A mother’s frantic hope for reunion

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Soma Wati in her daughter's house in Charlotte, NC. Photo/TP Mishra.

Left arm rested on top of the head. A skinny body, obviously frail, side-back leaned against a couch. Her eyes brimmed with tears, about to trickle down. She stares, clearly appearing to be in a pensive mood.

Soma Wati in her daughter's house in Charlotte, NC. Photo/TP Mishra.
Soma Wati in her daughter’s house in Charlotte, NC. Photo/TP Mishra.

Soma Wati Acharya, now in her late 60s, stands up to greet this writer and quickly sits back on the couch again. She has deteriorating health conditions. Her blood pressure level has remained high for the last 15 years. She has some other health-related concerns too.

The past week, she flew little over 1,000 miles—from Dallas, Texas to Charlotte, North Carolina—accompanied by her grandson to visit her youngest daughter.

Soma Wati is quite excited to see her daughter after a long interval. This excitement, as she points, does not heal the mental stress she has to go through everyday. Her youngest son, Shanti Ram Acharya continues to serve time behind the bars in Bhutanese jail— known as torture chamber until recent past, for the last seven years.

As the interview continues, she almost broke to tears this time. Soma Wati quickly rubs her eyes, says that not a single day has passed by without thinking about Shanti Ram since the time he was imprisoned in their home country, Bhutan.

“I can tell you [journalists] and the world that my son is not a ‘terrorist’ as accused by the Bhutanese government,” says Soma Wati. “He is framed.”

Soma Wati (R) talks to her daughter in Charlotte, NC. Photo/TP Mishra.
Soma Wati (R) talks to her daughter in Charlotte, NC. Photo/TP Mishra.

After a pause for few minutes, Soma Wati inhales a deep breath, recalls her last three-day meeting with Shanti Ram in presence of prison guards in Chemgang central jail. The meeting took place in the fall of 2010, a year prior she made her way to the United States for permanent settlement through the ongoing resettlement program.

The family discussed about Shanti Ram’s status with the UN’s refugee agency during their oversees resettlement process back in Nepal, Soma Wati tells it. In return, the agency assured her that Shanti Ram would be eligible for resettlement after his release from the jail.

“As he is an innocent victim, I am very hopeful that they will resettle him in an expedited way so that I will have a reunion with my son.”

I am very thankful, she says, to the New Delhi chapter of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) that arranged the meeting.

“Now, do not ask me how I felt or what we talked about during the meeting,” she says. Soma Wati goes on to add that she becomes so very emotional to talk about it.

According to the court documents, Shanti Ram carried out ‘criminal and subversive activities against the Tsa-Wa-Sum’ under the Penal Code of Bhutan 2004. Then in his early 20s, the royal army arrested him on January 16, 2007 in Tashilakha under Chhuka district, South West Bhutan.

“This is sheer false accusation,” defends Soma Wati, who at the time becomes unable to hold back her tears.

A copy of Jagaran Fortnightly (in the background) with Shanti Ram's name in the byline. Source/Becoming a Journalist in Exile.
A copy of the Bhutan Jagaran Fortnightly (in the background) with Shanti Ram’s name in the byline. Source/Becoming a Journalist in Exile.

Since the time Shanti Ram’s family members knew about his arrest, they have been maintaining that he went to Bhutan from the refugee camps in Nepal to visit their relatives.

“He [Shanti Ram] was never affiliated to underground armed outfit as claimed by the Bhutan army,” told Devi Charan Acharya, one of the brothers of the victim, days after his arrest. Devi was talking to a Bhutan News Service-run radio program.

Stating that he was indeed a journalist associated with The Bhutan Reporter, a refugee-run monthly newspaper and the Bhutan Jagaran Fortnightly, the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) including several other international human rights organizations called for the leniency for Acharya. 

In 2007, Devi Charan had said to Bhutan News Service that neither his family received any official information from the government side about his brother’s arrest, nor did it called the family members during any of the court hearings.

The Bhutanese judiciary system was highly politicized and under government control prior the country’s first national assembly election in the spring of 2008. Many national and international human rights organizations, therefore, condemned and had shown serious concerns towards Shanti Ram’s right to a fair trial in 2007.

“I am pretty certain that he was severely tortured and forced to confess to the charges clamped on him,” says his mother.

The mid-July 2014 will mark the end of his seven years and six months imprisonment term spelled out to him by the Bhutanese court.

Based in Minnesota, Thakur Kharel, nephew of Shanti Ram, pens a letter to be sent to his uncle in Chemgang Central jail. Photo/Indira Kharel.
Based in Minnesota, Thakur Kharel, nephew of Shanti Ram, pens a letter to be sent to his uncle in Chemgang Central jail. Photo/Indira.

One of the other sisters of Shanti Ram based in Saint Paul, Minnesota thinks it will be too early to make a ruling about his release even after the completion of the jail term. “But I am very positive,” she adds.  

Shanti Ram’s mother, who now lives more than 8,000 miles away from her son’s location, fears as to whether she will ever have the opportunity to see him again.

I have heard, Soma Wati tells it, that many positive things have taken place in Bhutan in recent days. “My hope for reunion with my youngest son will continue anyway.”

Editor’s note: Click here to read the letters sent by Shanti Ram from Chemgang central jail to his sister in Minnesota. Bhuwan Gautam, Rup Pokhrel and Ramesh Gautam translated the main essence of these letters.

The former chief editor and one of the current contributing editors of this news agency, Mishra is a senior student pursuing an undergrad degree in International Studies with area concentration in Human Rights and Conflict at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. The writer blogs at www.tpmishra.com and can be reached via his Facebook page.

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A father, husband, public speaker, and a freelancer, Mr. Mishra returns to this news portal as the Executive Editor after he had served in the same capacity for nearly three years in the recent past. Born in Dagana, Bhutan and raised in the refugee camp in Nepal, Mishra’s entry into journalism began as early as 2002, and he has been volunteering in the area since then.

Mr. Mishra worked as a special correspondent for The Bhutan Reporter (TBR) Monthly for a few years in the early-mid 2000s. Later, he became Editor at the same newspaper, and also served as the Chief Editor of TBR for two years. He is one of the founder members of Bhutan News Service (BNS), where he started serving as Editor (2006-2009), and later Chief Editor (2009-2011).

Mr. Mishra also served as one of the main hosts of the radio program, Saranarthi Sarokar (translates to ‘Refugee Concern’ in English) in one of the local FM stations in Kathmandu, Nepal from 2007 through 2009. As a host of the program, he interviewed dozens of high-profile Nepalese and Bhutanese politicians, academicians, social and community leaders, including foreign diplomats then based in Kathmandu and Jhapa, Nepal.

Aside from his reporting work while in Kathmandu, Mr. Mishra also got involved in other philanthropic work, and helped needy refugees. Mr. Mishra led two donation campaigns through the lobby in Kathmandu among fellow Bhutanese refugees and supported fire victims in the refugee camp in the eastern part of the country. Mr. Mishra also directly assisted dozens of sick patients with various illnesses from the refugee camps in Jhapa to get their appropriate treatment in Kathmandu-based hospitals at a discounted rate and/or free of cost.

Mr. Mishra has appeared in various national, regional and international publications including the Wall Street Journal, Aljazeera America, Explore Parts Unknown, Global Post, Himal Southasian, among dozens of other media outlets with articles aimed at advocating the Bhutanese refugee issue. The New York Times, BBC, Guardian Weekly, among many others have featured Mishra’s work. Mr. Mishra has also written articles extensively reflecting the state of ‘freedom of speech & expression in Bhutan.’

Mr. Mishra is also the author of a handbook called Becoming a Journalist in Exile.

Mr. Mishra is the recipient of two awards—one by the Bhutan Press Union (2006), and the other by the Organization of Bhutanese Communities in America (2011) for his contributions in the related field. Founder President of the Bhutan Chapter of the Third World Media Network (2006-2012), Mishra has also represented Bhutan in various regional and national-level trainings and seminars on media freedom while during his stay in Nepal.

Mr. Mishra holds his first Bachelor’s degree in Journalism and Mass Communication from the Purbanchal University in Nepal, and the second Bachelor’s degree in International Studies from the University of North Carolina at Charlotte.