Tuesday, January 1, 2008

From Bhutan to Norway: A sorry saga

Source: The Kathmandu Post

Seventeen years back, Sukumaya Rai, now 32, was a happy woman. Just married to the man of her choice, she was comfortable with what she had: A loving husband, a piece of land, and a small herd of cattle. And she hardly thought of anything beyond her village, cloistered in Simche district, southern Bhutan.

"Life was beautiful back then," she recalls. But fate had other things in store for Sukumaya, now a mother of five.

After spending 17-odd years as a refugee at Beldangi, Jhapa district, Sukumaya is taking a giant step in her life on January 7-- She will fly to Norway to start a new life.

The Office of UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) listed her family as vulnerable and made arrangements for her resettlement in Norway. Accompanying her on the journey are her five children -- three daughters and two sons aged six to 16 years.

As the day for her departure nears, Sukumaya is anxious about this journey into the largely unknown and at the same time she feels weighed down by memories of a brutal past, more so now than ever.

The most traumatic experience of her life was the eviction of her family from Bhutan in one of the worst instances of ethnic cleansing in the sub-continent. It shattered her world and her life then went gradually into a downward spiral.

As the Druk regime stepped up a reign of terror on the Nepali speaking population, her husband fled to India, leaving her behind pregnant.

Sukumaya too joined a refugee caravan to neighboring India one wintry night in 1991, to escape persecution. After spending six months in West Bengal, she ended up in the refugee camp in Jhapa where she was reunited with her husband.

But it wasn't a happy ending. Actually, it turned out to be the beginning of new suffering. "Little did I know then that harsher days were still ahead of me," she recalls.

She gave birth to four more children in quick succession at the refugee camp. Her world crumbled once again when her husband abandoned her, for no apparent reason, and started to live with another woman. The worse was yet to come: One of her daughters, who was six at the time, was raped in the camp.

When asked if she would be comfortable in an alien land, she said she was not sure. "But I am taking the decision for the sake of my children.

Most important years of my life have been wasted in the refugee camp and I don't want the same thing to happen to my children."

She recalled how happy she was the day UNHCR officials told her that the Norwegian government was ready to welcome her in Norway.

Sukumaya, who has studied up to grade three, is happy that she has been promised education for her children, a job for herself and citizenship for the family after three years.

She is beginning her new journey with fond memories of happier days. "The smell of cardamom, cattle, grass, the soil and water of my village still linger in my nostrils," she remembers. To go back to Bhutan and see her village just once again is the 'most cherished' dream of her life, something that may never come true.

Sukumaya's is the third Bhutanese refugee family headed to Norway for resettlement.

There are 105,000 refugees at the seven UNHCR-run camps in Jhapa and Morang districts. Some refugee families recognized as vulnerable have already settled in third countries. The rest are awaiting resettlement in western countries, including the United States.

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