Postcard from…Nepal


Photo of Chet Nath by Laura Elizabeth Pohl

Chet Nath Timsina dips his shaving brush in a metal bowl of water and carefully shaves around the bruises on his face. Light from the open back door spills into the bamboo hut and onto his plastered right leg, which balances on a stool in front of him. Mon Maya Timsina, Chet Nath’s 60-year-old mother, silently watches in the shadows.

This is not how Chet Nath, 34, a teacher and self-taught journalist, imagined he would spend his summer. Back in May, he and hundreds of other Bhutanese who have been living in refugee camps in eastern Nepal for as long as 17 years, tried to walk the 70 miles from Nepal through India to Bhutan. Indian police blocked them and ended up killing two people and injuring dozens. Chet Nath was one of those injured. Though he now lives in the small Nepalese town of Birtamod, just east of a cluster of refugee camps, he moved himself, his wife Uma Devi, and his son Kushal into his parents’ camp hut so that he can be cared for while his wife works during the day.

Chet Nath’s actions and subsequent injury reflect the intensity of an issue that has polarized the 106,000 Bhutanese refugees of ethnic Nepali descent: whether they should hold on to hopes of repatriation to Bhutan or accept resettlement offers from third countries, including the United States and Canada. The United States says it will take at least 60,000 people starting this year, and the first groups of resettled refugees have already left Nepal.

Holding on means continued limbo. Bhutan refuses to repatriate what it calls voluntary migrants to Nepal. Bhutan’s March 24 election of its first democratic government is unlikely to change this view. However, most media reports and firsthand accounts say the Bhutanese government forced the ethnic Nepalis into leaving Bhutan because of their growing numbers and influence on society. Accepting resettlement means giving up on the hope that Bhutan will be held responsible for its actions and the chance the refugees will ever return to their home country. But staying in Nepal is no option either since the Nepalese government won’t allow the Bhutanese to integrate into the country.

For 15 years, Chet Nath postponed major life decisions until the day he would be living back in his homeland. He put off marriage. He put off children.

“Then one day I realized I had passed half my life here in the refugee camp. I realized I couldn’t keep delaying. That is why I married late and had a child late,” said Chet Nath last June as he played on the bed with his three-year-old son Kushal. “I had never expected it would take so long to get back. I am still hopeful we’ll be back.”

After months of recuperation and rehabilitation, Chet Nath can walk again with a bit of pain in his right knee. The medical expense strained his family’s finances but he has returned to his under-the-table job teaching accounting and office management at a local college. Since the Mechi Bridge incident, one of Chet Nath’s sisters has decided to join her Bhutanese refugee husband in the Netherlands, where he unexpectedly sought asylum during a business trip. In a recent e-mail, Chet Nath wrote he is still waiting for signs that Bhutan will repatriate refugees. “Otherwise, as my wife tells, ‘We have to look for the future of the son,’ we might decide for resettlement as well.”

Laura Elizabeth Pohl is a freelance photojournalist and writer in Virginia. To see more of her work, please visit www.laurapohl.com.