive interviews and the gathering of supplementary evidence. Foreign Ministry officials in Kathmandu told us that verification was in fact a Bhutanese idea because their position has always been that all the people in the camps are not Bhutanese. What it will do is determine once and for all how many Bhutanese and non-Bhutanese are in the camps. The verification could take a long time, but Nepal is interested in getting it over with and move to the next step: the four categories.
Bhutan is reported to have committed itself to taking back everyone except category 2: those who left "voluntarily". But it is not as straightforward as that because the criteria for categorisation are subjective, and many thousands of genuine refugees could fall through the net. Nepal had, in the past, been talking about a "harmonisation" of the categories. But at present no one wants to talk too much about categorisation because that was the biggest stumbling block in the past years of fruitless negotiations. International pressure and Bhutan's own problems with Bodo and ULFA rebels in Assam seem to have softened Bhutan's stance since December, and even if Thimpu brought up categorisation again, it may not be as rigid.
Says a senior Nepali official in Kathmandu: "We have seen time and time again that the main Bhutanese tactic is buying time, lingering, allowing things to drag on in the hope that the refugees will assimilate into Nepali society. That hasn't happened, and they must have realised that they have to get this over with. But verification is a test the refugees will have to go through, it is the beginning of a solution. They're good at springing surprises though."
But also to blame has been Nepal's own lack of a clear strategy in dealing with the refugee issue-a fact compounded by political instability in Kathmandu over the last ten years. It did not help either that India has deliberately kept aloof, although it abetted in the transfer of refugees from Bhutan to Nepal.
Despite the continued uncertainty about their status, and the long wait ahead, refugees like 26-year-old Chandra Subedi cling to the sliver of hope that has emerged after December: "I regret I wasn't able to keep up with the Dzongkha language which means I have little chance of joining the Bhutanese civil service. But once I'm home, I'm sure I'll find work." Chandra was a student when he left Bhutan, now he is a father of two. Today, he supervises the Children's Programme Forum in Beldangi I and is working towards a college degree via correspondence course.
But even young Chandra has no illusions about the government of his country. He wishes the verification team could hurry things up and handle 50 families a day. Says Chandra, and with a faraway look on his face and a hint of hope in his voice, he adds: "But maybe this time we can finally go back home."