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NOVA SCOTIA A-Z: Refugee from Bhutan finds peace

Google Bhutan and “happy” often appears.

“The happiest people on earth,” some stories say.

A tiny country with a “Gross Happiness Index.”

Kul Prasad Humagain laughs bitterly at the irony.

This is not his story.

This “is not true,” he says, sitting in his small Halifax apartment, chronicling a history of horrors.

Nearly starving in forests.

Battling malaria through mountains.

Burying bodies on the banks of rivers.

And escaping a system of government — a monarchy with “iron hands” — that forced him into life as a refugee.

A system that “looks very peaceful and benevolent,” Humagain says, reading from an essay that helps him practise his English and unravel his odyssey.

“In fact all the people were deprived of their rights.”

Today, the former farmer and political activist is safe in Nova Scotia with his wife and two sons; other relatives from Bhutan live in apartments close by.

But for nearly 20 years, he lived in refugee camps.

First, on the banks of the Mai River in Nepal, a squalid stretch of land with no clean drinking water or toilets, where people died daily of disease.

Then in the eastern region of the country, where he and his family endured fires and floods and other hardships.

But before that, he had to escape the country he loved, the tiny eastern Himalayan country that looks like paradise but whose then-political system drove tens of thousands of southern Bhutanese from their homes and, he says, deprived the rest of their liberty.

His soft, lilting accent tranquilly traces the story like a Divine Comedy in reverse — a descent from heaven to hell.

His parents owned a piece of paradise in the village of Phanphaney, nestled in the lush, fertile southern region of the Kingdom of Bhutan — China to the north, India to the south, east and west.

They were farmers and made a good living off the rice, corn, wheat and vegetables that flourished in the hot, peaceful land.

But Humagain had to leave school at 16 when his father got sick.

And more troubles followed.

Historically, Buddhism and Hinduism had been the country’s two main religions. But in 1988, the king introduced a new census system that stripped thousands of southern Bhutanese Hindus of their citizenship, he says, and then started a “one nation, one people” policy that denied them religious and cultural freedom.

Soldiers and police arrested representatives of his people and drove 100,000 southern Bhutanese from the country, he says. They closed schools and clinics, turning them into barracks and prisons.

Still just a teenager, Humagain became active in organizing demonstrations. He defied the law and set up a private school for area children.

On the morning of Sept. 14, 1990, a neighbour warned him soldiers and police were looking for him. His wife and parents urged him to leave the country. He waited for night and walked for eight hours to cross the border into Assam, India, where he met with other exiled activists and eventually started arranging demonstrations inside Bhutan.

Word came authorities were searching for them. So they fled to the nearby forest and separated, living alone under trees, with little food, except for the rice or vegetables smuggled in by Indian supporters.

Humagain stayed there for three months. He contracted malaria. He lost weight and became dehydrated.

“I feel bad,” he says now, remembering, not reading. “I know we don’t have any choice … to go back to our home.”

His Indian friends advised him to go to West Bengal and on to Nepal. He’d never heard of the place.

“I was young,” he says. Just 20. “I was just staying at home, helping my parents, I don’t know about other things.”

But “one rainy night, I escape from Assam and came to Bengal.

“It takes like two and a half days to come to West Bengal. I walked through forest, dense forest. I crossed the rivers, mountains. I came to Bengal but the situation is like Assam in Bengal at that time. Police are looking for activists from Bhutan.”

So Humagain kept walking.

“I walked day and night,” he says. “I carried some food, biscuits, some dry foods and water. I walked through forests and cross river, and sometimes I have to without rest. I walked like that, and sometimes it is really difficult due to malaria. My hands, my legs were swollen. (I) threw up … but I had some painkillers and some tablets to get down my fever.

“Sometimes I feel like to end my life because I left my family and I left everything inside the country. I was alone. I feel very lonely and sometimes I feel to end my life but again I thought that if I do that then what will my family do back in country, how they will feel? Finally, I make a strong decision that I will not do that. I have to survive. I will help my family, I will help my community, I will help my friends. And finally, I reached Nepal.”

Just across the border, exhausted and sick, he sat under a tree to rest. A man approached, a broker for hotels. But instead of trying to sell him a room he “feel pity on me,” Humagain recalls.

“He gave me a cup of tea and biscuits and he told me “you are safe.”

He was safe for a while. The man took him to hospital and then took him into his home, where he stayed for three months until he was well. Then he registered at a Nepalese refugee camp on the bank of the Mai River. Anout 200 people lived there when he arrived; about 20,000 by the time he left eight months later.

The camp had no sanitation facilities. Refugees had to relieve themselves in the forest “in open place,” he says. “And it is very difficult, everywhere there is no place to step on.”

Food was scarce.

“People suffered a lot.”

People died, of cholera and dysentry and pneumonia.

“We buried the bodies. We took (them) to the bank of the other side of the river, we dig hole and we bury (them) there. Every day I buried like 30 to 35 people. It goes (on) like two or three months.

“It was unbelievable, you know. People suffer a lot and it is very hot there and we all are under plastic huts.”

Conditions became so horrible, so overcrowded, that aid agencies and other advocates lobbied the government for help. Nepalese authorities set up seven additional camps.

Humagain went to Goldhap in eastern Nepal. His family — wife, parents, little boy Ganga (then just 18 months old) and siblings — joined him there in 1992.

They stayed for 18 years.

The camp had more food and better housing.

But more hardship followed.

Today, Ganga clicks on the family computer, bringing up YouTube images of a 2008 fire that destroyed most of the camp’s bamboo huts.

Flames tear the sky and children cry.

They and thousands more lost their homes; lived for months under plastic tarps in the forest.

Then video of flood waters raging through the camp — rivers more of misery.

On and on it went, year after year.

“You get used to it,” he says.

But not entirely.

After years of political wrangling and personal soul-searching, Humagain finally accepted that he would never return home.

When the opportunity came in 2010, he took a chance on Canada.

Things aren’t perfect here.

He’s still learning English and hasn’t found a job.

But he is grateful.

His children Ganga and Govinda are receiving an education.

His family has shelter.

His family is safe.

And that’s a certain kind of happiness, after all.