Bhutanese refugees in Nepal? As if I didn’t already have enough moss gathering in my brain, the editor-in-chief of Arte Reportage had to come and put this tough question into my thoughts.
I knew nothing about Bhutan and not much more about Nepal. So putting the two in a single sentence, in which the word “refugees” added to its mystery like an awning, I figured that only an excess dose of Alsatian Gewurztraminer could have inspired an idea like that. That man shouldn’t be allowed any more wine for the next hundred years!
“We would like to send you to Nepal,” he said with the optimism of a fisherman sure of his catch.
It would have taken the speed of a carp to dodge his net.
“To Nepal?” I echoed.
He was waiting for my reply, and I experienced the same thrill of curiosity that you feel when you are on the edge of a precipice.
31 August 2013: 26,829 Bhutanese refugees at the Beldangi camp, according to a report by the UNHCR, or United Nations Refugee Agency, the numbers coldly set out in five boxes, broken down by age and gender. It is disturbing enough to see a first name without knowing what a person looks like, but even more distressing to have numbers and descriptions of people about whom we know nothing at all. Babies, children, adolescents, adults, the elderly – more than an age scale, it was the arrow of life pointing towards a destination that no one was in a hurry to reach, even if everyone fantasizes about it according to their beliefs. But in a refugee camp, who or what can people still believe in? Doesn’t faith dry up along with hope? Confronted with the harshness of existence at such an early age, aren’t the children of Beldangi already older than their parents? In their situation, do they still have the innocence to believe in stories? My head buzzed with questions for days.
In all, 26,829 refugees! Who were they? What language did they speak?
In all, 26,829 refugees! Who were they? What language did they speak? How could they be recognized? How old was refugee 26,102 exactly? Did she wear make-up? I hope so, because generally speaking, when women stop putting on make-up, it means that life has lost its color. What about refugee 25,201, what was his name? Did he have a beard? Did he still worry about what women thought of him? I hoped so, because when a man no longer worries about what a woman thinks of him, he can quickly turn into a brute. Had the women and men of Beldangi clung on to enough hope to murmur to each other all those lies tinted by love that make life bearable? Did they sing lullabies to their children? In other words, how did they live? Did they suffer from sleeplessness? How was it possible not to when they spent day after day burying their dreams in a camp. Insomnia must have been the only way of avoiding nightmare
The Bhutanese refugees, in Nepal, at Damak . . . Since the names of these places had lodged in my mind, their echo kept me awake at nights. But was I entitled to sleep peacefully while others lay mulling over their lives in a camp? The Bhutanese refugees – and it was my mind that could find no refuge. I needed voices, gazes, faces to match against the UNHCR figures, so that these figures would become individual people. So, the trip to Nepal? Yes, of course. There are people who are fearless enough to travel to the moon, so why not to Nepal?
But if I don’t come back with the serenity of a Buddhist, I thought, I’d slip some ants into Mr. Editor-in-Chief’s ears to make him share the inconvenience of this constant questioning, since he threw a bone into my witch’s cauldron – as if there wasn’t enough trouble brewing in it already!
My departure day arrived. Late summer sunshine. Others were still lazing around in their swimsuits, ogling the loungers across from them; I would gladly have shared their holiday mood were it not for that bungee-jumping feeling. As I rolled my wheelie case through Roissy-Charles De Gaulle, my thoughts had already left France. The body always lags behind the mind. A metal monster spat out its cargo on the tarmac at Doha, and from there the constant stream of transit passengers would swell and disperse across the world. In the vast terminals, people stretched, eyed each other and avoided contact. After so many hours of sitting hunched up, you have to stretch your legs without treading on the toes of others who are even more tired than you are. In the midst of this hive of activity, the tapping of heels was a distraction from the announcements streaming over the PA system, but gave no clue as to the reasons for each person’s journey. But, it was safe to say that the crowd was made up of two main groups – those leaving and those returning. But how can you tell the difference? I soon gave up trying, as that got me nowhere. Why chase butterflies with a lasso, when there are mustangs! I had enough questions concerning my own journey to keep me occupied while I was waiting.
Leaving or returning? A mundane matter for someone who has a valid passport in his pocket, but a huge privilege in
Leaving or returning? A mundane matter for someone who has a valid passport in his pocket, but a huge privilege in the eyes of a refugee.
the eyes of a refugee. And besides, what meaning do those words have when spoken within the confines of a camp? I would ask the refugees themselves, I promised to myself as I contemplated the teeming, colorfully dressed crowds. Gazes met as passengers scrutinized the flight indicator boards. Calf muscles were beginning to stiffen when a cajoling voice was heard speaking the language of Her Majesty, international marketing. Translation: “Passengers for flight Qatar Air 352, destination —” The crowd stirred, and so did I. It’s extraordinary how gregarious people become in an airport! Here, the shepherd didn’t need his crook; the sheep obediently followed one after another. In the queue, a sudden doubt. Am I in the right line? The ground steward’s automatic words and smile reassured me: Have a nice trip! Thank you, um… thank you! And then, dammit I thought, I wasn’t suckled at Shakespeare’s breast like you! So for the pleasure of it, I said thank you in my Serer mother tongue: Diokandial! Why should I always be the one to have to switch languages, from Serer to Wolof, from Wolof to French, from French to English? Coming from a non-dominant country means embracing a career as a linguist, unless you want to be cut off from the world.
In Damak, I mused, it was a Nepalese interpreter who would pay the price of linguistic imperialism. As I thought of the hundreds of questions that I would be putting to her in my rusty English, I wondered whether she would have the energy left to translate the answers. Generally, interpreters trim speeches down to the bare bones, leaving out all the metaphors and polite phrases. Since conversations need a little oiling to preserve courtesy, especially when people don’t know each other, I hoped that in Damak the amount of pruning wouldn’t be too radical.
The Nepali dictionary in my bag had only had one word in it, easily replaced by a smile – “Namaste”, meaning hello, which I would constantly bestow on everyone, a reiterative greeting which is impossible to say when someone else is speaking in your place. I was absorbed in linguistic equations when the pilot revved up the engine and we left Doha and its teeming airport. Direction Kathmandu! This legendary hippy destination would have made me think of a psychedelic vacation if the file carefully packed away in my bag contained documents other than the ones I had, which precluded any respite. The UNHCR reports described in clinical detail the tenuous threads that kept the Bhutanese refugees clinging to life. The rations revived their bodies, and if they were not sufficient, the refugees could always be given a drip or a transfusion: medicine is not short of tricks since its mission is to defy death. But what rations, what remedies can save a person when it is their soul that buckles down on bended knees? How long can a person survive and remain sane when their daily life is dependent on humanitarian aid?
I still hadn’t found an answer to these questions when we touched down at Kathmandu airport, which in comparison made that of Doha seem even more gigantic. While waiting for my connecting flight to Bhadrapur, I gazed around me. Aching all over, my body close to failing, I pondered the names of the various airline companies above the ticket desks. Agni Air, Tara Air meant little to me, but as I didn’t know where Yeti Air might take me, I reckoned I was lucky to be continuing my onward journey with Buddha Air. Crossing the sky under the auspices of a god might not make any difference, but it was more reassuring than setting off for the unknown with the abominable snowman. Flying makes even the most rational person superstitious; sometimes, when turbulence stretches your nerves to the limit, you see people praying to a god they’ve never believed in. Humans claim to be superior to all mammals, but we are only at peace when walking around on terra firma. Yeti or not, only dry land is natural to us, and all other means of transportation simply a question of resignation. After so many hours of stoicism, I set down my suitcase in Damak with the relief of someone emerging from a deep sleep. And yet I was still a long way from my goal.
Meeting refugees means, first of all, coming up against the constraints imposed on freedom, as they do. An undesirable guest, frustration awaited me. Having reached Damak late in the day, I had to wait before I could see the people I had come to meet. The camps close at 5 p.m. and no one is allowed in or out at night. I knew that before making the trip out there, but imagining the ocean has never prevented seasickness. Although silent, rebellion, mixed with the hot, humid air of Damak, was flaring its nostrils. Oh for a glass of water! The camps close at 5 p.m.! And my eyes were darting everywhere like billiard balls. But hush! No point wagging your tongue when there’s nothing to be done. Another glass of water. Hmm, breathe deeply, breathe, and get a grip on things. But how many glasses of iced water does it take to douse a brain on fire? Something was banging ceaselessly against my temples. The camps close at 5 p.m.! They’re not cattle pens, after all! Security, security, they tell me. Fine!
Taking refuge is not simply a matter of saving one’s life; it also involves the risk of slowly losing it by submitting.
But who are they protecting with their security? The refugees or the Nepalis? So refugees the world over are excluded from all the activities that generally take place in the evening. “In their precarious situation, they can’t afford theatre tickets or eating in restaurants in the city,” the pragmatists would probably argue. But, in spite of everything, the refugees might want to enjoy the sweetness of a simple nocturnal stroll. Life doesn’t stop at nightfall and people don’t only go out to whoop it up! It must be the local authorities who don’t want their voters to be bothered by intruders. What would the refugees do at night if they were allowed the freedom to come out of the corner of forest where the bamboo hedges form a day–long barrier to their desires? Maybe nothing so very different from what the local people do. But this mistrust, everywhere this same unbearable mistrust of the foreigner, a presumed chicken thief, a supposed barbarian, serves to enclose the circle of the native community’s stupidity. In this century where good communication is worthy of a medal, everyone claims they are civilized, asserts open-mindedness as heroic, considering intolerance as an anathema and the exclusive preserve of others. There are CCTV cameras in the streets, when what many of us need is a mirror. Everywhere, the superiority complex and shameful acts associated with it continue to make humans a millstone around the neck of their fellow beings. And to think that Hobbes dared to insult wolves, even though they will never become quite as ingenious as humans when it comes to oppression. Taking refuge is not simply a matter of saving one’s life; it also involves the risk of slowly losing it by submitting. The camps close at 5 p.m.! Not even a peasant woman eking out a pittance by keeping chickens imposes such a strict regime on her birds. The camps close at 5 p.m.! And nobody sees anything wrong with that. Routine makes what is unacceptable less shocking.
But let us imagine people forced to remain within the confines of a camp from 5 p.m. on and not allowed to go out again until the following morning, every single day of the year. Let us imagine what happens to dignity, pride, and willpower, when any enthusiasm that may exist is thwarted by a fence. Let us imagine the lack of comfort in their shelters, the crowded conditions that fray tempers and test patience in the huts. What remains of couples, of families, after so many years of being penned in?
My first evening in Damak, the mosquito net was absolutely perfect, but it couldn’t keep out the thoughts that
How did thousands of them lose their status of citizens and end up stateless?
swarmed in and bit the places that even the most persistent mosquitoes couldn’t reach. Unpleasant thoughts always take their toll on us. Since the brain has no off switch, the slightest thing sets it in motion again. As I picked up the jug by my bed to pour some water to wash down an antimalarial pill, the following question floated before me: did they have drinking water in the camps? What about showers: did they have decent bathrooms? Fortunately, I was so exhausted by my journey that it eventually overcame my curiosity and I fell into a deep sleep. In my dream, there were people playing music, very loud; others were dismantling a camp; children were jumping about, running, scattering, laughing boisterously. What would people have said to me if I’d told them about my dream? It doesn’t matter. It was a lovely dream and I had had an invigorating rest.
The next day, I was going to meet representatives from the UNHCR and NGOs working at the Beldangi Refugee Camp. Curious to find out about their activities in the field, I was ready to gather any information they were prepared to give me: on health, food, education, lodging, the camp’s future – I was interested in everything, especially the vast overseas resettlement program that was already underway. But, before approaching this huge issue, I had to understand the tragic chain of events that had sealed the fate of so many people. So it was my intention to ask the officials some of the questions which they themselves had to ask the hapless souls who presented themselves to them in the hope of obtaining refugee status. What had happened to these Bhutanese? Coming from a country that boasts of its people’s wellbeing, how did thousands of them lose their status of citizens and end up stateless?