Unfolding the recurring tale
At some point, unfolding a long-concealed untold story might sound fictitious in nature to some of us, if not all. The fact, however, divulges one that the ‘injustice and truths can never be suppressed forever.’ The destinations of our ‘family air-plane’ have taken several twists-and-turns—obviously it might continue to take the similar pace even in future for the ‘pilot’ has lost his life at no fault.
Once on a chilly-cold Himalayan winter day at the Bhutan-China border in Haa, our father late Mr. Ichha Ram Koirala, the then Peljab (corporal) of the Royal Bhutan Army (RBA) had to lead a team of the army personnel to assess the Chinese incursion of Bhutanese land. He met a battalion of the Peoples’ Liberation Army (PLA) consisting two hundred men that was stationed right at the border following the Sino-Indian War of 1962. With at least 15 RBA personnel under his command, he managed to initiate a friendly dialogue with the PLA commanders, and returned to the RBA barrack in Haa to inform the top officials about the PLA’s presence and concerns at the border front.
Acting on the clues, the RBA higher authority immediately deployed a battalion of around 250 soldiers to maintain vigilance over the PLA’s activities at the border. Our late father was one of the soldiers who was then deployed to carry on the vigilance tasks. Fortunately, no any skirmishes occurred between the PLA and the RBA despite the fact that the relationship between India and China were highly stressed during the time.
Later, our father’s faithfulness and excellence in his duties was honored with the promotion to the eluded position of Dimpon Gom (Warrant Officer). The third king, Jigme Dorjee Wangchuck adorned him with a prestigious medal during the coronation of the fourth king, Jigme Singye Wangchuck. He was then transferred to the Royal Bhutan Guards (RBG), an elite branch of the armed forces responsible for the security of the King, the Royal family and other VIPs. Thus, he started serving the royal government as a bodyguard of members of the royal family members including the fourth king himself.
Our father had joined the RBA in 1960, and retired at the age of 45 in 1980. He spent his post-job life as a farmer—involving with the cultivation of food and cash crops such as the orange and cardamom—at the Dhanesay village under Beteni block in Chirang Bhutan.
It was in the summer in 1990 that our father was coerced to an unknown destination by a group of four men who claimed to be the cadres of Bhutan Peoples’ Party (BPP). We were completely unaware whether he was actually being kidnapped. Our mother, looking deeply traumatized, told us that our father might not return from the BPP camp—as it was a common say that time.
Having lived in this ‘not-yet-known-location’ for almost 15 days, our father returned home with some ominous tales. He astonished us with his story that he could flee the BPP-run camp in Garganda, India. It was learnt that he was kidnapped probably because he did not pay any heed to the BPP’s demand to get involved in the going-to-be launched mass demonstrations.
He looked utterly dismayed and perplexed as he planned to get out of the tough situations. The lack of security and chaotic environment was escalating in our village during the time. He hesitantly decided to become a cattle herder, and spend secured life in the forests fostering a herd of cows and buffalos. He planned to switch to this life style solely to avoid abduction by the BPP activists and possible arrest by the government agents. He took eldest daughter Lila and the son Hari to assist him in goth (cattle herding). His strategy might have been also to protect his grown-up children from possible coercion both from the RBA and BPP sides.
In October 1990, the village Karbari (administrator) informed our mother that around 105 RBA-men were preparing to raid our village in order to arrest whoever in the village was suspected to have been sympathizing or supporting the BPP-led democratic movement. Since our father was an ex-military person, soon the soldiers thoroughly raided our house, doubting that he could have been a good fighter for the BPP.
RBA captain, Chimi Dorjee who appeared to be leading the search team, kick-opened the front door of our house, and commanded all of the occupants to step outside. Our mother rushed outside guiding four of her daughters: Hema (8), Dil (6), Pabi (4) and Nara (2) to move along with her. However, our grandmother who was then suffering with immobility due to paralysis got left inside. Captain Chimi was mad at her, thinking she was not paying heed to his command. He pounded upon her body and hit her on head with the butt of the rifle. She at once got unconscious and fell prey to the assault. We still have the fresh memory of our grandma bathing in blood due to hard-hit assault on her body.
Our mother was utterly nervous and frightened by the situation enveloping our house. Her sincere attempts to rescue our grandmother went on vain. Adding to her fears, Chimi came outside pointing a pistol at her.
“Where is your husband?”
She shrugged to show her ignorance about her husband’s whereabouts. She intentionally, as she reveals it now, didn’t want to disclose her husband’s whereabouts as she was aware of the facts that many male members of her village were arrested and severely tortured in the detention center simply for no reasons.
He then turned towards us and asked us at the top of his voice.
“Where is your father?”
When we expressed our ignorance about father’s whereabouts, he was severely dismayed. He held us by his arm, lifted us up and threw us to the floor. We cried and begged pardon as we repeatedly pleaded that we truly did not know where our father was. He mocked at our humble pleas for excuse and expressed absolute disbelief. He threatened to punish us further if we continue to cry or keep maintaining our ignorance about his whereabouts. All of us were in sheer dilemma. Our mother was in a sea-saw position—whether to disclose her husband’s location, or to continue facing the brutalities.
Chimi then turned back to our mother and slapped hard on her face. He grabbed her hair and kicked her on chest laying her down to the floor flat. He then repeatedly kicked her on head, chest, among other parts of the body. Later, when she had just regained consciousness, the soldiers handcuffed her and took her away from home.
She recalls that they marched her to Dhanesay School, which was then turned into a temporary prison. Our elder sister Lila said she saw mother being dragged by the soldiers and she ran away to escape fear, while she was on her way home from our goth.
The temporarily established prison, according to our mom, was full of male members of our village and she was the only female held captive. She had to not only share room with the male inmates, but also the open “bucket-toilet”. The descriptions of the prison—crowded rooms, unhygienic foods, male inmates crying, the inhumanely practiced different methods of mental and physical tortures, among others, now might sound more like untrue to most of us.
After hearing the news of mother’s arrest, our father, who turned lip-less headed straight to the army barrack from the forest and told them about his job life and service to the royal government of Bhutan for twenty years, shared feelings with the raged army officers, and also assured them that he was not in any way involved in the anti-government movement. To his sheer dismay, however, they arrested him and released mother consequently the same day.
Even her love towards her husband could not hold mother there any longer; she was terrified and felt helpless. The RBA officials were very rude to the captives, and turned down any pleas for help or consideration. She must have been preoccupied with tension worrying about conditions of children and mother-in-law at home. She came home distressed and confused. When she reached home she was taken aback by disappearance of her jewelry and money, and grandmother’s deteriorating health was an even bigger burden to her.
Grandma was completely bed-ridden with pain resulting from the army officer’s assault. Her face was badly swollen up, and she was still profusely bleeding from the wound. The mother had too many things to take care of. We, the children were left to helplessly cry and starve when mother was arrested. Our mother acted bold and tried to get over all the messes at home, and restore the normalcy. The situation was very challenging to all of us.
It was not only our family that was suffering, but every family in our village was affected equally. Indeed, the atmosphere in the entire village was terrorized, at some point. All the adult male members of our village were either chased away, or arrested. Their spouses and other family members gossiped that their relatives were arrested without any warrants or justifiable reasons. They were arrested with the vague allegations that they were involved in the BPP programs.
The arrestees were released after few months, but a few weeks later all the families were summoned to a meeting and asked to sign a form and then they were instructed to move out of country within the given time frame. They were forced to sign what was called a Voluntary Migration Form (VMF). Our parents said the chief district administrator (Dzongda of Chirang) was himself involved all the time in making the people sign the VMF, and in opting necessary procedure to make eviction a grand success.
The people were not allowed to question the district administration on anything. They were compelled to do nothing but take the orders and pack up. Our family was not included in the first batch that was processed for the migration. At one point, at that time we were the only family in the middle of our large village with six small children and a seriously ailing elderly woman at home. By then our father had been incarcerated for about 16 months. Dasho Dzongda (district head) of Chirang informed us time and again that if we wished to migrate away from Bhutan, then we would soon see our father released from the prison.
Down and depressed, and anger and agony hitting our minds in turns, we left our village with no any idea as to where we would land up, and what our future would be like. Moreover, we had a sense of fear as to if our father would be released. Mother planned the departure with our uncle’s family, and we were to walk two entire days to make it to the Indo-Bhutan border. We bid goodbye to our beloved village in the middle of a night. Mother made this horrible choice for our family with the mere hope that our father would be released from the prison.
It was a very wearisome ‘adventure’ to the entire family, in particular to us (children) for we were too young to judge things from political aspects. Each one of us carried a bagful of clothes, and parents had some utensils as well. We did not stop on the way for cooking; we just depended upon some dry food that we had stuffed in our bags for the way. The biting sorrow coming from the pain of leaving home and birthplace was already making us feel sick. Above all, we suddenly discovered that our sister Pabi (4) was left behind in the middle of the forest. We did not know how that happened. We were emotionally paralyzed by the situation. We decided to hurry back the trail in search for her. Luckily, a neighbor that was walking behind us saw her and the parents were bringing her along carefully.
We consider ourselves lucky that we made to the border without facing casualties on the way. It was a terrible journey, but the physical stress was not bothering us any more. After we arrived at the Mudhey, a small Indian town at the border, the police helped us reserve a truck to travel to Nepal. We cried and cursed Bhutan government for being unkind to us. We sorrowfully looked at Bhutan as long as we could, as long as the hills were on our sight.
Our father joined us in the camps in Nepal immediately after we had reached there. It was later learnt that he was suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Although he was undergoing medication for the PTSD at the Center for Victims of Torture (CIVICT)- Nepal, he was psychologically too weak and traumatized due to inhuman torture in Bhutanese jail. Eventually, he ended up taking his own life in 2007 at the Beldangi-II refugee camp.
We now only wish that many of such Ichha Ram (s), if were alive until today, would have made significant differences for the regime tortured, killed, or paralyzed them physically and mentally due to their potentialities—that now would certainly explore the government’s brutalities more evidently.
The physical absence of our ‘family airplane’s’ pilot, though mentally and emotionally would mean a lot to us (more to our mom), does not mean the call for true democracy in Bhutan ended-up.
Some aspects/analysis in the piece are touched-base on the real story narrated by our mother Dikura Koirala.
(The authors-brother and sister by relation- are the Bhutanese first year under graduate students at the Georgia Perimeter College. Opinion or facts & figures reflected in the piece are writers’ own, not of BNS).