The bitter part of the past cannot be changed. I don’t want to re-think it, but the memories often resurface suddenly. I cannot avoid them.
Today, for some reason, I am reminded of an incident, which occurred in Bhutan. It was November 18, 1989, a winter’s day with a sunny clear sky. It was Saturday and I would work only half a day, to 1pm.
I was alone and busy with official work. At about 11am somebody knocked at the door. I looked up to see two people in the doorway.
“Are you Mr Sharma?” One enquired in a whispering voice.
“Yes I am,” I replied. He entered the Office and tiptoe close. In a single breath, he said; “We are directed by the Chief of Police to take you without delay to the Police Headquarters the Chief wants to talk to you confidentially.
They declined my invitation to sit down. They were acting strangely towards me, they seemed suspicious. I felt that something bad was about to happen. One man stood just inside the room and the other just out side the door. Every now and then they looked anxiously out the window, then to the door, as if they did not want anyone to see them.
Looking back, I believed the situation was planned so that I was left alone in the office. Three of my co-workers, all northern Bhutanese, were out of their offices. The other 11 workers were busy in the next building.
The stranger introduced themselves and showed me their identity cards. “Major and Inspector so & so.” They were Police officers in plain clothes.
“Your work can be done after visiting the Chief. You may face a difficult situation if anybody finds out that we are here.” They insisted that I leave with them immediately, my work unfinished.
Silently I rose, put the office keys on the table and followed them. No body knew that I was taken to the Police Headquarters.
At Headquarters they directed me to a room that was full of various implements used for torture. Terrified, I turned to leave, but in vain. Several people lined up to stop me. I was to sit and wait for the Police Chief to visit me.
The room was dusty and covered with cobwebs. There was no window and no electric light. Light passed only through the entrance door. In the room was a rough surfaced wooden table, a bench and a chair. I sat down on the bench and looked around me, then glanced back at the door. The guards were standing to attention, staring at me without blinking. Their stares filled me with fear.
The room was covered with chastisement tools. Leather whips of different lengths hung on the wall. Different bundles of shackles, handcuffs and thigh pressing vices were spread around the room. Many thorned wooden rods and bamboo punishment sticks of different sizes were lying on the floor. Other implements leant against the walls. Guns and rifles adorned the walls.
I shivered with intense fear. My mind raced, “They may beat me mercilessly with these harrowing tools.” My heart was beating fast, my body felt like jelly. My throat dried up. My head was spinning as if I was dizzy. I was bewildered. I couldn’t move or think clearly.
I waited for a long time for someone to come. I asked the people standing outside the door for a drink of water. One of them nodded as if he would bring one, but he didn’t. Hours passed. Finally an officer entered the room. I stood up out of respect for him. He looked seriously at me from head to toe
“Hmmm… Sit down,” he said. He looked around the room for sometime then said, “Do you know why you have been brought here?”
“No.” I replied honestly.
In a scornful voice he asked, “Do you know what these tools are used for?”
My body quivered. Hairs rose all over my body and I began to sweat. I didn’t understand what he wanted from me. I couldn’t answer him. He kept looking at me, furious. My heart was pounding.
After many minutes of silence he asked politely, “Did you meet Mr.Rizal after he fled the country?”
“Yes, I met him.”
“Why?” His eyes widened, eagerly anticipating my response.
“He is my relative and a friend.” Mr. Rizal was a Royal Councilor and people’s Representative from the South. He had seen through the Government’s slogan of ‘One Nation, One People’ and had petitioned the king to protect the religious, cultural and linguistic traditions of the various ethnic groups in Bhutan. As a result, he was harassed by police, regularly detained and eventually was forced to flee the country. From his self exile in Nepal Mr. Rizal continued to encourage the people to present a similar petition to the Government. Bhutanese agents abducted Mr. Rizal from Nepal. He was tortured and spent the next 11 years in Prison.
“Be careful. Don’t try to hide the fact.” He said, nodding his head slowly. He continued, “Do you know, he is against the Government? What message did he bring for you and your friends?”
I didn’t have an answer to his first question, but I answered his second. He ordered me to write it down. His attendant brought a pen and paper for me and I was left alone.
After about an hour he returned. I gave him my statement and asked to go home. He said that it was not necessary for me to go home as he had enough room for me to stay there. I told him I would like to send a message to my family. He replied in such a way that I nearly fainted. He said,’ you made a notorious mistake meeting Mr. Rizal, and the result is that your family will not be informed of your whereabouts and you shall never get a chance of reunion with your family.”
He left and I was immediately taken to a room in another building with a bed on the floor. Four police guards were in the room with me, their eyes on me constantly. I was prohibited to speak.
That night, as I lay under the guards’ careful watch, I heard heavy boots coming up the stairs. The door opened with a loud bang. The Chief of Police entered and the guards quickly left the room. I was frightened. The Chief ordered me to write a fresh statement, this time adding points he told me to add. I expressed my discomfort at this but the Chief only stared fiercely and warned that, if I wanted to save my life, I should write what he told me to write.
I wanted to add my name to the petition to the Government, but under such coercion my statement expressed the opposite. I was told to write that Mr. Rizal wanted to dethrone the king, take over the country and create a greater Nepal. Further, I had to write that Mr. Rizal had ordered me to organize this in his absence and, if I refuse, Mr. Rizal would kill me. I gave the Chief my ‘statement’ and he left.
For the next two days I had to remain in the room lying down or sitting. I was not allowed to stand, walk around or look out the window. Each night I was locked in the room, with the light on, with four guards. A small can was provided for toileting for the five of us.
Late on the third day, again I heard heavy boots running up the stairs. With a bang the door opened and again the guards ran out. A police officer entered a revolver in his hand. I trembled with fear. He pointed the gun at my head for a while and said, ‘you wretched fellow,’ and stormed out muttering profanities.
Five days later he returned in the same fashion. Holding his gun by his side he spat out, ’Bastard’ and stormed out.
To this day, the memory of these events haunts me.
I learned later that my family wasn’t told my whereabouts until the tenth day of my detention. On that day the police brought me clothes from my house. I was desperately worried about my wife – what had happened to her? How was she coping with my absence?
I was in constant fear, not knowing what would happen to me next. I was never told what my alleged crime was. I couldn’t help thinking of the underground prison I had heard existed in the country where the Government put political prisoners. Their cases never go before a court and the prisoners never leave the gaol. They die inside the prison and their relatives are not told of their deaths. My imagination pictured the worst.
I had many visits from different police officers. Some were very polite and talked with me patiently. Others had cruel faces and uttered dirty words or phrases. It was very hard to hear, and to bear. Each time the door opened with a loud bang, a buzzing noise started in my ears.
Many days passed in this way. The nails in my hands and feet grew long. Once I signaled for a nail cutter. The guard shook his head. I didn’t like being unshaven and my uncombed hair started to matt together. My head itched day and night.
On the 50th day of my detention I was taken from my room to a barber, who cut my hair, beard and nails. I felt neat and tidy – and! I saw four friends. I learned that forty people were arrested with me.
Several days later, one of them was brought to share my room. We weren’t allowed to speak, so we talked eye to eye and by hand signal when guard’s eyes were diverted. The chance of communicating in this way brought me some happiness, but didn’t last long. My friend was released after 15 days. Again I was alone, in lonely silence with my guards. In the depressing silence of the room with nothing to read, nothing to write with and no means of communicating with any one, I felt extremely alone and daily more depressed.
Three months after my arrest, I and six others taken to the Police Chief. He said that Druk Gyalpo, His Majesty the King, had generously granted us amnesty and we would be released. We signed a bond, the conditions of which were that we weren’t to speak with more than three people at once, we weren’t to go to a gathering place, move from one town to another or leave our village.
I was driven by vehicle to my house. I found it had been locked by the owner. A neighbor told me that my wife and children left for our hometown in the south. It was cold and becoming dark. I asked a friend if I could stay with him. He refused, saying that the government would punish him if he allowed me in. Desperate I walked to a relative’s who responded the same way.
Having sat down for three months, walking was painful. Also, my treatment in those months caused me to lose some of my hearing. Dazed and with difficulty, I walked to another friend’s house who welcomed me. I thanked to him.
The next day I went to my Office and was told to report to Head Office. There I was informed that by order of the Minister my employment was terminated. I was extremely upset at this news and I left the Office feeling desperate. I went to the bank and found my account had been forfeited. I went to the insurance company, to find my benefit also forfeited. I was also denied my shares in the Cement Industry. How to say? I had lost all I had ever earned.
I also lost many family and friends. Rumor had spread that if anyone was found talking to people who had been detained, they would be arrested and imprisoned. Only a few close friends dared to say hello. My movements were monitored and I was to report to the police every week.
A few months after returning home, with my wife and children a census was conducted in the village. My wife’s National Identity Card, which proved her Bhutanese Citizenship, was confiscated. She and my children became non-citizens in their own birthplace. I became very nervous.
Soon I learned that those, like myself, who were given amnesty by the king, were being arrested and tortured. I was faced with a horrifying decision – to stay or to leave my country. I knew that whatever I chose, I had a dark future. Finally, the deteriorating situation in the country forced my hand.
When my wife, children and I left our motherland, everything we owned fit in a small plastic bag.
Oh! My birth land, I don’t have any mischief on you. I bow my head to the land of my heart.
I left the beloved land with tears in my eyes and sorrows in my heart. I left my country and journeyed towards an unknown destination and an uncertain future.
I lost my self-respect and dignity. I lost all of my belongings. I lost the country of my birth. I lost my enjoyment and happiness.
(The writer, who was born in 1954 in Samtse district and a former employee at Royal Insurance Corporation and Food Corporation of Bhutan, his wife Indira and their children spent 17 years in a refugee camp in Nepal before coming to Tasmania in 2008 as refugee. They are now rebuilding their lives and enjoying being part of an inclusive community).
Editor’s note: This story was published in a magazine of Tasmania, Australia in, The Tasmanian Style issue 4 July 2012.