On September 25th 1990, a large number of people gathered around the Dzong, the district headquarters, and demonstrated for two consecutive days calling for the lift of the ban on Bhutanese Nepalese culture. When the enforcement of the dress code continued into our Dashain festival, the Bhutanese Nepalese became disconcerted. That day, the Dzongda, chief district officer, informed the mass gathered outside the Dzong that the King would respond to the appeal by 4th of October 1990.
On the 4th of October, amidst Dashain, many of us carried our food (rice and meat) packed in cloth, walked to the Dzong at Damphu wearing our traditional clothes, anticipating just and positive proclamation from the King. We danced and sang in front of the Dzong and the wait continued. At about midnight the Dzongda reappeared and said that the King was unable to give a prompt reply, and added that we should go home or else they would open fire, as per the order of the King. The people were panic stricken. Speechless, we began to retreat home. The next day, Radio Bhutan, claimed that Bhutanese Nepalese had come to the Dzong at Damphu threatening to attack, with small packs of explosives. All we could do was to be dumbfounded the way the government alleged our packs of rice and meat as explosives.
On the 28th of October, 1990, the army came in trucks to collect books, stationeries and other properties from the school at nearby Lamidada. The villagers dissuaded the seizure and tried to convince the officials that their children required those materials to study. But they opened fire, killing four of them, Pema Tamang, Ghuwan Singh Khadka, Tikaram Adhikari and Devnarayan Adhikari. Their corpses were never returned. This was the starting point of the use of bullets.
On the 30th July 1991, while I was sleeping in my front yard, 12 soldiers stepped in and asked for me. My wife, who noticed the soldiers coming in, came to my rescue. She said that there was another person by the same name in Damphu who was politically active. But the army carried with them a list of names and said they were looking for a person with my name living at the address I was in. I was arrested and handcuffed, and asked to direct them to my neighbour’s house, who was also arrested.
My wife followed me as I was being taken by the army. The army Major tried to convince her to stay behind, but she adamantly followed. They promised her that I won’t be beaten but only be interrogated. Eventually, she went back home. I was taken to the school at Damphu, which was converted into a jail. I was taken into a dark room and the Deputy Superintendent of Police (DSP) took my statement. I stated that I had donated Nu.50 when I was asked to and that I had participated only in the gathering of the 4th of October 1990, when everyone was celebrating Dashain and waiting for King’s response to the appeal.
Chimmy Drukpa, the officer responsible for the torture of individuals from Chirang, Damphu, Dagapela and Kalikhola, walked into the room and began to punch and kick. He hit with sticks to force me confess things which I did not do or know or make me say yes to what he demanded me to tell. There can be no reckoning of the beatings that occurred thereafter. He was the most insane person I had ever seen. He used to order us to fight with each other, or beat a friend of ours with bamboo sticks. If I were not to comply and not hit my friend as hard as I could have, he would mercilessly beat me and demonstrate how to hit. A person died right in front of our eyes beaten to death by his helpless mate. We were also forced to do bullfight and clash and collide each others’ heads. Routinely, they would climb on our backs and make us crawl on our knees and elbows. They would jump on us like herdsmen and expect us to gallop like animals, on our knees and elbows. Tin pots were supplied to pass urine and stool in the detention cell. Sometimes, they would tie the tin pot full of faeces around our neck like locket in a necklace and make us crawl on our knees. The food we were given were either rotten or full of stones or unhusked rice or damped with kerosene or with excessive salt. And of course the beatings were regular.
There were 105 prisoners at the Damphu jail. The jailers began to threaten us, that if we wanted to stay in Bhutan then our prison term would prolong, or alternatively we could opt to leave the country. When I was asked what I wanted to do, I used to answer, that as three generations of my family had lived on the same land, why should I leave the country, when I haven’t done anything wrong? Enraged with my answer, they use to beat me heavily with sticks or intimidate me showing a piece of hot iron to change my statement and leave the country.
Out of 105, 24 prison inmates were released after they signed Voluntary Migration Forms, to leave Bhutan permanently. The rest of us were transferred to Chemgang prison near the capital, Thimphu. We were taken to Chemgang in trucks and all inmates were shackled and tied with each other using handcuffs. Throughout our journey we were made to stand in the vehicles. It was dark when we reached the prison. As a custom, we were welcomed at the gate, with a thrashing by around 50 policemen, blindly charging us with sticks and clubs.
In this prison, we had to get up at 5 am in the morning, and recite mantras of the Drukpas. Then they would make us roll in our rooms from one end to the other. If we were unable to roll, then thrashing followed. At 6 am they would give us dry, and slightly heated wheat flour, with some water to drink. For lunch there was pathetic rice and thin soup without vegetables.
In Chemgang I was put into a hard labour of constructing three prison houses. In my frail conditions, I had to lift 8 kg hammer to break and carry huge boulders from 6am to 11am in the morning and 1pm to 5pm in the evening (10 hours a day). There was one policeman per prison inmate. And if any inmate slowed down a bit during work hours, policeman would heavily charge the inmate with sticks and hasten him to work.
In the freezing winter of the north, police officials would dump us into bone-chilling ice water, for half-an-hour and then make us jump to warm ourselves up. In such prison condition, I never thought I would survive. There were so many unreported deaths. In fact falling sick meant death – for medical care was not provided.
On the 30th of March, 1992, I was released along with 272 other prisoners. Before our release the head of Centre Jail, Major Kipchu, gave us a lengthy speech, trying to justify our arrest and the treatment in the prison. We did not have money to go home, neither were the jailers prepared to give any. Many walked their way home. I managed to get some money from acquaintance and travelled via Wangdi, and eventually walked from Damphu to my village.
When I reached home, my wife broke down and my younger son ran away horrified by my look and condition. I had a long beard, swollen face, brownish broken teeth and skinny structure. Anyway, I had survived my prison term and reunited with my family, when I least expected. For my treatment, the hospital was closed and all I could do was depend on herbal medicine that my wife prepared for me. Soon I was working on my land again, growing the crops, may not be with the same vigour and exuberance – but I did.
A year later, there was a call from the Army barrack, for Sektoleme, a form of conscript labour. But this time, they called specifically women, to offer a helping hand in cleaning, cooking and gardening in the army barrack. My wife was set to go. When she was about to leave, my neighbours came to my house and bursting into tears recounted their awful experience in the barrack – including rape by police and army.
My wife was worried. I didn’t let her go. I decided to go in place of her. On the dusty road other villagers and I were walking together. A jeep came down the muddy road. It stopped just next to me and Chimmy, the torturer, popped his head out and queried sternly – “Haven’t you left the country yet? Where are you going?” I replied for what I was going for. Immediately, he spoke through his walkie-talkie with someone and then ordered me to get into the jeep.
I was re-arrested and detained in Damphu jail. In a dark room, Chhimy made me stand while he sat and spoke with the same arrogance. Two men stood behind him with guns. He sprang up and asked, me “Why haven’t you left the country yet?” I said, “I was born here, I grew up here, I haven’t done anything wrong against the King, why should I leave”. He then asked, “To whom does this country belong?” I answered, “To everyone who lives here”. He said, “You don’t understand. Whose country is this?” After a pause, pointing to his chest, showing his ethnic Drukpa dress, he said, “To us.” He further said – “Do you remember, the way we killed Dharma Raj Gurung? We could kill you in the same way, and no one will ever know about it”. “Now, tell me, do you want to die or leave this country?” I said, “Both options are ok, with me, if dying for this country or leaving this country is good for my children, I am ready to do any.” He became infuriated and repeated the question and asked me to think again.
I thought I didn’t want to die. So I agreed to leave Bhutan with my family. Though, I tenaciously hung around my village for over a month in anticipation, that the ban on Bhutanese Nepalese culture would be lifted anytime soon. But the Police knew most of us in person, so they grew anxious about me. The day eventually came when they personally called us to the Police Station, forced us to sign Voluntary Migration Forms. We were wearing Drukpa dress. They made us to stand in front of the camera, asked us to smile and took two polaroid pictures. I still have one of those pictures in my dairy. I was supposed to be given a compensation of Nu. 10,000. The police officer handed over to me only Nu. 2500 and put rest of the money in his pocket. On 6th June 1993, I was forced to leave Bhutan, ending up with my family in the camp in Nepal.
(As published in “Refugees from the Land of Gross National Happiness” by Bhutanese Advocacy Forum- Europe. Dahal shared this story with Avishek Gazmere and Jogen Gazmere in South Australia.)
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