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Last Updated: Tuesday, 22 January 2008, 16:24 GMT
Violence haunts Bhutan's refugees
By Harriet Grant
BBC World Service in Nepal

Refugees in Bhutan (Pic: Jasleen Sethi)
The refugees arrived in Nepal after being stripped of their nationality (Pic: Jasleen Sethi)
The first of more than 100,000 Bhutanese refugees who have spent the last 17 years living in camps in Nepal are to leave for the US later this month - but those they leave behind are experiencing intimidation and violence.

The refugees are ethnic Nepalese forced out of Bhutan in the 1990s by the government, which was concerned with the rising influence of a sizeable Hindu minority in the Buddhist country.

Bhutan and Nepal have been at loggerheads ever since over how to solve the problem. The refugees have now been presented with the option of resettlement abroad - with 60,000 being given the opportunity to live in the US.

But this has caused divisions among the refugees, with supporters of the move threatened with intimidation and violence.

Mahindra - not his real name - told BBC World Service's The World Today programme how a mob of 40 people came to his hut armed with knives, calling him an American agent.

"My mum was dragged to the ground; my clothes were torn, ripped up with knives," he said.

"They did this because I support resettlement to America."

Slave rumours

Mahindra added that he was himself only 11 years old when he was forced to leave Bhutan; now he has a nine-year-old child.

Woman with goitre (Pic: Jasleen Sethi)
Some of the refugees need care for diseases such as goitre (Pic: Jasleen Sethi)
"I don't want to spoil the life of my children," he said.

"So I say, let refugees decide their own fate and destiny."

Mahindra is based at Beldangi Refugee Camp, home to some 20,000 refugees. There, the children sing about returning to a motherland they have never seen - Bhutan.

And many feel it will spell the death of their dream to return home if the refugees accept a move abroad.

As a result, a number of rumours are spread - that the flights out are to various extents a trick, with some people believing they will be used as slave labour on arrival in the US.

Reports back

Tek Nath Rijal, the self-appointed leader of the Bhutanese refugees, is an outspoken critic of resettlement.

International food aid at the Bhutan refugee camps (Pic: Jasleen Sethi)
The refugees have survived entirely on international aid for 17 years (Pic: Jasleen Sethi)
He denied any sense of responsibility for what happened to Mahindra, saying: "I am not in favour of these sorts of activities."

He argued instead that he believes those being attacked are Bhutanese agents, working on behalf of the government to persuade people to resettle - meaning that Bhutan would not have to take them back.

"Instead of pressurising the Bhutan government, they are helping them," he added.

But in the camp, refugees simply feel confused, with the undecided facing more threats. A man was shot in the latest violence.

As the first of them settle in America, their reports back will determine the likely future of those they leave behind.

Bhutan refugees speak through art
29 Nov 07 |  South Asia
Despair of Nepal's unwanted exiles
30 Aug 05 |  South Asia
Country profile: Bhutan
08 Dec 07 |  Country profiles

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