I have been in Bel City

Speech ter gelegenheid van 10 jaar Bhutaanse gemeenschap in Nederland

Before you stands an outsider. At least, considering the colour of my skin and the place I was born. Or so it seems. But to some extend – I’m not an outsider. And I doubt if anyone who considers the connection between the peoples of the earth can ever be an outsider.

In 2010 my mother died after decades of illness. And since my father had died 9 years earlier I ended up being an orphan. As much as there was grieve, there also were a strange feeling of liberation and a mounting discomfort with the world I lived in. In ‚The West’ people seemed to take things like peace, freedom and equality for granted, but I did not. I did not because of the live I’ve lived so far, being a representative for an oppressed group in my own community. And I did not take freedom and equality for granted because of my upbringing.

In my defining years my parents told me extensively about the war they had to endure. Both of them being evicted with their large families from their homes in Scheveningen, near The Hague. In 1942, during the second year of World War II the Germans threw them out, making my parents refugees in their own city. My father’s family went to another part of the city that got bombed by accident in 1945, my mother was ‚evacuated’ as it was euphemistically named to the former Jewish quarter of The Hague where the Germans had started to execute the Holocaust. My father was only 11 years old, my mother only 9. The experience changed their lives and defined my upbringing. After my mother’s death in 2010 it took me a couple of months to decide to leave my world and start volunteering elsewhere for an undefined time.

One month later – I think it was August 2010 – I was watching television and saw a man at Schiphol airport welcoming his fellow countrymen who seemed excited to arrive in the Netherlands, the country I so desperately wanted to leave. They came from Bhutan, a country I only knew as some sort of Shangri-La that embraced ecology and gross national happiness as a means to define quality of life. These people however were refugees and I didn’t understand why and why I had never heard about their decades long ordeal. So I researched and the man on TV appeared to have a restaurant in The Hague, my then home town. I contacted him to make an appointment to talk about my volunteering plans in Nepal. He invited me to meet him.

Ram Karki told me about his life and the fate of his people. He told me about camps in Nepal I had never heard of, about UNHCR, donating countries and the stream of Bhutanese soon to be relocated elsewhere on the globe. In the end leaving me, as a writer, with two options: be grateful for the meeting and continue life or catch the story that Ram had given me and make an effort to tell the world what the heck was going on in the so picturesque Himalayas. I chose the latter.

Six months later, in February 2011 our plane (I brought two friends with me on that first journey) landed at Thribuvan Airport in Kathmandu and I met some brave people who worked as journalists in the Jhapa and Mechi districts of Nepal, where at that time seven refugee camps were located. Within a couple of days they guided me to Beldangi II. On the day of arrival at the barrier at the entry my life changed as I was confronted with people that had taken refuge from Bhutan and fled to the camps and youngsters who had never lived in Bhutan but where born in those camps without becoming a Nepalese citizen in spite of being born on Nepalese soil. I had never been in a refugee camp. There were men with machine guns and batons, dressed in uniform, guarding them. I visited the Beldangi and Sanishare camps, interviewed people and tried to assess the possibility to film a documentary or write a book about what I had witnessed. Then I returned to the Netherlands with the intention to come back in six months. Only a month later a great fire destroyed most of Goldhap camp and within weeks I was back in Nepal, this time alone but with some funds to help. Together with the young men from Bhutan News Service and BRAIN we brought some aid to Goldhap Camp and thanks to them I was able to interview scholars, journalists and politicians, both Nepali and Bhutanese. I interviewed the honourable Dr. Bampa Rai, Tek Nath Rizal (whose story has had a major impact on my thinking of Bhutan) and many, many others. I wrote some articles for the Kathmandu Post, started a blog, educated youngsters at Beldangi in citizen journalism, visited schools in the area, attended a wedding for a couple of days, travelled to Pokhara and Chitwan and filmed and photographed anything I could.

After a couple of months I spend a month on a mountain near Nagarkot to write ‚Headwind, Laxmi’s Story’, my first serious attempt to novel writing and I composed UNFORGOTTEN a photo book that shows ordinary life in the Bhutanese refugee camps. I even edited a couple of trailers for the documentary. Then I returned to the camps, lived in Sangam Chowk on the Chhetri-farm for a couple of months while interviewing more people and writing down everything I found relevant. I interviewed a young female Maoist woman living in one of the camps, talked to a group of undocumented Bhutanese women who were on hunger strike, and talked and interviewed and talked and filmed and took it all in. The monsoon passed and then I returned to the Netherlands again for 6 weeks.

Later that year I was back in Nepal, this time to visit Goldhap after it was dismantled, visited the other camps, went to the Mechi River and into Sikkim to experience a country similar and close to Bhutan. An article I wrote was published online in Bhutan and I was threatened because of it, I got blacklisted in Bhutan so I could n travel there and was attacked by some Bhutanese on the internet who bluntly denied the ethnic cleansing that had happened decades earlier. I was interviewed on radio in Damak, talked to a historian in Kathmandu who explained the historical background and the causes of the ethnic cleansing in Bhutan. And then, early 2012, I returned to the Netherlands with a bleeding heart and a visa that had passed it’s due date. I could not stay, I have children here. I wasn’t allowed to stay any longer, but I did not want to return to cold and monotone Europe.

In 2012 the novel and photo book got published and I exhibited photos from the camps in major venues in the Netherlands like the Dom church in Utrecht and the St. Bavo in Haarlem. And then I finally returned to my own culture writing a novel about an entirely different topic. After years of work I recently publish two novels last year, a poetry bundle in the year before and there’s lots of new work in the pipeline. I am after all a novelist. Not a film-maker, not a refugee, not a Bhutanese. The documentary was never finished.

Ram and I kept in touch and I followed the developments regarding the UNHCR third country resettlement that I now find a disputable project that never should have existed. I do have a strong opinion that the international community has let the Lotshampa’s down. In stead of third country resettlement the international community should have pressured the Bhutanese government and king to allow the people to return to Bhutan peacefully and safe. But that has not happened, so I welcome the fact that you my friends are now my fellow countrymen and -women. I truly hope that my country has proven to be welcoming to you, although I know that in some areas we must have failed you dearly. I continue to hope that the current or future king of Bhutan will finally give in. Or that history may judge them for their crimes.

Perhaps I continue to be an outsider. But less so than ten years ago. I carry all the people I met in and near the camps in my heart: the young and hopeful journalists of the Bhutan News Service, Vidhyapati Mishra, Arati Chhetri’s family I lived with near Beldangi, Binod Dungel the journalist from Kathmandu, the elderly in the camps, the old man at the river bank breaking stones, the girl with her two little children while being a child herself, the girls that danced and sang, the volleyball team I joined that late afternoon in Goldhap, the camp manager in Beldangi who didn’t seem to grasp what the postcard from Holland showed (flower bulbs and windmills), the mid-aged couple who showed me their Bhutanese land ownership papers, tax slips, passports and ID’s, the schoolchildren making their exams and playing at the Tri-Ratna school, the man from the Beldangi bicycle shop, the football team who played at the field near the gate, the youngsters from BRAIN, Dr. Bampa Rai who I respect so much, the honourable father Amal Raj from Caritas in Damak, the people at Timai camp, Sanischare camp, Goldhap camp and Khudnabari camp, the bus stop at Bangay Bazar and the young drivers who helped me, the Armed Police Force at the gate who were also there when we distributed aid after the Goldhap and Sanishare fires, the hunger strikers, the handicapped in the crafts workshop near the kindergarten and even the goats behind some of the huts.

I honestly think I am not really an outsider any more now, as I’m very proud to be able to say that I’ve been in Bel City. So, namaste, my dear friends and thank you for being part of my life. I wish you all well.

Alice Verheij, februari 2019

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