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Last Updated: Thursday, 29 November 2007, 14:38 GMT
Bhutan refugees speak through art
Charles Haviland
BBC News, Kathmandu

Basudev Osti with a carving by a refugee
The exhibition allows the young people to share their experiences

Young people from the Bhutanese refugee population in Nepal have staged an exhibition in Kathmandu to demonstrate their art and photography skills and highlight their difficulties.

Basudev Osti, Rinchin Tamang and Rebika Bhandari, all aged 17, have grown up in the seven camps that are home to more than 100,000 refugees in south-east Nepal.

They have no memories of Bhutan, as their families came here around 1990 after the Bhutanese government stripped them of their citizenship or forced them out because of their protests against new nationalistic regulations.

The refugees are almost entirely Nepali-speakers who lived in the south of the reclusive Buddhist kingdom.

Bhutan has not admitted a single one back.

Gopal Rai, 22, does remember a little of Bhutan. "There are images in front of me," he told the BBC.

"Rivers near our house. The homes of my relatives. Sceneries, our own fields and properties. It was nice and I don't want to forget it."

Sensitive issues

Their present or recent involvement in the Bhutanese Refugee Children Forum (BRCF), a group run by people under 18 for the benefit of all 37,000 refugee children, has given them strength amid the general desperation of refugee life.

Picture by a young teenager
The Forum has taught young people new artistic skills

The most striking exhibits are the young people's oil paintings, a skill they have learnt through the Forum.

A four-panelled picture by one young teenager starkly depicts various violent incidents in the refugees' lives.

There is a recent clash between refugees and the Nepal Army, and a conflict between camp-dwellers and local people which erupted when refugees tried to collect firewood.

There is also a standoff with the Indian army who prevented refugees from entering India in a bid to return to Bhutan - and a picture of some boarding a plane to emigrate to Canada, which has been crossed out, indicating that this refugee child will only be satisfied with a return to Bhutan.

That whole issue is highly sensitive.

A small number of the refugees wanting to return to Bhutan have been threatening or using violence on people considering moving to a new country.

Tensions are rising as the United States is poised to admit 60,000 who choose to go there.

The young people I met said they did not have a view on the possibility of settling in new countries and it was up to their guardians to decide.

'Close and crowded'

In another picture a dragon - the symbol of Bhutan - envelops a map of the country which is bleeding; refugees are depicted fleeing and a figure representing "Mother Bhutan" weeps.

Amit Subba with his picture of the refugee camp
The exhibitors have lived in the camps for most of their lives

Another large picture simply depicts the condition of the camps, which stand in teak forests - "close and crowded", as artist Amit Subba puts it.

Rice from the World Food Programme is unloaded; food is cooked via solar panels which do not function on dull days; kerosene rationed at just one litre per family per month is distributed.

There are also some striking photographs, and handicrafts for which the refugees are seeking sales outlets.

"Legally we can't sell them in the local market - but we do sell things, bending the law," says BRCF programme coordinator Indra Timsina.

And there is a film, shot by the young people, which doesn't shy away from politics.

It reconstructs incidents the young people have heard about from their parents including Bhutanese army victimisation of Nepali-speaking families.

Harsh conditions

Five refugees including Gopal Rai (second left), Amit Subba (centre), Rebika Bhandari (far right)
I'm sure my future will be bright - if I go back to Bhutan. If I stay here I don't think it will be bright

Gopal Rai, second left

The young people told the BBC about their lives.

Basudev Osti described camp life as "very miserable. I cannot meet my aim - rules and regulations obstruct us."

Three members of his family do unofficial teaching work, each earning 900 rupees ($13) per month.

His mother is very sick, and he gives tuition to children to help subsidise his studies in a school outside the camp.

Rebika Bhandari says her father was jailed in Bhutan for giving support to the southern Bhutanese campaign against the authorities.

She says camp life is "too difficult" but that her life has been transformed by the Children Forum, which has trained her in photography, acting and music.

Now she does voluntary work in schools.

Since getting to Nepal, Gopal Rai's family life has been difficult. Three of his siblings have died, his widowed mother has married twice more and his uncles have been his guardians.

But he echoes praise for the Forum, which has taught him skills in acting and sports. Others have had journalism training.


"I'm sure my future will be bright - if I go back to Bhutan," he says. "If I stay here I don't think it will be bright."

The overriding message from the young refugees was that they wanted the international community to support and listen to them.

In the words of one message posted on the wall: "Will the time come for refugees to call a place 'my home' instead of 'my hut'? If so, when?"

Country profile: Bhutan
03 Aug 07 |  Country profiles
UNHCR warning on Bhutan refugees
10 Sep 05 |  South Asia
Despair of Nepal's unwanted exiles
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