Refugees. Refugee camp. When these words come up in a conversation, we all think we know what they mean. The same goes for the acronym UNHCR, whose logo alone – two hands forming a roof over a human figure – shows a laudable intention to aid and protect. But how many of us have a precise knowledge of what those words contain? Meeting UNHCR and NGO personnel, wandering through the Damak camps was the opportunity not only to replace those vague notions with exact definitions, but also to witness the realities, whose cruelty is often eclipsed by abstract terms. Of course, spoken in the dead of night, the word “sun” never breaks through the shadows; luckily some mornings lift the veils. On mornings like that in Damak, surprised and moved by human destiny, the eye wishes it had a zipper that would close. But the great architect of the universe did not provide such a thing; why would he spare people the sight of their handiwork, much of it which sadly is not all beauty?
Upon our arrival in Damak, a town in Nepal’s Thapa region, only two of the seven camps listed remained: Beldangi, eight kilometers from Damak, and Sanischare, seventeen kilometers away, both built in 1992. According to UNHCR records, on 31 August 2013, these two camps still held 26,829 and 7,479 refugees respectively. Knowing the stringent criteria for granting refugee status, I was in no doubt that all these people must have been driven out of their homeland by a terrible tragedy. But what tragedy? Since it wasn’t a natural disaster, what conflict could have prompted their flight to Nepal, which does not even share a frontier with Bhutan? I discovered how an irate despot, whose only grievance against them was what they were, had set the zealots on them. The story terrifies and alarms me to this day.
Tyrants are always lacking in imagination, probably because brutality requires less mental effort.
In a drive towards national integration, the Bhutanese government allegedly carried out a policy of ethnic cleansing. Consequently, ethnic minorities (Lhotshampas, Sharchops, etc.) and communities of Nepalese culture were driven out. Of the 800,000 people affected, i.e. one sixth of the Bhutanese population, around 100,000 arrived in Nepal, the home of their ancestors. Unfortunately, Nepal considered its children born outside its borders as foreigners; the authorities refused to offer them a home and merely made land available for temporary camps, as they are obliged to do under the International Convention. This summary, which was supposed to enlighten me, provoked a storm inside my head. People expelled from their homeland for the sole reason that they were different from their neighbors! The all-powerful crackpot who governed in this way could just as well have had a horde of identical garden gnomes made and ruled over them until the end of time. And besides, since these days it’s possible, why didn’t he start cloning the yak instead: his obsession with uniformity would have cost fewer human lives. Tyrants are always lacking in imagination, probably because brutality requires less mental effort.
To be or not to be Bhutanese? That is not even the question. The Bhutanese must all be identical, demanded the petty king of Bhutan. Very wise! But Your Majesty, does Bhutaneseness come from a single mould cast in your fiery forge? Are you aware that the sky above tolerates nuances and derives its beauty from them? We were already aware that it’s the people who pay the price of political aberration. But to think about the fate of the unfortunate Damak refugees, meant – whether you like it or not –facing up to the insidious question of national identity. National identity again! Some people’s narrow conception of things is a terrible disease that afflicts the world and necrotizes minds. Quick, a vaccination! We know how things end wherever people are slow to react. National identity, when it is defined by the refusal of the Other, becomes a gangrene that must be amputated straight away!
Had the Bhutanese seen the menacing hydra? These sorts of things never happen out of the blue. They are persistent little embers that smolder away, ignored by some, fanned by others, until suddenly, the house is on fire. Those who raise the alarm are seen as scaremongers, although mass ethnic slaughters generally result from “minor” everyday racist incidents. Had the Bhutanese seen the warning signs? At Beldangi, the answer to this question mattered little; in any case, it was already too late for these people. The resettlement program was now their only way of regaining the dignity of citizenship elsewhere in the world. Many of them had already left for far-off lands: the U.S., Canada, Australia, Great Britain, Norway, Denmark, New Zealand or the Netherlands. Of course, some of the refugees were not exactly thrilled by this solution, but the vast majority of those who were languishing in the Damak camps were getting ready to leave. Gradually, the desire to return to a “normal life” began to prevail over the need for roots.
However, I wondered: if some of them took it into their heads to stay, despite everything, what would their future be? The local authorities were already drawing up plans that had no provision for potential recalcitrants: as soon as the camps were dismantled, the Nepalese state planned to reforest the land. Since they didn’t want people, they already knew what to do without them – plant trees. Having seen the luxuriant vegetation around Damak, I hope with all my heart that the grass will be as green wherever the refugees go to start their lives afresh, like bamboo shoots.
While waiting at Beldangi, where the temporary had dragged on for over twenty years, people preserved life hoping to find a horizon towards which they could spread their wings. In a forest area of 124.16 (?) hectares, separated from the town by fallow land and a few paddy fields, 26,829 people were tired of counting the trees, the buffalo and the seasons. In order to make their day-to-day lives more bearable, the devoted UNHCR and NGO staff did their utmost to standardize the chaos, even establishing a proper administration in the makeshift city.
The immense Beldangi camp had 21 sectors divided into 128 sub-sectors whose needs were met by the UNHCR and
Dignity does not only depend on resources, it is first and foremost an intention, a tenacious will that constantly tries to stay at the helm.
its NGO partners (WFP: World Food Program; the IOM: International Organization for Migration; the AMDA: Association of Medical Doctors of Asia; Caritas Nepal, etc.) but the refugees were involved in and contributed to the effectiveness of the support programs. The various sector committees counted 235 members: volunteers elected from among the refugees, who helped run the camp. The awareness of such a level of refugee involvement was a moment when hope triumphed. Yes, dignity does not only depend on resources, it is first and foremost an intention, a tenacious will that constantly tries to stay at the helm. Good sailors are revealed in a storm! The elected refugee volunteers were surely the bravest of the brave. For the human heart must indeed be big for people to help others when they themselves are in need. During the meeting, the Caritas Nepal representative confirmed my feeling.
“We have 52 people working here, plus the refugees,” he said. “You know, they really give it their all. They don’t give up. I am very proud of them.”
In a reassuring voice, the man then explained that at Beldangi, everything was running smoothly and that the refugees liked it there. I told myself that this was wishful thinking and that this was his objective. But, all the same, to my ears, the words, “like it here” when talking about a camp sounded inappropriate, like a preposterous oxymoron. Having perhaps sensed my skepticism, he added with an embarrassed smile, “You know, of the seven camps, the refugees have nicknamed this one “Paradise Camp”– yes, they like it here.”
I knew I would have numerous opportunities to talk with the refugees so I preferred to drop the matter.
“What about those who have already been resettled abroad,” I asked him. “Do you know what’s become of them?”
“Oh, yes! We sometimes hear from them. There too, they cope as best they can. They manage well. I’m very proud of them.”
The entire time he was talking to us about his protégés, his gentle face radiated kindness. Listening to him, I said to myself that supporting and taking care of others was not his job but his way of being part of the world. What was more, everyone in the camp – refugees and young NGO staff alike – affectionately called him “father”. So, proud he was, like a benevolent father who appreciates and encourages his children’s efforts. There was no bleak paternalism, simply the man with his head of white hair who knew that affection is the best refuge for suffering souls; so he generously gave of his to all, even the poor mangrove pelican lost out there at the foot of the mountains.
“Oh, your mountains are beautiful, but they’re so imposing!” I said, one scorching afternoon at Beldangi.
To be certain, for anyone who has lived in Nepal, Senegal’s highest peak is but a mound.
Surrounded by refugees, I had come out with that at the beginning of one of those conversations where you seek, first of all, in the other person’s gaze, that reassuring look that allows you to raise the real questions. While Dipina, the interpreter, translated my platitude, the cowry shells on my forehead jiggled around. Suddenly, the whole room started laughing, and I felt vulnerable: finding yourself in the midst of people whose language you don’t understand can sometimes make you feel as if you’re walking naked in the middle of a fully-clothed crowd. But the delightful Dipina came to my rescue.
“They’re laughing because in Nepal those aren’t mountains, they’re hills, and barely that!”
To be certain, for anyone who has lived in Nepal, Senegal’s highest peak is but a mound. But we are consoled by the softness of the dunes, the mischievous contours of the estuaries, the charm of the tranquil beaches and the chorus of the birds in the mangrove swamps of Gandoune. Dipina summarized my answer for them and they burst out laughing again.
Amid this contagious laughter we talked about their home, my home, the mountains and the sea, yaks, fish and many other things. Overwhelming heat, humidity that would turn a teak moldy – anywhere else, people would complain. And yet, even if the sweat was no more than an ordeal requiring umpteen packets of tissues, no face had lost its smile. The mind, a drifting net, brought back what it pleased and added it to our conversation.
“Where’s Senegal?” asked a girl.
“In Africa! Look, here’s the map of Africa,” I explained, drawing an outline. “It’s there, in the west, you see the Atlantic Ocean –”
“Yes, but we were told you came from France. Are you Senegalese or French?” asked another young woman, looking perplexed.
“Both? But is that possible? My parents told me you have to choose. They were driven out of Bhutan because they had to choose. They were Bhutanese but if they continued to speak our language, to say they were Nepalese, they had to go back to Nepal.”
“Yes, I understand, but it’s different for me, in other words –”
Our conversation continued long into the afternoon, meandering at the whim of the speaker. Exhausted, Dipina was still smiling, but she kept summing up what we were saying more and more succinctly. If she was swallowing all the words that she wasn’t translating, she could skip supper, I thought. My questions about the refugees’ lives were waiting unasked in my notebook, because I was the one being questioned. One of the things I’d dreamed of as a little girl was becoming a journalist and there I was, incapable of taking control of the interview. But it was a valuable learning process; as I left, I had already thought of a trick – next time, I’d ensure that we took turns asking questions: I wasn’t about to let them ruin my childhood dream.
If these ladies were able to make a camp in the middle of the jungle seem like paradise, they could surely teach us all something.
That day, when I left, my notebook contained only a sketched map of Africa. Repeatedly thanking my hosts, I already knew that their faces would haunt my nights for a long time. Our subsequent encounters reinforced this initial impression. Refugees of all ages always seemed happy to stop and chat for a while. Sometimes, I just had to walk through the narrow streets of the camp and a knot of people would gather. And often, it was the children’s joyful curiosity that attracted the adults and transformed the simple customary greetings into lengthy discussions.
Were it not for the underlying tragedy, Beldangi could almost have been a third-world slum, After meeting the lovely Caritas father, I had spoken to the guardian of the refugees’ storeroom, a WFP (World Food Program) manager and the famous “Paradise Camp” still sounded strange to my ears. It was essential to arrange ann interview with a women’s group from the camp. They, the mothers who had no outlet for their culinary skills other than that permitted by their WFP food parcel, would tell me what feasts were really like in their circumstances. Justified or not, the camp’s nickname certainly owed much to their ability to concoct banquets out of what they had. Even in a “normal life”, Eden often seems inaccessible, so, if these ladies were able to make a camp in the middle of the jungle seem like paradise, they could surely teach us all something.