I was reluctantly shocked at the sight of my uncle and one of my cousins at the Yangchenphug High School gate in the early morning of December 16, 1991. Generally, a feeling of excitement or happiness should have showed up on my face, but to my despair, nothing like that happened. Instead, I felt stiff, numb, dull and nervous at their sight. Poor me! What a way to look at things! But was it my fault? No, absolutely not. I was made to see things that way—meaning—to look at somebody with a suspicious eye. I had fear and suspicion for sure but my love, respect, responsibility and morale presided on top of everything. With the type of news and happenings going on the south during that time – which I eventually realized that most of them were false and self made to create misunderstanding among the people – any body would have felt uncomfortable in this situation. I was no different. Several things ran into my mind in a fraction of second but quickly settled down and I walked nearer to break the silence.
“Namaste Kaka”, I greeted. “Namaste,” he replied. He looked nervous. Without having much of the conversation, he looked too eager to tell me something – and honestly, this frightened me. “What brought you here”? “You seemed to have walked all the way to Thimphu, right”? I asked. “Yes! We came all the way from Dorona walking through the mountains but we came for a reason,” he replied. “Reason”? “What reason”? I asked in astonishment. He then started narrating the incidents that were going on the southern districts. I was dumfounded by his words and the sequences of happenings, if those were to be true. I got lost, could not perceive what was going on and above all, wasn’t ready to accept that my parents had to forcefully sign the migration form. None of the events he had narrated so far ever appeared in Kuensel (as that was the only mouth piece that time)- rather it always talked about the sprouting of some anti national terrorist groups and the government’s attempt to give peace to the public. What hunted me more was the fact that the common people in the north honestly did not have a clue of what was going on in the south.
While I was listening to my uncle’s story, my subconscious mind started flying with lost hopes of despair; I could clearly realize my future distorting and my mind went blank for a couple of minutes. I collected strength and started talking again. I tried from my end to convince them to withdraw the form, but the type of situation they were in –that does not need a mention here – I think I was too young to understand the depth of it. I finally decided to leave everything and join my family – who was leaving the country. We set the date, for it could not be before the 18th of December, as it took some time for my transition and more over I was leaving permanently my school, friends, teachers and all the Bhutanese from that place. The feeling of oneness, the touch, the affection, the love and the emotional attachments with the “place” were the most terrible ones in terms of separation. It wasn’t easy to bid farewell to these things. A mere hand shake or a hug wasn’t sufficient for these, as it was with friends and teachers.
Like all other previous years, the 17th day of December started with the same parade, the same atmosphere and same sound of drums from the school captain. While I had half of my concentration towards all these, the other half was restless. I was emotionally disturbed. I decided to have a chat with a couple of the Nepali speaking folks, and guess what! None of them were fully concentrating on the event. To differ, they had their own reason to loose the concentration. Whether they were in the middle of a parade, middle of the crowd or at the corner of the ground, they had their ears wide opened to catch a voice from the BBS (Bhutan Broadcasting Corporation) that would have said “His Majesty the King granted pardon to ‘so many’ detainees”. This had become a normal routine foe the past couple of years. By half past noon, the function was over and I went to my dormitory. A little exhausted, I tuned in my radio and lied on my bed.
I got up so quick as if I was going to be late for a big opportunity in my life. I found myself surrounded by a bunch of friends, all keeping their ears opened and waiting for the clock to strike 3 pm. I did not know how long they were there but no one disturbed me while I was asleep.
Finally the much awaited news came. 153 detainees were released that day. It now remained to see whether there was anybody from my village who I could possibly take home with me. I packed up everything I could carry and decided to spend a night with my friend at his house. While I was only in the corridor, another friend of mine came rushing, as if the whole earth has fallen on him. “What is the matter? Why are you panicking so much”? I asked. He stuttered, “th…ther…there…There are a couple of people outside the gate, dressed in rugs, carrying plastic bags and bare footed, th..the..they say that they want to see you”. “Ok! Calm down, Dear! Are you sure they are looking for me”, I lamented. “You come along, I will show you,” he said. He dragged me literally. I stared at the group. My friend described them correctly. Not just a couple but there were seven of them, all released detainees belonging to my village, showing agony on their face, looking for me with a deep trust that I could be their only rescue now. Honestly I was petrified at the scene, but stood firm so that their confidence didn’t lose.
I did not mean to disregard any body in the group, but naturally; yet obviously my attention focused on one tall man – a more elderly person than the rest of the group. I couldn’t recognize him until I was very close to him – that he was my great uncle (kaka Hajurba). He almost fell to the ground when I told him that his elder brother (my grand father) passed away about six months ago. For 18 months he was kept completely aloof from his family members, jailed and tortured.
No one had a clue as to why he was detained. More than anything else, I had a huge task ahead to be accomplished. Everyone is happy that they are out of the hell, that they can breath the fresh air, they can see their dear and near ones, they can live with them forever. No one was even bothered to think about how they will reach home, not even where they were going to sleep that night. There was no way I could have adjusted all of these people in the hostel – rather I wouldn’t be allowed to do so, and any one’s house could have been equally risky either. So we all decided to spend the night in a bus station. It was not easy for me, but the rest slept well as they were now free of hand-cuffs, chains, and the police officers. My plan to spend the night with my friend didn’t come true, but I didn’t regret it at all.
As decided, my uncle and cousin arrived in the bus station at 7 am and this was on the 18th of December. We were now a team of ten, seven detainees and three of us. The first move was to leave Thimphu as it was risky and expensive to further our stay there. Risky for ex prisoners – that they would be detained again if they were found wandering around Thimphu. With no other choice remaining, we hired a taxi up to Chimmakoti. We bought some food to eat. It remained to see and calculate how much money we had in common. We weren’t surprised to find out that it was way too insufficient to buy bus tickets for all of us. We prepared ourselves physically and mentally to cross those series of mountains walking. It was a challenge but definitely doable. The three of us had no problems, but the detainees had a physically tougher time crossing the green yak pastures and the mountains. It was during this journey that the stories of kidnappings, killings, tortures and rapes were told to me. I do not know how many thoughts of revenge crisscrossed my mind, but there was nothing I could do about it.
On the first day, we could not walk too much. After about an hour leaving the motor road, we sat down on the bank of a small spring and decided to have some lunch there. I collected the firewood, my cousin got some water and uncle lit the fire. We cooked some rice and some vegetables – what ever we had with us- and sat down in a circle to eat. We all enjoyed the food and sat there for another hour just chatting. More than just to chat, the detainees had a tough time after the food as they were not used to healthy eating for a long time, so we had to take some rest. I do not know how many starred restaurants and hotels I went after that in my life, but I haven’t had a privilege to eat that delicious lunch ever.
(Based in the USA, the author can be reached at: santi[email protected])