It was past midnight, the 22nd of November 1990. I was sleeping with my children at home. Suddenly, I was woken up by the sound of banging on my door. When I opened the door, I was chilled to see my husband, Hom Nath Gautam and step son, Deo Dutta Gautam in handcuffs arrested by Major Chachu, accompanied by a dozen policemen. They were arrested from our own cattle farm, located at a distance from home, where they were sleeping for the night. Major Chachu said that my husband and son were being taken for questioning to the police station and would be sent back home the next day.
They were taken to Goshi High School, which was converted into detention-centre-cum-army-barrack. I was not allowed to see my husband and son while they were in detention. I got the information about my husband, only after Mani Prasad Ghimirey was released from the detention centre, where my husband was kept.
According to Mani Prasad, my husband was interrogated regarding the donation made to the Bhutan People’s Party. Out of extreme fear and weakness, he could not answer promptly to what had been asked. The army began to kick him randomly and mercilessly with their boots. When he denied the allegation of donation, he was made to squat on the floor and was hit on his neck and shoulder. When he continued to deny the allegation, he was further beaten with a wooden baton and whipped until he began to bleed. Then, the police hung him by his legs from the hook in the ceiling. He was hung for the second time – even when he was bleeding from his nose.
Thereafter, beating with wooden batons, whipping, clamping and electrocuting became a routine. He was usually tortured at midnight. The most common practice was to clamp his thighs with wooden poles, while policemen stood at the far ends of the pole and jumped. It often resulted in losing consciousness out of extreme pain and bleeding. Once he regained consciousness, he was beaten again. After 12 days Deo Dutta returned home, but my husband continued to be detained.
After three months of continuous torture, he was taken to Damphu, an adjacent district, where he was kept overnight and tortured again before transferring to Chemgang jail, near the Capital, Thimphu. At Damphu, he had already lost control of his urinary bladder and rectum. He began to vomit blood and pass blood through stool. While in Chemgang, my husband was given very little food to eat and made to do heavy work – like carrying stones and constructing the prison house without any rest. They were whipped and ordered to run down the slope with heavy iron shackles. Due to continuous torture in Chemgang, he began to bleed heavily and completely lost his appetite. Yet, he was not given any medical attention but was compelled to work and was tortured as usual. When his health aggravated further, his friends requested the prison authority and he was admitted in Thimphu hospital. I was never let to know about his deteriorating health condition.
Back in the village, I worked hard to bring up my children all alone. My eldest son Chitra was 10 yrs; daughter Dhan Maya – 8 yrs; son Mohan – 6 yrs; daughter Khaga Maya – 4 yrs and youngest son Khem was 2 yrs old. The story of torture of my husband, narrated by his prison inmates, made me cry all day and night. I often used to hide or hold my tears back, fearing that my children would be distressed.
Few months after my husband’s arrest, the army began to patrol the Emirey village especially at night. Each day became a nightmare for the women and children, for all adult males were either in prison or had fled the village fearing arrest. My children were afraid of the sight of the army in uniform and they used to cry and run away. The village headman, Lok Nath Bajgain, had shifted his office to the army barrack housed in Goshi School. He used to circulate the orders received from Home Ministry to evict people from the village. The army came every day and asked for chickens or goats to take for free. Although I had supplied them with rice and dairy products, I refused to give away my two goats which I had rearing for several years. Despite of my repeated requests, the army ultimately took away the goats without paying for them. The villagers were forced to meet all the expenses of the army in the barrack.
Even after one year of my husband’s arrest, I was still unclear about his whereabouts. One day the district council member, Mukti Nath Chamlagain, came with some army men and asked me to fill up a ‘voluntary migration form’ to leave Bhutan. He said that my husband would be released as soon as the form is filled and deposited in the district office. I signed the form with the hope that I would get my husband back soon. Mukti Nath told me to come to the block office at Emirey the next day to take photograph with my husband. But as I reached the block office, there was Mukti Nath with a squad of army waiting to take my picture. Mukti Nath said that unless I get my photograph taken to complete the process to leave Bhutan, my husband would have to bear continuous torture and would never be released. I insisted that unless he was released, I alone would not be in a position to handle the kids and leave Bhutan. I told them clearly that only my husband would decide what we would do next. They tried all possible ways to get my photograph taken, but I kept on insisting that I would do it only with my husband. At one point, I met the village headman who said that I would not have to fill up the form. If I leave Bhutan, my husband would be released. It was unexpected, but this gave me some hope.
Once again, Mukti Nath came to my house with army men and told me to be ready for the photograph. As I refused again, an army officer pressed a gun on my head and said, ‘If you leave Bhutan, your husband will accompany you at the gate (at Indo-Bhutan border)’. However, I gathered some courage and said, “You called me several times to the block office assuring me that I would see my husband – but he is never there. So now, how can I be sure whether I will find my husband or you (army) at that gate?” The officer got angry and hit me with the butt of his rifle. I collapsed immediately and fell on the ground and hit a big stone with my back, and my head struck against a peeple tree. I became unconscious. When I regained my conscious, the army had left.
One day, we got a notice from block office to report immediately. Accompanied by another woman, whose husband too was in jail, I reached the block office. Again, we were led to the same army squad and were asked to complete the form by letting them to take our photographs. Pestered by continuous mental torture, I shouted at them saying – ‘Bring our children right here and kill us together instead of calling and lying time and again or else, take us to where our husbands are’. Fortunately, the village headman, heard it and told us to go back home.
The village was haunted. In the night, the army heavily patrolled the area. I could never go out even for a nature’s call, while the children used to do it in the house itself. Every minute, we feared of being arrested, beaten or sexually abused. The worst of all, Emirey residents had to send their girls and women, according to a circular sent through the village headman, to the army barrack at night. As far as I can recall, at least eight girls and women, one of whom was only 13 years old, fell prey to such a routine. Most of them were married, whose husbands were either in jail or had left the village. One of them returned only after a week from the barrack. I too narrowly escaped the routine!
As I received a call to attend the army at the barrack, the assistant village headman used his wit to save me. As planned, I carried two of my five children and whisked away to hide in nearby shade, where straw was stored for the cattle, while he slept at the courtyard of my house with his friend. At night, around 10 pm, the army came and inquired why they failed to send me to the barrack. The assistant headman said, “We have been waiting for her to come in, but she hasn’t been around here. We’ll wait for her till morning and when she comes in, we’ll bring her to the barrack’. The army was convinced and went away. As the army would return tomorrow, the assistant village headman said that he would not be able to save me next time risking his own life. The next day, he also read out a letter sent from the district office that if I failed to leave the house the army would set it on fire.
Following this, I had no option than to leave the house where I had spent almost half of my life with my husband and where my children were born and were growing up. That day, I neatly cleaned the house, set the cattle free, lit the evening lamp, and left home before nightfall, leaving all doors open.
I carried my youngest son on my back and kept walking, with other children, until I reached my relative’s house in another village. I stayed there for one month with them. However, my relatives constantly feared that the army would come to know about me and they would have to face severe consequences for sheltering me. So I left that house too and sheltered at the house of another relative at another village. I carried a pair of clothes each for my children and nothing more. While staying in my new shelter, I again received a letter from the district office calling me to complete the voluntary migration form. I ignored three such letters.
Then one day I received a message that my husband was released. I was also told that he was sick and was in the care of Mani Prasad Ghimirey. With my children, I rushed to see him and reached there in the evening. However, when we reached the village and met my husband, he was struggling on his death bed. He could not eat or drink anything. When we lost hope of his survival, we decided to perform Baitarni (a religious ritual performed for one’s easy exit from the physical world). After 13 days, he passed away in his relative’s home. The well wishers and relatives in village gathered for his funeral. While his corpse was being tied to the coffin, a letter was received from the district administrator office which required me to report to his office immediately to complete the voluntary migration form.
Traditionally, a wife would mourn the death of her husband for 13 days, confined in a room, cooking on her own, isolated from the people around, except from underage children. But due to reasons of insecurity, I began to mourn his death, in the courtyard of Mani Prasad Ghimirey, who had already left the house following threats. In the freezing winter, only with a piece of white wrapper on my body, I spent seven days with my children.
When Mani Prasad sent one Adhikari escort, I set out with him for another village called Alekatahare. I carried my youngest son, Khem on my back, tied a white piece of cloth on my waist and walked with my children for the whole day. We had nothing to eat or drink. After walking for few hours, my four years old daughter was exhausted and could walk no more. So I carried her on my shoulder and kept walking without rest. Since I had refused to take photograph to complete the voluntary migration form, there was constant fear of being arrested or shot by the patrolling army. A dark cave, in the middle of the forest became our shelter for that night. It was a dreadful cave and my children were scared of snakes. But, it was safe as we would be hidden from the patrolling army. The escort shared a little of his beaten rice. We had to walk for one more day to reach Alekatahare on foot. The next day too, we carried out the similar journey hiding from security forces and spies. We found a cow shed by the evening where we spent that night amongst the hip of straw. We ate the remaining bitten rice for dinner.
The next day, we reached Alekatahare, where Mani Prasad was preparing to flee to India. He was waiting to rescue me, after I completed the 13 days mourning for my husband. When we reached Alekatahare, I still had two days left to complete the mourning. At Alekatahare, villagers helped me by collecting necessary materials to perform the final ritual of mourning on the 13th day.
After completing the final ritual, we had to flee from the village as soon as possible. I neither had money nor any other resources. And I did not have any knowledge as to where we were heading to. In the next few days we reached Kali Khola, a place near the Indian border. Mani Prasad made all arrangements, including the fare, for his family and mine to flee from Bhutan. We waited in the open lawn for three days before we boarded an Indian Truck at 6 am to flee from Bhutan – eventually reaching the refugee camp in eastern Nepal.
(As published in “Refugees from the Land of Gross National Happiness” by Bhutanese Advocacy Forum- Europe. Pabitra Gautam shared this story with Ichha Poudel and Jogen Gazmere.)
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